Yeovil Town 4 Woking 0 – Tuesday 24th September 2002

When Yeovil mounted their first serious challenge for promotion from the Conference in 2000/01, it arguably came as something of a surprise. Although the club had turned full time towards the end of the previous season and released the majority of the part-time players, the remaining group was much smaller and less experienced than in previous years. The squad numbered less than 20 at the start of the season, and with an average age of just 21, included a number of teenagers with no first team experience. The First XI was great, but there was not much depth on the bench.

Despite this, the young team won their first eleven home league games on the bounce which was enough to mount a serious promotion challenge against high-spending Rushden and Diamonds and hold top spot in the Conference from October to February.

However, nothing lasts forever and the loss of form following the first home defeat against Southport in January was the result of several factors. Without doubt the main one was injuries and individual loss of form to several key players – the Glovers had a great starting XI but aside from Roy O’Brien and Paul Steele, both defenders, almost nothing on the bench. The second half of the season would see significant absences through injury to Anthony Tonkin, Tom White and Warren Patmore, and loss of form of Ben Smith and Barrington Belgrave. With severe problems up front, there was nothing in reserve and Patmore was forced to play through injury.

A second, very significant problem was the state of the Huish Park pitch. In good condition at the start of the season, an incredibly wet winter which caused several postponements, saw the pitch deteriorate dramatically. The heavy rain was not draining, which led to high water levels, the surface cut up horribly and after Christmas, regularly had to be covered with a heavy layer of sand just to make the surface playable. This severely hampered the Glovers’ pacey counter-attacking football and hindered the ball control of players like Crittenden, Smith and Belgrave, which probably contributed to their loss form and confidence. Belgrave’s goals dried up and Smith was eventually dropped, but without those two a lot of creativity went out of the team with no-one to replace them, as manager Colin Addison was unable to secure quality replacements either permanently or on loan. The Glovers’ season fizzled out and they finished second. Their home form, which had taken them to the Conference, tanked as the last ten home games saw only three wins, compared to eleven out of eleven before January.

Troubles continued the following season. An attempt to resolve the issue by installing new drains under the pitch failed as the drains collapsed, making the problem even worse as the pitch was virtually unplayable for much of the season. It was bumpy and uneven, with a tendency to get waterlogged and cut up, especially in the winter. The sand made an unwelcome return. This game against Hereford in March shows the pitch not even at its worst. Although of course it did take time to bed in a new group of players and develop the style and personnel that he wanted, Gary Johnson’s first season was much more successful away than it was at home – on the road, the Glovers won 13 and lost only twice, a Conference record. By contrast, they won only six league games at home as they struggled against the counter-attacking tactics frequently employed by visiting teams. The Glovers often enjoyed the majority of possession but had difficulty creating enough chances to score, and had to battle the state of the pitch as much as the opposition; it was just not possible to play attacking, passing football on. The fantastic solo goal scored by Kim Grant against QPR in the LDV Trophy is all the more impressive as he is clearly struggling to control the ball’s unpredictable movement off the surface.

With the playing squad more or less settled by the end of the 2001/02 season and only a couple of additions required in the shape of Gavin Williams and Abdoulai Demba, the major barrier between the Glovers and another serious promotion push was the pitch. Over the summer of 2002, it was dug up and re-laid at a cost of around £150,000. Understandably, the club took the slightly cheaper option of seeding the ground and letting it grow, rather than buying in pre-laid turf. This would cost less but of course take longer. The process was delayed by six weeks as a very wet close season delayed the seeding process – no point in seeding grass if it’s going to get washed away by heavy rain. The playing surface was also to be made significantly bigger, following the success in the FA Trophy Final on Villa Park’s expansive pitch. Behind schedule, the club had to turn to Plan B – playing the first few games 25 miles away at Dorchester’s Avenue stadium. The Avenue would eventually host the first five games of the season. Results were mixed, there were a couple of red cards and a lot goals were conceded, but Yeovil were ultimately undefeated, with wins against Nuneaton, Farnborough, Northwich and Halifax. Attendances were also good, never dipping below 2,000.

There was a sense of anticipation building that this could really be Yeovil’s year, which was also shared by the media as their first game back at Huish Park against Woking on Tuesday 24th September 2002, was also shown live on Sky Sports. It was a glorious late summer evening as the sun set behind the main stand. What followed was an impressive display of attacking, flowing football as the visitors were comfortably dispatched 4-0. A slightly cagey first half exploded into life with three goals in just over five minutes from Demba, McIndoe and Skiverton. The second half was more comfortable, as Forinton scored a fourth just before the hour mark and despite not adding to the scoreline, many further chances were created afterwards. What could have been a nervous evening after so much build-up, turned out to be a triumphant return. What’s more, the attendance of 4,003 was pretty unprecedented for an early season game. In 2001/02, the only attendances over 3,000 were late in the season when title challengers Boston and Dagenham came to town. Even in 2000/01, attendances did not pass 3,000 until after Christmas, despite eleven home wins in a row. There was definitely a feeling that something was about to happen at Yeovil and everyone wanted to be there. That crowd would turn out to be the lowest at Huish Park for a Conference match, as attendances would average over 5,400 for the remainder of the season and Yeovil swept to the Conference title, smashing records in the process.

Woking was just the beginning. Second in the table before the game, Yeovil went top of the league the following Saturday with a win away at Leigh RMI, and would remain there for the rest of the season. The next home game saw an even bigger win, the 6-0 demolition of third-placed Southport, thanks in part to a first half Demba hat-trick.

Team that day: Sheffield, Lockwood, Pluck (sub. Lindegaard), Skiverton, Way, Johnson, Crittenden, McIndoe, Williams, Forinton (sub. O’Brien), Demba (sub. Alford)


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