Parkside Stadium, home of Aveley FC, glistened as an isolated shaft of early-afternoon sunshine broke through the clouds and reflected off its solar panels. Effectively brand new, it looked as impressive close up as it does when first glimpsed from the road- and although it must be said that after spending what seems like half a lifetime on the M25 most destinations would take on an image of beauty, it is truly splendid. Five million pounds very well spent; a structure which is a true community asset, the attraction of which has increased Aveley’s crowds by two hundred and twenty five percent so far this season.
It also has a pitch that’s waterproof, something which all of those standing and sitting around it would have liked to be for the rest of the afternoon.
We weren’t here to see Aveley, however. For the fifth season in a row the Millers are having their stadium ‘borrowed’ every other weekend by Grays Athletic, this year Bostik North Division rivals, and today the boys in light blue were entertaining sixth place Maldon & Tiptree.
Grays Athletic are rather a famous name in Non-League football circles, and that is- in the main- born of their endeavours during the first decade of this century. That period saw them win the Conference South, get as high as third in the Conference National- losing to Halifax Town in the playoffs- and, most notably, win the FA Trophy two seasons in a row. The first triumph came at Villa Park, where Hucknall Town were despatched on penalties, the second at Upton Park where Woking were put to the sword- Wembley, sadly, was being rebuilt at this point.
The view from the executive seats
Reading the reports of these triumphs, one name figures predominantly- that of Dennis Oli. Swift of foot and with a sharp eye for goal, the young striker/winger (depending on where boss Mark Stimson chose to ask him to play) played the entire 120 minutes of the first match, coming close to scoring on a number of occasions, before breaking the deadlock at Upton Park the following season. A true Athletic legend, his time at the Recreation Ground relaunched his career and he was soon playing in a different blue, turning out for Gillingham in the Football League. This week, however, the world turned full circle, and Oli returned to Athletic after more than a decade away, signed by manager Jamie Stuart, another veteran of both of those finals and better Grays days.
The period since Oli first left has been a difficult one for Grays fans, although giant leaps have been taken relatively recently. Financial difficulties led to forced relegations, the Recreation Ground was lost and the club began life as wandering nomads, which is how they find themselves at Parkside- and yet despite another relegation last season things are definitely on the up, if moving too slowly for the regulars. Fifteen months ago the club became a Community Benefit Society and in so doing became financially viable- if anything but cash rich- and now steps are being taken to take them back to the town, for the benefit of the entire community. Partnership with a highly successful local school to build a sporting facility fit for the club and a new educational establishment has been proposed, and this project is being vigorously pursued although currently being held up, as Vice Chairman Glyn explained before the game, by “Highways Agency red tape” (perhaps we should be glad that they haven’t put cones around it too). Glyn had faith that the world would change for the better, but was concerned about timescales and worried that the longer the situation remained unchanged the more disconnected the people of Grays would become from their team. That wasn’t difficult to understand. For all of its charms, Aveley isn’t Grays. For all it is only six miles away, that precludes football fans making a last-minute decision to attend- a problem they wouldn’t have if the club was actually in the town. Added to the fact that the club will never be able to do anything apart from just about break even until they have a home of their own, leaving them reliant on manager Jamie and his connections to put out a decent team, the world needs to change some more if Grays are to build a sustainable future; but even if things move with unexpected speed that’s likely to be two years or more away.
In the bar around fifty fans, many in blue and white, were watching Spurs play Arsenal in an atmosphere of reverential silence- almost a carbon copy of the atmosphere at the Emirates when Arsenal are at home- whilst on a second screen the BBC were trying- and failing- to make the Cross Country Skiing at the Winter Olympics seem entertaining. The final whistle blew on a Spurs victory, and there were a number of groans of disgust; surprisingly, and shattering expectations that- where the Premier League was concerned, at least- this would be a West Ham enclave. Chairs were pushed back, and a significant number left the warmth to watch the players warm up in the drizzle.
Today’s opponents, The Jammers, also had high hopes of success, although their recent form had been a little patchy and they’d lost three of their last five matches. That to some extent is hardly surprising, as the squad has undergone a great deal of transition. Yesterday we announced the arrival of midfielder Max Porter from Chelmsford City, as well as the departure of defenders Dexter Peter and Joshua Pollard, and it almost feels as if over the last few weeks Kevin Horlock has been operating a revolving door policy, tweaking and tweaking in the hope of gaining a promotion spot. To add to this weeks’ moves, Joe Ellul, Rhys Henry, Jimmy Shepherd, Keanu Williams and Chris Haigh had come in, whilst Nicholas Akoto and Tim Brown had left- all during the last fortnight. The club had only managed one win since the departure of striker Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe to Colchester United- it was always going to be difficult to replace a player who had managed to score in fifteen consecutive league matches- but the quality of recent signings would suggest that once the squad gels they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Second place last season got them a playoff place and a loss to Thurrock, second place this season would get them automatic promotion- and at nine points off that second place with fifteen matches remaining there was little doubt that Horlock hadn’t given up yet.
How did I get here?
Predicting the outcome today was always going to be difficult. Athletic were on a similarly inconsistent run, with two wins and four draws from the last ten matches halting earlier positive progress and leaving them in eleventh, twelve points off the playoff places. Home fans Charlie and ‘H’- the honorary Chairman of the Belgian Grays Athletic Supporters Club- couldn’t agree but neither was particularly optimistic, Charlie plumping for a 1-1 draw whilst H went for a 2-1 defeat, at the same time assuring us that he was a much better singer than the bloke from Steps who had stolen his name.
Both were content with “mid-table obscurity” for their club this season. As Charlie explained- and being the son of Athletic Chairman Steve Skinner, with some authority- the club “can’t afford to compete at the top end and don’t want to go down, but we’ve been entertaining in patches.” Adding that he’d watched his first Grays match at six weeks old, he then recounted his memories of those FA Trophy finals, which were surprisingly clear given he’d have been rather small at the time, and demonstrated an enormous affection for the club; an affection which he promised was born long before his dad took a position on the board. “Before the club became community owned, my Dad was just a supporter. He stepped up because he couldn’t stand by and let it die- he had to do what he could to help.” And there, ladies and gentlemen, is what football is all about, in two sentences.
The match kicked off, the rain persisted, and everyone barring four hardy souls- and those on the green baize- searched for cover under the canopy of the club building or the seating area at the far side of the ground. The football was, for want of a better word, nondescript. Lots of endeavour and little quality, summed up by the fact that it took twenty six minutes for the first real shot of goal, and that was so wide that it almost landed on the Dartford crossing. And then came the incident which seemed to have defined the game.
On the half hour, home keeper Charlie Burn went down injured. On the bench, substitute keeper Joe Simmonds prepared to come on, and then- calamity. It transpired that when PLAYER-manager Jamie Stuart had filled in his copy of the team sheet, he’d recorded Simmonds only by his initials. This was subsequently misinterpreted to mean that Stuart was putting himself on the bench, and as such Simmonds wasn’t actually in the squad. This was- luckily- pointed out before the ineligible player was able to enter the field of play, but it meant that Grays had no keeper. Full back Ryan Mahal went between the posts, Simmonds marched back to the dressing room, audibly annoyed, and the Jammers suddenly had an enormous advantage which they hadn’t earned. It took them six further minutes- most of which had been taken up by the stoppage- to make that count. A corner was laid back to the incoming James Shepherd, who shot towards the top corner. Mahal got a slight touch on the ball, but couldn’t keep it out.
Further calamity for the Blues arrived two minutes later, as substitute Callum Thompson- on for the injured keeper- hurt himself badly making a successful challenge. As he was carried off on a stretcher a voice from the back of the main stand commented that it just wasn’t going to be their day. It was hard to disagree at this point, indeed it was almost as if Jamie Stuart had run over a black cat in the car park. The half ended, after eight added minutes, with the score unchanged but Maldon looking- understandably- comfortable.
Grays, to their credit, came out in the second half and tried to take the game to the visitors, but they went further behind on fifty minutes, a corner firmly headed home by Joe Ellul. That was surely that. Or was it? You don’t need to be a fan of Agatha Christie to know what’s coming next.
As we approached the hour Renee Johnville for the Jammers charged through the home defence. Only Mahal stood between him and 3-0; indeed, between him and game over. The ball headed for the bottom corner, the stand-in keeper stuck out a foot, and at full stretch deflected the shot wide. Maldon looked stunned, and Grays took heart.
On 70 minutes winger Joao Carlos was fouled by the left hand side of the Maldon box. The free kick was cleared, the follow up shot from Kieran Bishop blocked, another shot from Barry Cogan- who had just entered the field- saved. Suddenly the side in blue, urged on by their manager who was consistently yelling to his players to get the ball in the box, were in the driving seat, and the Jammers looking worried. Bishop then got free of the attentions of Grade Milende right on the byline and opted to shoot when a pull back would have been much better, hitting the side netting to the annoyance of his teammates and manager, but the pressure was all one way. The breakthough came with eleven minutes to go- a corner fumbled by keeper Chris Haigh, a quick reaction from centre back Stanley Muguo, and the deficit was halved. Was the unlikely going to happen?
Jammers manager Horlock responded with an immediate double change, but again it was the home side who were making the running. Bishop left the full back on his backside but nobody could get on the end of his cross, but surely time was running out? With three minutes to go, however, home pressure finally told, and with Maldon struggling to clear, the ball struck a defenders leg and bounced into the net, keeper stranded. A point which had looked extremely unlikely forty five minutes earlier was just about in the bag. There was still time for Mahal- who surely deserved the man of the match award for bravery as well as a couple of crucial saves- to deliver an audacious dummy to the right of his goal to earn a goal kick, before the final whistle blew to earn Grays a share of the spoils, whilst the home fans celebrated as if it were three.
You couldn’t blame them for that, could you?
Bouncing back from adversity is a Grays Athletic trait. Over the last few years their supporters have ensured that the club has done that off the pitch, so perhaps we should have expected that the players could do the same on it.
The opposition may have been orange, but if they can continue to display such fighting spirit both on and off the pitch then the future is surely bright for Grays.
Charlie and 'H' (not from Steps)