Walking down Southend High Street on this bright, sunny Saturday morning, it was rather obvious that this was a place that cared about football. If there is ever a world shortage of polyester this town could make a fortune; it was everywhere, in varying shades of red, blue, white and claret, as the people of Essex proudly- yet silently- declared their allegiances. There was only one problem. Unless you count West Ham United as local- and it is forty miles away- not one of these replica-clad representatives was declaring allegiance for a club anywhere near the town. We had Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Spurs- indeed, apparently Spurs, until recently, had their own shop near the railway station- but not one single individual sporting the colours of Southend United.
Almost one hundred and seventy five thousand people lived in Southend at the time of the last census. According to Wikipedia that makes it the seventh most densely populated area in the country outside of London. The average attendance at Southend United is under six thousand. You don’t need to be Pythagoras to do the maths. Most of the people in the area who like football tend to follow teams that aren’t in the area. They may have a soft spot for their local sides, but they perhaps arrived in the area with allegiances already formed, or were brought up by families who had spilled out of London and as such were born/cajoled into following the clubs of their fathers and grandfathers. That’s the way of such things.
Imagine, then, that you are a supporter of a football club from a village four miles east of Southend. A village of five thousand inhabitants, with no railway station, joined to the rest of the area by one main road and with only marshland and the sea to one side of you. How would you thrive? How would you attract the gaze of even those within walking distance away from the television and the delights of Old Trafford, White Hart Lane et al?
Welcome to Burroughs Park
The fact that Great Wakering Rovers recently celebrated their centenary suggests that whatever they are doing, it works.
The village of Great Wakering was built on the back of the building industry- or, to be more precise, there was muck that was turned to brass. It was discovered that the clay in the area was of prime brick-making quality, and by early nineteen-hundreds sixteen million bricks a year were being produced. After the First World War this industry offered work to returning soldiers, and they needed entertainment and exercise, so in 1919 formed a football club. For seventy years Rovers played local football, only joining the intermediate level thirty years ago. By their fourth season they were in the Essex Senior League, and after seven seasons of almost constant success at that level they ended up an Isthmian side. With the exception of two years in the Southern League- yes, peculiar reorganisations are not a new phenomenon- and three in the Essex Senior once more following relegations, they’ve been one of our number ever since, rejoining us at the start of 2018-19 after winning immediate promotion following relegation in 2017.
Last season was one of consolidation, with a fifteenth place finish. Never in danger of relegation, never troubling the upper reaches of the table, they seem to have pushed on further this season; and sit in sixth place coming into today’s match with eleventh placed Witham Town.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the club, however, is not what they have done on the field, but what they have done off it. Burroughs Park, at first glance, doesn’t look particularly remarkable; neat and tidy, with terraces and a main stand, it looks very like many grounds at this level, but it has one main difference. Many clubs will tell stories about how they have built new grounds, and that in itself is always an achievement, but when the people of Rovers tell the same story, they aren’t talking about fund raising and hiring contractors. They actually built Burroughs Park themselves, brick by brick. It’s a remarkable story, and the club website tells it without any element of self-congratulation:
A Great turnstile
‘In 1985 The Rovers acquired a long lease from the local parish council on 104 disused allotments. From the very start, volunteers came forward with their various professional skills to start the football club's dream. The help of local farmer, businessman and lifelong Rovers man Roger Burroughs was paramount in this plan as Roger provided the heavy machinery and equipment to clear the land, dig the drainage and remove any excess soil and rubbish. He aided with the creation of the pitch area, which when laid, was seeded and left for two years to settle and grow. The club of course were extremely grateful of this massive support that would otherwise have taken a number of years to achieve and in recognition of its gratitude, named its ground after Roger and 'Burroughs Park' was born.’
Moving upwards meant even more work:
‘…the club took its place in the Essex Senior League for the 1992-93 season. Building continued further, extending the newly built clubhouse in order to provide bigger changing room facilities in accordance with senior status rules.’
And then came the Isthmian League:
James Beardwell back in action, about to embark on one of his video blogs
‘This move saw the end of a feature that was much talked about by visitors to Great Wakering, and that was the hard-standing area around the pitch, which was made of tons of crushed cockle shells obtained from the local shellfish industry at Leigh-On-Sea. The shells were not accepted at our new playing level.
At the same time, a new external fence was built. The main stand was improved by obtaining seats from Bolton Wanders old ground of Burnden Park. A new stand was also added in the summer of 2000, covered terracing, almost directly opposite the old seated stand.’
We’ll stop there- you can read the rest of the story at the website, HERE- but you get the picture.
Both of today’s sides came into this match in good form. Rovers had defeated a much-changed Town three-nil in the Velocity Trophy eleven days previously, and followed that up with a four-one thumping of Romford and a draw with Basildon United. Witham walloped Histon four-one last weekend, and then drew with Romford. Home manager Steve Butterworth had expressed to the local paper a wish to have an unbeaten September, and added that he “didn’t expect to lose” today’s match; whilst Town manager Mark Benterman, before the game, spoke of his squad taking small steps, but added that he was content with the way they were playing and the progress being made.
The teams emerged at three minutes to three, and the visitors, in yellow, got us underway a few seconds after the hour- after the sides changed ends. Most of the supporters didn’t need to change ends with their teams, as rather uniquely they had decided to occupy the raised terrace behind the dugouts; and it was the Witham section who had the most to make a noise about early on. The ball spent the majority of the first five minutes in the Rovers half, and keeper Bobby Mason had to punch away a free kick from just under his bar. The follow up from Ryan Ramsey went a yard wide.
A Witham huddle
Rovers began to get a foothold in the match, but the next chance also came Witham’s way, a break giving George Bugg the chance to run at the home defence before laying the ball to his left, to the onrushing Oliver Emsden. An early shot was required, but it was slightly delayed and a defender was able to get in the way, the ball cleared. With ten minutes gone Rhys Madden had been a virtual spectator.
Which, of course, meant that one minute later he was picking the ball out of the net.
It was scored by Alfie Hilton, but in truth the story of the goal wasn’t about the goalscorer, but the defensive mix-up that led to it. It was as if the Witham defence had been watching Southampton on Friday night, and had collectively decided to recreate Bournemouth’s third goal. Madden came out to chase a ball at the edge of his box, the communication was lacking, and Hilton rolled the loose ball into the empty net. He looked rather embarrassed, and he’ll never score an easier goal, but Rovers were ahead.
Witham weren’t downhearted, and after good work from Lewis Byrne Hewitt down the right Ramsey won a corner. The ball was floated to the back post, and Marcus Bowers got well above the home defence but was only able to head narrowly wide. More away pressure saw Mason lecturing his defence. The visitors were still having the best of the game- but they were still behind. A Rovers break saw Hilton with another chance to get onto a loose ball, this time inside the box, and the forward, challenged by Madden, went to ground and claimed a penalty. The referee thought about it, and then decided against it, much to Rovers’ chagrin.
The main stand at Burroughs Park
The ball was quickly at the other end once more. Byrne Hewitt went on a mazy run that took him from right back to left wing, played a one-two and delivered a cross agonisingly behind Bugg. “We’re the Rovers boys, making all the noise, everywhere we go,” came a voice from behind the Witham goal. ‘Boys’ might not have been the right word, seeing as it seemed to be a solo, but the lack of numbers was made up for by the volume. The action remained at the Rovers end, however, another effort from Ramsey this time finding Mason right behind it. The “Green and White Army” at the other end now seemed to have doubled in numbers. There were two of them.
Their side tried to give them something else to sing about in the thirty-third minute. Jack Stevenson hit a shot from twenty yards that looked to dip just under the bar, only for Madden to arch backwards and tip it over. This was the key for the home side to enter their most dominant period so far, Stevenson having another shot blocked, Jake Gordon twisting and turning on the ball and the visiting defence having to stand strong. At the other end, Emsden shot wildly over- and then came the chance that should have seen Witham equalise.
The ball was sent over from the left, and Ramsey lost his marker at the back post. He nodded it goalwards, and all expected the net to bulge- if it was on target, he scored, no question.
It wasn’t on target.
Two minutes before the break another header, at the other end, could have doubled the home side’s lead. Martin Tuohy got above the defence, and his effort, two inches to the left, would have been perfect. Instead it struck the post and went for a goal kick. Rovers, finishing the half strongly, came close again as the clock ticked to forty five minutes, Hilton running through the defence only for Madden to save when a goal looked certain. The whistle blew, and both sides left the field with some regret. Had Town taken their chances they could have been level. Had Rovers taken theirs in the last two minutes of the half the game could have been as good as over. It was all to play for in the second half.
Rovers took only two minutes to double their lead. The ball dropped to Jake Gorden, and he fired a volley which Madden could only push away, diving full length to his right. It was a decent save, but the Witham keeper could do nothing about Hilton’s follow up, sent across him into the corner of the net. If Town had spent the break rueing missed opportunities they had all the more reason to do so now. It could have been worse ninety seconds later, as Hilton curled a shot just over- and the same player was even closer to his hat trick a moment later, his shot deflected just past the post. From the corner Henry Fisher got above the defence and headed over, and Witham looked shellshocked, as indeed they might.
Decoration for the clubhouse
The visitors then settled, and grew into the game once more. But was the damage done already? Witham poked and prodded, tested Mason with a couple of gentle efforts, but didn’t really come close. Then, on seventy minutes, Stevenson caught out almost everyone at the other end with a free kick; a cross expected, he elected to shoot, but Madden was able to recover and make a save. “Nearly!” came a small voice from the main stand- and indeed it wasn’t far away. But the match had slowed, and in truth it was difficult to see where the next goal was coming from. Four changes- two from each side- broke up the game, and whilst the side in yellow had most of the possession they were coming up against an immovable home defence and struggling to find a way through. Six minutes from time Scott Kemp, on as a sub for Town, steadied himself and then shot so far over the bar that it cleared not only the goal but the high fence meant to stop the ball from reaching the car park. It kind of summed up the previous half an hour.
Into injury time and Kemp’s next shot was much better, on target but striking a defender before being cleared. But Witham couldn’t find a way through. In the first half they’d had chances they could have done better with; in the second they’d had chances but the defending from the home side had been equal to them. A cheeky free kick routine between Byrne Hewitt and Bugg turned out to be more wasteful than useful, and the final whistle went. Rovers were up to fifth.
Passion and football go hand in hand. We saw plenty of it today, on the pitch, on the touchline, amongst the spectators. A couple of home fans behind the goal provided so much that if you could bottle it, rather like in Monsters Inc, you could probably power the whole of Southend. But sometimes it’s the passion that you can’t hear, and that you don’t easily notice, that is the most powerful.
The 138 people in the stadium today were able to watch football in Great Wakering due to the passion of a small band of people; a small band of people who invested their time and their energy not only to ensure that their football club would continue to thrive, but who actually built the ground that it is thriving in with their own hands. They didn’t shout about what they were doing. They weren’t waving flags and banging drums, nor were they making tackles, questioning decisions and getting caught up in emotion, but their passion will be delivering a legacy to the people of Great Wakering long after they- and the rest of us- are gone.
Welcome to Nobby's End
And when you close your ears to the noise, and close your eyes to the blood and thunder going on around you, it’s that kind of passion that makes the biggest impact.