Sunday, 29 December 2019

28/12/19 Review: Hornchurch vs Brightlingsea Regent

Hornchurch 3-0 Brightlingsea Regent (BetVictor Isthmian League Premier Division)
Hornchurch Stadium

Waking up to the sound of squawking seagulls in Southend on the last weekend of the year has become a bit of a 'Pint of Football' tradition and alongside this would be yet another opportunity to check out a local ground as I have over the past three Decembers. Last season's trip to Rookery Hill for National League South action between East Thurrock and Dartford followed on from a successful outing to the Len Salmon at the end of 2017 where I saw a shock result for Ware as they beat Bowers & Pitsea. I could go on, put the point is that I could see no better way to complete a decade's worth of groundhopping by making my way over the suburbs of East London for the Isthmian Premier League battle between Upminster based Hornchurch and Essex side Brightlingsea Regent. Just a half-an-hour train ride separated me from the Hornchurch Stadium and so I hopped on to the 13:53 at Chalkwell and joined the full carriage of West Ham fans heading towards the capital hoping for some excitement on the pitch. Unfortunately for the Hammers followers, they possibly didn't get the right sort of excitement!

Always a pleasure to see the sea
Although there are no dead certs in non-league football at this time of the year, this classic encounter between promotion hopefuls and relegation candidates set itself up nicely as one that you'd expect the home side to win comfortably and as I walked through Upminster towards the Hornchurch Stadium, a place where no side has come and beaten the Urchins this season, I was feeling very optimistic for the hosts as they look to catch Folkestone Invicta at the top of the table and I predicted a 4-1 victory for them in my usual pre-match prophesy.

Was I about to enter the gates of the future champions?
Hornchurch Stadium would be my seventh ground in this division, a stat massively helped by the CONIFA World Cup of 2018 in which four of the visits came, and as is common for most in this area at this level I would say my initial impressions were that this East End stadium is to be described as "delightfully tatty". Much like with Coles Park in Haringey, the QEII over at Enfield and of course Rookery Hill where I was this time last year. In fact, I've almost come to expect this as a part of the charm of these London-bordering grounds and thankfully I was not to be disappointed on this occasion. Interestingly, all three of my games within the last month or so have come from BetVictor leagues and having ended November up in the Northern First Division equivalent at Pickering Town, I most recently went over to Nuneaton for Southern Prem action at Liberty Way, meaning that only the Isthmian League remained as I continue to mooch up and down the country seeking out the best of non-league. The thing that I love about these ventures is that despite being at the same level they all offered massively differing experiences. Pickering, who were welcoming "proper northerners" from Dunston, probably had the most basic of the trio of grounds and the least attendance, but was very memorable for the friendly atmosphere and banter- oh, and the fact that it was freeeeeezing! Liberty Way, visited three weeks back, is a classy setup and definitely a top ground for this level- but the former Conference side were lacking in passion on the pitch and were swept away by a tidy Rushall Olympic outfit. So that brings me to the here and now- and as I took a right-hand turn I was met by "Urchins Hot Dogs & Hamburgers", meaning that I was well and truly in the depths of Hornchurch Stadium and staring at the multi-use sports ground on display.
Running, jumping and even a bit of hammer throw if you fancy it
To the naked eye, there are many similarities to the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium 25-miles north-west of this, but unlike Enfield's ground I was already more of a fan of Hornchurch's effort as there are a few decent stands that you can get a good view from. The thing that a lot of grounds with running tracks surrounding them struggle with is getting the height and sight-lines of their stands right, but in fairness to Hornchurch this one wasn't a bad effort and although the stands were at ground-level, they did at least run the whole length of the pitch so there was plenty of space to find a good viewpoint. Granted, it wasn't as luxurious as the main stand at the Pingles Stadium towering over the running track at another Nuneaton based ground I've visited this season, but still a good effort overall. Besides, if you are that fussy, you can always set up camp in the clubhouse which has a great windowed view that almost resembles the directors boxes you get at other grounds.
Surely even the flakiest of armchair fans could appreciate this view...
I took the cue to check out what was going on up top and after passing a gazebo selling programmes and a wooden grotto selling club merch, I made my way into the bar which seemed to be housing most of the fans pre-match. The good thing with end-of-the-year games is that EVERYONE is having a beer and so I thought it would be rude not to join, before continuing my mooch around the ground which led me to the outdoor smoking area that doubled-up as a nifty viewing station of the pitch. We were approaching kick-off rapidly by this point, so I headed back down to pitch-side just in time to find a standing space next to the rowdy lot ready to cheer on the mighty Urchins.

Santa's grotto was still in full-swing as I headed to the terrace
The main players I was looking out for to impress in this match were the hosts numbers 7 and 10. George Saunders, a teenager who has formally played for Billericay, Harold Hill and Kelvedon Hatch so far, has managed a whopping 17 assists already this campaign and a lot of these have been for the equally impressive Chris Dickson. Their veteran striker, who has plied his trade successfully in England as well as Cyprus and has even had international caps for Ghana, is one of the league's top scorers with 18 in all competitions over 25 appearances. So with the scene set, the game began and it wasn't too long before the opener was nodded in. The hosts started well and although most of the chances they forged came from set-pieces, it was a positive start in the opening proceedings. When a 15th minute ball was swung in, centre-back Rickie Hayles was quickest to react and he looked delighted to have given his side an early lead and it certainly settled down the crowd too, who would now be hoping for many more to come against the visitors. Hornchurch 1-0 Regent.

The Urchin Ultras looked thrilled too
Early signs suggested that the game would pan out as expected and with the division's lowest scorers not offering too much in the attacking department, the only hope for the few travelling fans would be to keep the score low and try to scramble a goal together of their own. In defence, they were competent enough for sure and captain Matt Cripps was doing his bit to get the ball away from the hungry Hornchurch strikers, but nothing could be done to stop the Urchins going in on goal in the 35th minute- nothing, that is, apart from the heroics of Charlie Turner who did well to flick the ball into the air and on to the roof of the net in a desperate attempt to keep the score at 0-1 at the break. Both of the sides had carved a couple of half-chances from set-plays at the back-end of the first-half, but none that would be as blatant as the penalty given to the hosts right on the stroke of the break. Goal master Dickson stepped-up and slotted home, meaning that the fifteen minute break that followed would be much more relaxing for the hosts and not so much for Brightlingsea. Hornchurch 2-0 Regent.

The hosts have obviously been hitting the gym... maybe not this one, though
I decided to take in a new location for the second-half and so I moved over to the sparsely populated Colin McBride Stand. Arguably my favourite part of the ground, this timber floored effort had a wonderfully topped corrugated roof, mildly worn plastic white and red seats and glass covered sides making for an excellent spot to see the Urchins see out the remainder of the game.

Well worth the 200m walk to see this little beauty
With the game now being played under the lights, Hornchurch continued to look likely of goals and in one of their 236 set-pieces within the game they did eventually grab the killing third. Initially, Dickson had a shot well-saved again by Turner, but the resulting corner eventually was scrambled home by Nathan Cooper. Hornchurch 3-0 Regent. The game was dead by this point and although we still had 25 minutes left to play, there would be no chance of a Regent comeback at all. The goalmouth strugglers best opportunity came in the last ten minutes when they were given a penalty as the Urchin's last scorer Cooper was dismissed for a push in the box that resulted in his second yellow. George Bugg stepped up for the Essex team and despite hitting a solid strike the keeper's left, Joe Wright was equal to it and he palmed it wide to ensure that he kept hold of his clean sheet for the day. In fairness, the hosts could have grabbed a few more on a more lethal day, but they were more than happy when the final whistle blew to give them three points, three goals, a clean sheet and with superior goal difference they know that they could still go level with Folkestone and Worthing as we approach the new year.

For me though, it was time to head back to Southend
It seems strange to be writing up my last entry of the decade, having seen so much football since my first ever game between Macclesfield Town and Burton in 2010. This past ten years has seen me take in over 200 matches at 181 grounds across 8 countries in Europe and I suppose all that is left to say is Happy New Year to the fans of Hornchurch, Brightlingsea and anyone else who stumbles across my Blog! Have a top one, guys, and see you all in 2020.

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