The trials of a nomadic existence

GRAYS Athletic play at a very nice stadium. Brand spanking new, great facilities and a football-friendly artificial surface that performs very well. The only problem is, the club is ground-sharing at Aveley, a town of 8,000 people some four miles from Grays.

They’re in their second year of a two-year agreement, and like most tenants, there is a degree of uncertainty about the future. Grays have been away from their home town for eight seasons now and the club’s loyal band of followers are hankering for a return to the town. As nice as Aveley’s Parkside ground is, as the old song goes, “there’s no place like home”.

The longer Grays are away from their ancestral seat, the links become more and more frayed. Of course, if and when the homecoming takes place, a “rebirth” exercise can rekindle public interest, but as fan bases get older and memories start to fade, any club that lives on the road runs the risk of an extinguished flame. Slough Town, a bigger club than Grays, went travelling for some time, playing at Beaconsfield in their latter years as tenants, before returning to an excellent new ground. If you have to borrow a ground, the Aveley stadium at Park Lane, on the fringes of Belhus Park, is as good a location as any – Glyn Balmer, a club director (until after the game I attended when he tendered his resignation), showed me around the stylish backrooms with no small degree of pride. “Wherever we go next, it will be hard to live up to this – we’re getting too used to it.”

Grays, as a town, has changed quite dramatically in the past decade. EssexLive reported in January this year that Grays South was the “most dangerous place in Thurrock” , but interestingly that same report listed Upminster (in Havering) as the fourth most intimidating area. As someone who knows Grays of old, and spent many hours in the Thameside Theatre and State cinema (the latter a classic of the 1930s), the town was never pretty, and a little hard at the edges, but never what you would call “dangerous”. Admittedly, my father was thrown through a shoe shop window in 1944, having been mistaken for a German (he was Danish and landed at Tilbury on a boat from Norway, fleeing the Nazis), but safety in Grays was never an issue when I lived in Thurrock.

But there’s no denying the area has its social problems. It is no coincidence that Nigel Farage, the pop-up Brexit opportunist, was frequently pictured speaking in Thurrock and the borough’s “leave” vote was in excess of 72%. Everywhere I went, the same message was delivered, “too many foreigners and not enough jobs”. If Grays return to the riverside town of 30,000-plus, they may find it a somewhat different place from when they were last there.

In places like South Ockendon (the village/town of my youth), Aveley and Grays, the soundtrack has become very multi-cultural, with voices from central and eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. It does make you wonder if football clubs could actually leverage this by getting, for example, some Polish or African players from this influx to tap into local interest?

Regardless of sensitive politics and demographics, Grays officials like Glyn Jarvis are hopeful that people who have expressed an interest, or have temporarily suspended their allegiance, will throw their weight behind the club once more. At present, they are not forthcoming, but at a new ground, with a new focus, perhaps corporates and individuals may come forward. “The thing is, we need them now,” said Jarvis, with a hint of concern.

On the field of play, Grays are also in limbo. Now in the Bostik League North Division, they are perched behind the play-off zone but have found it hard to win at home. A week before I attended their game in the FA Trophy against Sevenoaks, they had picked up their first victory of the season at Parkside against Great Wakering, almost throwing-away a three-goal lead before winning 4-3. “The story of our season, we cannot play for 90 minutes,” said one Grays fan.

They’ve certainly had some disappointment already this season, losing 5-0 at home to Maldon & Tiptree and also going out of the FA Cup very cheaply at FC Romania of the Essex Senior League. Crowds have been lack-lustre, with two of their league games falling below 200. However, with October 13 being Non-League Day and a bright, sunny afternoon, the conditions for a decent crowd were in place. With only a few people from Sevenoaks – who were playing their first-ever FA Trophy tie – the crowd was 206, which was 18 people more than watched Aveley, Grays’ landlords the night before. Two games in two days, such are the benefits of an artificial pitch.

The match was an excellent advertisement for the non-league game. In the first half, Grays went two-up thanks to a couple of fine goals from their impressive Portuguese winger Joao Carlos. The wind may have assisted with the first strike, a free-kick from outside the area, but it was a spectacular effort all the same.

Sevenoaks had a tough task to turn it around, but their manager, Mickey Collins, said he was still confident at half-time that his team could come back. Collins, a chirpy character, turned out for Millwall, Charlton, Gillingham and Dartford in his playing days and has an infectious personality that clearly rubs-off on his players.

In the second half, Sevenoaks played superbly, pulling a goal back in the 55thminute through Kevin Sawyer and then equalising in the 72ndwhen Alec Fiddes shot home after Grays’ defence was found wanting. Another defensive lapse gave Sawyer the chance to put the visitors ahead two minutes later, and finally, in the last minute, the same player secured his hat-trick after breaking through the middle. Final score 4-2 in Sevenoaks’ favour.

Grays were, naturally, disappointed with the outcome, but they had played their part in an entertaining game that as Collins commented, “if you had paid to watch, you’d be pleased.” How very true.

So what does the future hold for Grays? As mentioned, they are in their second year at Aveley and they have to see where they go beyond that. They need their own ground, be it in Grays or close to home. Just a mile or so from Parkside, Thurrock’s old ground lies dormant, but has a big price tag attached to it. That would be a ground, but it wouldn’t be Grays. Neither would any possible tie-up with Tilbury. And there’s ongoing talk of a site on the north side of the town.

In the Grays programme, the club revealed its projected financial position and the reality of being a community-owned non-league club. Such transparency is refreshing at this level, although it also serves to underline the challenge of running a club – Grays have an expected gap between income and expenditure of around £ 500 per week. That runs in at £ 20,000 for a season – it is not difficult to see how clubs can find themselves, over a period of a few years, in difficulties, unless they are bailed-out or propped-up by individuals. Against this financial backdrop, Step 4 is something of an achievement in itself, let alone promotion.

It’s clear to see there’s frustrations at Grays, they’ve not been dealt a particularly good hand of cards and they’re in a borough that has got more than one football club – it is difficult for Thurrock to show support for any one club. However, this is a football institution with a long history and it represents the largest town in Thurrock, where a lot of football-loving, working class people still live. I’ve got a soft spot for the Blues as it was the club that introduced non-league football to me, and what’s more, I was born and raised in the area. It saddens me to see a club like Grays continually worry about their prospects. Once the people that hold it together start to drift away or become disillusioned, then the real problems begin. I sincerely hope that never happens and that by the time I next visit GA, there’s more positive news on the horizon.

The decline of hinterland football

Grays Rec
YOU CAN TAKE the boy out of Thurrock, but you cannot take Thurrock out of the boy. I’m used to Essex, the county of my birth, being denigrated as a tasteless place full of aggressive people, indeed I have witnessed those qualities myself, but I cannot help feeling a little saddened by the decline of Thurrock football.

Thurrock was an area that rose under Margaret Thatcher as a bastion of working class aspiration. The people were mostly at the lower end of those lists created by socio-economists, but they refused to be subdued by it. It was the land of the sovereign ring, the digital watch, the fast car, the fake tan and the lager top. When I started working in the City of London, people from Thurrock – myself included – were derided as “Essex cheap labour.”

Social commentators, along the lines of the pseudish Jonathan Meades, would tell you that when Thurrock man made money, he flaunted it – characterised by the strategic planting of stone lions on his driveway, feverish acquisition of personal number plates and an over-reliance of branded personal effects such as Burberry raincoats and LV luggage. Essex man had cash wadded-up in his back pocket and he had his own dialect – estuarine English. There, that’s all the stereotyping out of the way.

Essex represented the new breed of football man

As for football, Thurrock has non-league clubs in abundance: Aveley, East Thurrock United (a Johnny- come-lately club), Grays, Purfleet (another arriviste) and Tilbury. Outside of Thurrock, you have Canvey Island (the old land of the Kings), Billericay Town and Hornchurch (another past tale of excess). It wasn’t quite the North East hotbed, but Essex, in the late 1980s and 1990s, represented the new breed of football man – brash, loaded and not afraid of testing the accepted ideals of the Corinthian. The establishment non-league clubs didn’t take too kindly to Essex man making good on the football field.

It should come as no surprise that Thurrock is tailor-made for football. It’s on the fringes of Greater London – despite some people tagging Thurrock as the “east end”, Greater London ends at Havering. That’s not to say that Thurrock isn’t full of folk that have come out of “the old East End” or at least had grandparents from places like Bromley-by-Bow, Poplar, the old docklands and Stepney. South Ockendon, for example, had a huge estate built in 1969 that housed the London refugees, and it was popularly called “the GLC estate”.

There’s a large contingent of West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal fans along the Thames. It was always a stronghold of Hammers’ support – Geoff Pike, who played almost 400 games for West Ham, was a pupil at our school. The Upminster to Barking train was always full of people going to home games at Upton Park. Doubtless it still is today.

The public allegiance to London clubs (and, by the way, Southend United is in the opposite direction) has always weighed heavy on non-leaguers in Thurrock. But in the 1980s, when Britain started to open-up its economy and council house ownership changed the property landscape forever, a cocky swagger and self-confidence seemed to sweep across the Thames hinterland. As Thurrock started to benefit from the huge shopping village known as Lakeside, the area acquired a very different persona from the traditional dourness of Thameside Essex. Working class businessmen with a “few bob in their pocket” started to get interested in football.

Aveley FC - On the move soon?
Aveley FC – On the move soon?

In Aveley village, you turn into Ship Lane and drive for a few minutes to a site that used to be known as Bushy Bit, and latterly Thurrock Technical College. There’s now a hotel with a football ground attached to it. The club was originally known as Purfleet, although that village-cum-town, once renowned for being a beauty spot on the Thames, is some distance away.

Purfleet’s driving force was – and still is – Tommy South, a well known local figure. Tommy and Harry South acquired the derelict college and created the Thurrock Hotel, which is just a goal-kick away from the traffic hurtling down the A13, Thurrock’s signature road. It is the borough’s route 66.

The club was formed in 1985 and played in the Essex Senior League. With the indefatigable South – 24 hours spent at the ground –  at the helm, Purfleet performed miracles to work their way through the lower levels of the non-league pyramid, often playing before miniscule crowds. The problem was that you really couldn’t walk to Purfleet’s ground, unless you wanted to risk your neck under the wheels of a suped-up Escort.

Ten years after formation, Purfleet were an established Isthmian Premier club, and by 2005-06, they were in the Conference South. They also featured on TV in the FA Cup and generally, were seen as a club punching above their weight. .It could never be sustained, given the small crowds and, dare I say, over-reliance on too few people to keep the club going.

Aveley – potential home of a new super club?

Purfleet became Thurrock as non-league restructured itself. This was a strange move and was bound to upset the club’s neighbours. In hindsight, it would be interesting to hear if anyone now regrets that decision. The renaming would have been more appropriate if Thurrock had created critical mass through a merger. For example, with Aveley Football Club just one and a half miles away, was there not a chance of a merger of the two clubs to create a Thurrock “super club”?

Thurrock fcAveley are right at the end of their village, almost in the Kennington estate of roads named after rivers – Usk, Severn, Tamar and Teviot – and a hefty swing of the golf club away from Belhus Park. Around 18 months ago, Aveley got the go-ahead for a new ground at the park, with the aim of starting 2015-16 away from Mill Road. It all seems to have gone quiet on the subject, but there has been some resistance to development in Thurrock. Earlier this year, another plan to build more than 500 homes in Aveley was rejected with the message that people in Thurrock are “sick and tired of over-development adding increasing strain to our infrastructure.”

Strangely, that development in Aveley was going to benefit Grays Athletic and not their current landlords Aveley. This would have provided the funding of a new ground at Treetops School for a club that is a classic boom and bust story. When I was young, nobody really watched the Blues and their Recreation Ground home was what was best described as “characterful”. But I recall the huge floodlights that towered over the tight terraced houses and chimney pots.

The club came alive in the 1980s when the Saxton twins, Jeff and Fred, led a team from the Athenian League right up to the Isthmian Premier. Grays were long-ball exponents and heavily criticised for it, but the Saxton’s made optimal use of the resources at their disposal and in Micky Welch, they had an outstanding striker.

Grays acquired a second wind and won promotion to the national Conference in 2005. The club was then under the leadership of Mickey Woodward, former chairman of Barkingside and the archetype “self made man”. To quote Grays fans, he was an “east end geezer made good”.

Woodward’s reign was full of drama and high ambition. Grays won the FA Trophy in 2005 and 2006 and finished third in the Conference. Grays’ Recreation Ground was refurbished to accommodate a higher level of football. Crowds went up to 1,500 and words like “Football League” entered the local dialogue.

But the zeal turned sour. Woodward, who had a “love-hate” relationship with the club’s fans, and had threatened to walk away on more than one occasion, left Grays in 2009. He had earlier taken over as manager. In 2010, Grays finished bottom of the Conference and lost their ground. The Rec was owned by Ron Billings, a farmer-come-property developer, and when he died, the family wanted to sell-up. Grays, who had effectively been bailed-out by Billings in the 1980s when they were at a very low ebb, found themselves without a ground after their 20-year lease had expired.

They had to quickly agree a groundshare and it was East Thurrock United who came to the rescue. Unfortunately, the size of the ground meant that Grays had to drop down to Isthmian League Division One North. It was a humbling experience – crowds quickly went below pre-Woodward era levels to around 200.

Since then, Grays have played at Rush Green, near Romford, and now Aveley. On paper, they are still Thurrock’s top club, but without a home of their own, Grays cannot build solid roots. That may change soon, for a few months ago, Grays announced that they had the money to build a new ground. This came after something of a public appeal for funds to ensure the club could move back to its home town. Interestingly, the Aveley development that was kicked-out by Thurrock Council was proposed by Mickey Woodward’s company.

The decline of attendances in Thurrock

  Shift 2015-16 2014-15 2013-14 2012-13 2011-12 2010-11
Aveley -36% 117 89 80 105 181 181
East Thurrock 0 170 217 191 171 174 169
Grays Athletic -5% 211 203 230 201 235 223
Thurrock -67% 101 97 92 199 292 309
Tilbury -30% 71 72 64 89 111 102

Across the cycle – 40 years of Thurrock football

  15-16 10-11 05-06 00-01 95-96 90-91 85-86 80-81 75-76
Aveley IL1N ILP SLE IL3 IL3 IL1 IL1 IL1 IL2
ETU ILP IL1N ILP IL2 IL3 ESX ESX ESX n/a
Grays ILP IL1N CONF ILP ILP ILP IL1 AL AL
Thurrock IL1N CON-S CON-S ILP ILP IL2N n/a n/a n/a
Tilbury IL1N IL1N ESX IL2 IL2 IL2N IL1 IL1 IL2

AL – Athenian League; CONF- Conference National; CONF-S – Conference South; ESX – Essex Senior League; Isthmian League – P Premier, 1 Division One, 1N One North, 2 Division Two, 2N Two North, 3 Three; SLE- Southern League Division One East.

New grounds all round?

As well as Aveley and Grays, East Thurrock United have been talking of acquiring a new ground. They only moved to Corringham in the late 1980s – I recall their first games at Rookery Hill when I lived in Stanford-Le-Hope. They’ve come a long way, but they look poised to move to Billet Lane in Stanford, presumably to be closer to a rail link.

East Thurrock - set for Billet Lane?
East Thurrock – set for Billet Lane?

That leaves Tilbury, the poor relation of Thurrock football, although they do own their Chadfields ground. It has been a long time since the Dockers had anything much to cheer about. They did reach the FA Cup third round in 1977-78, losing 4-0 to Stoke City. There was a player named Nicky Smith who spent a long time (1975-1986) with the club and was always known as “the promising Nicky Smith”. And then there was Joe Dunwell, who also played for Dagenham.

Tilbury, as a town, benefitted from the closure of some of the Port of London’s docks. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tilbury became one of the biggest container ports in Europe. It was, and probably still is, a tough place and the home of the Tilbury Trojans, a skinhead gang that you didn’t want to be on the same train as if you were heading up to London Fenchurch Street.

Tilbury have struggled for a long time, hence they dipped into the Essex Senior League in 2005-06 for a single season. Their crowds are small, struggling to get above 100. It’s difficult to see what sort of future they have.

Ripe for a merger

Five teams in a relatively short space suggests that Thurrock is over-clubbed for the modern age. A couple of mergers could create two decent-sized clubs that split the borough. East Thurrock United and Tilbury could form one club and Aveley and Thurrock another. You can hear the protests already, but with crowds as low as they are, how many people really care about these clubs’ continued existence?

Distance in miles between clubs (Grays is taken as Grays, the town)

Population Gate % Aveley ETU Grays Thurrock Tilbury
Aveley 8,000 1.46 X 12 5.5 1.6 8
ETU 15,000* 1.13 12 X 8 10 8
Grays 36,000 0.59 5.5 8 X 4.8 3
Thurrock 12,000 + 0.84 1.6 10 4.8 X 8
Tilbury 12,000 0.59 8 8 3 8 X

*Combined population of Stanford-Le-Hope and Corringham
+ Purfleet

Grays, with a far bigger population than the other clubs, can stand alone quite comfortably, and with a new ground, could expect to pick-up more support than they currently enjoy.

With the right marketing and investment, the east can rise again

What next for Tilbury?
What next for Tilbury?

When you consider the clubs’ average gates versus population, only Aveley and East Thurrock are currently getting more than 1%. A meeting of minds may create the substance needed to compete. The only alternative is the inflated investment of a benefactor and as Thurrock’s clubs know, that can only be short-term and result in the type of rise and fall that [sadly] epitomises much of non-league football.

I said earlier that Thurrock is not part of London, but it is dangerously close to London and non-league clubs in London struggle to win over football fans that prefer to walk around with West Ham, Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool shirts on their back. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Thurrock is a football area, make no mistake, and given the right [realistic] investment and strong marketing, the men from the Thames hinterland can rise again.

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