Chelmsford City were one of Essex’s biggest non-league clubs but had fallen on hard times. Canvey Island were former county league upstarts that had propelled themselves up to the Football Conference. Off the pitch, their paths would cross in 2006.
Essex is a big county by English standards, and considering its size you could argue that it is under-represented in football terms. This is partly due to its location. The southern and eastern parts of Essex are largely populated by London’s overspill to the extent that it can be difficult to work out where London ends and Essex begins.
The county currently has three Football League clubs. Colchester United are in the ascendancy right now, though their promotion to the Championship two years ago was a surprise, and they are currently in the relegation places. Southend United are traditionally a bigger club, and are currently in League One, though they could turn up in any one of the three divisions of the Football League at any time. Dagenham & Redbridge were promoted into the Football League at the end of last season, and are finding life in League Two to be a struggle. They are currently sitting one place above the relegation places, but both of the clubs below them have games in hand, and they could be facing a quick return to the non-league game.
With considerable amounts of money having moved out of London to Essex with the people that did the moving, it is perhaps no surprise that Essex clubs have an occasional tendency to get very rich, very quickly. Grays Athletic, for example, were a middling Isthmian League side for many years until a local businessman poured money into them and took them into the Football Conference. Their ambitions on the pitch have been somewhat tempered over the last couple of years, but they retain a lofty ambition to build themselves a new ground.
The flip-side is that the county also has more than its fair share of boom & bust clubs. Hornchurch FC, for example, were bankrolled by a company called Carthium Ltd, but folded when on the point of promotion into the Conference in 2005. A new club, AFC Hornchurch, has since risen from the Essex Senior League to the Ryman League Premier Division.
The nearest that Essex has to a team of traditional giants is Chelmsford City. Founded in 1938, they won the Southern League Championship in 1946 under the managership of Arthur Rowe (who would go on to manage the Spurs push and run team to the Football League Championship in 1951), and again in 1968 and 1972. By the 1990s, though, the club had fallen on hard times and by 1997 had slipped into receivership. When the official receivers sold their New Writtle Street stadium, they had to spend a decade playing ten miles from Chelmsford, at nearby Maldon and Billericay, before returning to the town at the Melbourne Park athletics track.
Canvey Island, by contrast, came from nowhere in the late 1990s. Bankrolled by the mobile home supremo Jeff King, they shot up through the non-league ranks from the Essex Senior League to reach the Conference in 2005. They also earned a reputation as a great cup team. They won the FA Trophy in 2001 and reached the final again the following year, and their FA Cup run in 2002, when they beat Northampton Town in front of live Match Of The Day cameras and Wigan Athletic at the JJB Stadium, earned them national fame.
In their first season in the Conference, they finished in eighteenth place, but with crowds not living up to expectations, the costs of running what was effectively a full-time team started to take their toll. On the pitch, the following season was a little better, with the team climbing to fourteenth place, but crowds by now had dwindled to a few hundred, and King’s patience had worn out. He announced at the end of the 2005/06 team that he would be resigning as manager and withdrawing all financial support. Canvey resigned their place in the Conference and accepted a voluntary relegation of three divisions to the Ryman League Division One North.
Jeff King wasn’t out of football for long. He pitched up immediately at Chelmsford City, bringing most of his expensively assembled squad with him. Last season they finished in fourth place in the Ryman League Premier Division before losing in the play-off semi-finals to local rivals Billericay Town. They have been absolutely unstoppable this season and are currently nine points clear of AFC Wimbledon at the top of the Ryman League, whilst drawing average crowds of 1,200: a remarkable achievement, when you consider that they are as far from the Conference as, say, Swansea City are from the Premier League. Should they be promoted at the end of this season, they will probably join next season’s Conference South as favourites for a second successive promotion.
Canvey Island, meanwhile, have stabilised themselves financially and still have a decent chance of making the play-offs in the Ryman League Division One North. It may not be the Football Conference, but at least their supporters have a team to watch.
Chelmsford City supporters, giddy with the success that this season has brought them, might want to take a moment to consider that, whilst Chelmsford have (somewhat humorously) claimed that King is at Melbourne Park purely as a football manager, the sugar daddy financial model has winners as well as losers, and that Canvey are an example of what can happen when things don’t go according to plan.
Jeff King’s patience wore out at Canvey, and who’s to say that it won’t happen again? Canvey Island, meanwhile, provide a cautionary tale for all football supporters. They had become solely reliant on the ongoing financial input of one man, and when that man upped sticks and left, the club almost collapsed completely. The fact that he took the team that he had paid for with him might have been an insult to their supporters, but it was hardly surprising. Mass desertions of players following a manager are not uncommon in non-league football, and when that manager is the man that is literally paying the wages, such a desertion becomes little more than a fait accompli. One would like to think, though, that at least Chelmsford City’s older supporters will recall the dark days of 1997, when their club sailed so close to extinction itself, and that they will at least be wary of putting all of their eggs in one basket. After all, they should know better than anyone that Jeff King has got form for moving on when things aren’t going his way.
Photo credit: DBullock on Flickr