Ide Hill Football Club held their nerve down the back nine to see off their bogey side South East Athletic on Saturday afternoon to win the league title and an historic first promotion to the Kent County Premier Division.
With Chipstead and Sydenham Sports both in action and in the chase, Ide Hill went in to the game knowing a victory would deliver them the league title, irrespective of what their challengers mustered against Club Langley and Long Lane respectively. Coupled with the fact that South East Athletic had dumped Ide Hill out of two cups earlier in the season and held them to a draw way back in September, the visitors knew they would need a big performance befitting of league champions, and so it proved.
Ide Hill boasted a strong squad, although shorn of some key midfielders, meaning Luke Steggle and Sam Heasman stepped into central midfield roles, and South East started the smoother of the sides, playing with speed and precision through the midfield and quickly in to their dangerous forwards and jinking winger.
Ide Hill had to defend diligently in the opening 15 minutes but have shown themselves increasingly capable of doing so against strong sides, with Mike McKay, Phil Alteirac, Ben Pearson, Charlie James and Steggle providing the robust foundation around which much of the team has thrived and blossomed over the past few months. And it was James who took Ide Hill in to the lead in the 20th minute from a corner, Columb Grant providing his 14th assist of the season and James steering in a beautifully guided header from 10 yards to put the visitors ahead and give them something to build around.
South East looked dangerous throughout the first half though and had much of the play, but, as often has been the case this season, Ide Hill were carving out the better chances through their slick and rapid attacks forged between the clever link up play of Grant, endless running of Matt Bunn and powerful athleticism of Callum Heath. Craig Jackson had a couple of good chances to double the lead, a header from a corner cleared off the line and a near post corner routine saved after a deflection. Shaun Boyle came in to the midfield in the first half and provided his inimitable forward dynamism, also going close from a corner and breaking the lines between midfield and attack with impressive regularity.
But it was Athletic who drew level just before the break, setting up a tense second half and making Ide Hill pay for those missed opportunities in the first period. Hill’s Manager, Paul McDonagh, delivered an impassioned half time team talk demanding more from his players, with the game clearly there for the taking. And Ide Hill responded with a mature and controlled second half display, reducing South East’s threat to nothing, spearheaded by the colossal Man of the Match performance from the returning James at the back, who kept the league’s leading scorers impressively in check alongside his impressively composed defensive partners Alteirac and Pearson.
The winning goal arrived on the hour through a mixture of directness and deft class which has been symbolic of Ide Hill’s campaign. Goalkeeper McKay fired a long kick over the South East back line and to leave Grant running through on the right side of the box. Grant has saved his best patch of form for the business end of the season, providing crucial goals, assists and all round play in a wonderful spring, and it was he who delivered the league winning goal with all of his customary panache, lobbing the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper to send Ide Hill into raptures.
Ide Hill closed the game out thereafter with impressive assurance, Heasman marshalling the midfield with brilliant and growing maturity, mixing his irrepressible physicality with controlled ball play, whilst Steggle defended and swept up with increasing authority in his unfamiliar position. 16-year old Paul Driver also came on at full back and showed what a brilliant player he will become, playing with a composed authority which belied his tender years. Ide Hill could have snatched a deserved third in the dying minutes, Grant and Boyle both drawing excellent saves when through on the left, before substitute Tom Wright rattled the crossbar with a powerful header in the 85thh minute.
But Ide Hill welcomed the final whistle and celebrated with real emotion at their brilliant league win. The core of the team have been together for a number of years and this is their finest achievement to date, moving through the leagues and into the Kent County Premier for the first time in the club’s 96-year history. It was a proud day for all associated with the club, from manager and assistant, McDonagh and Bailey, to club legends Keith McGinn (Club Secretary) and Wally Paxton (Club Chairman), who set the foundations in place for the recent success of Ide Hill, with the achievements down to so many at the club beyond the playing squad.
So Ide Hill win the league with a game to spare, against Welling Park later in the month. Next up though is a huge Sevenoaks Senior Charity Cup Final against local rivals Chipstead on Good Friday afternoon at 2.00pm. The senior team will play after the Reserves, who play in the morning versus Tatsfield Rovers at Sevenoaks Town’s ground in the Junior version of the cup, on what will be a memorable day for the club.
Ide Hill’s only two losses in the league this year came against Chipstead, so they will be looking to avenge those with a spring in the step with the league title sealed as they stride down the final fairway for a bonus swing at a double and a fitting end to a masterful season.