Trial And Few Errors For Billericay Dickies
Normally, the trek from Billericay station to New Lodge is a long one. With the wind and rain blowing against you, wise counsel is to get the cab for the mile or so's journey.
Not today though. Middle of the summer it may be, with the Ashes in full swing, Billericay Town had already played a number of pre-season matches and New Lodge was today hosting Romford as the pre-season schedule continued unabated. In the blazing sun, Western Road, Tye Common Road, then Blunts Wall Road was a pleasant afternoon stroll
A stroll, though, is something neither of these famous names in non-league football had enjoyed in recent times. Billericay, pushed all the way in 2011-12 for the Ryman Premier title and promotion to the Conference South, went straight back down. With just one other honour, the Essex Cup, since their halcyon days of a hat-trick of FA Vase wins in the 70's, Father Time had not treated 'Ricay kindly in the past 30 years or so.
The same could be said about Romford, and a lot more besides. After storming to an Essex Senior League title in 2009, life in Ryman One North had been steady but unspectacular. In fact, Boro's recent successes had all been at ESL level. Away from that league, success had come so rarely you could time it by the wind eroding away a stone rather than a calendar.
They were also another of those clubs who, because of various financial happenings, had found themselves homeless. Currently sharing at Thurrock's tidy Ship Lane ground, they had nevertheless not had a stadium to call their home for far too many years.
Today would just be another away trip, something they in effect do every game of the season.
The low-key achievements of both clubs over the past few decades had made this very much a low-key friendly. Barely 100 people bothered to turn up at New Lodge for a game where they were letting in the punters for free, with the Ashes and live music on in the clubhouse. Punters would either stay in the bar, watch the cricket, well, do almost anything except watch a game for free.
Despite the topsy-turvy last couple of seasons at New Lodge, Billericay Town were at least showing consistency on the managerial front. Craig Edwards, a one time lithe light-welterweight boxer, had expanded in waist just a little, and had also extended his New Lodge stay into a fourth season, the longest he has been manager at a club.
The Billericay rationale is simple enough. He was good enough to take the team up two seasons ago and very little had changed in the Ryman Premier since then. Staying loyal to your manager is seen almost as a last resort these days. Not so, for the moment at least, at 'Ricay.
So, as both sides settled down to a match played in the blazing sun, we knew what to expect from the hosts. Quick on the break and dangerous at set pieces. Long-ball it has been dubbed. Long, however, didn't amount to high ball or aimless punts. Just quick and direct. Just like a Craig Edwards instruction on the touchline.
What we didn't expect, however, was the constant sound of live music from the clubhouse as their social event extended through and beyond the match. Watching a full-blooded tackle with the dulcet tones of an Amy Winehouse tribute screaming out "You know that I'm no good" was on the cruel end of surreal.
Adding to the unreality was a pitch full of trialists and other waifs and strays from the non-league circuit. Only one player, 'Ricay captain Glen Poole, could be easily recognised. If pre-season friendlies are notoriously hard to call, it's even harder to call when you don't know, or are not even given any indication from anyone, who is actually on the pitch.
As it turned out, the trialists on show made a decent fist of things. Billericay took the lead mid-way through the first half with what was typically Billericayesque. Ball played into the box on the left, a header at the far post, then slotted in.
Romford's equaliser in the 39th minute, though, was less conventional. A shot from 30 yards out in a central position that dipped and swerved, nestling beautifully in the top left hand corner of the net. The whole ground, players as well as spectators, stopped to applaud that one.
Billericay's winner, in the 59th minute, was a rarity in that the scorer was a player eminently recognisable. The shaven headed James Robinson had been a scourge of Ryman One North defences last season in the colours of Maldon & Tiptree. Today, in the blue of the hosts, he capitalised on a defensive lapse and shot home from about 12 yards.
It was rough justice on the visitors over the piece. Despite below a division below the New Lodge outfit, they created more chances, 'Ricay having to thank their substitute keeper late on with a number of outstanding low parries from shots in and around the area, to ensure the home side 100% pre-season record remained intact.
As the final whistle blew, the teams coming off to the strains of both Bring Me Sunshine from the PA system and Ain't That A Kick In The Head from the clubhouse, the punters drifted away, incurring the wrath of nearby farmers with their poorly parked cars.
Although one had real cause to regret his anger when told, rather forcefully, that the target for his strong words was in fact a pedestrian. It felt very good to sound off at him, I must admit.
The crowd was low, the game relatively meaningless, the clubs hoping rather than believing that sustained success would soon be theirs. This is Non-League Football 2013. And you know what? I wouldn't change it for the world.
Billericay Town 2, Romford 1