It’s a Spring-like Saturday in late March and there is just a week to go until the clocks go forward; there are tiny buds on the trees and although the sky is overcast the air smells fresh and clear. Frogs are mating in my garden pond and frisky Collared Doves are settling on my satellite dish and messing up the signal. It’s a beautiful day to make the twenty-odd kilometre trip by Citroen C3, past Feering to Tiptree and on through Great and Little Totham to Heybridge, a village of about 8,000 people on the north side of the River Blackwater from Maldon. Until September 1964 it would have been possible to catch a train from Witham to Maldon East and Heybridge station, but the evil Dr Richard Beeching put an end to that and thoughtlessly condemned this corner of Essex to a future of increased traffic and air pollution.
Leaving the B1022 I turn left into Scraley Road, home of Heybridge Swifts Football Club. Scraley Road is not an attractive name, it sounds a bit like Scaley Road and conjures up images of an unfortunate skin condition. It’s only about two-thirty but the rough, unsurfaced car park is already full; happily there is an overflow car park about 50 metres along on the right, although for some people that’s too far and they have chosen to park at the side of the road. The overflow car park is just a muddy track to the local rugby club but it’ll do and I pull up out of the mud and puddles onto a patch of lush grass to park the Citroen. I walk back to football ground which, as a large sign tells me, is now known as the Aspen Waite Arena, which sounds extremely posh. When did football grounds become arenas I wonder to myself; probably about the same time that ‘naming rights’ became ‘a thing’ I reply, but silently so as not to appear weird. I cross the main car park to the black and white painted metal turnstile block avoiding more puddles and form a fledgling queue behind one other person, although I have to walk around two others who seem to be having difficulty finding their money. Entry costs £10 for an adult and I ask for a programme too (£2). “There you are dear” says the friendly lady turnstile operator, handing me a glossy programme and a small amber cloakroom ticket with the word ‘Adult’ on, which I soon lose.
From the turnstile I emerge directly into an open space behind one of the goals, to my left a blue polythene tunnel doesn’t quite make it from the changing rooms to the perimeter of the pitch, beyond that is a well populated open patch of grass behind which sit the clubhouse/bar and the tea bar. I step inside the busy clubhouse but there’s no real ale on the bar, just the usual bland, mass-produced, heavily advertised fizzy stuff, so I head back outside to the tea bar to join a queue of one. With the previous customer gone away clutching a burger and cup of tea I ask the smiley-faced young woman behind the counter if there are any sausage rolls. There are and having found his oven gloves the ‘chef’, a more serious-faced, grey-haired man, takes a baking tray from the oven and prises a row of half a dozen sausage rolls from it with a spatula. I pay the young woman (£1.50) and smiling she hands me one of the ‘released’ sausage rolls in a white paper napkin. The sausage roll tastes much better for that smile but otherwise compares to one from Greggs, although not as greasy, which is a good thing.
I have time to wander around the ground and take in the architecture before the teams emerge from the blue polythene tunnel and line-up to say “hello” to one another; as they do so the theme from ‘Z Cars’ plays over the public address system. The music ends abruptly and the teams are announced very rapidly by a man inside a glass box in the middle of the Mick Gibson Family Stand. This afternoon’s opponents are Grays Athletic. As I drove here listening to BBC Radio Essex, the match was described as a ‘derby’ by a young-sounding presenter called Victoria. But given that all but six of the twenty teams in the Bostik Football League North Division there are from Essex there are rather a lot of ‘derbys’.
The Swifts kick-off towards the First Call Community Stand and the River Blackwater and Maldon beyond; they wear black and white striped shirts with white shorts and socks, a colour scheme no doubt inspired by the colours of Apus Apus, the Swift, although seen up close Swifts are actually dark brown. Grays Athletic meanwhile are in all blue with white sleeves and look a bit like Ipswich Town playing away to a team that wears white shorts; they are playing in the direction of the club house and Tiptree. As much as Grays might look like my team Ipswich Town and even though the legendary Fabian Wilnis played for them (33 times in 2008-09 season) I decide to support Heybridge Swifts today; Swifts are my favourite birds because they remind me of warm summer evenings and Swifts is such a great if disappointingly rare name for a football club. I grew up in Shotley in Suffolk where the village team, now known as Shotley Rose after the village pub, were originally the Shotley Swifts; in the 1920’s my grandfather was on the committee and I have a much-prized photo of him with the team posing with a trophy.
A long line of home supporters file from the clubhouse to the far end of the ground to stand behind the goal into which the Swifts are hoping to score. The home team dominate the opening stages and have the first shot as the ball rebounds to their number seven the top-notch wearing Elliott Ronto whose shot is well saved by the Grays ‘keeper, the beautifully named Clark Bogard. Although he sounds like a matinee idol, Clark is a large man who clearly does not possess a ‘six-pack’ and from a distance his all yellow kit would, for a short-sighted person, perhaps give the impression of a naked Homer Simpson. Predictably the ‘wit’ of the home supporters is soon in evidence. “Come on Fatty” shouts an estuarine voice as Bogard lingers over a goal kick. There is a rowdy atmosphere on the shallow covered terrace and two lads self-consciously bang a couple of drums, but not enough to really annoy anyone. “ E’s only ‘ere for the after match meal” shouts someone else at the ‘keeper. “The food’s good here” responds Clark with a greedy expression, admirably entering into the fun. “Ello princess” shouts a pre-pubescent lad following a strangely different tack. A man in his sixties shuffles through the stand selling half-time draw tickets. “Afternoon Steve, Bob” he says to a couple of regulars. I buy a strip of tickets, numbers 416 to 420 for a pound, I am not destined to win.
The name of Swifts’ Toib Adeyemi is an early entry in the notebook of the tall, elegant referee Mr Farai Hallam, but Swifts continue to get closer to the Grays’ goal than vice versa. It’s a bit after a quarter past three and Grays number 11 Joao Carlos surges past the Swifts left-back and crosses the ball, it ends up in the Heybridge net and Grays are winning; it’s an own goal and is attributed to Swifts’ number nine Daniel Walker. “Come on you Swifts” is the not-downhearted response from the terrace of the First Call Community Stand. A black-headed gull wheels above the pitch and disappears over the stand; I move from behind the goal to sit in the main stand, a structure with a row of tubular stanchions along its front, behind which the blue plastic seats have a shallow rake; it’s a classic non-league football stand in a classic non-league ground, a bit home-made looking and scruffy in places, but therein lies its character. A German Shepherd and two other dogs that look like poodles but aren’t look on, although it’s doubtful they brought themselves here on their own. As the half wears on I move again, closer to the tea bar this time, and am now amongst the Grays Athletic supporters. Grays are now doing better in terms of possession of the ball and are enjoying a few breakaways. Number eleven Joao Carlos is a threat down the left, “Go on Carlos” and “Get in the fuckin’ box” shout the Grays fans, before Carlos is booked by Mr Hallam for diving.
Half-time arrives a little late because of a few stoppages for injuries and I make the short walk to the tea bar but have to join a slow moving queue. Behind me two men, a West Ham supporter and an Orient supporter talk about the Orient; the football club, not the far East. The Hammers fan has a habit of finishing the O’s fan’s sentences, like in that sketch by The Two Ronnies, but not as funny. They agree that West Ham isn’t proper football anymore; this (Heybridge Swifts) is proper football. Eventually my turn comes and I ask the smiley-faced young woman for a tea (£1); she’s still smiling and her smile can’t help but raise the spirits of Swifts fans unhappy that their team is losing.
I drink my polystyrene cup of tea as I take a look through the programme. I read the thoughts of Swifts’ manager Julian Dicks which are plain and straightforward except for one sentence which reads “Then we gave away a free kick and no one stood on the ball and they popped the ball out and their forward hit a worldy. He wont hit a ball like that again down hill with the wind behind and Chris had no chance”. Sheer poetry.
It is five past four and with the start of the second-half I take up a place on one of the two rows of wooden benches in the Mick Gibson Family Stand. There don’t seem to be any families in the stand although the rest of the ground is well peopled with mums and dads and children of all ages. I wonder who Mick Gibson is or was and if the stand is just for his family. The Swifts seem re-invigorated by their half-time tea and the words of Julian Dicks. Firstly Manny Osei-Owusi gets wide and plays the ball back only for number four Nicholas Brown to skew his shot embarrassingly wide, but minutes later a corner is won, the ball is sent towards goal and repulsed, but only as far as Toib Adeyemi who is on hand to send it into the goal from close range and the scores are level at one each. The crowd cheers, although not as much as I thought they would, but then lunchtime and afternoon drinking does make you feel a little sluggish.
I make the same circuit of the ground that I made in the first-half enjoying the different back drops to the action on the field; bare trees on one side, 1960’s suburban houses on the other and blue skies and wispy cloud above. The sun is now shining through the cloud and shadows of trees and the Mick Gibson Family Stand play across the pitch. On the opposite side of the ground spectators shadows play against the corrugated metal boundary fence; it’s beautiful in a way that a football match inside a large stadium never can be.
I sit again in the main stand and catch half a conversation behind me as a man explains to his friend about a holiday or short-break he’s been on. “They’re good hotels too, they suit me, know what I mean?” he says. I don’t know what he means, but then he wasn’t talking to me. It’s about twenty five past four and the Swifts win a free-kick and rather unexpectedly their number eight, the ostentatiously named Jack Adlington-Pile scores with what might be termed a Jack Adlington-Pile driver, a thundering direct shot worthy of winning any game. Unavoidably there is a bit more of a reaction to this goal as people voice a collective “Cor!”. Grays are marshalled well by their imposing captain Stanley Muguo but they can’t get back in to the game and it’s the Swifts who come closest to scoring again as another free-kick, this time from number four Nicholas Brown defies the laws of physics by hitting the inside of a post and re-bounding out.
As the match heads towards its conclusion Adlington-Pile and Luke Wilson get to see Mr Hallam’s yellow card, as disappointingly they attempt to hang on to the lead by foul means as well as fair. Whilst the match remains interesting, Grays are just not good enough to score again and the fact that although only four places separate the teams in the league table, Swifts have nineteen, and now twenty-two more points tells a story.
With the final whistle the Grays Athletic players form a post-match huddle, perhaps to stem recriminations, whilst the Swifts enjoy a bit of a love-in with their justifiably appreciative supporters. It’s been a good match, and arguably going a goal behind and coming back to win is the best sort of win there is. Scraley Road, or the Aspen Waite Arena as it is known until someone makes a better offer, is a fine non-league ground even if they don’t serve proper beer and like Swifts on summer evenings I look forward to a return.