Non-League Football

They might be giants

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GIVEN I grew up in Essex and I have been watching non-league football for more than 30 years, it was perhaps surprising that I had never been to Chelmsford City until last weekend. But it was a reminder that the team from the county town of Essex once had aspirations to become a Football League club and you sense that those ambitions may still exist among some Clarets fans.

Back in the late 1960s, it was announced at our school that we would be benefitting from the experience of a “professional footballer” for our games lessons on Friday afternoons. Naturally, among football-mad kids, this generated no small amount of excitement and speculation soon started as to the name of this player. As we traded bubble gum cards, poring over images of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters – most kids were either West Ham or Manchester United fans – we wondered which one of these players might be coming to our school to pass on the tricks of the trade.

When Friday came, we were introduced to a tall, well-built man in a tracksuit. “This is Mr Fogg, he will take the boys for football every Friday,” said Mr Heath, the only male teacher in the school.

We scoured our collections of cards, but could find no “Mr Fogg”. When our games lesson started, we were keen to ask our new coach about his football credentials. “Please, sir, who do you play for?”, I enquired. “I played for Aldershot and Bedford and I have just joined Chelmsford,” he said. “Sorry, lads, I am not Georgie Best, I am just plain old Ronnie Fogg,” he replied.

But “Foggy” as we soon christened him, was great fun and we all enjoyed learning about football from him. At Christmas that year, my mother bought me my first football kit. I wanted a Chelsea strip, complete with stripe down the sides of the shorts along with the trademark number 9. I opened the present and it was an all-white kit – Leeds United. I assume that this was because an all-white kit was cheaper, so I decided that Don Revie’s ultra-efficient unit would be my number two team.

My first games lesson after the festive season and my all-white kit was being unveiled on a muddy Friday afternoon. I tip-toed onto the pitch, not wanting to get the kit soiled. “Foggy” saw an opportunity. “Here comes Di Stefano,” he said, referring to my Real Madrid colours, and made sure that I was soon muddy. “If you don’t get dirty, you haven’t been working very hard on the pitch,” he would say.

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Mr Fogg disappeared after a season or two as he plied his trade at Chelmsford. The next time I came across him was in the pages of the Rothman’s Football Yearbook where it listed his achievement of being Aldershot’s leading scorer when he played for the Shots. But as for Chelmsford, I came across them again in the very early 1970s when I happened to be in Romford on a Saturday morning. There was a commotion in the station and lots of police milling around as a gang of youngsters spilled out into the street and towards the market. Chelmsford were playing Romford that afternoon. At that time, I had no idea that non-league football had crowds that might sing, chant or even fight!

It is perhaps a surprise that Chelmsford have never had a Football League club. It’s a big place, some 111,000 people, and from a sporting perspective, is significant  – it’s the Essex county town and of course, Essex County Cricket is played there.

Chelmsford applied to join the Football League many times, dating back to the late 1930s. The closest they came in what was a very difficult process was in 1974 when they accrued eight votes to Workington’s 21. The last time they tried to get elected was in 1976. In 1976-77, former England striker Jimmy Greaves played for the club and they were one of a handful who entered the Anglo-Italian Cup, playing against the likes of Cremonese and Bari.

In 1997, they lost their New Writtle Street ground and were homeless for some time. They managed to get back to Step 2 in 2008 and no doubt they have their eye on making the National League. Melbourne Park, despite having the sort of running track that non-league fans dislike, is an impressive place. Chelmsford have put some thought into accommodating supporters behind the goal and that compensates for some of the other disadvantages of multi-purpose grounds. But behind the scenes, the facilities look very good and the club goes out of its way to be friendly.

For me, it’s an encouraging story to see Chelmsford back at home and doing pretty well, too. Just consider that the city has more people than quite a lot of Football League towns – for example, Stevenage (86,000), Accrington (50,000), Hartlepool (92,000) and Mansfield (100,000). That tells you that there’s potential to be tapped into. The pictures adorning the walls of their club bar suggest their heritage is also important and that they remember past heroes – I hope that includes one Ronnie Fogg, wherever he may be now!

 

www.gameofthepeople.com

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