Non League Club

A Gray day I could Ilford to miss

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on October 7, 2012

Some time very soon we will be up in arms about the death of another football club in London. It is a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon at 3.05pm and I have joined barely 150 other paying spectators who are watching Grays Athletic take on Needham Market in the 8th level of English football. Why are there so few fans bothered about football at this level? Well, a scan on the immediate horizon will give you a good idea.

Just as the hosts breath down the Needham Market goal in the first minute of the game, Leyton Orient are holding their own against Sheffield United at the Matchroom Stadium and the mighty Dagenham & Redbridge are probing at Bradford City defence less than 2 miles down the Rainham Road. Two nPower Football League games kicking off at the same time. Oh, and of course let’s not forget that if ESPN didn’t have their way West Ham would have been hoofing high balls into the Arsenal box at Upton Park as well at this time.

So perhaps we can see why there are only just a few hardy souls in the Rush Green Sports and Leisure Centre for this game. But it is not just Grays who face this issue of trying to compete with the big boys this afternoon. Local rivals Redbridge and Ilford are around 2 miles North and West respectively, who both average less than 70 fans for their home games, although a late postponement of the game at Redbridge doesn’t trouble the turnstile operators elsewhere. Even if these clubs were to admit fans for free I doubt they would be able to increase attendances by more than 10-15%.

That is why next week’s Non-League Day is so important for the professional clubs to get fully behind. Even if 5% of fans from West Ham, Leyton Orient and Dagenham went along to a game next weekend in the local non league area, that would boost attendances for some of these clubs by 2-300%. One percent of West Ham fans deciding to go to Romford v Soham Town Rangers would boost their average attendance from 83 to over 400.  West Ham carry a small piece in their match day programme about next Saturday with really putting their full marketing muscle behind it – could it have hurt to dedicate a page to profiling 4 or 5 local clubs?

So why am I here today? Good question.  Opportunities to come to see the Hammers these days are few and far between.  However, with Lewes out of the FA Cup already, and ESPN showing the WHU game at 5.30pm it was a perfect opportunity for a Fuller Family day out.  Westfield at Stratford City (when did that happen??? I cannot see any cathedral on the horizon), lunch at Jamie Oliver’s gaff then a bit of Christmas shopping (if I do it now I have more time for football nearer Christmas).  However, as I had been a model husband in recent weeks – such as spending last Saturday at Ikea, Current Mrs Fuller “suggested” that I could go to a game earlier, “if logistics permitted”.  What a silly question.  Of course they would.

The initial fly in the ointment was that West Ham v Arsenal appeared to have sold out online.  But a phone call to the ticket office told me otherwise.  There were tickets available in the Family Stand.  Lolly – guess what – you are coming to football and your ticket is only a bargain £23.  This added a layer of complexity into the mix as I would now have to return to Stratford to pick her up prior to the game.

So part one of day negotiated successfully.  It was strange to come back to the Olympic Park and see it still there.  You have this impression that it will have all disappeared.  From the viewing gallery on the 3rd floor at John Lewis’s you can see everything is still there, bar the Hockey Stadium which has already been dismantled.  Good times indeed.  I had chosen Gray Athletic as it was only 15 minutes away, according to Google Maps.  But East London has some of the worst traffic in any city I have visited in the world.  That 15 minutes turned into 50 minutes.  The use of buses on single carriageway roads with no bus lane is a disaster in these parts, as too are complicated junctions with wrongly phases traffic lights – such as Gants Hill roundabout.  But I had allowed plenty of time so by 2.45pm I had arrived at Rush Green.

When I heard in the summer that Grays Athletic had found a new home I was pleased for them.  They had been treated pretty poorly in the last few years.  This was a side that held its own in the Conference for seasons and won the FA Trophy twice less than ten years ago.  Then the financial problems hit of trying to take the club to the next level.  Crowds at their Recreation Ground in the centre of Grays rarely hit the 1,000 mark and they could have never realistically competed in the Football League.  They were forced to leave after failing to re-negotiate a more suitable lease with the owner and took up residence due east in Corringham, home of East Thurrock United.

Rush Green used to be the home of Ford United, the side of Ford Motor Works in Dagenham.  However, they headed north nearly ten years ago to take up residence at Barkingside, later being renamed as Redbridge when the patronage of the now US-owned car giant ended.  Romford FC moved in instead although their tenure only lasted a short while.  Since 2008 the ground had been without a tenant until a deal was done with West Ham to purchase the land with a view to moving their training facility a mile or so south from Chadwell Heath.

With redevelopment still in the planning phase, West Ham agreed that Grays could move into the ground on an initial 18 month contract.  The ground would also host the WHU development squad (the new trendy name for the reserves).  So after weeks of hard work by both clubs, the ground officially re-opened with a friendly with the Hammers in July.

Grays Athletic 1 Needham Market 1 – Rush Green – Saturday 6th October 2012
There are few grounds in England that can boast they are also home to a dog training academy, but Rush Green is one.  Alas, there was no activities going on when I arrived, but I can see this as a step in the right direction for half time entertainment in the future.  Such scenes were common place in the seventies up and down the country.  The single turnstile operator didn’t have a taxing job this afternoon, taking my £8 and marking me on a sheet to show I was the 100th fan through the gate.  Did I win a prize?  Alas, no.

Grays had started the season relatively well, sitting in the playoff spots, with the visitors just three points below.  Last season both sides reached the play off in the Ryman League North and would again be hoping for more of the same.  The first twenty minutes were played at a decent pace although neither keeper was really tested.  The home fans, standing at the top of the main (only) stand were making a fair noise, although with only 170 hardy souls in the ground a sneeze would have caused most people to look around.

Both benches were very vocal.  Gray’s management team were full of encouragement for the effort of the players, whilst the abuse from the visitors side was clear for all including the three or four young fans to hear.  It hardly takes much effort to stamp this out yet it is very rare for any referee to actually take any action.  In fact the referee in this game seemed oblivious to everything going on, except a strange incident in the 35th minute when he saw Grays’s midfielder Jake Hall raise his hands and promptly sent him off.  Most Needham players (and their two fans) were as perplexed by this as too were the Grays fans.  Unfortunately, referees do not have to explain their decisions at any level of football, which is why the whole “respect” campaign will never work.

With almost the last kick of the half Needham missed a sitter – the ball was played across the area and the Needham forward with an open goal just a few yards out hit the post.  With an extra man it would have been a fool to have bet on anything else apart from an away win.  I simply do not buy the managerial bullshit about it being harder to play against 10 men – that is an excuse used by poor tacticians who have failed to win when they have had an advantage.  Case in point – Kettering Town (another club doomed to self implode any day soon due to poor ownership) could only muster 10 players yesterday – they lost 7-0.  If a team who is equal or better than their opponents with even numbers cannot win when that number is reduced by 9% then surely that is down to the inability of the players and management to have a plan B.

Just four minutes into the second half and unsurprisingly Needham take the lead through Wilkinson.  They took advantage of the extra man in midfield, created space and Wilkinson did the rest.  I rest my case.  Although, of course I am later proved wrong when Gray’s equalise through Luke Marshall, but by then thanks to the traffic hell I have left.

All of the main routes back towards the A12 are blocked so I end up going on side roads.  Somehow I end up going towards Ilford and as I stop at some traffic lights I see a sign to my left saying “Ilford FC”.  I know they are at home and I have a ten minute window so it would be rude not to make a short stop, surely?

Ilford play at the Cricklefield Stadium, half a mile from Ilford town centre.  They ground share with Waltham Forest in the tired-looking council-owned multi-purpose ground (aka it has an athletics track).  A new bar and club house has been added to the ground but still if attracting fans to Grays was a task, then doing the same here needs magic.  As I wander in the ground I can count the spectators watching the Ryman League North game between Ilford and Thamesmead Town in less than 60 seconds.  I make out 39 spectators, including myself (The official attendance was later given as 43).  How on earth can a club survive with less than 40 paying spectators?  That is £320 in gate receipts.  If they have a squad of 15 players that would mean they would be on £20 a week and that assumes no money for the manager or coaching team.  The numbers simply do not add up.  The situation is echoed across the Ryman North where 14 of the 22 clubs average less than 100 fans.  In the Ryman Premier, joint leaders Whitehawk had just 74 fans for their game today with Wingate and Finchley, yet have ex-Football League players on their books who wont be playing for the love of the game I expect.

This game will end in a 0-0 draw and few fans who made the trip for the first time will ever return.  That in itself is another issue – little is done to try to engage the fans or make their visit one that will stand out.  Whilst bigger clubs can take some blame for not doing enough to help their little neighbours, the little clubs do not help themselves. Yet just three miles down the A118 (and throw a left down Green Street) it was a whole different world.

West Ham United 1 Arsenal 3 – Upton Park – Saturday 6th October 2012
So my trip into the world of East London football had come a complete circle.  Lolly was picked up, eventually, and we took our seats in the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand just a few minutes after kick off.  It was good to see Allardyce had started with Jarvis (why spend £10 million on a player and keep him on the bench?) and Carroll although it was clear to see from when we arrived that the tactics were still from the Charles Hughes tactics manual.  Far too often a long ball would find Carroll and he would have nobody within 30 yards of him to play the ball off to.  Parking the bus is a term that is rarely used to describe a home team’s approach to a game but it applied to this West Ham team.

In some ways can you blame Allardyce?  The Premier League today is all about winning at all costs and with more and more money being funnelled to the elite 18 it is no surprise that promoted teams have to scrap for every single point.  When you play Arsenal you know they will pass the ball around the midfield at pace, looking for the runs of the wide men, so packing the midfield was an obvious tactic to try to prevent that.  Ultimately it failed, which is no embarrassment, but Allardyce’s response of sticking to his plan even when the Hammers were 3-1 down AND then bringing on Carlton Cole shows his tactical vision as well as how West Ham will struggle this season.

The most impressive West Ham player for me was Mohamed Diame, the ex-Wigan centre midfielder who showed why a number of top European sides were interested in him in the summer.  He capped a great performance with a goal after 21 minutes when he cut inside two Arsenal defenders and steered the ball into the top corner of the net.  Against the run of play?  Probably, but it certainly lifted the full house.

The lead lasted until just before half time.  Arsenal broke again with pace, played the ball inside Demel at full back and Podolski was able to get to the by-line, cross and Olivier Giroud stole in front of James Collins to poke home.  I used to be a Collins fans when he was at Upton Park before, but his performances this season have shown a lack of pace and concentration in key areas and this was another example.

Alas, half-times at Upton Park these days are as empty as the stands at Ilford FC.  Gone are the halcyon days of the Hammerettes or the Bonnie Tyler performances.  Sullivan and Gold once promised “world-class entertainment” but instead we get extended adverts on the big screens for a 6-part new DVD about British Gangsters. “Murder, Extortion, Armed Robbery, Revenge”…I am not sure if they are talking about the DVD or paying to watch a game at Upton Park.

The second half saw West Ham try to keep possession more.  After all, if you have the ball then the opposition cannot score – right?  That only works if you can actually pass the ball under pressure.  Far too often West Ham lost the ball in the centre of midfield and you could sense that Arsenal would eventually make them pay.  Walcott came on and took advantage of a static back four to run onto a great through ball from the impressive Carzola to beat Jaaskeleinan at his near post.

West Ham should have then levelled the game when Nolan found himself clean through on goal, but decided to stop and try to beat the defender, which he failed to do.  With Vaz Te off with a dislocated shoulder and Carroll helping out in midfield, Nolan had no choice but to stop as his pace simply wouldn’t keep him ahead of the defence.

The final act was a third Arsenal goal with just a few minutes to go.  Carzola found space behind the West Ham midfield and spotted the West Ham keeper out of position and smashed the ball home from 25 yards.  Queue the resigned air of defeat from 30,000 West Ham fans as they headed for the exit.  With 60% possession and 34 shots to West Ham’s 10 you can say that result was completely justified.  But how different would it have been if we had a manager who played to win?

So my conclusion of a day of East End football was?  The landscape will have to change sooner or later.  If West Ham are allowed to move to the Olympic stadium then it could well spell the last rites for clubs like Ilford, Waltham Forest, Redbridge and Grays Athletic in the local area.  Without a restructure of the way non league funding is provided then there is no financial future for them.  Clubs should not be the play thing of one benefactor – that model has lead to disaster almost everywhere (Max Griggs at Rushden & Diamonds and George Reynolds at Darlington to name but two), but likewise the professional clubs can and should do more to help in their local regions.

Two seasons after turning my back on regular football at Upton Park I was glad to go back but do not regret my choice in where I channel my footballing energy, and I cannot wait for a trip to Hampton & Richmond Borough on Tuesday night.


Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on April 26, 2011

First we take Colchester….then we take Sudbury.  Not my words, or those of Leonard Cohen but actually Boudica in AD61 when she attacked the Roman garrison and capital of Britain, raising it to the ground resulting in the centre of power moving down the Roman road to a little settlement called Londinium.

One thousand nine hundred and fifty years to the day that Camulodnum fell (well, newspapers from that day are a bit thin on the ground) here Danny and I were as we heading along the A12 in deepest, darkest Essex trying to find the Weston Homes Community Stadium.  My feelings of building identikit stadiums on the outskirts of towns with no facilities or decent public transport nearby are widely known (feel free to read about my previous visit to Colchester United here).  Since my last visit here it was good to see that access had been improved with a shiny new slip road directly off the A12 being built.  But obviously the local council are embarrassed by the presence of the ground and/or the team as there are still no signs for the stadium – just one for a hospital.

Our plan was to take in the early midday plus fifteen minutes kick off between Champions Brighton & Hove Albion, who incidentally have built a very nice looking new stadium with public transport provisions included, and Colchester United before we headed up the B1508 to Sudbury for the vital promotion/playoff local derby in the Ryman League One North.

The car park was full so we were forced to park on a nearby industrial estate for a bargain of £8.  Remind me again why I don’t normally watch league football?  We met up with Nick who had our tickets and entered via a breeze block portal, of course after being searched.  Brighton fans have a reputation don’t you know, so the steward doing the searching told me.  I wasn’t going to ask as what, although the small (and I mean small) amount of home fans obviously knew as they apparently “could see us holding hands”, even though we were in the concourse.

It was sit where you wanted in the stand.  Although actually it wasn’t.  Despite Colchester managing to sell a massive 4,000 seats for this game, the East Stand was kept half empty, with the vacant seats towards the Brighton end.  So why on earth could the away fans then not use the whole North Stand?  With the three central blocks almost full, any attempt made to move across the aisle was met with rebuke from the little Hitlers.  Simple questions like “Can we sit there?” were simply ignored.  Logic and sense are not words that can ever be applied to stewards at League clubs.  Take a bow the boys from Tamdown Securities, you did a hell of a job today.

It was hoped that this may be a promotion/championship party for Brighton & Hove Albion.  However, they did something that is quite rare for teams who run away with the league towards the end of the season with the finishing line in sight.  They carried on winning.  They wrapped up promotion against Dagenham & Redbridge a few weeks ago (see Daggers Diary for more details of this game), became champions against Walsall and then partied on Saturday against Southampton.  This game had thus became the day at work after the big leaving do on a Thursday night. And Sky had been left with egg on their face by showing it live. The two last honours left to get under their belt were to break the 100 point mark, thus becoming only the third Football League team to do this (Fulham and Sunderland being the other two), and finally to keep hold of Gus Poyet.

The Uruguyian’s stock has been rising since he left the Assistant Manager’s position at Leeds United to take a similar role at Spurs in 2007.  With Premier League clubs about to start their annual cull, there are fears that Gus will be prized away from the American Express Community Stadium before the first ball is kicked, with West Ham United looking favourites to want his services just as soon as the owners finish congratulating themselves about “winning” the Olympic Stadium (and thus all the personal benefits that go with the disposal of the existing more than adequate Boleyn Ground) and realise that the team on the pitch are on the verge of relegation.

After a couple of seasons playing in the Championship, Colchester United had dropped back into the third tier two seasons ago.  Their season in the sun saw them at one stage hint at a push towards the play offs, finally finishing in 10th place but gaining the crown “Kings of East Anglia” (because there is such a title) by finishing above Norwich City and Ipswich Town.  This season their form had been erratic and results in the previous week meant a play off shot this season was now out of the question.

With the Bank Holiday sun beating down, the game kicked off at 12.15pm.  Someone had obviously forgotten to tell the home fans who forgot to turn up.  Without my glasses on I had assumed that the blue and white silent and motionless figures at the far end were just empty seats.  Oh hang on, they were.

Colchester United 1 Brighton & Hove Albion 1 – Weston Homes Community Stadium – Monday 25th April 2011 12.30pm
“Was this the real thing, or was it just fantasy?  Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.  Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see.”  Not my words but those of the late, great Freddie Mercury.  But after the comedy value of the opening goal it could apply to any one of three Brighton players.

Ankegren, granted carrying a knock from a clash a few minutes before (that actually saw him substituted soon after) spilt a ball into the box from O’Toole, but Elphick was on hand to smash the ball away….straight into fellow defender Calderon who then attempted to clear it and to give it straight to Colchester’s Henderson who tapped it in, although his over the top goal celebrations would have suggested to an outsider it was the goal of the decade.

Henderson should have doubled the lead just before the break when a miss hit shot fell at his feet with an open goal six yards out but he blazed it over.

The second half started with a fine display of authoritative stewarding.  With more fans now in the seats again they denied anyone having access to the empty areas.  Also they persisted in getting the front dozen rows to sit down, but left the remaining rows standing up.  Of course when one of the portly chaps fell throw a gate around the edge of the pitch nobody laughed.

Brighton improved in the second half and it was plain to see why Barnes and Bennett are the two most talked about players.  Bennett’s movement was excellent, and it was no surprise when these two combined for the equaliser.  The Colchester keeper had made a couple of excellent saves prior to the goal and had no chance when Barnes volleyed in at the near post from an excellent cross by Bennett.  The away side then took the game to Colchester.  Danny was sweating, and not just from the temperature (which apparently was “Hotter than Greece”) but because he has a small wager on there being more than 2 goals (or actually 2.5 goals – quite how someone can score 2.2 goals is a mystery to me).  But it was not to be.  Wood’s header from close range was the last action of a much better second half and honours were shared.

More pictures from the game can be found here.

We hotfooted it back to the car like Mercury and Eros from aforementioned chilly Greece and pointed the car Northwards to Suffolk.

AFC Sudbury 2 Needham Market 2 – King’s Marsh – Monday 25th April 2011 3pm
Some twelve miles and 33 minutes later we ignored the sign for the sewage farm and drove down a narrow country lane to AFC Sudbury’s King’s Marsh ground.  The home of Gainsborough and Constable, Sudbury is as quaint as a small market town could be with thatched cottages, Britain in Bloom signs and cricket being played on the green. Parking on a roped off field gave us the impression it was a Summer Fete or Garden Party and as if the club were waiting for the appearance of “Two World Famous Bloggers” (Not my words, but those of Charlie Dobres at Lewes FC), the teams emerged just as we did from the strange conservatory which acted as the turnstiles.

To say the Ryman League One South has been a two horse race this season is a bit of an understatement. Since prior to Christmas the top of the table has been all about East Thurrock United and Needham Market.  Three weeks ago they passed the point where they could be caught by anyone else.

Needham Market are following in the footsteps of Lowestoft Town and Bury Town in strengthening the position of Non League football in East Anglia.  Last season they won the Eastern Counties League, gaining promotion to the Ryman League structure for the first time.  Fortunately they had already invested in their ground to satisfy the beauocrates of the League and this season they have continued this momentum. This season it has been about the goals of Craig Parker and Sam Newson who have 48 league goals between them, nearly 60% of the team’s total for the season.

This route will be familiar to AFC Sudbury fans.  They have won the Eastern Counties five years in a row before at last the powers that be deemed their ground could cope with an extra dozen or so fans.  They also got to three consecutive FA Vase finals during their league domination, although they lost all three.  This time last year they were floundering in the Southern League Midland division, travelling to places like Aylesbury, Rugby and Atherstone Town.  A year down the line after moving into the Ryman League they have had a much better season again thanks to the goals of James David Baxter who has weighed in with 22 so far this season.

The club has invested its money wisely in facilities.  With a nice size bar, function rooms, its own air raid siren (more of that later), very good food and drink and signs for just about everything it was the perfect setting.  And the game?  Well we couldn’t complain.

AFC Sudbury raced into a two goal lead against the run of play.  First Jack Wignall headed home through a crowd of players before a minute later James Baker did his reputation no harm with a fantastic header into the bottom corner and a superb run up field by Sudbury’s left back.  Two nil at such an early stage was harsh but the Needham fans rallied their team and for the remainder of the half they tried any which way to break through the home defence.

After a quick refreshment top up (a £1 for a pie!!!), it was back into the action.  Sudbury knew that anything but a win would end their season, whilst Needham had little to play for apart from Suffolk bragging rights.  And what better way to rally your team than a good old fashion air raid siren.  Dug out from a long lost cupboard in the ground and still sporting its “Property of the Home Office” sticker, it was being used in the second half to “wind up” the away fans.  It didn’t work as Needham eventually found their feet and thanks to some bizarre refereeing found themselves back in the game when our friend in black awarded a controversial penalty to the visitors.  Two – one and the away fans went into choruses of “Danny Last’s Red and White army” (well, that is if you believe Mr Last’s version anyway). And just as we saw in the first half Needham followed this one up with another less than sixty seconds later.

With scores elsewhere filtering through on the terrace trannies (How times have changed – this now means something completely different), Sudbury knew that they needed to score a winner.  But that goal didn’t come, and it was the away fans who celebrated the “moral” victory and left Sudbury heartbroken for another season.

The official crowd of 512 made it the joint highest in the division for the season (ironically with another home gate at Sudbury) and it was great to see so many families enjoying the game and facilities.

I am not going to mention events some 120 miles south of here.  That is for another day and another post.  For now it was back in the car and a trip back to the Capital of Cool (aka Copenhagen) for me.

We came, we saw, we ate a rather nice chicken burger with lettuce and we drank cider.  That is all I am saying.

More pictures can be found here.