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Friday 10th November 2017 ko 19.45

Essex Senior League

BARKINGSIDE 2 (Toke 45 Ogborn 75)

CLAPTON 3 (Coblah 40 Reed 48 87)

Att 275

Entry & Programme £5

I’d first heard the Essex Senior League were looking at hosting a “Groundhoppers Event” a month or two ago on Peter Dudley’s excellent “Grassroots Footy Show” on East London Radio. There, league secretary Michelle Dorling outlined the idea, and made it clear that the idea needed fleshing out before they could commit to it fully. Very much with my GroundhopUK hat on I wondered how we could help.

I like the ESL, and have always found their officials and clubs welcoming but organising a hop in this league does have it’s own issues. The first is that it’s a single division league, there is no Step 6 footprint means that once you’re got the event established, you’re only likely to be able to run it 3 times – you’ll quickly run out of clubs to visit and that’s a situation made worse here with several clubs in membership doing so as tenants in groundshares. By and large groundhoppers and groundsharers do not mix.

The second issue is the geography of the league. It feels split into 2 areas, the North East London section, and the Greater Essex section. Travel between the 2 sections can be fraught as regular visitors to places like Southend Manor would testify to!

But none of that would disqualify a league from hosting a hop, far from it and I was keen to contact Michelle, to see whether GroundhopUK could help and and at the very least forge co-operation over dates. We talked and we agreed to co-operate on dates with the league running the event for themselves. Oddly I felt happy that it turned out that way.

This season Chris Berezai at I at GroundhopUK will run something like 6 hops, leaving only the Bedfordshire and the South West Peninsula run by Craig Dabbs and Phil Hiscox respectively. I don’t want ourselves to have a monopoly on this, if for no other reason than I want to see new ideas brought in for me to adopt! Michelle was and is easy to get along with and whilst I had no intention of getting too involved I was happy to answer any questions that came my way.

I also wanted to support Michelle and her team even if I have visited every ground on this hop before.  They may have run their hop in a different way to how I would, but as I said, that would allow for new ideas. It was a bit of a mad dash to Ilford after work but it was a dash I was more than happy to undertake, and there was the chance to take photographs under Ilford’s infamous yellow floodlights!

From a groundhopper’s perspective Barkingside was an odd choice, they are the tenants at Ilford FC’s Cricklefield Stadium after all. In fact the great irony of the hop was that the first game on the Saturday was to be at Redbridge, whose Oakside Park home was once Barkingside’s. But anyone who knows Barkingside and their indefatigable chairman Jimmy Flanagan will know that he understands groundhoppers and is happy to try an unusual kick-off time to attract them. It was also good to see a contingent from the league committee to support the event.

The tie was made all the more intriguing by the Clapton Ultras too. I remember visiting the Old Spotted Dog around 2002 when Clapton were perenial strugglers at the base of the then Step 5 Isthmian League Division 2. They took their usual drubbing in front of a crowd of around 20 and the club looked on the point of folding.

Since the Ultras adopted them they’ve certainly breathed new life into the club even if the the club’s owner Vincent McBean’s antics suggests Clapton’s future may well be built on quicksand. The Ultras come with left-wing political slogans very much based around their comrades at the likes of St Pauli. Their community involvement, such as collections for food banks is to be commended but any mix of politics and football leaves me cold- what has the Balfour Declaration got to do with a fixture in the Essex Senior League? However it’s their use of pyro that worries the league, and I know they were worried about this fixture.

I will admit to having mixed feelings on pyro. On on hand its given me some fantastic photos at places such as Panionios and Partizan Belgrade but as an official at my local league I have empathy with Michelle and her team. The bottom line is that in the UK it’s illegal so the FA and its leagues have to enforce that view, so any game where the league is showcased that policy has to be enforced to the letter.

Thankfully the Ultras took heed; there was no pyro and a bumper crowd enjoyed a game that once it got going was hugely enjoyable. It was settled by a Ryan Reed thunderbolt as the draw looked certain, but it was a well hosted game by Jimmy, and Michelle has every reason to feel happy as to what had happened. I did however have reasons for concern.

The fact was that the vast majority of the crowd were the Clapton Ultras, and they would not be attending any of the Saturday games. There were hoppers but only around 20 in number and plenty of them had no intention of attending the Saturday games.

That feeling was borne out by the attendances on the Saturday. There was 106 at Redbridge followed by 60 at Waltham Forest, then back to 106 at Hackney Wick, sharing at the Old Spotted Dog. There were gremlins, the first two games were way too close to together in terms of kick-off time for example, but it would be easy to criticize without acknowledging this was a first attempt at an event of this type. Chris was at the Redbridge game and I know greatly enjoyed himself.

What I took from my visit to the hop was while this was a long way from being the kind of event I’m used to attending or organising, this was being run by a league whose officials are open to suggestions and are keen to learn. I hope that the low attendances don’t dissuade the clubs from trying again, without their cooperation you don’t have an event.

From the GroundhopUK side of things, we’ll continue to work with the ESL on dates, past history has made it clear that diary clashes will inevitably lead to an unsuccessful event, but there is a real silver lining to what happened here.

These 4 grounds are some of the most difficult in the league to get to on a schedule. When I heard about the league’s idea, I sketched out how I would schedule the games and these stadia, and the Old Spotted Dog in particular are a logistical nightmare. Now the league has got 4 of those grounds done, and could go for a hop next year in the far easier Greater Essex area.

Whatever they decide, all the very best to Michelle and the league, and I look forward to our continued cooperation in the future.