The Ball is Square

Ilford FC


About the Cricklefield Stadium
The Cricklefield Stadium is a multi-use stadium which is home to both Ilford FC and Waltham Forest at the current time.  Multi-purpose of course means an athletics track runs around the pitch meaning views are poor.  The stadium, built in 1923, holds 3,500 people and consists of three fully terraced sides, one side housing a small covered terrace which is set just behind the dugouts. The main stand is opposite which has a press box and directors seating accommodating 216 fully covered although views are poor due to the athletics track.  Behind one goal is an open terrace. A tea bar is open on matchdays. With ample parking if using the High Road entrance to the ground. The ground boasts an elevated indoor viewing area from the excellent bar area.  It hosted some of the football preliminaries for the 1948 Summer Olympics.

How to get to the Cricklefield Stadium
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Although there are others, the key roads for reaching Ilford Football Club are the A406 (North Circular Road) and the A127 (Eastern Avenue) which, bearing in mind Ilford Football Club is close to the Ilford town centre will bring you to a place where you can access roads to the ground. Clubs should choose their routes based on accessing one of these two roads close to their final destination. The M25 will lead to the M11 and thus to the A406, whilst the A12 will access the A127 at Gallows Corner, Romford.

Taking the A127 route first, from the east travel towards London before coming to the Traffic Light controlled junction at Barley Lane, Goodmayes (B177) . Turn Left by taking the slip road and follow Barley Lane to its junction with the traffic light controlled High Road, Goodmayes (A118) (it is the first set of traffic control lights for traffic rather than pedestrians on that road). Turn Right and follow the road past Seven Kings station (which should be on your right) and on towards Ilford. The entrance to the ground is some 400 yards past the station with the Cauliflower pub (on the right hand side) being the point at which both coaches and those in cars or on foot should turn left into the car parks. Both on Saturday and after 6p.m. during the week, the public car park is free of charge.

The route around the M25 motorway can be a challenge, but can also be the only route that is available to clubs and by the time that the M11 is reached the worst of the journey should be over. However bringing clubs into the centre of Ilford can be a challenge and clubs may like to leave the M11/A406 at the Redbridge Roundabout and head towards Ilford in an easterly direction on the A127 using the directions above but approaching Barley Lane, Goodmayes from the opposite directions, the only problem with this is that their may be traffic hold-ups between the Redbridge Roundabout and Gants Hill especially in mid-week and there are several options at the Gants Hill roundabout which may lead the visitor off at an incorrect tangent. The trick is to remember to take the third exit on the left from the roundabout and make sure you stay on the A127 and not be tempted to take one of the intermediate right hand turns pointing towards Ilford unless you are very knowlegable about the local area.

If however the visitor stays on the A406 at Redbridge, they must take the next junction (that presents itself as a slip road) which is the A118 into central Ilford. Directed down an incline to a roundabout which you must make a 90 degree turn on moving to the centre of the carriageway to make another 90 degree turn and go down another incline to several sets of lights (beware not to go up onto the A406 again), taking up a position in the outside lane. Turn right towards Ilford Broadway but keep to the outside of the lane and once past the intermediary set of lights, stay in the middle of the carriageway to turn right at the junction that becomes visible as you rise up Ilford Hill (it is no more than 100 yards).

Once you have turned right get into the middle or inside (left) lane of the carriageway to turn left at the next roundabout into Winston Way (A118). This is a dual carriageway and you should pass along it to the first large roundabout where you should take the second exit onto a very short stretch of road where you are directed to only turn left – almost immediately to be faced with a junction when a right turn should be made into the inside lane of Ilford High Road which is controlled at that point by traffic lights. Follow straight on from these traffic lights for between 600 and 800 yards through several more sets of lights, and once again the Cauliflower pub can be seen, but this time on your left hand side. The turning into Ilford Sports club is directly opposite the Cauliflower and is signposted for ‘Ilford FC’.

The nearest station is Seven Kings which is  ½mile away. Take a right out of station, right into High Road, entrance to ground is next turning on left after Highbury Gardens.

Admission to the Cricklefield Stadium
Admission is £8 for adults, £4 for concessions, under 16’s free with a paying adult.  Programmes are £1.50.

Our last visit – March 2013

8562024643_b5e486dda7_bWhen a complete stranger addresses you for the first time with “Are you a copper?” you immediately think that you are definitely in the wrong place.  Welcome to Ilford FC.  Not the normal welcome you would expect from a turnstile operator, but this one was giggling away, sipping a Stella.  A huge grin spread over his face as he then said “I’m guilty of being an Ilford fan”.  I breathed a huge sigh and handed over my £10.

I’d been to Ilford FC before for twenty minutes.  It was enough time.  A dull 0-0 draw back in September against Thamesmead Town played in an unloved athletics stadium.  I didn’t think I would be back here in a hurry but here I was walking into the Cricklefield Stadium.

Beggars can’t be choosers in the non leagues these days.  Winter, which started back in October still had its grip firmly on the fixture list.  I was supposed to be standing on the terraces at Hayes Lane, watching Lewes take on Cray Wanderers.  But I wasn’t.  I was here.  I was loving life.  My plan B (Corinthian Casuals), C (Walton & Hersham), D and (Lordswood) had all gone the same way as Cray.  Scrambling around for another option at 2pm my eye was drawn back to Ilford.  Had I been a bit too harsh before?  I’m all for giving someone a second chance and so I headed east to the metropolis known as Ilford.

8563133430_67f68e22d8_bIlford – literally translated from latin as “Bad Bridge” have been a fixture in the non leagues for over 130 years.  Whilst they may have never hit the heights of neighbours Dagenham & Redbridge (who they can lay some family tree claim to through the numerous mergers that have taken place in the area over the years) they can lay claim to two Amateur Cup Final wins in 1929 and 1930 when they beat local rivals Leyton and the wonderfully named Bournemouth Gasworks Athletic.  But the current edition of the club have only been around since 1987.

Times are hard for Ilford.  They survive on crowds of less than 50 on most occasions, battling for the title of “least supported team in the league” with tenants Waltham Forest, and fellow relegation candidates Redbridge.  Whilst West Ham play in the richest league in the world just a few miles away, Ilford survive on a tiny budget and a massive dollop of hospitality.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.  I had mentally programmed myself not to enjoy the afternoon, rather using the opportunity to get in a game of football after a two-week hiatus.  But something was making me smile.  Deep down inside I had a feeling that this would be a good afternoon.

8563134488_8d6096f214_bThe visitors from down the A12, Witham Town, had come with a decent following.  All bar two fans were standing by the main stand and it soon became apparent why.  On the far side, surrounded by a number of flags was Witham’s number one fan, James.  Remember him from a few weeks ago when we saw them play at home versus Sudbury.  Who needs a microphone when you have a super fan like James.  He is a true non league legend, never giving up his vocal encouragement.  At one point whilst I was next to the Witham dugout one of the substitutes craned his neck to see how many away fans were making the noise.  He looked at me and said “Is that just him?”  Of course it was.

Whilst Ilford were looking nervously over their shoulder about a return to the Essex Senior League, Witham were still stubbornly refusing to give up on their play off hopes.  A win here would put the pressure back on those above them, although goal difference was a concern – they simply didn’t score enough goals.

Ilford 2 Witham Town 7 – Cricklefield Stadium – Saturday 16th March 2013
Wow, where do I start with this one?  Nine goals, three penalties and a good old fashion playing surface from the 1970’s.  It must have been touch and go whether the game went ahead but I for one are really glad it did.  Hats off to Ilford for approaching football with a Corinthian spirit of hospitality ahead of victory.  I’m sure that is no consolation when looking at the result in the cold hard light of day, but that is football.  Everyone needs to get down to the Cricklefield Stadium to watch a game.

Unfortunately it seems that neither team had anyone who uses Twitter and so I have no idea who scored any of the nine goals in this pulsating game.  Witham were the better team but perhaps not by that margin.  I can tell you the visitors took the lead from a header after 10 minutes or so.  The Ilford manager laid into his captain – “You are the tallest person on the pitch but you cannot head the ball…you muppet”.  Of course five minutes later when he went up the other end and equalised with his head the manager was a tactical genius for sending him up for the set piece.

Goals followed every ten minutes or so, with Witham having packed their shooting boots, or rather their heads. The poor Ilford keeper was powerless with each of the three Witham goals in the first half, before being sent the wrong way from a harshly awarded penalty on the stroke of half time to make the score 4-1.

I headed upstairs into the Olympic Bar and fell in love with this place.  West Ham memorabilia lined the walls, including a rare copy of the squad’s 1975 FA Cup Final ALBUM (not just a single back in those days) Hail to the Hammers.  Food was on sale at bargain prices. Pukka Pie? £1.50 Sir.  Heinz Chicken Soup with a roll?  £1.50 Sir.  Gingsters Steak Slice?  £1.50 Sir.  I think you can see a pattern here.  And the view of the ground?  Well, floor to ceiling windows certainly gave you a panoramic view of proceedings.  Best non league bar of the year (bar the Dripping Pan, of course).

8562135679_d9f94a643a_bThe second half was just a minute old when Witham were given another penalty.  Up stepped the number 7 for the second time in just a few minutes of game play and once again sent the keeper the wrong way.  Five became six when a shot from distance nestled in the back of the net.  The keeper by this stage simply wanted the game to end.  He laid on the ground, not wanting to get up and had to be helped up by his centre-back.

Game over.  Six-one.  But then the sun came out, illuminating the Witham goal and Ilford started to attack once again.  As if guided by some guilt at the two he had given at the other end, the referee awarded Ilford a penalty for a soft challenge.  Not often you see three penalties in one game, especially with all three converted.  Any hope of a comeback were then snuffled out by Witham who scored a seventh to wrap up a good day on the road for them, but one to forget for Ilford.

$(KGrHqV,!jEFDrLpLMUTBQ7ZOBhhdw~~60_12I consider myself lucky to have seen this one, along with 55 others.  Clubs like Ilford have to battle every day for survival, and it is the little touches like the amusing welcome from the chap on the gate, the warming soup served with genuine hospitality and the handshake from a fan as I left, asking me to come back one day soon, that mean so much.

Every cloud has a silver lining and for me it was listening to that inner voice on a day when said cloud dumped the Atlantic Ocean on South East London.  The same voice that also told me to buy THIS shirt.  Still can’t always be right.

Our last visit – October 2012

Some time very soon we will be up in arms about the death of another football club in London. It is a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon at 3.05pm and I have joined barely 150 other paying spectators who are watching Grays Athletic take on Needham Market in the 8th level of English football. Why are there so few fans bothered about football at this level? Well, a scan on the immediate horizon will give you a good idea.

Just as the hosts breath down the Needham Market goal in the first minute of the game, Leyton Orient are holding their own against Sheffield United at the Matchroom Stadium and the mighty Dagenham & Redbridge are probing at Bradford City defence less than 2 miles down the Rainham Road. Two nPower Football League games kicking off at the same time. Oh, and of course let’s not forget that if ESPN didn’t have their way West Ham would have been hoofing high balls into the Arsenal box at Upton Park as well at this time.

So perhaps we can see why there are only just a few hardy souls in the Rush Green Sports and Leisure Centre for this game. But it is not just Grays who face this issue of trying to compete with the big boys this afternoon. Local rivals Redbridge and Ilford are around 2 miles North and West respectively, who both average less than 70 fans for their home games, although a late postponement of the game at Redbridge doesn’t trouble the turnstile operators elsewhere. Even if these clubs were to admit fans for free I doubt they would be able to increase attendances by more than 10-15%.

That is why next week’s Non-League Day is so important for the professional clubs to get fully behind. Even if 5% of fans from West Ham, Leyton Orient and Dagenham went along to a game next weekend in the local non league area, that would boost attendances for some of these clubs by 2-300%. One percent of West Ham fans deciding to go to Romford v Soham Town Rangers would boost their average attendance from 83 to over 400.  West Ham carry a small piece in their match day programme about next Saturday with really putting their full marketing muscle behind it – could it have hurt to dedicate a page to profiling 4 or 5 local clubs?

So why am I here today? Good question.  Opportunities to come to see the Hammers these days are few and far between.  However, with Lewes out of the FA Cup already, and ESPN showing the WHU game at 5.30pm it was a perfect opportunity for a Fuller Family day out.  Westfield at Stratford City (when did that happen??? I cannot see any cathedral on the horizon), lunch at Jamie Oliver’s gaff then a bit of Christmas shopping (if I do it now I have more time for football nearer Christmas).  However, as I had been a model husband in recent weeks – such as spending last Saturday at Ikea, Current Mrs Fuller “suggested” that I could go to a game earlier, “if logistics permitted”.  What a silly question.  Of course they would.

The initial fly in the ointment was that West Ham v Arsenal appeared to have sold out online.  But a phone call to the ticket office told me otherwise.  There were tickets available in the Family Stand.  Lolly – guess what – you are coming to football and your ticket is only a bargain £23.  This added a layer of complexity into the mix as I would now have to return to Stratford to pick her up prior to the game.

So part one of day negotiated successfully.  It was strange to come back to the Olympic Park and see it still there.  You have this impression that it will have all disappeared.  From the viewing gallery on the 3rd floor at John Lewis’s you can see everything is still there, bar the Hockey Stadium which has already been dismantled.  Good times indeed.  I had chosen Gray Athletic as it was only 15 minutes away, according to Google Maps.  But East London has some of the worst traffic in any city I have visited in the world.  That 15 minutes turned into 50 minutes.  The use of buses on single carriageway roads with no bus lane is a disaster in these parts, as too are complicated junctions with wrongly phases traffic lights – such as Gants Hill roundabout.  But I had allowed plenty of time so by 2.45pm I had arrived at Rush Green.

When I heard in the summer that Grays Athletic had found a new home I was pleased for them.  They had been treated pretty poorly in the last few years.  This was a side that held its own in the Conference for seasons and won the FA Trophy twice less than ten years ago.  Then the financial problems hit of trying to take the club to the next level.  Crowds at their Recreation Ground in the centre of Grays rarely hit the 1,000 mark and they could have never realistically competed in the Football League.  They were forced to leave after failing to re-negotiate a more suitable lease with the owner and took up residence due east in Corringham, home of East Thurrock United.

Rush Green used to be the home of Ford United, the side of Ford Motor Works in Dagenham.  However, they headed north nearly ten years ago to take up residence at Barkingside, later being renamed as Redbridge when the patronage of the now US-owned car giant ended.  Romford FC moved in instead although their tenure only lasted a short while.  Since 2008 the ground had been without a tenant until a deal was done with West Ham to purchase the land with a view to moving their training facility a mile or so south from Chadwell Heath.

With redevelopment still in the planning phase, West Ham agreed that Grays could move into the ground on an initial 18 month contract.  The ground would also host the WHU development squad (the new trendy name for the reserves).  So after weeks of hard work by both clubs, the ground officially re-opened with a friendly with the Hammers in July.

Grays Athletic 1 Needham Market 1 – Rush Green – Saturday 6th October 2012
There are few grounds in England that can boast they are also home to a dog training academy, but Rush Green is one.  Alas, there was no activities going on when I arrived, but I can see this as a step in the right direction for half time entertainment in the future.  Such scenes were common place in the seventies up and down the country.  The single turnstile operator didn’t have a taxing job this afternoon, taking my £8 and marking me on a sheet to show I was the 100th fan through the gate.  Did I win a prize?  Alas, no.

Grays had started the season relatively well, sitting in the playoff spots, with the visitors just three points below.  Last season both sides reached the play off in the Ryman League North and would again be hoping for more of the same.  The first twenty minutes were played at a decent pace although neither keeper was really tested.  The home fans, standing at the top of the main (only) stand were making a fair noise, although with only 170 hardy souls in the ground a sneeze would have caused most people to look around.

Both benches were very vocal.  Gray’s management team were full of encouragement for the effort of the players, whilst the abuse from the visitors side was clear for all including the three or four young fans to hear.  It hardly takes much effort to stamp this out yet it is very rare for any referee to actually take any action.  In fact the referee in this game seemed oblivious to everything going on, except a strange incident in the 35th minute when he saw Grays’s midfielder Jake Hall raise his hands and promptly sent him off.  Most Needham players (and their two fans) were as perplexed by this as too were the Grays fans.  Unfortunately, referees do not have to explain their decisions at any level of football, which is why the whole “respect” campaign will never work.

With almost the last kick of the half Needham missed a sitter – the ball was played across the area and the Needham forward with an open goal just a few yards out hit the post.  With an extra man it would have been a fool to have bet on anything else apart from an away win.  I simply do not buy the managerial bullshit about it being harder to play against 10 men – that is an excuse used by poor tacticians who have failed to win when they have had an advantage.  Case in point – Kettering Town (another club doomed to self implode any day soon due to poor ownership) could only muster 10 players yesterday – they lost 7-0.  If a team who is equal or better than their opponents with even numbers cannot win when that number is reduced by 9% then surely that is down to the inability of the players and management to have a plan B.

Just four minutes into the second half and unsurprisingly Needham take the lead through Wilkinson.  They took advantage of the extra man in midfield, created space and Wilkinson did the rest.  I rest my case.  Although, of course I am later proved wrong when Gray’s equalise through Luke Marshall, but by then thanks to the traffic hell I have left.

All of the main routes back towards the A12 are blocked so I end up going on side roads.  Somehow I end up going towards Ilford and as I stop at some traffic lights I see a sign to my left saying “Ilford FC”.  I know they are at home and I have a ten minute window so it would be rude not to make a short stop, surely?

Ilford play at the Cricklefield Stadium, half a mile from Ilford town centre.  They ground share with Waltham Forest in the tired-looking council-owned multi-purpose ground (aka it has an athletics track).  A new bar and club house has been added to the ground but still if attracting fans to Grays was a task, then doing the same here needs magic.  As I wander in the ground I can count the spectators watching the Ryman League North game between Ilford and Thamesmead Town in less than 60 seconds.  I make out 39 spectators, including myself (The official attendance was later given as 43).  How on earth can a club survive with less than 40 paying spectators?  That is £320 in gate receipts.  If they have a squad of 15 players that would mean they would be on £20 a week and that assumes no money for the manager or coaching team.  The numbers simply do not add up.  The situation is echoed across the Ryman North where 14 of the 22 clubs average less than 100 fans.  In the Ryman Premier, joint leaders Whitehawk had just 74 fans for their game today with Wingate and Finchley, yet have ex-Football League players on their books who wont be playing for the love of the game I expect.

This game will end in a 0-0 draw and few fans who made the trip for the first time will ever return.  That in itself is another issue – little is done to try to engage the fans or make their visit one that will stand out.  Whilst bigger clubs can take some blame for not doing enough to help their little neighbours, the little clubs do not help themselves. Yet just three miles down the A118 (and throw a left down Green Street) it was a whole different world.

West Ham United 1 Arsenal 3 – Upton Park – Saturday 6th October 2012
So my trip into the world of East London football had come a complete circle.  Lolly was picked up, eventually, and we took our seats in the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand just a few minutes after kick off.  It was good to see Allardyce had started with Jarvis (why spend £10 million on a player and keep him on the bench?) and Carroll although it was clear to see from when we arrived that the tactics were still from the Charles Hughes tactics manual.  Far too often a long ball would find Carroll and he would have nobody within 30 yards of him to play the ball off to.  Parking the bus is a term that is rarely used to describe a home team’s approach to a game but it applied to this West Ham team.

In some ways can you blame Allardyce?  The Premier League today is all about winning at all costs and with more and more money being funnelled to the elite 18 it is no surprise that promoted teams have to scrap for every single point.  When you play Arsenal you know they will pass the ball around the midfield at pace, looking for the runs of the wide men, so packing the midfield was an obvious tactic to try to prevent that.  Ultimately it failed, which is no embarrassment, but Allardyce’s response of sticking to his plan even when the Hammers were 3-1 down AND then bringing on Carlton Cole shows his tactical vision as well as how West Ham will struggle this season.

The most impressive West Ham player for me was Mohamed Diame, the ex-Wigan centre midfielder who showed why a number of top European sides were interested in him in the summer.  He capped a great performance with a goal after 21 minutes when he cut inside two Arsenal defenders and steered the ball into the top corner of the net.  Against the run of play?  Probably, but it certainly lifted the full house.

The lead lasted until just before half time.  Arsenal broke again with pace, played the ball inside Demel at full back and Podolski was able to get to the by-line, cross and Olivier Giroud stole in front of James Collins to poke home.  I used to be a Collins fans when he was at Upton Park before, but his performances this season have shown a lack of pace and concentration in key areas and this was another example.

Alas, half-times at Upton Park these days are as empty as the stands at Ilford FC.  Gone are the halcyon days of the Hammerettes or the Bonnie Tyler performances.  Sullivan and Gold once promised “world-class entertainment” but instead we get extended adverts on the big screens for a 6-part new DVD about British Gangsters. “Murder, Extortion, Armed Robbery, Revenge”…I am not sure if they are talking about the DVD or paying to watch a game at Upton Park.

The second half saw West Ham try to keep possession more.  After all, if you have the ball then the opposition cannot score – right?  That only works if you can actually pass the ball under pressure.  Far too often West Ham lost the ball in the centre of midfield and you could sense that Arsenal would eventually make them pay.  Walcott came on and took advantage of a static back four to run onto a great through ball from the impressive Carzola to beat Jaaskeleinan at his near post.

West Ham should have then levelled the game when Nolan found himself clean through on goal, but decided to stop and try to beat the defender, which he failed to do.  With Vaz Te off with a dislocated shoulder and Carroll helping out in midfield, Nolan had no choice but to stop as his pace simply wouldn’t keep him ahead of the defence.

The final act was a third Arsenal goal with just a few minutes to go.  Carzola found space behind the West Ham midfield and spotted the West Ham keeper out of position and smashed the ball home from 25 yards.  Queue the resigned air of defeat from 30,000 West Ham fans as they headed for the exit.  With 60% possession and 34 shots to West Ham’s 10 you can say that result was completely justified.  But how different would it have been if we had a manager who played to win?

So my conclusion of a day of East End football was?  The landscape will have to change sooner or later.  If West Ham are allowed to move to the Olympic stadium then it could well spell the last rites for clubs like Ilford, Waltham Forest, Redbridge and Grays Athletic in the local area.  Without a restructure of the way non league funding is provided then there is no financial future for them.  Clubs should not be the play thing of one benefactor – that model has lead to disaster almost everywhere (Max Griggs at Rushden & Diamonds and George Reynolds at Darlington to name but two), but likewise the professional clubs can and should do more to help in their local regions.

Two seasons after turning my back on regular football at Upton Park I was glad to go back but do not regret my choice in where I channel my footballing energy, and I cannot wait for a trip to Hampton & Richmond Borough on Tuesday night.

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