The third and last day of my 'Tour De Essex' comes down to the big finale- aka a trip to Thurrock. After my week started with an outing to see the massive Walthamstow derby, I then spent Tuesday night over at Hullbridge for a Semi-Final delight and now it was time to complete my treble by attending a local cup final, which has conveniently being held at a ground that I was very much wanting to get ticked off my list.
Before heading out to the match tonight, I had a read-up on the two sides that'd I be watching and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that one of the clubs were actually based in the place that I was spending time visiting family, in the mighty Leigh-on-Sea. Catholic United, formed back in the 1920's as Southend Catholic, have had a great spell over the past couple of seasons and have rose to back-to-back promotions as well as making the final of this cup in 2015. The current Essex Olympian League Division One side may well have lost the final two seasons ago against Kelvedon Hatch on this very pitch, but they were back for more and would be relishing the opportunity of taking on a side from the division above, in the form of Romford's Harold Wood Athletic. With the Wood sitting 5th in the Olympian Premier and the Catholics 2nd in the First Division, this was surely going to be a thrilling encounter and I'd backed the Leigh side to win this one 3-2 in my traditional pre-match prediction. It certainly wouldn't be classed as a "giant killing" if United won this one, but it would more than top off their impressive run which has so far included wins against Frenford Senior, May & Baker Eastbrook Community and Manford Way, who sit 3rd, 4th and 6th respectively in Harold Wood's division. Athletic's run has seen them take out the divisions 2nd best side in Springfield in the quarter-final, as well as surpassing the 2015 winners Kelvedon in the semi-final to set-up their first BBC Essex Cup final since the 2006 defeat to Witham Town Reserves.
Ship Lane has been the host ground for five of the six previous years and it is clear to see why. With a very picturesque main stand and an ideal location just off the motorway, Thurrock's ground also has a hotel adjacent to it. Inside the Clubhouse was a large and fairly well-crowded bar, which was great news as it would hopefully lead towards a good atmosphere for the big final. As kick-off approached I had a skeg at the programme, which is probably the best bit of pre-match reading I've ever experienced. Just to give you a flavour of the content, I'll take a couple of passages from the Catholic United players section that raised a smile for me: Aaron Comerford is supposedly "the angriest man in the British Isles" according to the prog, meanwhile Mike Dean (not the famous Manchester United fan) was referred to in the write-up as being "a qualified mime artist and practises this full time." You just wouldn't make this stuff up!
So, this may be the best ground I've been to this week, but would it be the best game? *SPOILER ALERT- IT WAS NOT!* The opening 10 minutes had just one chance to note, and it came for Harold Wood as the right-winger swung a cross-cum-shot dangerously into the box, forcing the Catholic keeper to reach out and tip it over the bar. Just after the 15 minute mark, the Hoops had their own chance and when a good pass was whipped into the area United's number 8 ran in to look for the opening goal, and on this occasion his shot was soon charged down by opposing defenders. Catholic then powered a bullet-header wide as the number 7 went close to the first goal, but it was again not to be. The many in attendance for the game seemed to be having a great time, despite the lack of chances created so far, and to be honest I was having a good look around the ground so it wasn't a huge disappointment that we hadn't seen a goal yet. For a club in the eighth tier of English football, Thurrock FC are in great shape in terms of having a ground that I could imagine being suitable for a much higher level. With one grand-stand around the half-way line and a fair amount of red seating on the opposite side too, all sides of the ground have the luxury of a roof- a luxury that some League Two sides haven't even got!
Back on the grassy rectangle, Catholic were having a proper go at the Athletic's defence. Just around the half-hour mark in the game they rattled a shot against the crossbar, before the first rebound was blocked and then a third strike was ballooned over- unlucky! At the other end, Harold Wood had a bit of possession in a dangerous position. Ade Onileyan had the skills on the left and from a distance I had to double-check that it wasn't Luis Boa Morte out of retirement as he whipped in a left-footed cross into the area. Just before half-time both sides would have one more chance to break the deadlock, and it turned out to be a crucial time in the match. First, Brad Foley did some good work in the box and was able to hold the ball up before spinning around to make a strike on goal- which on this occasion was straight at Louis Godwin-Green. Following this, Catholic had a surge of their own and after the number 11 for United hoofed up a free-kick which was eventually nodded across to Brad Vaughn and the gangster rap fanatic made no mistake in sweeping the ball home amongst the crowded 6-yard area. Catholic 1-0 Harold Wood.
Half-time for me involved soaking in the atmosphere with some joyful Catholics, whilst having a chat with a couple of Essex FA old boys who were hoping the second-half would pick up the pace a bit. I agreed that this match wasn't particularly the best advert for football at this level so far, but I also noted that when it is a final like this the game isn't always the key feature and I am sure that United would sacrifice any form of sexy football if it meant a clean sheet and a 1-0 win.
The second-half got going in a fairly nervy way with the opening 20 minutes or so mainly consisting of hit-and-hope football, or as my Dad would have put it, "it's like watching the Scottish Premier League". With just 20 minutes left by this point, the majority of the shots were coming from long-range and I don't think there was a save for either keeper to make outside of the odd deflected shot and misplaced pass. The highlight of the second-half so far had been the laughter that came about from the fans as Greg Forster fell foul of three children heckling his goal kicks. As the keeper took his usual run-up, the youngsters jeered loudly and on one occasion he actually took a slip as he kicked it. I'm sure Greg will say that it was just a slip, but the kids and the crowd weren't buying it!
With time ticking away, Wood got their act together for the final five minutes and made a go of it to try and save the day. Sometimes in a final you just need a piece of good luck to help get you by, and in the final few minutes before injury time that is exactly what Dan Gillard appeared to get. The man who is rumoured to have a wand for a right-foot managed to run clear of the Catholic's defenders and he was left in a pressurised 1-on-1 situation. As Gillard gave it the old "hocus pocus", he found his shot to be well-saved by off the field clean-freak Godwin-Green as he produced a big save to all but ensure his clean sheet- that was the glaring chance. Aside from this, a long-range Gillard free-kick was squandered in stoppage time and a header looped up and on to the roof of the net, but it would prove to be too little too late for the side playing in claret and blue tonight. The whistle finally blew and that was to be the end of the line. Catholic United were the champs and I must admit I was glad for the Leigh-on-Sea club- this game was by no means a classic, but the Catholics did their job and shut out a come back from a late Wood resurgence.
I left the ground after watching the presentation and my journey had come to an end. Three games in three days at new grounds for me, with many highs and a couple of lows too. I'll now head back to my Midlands home and await the weekend for another footballing venture. I'm not sure where I'll be on Saturday, but it's bound to be somewhere with 22 players, a round ball and a couple of pints of beer!
|The pride of Lakeside|
|They've been here before|
|Ready to go!|
|A goal on the strike of HT, just what we needed to wake the tie up|
|Sup up your pints lads, the second-half is underway|
|It's now or never for Harold Wood|
|Whether it's the World Cup, or the BBC Essex Cup, you cannot beat that winning feeling|