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.

NLD, the new Boxing Day?

Hit the road, Trey – Charles, worth every penny of anyone’s admission. Photo: Peter Else

SINCE NON-LEAGUE DAY was introduced some years ago, sceptics suggested that it would fizzle-out and no longer benefit from the “novelty factor”. Not so, for increasingly people are discovering their local non-league club for the first time through NLD.

It is arguable that NLD has become what Christmas matches used to be – an opportunity for the local community to come together. While matches on Boxing Day have become a hindrance to some people, largely due to family commitments and sub-standard public transport around holiday times, Non-League Day has been cemented in the calendar.

Non-League clubs have made extraordinary efforts to attract new customers on NLD, offering lower admission prices, discounts for season ticket holders of Football League clubs and “pay what you want” schemes. Accompanied by imaginative publicity campaigns, this seems to have worked. But is it all really necessary?

NLD takes place on those infuriating weekends called “International breaks” when we are subjected to poor quality international football. However, these breaks do provide the opportunity for the non-league fraternity to scoop-up some temporary support. Do clubs really have to lower prices to make NLD a success, should they not have more confident in their product? I don’t think prices should be reduced for that purpose, as the support they are mostly reaching out to is already used to paying extortionate prices for tickets. So instead of £40 they pay £10? Seems reasonable to me.

However, by reducing prices, and creating a false scenario, non-league clubs are sending a signal that their current pricing might just be too high, which I firmly believe is the case. If you’re comfortable with £10 for step three football, then why reduce it to appeal to supporters who are already shelling-out multiples of that to watch Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham? “Pay what you want” certainly has its benefits, but I sense that it is not the pricing that attracts people to the game, but the underlying feeling that this is an “event” that shouldn’t be missed.

And this is where Hitchin Town made such a good job of NLD2017. Those old wooden terraces were packed with people coming out to take a peek of what’s really behind the big trees in Bedford Road or what lurks inside those gates in Fishponds Road. Old supporters, some coming from as far afield as Cyprus, returned to catch-up on the club’s activities and local journalists, who may well have been paying a visit for the first time since the glory days of 1994 (Hereford) and 1995 (Bristol Rovers), stood precariously on the ramshackle terracing, swigging beer from plastic glasses, realising that non-league is “the essence of football” after all. In Hitchin, the old Rhythms of the World festival, when it was held among the ancient streets, was very much a community affair before it went corporate. There was a hint of that around Top Field on NLD – with more than 750 people in attendance.

But what of the game? The first half was pretty average, but lit-up by two goals from the veteran Brett Donnelly, one a textbook header, the other a slow-moving sequence that saw him finish with a crisp shot. Stratford Town, their opponents, got worse as the game wore on.

If Donnelly was the man of the first 45 (he also hit the bar just after the interval), then Trey Charles was the star of the second. He came on late in the game, but he livened things up and tortured the Stratford defence with his unstructured runs down the flank and into the penalty area.

Charles was initially credited with the third Hitchin goal on 78 minutes when he slalomed his way through the Stratford defence and shot across goal, but it was Connor Vincent that actually scored. With three minutes to go, Charles was at it again, but this time, he followed up after his first effort was saved to get on the scoresheet. The Hitchin equivalent of “ultras”, a combination of late middle-aged regulars and a band of curious youngsters, enjoyed that one. So did Charles.

The crowd went home happy. Hitchin not only demonstrated that their early season wobbles were over, but they also put on a bit of a show for a large crowd – something they often fail to do. And Non-League Day, once more, was a resounding success.