By Scott Lanza
MARK Stimson is full of praise for the way his team has campaigned in the Ryman North this season but says that form goes out the window once it comes to the play-offs. His Thurrock charges go into the Ryman North promotion shootout on the back of a four game winning run. On Wednesday evening they welcome an AFC Hornchurch side to Ship Lane who have lost their last two engagements. Simpson however was not taking much from that saying; ‘that at this stage form goes out the window, its breaks in games that win them’.
On Wednesday it will almost be a year to the day when Thurrock met the same opponents at the Semi-Final stage. On that evening the breaks went the way of the Urchins after they were awarded a contentious penalty duly despatched by George Purcell; then the Fleet looked to have equalised when a Lewis Spence volley ricocheted off Nathan Cooper’s head and crashed against the underside of the bar and appeared to have bounced beyond the goal line. The Referee thought different and the goal wasn’t given. Junior Luke then doubled Hornchurch’s lead before half-time and although the Fleet rallied in the second half they were not able to get a foothold in the game and so they sadly failed for the second year running at the Play-Off stage.
The 2016/17 regular season saw the two Essex rivals claim a win apiece in the two Ryman North fixtures. The Play-Off Semi Final encounter certainly promises to be a tight affair. Stimson went on to say that; ‘Hornchurch are a good, strong and direct team as they showed last year. But we have the ability to beat them but it will be tough. We have a massive challenge coming up but Thurrock are ready for it.’
Stimson wouldn’t be drawn on any of the other teams that have also qualified for this stage and told me that he was only taking one game at a time. He was about to take training when I spoke to him briefly on Monday evening which shows that for the time being he is getting his team to fully focus on the AFC Hornchurch challenge.
And in Mark Stimson the Fleet have a manager that relishes a challenge. Having won the FA Trophy twice with Grays Athletic he must be itching to bring Ryman Premier football back to the well-appointed Ship Lane stadium.
After last season’s play-off heartbreak, the close season was spent rebuilding as only three players from the 2015/16 squad remained. The team Stimson has built this term has merged experience with youth; steadily picking up points throughout the season meant the Fleet circulated in the play-off positions for most of it. On their day they have played some very attractive football which has brought them back to the brink of gaining promotion out of the Ryman North.
And a healthy youth set-up, including a Reserve team that has just won the Essex Senior League Reserve Division, means that Stimson has had a steady stream of home-produced players making it into the Senior team. As he enthusiastically told me; ‘I have had five players under 21 starting regularly because I want to give boys the opportunity. I have asked my players to play a certain way and full credit must go to them for the way they have performed. Hopefully they can achieve something great in the next few days,’
Thurrock’s first task is to overcome AFC Hornchurch at Ship Lane on Wednesday, Kick Off 7.45pm. The Fleet will be in the Play-Off Final on Sunday if they can sail past the Urchins, either travelling to Maldon & Tiptree or hosting Haringey Borough. When a seasoned football man like Mark Stimson says take one game at a time he has to be listened to. But there could be an exciting few days coming up for the Thurrock faithful.