Non-League Football

Island in the sun: The Canvey hotbed

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In the early 21st century, some of the best football ever seen in the Isthmian Premier Division came from the much-derided island of Canvey. Essex man has never got full credit for his contribution to non-league football and in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, the Thames Estuary made its mark on the game. As well as Canvey Island’s own efforts, Grays Athletic, Thurrock/Purfleet and East Thurrock United all came into view, but on Canvey, football fans – if only they realized it – had never had it so good.

In the past few weeks, however, another team from Castle Point (the grandly-named local council) has made headlines: Concord Rangers, who reached the FA Cup first round before losing to Mansfield Town.

Two teams from Canvey? It seems a bit unlikely, but it is true. Canvey has a population of around 38,000, making it bigger than many step three or four towns in the non-league structure in England. There’s one thing about this stretch of Essex that is often overlooked and that is the ability of a bloke with a few quid to make something work well, and the Thames hinterland, with its concrete lions and over-sized watch-wearing “geezers” are very good at “earning a crust”. It’s this same day-glo spirit of the entrepreneur that helped Essex clubs like Grays and Canvey prosper. But the Thames Estuary football bubble, like all inflated economies, burst. Grays are a shadow of the club they once were and don’t own their own ground anymore, and Thurrock are down in step four, along with Aveley and Tilbury, who have never quite made it. Suddenly, the area looks like it has too many football clubs scratching to get by.

Canvey Island’s fortunes started to change when Jeff King arrived at Park Lane in 1992. The name King is as synonymous with Canvey as Rick Stein’s is with Padstow. They owned a night club and a caravan park, at the very least. King was a larger-than-life character, somewhat scary with his “coming to get you” walk, but actually, quite a good sport. And he encouraged neat, flowing football played by some of the best players around. Of course, it was all funded by King, but it was good to watch while it lasted.

Canvey earned a reputation in cup competitions and in 2001, as an Isthmian League side, they won the FA Trophy, beating Forest Green Rovers 1-0 in the final. Three years later, they won promotion to the Conference and reached the Trophy final again. Canvey also enjoyed some good FA Cup runs, reaching round one in 2000-01 (losing to Southend), third round in 2001-02 (losing to Burnley after beating Wigan and Northampton) and round one again in 2003-04 (another defeat to Southend) and that stage again in 2004-05.

With modest crowds, Canvey’s ascent could only ever be short-term and there were rumblings that the club’s backers were frequently disappointed by the lack of support. But the problem was that Southend United were on their doorstep and many locals take the short journey up to London to follow West Ham United, Arsenal or Tottenham. In 2005-06, the Kings pulled out and Canvey voluntarily dropped into the Isthmian League Division One North. The dream was over and the club lost all of its players. King eventually turned up at Chelmsford City.

Meanwhile, about two and a half miles away, Concord Rangers were beginning their equally rapid rise through the ranks. Founded in 1967, close to Concord beach, hence the name, they swept through the Essex Intermediate League and Essex Senior League to join the Isthmian League in 2008. Most people expected this to be a fleeting moment for the little club, but they won promotion to the Premier in 2010 and three years later went up to the Conference South. They were now the most senior club on the Island, although they were attracting lower crowds than Canvey, who are now in the Isthmian Premier. A couple of years ago, Concord approach Canvey about a possible merger. Canvey spurned the offer and since then, Concord have overtaken them.

This season, Concord’s FA Cup run grabbed the headlines. They pulled off a couple of notable wins, 2-0 against Wealdstone and 1-0 at St.Albans on the way. They then held Mansfield before losing by a single goal at their 1,500 capacity Thames Road ground. It was the sort of performance that earns praiseworthy comments such as “plucky little Concord” and “Supersonic Concord”. Of course, the media love the minnow versus bigger club theme and although Mansfield are [just] Mansfield, the game represented the biggest in the club’s short history.

The cup run and the astonishing rise of Concord has got the club – and the Island – noticed. Only this week, striker Jordan Chiedozie has signed for Cambridge United. The 20 year-old son of former Tottenham winger John Chiedozie caught the eye in the cup tie with Mansfield.

How long can it go on for Concord? They are not doing badly in the Conference South and their coffers will have been swelled by the FA Cup run. In non-league football, the little club’s flirtation with the big time is [nearly always] temporary. Canvey Island’s moment in the sun, thanks to the money pumped in by a kindly benefactor, went on longer than most. It should be a lesson to others that the pitfalls can have dire consequences.

With two clubs on an Island comparable to a medium-sized home counties town, the sustainability of both at levels two and three has to be in doubt. A combined outfit may attract 500 people instead of the 250 that go to Concord and the 300 that still stand by the Park Lane club. But football doesn’t always work like that…

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