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Non-league Football

Grays Athletic

About Rush Green
The old Ford United ground has been rescued from disrepair and is now home to Grays Athletic.  The whole site was purchased a few years ago by West Ham United with a long term plan to turn the grounds into their new training and academy centre, moving a mile south from Chadwell Heath.  Grays have an 18 month initial lease on the ground which is shared with West Ham’s Development team (reserves to you and me).

It has one small but tall main stand that sits astride the half way line and a small covering on the far side of the pitch.  Apart from that there is 5-6 steps of terracing on either side of these two structures.  Behind each goal there is simply a concrete path.  It is relatively open to the elements.  A small snack van is located to the side of the stand.  The bar and club house aren’t accessible during the game nor can beer be brought into the ground.

How to get to Rush Green
From the A13 at the Elm Park turn off (A1311 Marsh Way).  Go around the roundabout and under the A13 then straight across next roundabout.  At the traffic lights turn left into the A1306.  Follow the A1306 until you see McDonalds on the right and turn right immediatley after it into Ballards Road.  At the roundabout with The Bull on the left, take the first exit.  Go past Dagenham East Station and continue straight through several sets of traffic lights until you reach the large roundabout next to Dagenham Central Park.  At the roundabout take the second exit (A124) which is Wood Lane but becomes Rush Green Road.  After around half a mile you will see the ground on your left, where there is ample off-road parking.

From the M25 either J28: Take the A12 towards London or J29: Take the A127 towards London. The A12 and A127 meet At Gallows Corner, where you should stay on the A12 towards London. At the Moby Dick junction of the A12, turn left into Whalebone Lane North (A1112. Continue at the next junction into Whalebone Lane South (A1112. Continue past the McDonalds (on the right) and at the next junction turn left into Wood Lane. At the roundabout take the first exit (A124) which is Wood Lane but becomes Rush Green Road.  After around half a mile you will see the ground on your left, where there is ample off-road parking.

The ground is well served by bus routes 5, 103, 128 and 175 which can be caught from Romford Station or market, all stopping just yards from the entrance to the ground. The 128 can also be caught from Ilford and the 103 can be caught from Rainham.

The nearest railway station is Romford. There is a cab office just outside the station and bus routes 5, 103, 128 and 175 all stop close to the station exit. The ground is a few minutes away by taxi and around 8-10 minutes away by bus.

Admission to Rush Green
Admission this season is £8 for adults, £5 for concessions and under 14’s are £1.  Programmes are £2 and available inside the ground.

Our last visit to Rush Green – 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.

Grays AthleticJust 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.

Grays AthleticRush 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 AthleticGrays 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?

Grays AthleticIlford 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.

Grays AthleticIn 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.

Grays AthleticAlas, 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.

The old ground

Ground Name: Recreation Ground
Capacity: 4,100 (1,000 seated)
Address:Bridge Road, Grays, Essex, RM17 6BZ
Main Telephone No: 01375 377753
Fax No: 01375 391649
Club Nickname: The Blues
Year Ground Opened: 1906
Pitch Size: 110 x 71 yards
Home Kit Colours: Sky Blue & White
Official Web Site:

About the New Recreation Ground
The New Recreation Ground is not new at all. It has actually been home to Grays for over a hundred years, although it has been redeveloped a number of times since. Whilst the capacity today is 4,500, the record attendance is over 9,500 for an FA Cup tie with Chelmsford City. It is a miss mash of different stands with one relatively new 5 row covered stand that runs along the west side of the stadium. Behind the south goal is the covered indoor pitch and in front of that is five or so rows of terrace. The away end is an open terrace that covers 50% of the north end, and along the east side is a couple of shallow terraces and the infamous VIP stand.

Recent residential developments overlook the ground, with balconies providing flat owners the chance to watch the game for free.

How to Get There?
If you can negotiate the very confusing one way system in Grays town centre then follow signs for “The Beach” around the Morrisons roundabout and take a left into Clarence Road. At the roundabout at the end turn right into Bridge Road. You can then park anywhere in this area. If you are coming by train then Grays station is a 5 minute walk away. Simply turn right out of the station and follow Crown Road under the bridge and around the corner. Then take a right into Clarence Road.

How to Get A Ticket?
With a capacity of 4,500 and average attendances hardly ever breaking the four figure mark, tickets for all games are available on the day from the ticket portakabin on Bridge Road. Ticket prices are £13 for Adults and £3 for Children. This allows you to either stand on the open terrace at the south

Grays AthleticAbout Our Last Visit – Grays Athletic 2 Totton 0 – 25th October 2008
Every year, like quite a few football fans I vow to start a “road to Wembley” and follow a team all the way from the opening qualifying rounds up until the final. And of course like most other people I find better things to do with my weekends. However, with West Ham not playing until Sunday I had a free Saturday, and with CMF wanting to start from Christmas shopping I scanned the fixtures looking for a local game. And there it was in all of its perfection. Just 3 miles from the retail cathedral of Lakeside was the Blue Square Premier club Grays Athletic, at home in the FA Cup final qualifying tie against FC Totton.

The New Recreation Ground is another one of those grounds like Aldershot Town where I had never seen a game, yet had played there on a number of occasions in my years at East Thurrock United. It is a real old fashioned ground, almost hidden from the streets outside. It has been developed over the past few years to comply with Football League standards, and now boasts a small covered stand with 5 rows of seating, running the whole length of the pitch and the glories of the VIP Seating stand which was basically a cover over 2 rows of seats on the far side of the pitch. Overlooking the stadium were some executive flats with balconies where a few people had taken a plastic picnic chairs out for a perfect view of the action. As part of the deal to develop the land for the flats, the builders had to construct some new dressing rooms and so the teams now emerge from a converted living room directly onto the pitch – no fancy tunnels here.

Grays had not had the best start to the season. Their league form had seem them fall into the bottom three of the Conference as they simply lost the ability to score goals. The past few seasons had been the stuff that dreams had been made of. They had played in the lower Southern Leagues (The Isthmian League) until 2004 when the Non-League Pyramid was re-structured and they became founder members of the Conference South.

Grays AthleticIn that first season they stormed the league and were crowned Champions long before the end of the campaign. They also made it through to the final of the FA Trophy in May 2005 where they beat Hucknall Town at Villa Park on penalties. Just to show that this was no fluke they carried on the form under Mark Stimson in the Conference Premier where they remained unbeaten for the first fifteen games in the season, topping the table well into November. Unfortunately they were competing against local rivals Dagenham and Redbridge who always stayed on step ahead and eventually the club finished in third place and then surprisingly lost the play off semi final to Halifax Town.

However, they did have some cheer as they qualified again for the FA Trophy final, this time played locally at West Ham’s home at Upton Park. Again they showed their metal for the big games by beating Woking 2-0 in front of a crowd of 13,800.

The last few seasons have seen a number of managers coming and going at the club as the team’s performance on the pitch deteriorated and they set an unwanted record of fielding over 50 players in the 2006/07 season under 4 managers as they avoided relegation by just a few points. Last season wasn’t much better for the club and so it is no surprise on the form this season under Wayne Burnett.

Visitors FC Totton had also had a good few years. Only formed in 1975 they were founding members of the Wessex League and were promoted up to the Southern League as champions last season. They also won the FA Vase in 2007 when they beat Truro City at Wembley in front of 36,232.

So after negotiating the very confusing one way system, and avoiding the temptations of signs of Grays Beach (sounds as good as it looks – make your own mind up at We went into the club shop and whilst it wasn’t exactly well stocked it was really good to see that they were trying to provide value for fans. Many clubs continue to charge top prices for last season’s kit but Grays sensibly charged £5 for shirts and with a little persuasion Lolly soon had her first ever Grays Athletic shirt – a momentus moment in any person’s life. At £13 for me, and £4 for Lolly is was also good value and sensible pricing.

Grays AthleticWe wandered around the terrace at the south end of the ground and took a seat in the shallow stand. The teams soon emerged from the living room opposite, and I would suggest that this is the only ground in the top five divisions that does not have a tunnel. FC Totton looked very smart in their salmon pink shirts and started the more purposeful, making a mockery of their relative position.

After ten minutes we were joined in the seats behind by a non-league WAG and her mother. For the next thirty minutes we were subject to a dialogue of so much tripe it was unbelievable. “My Barry” could do no wrong. Every missed pass or lost ball would be blamed on a team mate, and every attack that did not see the ball head off to him would be deemed as stupid. The classic moment came just before the drab goal less half came to an end when she said “I know I am not manager but if I was I’d make my Barry captain so he could take all of the free kicks”. Stick to the shopping darling and stop embarrassing your boyfriend / husband.

Grays AthleticThe second half didn’t fair much better until Grays took the lead thanks to an excellent strike from just inside the penalty area from Elliott after Totton had failed to clear a corner. We headed off with a few minutes to go, and unfortunately missed what would have been the high point of the day as Grays 2nd goal was scored from the penalty spot by none other than “Our Barry” in the 88th minute. It would have been pure comedy to see the reaction from WAG and co.

So Grays go into the 1st Round Draw and the hope of a big gun such as Leeds United, Leicester City or even a chance to renew acquaintance with local rivals Dagenham and Redbridge or Southend United.

So after the 1st round draw my idea of following a club all the way comes to a crushing end as Grays could not have been drawn further away – Carlisle United AWAY! At least Bazza might get 90 minutes peace and quite! I think I’ll turn my attentions to local neighbours Hornchurch at home to Peterborough United!


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