A Gray day I could Ilford to miss

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.

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One thought on “A Gray day I could Ilford to miss

  1. Thanks Stuart. Enjoyed the vivid picture of poor v rich, scrub v splendour and tinpot v gold (ahem). But most of all appreciated that someone else out there is actually sounding the ‘Oh Crap!’ Klaxon for non-league football. We can of course bang on about the army of dodgy geezers infecting NL board rooms up and down the country, but with my own team Weymouth FC currently charging £11 to watch a level of football not too far above Sunday morning pub league, I really do wonder how even a traditionally well supported club like the Terras can a) attract anything other than a die-hard audience, and b) actually afford to pay players and staff a salary. As you say in your post, the numbers just don’t add up.
    Surely it’s time to look at how clubs attracting a couple of old blokes and a dog can possibly afford to even consider paying players and coaches beyond reimbursement and a few beers. You rightly mention poor customer experience* as another critical blow to NL attendances, but from my (brief) experience in the board room, even small staff wages cost big, big money when turnstiles, local sponsorship and the club bar are the main income streams and the telly is chock full of wall-to-wall superstar action pumped live and direct to a sofa near you.
    And … No, that’s enough I think. But thanks again.

    * Have to say The Dripping Pan is a notable exception!

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