Monday, 26 January 2015
Concord Rangers - A supersonic rise
Concord Rangers, there's a fair chance that you've never heard of them. The club was founded in 1967. They played their first games on a pitch alongside the beach on Canvey Island, and are now making waves in the Non-league pyramid.
Concord moved into their current home of Thames Road in 1985. They developed the clubhouse and ground with Jack Smith, the current treasurer, integral to the project. Under Jack and his late brother Clive, they organised funds, labour and materials. Without these two gentlemen's efforts, the Concord pitch and ground would not exist.
Concord slowly moved through the Intermediate Essex League, before joining the Essex Senior League in the 1991-92 season. The end of their first season, brought the retirement of Chairman Albert Lant, who founded the club 25 years previously. Albert moved into the role of Club President (a position he still holds), and club treasurer Jack Smith then held the chairmanship for two seasons. Grant Beglan who is the CEO at Aspect Contracts, Concord's main sponsors, then became Chairman, a position he held for a few seasons as well.
During this time in the mid 90s Concord home games were being attended by approximately 40 people, yes 40. The times I visited with my father, it was not an exhilarating experience, not only could you hear the players chat to each other, it was so quiet, you could hear the players breathe.
It was through no fault of the people involved, but it required someone to take charge of the club, somebody with a vision, and a hunger and desire to see Concord Rangers thrive.
Anthony Smith took control of the club in 1999, he was a Concord player who had to retire at the age of 25 due to a cruciate ligament injury. "My father had helped build the club in the 1970s, and it was the family vibe which appealed to me." Smith told me when we chatted after Concord had beaten Whitehawk 3-0 in the league at home.
It is that sense of family that is at the core of the club, everyone I spoke to before and after the game was repeating the same mantra "this club is like one big family". Be it Miki Hood who came to the club 7 1/2years ago as a very bad reserve player (his word's not mine!), and is now, again in his own words "a general dogsbody". Miki undersells himself, having spent time chatting with him, it is clear he has an integral role at the club. Miki is in charge of the club's twitter account (@ConcordRangers) and he understands the key role social media has to play in the modern game. Whilst he was in the dug-out on Saturday, performing another of his roles, which I think was chief cheerleader! Miki was also tweeting out live updates, be it goals, substitutions. Could Twitter be any closer to the action? I doubt it!
Social Media also resulted in fan Alan Jessup-Peacock having a role at the club. Alan informed me that he had started attending Concord matches 5 seasons ago, and started interacting with the club and players via Twitter. Concord players and management responded to Alan's tweets and through time Alan "was integrated into the family at Concord, and made to feel extremely welcome" Imagine this level of interaction. Would the chairman or players at a Premier League club interact with your tweets on social media...not a chance in a million years!
Alan whilst getting involved in the club on matchday in his role of programme editor, always stands with the hardcore of Concord fans, in the "Shed end" behind one of the goals. Is this stand named after the famous terracing at Chelsea you ask. No, it's because behind that goal, the fans used to stand in a converted shed!
Concord Rangers 40th anniversary was in 2007/2008, and they had reason to celebrate that season, as under joint managers, Danny Cowley and Danny Scopes they won the Essex Senior League and gained promotion to the Ryman League Division 1 North.
The following season in the higher league, Concord finished in an admirable 5th place, gaining a place in the promotion play offs. They despatched East Thurrock in the semi-finals, and were leading Waltham Abbey with 10minutes to go. The novices at this level were within touching distance of successive promotions. Unfortunately Waltham Abbey equalised in those last 10minutes, and won the game on penalties.
As you've seen in the Championship and League 1 and 2 play-offs, teams who lose in the play off final one season, struggle the next. Not Concord, they weren't deterred by the previous season's agony and won the promotion play-off final the following season (09-10), beating Enfield 3-1. They had gained promotion to the Ryman Premier League. Under Danny Scopes and Danny Cowley the club had won promotion 2 out of the 3 seasons.
Concord consolidated in the Premier League for the next few seasons (finishing 8th and 14th), and at the end of the 2011/2012 season, joint manager Danny Scopes stepped down leaving Danny Cowley in sole charge. Danny Scopes is still involved with the club to this day, attending every game and carrying out important scouting duties for the club.
2012/2013 with Cowley in sole charge, Concord got off to a slow start, but soon found their form. A fantastic away record, and what Miki Hood and Alan Jessup-Peacock call "a never say die attitude, we play to the final whistle" Concord Rangers battled themselves to the Ryman Premier League play offs. Their away record stood them in good stead as they won away to Wealdstone in the semi final, and then away to Lowestoft in the final (the final was played at Lowestoft's ground) 2-1 "In our last four games against Lowestoft, the aggregate score was 18-1 in their favour. So to win that final away from home was my proudest moment so far" manager Danny Cowley told me.
Concord Rangers a small team from Canvey Island but with a massive heart, were now one promotion away from the Football Conference.
Concord were not disgraced in their first season in the Conference South, and were soon picking up points on a regular basis with determined and professional performances against some of the biggest sides at this level; Eastleigh, Dover and Bromley. This helped Concord finish their debut season in the Conference South in a tremendous 9th place. They were only 8points away from a play off place, and a massive 16 points clear of the relegation places. A fantastic effort, considering they were everyone's tips to go straight back down.
Whilst Concord were impressing in the league, the club were having a great run in the Essex Senior Cup (a competition which includes Professional sides, such as Colchester, Southend, Dagenham & Redbridge and Braintree). Concord reached the final of this competition, and beat Braintree 2-1 to win the cup, " a dream moment" for the Chairman, Anthony Smith.
So what has this season brought. As holders of the Essex Senior Cup, Concord have beat Colchester, Grays and Dagenham & Redbridge. However this hasn't been their only cup exploits this season. Barnet riding high in the Football Conference and set fair for a return to the Football League were hammered at their home ground 6-2 by Concord in the FA Trophy. An extraordinary result.
At the start of the current season, the Chairman and Manager both set the 1st round proper of the FA Cup as a target for the first time in the club's history. After speaking to these two impressive men, it was no surprise that Concord Rangers managed this.
Victories against Wealdstone, Winchester and St Albans ensured that Concord were in the hat for the 1st round proper of the FA Cup. They were drawn against League 2 side Mansfield away. Pundits didn't give them a prayer, in fact the general consensus of Social Media was "who the f**k are Concord". However never under-estimate that Concord spirit. They drew 1-1 at Mansfield, and Concord's goal was undoubtedly one of the goals of the round from Jordan Chiedozie. This strike ultimately saw him receive attention from a number of league clubs.
Concord only get an average of 200 supporters for a home league game, but on the night of 25th November 2014 a crowd of 1,500 was at the Aspect Arena, for the return fixture against Mansfield.
The league side edged the replay 1-0, but Mansfield knew they had been in a titanic struggle.
As I attended Concord's home game with Whitehawk on Saturday 24th January, I wanted to see for myself how this small part-time club were bucking the trend, and getting results against full time sides so regularly (there are 8 full time sides in the Conference South).
As I made my way round the ground, it was clear that despite the hardcore fans best efforts, there is not much noise generated. Perched next to the dug-out I noted that it's the staff who create the fervent atmosphere, which inspires the home team.
The Concord bench kick and head every ball, and are aggressive in their approach to the referee. Some would call it "in their face", but remember Concord are playing against sides who average home attendances of over 1,000, and don't have fans to holler at the referee, and influence his decisions. The referees at this level are generally weak, and can be swayed by dissenting voices. It's not perhaps in the spirit of the game, but if you're the underdog in every game you play, you have to find that edge.
What is immediately apparent once the game gets underway, is that Concord Rangers are an incredibly well coached side. They have obviously been drilled in terms of team shape in their twice weekly training sessions, and each player knows his role in the side. "I like to play a high energy game, but we have to be more pragmatic at this level, we can't go gung-ho, we are playing against exceptional players" Danny Cowley confirmed to me after the game.
Whilst Danny Cowley is a jack in the box in his technical area, cajoling and pushing his players on, his Assistant Manager (and brother), Nicky Cowley analyses the game methodically, looking at where Concord can take advantage of the oppositions weaknesses. Nicky, the quieter of the two brothers is an effective number 2, and you can tell that Danny trusts him implicitly. When Nicky talks Danny listens.
This style of football cannot afford any passengers and as Danny Cowley confirmed "the players have to fit the template and ethos of the club. A player's personality means more to me than their ability." When you look at this Concord side it has an excellent mix of players, all of them wanting to prove a point for one reason or another.
Starting off with the goalkeeper, after the unfortunate injury to Jamie Butler, Josh Vickers was brought in from Arsenal, yes Arsenal on loan. Vickers is destined for the top, he has an imposing presence. His distribution from either hand or feet is top drawer. His shot stopping is superb, and it's a coup for the club, that he is staying on loan till the end of the season. There is no doubt that Vickers will play at a high level, be it with Arsenal or not.
Australian full back Jeremy Walker, moved to England looking for a fresh start after leaving A League side, Melbourne Heart (he played 16 games). I was told before the game that Jeremy had man-marked Alessandro Del Piero out of an A-League game. I was sceptical of this, but after watching Walker bomb up and down the right back, as well as being excellent defensively, I can now see why. He is another young player who will have a fantastic career in English football.
Then you have the club stalwarts Steve King and Gary Ogilvie, who have both been with the club for over 5 seasons, and have seen them rise through the various leagues. Both of them know what playing for Concord means, and their dedication to the cause inspires the newcomers around them.
The front two against Whitehawk, Lewis Taafe and Steve Cawley, never stop running. Their tireless pressing of the ball is fundamental to Cowley's pattern of play. After the game I compared Taafe's performance to something akin of Carlos Tevez. I may have got carried away, but his desire to chase every lost cause was admirable.
Whilst the current Concord side is performing well, the club already have an eye on the future. In September 2015 the club, in association with TVS Education, will open their own Academy under the control of senior club professional Gary Ogilvie.
The aim is to have 24 students, aged 16-18 in year one, studying at BTEC level, rising to 50 in the 2nd year.
All players will be coached in the same way that the first team is, they will play the same formation, and be drilled in the same manner. Once players are either injured or moved on in the 1st team, the plan is to have a ready-made replacement from the Academy. What is an encouraging sign for Concord already is that even before this Academy has been set-up, a number of the U18 side have been called up to the Essex U18 County side.
Everyone I met at Concord on this January afternoon were so accommodating, it was unbelievable. I was treated like I had been going every week. Concord's staff friendliness knew no bounds, be it the coaching staff talking to me, before and after the game, to players bringing me cups of tea after the game!
It is only right that I leave the final word to a man who is helping to create something wonderful at a small club in South East Essex. When I asked Danny Cowley, who inspired him in football, I was expecting the usual bland answer of someone like Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger etc. His response however summed up the club which has a family atmosphere running through the heart of it.
"My dad. He coached me as a boy, when I played for Gidea Park Rangers, and the way he treated people inspired me. He did things the right way, and that's what i'm trying to do at this club."