Henley Town play their first game since their promotion to the Uhlsport Hellenic League Premier Division on Tuesday, when they entertain Binfield, kick-off 7.45 p.m.
The first meeting between the sides was in the 1948-49 season, but supporters of the two clubs will need no reminder as to when they last met, for that was in the Reading Senior Cup final at the very end of last season. Although Henley finished deserving winners of an excellent game, victory was gained only after extra time and the sending off of a Binfield player. The Moles also finished comfortably in the top half of the Premier Division table. Overall, Binfield have beaten the Town 21 times, compared with 13 losses and four draws.
Binfield appear to have strengthened their squad, with several important new signings, but full-back Callum Carlisle, on the substitutes’ bench for the final, has moved to Henley, while ex-Henley player Jemel Johnson has joined Thatcham Town.
Neither club is likely to welcome a midweek start for its league fixtures, but the Hellenic League is no way to blame for this. The extra preliminary round of the F.A. Cup has been scheduled for an earlier date than ever before. The only alternatives to the league starting in midweek, then, would have been a July start (unlikely to be approved) or for teams to go straight into one of the season’s biggest games without a previous competitive match. The Hellenic League, amongst others, protested to the F.A., but their pleas fell upon deaf ears.
Another strange feature of the fixture list is that five of the Red Kites’ first six league fixtures are all at home, something that will seem enjoyable now but less so later in the season.
It is unfortunate for new manager Gerry McGinty that Craig Sumner’s resignation did not come at the start of the close season, giving him more time to build his own side, but the new helmsman has looked at as many players as possible. In their first four friendlies, all away, the Town, both fielding and opposing teams of differing strength, won twice and drew twice. They beat R.A.F. (Benson) 2-0 and A.F.C. Aldermaston 1-0, then shared the spoils at Windsor (2-2) and Rotherfield United (3-3). Saturday’s game at Cantley Park against Finchampstead had to be called off because travellers had invaded the ground. Henley then won 3-1 at Hambleden on Tuesday in the annual Stewards Cup match.
While Bennett, Moore and Nunn of last year’s side had not re-signed at the time of writing, McGinty has brought in a number of new signings. These are mainly unknown quantities to Henley supporters at present, but they will have the chance to catch up with some of them tonight (Friday) when the Red Kites make their first home appearance, Wokingham and Emmbrook being the visitors for a 7.45 p.m. kick-off.
This is the fifth time Henley have been promoted to the Premier Division, and it is difficult at present to predict how their season will go. However, supporters should be aware that the gap between the Premier Division and Division 1 has normally been a big one. In the 1964-65 season, moving up as champions, the Town, fuelled by adrenalin, won their first three games and drew the fourth but still went down again in the spring. In 1968-69, having won the then unregionalised lower division without losing a match, they still found the jump a large one, which they did again in 2001-02 after winning Division 1 (East) by a 20-point margin.
The difference in levels was less obvious in 2011-12, when Henley moved up as runners-up and, despite failing to repeat the win in their opening game they had achieved on their three previous promotions, avoided the relegation zone, going down only because of their then inadequate facilities. Nevertheless, the contrast between the standards between the two divisions may have reasserted itself if Wokingham and Emmbrook’s experience is anything to go by. Deserving winners of Division 1 (East) in 2014-15, they finished well behind the rest of the field in the Premier to immediately go down again.
When Henley’s promotion from third position was first announced in this paper, it was pointed out that, though the Red Kites’ position was unlikely to be directly affected, some fine tuning might still occur. That has, indeed, happened, with the division finally consisting of 19 teams, rather than the 21 originally expected. North Greenford United, demoted from the Southern League, were finally shunted into the Combined Counties League. Cheltenham Saracens, who were due to be promoted from Division 1 (West), suddenly lost their manager and most of their players and considered dropping down into local football, but ultimately agreed to carry on but still in last season’s division.
There are only two teams in the Premier Division that the Red Kites have never met before, one of these curiously being Brimscombe and Thrupp, whom they are due to visit in the F.A. Cup on Saturday week.
The Town will revert to running four teams this season, something that looked very unlikely a few months ago. A reserve side has been restarted and will play in the Hellenic Division 2 (East), which now contains a number of first teams. Wisely, the league has brought the starting date for the second division forward to 13th August. Despite failing to finish their fixtures last year, the youth team will again play in the Allied Counties Youth League but have been moved to the Central Division, in which their first fixture will be on 25th August. The Sunday team, which was close to being wound up, have received a welcome injection of new blood from Henley Y.M.C.A. United and will again play in the Reading Sunday League