Every year, like quite a few football fans I vow to start a “road to Wembley” and follow a team all the way from the opening qualifying rounds up until the final. And of course like most other people I find better things to do with my weekends. However, with West Ham not playing until Sunday I had a free Saturday, and with CMF wanting to start from Christmas shopping I scanned the fixtures looking for a local game. And there it was in all of its perfection. Just 3 miles from the retail cathedral of Lakeside was the Blue Square Premier club Grays Athletic, at home in the FA Cup final qualifying tie against FC Totton.
The New Recreation Ground is another one of those grounds like Aldershot Town where I had never seen a game, yet had played there on a number of occasions in my years at East Thurrock United. It is a real old fashioned ground, almost hidden from the streets outside. It has been developed over the past few years to comply with Football League standards, and now boasts a small covered stand with 5 rows of seating, running the whole length of the pitch and the glories of the VIP Seating stand which was basically a cover over 2 rows of seats on the far side of the pitch. Overlooking the stadium were some executive flats with balconies where a few people had taken a plastic picnic chairs out for a perfect view of the action. As part of the deal to develop the land for the flats, the builders had to construct some new dressing rooms and so the teams now emerge from a converted living room directly onto the pitch – no fancy tunnels here.
Grays had not had the best start to the season. Their league form had seem them fall into the bottom three of the Conference as they simply lost the ability to score goals. The past few seasons had been the stuff that dreams had been made of. They had played in the lower Southern Leagues (The Isthmian League) until 2004 when the Non-League Pyramid was re-structured and they became founder members of the Conference South.
In that first season they stormed the league and were crowned Champions long before the end of the campaign. They also made it through to the final of the FA Trophy in May 2005 where they beat Hucknall Town at Villa Park on penalties. Just to show that this was no fluke they carried on the form under Mark Stimson in the Conference Premier where they remained unbeaten for the first fifteen games in the season, topping the table well into November. Unfortunately they were competing against local rivals Dagenham and Redbridge who always stayed on step ahead and eventually the club finished in third place and then surprisingly lost the play off semi final to Halifax Town.
However, they did have some cheer as they qualified again for the FA Trophy final, this time played locally at West Ham’s home at Upton Park. Again they showed their metal for the big games by beating Woking 2-0 in front of a crowd of 13,800.
The last few seasons have seen a number of managers coming and going at the club as the team’s performance on the pitch deteriorated and they set an unwanted record of fielding over 50 players in the 2006/07 season under 4 managers as they avoided relegation by just a few points. Last season wasn’t much better for the club and so it is no surprise on the form this season under Wayne Burnett.
Visitors FC Totton had also had a good few years. Only formed in 1975 they were founding members of the Wessex League and were promoted up to the Southern League as champions last season. They also won the FA Vase in 2007 when they beat Truro City at Wembley in front of 36,232.
So after negotiating the very confusing one way system, and avoiding the temptations of signs of Grays Beach (sounds as good as it looks – make your own mind up at http://wikimapia.org/#lat=51.4682316&lon=0.3311884&z=16&l=0&m=a&v=2&search=grays). We went into the club shop and whilst it wasn’t exactly well stocked it was really good to see that they were trying to provide value for fans. Many clubs continue to charge top prices for last season’s kit but Grays sensibly charged £5 for shirts and with a little persuasion Lolly soon had her first ever Grays Athletic shirt – a momentus moment in any person’s life. At £13 for me, and £4 for Lolly is was also good value and sensible pricing.
Grays Athletic 2 FC Totton 0 – The New Recreation Ground – Saturday 25th October 2008
We wandered around the terrace at the south end of the ground and took a seat in the shallow stand. The teams soon emerged from the living room opposite, and I would suggest that this is the only ground in the top five divisions that does not have a tunnel. FC Totton looked very smart in their salmon pink shirts and started the more purposeful, making a mockery of their relative position.
After ten minutes we were joined in the seats behind by a non-league WAG and her mother. For the next thirty minutes we were subject to a dialogue of so much tripe it was unbelievable. “My Barry” could do no wrong. Every missed pass or lost ball would be blamed on a team mate, and every attack that did not see the ball head off to him would be deemed as stupid. The classic moment came just before the drab goal less half came to an end when she said “I know I am not manager but if I was I’d make my Barry captain so he could take all of the free kicks”. Stick to the shopping darling and stop embarrassing your boyfriend / husband.
The second half didn’t fair much better until Grays took the lead thanks to an excellent strike from just inside the penalty area from Elliott after Totton had failed to clear a corner. We headed off with a few minutes to go, and unfortunately missed what would have been the high point of the day as Grays 2nd goal was scored from the penalty spot by none other than “Our Barry” in the 88th minute. It would have been pure comedy to see the reaction from WAG and co.
So Grays go into the 1st Round Draw and the hope of a big gun such as Leeds United, Leicester City or even a chance to renew acquaintance with local rivals Dagenham and Redbridge or Southend United.
POSTSCRIPT – SUNDAY 26th OCTOBER 1.17PM
So after the 1st round draw my idea of following a club all the way comes to a crushing end as Grays could not have been drawn further away – Carlisle United AWAY! At least Bazza might get 90 minutes peace and quite! I think I’ll turn my attentions to local neighbours Hornchurch at home to Peterborough United!
About the New Recreation Ground
The New Recreation Ground is not new at all. It has actually been home to Grays for over a hundred years, although it has been redeveloped a number of times since. Whilst the capacity today is 4,500, the record attendance is over 9,500 for an FA Cup tie with Chelmsford City. It is a miss mash of different stands with one relatively new 5 row covered stand that runs along the west side of the stadium. Behind the south goal is the covered indoor pitch and in front of that is five or so rows of terrace. The away end is an open terrace that covers 50% of the north end, and along the east side is a couple of shallow terraces and the infamous VIP stand.
Recent residential developments overlook the ground, with balconies providing flat owners the chance to watch the game for free.
How to Get There?
If you can negotiate the very confusing one way system in Grays town centre then follow signs for “The Beach” around the Morrisons roundabout and take a left into Clarence Road. At the roundabout at the end turn right into Bridge Road. You can then park anywhere in this area. If you are coming by train then Grays station is a 5 minute walk away. Simply turn right out of the station and follow Crown Road under the bridge and around the corner. Then take a right into Clarence Road.
How to Get A Ticket?
With a capacity of 4,500 and average attendances hardly ever breaking the four figure mark, tickets for all games are available on the day from the ticket portakabin on Bridge Road. Ticket prices are £13 for Adults and £3 for Children. This allows you to either stand on the open terrace at the south end of the stadium, or take a seat in the covered west stand.