Non League Club

Maldon and Tiptree Assalted by Jammy Motormen

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on January 27, 2013

Headlines should tell a story, but be cunningly cryptic to entice the reader in for more.  Today I had so much to play with, especially as the result was a foregone conclusion.  But this is the game we all love so much for its unpredictability so I had to rethink.  Therefore before we start I thought I would explain what my title actually means:-

8417916964_cde8056997_b“Maldon and Tiptree” – home team
“Assalted” – not a misspelling but a pun on the fact that Maldon is famous for its sea salt production
“by” – preposition meaning near to or through a medium
“Jammy” – a pun on the fact that Tiptree is globally famous for its jam still manufactured today by J Wilkins & Sons
“Motormen” – nickname of the away team Redbridge FC

So there we have the full explanation, you can read on.

With the cold snap giving way to rapid melting, for what seems like the millionth weekend in a row, the Non League football calendar was decimated once again.  Many games hadn’t even made it to Saturday and by lunchtime my options were being decreased by the minute.  However, my first option (after Lewes’s inevitable postponement away to snowy Wingate & Finchley) was still on, and on without a pitch inspection planned.  I was off to the deepest corner of Essex to the home of salt and jam.  Welcome to Maldon and Tiptree.

The two towns aren’t really next to each other.  In fact Maldon and Heybridge are neighbours, divided by Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, one of the closest rivalries in the Isthmian league.  But Maldon Town and Tiptree United decided to join forces instead back in 2009 through the vision of the Tiptree Chairman who saw an opportunity to be THE premier footballing team in the South-Western Chelmsford area.  Who said football chairman were power-hungry meglomaniacs?

8417916964_cde8056997_bAfter seasons of mid-table performances in the Isthmian league, this year saw the start of something special.  The Blues started the season with a bang of gigantic proportions.  After draws in two of their first three league games, they went on a winning run of fourteen consecutive Ryman League matches.  Their run was only ended in the Boxing Day derby at Heybridge when they suffered their first defeat of the season, and indeed was the first time they had failed to score a goal in ninety minutes.  The league title still seemed all but wrapped up.  And then for some unknown reason they took the effect of the defeat into the New Year.  An unconvincing 3-0 win away at bottom of the table Ilford was followed up by a nil nil draw to Waltham Abbey, the first points the team had dropped at home all season.  Surely lightning wouldn’t strike twice with the visit of Redbridge, themselves desperately trying to stay out of the relegation zone?  The stats suggested a banker home win.  Maldon & Tiptree were a mere 47 points above their visitors, with a goal difference of 90 between the two.

In the run up to the game, Maldon & Tiptree had strengthened their squad with the signing of Lee Boylan.  Anyone who knows anything about Non League football will know the name.  Lee started off at West Ham, playing in the same youth team squad as Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.  I remember seeing him terrorise Liverpool in the 1996 Youth Cup final at Anfield which included the likes of Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard for the home side.  Once released by West Ham he gravitated to the local non leagues, scoring goals for fun including 148 in 178 games for Canvey Island.  Whilst coming to the end of a “what might have been” career, he was a great addition for the club and his goals would undoubtedly help them get back on track.

On the other side of the pitch would be a player who was an even bigger name in non league scoring circles.  Redbridge’s manager these days is none other than Steve Portway, a man who was one of the most feared strikers in the non leagues back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  We were lucky to interview Steve a few years ago about his record-breaking scoring at Gravesend & Northfleet (read all about it here, as Emeli Sandé would say) but he still hadn’t hung his boots up just yet as in recent weeks he had been called upon to play, even starting in the game a few weeks ago against Waltham Forest despite the fact he was now 50 years old.  Now that is what Non League football is all about!

8417004685_1a96f73aeb_bI arrived early, just in case any snow moving was required, but it seems all the hard work had been done so I headed for the bar.  ITV were showing the Stoke City v Man City game live.  It had also been on BBC 5 Live and Talksport, complete overkill but something that we have come to expect these days.  I mean there was only a small matter of Non League v Premier League in two other FA Cup ties.  I took up a place at the bar and was soon joined by a chap in a vest and shorts.  Whilst it was warm in the bar, I felt he may have been under dressed for the occasion.  Of course, he was probably going to stay in the bar whilst the game went on, or slip into a large onesie?  Nope, at 2.55pm he wandered outside as he was, into the freezing afternoon and took his season in the stand.

Welcome to Essex.

Maldon & Tiptree 2 Redbridge 2 – Wallace Binder Ground – Saturday 26th January 2013
As the final whistle blew the Redbridge players celebrated as if they had won the cup.  This was a massive shock in terms of league position and even current form.  Whilst the home side had “wobbled” recently, they had still won 3 of their last 5 games, whilst Redbridge had managed just one win and had been thumped 11-0 at Heybridge a few weeks previous.  The away side could also only name 3 substitutes and confidence in the first half seemed to have taken the wrong turning off the A12.  But from somewhere they hauled themselves back from 2-0 down with fifteen minutes to play.  Yes, they had a slice of luck, but the home side also needed a fair portion themselves to stop Redbridge taking all three points in the end.

Maldon & Tiptree started as you would have expected in this game.  They wanted to win the game as early as possible.  They battered Redbridge in the opening exchanges, creating chance upon chance for Boylan but a combination of inspired goalkeeping and the linesman’s flag kept him out.  In the first period they hit the woodwork three times, and Redbridge took every advantage to slow the game down.  Somehow the game was scoreless at half time.

8418100532_082f9d4d78_bAfter some liquid refreshment at half time and a communal laugh at Harry Redknapp’s performance at Loftus Road, it was time for the second period.  Surely Maldon and Tiptree would now exert their superiority?  Yes, they would, although it took a controversal decision to see them take the lead.  Lee Boylan’s header was ruled to have crossed the line by a linesman.  I had been joined by Ipswich Town fan Alasdair Ross and we were pretty much level with the goal line but it didn’t look in to us.  Apparently these things even themselves up at the end of the season which is one of the biggest load of bollocks spoken in football, along with “it’s harder to play against 10 men than 11”, and “2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline in football”.  I mean, a two goal advantage, dangerous? Whatever next.

Maldon increased their lead when that man Boylan made no mistake after a neat through ball and it appeared that Redbridge’s spirit was broken.  But out of nothing with just ten minutes to play Jacob Cleaver slotted home from close range after a cross from the left wasn’t cleared.  Game on?  Surely not.  Maldon & Tiptree still looked in control and with the daylight vanishing over the lowlands of the Essex savannah they prepared themselves for one last assault to bury the game.  A backpass to keeper Joe Wright was to be launched upfield, but the ball hit a divot just as he went to kick it and it appeared to bend like a banana (it may have hit a defender bit from our distant appearance) behind him and Cleaver who had chased the ball down slotted the ball into the net.  Two-nil had indeed been the most dangerous scoreline in football for Maldon.  It could have been worse as in injury time as Cleaver nearly had a hatrick, seeing his effort tipped onto the post.

8418106766_abd0b5f848_bSo you can understand the jubilation at full time.  They came into the game with a depleted squad, already written off by everyone, fell two goals behind with just 15 minutes to play against the runaway leaders.  But spirit, resolve and a slice of luck saw them come away with a point.  Don’t you bloody love football?

I am sure the Maldon & Tiptree wobbles will be righted soon.  They had a strong looking team, and with the addition of Boylan, they will score bundles of goals.  I fully expect to see a revisit here next year when Lewes are playing.  Perhaps it could be in the Summer or Spring though when it’s not so cold, or the thawing slush doesn’t leave your feet soaking wet.  But then again, what on earth will Mr.Vest and Shorts be wearing then?  I shudder to think.

Non league legend – Steve Portway

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on December 9, 2010

As a young chap growing up in Gravesend there was little in the way to get excited about apart from a friday night fight in Kenneth Chows and a quick grope outside The Royal Victoria Shades.  However that all changed in 1992 when Gravesend & Northfleet FC signed a young chap called Steve Portway from Barking who had scored 36 the previous year.

The club had just dropped back into the Southern League.  Expectations weren’t exactly high but Portway broke every scoring record both for the club, and for the division as he netted 61 times!  In one game versus Bury Town Portway netted six times in a 7-2 win.  This was even more amazing considering that Portway also held down a full time job with Nat West Bank. Despite his goals Gravesend finished 4th in the league, thus missing out on promotion.  However, the following year they went on to take the Beazer Homes League title.  Portway went onto score 152 goals in four seasons for the club – at average of nearly 35 per season.

At the age of 42 most footballers have long called it a day. The namby pamby professionals of today will tell you that the reason they need to earn £150k per week is that it is a short career “‘innit” and they have to think about what they want to do when they retire.

Most players never work their way down the leagues, essentially playing for the love of the game. Instead they demand a testimonial and ride off into the Sandbanks sunset, making the occasional appearance on TV as a “studio expert” at a random game, showing the footballing world that they actually have no value to add as well as their poor dress sense.

Players who have spent their careers in the non leagues tend to stick around a bit longer. Football at this level is predominantly a part time career and so they do not put their bodies through training every day which whilst is beneficial at the time, takes its toll in the longer term. They also have their own jobs, ones which in some cases stop them ever going the whole hog and becoming professional.

Many people remember the urban myths in this respect about Steve. The striker was coming off another fantastic goal scoring season when Charlton Athletic came calling. What actually happened has never been understood by the fans of both clubs so we took it upon ourselves to track down Steve and ask him about his career, and the Charlton Athletic story.

We were eventually passed his number after a plea on the Steve Portway Appreciation Society Facebook pageand we gave him a call. Firstly it has to be said that we rarely speak to people who talk with such passion about the game. We only had fifteen minutes before we had to fly back to London but Steve filled that and probably could have continued for another hour. This is a man who still simply loves the game.

So Steve. Let start with your time at Gravesend & Northfleet. You were, to say it lightly, a goal machine. What was so special about the team?
We had an incredibly attacking team. Most weeks we played 4-2-4 with two wingers including Peter Coffill who could drop a ball on a sixpence and up front alongside me was Mickey Cotter. Mickey did all the hard work, rarely getting the credit he deserved. My job wasn’t all about scoring but it was the bit I will always be remembered for.

Why do you think you scored so many goals during those few seasons then?
Well apart from the support I had all around me I suppose it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. From a young age I developed a sense of anticipation. I tried to read defenders and goalkeepers so that I could second guess them. If I could second guess where a ball may end up or where a defender would try and clear the ball I could get there first and that would give me a better chance of scoring.

So, the question everyone wants to ask. Charlton Athletic. What happened?
Let me go back a bit first. I was working at NatWest at the time and enjoying my football. I was a big Spurs fan and would have walked over hot coals to play for them. I was aware that a number of clubs were watching me – in fact at one game there were scouts from over 15 clubs including one from Tottenham. I heard they were keen on me so I approached the manager and asked if I could go on trial there. The rules concerning non league contracts allowed us to play two games for another club (the dreaded “trialist” on the teamsheet) and that is what Spurs wanted me to do. However, Gravesend & Northfleet told me that they had other ideas and had actually agreed a fee (believed to be about £20,000) for me. I could see some of their logic in this – relatively local club, may build some bridges between the teams and there could even be a money spinning friendly built into a deal.

I went up to Charlton and spent two weeks with them in New Eltham, training with the first team squad and then playing in two reserve games against Palace and Chelsea. I thought I had done OK and on my last day there Keith Peacock called me over and said the Gaffers wanted to see me. I went into the office and sat down with joint managers Alan Curbishley and Steve Gritt. I was in their office for over half an hour but after I heard them say “We want to sign you” I went into a daze. They could have said anything to me and I just nodded along. Play in goal Steve, how about 50pence a week as a wage, wear a silly wig. It didn’t matter. I had just been told by a professional club that they wanted to sign me. Simple as that. It was the stuff of boyhood dreams.

I went back home and on the Sunday received a call from Keith Peacock saying they were excited about having me join. Everyone at Charlton was brilliant. However, the Gravesend board had other ideas and now wanted £100,000 for me instead of what had already been agreed. Charlton were slowly rebuilding themselves financially and weren’t prepared to take that sort of risk so the deal was dead. I was heartbroken. My dream was shattered. I found it so difficult to motivate myself to play for the club after that.

That must have been a massive kick in the teeth – especially after they also stopped you having a trial at other club. What happened next?
Well unsurprisingly it affected my form and the club could see that bridges had been burnt. So they sold me to Gloucester City for £17,500. That is the crazy thing – Charlton Athletic had offered more and the club would have probably done OK out of any spin offs yet here they were selling me to another Non League club for less money.

You picked up a really serious injury whilst you was at Gloucester City. How did that impact your career?
Yes I badly damaged my eye. In fact I am permanently blind in one eye. But as I said earlier I always worked on anticipation in terms of creating chances and that didn’t change. I continued to score goals for them.

So after stints around the Non Leagues are you still playing today?
Yes. I now play for Harold Wood but in their Veterans side. I was playing for their first team up until the end of last season in the Essex Senior League but it was getting a bit too serious. I still play because I love the game. I am 42 now but still get the same thrill when I step on the pitch.

And are your still scoring for fun?
Haha…well I am still averaging a couple of goals a game, but as time has taken its toll on the knees I have become more of a provider than a scorer. I enjoyed playing in Chelmsford City’s game against the Arsenal XI in the summer and managed to find a burst of pace in the game to score.

There is now significantly more money floating around the Non Leagues today. When a small Conference side can afford to pay £275,000 for a striker from another Conference side there must be a pang of jealousy from you that you are not playing at that level today?
Too right. Clubs are also a bit more sensible these days. Transfer deals are rarely done upfront. So a £100k deal will be spread over a longer period meaning the risk to an extent is mitigated. Also loan deals are far more common these days. Still I would love to be playing at that level today.

Talking of today, what are you up to?
Well funny you say that as I am just about to go out and do some coaching! I am a qualified electrician as well as holding my coaching badges so I combine the two. I coach almost every day and still absolutely love it.

Have you never been tempted to go into management?
I’ve got a young family – three boys with the oldest just in his teens and I enjoy spending time with them so management wouldn’t really fit into that at the moment. I help out at the clubs they play for and maybe I will try my hand further up the chain but for now its coaching that takes up my time.

Finally, you must have some fantastic memories from your career. What were the high points for you?
There are two that spring to mind. Firstly walking up the steps at the old Wembley Stadium to collect a winners medal with Cheltenham Town in the FA Trophy final. Whilst the new Wembley is one of the best stadiums in the world, the old one had so many memories and as you walked up those steps all you can think of is the famous people who have gone before you to collect their medals.

Secondly it is actually a goal. It was for Gravesend against Leyton Orient in the FA Cup in 1993. The ball was sent over from the wing and I was running towards the penalty area. Most players would have tried a volley or controlled it but I threw myself headlong at the ball, connecting perfectly with a diving header that flew into the net. I was pals with the Orient keeper,  and he said to me afterwards that he simply had not expected that and that is why he simply couldn’t save it. Anticipation was the key again!

With the final call being made for our flight we had to say thanks to Steve and head off. He signed off our conversation by thanking us for the call “Its nice to reminisce once in a while”. I have a feeling that Steve has a million and one stories that would be of interest. But they will be for another day. Steve Portway, we raise a glass of Tuborg Christmas Ale in your direction as a true Non League Legend!