Day two of my three day match-a-thon would see me head over to the small Essex village of Hullbridge to see their side take on fairly local rivals Burnham Ramblers. With a place in the final awaiting the winners of this tie, it was bound to be a hotly contested match and whereas Hullbridge would be looking to make it to the final for the second consecutive try to face the same opponents as last season in the form of Heybridge Swifts, their opponents Burnham were aiming to lift the regional trophy that they took home back in 2010 thanks to a 3-2 win over Witham Town.
The two sides in contest tonight are both from the Essex Senior League, as were the sides I saw last night over in Walthamstow, and unlike yesterday the two sides in action were very different. The Bridge are a team born in the 1940's and are regulars of their current division, usually as a mid-table side. The Ramblers, on the other hand, have only just re-entered the ninth-tier of English football last season after a spell of playing in the Isthmian League since wining the Essex League in 2013. This season has been a poor one for the Burnham-on-Crouch side and they lay in 21st place in the League, joint bottom with Haringey & Waltham, so a Cup trip to Lower Road may well have been a welcomed distraction to stop the fans thinking about the whopping 105 goals they've shipped so far this season. Tonight's hosts are fairing averagely and will end the season in their usual mid-table place- they are currently 11th and amazingly just have one match left to play in the league with over a month until the final day of the season. Aside from this game tonight and the potential final against Heybridge, the final match for Hullbridge will amazingly be in over a month's time!
After making the short-haul drive from Leigh-on-Sea towards Hullbridge's ground, I promptly parked up and had a wander around the outside of Lower Road to see what was going on. Struggling to find the turnstile, I accidentally mooched down a narrow gap between two buildings to find myself inside. Let it be known at this point that I didn't celebrate my sneaky feat of getting in, and I instead headed over to the proper entrance and admitted my illegal entry to the man on the door, to which he laughed before asking me to hand over my six quid. I didn't catch the lad's name, but he was a great person to chat to before the game- he was the one who'd informed me of the massive gap between now and the Bridges next game, as well as telling me a bit about the Tolleshunt D'Arcy Cup. Knowing a wee bit about the situation of both clubs before the game, I decided to predict a 3-1 win for the hosts tonight, and with that I headed into the Clubhouse for a pre-match beer. Upon entry, I was pretty pleased to see a mass of folk here and it was nice to know that the locals appeared to be in support of their club. North Ferriby United are a classic example of what a small village club can achieve, and local fans turning out on a weekly basis are part of that. After studying the bar, I popped into the toilet and was surprised to find myself sharing a close-space with this evening's referee. It was a weird scenario to place oneself in, as the Ref is not usually the type of guy I'm used to conversing with- and in the end I went for a 100% silent approach to the encounter, which was well reciprocated by the man in black. I'd like to think that if I had shared the space with him after the game, I would at least be able to joke about the inevitable poor decisions made during the game.
Before the match, I found myself pondering that thought that goes through everyone's mind during regional cup games- will they bother with Extra Time? After last night's match went straight to penalties I didn't really know if there was an official ruling on ET happening or not, so I am very pleased to have had a chat with the bar lass at this juncture. For those of you who don't know, Extra Time can be avoided in favour of the match going straight to Pens in a local cup match, providing both managers agree this before the match. Who knew?
On the pitch, the match was ready to get going and the sides got the ball rolling just a couple of minutes after 7:45pm. The opening to the match was good, with both sides offering some good passing play and Hullbridge in particularly looked in decent-form for the match. With 5 minutes on the clock, the ball had made its way into the net through Charlie Little after a good finish- however this early strike was denied by the linesman's firm arm holding out the offside flag. The match continued in the Bridge's favour and the main source of response from the opponents was from attacking winger Charlee Hughes, as he often used his combo of pace and power to stretch out Aaron Hunwicks at right-back for the hosts. With a third of the game already gone by now, the first big chance came in the way of Hullbridge. After some great play between Jimmy Cox and Luca Frankis for the home side up-front, the ball was inch-perfectly laid into the path of Captain Cox, who dinked the ball over the keeper, but unfortunately also just wide of the frame of the goal. Now this may be a bold claim to make after seeing sides like Sporting Khalsa in the Midlands and Melksham Town in the Western League, but I am going to go out on a limb here and state that Hullbridge Sports were the best footballing side I had seen at this level- the passing and movement I was witnessing was very high in quality and the fans seemed just as happy as me watching this group of lads knock the ball about. The happiness shortly turned to further delight for the home-side fans as the first goal of the night flew into the net on 35 minutes, as Dean Wallace volleyed home the Jimmy Cox ball that was placed into his path inside the box. Hullbridge 1-0 Burnham. With a firm grasp on the match now, Sports continued to play well and with Hunwicks picking out passes like David Beckham on the right-wing and Little looking dangerous up on the attacks, anything was possible after the break.
I quickly fetched myself a second pint in time for the second-half, and after a quick natter with another couple of locals it was soon time to get back underway. As well as the game being decent, I had also found myself enjoying a cheeky chat with the Essex locals here at Lower Road. In my eyes, a ground with character and memorable people is just as important as any feature- which is why you will catch me attending many more grounds at this level than in the professional divisions.
In truth, the second-half had barely taken off when the second goal came and it was on 47 minutes when Captain Cox gambled on a defensive mix-up and was rewarded with the chance to finish. He duly took the effort on from a tight-angle and reaped his goal to double his side's lead. Hullbridge 2-0 Burnham. The script was now written for the visiting side and it was destined to be another poor result for the Ramblers, despite the fact that their number 9 was called Heskey! (As a huge fan of Emile, I almost fainted when I saw the legendary name feature on the team-sheet)
A magical moment of play, which ultimately led to just a corner, came about down the Sports left-wing as Sam Taylor and Charlie Gerada played some great pacey passing before the hour-mark, and soon after this the Ramblers were broke-down again by a very nice final goal. Charlie Little found the ball at his feet on the right-wing following a free-kick, and with the Burnham defence flagging he was allowed to pick-out a very technical strike from the right, which passed many players including the keeper and thankfully for him it nestled sweetly in the goal. Hullbridge 3-0 Burnham. After keeping within touching distance for the first-half, the Ramblers back-line had ultimately crumbled like an aged cheddar and this would mean yet another defeat. Hullbridge brought on a triple-dose of subs for the final quarter of an hour, but this didn't halt the latter display of dominance in what would end as a solid 3-0 win. It could have been more in the final ten minutes, as the chances came and went, but there was to be no more in terms of goals for the night. With the tempo slowing down somewhat, I turned my attention towards a bit of crowd eavesdropping and heard a couple of decent conversations from the sidelines. A couple of lads to my right were mocking Billericay Town and the fellow Essex-side, aka "The Chelsea of the East", are understandably not everybody's favourite club at the moment following the moneybags-style signing of Jamie O'Hara. Meanwhile to my left, one of the Ramblers starting XI came and sat just to my left in one of the stands, where he joined what was presumably his family for a post-match debrief. The father figure of the group offered the lad some generic positive phrases to which the highlight was this exchange. Man says to player "It's a shame because you've been on a bit of a resurgence lately, haven't you?", to which the player just replies with "no, not really". Good effort, Dad!
Joking aside, the game may have ended but I can safely say that I will do my best to make it back to Lower Road as I thoroughly enjoyed my trip here. I have to give credit to the Ramblers too as the 2010 winners of the cup looked okay until about the hour-mark, but overall I think the better team won the day and also managed to dominate in parts of the game. As I sign this entry off with a reminder that I'll be heading to Thurrock's ground tomorrow for the BBC Essex Cup Final, I would also like to wish good luck to both of the sides I've seen tonight and especially to the Bridge for their Groundhog Day fixture with Heybridge.
|Another day, another ground|
|Stop the press, it's game time|
|The Ref didn't follow me into the bar, which I suppose is a plus point|
|Back outside, ready for kick-off|
|Half-time- so far, so good|
|On to the second 45|
|It was all Hullbridge by this point|
|Who'd be a non-league footballer?|