What do the ruins of a priory built 771 years ago have to do with the FA Sunday Cup? Keep reading and find out…
The Rise and Decline of Essex
In the early days of the FA Sunday Cup, Essex was the competition’s dominant county, and Essex teams reached 4 of the first 6 finals. Since then, Essex’s fortunes have declined and no team from Essex has won the FA Sunday Cup for over 37 years (when Lee Chapel North won it in 1984). If Essex is to break its cup hoodoo this season, one of its small pool of two entrants has to do it for them.
While many of the clubs competing in this season’s FA Sunday Cup are from Britain’s major metropolitan centres such as London, Liverpool, and Birmingham, one of the outsiders is from a small Essex village with a population of only 2000 people. The village of Bicknacre is located approximately 6 miles south-east of Chelmsford.
The Social Media Bubble
Since many modern grassroots football teams gain most of their popularity from social media, such clubs and their fans often exist in a social and historical bubble that behaves almost as if a football team does not exist if it is not overly active or popular on social media. Yet there are many successful teams that quietly go about their business without making noise online.
Fifty years ago, a group of young men from The White Swan pub on Main Road in Bicknacre founded a football team which they named after the pub as White Swan FC. The pub’s owners Chas and Doreen Arrowsmith supported the team. Initially, the team was more social than competitive, and spent its first year playing friendly matches. In the 1973-74 season the team started playing competitively for the first time and joined Division 3 of the Maldon Sunday League. The team won the Division 3 championship under the leadership of its first ever Captain, Frank Moss. The following season, the team expanded by adding and entering a reserve team in Division 5 of the Maldon Sunday League.
Monks and Ruins
You are probably still wondering “I thought you said this article had something to do with an 865 year old priory?!” Well, it does. One of Bicknacre’s landmarks is the ruins and rubble of an ancient priory for monks that was built around 1250. Although the last monk there died over 500 years ago in 1507, in 1976 White Swan FC made a symbolic link with its village’s ancient monastic history by changing its name to “Priory Sports”. That is the name by which it has since been known for over 45 years. An image of the priory’s ruins is even incorporated into the club’s kit on their official crest.
In 1982, Priory Sports’ first ream transferred to Division 3 of the Chelmsford Sunday League and the reserve team joined them the following year in Division 6 of the same league. Since then, the club has had a lot of success and the first team now plays in the Premier Division of the Chelmsford Sunday League and the reserves play a division below them in Division 1.
The Man Behind the Club
In this era of social media attention seeking, Priory Sports is a rarity. It might not be the best team competing in this season’s FA Sunday Cup, but there are unlikely to be many better run teams. The team does not have a large social media presence and does not shout on YouTube, yet it is one of Essex’s most successful football teams. Much of Priory Sports’ longevity can be attributed to one man: Maurice Carter. People like Carter are simultaneously essential and rare nowadays in grassroots football. Without people like him, grassroots football clubs and leagues would not have longevity.
Carter is Priory Sports’ living, breathing, institutional memory. He has dedicated his life to grassroots football, and he and Priory Sports are virtually inseparable. Carter has held every conceivable position with the club. Over the past 46 years he has served the club as player, player-manager, manager, assistant manager, social secretary, vice-chairman, and finally he has been the club’s chairman for the past 26 years. He has also been a member of the Chelmsford Sunday League’s committee for 13 years and is currently the league’s Vice-President. In 2020, the Essex FA gave Carter an Award of Merit for his 40 years of service to football in the county.
In his youth, Carter was also a good player that played for a successful team called Bakers Arms that won the Chelmsford Sunday League 5 times in a row in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He also played for Woodham Town and Moulsham Lodge.
“They are looking down upon us with their continued and ever loyal support”
Doreen and Chas Arrowsmith (the publicans who provided the base from which the team was born) continued to support the club and were involved with it until they passed away in 2013 and 2017 respectively. The club held them dearly and the club’s current secretary Nigel Bullen-Bell told me that the Arrowsmiths “are looking down upon us with their continued and ever loyal support”.
There is a great deal of continuity at the club too. The current first team manager Grant Hill has also played for, and captained, the club. While many teams trot out the old cliché of being “a family club”, this is literally true for Priory Sports. The club has been “handed down” across generations as the sons of some of its original players now play for the club and also support it behind the scenes.
Are They Any Good Then?
You may be wondering: “Priory Sports has great history and is a well-run club, but are they actually any good?!” The haul of trophies listed at the end of this article should answer that question. Priory Sports has been the dominant team in the Chelmsford Sunday League for the last 15 years and has won the league’s Premier Division 6 times in the last 9 years. Its Reserve team has also been successful and won Division 1 of the Chelmsford Sunday League the last three seasons in a row. The club’s first and reserve teams completed league doubles by winning their respective divisions in the last three consecutive seasons. Priory Sports has also reached the final of the Essex FA Premier Cup three times in the past seven years (winning it in 2014 and 2018, and unfortunately was unable to play in the 2020 final which was suspended due to Covid).
This season Priory is already top of the Chelmsford Sunday League (as usual!) and is 6 points ahead of the team in second place.
While Priory Sports has dominated its own league, how has it performed against teams from other areas of the country? It has entered the FA Sunday Cup on 10 occasions (including the last 5 seasons). Priory’s best performance in the FA Sunday Cup was in the 2014-15 season; when it reached the last 16 before losing 0-3 to North London Olympians of the Harrow Sunday Challenge League in January 2015. It reached round 3 of last season’s FA Sunday Cup before running into the rampant unbeaten leaders of the Hackney & Leyton League Sporting Club de Mundial who beat Priory 2-0.
Although the club’s officials were coy about the quality of their squad, some of their players have played semi-professionally for Step 4 Saturday team Witham Town (who play in Division 1 (North) of the Isthmian League). Priory plays its FA Sunday Cup matches at Witham Town’s Simarco Stadium on Spa Road in Witham. The link with Witham Town is not limited to Priory’s playing personnel. Priory’s former manager Adam Flint is also a former manager of Witham Town. Aside from the Witham alumni in Priory’s squad, some of its other players have played at a good standard. One of its players has played in the 2nd round proper of the FA Cup (the Saturday version) and Isaac Aubynn is also experienced at this level and has played for several Essex Saturday clubs such as Burnham Ramblers and Barkingside.
So does the team believe it has the quality to go far in or win the FA Sunday Cup? Nigel Bullen-Bell told me:
“Yes definitely. Every time we have been fortunate enough to participate in the cup we have gained valuable experience. Hopefully we can get some home draws along the way and use our experience we have gained previously to progress all the way. Anything can happen in cup football and we’re excited to get going with the competition. travelling around the country and playing a number of top Sunday League sides.”
Priory Sports’ opponents in round 1 of this season’s FA Sunday Cup are at the opposite end of the historical spectrum. While Priory has 5 decades of history, its opponent Rouge 21 is a brand new team playing its first season in the Harlow Sunday League. The game has already been postponed twice: firstly due to Britain’s notoriously uncooperative weather, and most recently due to Covid infections among Rouge 21’s squad.
When (or if!) the postponed game takes place, Priory will have their hands full. Rouge 21’s record this season reads: played 12, won 11, scored 73, lost 1, drawn 0. Some of Rouge’s players have also played at a good standard in the FA Vase, Essex Senior League, and also in Essex FA county cup finals.
Essex is simultaneously blessed and cursed by having its only two entrants in the FA Sunday Cup being drawn against each other in round 1. On the one hand it means that 50% of Essex’s representatives will be eliminated in round 1. On the other hand, it guarantees continued Essex presence in round 2. It will then be left to the winning team to fly the flag alone for Essex and try to end its 37 year drought in this competition.
PRIORY SPORTS HONOURS:
Essex FA Sunday Premier Cup winners (2 times): 2014, 2018 (2020 finalists – unplayed)
Chelmsford Sunday League:
- Premier Division champions (9 times): 1991-92, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2011-12, 2013-14, 2014-15, 2017-18, 2018-19, 2020-21
- Division 1 winners (5 times): 1985-86, 1998-99, 2001-02, 2017-18*, 2018-19* (*last two championship wins were by Priory Sports’ Reserve team)