Non-League Football

Tilbury revisited: Still exotic

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IT SOUNDS unlikely, but I always felt there was something vaguely exotic about Tilbury. As a child, Tilbury meant sea-faring vessels arriving from far-flung places or going off around the world. A rare treat was sitting in a car, close to Tilbury Fort and watching the ships creep along the Thames Estuary. Tilbury promised travel and adventure.

There was history,too. In 1588 Queen Elizabeth addressed her troops at Tilbury – “My beloved people” – as England came under threat from Spain. And in the 1950s, Tilbury gave thousands of West Indian migrants their first glimpse of their new home as they walked down the gangplank of the Windrush.

A few years earlier, my father had also arrived in Britain via Tilbury as a refugee from Nazi-dominated Europe. Along with his friend, Kurt, he looked down the road from Tilbury railway station and saw blacked-out Grays in the distance, and said: “Hvor fanden er vi?”, which loosely translated from Danish means, “Where the f*** are we.”

Thurrock clubs all seem to want to move to a new ground

Tilbury doesn’t get good press, and there’s no doubting it appears to be a hard town. It’s also a town that has been shaped by the presence of the docks that included one of the biggest container ports in the world. Around 1968, I went on a school trip to the Port of Tilbury which had just benefitted from huge investment. Today, if you walk from Tilbury Town station to Tilbury Football Club, a hike of around a mile and a quarter, you pass streets that bear witness to the commercial heritage of the town – Calcutta, Montreal, Ottawa, Malta, Quebec, Auckland, Bermuda and Wellington are all immortalised by roads named after the one-time pillars of empire. It’s not unlike many other port towns in that respect.

Tilbury’s big rival as a container port was Rotterdam. As I have outlined in Game of the People before, the big difference between the two locations was that Feyenoord represented Rotterdam, while a non-league club was Tilbury’s footballing flag-bearer.

Life has been better for “The Dockers”, but in 2015-16 they are enjoying a good season. Chadfields, their home that is tucked away off St. Chads Road, has seen better days, but it’s a big site and the club actually own their ground – unlike many non-league clubs. “We paid for this with the profits of the game with Notts County,” said a Chadfields veteran. “But it’s too big to look after. We need to move on.”

He wasn’t the last person to tell me that the club wanted to relocate. “We thought we were on the verge of a deal, but then the land we were moving to was declared a flood plain, so we can’t move to that area,” said one official, pointing across to the marshy area where the club was supposed to go.

That same area is where a new school sits, Gateway, which is the re-born St. Chads. I played football against this school back in the 1970s and they were tougher and bigger than kids from South Ockendon’s Culverhouse. “The school is already sinking,” joked a Tilbury fan as I picked up a matchday programme. From a distance, it looked a slick new seat of education for the town.

There has been talk of a new stadium for Tilbury for some years – I found a story from the Thurrock Gazette that dated back to 2008. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a team in Thurrock that is not talking about a new home. “Bloody Grays want the council to help them out,” complained one fan. “They’ve got some neck.”

There’s plenty of rivalry between Grays and Tilbury. I recall a couple of fierce local derbies in the 1980s that attracted crowds of 700-plus. Tilbury now draw around 70 to Chadfields, although when they played host to Welling United in the FA Trophy before Christmas, they had almost 200 in the ground. “It’s hard to get people interested these days,” sighed the veteran Docker.

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It wasn’t always like that. In 1949-50, the height of the post-war boom, a crowd of 5,000 crammed into the club’s ground to see them play Gorleston in the FA Cup. They won that game and were drawn away to Notts County in the first round, who at the time had the great Tommy Lawton playing for them as well as Frank Broome and Jackie Sewell. Tilbury were members of the London League and had been runners-up in that competition in 1946-47 and 1947-48. They had won through the FA Cup from the Extra Preliminary Round and had beaten Sawbridgeworth, Leyton, Upminster, Harwich, Barking and of course, Gorleston.

The game at Meadow Lane captured the imagination of the locals. Around 30 coaches travelled up from Tilbury and some fans even went to the Midlands by aeroplane. The media said Tilbury were “as keen as mustard” and had been fortified by hot baths and “a good rub down”. In their line-up was the highly-rated Norton Whipps (which is not a Cotswold town, by the way) and free-scoring George Thompson. Notts County won 4-0, but the press was full of praise. “Tilbury made a match of it.”

It wasn’t until 1977-78 that the club had similar national exposure when they reached the third round proper to face Stoke City. They lost that one 4-0 as well, to a Stoke side that included the late Howard Kendall and Garth Crooks. Tilbury’s line-up included Nicky Smith, a player who I recall as always being referred to as “promising” even when he was not so young. Still, he scored over 130 goals for the club in an extensive career.

Tilbury’s form at Chadfields has been excellent this season

In the years that followed, Tilbury drifted away and after being members of the Isthmian League from 1973 to 2004 and the Southern League in 2004-05, they were relegated to the Essex Senior. They spent just one year at that level and since then, they have been in the Isthmian Division One North.

Under Gary Henty, Tilbury have had their best season since 2012 when they lost in the play-offs after finishing third. Their form at Chadfields has been excellent, although both league defeats at home have been against local rivals, Aveley and Thurrock. They are among the leading scorers in the division and they have two or three players who know how to put the ball in the net – Kurt Smith, Tony Martin and Emiel Akien.

Chadfields looked a little different since my last visit when Game of the People turned up for the game with Haringey Borough. The main stand, which on my last trip, had a roof that flapped in the wind (it always seems to be windy in the seats on the St. Chads Road side), had obviously had a bit of an overhaul. It offers a good view of the game, if you can deal with the chill wind sweeping across from the Chadwell St. Mary (my town of birth) side.

Tilbury lost an 18-game unbeaten run in the league when Aveley won 2-0 at Chadfields on January 19. “Nothing seemed to go right for us on the day,” said Gary Henty. “Aveley came and did a job. We will have to bounce back quickly.” They seemed to do just that, with three clean sheets and a draw at second-placed AFC Hornchurch.  Haringey Borough, however, were struggling and sat in 18th place before travelling Thames-side.

The game, played on a bumpy and muddy pitch, was fairly uninspiring. Haringey started well, with Anthony McDonald causing some problems for the Tilbury defence. But the home side almost scored in the 11th minute when Jack Carlile struck the crossbar with a powerful effort. Matt Game also had a good opportunity when he brought the ball down well and sent a low shot that was easily stopped by Ashley Harris. Haringey’s Rakim Richards also missed a sitter. The second half became a little bad tempered and Haringey were reduced to 10 men when Richards was shown a straight red. Tilbury couldn’t break down the visitors’ defence but in the closing stages, Tony Martin had the chance to win the game but mis-fired from close range. A goalless draw was frustrating for Tilbury, but at least they kept a clean sheet for the fourth consecutive game.

So, 30-odd years after my last visit to Chadfields, the result was the same – 0-0. In fact, I realised that I have seen Tilbury play four times and have never seen them score. And despite the warning to “keep your bag zipped up”, by the elderly Dockers’ fan, all was well. Sometimes reputations can be far removed from reality. I would rather remember Tilbury as being somewhat “exotic”. Whatever happened to those posters at Tilbury Riverside?

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twitter: @gameofthepeople

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