2017-18 SEASON REVIEW – ‘THE FIRST THIRD’
As the club moved into its first full season as a wholly-owned supporter operation, with a newly-elected seven-person board of directors, there was an air of expectancy that life would be better in the new Bostik League North Division, following relegation from the Ryman Premier Division last season. The sparkling surroundings of Aveley’s new Parkside Stadium added to the feel-good factor. Jamie Stuart set about putting a squad together to challenge at the other end of the table this time around and introduced some new faces and some familiar ones who had served us well in the past.
The new league paired us with twelve other Essex teams along with another eleven from Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, London, Suffolk and Norfolk. With so many local derbies and games against a number of ambitious clubs, keen to test themselves at a higher level, it promised to be another tough season for our fledgling supporter-owned club.
We started the league campaign with four local games against Essex opposition. A 2-1 win at Tilbury with last season’s top scorer, Kieran Bishop netting twice, including a last-minute penalty winner, gave us an ideal start in front of a Grays’ dominated crowd of 202. Our first competitive outing at the new Parkside Stadium proved much more difficult. A bumper mid-week crowd of 377, saw an uncompromising Hornchurch side take their chances better than we did in a 2-0 win and they even had the luxury of having a penalty saved by returning custodian, Lamar Johnson, who had surprisingly left our landlords, Aveley, towards the end of the close season.
A sunny August Bank Holiday weekend saw us beaten 2-1 at Waltham Abbey on the Saturday, after looking reasonably comfortable with a first-half goal from our talismanic striker, Bishop. Two mistakes in the second period proved our undoing. On Monday, in front of another good home attendance of 322, we witnessed an open game against Aveley, who were struggling on the pitch to match their excellent new surroundings. We ran out fairly comfortable 4-2 winners, after going a goal down early in the game.
August also saw us compete in the Emirates FA Cup at this very early stage, for the first time in recent history. Another Essex side, Redbridge FC, from the Essex Senior League, provided stubborn resistance in the Preliminary Round, but a very well-taken first goal from new-recruit, Suley Zudhu and a second from one of the returnees, Joao Carlos, gave us a cup success after the losses at our first attempt in all four cup-ties played last season. Our five games in August had produced three wins and two defeats.
September proved to be a very disappointing month, producing a solitary 2-0 victory at Bowers in the League Cup, re-branded as the Velocity Trophy and a draw at Hertford in the Emirates FA Cup. An extra-time defeat in the home replay was a bitter pill to swallow. We had been ahead in the first game, but failed to defend well enough, or take advantage of our chances and had to settle for a 1-1 draw and a replay. We were ahead twice at Parkside, but failed again to hold on to the lead and lost against a very robust opposition, which confirmed fears that we needed to toughen up to win at our new level of competition at Step Four. Our five league games in the month resulted in a nil return. Three away defeats at Barking (1-3), Bowers (0-1) and Hertford (0-1) were followed by home defeats to Canvey (3-6) and Brentwood (0-1).
At the end of September, we were in 22nd position in the league, with just six points from nine games. Serious questions were being asked about the attitude and commitment of a talented group of players who appeared to be hell-bent on pressing the self-destruct button once they crossed the white line. There had been injuries within the squad that disrupted the shape and pattern of our play, but our team management were not accepting that as an excuse for too many below-par performances and set about putting changes into place to improve matters on the pitch.
A challenging eight-game run in October presented an opportunity to right some wrongs, starting with the return league game with Hornchurch, who were boasting a 100 per cent record from their seven league games. A 2-2 draw from a game that could have gone either way, gave us a good start to the month, with defender, Sam Cross, scoring with a great free-kick and centre-half, Jack Fowler heading in from a free-kick for the point.
This was followed by a 4-3 success at home to Norwich United in the Preliminary Round of the Buildbase FA Trophy, a game we had led 4-1 at half-time. After missing a couple of good chances to put the game to bed in the early stages of the second half, we lost our way somewhat and were hanging on at the end against a spirited team who belied their position at the bottom of the table. A 3-1 home league defeat followed to an excellent Potters Bar team who punished us, after we went ahead after 10 minutes with a debut goal from one of last season’s successful Under 16s youth players, Kai Brown, who was making light of his transition to senior football.
The next three games brought different challenges. An away trip to Ware, on a difficult pitch against an opposition determined to try and spoil the game, was met with a determination not seen since the opening day of the season. A slightly fortunate own-goal in our favour paved the way to a five-goal win that wasn’t flattering. An excellent free-kick from the improving Sam Cross provided a two-goal half-time lead which we added to with new striker, Tim Monsheju, netting twice and Kieran Bishop keeping up his goal-every-other-game record in over 40 appearances since he joined in November 2016.
Two home Essex derbies followed with Bowers arriving at Parkside on a mild Wednesday evening, looking to add to their league win against us in September and avenge the Velocity Trophy reverse a week later. In another tight game, it was a touch of real class that finally separated the teams. Ade Cole, left out of the squad at Ware, received a superbly weighted pass into the penalty area from Joao Carlos, twisted and turned to wrong-foot three defenders and slide a shot under the keeper to secure all three points.
Three days later, managerless Tilbury were the visitors, blown in from the A13 by ‘Storm Brian’, which threatened to spoil a game that had all the ingredients of a lively encounter. Despite playing with a strong following wind, we were unable to take advantage and it was The Dockers who opened the scoring with an excellent strike that flew across Lamar Johnson into the far corner. We gradually got into the game and it was another Cole cracker, with his right foot this time, that rose high into the net to put as level at half-time. We were better against the wind in the second half and a trademark pacy run and well-drilled shot from Bishop put us head after three minutes of the re-start. More pressure from a corner gave Ryan Mahal the chance to guide the ball into an unguarded net with his left foot. Tilbury worked hard to try and find a way back into the game and Johnson had to be at his best to keep our two-goal advantage. Most of the 275 crowd went home with a spring in their step. Nine points from three games in an eight-day period had lifted us into a mid-table position with fourteen league games played.
A week ago, we hosted high-flying Haringey Borough, the only side who had an unbeaten league record in the 72-team Bostik League. With Jamie Slabber and Ade Cole putting us two goals to the good, it looked like we might deprive Haringey of their record, but the second half saw them get back in the game, then go 3-1 down thanks to another Ade Cole goal and still manage to score two goals in the last few minutes, with the equaliser coming in the sixth minute of added time. As one supporter claimed afterwards “we snatched a draw from the jaws of victory”. A little harsh perhaps, as a Man of the Match performance from the visiting keeper kept Borough in a game that could have been well out of their reach, before their late, late recovery.
Last Saturday, in the First Qualifying Round of the Buildbase FA Trophy, we faced another side on a very good run. Cray Wanderers of the Bostik League South Division had put eight goals without reply past another South Division club, Horsham, in the Preliminary Round and were in the play-off places in their very competitive league. It was another game where we got ourselves ahead through a fantastic finish from Kieran Bishop from a very acute angle and then added another when their keeper presented us with an opportunity that Joao Carlos crossed for Jamie Slabber to slot calmly home from a few yards. We may not have been comfortable against a side who kept pressing throughout the second half, but it was another very disappointing finish to a game. First, a poor challenge for their penalty and then very poor defending for an equaliser that turned out to be the penultimate kick of the game as the final whistle was blown immediately after the re-start.
In summary, as at 30 October we sit in 12th place in the league, with seventeen points from fifteen games, having played up to four games more than some of the teams immediately below us. Overall, our twenty-one games have produced eight wins, four draws and nine defeats with 39 goals scored and 37 conceded
Before I write my review of the next fifteen or so games, to be published in January 2018, we have many interesting fixtures ahead of us, including eight Essex derbies with landlords, Aveley, Canvey, Heybridge, Maldon, Romford, Waltham Abbey and Witham in the league and Stansted in the Essex Senior Cup, plus a couple of lengthy coach trips to test our resolve to Norfolk and Suffolk against the teams from the towns of Bury and Dereham.
There is still much to play for, but for the time being there is a degree of disappointment, as the sense of optimism when we started the season twelve weeks ago with that derby win over our oldest local rivals, Tilbury, has evaporated somewhat.
Now is the time for everyone to pull together. It will always be down to the players who wear the shirt, to do their best on the pitch. For our management team, they must coach the players available, make match-day selections, set tactics and formations to suit the circumstances. For us as supporters, most of whom now own our club, we need to come to games, encourage and support the team.
We need more people to become shareholders and we all need to spread the word about getting involved with our community club. Unfortunately, there are still many supporters who have not yet renewed their annual membership which was due four months ago on 1 July. Our membership is our life-blood. Reminders are being issued this week inviting renewal. It would be a shame if, after all the hard work put in by many people, the club were to falter due to a lack of interest from those whose initial enthusiasm for a “supporter-owned club” enabled us to gain the approval of the Football Association to become the custodians of our club.
I hope that the message will get through how important it is to take the opportunity to become a member and shareholder of the club for the annual £30 fee. As well as membership, the purchase of “Community Shares” in the club will determine its future viability. The club was very grateful for the initial take-up of shares, which gave the club the confidence to meet with William Edwards School last year to confirm plans to work with them on their new “free school” project, which received Government approval earlier this year. The club hopes that the Department for Education will soon be able to announce the location for the new school. There is now a pressing need to build local interest and raise funds to take us forward. Key decisions concerning the future of the club will need to be taken soon and it is important that our supporters play their part. If a vote is needed on any major topic, a supporter must be a member to allow them to vote. Let’s make sure there are enough of us who can all work together to ensure our survival.
Please remember. “WE WILL HAVE THE CLUB OUR SUPPORTERS ARE PREPARED TO PAY FOR”.
Updated 23:48 - 1 Nov 2017 by GAFC News