Northern roadtrip – Day 5 – El Grande Islande Paradiso Classico

I am a very goal driven person.  I religiously write down what I want to achieve in my little black book that I carry around, making sure that my objectives are SMART (an acronym familiar to those who have gone through formal management and leadership training) and that I regularly review them.  They are split into personal, work and of course football.  You see I see football as part work part personal so it is only fair I have a category especially for it.

My broad football aims this season were based around Non League football.  Sure, I still had a “commitment” to the 92 Club in terms of new grounds at Morecambe and Chesterfield but they would be for later in the season.  Winter in Morecambe is not the most hospitable places as I remember from two years ago when we saw Luton Town there.  But I wanted to “tick off” the Blue Square Premier, South and then venture down into the heart of Non League football in the South – The Ryman League.

Cliff gives us to the tour

Slowly but surely I had visited grounds on my travels this season and commenced the “plan of attack” on a lovely hot day in July at Canvey Island.  Having never been on the “Island” before, Danny and I couldn’t resist a little peak into their neighbours, Concord Rangers ground.  We drove down a road that Terry and June would have been proud to have called “Chez nous” before a set of floodlights popped up like one of those houses that wants to receive every TV channel in the world with a huge aerial.  We had a wander around, peering over the wall before a chap armed with a circular saw asked if he could “help us”.  This man was Cliff Larkin, and he genuinely wanted to help up.  Cliff is the Chairman’s brother-in-law as well as being hugely proud of what this little club had achieved and recanted the tail to us like Peter Ustinov would have done on Jackanory. Continue reading

On the fifth day of Christmas – the best new ground

On the Fifth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me….a trio of new grounds to see

Hands up who isn’t excited by visiting a new ground? Not a brand new ground necessarily but one that you have never been to before. It’s that sense of excitement that it will be in some way different from all the rest you have seen in your life. Some grounds simply ouse excitement due to their location, some because of their design and some because of the atmosphere. In the past twelve months we have visited over 50 new grounds, some of which are forgettably familiar (sorry FC Midtjylland and Farnborough Town), some of which are as basic as basic can be (Whitehawk, Bethnal Green United and Llanelli) and some are full of character (Whitstable Town, SV Spakenbrug and Neath’s The Gnoll). But we have picked three of our “newbies” that just tick more boxes than most. God rest me merry gentlemen for the three Best New Grounds on 2010.

Ethnikos Asteras FC– Fancy watching a game carved into a hillside? Many point to Braga’s fantastic stadium in Portugal where one end is simply a sheer rock face, but it wasn’t the original rock-blasted ground. Second division Ethnikos Asteras’s Kessariani Municipal Stadium, located on the eastern outskirts of Athens sits high above the city but instead of having four stands, it has just three, with the rock face adding to the acoustics of the stadium. And that is not the only reason to visit the Kessariani. The club has a very welcoming supporters bar full of fans who are happy to share a beer with you and talk football. The stands are set above the playing surface meaning that everyone gets a good view of the action.  For more details on our visit click here.

Canvey Island – I am sure that in the middle of winter when the wind whips in from the adjacent Thames Estuary a place on the high terrace is probably not on many people’s lists of places to watch football, but our visit in July for the friendly versus FC Twente on a scorching hot day was almost idyllic. The sky was filled with fluffy clouds against a backdrop of serious blue, the view of ships going up and down the river was spellbinding and the club bar was as welcoming as could be. Add in some excellent football on the pitch from Dutch Eredivisie champions FC Twente you get the impression it was a cracking day out. Throw in a visit to the world famous Lobster Smack pub, a 20 minute walk along the sea wall and you can stick your San Siro and Camp Nou – give me Canvey any day.  For more details on our trip there in August click here.

Spartak Trnava – Football in Eastern Europe can be a bit mental. The fans are passionate, although in most cases volumes are a bit on the low side. However, a visit to Trnava, the seventh biggest city in Slovakia will see you right. Spartak’s ground is classic old school. A huge terrace behind the goal is dominated by the fanatical Spartak fans who do not give up their vocal and pyrotechnic support of their team throughout the 90 minutes. Two seated stands on either side of the pitch provide cover and the far end is another terrace. This is what football used to be like thirty years ago, with the floodlights leaning in to get a view of what is going on. Absolutely top notch.  For more details of our trip to Trnava click here.

Down by the Jetty

Some 30 miles from the centre of London in an easterly direction you will find Vange Creek which separates mainland Essex to the alluvial island known as Canvey Island. Formed from silt in the Holocene period on a bed of old red sandstone the island actually sits below the mean sea level meaning that it is highly vulnerable to flooding (look who got an A in O-Level Geography). Canvey Island today sits almost like its own little community, facing the Isle of Sheppy across the water, and just downstream from the Oil refineries of Isle of Grain. Hardly the best panorama in the world, but who cares. Any place that has a 17th century pub featured in Great Expectations called the Lobster Smack is good in my books,  which we of course decided to visit in the course of our research and found a jolly decent place, although the website did give it a Waetherspoons feel (“We sell wine!”) which it certainly isn’t. Continue reading

One more step….

A proud club

The next few weeks could be pivotal moments in the history of Kentish football.  For far too long Gillingham have held the monopoly as Kent’s only league team but that could soon change.  Whilst Ebbsfleet fight with relegation after the glory years of the ownership fade away there could be a challenge both from Dover Athletic who are poised for a play off spot to reach the Blue Square Conference after a long absence, as well as from Dartford who are just one game away from promotion to the Blue Square South.  Of course it is more than possible that Dartford may find themselves next season with local derbies against Ebbsfleet (should they be relegated) and Dover (if they fail to progress in the play offs).  Good times indeed.

The Fuller family have a long tradition of supporting Dartford as a second/third team.  As part of an article I have been researching about “My first game” my brother regaled me of a couple of classic stories from the early 1970’s when Dartford were in their golden period, including the club’s one and only visit to Wembley in 1974 for the FA Trophy final where they lost 2-1 to Morecambe. They also won the Southern League in that season which entitled them to apply for a place in the Football League, but with so many other clubs ambitions under the old “re-election” system they did not get enough votes for promotion.

It's all about the history

The following season they played a strong Wimbledon team in the Southern League which included Dickie Guy in goal (who was later to find fame in saving a penalty in a cup game versus Leeds United) and a certain Dave “Harry” Bassett who was sent off in a 2-0 defeat.  So what was special about this?  Well it was the club’s third game in four days over the Easter period!  The following season the club reached the first round of the FA Cup and lost narrowly at Watling Street to Plymouth Argyle.  However one story that he remembers from the season was a game versus Grantham Town when fed up with the stick he was getting from a particular home fan, the away goalkeeper hurdled the fence around the pitch and chased the fan into the car park, whilst the game carried on for a couple of minutes in his absence.

Princes Park

The decline of the club in the 1990’s has been documented in detail elsewhere and the part played by Maidstone United’s move into Dartford’s Watling Street ground. But after a significant period in the wilderness, sharing grounds with Erith & Belvedere (technically sharing with Welling United), Purfleet (now Thurrock) and Ebbsfleet (or Gravesend & Northfleet as it should be known) they returned to a new purpose built state of the art stadium in the town in 2006.  The ground has won a number of awards for its futuristic design and use of “green” methodologies – in fact fashion designer Wayne Hemmingway once described the stadium as “the best in the country”.

So after a steady rise up the lower non-leagues the club finished 8th last season in the Ryman’s League Premier.  However, this season things could not have been better for the most part.  They climbed to the top of the table after the second game of the season and have stayed their ever since.  Apart from a little wobble post Christmas their form has been imperious and promotion as champions was odds on.  They are without doubt the biggest team in the division, and will also make a serious challenge next year in the Blue Square South both on and off the pitch.

We had been down to Princes Park before, in March 2007 just a few months after the stadium opened when they beat Croydon Athletic 3-0 in front of a few hundred.  But after the annual TBIR garden spring clean (which included breaking a £500 lawn mower) I was given permission to head off to their game with Canvey Island for being such a good boy.

At exactly 10 miles from TBIR and just 17 minutes down the road it was one of the easier grounds to get to, and after leaving home at 2.15pm I was in the bar enjoying a cold pint less than half an hour later.

Dartford 2 Canvey Island 1 – Princes Park – Monday 5th April 2010

A different view of the game

With the sun shining at last the locals had come out in force and took their place behind the Canvey goal but it was the away fans who made the most noise early on, spurred on by some indecision in the Dartford defence.  It is often the case that teams who for so long have dominated the league start to doubt their own ability with the finishing line in sight and this was the case for long periods in this game.

1-0 Canvey

And consequently it did not come as a surprise when Canvey took the lead from such indecision when Greg Cohen smashed the ball home after the Dartford Keeper, Andrew Young had failed to clear the danger.  The away fans (of which there was no more than 20) when wild…”We’re going to win the league”, “You only came to watch the Canvey” and my favourite “Sh1t ground, no fans”.

As the half progressed the referee Mr Harris seemed to want to get involved more and more in the game – but not in a proactive way.  He showed little consistency, seeming to give every decision to the away team in a tetchy first half.  Canvey played a flat back line with an offside trap which whilst effective was crap to watch.  My view is that the offside law should be scrapped at this level to make games more entertaining.

In my day this used to be a rubbish tip

Half time came and Dartford trudged off with a need of an injection of confidence.  Manager (and Director) Tony Burman made some changes bringing on Rob Haworth who was soon booked for “persistent fouling” which was impressive considering it was his first challenge!  Dartford continued to struggle until the 68th minute when Danny Dafter (name of the day, closely followed by Canvey’s Gabriel Fanibuyan) was allowed to run unchallenged through the Canvey defence before his pass found Danny Harris and is miss hit shot fooled the keeper and the ball rolled into the net.  Game on!

With news filtering through that Kingstonians and Sutton United losing, Dartford sensed blood and went for the kill, finally starting to put the Canvey defence under pressure, and with 12 minutes to go Ryan Hayes crossed to the back post and Elliot Bradbrook stormed in to head home.

Politics at football - the new battleground

The home fans, of which the 1,319 was bigger than every game bar one in the Blue Square South and North, and bigger than three games in the Blue Square Premier including local rivals Ebbsfleet United. They left licking their lips at the prospect of promotion with a win away to second placed Kingstonians in a few days time.  Welcome back Dartford!

For more photos from the game click here.

About Princes Park
Construction work began on 14 November, 2005 of the new stadium. Designed by Alexander Sedgley architects, the stadium has a capacity of 4,100 (642 seated), and has been described as one of the most ecologically sound ever built. The pitch level is sunk two meters below the external ground level to reduce noise and light pollution. It is estimated to have cost around £7 million. The stadium was opened on 11 November 2006 when Dartford FC, who had been without a home ground in the borough since 1992, beat Horsham YMCA 4-2 in an Isthmian League Division One South league fixture, in front of a capacity 4,097 crowd.

The environmental aspects of the stadium include – The stadium roof has a sedum roof blanket, a living roof that provides a natural air filtration system. solar panels on the roof serve the community changing areas and public toilets hot water storage cylinders. The roof is supported by treated Glulam timber beams. Water recycling system which serves the toilets within the clubhouse. Rain water is collected in the two large ponds at the north end of the stadium grounds. Underfloor heating on both levels of the clubhouse. Low energy lighting. Increased fabric insulation to give the clubhouse better thermal retention and efficiency. Condensing boilers to provide a more energy efficient system. Also excavated earth was reused for landscaping the external courtyard areas around the stadium.

The club has an excellent sized bar which overlooks the pitch and has a couple of huge TV’s that show live football.  On the opposite side is the unique five and a half metre Wooden Man, aka Dartford’s biggest fan.

How to get to Princes Park
The stadium is located close to Dartford town centre and the M25 motorway junction 2.  At the roundabout with the A2 take the Dartford town centre exit.  At the next roundabout take first left and straight over next roundabout.  The ground is on your left hand side as you go down the hill.

Princes Park is also served by a dedicated “Fastrack” bus stop which runs from the railway station to Bluewater shopping centre. The use of public transport for travel to the stadium is encouraged, although there is a dedicated car park with spaces for up to 300 vehicles. Vehicle access is via Grassbanks, a new road named by the winner of a local newspaper competition. On non-matchdays, this is available for use as a “park and ride” station for users of the Fastrack bus service. Alternatively the stadium is a 15 minute walk from the station via Central Park or Darenth Road which is the first road on your right as you climb the hill out of the town centre (next to the Malt Shovel pub).

Getting a ticket for Princes Park
£10 for Adults, £5 for concessions and £1 for children is all that it costs to enter the ground.  The stadium holds over 4,000 and it is only the pre-season games against the likes of Millwall that have sold out, although expect potential bumper grounds against the likes of Ebbsfleet United if they end up meeting next season in Blue Square South.

Kevin Toms is my hero

Once upon a time a man called Kevin Toms.  Some of you (probably those over the age of 35) will have known his product very well indeed.  To others the name will mean nothing, but I bet if you a) Own a PC, PSP, Playstation, X-Box or Wii, b) Love football and c) Do not have a demanding wife/partner you will have heard of Championship Manager.  Probably only rivalled by as the most fun you can have on your own with a PC, Championship Manager gives us all an opportunity to be Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho or Gianfranco Zola (unfortunately the “alleged” nocturnal activities of a certain Portsmouth manager cannot be re-created in the current versions of the game), starting with the lowest of the lows and rising to the top.  My record was taking Grays Athletic to the Champions League final in my 27 year managerial history on the game.

So who is this Kevin, and what relevance does it have on today’s post?  Well, Kevin Tombs developed the first every football manager simulation game for the ZX Spectrums back in the very early 1980’s.  In the game everyone the opportunity to manager a team, and watch the game unfold in pure two dimensional unadulted by advertising green graphics.  Want to see what kept us in our bedrooms for so long at the time without a staple through their naval? Well you can still play a version of the game by clicking here.

So where am I going with this one?  Simple – Aveley.  Who or where you may ask!  Aveley is essentially a large town, or small village just the other side of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge.  Heard of Thurrock?  Well its near there.  It is in fact about a mile and a half from the home of Thurrock FC, although technically they actually play in Purfleet. Aveley FC are in the Isthmian Premier League, one level below the Blue Square North/South or “Step 3” for those like me in the know.  And tonight Matthew they were playing in the Isthmian Cup, aka The Championship Manager Cup, at the quarter final stage no less against another team from the Essex bordering Thames Estuary, Canvey Island.

Aveley FC, or the “Millers” have been playing at this level since 1973 when they were first elected to the Isthmian league.  They had bounced up and down the various levels but could point to the fact that they were Rymans League 1 North champions last season to get into the Premier League where they had more than held their own this season.  They actually won the title in dramatic circumstances, beating champions elect East Thurrock United 3-2 on the last day.  But this was cup football, and the form book could go out of the window.  The Millers had actually won this competition before, some twenty years ago when it was known as the AC Delco Cup when they beat St Albans City 3-0.  There was also the small issue of a FA Cup qualifying round defeat to Canvey Island from 2002 to avenge, and avenge they planned to do.

So why such excitement about a Monday night game in tidal Essex?  Well, for one it was a rare midweek outing for me which was actually on! And that despite the Fuller 5 A Side Arena (aka the back garden) still being under inches of water, and secondly because you rarely get an opportunity to turn up at a game with your Playstation controller to influence the game – or that is what I thought we were supposed to do and told Dagenham Dan to bring his along too.

Lolly, our official photographer was also allowed a night off from her 11+ revision, making the TBIR party a significant proportion of the attendance.  Well, based on the previous round when the local derby with AFC Hornchurch had attracted just 104 then we wouldn’t be too far from the truth.  The Isthmian league had been decimated by the weather since Christmas and many teams had lost five or six games due to postponements so you could see why this cup is a bit of a distraction – in fact in the previous round Concord Rangers and Tonbridge had failed to fulfil their fixtures for various reasons.  But this was a local derby and passions would be at the fore right?

Aveley  2  Canvey Island 1 – The Mill Field – Monday 1st March 2010
Signs were good when we turned up.  The car park was full and the pot hole filled access road lined with cars.  Perhaps we had vastly underestimated the lure of this game.  We paid our £10 for entry and a programme and was amazed to see that the crowd consisted of us and three others.  We headed for the tea bar – a magnificent structure in the corner of the ground complete with a retro neon sign and a theme park style queueing system.  They were rushed off their feet but not by us, but by the massed crowds of females in the adjacent hall.  Stripper night?  No better than that – for this is Essex.  It was “dancing around your handbag” lessons! (only joking!  The room was packed though).

The Dagenham crew arrives and immediately doubled the attendance and we secured a spot in front of the main stand.  A late rush of spectators took the attendance up past the fifty mark, but still in the “safe” area of my bet with Dan with was “less than 73”.  The ground is a really strange affair.  I know this is only Rymans League, and this is the highest level the club have played at, but it appears to have shrunk over the years.  On the far side, beyond the Rymans Stand (Scaffolding and tin roof with a Rymans sign on) is another football pitch size bit of land sitting within the grounds outer wall.  At the north end there is another large track of land, and the pitch itself is flanked by yards of empty grass.  Why not move the boundary walls in then?  or does the ground double up as the home of the Essex Knights Polo team in the Summer?

The game was due to be played to a finish, although with the temperature dropping most of us hoped that extra time and penalties would not be needed.  Aveley lined up with Junior Dadson in the starting line up, and an A Daddy on the bench – quite a fatherly duo if ever I saw one.  And Canvey had their own JEDward and Jon Edwards probably heard that for the first time.

The first half was dominated by the signing efforts of the Aveley Crew in the main stand, rolling out their song book including a version of Bubbles which had the line “Just like Thurrock, they fade and die”.  Classic stuff but they soon grew tired of not getting a response from the Canvey Island seven behind the goal and disappeared off to the waste land behind the north end for a game of footie themselves.

The match was a hard fought affair, and right up until the 88th minute seemed destined for extra time which I do not think anyone in the ground wanted.  Alls well that ends well as through Lolly and Liam’s controllers they orchestrated a winner as Sherwin Stanley scored the goal that sent the home team through, and the crowd home to their warm cars.

A far better match report than my two paragraphs can be found by Billy Shaw at the excellent Non League News site here.

So Aveley became the first team to reach the semi-finals.  They would have to wait a week or two before the full line up was known, but with most of the Ryman’s Premier teams already out they must fancy their chances of winning the cup for a second time.

A fifteen minute drive home ensued and before the clock struck ten I was tucked up in bed with CMF, who was having the most amount of fun you could have with a pc on your own in a bedroom.  While the cat’s away and all that!

About The Mill Field
For those of you who love the bygone era of old football stadiums then you will love the panorama of the ground when you stand on the east side of the ground.  The old main stand (not that there is a new one, it is just old), sits high on the terrace, with a fenced off paddock in front and has smart blue seats with AFC in white picked out.  Views are good from here.  As for the rest of the ground it is pretty basic to say the least.  two steps of terrace around the rest, with a small scaffolding constructed cover on the far side (The Rymans stand).  Behind the north goal it appears that construction has started on a very small permanent structure.  What is apparent though is the size of the ground – there is masses of room behind the east and north stands, and the pitch itself is set back by 10 yards on both sides from the crowd hardly adding any atmosphere to proceedings.
How to get to Mill Field
From A13: Follow A13 until junction with A1306. Turn left (Rainham / Wennington) then immediately turn right into Sandy Lane (B1335) to Aveley. At next roundabout turn right into Mill Road, the entrance to the ground is 300 yards on the left (after St. Paul’s Close).

From M25, Northbound (anti-clockwise) Exit Motorway at Junction 31 (A1306, first junction from Dartford Tunnel). At the roundabout follow the directions for the Aveley turn off and head up Ship Lane. At the mini-roundabout (High Street) turn left. At the next mini-roundabout turn right into Mill Road. The entrance to the ground is 600 yards on the right (after St. Michael’s Close).

From M25, Southbound (clockwise) Exit at Junction 30 and turn right (A13 London). At the next junction (A1306) follow signs to Rainham / Wennington. Then turn immediately right into Sandy Lane (B1335) to Aveley. At next roundabout turn right into Mill Road, the entrance to the ground is 300 yards on the left (after St. Paul’s Close).  There is a car park at the ground although its not very big.  There is plenty of room in the surrounding roads though.

Bus 372 passes the ground. The 372 service runs from Hornchurch to Lakeside. A rail connection with this bus is available at Elm Park (District Line), the journey time is 19 minutes to Aveley. You can also pick up the 372 from RAINHAM Station (c2c LONDON FENCHURCH STREET (dep xx05 & xx35) to GRAYS).

Google Maps reference

Getting a ticket for Mill Field
Despite the small capacity for Mill Field, 99% of games are pay on the door.  It is £9 for Adults, £1 for children and programmes are a £1.  Once inside you can use the fantastic tea bar with its neon sign and theme park style queuing system.  The bar is actually located outside the turnstiles though.