BASILDON UNITED have called upon the new town residence to turn up at Gardiners Close in droves and help establish them as the regions top non-league football club.
Basildon is a huge catchment area. In recent years the Bees local rivals, Bowers & Pitsea, have emerged, establishing themselves in the Isthmian League Premier Division as well as developing an impressive facility with an all-weather playing surface at their Len Salmon Stadium. However, United are convinced that with the backing of local football enthusiasts, they can emulate that success and push on to greater things.
“The borough of Basildon has a population of almost 110,000 – we want them to know we are here, support us, and to help us grow into a football club they can be proud of,” Vice-Chairman, Lee Connor, told Yellow Sport.
“We currently average around 150 through the turnstile. But we provide affordable football and with help, support and input from the local people we can take the club in the right direction.
“Since winning promotion, we have really flourished, especially off the field. We have made numerous upgrades to the ground, meeting the new grading rules.”
An upgrade on the car park, new turnstiles, a refreshment bar, club shop as well as improvements to the players changing rooms, extra seating and barriers surrounding the pitch are amongst the eyecatching changes at Gardiners Close.
History suggests the potential for a sound fanbase. In 1967 a record crowd of almost 5,000 witnessed United’s inaugural fixture at their old Gloucester Park ground against a West Ham United XI, while 3,600 were in attendance when the Bees again entertained the Hammers to open Gardiners Close three years later.
In October 1979, more than 2,000 attended the Bees first game under the lights against a strong Crystal Palace side, while four-figure crowds flocked to Gardiners Close in the mid-’80s when the ground was used to stage several FA Sunday Cup semi-finals.
“If initially, we could attract a regular 500 supporters, that would make a huge difference in term of our playing budget and providing extra facilities at the ground,” Connor added.
“I understand lots of fans head to West Ham or Southend on a Saturday, but we can also offer them a game to watch when their favourites are away or not playing.”
Despite the barren years in between, Basildon United’s return to the Isthmian League after a twenty-six-year absence was greeted by more than 600 fans – Marcus Bowers’ stunning last-minute free-kick sealing a single-goal success over Redbridge and the Essex Senior League title under the management of Marc Harrison.
But the Bees return has been blighted by uncertainty with five managerial changes and a desperate struggle to hang on to their reestablished status, something that isn’t lost on Connor: “It hasn’t been plain sailing and we’ve made mistakes which we are keen to learn from and move on altogether more positively.
“We now have Alex Salmon managing the side, while Dave Maxwell is doing a fantastic job as Chairman – both provide a positive philosophy. I firmly believe we are starting to build a strong foundation.”
And despite the non-league game finding itself largely in limbo due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Bees haven’t stood still and are already planning for when football returns.
An upgrade of the floodlighting and playing surface along with a new Basildon United reserve team are features likely to to be seen, come the start of the 2020/21 campaign. Connor was quick to point out the importance of a second-string, offering another stepping stone from the clubs’ current youth set-up.
“The reserves section offers us a new dimension and will provide football for those pushing for a first-team place. We want to give local talent an opportunity, a pathway. Lots of clubs throw money at their playing budget unnecessarily. We are keen to find footballers from the area who we can help make the breakthrough into senior football.”
But Connor’s main ambition is to see the Basildon public heading in great numbers to Gardiners Close: “We really want the townsfolk to get behind us.
“Basildon has huge potential to house a successful football club. In the past, both Leyton Orient and Southend United have considered moving here. But we are at the core of the community and would love to see hundreds turning up on a matchday to support their local team.
“I’m urging fans to give it a go. We already have the ‘New Town Loyals’ supporters group who follow us around. It’s a warm atmosphere. Trust me, it’s very special.”