AN HOUR BEFORE kick-off, Hanwell Town Football Club was a hive of activity. There was a buzz in the air, and it wasn’t the constant hum of traffic from the nearby Western Avenue – a racetrack of a road that makes you feel decidedly uncomfortable when you walk alongside it, like shark-infested water – but the prospect of the big FA Cup tie.
But there was another reason. Hanwell had a special guest for their FA Cup third qualifying round tie against Grays Athletic. Greg Dyke, the chairman of the FA, was gracing the club with its presence. It was enough to send Hanwell officials reaching for their blazers and club ties. As Game of the People arrived, BBC London’s representative was explaining to his audience that he had not had the chance to interview Dyke. Even the turnstile operators were still talking about Dyke’s presence with some enthusiasm.
Inside the ground, Grays’ fans had already arrived and had claimed the clubhouse. There were some familiar faces around that had followed the Essex Thameside club from the days before their “boom and bust” period in the limelight. Grays were never especially well supported when they played in the Athenian and Isthmian Leagues, but they enjoyed a period of well-earned success under the track-suited and sandalled duo of Fred and Jeff Saxton, towering twins who always seemed to be smiling. Under the Saxtons, Grays rose from an under-achieving Athenian League outfit to the Isthmian Premier, spurred on by the goals on Micky Welch, Tony Mahoney and Delroy Rhoden
It would be easy for Grays to fade away in their current circumstances
Then something extraordinary happened. Grays acquired some “resources” and climbed into the national Conference. They also, remarkably, won the FA Trophy twice, in 2004-05 and 2005-06. In the latter of those seasons, they finished third in the Conference. But the club imploded, the money dried up and in 2011, Grays found themselves without a home. The lease on their Recreation Ground stadium, which had been owned by wealthy farmer and football idealist, Ron Billings, expired and the club was forced to lead a nomadic existence. They currently play at Aveley, but they’ve also played at East Thurrock and Rush Green.
It would be easy for people to lose interest in the club and for Grays to fade away. But they do seem to have a loyal following. “Fifty shades of Grays,” said the flag that accompanied the Blues’ fans to the Western Avenue. Actually, the way their team plays is far from grey, on the evidence of their display against Hanwell, they are quite an enterprising outfit. Before this game, they were sitting in fourth place in the Ryman Premier Division. “We’ve got pace and power up front and we’ve started the season well,” Grays’ manager Mark Bentley told me.
As for Hanwell, they are in their second season in the Southern League Central Division. They’re an old Spartan League club and won the Spartan South Midlands League in 2014. It’s a club that probably struggles to win over the local population, although the huge banner that faces the Western Avenue is arguably one of the prime advertising spots in the neighbourhood. The shame is that those seeing it are hurtling past on that shark-infested racetrack.
Hanwell, who had already gone through three rounds in the FA Cup, average just 100 people per game, but for the visit of Grays – “The biggest game in our history” – they were expected three or four times that figure. And their expectations were more or less realised.
Dyke’s presence aside, the attendance was swelled by refugees from Premier League clubs like Chelsea. In fact, I recognised an old face from Stamford Bridge in the former manager of the old Chelsea Supporters Club shop in Fulham Road. He told me it was more than 30 years since he ran the programme side of the shop, a regular haunt for me in my teens, and we both shook our head to acknowledge our disgust at the way times moves on so fast. There were a few others from London clubs dipping their toes into the non-league world for a day.
Dyke, after being interviewed to death and watered in the Hanwell boardroom, took his place in the press box. His presence gave some of the locals the chance to make good-humoured remarks about the FA, although I never heard a mention of Michael Platini or FIFA, which would have been more in keeping with current affairs. He was keen to mention that England had now won nine consecutive qualifying games and were on the verge of making history. I looked at the games England had played in that sequence, and pondered the strength of the opposition. You would expect a run like that.
The game was entertaining and it was clear that Hanwell were fired-up for the tie. “We have a plan,” said their manager Phil Granville. That plan nearly came good in the first five minutes when Granville’s black and white striped men were awarded a penalty. The ball struck the arms of Grays defender Sean Cronin, but the spot-kick by Harry Newman was easily saved by Grays’ keeper Lamar Joseph.
Grays’ two front men, Demebi Dumaka (known as “DD”) and Bradley Tomlinson, looked promising in the early stages- the duo had both scored a hat-trick in the previous round against Hullbridge Sports (6-0 win). But it was Jay Leader that gave them the lead in the 17th minute, heading home after Cronin’s first effort had been cleared off the line.
While Grays were still congratulating themselves, Cronin slipped up and Hanwell’s diminutive striker, Denilson Vincente, raced through to level the scores.
“It’s like the Alamo – or space invaders”
Vincente was involved in the brawl that sparked off in the early stages of the second half. It all got a bit nasty and Vincente was lucky only to get a yellow card, likewise Grays’ James Stevens. With calm restored, Dumake almost gave Grays the lead again when he controlled the ball well from a Jey Siva cross and volleyed over the bar from just inside the area.
For much of the half, Grays camped in Hanwell’s half, “It’s like the Alamo,” said one of the Hanwell officials in Dyke’s ear. “Or space invaders”. Certainly, Hanwell were living on their nerves, but their substitute, Ricky Pither, added a bit of muscle to their efforts and went close with a spectacular volley.
It looked as though Hanwell had done enough to earn a replay when disaster struck in the 89th minute. Kacinkevicius, who had done so much to keep the visitors at bay, fumbled a cross and as Cronin came in to meet the loose ball, he brought the Grays defender down in the area. Dumake scored in style to break Hanwell hearts. It won the game.
“We’re gutted,” said Phil Granville, whose team walked off to a standing ovation. “To lose it like that is hard, but that’s football.” Mark Bentley, meanwhile, was already thinking of the next round. “There’s a Sheffield United or Portsmouth out there if we can get through the next round. The magic of the FA Cup. That’s what we keep telling the lads.”
As I left the ground, the static traffic waiting to get onto the Western Avenue, a man in a van, aware of the importance of the game, called across to me. “How did they get on, mate?”. “Grays won 2-1,” I replied. “Oh bollocks,” he quipped. It was much better than that.