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Between The Rocks And A Heart Place

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North and South of the border had kicked off already.  Next week the so called big boys of the Premier League slip into action.  In England, however, there is a vast 'in between'.

Through the country, in towns, city, villages, the non-league season was making its debut appearance.  Often forgotten about in the national media, but absolutely integral to the culture of football in England.

This is the link between grassroots and the big boys.  Where you support your truly local team, and even get a few quid if you're lucky enough to play for them.  Away from the Conference divisions, it's not much more than petrol money and a couple of pints afterwards  But yes, you can legitimately call yourself a 'semi-professional'.

And so it was, down a small lane, opposite a church and a pub, on the outskirts of the small conurbation of Corringham, Essex, with little fanfare, but plenty of love and affection, that East Thurrock United resumed their trade in the Ryman Premier.

They may not make much of a headline in the global sense - and sometimes the local sense - but at Rookery Hill they do things right.  And as a consequence the Rocks get under your skin.  You can't help but love East Thurrock United.

Their history isn't a long one, having been formed in 1969, but my, do they know how to play with your heart-strings.  In 2007-08, they were relegated from the Ryman Premier on the last day of the season, having missed an injury time penalty.  The one point they had deducted for fielding an ineligible player, with one kick, was turned from an inconvenience into a season killer.

The following two seasons ended in hear breaking Ryman One North play-off semi-final defeat at home to near neighbours Concord Rangers.  In 2009-10, however, they made no mistake.  An astonishing run of 26 wins in 30 games ensured the title and promotion were bestowed upon John Coventry's side.

And therein lies another story.  An ex worker at nearby Shell Haven, then latterly a sports teacher before retirement, Covo has spent his life living and working locally, and fashioning football sides at all levels where a passing game is seen as almost compulsory.  With a dry and quick wit, John is held in the highest of regard as a coach, manager, and most importantly a person.

Even with the loss of influential goalscoring midfielder Max Cornhill to Chelmsford City, the Rocks achieved their highest points total back in the Ryman Premier in 2010-11, and went all the way to the Ryman League Cup Final.  

Even that was overshadowed, though, by an FA Cup run only ended in front of the nation's tv cameras by the then League Two Macclesfield Town.  The Silkmen, even they admitted, had the match turn in their favour,  that Saturday afternoon in front of over a thousand locals, by a blatant and missed handball, with the Rookery Hill hosts well on top at that stage.

It seemed an impossible act to follow, with crowds often well below the 200 mark, but 2011/12 was, if anything, far more eye-popping.  In the FA Cup, they were involved in the greatest tie of the season.  Drawing 2-2 at Melbourne Park, with a 98th minute equaliser, the Rocks and the Clarets produced something twice as spectacular in the replay.

 2-2 after 90 minutes.  4-4 after extra time.  East Thurrock again produced something out of the extraordinary.  Taking the lead after 44 seconds, then yet again digging out another injury time equaliser.  If that wasn't enough, almost 600 amazed, enthralled spectators saw East Thurrock United sensationally equalise yet again in injury time of extra time.

The scorer of that late, late leveller, Kris Newby, turned out just a few minutes later to be the villain of the piece, missing the only penalty in the subsequent shoot-out, the ultimate irony of an extraordinary evening which was without a shadow of doubt the best FA Cup tie of them all in 2011-12.

It didn't stop there.  Newby then went on to garner national headlines of a less salubrious variety, appearing on breakfast television to discuss the gambling habit that had gripped him.  If it had affected anyone at Corringham, they made a fabulous job of hiding it, making it into play-offs for the first time ever.  

5th in the Ryman Premier was, of course, the highest position in the club's history.  Play-off defeat duly arrived, but the achievement of making it cannot be denied. 

If things seemed too good, then they were.  John Coventry has suffered a tumultuous close season.  No fewer than seven of the players who took part in the play-offs were departed.  Then, with kick-off approaching, Kris Newby had not showed.  To say this was a test was an understatement.

Especially bearing in mind East Thurrock United's opponents.  Bury Town are renowned as being one of the consistently best sides in the Ryman Premier.  They were the team who ruined the Rocks League Cup Final dream in 2012, with the most one-sided 1-0 seen in recent times.

The Suffolk outfit were always there or thereabouts in the title or play-off chase, with a side that had height, pace, and great ball skills.  It's a potent combination with some neutrals wondering just how they haven't become a Conference outfit.  With a patchy pre-season, Bury Town were one of the last teams the Rookery Hill hosts would have wanted to visit.

As the game kicked off, in overcast but warm conditions, a look around the ground could see the small but homely ground been given new licks of paint.  Everything had been spruced up, and looked spick and span.  The pitch looked like a carpet.  All done by volunteers, John Coventry included.  Truly the spirit of the game.

It's a spirit that runs through the club as soon as you get there.  John's wife Chris is out to meet and greet as soon as you walk in, and Sam always has time for a chat, as you collecting your rather good programme for £1.50 and 50/50 draw tickets.

Then, soon after finding your seat, the typically realistic, straight and amiable Yourkshireness of club secretary Neil gives you that extra feeling of being welcomed, and then Jenny pops along with the team sheets and a permanently happy demeanour.  It's no wonder the club gets under your skin.  It's just a great, great place to watch your football.

And what a game we watched.  With what could be kindly described as a youthful squad, the locals were expecting a defeat, with some a hammering.  The visitors must have been confident of collecting all three points.  What we got, yet again at Rookery Hill, was 90 minutes of unreality.

After 20 minutes of evenly contested play, enlivened by the Bury Town chairman standing behind the goal whilst somehow looking like an Elton John tribute act, East Thurrock United took control, and on the half hour took the lead in unlikely fashion.

Nathan Korateng was wide on his own left flank, on the halfway line, chasing a lost cause as Bury Town came forward.  One timely lunge, though, resulted in dispossession and a run at goal.  He approached the left hand side of the box then sent in a superb, low centre between last defender and goalkeeper.  David Bryant, from just outside the six yard box at the far post, couldn't miss,

it got even better 10 minutes later.  Luke Wanadio this time did the groundwork on the left, full back Tom Stephen put the cross in, and Bryant bulleted it home.  2-0 to East Thurrock United.  The home supporters in the 173 strong crowd, the club officials, maybe even Covo himself, couldn't believe how well it was going.

You don't get to be title contenders and fancied for promotion for no reason, though, and within 11 minutes of the second half, Billy Clark halved the deficit with a superb low volley from 22 yards after almost incessant visiting pressure.

The pressure remained and was retained right up until the 73rd minute.  A corner on the right, a scramble in the six yard box, and Adam Bailey-Dennis bundled the ball home.  At this stage, with so much time left, it seemed as if Bury Town would return to Suffolk with all three points after all.

We should have known better, after all these years though, to expect the unexpected.  The young Rocks side looked absolutely out on their feet, after half an hour of defending, but somehow pushed themselves forward and dominated the latter stages of the game.

 In injury time, Bryant had a fine shot parried superbly around the post and then, in the dying embers, substitute L'Heureux Menga was left free at the far post from a left wing corner, but headed agonisingly wide.  A heart-stopping end to the normal fare of a heart-stopping 90 minutes at Rookery Hill.

As both sides came off to deserved generous applause it felt good to be back.  You can play, listen to, report on, or just plain watch football any time, and at any place these days.  But clubs that get under your skin and into your heart and soul?  They're one in a million.

And that's exactly what this club, off the beaten track, opposite the church, out of the way, seemingly unnoticed, really are.  It's good to be back.

East Thurrock United 2,  Bury Town 2