‘Keep chasing, it’ll hold up’, cried one fan as one Bowers & Pitsea attacker briefly considered giving up the pursuit of an overhit pass from a teammate. Bowers had done all they could to minimise potential disruption caused by the addition of their new 3G surface.
They were well placed, in the second automatic promotion spot, for what seemed like an eternity last season only to see Potters Bar pip them at the line. Then, in a tale as old as time, the team that had it in their grasp were beaten in the playoffs.
As potential disruptions to a follow-up promotion push go a new pitch might be quite far down the list. Even the most confident fan in red and white, however, would be forgiven for having the odd nightmare about misjudged bounces, poorly timed slide tackles and the loss of vital early season momentum. Whilst the pitch conversion was being finalised and tested, Bowers began their season at Aveley. A great temporary home if ever there was one, it also gave the players a chance to adapt to playing half of their games on plastic. They showed few ill effects, winning their first ‘home’ league game and three cup ties at Parkside.
A six-goal thriller!
Finally, the new surface was ready, and Bowers returned home. They marked the occasion with a 4-0 thrashing of Felixstowe & Walton. They’d opened their league campaign with three wins and a draw from their first four games to install themselves as early season title favourites. One small snag for Bowers was that the only team with a better record than them after four games was crosstown rivals Basildon United.
Part two of the new pitch party would be a real test of their title credentials, as their brief, but recent, landlords Aveley were making the trip up the A13. The Millers have also started the season well, are masters of 3G football and are the kind of party guests you know would revel in seeing you get cake all over your brand new shirt. It was the perfect time for my first visit to the Len Salmon Stadium and an early indicator of how the promotion race in the Bostik North might pan out.
Bowers’ Bostik Premier dream
Bowers seemed to have kept their promotion rivals at bay last season but were denied by a late surge from Potters Bar and an impressive promotion semi-final performance by Canvey Island. The dream, however, of making it to step 3 for the first time in their history is still very much alive. The club began life in the 40s as Bowers United. They were founder members of the Essex Olympian League before moving up to the Essex Senior League in 1974. Bowers were ESL Champions in 1981 and 1999 before absorbing Pitsea Football Club in 2004. The new look Bowers & Pitsea won their third Essex Senior League in 2016 and made the step up to the Isthmian North division.
They’ve quickly established themselves as a force at step 4 finishing sixth and third in their two seasons in the North Division. Fingers on this side of Basildon will be crossed that it’s their last for a few years at least. They’ve looked in ominous form already this season, avenging the play-off defeat to Canvey Island with a 2-0 victory and winning away at AFC Sudbury prior to the dismantling of Felixstowe & Walton. A 0-0 draw with Coggeshall Town on the opening day has been the only blot on their copybook, but they’d yet to concede a goal in the league.
Their miserly defence would be tested against Aveley, the fledgling season’s top scorers. The Millers had thrashed Dereham and comfortably beaten Grays. They suffered a loss at Felixstowe before an impressive 3-2 over Heybridge in their last outing. Aveley’s Parkside is the Wembley of the local football scene. Everyone from local clubs to cup finals and international tournaments have formed an orderly queue to try it out. Rumours it’s being lined up for an NFL franchise are currently unconfirmed, but the club are now enjoying the fruits of their labours. Productive transfer activity has seen them strengthen the squad significantly, the headline signing surely being former Brentwood player Andy Freeman.
The Barnstormer in Basildon
My first visit to the Len Salmon Stadium was also my first trip to Basildon, a town that seems very keen to let you know you’re there. I saw three ‘Welcome to Basildon’ signs on the short drive through the town to my destination in Pitsea. A good crowd, listed at 117, had shown up for the game. It felt like more. At one point I began counting heads but then remembered I was at a football ground. There are better things to do here, like annoy the friendly ladies in the tea bar by paying for a can of Diet Coke with a £10 note. It was all I had.
Both sides started confidently. Aveley were a little more patient as Bowers took a slightly more direct approach. The visitors struck the first blow as Alex Akrofi drove at the heart of the Bowers defence and was brought down in the box. Akrofi took the kick himself to give Aveley the lead. There was a small but audible sense of worry at the home end as it had taken The Millers less than 10 minutes to remove the zero from Bowers goals against column.
Bowers upped the intensity. They were soon level, to the relief of the home fans. Lewis Manor forced Hughes into a save, and Knight was first to react and coolly levelled the scores. The home side had the better of the rest of the first half and Hughes was called into action on several occasions. Milner and Akrofi looked lively for the visitors (not the only Milner that was impressing on this particular night).
Aveley then regained the lead straight after the break. Andy Freeman had some free time on the edge of the box, set himself, and fired a fierce drive into the top corner. There was little Bowers could do to prevent the second goal they’d conceded this season. The home side rallied again with a few chances. Hughes was then unable to hold a cross and Manor finished to bring Bowers level again. Had Kevin Keegan been commentating he would have lamented ‘that only one team would go on to win this now’. He wasn’t and he’d have been wrong again. Four minutes later, however, Bowers finally had the lead. Leahy got his head to a corner and flick-lobbed (flobbed?) the ball over Hughes.
Bowers controlled much of the next 15 minutes and had a few chances to settle the game. The delivery from wide areas was superb all night from both sides, but Bowers crossing, in particular, caused the visitors endless problems. In the final 10 minutes, Aveley began to threaten on the break again. A couple of bookings were necessary collateral for the home side to maintain their grip on the game. Wilton was also on hand with a couple of great saves. Just when it seemed Bowers would temporarily lay claim to being the top team in Basildon, Aveley struck. Akrofi skillfully powered a header past Wilton after the ball had been flicked on.
It felt like a win for the Millers as their fans celebrated a point gained in the last minute. The chances they created against a side that hadn’t previously conceded will provide plenty of hope for the rest of the Bostik North Division. The two sides are now second and third behind Basildon. The excellent game kept everyone on the edge of their seats but didn’t tell us too much about who to pin our favourite tags on just yet.
Bowers & Pitsea v Aveley, Bostik North Division. Len Salmon Stadium
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