Chris NeeComment


Chris NeeComment
110430 Tooting v Canvey Island.JPG

Half time is approaching and the full-blooded derby match between Tooting & Mitcham United and Sutton United in 2010 is growing increasingly antagonistic. In the main stand at Tooting's Imperial Fields supporters of the two clubs are dotted around, conspicuous by their fury at the referee and various players.

One visiting supporter, particularly vehement in his protestations, catches the attention of a man at the side of the pitch. Bedecked in Chelsea training gear - presumably against his will - he turns to the angry punter, looks him in the face and calculates his retort. "You belong in a cage, mate!" arrows its way up the rows of black and white seats, made amusing not by the words alone but by the fact that the utterer is gleefully rattling the steel perimeter fence as he says them.

Joe Vines, pitchside despite being suspended, was the captain of a Terrors team that was coming to the end of an era. They were playing in the top division of the Ithsmian League after a promotion, largely free of the threat of relegation or the prospect of promotion to the Conference South, and had revisited a piece of the club's history by reaching the FA Cup First Round for the first time in generations.

Billy Smith's team remains well regarded and featured a Vines, Joe, at the back, and a Vines at the front. Joe's brother, Paul, has been one of the Isthmian League's best strikers of the last decade, as blessed with physical strength, deadly finishing and footballing finesse as Joe is with defensive nous, imperious leadership and...well, he's as hard as nails.

The Vines brothers come from a footballing family. Their uncle, Francis, was well known in London and the south east for his goalscoring at Kingstonian and elsewhere, a habit gloriously inherited by Paul, known by family and friends as Charlie.

After a reported budget cut of 40% towards the end of the 2009/10 season the brothers and the coaching team left the club and the overwhelming majority of the other players did the same. It was the end of a miniature golden age, not just because of moderate success on the pitch but because the Terrors under the tutelage of Smith and his right-hand man, George Wakeling, was a family too, on and off the pitch.

"The core of the squad remained throughout our entire spell at the club so we had a real bond and team spirit," remembers Paul. "Playing with my brother, for Billy and George, and for the hardcore fans home and away, made my time at Imperial Fields special."

The fact that Paul played his best football at Imperial Fields, coupled with a style that he sees as rough-and-ready but comes with a guarantee of goals, ensures that the feeling is mutual. When Paul plays against Tooting for his new club in a cup fixture in a few weeks' time, his playing in the colours of bitter rivals Dulwich Hamlet will be painful but forgivable for the fans on the Bog End.

Reaching that level of affection was a function of being a fantastic footballer and a popular character, but Paul recalls that it wasn't all plain sailing.

"It was quite difficult at first. I had to prove myself to Billy and George but once you do that it's great. They never let me down in any aspect as a player, and they're two of the best men I've been lucky enough to play under."

"He was the talisman," says Joe of his brother's influence on the pitch at Tooting. "But Bill and George are two of the greatest men I've ever met and I'm proud to call them my mates."

The painfully obvious truth is that Tooting & Mitcham still haven't come close to replacing Smith and Wakeling in the technical area. Silver-haired and uncompromising, the pair chose not to embroil themselves in the inevitable unravelling of their work under the budget cuts, and rightly so.

Smith's team talks were memorable according to Joe and Paul, who both look back on the expletive-riddled calls to action and happily excuse the cliches on the grounds that he knows non-league football inside out. With so much achieved and such respect in football, why hang around while years of good work was undone against their wishes?

The 2007 to 2010 Terrors vintage won't be forgotten by supporters. Paul's goals at the front and Joe's self-styled "no-holds-barred attitude" at the back were just two components in a great Tooting & Mitcham team, a group who made their mark on the field but also made friends of supporters in the clubhouse. To Paul's frustration, Joe would always be last in the shower and then insist on shaking hands all the way through the bar.

That kind of approach is what made it a special time. Jamie Byatt, Dave King, Allan McLeod, Matt York, Colin Hartburn, Dean MacDonald, Mitchell Nelson, Dean Hamlin and Aaron Goode are just a handful of the players who were familiar faces around the club, a far cry from the accelerated player turnover of the 2010s. Many of them still socialise to this day, an echo of the team spirit that made Smith's Tooting what it was.

For the Vines brothers, it's Smith and Wakeling who made that happen along with a core of good players who came together and had their best years together in black and white stripes. Joe and Paul had played together before, notably for Cray Wanderers and Bromley, and, while there have been a few niggling negatives, it's an opportunity both have relished throughout their careers.

"Charlie is the most frustrating player I've ever played with because he has massively under-achieved," says Joe, typically pulling no punches. "He makes scoring difficult goals look easy. He always has a goal threat, his record is phenomenal and he has the same attitude to losing as I do: he hates it."

"I've always loved playing with Joe," agrees his brother. "We can be critical of each other on the pitch but we respect what we have to offer and I've always felt secure knowing I have him behind me inside and outside of football. You don't get to play with your brother and best mate very often."

It's no exaggeration to say that Joe and Paul are closer than most brothers. The pair are endlessly on the phone to one another, but that friendship extends to their former Terrors team-mates too. What marks out the Smith-era Tooting & Mitcham is not the successes, and there were some significant ones, but a spell during which the team felt unbeatable and instilled that same confidence in the fans, who loved them for it.

"It was the best dressing room I have ever been in," says Joe. "For a period of time in the second year we felt unbeatable. We used to go a goal down and all look at each other and say 'we will win this 2-1' and it would happen. It was all self-belief and confidence in your team mates."

While the Terrors continue to play in the Ithsmian's second tier after relegation in 2012 - a fate confirmed by Paul's hat-trick against his former club for Carshalton Athletic - the Vines brothers continue to make waves elsewhere. Paul's signing for Hamlet reflects their improving fortunes and keeps him in the Premier Division.

There, he will once again come up against a formidable defender who shares his surname. That's a showdown that's certainly worth seeing.

Chris Nee is an IBWM content editor and is the host of the Aston Villa Review podcast.