I’m heading towards Braintree on the A120 when I decide to engage my teenage daughters in polite conversation. Of course, being plugged into the Apple grid they huff and puff as they have to take out their earphones. “You know what Braintree is famous for?” I ask them. Within seconds they have Googled the answer and Littlest Fuller tells me to “Smack my bitch up, you Firestarter”. Yep, I walked into that trap didn’t I? The answer I was looking for was it was the ancestral home of John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, rather than the town that spawned The Prodigy.
The plan today had originally been to head to Yorkshire for an afternoon as a Brighton fan at The McAlpi..doh…Galpha..sorry John Smiths in Huddersfield. But eyebrows were raised by CMF, who politely pointed out the fact that “20 out of the next 30 days out of the country and you still decide to spend a bloody Bank Holiday driving 4 hours each way to watch a game involving two teams you care nowt about”. Granted, she did have a point and so I agreed to take the family shopping. “What about a designer outlet place? There’s one in Essex, only an hour away called Braintree Freeport”. “Braintree, as in Braintree Town?” She’s quick is CMF. “Erm, I think so”, “And I bet they are playing today aren’t they?”…Plan rumbled, but accepted. You shall go to the ball Cinderella, albeit one at the Working Mens Club rather than the Palace.
With just three games left in the Skrill Conference Premier, three of the four Play-off spots are still up for grabs. With Cambridge United confirmed as runners-up to Luton Town, five teams could realistically say they were still in with a shout at a shot at a place in the Football League. Four of the five had Football League pedigree, albeit in Gateshead’s case it was over fifty years ago since they failed to gain re-election. The fifth was Braintree Town. And next week, on the final day of the season, the five (plus Cambridge United) all play each other. No pressure at all then on today’s game.
When we last visited the Amlin Stadium (then Cressing Road) back in 2009 it was relatively basic for the Conference South. Five years on and a new stand had been added at one end of the ground in order to pass the ‘A’ Ground Grading meaning that they could host Football League games but it still retains that Non-League feel. There is space behind the south stand for expansion as well as land to the west. Talk of a new stadium off the A120 has disappeared although should they reach the promised land it would undoubtably return. Average crowds of less than 1,000 suggest that it may be an investment too far, but when was logic ever applied to football clubs (George Reynolds and Darlington anyone?).
Should the Iron reach the Football League they would join a small band of clubs who play in towns with a population of less than 45,000. Accrington (35,000), Morecambe (33,000) and Fleetwood (25,000) are all towns that support clubs who have risen through the Non-Leagues although it is still possible that either Accrington Stanley or Morecambe could well return back there this season. Braintree’s rise hasn’t been fueled by a rich benefactor in the case of Fleetwood Town but by hard graft and a manager who knows a thing or two about the game.
Alan Devonshire is a TBIR legend. We’ve met him on numerous occasions since he dazzled English football as a flying winger for West Ham back in the 1980′s through to his stint as manager at Hampton & Richmond Borough. Always willing to have a chat about football after the game over a beer, he doesn’t hold a grudge or any bitterness that his International career was curtailed by a serious knee injury, or that manager’s at clubs in the 92 haven’t had to learn their apprenticeship the same way he has, starting Maidenhead United fifteen years ago. He took over at Braintree Town in the summer of 2011 after the club had won the Conference South and has kept them in the top half of the table for the last two seasons. But this year could be the year that they move to the next level.
The visitors Dartford had their eyes on Premier League safety. After a horrendous run of ten consecutive league defeats in late 2013, Dartford have had to fight against the spectre of relegation. With a week of the season to go they were still in the bottom four, with a gaping goal difference that could be the deciding factor. The indulgence in chocolate over Easter would have to be put on hold for a few days yet.
With the female Fullers safely deposited at Braintree Freeport I walked to the ground, passing a police cordon (apparently someone was murdered close to the ground on Thursday night) and joined a long queue of fans at the turnstiles. Had football fever ignited the locals? Was Devonshire the true Firestarter? Which manager would be able to Breathe easily? With both teams desperate for a win for completely different reasons it was bound to be a dull scoreless draw.
Braintree Town 1 Dartford 0 – The Amlin Stadium – Friday 18th April 2014
As the game entered the 94th minute and the home side holding onto their one goal lead, Dartford threw the ball into the box once again. Suarez (Mikel alas not Luis) saw his shot deflected away by Iron keeper Hamann diving to his right. The rebound went straight to Jim Stevenson who forced a second outstanding save and potentially three points that would bring ultimate joy to Braintree and despair to Dartford. A Darts fan behind me turns to his mate “I’d rather we go down than bankrupt ourselves chasing an unsustainable dream”.
It wasn’t a classic, with some interesting tactics deployed by both teams that lead to frustration both on the bench and on the terraces. Braintree liked to get the ball wide but virtually every single cross into the penalty area was played over the lone striker to the far post where there was no one attacking the ball. Dartford on the other hand kept playing the ball through the middle where the two Braintree centre-backs snaffled out any threat. Either instructions from the respective benches were not getting through or they simply didn’t see the error of their ways.
The Braintree fans weren’t big in number but made themselves heard in the covered terrace that ran along the side of the pitch. Whilst the early possession gave them something to cheer about it took 25 minutes before the roof was raised when Kenny Davis picked the ball up 25 yards out and struck the ball sweetly, giving Alan Julian in the Dartford goal no chance.
At this time of the season fans are easily distracted by what is happening elsewhere. Standing between the two sets of fans I was getting the stories from both ends of the table. One set of fans were bemoaning the events unfolding at Alfreton Town where the Grimsby Town team coach had been delayed in traffic. “S’not right innit” said one. “They’ve got a competitive advantage ain’t they?”. “I reckon they should stop our game until they catch up” (which would have meant a delay of around 40 minutes). Of course our mastermind had forgotten the fact that Braintree play at 5:15 away at Barnet on Monday night, thirty minutes after all of their rivals games have finished.
Going back to the issue of the ground. The official attendance was 1,200 – boosted by a fair contingent from Dartford, but it did seem that the club struggled. Long queues to get in, get food, programmes sold out, a 15 minute wait for a beer at half-time. Whilst you can never deny a club a place at a higher level, the fans will notice a massive difference in their match-day experience. The club will have to jump through more hoops and comply to more rules (no changing ends at half-time for instance) than today. Some of the reasons why people love the Non-League game will be swiftly and sharply curtailed.
The second half saw both teams try to play with more positivity. The home side were causing Darts keeper Julian some concern, although not as much as the stick he was getting from the home fans behind the goal. Julian had made the mistake in the first half to respond to “banter” and that immediately made him a target for all the wit and wisdom of the fans. Any save was deemed a fluke or lucky. When he called for a ball and failed to get it, he was derided with donkey chants. The lot of a goalkeeper.
Scores elsewhere meant at one point Braintree had risen into the play-off spots, so the three points became vital. Despite the last-gasp scare they held on. Three points kept the dream alive for the Iron and the nightmare a reality for the Darts. It hadn’t been the best of games but it was a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine. Oh, and I managed to pick up a couple of bargains at Freeport too.
“Well I’ve been working hard to reach me sales target
To earn a few quid for an away trip down to Margate
I’m gonna blow my commission tomorrow on all me football family
We catch the train at eight so don’t be late, were off to see the sea”
We are the luckiest fans alive today. Who else wouldn’t want to be spending a day at the sunny British seaside today. It is fair to say that prior to the release of the fixtures back in July, Margate away in either the earlier part of the season or towards the end would have been perfect. In the last two season we had been down to the Isle of Thanet in October and January, so it was time that the fixture computer was kind to us. What better way to celebrate our promotion than a knees up on the golden sands and sewage outflow pipe of the Costa del Thanet.
Well, as our big sweaty transatlantic friend still warbles, two out of three ain’t bad. We were going to get our day in the sun in April at Margate, and ‘that’ sign was still warning us about staying away from the pipe carrying ‘stuff’ into the sea, but alas there was to be no promotion party. In fact our recent, and by recent I mean the last half of the season, has been a bit of a mystery. With a third of the season gone we were one place and two points outside the playoffs. However, the harsh weather, which first kicked in in October for us seemed to throw a spanner in the works and since then we have taken on average a point a game.
I still get the “sack the board” chants aimed in my general direction by those who still don’t quite get this community club aspect and realise that I can’t be sacked by the fans (voted out in October, indeed) but we will finish the season in a stronger position both on and off the field than last season and can look forward to next season when the regeneration project will commence on The Dripping Pan which will ultimately give us a new viable revenue stream.
Our hosts today will also be looking forward to next season. Next chairman Bob Laslett has already shown his intentions by bringing former AFC Wimbledon manager Terry Brown. Rumours of weekly budgets in excess of £5k will certainly make them the favourites come August, but I hope the club don’t go down the all too familiar road of Non-League boom and bust.
Whilst the ambition for the owners may be a rise up the leagues, it has to be sustainable. Redevelopment work continues at Hartsdown Park and that will give them a solid base, but if they do “build it” who will come? Only twice this season has the attendance at home broken the 500 barrier and both of those were due to the sizeable away support of Dulwich and Maidstone. Success on the pitch will bring people through the gate – in their one season in the Conference Premier where they played in Margate (as opposed to the two seasons in Dover) they did get over 1,100 on average, fuelled by away fans making a new ground visit. Today that number has decreased by 66%. With three other Ryman teams almost on their doorstep, plus Gillingham and Dover playing at higher levels close by, it is hard to see where these new supporter will come from.
“Along the promenade we spend some money
And Cynical finds a spot on the beach that’s simply sunny
Big Deaksy will enjoy himself digging up the sand,
collecting stones and winkle shells to take back home to Dan”
But today is all about a bloody good day out. With our final away game on Easter Monday at Harrow Borough not really ticking all of the boxes for a “Jolly Boys Outing”, today was all about a few beers, some sunshine, dare say a couple of giggles and if we were lucky, a Non-League dog or two. Heck, even a long overdue three points would be as good as a Kiss Me Quick hat, a lick of a lolly and memories of the Radio 1 roadshows down here as teenagers….happy days.
It is fair to say that the walk from Margate station to the town centre has seen better days. It is a crying shame to see so many places that I remember as a kid boarded up. Dreamland, still home to bits of the UK’s oldest rollercoaster stands desolate, like a Scooby Doo spooky location. There has been years of talk about turning it into an interactive museum of the rollercoaster but that day seems along way off.
Thanks to ClubSec Kev’s inside knowledge we bypassed the Pound shops and arrived at The Lifeboat pub, possibly the best secret in the town with its range of over 20 local ales. Lunch consisted of a few pints from the Westerham and Whitstable Breweries, sharing our memories of what we had been doing on the 15th April 1989, the day of the Hillsborough disaster which every club would be respecting today.
Margate 1 Lewes 1 – Hartsdown Park – Saturday 12th April 2014
One taxi ride later and we were at Hartsdown Park. You can see signs of the foundations being laid for the redevelopment and I’d hope they retain the existing structure at the Hartsdown Road, although essentially it is only a two-sided stadium with nothing at the far end bar the railing around the pitch and portakabins on the right hand side.
The minute’s silence was impeccably observed and it was fair to say that reflective atmosphere was adopted by Lewes in the first half as they struggled to make any impact at all on the game. They lacked fight, bite, bustle, hustle and thrust. Margate, with their megabucks budget didn’t really dominate, although they forced over ten corners yet really made little chances in the opening period. In fact their opening goal came direct from a Sunday League style mistake by Malins who perfected an air shot when trying to clear and 31-club (THIRTY ONE!) Jefferson Louis made no mistake from ten yards.
Lewes were forced to shuffle the pack once again with an injury to Andy Pearson meaning midfielder Logan had to drop to centre-back and Jack Dixon coming on. Sometimes such events turn games and this is exactly what happened in the second half. Lewes started to believe that they could get something from the game and pushed forward, using Crabb and Wheeler out wide. In the 65th minute the ball found its way to Wheeler on the edge of the box, he shimmied, twisted, turned and dropped his shoulder to confuse the defender, putting him on his arse and then slotting home.
Margate were rattled and Cynical Dave smelt victory and told the Margate keeper and centre-backs so. A few minutes later a miss hit shot from Dixon/Malins/Crabb (we can’t remember who exactly) bounced up on the hard surface and into the net. Referee gave the goal but the linesman deemed the retreating Nathan Crabb and Luke Blewden in an “active” offside position despite no appeals from the Margate team. Even the keeper agreed it was a harsh decision.
A point apiece was probably a fair result for a game of two halves. The Lewes Lunatic Fringe partied like it was 1999 on the way back to the station. It had been a great away day and our reward was a family size bag of imitation Frazzles and a few bottles of Pedigree whilst we reminisced about the season. Days out like this make the wind, rain, snow, sleet, floodlight failures, abject defending and poor refereeing decisions all worth it.
“Down to Margate, you can keep the Costa Brava, I’m telling ya mate I’d rather have a day down Margate with all me Lewes family”
Grantham Town v Frickley Atheltic…this wasn’t in the original plan. If I could have followed that dream then I would have been recovering from Energie Cottbus v Dynamo Dresden, nursing a hangover and preparing for Hallescher versus Hansa Rostock along with Danny Last, Kenny Legg and The Real Stoffers. Unfortunately work has got in the way recently and so I was swapping a “lively” atmosphere in the old East Germany for Lincolnshire. Whilst Stoffers was sending me pictures of a heaving Erdgas Sportpark, I would be rattling around in the South Kesteven Sports Stadium with 200-odd other fans.
I could have been watching thousands of pissed-up German fans singing, chanting and waving stuff around in unison. I could have been watching the Dresden fans trying to take on the finest German riot police. I could have been wolfing down bockwurst, brautwurst, bierwurst and the odd knackwurst. I could have been indulging in Hefeweizen, Helles and a cheeky Dunkle. But who really wants that when, and I quote the oracle that is Wikipedia about Grantham:-
“Grantham has the country’s only ‘living’ public house sign: a beehive of South African bees situated outside since 1830″
Grantham is also notable for having the first female police officers in the United Kingdom, notably Edith Smith in 1914, and producing the first running diesel engine in 1892, and the UK’s first tractor in 1896. Take that the EFW turncoats! I can see you seething with jealously from here.
But I am focusing on the positives. I’m in the English sunshine, with Northern Steve enjoying a game at a new ground. Yes, it may be an athletics stadium, and the crowd may be a bit on the thin side but I am doing what I love most, well almost. And if I really am bitter and twisted about not being in Germany I can have a wander down Sankt Augustin Way, named after Grantham’s twin town in Germany and feel marginally better.
When I looked into the history of The Gingerbreads they seemed to major on one event. Yes they once finished 2nd in the Southern League and could have applied to promotion to the Football League, back in the day when it was all done via a wink and a nod, and yes two years ago they won the Northern Premier League South Division but ask anyone about what they may know about Grantham Town and they will almost probably maybe say “Isn’t that where Martin O’Neill started his managerial career?”. Yes, indeed.
But let’s look back at that golden period at the start of the 1970′s. Successive promotions through the Midland and Southern League North saw them take their place in the Southern Premier Division in 1973. An impressive FA Cup run that saw them beat Kettering Town, Hillingdon Borough and Rochdale saw the Gingerbread’s host Middlesborough, then as now in the second tier of English football in the 3rd Round of the cup. A crowd of over 6,500 in their old London Road stadium saw them bravely go down 2-0 but the gate receipts allowed them to kick on in the Southern League and they finished runners-up to Dartford but decided not to apply for a place in the football league.
O’Neill joined the club in 1987 after retiring from playing in 1984 and managed them for two Southern League (Midland) seasons before heading to Shepshed Charterhouse. Few who saw his team or management style would have ever anticipated that he would go on to manage at the highest level. But that was then, and this is now.
Unlikely to be relegated, unable to be promoted or make the play-offs, there is a danger that their season would fizzle out in the April gloom. It’s not often that Northern Steve and I get the opportunity to have an afternoon out without our respective wonderful ladies so I am sure it would be the best game ever…and at no point would my mind be wandering eastwards to the land of beer and brautwurst. Honest.
Grantham Town 2 Frickley Athletic 1 – South Kesteven Sports Stadium – Saturday 5th April 2014
For the best part of the first hour of this game I didn’t actually make any notes. It wasn’t the best of halves, with both teams struggling with a bobbly pitch and the difficulties that come with playing in a “multi-sport arena”. Frickley looked the brighter side but neither set of fans had anything to shout about. Things livened up at half time, with the very smart bar rammed full of away fans singing songs about their love of Grantham’s favourite daughter, Margaret Thatcher and accompanying every Sky Sports half time score with a oooh or an ahhhh. In fact I was quite happy to stay in the bar drinking a couple of pints of Hophead and watching the Grand National rather than emerging for the second half. We looked longingly at the score at Chorley versus Droylsden and wished we were there, with the home side already seven (SEVEN!) goals to the good.
But sense prevailed eventually and we emerged for the final twenty minutes. Whilst Frickley were dominating play, they needed a win. Other scores were putting relegation pressure back on the The Blues (playing in yellow – after all the clash of colours with a team in red was just too much) but with eight minutes to go a ball was played over the top and Hinsley ran onto the ball and smashed it home.
The good mood of the away fans lasted just four minutes. A corner to the far post was driven back across the goal and Lister stuck out a foot and diverted it into the net. If that was harsh for Frickley then injury time brought heartbreak as a free-kick from the left hand touchline was met at the far post where Michael Towey headed home to give the spoils to the home side.
It hadn’t quite been up there with the atmosphere at Energie Cottbus versus Dynamo Dresden, nor had my pint of Hophead been served by a buxom young lady in a dirndl. My sad face was plain for Northern Steve to see. “Cheer up lad…we have a night out in Lincoln to look forward to. I mean who in their right mind would rather be in Leipzig?”…..