On a warm evening in May I witnessed one of the best games of football I can remember. On the face of it, a 2-0 victory for the home side might not seem that spectacular, but it was the quality of the two teams and their approach to the game that left a lasting impression. It wasn’t, as you might be imagining, a Champions League or FA Cup Final, but a Bostik North Division play-off semi-final between Haringey Borough and Heybridge Swifts.
The Swifts from Essex entertained me and many others in North London that night despite losing the game and not managing to find the net. They’d looked good all season, but their success in the cup competitions left them with a large deficit of league fixtures. They lost touch with the two automatic promotion places and were left with the playoffs. They then came up against an equally impressive Haringey side that were peaking just as the Swifts were starting to feel the burn of a long season.
Darkness falls across the land, a Heybridge goal is close at hand
They impressed enough back in May, however, to cause me to predict that they’d end this season as the champions of the Bostik North, despite only seeing them play once. The mark they left was also so indelible that they were top of the lists for teams I wanted to visit this season. Finally, the day arrived where I’d add Scraley Road to my list of grounds as they took on a Barking side who had left an equally lasting imprint on me last season.
The irresistible force versus the immovable object
The thing that stuck in the mind about Justin Gardner’s Barking team was slightly different to Heybridge but no less impressive. They were incredibly disciplined and well organised when I saw them define the term ‘hard-earned victory’ at eventual Bostik North champions AFC Hornchurch last season. The Blues record this season belies this workmanlike style. They’d conceded just 16 goals so far. A defensive record which compared favourably with most of the top six, even better than some.
Heybridge are one side that have conceded more than Barking. They had, however, found the net on nine more occasions than their opponents. Even the loss of Sam Bantick to Coggeshall earlier in the season hadn’t diminished their ability to score.
The start of the season was a bit of a rollercoaster for the Swifts. Alongside losing one of their star players, they also lost their manager. Jody Brown, who’d guided them to the FA Cup First Round and the playoffs. He left the club following four straight league defeats. Former West Ham coach Julian Dicks came in and oversaw a turnaround in their form. Defeat to Great Wakering in their last game is their only loss since Dicks joined the club at the start of October.
Swifts v Barking
Dicks’ arrival was another reason to visit Heybridge. Before his roles as manager of West Ham Ladies and with the first team, he was available to hire for one-off coaching sessions. My old amateur side paid the surprisingly affordable price and the Terminator came down to put us through our paces for an hour or so. He remained remarkably patient as a large group of, mostly, intelligent adults failed to grasp even the simplest of drills. I’m sure coaching players at step four is a lot less of a frustrating experience for him.
Price is right for Heybridge Swifts
In his new role, Dicks can put out a team with a couple of very obvious characteristics. The first is eye-catching football, the second is probably having the most ‘man-buns’ per squad in English football. It was hard to know, on arrival in Heybridge, if I’d be served a feast of attacking flair or the latest coffee grown in the mountains of El Salvador. The Swifts can boast one of the top strikers that I’ve seen at this level in Matthew Price as well as former Barking players Toib Adeyemi and Kreshnic Krasniqi, and Harrison Chatting who has scored six goals in seven games under Dicks’ management.
Heybridge’s cup winnings seem to have been well spent as their Scraley Round ground is well set up and could easily pass the eye test a couple of levels higher. All the good stuff is positioned at one end meaning the players come out onto the pitch right through the middle of the crowds, who then have to wait for the toss before heading to the relevant end. A couple of locals lamented the negative effect of Black Friday on the attendance, but it was only just below the season’s average.
Price nearly gave the home side an early lead but his run was ruled offside. It was a sign, however, of things to come for the Barking defence. Aside from their blonde nightmare in the making Barking were pretty impressive in the first half. Their front three, led by Rashid Kamara kept the home side under pressure for long periods. The impressive Jordan Peart’s swashbuckling runs down the left also gave them plenty of momentum. The shots they mustered, however, were saved by Haigh in the Heybridge goal.
Soon, and slightly against the run of play, Swifts had the lead. Price outmuscled his marker in pursuit of a hopeful ball into the channel. As he entered the box he fired a fierce drive into the bottom corner. The goal lifted the home side for the remainder of the half. They created a couple of good chances but couldn’t extend their lead.
Barking went into the break a goal behind but had plenty to be happy about from their first half performance. The early exchanges of the second half were similar to the first. Wilson and Adeyemi were impressive in central defence for the home side as Barking looked for an equaliser. As the visitors began to open up a little more in the search for a goal Heybridge’s attacking players were finding more space.
Midway through the half, Price then added his second of the game. He got on the end of another through ball in a similar position to his first and angled a superb finish into the bottom corner. Barking really had to push now and Swifts nearly took advantage. Kendall hit the crossbar and Ronto had an effort well saved. As the game became stretched the decisions of the officials became increasingly under the microscope of the benches and stands. A couple of searching balls into the box and a powerful shot from Seymour, which nearly garrotted one of his own players, were the closest Barking came to finding a goal.
Price’s finishing ultimately settled the game. Heybridge move up to sixth, two points behind the playoff positions. Barking drop one place to 13th. Both sides delivered on their pre-match promise. Heybridge played some great football while Barking once again set up brilliantly against one of the top sides in the division and were unlucky not to get something from the game.
Read more from Louis at his website, gotseats.co.uk