The disappearance from the football scene in the mid 1990’s of Collier Row Football Club could almost pass unnoticed but one remarkable remnant of their 67 year history. Their Sungate ground, home since 1948, still exists not only dormant and unloved but actually buried lock, stock and barrel under thousands of tonnes of landfill like some modern day sporting equivalent of Herculaneum.
Collier Row was originally a small village which like many would be swallowed up in the untamed urban sprawl that is now called Metropolitan Essex. The football club formed in 1929 as a team called Hamden United and were called Collier Row Motor Gear as recently as 1980. The club had originally played at the nearby White Hart Lane before securing a patch of land in the adjoining road, Collier Row Road. The ground developed, particularly in the 1970’s when a large clubhouse was opened and sat proudly above pitch level. Long before the new millenium purge of ground grading and uniformity a small covered stand was erected with comfy padded seats rescued from Butlin’s in Clacton. Legend would say that in turn Butlin’s had acquired the seats from the ocean liner the Queen Mary. Provenance was never established although their antiquity was undoubted.
(Sungate in its heyday with vintage cinema seats)
In the 1970’s the club gained no little infamy for the employment of a notoriously ill-tempered billy goat to keep the pitch in check. After a butting incident too many the committee voted on more traditional mowing methods for the Sungate surface.
Collier Row had progressed nicely if somewhat sedately through the Essex Olympian and London Spartan Leagues before gaining promotion to the Isthmian League in 1986. Promotion to Division One in their second season was to proved their finest hour as the club flitted between the Second and Third Divisions on a regular basis. What proved to be their final season as a single entity however, 1995/96, saw the Row finish in a creditable fifth place in Division Two.
Meanwhile some four years earlier a reformation of the old Romford Football Club had seen them competing in the Essex Senior League groundsharing initially at Hornchurch’s Bridge Avenue before spending the 1995/96 campaign at Ford United’s Rush Green Road ground. Amid rumours of skullduggery and a hostile take over, Romford moved into Sungate and join forces as Collier Row and Romford. Initially the move seemed mutually beneficial as the amalgamated clubs won the Division Two title ahead of runners-up Leatherhead. However, the nature of the merger became wholly apparent the following season when Collier Row was dropped from the amalgamated name and disappeared altogether.
By 2001 the ground had been sold and the Romford club continued on their nomadic ways via Ford United, Aveley and most recently Thurrock. This despite being granted planning permission in 2009 for a new ground of their own on Westlands Playing Fields in London Road.
So what of Sungate? In this densely populated area one would assume it had been sold off for redevelopment as affordable housing, but an altogether more unusual demise awaited. Sungate had a strange location, open fields and beech trees to the north, south and east would be the antithesis of the west aspect which was tightly hemmed in by a garage, a café and a garden centre. The illusive owner refused to listen to any potential new tenants, the perennially nomadic Eton Manor were one interested party, and promptly locked the ground up for good. Seeking to make money from new landfill and environmental charges the owner allowed tipping onto the site at an incredible rate. The low slung stand and clubhouse now lie under the current surface of the landfill, although the clubhouse roof can still be made out. The rusting collection of still erect floodlight pylons gives a clear orientation to the pitch that lies beneath.
So there in lies the dilemma, a belligerent owner and a football ground that is now surely too costly to clear and return to active use. One can only wonder what future archaeologists will make when they uncover this most unique burial ground.