Stuart Fuller is the Chair of Lewes CFC, author of The Football Tourist, and a member of the Bostik League Board. He is certainly not, however, a groundhopper- although he has been known to go to the ends of the earth to watch football.
Last night all matches at the ends of the earth were postponed, so he found himself taking in Barking v Cheshunt.
The signs are never good when you head towards the turnstiles at a ground and there’s more people coming out rather than going in. The car park outside Barking’s Mayesbrook Park ground was certainly full, there was only a slight nip in the dry evening and I could see the floodlights shining up above. My brain didn’t compute.
Barking FC- floodlit
I passed through the turnstile and joined a small crowd of people gathered around the board showing the teams. Everything is a bit compact at Mayesbrook Park – the bar is just a couple of steps from the tunnel and the main walkway to the majority of the covered accommodation and understandably this was a hub of activity with 15 minutes to go until kick off. But the conversations seemed very intense between officials and the two management teams. Then I saw the issue. Whilst from the outside the lights were shining bright, they happened to belong to the athletic track next door – the floodlights in the football ground had gone dark.
“I’ve come down from Wrexham for the week” said one fellow, telling his tale of a trip to Wealdstone last night and his itinerary for the rest of the week, taking in games at Lewes and Brentwood Town. “Saturday is still up in the air as we don’t play Chester until Sunday”. He wasn’t alone in making his first trip to Mayesbrook Park. A team sheet of Groundhoppers (is that acceptable as a plural of them?), many with their programmes in pristine condition entombed in plastic, looked worryingly skywards. One even suggested that if they left now they could make the second half at Ware…” except I didn’t drive here”. Ah, fundamental flaw in that plan then.
At this time of year, many clubs in the Non-Leagues are in catch-up mode which means games are scheduled throughout most of the week. For those looking to tick off a new venue, it is a Non-League Footballing Christmas. Not that I would ever consider myself to be a groundhopper, although I was making my first trip to see Barking play at home, it was purely on, ahem, league business.
At 7.43pm the lights came on. It appears that the Barking FC Chairman, Rob O’Brien, had been working with an electrician for the past hour in resolving the issue and resolve it they had done. The referee asked the two captains how long they wanted – “can’t we start now?” was the unified response and so just six minutes late we kicked off.
Welcome to Barking
Whilst Barking only joined the Bostik League North at the start of this season, having won the Essex Senior League a year ago, they are no real strangers to the Isthmian League. In fact, when I “checked-in” my ground in the Groundhopper App later (again, I am not a groundhopper, I use my app to keep a list of the places I have been), I noticed that the Top Dog in groundhopping here was none other than Isthmian League Chairman Nick Robinson. Now I know Nick is a Blue, but I’d assumed it was Stamford Bridge where his heart lay but perhaps it was really RM8? Alas, no. His frequent visits told the story of their long Isthmian League history that went back to 1952. In 1978-79 season they won the Isthmian Premier League and could have in theory applied for promotion to the Football League as there was no higher Non-League to be promoted to. The club fell down the divisions in the next couple of years and in 1995-96 they merged with East Ham United, playing in the Isthmian League Division One North until they resigned from the league in 2006, reforming as the Barking FC we know and love today.
Right, history lesson over, floodlights fixed and tea in hand, I took my place in the stand. I was flanked by two chaps who had their eyes and ears on events in Paris, one with a battered old pocket radio and the other watching the PSG vs Real Madrid game on his phone – an amusing juxtaposition perfectly capturing the generational differences in how we consume media.
Barking came into the game in 8th spot and still had ambitions of sneaking into the play-offs, whilst Cheshunt’s sights were firmly set on moving clear of the bottom of the table. I’d seen them a few weeks ago at home to Maldon & Tiptree and it was clear to see the discipline and style that manager Craig Edwards had drilled into them. Once again, they lined up with legendary Non-League centre-forward, and scourge of Lewes due to his late winning goals against us, Ricky Sappleton at centre-back, whilst up front the huge presence of Brandon Diao was a sign as to how the away side may play.
The 70 hardy souls who saw the game certainly got their money’s worth. Both sides threw themselves into the play and you couldn’t take you eye off proceedings for one minute – which of course I did to check scores at the top of the Bostik League South and missed the opening goal in the 7th minute when Jason Hallett scrambled the ball home from a Cheshunt corner. I may be doing Jason a disservice with that description but without the benefit of any video replays that’s my official description.
On the half-hour the home side were level. Barking’s Billy Jones somehow managed to perform a Cruyff turn whilst falling backwards and swung his foot at the ball which Aaron Bufton saved well. The corner was cleared then found its way to former Hastings United winger Kiernan Hughes-Mason and he turned it in. Goal Barking. Or was it. As the players headed back to the centre-circle the assistant referee beckoned his master over. There was a fair amount of finger pointing, discussion, more finger pointing and finally the goal was awarded. Who needs VAR when you can have a 90 second discussion?
Ten minutes later Cheshunt were back in front again. Cheshunt’s tactic of swinging in corners under the nose of the keeper and putting (legal) pressure on him worked as he could only parry an in-swinger from the left into his own net. Again, the referee went into deep discussion with his assistant. It’s far too easy these days for the referee to award a free-kick in favour of the keeper in similar instances but there was no foul and quite rightly the goal was awarded.
The second half saw Barking try to use their wide-men to get behind Cheshunt although it was the away side that looked more comfortable going forward and they added a third when full-back Emiel Aiken’s strike from the right of the penalty box beat Olajide. You got the sense that Cheshunt would now dig deep and do everything to preserve their lead, which is exactly what they did, withdrawing the giant Diao up front and going with a 4-5-1 formation.
With ten minutes to play a nasty foul in front of the dugouts prompted a bit of handbags but fair play to the referee who took his time, listened to both officials, called the captains over for a lecture on how to behave then repeated his speak to both managers. No cards, no tantrums and off we were again.
With five minutes left the home side grabbed a second through Tiob Adeyemi but it was too little too late for Barking and they had to rue the missed opportunity to close the gap to the play-offs whilst Cheshunt headed back North (west-ish) with three points and their highest league position since November last year.
The atmosphere in the Parc des Princes may have been electric as two of Europe’s financial giants slugged it out for a place in the Champions League Quarter-Final but could it ever match the beauty of a Non-League game in Barking on a chilly Tuesday night? I doubt it.