No silence of The Lamb

Two weeks is the longest I had gone without football for nearly three years. With summer leagues in the Nordics combined with major UEFA tournaments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden providing more than a few games to go to I had not been in short supply of a game or two. So since my visit to Cardiff two weeks ago I had thrown myself into my new job, and more importantly, new flat in Copenhagen. I had even chosen to avoid the “mirth” and “mayhem” in Amsterdam as 5,000 England fans with little imagination descended on one of Europe’s over rated cities for the friendly between Holland and England.

But fear not dear reader the games are coming thick and fast over the next few weeks. But first it was time for a new ground. Not just any old game either – we are talking about major league stuff here – step forward Tamworth FC and Grays Athletic. Since my last post about Grays (see “A local Team“) the club had gone through a strange few weeks. They had added to the squad (in fact bringing in 15 players in just one week including John Terry’s brother Paul and ex-Luton striker Dean Morgan), sacked their manager (their twelve in just nine seasons) and were all ready for the big kick off at home to Chester City when the FA came a-calling, demanding that the game was called off down to issues around the ownership of the Welsh/English team. So Grays got a day off, starting their campaign against Histon a few days later, gaining a very good scoreless draw.   Tamworth had also been due to play Wrexham, but like Grays their game was postponed (for the reason that the Welsh team had a number of players on International duty) as well but they had opened up with a credible draw away to Stevenage Borough.  So pretty even really.

The Little Fullers had been on their annual pilgrimage up north to their Grandparents and we had to go and pick them up before they started talking some foreign language. As luck would have it I manage to arrange a subtle detour on the way home to take in the delights of Tamworth, home of The Lamb.

Now the people of Tamworth must have some real balls. Not happy with their original ground, the Jolly Sailor ground (named after a pub and not a drunk naval character), they moved to The Lamb in 1933 and have called the stadium home since. They had won the Blue Square North league last season, coming out on top of a close bunch of teams including Alfreton Town, AFC Telford United and Gateshead. They had actually played at this level before, having completed two seasons a few years ago.  The time at the top level was eventful to say the least.  After winning the Southern League in 2003 the club found life tough in the top level of non league football.   They also reached the FA Trophy final but surprisingly lost to Burscough at Villa Park.

In early 2006, with the team struggling to retain their Conference position they stunned the football world (well in the East Midlands anyway) by announcing that they had signed Paul Merson.  Unfortunately time and years of off the field distractions had taken their toll on the ex-Arsenal player and just over a month later, and with only one appearance for the Lamb Merson announced his retirement from football.  At the end of the season the club finished in the relegation places, but Canvey Island decided to concentrate on redeveloping their caravan park and so they went down, and Tamworth stayed up.  But twelve months later they couldn’t avoid the inevitable and they were relegated to the Conference North.  Their exile lasted just twelve months as they won the league last season, not before the fans had won the prestigious “most drunk fans in non-league football” award.

With West Ham’s Premier League campaign kicking off on the other side of the West Midlands at Wolverhampton, and Kent’s crusade to be England’s number one Twenty20 side taking place in Birmingham at Edgebaston I was spoilt for choice. However, who needs Premier League or Twenty20 commercialised crap when you can have Blue Square football!

Tamworth FC 2 Grays Athletic FC 1 – The Lamb – Saturday 15th August 2009

Tamworth v Grays

Tamworth v Grays

Lolly had the option whether to come to the football or go to the cinema for this one.  She is growing up fast and faced with the opportunity to dress up and put on make up she inexplicably chose Aliens in the Attic rather than the football.  So after depositing the Fuller girls at the Odeon I walked through the maze of tunnels and found myself at The Lamb – probably the best named ground, behind the Dripping Pan, in England.  The sun was shining and I managed to have a nice pint outside the social club, located in the corner of the ground as the players warmed up.  Today’s match sponsor was the local baptist church, perhaps feeling the club needed some divine intervention.  However, the choir were here in full voice behind the dugouts and from the first whistle tried to rouse the home team.

The first ten minutes was relatively open, with Tamworth looking the most positive.  Grays looked like a team who hardly knew each other (not really surprising considering the past few weeks) but their innovation of putting the first initial as well as surname on the back of the shirts must have been designed to help them get to know their team mates.  They started with Paul Terry in centre midfield and Dean Morgan up front and it was the ex-Luton man who broke the deadlock on 14 minutes when at first he appeared to lose control of the ball, putting the Tamworth defender off guard before stabbing the ball home from 12 yards for the Essex’s teams first goal of the season.

Just over five minutes later it was 1-1 as Bradley Pritchard slotted home after Gray failed to clear a dangerous cross into the box and Slade’s “Com feel the noize” boomed out around the ground.  One became two in the 25th minute when the Grays defence seemed to go to sleep, their attention diverted by Alex Rodman wandering around the edge of the pitch holding his head and Jake Sheridan drove the ball home from the right hand side of the penalty area just inside the far post.  Grays were almost level a few minutes later as Richard Graham’s shot was cleared by Tamworth as it rolled towards an empty net, after Dean Morgan had again shown his class in the penalty area for the visitors.

Both teams made changes at the start of the second half, believing that the game was their’s for the taking.  Tamworth’s manager, the Ex-Nottingham Forest player Gary Mills, had certainly got them playing some attractive football, with passes finding feet rather than heads and some excellent overlapping from both full backs.  Some very questionable offside decisions did not endear the assistant referee to the home fans when time and time again the final forward was flagged for offside despite making his run from behind the last defender.   Grays played their part to in an entertaining game, often breaking with pace but just lacking the final ball, especially when Dean Morgan was withdrawn just before the hour mark.

The crowd behind the dugout continued their vocal support although they were along way short of the mark when they sung “No one likes us, we don’t care”.  Talk like that leads to all sorts of issues in later live, and anyway what was there not to like about a traditional Non-League ground in the summer sunshine.  It was a bit disappointing that the official attendance was just under 750 as the club seemed to have made an effort in providing a decent ground, and with things on the up on the pitch they should be rightly proud of their club.  I am sure for the bigger games such as the visit of Luton Town or Kidderminster Harriers the sizeable away support will swell the crowd, and the bar takings significantly.

Alex Rodman continued to shine for the home team, with one run in particular taking out four Grays players, and then a few minutes later a shot from 25 yards narrowly missing the net proving his emergence as a player to watch this season. Neil MacKenzie should have made the game safe for Tamworth on the 80th minute but somehow Gray’s keeper Edwards got a foot to his goalbound shot.  Grays started to lose their discipline as the game wore on and a few tackles were a bit over the top and the yellow card came out on a few occasions.

So a great start to the domestic league season.  Great little ground, friendly fans, a rare afternoon of sunshine and some decent football.  On this showing neither will challenge for the top spots in the Blue Square Premier, but likewise neither will they be fighting for survival at the end of the season – Famous last words Fuller!

About The Lamb
Although the ground is on the small side, it is well maintained and it has a certain charm about it. The Main Stand is the most recent addition to the ground, being opened in 1996. It is a tidy little all seated covered stand that straddles the halfway line of the pitch. It has a capacity of 426 seats. The other side is a small covered terrace, known by the fans as ‘The Shed’ which runs nearly the full length of the pitch. This terrace is home to the ‘The Shed Choir’ (in reference to the Tamworth fans who sing in this stand). On its roof is a television gantry, complete with a large model owl to help deter the presence of other birds.

The Castle End is an open terrace, whilst the other end is a partly covered terrace (to the rear). This end, the Meadow Street End, is given to away supporters. The pitch has a slope running up from the Castle End to the Meadow Street Terrace. The ground is overlooked in one corner by the sizeable Tamworth , this season’s shirt sponsors. It gets its unusual name from a former public house called the Lamb Inn that used to be situated near to the entrance to the club car park.

There is an excellent club bar in the corner of the ground where you can drink outside when the sun is shining, and has Sky TV.

Thanks to Duncan Adam’s and his excellent Football Grounds Guide for the above information.

How to get to The Lamb
The ground is located on the outskirts of the town centre but well placed for local amenities.  From the railway station it is a 15 minute walk.  Exit the station and walk down to the traffic island. Turn left along the dual carriageway and continue to follow it, bearing around to the left at the next roundabout, which takes you past a garage. The floodlights and the red exterior of the ground can be seen in the distance in front of you.

If you are driving you will probably come via the M42.  Exit the motorway at junction 10 and take the A5 towards Tamworth.  Follow signs for the SnowDome off the A5 – the ground is almost opposite the huge building.  You can park at the ground for £1 or street parking for free nearby.

How to get a ticket for The Lamb
With a capacity of over 4,000 and an average attendance of less than 1,000 getting into see a game isnt a hard job.  Simply pitch up before the game, pay your £12 for a place on the terrace or £14 for one of the 500 or so seats and you are in (£7 and £9 for concessions respectively).  The club occasionally give away concession tickets free of charge via schemes with local shops such as ASDA and McDonalds.  Check the official website for details of such events.

Welcome to the Pleasuredome…

 So the long wait was over.  After a long end of season break of, erm 13 days, Lolly and I were ready for action.  As luck would have it Grays and West Ham are her two favourite teams, and when I told her we would be skipping down Clarence Road to see them she could not have been happier.  Things had not gone too well for our cousins in Essex since our last visit in the FA Cup qualifiers back in October (see post here), and there was a real danger than when the squad met for pre-season training there was no more than a dozen in the squad.  ‘Our Barry’ had headed off, touted around Europe’s more cultural high spots with his girlfriend and mother-in-law.  The club itself had teetered on the brink for a few days.  They had narrowly missed relegation from the Blue Square Premier League, more to do with the poor form of Weymouth and Woking rather than their winning streak.  The club were subject to a number of take over rumours before old chairman Mick Woodward annunced at the end of June that he was stepping aside for a new board of directors headed by John Moncur.  Yep, super Johnnie Moncur the ex-West Ham midfield maestro who was once sent off in a cup tie for the Hammers against Macclesfield after getting three (yes three) yellow cards in three minutes after coming on as a sub.  Two for fouls and then one for dissent after the referee hadn’t actually realised he had already booked Moncs.  Moncur had promised to redevelop the club from the academy upwards and immediately put a notice out that the club were looking for players and invited people for trials.

I was well up for this challenge.  At 39 years old I may not be up to Premier League class but I could still do a job for a team.  Unfortunately the trials co-incided with my weekly lumbago treatment so I was ruled out for the forthcoming season.  It was hard to see how successful the idea had been.  Just two days prior to the game, the official squad consisted of just 6 players.  With the squad numbers 2 to 7, messers Haswell, McLeod, McKie, McKoy, Dos Santos and Makofo must have been struggling with plan A let alone B or C for the game against West Ham.  To add insult to injury Zola decided to rest most of the first team squad, only bringing along Kieron Dyer, James Collins, Henri Illunga and Jack Collison from the matchday team…Oh and Danny Gabbidon.  Lolly had been a West Ham fan for over 18 months, attending games regularly yet she still had no clue who he was.  Just three years ago our Danny had been voted Hammer of the Year, but since then he had played  just fifteen games, sidelined by injuries to all parts of his body.

Sunday afternoon is not exactly prime football time, but with any addiction you take your karma any time you can.  The other Fuller’s were dropped off at the cathedral of shopping, Lakeside and we were in the tidy little ground thirty minutes before kick off.  Grays had made this game all ticket, although at £20 for admission I fail to see how they could justify a 100% price hike for this one.   The West Ham fans had come out in force, filling the end behind the goal plus the small portion of the stand they were allocated.  All of them were hoping to see at least a few of the first team players, so it was disappointing to see so many famous faces missing.

I gave West Ham friendlies a miss last season.  Under Curbishley the thought of seeing us playing a meaningless friendly was too dull to contemplate.  The previous season I had seen us play Dagenham and Redbridge in our first pre-season, so Rob the Red, Dagenham Dan and myself turned up to see a rare appearance from the lesser know FitagainDeanAshtonasaurus, returning from another long term injury.  West Ham had just launched their new kit, made by Umbro, but had forgotten to pack it for the 4 mile trip down the road and so simply wore a plain blue training kit with ironed on numbers.  At least today they had managed to find the new kit, but the swapping of shirts at halftime did confuse us fans – for instance Savio appeared wearing number 11 at half time but in the first half it was worn by Zavron Hines.

I like Essex.  I like the people, the way they approach life and also some of the places.  There is no false pretences here.  Sure they have a reputation as geezers and blonde bimbos but people from Essex are welcoming, kind and like a laugh.  The fans out for this game certainly met all of those categories, making room for Lolly to see the game and letting me off 50p when buying a programme as they didn’t have enough change.  So top marks there Grays – nice people, nice place.

Grays Athletic 1 West Ham United 2 – The New Recreation Ground – Sunday 12th July 2009

Nearly a second

Nearly a second

 West Ham started with James Collins and Faubert at the back, and Kieron Dyer and Zavron Hines in midfield.  The rest of the side was a mixture of youth (such as Bondz n’Gala, Matty Fry and Anthony Edgar) plus some players who were at the fringes of the first team squad last season (keeper Peter Kurucz, and Josh Payne).  But they started well.  Even against such lowly opposition Zola had drilled his team to play the ball short and to feet all of the time.  Edgar and Hines combining well down the left with some lovely one touch play and even Faubert, harshly rejected by Real Madrid (I mean a choice between Julian or Ronaldo as an attacking left sided player is hardly a choice is it!) was getting forward and putting in some excellent crosses.  It was only a matter of time before the first goal came, and come it did on 15 minutes as Edgar played in Hines and he side stepped a challenge before slotting the ball home.

It certainly seemed as if West Ham were taking this seriously, so nobody expected Grays to get back into the game so quickly.  Seven minutes later Jamie Slabber (a hero for me for Grays in Football Manager 07) beat James Collins to a loose ball and rammed it home, much to the delight of the home fans. 

Grays has some of the most exclusive and expensive seating in the whole of English football.  Overlooking the group (see the picture above) are six flats with balconies that offer a perfect view of the action.  Last year one of these properties was sold for £147,000 making it the most expensive seat in England.  However, as the viewing area is outside the football ground you can, of course, drink, smoke, fornicate and do all of those things that in theory you cannot do inside the ground with fear of prosecution.  The fans were out in force on the balconies and were more than chuffed with the Grays first half performance.  West Ham’s stars of the half were definitely the front pairing of Edgar and Hines, although watch out for 16 year old Eoin Wearen in the coming years, just like yours truly said when he saw Collison play two years ago in pre-season.

So 1-1 at half-time and Lolly was praying for an appearance from Carlton Cole in the second half.  Instead we got ten substitutions from the Hammers, with only Edgar retaining his place.  A big cheer went up for Danny Gabiddon, although you would have thought that having not played for nearly 2 season he would have been on the pitch when the game re-started, but the Welshman had forgotten how to defend and went back into the dressing room briefly to look for it!  Collison and Stanislas bolstered the first team players.  The only goal of the second half game when the rain started to fall with Cristian Montano slotting home after the Grays defence had dithered.  West Ham made a final change, sending on 15 year old Robert Hall, no relation to Richard Hall who West Ham purchased in the Redknapp era for £1.4million (then a fair sum of money).  Hall (Richard) was a very promising centre back who injured his foot in a pre-season game at Carlshalton in July 1997 and essentially never played football again.  Redknapp of course expressed regret at this, blaming everyone else despite the player having a history of injury problems.  Still no change there then.  Robert Hall, despite only being 15 has been capped at England Under 17 level and has a bright future in the game, and has been spoken about in the same vein as a young Joe Cole.  He came close to a goal on a couple of occasions, and helped set up Illunga for his goal that was then ruled out for offside (queue the “Another one bites the dust” music – why???).

So a 2-1 win was satsifactory.  Only Boa Morte and Savio didn’t get a run out and all looked comfortable and more importantly fit.  The Hammers were now off to Austria for their training camp, with games against Werder Bremen and Bursaspor amongst others in the local park (honest!).  Grays were still building their squad, with a number of players on show essentially on trial as they look to beat the bookie’s tag as one of the relegation favourites.  Season 2009/10 was underway!


When Two Blogs Collide

Visits to the lower leagues are becoming more and more appealing as the greed of the Premier League and Championship clubs (and some 1st and even 2nd division clubs) flies in the face of the credit crunch. The realisation that us fans can no longer control the same level of disposable income is completely lost on the fans and born out by my beloved West Ham who are hawking Christmas special packages for our “exciting” game versus Stoke City at Christmas for £100 a head if you want a meal as well. A real festive season bargain. Add in some of the other places I have seen this year such as the Aldershot Chairman who bemoaned the fact that fans weren’t turning up in their thousands at over £20 a head to watch the 4th level of English football. So it is refreshing to dip my toe into the Blue Square Premier League once a month and see what is happening. After away days at Grays Athletic and Crawley Town so far this season I looked forward to a short trip south to the town of Lewes, which according to BA’s High Life magazine this month is one of the top 50 places in Europe to visit in terms of its unspoiltness (a new word?) as well as its smart High Street and of course the presence of the Harvey’s Brewery, brewer of one of my favourite tipples, Sussex Best Bitter.

This would also be a meeting of great powers on a scale of Reagan and Gorbachev’s first ever conference in Reyjkavik as I was meeting Danny Last of fame. Between the two of us we control majority of the reporting of European football weekend away market – pretty impressive eh? I had to check the insurance policy to see if we were allowed to be in the same room together as well as ensure we did not take the same route to the ground just in case a sniper wanted to take us both out at the same time.

Lewes is one of those towns where few people could point out on the map. Fans of the A23 and A27 will know it well as it sits just a few miles north east of Brighton. It is actually the county town, and more importantly home to Harveys Brewery and the old fashion town centre is dominated by the castle. However, the rise of the football was planned to bring the town to national prominence.

After years playing in the local leagues the club moved through the Isthmian League with speed in the late 1990’s and early part of this decade until they found themselves in a position to challenge for a place in the Conference National league. Stiff ground regulations meant that they could not take part in the end of season matches, but once the work on the Dripping Pan had been completed they cemented their meteoric rise in May 2008, capturing the National League South title. On the final day of the season every single player in the squad, bar one plus the manager Steve King were basically told they would not be offered a contract for the club’s first season at the highest level in a move most fans today still cannot begin to understand.

This season has unsurprisingly been a struggle from day one. It is unclear whether they are officially up for sale or not, and up until now they had only managed two wins all season as they propped up the rest of the league. Just two places and four points above them sits Grays, in a very similar position off the field as the club struggle to continue to be able to financially compete at this level. A money spinning replay in the 1st round of the FA Cup was spoilt by a floodlight failure with the team 1-0 versus Carlisle United. More importantly it would bring me face to face with “our Barry” again (see and hopefully his fan club.

I headed down with the little Fullers and after a very pleasant lunch in the High Street they headed off to a play area and I off to meet Mr Last in one of Lewes’s finest pubs. I was introduced to Dave, a man with a trivia head after my own and we were soon swapping a few facts that needed dusting off from the grey matter (Q: Most expensive ever British teenage signing in the 1970’s? Answer at the end of this post). Both Danny and Dave explained how they have turned their back on League football, finding solace in the rough beauty of football at the Non League level.

We walked the few hundreds yards from the pub to the ground, passing the station on the way. Such was the proximity of the railway to the ground meant that within 3 minutes of the final whistle you could be on a train on the way back to Brighton. The club had a small issue, as we discovered on reaching the gates. Due to an issue with the printers there were no match programmes available for the game, which for some ground hoppers I know would have been a disaster and would have not counted on their “done that” list.

The ground is certainly unique. I tried to ascertain why it was called the Dripping Pan and got a number of different answers, none of which were 100% certain. I liked the idea that the club simply wanted to be different. It has a small modern main stand with around 8 rows and ran 2/3rd of the pitch. Opposite this was a large steep bank with a single barrier at the top where some fans would stand. Overlooking the ground were some flats that were obviously acting as “executive boxes”. The focal point of the ground though was the west terrace which included the club offices, changing rooms and the infamous club bar. Changes to the regulations in the Blue Square Conference has meant that the bar is not able to open during the game, and they even have to close the blinds with ten minutes to go prior to kick off.

We headed into the bar, but had not factored the fact that the Norwegian branch of the Lewes fan club were in town, and the nine of them had cleaned the bar out of every beer except Guinness. Quite an impressive achievement and only the second time it had happened in the history of the club. Quite why they were Lewes fans, and why they were over for the game is still unclear although one did explain that their ancestors had landed close by on their Viking raids and they settled the town, building the first castle in the town. I thought this was quite believable until he also added that John Arne Riise is the biggest ever export from Norway. Hmmmm.

Lewes FC v Grays Athletic – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 22nd November 2008

Lewes outplsy Grays to record a vital win

Lewes outplsy Grays to record a vital win

If ever the term “six pointer” could be applied to a game, then this was one. Lewes were stranded at the bottom of the league with Grays one place and four points above. The good news was that the club were bouyed by the performance of their youth team who had made it through to the next round of the FA Youth Cup and had drawn Hull City at home. Some of these players were in the squad for this game, notably the left sided midfielder David Wheeler who was in action from the first minute.

Four minutes were on the clock when a smart ball past the Grays static defence allowed ex-Grays striker Scott Taylor the opportunity to round the keeper and slot the ball home. A great start for the home team but could they keep the pressure up? The answer was yes and after a blatant penalty shout was turned down, Wheeler beat Grays captain Stuart for pace and he could only try and illegally block him, conceding a penalty. Michael Standing calmly slotted the spot kick home to double the lead.

Despite a two goal advantage the crowd were restless and felt that every Grays attack would lead to a goal. Yet there was very little that should have worried them. Somehow four minutes of injury time were added that did little for the nerves of the home fans.

After the customary change of ends at half time we were joined by fifty or so Grays fans who seemed more pessimistic that the home ones. Their unease spread onto the pitch and apart from a late free kick that hit the bar neither team looked capable of scoring and after another ridiculous five minutes were added (9 minutes in total yet only one injury stoppage) the referee brought an end to the suffering and three points belonged to Lewes. And sure enough three minutes later my hosts Danny and Dave were on their train, and I was in the Fullermobile on our way north.

A very enjoyable afternoon in a very hospitable place. If the club have the balls to throw some of the youngsters in the team then they will pick up points. All it needs is the locals to get behind the team – a crowd of just over 500 were rewarded with some good football so more of the locals sould have a walk down the hill from the town centre and take in a game.

A final word – Our Barry had a stinker and was booked in the second half, although at least he didn’t have his fan club in tow today.

The answer to the question from above was Ray Stewart who joined West Ham United from Dundee United for £430,000.

About the Dripping Pan – Capacity 3,000 (600 Seats)
Thanks to Lewes FC for providing the following information on the ground:

Lewes’ uniquely named ground ‘The Dripping Pan’, had previously been used by Lewes Priory Cricket Club which continues to play in the fields behind the ground, though the arena itself had been used by the people of Lewes as a centre of recreation as far back as records exist.

The original purpose of the ground is unclear, although local legend suggests that it was part of a salt making industry run by monks from the adjacent Cluniac Priory.

The spoil from the excavation forms the mount behind the ground and both appear in the very earliest maps of Lewes from 1745. The ground may merely be the excavation pit for the mount itself, which has been suggested as the original ‘temporary’ motte and bailey fortress constructed by William the Conqueror’s close ally, William de Warenne, before he developed Lewes Castle on higher ground. An archaeological survey during construction of the new terrace failed to reveal any further insights into either the purpose or the age of the banks. In recent years, the grass banks which used to provide a natural amphitheatre have been replaced by concrete as the club looked to secure ground grading standards.

In 2003 the Philcox Stand was opened behind the west goal and three years later, the 500 seat Rookery Stand replaced the old wooden South Stand which ran virtually the length of the pitch on top of the grass bank.

Last season the Terry Parris open terrace was built at the Ham Lane end, despite the protests of some local residents who opposed the destruction of a section of historic flint wall to make way for emergency access and a turnstile
A “B” grading was secured in April 2008 and work continues on the rest of the ground to ensure it gets the required “A” grade certificate by April 2009.

How to get to the Dripping Pan
The ground is located very close to the station – in fact I do not think I have visited a ground that is closer.  If train is your arrival mechanism come out of the station, turn left and after 50 yards turn left at the roundabout and the ground is straight ahead of you.  If you are driving and coming via the A27 from Brighton then take the first Lewes turn off.  When you reach the crossroads where Lewes prison is, turn right and follow road down hill.  When you reach small roundabout turn left into Southover High Street and follow until you see the ground straight ahead.  There is a small pay and display at the stadium, and one the other side of the station.

How to get a ticket for the Dripping Pan
Crowds are disappointingly low at the stadium and there is no need to book tickets in advance for virtually every game.  If you are here to see the local derby with Eastbourne Borough then it would be advisable to purchase in advance by calling the club on 01273 472100. Tickets are £12 for Adults and £8 for Children and this allows you to either stand or sit in the main stand.

The Magic of the FA Cup in deepest Essex

The FA Cup returns to Essex

The FA Cup returns to Essex

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  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. 

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.