While Colchester United prepare for the life in League One and Dagenham struggling at the wrong end of League 2, one club in Essex is on up the up. Chelmsford City won the Ryman Premier with a 1-1 draw against Ramsgate at last weekend and, with a strong set of players and decent cash behind them for non-league level, look a good bet for challenge at the top of the Blue Square South.
It’s a return, of sorts, to the glory days for Chelmsford, who were Southern League Champions in 1946, 1968, and 1972. But the 1,588 fans who turned up to watch City clinch promotion might want to take a quick look at the recent history of near neighbours Canvey Island before they get too carried away. It’s not just the geographical proximity that connects the two clubs – Chelmsford’s current manager Jeff King was, until recently, manager and main financial backer for Canvey before deciding he’d had enough of dwindling crowds for an average-to-middling conference side.
When King, who made his fortune in the mobile home business, resigned in 2006 he took the majority of the squad – and financial clout – with him and the Islanders were forced to resign from the non-league top-flight and regroup in the Isthmian Division One North in order to survive. Meanwhile Chelmsford must have thought all their Christmases had come at once when King decamped to their doorstep with a Conference-standard squad of players all looking for a team in Essex.
Although King is listed as manager rather than chairman, there’s no doubting where a large proportion of the cash is coming from (even if chairman Peter Webb offered to pay for a holiday for the squad as a promotion bonus). In his first season at the helm the Clarets finished fourth in the Ryman Premier, losing the play-off semi-final to Billericay Town. This season the team has conquered all, including nearest challengers AFC Wimbledon, secured the title with three games to go, even if since then they’ve suffered a post-title celebration hangover by losing to Hendon this weekend.
Th football from King’s side has been impressive and with many of his team having league or Conference experience, few teams in the Blue Square South will relish a trip to the Melbourne Stadium.
Canvey, meanwhile, have stabilised and after narrowly missing out on the playoffs last year, they currently sit fifth in the Ryman Isthmian Division One North in a six-way battle for the final three playoff spots. After the rollercoaster years, which saw them steamroller up from the Essex senior leagues to the Conference thanks to King’s money, it’s a welcome period of security even if it isn’t quite the giddy heights of the Blue Square Premier. But at least Islanders fans have a club to support.
As for Chelmsford, their fans may be giddy with success at the moment, but they’re very much dependent on how long King is prepared to stick around for. As manager, he doesn’t attend every Clarets game due to business commitments, and if the crowds fall as Chelmsford hit a tougher level, given his past history, it wouldn’t be a massive shock if King decided to move on elsewhere.
It’s not uncommon for sugar daddies to abruptly pull out due to business problems or simply deciding the money could be better spent elsewhere. Essex neighbours Hornchurch were on the brink of promotion to the Conference national when backers Carthium Ltd hit the skids and the club folded. The new AFC Hornchurch have made it back to the Ryman Premier. Meanwhile AFC Telford are another incarnation of Telford United, who were liquidated in 2004 when their chairman’s business went bust, while Weymouth, battling against relegation from the Blue Square Premier, are still suffering a hangover from then chairman Martyn Harrison’s decision to put the entire squad up for transfer and go part-time last season when his hotel business was struggling.
Chelmsford fans have plenty of right to savour their current success and expect a charge for the playoffs in the Blue Square South, but those with medium-to-long term memories will be aware it was a recently as 1997 that their club nearly went out of business. If King does a Canvey on them, they could yet again find themselves behind their less illustrious neighbours in the non-league pecking order.