Wasn’t it Kenny Everitt who coined the phrase “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”, a parody of the outraged middle-class resident from a well-heeled south-of-England town? Football and Tunbridge Wells don’t exactly go together – golf, cricket, a bit of rugger and maybe lacrosse would be more suitable. But surely not football – you can almost hear cries of “disgraceful” coming from the “ladies that lunch” and “yummy mummies” that bully their Land Rover baby buggies around this genteel quarter of Kent.
Well, the residents of Tunbridge Wells (population: 56,500), or to be precise, “Royal Tunbridge Wells”, are going to have to get used to it. That’s because Tunbridge Wells FC (average gate: 167) reached the FA Vase Final a week or so ago where they will meet Northern League champions Spennymoor at Wembley. The Georgian spa town, which still derives 30% of its income from tourism, has never known anything like it.
One hopes (and they clearly say “one” in RTW) that the good folk of Kent will get behind a team that struggles to gain the support from a town more accustomed to the sound of leather on willow. David Gower is a son of Tunbridge Wells and one-time Wimbledon ladies’ champion Virginia Wade is the town’s favourite daughter. But I would imagine Royal Tunbridge Wells chooses to forget that both Sid Vicious and Shane MacGowan are closely connected with this segment of the Garden of England. Oh yes, and so is Jo Brand.
From a footballing perspective, Royal Tunbridge Wells is also the home town of George Cohen, England’s 1966 World Cup-winning full-back. And the local football club has included in its ranks Jimmy Dimmock, one-time FA Cup winner with Tottenham in 1921 (he scored the winner) and the captain of Cardiff City’s 1927 winners, Fred Keenor. Bob Shankly, brother of Bill, played for the club and so too did Harry Ford, who lined-up in the famous 1915 Khaki Cup final for Chelsea. So you can see, the club has been touched by notable figures from the past.
But it’s the present that concerns the 150-odd regulars at the Culverden Stadium. Tunbridge Wells may yet have a say in the Kent League title race. The FA Vase has distracted their league programme – they still have 12 games to go, having played five less than most of their rivals. Just look at their schedule, though – this next week or so they have six games – April 8, 9, 11, 14, 16 and 17 and it’s much the same the following week. It does look like they have become victims of their own success.
The FA Vase run has been nothing short of threatrical for the little Kent side. Two Hellenic League clubs provided the early opposition in the form of Wantage Town and Binfield. The latter was a gruelling tie, the first of three that went to extra time in Tunbridge Wells’ slalom to Wembley. A real test arrived with FA Vase holders Dunston UTS, attracting a crowd of 580 to Culverden. Andy Irvine, who has proved to be the FA Vase talisman for the team this season, scored the only goal to send the Northern League side out of the competition. Western League Larkhall Athletic were next and this time, a last minute extra time goal by Jack Harris gave Tunbridge Wells a 4-3 win. Irvine was the matchwinner when Hadleigh United were beaten 2-0 in front of almost 1,200 people, setting up a two-legged semi-final with another bunch of North-Easterners, Shildon.
The FA Vase run has been all about breaking new ground for Tunbridge Wells and their attendance record was surpassed once more (Hadleigh had already set the highest at Culverden) with 1,754 watching the Shildon game. Irvine and Jon Pilbeam scored the goals in a 2-0 win, giving Matin Larkin’s team every chance of reaching Wembley. The return leg was dramatic, with Shildon seizing the initiative. Shildon raced into a two-goal lead to wipe-out the first-leg lead. Then it was 3-0 halfway through the second period. Once again, though, it was Irvine who came to Tunbridge Wells’ rescue, scoring his seventh goal of the competition. This meant it was 3-3 on aggregate and the game went to extra time. And four minutes from the end of that, Perry Spackman netted to earn the visitors a 4-3 aggregate win.
We can be heroes
The team is that typical non-league mix that’s not quite butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, but the modern mix of IT workers, builders, sports coaches and sales reps. Jason Bourne is Tunbridge Wells’ own “captain, leader, legend” a la John Terry (although presumably without the baggage) and is the sort of player who would run through a brick wall for the club. Perry Spackman, meanwhile, is something of a cult figure at the club, 6ft 4 inches tall and what many people call “a big unit”. He crops up at the back or in attack and his aerial ability is an effective last-ditch weapon when things are not going as planned. Irvine, the goalscorer, is a builder and the son of a former Tunbridge favourite. And then there’s midfielder Andy McMath, who received a red card in the tie with Larkhall shortly after scoring in the 4-3 win. He’s a Northern Ireland schoolboy international.
So what of this band of heroes? There are probably a lot of people in Tunbridge Wells who could not tell you if the town even has a football team, let alone where it plays. But with any luck, people in the old spa resort will soon be as familiar with their names as some of the luminaries from the town’s sporting past. Perhaps figures like Gower and Wade may soon be joined by Andy Irvine, Jason Bourne and Perry Spackman? The Culverden regulars can only dream….