Gravesend venture into another world

Ken Jones visits a former haunt as a little club gear up for a great day out at Villa Park tomorrow
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The Independent Online
We were sitting in the cluttered, dusty room that passes for an office beneath Gravesend and Northfleet's ancient grandstand, and it was about 11 o'clock in the morning. The only warmth came from a small paraffin stove that stood in front of a battered desk, and it was cold enough for an overcoat.

The telephone rang constantly. "Tickets on sale here between 10 and four tomorrow," Dave Stevens could be heard saying. "pounds 13 for adults, pounds 8 for children and senior citizens. pounds 8 to travel by coach and pounds 1 to join the supporters' club."

Never mind the romance of the FA Cup, the giant-killer theme that has helped to make the competition famous internationally; in Gravesend and Northfleet's golden jubilee season, this is the week of their salvation.

Drawn against Aston Villa in the third round, when non-League clubs get 50 per cent of receipts, Gravesend and Northfleet will probably make more than pounds 100,000 from conceding home advantage.

In troubled times, the ground in a miserable state of disrepair, the lease still unsecured and attendances for matches in the Beazer Homes League Premier Division averaging barely more than 500, tomorrow's match at Villa Park is a godsend.

"We haven't even been able to afford an exit required by safety regulations. That restricts our capacity to 3,300, so even the idea of playing the match at Charlton or Crystal Palace didn't make as much sense as switching it," Stevens added.

Since taking early retirement, Stevens, a director of the club, has more or less been its full-time chief executive, his sense of humour still intact despite the various problems that beset small football clubs.

"If it isn't one thing, it's another," Stevens said, reaching out to take another call - "yes, tickets on sale tomorrow between... - safety inspectors, health inspectors, all sorts of people make life difficult, but we're still here."

In the 1960s, only just. After the excitement of an FA Cup run in 1963 that saw them defeated 5-2 by Sunderland at Roker Park in a fourth-round replay, Gravesend were relegated from the Southern League and almost went out of existence. "By all accounts it was touch and go," Stevens said.

Going back to Stonebridge Road on a damp, misty day last week was a strange and slightly disturbing experience, evoking memories of a season spent there long ago along with other fugitives from the Football League's iniquitous retain and transfer system.

Supporters today may find it astonishing that the Gravesend and Northfleet team of that time was comprised mostly of full-time professionals. Looking around the dressing-room, I could see their faces clearly, hear their voices.

Kevin Clarke, a cool, stylish centre-half who joined the club from Swansea Town not long after representing the Republic of Ireland; a craggy Scottish full-back, Jack Flockhart, who came with me from Southend United. George Brewster, who scored goals for Sheffield United and Bristol City. An irrepressible cockney, Charlie Carroll. Freddie Blowers, as daft as goalkeepers come.

All before Dave Stevens' time, together with those who formed the Southern League championship team of 1957/58 which included Jimmy Logie, an outstanding Scottish international inside-forward who sensationally took a pounds 1,000 signing-on fee to join Gravesend when in dispute with Arsenal.

Managed by a former Arsenal and England full-back, Lionel Smith, every member of that team had appeared regularly in League football. By contrast, none of the Gravesend players called upon at Villa Park tomorrow have senior experience and the manager, Chris Weller, is employed by the prison service.

If none of the 5,000 supporters Gravesend expect at Villa Park imagine the team to have any sort of a chance and only show up in hundreds for league matches, Stevens is encouraged by their sense of community. "I'm a non-League man," he said. "Of course, every club like ours keeps alive the dream of entering the Football League, but it isn't critical.

"We're on a business footing now," Stevens added, "and I get the impression that a lot of people in the area are finding it difficult to meet the cost of watching matches in London, especially when it involves taking along children. An alternative is to come here, but we've got to provide them with a reason."

Profit from tomorrow's tie will enable Gravesend to effect the ground improvements that are necessary before they can apply for a grant from the Football Trust. "The Premier League is a world apart from ours," Stevens said. "Other than on television, I'd never seen Villa Park until we went there last week to sort out arrangements. The hospitality boxes are bigger than our board room. The place is enormous."

Leaving Stonebridge Road, collar turned up against the chill air, scarf pulled tighter, I looked back fleetingly. Paint peeling off the old stand and covered enclosures, the remembered rickety white boundary fence that was always a hazard for timid wingers, power lines strung between pylons that straddle the car park. In the sweet long ago, it seemed so different...

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