Eight years. One promotion, two relegations, four playoff campaigns.
Over the last two years, a fifth place finish and a fourth place finish, a playoff final defeat and a playoff semi-final defeat. AFC Hornchurch manager Jim McFarlane’s time at the helm certainly can’t be described as boring.
To be fair, however, Hornchurch supporters of a certain vintage are likely to simply shrug and think that they’ve seen it all before, as being an Urchin has been eventful for much longer than eight years. It is twelve and a half years since the original Hornchurch FC, once described as ‘The Chelsea of Non-League Football’ by the media, went bust after owners Carthium spent, spent and spent some more only to find out that they couldn’t afford it after all. The manager at the time, the much-travelled Garry Hill, had a budget of £1.2m per year, and his side was four points clear at the top of Conference South when he discovered that his empire was built on shifting sands. Or perhaps broken glass, given that Carthium made windows. The Carthium debt was later announced as being seven million pounds, a staggering amount of money, and the football club folded only to be reborn shortly afterwards as AFC Hornchurch in the Essex Senior League, under sound financial stewardship on this occasion. Since then there have been good times and bad times, but the club has never been threatened with going out of business and whatever happens on the pitch supporters can only be glad that all is well off it. These days Billericay Town are the Chelsea of Non-League (their supporters would probably prefer West Ham United, but we’re going for realism), whilst Hornchurch take on perhaps more of a Burnley role and are undoubtedly all the better for it.
Going into their match with Hertford Town the Urchins sat in third place in the Bostik North Division, five points off the top with five matches in hand over the leaders, Dereham Town, two points behind second place Canvey Island with two matches in hand, and with only two league defeats all season. The home supporters were very positive about their hopes before today’s game, but you have to say that the table at the moment looks rather false. The Urchins in third, Haringey Borough in fourth with the same points total from the same number of matches and still undefeated, and Heybridge Swifts in eleventh- but with an incredible TEN games in hand on the leaders courtesy of some FA Cup and FA Trophy heroics- would all expect to be in the shake up for the top two automatic promotion positions, so it’s perhaps not worth taking current standings too seriously until everyone has caught up. The fact that Barking, in seventh, were the top performing team with five wins out of the last six and yet are still ten points off the top only added to the feeling that we were living in some kind of surreal Bostik North Universe at present. It’s like football as described by Noel Fielding, only without the cake.
Peter and Ann- responsible for excellent stewarding, a friendly welcome and terrible music!
Wandering down Bridge Avenue towards the stadium the sound of church bells broke through the murk, chiming an incongruously cheerful note as the rain drizzled down on all who ventured out. Arriving at the ground nobody was venturing out, deciding that Arsenal v Spurs and a pint of something cold in the fabulous club bar was a far better plan. Home and away supporters- and some of the away players- were watching the North London derby in harmony. Club secretary Peter, sadly, was the exception to this rule, as he was experiencing a breakdown in harmony with his back, as well as being worried about the forthcoming match being “overly-physical.”
Speaking in this week’s Romford Recorder- other local newspapers are available, we don’t want to upset the good folk of the Romford & Havering Post by singling out their rivals- Urchins keeper Sam Mott had predicted that his side’s winning run would continue this weekend. He had also echoed Peter in predicting a rather physical encounter. Another Peter, a home supporter and volunteer steward who admitted to a fondness for Arsenal (but we won’t hold that against him), was also expressing concern about the possibly roughhousing of today’s opponents, but he was in an extremely positive frame of mind- and it apparently had nothing to do with the fact that Arsene Wenger’s men were two goals up. He was simply delighted with everything Hornchurch.
“I first came here five years ago, and I loved it. Now I don’t miss a home game, and I travel away, too- and as you can see, we both help out.” He gestured at his other half, Ann, who was already clad in hi-visibility yellow. It transpired that as well as stewarding, Ann provided the matchday music too, so you know exactly who to blame for the performance of Karma Chameleon at half time.
“This is a really friendly club,” he continued. “The supporters all pull together to make it a better place, and we all know we’re appreciated for doing so. I wouldn’t go back to the professional game.”
Asked about his hopes for the season he was similarly positive. “We’re good enough to finish in the top two. We’ve kept the nucleus of our squad for the last couple of years, and it shows- they all work well together. So long as we don’t get overconfident we’ll go up this year.”
At the other side of the bar, a group of Hertford Town supporters were also in a positive frame of mind. Well, all but one, who admitted to hoping that “we can keep the score down to five.” Mind you, he also admitted to being a Leeds United supporter, so it’s not surprising that his plan was to start by expecting the worst, he’s had years of practice. Town were also having a splendid season- and indeed it was made all the more splendid by the fact that they had earned their promotion without actually winning the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division (winning it? You almost need an additional lung just to say it).
Col (or was that Karl) and Wendy of Hertford
A rip-roaring 2016-17 had seen them finish in second place on ninety-two points, four ahead of third place Cockfosters (a town named after Henry VIII’s Chief Forester, before you start sniggering at the back) but five behind champions London Colney; however the title-winners gave up their promotion in early June when discovering that they had been placed in the Bostik League rather than their preferred Evo-Stik South Division One Central. Gavin Kelsey’s men have thrived in their first campaign at our level since 2006, sitting five points behind The Urchins in eighth place with crowds averaging 232, gaining a little bit of a reputation as Bostik North party central whilst continually increasing their exposure due to Nathan Hobley’s excellent club videos. They were going through a rather unpredictable spell at the moment- a six goal defeat to Heybridge Swifts recently was followed by a four goal victory over Brentwood, and then a win over then-leaders Canvey Island was followed by a home defeat to Soham Town Rangers. It seemed that you never knew quite what you were going to get with The Blues, but it could be almost guaranteed that you’d have fun finding out.
Steve, Michael, Wendy, Lance and Col (who really needs to learn to speak up if he doesn't want to be called Karl!) turned out to all be delighted with the way that the season had gone so far, and to believe that with a little luck they could manage a playoff position at the end of the season. They were all fairly confident about today, too- indeed there was no mention of 5-0 drubbings when asked to make a prediction, instead we had a collection of two-one’s and one-nils, along with one two-all draw. All of which turned out to be wrong, so hopefully none of them had actually wagered money on the outcome.
By this point the players were wandering out into the rain, so it was time for us to do the same, the majority of supporters- home and away- taking up position on the covered terrace that ran half the length of one side of the pitch. Hertford were quickly on the attack, to be countered by a stout home defence and a chorus of, “we love you ‘Ornchurch, we do” from the Urchins faithful.
The first real chance of note came to the home side in the twelfth minute. Striker Leon McKenzie, who worked tirelessly the entire afternoon, attempted to swivel and shoot from just outside the box, and despite slipping as he connected forced Town keeper Charlie Mann into a save. The ball then moved from end to end, both sides demonstrating attacking intent coupled with an inability to actually get into the opposition penalty area, whilst a group of watching ten year olds chased each other around the far end of the terrace whilst shouting at the referees assistant that he was only going to be paid a fiver. Whether these were the Urchins that gave the club its nickname went unexplained, but they were certainly giving the supporters around them a headache.
Purveyors of diet onions
The next clear-cut chance also came to the home side, with twenty three minutes on the clock. Excellent control from George Purcell saw the ball laid across to Brad Warner, unmarked on the far side of the box. Warner steadied himself, took aim, and then held his head as the ball came back off the bar and was cleared. More home pressure saw captain Elliot Styles pass the ball back when everyone on the sidelines was screaming at him to shoot, and the consistently impressive- when not shooting- Alex Bentley fire over, but as we approached half time the action switched to the other end, Town strikers Michael Toner and Tommy Wade both stretching for a cross and just coming up short before Toner made himself space but fired wildly, the ball skewing five yards wide of the upright. The players trudged off at the break with both goals untroubled, as the PA Announcer advertised “special November burgers with diet onions,” and Duran Duran started singing ‘The Reflex.’
Big-nose Le Bon and his cohorts weren't actually there, you understand, this aberration was also down to Ann- although she did later redeem herself with a little Bowie. Being a lovely human being obviously doesn’t guarantee that you have sound taste in music.
The players were soon back out into the rain, which was bouncing off the puddles that had formed in the running track in front of the main stand. The match continued much as it had before, with lots of effort but little quality in the final third, to the disgust of a man in a corduroy flat cap who was sitting in the front row. As Hornchurch failed to turn promising moves into any tangible reward he got more and more frustrated, moaning like billy-o and pulling hard on the cigarette which he’d lit oblivious to the ‘No Smoking’ sign around twelve inches from his nose. Those around him forgave him his transgressions, probably because they were worried that the calming influence of nicotine was the only thing keeping his blood pressure away from dangerous levels. When Hertford had the first real chance of the half, Matt Thompson walloping an effort just wide from twenty five yards, he was so incensed that he got up and walked away. How he felt when Warner got behind the away defence and then shot wide with the goal at his mercy went unrecorded on that basis, but would undoubtedly have had to be edited for reasons of public decency. And then…a breakthrough.
The Urchins earned a corner on the left, and when it was sent in the ball bounced around the box, neither side able to get a decisive touch, until…centre back Nathan Cooper lashed at it, and it screamed into the net. “We love you Urchins, we do,” responded the terrace. The home side maintained the pressure, a long shot from Jed Chouman bringing a save from Mann, and McKenzie again troubling the Town defence with some powerful running. “Red Army, Red Army,” came from the terrace, as Hornchurch continued to press.
The home faithful attempt to keep dry
The game had not been overly physical, despite the fears beforehand, but it was to soon have an aggressive moment. Elliot Styles for the home side and Jason Beck for Hertford engaged in a little light wrestling by the half way line, which became something rather more physical and heated before the Town player aimed his head at his opponent as their colleagues attempted to separate them. “Headbutt, headbutt,” cried the home supporters and bench, but the referee- after consulting his assistant- decided to give both a yellow card, to howls or derision.
Town made all of their substitutions and attempted to push forward, but failed to really trouble Sam Mott, and, committed to attack, they were caught on the break as the game ebbed towards the final whistle. Warner still had work to do when receiving the ball thirty yards out, but he showed the starting speed of a greyhound, outpacing the defence before firing across the keeper and into the bottom corner to wrap up the points. “We are ‘Ornchurch, super ‘Ornchurch, we are ‘Ornchurch, from the Bridge,” celebrated the home faithful, and indeed we all knew by this point that the game was as good as over. Luke Illsey did manage a curling shot that landed in Mott’s arms as Hertford looked for as consolation, but the whistle blew and everyone wandered off into the drizzly night- or into the bar to look for Manchester United versus Newcastle. The Urchins were up to second place.
In an interview with this website six weeks ago, Jim McFarlane described himself as "The world’s worst loser.” He talked of his agonies after a defeat, how he took each one personally, and how he was impossible to live with when things went wrong. He also admitted that he was so desperate to be a winner that he even cheated at scrabble!
Well tonight Mrs McFarlane can rest easy in the knowledge that he’ll come home in a good mood. And, given the obvious quality of his squad, she might even have a relatively grinch-free season- and we’re not just talking about the holiday season.
Awaiting a restart
Perhaps she might even be able to risk putting those white tiles into the little green bag and coming up with a nine-letter word.