On 2nd May last year Bowers and Pitsea lined up to take on Canvey Island in a North Division Playoff Semi-Final. Bowers, who finished a point from automatic promotion, should have been the favourites- but Canvey had an ace up their sleeve. Unbeknown to almost everyone, prior to transfer deadline day they had secured the services of two players from East Thurrock United on dual-registration terms, one of them the National League South’s top scorer, Sam Higgins, the other midfielder James White. Neither of these players featured in Canvey’s run-in- they were, of course, busy playing two divisions higher- but with East Thurrock’s season over they were suddenly available for the Playoffs, and straight into the Gulls first team they went.
Bowers had the best home record in the North Division, but the Semi-Final was a step too far. Higgins scored in a 2-0 victory, and the season was over with a whimper for Rob Small’s side. They had sympathy on their side- indeed, more than sympathy, outrage from some quarters, and understandably so- but they would need to start again in August with it all to do once more.
Bowers & Pitsea v Dereham Town
The way they have done it has been more than remarkable.
Over the summer, the club laid a new 3G pitch. It is often suggested that clubs who have to adapt to play on a new surface take a few months to get used to it; would this threaten their home form? Check the home games lost column of the table, the big fat zero there should answer that question. Would there be a hangover from last season, as often happens to clubs who suffer playoff heartbreak? Well let’s look at some more statistics, shall we? Thirty-three league matches had brought twenty-six victories, five draws and only two defeats. Their last defeat was on January 5th- more than three months ago- and since then they’d won THIRTEEN consecutive matches. They’d conceded only twenty goals during the entire campaign (so far), but before you think that their success has been built on a strong defence, let us point out that they’d scored eighty-four- more than any other club in the division, and more than any other club in the Bostik League except Hayes & Yeading United. Only Hayes and Peterborough Sports had a better goal difference in the top eight tiers of English football- yes, before kick off today Bowers were better than Manchester City, it’s official!
We’ll stop with the superlatives now, but the upshot was that Rob Small, in the week that he celebrated being our Manager of the Month for the third time this season and his club also won the Performance Award, needed to see his side take one more point to confirm that they were champions. Dereham Town were our jealous bridesmaids, looking to steal the bride’s thunder and ruin her big day.
Promotion- whether confirmed today or not- would be simply another step on the road to Essex Non-League domination for Small’s side. The last few years have been wonderful for the fans at the Len Salmon- an FA Vase Semi-Final, an Essex Senior League title, sixth and then 3rd in their first two Isthmian campaigns- and now the champagne on ice once more. Being a Bowers fan today must be a little like being a Liverpool fan in the 1980’s- and with the current rate of progress you wouldn’t expect the people here to have to wait at least nineteen years for another title triumph.
Bowers & Pitsea FC
And, of course, we’re sure that David Knight is far more handsome than Peter Beardsley.
Focusing on those potentially troublesome bridesmaids, then, Dereham Town have seen their season fall into disaster and then recover miraculously. When they parted company with Neal Simmons back in January they were bottom of the table with fourteen points, a rather unfortunate and surprising record given that only twelve months previously they’d been sitting proudly at the top. Adam Gusterson came in from Harleston Town as his replacement, and has since overseen a remarkable transformation. Thirteen league matches have seen only three defeats, and a number of excellent victories- including three in their last three matches, which saw them wallop Canvey Island and AFC Sudbury and edge out Bury Town by the odd goal in five. Fifteen points clear of relegation, in fourteenth place, it was almost mathematically impossible for them to go down- but it’s been rather unlikely for a few weeks now and performances hadn’t slipped. Make no mistake, Magpies fans arriving at the Len Salmon would expect their side to spoil the party.
An hour and a half before kick off the sky was grey and delivering occasional drizzle onto the carpet in front of the main stand. Al “the doorman” was the custodian of that carpet, not only ensuring that anyone who entered the ground via the tunnel had the correct credentials but also ensuring that anyone wanting access to the pitch had the right footwear. Over the tannoy came a collection of Motown, Mod, Ska and Northern Soul- a pleasant change from the chart fodder thrust on us at most locations (or The Fall if you happen to be at Lewes), and Al explained that he was responsible for the music, too.
Although he was doing three jobs at once, he still had time for a chat, and- of course- was delighted with how the season had gone, waxing lyrical about the efforts of the side (and about his hero worship of Paul Weller). The first Dereham fans of the day arrived at the stadium, and the lead Magpie poked his head through the gate and exclaimed, “Wow. This place has changed for the better since I was last here. It was a proper dump before.” He didn’t actually say dump, we’re paraphrasing. Al interjected, and explained that it would be better still after the summer, as the main stand was coming down and being rebuilt, a new 200 seater six-tiered stand and a clubhouse replacing it. Progress at the Len Salmon isn’t only happening on the pitch.
Is this where we leave the trophy?
Rob Small wandered in, looking relaxed, and stopped for a chat. There wasn’t a hint of complacency about the Bowers manager. “I’ve been looking at social media this morning and everyone seems to think it’s a forgone conclusion. I think that’s a dangerous attitude, and it isn’t one I share- it’ll only fire up the opposition, who are one of the best sides in the division at the moment. They aren’t going to come here and roll over.
I’m not saying we’re not going to win the title,” he went on. “We will, I’m sure of it. But it would be wrong to assume that it was going to happen today. We hope it will, and it would be great to do it in front of our own supporters, but it won’t be easy.”
It looked as if we might have a thriller in prospect.
It was still drizzling as the teams entered the arena at three minutes to three, and it was the visitors, in green, who got us underway. “Come on you reds,” sang the fans behind the right hand goal, and their favourites were quickly on the attack, pinning the Magpies in their own half during the opening exchanges without really threatening Elliot Pride’s goal. There was an urgency about the home side, but there was a solidity about the visitors, who seemed well drilled at the back and weren’t about to do- as one of their fans suggested before the game- “a Barking;” a reference to Bowers nine-nil win here recently over those particular opponents. The first ten minutes passed without either goalkeeper being troubled- indeed the only concern was an injury to Bowers midfielder Max Cornhill, which left him limping as he returned to the field, but he seemed to soon be able to run it off.
The first chance came in the eleventh minute, and it came to the home side, Bradley Warner firing the ball across a crowded box and forcing Pride to push it out for a corner; a set piece taken by the same player landing on the top of the bar, a goal kick the result. Dereham’s first foray forward saw them earn a corner nine minutes later, and the delivery caused consternation in the home box, keeper Andrew Wilton able only to get a fingertip to it- but Matthew Castellan could only head the loose ball over the bar rather than into the- admittedly heavily guarded- net. Eighty percent of the match at this point had been played in the Dereham half, yet the greens could easily have gone ahead.
The Bowers faithful- and the Dereham keeper
If Bowers needed a wake up call, it was clearly heard. Up the field they went, and ahead they went, David Knight meeting a cross on the edge of the six yard box and thumping it home, to general pandemonium. “We are top of the league,” sang the home fans, a little unoriginally given they’ve been singing that for most of the last nine months. Cornhill celebrated with his team mates then left the field, so it seemed he hadn’t been able to run off his injury after all. Ben Sartain was his replacement, and he had the next shot, forcing Pride to dive to his right and push the ball out for a corner, which was cleared.
A prolonged period of Bowers pressure followed, without further breakthrough, and this was only relieved seven minutes before the break when Adam Hipperson charged down the left, bamboozled two defenders and was eventually fouled. The free kick caused more pandemonium before being cleared, and Bowers went and gave away one more, with a similar result, this time Wilton having to dive to save. If we needed proof that Bowers lead was far from secure, it had been provided.
One again, the home side took the hint. Quentin Monville charged down the left and delivered an exceptional cross, and who was there to force it home? An unmarked David Knight. Two-nil, with three minutes to go until half time. “Two-nil, to the Bowers boys,” came the song, although those performing it were at this point heading to take their places in the queue for a half time beer.
In the two added minutes Dereham came as close as they could to reducing the arrears. Another free kick was delivered into the Bowers box, and once more a Magpies head was able to get to it, this time that of striker Ryan Crisp. The ball headed for the corner of the net, Wilton made a one-handed save, and the rebound struck the bar before being cleared, at which point the referee blew his whistle and the players trooped off. On possession alone the home side deserved their lead, but their defence, virtually impregnable in earlier matches, had almost been undone on a number of occasions.
A flock of Magpies
It was still drizzling as the home side got us underway after the break, and the pattern of the game also remained unchanged as they went straight on the attack. Five minutes after the break and they surely had the match wrapped up, a header from Lewis Clarke making it three-nil- although it divided the press box, half of whom thought that Warner had forced it home. The celebration on the pitch was almost muted, as if such things had become rather routine- but the pace didn’t slacken initially, as Warner and Knight, particularly, chased down every pass made by the Dereham defence.
By the time we’d reached the hour mark, however, we had very little of note to talk about. Dereham made a double change, and the home fans broke the silence to sing, once more, about being top of the league, but on the pitch the action was rather muted. Monville tried to change that, the winger, on the right again after an earlier switch to the left, delivering an excellent cross which James Thomas thumped over the bar. Knight, looking for his hat trick, also fired over a few minutes later, and then Warner did the same, the terrace behind the goal beginning to look rather an unsafe place to stand.
Warner found the fans with another shot eleven minutes from time, and then a landmark moment for sixteen year old Charlie Dickerson, on for his Dereham debut as he replaced Lewis Johnson. The player going off was only seventeen, which speaks volumes about the Magpies investment in youth development, which will undoubtedly stand them in good stead in the future- and indeed is standing them in good stead now.
Three minutes from time, David Knight headed home for his hat trick and thirty fifth league goal of the season. Another three minutes were added, and then it was over. A fairly miniature pitch invasion ensued, and the celebrations started. Bowers were champions- and it was well deserved.
Stability at this level is often hard to come by. Players come and go, tempted by more money a few miles down the road, or changing jobs and having to change club accordingly. Relationships break down, teams change, consistency departs. The margin between success and failure is often rather narrow.
Bowers starting squad today contained nine players who experienced last season’s disappointment, and Small, prior to the match, was absolutely convinced that it was this stability that was key to the success this campaign. “They could leave here and earn more, but we look after them, they look after each other- and sometimes winning is more important than money.”
It would be wrong to suggest that there is no money at the Len Salmon; anyone looking at the new pitch, the new stands and the improvements to come would clearly see the investment. But that is investment which is designed to firmly fix the club the centre of the local community, and to ensure sustainability and long term growth. Come the summer they’ll have a stadium ready to grace the Bostik Premier Division.
They certainly won’t need much more investment to ensure they have a team to match.