I last saw AFC Hornchurch play a few weeks ago, and they looked every bit the potential league champions as they patiently wore down an improving Aveley side at Parkside. In the weeks since they had won away at promotion hopefuls Heybridge Swifts and Haringey Borough, edged a nine goal thriller with Waltham Abbey and drawn at Dereham Town, strengthening their position at the top of the table and threatening to pull away from the chasing pack. The rearranged visit of local rivals Barking seemed like the ideal opportunity to pay them a visit and see their Hornchurch Stadium home for myself.
First, some Hornchurch history. The stadium is an athletics and football venue that’s shared with Havering Athletics Club, formerly known as Havering Mayesbrook Athletics club. The club, coincidentally, used to train at Mayesbrook Park next to Barking FC’s ground. Upminster Wanderers began playing football at the venue in 1953. They changed their name to Hornchurch & Upminster after the move and in 1961 became Hornchurch FC. The original Urchins were elected into the Isthmian League in 1975 and won promotion into the newly formed Division One North in 2002. The promotion saw increased investment in Hornchurch Stadium, transforming it into the excellent sporting venue it is today.
The beauty of Bridge Avenue
Hornchurch went into administration and were dissolved in 2005. Fortunately, a phoenix club appeared in its stead and AFC Hornchurch was born. The new incarnation of the Urchins began life in the Essex Senior League and won the league in their first season, returning to Isthmian Division One North, immediately repeating the feat and earning promotion once more. AFC enjoyed a strong first season in the Premier Division and made the promotion play-offs. They ran into another phoenix club, however, in AFC Wimbledon who ended their promotion hopes with a 3-1 win.
The Urchins survived another administration in 2009 and challenged for promotion once again in 2012. This time they won the play-offs, beating Lowestoft Town in the final. The Conference South proved to be a step too far, however, and they returned to the Isthmian Premier Division the following season. In 2014 Lowestoft gained revenge with a 3-0 win play-off win, before Hornchurch were relegated back into Division One North in 2015.
The Urchins have finished in the play-off positions in both seasons back in step four, but have fallen at the last or next-to-last hurdle on both occasions, losing to Essex rivals Harlow Town and Thurrock.
As soon as you pass through the turnstiles at Bridge Avenue you can sense the expectation amongst the home supporters. The club and fans are eager to advance to the Bostik Premier and beyond, and they have the facilities to grace that and indeed a higher level. A smart bar area overlooks the pitch and players entrance, and a popular burger van keeps the crowd well fed and watered. There are covered seating areas on both sides and a large covered terrace on the side closest to the bar that keeps the most vocal home fans protected from the elements. The stadium is walking distance from Upminster Bridge and Upminster Tube Stations, both of which are on the District Line. Overground trains from Fenchurch Street also stop at Upminster.
AFC Hornchurch v Barking
The Bostik North Division had already seen plenty of interesting moves in the transfer market so far in 2018 and Hornchurch were no exception. Matthias Fanimo, who scored the opening goal in the game I saw at Aveley, had moved on to a second tier team in Slovenia. The Urchins didn’t have to look far for a replacement, however. They snapped up Christian Assombalonga after he was released by Chelmsford City. The forward had scored against them twice this season; once for Chelmsford in the Essex Senior Cup, and once while on loan at Waltham Abbey in the recent 5-4 thriller.
While Hornchurch have been consistent all season, Barking were on a run of defeats going into this local derby. A good run in November had pushed the Blues into play-off contention, but they’d lost three of their four games in 2018. The two sides met at Mayesbrook Park just before Barking’s poor run had started, in a match that had ended honours even. Purcell had given Hornchurch the lead from the spot, but Adeyemi equalised for Barking with 11 minutes left. Two former Urchins, Abs Seymour and Martin Tuohy, appeared for the Blues in that game and Tuohy was also on the team sheet for this return fixture.
The first half was a fairly quiet affair with the visitors managing to keep Hornchurch at arm’s length for most of the half. Brad Warner, down the left hand side, had the brightest moments for the home team putting a couple of dangerous balls across the Barking penalty area. The visitors, however, looked well organised and defensively solid. Olajide caught crosses when needed, and was off his line quickly to snuff out the home side’s best opportunity of the half as Assombalonga was played through on goal.
Hornchurch continued to look for an opening in the second half, and Purcell worked tirelessly to try and create an opportunity. Barking, however, looked increasingly assured at the back inspired by Olajide’s faultless display. As the game wore on it became rather tense, and the home crowd clearly felt that the visitors were growing in confidence. A couple of quick attacks were thwarted, but eventually Barking made the breakthrough, when Peart’s cross evaded the Hornchurch defenders and Levett popped up at the back post to drive the ball home. Barking’s celebrations were equal parts relief, jubilation and surprise and the visitors held on for a memorable win.
Barking were superbly organised and disciplined and they will hope the hard-earned win will galvanise their promotion hopes. Hornchurch, however, are in such a strong position that a single defeat shouldn’t do much to dent their lofty ambitions- they’ll hope it’s just a speed bump on the road to promotion, and they retain a seven point lead over second place Bowers & Pitsea. While their performances on the pitch have been impressive this year, the overall feel of the club is one that is ready for promotion- and if- or when- they return to the Premier Division you wouldn’t bet against them mounting another promotion challenge fairly soon.
AFC Hornchurch 0-1 Barking
Tuesday 23 January 2018
Bostik League North Division
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