New Year football Essex-travaganza
I don’t get the chance to indulge in random football ground visiting (or “groundhopping” as it is usually known) so much these days between Leverstock Green fixtures, but with just a few days of freedom left before going back into employment, and no Leverstock game until the Bank Holiday Monday, the New Year weekend offered an irresistable chance to go on a whirlwind tour of a few Essex grounds.
There were a small selection of games available on the Friday night, but one of them caught my eye as it was a previously unvisited ground within an
hour’s journey. Thus I set off in wet weather for Waltham Abbey v Ware – a game in Division One North of the Ryman League. This is part of “Step 4” of non-League football – overall the ninth tier of English football. Waltham Abbey’s ground “Capershotts” is adjacent to the M25 motorway, a short drive from Junction 26. The main stand offers around 270 seats in five rows under a cantilevered roof, alongside a terrace covered by a roof made of corrugated iron and scaffolding poles. Behind the near end as you enter the ground is the dressing room block, fronted by a steeply-stepped terrace with a column-free roof. Adjacent to this is a section of uncovered terracing. The other two sides are just open standing on a concrete path, banked a few feet above the pitch – a sure sign that the pitch has been levelled from what would have once been a fearsome side-to-side slope. Some parts of the ground have a pleasingly ramshackle appearance, something to be cherished in these days of increasingly generic stadia.
The game itself was a lively affair in wet, muddy conditions. Waltham Abbey have slipped down the table after a bright start, while Ware are struggling against relegation with just one win from 26 games so far. Abbey led 1-0 at half time, and quickly went into a 3-0 lead in the second half, played in steady rain. However, poor defending led to Ware pulling back two goals in quick succession and made for an unexpectedly thrilling finish. As hard as Ware tried, they couldn’t find an equaliser and the game finished with a 3-2 win for Waltham Abbey. (Admission £8, Programme £2, Attendance 78)
Saturday offered a much wider choice of possibilities, and the chance for a double header in East London. My first port of call was Ilford – another new ground for me. The original Ilford F.C. ended in 1979 when they merged with Leytonstone to form Leytonstone and Ilford F.C. – both names long since lost in the series of mergers that formed the present-day Dagenham & Redbridge F.C. The present Ilford F.C. reformed in 1987 and later moved into the already-existing Cricklefield Stadium. This is an athletics stadium, the likes of which usually don’t make for ideal football grounds, but Cricklefield is one of the better ones. There is only a six-lane track between the pitch and the spectator areas, and there are plenty of good viewing areas. The best of all is from the bar on the top floor of the clubhouse, which must be ideal on a cold day. Next to the clubhouse is a neat little cantilevered stand with about 250 seats. The glass screen ends can make awkward viewing towards the edges, but otherwise this is a nice place to watch from. Substantial banks of terracing line the rest of this side, the opposite side and one of the ends. Some of the terracing is buckled and broken by the roots of trees growing behind it. Opposite the main stand is a small terrace cover, which would be ideal for viewing except that one of the three sections is rendered useless by the dugouts completely blocking out the view of one goal!
The game, between Ilford and AFC Sudbury, was also in the Ryman League Division One North. Ilford are struggling even more than Ware, being bottom of the table with just one win, while AFC Sudbury have their eyes on a promotion or play-off spot at the other end of the table. This was another enjoyably blood-and-guts affair. Sudbury had many more chances but squandered them all. Ilford had their moments too and both sides struck the woodwork during the game. Sudbury played most of the second half with only ten men after one of their players saw a straight red card for a rash challenge. In the end neither side could find the net and the game finished 0-0, a result that doesn’t really help either side. (Admission £8 including programme, Attendance 104)
The Ilford game had kicked off at 1.00 pm, which gave me ample time to get to the second part of my double header. I rarely go to professional games – not least because of the cost. I saved a bit of money by ordering a ticket in advance, but it was still £21 for a ticket to Leyton Orient v Charlton Athletic, moved to a 5.20 pm kick off as it was being shown live on Sky TV. It is probably one of the cheaper tickets for an nPower League One match – the third tier of English football. Orient’s ground at Brisbane Road – or to give it it’s correct title these days, “The Matchroom Stadium” – has been almost completely rebuilt in recent years, mostly bankrolled by their chairman, the snooker entrepreneur Barry Hearn. Three sides have been replaced by modern all-seater stands, but the original 1956 East Stand with it’s pitched roof and gable has been refurbished and retained as the centrepiece of the ground. I was seated one row from the back of the South Stand, behind the goal, and with an excellent view throughout (at least when the other spectators remained seated).
An East London v South London derby match with Charlton sitting on top of the league promised much, but didn’t quite live up to the promise. Within ten minutes of the kick-off Charlton were reduced to ten men, their goalkeeper sent off for handling the ball outside the penalty area when coming out to thwart an Orient forward. Charlton were disappointing throughout as Orient took the lead before half time and looked more likely to score in the second half. The final score was 1-0 to Orient, much to the delight of the home fans. (Admission £21, Programme £3, Attendance 5,097)
New Year’s Day offered another selection of games. I was torn between three options, but after the travelling of the last two days I opted for the nearest one. Thurrock F.C.’s ground at Ship Lane is the only one of the four grounds visited this weekend that I had been to before. When I first came here in 1988 the club had only been in existence for three years and was called Purfleet. They have climbed steadily over the years, and are currently in the Blue Square Bet South Division – the seventh tier of English football. They are struggling at the foot of the table, though, and faced a visit from high-flying local rivals Chelmsford City. Despite being a successful club for most of their existence, Thurrock have never really built much of a supporter base. The location of the ground – in the middle of nowhere by Junction 31 of the M25 – doesn’t help, and their usual home gate is around 200. They were outnumbered many times over by visiting Chelmsford fans today. Even arriving 30 minutes before the game I had to park some distance away, and programmes had already sold out when I got into the ground. Only one snack bar was open, and the queue was long. I queued for most of the first half to get a cup of tea and a burger. Ship Lane’s best feature is its main stand, an unusually retro design for something built as recently as 1988, built into a natural bank. The down side is that it isn’t easy to extend, hence the isolated section of seats in the terrace cover opposite to satisfy the league requirement for minimum number of seats. There is plentiful standing and seating cover on all four sides in this very tidy ground.
The game itself was scrappy. Thurrock weren’t holding back on their challenges, and a tougher referee might have shown at least one red card. Chelmsford always had the edge, though, and went into half time with a 1-0 lead. At half time an unforecast rain shower arrived, which quickly turned into torrential rain. The snack bar queue quickly dispersed, and the second half was played in very difficult conditions, almost farcical towards the end. If the game had kicked off an hour later it would not have finished. Chelmsford added a late second goal to seal a deserved 2-0 win, and many of the spectators were then faced with a long walk in heavy rain to return to their cars – luckily I always carry an umbrella! It was quite a scary drive home down the A13 in extremely wet conditions. (Admission £12, Attendance 729)
So, four games in three days at four contrasting grounds. I can only admire those groundhoppers who seek out games almost every day of the week and travel vast distances to see what are often poor games in modest surroundings – I could never be that dedicated, although I usually try to seek out games when I am away on holiday. I enjoyed this little fling, but I was happy to be back watching my own team the following afternoon!
Zoomable panoramic shots of the four grounds can be found in this photo album: