FROM the stand at Aveley FC, the landscape you see is somewhat bleak. As the dusk settles in, you look across the marshy terrain to see industrial Thurrock in all its glory. The mass of lights put you in mind of Marrakech’s jamaa el fna, that inferno of lamps, lights and late-night shopping (!). With Lakeside close to Aveley, there’s a certain similarity, albeit on a less exotic scale – no performing snakes in West Thurrock.
Aveley, once referred to as “village” by local residents, is the temporary home of Grays Athletic, who despite a decline in fortunes and loss of their ancestral home, are still the “biggest” club in Thurrock. Some people believe Thurrock to be a town, but it’s a borough made up of places like Grays, Tilbury, Aveley and Stanford-Le-Hope, not to mention nearby South Ockendon, the adolescent home of Game of the People.
Dulwich Hamlet were the visitors when we traced our roots back to grey old Thurrock – well, those fans that managed to get a train from London Fenchurch Street without the usual problems that plague travelling at a weekend in Britain. The railway network is using all the marketing tools available to its management and blu-tacing posters that picture a dirty-faced engineer claiming he’s working while everyone is enjoying their Christmas. That’s fine, but it is a back-door way of saying, “they’ll be major disruptions over the holiday period”.
Dulwich are Britain’s leading “hipster” club, according to The Guardian
According to that doyen of Dulwich fans, Mishi Morath, who bumped into me before the game, “we won’t have many here as they’re stuck on a train.” Morath has been one of the driving forces behind Dulwich’s rebirth. Twenty years ago, they struggled to get 200 people through the Champions Hill gates – in 2013 they were reaching 700 and the past two years have seen attendances averaging over 1,000. What’s more, the club has almost become a social-cum-political movement. The Guardian called Dulwich Hamlet, Britain’s leading “hipster” club, whatever that means. There are two clubs that, wherever you go, you come across stickers or daubings proclaiming their uniqueness: Clapton and Dulwich. I was in a pub in Spitalfields on the fringe of the City of London only a week ago and precariously plastered above the cracked porcelain of the urinal was a Dulwich sticker.
Dulwich [village] has long been a chi-chi location for the City’s monied classes, but the club’s rising popularity and “movement” probably has little to do with that.
What’s unique about Dulwich is their kit – pink and blue. They couldn’t be more au courant if they tried – pink shirts are frequently used to express support to various charities and also the gay community. Dulwich have already linked up with Stonewall FC and played an “anti-homophobia” game to highlight the cause. Morath, who “came out” some years ago to his football friends, has been instrumental in trying to remove the prejudice against homosexuality that still exists in the game. More clubs need to adopt the stance of Dulwich Hamlet.
Their hosts, Grays, were going well earlier this season, but recent form hasn’t been too good, although a midweek 4-0 win at Staines rekindled hopes of a play-off place. Bradley Tomlinson netted a hat-trick in that game, his first goals for some time. When I saw Grays at Hanwell in the FA Cup in October, I was impressed with him and also his striking partner GB-Dumaka.
Before the game with Ryman Premier League leaders Dulwich, Grays sat in ninth place, but the league table was very congested, with Dulwich on top with 43 points and Grays and Canvey in ninth and 10th place respectively with 37. It’s going to be a tight race for medals.
Grays started the game as if they meant to give Dulwich a hard time. On what was a bumpy pitch, there were few clear-cut openings. But Grays made the early running, with Joao Carlos going close with a shot that was cleared off the line by Matt Drage, and in the 17th minute, they won a penalty. Carlos was again involved, upended by Ryan Moss just inside the area. But the spot-kick, by Harry Agombar, was easily saved by Dulwich keeper Phil Wilson.
The first half was lively, but failed to ignite. After the interval, with more Dulwich fans arriving from their journey on the Fenchurch Street line, the visitors showed a bit more verve. In the 51st minute, the impressive Dean McDonald race through and struck the woodwork with a fierce left-foot shot. Four minutes later, he scored. taking advantage of some hesitancy in the Grays defence and shooting low past Lamar Johnson.
Then the game exploded a little. Grays were awarded a penalty for a tackle by Jordan Brown on Alex Addae. Dulwich were incensed and there were plenty of heated exchanges before and after Tomlinson netted the equaliser. Dulwich lost Ashley Carew, who received two yellow cards in the post-penalty debate and then their assistant manager, Junior Kadi was also sent to the dressing room amid recriminations.
The Dulwich bench occupants did themselves no favours with their behaviour after the goal and manager Gavin Rose was lucky he didn’t immediately follow his number two – he did eventually.
Dulwich had the last laugh, however. A final minute free kick from Damian Scannell floated into the area and Grays keeper Johnson was unable to reach it as it sailed into the net. The Dulwich faithful went wild as their players piled on top of each other like a public school scrum. The goal won the game, which ended with some alpha-male posturing and pushing and shoving. A scruffy finale, but a reasonable game.
And so, back to London, sitting among legions of Essex men in Christmas jumpers talking about West Ham United. Oh, the joys of the festive season….