Tuesday 4 August 2015

A Tough Night In Essex - Thurrock FC Vs Hackney Wick FC, Ship Lane (28/07/15)

A commuter filled train, overflowing with suits pulls up at West Ham station, making its way East of London to Essex. I meet Tom on the platform the previous night’s deluge of rain has inspired Tom to wear something from the SAS Spring/Summer collection, a knee length green jacket with a hood, perhaps a bit more suitable for the Mekong Delta, than Thurrock FC, our destination this evening.

Twenty minutes or so later the train pulls up at Chafford Hundred station, with considerably less people on it, then when we got on. Instead of making our way to the sprawling mecca for shopping, that is Lake Side, as most people do when they disembark at this one platform station, we make our way outside to the Taxi rank, for the short trip to Ship Lane, the home of Thurrock FC (TFC)

A cavernous black cab pulls up, I slide open the door, and we clamber in. I cannot emphasise quite how ginormous this thing was, you would expect the Rolling Stones to pull up at an arena gig, rather than two bloggers reclining in it, their voices echoing in the void between us and the driver.

As we turn into Ship Lane a sign says “Thurrock Hotel” which is perched up on a hill overlooking the ground, try and imagine the house overlooking Bates Motel, dominating the landscape. Opposite the hotel strung out across the countryside are tall grey electricity pylons, disappearing into the ominous night’s sky like something from the film Twister, churning clouds, mixed with blues, purples and reds, as the sun starts to set.

This evening is our last preseason game before the all important 8th of August. Once again we are on the trail of Hackney Wick FC (HWFC), as their whirlwind adventure pitches them against a Ryman League North side, who will be without doubt the toughest test in this clubs very short history.

Some HWFC players have arrived, and are taking turns getting their kit bags out the boot of the car, as we disembark the taxi, needing a map to get from the seats to the door. They disappear into an open green door with the sign “Players only entrance” hung above it. One of the turnstile doors are open, a contrast of bright yellow against the black background.

Once in, you can’t help but look up at the Hotel looming above you. The rest of the ground is all green and yellow to match the home sides colours. The players make their way the full length of the pitch, in front of the main stand, to the changing room at the opposite end of the ground to where you come in, in a single story brick building. A few players who have already arrived and dropped off their bags, are making their way out on the pitch, like the walk about on the Wembley pitch before a Cup Final.

We join them, the players probably looking the smartest we have ever seen them, and who are taking the occasion very seriously, this will be regardless of the amount of people here to watch the game, the biggest stage they have ever or may ever play on, and compared to the pitch at Mabley Green, by far the nicest, no need to flick dog shit off it here!

Kenny the HWFC coach, tall and imposing, who arrived suited and booted, is now in his tracksuit, he stands at the edge of the pitch, and ushers the players back inside to the changing room. The players take a seat in their civvies with the yellow and black kits hung on the pegs behind them. “Phones off, phones away!” is Kenny’s instruction as the last player in closes the door. With the timing of a comedy great, a phone starts to ring, Kenny casts a glare around the room, only to realise it’s his, and is quick to delve into his coat hanging up and turning it off, a smirk falls across a few player’s faces.
“A really hard job for me to pick a side tonight” says Kenny to the squad, clutching a piece of paper, as the team look on anxiously.

“This is a semi-professional team, 4 tiers above us”, “They have cut the grass which is good for us. The fact he has done that, says to me he wants to play today”

Kenny is still yet to give out the starting line-up, and bums are on the edge of seats, some players looking attentively up as he speaks, some stare at the ground, just waiting for the news.

“No more excuses, if you are serious about playing, start playing out there” He jabs one of his considerable former semi pro goal keeper fingers towards the pitch outside.

“Time to start thinking professionally” as he compares one player to another, one who he thinks has done enough, made an effort, looks presentable, with one he doesn’t “we're not the rag ass rovers, down the Dog & Duck”.

Kenny scribbles on the paper in his hands, giving the impression he is making the final decisions on a few positions here and now “Number 9 the hardest decision for me today”. He emphasises “ you are all going to get on”.

The players reposition themselves, to sit in front of their numbered shirt for the day, and start to get changed.

Next to the changing rooms is a grey porta cabin, at one end a snack bar at the other end a First Aid station. The ground is neat, compact, and another fine example from the wonderful world of non-league. Three sides of the pitch have corrugated roofed standing terraces, one corner has a few red fold down chairs, which I overhear someone refer to as the “£1 seats”. Other than the hotel, the grounds focal point is the main stand, sitting proudly on the half way line. The detailing on the roof, giving it the feel of an old railway station, but curiously at the back in one corner somewhat out of place, is what I can only describe as a conservatory.

TFC are already warming up, under the ever angrier looking sky, as HWFC come out on to the pitch. Kenny follows the team out, clutching cones and kicking a yellow ball, he is off to take the team though the warm up.

Rana Brightman the HWFC chairwoman has zeroed in on the snack bar, and starts her attack on a hot dog, as spots of rain start to fall she makes her way to the main stand for cover.

Richard the TFC scout is kind enough to show me around the home changing room. The white shirts are all neatly hung up, waiting for the team. At one end of the room a large sign that takes up one whole wall reads “Our Way – Together, Everyone, Achieves, More” the first letter of each statement spelling out TEAM. As I leave I notice above the door, “Target Play Offs”.

Spots of rain have turned into heavy drops, and I scurry for protection.  One person taking shelter at the snack bar says “I bet they would like a bit of rain, soften it up” perhaps slightly unfairly assuming HWFC would prefer a heavy pitch, rather than a surface that means they can get it down and play.
Out of the rain and under the main stand all you can hear is the tune as it falls on the metal roof. Tom standing pitch side, photographing the warm up, is of course fine in his GI jacket.

As the players finish their warm up, and start to take the short walk back to the changing room, Kenny leans on the railing around the pitch, talking to Rana under a blue umbrella. Tom’s biggest concern at the moment is not the weather but food, he is beyond annoyed at himself for once again coming unprepared, only a pack of Skittles in his camera bag today, and the smell and sizzle of the snack bars bacon roll is getting hard to resist.

Inside, the white warm up shirts are flung to one side, and the yellow and black ones, once hanging up are now going on, and the room is suddenly full of an overpowering smell of Deep Heat.

“It’s mental, if you are spraying it on, you’re injured and you shouldn’t be playing” shouts Kenny in reference to the cloud of muscle relaxant hanging in the air like a fog.

The team settles, the fog subsides, and the coach begins his pre match talk;

“I’m 48 years old, and for me football is a passion".

“I could be watching my son train this evening, that should show you how committed I am".

“Why are your boots dirty?” the player has no reply.

“These are the tools of your trade!” “You would not expect a mechanic and his tools to be a mess, and you’re just the same, it’s time to starting thinking professionally!”

BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ, the bell goes in the changing room. It almost instantly brings the players to their feet, and the hairs on the back of my neck to attention, Bobby the clubs founder and captain on the night is broken from his Zen glare, and shouts of “come on boys” fill the room. The door is opened, and out the team goes. Kenny has the last word;

“We have plans to go somewhere!”

TFC are all in white, a voice comes over the tannoy “Welcome Hackney Wick FC, and good luck for the rest of the season”.

Kenny shakes hands with the referee, and I follow the officials onto the pitch, hoping to get a picture of the captains shaking hands. Standing on the centre circle, I’m momentarily deafened by a short sharp blast by the referee as he calls them together.

“The whistle will go 4 times today, the rest is up to you, nothing silly”
The coin is tossed, the captains shake hands, and the game is under way.

The next forty five minutes are extremely hard to watch, as a team I have started to get to know over the last few months, are given the absolute run a round. The gulf between the sides is clear from the get go, and the test is perhaps harder than anyone could of anticipated.

Four chances come thick and fast for TFC and it’s only for the HWFC keeper pulling off some fine saves, including a smart double save, smothering the second attempt smartly, that HWFC are not behind almost instantly.

“Bobby, get it together!!” yells Kenny from the side-line.

Having started sitting in the dugout, he is quickly standing in his customary position arms crossed on the side-line, bellowing at the team.

Lucky to not be behind and just when there seem to be signs of settling, HWFC concede, and I’m afraid to say the flood gates are open, and it’s one of many more to come.

“Let’s go again whites, let’s go again whites” says the TFC keeper clapping his hands on the edge of his box, and they really did, go again, and again, and again.

The TFC number 10 is absolutely running the show, pulling players out of position, moving the ball around the edge of the box, and not allowing the HWFC defence a moment to think. HWFC are trying, that has to be said, it can been seen in the faces of the two players who come off just after the 3rd goal to TFC, they are shiny with sweat, and have a look of ‘I have nothing else left’ on their faces.

Spectators in ones and twos lean on the rail around the pitch, it’s what you might call a very “preseason” turn out.

The TFC keeper and the linesman in the TFC half, have had almost nothing to do, just lots of standing around. The dark clouds seem to have disappeared for the time being. The 4th goal for TFC, is a second bite of the cherry after a curling shot from the edge of the box, hits the base of the post and bounces out.

Bobby clearly frustrated, expresses his dismay to his team mates “They just went straight through us”.

Ship Lane’s flood lights flick on just before halftime, highlighting the rain which is back again, as the halftime whistle goes, and both teams head in, the score now standing at 5 – 0. A small group of kids playing under shelter behind the TFC goal offer their support “Come on Thurrock”.

“I can see you’re working” is the first thing Kenny says to the team, as they take advantage of every minute of rest, that halftime allows.

A clear plastic jug full of juice with “away” written on it, is almost empty, as the players fill white polystyrene cups, and guzzle down the contents.

Kenny also wants to take advantage of the halftime break, and is quick to address the team, and it’s the captain he talks to first “need a bit more from you fella”. He also reiterates how crucial the TFC number 10 has been to the score line, “he is the clever one!”.

Some eyes study the floor, some look at the coach but are almost a little vacant, not because they are disinterested, but more I think because of the shock and exhaustion of the first half.

A coaches job is to lift his team, as well as motivate, and Kenny does his best “better to get destroyed today and to learn from it”, “You all realize now how much hard work is needed”.

The opposition changing room is clearly in a different mood, as the music playing can be heard through both doors.

“Enjoy the next 45 minutes, this is what preseason is all about” as soon as he stops, the players are back to their feet and huddling around the last cups of juice, trying their best to refresh themselves, before another gruelling half.

Our first half position was between the two dugouts, but considering my lack of army surplus and the fact now it’s raining as hard as ever, we take up the club secretary’s earlier invitation to come and sit in the directors section and boardroom. It’s at this point I work out what the conservatory at the back of the main stand is, and think why not see what the prawn sandwich brigade is all about.

I pull open the door with the sign stating “NO ADMITTANCE, DIRECTORS & OFFICIALS ONLY”. Rana looks quite at home in the warm, well lit, carpeted little room with a small bar at one end. I’m offered a drink, and take the lady serving us up on her offer, and ask for two teas, which are served up in two cups and saucers, I take a spoon for sugar from a bowl designed like an old fashioned black and white check football. After some help through the door, Tom and I take up position on the front row of the carpeted outside directors section, offering a great view of the pitch, as the second half gets under way.

Things only go from bad to worse, for the visitors from East London, as goals number 6 and 7 are scored in quick succession. One goal in particular is an absolute thunderbolt from the corner of the box, that flies across and over the keeper, then under the bar in the far corner of the goal, hands down the goal of the night, and there have been a few to choose from.

8th, 9th, 10th go in, the goals don’t stop, TFC are starting to get adventurous, one player trying a
Rabona finish that only goes slightly wide. Once again the rain falls in a sharp short burst, and has gone as quick as it arrived, the dusk and clouds offering a wonderful scene, like something from a Turner painting.

HWFC are well and truly trapped in their half, and it is wave after wave of attack, the TFC board and fans are willing them to attack, but they just can’t break out.

Goal 11 is a penalty which sends the keeper the wrong way. Goal 12 is averted for now at least, when the HWFC keeper despite the goals conceded is their man of the match, goes the right way and saves a penalty he gets a cheer from the crowd and a pat on the back from his team mates.

The visitors best chance of a goal is only prevented by a last ditch tackle, but the TFC counter attack from the resulting corner gets number 12. My attention is only momentarily distracted as a man carrying a cling filmed mountains of sandwiches climbs the steps of the stand and leaves them in the boardroom.

Goal 13 and 14 go in, at this point only the final whistle will stop the goals, HWFC heads are down,
the defence are ineffectual, legs are tired as players stretch and start to show the effects of the game, even the keeper can’t stop everything, Bobby tries but to no avail to raise the team “Come on try hard”.

Simon a previous man of the match from an earlier HWFC preseason is clear on goal, one on one, only for the TFC keeper to catch the same bug the HWFC has, and pull off a super save. The chance once again, brings a big cheer from everyone, their good intentions are well received, but just can’t force the ball in.

15 – 0, is how the game ends, and it could have been more, if it had not been for that man in goal again, “Well saved keeper” shouts one of the TFC fans near us, perhaps the best accolade in football is one from the oppositions fans.

The tannoy once again wishes HWFC good luck, as the players drag themselves back into the changing room.

Deep Heat fills the room again, one player from the first half, who has not been out for the second has changed, but has his leg outstretched on the massage table, Kenny does not say much, but what he does should hit home with everyone, and show them all how committed he is to getting things right,

“My boy is playing West Ham next week, but I will be at training. If you don’t come, then don’t bother coming back again”

We leave the quiet changing room, with everyone in a contemplative mood, and return to the boardroom for some post match hospitality, as the trays of sandwiches from before looked too good to turn down.

The lady serving tea at half time, now offers us a beer, and we find out she is in fact the owner’s wife, “we might not be top of the league in football, but we are top of the league in hospitality”.

Tommy South in his wife’s own words “is an East London boy done good”, he bought a derelict school 30 years ago, which is now the hotel and 12 acres of land, and created what was first called Purfleet FC, and what is now Thurrock FC. Year by year, sculpting the landscape, and improving the ground, he told us there was a 14 foot slope he had to level out, where the pitch is today. He asks after Declan Perkins the HWFC vice chairman, who arranged the friendly, as he was previously a player, but he was unable to be here today.

The flood lights are switched off and plunge Ship Lane into darkness, players from both teams are changed and are making their way back to the clubhouse. From high up in the stands it’s easy to tell which players play for which team, simply from their demeanour.

Each team takes up position on each side of the club house, decorated as all good clubhouses should be, with mementos of the clubs past. The players sandwiches have been demolished, and HWFC players all sit around, trying to fathom the defeat, suggesting lots of “what if’s” and “if onlys”.

Bobby is presented with a club pennant by the club owner, and he jokes that they can give him one when they come back and play again.

TFC have truly been fantastic hosts, inviting Tom and I back for a league game in the coming season, and being very gracious in their resounding victory. Ship Lane is a ground we will more than happily visit again.

For the players and staff of HWFC it will be a long trip back home. I just hope they see this as a bench mark in their development, a point of reference to help them go forward, get fitter, and improve as a team, because there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind, it has been a tough night in Essex.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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