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.
When 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.
Alan 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”.
It 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.
The 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.