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The Road To North By Northwest London

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(Photo by Gerry Smith)
(Photo by Gerry Smith)

One thing you could say about Alfred Hitchcock, more than anything else, is that he knew how to write a thriller.  In each story he looked to put the biggest impact in various parts of the plot, leaving you unaware of when the thrills and the shocks will come.

If Alfie had been a football man, his choice of competition would be the FA Trophy, the team featured undoubtedly that outpost along the A13, East Thurrock United.  The creator of "The Birds" would be at one with Rookery Hill, without a shadow of doubt.

The FA Trophy is very much a slow burner in English footballing terms.  Without the glitz and glamour of the FA Cup, and minus the grass roots homeliness of the FA Vase, it sits almost uncomfortably in the middle of them, leaving the top four divisions of non-league football to try to make it Wembley almost unnoticed.

Like a slow burning thriller, though, the devil is in the detail.  The Rocks have made the national papers for their recent FA Cup exploits.  In the background, however, they also caused a Trophy upset a couple of season back.  The now Conference outfit Welling United were beaten 2-1 in Corringham, and were thoroughly outplayed in the process.

It was with this in mind, with Halloween just around the corner, which the Hitchcock portents and the way to Wembley fused together in South Essex on a chilly Tuesday evening.  Unfashionable East Thurrock United may be, they’re loved by a few, and respected by many, as they welcomed Eastbourne Town back for a replay.

The Isthmian League South visitors, a division below the Premier Division Rocks are the oldest club in East Sussex.  They were formed in 1881, which is how old the Rocks defence must have felt in their first meeting on the Saturday when conceding a penalty.  Fortunately the spot kick, and their blushes, was saved.

The Corringham club made no mistake this time.  Leon McKenzie opened the scoring in the 14th minute, starting and finishing the move, shooting past Greg Nessling in the Eastbourne goal from inside the six-yard box.

East Thurrock United doubled their lead on the half hour, David Bryant shooting into the roof of the net on the right hand edge of the box, and by half time Jason Hallett had made it 3-0 with a smart turn and shot.

The Hitchcock like horror show for the beleaguered visitors continued into the second half, McKenzie doubling his tally with another turn and shot, Steve Sheehan netting from an uncleared corner, and Tom Stephen showing how penalties should be taken after a fairly obvious handball.

Even at 6-0 down, though, Eastbourne Town never gave up, and by full time had pegged it back to 6-2, with late strikes from Leyton Schaaf and Richard Greenfield given them a modicum of self respect on an otherwise humiliating evening.

As for East Thurrock United, struggling at the bottom of the Isthmian Premier, it seemed almost academic, with their road to Wembley in all probability coming to a dead end at local rivals Canvey Island, who’d defeated them 2-1 at Park Lane on a sunny but freezing New Years Day.

Such is the way of the FA Trophy, though, that you never can tell.  On a wet and windy Saturday afternoon on the island, the Rocks caught their hosts’ cold, taking the lead within 70 seconds.  It had to be ex-Canvey player Mitch Gilbey, too, slipping the ball past Josh Vickers on the left hand side of the area.

From thereon in, it seemed like both sides had read the script.  The visitors controlled the game, with three ex-Gulls players in Gilbey, Sheehan and, of all players Jason Hallett, showing Canvey what they missed.  With 17 minutes left, East Thurrock United made the game safe with, whom else but Hallett, heading home a Stuart Thurgood corner.

So, with one game unexpectedly one-sided after a near upset, and the next with themselves causing an upset, slowly but surely, East Thurrock United’s FA Trophy story, unlike their league campaign to date, may just be warming up.  Maybe in the finest Alfred Hitchcock tradition.

Next up for John Coventry’s side is a home game.  Merthyr Town, whom a previous incarnation had enjoyed Football League status, will be visiting Rookery Hill at the weekend.  Their old supporters’ fanzine?  “Dial M for Merthyr.”

One way or another, the FA Trophy has ‘slow burning thriller’ written all over it.  The next act awaits.

As perhaps does a trip to North by Northwest London in May.