For 125 years, fanatics have departed their favourite watering holes on a Saturday afternoon in early-mid August and set out on their pilgrimage in pursuit of watching Margate FC, wondering to themselves what the coming season will bring.
Although the pilgrimage until 1930 wouldn’t be as it is now, cheap pints at Spoons then up the hill and though Hartsdown Park, no, our local team had various home grounds in the early years, including private schools in Northdown Road, Margate College and Dreamland among others. The team’s kit wasn’t always so trendy either, there was no marketable design nor Libertines sponsorship, they weren’t even blue, Margate has had a variety of home colours from white to wasp-esque amber and black stripes. The team have a huge variety of names in its 125-year history but that certainly wasn’t the topic of conversation among fans this Saturday, the chitter-chatter on terraces was whether Jay Saunders and his team can replicate the glory years of the late ’90s and how long will it be before these clouds give way.
The first game of the season saw Margate travel to Wingate and the result, well, the clue is in the name it was 1-0 win for our Gate.
On August 21, Hartsdown hosted its first game of the campaign and welcomed one of the title favourites Carshalton. Out of all the 125 season openers, you’d struggle to find a wetter one than yesterday. Ten minutes into the game the heavens opened, it hammered it down driving the fans to squeeze beneath the shelters.
The downpour didn’t dampen the atmosphere though there was a buzz around the place and the difference between pre-season friendlies and competitive football was evident in numbers and noise. 531 had made the pilgrimage and braved the weather. When Greenhalgh slipped in a lovely through ball to Palmer, who had got in behind the defence, for a few seconds no one cared how hard it was hammering down. Palmer put it just wide to a uniformed sigh, the disappointment was washed down with pints that were now more rain water than alcohol.
The game was a bit of a midfield battle, tightly fought in the middle of the park the combative duo of Montel and Blackman were praised in the terraces with one fan remarking “I’d say this the best midfield we’ve had for seven or eight seasons” then immediately caveated that with “we haven’t actually had a midfield for seven or eight years”. Carshalton had a few moments and their number 11 looked menacing with trickery and hair of a lower league Leroy Sane. He was at the heart of a move that looked like a certain goal only for Ben Greenhalgh to clear off the line. Carshalton came again winning a free-kick that was taken by their big number 6, he struck it well but Patrick Ohman met it with some strong hands, a save that everyone in the stadium got a good look at as, at 3:30 pm on an August afternoon, the floodlights were on.
The sound system at Dreamland could be dully heard as a drum and bass event got underway at the theme park and Carshalton looked like they were ready for a rave in their fluorescent kit. But at halftime despite having hit the post Carshalton had nothing to rave about as it was 0-0.
Goals came thick and fast during the halftime spectacular, as is customary a youth team came onto the pitch to try and beat Graham in-between the sticks. The second half got underway and very much followed the pattern of the first, the visitors looked most likely to make the breakthrough but Margate in the words of Chis Kamara were ‘defending like beavers’ and showed real resilience at the back.
Carshalton hit the bar with some in the stands crediting Ohman with a fingertip save. A fifteen-minute spell saw the blues camped in their own half, beavering away. Margate did look dangerous on the breakthough and when the always lively Bessey-Saldanha came up with a great effort and forced the keeper into a magnificent save. The resulting corner didn’t beat Carshalton’s number 5 who was a giant of a man, imagine two Chris Smalling’s on top of each other that’s how large he appeared from where I was standing (must have been those rainwater pints).
A few half chances for the Gate followed but their keeper wasn’t tested again, and with nine minutes to play Carshalton we’re attacking with the tempo of a drum and bass rave. A neat move resulted in a low hard shot which beat Ohman but remarkably came back out of the very inside of the post. Could have gone anywhere but to the delight of the crowd, it was cleared.
The draw was now the aim, ‘survive the next few minutes lads’, ‘stay sharp’ and other generic encouraging football phrases were shouted in the direction of the lads in blue. Margate had a few more scares to endure, a free kick on the edge of the box felt inevitable that it would result in agony for the Gate and the majority of the 531 fans in the ground but we survived. The preceding corner made for nervous viewing, this was crunch time and tension among the supporters was palpable, but again Margate weathered the storm, albeit at times a bit scrappy. It didn’t matter, clearances and challenges were now greeted with roars of applause.
This team is hard to beat, industrious and “up for it” personified by Blackman in the heart of the midfield who, other than the booking for a bit of ‘chit-chat’ with the ref, was close to perfect in the middle of the park.
I’d never imagined it possible to be so utterly thrilled and genuinely satisfied to have just spent two weekend hours very damp, swigging rain beers and watching a game end goalless but I blame covid and my life choices as it’s happened.
Four points from the first two games is a handsome return, Cray Wanderers are the next to visit Hartsdown Park on Bank Holiday Monday, best bring a brolly.