Moneyfields To Wembley: How the Gulls of Canvey turned a corner following relegation in 2017


The FA cup doesn’t just begin when the Premier League teams enter in the 3rd Round proper. It began in summer with the First Qualification Round and two pre qualifying rounds before.

In the truest traditions of the grassroots tournament, we are following a side from the outset and hope to stay with them and be at their games, or those of the side who eliminate them, all the way to Wembley.

This site already sponsors the manager of Carlisle City, James Nichols. So in the interests of geographical balance, we selected a club at the other end of the nation, Portsmouth’s own Moneyfields FC. Our assistant editor Conor Smith claims to have played against their reserves for Netley which may have influenced our choice. 

The decision was cemented by their opposition Aylesbury United. The Ducks are a club with an FA Cup pedigree, who currently play their home games in Chesham, agonisingly far from their own Buckinghamshire home town, but agonisingly close to Wembley which is where this story ends next May.

So we started our series, “Moneyfields to Wembley with their visit to Aylesbury United, the Ducks, now playing their home games at the Meadows, home of Chesham United.

The Moneys however lost to London’s oldest club Cray Wanderers. Wanderers went to the West Country on October 17th and won through on penalties against Bristol Manor Farm. Cray then travelled to Canvey Island in a quest to achieve reaching the First Round Proper for the first time in their 160 year history but unfortunately fell just short with a 3-2 defeat sustained.

Since the Fourth Qualifying Round, Prost International has been following Isthmian League North side Canvey Island and as we go into the Second Round Proper, they welcome National League side Boreham Wood at Park Lane in the coming weeks.

Canvey Island players celebrating their 3-2 victory over Cray Wanderers which saw them reach the FA Cup First Round for the first time since 2004. Photo: Andy Wilkins

How the Gulls of Canvey turned a corner following relegation in 2017?

Canvey Island managed to continue their remarkable FA Cup run with victory over Banbury United over Remembrance Weekend which now will see them host National League side Boreham Wood on Monday 30th November in front of the BT Sport cameras. We look at how the Gulls have moved on from their last day relegation from the Isthmian Premier in 2017 to now.

Its never nice to suffer relegation in football and no more is that truer when its done on the last day of the season as well.

Whilst watching Canvey, spectators are used to seeing massive shipping boats go up and down the River Thames like that pictured as they approach Tilbury Docks. Photo: Andy Wilkins

For the Gulls of Canvey Island, one of a few teams who play below sea level in the UK, Saturday 22nd April 2017 was a day the fans, players and officials of the club have sure tried to forget about as a 2-2 draw saw them relegated for the first time in their 91 year history.

The team involved was already-relegated AFC Sudbury who had found out their fate just a few days earlier on Easter Monday. But for Canvey, this wasn’t the first time they had found themselves in a situation of potentially being at risk of falling into Step 4 of the English non-league pyramid.

Saturday 25th April 2015 saw the Gulls defeat Wingate & Finchley 3-2 at Park Lane to avoid relegation. Peacehaven & Telescombe took the final spot for relegation with AFC Hornchurch, Witham Town and Bury Town all having been relegated weeks earlier.

But for the Gulls, Saturday 22nd April 2017 was a day too far for them as they suffered a 2-2 draw which ultimately sealed their fate. Joining Grays Athletic and AFC Sudbury to the Isthmian North, had the Gulls won instead of drawing, it would’ve been Harrow Borough in their place facing relegation.

Canvey Island fan Andy Wilkins recalls a few memories from that season:

It has been joked by a few of us in the second half of the season that we were going to the likes of Phoenix Sports, Soham Town Rangers and Ware next season (2017/18) and given they weren’t exactly sides with big followings that we had much previous experience of dealing with, we made regular jokes and chants about it in the stands.

When relegation came along in the fashion it did on the last day of the season, we were gobsmacked as a result. I remember what happened after that final whistle quite clearly. We were left just unable or unsure what to say because everyone was grieving to an extent in their own way. Myself included.

I had seen Southend (United) get relegated back in 2010 since I grew up watching the Shrimpers as a kid but with suffering relegation with Canvey, it felt a different type of sadness with my emotions overall because as fans of a non-league side like we all were, we didn’t want to upset the players themselves given they were nice lads to be around with and speak to but at the same time, we felt angry and sad ourselves with how we had suffered such an epitaph.

For Canvey, it summed up a somewhat crazy season for them overall. They had started their league campaign at The Queen Elizabeth II Stadium in North London as they drew 1-1 at Enfield Town on Saturday 13th August 2016. But its quite sure that no one at the Park Lane outfit saw relegation being the fate they would encounter that season. If anything, quite the opposite was hoped.

Canvey Island fans at their opening game of the 2016/17 season away at Enfield Town in the Isthmian Premier. Photo: Andy Wilkins

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For Canvey, the summer of 2017 was a weird one to say the least following that relegation on the last day in April. With eight pre-season friendlies, the Gulls only managed two victories which were over lower-league sides Great Wakering Rovers and Manford Way. Not that pre-season friendly results should determine how a season will pan out for any side.

Ironically, Canvey’s first game in the Isthmian North was against the side that had brought them relegation just a few months earlier in the form of AFC Sudbury. A game which finished 1-1 between the two sides in Suffolk on Saturday 12th August 2017 of which seven members of that Canvey squad who had featured against AFC Sudbury back in April were still part of the squad in August. Six players from the Canvey squad in April were still part of the squad when the reverse fixture took place at Park Lane in October 2017 in which Canvey won 3-2.

It wasn’t until August Bank Holiday Monday where Canvey were able to grab their first league victory of the campaign with a 3-0 scoreline achieved over local neighbours Bowers & Pitsea at Park Lane. The two teams would meet later in the campaign for an infamous play-off tie that will be mentioned in a short while.

Following his dual registration feature in 2018, James White did sign for Canvey where he played in both midfield and defence until he left for Bowers & Pitsea in 2020. Photo: Andy Wilkins

For Canvey, the season in itself was a much more successful one on the pitch with sixth place finish achieved thus meaning they claimed a play-off spot. They travelled to Bowers & Pitsea for their play-off semi-final less than a week on from their 2-2 draw at home to Ware.

The game itself was met with controversy beforehand as Canvey had managed to sign Sam Higgins and James White on a dual registration basis from National League South side East Thurrock United back in March and were eligible to play in this game that Canvey won 2-0. Higgins scoring one of the goals for Canvey.

However as Canvey travelled to Haringey Borough for the play-off final four days later, it wasn’t to be for them as they suffered a 3-1 defeat in North London. Haringey getting promoted to the Isthmian Premier and therefore denying the Gulls of an immediate return at the first time of asking to Step 3 of the English non-league pyramid.

Change was in the air throughout the summer of 2018 and no more was that true than with Canvey’s pre-season preparations as well as they planned on going again in their quest for promotion but this time at the second attempt. But only this time, they faced sides who would benefit them more as they were of a similar ability to them unlike the professional sides where they could win or lose such a game and know they wouldn’t potentially face a team like them at all across the season.

In previous years, Canvey had hosted such teams like Southend United, Leyton Orient, Millwall and West Ham amongst many other professional sides whether it be their first team outfits or simply a youth side playing under their name. This also bringing in much needed income through the gates in the summer period like back in 2015 when Canvey hosted a West Ham XI which saw over 2000 people attending the friendly.

That changed in the summer of 2018 with the most high profile opposition being East Thurrock United of the National League South. All of the other sides faced in pre-season were from the Isthmian Premier, Isthmian South East and Essex Senior League unlike that of previous years where teams from League One, the National League and many other sides would be played.

On Monday 1st October 2018, it was announced that Canvey manager Danny Heale had stepped down after being in the position since May 2013. During that period, “Healsy” had overseen a dramatic change in circumstances for the club which has been beneficial to its long term aims including the arrival of a newly built and multi-purpose clubhouse which was finished being built in the later months of 2016.

In its current form since 2016 following a massive rebuild that took over a year to complete, Canvey’s clubhouse has become part of the local community with regular community events held on a regular basis. It holds over 100 people without any problems. Photo: Andy Wilkins

Danny Heale served as manager of Canvey Island from May 2013 to October 2018 after previously being involved as a player. Photo: Andy Wilkins

Danny is still involved with the club he once played for like his father Billy as he now sits as Director of Football of the club whilst former-Southend United player and Grays Athletic boss Mark Bentley succeeded him in the role of manager.

Canvey finished in ninth place at the end of the 2018/19 campaign with the club finishing their final four games of the season unbeaten as they prepared for the 2019/20 campaign.

Now two years and one month into the role, Bentley has taken time to turn things around for the Gulls and that has been achieved quite uniquely as he has looked to youth whilst mixing in experience throughout his spell whilst also adding players who wanted to play for the club furthermore.

This being the biggest example in Michael Finneran who had grown up watching Canvey as a kid in the club’s glory days of the early 2000’s before signing for the club in the summer of 2019 from local rivals Grays Athletic where he had spent just over a year playing for.

Mark Bentley clapping Canvey supporters following their 1-1 draw at Great Wakering Rovers in November 2019. Photo: Andy Wilkins

Young players like Kane Gilbert, Freddy Eastwood Junior and Dan Humphries played a key part for the Gulls prior to the unexpected end of the season in March 2020 whilst Bentley also worked well with experienced players like James White, Jason Hallett and Lamar Johnson. All of whom were talented and knew their way around the non-league circuit in vast experience gained.

Its a combination that hadn’t been seen often before at Canvey in recent years with the latter Isthmian Premier years seeing a both a vast amount of youth loanees from higher placed or professional clubs alongside a number of much travelled players coming and going often at the end of every season being the case for the squad. Not that it was an issue or a problem at all for the club.

Whilst the Coronavirus pandemic took hold of the UK and the surrounding world and affected things like sport and global events like Eurovision being cancelled, it did also affect Canvey as they said goodbye to a number of their squad including key players like Sam Bantick, Lamar Johnson, Kane Gilbert and James White who all bid adieu for pastures new. Brentwood and Bowers & Pitsea being just two of those destinations they set off to.

However in return it did see players like Bobby Mason, Rob Girdlestone, Elliot Ronto, Jey Siva, Jamie Salmon and Connor Hubble all arriving from fellow league sides like Great Wakering Rovers, Maldon & Tiptree, Hullbridge Sports and Heybridge Swifts.

Harrison Chatting pictured with his Dad (right) following Canvey Island’s 3-2 victory over Cray Wanderers. Photo: Andy Wilkins

There was also a familiar face returning in the form of talented midfielder Harrison Chatting who had played for Canvey under the Danny Heale days having made 231 appearances over a five year spell after joining from Billericay Town initially back in 2012 which saw fans rather excited furthermore about this campaign. Chatting had spent the last three years playing at previously mentioned Heybridge where he had become a fan favourite across 140 appearances.

The thing is for the Gulls fans was that this season felt one full of optimism after what had been a very gloomy end to the last season and year in general at the time. The club was going into its fourth campaign in the Isthmian North but it is one that continues to be more full of hope than darkness and despair. Even as we find ourselves into the third month of the season.

So under Bentley’s guidance as manager, whilst his period hasn’t seen many cup runs endured and lasted successfully in the FA Trophy or Essex Senior Cup, the club did achieve a good run in the FA Cup to the Third Qualifying Round in 2019/20 before this season seeing that run overachieved with a run to the Second Round Proper.

Bentley’s predecessor in Danny Heale did see a similar run replicated in two runs to the Fourth Qualifying Round over successive seasons across 2013 and 2014 but reaching that golden First Round Proper stage is one that won’t be forgotten by Canvey fans anytime soon.

Should the Gulls fall short away of reaching the Third Round Proper when they play Boreham Wood in a few weeks time in front of the BT Sport cameras is neither here or there, the heroics achieved won’t be forgotten anytime soon by the Canvey faithful who can be sure positive that this squad can do wonders should they stick together throughout the rest of the season.

The players who got them there won’t be forgotten either nor will the management and when a time does come that the former-Southend United man in Mark Bentley decides to depart Park Lane, fans won’t the forget him either anytime sooner by any means.

Jeff King (right) oversaw Canvey’s several FA Cup runs and upsets over higher placed opposition before departing the club in 2007. Pictured here with former-Canvey and West Ham defender Julian Dicks (left). Photo: Canvey Island FC

Like the last Canvey manager who oversaw the club achieving a run into the proper rounds of the FA Cup in Jeff King before him, Bentley’s name will be written in Canvey’s history books for what he has achieved and arguably speaking, this run is more poignant and perhaps special than the last one given the circumstances that Canvey have found themselves enduring in the last ten years following their withdrawal from the Conference Premier in 2007 and having to rebuild up from the Isthmian North once more following their relegation to the division in 2017.

With many Canvey fans having said that this is the best side assembled they’ve seen in a long time, it does make you think when the FA Cup run does end, will the memories the squad have built together help them in the long run as they work through a backlog of games and catch up on their league opponents of whom some will be hoping that Canvey potentially slip up like they have done in previous seasons following their good runs in the FA Trophy and FA Cup.

Whatever happens, Canvey are back on national television once more on Monday 30th November 2020 when they welcome National League side Boreham Wood to Park Lane and they will be looking to do their fans proud under the Park Lane lights they reside and play under.

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Photographer who's gone everywhere from covering non-league football to covering England internationals. Occasionally write but mostly at football matches with a camera and mono-pod.

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