Game of the People has made two aborted attempts at getting to watch one of the most successful teams in the country at present: Spalding United. It’s about time the Tulips gained some recognition for their performances this season. As non-league fans across the country dealt with a Saturday without football, posing the winter break question once more, Spalding sat 13 points clear at the top of the United Counties League.
It’s not quite the best record in England, but with a points won percentage of 95.5, only Larkhall Athletic of the Western League (96.67%) have a better scorecard than Spalding. If you want to benchmark these figures, Arsenal are top of the Premier with just 75%. And only six teams have a 90%-plus record, and they’re all non-league and an unlikely bunch: Sholing, Plymouth Parkway, East Preston and Petersfield are the others.
Spalding’s near-100% record was tarnished by a shock 1-2 home defeat by AFC Rushden & Diamonds in mid-December. The Tulips had run up 17 straight wins prior to that and the meeting with one of the bigger names in the UCL attracted a bumper crowd of 411 to the Sir Halley Stewart Playing Field.
Apart from that blip, they’ve been brushing aside everyone else in the UCL, scoring 76 goals and conceding just eight. And if the paperwork had been in order, they may also have been one of the favourites for the FA Vase with form like that. Spalding were due to meet UCL stablemates Wisbech in the third round on December 7, but just a couple of days ahead of the tie, they were removed from the competition after fielding an ineligible player in their 3-0 win at Walsall Wood. The club “strenuously denied” the charge.
Apparently, there are a few green eyes around in local footballing circles because of Spalding’s runaway success. There have been accusations that the club has drafted in players from a higher level to win a step five league. Tulips’ manager, Pat Rayment, told the local media just before Christmas: “We are spending what is in our kitty, not beyond our means.”
But while some clubs have had a snipe at Spalding, others are respectful of the progress made under Rayment. For example, Deeping Rangers manager, Tuncay Korkmaz, said in the Spalding Guardian: “For me, Spalding are already champions….There’s a lot of jealousy towards the club because of their money, but money doesn’t guarantee success. They have spent it wisely and, like St.Neots and Kings Lynn before them, they have aims beyond the UCL.”
Rayment, who is something of an outspoken character, has been around, having played 450 games for Corby and also appeared for Peterborough, Cambridge City and Kettering to name but a few of his clubs. He was appointed manager of Spalding in January 2012. Last season, Rayment’s first full campaign in charge, Spalding finished third on 89 points, but if they hadn’t lost three points over another player issue, they could have finished runners-up and secured a place in the Southern League. They scored 117 goals in 40 games but St.Ives edged them out on the final day of the season.
Perhaps this near-miss has acted as inspiration for 2013-14? With 76 goals in 22 games, there is every reason to suspect they can top the 117 they netted last season. Striker Andrew Tidswell has already scored 38 this season.
They’ve got the players – two more major signings arrived only this week – the results and a growing community and youth set-up, but the crowds are not flocking to the ground just yet. Earlier in the season, attendances were below 400, but the average is now 166, obviously boosted by the Rushden gate. With a population of around 29,000 surely the Tulips deserve more?
After all, I had the feeling Spalding must be quite prosperous – wasn’t this the town where loose change of £ 60,000 was seen floating down the river in the recent past? Not quite growing on trees, but maybe cash on tap…now that would be a reason to envy Spalding! Perhaps we will make another attempt later in the season…