Cpl Stevie Norton stepped forward to take the penalty, finding the back of the net for the second time this game. Although the euphoria that followed for the team technically ended last season, it very much felt like this season started at that point. Crowned the RAF Champions, we later found out we’d been beaten to the Lincolnshire Services League Trophy, on goal difference, losing to 7 Regiment. Having faltered in the League Cup at the Quarterfinal stage earlier in the season, that defeat, was vital in forming the team. Shape and strategy would see us win at Watford and continue that formula into the 2018/19 season.

With the retirement of Cpl Thomas ‘Higgy’ Hig from the RAF days after the final and the deployment of our first-choice goalkeeper SAC Dan Gorman plus right back SAC Callum Graves to Op SHADER, the preseason preparations looked challenging from the outset. Having not been in post for the previous preseason this was an opportunity to open up training across the whole station and see what the Veterans and Second Team had to offer. With an abundance of talent evident, a few players, some previously unknown to me, entered the realms of contention going into this season. A showcase game the week before the season started gave me the reassurances to bring those players through, notably SAC James Marsden who shone in that game and filled the void left by Callum. With the loss of Gorman in goal I felt the damage to the squad would be irreparable. As is often the way in football you don’t have to look far to find the answer and days after Gorman’s deployment SAC Chris Adams contacted me to say he’d arrived at Coningsby and wanted to play, I’d found my new Goalkeeper. It is utterly true that it’s better to be lucky than good.

With a new three League construct of just six teams in Division 1 we played our first game against RAF Digby, who appeared to still be finding their feet. Finishing 12-1 it looked clear that they would be the ‘whipping boys’ in the league, something that proved quite wrong in time. A hat-trick for SAC Jack O’Beirne certainly stood out as many of the forwards bagged a brace in our first home fixture of the season. A seemingly difficult away game at RAF Marham followed (having been the team that knocked us out of the League Cup 6 months earlier) but despite their talent we won 4-0. Not because Marham were poor but, purely because we were so effective in attack.

As RAF Cup winners we were invited to the annual RAF Akrotiri 7-a-side tournament, in what turned out to be a relentless 3-day event due to our lack of squad depth, and the use of the 11-a-side pitches, in over 30-degree heat. The tour had many positives, team cohesion was at a high, but the standout performance by SAC Jonny Wiles allowed me to start him in every game that followed.

Our third game was away at RAF Waddington. Most of the players had never played on a windier day on such an effected pitch. With goal kicks aimed at one side of the pitch and ending up going out for a throw-in on the other side, we struggled in the first half. The defenders went to ground early and were easily beaten. At 2-2 and in the last 10 minutes we were against the clock and our goal mouth was under constant attack. Exceptional saves by Adams saw us hold on before a long ball in the final minute seeing us steal the victory.

Away at RAF Digby the week after saw a far less impressive 3-0 win as it appeared they had also grown into a more credible team. Next up we hosted RAF Waddington at home which saw us dominate from the start to win 4-0. Prior to the Christmas grant we were away again at RAF Honington and at the time, we were comfortably top of the table with maximum points; however, 7 Regiment (last year’s Champions) were yet to kick a ball due to delaying all their fixtures until returning from Ops. Despite leading 2-1 we missed a vast amount of chances and the physicality and determination of our opponents saw them win a penalty in the last few minutes to draw 2-2. It felt like a defeat and soured the season to date, but that is football.

With a reduced number of teams in this year’s league, fixtures were frustratingly sparse, and without the RAF Challenge Cup we would have struggled to keep momentum. A group stage with Digby, Cranwell and Waddington saw us play a key first game away at Waddington. A mostly comfortable 2-0 win was followed by Cranwell and Digby forfeiting their game as both were unable to field a team. The draw for the Quarter finals saw a home frontier for the team line up against RAF Cosford, with us progressing through to the Semi-finals with a 5-1 win.

This fixture, I assumed, would determine the League from the outset was upon us against 7 Regiment. Dominant we scored 6 cracking goals, but disappointingly conceded 3 due to loss of focus and numerous errors. After this game and despite having only just played half the fixtures the League was all but ours. A lot of our opposition dropped points against RAF Digby who continued to evolve and provided many shocks throughout the season, sadly going down to Division 2. We really owe that team a great amount of thanks. As most teams do in football we then struggled at home to RAF Marham. On his full debut SAC James Bayliss, used some quick feet to win a penalty early on which proved to be the only goal of the game. With four games to go we had the chance to make it mathematically impossible to lose the League with a win away at 7 Regiment. With three other new players embraced into the squad, all from RAF Cosford, they provided necessary depth to our core 11. A hat trick by SAC Josh Brason, who had taken on the mantle of the number 9 since Norton’s deployment, saw the League secured with a 5-0 win. It was now that it started to feel like we had the Winning Formula.

Motivated to complete the double, our first League Cup game was away at RAF Marham. They again proved to be a close match for us and stand out performances across the defence, especially SAC Blair Bryant, SAC Jordan Watts and our new goalkeeper SAC James Rutherford (an RAF U23 goalkeeper) saw us win 1-0 (thanks to a bullet header by SAC Liam Corrigan) against wave after wave of Marham attacks.

Competing on three fronts the team drew RAF Wittering in the RAF Cup semi-final which was to be played at RAF Cosford. Wittering were a strong team, top of Division 2, and having won every game they were full of confidence. Fg Off Ben Newman shone that day winning nearly every header in the middle of the park, making Man of the Match by a mile.

The League season closed in a comfortable 3-1 home win against RAF Honington with the last goal of the game scored by the most improved player of the year, Marsden, who was found in the second team during preseason.

Sleaford Town FC hosted the League Cup final against RAF Honington, who were looking at a possible double of their own (RAF Plate and Lincs League Cup). Brason terrorised them alongside Norton, having returned from his deployment, a singular goal hard fought and enough to earn us the double. The League organisers presented the team with the League Cup trophy on the pitch and Brason Man of the Match. The day was made even more special by the subsequent presentation of the Lincolnshire Service League Trophy and Golden Boot to our Team Captain, Cpl Mike Braniff. Just the RAF Challenge Cup to go and the treble could be ours!

The penultimate event of the season was an overseas training camp to Gibraltar. With a few key faces missing, 15 players and staff flew to RAF Gibraltar on 4 May 19 and commenced a hugely valuable training tour with competitive fixtures against the national U23 team and the Regiment of Gibraltar. Relentless training and a number of team building activities saw the squad develop well and complemented the games. The trip was a resounding success and saw the quality of play with and without the ball develop significantly, never more evident than during a narrowly lost game in the national stadium against a talented and very fit side. Bryant’s late equaliser harshly ruled offside by the local official. We celebrated the loss like a win due to the team’s performance. The trip concluded with a 3-2 victory on the military 4G pitch at Devil’s Tower Camp due to a penalty and well taken goal by Braniff. The week’s preparations were perfect in the lead up to the RAF Challenge Cup Final on 15 May.

The RAF Challenge Cup has a special place in the hearts of the players after winning it at Watford FC last year. This year’s final was hosted by Oxford City FC, unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be, seeing us lose 5-3 in extra time to RAF Brize Norton. It was a fantastic opportunity to make it to the RAF Challenge Cup Final for the 2nd year in a row, making this the only game we lost all season.

The RAF Challenge Cup Final was my last game in change of the team, I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of players to Manage.