What more pleasant a way to finish a weekend in the country could there be than to spend a warm, sunny afternoon, at King’s Marsh, watching the Ryman League Division One North match between AFC Sudbury and Wivenhoe Town. One of the smarter moves that the senior football leagues below the Football League have made in recent years has been to identify the end of August Bank Holiday weekend as a date when biggest clubs in the land take a breather and to fill the schedules with their own matches. They serve as a timely reminder that there is usually a match going on near you, even if your local League club isn’t playing.
AFC Sudbury were formed in 1999, as a merger of Sudbury Town and Sudbury Wanderers (the “AFC” stands for “Amalgamated Football Club” rather than “Associated Football Club”, as one might expect). Town had been a successful throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, reaching the FA Vase Final in 1989, beating Brighton & Hove Albion on the last ever FA Cup match at The Goldstone Ground in 1996 and making the Premier Division of the Southern League, just one step away from Conference. By the end of the 1990s, though, both clubs had run into financial problems, and took the decision to merge, playing at Wanderers’ ground. They joined the Eastern Counties League in 2000, finishing in third place in their first season, and then winning it five times in a row (whilst also making three successive FA Vase Finals, losing all three) before finally being allowed into the Ryman League Division One North, where they finished in fifth place in their first season and lost in the play-offs. This is a club with lofty ambitions.
Wivenhoe Town, on the other hand, are a club that had a brief moment in the sun when they reached the dizzying heights of the Ryman League Premier Division in the 1993-94 season, but the club’s financial backers couldn’t afford to bankroll it, and they played out their season with a mixture of youth and reserve team players (I saw them lose their first away match of that season 9-1 at St Albans, and I don’t think that even that was their worst result of the season), before narrowly avoiding bankruptcy and sliding back down the divisions to the foot of the senior non-league game. They had started this season with two straight defeats, and the omens for them weren’t good when, upon opening the programme for Monday’s match, it became apparent that they only had three substitutes to choose from, rather than the more usual five.
Whilst the approach to the King’s Marsh Stadium, wending through a half-abandoned industrial estate and a sewage treatment plant that gives the area a singular aroma, there are plenty of reasons to love the place. For one thing, a sponsorship tie-in with a local conservatory manufacturer means that everything in the ground that could conceivably be made of uPVC (the dug-outs, the turnstiles, even a small wheelchair enclosure) is made of the stuff. For another, the team take to the field to White Stripes, a disarmingly hip choice for that part of the world. For a third thing, their supporters have a World War II siren that is (quite literally) cranked up every time they get a free-kick or a corner. An early penalty, a curling twenty-five yard free-kick and a straightforward one-on-one gave Sudbury a half-time 3-0 lead, but what was really noticeable was that they never stopped playing good football, keeping the ball on the floor, and playing a neat, short passing game. In a division in which the majority of the teams involved lump the ball as far down as the pitch as possible and hope for the best, it made for a pleasant surprise.
The second half was more of the same, although Wivenhoe did mount a spirited defence and kept the score down to 4-0 until the last few minutes, when they finally folded and allowed Sudbury’s striker Jamie Rowe hit his third and fourth goals of the match, to take Sudbury’s tally up to six and lift them up to second place in the table. With the club building a new clubhouse and main stand at the end of this season, they seem to be heading in the right direction. With their drums and their siren, the rest of the non-league world won’t know what has hit it.