Judgement Day on the South Coast

Every now and again a game will come along that can define a season, define a football club and define a group of players. A game that is still only 90 minutes long, and which has the same amount of points available win or draw as all the other games before or after it, but the ramifications of a defeat can ruin a season of hard work. It is fair to say that the managers, players and supporters of Havant and Waterlooville and Bognor Regis Town have known for quite a number of weeks now that their respective clubs were heading for a showdown on Easter Monday that was likely to determine which of these two clubs could put themselves one giant step towards promotion and a league title to boot. The last few weeks have been like a chess game where each club makes their moves but the other counters that move with neither club able to play a move that proves decisive.

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The packed terraces of Westleigh Park on Easter Monday

At the start of the season, Havant and Waterlooville were expected to be challenging for promotion with a big name manager in former Portsmouth striker Lee Bradbury, who very much had the budget to match those ambitions. Meanwhile back along the A27, Bognor Regis Town and their manager Jamie Howell were still reeling from having the heart of their successful 2015/16 squad picked apart by their neighbours and rivals Havant, who signed two of their players; top scorer Jason Prior and his striker partner, Alfie Rutherford. Nevertheless, Jamie Howell managed to secure the services of James Fraser, a well-travelled striker who had previously spent time at Nyewood Lane, and crucially Howell was also able to keep hold of centre-half Sami El-Abd, a towering figure at the back at Nyewood Lane.

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Former Bognor legend Jason Prior lines up against his former employers

At the start of the season not many Bognor supporters expected this current Bognor Regis Town team to be challenging again for promotion, having gone almightily close last season, but Jamie Howell and his assistant, Darin Kilpatrick, have fostered a team spirit and determination in a group of players who never quite know when they’re beaten and who want to achieve what they came so desperately close to last season. The 1-1 draw as recently as March, at play-off chasing Leiston where Bognor scored deep into second-half injury time, was case in point of this team never quite knowing when they’re beaten.

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Lee Bradbury and his management team look on

It has certainly been an interesting last few months in the battle for supremacy at the top of the Ryman Premier League, with both Havant and Bognor both spending time at the top, and at one stage the gap had grown to 7 points in Bognor’s favour, but Havant did have games in hand. However, since suffering a 3-0 away defeat against Dulwich Hamlet in late March, the Hawks have slowly closed the gap to Bognor with a run of four wins and a draw. Meanwhile, Bognor themselves haven’t exactly been faltering but their one and only defeat in their last seven games against Enfield Town meant a four-point gap was reduced to just one point, meaning the clash between the clubs on the penultimate weekend of the season had suddenly become a fixture both clubs dare not lose.

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Monday 17th April 2017 – Ryman Premier League – Havant & Waterlooville 1 v 0 Bognor Regis Town – Westleigh Park – Att 3455

On Easter Friday, Havant had briefly gone to the top of the table with a vital 2-1 win away at relegation threatened Canvey Island, whilst Bognor had to wait another 24 hours before they could kick-off against playoff chasing Harlow Town on Saturday. A defeat against Harlow for Bognor would mean Havant could possibly win the title by beating their south Coast rivals, but Bognor kept their discipline, unlike their opponents Harlow, who were reduced to 9 men, and a 3-0 win meant Bognor reclaimed top spot and kept the gap to one point going into the clash at Westleigh Park. Suddenly now Bognor not only had the opportunity to end Havant’s hopes of automatic promotion with a win, a win would also mean the league title would be secured in their distance neighbours back yard.

A big crowd was expected at Westleigh Park and the massive queues snaking around the local roads leading to the ground meant the kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes, as the supporters of both clubs turned out in big numbers to cheer on their heroes. The game already had a lot riding on it before kick-off, but the added spice of Jason Prior and Alfie Rutherford playing against their former club was another intriguing slot plot to this match.

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The game kicked off under dull and overcast skies with Havant attacking down the gentle slope towards the packed South Terrace as both sets of supporters were scattered throughout the ground and without the need for segregation. The Bognor manager was without the services of influential utility man Gary Charman, who had suffered an injury in the previous game, and he also decided to leave out pacy winger Ollie Pearce. The striking partnership of little and large pair Jimmy Muitt and Jimmy Wild looked to run into the channels and pull the Havant back line apart, as James Fraser and Doug Tuck did the dirty work in the middle of the park.

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It was a cagey affair in the early exchanges as both teams looked to avoid conceding a goal rather than go forward and play on the front foot. The first real chance of the game was created in the 7th minute by Theo Lewis who crossed for ex-Bognor man Rutherford who headed straight at Dan Lincoln in the Bognor goal. Rutherford then returned the favour seven minutes later when he crossed for Lewis, but Lewis’ header deflected wide for a corner. As the half wore on, Bognor started to find some space in midfield with James Fraser driving forward and it was the ex-Whitehawk man who won a free kick in promoting a promising position. Dylan Barnett swung in a good ball which Sami El-Abd beat the Havant keeper too, but no Bognor player was on hand to pick up the loose ball.

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Former Bognor man Rutherford was causing his old club plenty of problems and he was unlucky not to open the scoring when Chad Field blocked a goal-bound shot. The game was now opening up and the home team looking the more likely of the two teams to find that vital breakthrough. Bognor defended well though and showed why they had only conceded 40 goals, the least amount in the division. A 0-0 score line at half time meant Bradbury and Howell could be pleased their teams had kept a clean sheet in the first half but the game needed a goal to give the big crowd something to cheer.

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The second half began in much the same manner as the first had ended, but the home side were starting to find their rhythm. Rutherford again came close to breaking the deadlock for the home team when he fired just wide of the post from a half clearance by Bognor six minutes into the half. Bognor goalkeeper Dan Lincoln then had to be at his best to push away a dangerous cross. However, from the resulting corner, the former Braintree stopper could do nothing to stop Wes Fogden from opening the scoring. A quick one-two with the corner taker saw Fogden find space in the box, he then wrong-footed the defender and fired a superb shot into the far corner of the net. The home supporters were ecstatic with joy as the Bognor support suddenly started to feel a case of déjà vu after the dramas of last season.

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Is this the goal that clinches the Ryman Premier League title and promotion for Havant?

The goal had galvanised the home side, but for Bognor, the game plan of containing Havant had been undone and now they had to open up more and come forward which meant move space for Havant to exploit going forward. That’s not to say Bognor weren’t a threat when they were in and around the Havant box, and it was the tall Jimmy Wild who almost equalised a few minutes later only for a great clearance from under the crossbar by a Havant defender. Jamie Howell decided it was time for a change on the hour mark and Ollie Pearce was brought on to replace Muitt. Bognor then almost found themselves 2-0 down when Lincoln saved a close-range header from a dangerous cross.

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Bognor manager Jamie Howell paces up and down his techincal area

James Fraser was looking the man most likely to grab the goal Bognor now needed, but his shot from 20 yards out with twenty minutes remaining cleared the crossbar. Fogden was the next to go close for the home side, but like Fraser, his shot from outside the area was high, wide and not very handsome. A flurry of corners for both teams came to nothing, and when Fraser’s deflected shot crept just past the post with about ten minutes remaining came to nothing you started to get the sense this just wasn’t going to be Bognor’s day.

The away support raised the noise level and tried to encourage the Bognor players to one last effort at finding a crucial equaliser when the fourth official signalled five minutes of injury time would be played, but in truth, it was Havant that looked the most likely to score with Prior and sub Tarbuck going close late on.

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The final whistle signalled a huge roar from the home support as Havant moved to the top of the table with a two-point gap over Bognor with just one more game to play. It was a disappointing afternoon for Howell and his players who knew a win would see the team clinch the title and promotion. The West Sussex club must now beat relegation-threatened Met Police at home on the final day and pray that another relegated-threatened team Kingstonian beat Havant to let them back in. If Havant do what is required, then Bognor will have to settle for a third play-off appearance in four seasons with likes of Enfield Town and Dulwich Hamlet waiting to inflict yet more play-off heartache if Bognor are not at their best.

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The large following from Bognor sing loud and proud long after the final whistle has blown

A small band of Bognor supporters stayed behind in the ground long after the final whistle to sing and chant despite the crushing disappointment of defeat. They all knew this had been a pivotal day in the promotion and title race, but they were determined to try to show how proud they were of their heroes who had defied the odds to even be in this position at this stage of the season. Eventually, assistant manager Darin Kilpatrick came out to acknowledge to fantastic support and many will be hoping he and Jamie can still inspire this group of players to great heights even if the play-offs now look the most likely route for promotion to step 2. If one club deserves a promotion after a couple of near misses its Bognor, but in sport, much like in life, you don’t always get what you want or deserve.

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Click the link for a full set of snaps from the match – Havant v Bognor

The Battle for Ryman League supremacy

There was once a time when Enfield FC were a real force to be reckoned with in the semi-professional game. They were a club that won Isthmian and Conference League trophies and FA amateur competitions as a matter of course and even once had ambitions to climb the ladder into the Football League. Unfortunately, their one and only application to join the Football League in 1986 fell well short of the number of votes required to gain promotion (The bottom four Division 4 clubs all gained re-election that year) despite the North London club winning the Conference title in 1985/86. In an ironic twist of fate, the following year the winners of the Conference were finally granted automatic promotion to the Football League without having to apply for election, but it came too late for Enfield who could only finish 4th that season behind Maidstone United (3rd), Barnet (2nd) and Champions, Scarborough. Both Barnet and Maidstone United both went on to eventually gain promotion to the Football League in the following seasons, but Enfield never got that close again and just three years after reaching the pinnacle of non-league football, the club suffered relegation out of the Conference and they haven’t been back up to this level since.

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However, whilst relegation to the Isthmian League in 1990 was a blow to the club and its supporters, the club continued to be a force in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League, a feeder league to the Conference at the time, with the club finishing runners-up in 1990/91, 1991/92, 1993/94, 1995/96 and 1996/97. The club also added another Isthmian League Championship trophy to their ever expanding trophy cabinet in 1994/95, their eighth Isthmian title since accepting an invitation to join the Isthmian League structure in 1977. The club also finished runners-up in the Premier Division at the end of another four hugely successful seasons between 1964 and 1981. All in all, Enfield spent eighteen unbroken seasons in the Isthmian Premier Division from 1963/1964 to 1980/81 season and were involved in title race 16 times, with seven Championships finding their way to this corner of North London. Quite a remarkable run of success for any football club at any level.

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The title-winning season that will live long in the memory for many Enfield fans, took place under the guidance of manager Ten Hardly who guided the E’s to their third consecutive Isthmian Championship title in 1977/78. A total of 110 points were earned over 42 games with the team winning 35 games, drawing 5 and losing just twice. The team also added 96 goals in the for column whilst letting in just 27. Their nearest challengers, Dagenham, were 31 points behind in second place! After their last title win in 1995, the club were denied promotion back to the Conference due to failing to meet the Conference financial criteria at the time. Since adding their eighth Isthmian League Championship title to their trophy cabinet in 1994/95, Enfield has yet to add a ninth and tenth title to their Isthmian honours list.

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Fast forward just six years to 2001 and the club were now in a real mess off the field and their trophy-laden past was very much just that, a thing of the past. The sale of their Southbury Road ground in 1999 was the start of major power struggle at the club between the chairman, the local council and the supporters, which would eventually end with a group of supporters breaking away to form a new club called Enfield Town after the chairman of Enfield FC failed to hand the club over to the supporters’ trust and £100,000 from the sale of the ground. The club had played at Southbury Road for 63 years, but the chairman, with the help of the council, sold the ground for housing despite strong opposition from other directors, supporters and the general public at the time. On Saturday the 23rd June 2001 the Enfield Supporters trust voted by a margin of 9-1 to form a breakaway club and they haven’t looked back since. Enfield Town has continued winning trophies in the same manner as the original club did with two Essex Senior League titles, two Essex Senior Cups, two Middlesex Charity Cups and a Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy successes already added to the new club’s honours list. The club also gained promotion back to the Isthmian League North in 2004 and then won the North Championship in 2011/12. After stabilising in the Ryman Isthmian Premier League for three seasons the club was cruelly denied a playoff berth at the end of the 2014/15 season when they were deduced 3 points for fielding an illegible player. The club didn’t take the deduction of three points lying down and the row between the club officials and the authorities keep the playoff semi-finals from being staged for a brief period. Eventually, the punishment stuck and the club ended the season in 7th placed, two points away from finishing in the play-off positions.

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However, if the officials and supporters were left feeling sorry for themselves after an admin error cost them a play-off berth in 2014/2015, then the end of last season another cruel twist was about to strike. A final day meeting with Hampton and Richmond became a fixture that would not only determine the outcome of Enfield Town’s season, their hosts Hampton needed at least a draw to win the title and prevent second place Bognor Regis Town snatching the title away. In a dramatic day of action, second place Bognor won by four clear goals in their match which meant a defeat for Hampton against Enfield would hand the trophy to Bognor, consign Hampton to the play-offs but also enable Enfield Town to gain a play-off place. It was a tense and nervous afternoon but Hampton defended for their lives under sustained Enfield pressure and held out for a 0-0 draw which was enough to clinch Hampton the Championship whilst ending Enfield Town’s play-off hopes in the process. The newly formed club eventually finished 6th, which is their highest finished since re-formation in 2001, but it felt very much a case of what if much like the season before.

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Saturday 1st April 2017 – Ryman Premier Division – Enfield Town 1 v 0 Bognor Regis Town – Queen Elizabeth Stadium – Att 687

Whilst the supporters of old the Enfield FC and newly formed Enfield Town have Championship successes to look and reflect back on over the years, down in one corner of West Sussex the players, supporters and officials of Bognor Regis Town must wonder if they will ever have their name etched on the Isthmian League Championship honours board. As mentioned above the club couldn’t have come any closer than they did last season when Hampton and Richmond pipped them by a point on the last day of the last season. It almost had echoes of their Ryman League South Division title miss in 2010/11 when just one goal cost them the title that year. The play-offs have also provided yet more heartache with the club losing in the semi-finals in 2010/11 (Ryman south), 2013/14 and 2015/16 in the Ryman Premier. The club did manage to overcome their play-off hoodoo in 2011/2012 with a dramatic penalty shootout semi-final win over Godalming and a tight and nervy single goal win in the final that year against Dulwich Hamlet. Nevertheless, the club is still very much haunted by their play-off demons of 2014 and 2016 when Lowestoft Town and Dulwich ended their hopes of promotion in the semi-final.

  Further reading –  One game too far – Bognor Playoff heartache

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The league leaders survive an early scare as Enfield attack from the get go

During the summer Bognor manager Jamie Howell also had his two best strikers snatched away from under his nose when Ryman Premier new boys Havant & Waterlooville swooped to capture club legend Jason Prior and his strike partner in crime Alfie Rutherford. Howell also lost an excellent goalkeeper in Grant Smith as well as utility players Snorre Nilsen and Craig Robson. The spine of the team had essentially been ripped out and a massive re-building job was required. It left many Bognor supporters believing this current campaign would be one of transition. However, it’s been nothing of the sorts. The Sussex club have lead the way at the top of the Ryman Premier League for much of the second half of the season and they stand on the brink of their first ever title-winning season. In a crazy twist of fate going into this game against play-off chasing Enfield Town, only Havant and Waterlooville could now realistically snatch the title away from under Bognor’s nose with the Hampshire club four points adrift with five games left to play this season. If Bognor were the hound chasing the hare of Hampton last season, Bognor has themselves become the hare to be chased down and caught by a hungry Havant.

 

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In many ways the Bognor squads on 2013/14 and 2015/16 were stronger and much better equipped to gain promotion to step 2, but Howell and his assistant Darin Kilpatrick have worked miracles yet again to put Bognor in a position where just five more wins will guarantee the club promotion to step 2 and a league title to boot. However, football is never as simple as that it is, and their opponents Enfield needed the points as they themselves are in an absorbing play-off race where before kick-off just five points separated 3rd position Leiston and 10th placed Wingate and Finchley. The drama of last season’s final day might yet be eclipsed and then some.

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First half action from the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Enfield

The midweek action had seen Bognor keep the gap at the top to four points over second place Havant, and with Havant playing at home to playoff chasing Dulwich, Bognor would be looking towards Dulwich and hoping they could repeat their 3-0 win over Havant just a few weeks earlier. A large crowd had turned up at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium with a coach load of Belgian football supporters adding to the atmosphere and noise. Plenty of Bognor fans had also made the journey up from the coast but they must have had their hearts in their months as the hosts were almost in front immediately. Only three minutes had elapsed on the clock when home striker Dernell Wynter was in on goal with just Bognor keeper Dan Lincoln to beat but his shot was not hard or accurate enough and Lincoln pushed it away to safety. Nevertheless, the warning signs were there for the league leaders that this was possibly their toughest fixture in their run-in.

 

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The home team were the much better of the two teams in the first period and their pace and width were causing Bognor all manner of problems. In the 20th minute, the Bognor players and support were again thankful for poor finishing as Scott Shulton couldn’t get his feet sorted after a brilliant dummy had presented him with a clear sight of goal. The away side was hanging on in there at this point with the crowd right behind the home team who were putting pressure on the leaders every time they went forward. The goal finally came with half hour of the game gone and it was Shulton who had a hand in it. A wonderful diagonal ball found its way through to Karl Oliyde who controlled the ball and sent a wonderful curling shot beyond the despairing dive of Lincoln. It was just reward for a great opening half hour of high-intensity football from the home team. The noise levels rose further in the stands as the contingent of Belgium supporters contributed to a good atmosphere.

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The home team had further chances to add to their one goal but the centre back pair of Sami El Abd and Chad Field were showing just why the leaders had conceded the lowest number of goals in the division. That being said the leaders were struggling to find their rhythm further up the pitch and a half-time dressing down by manager Jamie Howell was needed after a tough half of football.

The second half was a much more tactical affair as the home side looked to protect what they had whilst the leaders probed away but lacked the spark that was needed to ignite them into life. The news wasn’t good from Hampshire either, as Havant were doing the business against Dulwich with their winning goal coming from former Bognor striker and club legend Jason Prior. Meanwhile back in Greater London the current Bognor top scorer James Fraser was struggling to get the better of Enfield centre-half who was using all his size and frame to repelled the Bognor attacks of which there were few. If anything it was the home side that was the more likely to add to the score line in the second half. Their best chance of the second period fell to Tyler Campbell on 73 minutes but he blasted over from close range.

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As the final minutes ticked away the game was drifting towards a likely home win but the leaders were not about to throw the towel in just yet. Goalkeeper Dan Lincoln came forward to make himself a nuisance as Bognor threw everyone forward, but they lost possession from the corner and Enfield also broke away to score only to be denied by some great defending. Then with time also up Fraser fired a shot from the edge of the area that had the home keeper Nathan McDonald flying across his goal to turn the ball around the post. It was the leaders last chance to rescue a point but in truth, it would have been harsh on the Enfield players who more than matched the leaders on the day.

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No quarter or inch was given by either of these two promotion chasing teams

As for the title race that now looks very open as the gap came down to one point after Havant’s win over Dulwich Hamlet. It’s still Bognor’s to lose as if they win all their remaining games which will include a humdinger of a clash against Havant, the title will be lifted no matter what Havant do in their remaining fixtures. The three points earned by Enfield Town were crucial to their charge for the play-offs. Next up for them was a huge clash against Billericay, another club in the play-off mix, a game neither team dare not lose.

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There is so much still to play for and no matter what happens from here on in for Enfield Town and Bognor this season, surely this is going to be one of the greatest endings to a Ryman Isthmian Premier League season for many a year. For Enfield it will bring back memories of their own final day Championship winning season in 1979/80 when they won the title on the very last day with an amazing comeback against their opponents and their Championship rivals that day Walthamstow, clinching the title after a 3-3 draw. For Bognor, they will be praying they’re not going to end up the bridesmaids yet again.

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A full set of match day snaps can be found clicking the link here – Match Photography

Contrasting Fortunes – Braintree Town & Wrexham

A few weeks ago, one rather disgruntled gentleman decided to write to the Non-League paper and inform their readership that the current National League promotion and title contenders Lincoln City should be known as a Football League Club, despite playing their football outside of the Football League. What prompted the gentleman to write to the paper in the first place was down to the praise Lincoln City were receiving for their magnificent run to the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup as a Non-League club. The letter caused quite a stir, and the following week many people wrote to the Non-League paper themselves and informed the disgruntled gentleman that despite having played in the Football League for the majority of their history, Lincoln City were very much a Non-League club and had been since relegation from the Football League in May 2011. The point the gentleman was trying to make was that many clubs who are currently plying their trade in the top tier of the Non-League pyramid, the National League, have spent much of their history playing in Football League clubs and therefore he felt that they shouldn’t be labelled as such.

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A quick look at the current National League table and you will find that it isn’t just Lincoln City who have the resources, support levels and desire to recapture their former Football League status. The supporters and owners of Tranmere Rovers, York City and Torquay United would all dearly love to see their clubs escape the clutches of the National League, but unfortunately relegation from the Football League is often a deep wound that isn’t quickly healed.

Meanwhile up in North Wales, the loyal and long suffering supporters of Wrexham Football Club can certainly identify with that feeling of being another former Football League club that’s currently playing in the National League and not exactly wanting or enjoying being there. Despite finishing in the National League play-off places for three consecutive seasons in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the Welsh club suffered agonising play-off defeats in the semi-finals in 2011 & 2012 and the final in 2013. The 2013 defeat in the final came at the hands of Welsh neighbours Newport County. The Dragons are now into their tenth season outside the Football League after dropping out of the Football League in 2008. Unfortunately, instant promotion back to the Football League is a very rare event for clubs that drop out of League Two as the likes of Luton Town, Grimsby Town, York City, Stockport County, Hereford, Torquay United and Tranmere Rovers have all found out in recent times. Only Bristol Rovers, Lincoln City and Carlisle United have managed to go down and then gain promotion the following season. The road back to the Football League is more often than not a long and painful one.

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The traveling Wrexham fans look on as their side battles in Essex

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The National League is a strong division with a mixture of former Football League clubs (Lincoln City, Wrexham, York City, Tranmere etc.), clubs with huge ambition and wealth (Forest Green Rovers & Eastleigh), phoenix ex-Football League clubs on the rise again (Aldershot, Maidstone United & Chester FC), and clubs that many would see as punching well above their weight (Braintree Town, Dover Athletic, North Ferriby United & Solihull Moors). The 2015/2016 season saw two part-time clubs in Braintree Town and Dover Athletic, despite having less resources and financial wealth that many clubs at this level, manage to finish in the play-off places, which is a testimony to the strength and competitiveness of the National League as well as proving wealth and support levels are no guarantee of success at this level anyway.

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A lot of Braintree Town’s success last season can be credited to their talented former management duo of Danny Cowley and Nicky Cowley, two brothers who have worked their way up from managing in the Essex Senior League to managing in the National League. The pair became joint managers at Cressing Road in the summer of 2015 and within a year they had gotten the club to within touching distance of the Football League. However, it’s Alan Devonshire, the manager, who had taken the club from the Third Division of the Ryman Isthmian League to top level of non-league football and then managed to establish them amongst the cream of semi-professional football as a part-time club who deserve immense credit for the rise of Braintree Town.

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This season sees Braintree Town playing their sixth straight season in the National League, the highest level they have played in their history. However, whilst Braintree might be enjoying life at their elevated level, a club that most certainly are not are Wrexham. After Brian Flynn stepped down as manager in September 2001 having become the club’s third longest serving manager, Wrexham have been on a rollercoaster of a ride of extreme highs and lows. A Football League Trophy success in 2005, as well as a few Welsh Cup wins in the period was rather overshadowed by the club having ten points deducted after they entered administration in the 2004/05 season. The loss of those ten points most certainly cost the club their place in League One that season and the Dragons’ downward spiral was about to rapidly accelerate thereafter. The club were put into administration by the directors, who believed it was the only way to prevent the club from liquidation after the owner at the time, Alex Hamilton, refused to sell the club to either a consortium or the Wrexham supporters trust. At the same time Alex Hamilton also had plans to use the land that the land the Racecourse Ground was built on for housing or commercial development after he had acquired the freehold of it in June 2002. These were worrying times for everyone who had Wrexham close to their hearts.

Further reading –     The Wrexham Supporters trust finally takes control

After many legal shenanigans and court battles, the Racecourse was returned to the administrators and a new consortium was eventually allowed to take control of the club just before the start of the 2006/2007 League 2 campaign. The club had been saved from extinction at the 11th hour, but would it prove to be a turning point in their fortunes? Unfortunately, it didn’t on the field. Manager Denis Smith was sacked along with assistant Kevin Russell in January 2007, when the club were tumbling towards the Conference at a rapid rate. Their fight for survival went right down to the wire that season until safety was finally secured on the last day of the season in front of a packed Racecourse. A 3-1 win over fellow relegation rivals Boston United sent Boston down instead, to the pure and utter delight of the majority of the 12,374 crowd. After years of painful legal battles off the pitch and poor performances on it, surely this would prove to be a major turning point in the Dragons history? Sadly, again it wasn’t to be. The following season (2007/2008) Brian Carey and then Brian Little tried to turn the club’s fortunes around but neither could, and after a 2-0 loss away at Hereford United in April 2008, the Dragons 87 year stay in the Football League was ended. It was a dark and very sad day in this part of North Wales, but at the time I doubt many Wrexham supporters believed their stay in the Conference National, as it was called back then, would be a very long one. Sadly, they were to be mistaken and the long road back to the Football League is still far from reaching any of sort of happy ending.

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Dean Saunders, Andy Morrell, Kevin Wilkin and Gary Mills have all tried their hand at getting Wrexham back into the Football League since relegation in 2008, but not one of those managers could quite find that formula. Andy Morrell came the closest to ending the club’s stay in non-league football. The 2011/2012 season saw the club gain 98 points and finish second but with only one automatic place in the Conference they were denied by Champions Fleetwood Town who gained 105 points. They went on to lose in the playoffs semi-finals that season and then in the final to Newport County the following year. Morrell did however manage to add to the club’s trophy collection with a FA Trophy win in 2013. The reigns of Kevin Wilkin and Gary Mills after Morrell can best be described as underachieving and underwhelming and now Keates has the task of restoring pride in playing for a club the size of Wrexham whilst also trying to achieve that promotion the supporters of this once grand Welsh club have been yearning for since 2008.

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Dean Keates(Far right) the man charged with restoring Wrexham’s  lost Football League status

Further reading – The trails and tribulations of Wrexham managers

Saturday 4th March 2017 – National League – Braintree Town 1 v 2 Wrexham – Cressing Road – Attendance 698

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When these two clubs took to the field at the Racecourse back in September they were both already on their second managers of the season, with Dean Keates having taken over from Gary Mills at Wrexham and Hakan Hayrettin having replaced Jamie Day in the dugout at Braintree. Despite Gary Mills having a track record of getting clubs he managed promoted from the National League to the Football League, he couldn’t work his magic in North Wales, and after a run of just one win in six games in mid-September and early October, Mills was shown the door with an assault on promotion looking already unlikely only a few months into the season. However, worse was to follow for the Wrexham supporters a few weeks later. An extremely embarrassing exit in the FA Cup to Stamford, three leagues below Wrexham, left the Dragons’ faithful wondering who exactly could sort out the mess the club now found themselves in.

The Wrexham board decided to appoint Dean Keates, a former playing legend at the club, and in his first four league games he managed to steady ship with three draws and a win before struggling Braintree Town turned up at the Racecourse and returned back to Essex with all three points. It was a massive reality check for Keates who now knew the size of the task at hand. His programme notes from that same game said as much; “We’re four games unbeaten at the moment, which is a good starting point. I am under no illusions, though, that there is plenty of room for improvement.” As for improvement of the Dragons since his appointment, Keates has certainly given the club a platform to build on for next season having won seven, drawn 3 and lost 5 of his 15 games since that reverse to Braintree.

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Match action from Cressing Road

Meanwhile since the departure of Jamie Day from Braintree in late September, the new manager Hakan Hayrettin has been fighting to keep the club from getting sucked into a relegation battle after such a poor start to the season under Day. Unfortunately, results failed to improve immediately after Hayrettin’s arrival with the team winning just one of his first seven games in charge. However, a strong set of results in November and December meant the team started to pull away from the relegation scrap. Another two wins in January and a useful point away at promotion chasing Forest Green Rovers kept the momentum going after a poor start to January included defeats to Chester City and Essex rivals Dagenham and Redbridge. Then came a hectic period in February with seven games played in the month. A shock FA Trophy defeat to Dulwich, a club two leagues below Braintree, meant league survival was now the main focus. The players responded well and a vital ten points were earned after wins against North Ferriby, Eastleigh and Bromley, and a vital point gained from relegation threatened Maidstone United.

Further reading – A new manager in charge of Braintree Town

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Wrexham came into the game in good form too but within a minute they found themselves a goal down. A corner wasn’t dealt with by the Wrexham defence and Micheal Cheek fired in from close range. It was mad opening to the game and within three minutes, Wrexham were back on level terms. A strong run down the left by Izale McLeod took him area where he could pull back the ball into the path of Tum Massanka who fired the ball into the net to the delight of the 150 or so away fans who made the trip from North Wales.

The next big chance of the game came the way of the home side when a thrown in into the penalty area caused the Wrexham back line problems. The ball eventually found its way to Jack Midson who chip to the back post was somehow headed over from six yards out by the goalscorer Cheek. The closet Wrexham came to adding to their one goal in the first half was on 40 minutes when skipper Mark Carrington forced home keeper Sam Beasant to tip the ball over the crossbar. The Dragons also had a shout for a penalty turned down just before half time but the game remained level at the break.

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The second half began with a strong start from Wrexham and they could have been in front inside the first five minutes when Jennings ran into the box, lost the ball, but it ran into the path of team mate Ntumba Massanka who’s goal bound shot was excellently blocked by the leg of Frankie Musonda. A flurry of corners then followed and Martin Riley really should have done better with a header from just six yards out. Defender Martin Riley was certainly in the thick of the action and he must have breathed a sigh of relief when his challenge on Reece Hall-Johnson in the box went unpunished with the home side screaming for a penalty award.

An hour into the game and at this point it could have gone either way. Then on 64 minutes a great passing move by the visitors put them back in front. A good bit of link-up play between Dunn, Carrington, Riley, Massanka and Barry led to Paul Rutherford attacking the Braintree back line. Once he got towards the penalty area he cut in twice and squared the ball for Jordan White. White had his shot blocked but Ollie Shenton was on hand to fire the ball into the net right in front of the now jubilant visiting support.

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The full build up to the goal that won the match and three points for Wrexham

This time it was Braintree who responded immediately after conceding a goal. The home team thought they were level just two minutes after Wrexham went in front. A powerful shot from the edge of the box by Hall-Johnson landed sweetly into the far corner of the net but the linesman raised his flag after Jack Midson who was offside had interfered with the goalkeeper’s view of the shot.

In the 70th minute a third penalty appeal in the game was turned down when Midson failed to convince the referee he had been fouled in the box. Nine minutes later Wrexham should have killed the game off but Braintree had their keeper to thank for keeping them in the game when his legs prevented Massanka from scoring from 12 yards out.

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The final throw of the dice by Braintree is dealt with by the Wrexham rear guard

Time was now running out for the home side but they kept on plugging away. A free kick from 25 yards out was their best chance of final ten minutes but Cheek could only smack the ball against the Wrexham wall. After five minutes of injury time the referee signalled the end of the game and a win for Wrexham. For Wrexham it was the third time this season they have come from behind to win a game, and it was also their sixth win from their first ten games in 2017, a best start to a calendar year since 2013. Braintree could count themselves rather unfortunate to lose the game but it seems Hakan Hayrettin has them going in the right direction as the campaign reaches its climax.

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A full set of pictures from this match – Match snaps

The Beach Boys

If you type the word ‘Beach Boys’ into Google, the first pages that come up are be linked to the American Rock band of that name who were formed in Hawthorne, California back in the swinging sixties. However, the swinging sixties were also a time when a small Essex football club began playing friendly matches on a pitch alongside Canvey Island beach. That club went by the name of Concord Rangers because the beach next to their pitch was known as concord beach, and they adopted the ‘Beach Boys’ as their nickname.

Whilst the Essex version of the Beach Boys haven’t quite had the same worldwide global success as the Californian version, the football club are still currently enjoying the most successful period of their history, and their continued presence in the second tier of the Non-League pyramid is a testimony to efforts of Danny Cowley and his former assistant Danny Scopes. This season Danny Cowley is managing Lincoln City and he has enjoyed worldwide fame with the Imps’ run to the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup, but between 2007 and 2015 Danny helped guide the Canvey Island-based club from the modest surroundings of the Essex Senior League to a first ever FA Cup 1st round appearance in 2013, and also to the lofty heights of the National South in same year. They have remained at this level ever since.

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However, before their recent successes, Concord Rangers once spent seventeen unbroken seasons in the Essex Senior League, and back in 1998 the club were languishing at the bottom of the Essex Senior League and struggling to make ends meet. The club also had their bar license taken away which prevented the club bringing in some much-needed revenue. Things were looking very bleak indeed. The arrival of Anthony Smith in 1998, son of former Chairman Jack Smith, transformed everything off the pitch and suddenly the first shoots of recovery began. The Beach Boys started to also enjoy some much-needed success on the pitch too, as the likes of Colin McBride, Steve Knott and Ben Embury all managed the club and added some silverware to the trophy cabinet during their time in charge. However, the success went up another notch with the arrival of Danny Cowley in 2007 and his assistant Danny Scopes. The two Danny’s helped steer the club to heights many supporters must have thought was very unlikely given their modest resources and fan base. The first season after Cowley and Scopes took their places in the Thames Road dugout, the club lifted the Essex Senior League title, won promotion to the Ryman Isthmian North Division and reached two cup finals; winning them both too. The team also embarked on a glorious run to the FA Vase Quarter Finals that season winning seven matches and scoring 27 goals before Lowestoft Town ended thoughts of Wembley with a 1-0 win in Essex. It had been a truly memorable debut season but this was just the beginning of the club’s remarkable rise through the divisions.

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The following the season the club narrowly lost out in the play-off final on penalties to Waltham Abbey, but within a year they were the ones popping the champagne corks as they defeated Enfield Town 3-1 to gain promotion to the Ryman Isthmian Premier Division. After 17 years playing in the same division, the club had gained two promotions in just three seasons and they were now dining at the same table as their island neighbours Canvey Island. The 2010/11 season was a season of stabilising at a higher level, but credit must still go to Danny Cowley and Danny Scopes for managing the club to an 8th place finish, which was just two points and two positions behind their most established neighbours. The following campaign saw the team blighted by injuries throughout and the departure of Danny Scopes who retired meant Cowley had to bring in a new assistant. Glen Alzapiedi was the man to replace Danny Scopes.

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The departure of one-half of a successful duo can sometimes bring turbulence and disruption to a football club, but it was anything but that at Thames Road as the team again produced miracles to gain end of season play-off place and then win two games away from home to gain their third promotion under Cowley and the first with Alzapiedi alongside Danny. It was the stuff of dreams for everyone involved with the Beach Boys. The club had gone from the laughing stock of the Essex Senior League to finishing above the likes of Chelmsford City as they did in the first season in the Conference South in 2013/2014.

The last part of the Danny Cowley revolution took place during the 2014/15 season. The club achieved their highest ever finish in their history with a 7th place finish in the National South, they also reached the 1st round of the FA Cup for the first ever time and they ended the season with lifting the Essex Senior Cup for the second consecutive year. Unfortunately, the success that Danny Cowley had achieved in this corner of Essex had attracted other Essex club to his management skills, and Braintree Town were able to prize Cowley away from Thames Road.

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Saturday 11th March 2017 – National South – Concord Rangers 1 v 1 Dartford – Thames Road – Att – 367

Since Danny Cowley departed, the club’s success has slowed somewhat, but they remain in the National South despite some of the smallest attendances and resources at step 2. The 2016/17 season has been one of struggle and they still need to put some results together to haul themselves away from the relegation scrap. Meanwhile their opponents Dartford are in the hunt for promotion back to the top tier of Non-League football, having last played at this level as recently as 2015.

The current Dartford manager is Tony Burman, who is another manager who has achieved great success in the Non-League and who has helped put Dartford back on the footballing map in a similar manner to the way Danny Cowley did in his time at Concord Rangers. Burman led the Darts to Ryman Isthmian North Championship in 2007/2008, the same year Cowley and Concord began their ascent through the divisions. Another Championship winning season in the Ryman Isthmian Premier Division in 2009/10 saw the Darts climb into the Conference South and then another promotion was earned just two years later with victory in the play-offs.

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An 8th place finish, a run to the FA Trophy semi-finals and the highest finish for a part-time club during the 2012/13 campaign had the crowds flocking to Princes Park before Burman and Dartford found life in the National League a difficult one. Despite a reprieve from relegation in the summer of 2014, there was no such luck a year later as Burman oversaw his first relegation in charge of Dartford.

Last season was very much a season of consolation for both Dartford and Concord with the Darts adjusting to life in the National South after the highs of National League and wins over the likes of Luton Town, meanwhile across the Dartford Bridge the Beach Boys were coming to terms with the departure of the club’s most successful manager in Danny Cowley. The current campaign has seen the Darts back amongst the front runners whilst Concord have been hovering dangerously close to the relegation places.

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The Darts made the short journey from Kent to the Island sitting in 3rd place in the National South table with 64 points from 32 games and the play-offs now looking the most likely route to promotion, as neighbours Ebbsfleet United fight it out with Maidenhead United for the title. Concord, on the other hand, were down in 17th place with 30 points from their 32 games, but with an eight-point gap to the relegation places.

The current manager in the Concord Rangers dugout is Adam Flanagan, a former player at Dartford, and he believed the pressure was all on the promotion-chasing Darts before kick-off. Flanagan, speaking to the Canvey Echo, said: “The fact of the matter is Dartford are chasing a play-off place and still have an outside chance of winning the league. It will be a hard fixture, as are most games at this level, but we have done well at home lately in the league against the better teams and my hope is that will continue tomorrow.”

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The game kicked off in glorious sunshine despite it being early March, and a healthy contingent of Dartford fans had made the short journey to Thames Road to help bump the attendance up by 130 from the previous home game against another Kent club in Margate. It had been a frustrating afternoon against bottom placed Margate the previous Saturday so the pressure was on get a positive result against one of the league’s front-runners.

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In the early stages of the contest, it was the Darts who were having better possession and chances, and they were unlucky to have a goal ruled out for offside when the linesman’s flag was raised. However, they didn’t have to wait long to open the scoring and it was Ryan Hayes who was the hero. A great counter-attacking move was finished off by Hayes in the 21st minute. It was Hayes 100th goal for the club in his 12th season with the Darts. The goal did briefly spark the Beach Boys back into life and their best chance of the half came from Jordan Chiedozie, who drilled a low shot at Deren Ibrahim who was equal to the shot to prevent an equaliser. On the stroke of half-time, the away side almost doubled their lead when a powerful strike from Luke Wanadio struck the crossbar. It was struck that hard the crossbar was still rocking a few seconds later!

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The second half was a much more even affair, and the home side started to impose themselves on the match. The tackles were also starting to get a bit more crunching with both sides in need of the points for different reasons. The home side seemed to have run out of time, having wasted a few good chances to get back into the contest, but with time almost up the referee pointed to the penalty spot after Chiedozie was fouled in the area in the 87th minute. Steve Cawley stepped up to take the penalty and sent Ibrahim the wrong way to salvage a point for the Beach Boys. It was tough on the Darts who seemingly had the game won but the referee came to Concord’s rescue.

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As Tony Burman and the Dartford players headed back along the A13 frustrated having dropped a crucial two points right at the depth, they will hope they don’t have to make the journey to Thames Road again next season with promotion still firmly on their radar, whilst the Beach Boys will be hoping they can survive and continue on swimming with the bigger clubs of the National South.

A full set of match snaps from this and other matches can be found here – Non-League Photography

Diamonds are forever -The Rise, fall & Re-Birth of Rushden

The semi-professional world of English Non-League football has always had a plethora of clubs that dare to dream of rising through the divisions and gaining a place amongst the Ninety-Two full time professional Football League clubs. For many it will remain just that, a dream, but for the likes of Fleetwood Town and Crawley Town they have shown in recent years that with the right direction, leadership and an owner that is prepared to put his hand in his pocket, promotion to the Football League can be achieved. A quick glance around the National League and its regional North and South divisions this season, and in it you will find the likes of Forest Green Rovers, Eastleigh, Salford City, AFC Fylde and Ebbsfleet United, all with cash rich owners with aspirations of seeing their clubs achieve a place in the Football League if not this season but sometime in the future. Salford City, one of the most high-profile of these clubs, were themselves bought by former Manchester United players Ryan Giggs, Gary & Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes in 2014.

However, back in 1992, the same year Manchester United’s class of 92 Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes were just beginning their journey to becoming United playing legends, Max Griggs, the owner of Doc Martins shoe company, decided to invest his vast wealth into two non-league football clubs in Northamptonshire. The Northamptonshire towns of Rushden and Irthlingborough both already had their own semi-professional football clubs playing in the Southern League and United Counties League respectively back in 1992. Rushden Town themselves had been formed as far back as 1889, but despite reservations about a merger at the time, Griggs’ suggestion to merge Rushden Town FC and Irthlingborough Diamonds FC to form Rushden and Diamonds Football Club was agreed by all parties concerned, and life in this part of Northamptonshire wouldn’t ever quite be the same again.

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Hayden Road – The former home of Rushden Town before the merger in 1992

The newly formed club took Rushden Town’s place in the Midland section of the Southern League but they decided to play their home games at Irthlingborough’s home ground of Nene Park and not Rushden’s Hayden Road ground. That same year the Southern League had demoted Rushden Town back to the Midland section of the Southern League due to ground grading issues at Hayden Road. It wouldn’t be the last time a club from Rushden would suffer ground related issues either. It took just two seasons for Rushden and Diamonds to win the Southern League Midland Section Championship and gain promotion, but unlike when Rushden Town had achieved the same feat in 1991/1992, this time the Southern League officials allowed them to be promoted to the Premier Division in 1993/94. The new club didn’t hang around long in the Premier Division either, and two years after their first title and promotion, the champagne corks were popping again as the club celebrated promotion to the Conference with another title winning campaign in 1995/96. It had been quite some rollercoaster for Max Griggs and Rushden and Diamonds in just their first four seasons. The club were now just one promotion from the Football League.

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Whilst the club had waltzed their way through two divisions of the Southern League with the minimum of fuss, life in the top level on non-league football would require more investment on and off the pitch from Griggs if the club wanted to push on further and challenge for promotion. As the years rolled on after the amalgamation of the two clubs, Max Griggs invested heavily in the facilities of Nene Park to bring them up to Football League standards, and by time the whole ground was complete in July 1998, Nene Park was stadium-fit to host football at least as high up as the Championship or First Division as it was known in 1998. Now the club had a stadium that matched their ambitious owner, the club set about achieving promotion to the Football League. In May 2001 that finally became a reality. A run of just one defeat in their final 23 matches during the 2000/2001 Conference campaign saw Manager Brian Talbot lead the Diamonds to a third title and promotion winning campaign in just nine seasons as a newly formed club.

Now the bright lights of the Football League were shinning on the Diamonds and the likes of local rivals Northampton Town would be visiting Nene Park instead of Kettering Town, what could the club realistically achieve as it approached its tenth year anniversary? I doubt many supporters believed they could achieve back to back promotions just a year after becoming a Football League club but that’s exactly what they came so tantalisingly close to achieving in May 2002. Unfortunately for Max Griggs, Brian Talbot and the players, the club would suffer heartache at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff as Cheltenham Town ran out 3-1 winners in the Third Division play-off final. A play-off final appearance and an epic play-off semi-final aggregate victory over Rochdale was still a fantastic ending to a memorable first ever season in the Football League.

The first season had certainly been one full of drama, but what was to come over the next nine months was the stuff that the best Hollywood script writer would have struggled to have come up with. The Diamonds were trailing Third Division leaders Hartlepool United by 12 points at the start of March back in 2003, but as the two clubs went head-to-head on the very last day of the 2002/03 season, the Diamonds had somehow overturned that advantage to be in a position where a draw would be enough to gain the title and promotion. This was the stuff of dreams for Max Griggs and everyone who had been involved in the merger back in 1992. It was to be a nerve-wracking afternoon in Irtlingborough that day. A full house inside Nene Park ensured that the noise levels were pumped up to the max (no pun intended), and when Rushden’s Paul Hall put the Diamonds on course for promotion with the opening goal suddenly promotion was within touching distance. The traveling Hartlepool supporters must have struggled to believe quite what was happening in front of their very own eyes as the clock ticked by and the title was slipping away. How had they let such a points gap slip away? Then all of a sudden they had a glimmer of hope when an equaliser came in the dying minutes of the game. What an afternoon it was turning out to be as now nails were being bitten all round Nene Park. However, a winner never came for either side and minutes later the final whistle signalled the end of the match. The celebrations could begin in the home stands and home dressing room for Rushden and Diamonds, whilst the feelings of utter devastation would have been felt by all those from the North East. The contrast of emotions from both sets of players and supporters could have been stark. Pure ecstasy and delight at one end, pure agony and misery at the other. Only football can produce such moments.

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However, promotion to Division Two in May 2003 was to be the pinnacle of the Diamonds rise, as just seven years later the club’s very existence hung by the finest of threads. In those following seven years the club went from stability, growth and success to absolute poverty, large tax bills and playing at a ground that had once been the jewel in the crown but was now the anchor that was dragging the club to financial oblivion. Where and why did it go so horribly wrong? Despite being in a strong position mid-way through their first season in the Second Division (2003/04), a disastrous second half of the campaign which saw promotion winning manager Brian Talbot resign, eventually would end in relegation back to the Third Division. The club lost another manager the following season when Talbot’s replacement Ernie Tippett was dismissed after a poor run of results, but fortunately his replacement, Barry Hunter, managed to keep the club from dropping back into the Conference for now. However, in the summer of 2004 with the club now losing money year on year, Max Griggs decided to end his association with the club his wealth helped build, and he was to hand the club over to the Supporters Trust whilst also pumping yet more money into the club to help over the following two seasons. Griggs had originally tried to sell the club but couldn’t find a buyer, the following season was club again struggled in the Third Division but this time Hunter couldn’t keep the club from being relegated, and he was also let go that summer.

By August 2005 the club were now back playing their football in the top tier of the Non-League after a five-year adventure in the Football League, but if the supporters thought life was about to improve again they were sadly mistaken, as the next few season signalled the beginning of the end for Rushden and Diamonds FC. Over the next two years Paul Hart, Tony Gooden (Caretaker), Graham Westley, Garry Hill and Justin Edinburgh all tried their hand at attempting to polish the Diamonds back to their shining best on the pitch, but the club seems to lurch from one crisis to the next off it. When the supporters trust handed over the club and the Nene Park complex to Keith Cousins in November 2006, the club were still continuing to lose money year on year. Nevertheless, the club just about continued to function as a football club as Justin Edinburgh began his first full campaign in charge at the start of the 2009/2010 season. The former Tottenham defender began to turn the club around on the pitch at least and his first full season ended with the club achieving a play-off place. Unfortunately, Oxford United put paid to any hope of the club getting back into the Football League, beating the Diamonds over two legs in the semi-final. The following season, 2010/11, the club struggles returned on the pitch, and off it Keith Cousins stepped down as chairman in December 2010. Gary Calder and Liam Beasant took over the running over the club, but Calder was gone within two months. Steve Beasant, Liam’s dad, also joined the board. Both men had interesting pasts to say the very least. This is where things really started to go wrong off the pitch for the once stable and debt free club.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmLFoMCx47I  – An look at the decaying Nene Park through Urban Explorers 

If the supporters were wondering quite what on earth was going on at Boardroom level by now, the death of popular goalkeeper Dale Roberts was a real dark day for everyone involved in Rushden and Diamonds as suddenly the crisis off the pitch took a back seat whilst the club and its supporters mourned loss of one of their own. The club ended the 2010/11 season in 13th place in the Conference with a five-point deduction next to name. By the start of the next season they had be wound up and liquidated. Rushden and Diamonds were no more. That summer the taxman and other creditors came knocking at the door, despite the cost-cutting measures under Cousins chairmanship, and with the club unable to find £750,000 there was no knight in shining armour around to save them. A last minute plea to the Conference fell on death ears and the league officials expelled the club. You had to wonder quite what Max Griggs was feeling as the club went to the wall five years after he handed it over to the supporters. It was a tragic end to a football club that once dared to dream, lived that dream, but couldn’t sustain that dream when reality set in after their success slowed down. In 2014, three years after the club’s demise, Griggs said in an interview with BBC News, “It costs a lot of money to run a football club and whatever money you put into football, in my experience, you don’t really get back. You’re really paying for your fun at the end of the day.”

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As usual, it was the supporters who were left high and dry by the destruction of their football club. A group called SaveRDFC had originally been set up in a bid to save the club, but with the club now on a life support machine, the decision was made to form a new club rather than attempt to save the old one. A month after the old club went under, AFC Rushden and Diamonds were formed by the supporters in 2011. The new club began life Division One of the United Counties League, the tenth tier of English football, ironically the same league Irthlingborough Diamonds were playing their football in before the merger in 1992. The supporter-owned club have been on the rise ever since.

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The Dog and Duck – Home for AFC Rushden & Diamonds but for how much longer?

Monday 26th December 2016 – Southern League First Division South – AFC Rushden and Diamonds 1 v 1 Stamford AFC – The Dog and Duck Ground – Att : 631

Since their formation in 2011, AFC Rushden and Diamonds have been on a rapid rise up the divisions much like old versions of the club did after its formation in 1992. The 2012/13 season ended with club achieving their first promotion after finishing second in Division One of the United Counties League. The re-born club established themselves in the UCL Premier Division, and two seasons ago (2014/15) they won their first ever title and subsequent promotion back to eight tier of the English Pyramid system. That meant the Diamonds would start the 2015/16 season in the Southern League First Division Central, the same level Rushden Town had been playing at before Griggs merged the Northamptonshire neighbours. This season the club moved across to the Northern Premier League Division One South, still the eighth tier. They’re now just two promotions from hauling themselves back up to the National League, the current name of the Conference.

However, as always is the case with a club re-born and re-built after the financial meltdown of the previous one, there is much talk of ensuring any further rise through the non-leagues is achieved without over stretching the club resources or finances. The club’s current motto is “One Club one community, one fan, one vote.” The fan owned club have been playing their games at the Dog and Duck stadium since 2012, a ground they currently share with their landlords and neighbours Wellingborough Town. Could the club possibly return to Nene Park in the future? This looks increasing unlikely with the Nene Park complex now left abandoned and boarded up after Kettering Town moved in when Rushden went bust, but again the running costs of Nene Park proved too costly for the poppies. The former owner of the Diamonds, Keith Cousins, is still the owner of the site and there has been talk of the ground being bulldozed but there is opposition to this from East Northampton District council who are insisting there must be a leisure facility as part of its remit.

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A healthy boxing Day crowds gets behind the re-formed AFC Rushden & Diamonds

Interestingly even Max Griggs has dismissed the chance of Nene Park ever hosting a football match again: “I don’t think anyone could run the stadium and resurrect the football club again unless they’re prepared to throw a lot of money at it like I did,” he said in an interview with the BBC.

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Meanwhile it looks like AFC Rushden are going to have to find another new home anyway for the 2017/18 season, as the lease holder of Dog and Duck ground has informed both Wellingborough Town and AFC Rushden that he requires vacant possession. The Dog and Duck has undergone a much needed facelift since the arrival of the Diamonds, but much like Hayden Road and Nene Park their two previous former homes, home comforts are proving anything but for a club from Rushden.

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The 2016/17 season has seen the club continue their progression on the pitch despite switching leagues in the summer, and as the team headed into a busy festive period they were lying eighth in the table having won eight, drawn eight and lost just twice in their first eighteen fixtures, picking up 32 points. Their visitors to the Dog and Duck ground on Boxing day were Stamford AFC who themselves were placed 18th in the table with 22 points gained from their 18 games played.

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AFC Rushden & Diamonds and Stamford clash on Boxing Day 

On a sunny but cold and crisp day in Wellingborough the visitors more than matched their higher placed opponents in a first half which saw both sides create plenty of chances. The away side were the quick off the mark with a chance as early as the first minute but fortunately for the Diamonds it deflected wide. A shaky start for the home side turned into a steadier performance as they settled down and started to find their rhythm. Their main threat was from the pace of winger Fazel Koriya. However, it was Nail Shariff who opened the scoring with a great turn and strike after good build up play. The goal was a delight for the large home crowd who were probably glad to get out and watch some football after their Christmas excesses. Credit to the away side though as they didn’t let their heads drop and they had a goal to celebrate on 23 minutes to level the scores up at 1-1. As the clock ticked past the half hour mark, the Stamford keeper did well to hold onto the ball as a dangerous cross was whipped into the box. Stamford themselves were proving a handful at set pieces but neither side really hand that end product to finish off their chances.

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After the half-time break the Diamonds would be attacking the Peter De Banke terrace that housed the majority of their support and the atmosphere approved as a result. It was now much colder as the floodlights came on after the sun had produced it last rays of the day. Hats, scarves and gloves were the order of the day. The Diamonds’ lively winger Koriya suddenly started to use his pace to good effect and he had the Stamford defence back-pedalling with his lung busting runs. On 51 minutes Jordan Smith fired just wide with a well hit shot, and the home side went even closer on the hour as Dolman’s flick from a well worked corner saw the ball just curl wide of the upright. Despite having to defend a lot more this half, Stamford still posed a threat of their own. A speculative effort from 30 yards almost silenced the home crowd but it cleared the crossbar. The Diamonds were still the team on top in the game but they just couldn’t make that final pass count as chances came and went. In the 90th minute they almost snatched a dramatic win when a free-kick cleared the Stamford defence but no one could get that final touch to put the ball into the net. A draw was frustrating for the home side but Stamford could take comfort from a hard earned point on the road.

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A season’s best crowd of 631 came through the Dog and Duck turnstiles. Ok, it is some way off the attendances in the heyday of Rushden and Diamonds’ climb through the leagues when four figure crowds were the norm at Nene Park, but you get the impression the club’s current owners and supporters are just glad this part of Northamptonshire has a football club to come and watch. It seems the song really is right, Diamonds are forever.

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Further reading on Rushden and Diamonds can be found here : 

Rushden & Diamonds Football Club History

http://twohundredpercent.net/?s=Rushden+

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-northamptonshire-35365804