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 Non-League 100: Grays Athletic 2004-06 – a kind of boom and bust

grays-2THURROCK is a borough full of football people, but many of them prefer to watch the likes of West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal. In the 1990s, teams from the area started to acquire some ambition, not altogether unrelated to the rise of clubs from Billericay and Canvey Island. Grays Athletic, which was always considered to be Thurrock’s leading club, until Purfleet (later Thurrock) came on the scene, had a golden period in the early years of the 21st century.

It almost looked too good to be true and indeed it probably was, but Grays had a three-year spell where they won the FA Trophy twice and went so close to securing a place in the Football League! But by 2010, Grays were in reduced circumstances and playing in front of crowds of little more than 200. So, what went wrong.

In 2003, Grays went full-time, a bold move for a club that was attracting crowds of barely 300 people. They picked up a lot of young players from academies, but they were also reputed to be paying, in relative terms, considerable sums of money to players. This was on the eve of the somewhat flawed restructuring of non-league football, extending the Conference to three divisions. At the end of 2003-04, Grays found themselves in sixth place in the Isthmian Premier which placed them in the new Conference South.

Achievements

In their new surroundings, Grays saw their gates rise to an average of 568, and on the field, they had an excellent season, winning the league with 98 points and losing just four games. Mark Stimson, in his first managerial position, was an advocate of attacking and entertaining football and it showed – Grays scored 118 goals in 42 games. In  addition, Grays won the FA Trophy at Villa Park, beating  Hucknall on penalties after a 1-1 draw. The Blues had beaten Burton Albion, Exeter City, Altrincham, Havant, Sutton, Windsor and Great Wakering on a long and glorious run.

The following season, Grays started life in the Conference National with a 15-game unbeaten run. Moreover, crowds went up to an average of 1,400 per game as the Grays public started to buy into the project started by director of football Mick Woodward. The 2005-06 season saw Grays finish third in the Conference and qualify for the play-offs to the Football League.

The semi-final first leg, at Halifax, was a disaster as the home side took advantage of Grays’ defensive frailties to race into a 3-0 lead after just half an hour.  They came back to 3-2, but they were up against it in the second leg when Halifax took the lead early on. Grays levelled in the second half through Michael Kightly and went ahead through John Nutter, but a penalty levelled the scores once more. As much as Grays tried, they could not save the day and they lost 5-4 on aggregate.

A few days later, there was considerable consolation as Grays retained the FA Trophy, beating Woking 2-0 at Upton Park. Grays could scarcely have had a tougher path to the final, slaloming their way past Aldershot, Kidderminster, Hereford, Dagenham & Redbridge and Exeter City to reach the final but at West Ham, they played open, attractive football to beat the Surrey side. The Daily Telegraph, so impressed by Grays, commented: “the stunning performance of Stimson’s side gave the east side of London something to celebrate”.

The players

The eldest player in the Grays side was goalkeeper Ashley Bayes, in his early 30s when he joined the club from Hornchurch. There were other members of the squad that had previously played for Hornchurch – centre back Jamie Stuart and central midfielder John Martin were among them. One of Grays’ key players was John Nutter, a fast, attacking full back who joined from Aldershot. Midfielders Stuart Thurgood and Michael Kightly were former Tottenham youngsters. Thurgood, skipper of the team, dominated the centre of the park in the 2006 final against Woking. Glenn Poole, who scored one of the goals, arrived from Thurrock in 2005 but had been at Southend earlier in his career. Grays’ strength was their fleet-footed attack, Dennis Oli and Aaron McLean. Stimson commented after the Woking game: “Over the 90 minutes we probably just had a little bit too much movement for Woking. I always fancy us to score more than the opposition – if they get three we will get four.” One interesting member of the Grays squad was a very raw youngster named Gary Hooper, who went on to play for Celtic and is currently with Sheffield Wednesday.

The team that beat Woking was: Ashley Bayes, Andy Sambrook, John Nutter, Jamie Stuart, Stuart Thurgood, Dennis Oli, John Martin, Aaron McLean, Michael Kightly, Glenn Poole, Christian Hanson.

Aftershock

Mark Stimson resigned 48 hours after the FA Trophy final. An ambitious man, he gambled on being offered a chance to manage at Football League level. He told the local media: “I made my mind up after the Trophy win. The performance was so good and the whole day was special. I was devastated after going out of the play-offs. I really thought we would get into the league. The opportunity was there and I’m not sure it will come along again.”

His words were prophetic, for Grays would never fly so high again. In fact, in 2008, the club announced a 50% cut to its playing budget and by 2010, were bottom of the Conference. They went straight to the Isthmian Division One North, although at one point, it looked like they would be heading for the Essex Senior League. They also lost their ground and have spent the last seven seasons ground-sharing. The future may be a little brighter now as the club is in negotiations for a new home, but the period since 2004 is a warning to any club that becomes a little bit too ambitious. That said, Grays fans will never forget that short period of unprecedented success.

www.gameofthepeople.com

X marks the spot for United London

hackney

WHETHER you like it or not, TV programmes like X Factor and Britain’s got talent are very popular and watched by millions. The audience participation aspect of these programmes is quite contagious, if sometimes rather contrived.

Audience engagement in football doesn’t always get treated in the right way. I cannot help feeling that some football authorities adopt a kind of “games for the chimps” approach, throwing balls into the crowd for fans to bounce around, the synchronised chanting counting down to kick-off and other patronising gimmicks.

But how about fans selecting a team? In some ways, it’s a throwback to the past when selection committees used to pick the team to play on the coming Saturday. It was a concept that still hung around non-league football until the 1960s, maybe later at some clubs. A few years ago, Ebbsfleet were playing around with this idea through the MyFootballClub scheme, but I don’t think the fans ever got to pick a team – proving that it’s a difficult thing to pull off.

Actually, decision-making by consensus, generally, is not easy, although it is something that has been championed in corporate life in countries like Germany. For football, it is extremely difficult, because in a room of 10 people, you will likely have 10 different opinions that have been moulded by personal likes, prejudices and dislikes.

That’s why it will be interesting to see how a new club fares in the coming season. It’s called United London FC and in 2016-17, they will play in the Essex Alliance Premier League, with their home games on Hackney Marshes in East London. The man behind it, Mark North, is as keen as mustard – he must be, he was standing at Liverpool Street station in the City of London this week, dressed in full football kit, trying to conjure up support for his venture!

United London FC are, to quote their website, “the world’s first managerless football club”. They are giving the club’s supporters and backers the chance to select their team.

Where they differ from other system-challenging ventures is that Mark and his colleagues have no axe to grind. Clubs such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester were formed out of mistrust and frustration, but Mark says United London FC are not “against the regime” in any way. He says the club can offer some distraction from the glamour of the Premier League and focus some attention on grassroots football.

United London will compete against the likes of Chingford Athletic, Rainham Working Men’s Club, London Falcons and the team they kick-off against on September 3, Old Esthameians. You sense that Mark North cannot wait for the action to get started.  He believes he has a number of players who could play at a higher level – no surprise given that around 700 players are released from clubs at the age of 18. What happens to these lads?

Some of them may well be heading United London’s way. Mark North’s squad is mostly young and some may need time to adjust to playing adult football. Mark is certainly saying the right things at this early stage, proving he’s already familiar with the game’s lingua franca, urging a team ethos where everyone “plays for each other”. He wants to be in a position to challenge for the title once his squad settles down.

We should all hope that Mark and his family – his wife is the club secretary – have a good start to this brave project. Personally, I will give anyone who stands outside a mainline railway station at 8.30am on a busy City morning, in club livery, the benefit of the doubt. Good luck to United London!

www.gameofthepeople.com