Monday, 15 May 2017

What A Wednesday Night - Cray Valley Paper Mills FC Vs Metropolitan Police FC, London FA Senior Cup Final 2017, Champion Hill (03/05/17)

Traversing Hyde Park Corner at rush hour was a learning curve to say the least for a relatively new driver, I was relieved when I finally crossed the murky brown Thames, heading south, under a heavy grey sky. Twenty minutes late to meet Tom, I cause a small tailback among the Wednesday night commuters outside Denmark Hill station, double parking just long enough to allow my damp compatriot into the car.

Champion Hill is now a reasonably well trodden ground for us, this being our third visit, but having only actually seen Dulwich once. Even though we know where we're going, it’s location not a secret, I still love the fact it's secluded, hidden even, by a giant Sainsbury's and a car wash, the puddles made by the nearby valet service, form in the entrance to the turnstiles.

It’s stopped raining, for now at least, the normally vibrant ground is missing any of the colour and noise of the ‘The Rabble’, Dulwich fan group, only their stickers and that of many visiting teams and fans from all over the world, cover the empty scaffold, normally used to hang flags and banners from. Also missing is the “noodle bar” that was here for our last visit, Tom noticing this within seconds of arriving.

Normally quick to scorn Tom's food obsession, I have to admit the food, particularly the dumplings, the scrumptious juicy dumplings, were fantastic when we saw Dulwich Vs Hendon in the FA Cup, but they won't be available tonight. At the moment it’s hard even getting our hands on a hot drink, having been directed to the tea bar, by someone in the long gallery bar overlooking the pitch, it’s blue hatch is still closed.

The sound system crackling to life, finally brings some life to a slightly dour Champion Hill, the opening bars of a bit of 80’s electro, Kraftwerk's ‘The Model’ is much welcomed, one thing learned from our previous visits, that I can tell you for certain, is the music won’t disappoint.

After taking the opportunity to grab a snap with the gloriously ornate silver London FA Senior Cup, the spoils in tonight's final, the chairman of the “little step five club” Cray Valley Paper Mills FC (CVP), Frank May, fills us in on the many scalps his team have claimed in this years competition, on their run to the final. The likes of “Welling” and “AFC Wimbledon” have fallen before them, as did “Dulwich” in the semi-final, much he thinks to the annoyance of the London FA, as they were hoping for a “big crowd” this evening, he tells us, but they won't get that now. CVP by Frank’s own admission, are not well followed, the lure of the “twelve other clubs” within just a “few miles” of their South East London home, means competition for fans is high.

He gives us an example of just how tough that struggle is. In an attempt to drum up support, they sent out thousands of free tickets in a local monthly circular. Only two were used, one of them by someone who was already a season ticket holder. They were “happy as Larry” when the tie against AFC Wimbledon, boosted the gate to around 200, but normally they’re in the low 60’s.

On the few occasions we have seen (MT), who are themselves hardly a well followed team, we could be looking at a very low turn out indeed.
The opportunity though to take on another Ryman Premier League team in Metropolitan Police FC, seems to have Frank excited, despite as he puts it that MT have been “struggling”, relegation a serious concern for them this year, he acknowledges they have put out a “strong side” so will still be a test.

Still no tea, those perhaps in the know or who are better organised than us, sit in the stands with a homemade sandwich and a flask watching both teams warm up, under an ever increasingly gloomy sky. CVP are going through your bog standard drills, MT’s players on the other hand have each been handed a large blue rubber band, that is slipped around each ankle, and is used as part of their very energetic preparations.

Tom’s third attempt to get a drink is thwarted, but eventually the small hatch at the base of the main stand is opened, semi skimmed milk, a sugar pourer and a single teaspoon are laid out, we finally manage to lay our hands on a tea for Tom and a coffee for me, the request for which sends the server into a bit of a tailspin, but he gets there in the end. Tom also treats himself to a Crunchie, in my opinion one of the poorer relations of the confectionery world.

Standing in the tunnel with the faint sound of Kasabian in the background, one linesman jogs on the spot, then stretches, while waiting for the emergence of the teams, he knocks on the door to one changing room, “come on lads” but no one is very forth coming. The referee with the ball under his arm is given the run down of proceedings by someone from the London FA, “respect handshake, then the guest of honor is going to come out”.

Still no players, another blast of the buzzer, and another knock on the door “come on lads”. The MT keeper eventually appears, making his way down the long corridor between home and away changing rooms, but no one else is to be seen. One assistant mimes kicking the door down, the other tells him instead of going all Leonidas, to give the buzzer “a big ring”, hopefully third time’s a charm.

CVP are the ones being a bit tardy, eventually their pumped keeper arrives, gloves tucked into the waistband of his shorts, he is repeatedly slapping himself. It’s at this point my suspicions about the referees competence are raised, when he asks the all bright neon orange wearing keeper, if he was in fact the keeper, “no I’m the striker” he replies.

A few players from each team exchange hellos and the odd thumbs up, before the signal from the referee down front that all systems are go, prompting a few shouts from each team “come on then Cray”, “come on boys”.

Once the teams have been introduced to the guest of honour, who in turn is introduced to the players by the respective captains and the announcer struggles with the team names, due to having “no team sheet”, someone in a fleece is sent screaming down the stairs of the main stand, after noticing a slight oversight, some pop up advertising is still pegged down on the pitch, with the referee now ready to kick off. 

It’s hard to recount the first fifteen minutes clearly, down to them being so manic. MT straight away show the difference two levels make, however CVP still look dangerous, especially on the counterattack. It’s they who register the first clear cut chance, the ball looking to have gone through the MT keepers legs, but the CVP player is unable to capitalise.

Although MT think the game should've been stopped for a foul, the referee disagrees, allowing the play to continue, CVP storm the MT end, going close again, slamming a shot off the chest of the MT keeper. A member of the MT defence is concerned his team mates have “gone quiet” and tries to rally them, “come on”.

It feels already, with only a quarter of an hour gone, that MT have it all to lose, and the pressure is showing. CVP are playing with a lot more freedom, that despite all the MT possession and dominance, they look a lot more fluid in their play.

We’ve seen a fair few goals this season, non come immediately to mind that I could class as being
particularly special, a wonder strike from thirty five yards or a thirty six pass tika-taka masterclass, however on sixteen minutes, during one of our last games of the season, we witness a goal that shoots right to the top of the 2017/18 highlight reel, rubbing shoulders with the likes of meeting Chris Armstrong with dreadlocks, and Iker Casillas in a rainy Portuguese car park.

CVP are awarded a free kick in the centre circle, just inside the MT half. The left foot cross lofts it into the area, an MT defender in dark blue, reaches it first, his clearance hardly resounding, but it sends the ball away from the danger area, or so he thought. CM’s number 9, loitering just outside the box, runs onto the cleared ball, shapes up to hit it on the volley, with all the technique and poise of a Ballon d'Or winner, well to the left of the D.

Cutting across the ball, striking it at about waist height, he hits the shot so sweetly, so perfectly that the MT keeper in red can only look on, reduced to a spectator like the rest of us as the ball tears across the box, nestling in the opposite corner to where the number 9 is now momentarily frozen by the absolute screamer he has just scored, before jogging towards the bench, then changing his mind and heading off towards the corner flag, followed by a trail of teammates, going out of view obscured by the dugouts, where the MT coach just paces back to his seat, shaking his head.

When the announcer comes on, now furnished with the team sheet, he almost sounds as surprised as everyone else. Those in attendance, most of whom are sitting in the main stand, are reduced to sounding like the startled Victorians who just saw an ankle, all gasps and a ripple of applause, no raucous celebrations.

MT’s bench and players are not happy, the shouts and instructions from the dugout, are heavy with a sense of anger and annoyance. On the pitch the players are clearly rattled, diving into some hearty challenges. With the ball going out of play, a lost cause really, it being shepherded off the pitch by a CVP player, he is then assaulted from behind by the chasing MT player, who dives in totally unnecessarily, reducing the defender into a heap on the ground.

The downed player is eventually helped back up by the player who just felled him, who astonishingly doesn't receive a card, highlighting the let's say ‘laissez faire’ approach of the referee, who has let some shockers go unpunished. Some might say he is letting the game ‘flow’ some might say, the guy doesn't know what he's doing.

Whereas MT’s kit is a very pleasant shade of dark blue, what you might call a classic, a single block colour, delightful in it’s simplicity. CVP on the other hand are wearing a green and white check number, with a graduating fade from top to bottom, straight off a Vivienne Westwood catwalk. It wouldn't be out of place in one of those click bait articles you see on social media called ‘Premier League's Worst Ever Away Strips’, alongside a picture of Gary Neville in grey. CVP’s could easily feature being worn by a Mustapha Hadji of Coventry or Benito Carbone of Sheffield Wednesday circa 1997. It’s inclusion in the aforementioned article implies that we don't like it, but quite the opposite, it's absolutely stunning in its garishness.

With just shy of half an hour gone, equilibrium in the world is restored, MT get their equalizer, which is difficult to describe with much enthusiasm, because it just wasn't anywhere near as good as CVP’s, which has now made all goals, other than the sensational, just boring. You would think that this might lighten the mood on the MT bench, but no.

In a near relegation threatened season, a year's worth of stress, seems to be coming to the fore in the final game of the calender, against a team from two steps below, they should be beating. The shouts and instructions are getting increasingly angry and a bit foamy at the mouth. At one point, one coach instructs an MT player not to let a CVP player “get round him”, which he fails to do, less than impressed in the player's ability to stop him, the same coach calls the player an “asshole” under his breath.

Not wanting to be unkind, but ‘fluffed it’ might be the only way to describe the CVP players attempt a couple of feet out from the gaping goal, with the ball having been given to him on a plate, in trying be too precise perhaps, instead of going full Alan Shearer and as they say ‘putting your laces through it’, he side foots it wide, which brings more gasps from the crowd. Honestly, I’ve ko idea how he missed it.

The referee continues to be “lenient” as Tom puts it, I think the guy has lost the plot. Full bloodied, doesn't quite go far enough, to describe the nature of the many wince inducing tackles. Having watched this level of football for a couple of years now, you might think I would be used to it, but there are still a couple of times a game, every game, I turn away from a crunching coming together, expecting to turn back and see someone's foot pointing the wrong way.

Tom asks me if it's him “or is this game fast paced?”, fast paced implies there is some method to what is going on before us, frenzied perhaps would be more accurate. All I want to do is sit down and have a smoke, it's exhausting just watching. I’m not the only one who needs his fix, the CVP chairman has slinked down to pitchside, maybe in the pretence of taking some photos, with the large camera around his neck, but he's soon taking deep drags on his fag to help relieve the tension.

MT forge a chance to take the lead, thanks to a big ball over the top, the forwards touch lets him down a little, but he is able to recover, only for the linesman to lift his flag for offside, which triggers another outburst from the MT bench. “He's in line, you weren't in line”, snarls someone to the assistant, who in turn starts to bicker with an MT player who agrees with the bench.

A break in play brings an eerie hush over the ground, the downed CVP player is mortified, “looks like he's crying” says Tom, as the injured player limps off, his shirt pulled up to hide his face, he receives a sympathetic round of applause from the crowd, which maybe is a little premature, because after a hefty squeeze of the magic sponge, he is back on, but isn't moving freely.

The injury to the CVP player is the first in a small spate of them, the next is to an MT player, we
think. We didn't see it, down to the fact it happened between the dugouts, more we heard it, an almighty crash into the metal hoarding around the pitch, which brings the whole MT bench to it’s feet, rushing to his aid. A hush descends again, this time the crowd are quiet, and all we can hear are the distant groans of the player. It would seem no amount of orange segments or spray can help him, his replacement is already stripped off and is ready to come on.

Maybe it’s the disruption of the stoppages, or the fact neither team are super human, no one could surely keep up the pace of the first 15/20 minutes for a whole forty five, the game has now gone very flat. MT revert to their dominant early stance, but there are still plenty of MT fans grumbling, it's been a less than convincing half for the Ryman Premier League team. CVP’s only hope is on the break, especially down their left flank, where some great whipped in crosses with good accuracy seem to be the main and only outlet from the near constant MT pressure.

The CVP player succumbs to his injury, despite trying to run it off, he has to make way, he leaves the pitch and a team who Tom thinks have had the “better chances” despite being under the cosh a bit, but they just haven't taken advantage of them, could it come back to haunt them?

“No, no, no” repeats the referee like the lead singer from ‘2 Unlimited’, confirming to the amazed players, staff and crowd that he is not willing to award CVP a free kick after as Tom put it, the MT player had “kicked” the CVP player “about 3 seconds after the ball went”.

The goal, the tackles, the barmy referee, the lack of crowd but reasonable action, MT looking more likely to score, but CVP having the better chances, have all made for a very entertaining first half. As the players walk off, those who are here take a collective deep breath, and search their bags and pockets for a Marlboro Red and a lighter.

A reminder that the bar is open rings around the ground, just after Tom had said how “lonely” the girl attending it looked, she spent the whole of the first half looking at her phone, not having to serve a soul. As we switch ends I grab a Coke, just to prevent her falling asleep. The walk also helps Tom warm up a bit, he's feeling a little chilly, down to the fact he only has a “thin spring jumper on” sometimes I have no words.

Teams back out, MT gather in an instant huddle, I imagine a few choice words were exchanged, maybe even a tea cup or two were broken, going by a few of the sideline barrages in the first half. CVP who don't look like they have a care in the world, just do a few runs and a light warm up.

“Lets fucking go” shouts one CVP player, whose turn it is to kick off, the notion that they might be intimidated by their higher ranked opponent is blown clear out the water, by the audacious attempt at a shot straight from the restart, sadly thought it's a bit tame. Are they under mandate to only score extraordinary goals this evening?

Once again a big tackle stops the game, once again there is no card. After seeing the referee in action in the tunnel, I had a feeling he was going to be a ‘character’. He has been a point of interest all match, once the fouled player has recovered, and the game is back under way, he turns his attention to a CVP player, who he begins to reprimand because the colour of his long sleeved undershirt, doesn't match his kit. “Andreas, Andreas” says the nearby lino, who looks a bit like a wildling, “its green”, talking to him like you might an elderly relative, who just put their handbag in the fridge. Satisfied it’s the right colour, he jogs away smiling “sorry” he says to the player, who just looks baffled. ‘From another planet’ I say to Tom, the assistant/carer, turns to me grinning.

Toms appraisal of one CVP player is little scathing, “selfish” is how he brands him, after he latched onto a poor pass across the MT defence, which sends him off towards goal, unfortunately his run ends up down a blind alley, he had people open to receive the ball, and the chance is lost.

More moans and screams, another player rolling around in obvious pain, another tackle unpunished, has he forgotten his cards? “He kicked him” suggests a CVP player, but it's all over the head of the slightly mental Andreas.

Fifteen minutes on the clock and MT nearly, nearly score their own special goal, an edge of the box volley that is struck just as sweetly as the CVP effort, zipping just off the ground, it thunders off a defender, with an almighty boom. The ricochet almost goes in by the way of a defender's toe, but the loose ball is leapt upon. There is a collective “ohhh”, all are more than aware it could've been a beaut. They go close again not long after, but the shot is blazed over the crossbar, flying off into the nearby car park

My suggestion of CVP rueing their missed chances, could now be applied to MT, who with fifteen minutes of the half gone, find themselves behind once more. Not conceding as spectacularly as the first time, this time it’s more embarrassingly. The keeper a spectator once again, he rushes out to meet the ball, it’s headed over him, leaving him stranded, the attacker simply side steps him, with the goal at his mercy. Such is the power of the deft flick of his head, he doesn't need to touch the ball again, but he still follows it in though, to insure it goes over the line. He runs to meet his teammates on the edge of the box, either sucking his thumb or pretending to play it like a trumpet, I’m not sure, maybe it’s the new Griezmann.

The roaring fire that was lit under the first half of the first forty five minutes, that died out, has been reignited, some of the energy or “zip” as Tom put it, has returned, cigarettes at the ready.

Not long after going behind, MT have a huge shout for a penalty declined, Andreas just runs along with his arms firmly clasped behind his back. Tom, thinks there was a spot of simulation about it, and does the international sign for ‘he went over a bit easy’.

Again another shocking challenge goes unchecked, it really was a horror. I was sure after hearing the crunch, and the scream, and turning back to look to see the player writhing about holding the lower part of this leg, I was expecting the aftermath to be far from pretty. He is seen to, gets up in one piece, but again no retribution. “Not even a card for that?” asks an astonished Tom.

I once heard an announcement at a Spurs game over the tannoy, informing someone in the crowd that his daughter had gone into labour, and he was to contact a steward, then someone else in the crowd shouted in reply “she’s only 15”, but I’ve never heard a request for someone to move their car, because it's “blocking” the nearby supermarkets delivery “trucks”. The announcer goes onto explain if its not moved it might be “run over”.

“Are you done?” asks a CVP player to a teammate lying on his back, propped up on his elbows, this injury the result of a pulled muscle by the looks of it, not a double footed, shin snapper. The now familiar lull, brought on by a break in play caused by an injury, is this time broken not by a smattering of applause for the departing player, but by the screaming MT manger, whose let his displeasure known, and seems close to breaking point.

It looks like it’s all over for the still prone player, accompanied by the physio he makes the long, slow, limping walk back to the bench.

Now behind, every MT chance seems even more crucial, when they miss them the collective vein in the MT coaching staffs forehead grows a little bigger. When a “power header” as Tom put it, goes just over, sensing the ever increasing MT onslaught, a CVP player demands his teammates stay “solid”.

A fresh appeal for the car blocking the traffic goes out, the friendly request from before, has now been replaced with a warning, tantamount to a threat, if its not moved “something may happen to it, when they drive past it “warns the voice over the tannoy.

Ten minutes to go, CVP are pinned back, MT continue to have the lion's share of possession, but are really not showing any great threat going forward. “Urgency” screams someone from the bench, but it doesn't seem to be sinking into the players on the pitch, they almost draw level by fluke more than anything, a wayward cross, turns into a shot, which is tipped over the bar by the fingertips of the CVP keeper.

Behind the dugouts the non league standard at a final, of a fold out table from a carboot sale and the best table cloth has been set up, the winners and runners up medals are being laid out on top. One of those arranging them is a bit anxious about the decision to do it so close to the pitch, “if a ball hits this!”.

“Just over five to go” replies the fourth official to the CVP bench after the umptenth request, in the last couple of minutes, for how much of the game is left to play. He also has to remind them to stay in their area, the impending victory and second Ryman Premier League team feather in the cap, has got all involved fidgeting and pacing, no one able to sit down for more than a second.

As if all of a sudden, the board with the extra time already primed and programmed into it, the fact they are about to lose this final has dawned on one MT player, who goes a little Joe Hart, angrily demanding the ball back, when it goes out of play, the response of a cool calm Geordie fourth official does little to sooth him “calm down pal, it's not multi ball”.

When the board is lifted, the green ‘3’ telling CVP how long they have to hold on for, MT go close, and that again brings another “ohhh” from the crowd. Not that CVP needed telling how much extra time there was, they have asked 400 times in the last minute.

“Corner, corner, corner” shout the CVP bench on the few occasions they get the ball, the players oblige heading straight for the far side of the pitch, running that clock down, frustrating both MT players and bench even more, I fear for their health.

The over excited CVP keeper has thankfully stopped slapping himself, instead he is now rolling around on the floor, hugging a fellow teammate. Finally the well mannered crowd have thrown off the shackles of Victorian society and let out their biggest cheer of the night, and the voice over the tannoy is not talking about obstructions, but is now congratulating the victors.

Those on the bench embrace, before heading off to join up with the rest of the team on the pitch. One of the injured players, subbed off during the match, hobbles over as fast as he can, to join in with the small mosh pit of winners signing “ole, ole, ole”, impressively celebrating only on one foot that’s without a sock or a shoe. Maybe ever more impressively is the Herculean strength of the female physio, who is giving one player a piggyback back. Any thoughts of the CVP keeper perhaps calming down a little, are soon undone, he is offering up high fives to anyone who will accept one with the force of Anthony Joshua.

It's quiet for MT as they pick up their runners up medals, agonisingly having to walk past what is a
magnificent trophy, that they won't be getting their hands on. The good mood soon returns, when the announcer introduces the “winners, Cray Valley Paper Mills”. Each player picks up his little red box, and lines up behind the fold out table, ready to lift the cup.

“Ohhhhhhhh”, the players build the suspense before hoisting it skywards, and breaking into a rendition of “champione, champione.” It’s not until the group starts to break up, that it’s clear that the celebrations have not gone totally plan, one player stands looking dumb founded, the physio holding a gauze to his forehead, attending to a gash caused by the flying lid of the cup. “At least you'll always have something to remember today by” she says pragmatically, before telling him it might need to be “stitched or glued”.

I’m not sure if it was that goal, the elusive bookings, the age old story of David & Goliath or the fact it was a game between two of the more curiously named clubs in the UK, but today will certainly go down as memorable, I just can't put my finger on why. However, for the players and staff of CVP this gloomy night in South London I would think, will be one they will never forget, as one CVP player said to another leaving the pitch after all was said and done, “what a Wednesday night”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE





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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Over The Moon - Maldon & Tiptree FC Vs Thurrock FC, Ryman League North Play-Off Final 2017, Wallace Binder Ground (30/04/17)

Usually our travels along the highways and byways of this fair country are uneventful, but between getting in the car and hearing the final bars to the theme tune of Band of Brothers, picking up Tom and arriving in the car park of a leisure centre where he is delighted to see they have “flumes”, via the single lane roads winding past leafy village greens, church spires and ponds of rural Essex, I thought the best thing I was going to see was a speaker with some cushions on top of it being passed off as a seat outside a East London cafe, but oh no! The man on the hard shoulder being sick, the car pulling a trailer, crossing four lanes of the motorway so it didn't miss its exit, fishtailing and being honked at by a braking tanker, were all vying for top spot, only to be trumped by a road we passed called Tom Tit Lane.

The monosyllabic response from the steward on the gate in reply to my question about parking, was gruff, but to the point, “football? he asked, before gesturing with his head towards a near bursting car park.

Locking up the car, the music coming from the nearby Wallace Binder Ground home of Maldon & Tiptree FC (MT) is pleasing Tom, “love this song” he says, moving with a little bit of swagger in his hips. Not familiar with the track, I ask him who it is, “Saday, Sadie, Sana” he replies, before aborting trying to remember the artist who sings the song he is so in “love” with.

The entrance to the ground is very smart, so smart and swanky that on first glance it seems to be £1000 to get in, I can only hope the ticket price is missing a decimal point. A black and white picture of a team huddle adorns the outside wall, the drab colourless background in stark contrast to the full colour image of the team in the middle.

Within less than a foot of the turnstile, thankfully only £10 lesser off, my note exchanged for a small yellow ticket with ‘ADULT’ on it, a man in a suit reclines in a brown wooden chair, before him a table covered in a plethora of goodies. Like the end of the Generation Game, no cuddly toy, instead a box of chocolates, a bottle of scotch, a six pack of Stella and a bottle of red wine. “Be lucky” says the seller to the man in the queue before me, who looks like he's just dropped a lot more than the £1 coin I have in my hand, I thought I had a problem!

I hand over my £1 for a single line of yellow tickets, and another £1 for my program, which I’m told to “help myself” to, they’re bound by a rubber band in an old biscuit tin, I grab myself one, while he tears my tickets from his book and tells me the “draw is at half time”.

I get no wishes of good fortune, maybe they’re only reserved for the high rollers, and the seller is soon back to pushing his product to those coming in behind me “programs and tickets all a pound”.

Even with over an hour yet to kick off, people have already secured their spot in the main stand on the far side of the pitch, the coloured seats that spell out MTFC becoming harder to read, as each minute ticks by. If they're not lying their towel on the sun lounger, they’re in the queue for food, which Tom quickly joins, where most people are talking about MT’s prospects today. After a 5-4 win in the semi-final win against Haringey Borough, the resounding theme of discussion is that today's visitors have a far “better defense” than their previous opponents.

Waiting for Tom, I strike up a conversation with one of the many familiar faces we cross paths with today. Tony Gay, a coach at Thurrock FC (TFC) the other side in this all Essex affair, who is another example of a man in non league with a crushing handshake, and cheery disposition. Between deep drags on his cigarette, he gives me his thoughts on TFC’s chances, but not before he’s pinched a few chips off the green and yellow scarf wearing TFC fans.

“Confident” is how he feels, when I ask him about today. Youth is their biggest strength, “eight players under 21” he explains, adding they have the “youngest average team” in the league, but he also stresses the camaraderie, the togetherness of the squad, “best changing room” he’s ever been in. By his own admission he’s been around a while, he goes as far as comparing it to his heady days with Grays “when we won everything”. He is also quick to praise the manager, who he describes as the “best” in the division.

The man in question is Mark Stimson, who Tony describes as having “done it”, ‘it’ includes playing in “the Prem”, appearances for the likes of Tottenham and Newcastle, four FA Trophy winners medals, one as a player, three as a manager, which came in consecutive years, two with Grays and one with Stevenage. With a CV like that, it’s hard to argue with Tony.

However it's not his bumper resume alone that has got him where he is, but as Tony puts it, and it's confirmed almost simultaneously by TFC's scout, it’s his “preparation”, Tony goes on to add it’s “unbelievable”. It’s also down to his temperament, they both explain, the way he deals with the players, what Tony says are his two sides, one “calm” the other “not so calm”.

Tom returns with “chips and tea” a curious combo, Tony finishes off one of his umpteenth cigs, crushes almost every bone in my hand once again, and makes his way off towards the changing rooms.

One catch up down, a second is hot on its tail, another face from the Essex non league scene, Wayne goalkeeping coach at Bowers & Pitsea, whose own push for promotion, was a close run thing, just missing out. He tells me he is of course “disappointed”, but if you had offered him fifth position, three points off a pop at the playoffs, he would've “bitten your arm off”. When I ask who he thinks will prevail today, he tells us his “heart goes with Maldon” down to the fact his friend is a coach for the home side, but he reckons it should be a good match, a tight one, a “good defending side” TFC, against a “good attacking side” MT.

With today's final, the penultimate game of the Ryman League season, he asks us “what do we do now?”.

With the wind picking up, the position of the cameraman on top of the scaffold tower next to the red brick dugouts, looks a little precarious. Already in position, it's a fine view of the pitch, but there isn't much else to look at. A line of conifers top a grass bank behind one goal, with no stand, at the opposite end a small covered stand, behind that the big brown brick block that is the nearby swimming pool. Spare seats in the main stand are now few and far between, with still twenty minutes to kick off, the initials of the club, are all but blotted out by expectant fans.

Both teams are warming up on the pitch, both sets of supporters lean against the fence around it that is an ideal height, not too low, not too high, perfect for a good lean, they watch their respective teams attentively. Also watching on discreetly is the MT manager, hovering around the mouth of the tunnel that separates the dugouts, in his best grey sweater and club tie.

Having finished his chips, Tom is already having thoughts of what’s next, in his “hungover” state, as he explains, the after effects of a friend's birthday, half time feels a very long way away. I attended the same soiree, but didn't drink, I was on driving duty, however I do question if I was spiked with something, because I’m sure in the short time we have been here, I have heard the song playing around the ground already, has the playlist restarted?

There is most definitely a nervousness in the air among the home fans, a feeling of apprehension of what is to come. Not so much though among the scores of children hareing about, most congregating behind one goal and it's blue and red striped nets, cheering the players doing shooting practice, and chanting the name of the players whose turn it is next.

What seems to be the done thing now, at least in the recent finals we've been to, a plinth is carried to the edge of the pitch, with the match ball balanced on top, awaiting the players return. Both have fled to the sanctuary of the changing room for a few final words. The MT chairman emerges from theirs, to a rousing applause, that goes on long after he left, I imagine those inside waiting for the first person to stop, in fear of a trip to the Gulag.

In the caged tunnel, with it’s vaulted wooden roof, one beam has a birds nest on, the mascots in full kit line up, I must admit much better behaved than those at Bowers. It might have something to do with the presence of a Mum, who is tucking in the shirt of one of them, and holding a tissue to his nose, telling him “and again”, when she leaves she reminds them all, “make loads of noise”.

The MT substitutes brave enough to have stopped clapping, make their way to the dugouts, high fiving the still immaculately behaved mascots, who are all looking over their shoulders expectantly, waiting for the players. When the referee appears, shortly followed by the ring of the bell and an eruption from behind the TFC changing room door, the mascots ask him, “what team do you support?”.

It’s almost a bit gladiatorial, the fans of each side, lining the outside of the tunnel cheering on their caged teams, in two neat rows, an arms length apart. The away fans already, and as they will be for most of the day, are the noisiest by far, “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet”.

“Here we go” signifies the referee at the front of the two columns, which only raises the noise level as he begins to lead the players out through the end of the tunnel, that looks like the porch of a detached house. Players from each side offer one last rally to their team mates, “come on boys”.

After the handshakes, the coin toss, a picture of the captains and a group huddle each, we are under way.

Replacing the kids behind the goal, are the flags and fans of TFC, who are soon into one of their many songs, “we all follow the Thurrock”. The home fans, are almost silent, except for a very small bunch, occasionally banging the hoardings, but doing little else. When I mention this to Tom, a local overhears me, saying they are never really noisy, “except when we score” she tells us.

I wouldn't say TFC have come out the traps all guns blazing, there seems to be an element of hesitation in the home side's game, an anxiousness. Like the feeling among their fans from before kick off, that the visitors are able to take advantage of early on. A good cross just skims the top of the head of the intended player, they go closer still, a corner hitting the crossbar directly from the kick, the rebound bouncing down into the middle of the box which is met by a player who anticipated well, connecting with ball mid baseball slide, a cloud of dust behind him, his shot is all but in, only for a courageous block on the line, that prevents TFC taking the lead.

I wish I could say that this was the first of many, the beginning of a deluge of chances, the start of an end to end, blood and thunder display, where the bragging rights of Essex are at stake, as well as promotion, but I can’t. Tom describes the atmosphere as “subdued” maybe it’s because it’s a Sunday, everyone is in roast dinner, papers on the sofa, naps with the F1 in the background mode, but I would've expected a bit more in such a crucial game.

“Hit it” shout the TFC fans, as one of their players bares down on goal with a quarter of an hour gone, he does, its just wide, sending the keeper into a full stretch dive.

TFC’s small contingent are tormenting the MT keeper on every goal kick “you’re shit, ahhhh” and chanting pretty much non stop, “it’s got to beeeee Purfleet”, “Thurrock, Thurrock, Thurrock”, however when the most interesting thing to happen in the first 30 minutes is a massive burp from one player, the circling mass of seagulls on the lookout for an unguarded tray of chips or the bizarre running commentary of the nearby linesman “take it easy” he keeps saying to the players, it doesn't bode well.

Toms one track mind, is in overdrive, “Chinese buffet” he explains is his perfect cure for too many the night before. When I manage to steer the talk away from crispy shredded beef, and onto the game, and MT’s apparent default setting of a big long ball to the forwards, he fills me in on a bit of matchday gossip, and the feeling among some quarters that the grass is a little bit long, and it might be intentional. The dark arts perhaps in practice, be in the Bernabeu or the Wallace Binder, they’re all at it.

“Nearly 600” says a man in an MT blazer doing the head count, with a clicker in his hand. The stands are full and the whole pitch almost completely surrounded, but it’s still lacking that big day atmosphere. Tony Gay gets his own chant from the TFC fans, the not so imaginative “Tony Gay, Tony Gay, Tony Gay”. Tom on the other hand, has become a little distressed at the “lots of birds” swirling above the pitch, in their beady eyed way.

Five minutes before half time, which couldn't really come fast enough, TFC have a big shout for a penalty waved away. The downed player still on his chest, appealing to the referee, with the ball now in his own half before he picks himself up and rejoins the game. “Have a word ref” asks a TFC supporter, applauding that it wasn't given. Nearby MT fans think they have got away with one there, not thinking it was a foul, “it wasn't” one says, but he was sure it was going to be awarded “I thought he'd give it”.

TFC continue to dictate, MT still look to be holding back. They go close again for the final time in the half, the MT keeper spilling the first shot, but gathering frantically at the feet of the player about to latch onto the loose ball. Tom is sure that this game has “1 - 0 written all over it” and at the moment it only looks like that is going to be scored by one side.

The biggest round of applause of the game so far, is from the TFC supporters as a fellow fan coming back from the bar, manages to carry the whole round in one go. Tom is yet to decide if he is going to do the same at half time, pondering one of life's great questions, in the most Shakespearean of ways “to eat or not to eat, it's a long wait till dinner”.

Going against the tide, we make our way to the other end of the pitch, TFC fans have taken down their flags, and by the looks of it, are heading to the bar, Tom will not be joining them. I guess he's happy to wait, although it might have something to do with the fact they don't sell a sausage roll, which he feels should be a statutory requirement at all grounds, like a defibrillator, or he is banking on me winning the chocolates in the half time draw. We pass another member of Essex non league royalty, Bowers and Pitsea manager Rob Small, who is deep in conversation on his phone, but still has time for a smile and a handshake.

Having grown tired of the small bank behind the goal, the swarms of children have set their sights on something a little bigger, the bank, nae I would go as far as calling it a hill, that runs the full length of one side of the pitch. Covered in tall grass, tall enough for some of the smaller ones to disappear completely from view. One parent half jokes that their child had fallen down a “rabbit hole” only for a fraction of a second later for the smile to disappear, as she wonders if in fact she has lost her little girl to the Mad Hatter.

No scotch, no wine, no beer, no chocolates for me or Tom, the half time draw leaving me with a well trodden feeling of emptiness and Tom regretting not going to get something to eat, no Milk Tray for you I’m afraid.

Joining the TFC fans in the small stand, when the teams come out along with the officials, the linesman who did not flag for the late TFC penalty claim, momentarily takes a bit of the heat off the MT keeper, as the supporters let him know what they made of him not giving it. Although their numbers are pretty much the same, now condensed like some kind of football homeopathy, contained under the corrugated metal roof and back wall, which allows for even more noise, most standing, despite the offer of a seat, their songs are really packing a punch, “come on Thurrock, come on Thurrock”.

Once again the raffle numbers are read out, like some cruel prod in the ribs, they remind me of my failure, and lack of scotch.

MT come out with a little more purpose, and go close to taking the lead, it’s only down to an acrobatic top corner save, following a looping half volley after the second of three quick fire corners, that it remains 0 - 0. The corner resulting from the save, also goes close, as a back post header is just over. The same four or five MT fans come to life, banging the hoardings as they did in the first half, but they are soon outdone by a chant with a Scottish lilt, that quickly kicks the burp off the top spot of best thing to happen so far today.

Football chants being the way they are, cannibalised by teams from all over the world, I’m sure someone will tell me that this particular one is not in fact Scottish, but has it’s origins in the Rhineland or Barrios of Latin America, if that is the case I’m sorry, but the only supporters I’ve heard sing it before, are those of Celtic.

“Thurrock” shouts the loudest of them, “Thurrock” reply the rest of his posse. He goes again, “Thurrock” and his fellow fans reply the same as they did before. “Come on you yellow and greens”, once more they reply in kind “come on you yellow and greens”, he changes tack again, “Stimos Fleet army” his dutiful band reply once more, before they all break out into a mass hum along of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Tom though might disagree that it was the highlight of the afternoon, instead he was particularly taken aback by the man who just passed us carrying three trays of burger and chips and three drinks, without dropping or spilling a thing.

MT continue to grow slowly into the game, creating far more chances than they had in the whole of the first half, but it still doesn't bring any more noise from their fans. One TFC player who realises his team have come out cold and started slowly, waves his arms at his teammates, demanding more from them, after an MT attack which were so few and far between, but are now causing a few nerves to those in yellow. One of the young fans behind us has his own suggestion, first yelling that an MT player should “be sent off”, for what I don’t know, before taking it up a notch, and saying someone should “kick” an MT player in the “nuts”.

Time is ticking, with only twenty minutes of the game to go, extra time is looking like a real possibility, MT revert to their “hit and hope” tactics as Tom puts it, and all that early home optimism is fading.

TFC’s number 5 has not stopped running, it's his dogged determination with a bit of help from the number 9, that brings the first real moment of note for the away side in the second half. A flicked ball sets number 5 off chasing it down towards the MT goal. Entitled to go for it, a 50/50 you would say, he lunges for the loose ball, as does the keeper in green, resulting in a coming together, but nothing untoward.

For a split second the goal is open the ball still in play and alone, the keeper down, the number 9 sees
his moment to shine, charging in for the glory, unfortunately he gets more of the MT defender making the last ditch clearance, spinning him like a top, and leaving a scene of mild devastation in his wake, with now a few downed players scattered around the six yard box.

“You’ve killed him” shrieks a small child, one grown up thinks the keeper is playacting a little, knowing full well his goal was untended so is feigning injury, to force the referee to blow up, which he did, “that’s disgusting” he shouts, one person feels like I did that the ball was “there to be won”, another feels the referee couldn't possibly be “watching properly”, one suggests his performance was so good, he fake awards him the highest of honours “and the Oscar goes to”.

When the keeper eventually retakes his feet, contrary to another child’s suggestion that he had been “killed” the TH fans show their lack of sympathy, with a song which irks Tom, “are you Sanchez in disguise?”

With the game rapidly coming to an end, I think over what Wayne had mentioned before about it being a good defence, against a good attack, have these teams own best qualities, just canceled each other, explaining this less than thrilling match?

MT flash a shot wide, and then think they are about to go in front only for it to be called offside, the TFC fans continue to sing “super Thurrock, super Thurrock FC” and Tom is regretting not getting something to eat, and tells me he doesn't think “anyone's ever going to score”,

The two man mountains in front of us are the two TFC fans I see first to ascend to a place of Nirvana in the seconds following the wonderfully struck goal, that’s just put them ahead, with about ten minutes of the game left.

A rifled shot hit on the run, that was moving at such a rate, with such accuracy, it beats the keeper on his near post, the ball finding the sweet spot between him and the woodwork. One in shorts with a portrait on his considerable calf, kicks the hoarding with such force in celebration, I fear he will kick a hole straight through it, the other in a tan coat and green and yellow striped scarf, punches the air repeatedly, shouting “yes, yes, yes” like a Essex Daniel Bryan, before uttering a phrase normally reserved for nursery rhymes, “over the moon” he proclaims to no one in particular.

The scorer followed by his teams mates, dash towards a group of fans on the side of the pitch, one player is still in the goal, wildly swinging his boot at the ball, grappling with the net, before heading to join the pile on. By the time he gets there, many pints have been lost, most hoicked into the air, but one finds it’s way into the mouth and face of one player who is channeling his inner Gazza, circa England Vs Scotland, Euro 96. Both players and fans are intertwined in a full on bundle, some behind the goal sprint to join in, some dance in the aisle of the stand, some whirl scarves above their heads, one boy in a half green, half yellow wig looks on as his Dad breaks into a jig, some just hug whoever is close by. The one thing they all do is spontaneously break into their loudest song of the day “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet, we are, we are, we are the Fleet”.

TFC are forced into a serious rearguard action in the final ten minutes, plenty of timely clearances, and well timed blocks are required, their moniker of a ‘good defensive’ team, is being put to the test, as they are pushed deeper and deeper. MT coming onto them time and time again, on one occasion TFC are saved by the offside flag, the referee's assistant who raised it, is now friend not foe, the fans relieved by his decision, serenade him accordingly, “lino, lino, lino”.

“Big effort” shouts a TFC coach, the subs behind him don't know what to do with themselves, stand up, sit down. There is a collective sigh of relief when one MT player goes on a tackle evading run, starting just inside the visitors half, reaching the edge of the box, only to be stopped by a last ditch block, before he can get a shot off. TFC’s only relief, is to get the ball into the corner, and hope that the time left will hurry up and end.

There seem to be an inordinate amount of WWE fans here today, when the final whistle is blown, for the second time today, this time the turn of the TFC bench, everyone goes a little Daniel Bryan, “yes, yes, yes” they shout, scream and holler, mixed in with a few “woohoos”. Much back slapping, and hugging follows, as does the constant sound of hands high fiving. They don’t spend long congratulating themselves, and are soon all making a beeline for the fans, some even on the backs of their teams mates, who as ever are in fine voice “we are going up, we are going up”.

A bit late to the party, the towering club captain, who missed the initial coming together of player and supporters, charges them, going full superman into the outstretched arms of the crowd.  Catching his eye, once they have let him go, he lets out a frightening “woooooo” looking me dead in the eye.

Tony Gay is a happy man “four years, four years” he says repeatedly, reflecting perhaps on the culmination of a lot of hard work, that has culminated in the best possible way. The appearance of the clubs owner in his long black, mid 90’s football managers jacket, a sleeping bag with arms, quickly sees him surrounded, and he becomes the focus of the players celebrations, standing at the center of them jumping, “we are going up, we are going up”, through a see of pumping yellow arms, I’m sure I see him flash a wad of £20 notes, which only excites the players more, tonight's going out fund?  

The MT players as you can imagine are the polar opposite, looking a sorry lot, most sit dejected watching on as the table for the trophy is set up, and the crowd of visiting fans gather, waiting for the pile of blue boxes to be handed out, and the glass trophy, which looks like something from a Middle Eastern tennis tournament, to be presented. The nearby crate of beer and bottles of bubbles, are already on standby, but I’m sure won't go untouched for long.

Front and centre the TFC captain lifts the ever so slightly underwhelming trophy aloft, handed to him by a man in a blazer and Ryman League tie. Ultimately it’s just a bauble, it’s what it represents that’s important, but I do like a bit of actual silverware, not something that's also used for a regional double glazing sales awards ceremony.

Now I suggested earlier that leaving through the tunnel pre kick off was ‘gladiatorial’, I would maybe need to revise that statement, now leaving the pitch in a yellow and green whirlwind, back towards the changing room. Before the fans were loud, yes, singing, yes, but they kept a respectful distance. Now their faces are pressed up against the chain link fence, the volume has gone through the roof, some rattle the fence, trying to get closer to the players, who are trying to soak up every last second, joining in with the chants, “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet”, sharing the moment with friends and loved ones through the metal barrier.

Outside the away dressing room, it’s already abundantly clear that the party is in full swing, the sight of flying clothes and foam are visible through the half open door, some people looking on, not sure if they should venture in, or stay outside and keep dry. One person's mind is made up to not go in, by the flying box of energy bars, that lands on the floor at my feet.

Standing at the back of the room, Tom perched on top of a toilet, peering over the cubicle, the clubs scout half sheltering in the showers, wanting to be part of the triumph, but anticipating a soaking, Mark Stimson has managed to quiet his raucous team, and gives them his final thoughts.

“Guys give me a minute, I ain't gonna bore you” starts the gaffa, his arms over the shoulders of his coaches who flank him. “This buzz will stay will you for a helluva long while” he tells them “and you'll want more and more of it, because it's the best buzz in the game” he adds, you can hear a pin drop, most are sitting, a few stand swinging from brown beer bottles. “You're all winners, you all deserve it, let's have a great night tonight” he goes a bit Tony The Tiger on the Greatttt, before he might as well of waved a red rag in front of bull, the closing of his speech, starts a series of events that I won't forget for a while, some I won't ever be able to ever unsee “if you want, let's go mental now”.

Beer, pants and all sorts fill the air, one overexcited player standing on the bench, takes a dive off it and ends up in a heap on the floor, “we are going up, we are going up”. Through the frosted glass of the windows the silhouettes of the hands and faces of the fans outside can be seen, the windows are flung open, allowing for what might be the most deafening song of the day “WE ARE GOING UP, WE ARE GOING UP”

Not sure how much more mental one can go, the bars and clubs of Essex might be able to testify to that, once these lot have finished in the wee hours, but the chant of “let's go fucking mental” has an air of lock up your daughters and batten down the hatches about it.

Sitting in the car, taking a moment to regather ourselves, reflecting on what we have just witnessed, the windows wound down to allow the smell of beer and cava to escape, we can still hear the players and fans now about 150/200 meters away.

Today there was a feeling after the match, not one I think I've felt so strongly before, one of the players having done it for the fans. Of course their own pride, ambitions and desire to win, has a large part to play in what they achieved, but the scenes afterwards, so much of it was shared between players and supporter, the songs, the effort made to open the dressing rooms windows, so that everyone could be involved. It highlighted the case of Thurrock being a community club, a family club, an all for one, and one for all club, where only a very fine line divides them on the pitch and them off it, an attitude and approach that is so prevalent in non league, but has become all too scarce, the higher up the pyramid you do.

As a player you want to win, as a player you want to be able to reflect on a career where you can say you gave it your all. Today's players at the start and end of their footballing life did a great thing, as the captain said "don't win much at 35", but what good is all that, if you have no one to share it with, as Jock Stein once said, "football without fans is nothing".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE





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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Watching ‘Ricay On A Wednesday Night - Billericay Town FC Vs Tonbridge Angels FC, Ryman League Cup Final 2017, War Memorial Sports Ground (12/04/17)

My journey to South West London was just about as idyllic as you can get, sun out, window down, the smooth voice of John Suchet on Classic FM. Tom’s on the other hand, via a commuter packed train from Victoria was let's say, one I’m glad I missed out on.

“Suns out, guns out” he says to me, one arm flexed up by his face, as he notices I’m scandalously only wearing a t-shirt to drive in. Flinging his heavy winter coat on the back seat, he explains that he “wasn't expecting this”. My choice of music, has him a little amused and confused in good measure, mistaking a bit of Brahms for the “Archers”. It’s not only Tom waiting for a lift at the station, one of today's players from Tonbridge Angels FC (TB) in his sky blue tracksuit, is standing patiently on the pavement.

The War Memorial Sports Ground, home of Carshalton Athletic FC is the venue, as it was last year, for the Ryman League Cup Final or Alan Turvey trophy, tonight we complete our hat trick of finals going back to 2015. We are early, we are always early, but we're not the first here, some players of tonight's other finalists Billericay Town FC (BT) are already here, as are the robin crested, red shirt wearing staff, who are flitting about, completing the finishing touches, before they are descended upon by more players, fans and old men in blazers, in about an hour's time.

Before then, we join the early birds in the clubhouse, where the rearranged Borussia Dortmund Vs Monaco game is about to kick off on the big TV and Tom unable to get his hands on a Red Bull, so has to settle for a lesser known imitation, Red Alert, to wash down his pickled onion Monster Munch.

“Everyone wants to beat us” says one of the BT players to the others around his table. Since their meteoric rise to fame and many column inches, after some big money signings, two of whom have a Premier League pedigree, they have become quite the focus of the non league world. The player only hopes “next year, it will die down”. When pressed on tonight, he seems confident, explaining how BT “should be beating” TB, especially after their recent “2-1” victory in the league.

Soon some fans of each team arrive, many sporting a club scarf hanging from a hand bag strap or belt. Once each group has found a table they head to the bar, “beer” grunts one when asked what he wants, and the solo bar woman is set to work.

Outside the warm sun of earlier, has all but gone, and has been replaced by grey clouds, “gonna rain” says Tom. More players have arrived, mostly TB’s, who are either on the pitch or on one of the commandeered crop of nearby picnic tables. A few perhaps agreeing with Tom’s weather prediction, have decided to take shelter in one of the dug outs, which sit in front of the grounds most notable feature, an immense pitch length terrace, with its long concrete steps, deep back wall, and roof topped with St George's crosses, flying from white flag poles.

More busy Carshalton staff weave among the relaxing players, a woman with an arm full of biscuits and milk, is heading for the boardroom, which is basically a large wooden shed, where someone has just asked very loudly, “where are the biscuits?”.

“Someone just arrived” points out Tom, who though, we're not sure. All we can see is the top of the reversing beeping coach over the stand behind the goal in the car park. BT are running a little late, something to do with a snarl up on the motorway, I overhear one player telling another of the “nightmare” that is the Dartford Crossing. One BT fan mistaking Tom for a fellow supporter, which happens quite a lot, wonders why the “boys” are “not here yet?”. Not being a fan of the Essex club or being aware of their current travel predicaments, he does his sigh and eye roll, which miraculously seems to satisfy, and always manages to get him out of tricky situations.

Those TB players who are here, look a little lost for what to do, BT’s delay, leaving them with some time to kill. They entertain themselves by pulling the leg of one club official, who is wearing his finest, for the big occasion. “Hello Charlie, got dressed up?” one asks, “Hugo Boss?” asks another.

The arrival of BT is soon the talk of the ground, sending many people with cameras scattering for a shot of  Paul Konchesky once of Liverpool and West Ham and Jamie O’Hara, wearing the customary big headphones, who most recently was of the diary room in Big Brother, but also of Fulham, Wolves and of course Spurs.

Music is already coming from behind the TB dressing room door, the names of the ‘home’ and ‘away’ teams, stuck to the outside. By the looks of it, it won't be long before the music is playing in BT’s either, as at the back of the long line of people carrying bags and water bottles, one man struggles with a huge white sound system. Although BT have been designated the ‘home’ team for tonight, one of their entourage queries why are they playing in their “away kit”.

A TB player heading to the pitch for the warm up, is stopped momentarily by an old fella offering up his own support “come on boys”, another supporter is wearing a floor length Tom Baker style blue and white scarf, which I complement him on, and he tells me his "sister" knitted it for him. One of BT’s fans are far from impressed by the venue “stupid fucking place to have a final” he announces, looking over the pitch, arms crossed, with a very sour look on his face.

My attention is quickly diverted from Mr Cheery Chops, by a small commotion behind him, a bit of rutting between a member of the BT board and the Carshalton Athletic secretary, who is not best pleased about being challenged on the lack of bar staff, the single lady by all accounts has become a little overcome, and the BT inquisitor is given short shrift by the spectacle wearing man, whose scarlet face now matches his top, “bugger back off to Essex”.

The noise of the players warming up, is for once rivaled by the noise of the ever increasing crowd, most of whom seem to be standing in the snaking queue for the burger bar, which has thoroughly upset Tom. Some though instead of waiting an age for something to eat, have already secured a dark red seat in the small main stand where according to one sign "children are prohibited from playing" or a step on the mega terrace. BT are the first in, after what doesn't feel like very long warming up, TB are a while behind them, but eventually leave the immaculate pitch empty. Immaculate may I add because it’s a 4G and not because of an unprecedented level of groundsmanship, which is what Tom thought, until his personal eureka moment.

There are plenty of “come ons” and other such encouragement coming from the changing rooms, along with the obligatory loud music now blaring from them both, until the shouting players are replaced by what sounds like an amateur dramatics chorus line.

I head towards the mass sing song, coming from BT's dressing room. The door ever so slightly ajar, propped open by a man in a hi viz waistcoat, holding a very big camera that’s recording what’s going on inside, there is just about enough room for me to position myself, and bare witness to something I imagine will go down in football folklore, something I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren “I was there”.

All on their feet, dazzling in their neon orange stripe, arms linked and led by the clubs owner/manager Glen Tamplin, they are belting out a rendition of R Kellys 'The Worlds Greatest". “Close your eyes” demands the manager to the group of compliant but ever so slightly skeptical looking players, “think about today” he tells them. Outside, a few TB staff look on baffled by what is taking place a few feet away, the BT R’n’B war cry is in full flow.

However that is not all, sadly they don’t move on to a version of the theme tune from everyone's favourite basketball real life cartoon cross over film, instead Glenn Tamplin is now standing before his now seated squad, reading from a script, engaging in a bit more audience participation. “I’m honored to be taking you on to the field of battle” he tells them, as he starts his own version of the Any Given Sunday speech, each declaration “right now we fight, right now we believe” concludes in the same way, “who are we?”, he stops and waits for the reply from the players, “the greatest”.

Each delivery from the gaffa, goes up a notch, the veins in his considerable neck and enormous arms, grow a little bigger, he is definitely in Tom’s “suns out guns out” camp. He expects an equally raucous response from the players, most are happy to oblige, some though have their eyes firmly fixed on their laces, “fucking rip out the heart of my enemies”.

The ring of the bell, almost cuts him a bit short, but he just shouts over it, “every fucking inch today, we fight and we win, who are we, who are we, WHO ARE WE?”, snarling, shaking his fist, towards the player's, “THE GREATEST”. All his hard work pumping his team up, is nearly undone when a green and black league tie wearing man, informs him of the building crowds outside, late arriving fans, who are yet to get let in. He is asked if he is happy for them to delay kick off, but he’s not “I wanna kick off”, it’s emphasized that its “your people” who are waiting to get in, but he is fully in the zone, he has fluffed the players to near climax.

It’s not until the teams have left the tunnel, followed by various coaches and physios, do I become aware of the size of the crowd, that continued to swell as I loitered around the changing room, like a Cat’s fan at the stage door of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I also hear for the first time, what might just be the nicest chant in all of football “come on Angels”. Both group of fans, keenly watch the toss, not fussed one bit about what way their team will be playing, but simply wanting to know which goal they need to set up camp behind for the first half.

Both fans and players alike are off to a lightning start, flags are quickly up at both ends, the songs soon start, “Tonbridge, Tonbridge” sing the fans from Kent led by a drum. The fans from Essex are without a drum but the hoarding seems a suitable replacement, and is getting a bit of a ‘Ketsbaia’.

BT have two chances in a matter of thirty seconds, one is blazed over from close range, and it looks like the team in orange are going to get off to the perfect start, however it’s not their end that is engulfed in thick blue smoke, blotting their fans from view, it’s not their fans singing “no pyro, no party”, it’s not the team who came out the blocks flying, but the team who have been very much on the back foot for the frantic opening five minutes of the encounter that have taken the lead, 1 - 0 TB.

“Tonbridge is wonderful” sing the foggy fans, the smoke still rolling out from under the roof of the small metal stand, ‘Fred’s End’ which looks like it might be close to falling down, the celebrating fans are using it to accompany the drum, “everywhere we go, everywhere we go”.

Already close to a football induced meltdown, pyro, drumming, flags, two sets of singing fans, but if the blue and white beach ball that has entered the pitch, had been someway responsible for the BT equaliser, well you would have had to call the St Johns Ambulance, however it’s at the opposite end of the ground from the beach accessory, that the scorer has just slotted in and run towards the crowd to be embraced by the fans.

This time it’s the BT fans celebrating, adding to the pandemonium of the first fifteen minutes. “Singing i - i - ippy, we come from Billericay!”. TB’s fans reply, but it’s ever so slightly muted, “come on Tonbridge”, the garbled voice after the bizarre post goal music they play here, confirms it's the “equalizer”, the BT fans continue in full voice “follow the ‘Ricay, over land and sea” and as if someone actually wanted to see me require medical attention, a second beach ball is tossed on the pitch.

The TB fans are not tongue-tied for long, asking the BT supporters, “where were you when you were shit?”.

Tom is “getting hungry” the pre match queue has thrown him a bit out of whack, but he is far more concerned for the welfare of ‘Fred’s End’, “it’s getting a bit rowdy in there” and he just doesn't know how the simple structure is going to “cope”.

Not unsurprisingly both teams are unable to keep up the frantic tempo, but the TB fans don't feel they are getting the rub of the green. “Studs up!” says Tom after a partially robust tackle or “dirty foul” as he puts it, although the referee reprimands the guilty player, it’s not as harsh as the TB followers thought it should be, “behave yourself” one suggests towards the man in charge. “We’re the Angels, We’re the Angels” they sing, continuing the ecclesiastical theme when they finally get a call their way “hallelujah”. This though has the opposite effect on the BT fans, who think it's a case of “same old Tonbridge always cheating”.

Although we love a smoke bomb and some pyro, we love the adoption of the ways of our European and South American cousins, club officials don’t, they take a very dim view indeed. The gray haired man in the TB tie is looking very disappointed teacher at the young fan passing him, who he is quizzing about the post goal show. His view being I’m sure the fine from the league, could be better spent elsewhere, regardless of how cool it looks.

“Not a bad drummer” comments Tom, a little rudimentary “we’re the blue and white army” is about his speed, he's no Charlton, but whether be he John Bonham or Ringo Starr, it’s just great to have one.

After the abundance of early chances, the game has descended into a messy, scrappy midfield squabble, starved of any real quality. A BT player puts it wide one on one, then O’Hara takes a long range pot shot, that sails over, “what a waste of money” sing the TB fans. One fan pointing out he is not a Tottenham, Wolverhampton or Portsmouth cast off, but a team a little closer to home “Gillingham reject”.

All change, on thirty minutes this long range attempt finds the target, with a little help from the keeper, the ball looked to go right through him and BT have gone from one behind to two ahead.

Chances for BT and big tackles, one forcing Tom to gasp and flinch, are the order of the day, the early TB lead, feels like a distant memory, as BT go close again. The TB fans find ways to distract themselves from the onslaught, as Tom points out, one is doing “chin ups” from the roof of the stand.

It’s getting close to half time, and of course Tom is thinking of food. I warn him of the big queue, he doesn't care, people sporadically passing us holding something cooked in a napkin, have grown stubble in the time they have been waiting.

TB look close to drawing things level, but one player inadvertently denies a team mate, heading the ball, instead of leaving it for the player behind him, who was better placed, and was shaping up for a volley. It feels like a bit of a ‘what if’ moment, as not long after BT further their lead. “Second time he's done that” says Tom, as the same player doubles his tally, with an almost carbon copy of his first.

“Heads up boys” is the solemn single shout of one TB fan, towards his dejected team. Further shouts of “come on Angels” sound just as sad, the fans have lost all that energy and enthusiasm, that made the smoke filled rocking little stand such an awesome spectacle. The loudest by far of them all, is a woman among them, whose completely inaudible, but her volume is quite the opposite to the stunned and silenced crowd around her.

BT supporters on the other hand are right at the other end of the spectrum.

“Can they survive to half time” Tom wonders, two goals down is not insurmountable, but they are well and truly on the ropes and BT are looking for the knockout blow.

More of a low blow not seen by the referee, then a well slipped counter, or spectacular uppercut, BT grab a fourth, and as Tom does, in moments like these, he utters his familiar two word catchphrase “game over”. First half hat trick complete, with a lot of help from a deflection off a TB defender, the post goal Euro pop is now getting tedious, I hope for no more goals, only so we’re not subjected to it again.

The BT fans now poking fun at their once noise equaling rivals, “it’s all gone quiet over there” before they remind us all where they are from “Essex, Essex, Essex”. Some TB fans have seen enough, “going off to the pub”. One of them, whose curious limp makes me think that someone else should be carrying the large decorated drum, is in fact not injured, but suffering from a bad case of ‘flare down the trousers’itus’’, a single smoke grenade falls from the bottom of his jeans like a moment from the Great Escape, explaining his curious gait.

Flags are soon down at each end, and it’s easy to pick out among the groups of fans criss-crossing in
front of me, who supports who. Once again the music is a point of interest, track two from ‘Banging Ibiza ‘98’ has been replaced by something with a Caribbean vibe, imagine a Lilt or Malibu advert. Through the mixed crowd of dejected and jubilant fans, I pick out a face that is sadder than those of the team who have just conceded four first half goals in a cup final, it’s Tom, empty handed, “about 100 people” in the queue for food he tells me, not totally downbeat, he has a plan, he'll try again in the “second half”.

Tom could maybe try his luck in the boardroom shed for something to eat, however by the sounds of it, two ladies talking next to us are not overly impressed by the spread “one cup of tea and a biscuit” is all one got her hands on, gosh life is hard in the jewelry jangling seats.

“Welcome back Tonbridge Angels and Billericay Town” says the voice over the tannoy accompanied by a piece of music from a mid 90’s Top Gear montage, that just makes me want to shout POWER, and I think we may have already found a ground where the music can rival that played at Bowers & Pitsea.

BT’s fans take up from where the TB fans left off, ‘Fred’s End’ is in for one hell of a forty-five minutes, “whoooo oooo BILLERICAY”. The team also pick up right from where they left off, grabbing their fifth of the night, killing off the early TB songs “we’re the Angels”, confirming, like I didn't know already, that any notion of the “comeback” that Tom and I mulled over at half time, has gone right out the window, I’m always hopeful for a bit of romance, but this is beyond even realms of fantasy and the BT fans are greedy for more, “we want six”. It also dawns on us just how shocking the queue for food is, as one BT fans passes by telling a fellow supporter that he finally got something “3 days later” which answers Tom’s earlier query of “what do you think the queues doing now?”.

TB’s fans are only ever briefly speechless and are always quick to gather themselves and go again, the drumming a constant. They finally get something to cheer since the fifth minute, when a bit of fortune finally goes their way, a towering salmon like leap from a BT player, results in a quite spectacular own goal, “he scores when he wants” declare his own fans, following their players mistake. The voice on the tannoy, after the bloody music, again, doesn't give the name of the offender (it was Paul Konchesky) but just blurts out “was an own goal” before flicking off the mic.

Tom’s reattempt to get food means he is somewhere in the never depleting line, when the own goal was scored. Before he made off on his second attempt to conquer it, he hoped that BT didn’t score “too many goals” while he was away, I can’t promise him anything, they are rampant, and look like they will score at every opportunity.

“We’re going to win 6 - 5” sing those in the TB end, bolstered by the slight denting of the BT lead, who are still making a good racquet, despite the deficit. However their patience might be tested when four minutes after getting one back, they might have to change the chant to we’re going to win 7 - 6 as BT sweep down the other end, finishing off a swift counter attack getting their sixth of the night.

Any concerns of a lack of action from Tom “think there will be goals?” he asked pre kick off, has been totally and 100% put to the sword. Also any notion of this going to extra time and penalties, which we weren't sure if they did both or just a shoot out, but then neither was the Ryman League press secretary when we asked him, and he was too "embarrassed" to ask for clarification from a colleague, won't be a concern either. The BT fans are now reminding TB that at one point today, they were actually in front “1 - 0 and you fucked it up” all that joy and blue smoke, a lifetime ago.

I can’t emphasize enough how excellent the TB fans have been in the face of the most resounding hiding, you are ever likely to see. Yes that bloke may well have gone off to the pub at half time to drink away his sorrow, but those who have stayed, are still singing, and the drum is still going. The quick footwork of their keeper prevents them conceding a seventh goal, but they still continue their support.

One though has gone a little rogue, slumped across a couple of seats in the main stand, like Scarface in his big chair, he shouts for anything and everything. “Hand ball”, it wasn't even close, “we’ll appeal anything” he says, before announcing he “can't be arsed”. I’m sure instead of watching anymore of the game, he just wants to bury his face in a pile of coke and pet a tiger cub right about now.

“Easy, easy, easy” sing the BT fans, who by now have surpassed all earlier levels of hysteria and are heading for another stratosphere. Not in all their wildest dreams, except that one joker who was asked before kick off for a prediction and said they would score “7” who is now smugger than a Cheshire cat and is a demi god among his peers, could they have imagined they would see their team score seven tonight. They now have a blood lust, like a wild village hoard they demand, “we want 8”, but have replaced pitchforks and farming implements, with the humming of the Rocky theme tune. All while the TB drummer still drums, he won't capitulate, even if his team have.

In the short time since our first encounter with BT, back in February for the semi final, there have been plenty of comings and goings. There has been an influx of signings, their manager then, has been replaced by the owner, who the fans now serenade “Glenn Tamplin’s blue and white army”, he acknowledges their song with an above the head clap back at them.

BT’s keeper finally has something to do, his save with his feet looking all the more dramatic, considering he has been standing still for the last hour, however most dramatic of all, the drum has finally fallen quiet, but at least they still have the woman, and her deafening screams. At the opposite end, I think it’s going to be a long time until any BT fans are quiet again, given up on film theme tunes, they are now considering a pitch invasion “on the pitch, on the pitch”.

I am happy to report the drum is still alive, its final swan song, is prompted by a nice TB move and curling shot that just goes over, which the BT fans also applaud, but with sarcasm, not love. Not only is the drum having a last hurrah, with BT having fully taken their foot off the gas, TB are able to rack up a few chances, and have a big shout for a penalty waved away.

The lack of pressure is not bothering the BT fans, who continue to sing “oh what a night, watching ‘Ricay on a Wednesday night”, and even though their team have won this, they get to witness a staggering 8th goal. TB’s keeper nearly stopped it, but it squirmed under him.

“We can see you sneaking out” sing the BT fans, as a few more TB fans head for the pub, those leaving and those staying are reminded once again, that they were actually ahead at one point, not that you would believe it, looking at the score, “1 - 0 and you fucked it up”. One player following the celebration motions to the fans for more noise, which might inadvertently result in the complete destruction of ‘Fred's End’, which amazingly is still somehow standing.

TB hit the post and then add to the score making it 8 - 3. The board goes up with three minutes on, and O’Hara tries his luck from range with a cheeky lob, which misses but pleases the fans “same old ‘Ricay, taking the piss”. Toying with TB like a cat with its prey, they pass the ball around nonchalantly, almost, almost getting a ninth!

Plenty happens following the final whistle, most of the time its to the chant of "what a waste of money" BT I assume feeling that the win tonight, justifying the expenditure of the owner, who is enjoying every moment of the victory. As the plinth that held the ball before kickoff is brought back onto the pitch, now with the blue and orange adorned trophy on it, along with a foldout table covered with a table cloth and medals and the sponsored backdrop for all the pictures, BT approach their excitable fans to celebrate, one so thrilled his attempt to climb the railing to join them, is miss judged, he ends up landing on his head, but the adrenaline means he is able to pick himself up and dust himself off without injury.

Players, staff and management walk the railing, shaking and high fiving the many outstretched hands, hugging those who require a bit more intimacy, some are handed flags, scarves and even a woolly hat that Jamie O'Hara pops on.

The depressed blue line of TB players, almost as sad as Tom after his failed food attempts are up first to get their medals, Tamplin quick to ensure his team applaude their defeated foe. As captain it's O'Hara's duty to do the honours, but he seems resistant to hog the limelight, instead insisting the rest of the team join him to lift the cup.

A multitude of selfies and pictures later, chants of "champione" and talk of money subsides, some generic football final victory jingle playing instead, Tamplin goes full Mourinho tossing his medal into the crowd, before blowing kisses like a true lovey to the adoring crowd, who sing his name once more. Him and his team eventually head for the dressing room, and there is talk of "champagne".

Our night ends not as well as the staggering well dressed couple looking for the way out, but in an unintentionally intense and very close quarters chat with Tamplin himself. Up close we realise as Tom puts it what a "unit" he is and how every digit of his hands are decorated with some giant ring of some sort. Maybe a little curious of two no marks asking for his opinion on the evening, its not until we explain who are are and what we are doing, that the tension is lessened, when he tells us he "agrees" with our thoughts on non league football.

I'm sure there will much talk about the methods and practices of Tamplin, for all those who turn their nose up at his prematch exploits, there could be a case of saying it did some good, you can't argue with a five goal winning margin. It's been proven that simply chucking money at clubs can be a slippery slope, there are sadly many examples of ones where its not worked, if BT will become another statistic, only time will tell.

Tonight you might say was Essex Vs Kent, fan owned club Vs a bank rolled club, tonight for me at least, will go down as the first time Tom never had something to eat.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE





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