Non-league legend Steve Essex left his mark
Steve Essex was the sort of centre-half you dreaded playing against – something even Italian international Fabrizio Ravanelli found out.
Last weekend, non-league football lost a much-loved servant when Essex passed away at the age of just 58 from bile duct and pancreatic cancer.
‘Esso’, as he was known to his team-mates, was a popular figure in Midlands football in the 80s and 90s and played for Hednesford Town, Stafford Rangers, Rushall Olympic and Wolverhampton United.
It was his time at the Pitmen under legendary manager John Baldwin that he will be most fondly remembered for, because he was part of the famous Hednesford side that reached the Conference in 1995 and the fourth round of the FA Cup in the 1996/97 season.
After beating Wednesfield, Evesham, Tamworth, Telford, Southport, Blackpool, and York City, Hednesford met Middlesbrough in the fourth round.
“Steve’s job was to mark Ravanelli and that’s exactly what he did,” recalled Baldwin.
“I’m sure Ravanelli went in thinking ‘Who the hell’s this bloke?’ Well he certainly knew who he was by the time it finished.
“He was the sort of player you didn’t want to play against, if I’m being perfectly honest.
“If you were an opposing forward and you knew Steve Essex was playing against you, you weren’t looking forward to it. He was a very fierce competitor on the pitch, a very good team-mate, he was a brilliant player for me.
“When Steve was with us, it was the time that I enjoyed the best, and it was certainly the most successful period I had.”
Baldwin was Hednesford manager between 1990 and 2000, and after he signed Essex from Stafford Rangers in the mid-90s, the Pitmen were promoted to the Conference as Southern League champions.
“Steve was a man’s man,” said his former manager. “We were more than a football team at that time. We all clicked together.
“There were 15 or 20 of us that fought with each other and for each other, and he was a very instrumental part of that.”
But behind the fierce centre-half there was a family man who, in the past year, has used his cruel diagnosis for good.
Determined to leave a lasting legacy, Essex has spent the past year campaigning for more blood donors, having benefited himself from dozens of transfusions.
“He was a much nicer person off the pitch than he was on it!” confirmed Baldwin. “Which tells you a lot about him.
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of him.
“A few of us I’ve been in touch with him over the last few months.
“We actually managed to go out for a meal together about 12 weeks ago.
“We had a very pleasant two hours talking about the good old days. He had some unpleasant news a couple of days later, and made a very brave decision that he wasn’t going to continue with chemotherapy.
“He’d come to terms with the fact that he hadn’t got much longer.
“I can remember him saying to me ‘I’ve had a good life, I’ve enjoyed it’. He loved his family, his children and his football.
“The age of 58 is far too young.”
‘Esso’ is sure to be remembered in the Midlands non-league scene, particularly by any strikers unfortunate enough to play against him.