“Non League Day!”, they said.
“Support your local team!”, they said.
One of my local teams is Tooting & Mitcham United. Sadly, they were playing away at Canvey Island. So I cycled there.
It’s a fairly long way from Brixton to Canvey Island; forty-one miles, to be precise. But I have barely had a chance to do any cycling this summer so, after managing to limit wine consumption to a single bottle with my steak on Friday night, I set off at 10am with enthusiasm aplenty in the direction of Essex.
Surprisingly, despite my lack of exercise lately, I quite enjoyed the journey – the highlights being the Woolwich ferry (which I love) and standing in a field watching someone standing atop the wings of a biplane whilst it flew around the Essex countryside. One would hope that the person in question had agreed to the trip or his frantic waves as he swooped and dived over my head would have taken on an altogether more worrying air.
The lowlights were always going to include the portion of the journey which required me to mingle with two lanes of speeding traffic on the A13 but I was more surprised how low I felt as I cycled onto the Island of Canvey itself at the end of the trip.
After my 40 mile ride, all I wanted in the world was some food and a pint. I found a pub near to the ground and, noting the sign which pointed to the “Dining Area”, asked whether they served food. The man behind the bar stopped short of actually laughing at my suggestion but his reaction was, nevertheless, filled with amusement and disdain. I counted 5 Indian takeaways, 4 Chinese takeaways and 2 pubs in the town centre. All 9 takeaways were closed and the other pub only served food during the week so I had to accept an all day breakfast in a friendly cafe on the High Street, topped up with two chocolate muffins from the local bakery.
One of the things that attracted me to go to Canvey Island today was that I fancied a trip to the seaside – and boy is their ground near the sea! It would take one hell of punt to hit the ball far enough to reach the water but it’s not far. When I arrived, I left my bike locked to a lamppost and wandered the hundred yards or so to the sea wall behind the far goal to sit and watch tankers slowly make their way in and out of the Thames Estuary. It really is that close.
The ground itself is, like most of the island, below sea level and must be subject to some testing swirling winds in the winter. Today was always threatening to be a nice, sunny day but it never quite fulfilled it’s potential. There is a superb terrace behind one of the goals which creates a fantastic place from which to view the football. Erected (according to one of the stewards) around 8 years ago and paid for by former player and owner Jeff King when the team were in the conference, it really is something for the club to be proud of. The only complaint from the locals was that they thought the club should have made it half the width and put the other half behind the opposite end.
Former benefactor King was in attendance at the game and it was plain to see that him, and the impressive terrace behind the goal served to remind the locals of their heady days in the Conference a few years ago before he left to take over at Chelmsford , forcing Canvey to drop several divisions when the money ran out.
A swift look at the form book for this Ryman Premier fixture suggested that it would be a very even game. A single point separated them in the middle of the table and it seemed that maybe Tooting’s poor defensive record would prove their downfall if Canvey could create a few chances. The reality was very different.
Canvey started extremely brightly and created chance after chance early on, finding space down both channels to cross the ball and causing mayhem in the Tooting penalty area. Barring a shot from distance which was saved by Gulls’ keeper Russell, Canvey made all the running but, crucially, failed to find the net due to some poor finishing and some excellent defensive efforts from the away side. I simply lost count of the number of chances the home side had to open the scoring in the first quarter of the match. But, as football fans, we’ve seen it all before and inevitably, Canvey’s failure to finish would come back to haunt them.
Midway through the first half, Tooting striker Barry Stevens was carried off injured by a combination of their physio and their captain, Rob Howarth – to be replaced by Phil Williams. The resulting free kick was to provide Williams’ first touch as he headed the ball goalwards, only to see Russell palm the ball away. However, Williams’ second touch was altogether more rewarding as he tapped the rebound into the empty net and put Tooting into the lead.
The home fans were, understandably, disappointed. They’d controlled much of the game so far and created countless chances but the ball had only crossed the line once and it wasn’t at the right end, as far as they were concerned. Their disappointment would only grow as the half wore on as Tooting took heart from their surprise lead and looked much the better side leading up to half time. Tooting’s midfield were doing a much better job of covering the runs made by the Canvey full backs and stopping the constant crosses, thereby cutting off the supply for the Canvey forwards. In the latter stages of the half, Jamie Butler in the Tooting goal had precious little to occupy himself, save for tipping over a late effort just before half time.
During half time the stewards were wistfully recalling the day in December 2001 when Ray Stubbs and the BBC’s Match Of The Day team were on the island to witness the Gulls’ giant-killing act of knocking out Northampton in the 3rd Round. The scaffolding they used for their cameras still remains and tales of Stubbs and Lawro sharing a pint with the locals in the Corner Flag Bar were exchanged.
The second half saw Canvey demoralise their fans further by creating more chances but still failing to find the net and then conceding once more. Once again it was Phil Williams who was the provider after a mazy run but this time he couldn’t finish off his own handiwork and, once the keeper had reached out and finger-tipped the ball away from William’s boot, it fell to Howarth to slam the ball into the opposite corner and put Tooting two up.
The goal was followed by a flurry of Canvey corners which caused absolute chaos in the Tooting penalty area but the Tooting net was never really under threat and Tooting cantered to victory in the end, Canvey’s substitutes failing to make any impact as the game drifted to a close. As one of the home fans pointed out when King was replaced by Isa with 25 minutes to go “I think the interest level has just dropped”. It was a poor joke but it was the best of a bad bunch and it really did sum up the feeling around the ground as some fed up fans slouched off to get home early.
As the players left the pitch once the referee had put everyone out of their misery, there was only one man in a Tooting shirt who wasn’t smiling from ear to ear and whooping as he entered the dressing room and that was Barry Stevens, who left the field on crutches and may be out for some time. However, Williams looks to be an able deputy, despite the fact that he could have scored one or two more.
Speaking of injuries, by the time I managed to cycle home from Fenchurch Street my legs felt like I had actually played in the game myself!
I think I shall stay closer to home for the next Non League Day.