Sometimes, you just get the feeling that something bigger is going on elsewhere. Kings Marsh Stadium in Sudbury, Suffolk is a very agreeable place to watch football – it’s usually football of a reasonably high quality and the beer is cheap and plentiful – but yesterday afternoon everybody’s thoughts were trained elsewhere, a couple of hundred miles or so north-west. We were watching Sudbury play Tilbury, but our thoughts were primarily at Anfield, where Havant & Waterlooville were making Liverpool sweat in a way that few had foreseen.
Since our last trip to Suffolk in August, AFC Sudbury have bedded themselves into quite a comfortable position in Division Two North of the Ryman Football League. Dartford, revitalised by the completion of their new stadium last year, head the table, but with a second promotion place on offer to play-off winners, a race is on to ensure at the very least a place in these play-offs. Sudbury have tough opposition – amongst the teams doing battle with them are one of the pre-season favourites Enfield Town and Ware, who won through to the First Round Proper of the FA Cup. There are six or seven teams chasing the four play-off spots and, in spite of their superior resources, Dartford aren’t out of sight in top place being just four points clear at the top of the table. Springtime is coming, and there’s still all to play for.
For their visitors, Tilbury, the good times have been thin on the ground. They had a run to the Third Round of the FA Cup in 1978, losing to Stoke City, but almost collapsed financially a couple of years later and have spent much of the last three decades merely keeping their heads above water in the face of local disinterest. Nestled in amongst the docks of the Thames Estuary, they have a high level of local competition for their attention – crowds at their Chadfields stadium frequently fall into two figures – and they went into Saturday’s match in four points above the relegation places and with games in hands, but doubtlessly looking nervously over their shoulders. Having dropped into the Essex Senior League once and clawed their way back once, they already know how difficult it can be to work your way back up.
Sudbury have been struggling with their pitch lately. Their last home match was postponed because it was waterlogged, and the club had taken the traditional remedy action to such a problem by covering last sections of it in sand. It didn’t make for a particularly edifying spectacle for the first twenty minutes or so, but the truth was that it didn’t really matter that much. News had come through that Havant had scored at Anfield, and later that they had taken a 2-1 lead. The token Liverpool supporter in the shed was, somewhat predictably, being mercilessly mocked. In addition to this, Sudbury’s supporters are possibly the noisiest that you will come across anywhere, and are augmented by a World War II air raid siren, two drums, a plastic trumpet and what might have been a harmonica. It certainly didn’t seem to help the Tilbury goalkeeper, who made a dog’s breakfast of Stuart Boardley’s weak header from six yards, spilling the ball over the line to give the home side the lead.
In the second half, Sudbury extended their advantage, despite not playing particularly well against weak opposition. Liverpool had levelled things up at 2-2 just before half-time against Havant & Waterlooville, and news that they had taken a 3-2 lead seemed to turn more people’s attention to what was actually going on in front of them. Four minutes into the second half, the outstanding Clements was put through and made the score 2-0, and the race was largely on to see how many Sudbury would score. With twenty minutes to play and things starting to go a little stale, they brought on top scorer James Rowe, and the final piece of the jigsaw was complete. Having looked somewhat disjointed for much of the second half, they started to look more and more fluid, and the icing on the cake was added with just a couple of minutes left to play when Luke Hammond suddenly (and somewhat unexpectedly) skipped past three or four tackles before putting the ball in the bottom corner from the edge of the penalty area.
After the match, everything seemed to be settling down and returning to normal. The familiar five o’clock music chimed up on the radio, and “Sports Report” confirmed that Liverpool had run up five against Havant in the end whilst Derby County had taken at absolute pasting at home against Preston North End. Far away from the glare of the national media, other results in the Ryman League had gone in Sudbury’s favour, leaving them in second place in the table – four points behind Dartford with an all-important home match against The Darts at Kings Marsh in a fortnight’s time. All to play for in this particular corner of Suffolk, then.