Non-League Football

The Rookery Hill blues

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EAST THURROCK UNITED are making something of an impact. Riding high in the Ryman Premier League, with designs on a stab at promotion to National League South, they are currently the leading club in the borough of Thurrock.

It had been 30 years since I first visited Rookery Hill. When the club moved to Corringham, I was living in Stanford-Le-Hope. I saw one of their first pre-season friendlies in their new home, against Leyton Orient. I was quite enthused about a senior football club coming to my locality, but then we moved, so I was never able to build a rapport with the Rocks.

Needless to say, I have watched their progress since the mid-1980s when they played in the Essex Senior League. Corringham, after all, has just 9,000 people and Stanford-Le-Hope 7,000, so they don’t have a big audience to call upon.

The area has changed substantially since I left. For a start, you cannot see the River Thames any more. In the past it was dominated by Shell, but now Dubai Ports (apparently, according to my taxi driver) have taken over and have built so many structures in the river you can barely see the water.

The area was a target for first-time home buyers in the 1980s, although people used to warn you that, “the whole place could blow up” at any moment due to the oil and gas works along the Thames. And there was the ever-present flame of the “cracker” that came from one of the Coryton chimneys. House prices were lower in the area because of the presence of Shellhaven, so we were told. Corringham was also the place where a member of the pop band Culture Club lived – Roy Hay, who was a hairdresser when I first moved to Stanford.

East Thurrock worked their way into the Isthmian League and reached the Premier Division in 2005. They were relegated in 2008 but in 2011 won promotion again. They’re in their fifth season back in the Premier, but 2015-16 promises to be their best-ever campaign in the league. Last season they had an excellent FA Cup run, reaching the first round before losing to Hartlepool United.

They’ve been in great form recently, unbeaten in 10 games and had won their last three when Game of the People turned up at Rookery Hill. Second in the table, they’ve got people talking about a possible promotion. “They’re doing well this season,” proclaimed the local tax driver. “Not bad as they don’t get many people down there.”

Crowds at Rookery Hill are sub-200, but their last two – v Dulwich 311 and Canvey Island 215 – have been reasonable. With such a good run, it was no surprise that over 250 turned up for the game with Ryman Premier new boys Merstham.

East Thurrock’s Sam Higgins had made headlines recently, scoring two hat-tricks in three games, the most recent in the 5-2 win at Harrow Borough in midweek. Higgins,25, is a prolific goalscorer and has also had spells with Concord Rangers, Chelmsford City and Bromley. He had hit 30 goals before the game with Merstham.

I reported on Merstham’s win the Ryman play-offs at the end of last season, so I was familiar with the club and manager Haydn Bird. “We’ve got a weaker team now,” said one of the travelling fans before the game. “We’ve lost a few players, but we are doing ok in our first season in the Premier.” Merstham were 14 points above the drop zone although they had played more games than almost everyone in the Premier.

Certainly when the game did get underway (delayed due to a late referee’s assistant), Merstham held their own against an East Thurrock side that had netted 11 goals in three games.

Higgins the goal-machine had the chance to score an early penalty, but screwed his effort wide, which some East Thurrock people felt was due to the Merstham keeper, Josh Smith, trying to distract him. The referee clearly felt so, too, because he booked him.

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The quality of the game was affected by a strong wind, which took the ball in all sorts of directions. East Thurrock had the upper hand in the early stages, and when they went ahead on 31 minutes it was no surprise. Higgins was the scorer, prodding home after a corner had come flying across the area. The striker then appeared to have a quiet word with the floored goalkeeper!

But the visitors equalised in the 38th minute, Tutu Henriques bundling the ball into the net from close range after good work on the flank by Michael Abnett.

In the second half, Merstham seemed to grow in confidence, with their front men, Fabio Saraiva and Charlie Penny causing problems. It was the impressive Penny that won the game for Merstham with 19 minutes to go, his well-driven shot taking a slight deflection as it beat East Thurrock’s Lithuanian custodian Lukas Lidakevicius.

An excellent result for Merstham, and a bit of an anti-climax for John Coventry’s side after their recent sequence of results and increased attendance. To rub salt in the wound, leaders Dulwich Hamlet were also beaten, which meant that Hampton & Richmond jumped two places to take top spot. They’re still in the race, though, and while manager Coventry will have no talk of play-offs, the club is clearly in the ascendancy.

And that could be helped by a new ground. To watch a game at Rookery Hill, you really need a car (unless you’re perched on the doorstep) as the plethora of parked vehicles in the approach road indicates. But the club is hoping to move to the Billet Field in Stanford-Le-Hope. The local council has agreed to sell the site for £340,000, according to a press cutting I caught sight of. So, in all probability, that was my last visit to Rookery Hill.

And so concludes my Thurrock series that has taken in Grays Athletic, Tilbury and East Thurrock. A few months ago, I wrote about the decline of Hinterland Football. I can vouch that it’s far from dead – and if East Thurrock have their way, they could just be the flag-bearers of the borough at Step 2. I will watch with interest…

www.gameofthepeople.com

twitter: @gameofthepeople

Related stories:
The decline of hinterland football

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