Braintree Town supporters’ chairman on Iron’s rise to the top
JUST over 20 years ago on April 5, goals from Imre Varadi and the late David Preece gave Luton Town an ultimately fruitless 2-1 win over Wimbledon in the old Division One.
The Hatters were eventually relegated that season. Meanwhile over in Essex, whilst the likes of John Fashanu was strutting his stuff at Kenilworth Road, Braintree were recording a 3-1 victory over Newport Isle of Wight in the Beazer Homes League.
Fast-forward 20 years and the Iron’s recent 3-1 humbling of the Hatters on April 7 was not exactly a surprise with Alan Devonshire’s men having held their own during their first campaign in the Blue Square Bet Premier.
It was, however, a sign of how far Luton, who have since reached the Blue Square Bet Premier play-off final, have dropped and more importantly how Braintree, who with their improvements on and off the pitch, are now more than capable of competing in the fifth-tier.
“There used to be a hundred or so fans housed together on a small piece of terrace in front of the club house, trying not to get wet because the roof was leaking,” recalled chairman of the Braintree Town Supporters’ Club Gordon Humphries.
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“I was sat at the Luton game recently and there I thought of the great old wooden grandstand, the old Quag End which was essentially a mud pit and the little cabin next to the club house.
“We have gone from playing on a recreation ground at a sports club to playing at a football stadium.
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“I have to pinch myself now and again. Against Luton, because of the segregation, there were about 1,000 away fans at the Quag End and there were lots of Braintree fans packed into the stadium too. The atmosphere was charged. I thought to myself, ‘This is was what football is all about’.”
Gordon was appointed chairman of the supporters club in 2004, having followed the club, mainly from afar – due to work commitments – since 1968.
“I remember my first season in office, at pre-trial we signed something like 65 players,” recalled Gordon.
“It was just before the George Borg era and we had gone through massive changes, including the change in football club chairman in December 2003 (Lee Harding took over from George Rosling).
“Previous chairmen Alec Stewart and George Rosling really got the club back on its feet again because it was floundering but, without being disrespectful, some would say it was more like a hobby for them.
“I suppose one man’s hobby is another man’s passion and Braintree is Lee’s passion. He brought in new directors and he could see how he could take the club forward as a business.”
Harding’s impact has been dramatic both in terms of the results on the pitch and off it with the Cressing Road chief standing firm in his stance not to exceed the club’s financial capabilities.
Such disagreements over the direction the club was headed contributed to the exits of managers such as Rod Stringer and Robbie Garvey but few can complain with his stance – the club have just finished a respectable 12th place in their first-ever season in the premier league of non-league football.
“Lee’s remit has always been to be playing football at the highest sustainable level and to make the club solid,” said Gordon.
“George Borg got us to a point in the Conference South and at that time I thought we might just be pushing a bit too far, I always felt Braintree would stay as that middle of the road, small club.
“But then we narrowly lost to Salisbury in the Conference South play-off final and when I look back at that I think, had we been promoted, would be in our new stadium already? Would we be knocking on the door of the Football League? But fate conspired against us.”
Braintree have since won promotion, indeed they have never been relegated, and began the 2011-2012 at their highest-ever level, under new manager Alan Devonshire, who took over in the summer from Stringer.
Gordon explained: “I can’t think of any other manager that could have come in at that stage, not just because he is a favourite with the fans because of his West Ham history, but because he has got staying power, he toughed it out at Maidenhead and then Hampton & Richmond on small budgets.
“People were saying we would have our six months of fame and fortune this season but then go down like Droylsden but I knew under Alan we would be fine because he understood Lee’s remit to reach 50 points.”
That magic number has become Devonshire’s favourite cliche this season but having reached the target with games to spare and sat comfortably in mid-table, attentions will inevitably turn to what will happen next.
The Football League is the next dream on the horizon for the Iron but Gordon is quite happy for the club to tread water for now.
“With a bit more backing from our local authorities and if we continue to promote the club then the word will spread,” said Gordon.
“But we don’t want to run before we can walk, and to go full time I think we would need another 5-600 through the gate.
“We have talked to a lot of people this season who did not know who Braintree were or where we were even based, so we would just say we are just a small pub team in Essex!
“There is still an amount of snobbery towards us, but the perception is changing and people are getting to know who we are.”