Billericay 1 Thurrock 0

Billericay Town 1 Thurrock 0 (26th December 2017)

Another Boxing Day, another double-header, this time in Essex, around the other side of the M25. I’d been to Billericay before, but since then the ground has been completely rebuilt, and the club revamped from being typical Isthmian League Premier Division plodders into a club that seems to be going places.

As tends to be the way, this revitalising is down to heavy investment from a rich owner, and as also tends to be the way, it’s created a fair bit of resentment from other clubs and fans. It doesn’t help that this benefactor, a tattooed loud-mouthed walking PR disaster (or born again Christian and charity giver if you read the right selected articles) has installed himself as manager, and with only 10 times the playing budget of a typical team in the division, has somehow, against all the odds, clawed his team up to the top of the table.

Detractors aside, the rebuild of the ground is highly commendable, and even if he does walk away in the not too distant future, as long as the club doesn’t fold and have to sell up, he’ll have left a positive legacy.

Both ends are now full-length covered terraces, while the far side is a smart, if disappointingly shallow, seated stand with four rows of seats. Unlike the ends, the side doesn’t have a pillar every ten yards, although the four floodlight pylons placed at the front of this side do provide an equally unwelcome obstruction.

Half of one side is taken up with a seven row deep new seated stand, again with numerous pillars, but at least the seats here have a decent height to them. It’s noticeable that the seats here are much more popular than they usually are at non-league grounds.

The changing rooms and bar survive from the ground as it used to be, although both have had considerable building work and are barely recognisable. The bar is perhaps the only one I’ve seen which also includes a sweet shop, where people could relive their youth (assuming they grew up in the 1970s or earlier) and buy “quarters” of sweets in jars. The bar toilets, now kitted out with black shiny glittery walls, look like something out of a nightclub whose name features a possessive apostrophe, but still manage to be tiny and inadequate, in the best tradition of non-league toilets nationwide.

The route from turnstile to club bar takes in the feature of the ground that divides opinion perhaps more than any other – a giant mural on the back of the new main stand, highlighting the club’s history, downturn in fortunes, and manager/owner Glenn Tamplin’s “dream” of a bright new successful future with him in charge. Like it or hate it, it’s certainly unusual, and in an environment where the prefabricated Atcost stand is king, anything unusual is, to me at least, always welcome.

Some may scoff at Billericay’s increased crowds, and say nearly all used to follow West Ham, or another premier league team a year ago, but I don’t see why that’s a bad thing. Any club at this level that does will be get more fans, and they certainly won’t all be from an existing fans base. If some people from Billericay have decided to support their town’s team this season, regardless of the club’s ownership or reasons for success, I see that as a good thing.

On the pitch, Billericay’s expensively assembled squad are top of the league on goal difference, albeit with four games in hand, and the title and promotion is theirs to lose. Thurrock, doing very little in the bottom half, made the short journey across this part of Essex with little more ambition than to make life difficult for the home side.

It all made for a reasonably close game, that probably ought to have had more than the one goal. Had both team’s not been utterly hopeless with set-pieces, it might have helped. Maybe Thurrock were confused by the home side’s sloping pitch. One side is about a metre higher than the other – a situation surprisingly not rectified when the pitch and ground were all dug up in the summer.

Purfleet, backed by the noisier of the two sets of supporters, went close a few times, but it just wasn’t quite happening for them on this day.

Billericay also weren’t having a great time up front either, but another set piece found its way to ex-Brighton striker Jamie Robinson, and he knocked in his 36th, and probably easiest, goal of the season from close range. The cheer that followed this goal was more of the “thank Christ for that” variety than elation, but if the home fans thought the floodgates would now open, they were to be disappointed, although at least they did win.

Maybe this is the price to pay for such bankrolling – the feeling that success and winning is the absolute minimum that’s acceptable. From the muted cheer for the goal, to the relief at the final whistle, to the grumpy old man who came out of his house to ask the final score and seemed almost annoyed at his team putting him through the agony of needing to know the result, there didn’t seem too much joy about the place.

Or maybe this was just one of those games where all that matters is the three points, and how they got achieved, isn’t so important. Next May, when promotion is achieved, as it surely will be, is when people will be truly happy.

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