The Fleet entertain in floodlit farewell
‘Come and see Thurrock FC’s last game under lights’ was the rallying call made across Twitter this week. I heard it loud and clear. I headed off down the A13 once more for what could be a first and final visit to see the Fleet. Thurrock’s Ship Lane ground is well regarded in the groundhopping world, several blogs regard it as one of the best in an area well stocked for non-league venues. I had it banked, in my back pocket, for a not so rainy day when Thurrock were challenging for honours or entertaining a local rival. Recent news, however, meant the window of opportunity to visit the ground was getting smaller by the hour.
Competition: Bostik Premier Division
Refreshments: £5 (burger, Mars bar and tea)
Star man: Charlie Stimson
Thurrock have fit a lot into to their relatively short 32 year history. Chairman Tommy South started the club as Essex Sports FC in 1984 and they moved into senior football the following year. The club announced at the start of the season that South was going to sell the club, despite overseeing the Fleet throughout their rise through non-league football. The chairman, seen locally as an iconic figure, has been battling cancer and felt the time was right to pass the club onto someone new after going into remission.
Fast forward several months and it’s beginning to look like the end is near for the Fleet. Manager Mark Stimson confirmed recently he’d been told there would be ‘no Thurrock FC next season’. The estate agents selling the club have indicated there are interested parties, some of which are looking at the ‘continuation of a football ground’. Fans, struggling to take much comfort from estate agent patter, are preparing for the worst.
The sale marks the end of an era, however the story ends. The club Tommy South built became Purfleet in 1985. The Fleet rose rapidly up the non-league pyramid. They won the Essex Senior League in 1988 and Division Two of the Isthmian League four years later. Promotion to the Premier Division in 1994 was followed by the adoption of the Thurrock name in 2003. A third place finish at the end of that season saw them become founder members of the Conference South.
They remained in the Conference South until 2012, despite earning several reprieves after firstly Team Bath resigned, and then Rushden & Diamonds were expelled from the League. Tommy South’s club had not only established themselves in an area rich with grassroots clubs, they’d become one of the top names. Ship Lane, originally part of the Thurrock Hotel complex, was developed over time to match the club’s increasing standing.
Thurrock found themselves in Division One North in 2013 after being deducted points for fielding an ineligible player. Successive attempts to return to the Premier Division via the play-offs culminated in a play-off victory last season against Maldon & Tiptree. Their first season back in the Premier Division has seen the Fleet achieve a comfortable mid table position so far.
Following the revelation that the club may not continue results have improved. Burgess Hill Town and Wingate & Finchley had been dispatched in equally impressive style in the Fleet’s last two games. The visitors, on the other hand, were in a much more precarious position. Tooting & Mitcham were just one place off the bottom, albeit with a six point advantage. They’d lost their last two, having previously gone unbeaten in six.
The hours preceding the game brought positive news for fellow Bostik League clubs Dulwich Hamlet and Cray Wanderers. Both received significant support from their local councils. A declaration of intent to buy the land their stadium sits on for Dulwich, and planning approval for a new stadium for Cray Wanderers. Thurrock’s saviour is still to reveal themself.
The ground, like the club, itself would be a great loss to the league and the area. It’s built into land just below the Thurrock Hotel. The stunning main stand acts as a distintinctive centerpiece for a well organised and well kept ground. There is covered terracing around the other three sections and some additional seating in the far corner. Locals gather around the food stand and programme kiosk that are at opposite ends of the main stand side A small but noisy section of home support are always on hand to cheer on the boys in yellow.
The first half on the pitch at Ship Lane was fairly uneventful. Thurrock had a host of set pieces and plenty of possession, while the visitors tried to catch them on the break. Chace O’Neill had the best opportunity of the early exchanges for Tooting & Mitcham, his sweet 20 yard strike rattled the Thurrock bar. The deadline was finally broken just before the break. Morgan marauded down the right and fired in a dangerous cross. The visitor’s defenders failed to deal with it and Charlie Stimson was on hand to apply a composed finish.
Tooting & Mitcham levelled proceedings early on in the second half. Spencer was fouled in the box and the referee awarded a penalty. Wedgeworth equalised from the spot. For a short period the difference in the two clubs’ respective positions was evident. The visitors, fighting a relegation battle, began to look the more likely to score next against their mid table hosts. Thurrock’s Nouble, however, had other ideas. The winger was beginning to find more space and become a factor in the game. His perfectly timed run found him clear of the Tooting defence and he applied the finish.
The home side had re-established their advantage and they never looked back. Stimson, a threat throughout, added a second as he got on the end of a clever ball over the top of the visitor’s defence. His fellow forward Winn added the finishing touch to the scoreline. He was superbly found by Pindy’s persistence and added the final goal of the evening.
Thurrock have now put together an impressive three game run following the revelation that it might well be their final season in operation. The settled squad could clearly challenge further up the division if they’re given the opportunity to continue together and grace an excellent non-league venue for a few more years to come.