Travels in Essex Non-League

Salutations to all fellow ground-hoppers and football enthusiasts. It has been some time since I have been trapped in the barren wastelands of my ‘home’ county of Essex. There is little on offer here other than shops, the sickening embodiment of neo-liberal capitalism, the odd Costa Coffee, since independent cafes and Caffe Nero seem sparse in these parts, and Waterstones, nay, most forms of book purchasing establishments, are hard to come by.

Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself as I remain stuck in the place where dreams go to die, I decided to make the most of the football on offer. Because, thankfully, like everywhere else in England, there’s plenty of it, and much of it is just a stone’s throw away. Throughout the months of March and April, I decided to treat myself to three different non-league grounds in this county; a throwback to the days when in the fine land of Hertfordshire, I would take myself down to Bishop’s Stortford on a semi-regular basis and take in the joys of non-league football.

As fun as watching the professional game is, non-league is something else. Away from all the money, the stardom, the glamour, are just guys playing the game for fun. Torn up pitches, bobbling balls, grounds made of shipping containers, fans who aren’t afraid to give all they’ve got and say (or shout) what they think. For anyone with too much exposure to the professional leagues, it’s an experience I can’t recommend highly enough.

So here we go, delving into the depths of the English game.

04/03/2023: Witham Town vs. Great Wakering Rovers

The first stop on the prolonged tour is the Simarco Stadium in Witham. The term ‘stadium’ is pretty generous, since this as modest a ground as you are ever likely so see. The shipping container aesthetic is all over the ground, in some areas looking as though the sheet metal is about to rip away in the wind. It’s a blisteringly cold day with bracing winds, and I’m almost instantly regretting making the short journey down the road for this Isthmian League North encounter.

Yes, not only did I voluntarily spend an afternoon here on a freezing cold afternoon, but for those of you who are otherwise unawares, the Isthmian League North is the eighth tier of English football. Some would refer to this as the ‘dregs’ of English football, and the crowd is one of the sparsest I’ve ever seen. I can’t tell if it’s because of the weather or if this is just what eighth-tier attendances are like, but the amount of gaps in the crowd makes the ground look much bigger than it actually is.

Four of the approximately 200 fans who turned out for this encounter were the ‘Great Wakering Rovers Ultras’. Yes, they do actually have an ultras section. Great Wakering are another Essex-based team, in the Southend-on-Sea area. The four-strong gang braved the 45-minute car journey to Witham, and were the highlight of the day. The brought their own flags, banged a drum throughout, and were in full voice for pretty much the entire 90 minutes. It’s even more impressive when you consider that, at the time of the match, Great Wakering Rovers were rooted to the bottom of the division, and hadn’t won a game since October. Witham went into the match in 16th, out of 22, but found themselves comfortably clear of Great Wakering on points.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this game, having never watched an eighth-tier game before and the pitch being in noticeably, ahem, questionable condition ahead of kick-off. Appropriately, as 3pm rolled around, the ball was quickly bouncing around everywhere, and the ball was in constant danger of finding itself being hoofed out of the low-roofed ground, along with several others that had fallen by the wayside in the warm-up.

If memory serves correct, there were three goals in the first half. Great Wakering demonstrated their bottom-of-the-league credentials after twelve minutes as a clearance from the goalkeeper went straight to Witham striker Michael Bareck, who promptly put Witham 1-0 ahead. Witham had a chance to go 2-0 up, but the goalkeeper saved well, and Great Wakering went down the other end on 18 minutes to equalise. And the bottom side took the lead after 32 minutes after some awful defending from Witham. The four ultras behind the Witham goal were sent into delirium.

The highlight of the first half was, however, when the ball went into the section where I was standing and I got to throw the ball back to one of the players for a throw-in. What an honour.

After half-time it was Witham who looked like the bottom side, and Great Wakering were pushing for a third goal, much to the annoyance of the loyal Witham fans around me. I use the term ‘loyal’ a bit loosely, as many of them seemed pre-occupied with following the Arsenal-Bournemouth game; and to be fair, who can blame them? What a cracker that was.

But it was Witham who drew themselves level late in the game, and the final ten minutes consisted of the home time throwing the kitchen sink at the opposition, and had a gilt-edged chance to win it late on, but an effort from a couple of yards out was shanked wide. Not many people could believe what they had seen.

And it got worse for Witham and their fans as, in the last of eight minutes added on at the end of the game, Great Wakering were given a penalty. Everyone around me seemed convinced the Great Wakering forward had fouled the Witham goalkeeper, not the other way around. But, since VAR has yet to find itself in the Isthmian League North, the referee gave a penalty, and it was duly stuck away. The Great Wakering Ultras went wild, celebrating in a huddle with the players, and the Simarco was stunned.

Great Wakering won the game 3-2, a first victory for them since October. Witham couldn’t quite believe it, being left to meander in 16th.

So, the first of the non-league trips is done. The freezing winds are survived. There’s no matchday programme to show for it, since it’s probably too expensive to keep printing them this low down the divisions. Was it worth it? In hindsight, probably. Decent game.

10/04/2023: Braintree Town vs. Ebbsfleet United

The non-league odyssey continues on Easter Monday, as we embark on a trip to the Cressing Road Stadium in Braintree. Again, the term ‘stadium’ is used quite generously here, as you can locate the ground (known as The Dunmow Group Stadium for sponsorship reasons) round the back of a row of houses, contained within four walls made of bushes, bricks, fencing, and, of course, shipping containers. Is it appropriate it’s sponsored by a skip company? That’s probably a bit harsh, but it’s funny nonetheless.

The ground isn’t anything too atypical from your usual non-league fare, but that doesn’t mean Braintree Town aren’t a competitive side – far from it in fact. They enjoyed a long spell in the National League after winning the Conference South title in 2010/11, before being relegated in 2015/16. They were promoted at the first time of asking, but were relegated once more in 2017/18, and have remained in the sixth tier ever since. They went into this game in fifth place, looking to consolidate a spot in the play-offs.

Ebbsfleet United stood in their way, and unfortunately for them, had just been crowned champions of the National League South, having sealed the title in their previous fixture on Good Friday. Despite Braintree starting the day in fifth place, there was a chasm between the two sides, with Ebbsfleet sitting on 97 points, more than 20 points better off than second-placed Dartford. With Braintree on 67, that’s 30 points them and Ebbsfleet.

It promised to be an entertaining encounter, and the afternoon got off to a fine start. In the company of three dear friends of mine, we were greeted with a traditional delicious matchday burger and chips, and, this being the echelons of the sixth tier, a matchday programme. On a day in which the weather couldn’t decide whether it wanted to bring us glorious sunshine, pour with rain, or almost tear the walls down with the wind, it was incredibly comforting.

Sheltering ourselves in the main stand, the game got off to a bit of a scrappy start before Braintree took the lead in the 14th minute. Winger Aaron Blair, probably the player of the match, got the ball on the right wing, and his cross took a wicked deflection off Chris Solly and looped over the goalkeeper and in. 1-0 to Town.

Ebbsfleet had missed a couple of good chances prior to the half hour mark, when a bizarre incident broke out. Braintree defender Baris Altintop went to usher the ball out for a goal kick when a shoulder from Omari Sterling-James sent him into the advertising boards – more specifically, the metal fencing where and advert should be. Cue a mass brawl involving (I think) every player on the pitch, and Ebbfleet’s Dominic Poleon, top scorer in the league with 36 goals, was sent off in the mayhem. Most incredibly, a Braintree fan tried to get involved in the brawl and had to be held back by security. A ridiculous situation that you would probably only encounter at this level.

Despite going a man down, Ebbsfleet showed their winning mentality by drawing themselves level shortly before half-time. A defensive lapse allowed Sterling-James in to set up Shaquille Coulthirst, who poked in despite Braintree bodies on the line. 1-1 at half-time.

The second half was much better-tempered than the first, although our enjoyment of it was a bit scuppered by the rowdy youths sat behind us who spent most of the half making, let’s just say, inflammatory comments. It took another dent when 10-man Ebbsfleet turned the game around on 60 minutes with their 100th league goal of the season. Ben Chapman, who we spent the match calling “Grealish” due to his vague resemblance to the Manchester City winger, was sent clear to slot home past goalkeeper Jake Sims, who we referred to as “Jesus” throughout, due to his even vaguer resemblance to the son of God.

Sims actually had a fine game in goal, and his saves kept Town in the game before their turnaround began. A free-kick on 68 minutes was headed in by Alfie Pavey to draw Braintree level. Due to the team sheets in the programme, I spent the match thinking that it was Matt Rush who had headed the equaliser, meaning that my remarks about him being Roberto Firmino’s replacement at Liverpool were actually rather misguided.

And things got better for Braintree in the 78th minute, when Kyran Clements rose highest from a corner to head them 3-2 in front. And that’s how it would end, as they weathered a nervy end to the game to condemn the champions to a first defeat in 19 games and temporarily delay them acquiring 100 points. As for Braintree, they kept themselves in the play-off race with a surprise win, which the 858 attending fans enjoyed thoroughly.

A cheeky Waga’s rounded off a fine day of non-league shenanigans.

22/04/2023: Coggeshall Town vs. New Salamis

The journey comes to an end on the final day of the regular non-league season. We return to the Isthmian League North for a trip to the home of Coggeshall Town, part-owned by pop sensation Olly Murs in a village that once had a café owned by the ‘saviour’ of Eurovision himself, Sam Ryder.

The names that have come out of the town might be illustrious, but the football ground is almost as modest as it gets. Tucked away off the side of the A120, all that greets you upon arrival is a stone car park, an outer perimeter made of wooden fencing, a modest clubhouse and shop (by which I mean ‘shed’) at the back, and acres of grass and field beyond that. There’s also a second pitch next to the main ground, which I myself used to grace back when I used to play youth football for the mighty Barnston/Great Dunmow Rovers.

The ground also features one small seating area on the near side of the entrance, where the majority of fans, myself included, congregated for the day’s festivities.

The game was actually one of great importance to Coggeshall. Their record this season has been abysmal, and a quick look at their results in the matchday programme (yes, there actually was one!) reads as a string of ‘D’s and ‘L’s. With only five wins all season, the club knew they would be in a relegation play-off at best, and relegated outright at worst. A win today against New Salamis would ensure a play-off spot and consign either Tilbury or Great Wakering Rovers (yup, them again!) to the drop.

New Salamis travelled up from London for the day, and I honestly couldn’t tell you if any of their fans joined them, because it really seemed there weren’t any among the 224-strong crowd. Those four Great Wakering supporters would be ashamed. The club’s name originates from the Cypriot team Nea Salamis Famagusta, and was founded in 1971 by fans of the club. They were already destined to finish in mid-table obscurity this season, occupying ninth spot with the only achievable aim being to finish above Brentwood Town in eighth.

I can’t say there were any familiar names to me on either side, but New Salamis were headed up by 41-year-old Derek Asamoah, formerly of the likes of Lincoln City, Shrewsbury Town, and Carlisle United, and who also previously won four caps for Ghana! He was noticeably better than most of the players on the pitch, and played with a smile throughout.

And while Coggeshall didn’t have any familiar names in their current squad, according to their matchday programme they were recently co-managed by former Tottenham Hotspur and Millwall defender Stuart Nethercott – who, most importantly, used to coach yours truly when he was a boy. They also started the season with former Bishop’s Stortford stalwart Cliff Akurang at the managerial helm, but are currently managed by Jason Maher.

In all honesty, the match was far from a classic. Much of the first half consisted of tackles in the midfield and hopeful punts upfield. Salamis looked the brighter of the two and Asamoah forced goalkeeper Thomas Middlehurst into a couple of excellent saves.

It was Coggeshall that took their chance when it came, however, as winger Josh Osude bundled in a free-kick just before half-time to give the Seedgrowers (seriously what a nickname) the lead. That was that for the first half, as both sides trudged off not entirely satisfied with their respective performances.

The second half was more of the same, with Asamoah doing his best to win the game by himself for Salamis, and both sides looking pretty devoid of inspiration. Coggeshall grew into the game however, and sealed the win with a second goal from Freddy King, finishing off a neat team move by walloping the ball into the net to rapturous applause. Coggeshall’s safety was ensured, for now at least.

The second half did provide one bizarre moment when Coggeshall manager Maher became so incensed at one of the referee’s decisions that he kicked the chair his assistant was sitting on with such ferocity that two legs came clean off and sent said assistant to the floor. We aren’t talking state-of-the-art chairs here, we’re talking the kind you find in the school assembly hall. Only in non-league, eh?

And there you have it, everyone, three epic journeys into the depths of Essex non-league. There are plenty of other teams in this county, so if you’re ever in a jam as to what to do and you don’t fancy the trials and tribulations of the Premier or Football League, get yourself down to your local side, whoever and wherever that may be. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated here, it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.

Thanks for reading everyone, and have a lovely day.


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