An invincible season

Now as I write this, Ongar Town still have a couple of games to play. I hope my prejudged title of this blog won’t cause them to fall away at the end, but I doubt I have that much influence.

Even after being awarded the title with two games to play, the Ongar Town boys get together on a Thursday and train. Train well in fact and they have every reason to. Despite the last two opponents dropping out, handing Town the title on a silver platter, but knowing they could have an invincible season. When people think of the “invincibles”, they instantly think of the 1988/89 Preston North End or the 2003/04 Arsenal side, but Little Ongar Town could achieve the same feat. 

Before the season had started, Richard Ponsford, his assistant Mark Lilly and the squad knew what they wanted to achieve. The 2019/20 had been the first season struck by the COVID-19 pandemic and despite remaining unbeaten, Ongar Town sat 3rd behind Chingford Athletic and Old Chelmsfordians with 10-wins and a draw after 11-games. Athletic held a 12-point lead at the top while the second-placed side held a 6-point lead, but Ongar had played 6-games less than their title-rivals. Having started unbeaten during the previous season, the club had the same ambitions coming into the season.

“After last years COVID interrupted season, our aim was promotion with the squad we have and the fact that last season, we were unbeaten going into pandemic [when it first struck], as we had six games in-hand [on the sides above] and were very confident last year, so were disappointed, but we understood the bigger picture,” said Ponsford. “The pandemic slowed down our progression as a club and we sought to rectify that as soon as possible by achieving promotion. That’s exactly what we did this season, so that’s a box ticked for us.”

“I’m over the moon with them [having achieved promotion]. Their work rate and desire to constantly improve is phenomenal. We have a lovely young group bar a couple and they all just want to be better and improve. I couldn’t be prouder or happier as the coach of this squad. I include the reserves in that, who want to emulate and match what the first team has achieved.”

Ongar Town had become an unstoppable force in the Essex Olympian League, going 13-games unbeaten with 11-wins and 2-draws. Four of the five other champions had gone close to an unbeaten season; Buckhurst Hill, Leigh Town, Catholic United Reserves and Wakering Sports ‘A’ had lost a game each, but neither had gone as close as Ongar Town. Expectation had been exactly that, right from the start. “If I’m being honest, it is always my aim. I don’t like losing games of football ever and that mentality is something I’ve managed to get through to the first team. We don’t even like conceding a goal, let alone losing a game of football, so that focus emulates throughout the club. Staying unbeaten is a big deal as far as we are concerned.”

The season hadn’t been straight forward though. Once the season started in September, there were hopes that the season would be uninterrupted, but that wasn’t the case. 

Town had began the season with a 7-0 thrashing of Toby at home. After an impressive start, they continued on an incredible run, as they edged Chingford Athletic in an 8-goal thriller, winning 5-3 before winning their third home game of the season, scoring 6 without reply reply against Snaresbrook. At the start of October, they were held on the road to Toby, drawing 2-2 before winning a further 3; beating Manford Way, Chingford Athletic and Galleywood. 

The first break of the season came at the end of October, which ran to December as the UK entered a tier system, which prevented organised sport going ahead. A draw against Old Chelmsfordians was all the club could manage before the second full lockdown was enforced and sport halted until it’s return in April. For Richard and the club, this was a tough break, that was made tougher with the unknown around what was happening. “I should think its been the same for all managers, regardless of the level. You can’t plan and you are second guessing all the time about whether it’s going to happen or not [returning to action]. I’m blessed with the players I have because of the attitude and mentality they have. With the latter lockdown, 6-weeks before we returned, my lot were doing training sessions individually and via zoom and I think that showed with our fitness and we literally blasted teams away with our fitness and the goals were scored.”

“It’s been tough at times for them [the players], especially with not knowing if we were to return and waiting on Oliver Dowden giving us the go-ahead. With any sniff of a return, the group chat was going mad and they are such a tight knit group that we refer to ourselves as a family. In truth, once we were given the thumbs up, all the players were back on board.”

Upon the return, Ongar pulled off their highest win of the season as they thrashed Shoebury Town 15-0. After holding a solid lead at the break, Ponsford encouraged his players to not let up, but it wasn’t as enjoyable as most managers would find it. “That was a tough game in a lot of respects. We were aware of what happened with Shoebury in the week and weren’t sure if the game was even going to go ahead. To Shoebury’s credit, they came down and fielded a team, but of course, it was nowhere near the side they wanted to field against us. It was only 5-0 at half-time, and wanting to get our goal-difference up and three points on the board as soon as possible, I encouraged the boys to not let complacency sink in, but the more the goals went in in the second half, the more I felt bad for Shoebury. They conduct themselves brilliantly and they gained a lot of respect and admiration for us because they continued until the very last minute, regardless of the score. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that and it feel a little bit awkward when the 14th and 15th went in.”

Following the double-figured win, it was another 5-wins on the spin as Town remained unbeaten since the return in April. A 3-0 win over Runwell Sports, a 7-0 thrashing of Herongate Athletic and a 2-1 win against Shoebury Town was followed by two home-walkovers as both Old Chelmsfordians and Rayleigh Town Reserves weren’t able to raise sides. It was Saturday’s game against Rayleigh Reserves, cancelled on Thursday, that confirmed the title. Although it was frustrating to not win the title with a good win on the pitch, Ongar were still pleased they had gained promotion after a difficult season. 

“We all feel frustrated. It’s been a strange season and where teams have got themselves up for games, all of a sudden, there isn’t anything to play for. With sides sitting at the bottom and with no relegation, it’s not given teams an easy way to give up, but they’re settled with their league position. It’s disappointing because we want to play as many games as possible. I have my centre-forward, Aaron Blair, sitting on 97 goals for the club, and I know he’s desperate to get his hundred. As it stands, we have 3-games left and hopefully we get to play the two league games, so he can get this 100th for the club.”

With two-games remaining, it isn’t  time to cruise to the end of the season and prepare for a break before pre-season, but a chance to finish how the started. With the Premier Division awaiting them next season, the last thing they wanted was to lower their standards before a huge season ahead. “For us, it’s about setting a standard. The conversation at the start of the season was about promotion, then about being champions and now it’s about remaining unbeaten. If you go unbeaten in any division, especially with an interrupted season such as this one, its quite an achievement in my eyes. That is my motivation going into the last two games.”

With Buckhurst Hill making the step-up to Step-6 of the National League System, Ongar Town would be promoted in their place and would be hoping to follow in their footsteps up to the Eastern Counties League. On top of that, keeping the same personnel in place was going to be keep to the success of the team. “Firstly, I want to keep my squad together. I’ve had the conversation with the majority of the them and it looks like we are going to keep 99.9% of them, which is wonderful news, but our ambitions as a club is to go up and progress as soon as possible. I’ll look to add a few additions to the squad, but they will need to be special to get into this squad, with the plan of going for promotion next season from the Premier Division.”