All of the decisions at the top of the Blue Square Premier table have already been made, but the final day of the season brings an intriguing battle to avoid relegation from the league and the most poignant of the fixtures is the one at The Recreation Ground, Bridge Road, Grays. As football venues go, The Recreation Ground is a pretty unprepossessing one. When the club somersaulted into the Blue Square Premier five years ago new terraces were built at either end of the ground and small covered enclosures popped up in front of the flats that run the length of side of the pitch. In spite of these developments, The Recreation Ground, hemmed in by buildings on all four sides, remained a defiantly non-league ground in a league that has started to assume many of the pretentions of professionalism over the last few years.
Today is The Recreation Ground’s last game. The ground was owned by the Billings family, and a twenty year lease was signed by the club in 1990. However, Grays have been unable to reach agreement with the family and it has now been sold for housing. The club has been linked with moves to nearby Thurrock, East Thurrock United and Tilbury, but nothing has been confirmed. What we know is that Grays won’t be taking a place in the Blue Square South next season. Such is the parlous state of the club that they have already applied to drop two divisions into the Ryman League Premier Division. Relegation has been a given for much of the season, but the eviction notice was a horrible shock for everyone at the club. Today is one final party before a lot of hard work begins.
For Forest Green Rovers, though, today is D-day. They achieved their highest ever league position – eighth place in the Blue Square Premier – just two years ago, but since then the club has been in decline. A run to the Third Round of the FA Cup this season ended with a defeat at the hands of Notts County, but the club has also had financial difficulties and only recently paid off £45,000 to see off a winding up order brought against them by HMRC. They still, however, need a reported £250,000 to secure their long-term future and relegation from the Blue Square Premier seems unlikely to help this. The situation at the foot of the table, however, is complicated. They had been adrift near the foot of the table, but six wins from their last nine matches have given them a fighting chance of staying up. According to how the results go, any two from Forest Green, Ebbsfleet United, Gateshead, Histon and Eastbourne Borough could fall through the trapdoor.
The weather is good and the fact that it is the last match here for Grays Athletic after 104 years has pushed the crowd up – almost 1,000 have turned out for the occasion. Forest Green Rovers are nervous and Grays Athletic are playing with the carefree nature of a team that, with relegation long assured, doesn’t have a care in the world. Ten or twenty years ago, ears might have been pressed to transistor radios, but it’s 2010 now and times have changed and furious button-pressing on Iphones is more the order of the day today. The news is not good. Gateshead have taken an early lead against Wimbledon, Histon follow them with a goal against Barrow, whilst Tamworth and Ebbsfleet are playing out a knockabout encounter at The Lamb. Even Eastbourne Borough, who had the most difficult fixture of the day against Oxford United, are holding their own in heir match. Half-time comes at The Recreation Ground with the score goalless and very little having happened of any note.
Midway through the second half comes the incident that looks like being the decisive moment of the match. Reece Styche picks up the ball on the right hand side of the penalty area and is felled by a clumsy challenge from Grays’ Harlee Dean. David Brown picks up the ball and, with a degree of assurance that seems unbecoming for such an occasion, sends the Grays goalkeeper Mark Preece the wrong way from the spot to give Forest Green the lead. A couple of minutes later, Forest Green have a golden chance to wrap the game up when a looped ball into the penalty area from Styche finds Jonathan Smith inside the penalty area. Smith neatly side-steps his marker but, six yards out and with only Preece to beat, seems to get stuck in two minds over whether to lob or drive the ball and belts the ball over the crossbar.
It proves to be a costly miss. The goal updates are now coming in thick and fast from elsewhere. Two goals within ten minutes at the start of the second half have given Barrow the lead at Histon, whilst Tamworth have come from behind to lead Ebbsfleet by three goals to two. Then, with fifteen minutes left to play, comes the hammer blow. Alex Osborn controls a spinning ball excellently on the edge of the Forest Green penalty area and places the ball neatly into the bottom right hand corner of the net. The goal means two dropped points for Forest Green and in the closing ten minutes the news gets even worse for them, both at The Recreation Ground and elsewhere. Eastbourne Borough snatch an unlikely goal against Oxford United with six minutes to play in their match, and then a high, looping corner from the left hand side finds Alsseny Cissoko unmarked and five yards out, and his downward header puts Grays in front. Meanwhile, Ebbsfleet have come from behind again to lead Tamworth 4-3 and a last minute own goal from Paul Jones rescues a point for Histon against Barrow. By three goals on goal difference, Forest Green Rovers are down, along with Ebbsfleet United. Gateshead and Eastbourne’s wins have been enough to condemn them.
For Grays Athletic, the future will come in the Ryman League and ground-sharing. Whether they will return to a ground of their own is very much open to question. The more immediate question is how much of their supporters will have the energy to follow the club to someone else’s ground, but all supporters – especially those that have lost their own – will sympathise with those that have lost everything and are facing up to the reality of a two division relegation. Forest Green Rovers, meanwhile, will end up in the Blue Square North or the Blue Square South next season and with the albatross of debt still hanging around their neck. They will have to further cut costs and will not find the route back into the division to be an easy one. Failure on the pitch is one thing – both for both clubs, the critical issue is securing a long term future. Highlights of the match are available here.