Non League Club

Football for the jilted generation

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on April 19, 2014

I’m heading towards Braintree on the A120 when I decide to engage my teenage daughters in polite conversation.  Of course, being plugged into the Apple grid they huff and puff as they have to take out their earphones.  “You know what Braintree is famous for?” I ask them.  Within seconds they have Googled the answer and Littlest Fuller tells me to “Smack my bitch up, you Firestarter”.  Yep, I walked into that trap didn’t I? The answer I was looking for was it was the ancestral home of John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, rather than the town that spawned The Prodigy.

The plan today had originally been to head to Yorkshire for an afternoon as a Brighton fan at The McAlpi..doh…Galpha..sorry John Smiths in Huddersfield.  But eyebrows were raised by CMF, who politely pointed out the fact that  “20 out of the next 30 days out of the country and you still decide to spend a bloody Bank Holiday driving 4 hours each way to watch a game involving two teams you care nowt about”.  Granted, she did have a point and so I agreed to take the family shopping.  “What about a designer outlet place?  There’s one in Essex, only an hour away called Braintree Freeport”.  “Braintree, as in Braintree Town?” She’s quick is CMF.  “Erm, I think so”, “And I bet they are playing today aren’t they?”…Plan rumbled, but accepted.  You shall go to the ball Cinderella, albeit one at the Working Mens Club rather than the Palace.

With just three games left in the Skrill Conference Premier, three of the four Play-off spots are still up for grabs.  With Cambridge United confirmed as runners-up to Luton Town, five teams could realistically say they were still in with a shout at a shot at a place in the Football League.  Four of the five had Football League pedigree, albeit in Gateshead’s case it was over fifty years ago since they failed to gain re-election.  The fifth was Braintree Town.  And next week, on the final day of the season, the five (plus Cambridge United) all play each other.  No pressure at all then on today’s game.

13925498603_70b7a7255d_bWhen we last visited the Amlin Stadium (then Cressing Road) back in 2009 it was relatively basic for the Conference South.  Five years on and a new stand had been added at one end of the ground in order to pass the ‘A’ Ground Grading meaning that they could host Football League games but it still retains that Non-League feel.  There is space behind the south stand for expansion as well as land to the west.   Talk of a new stadium off the A120 has disappeared although should they reach the promised land it would undoubtably return.  Average crowds of less than 1,000 suggest that it may be an investment too far, but when was logic ever applied to football clubs (George Reynolds and Darlington anyone?).

Should the Iron reach the Football League they would join a small band of clubs who play in towns with a population of less than 45,000.  Accrington (35,000), Morecambe (33,000) and Fleetwood (25,000) are all towns that support clubs who have risen through the Non-Leagues although it is still possible that either Accrington Stanley or Morecambe could well return back there this season.  Braintree’s rise hasn’t been fueled by a rich benefactor in the case of Fleetwood Town but by hard graft and a manager who knows a thing or two about the game.

13925910364_93e4bbceda_bAlan Devonshire is a TBIR legend.  We’ve met him on numerous occasions since he dazzled English football as a flying winger for West Ham back in the 1980’s through to his stint as manager at Hampton & Richmond Borough.  Always willing to have a chat about football after the game over a beer, he doesn’t hold a grudge or any bitterness that his International career was curtailed by a serious knee injury, or that manager’s at clubs in the 92 haven’t had to learn their apprenticeship the same way he has, starting Maidenhead United fifteen years ago.  He took over at Braintree Town in the summer of 2011 after the club had won the Conference South and has kept them in the top half of the table for the last two seasons.  But this year could be the year that they move to the next level.

The visitors Dartford had their eyes on Premier League safety.  After a horrendous run of ten consecutive league defeats in late 2013, Dartford have had to fight against the spectre of relegation.  With a week of the season to go they were still in the bottom four, with a gaping goal difference that could be the deciding factor. The indulgence in chocolate over Easter would have to be put on hold for a few days yet.

With the female Fullers safely deposited at Braintree Freeport I walked to the ground, passing a police cordon (apparently someone was murdered close to the ground on Thursday night) and joined a long queue of fans at the turnstiles.  Had football fever ignited the locals?  Was Devonshire the true Firestarter?  Which manager would be able to Breathe easily? With both teams desperate for a win for completely different reasons it was bound to be a dull scoreless draw.

Braintree Town 1 Dartford 0 – The Amlin Stadium – Friday 18th April 2014
As the game entered the 94th minute and the home side holding onto their one goal lead, Dartford threw the ball into the box once again.   Suarez (Mikel alas not Luis)  saw his shot deflected away by Iron keeper Hamann diving to his right. The rebound went straight to Jim Stevenson who forced a second outstanding save and potentially three points that would bring ultimate joy to Braintree and despair to Dartford.  A Darts fan behind me turns to his mate “I’d rather we go down than bankrupt ourselves chasing an unsustainable dream”.

13925413343_76fd7b78a7_bIt wasn’t a classic, with some interesting tactics deployed by both teams that lead to frustration both on the bench and on the terraces.  Braintree liked to get the ball wide but virtually every single cross into the penalty area was played over the lone striker to the far post where there was no one attacking the ball.  Dartford on the other hand kept playing the ball through the middle where the two Braintree centre-backs snaffled out any threat.  Either instructions from the respective benches were not getting through or they simply didn’t see the error of their ways.

The Braintree fans weren’t big in number but made themselves heard in the covered terrace that ran along the side of the pitch.  Whilst the early possession gave them something to cheer about it took 25 minutes before the roof was raised when Kenny Davis picked the ball up 25 yards out and struck the ball sweetly, giving Alan Julian in the Dartford goal no chance.

At this time of the season fans are easily distracted by what is happening elsewhere.  Standing between the two sets of fans I was getting the stories from both ends of the table.  One set of fans were bemoaning the events unfolding at Alfreton Town where the Grimsby Town team coach had been delayed in traffic.  “S’not right innit” said one.  “They’ve got a competitive advantage ain’t they?”.  “I reckon they should stop our game until they catch up” (which would have meant a delay of around 40 minutes).  Of course our mastermind had forgotten the fact that Braintree play at 5:15 away at Barnet on Monday night, thirty minutes after all of their rivals games have finished.

Going back to the issue of the ground.  The official attendance was 1,200 – boosted by a fair contingent from Dartford, but it did seem that the club struggled.  Long queues to get in, get food, programmes sold out, a 15 minute wait for a beer at half-time.  Whilst you can never deny a club a place at a higher level, the fans will notice a massive difference in their match-day experience.  The club will have to jump through more hoops and comply to more rules (no changing ends at half-time for instance) than today.  Some of the reasons why people love the Non-League game will be swiftly and sharply curtailed.

13925386195_803c5bbcf0_bThe second half saw both teams try to play with more positivity.  The home side were causing Darts keeper Julian some concern, although not as much as the stick he was getting from the home fans behind the goal.  Julian had made the mistake in the first half to respond to “banter” and that immediately made him a target for all the wit and wisdom of the fans.  Any save was deemed a fluke or lucky.  When he called for a ball and failed to get it, he was derided with donkey chants. The lot of a goalkeeper.

Scores elsewhere meant at one point Braintree had risen into the play-off spots, so the three points became vital.  Despite the last-gasp scare they held on.  Three points kept the dream alive for the Iron and the nightmare a reality for the Darts.  It hadn’t been the best of games but it was a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine.  Oh, and I managed to pick up a couple of bargains at Freeport too.

 

Ebbsfleet suffer at the hands of a wayward Cook

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on November 1, 2013

Few people will have been happier with the result on Saturday from the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Tie between Ebbsfleet United and Dartford than I was  (For Ebbsfleet, read Gravesend).As soon as the draw was made this tie caught my eye, but of course being on a Saturday I was loyal to my own club Lewes and enjoyed a pint of Harvey’s (just like Her Majesty did this week) on the terraces as we beat Margate.  As the news filtered through that the North Kent derby had ended all-square my Tuesday night’s entertainment was sorted.

The game had been seen by nearly 2,900 fans, more than the combined average attendance for both clubs and had provided its fair share of drama as Ebbsfleet missed an early penalty after the Dartford keeper had hauled down Cook.  Red card?  A split opinion based on which set of fans you listen to.  Instead, Alan Julian stayed on the pitch and Ben May put the ball high over the bar.  Dartford then took the lead against the run of play, and the reverse happened in the second half when Anthony Cook equalised.  All’s fair in love, war and local derbies.  72 hours later the action moved five miles down the A2 to Princes Park, a world away from Ebbsfleet’s Stonebridge Road.  Not that there is anything wrong with either ground – they are simply at the end of the non-league ground spectrum.

photo (58)I grew up equidistant between the two towns and have an affinity for both towns.  I went to school in Gravesend, played football and rugby on the pitches around the town and spent my formative and most impressionable years in the pubs and clubs of Windmill Hill.  Come summertime and we headed to play cricket in and around Dartford, often ending our nights, bat in hand, box in pants at Zens, also know as the kidney donor factory. When I wasn’t a young tear-away at Upton Park or Priestfield then I would head up to Watling Street to watch Dartford.  As a teenager, the old Dartford ground was the best place in the world.  You could hide under the main stand, as long as you avoided the legendary Monkey Alan who lived in the catacombs of the ground, browse for hours in the programme shop or simply watch the tear-ups on the terraces which were relatively frequent.  On occasions even the players got involved, hoping over the barrier and joining in the fun.

Those halcyon days vanished for the Darts when they were made homeless from Watling Street in a tale of tears, tantrums and treachery.  They became nomads, rising through the leagues as they called Cray Wanderers, Erith & Belvedere, Thurrock and finally Stonebridge Road home.  Slowly but surely they worked their back up the leagues.  As success arrived on the pitch then the local council started to take the club more seriously, finally agreeing to the funding of a new ground barely a mile from Watling Street.  In November 2006 they were finally given the keys to Princes Park, the greenish, most ecological football stadium in Europe.  Dartford fans would be able to stand under a roof made of sustainable material which rainwater being recycled and being held up by an 18 feet wooden man.

photo (59)Back down the A2 time seems to have stood still at Stonebridge Road.  The name may have changed to a more “European” Ebbsfleet, but it’s still Gravesend and Northfleet to me.  The rickety old main stand where when the ball lands on it you get showered with “stuff”.  The toilets, where if you position yourself correctly you can still watch the game “hands free” and the slowest refreshment bar in the world, where Cynical Dave once bought a frozen chicken pie and was then questioned when he returned it if he wanted it heated.  Do the Ebbsfleet fans crave grass rather than moss growing on the roof of the stands? Do they want a wooden man rather than scaffolding holding up their roof?  Do they want a stadium surrounded by trees or one by industry?  Progress is great but sometimes the comforts of familiarity are all football fans crave.

I had the day off.  Not through any other reason than I needed to use up my annual leave so I was going to make a day of it.  Where better to start than an afternoon at Crayford Dogs.  The place was packed, with free admission tempting the full spectrum of North Kent’s population.  Nothing better than a bit of dog racing, even if it’s the same 6 dogs running in each race, simply changing the lane jackets.  Six winners put a spring in my step and some cash in my pocket.  Next stop the Magic of the FA Cup.

Dartford 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – Princes Park – Tuesday 29th October 2013
If you were writing a book on the 180 minutes (plus injury time) these two teams played out this week, it would have to be titled “Three Kicks”.   It would also be a pretty long, dull book. The reason why Dartford won this tie and Ebbsfleet lost in its simplest terms boiled down to the ability to take a penalty.  In the two games Ebbsfleet were awarded two and missed both, whilst Dartford scored the one they were awarded.  Ebbsfleet fans will argue, and quite justifiably, that the Dartford keeper should’ve been sent off in the first game (and thus subsequently banned for the replay if the result would have stayed the same) and they can feel aggrieved that in this game he was the difference between a place in the 1st Round of the FA Cup and a short disconsolate walk back down the A2.

photo (61)The Ebbsfleet fans were in fine voice as they walked to the ground. It is amazing how adaptable football chants are these days.  One terrace favourite still advocates the use of firearms to commit Grievous Bodily Harm and was sung with lust by the group as they marched along the suburban streets of Dartford.  No one liked them, they told everyone who was listening as they made room on the pavement for an old lady coming the other way and despite them telling everyone that “Dartford was shit” they spoke about the post match plan after the game to go to Breathe, Dartford’s “premier” night club.  Inside the ground the away fans took up a position at one end, singing a chorus about Dartford having a “shit ground and no fans”.  Just as a reminder, the Darts do average over 300 more fans than The Fleet.  In all seriousness, the Ebbsfleet fans created an atmosphere that is probably rarely seen from away fans in these parts and certainly got behind their team from the first minute.

I was joined by the edge of the pitch by a Dartford-supporting groundhopper.  He was a tad deaf, meaning he shouted at me despite our proximity.  He had given up watching Dartford, he told me, because all they did was play “long ball rubbish”.  “We only score from set pieces” he told me, bemoaning the lack of creativity in the team.  “Watch our number 7, Hayes.  He’s a bottler” he shouted, loud enough for the player himself to hear and immediately go to jelly.  Sure enough, every time there was a 50/50 ball, Hayes would jump out of the way.  “Watch the full back Burns.  Great at getting forward, but takes ages to track back”.  Sure enough, with Burns out of position, Ebbsfleet created the first good chance of the game which the Dartford keeper had to tip over.  Impressed with this perceptive view of the game I asked him for his final score prediction.  “Oh we will win, probably from a set-piece”.

The first half was goal less and with the Dartford fans positioned next to the Ebbsfleet ones there was a fair amount of “banter” between the two sets.  But then at half time the Dartford fans went and took up position at the other end and all of a sudden that extra special cup atmosphere disappeared.

Ten minutes into the second period and Lee Noble was brought down in the Ebbsfleet box by Osborn.  A clear penalty despite some limp protests.  However, Bradbrook stepped up and made no mistake.  Ebbsfleet responded and pressed forward, their fans raising the volume to a new level.  The away side soon had a chance to draw level when Rance was brought down in the box.  May shook his head, passing responsibility to Cook but his effort was saved by the Dartford keeper.  The ball fell loose and a powerful Ebbsfleet strike was blocked by the chest of Dartford’s captain Bradbrook.  “Handball” went the collective shout from players and fans alike, although the fact Bradbrook ended the night in hospital with suspected fractured ribs from the block is probably enough proof for most the referee got it right!

photo (60)Despite all of their efforts Ebbsfleet simply couldn’t find a way through the Dartford defence.  Six minutes of injury time were added and despite the most ludicrous booking for time-wasting I have seen in a long time from the Dartford keeper (he really should have been sent off for two yellows for the same offence in less than a minute) the game ended 1-0.  Dartford’s prize was an away trip to Salisbury City in the next round – hardly one to set the pulses racing but there is always the hope of a better tie in the next round.

Fans of both sides made their way out of the ground and into the night without any animosity.  There hasn’t been many opportunities to play each other in recent years, and many fans (and players) will not remember the days in the 1970’s and 80’s when things were a bit more volatile.  In fact most of the post-match chat was of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and even VCD Athletic.  Old rivalries never die but they certainly mellow over the years.

The Darts hit the bullseye of promotion after 26 years of hurt

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on May 14, 2012

I’ve never really hidden my admiration for the progress Dartford have made on and off the pitch in the past few seasons.  Just a year or so ago I waxed lyrical about my upbringing just down the road from Watling Street and my afternoons spent running around the terraces here..  Back in “the day” they were one of the top Non League teams in England, along with the likes of Wealdstone, Altrincham and Weymouth.  In an age when there wasn’t any automatic promotion to the Football League, the top non league clubs had to apply for election to the League each season and hope that the Football League Chairman were satisfied with the contents of the “envelopes”.  Consequently only seven clubs were elected into the league by this method, the last being 1978.

Dartford came close to making the step from the Non Leagues to the Football League on a number of occasions, the last one was in 1974 after they won the Southern League, and reached the final of the FA Trophy.  Ten years later, after the formation of the Football Alliance (basically now the Blue Square Bet Premier), they finished third, the highest place they have finished in their history.  Since then it was a tale of woe that saw them penniless and homeless in a space of a few years.  A nomadic existence followed at places like Erith, Thurrock and Gravesend before a local council with a vision stepped in, finding them a home back in the town.

Not just any old home though.  Must has been written, and awards have been won for the 4,100 capacity Princes Park, just over half a mile away from the old ground (now of course houses) in Watling Street.  You can read all about what makes the stadium so different here but suffice to say its bloody marvellous.  Just a few months before the ground was opened in 2006, Terry Burnham was re-appointed as manager with the club in the lower reaches of the Southern League.  Since they have never looked back, rising through the leagues until they reached the Blue Square Bet South for the start of the 2010/11 season.

This season has been their best yet.  An epic battle with eventual champions Woking went to the last games of the season, whilst average attendances have top 1,200 – the best the club has had for three decades.  But it is still not a finished job.  One game is left.  One game that would shape the season.  One game that would take them back to where they were nearly 40 years ago in that elite group of Non League clubs.

Standing in their way was Welling United from just down the A2.  The Wings themselves were looking to return to the top level of Non League football where they had played for a magnificent fourteen seasons up until 1999/2000 season.  They had a corker of a season as well, finishing in third place under the guidance of highly rated manager Jamie Day.

To say this was the biggest game Kent had seen in years was an understatement.  As soon as the two clubs won their semi-finals against Basingstoke Town and Sutton United respectively, all the talk was of this one.  Tickets went on sale for just 10 hours.  4,100 of them were snapped up, making it the first sell out at the ground since the opening fixture back in November 2006.

Fortunately, CMF had been employed to camp out at the ground all night to be one of the first to get our tickets.  Don’t worry – I made her some soup and bought her a copy of Women’s Own to read.  It didn’t rain that much anyway so all was well as she came home on Wednesday, slammed four tickets on the table and disappeared up to the bedroom.  Danny, Deaks and Dave would be pleased.

Win this game and you would be swapping an away trip in front of 200 to the likes of Weston-super-Mare or Thurrock for Lincoln City, Grimsby Town or Hereford United.  The revenue gap between the two leagues is huge, and that is why it is sometimes a step too far for some clubs, such as Bath City and Hayes & Yeading, although both Dartford and Welling United can take comfort from the excellent progress made by Braintree Town this season in the Premier after promotion.

For such a local game it we were letting the train take the strain.  Just a twenty minute from TBIR Towers to Dartford would give us plenty of time for a spot of culture.  Perhaps a visit up to East Hill to see the site of the former City of London Lunatic Asylum (they called apples, apples back in the day), then onto York Road where the Duke of York surrendered to King Henry VI and finally to Powder Mill Lane, where of course we all remember John Spillman set up the first paper mill in England back in 1588. Alas, we had tried to get access to the little known Dartford Cable Tunnel, which runs under the Thames to Essex and is owned by the National Grid but our request to “leapfrog the Thames” had been flatly refused.  So instead we had to make do with such fine historical establishments as the Malt Shovel, The Wat Tyler and the Rose which was once owned by larger than life Darts player Andy Fordham.

Dartford 1 Welling United 0 – Princes Park – Sunday 13th May 2012
I am always confused as to in which games it is the performance or the result are more important.  This was certainly one game where it was all about the result, which was quite fortunate because as a spectacle it failed to live up to the pre-game hype and the explosive start that Dartford made.

The game had been sold out for days and to be honest we expected some sort of chaos outside the ground.  Being English we of course left the pub with twenty minutes to go and got to the ground with a few minutes to spare.  But it seemed that the vast majority of the 4,088 crowd were already in situ.  For the first time in what seems like months I was going to be watching a game in England with the sun shining.  After all, the cricket season was only 6 weeks old!

As soon as we found a spot on the terrace underneath the big wooden man Dartford took the lead with a goal worthy of winning any play off final.  Lee Noble picked the ball up in midfield after just two and a half minutes, took the ball forward and fired the ball from 25 yards into the bottom corner of the Welling net. Bosh…First blood to the Darts.

One should have been two a few minutes later when the direct approach from the home side saw the ball find Bradbrook unmarked in the six yard box but he headed wide.  Welling then found their rhythm although it was a little bit in the style of Stoke City.  There seemed to be far too many end passes hit long and high to no one in particular and whilst Welling won the half in terms of percentages, the score reflected the chances on goal.

We headed up in the Princess Suite for some half time refreshments.  The licencing laws in this country are truly bizarre.  Whilst beer could be served in this huge bar, blinds were pulled down to stop anyone looking at the game.  You could peer around the edge of the blinds and get a sneak view, but woe betide anyone who tried to raise the blinds even an inch.  Tut tut.  With one of the most exciting Premier League campaigns unfolding on the huge TV screens quite a few fans decided to stay in the bar, meaning we got their front row seats. Nice!

The second half was more of the same.  Welling tried to push forward but the solid Darts defence more often than not repelled borders. Despite player/manager Jamie Day trying to change the rhythm of the game, Dartford looked too strong.

Despite our intention not to let events elsewhere affect our viewing pleasure, it was hard not to keep an interested ear and eye on the top of the Premier League.  Even the Darts players had an interest as one of them asked what the latest scores were when he came over to take a throw, looking in disbelief when we told him QPR were winning at Man City.  Four minutes of injury time were displayed and despite a late rally by the Wings, Dartford held firm and I do not think I have seen anyone run so quick as the referee as he headed for the tunnel, blowing the whistle as he ran down the tunnel.  Good to see solidarity with his linesmen who stayed on the pitch trying to retrieve the ball.

Dartford were promoted.  They had finished second on merit and were now going up to the top level of non league football after a 26 year gap. Manager Tony Burman has very carefully and cleverly built a team that can compete at every level they have played and you can see that some of the work is already in place for next season.

As for Welling? Another great season punching above a number of teams who have more financial resources (Chelmsford City and Havant to name but two).  They would be back I am sure next season when the competitive landscape without Woking and Dartford (and with Bath and Hayes coming in opposite direction) is easier.  But who knows what Non League football will throw up.