Sunday, 17 February 2019

Bad Day At The Office - Clevedon Town AFC Vs Chipping Sodbury Town FC, Toolstation Western League Premier, Everyone Active Stadium (09/02/19)

Lying on the sofa last night, I do my best to concentrate on Christian Bale's gravelly voiced portrayal of Bat Man, but my head is all over the place. At any other time, Tom Hardy's muscle bound, mask wearing performance as Bane, would have me captivated, but I’ve just read the Weston Super Mare AFC’s latest tweet: INSPECTION: There will be a pitch inspection tomorrow morning at 9:30.

This is not good, Storm Erik who has been battering the bath mat on the clothes line outside my bedroom window for the last twenty four hours, has really thrown a spanner in the works, and It just about caps off my current run of bad of luck. Frozen pitches, snow, illness and a stint in hospital last week, means that all too rare treat for us, football in daylight and on a Saturday, is going to be scuppered by some daft named weather system.

Like a distress flare, I fire off my own tweet, asking for help and Twitter dutifully responds. There is by all accounts no shortage of football clubs in the general vicinity of the seaside town, but surely if Weston Super Mares pitch is in need of an inspection, those nearby must be destined for the same fate.

I wrestle with not telling Tom that the game is in jeopardy, he has already bought his train tickets, having spent the last week food tasting and visiting florists in Devon in preparation for his wedding in August. Our plan was to meet roughly in the middle, to take in a game, taking advantage of him not being at work.

Hurriedly finishing my cornflakes, my phone buzzes and I almost don't want to look, it's the news we didn't want, “GAME OFF”. Shit.

I walk to my car wracked with anxiety, the skies are blue in London, Erik’s huffing and puffing has certainly lessened, and someone is clearing up after his night time exertions, retrieving their wheelie bin he skidded across the forecourt outside my flat. However the fact it's all calm here, means nothing, one hundred and fifty miles west, it may be a whole other story. Fuelled only by blind hope, I pray to the football gods that my three hour drive won't be a wasted one, I’m due a little bit of good luck.

The roads are clear, and I’m making good time, but the car is somewhat devoid of the usual atmosphere. Tom is absent, so it means I have to rely on Radio 4 for company, which is no bad thing, however it would have been handy to have him there if not for the riveting conversation, but simply to turn off my daughters chirping blue elephant, that is somewhere behind me, out of reach, that comes to life at the slightest vibration.

A pit stop for coffee and the sight of an exploding pheasant striking the front of a HGV later, and the shimmering sea of parked cars on the outskirts of Bristol signifies I’m nearly there. The wind has constantly buffeted my car, but as of yet there has been no rain, although the sky is constantly threatening some kind of deluge.

Tom is certainly well prepared, his new waterproof jacket, practical, but a departure from his normal look. It’s more twitcher, then Shoreditch man about town. He recounts four days of non stop rain while he has been deliberating if pie and mash is suitable for a summer wedding. He his though supremely confident that our new game will go ahead, somewhat overly and suspiciously so. For someone who is normally quite easily diverted onto a pessimistic track, it's a tad out of character.

The sky grows increasingly angry as I double back on myself, towards today's ground. Tom does his best to elevate my woes with tales of a “trio of desserts” and a list of “canapes” which includes a miniature “toad in the hole”. The sight of the matchstick thin floodlights soaring up into the dreary sky are a welcome sight, and it's not long before we are winding down a narrow lane and pulling into the curiously named Everyone Active Stadium.

Passing by a long white wall, with silhouettes of people in different states of exercise, it is not enough to divert my attention away from the spots of rain starting to settle on my windscreen. Tom is verging on the fanatical in his attempts to cheer me up, handing me a present, a pair of fingerless gloves, that will be useless today, but at least he has finally got himself some, and I’m grateful he thought to get me some and they go some way to lift my spirits.

Brian, Clevedon Town AFC’s (CT) chairman is the first to greet us, opening the thin metal gate for, he is quick to fill us in on the “good drainage” they have. He is also the first to utter the aforementioned catchphrase, that will be bandied about more than once, in the lead up to kick off. Wandering around the pitch a grey haired man with a fork in hand, delicately prods and pokes at the turf, which certainly to my uneducated eye, looks in great nick. “This morning it was perfect” he explains, but the recent unforecast downpour, is pushing the boundaries of what it can take.

Standing under the full pitch length terrace to shelter from the rain, the sound of it pounding against the sheet metal roof above us, almost making it hard to think, it quickly destroys all Toms good work of the gift and talk of “prawn tempura”. His chat with the man with the fork, is not exactly constructive, “not hopeful” he says half whispering, in an attempt to break the news to me gently. “At least it's not heavy” he adds, trying his best to keep up his one man pep rally.

It's the man with the forks turn to repeat “this morning it was perfect” when the CT assistant manager asks him, “how's it holding up?”. Tom continues with his positively drive, “I'm optimistic” he says, “you've driven a long way”. The arrival of the referee and his assistants, suited and booted, all doing that hunched shoulder thing people do when it's raining and they don't have a brolly, like it's going to somehow protect them, feels a little ominous. They head straight for the Tuck Shop, the open hatch at the base of the pale brick main stand opposite us.

One of the assistants as Tom puts it looks “mortified” his eyes fixated on the sky, I almost get the sense he is willing for the match to be called off.

The presence of the officials as CT’s Club Secretary Eric puts it from underneath his badge peppered flat cap, takes the decisions re the pitch “out of our hands” it's “up to the ref now”. Having ended up here all a bit last minute, I’m thankful for Eric in his blue and white striped club scarf, who happily gives us a little background on CT’s season so far.

“We’re sixth” he explains, we being a ridiculously young team with an average age of “twenty two”. The recent success of their “under eighteen” squad, saw most of them promoted to the senior team. Their youth though as Eric tells us doesn't mean they aren't coping, quite the contrary, “we’re holding our own”, but each game is about “getting experience” the lack of it can rear its head on occasion he tells us, and physically they can find it difficult at times.

The impertinence of youth can also rub some teams up the wrong way, because when a seventeen year old skips away from you at ease, older opponents can feel somewhat affronted, and things Eric tells us can get a bit “nasty” he says chuckling to himself, likes he’s recounting a specific occasion.

“Looks its stopping” announces Tom, pointing to the newly emerging sun, that is doing its best to shed its dark shroud. In the blink of an eye it goes from miserable to wishing I had left my coat in the car because its getting warm. It’s appearance sparks the stadium into life, two people have started to take down the goal nets and Mary J Blige is blaring from the physios portacabin clinic.

Despite the now beaming sun and the rain a distant memory, the arriving away team players of Chipping Sodbury Town FC (CST) seem sceptical as they assess the pitch, not convinced that it's going to pass muster, “is it on?” ask one to Eric, whose reply is a resounding “yeah, whats wrong with you!”

“Never heard people moan as much as footballers” he says to himself as the CST players, fresh off their mini bus, file past him, “rugby players would love it”. While the 90’s R&B classics continue, along with the smell of deep heat, to flood from the physios room, its TLC’s Scrubs now, Eric continues to be a fine font of local knowledge. I’m listening so keenly to him telling us about the fact that next door to the ground “they train police dogs and horses” that I forget the golden rule that all non league tea is dangerously hot, and nearly melt my lips.

“No trouble here” jokes Eric, their neighbours ensuring it's probably the safest non league ground
going and any lost balls are “put in reception” as it's probably a good idea no one goes “looking for them”. He also recounts with much pride the recent visit of Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup. It would seem that the thing that stuck with him the most was not the amount of people in attendance, the calibre of the youngsters playing for the Premier League sides under 18’s team, but the fact post match they ordered “twenty eight pizzas” from the local Domino's, before heading back to the North West.

Fork man has put down his garden tool and now clutches a red sweet tin in the crook of his arm instead, turning him into 50/50 man. He carefully tears two orange tickets from the book and takes my £2, before turning away and trying to hawk some more,“50/50 tickets”. Less than two steps away from him the programme seller in his hi viz waistcoat and flat cap, which apparently is the obligatory head gear in these parts, he is introduced to us by Eric as a “personal friend of Stanley Matthews”.

Such an accolade is too good to simply ignore, so I enquire how this came to be and he tells us of their chance meeting in Nairobi during his time in the army and some years later, he and the ‘The Wizard of the Dribble’ crossed paths again at the opening of the very ground we are at today.

In a another repurposed portacabin, adjacent to the turnstiles where a man sits in his pale yellow booth, watched over by a curious hand drawn picture of Ronaldinho, a home printed sign goes up in the window declaring its the Club Shop. Inside we interrupt the man setting up on the long table down its centre, covered in boxes filled with old programmes and the choice of not one, by two pins for Tom.

I would not go as far as calling it a steady stream of people paying the man with his Brazilian companion to come in, more a trickle. Eric said that the “bad weather” will always put off a few, but it's a healthy’ish crowd forming almost exclusively around the Tuck Shop as well as inside the white beach hut looking clubhouse, with its impressive collection of club memorabilia on the walls and a hall any pirate would be proud of, of silverware behind the bar.

A few people have taken up one of the blue seats in the main stand, a couple in front of one of the two flags that hang on its back wall. Actually flags might not quite do them justice, they’re more like banners, one alludes to CT’s nickname the Seasiders, but I don’t remember seeing the sea anywhere.

It’s such a softly spoken “hello and welcome” from the person manning the PA that I can barely hear him. The sun has gone, however the rain has yet to return which is something. From one corner of the ground, at the foot of one of the wirey floodlights the teams congregate, and not from the centre of the main stand as one would expect, because as Eric had told us, that's now the local gym.

The CT manager, former Bristol Rovers player Mikey Bell, offers his players a handshake, before they head out onto the pitch, though a very agricultural looking yellow gate Eric is holding open, each doing their best to avoid the muddy swamp that has formed on the edge of the pitch.

CST number 10 at the back of the line, hurriedly finishes half a banana, before dousing himself in water from a small bottle and with some help from Eric he ensure it ends up in one of the nearby wheelie bins, and not on the floor. It’s what you might call a subdued walkout, no rousing music, not much of a welcome from either set of the fans, a couple look on stony faced, one sips from a plastic pint glass, another seems more interested in his chips than the players. The referee leads them out maybe a quarter of the way, before stopping to perform the handshake.

The shirts of the players, the corner flags and those of the linesman's ripple in what is a stiff breeze,
the one linesman who looked “mortified” now in shorts and shorts sleeves looks doubly so now. Clearly energised by his pre match snack, CST’s number 10 bounds up and down on the centre spot in preparation of kick off. A single shout goes up from the main stand in support of the visitors, “come on Sodbury” and one home player demands a “big start” from this team mates.

Although he’s yet to put on his fingerless gloves, I think Tom wishes he had brought some sunglasses too, “fucking bright kit” he says half squinting, the towering yet incredibly youthful looking CT keeper is an all neon ensemble, which makes him look like a highlighter pen, and not long after kick off as Tom put it, he’s soon “in the wars”.

A bit of miscommunication sees him collide in mid air with another player, which sends the human sharpie crashing to the ground and for a moment he doesn't look like he is going to be getting back up anytime soon. Thankfully his time on the horizontal is short lived, although he still looks a little dazed as the CST corner is taken and he knows very little about the header he keeps out, the ball striking him and bouncing back into play, where in the melee he takes another knock to add to his growing collection.

The ball ricochets around the box, falling to a CST player who lashes over from close range. It must have taken a touch, because a second corner is awarded, which results in a second case of the ball pinging off every bum, thigh and midriff, before falling once again to a CST player who just like the one before, fires over from almost exactly the same spot. The keeper, who by the looks of it is still seeing stars, flings his arms up in the air in an attempt to save it and watches the ball clear the top of his goal and the wall behind him.

“That's two balls gone, good thing you parked around the corner” says Tom, showing concern for my windscreen, but all I can think about is that the Alsatians will have a couple of new playthings.

Scratching his head Tom points out that there is “no one in the away dugout”. Two men in dark tracksuits are patrolling the technical area, but there is a large player shaped gap on the bench behind them and if they carry on committing fouls like “blatantly” kicking CT players, tuts Tom, an example of what Eric said earlier, of opponents turning “nasty”, they might need some back up.

“Should be a card” concludes Tom, but it's not forthcoming, “ref are you joking?” asks a CT player in a thick west country accent, but no yellow is produced.

I’m not sure from where, but the void behind the CST coaches in the squat little white dugout has been filled by four slightly cold and bored looking substitutes. Just shy of ten minutes gone and it's the home sides turn to go close with their first effort on target, a nice flick on the edge of the box and a bit of an up and under, allows the forward the time for a shot, but it’s saved well by the feet of the sprawling CST keeper. A keeper who wins the battle of the goalkeeper kits unanimously.

His black shorts and British racing green top, evoking visions of Pat Jennings. In fact the visitors win the battle of the kits too, as nice as the blue and white vertical striped CT top is with hooped socks, CST’s black and white stripes, win by default. It’s also made by Kappa, which inevitably gets Tom excited, and triggers flashbacks to football of the mid 90’s. He won't admit it, but he also likes it because of the the faint outline of the women's breasts, sitting back to back to form the manufacturers logo.

The brief noise of rain on the roof above us, does little to dampen my mood, which since kick off has seen a remarkable turnabout. Tom is revelling in the purchase of his own fingerless gloves, about bloody time, but he’s still not 100% satisfied. “Cold tips” he says while showing me his ever so slightly blue fingertips.

“Fucking sort it out” cries one home player after his team allow CST a free shot on goal, luckily for them it wasn't hit with much conviction and was straight down the keepers throat, who in an attempt to get the ball up field attempts a quick kick, but it's blocked, so he goes for something a little “unorthodox” as Tom puts it, rolling it out instead like a small child ten pin bowling.

What has been a hectic start, and the reason for my improved mood, is crowned by a quite sublime CST goal, one that had looked like it had been coming since the start. A cross from the left is knocked into the path of their number 7, who takes two touches to circumnavigate his marker on the edge of the box, another to set himself and then lets rip a hooked left foot shot that nestles right in the corner of the net, the CT keeper at full stretch not getting even close.

CST’s number 7’s celebration had promise, you can’t beat a knee slide, but the soft turf, doesn't really allow him to slide, and instead he digs in, just avoiding going the full Andrew Johnson.

“Let's build on it” shouts one of the away coaches, the feelings of one of home player is that they haven't really been in it since kick off, “we’ve been shit from the first second”. They very nearly respond with an almost instant reply to going behind, a curled effort from the edge of the box, buts its right at the keeper.

Things though go from bad to worse for CT, four minutes after going one behind, they concede again. Another edge of the box curler, another case of the CST players being allowed far too much time on the edge of the box to shoot. The second goal, even further out of the reaches of the CT keeper, than the second. This time he doesn't even move, rooted to the spot as it sails in. The scorer of the seconds celebration is unaffected by the conditions, he lets out a guttural roar, before raising his index finger to his lips, who he is shhing, I’m not quite sure.

Just like when they conceded the first time round, CT almost pull one back straight away, only this time the ball zips across the the goal mouth, inches wide of the far post.

“Is that a rule?” asks Tom. The referee doesn't seem sure, he looks to his assistant for a bit of guidance, but gets nothing. The CST players are adamant that it is, in fact they are livid that CT haven't been punished for their defender collecting the goal kick from inside the box, but the referee just waves on play.

In a sign of just how high confidence is among the CST players, their keeper starts to showboat. He could have quite easily caught the ball, but instead controls it on his chest and waits to the very last moment, the onrushing CT forward practically on top of him, before scooping it up.

Would non league football, really be the same without the presence of at least one dog? The answer you're looking for is no and although it's not the kind that is going to take down a rampaging rioter, like the ones over the brick wall, he is just as tenacious in his pursuit of his very own deflated football. Charging up and down the length of the terrace, effectively dribbling with it, he shows some nifty touches.

To be clear in no way am I comparing the CT players to the black border collie, but they also have some flashes of real skill, but it's all too infrequent and they are muscled off the ball with ease. In their captain they have someone who I don't think has ever been shoved off the ball in his life, “whos that player who plays for Celtic?” asks Tom in reference to the home number 4, and I know just who he is talking about, Scott Brown. Stout, solid, rugged with a shaved head, he does his best to marshal his younger teammates from the centre of midfield, but it's proving a struggle.

“Too easy” bellows the home keeper, after watching another shot fly over his cross bar. A ball that splits the CT defence, finds the rapid CST number 9, who is really proving to be quite the handful and
his first touch sets him up perfectly, but he’s off target. Big claps echo from the main stand in reply to his effort and Tom is not very hopeful for the home team, “they're not going to win”. By the sounds of it, Eric feels the same way. “For fucks sake, come on” he shouts, still manning the little yellow gate.

Five minutes until half time and the pitch is “holding up” well comments Tom. At the moment it doesn't look like the man with the fork is going to have to have much to do come full time. One CT player demands his teammates “fucking up it” but as the half edges towards the break, CST’s number 9 is becoming increasingly rampant. Falling short of hitting him with a anvil, they don't have an answer for his raw pace. Again he’s away, but this time his touch lets it down, and the CT keeper is able to claim the ball just in the nick of the time, which frustrates the CST forward no end, resulting in him going full Ketsbaia, on a nearby hoarding.

The half concludes with a mighty 50/50 challenge on the edge of the CT box, CST’s number 9 racing away from the home defence yet again, but he’s unable to make anything of his time in the CT area and one home fan asking Eric quietly to “hobble” the CST forward when the players “come off”.

Having opened the gate to allow the players to depart, Eric says in no uncertain terms as the home players with heads bowed trudge past him, that they are “going to get a bollocking”. He almost seems in a mild state of shock, “dismal, the worst they've played all season”.

The quiet voice over the PA returns, Tom is long gone, joining the back of the queue at the Tuck Shop. Although I’m interested to see what he comes back with. All his menu testing over the past week, means I think he is actually full. He has not spoken about food once since we got here. The whisperer thanks those who were “kind enough to support” the “50/50”, I strain to hear the number of the winning ticket, but he confirms that I won't be the one going home with the winnings. A second non league dog, makes me think I’m in for some half time entertainment, but this one is scared off the ball, running away from it, instead of controlling it on it’s thigh and nutmegging its owner.

“Last burger” says a clearly relieved Tom, who couldn't wait to make it back to our little spot on the terrace to eat, so picked away at his chips like a crow on some fresh roadkill. The click, click, click of the players studs on concrete means we hear them, before we see them. Tom bobs up and down as he eats, trying to warm up, “bit nippy” he says with a mouth full of burger.

To say it's clear that CT have well and truly had a rocket put up them at the break, might be an understatement, they have come out flying, straight on the front foot, wanting to make up for a very poor first half, and although an early ambitious long range shot is well over, its shows their intentions, as the second half gets underway in the same vein of the first, manic and very physical.

“Wakey, wakey” insists someone from the away bench, as the CT chances come thick and fast. A “good tackle” says Tom, right in the middle of the CST box, is the difference between the home side pulling back an early goal and not. Another curling shot goes over not long after and CT look like a different side.

A monumental burp to my left is followed by the immortal words, “I ate that far too quickly”. I don't allow my friends Temple of Doom worthy table manners to distract me from what has been a dominant first ten minutes from CT, who are showing more and more of that skill that Eric alluded to pre kick off. A drag back is too quick for one CST player, he catches the man instead of the ball, awarding the home side a free kick in a dangerous position.

Lofted in, it finds a CT player who is able to nod it back towards the edge of the six yard box, where a teammate is ready and waiting to stroke it in. Completely unmarked he has all the time in the world to hit the target, which he does, low down to the CST keepers left. What looks like will be a certain goal, a goal CT more than deserve on their second half performance is somehow kept out.

Inspired by those who have worn the same green jersey before him, he pulls off a a save worthy of the greats of old, like Banks and Wilson. Somehow, god only knows how, he claws it out, and such is my shock, I’m reduced to letting out a high pitched “oh shit” as he gets back to his feet and is justifiably high fived by one of his defence, his teammate all over the pitch applauding his remarkable save.

“Too fucking easy” bemoans one CT player, sixty two minutes on the clock, and after such a rousing start to the second half they find themselves further behind. A slide rule pass inside the left full back, cuts him out of the game completely, a ball across the box and a simple toe poke into the back of the net.

Only seconds before we were both waxing lyrical about how well CT were doing, and then reality comes and slaps them around the face. One home fan has had enough, saying farewell to his friend before he leaves, one CST fan is on his feet in the main stand, making his approval of his teams industry known, “well done Sodbury”.

CT heads are down and CST only look like they are going to add to the home players misery. The visitors have a strong shout for a penalty waved away, after what looked like a hand ball from a CT defender, stooping to almost ankle level, John Terry style to head the ball clear. I’m convinced CT are going to bag themselves a consolation goal, what kind of consolation a single goal brings I’m not sure, but I just have a feeling they are going to do it, Tom on the other hand is not so sure.

I admit I’m not remotely tactically inclined at all, I’m still coming to terms with what a false 9 is, but I’m pretty sure your number 10 should be a bit further up field to initiate the attacks and not be basically playing as a second left back. CT’s play maker is so deep, he does his best with long raking passes out from the back, but he’s having little effect.

Just as CT chins start to lift, CST go close again, but in the words of an always straight talking Tom, their number 9 who has continued to shine, “fluffed it”. Leaving his marker for dead, someone in the stands tells him to “go all the way”, but he conspires to put his shot wide, when he really should have bagged their fourth, almost every single player in black and white stands motionless with their head in their hands, many of their fans let out a sizable groan.

A full body block against a fierce shot on the edge of the CST box leaves one away player poleaxed, the grimace on his face giving away the fact he felt every bit of the drive at goal. When the referee stops play to see if he needs attention, he has to explain to one of CT’s players that the ball hit his hand and not the other way round.

It seems like whenever CT go close, this time a free kick skids off the turf, almost catching out the CST keeper, who is forced into an uncomfortable looking palm away, it inspires CST to try and score again. Minutes after the away bench instructed the team to “organise”, with CT threatening, they power up the other end and number 9 crashes home from close range.

Just as before there is an almost instant reply from CT, but the shot is scuffed and goes wide. As the gloom starts to set in, the Meccano floodlights start to come into their own and CT are on the hunt for a little bit of pride. “Nothing silly” says the referee, moments before the home side whip in a free kick, a deflection kindly delivering it to a player unmarked who is able to head back towards the empty net, only for a CST player to be on hand to clear his lines.

The group of home fans behind the goal seem more absorbed in the football playing dog, then what is going on the pitch and that's perhaps not a bad thing, as CST almost score a quite magnificent fifth. A quick exchange on the edge of the box is almost finished in style, but the back heel can't find the number 9. The newly started spitting rain is maybe enough to distract those home fans not in the main stand, from their team going close again to conceding. This time a jinking run, almost ends with a goal, only for the CT keeper to paw the ball around the post.

“Bad day at the office” mutters Eric, the game into its final throes, the pace having finally slowed, the players going somewhat through the motions, after what might have been the most high octane match we’ve seen so far this season. CST finish the match as the rain grows heavier, with one last chance to complete the rout, but it's one touch to many and the chance goes begging.

I barely have a chance to think in the minutes proceeding the final whistle, Tom has a train to catch and we've got about fifteen minuets to do a twenty minute drive. It's a bit tense as we hare through the surrounding countryside, the rain getting heavier and heavier, I'm contemplating three hours in the car in a monsoon, Tom that he might be twiddling his thumbs at Weston Super Mare station for ninety minutes, until the next train.

Springing from the passengers side door, with one quick look back over his shoulder to see if he has forgotten anything, Tom sprints for the barriers, catching his train his Whatsapp message later told me, with a minute to spare.

Without even knowing it, he has the annoying knack of doing that, Tom summed up today about quarter of an hour into the first half. His way with words is sometimes a little crude, but unlike me he cuts straight to the point, with as few words as possible.

"Feels like a proper non league day" he said, his reasons for saying so I'm sure everyone can relate to. "Shit weather. Shit pitch. Very physical. The dregs from other called off games".

I couldn't agree with him more, all of the above contribute to why we both love non league football so much, its the predictable, unpredictably of it that makes it so intriguing. Personally I will struggle to forget today for two reasons, the sound of the ball constantly slapping against cold meat, and the thoughts of PE in January it elicited and just how close the white haired linesman was to a bloody nose at half time, when he lunged for Toms chips.

"Shove off" he said smiling, but definitely not joking.


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Sunday, 3 February 2019

Even With Three - Merstham FC Vs Bishop's Stortford FC, Isthmian League Cup Quarter-Final, Moatside (16/01/19)

As I punch RH1 3QB into my Sat Nav, I come over in a cold sweat, the palms of my hands turn clammy, and I think surely lightning can’t strike twice. The sky is ominous, I try not to take it as a bad sign, I cross the car park outside my block of flats at double time because its just started to rain. By the time I reach Tom at our usual rendezvous, the end of my road, he’s cowering under the open boot of his car, performing some kind of costume change. He waves an umbrella in my general direction, asking me if I think he should bring it.

Tom’s busy day meant he “missed lunch” which results in no end of belly aching, about two and a half hours of it to be precise. He rummages around in his bag only to find some out of date Polo’s, which despite being a good six months past their use by date, he necks a handful of, to stave off the hunger pains. Such is his starvation, at one point I’m sure I catch him peering in the windows of passing cars, trying to get a glimpse of what our fellow users of the M25 are eating.

“I’m feeling weak” he murmurs, having now not eaten for a whole four hours. When he asks me if there is a chance my daughter may have dropped anything down the side of her car seat that he could have, I think he is only half joking.

Its slow going, a combination of the rain, which is at least easing and the time of night, means we are all but creeping along, but at least we are moving. It was at about this time, the last time we tried to pay Merstham FC (MFC) a visit, that the traffic came to a stand still and it quickly became apparent that we weren't going to make it.

So far there is no sign of a caravan that's lost its wheel or the need for any emergency resurfacing, which I still don't know what that is, but the speed at which we are plodding along, rarely out of second gear, means it's likely we are going to be late, but at least we are going to get there.

A hush falls over the car as we near the service station where we eventually aborted our last attempt, turning round there and heading home after nearly five hours of sitting in gridlock. Thinking back to 2015, and our first time at Moatside, when Walton Casuals were the lodgers, that journey wasn't exactly straightforward either. A healthy mixture of naivety and stupidity, meant our Oystercards were not valid, so on arrival at the local train station, we were effectively locked in. Crawling on our knees under the barrier, it was only thanks to continued cost cutting, that no staff were present and we got away with it, without being collared.

Having made it, late, but delighted to have got here all the same, my mouth filled with the very odd residual taste of out of date Polos, the last thing I was expecting to hear was Axl Rose, whaling over the rooftops, in this quiet corner of Surrey. “That must piss the neighbours off” says Tom, with his neighbourhood watch hat on. I deduce the music is not coming from the Baptist Church we have just parked outside of, but from somewhere beyond, somewhere masked by tall trees, and illuminated by dazzling floodlights.

Standing at the end of a long, narrow alleyway, it doesn't exactly give away where the music is coming from. Above a chain link gate in the shadow of a towering pine tree the sign reads Welcome To The Specsavers Stadium (Moatside). A few steps later and Axl now at his loudest, we are standing pitchside.

Greeted at the door of the boardroom by the tall, club tie wearing, grey goatee sporting MFC Media Officer, Chris, it is hard to decline his invitation to come in, mainly because of the offer of a cup of tea, and the numerous plates of biscuits scattered about the place. A cracking cuppa in a china mug is the perfect accompaniment to a custard cream, that Tom is doing his best to eat as many of as he can, but as discreetly as possible.

On the large table behind us, the other side of the MFC player engrossed by something on his phone, proper boardroom types, not obvious interlopers like us, sit around chatting, before they are joined by the referee, with the important business of the team sheets to be sorted.

The Surrey Senior Cup glistens centre stage, black and yellow ribbons hanging from it’s handles, Chris saying they’ve almost “adopted” it, considering how many times they have won it. The walls around us groan under the weight of signed shirts and framed mementos from the clubs past. In one corner the tea lady in her grey apron is churning out hot drink, after hot drink.

An encounter with the MFC manger, tightly done up in his blue duffle coat is short but sweet, “you two are very hairy”, he says with a grin. Back outside the music has taken a great turn, Ozzy has replaced Axl and things only keep improving, when the southern tones of Lynyrd Skynyrd come over the airwaves. Tom is perhaps not such a champion of what he calls “Dad Rock” as me. To be clear I won't touch The Quo, Genesis or Nonce-Sense Collins, but I’ll happily listen to a bit of Queen on a long car drive.

What was before a bare trestle table by the turnstiles, now has a bright yellow sign in front of it, with three of my favourite things written across it in black, programmes, golden goal, 50/50 draw. Behind it in a yellow and black hat, yellow and black being the MFC colours, a man is selling tonight's programme from a cardboard box. He reaches down inside, retrieving one and handing it to me, part one of the ultimate football trifecta is complete.

Next up the golden goal, and I take a moment to agonise over which of the folded tickets at the bottom of the rusted sweet tin it is I should pick, but with a fair few sets of eyes on me, wondering why is he taking so long, I snatch at a couple and put them in my pocket. Part two now complete and I think it's important to point out that both transactions were completed almost solely using sign language. Standing directly under a speaker, “down down, deeper and down” sing Status Quo, yuk, I’m struggling to hear myself think, let alone conduct a conversation.

Despite the suggestion of the sign, that the programme, and both forms of gambling could be purchased in one place, the man in the black and yellow hat, points me towards man with short silver hair, who is standing in what I can only describe as a century box, for my 50/50 tickets.

“Three for two” he says like music to my ears, having covered the short distance between the programme seller and him in the blink of an eye. The sound of more classic rock, which has to be said in a Jeremy Clarkson voice over kind of way, mingles with the sound of the players warming up. The man selling the 50/50 tickets says it really depends on “which Merstham turns up” tonight, as far as the game is concerned, it was “1 - 1 in the league” so it's a tough one to call.

The sky is jet black, its mild and still, the scrapping sound of a man dragging faux grass covered steps, shatters the strange mixture of the shooting practise and Deep Purple. Along one side of the changing rooms might just be non leagues largest whiteboard, although it's not technically white, its yellow, but you get what I mean, that is about to have the team's scrawled out across it. With a marker in one hand, and the team sheet in the other, the man ascends the green steps and begins to write.

The players finished, they head inside, a few of the visiting team stop to except hand shakes and words of encouragement, from their fans on the edge of the pitch.

I can just make out the barrow boy cries of the programme seller as the man who just painstakingly wrote out the teams, welcomes us all to the “Specsavers Stadium”, then starts to read them out, and considering he is reading his own handwriting, it’s curious that he struggles with a few of the players names. As is tradition the away teams names are read out in a very droll and monotone fashion, turning it on, when it’s time for the “mighty Moatsiders”. His voice changes completely, plenty of penance, and such is his professionalism, the major reverb from the microphone doesn't throw him.

Now mingling in the doorway leading to the changing room, the man on the mic just has enough time to wish the visitors, Bishop’s Stortford FC (BS) a “safe trip home” before asking all in attendance to “welcome out the two sides”. It is at this point that the music takes a complete one eighty from the kind you would find on a Father's Day CD, to that which you would find in the collection of my dance music loving fiancee.

There is no tunnel to speak of it's literally a single step down from the white double doors and onto the pitch, but not before you’ve passed through the black wrought iron gate, that someone has pinched from a B&Q. “Come on Merstham” shouts the programme seller, still behind his station.

BS for no apparent reason, other than to fill the time between walking out and kick off, run around in circles and as I make my way around the pitch to catch up with Tom, I notice a late arrival, the current Leyton Orient and once Spurs left back, who nearly ruined the 1999 League Cup final by getting sent off, Justin Edinburgh, with his slicked back hair.

A few more shouts of “come on Moatsiders” reverberate from the opposite side of the pitch, from one of the small groups dotted about. The majority of the crowd line the barrier in front of the boardroom and the main stand with its, yes you’ve guessed it, yellow and black seats.

“We ain't started yet, we’re second to everything” bemoans one BS player, MT are well on top straight away. When they zip a shot across the greasy surface after six minutes the BS keeper who's stature has not been lost on Tom, “he’s tiny”, the ball kicks up into his face, forcing him at the second attempt to smother it, before a player in yellow can pounce. MFC spray the ball around confidently, their number 2 in front of us, a regular outlet.

Although he admits that the “biscuits” kept him “going” the power of the bourbons have started to wean and Tom confesses that recent noise was his “stomach rumbling” and not that of a low flying police helicopter. The game has slowed after a very energetic start, Tom thinks it's going to be “really close” in this match up between “Wolves” and “Derby”. His ability to find suitable league teams, that tonight's shirts look a bit like, has clearly been affected by his hunger pains. MFC’s yellow shirt is the completely wrong shade and BS has light grey hoops across theirs, the man is clearly delirious.

If it's not food or the lack of it, Tom will be going on about the weather, “I really need some fingerless gloves” he says for the fiftieth time this winter. It was not that long ago he was talking about doing a DIY job on a pair he had already, but that was all hot air.

Patrolling his area, yet to sit down the BS manager who in a departure from what your usual man in charge would wear, he’s in neither a suit or has gone full Tony Pulis, boots and jogging bottoms, he is
instead in a jeans and trainers, the kind your Dad does the decorating in on dress down Saturday. He does his best to organises his team who are looking very susceptible to MFC’s use of the “long ball” as Tom points out.

Many attempts at pinged ones over the back line have been attempted, and there have been a couple of close calls, but so far his defence have held fast.

“Come on you Moatsiders” shouts the same man as before, the only person attempting to inject any kind of verve in to proceedings. Tom thinks “if nobody scores this half its 0 - 0”, shortly after and BS probably go the closest they have in the first twenty minutes to scoring, when one player cuts in off the right and sends a shot over.

Tom distracts himself from his growing famine, by putting on his Pep hat and getting all technical on me, suggesting MFC should consider playing “two up front”, and “bringing in the 11” whatever that means, and “spreading the midfield” which just sounds rude.

A clear foul on a BS player, “he’s a lenient one” says Tom, sees nothing given much to the annoyance of the BS bench. “Poor lino” says one coach, to the assistant in front of us, who in Toms professional opinion has a very dodgy haircut. Not the sort to simply take his judgement being called in to account on the chin, he is more than happy to give as good as he gets and a terse exchange plays out between the two.

What looks like a audacious attempt at a lob from one BS player, takes their attempts on goal tally to two. “Get hold of it” demands one home fan, the match having descended into a middle of the pitch scramble, the fault of a very “congested middlefield” claims out Tom, who flits between tactical analysis and thinking what he is going to eat at half time, “I could do a hotdog”.

Highlighting the lack of action, the clapping that follows the awarding of a home corner from one fan, is so enthusiastic that you would think they had scored, and his enthusiasm only subsides when the BS keeper is fouled and a free kick is awarded to the visitors. The linesman in front of us is not the only official whose hair is worthy of comment. The referee looks like he’s had a platinum dye job done, referee by day, Manumission podium dancer by night.

The abundance of trees that surrounded the ground, almost but not completely filter out the sound of a nearby busy road. The home number 2 who is always free and unmarked, stands with his arms constantly in the air, wanting the ball. “Come on Merstham” shouts the fan who is clearly a huge fan of a corner, as he manically claps his hands together at the sight of his team getting another one.

Whipped in with real danger, it's just about cleared, only for MFC to regain possession and to cross again. The home team look a real threat from every set piece, “better” says Tom as the needle on the action’o’meter twitches.

“Its coming” urges one MFC player, the BS keeper having just spilled another shot, but recovered well to block the rebounded second attempt. The resulting corner sees a very “cheeky” as Tom puts it in this best Carry On voice, attempt at a near post Zola back healed finish.

“Thirty six minutes, thirty six minutes” confirms the voice over the PA, confirming the time of the MFC goal, and that neither of my golden goal tickets are winners. Another corner, a flick on and stab home from close range, and the home side find themselves deservedly in front.

What the hell is he doing, I wonder as I find myself edging way from Tom, who is taking turns at standing on alternate legs, and kicking out his foot. “I’m trying a new tactic” he says, like I’m the crazy one, “my feet always get cold, too much standing around” so he reckons a bit of calisthenics will sort him out, that's his “theory” anyway. Never short of a theory or two, he thinks his recent holiday excesses are to blame for why he is so hungry, “I ate so much over Christmas I've stretched my stomach”.

A half short of thrills might be the best way to describe the first forty five minutes. MFC’s number 11 has impressed Tom, although as he put it he is a little “greedy”. BS have the final effort of the half, a shot from outside the box which is about “ten foot wide” chuckles Tom and soon the familiar feeling of abandonment washes over me, Tom is off in search of food, but at least I have Freddie, Brian, Roger and John for company, although I think it's fair to say that everyone will hope that one side or the other will “rock” us the second half.

I spend the break scouring the horizon for Justin Edinburgh, but can't see his overly slicked hair self anywhere. The “Dad Rock” classics are coming thick and fast, Summer Of 69, You Give Love a Bad Name are all belted out while someone fiddles with the volume, but they have their levels sorted just in time for what is probably the zenith of too much guitar, and not enough substance, Layla.

“Even with three” sniggers Tom, when I inform him that even with my copious amount of tickets, I still cant bag the 50/50. He returns just before the players do, BS are out first, and not long behind them those of the home team, with a “Big MFC Burger”. He breaks down its grandiose name for me, explaining it’s “basically a double cheeseburger”.

The final words over the PA are just what Tom wanted to hear, Tom who is far from a fan of extra time after a midweek cup match, when he tells us the game tonight will go “straight to penalties” should it be a draw after ninety minutes.

An early BS shot, that is pushed around the post for a corner, does little to raise the volume here, its library quiet. Tom like an animal on the Serengeti, who wants solitude to devour its prey, has removed himself from me slightly to destroy his burger in peace.

A burst of pace sees one MFC attacker into the box, tackled he claims for a penalty almost mid air, but it’s declined, and so as to not waste the chance at a shot he still manages to get one off, which is good enough to win a corner. A corner which they don’t hang around to take and it results in their second shot on target, in as many minutes, which creeps just over the bar.

BS’s equaliser is a tad unexpected, they have threatened rarely, but it gives us something to talk about. The goal itself is a close range finish into the roof of the net, the kind that leaves the keeper at full stretch, hands above his head, but such is the velocity of the shot, he is completely hapless.

The goal does little to knock MFC out of their dominant stride and only a couple of minutes after BS drew things level, they almost restore parity with a daisy cutter of a free kick, which the referee said went wide of the foot of the post, awarding BS a goal kick, when it was clearly “saved”. Tom confirming what I was sure I saw, but the referee missed.

People clutching their mugs, grimace at the sound of a big challenge, that leaves one BS players on his back poleaxed, the MFC player responsible looking nervous and his teammates do their best to plead his case, “ref it's a 50/50”.

The nearby arrival of one MFC fan with a blue bag of beers at his feet is a welcome injection of interest. He’s not exactly forthcoming with songs and imaginative chants, it’s more like he is quoting the very basic of inspirational Instagram posts, things like “let’s go” and “keep it together”, but it's something at least.

MFC’s most creative and inventive player suffers from a dose of not knowing when to give it up once again, “11 needs to learn how to pass” tuts Tom. He does all the good work of getting into a great position, just on the edge of the box, and with a teammate screaming for it in the box, but instead of passing, he takes it that bit too far, the move breaks down and it pretty much sums up MFC’s night.

“It's coming, its comings” cries MFC’s number 12, after a chance from the edge of the six yard box is
poked over. Number 2 alone and still almost always unmarked was found well, his cross was just as good, but the finish was well, it was lacking.

The PA wrestles with the pronunciation of the latest comings and goings, “he didn't have much of a clue” laughs Tom as he mangles the name of the BS substitute. MFC are now exclusively attacking down their right wing. The exploits of the marauding number 2 wins another corner, which leaves one BS defender winded, his hard fall to the pitch is followed by a loud thud, his teammate is less than sympathetic, “get up, get up”.

MFC’s number 11 attacks again, MFC’s number 11 gets in to the box, over egged the pudding and loses the ball again. The gaggle of black and yellow scarf and hat wearing fans behind the goal, including the programme and 50/50 seller, mutter to each other as the ball rolls out of play.

Just short of thirty minutes gone and the home crowd let out a collective “arghhhhh”. Their team have just spurred golden chance number eight or nine. The big haired attacker, a man from the Kid & Play school of hairdos, rushes his shot, dragging it right across the front of goal. Inadvertently his effort, turns into an excellent cross straight down the ‘corridor of uncertainty’, but no one is there to get on the end of it.

A new home change, and the introduction of their ever so sprightly number 15, who only seconds after getting on the pitch, wriggles away from three defenders with ease, joins the all out attack, as Tom puts it, “no one wants pens”. A thought echoed by the shouts of the home fans, “come on I’m getting cold”.

I wouldn't go as far as saying the MFC supporters are getting frustrated, but considering their control on the game, there is a feeling that it should have been put well of out of sight, long ago. One fan thinks some players are just not giving it their all, “come on Merstham don't stand still”. I’m not sure I agree, players are darting from left to right all over the place, it's like a display by the Red Arrows, there is though just a distinct lack of final product. They are doing all the figurative barrel rolls and loop, the loops, but there is just no smoke at the end of it.

Beer in a bag man continues to dish out plenty of slurred advice, and lets out an angry “come on” when BS almost steal the show, with a back post header that drops neatly to a forward in the box whose snap shot is well blocked by the MFC keeper who has had next to nothing to do all match and as of yet is to be distracted by the strange noises coming over the PA, because someone has failed to turn the microphone off.

BS’s keeper does his best Ederson impression with a charging sliding clearance well outside his box, reaching the ball just before the MFC number 11. “Not long to go” shouts one BS player, less than five minutes in fact for them to hold out. MFC flood forward at every opportunity, another shot takes a deflection and nearly creeps in. The visitors have a very late and very short moment of pressure with a quick break, but can't though find the intended target in the box.

“Come on Merstham” pleads a supporter with what must be only seconds of the half left to play and they very nearly secure the win their second half efforts deserve, but again the BS keeper is equal to the task, he is becoming quite the immovable object. The low drive is stopped in its tracks, the rebound falls into the six yard box, but no one is on hand to finish. The final MFC attempt, the last of so many this half, is a thunderous one from the industrious number 2, but not to be crude it's straight up the arse of a BS defender who should be applauded for his bravery.

“Hold it, hold it” demands the home number 8, but his teammate does the opposite, losing possession and allowing BS to break. Luckily for the player who number 8 is currently burning a hole in the back of his head with his death stare, the BS shot was wild and it disappears into the trees behind the goal.

The final whistles sounds, people are on their toes, waiting for the toss of the coin, and the end for the shoot out to be decided. One MFC fan lets out a reluctant sigh, “here we go”.

Still in her apron the tea lady announces, "I'm going back in, you know I don't watch them". Another fan in a mobility scooter moving ends, is accused of cutting and running before the tie is concluded, "you can't bugger off" says someone as he weaves through the crowd, but he has an excuse already prepared, "I'm scared".

Strung out across the half way line, the takers having been agreed, separated by a linesman in the middle, the two teams await their turn. Each bench stands arms interlocked, Brazil at USA 94 style in the mouth of their dugout, watching on nervously.

It's just about the most ideal start for a keeper in a shootout, saving the first kick he comes up against, and that's just what BS's does, a keeper who I later learned only joined the club the day before, "well played" shouts a fan from the crowd. He is not the only man between the sticks capable of a spot kick save though, MFC's pulls off one too as things grow tenser.

MFC's manager breaks free from the confines of his technical area and asks his team for more noise, more encouragement for the players making the long walk to the twelve yard spot, but when the big haired MFC forward hits the wood work, returning to the half way line and tossing his shin pads away, BS score next and a mighty groan goes up.

The final penalty is left to the still fresh legged second half substitute MFC's number 15, who had the demeanour of someone never totally confident. His penalty was hit cleanly enough, but too close to the new boy in goal for BS, who gets down low and with one hand, wins the match for the visitors winning 3 - 2.

I can't say that anyone in yellow and black seemed overly distraught, the man on the PA certainly didn't, the disposition of the announcer, is normally a good litmus test of the mood of the crowd. He is quick to congratulate BS, and wishes them luck in the next round against Enfield, whose name by mistake stood instead of BS's on tonight programme. Chris made it clear the League Cup, as it is at every level, in every league, is very low down the priority list, in fact its the lowest, "fourth out of four" he told me.

The man with beers in a bag has a few choice words for the BS players as they celebrate, the single MFC flag on the green fence stays put and Justin Edinburgh is nowhere to be seen, Chris telling me his son was playing for BS this evening, so they've just shot up our list of teams to go see.

Reasons to want to watch a league cup game ever again, except for the final, are minimal, its just so apparent that fans and players just don't give a toss. Reasons to come back to Moatside are plentiful, the main being that according to Chris, is that the chairman is a "butcher" and his "sausages are rather good".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Saturday, 19 January 2019

Come On Janice - Sheffield United FC Vs Barnet FC, FA Cup 3rd Round, Bramall Lane (06/01/19)

No one likes getting up early, not really and let alone on a Sunday. Which for me is about Jus-Rol croissants on the sofa and finishing Match Of The Day, because I fell asleep watching it, the previous night and I’m dying to know what Martin Keown thinks about Bournemouth's display.

In much of Europe football on Sunday is quite normal, who didn't spend their youth watching Atlanta Vs Sampdoria before their roast. Only because of the power of the TV schedulers has it become more common here and in the non league world, football on the holy day, still feels like a bit of novelty.

Waiting for me at the end of my road in his car, I pull up in front of Tom, he takes the few steps from his car to mine, a few words are exchanged and his shoes are soon off, and he’s draped his large winter jacket over his knees like someone with a tweed blanket on a carriage ride and is grasping for the chair recliner handle down to his left.

It being the first time we have seen each other since the New Year, we have plenty to talk about as we join the M1, following the heading of straight up, which will not change for about the next two and half hours. Tom’s NYE sounded, interesting. Much gin was consumed, not normal everyday gin, but high end, distilled in the upturned hat of a stormtroopers helmet kind of gin and his evening almost came to a very abrupt end, when someone suggested a “fiery sambuca” party game.

The topic of cheese consumes most our time between junction five and the Watford Gap, where for so many like Tom the true North begins, we stop briefly to grab a coffee, served by a man with a very curious voice. Tom and his other half have only just finished what by all accounts was a deli counter worth of fromage. A breakdown in communication, meant they both hit the the dairy aisle pretty hard and ended up with quite the selection. Tom’s favourite, Port Salut, with it’s strange orange wrapper, he admits isn't really proper cheese, but a glorified “mini Babybel”.

Crying Fabregas and of course the whole Greggs vegan sausage roll thing cropped up too, as did the fact that Tom’s impending wedding is causing no end of friction in casa del Sparks. Soon though the talking stops as we are both overcome with an unrelenting feeling of deja vu when we spot the twisted spire of Chesterfield’s Church of St Mary and All Saints under a very changeable sky.

Regular readers will remember this is not the first time for us in these neck of the woods this season, in fact Yorkshire is quickly becoming our second favourite football county, after Essex of course. Although technically the last time we were driving through Chesterfield it was to see a team named after one of the counties most famous cities, but who actually play in Derbyshire. With North Ferriby already under our belt, plus a more few planned visits for later this season, it is all getting quite familiar.

Today though I can confirm we will 100% be in Yorkshire, seeing a team named after the city they play in, which is the same, only with a slight difference, as the other team we saw here last time, but who actually play in the city they're named after.

If anything the sun has warmed and the sky has brightened the further up we’ve gone. Tom even found it necessary to de-snood he was so hot, thanking his lucky stars he didn't bring his “long johns”. Sitting in the car park of a Morrisons on the outskirts of Sheffield, waiting for Tom who has darted to the loo, having spent the last twenty minutes squirming, and convulsing, his giant cream covered mocha having gone right through him, I have to roll down my window as I’m close to getting a sweat on.

Springing out the front doors of the supermarket like a new man, I scoop him up and we are soon back underway.

The closer we get to today's ground, the less confidence I have in my Sat Nav, as the houses get closer and closer together, the streets get narrower, and quieter and there is no way surely there is a 32,000 seater stadium around here. A hulking Barnet FC (BFC) fan, today's away team, striding up the street, he is of Hafþór Björnsson proportions, with his orange and black scarf around his neck, gives me hope and then all of a sudden a break in a seemingly never ending row of red brick terraced houses, it's there, looking totally out of place and right at home, all at once, Bramall lane.

Just the other side of a low slung wall, the steel struts of one stand rise up into the clear blue sky. The closer we get, the more red and white of Sheffield United FC (SU) comes into view. Many of those fans in scarves and shirts are loitering outside the local chippy, while a couple set up a trestle table on the corner of one road, covered in the kind of unofficial merchandise one can expect towards the tip of the football pyramid.

Top flight football team, built up residential area and easy parking are not three things that normally appear in the same sentence, well today they do. Not wanting to go on about it too much, but it was so easy to find a spot to leave the car, on a side street less than a five minute walk from where we wanted to be. I’m thinking the fact it’s a Sunday, a 14:00 kick off and not the most glamorous of ties, all have their part to play. Passing the people selling the Minions covered SU scarves, skirting along a much higher red brick wall, we are soon standing outside the Tony Currie stand.

Two large statues are the first thing that catch my eye, them and the huge round sparking club crest reflecting the bright suns rays. Tom of course sees none of this, he has his football romance blinkers on, all he can see is the “super store”. He is able to suppress his need to shop for long enough, to allow me to satisfy my own itch, “programme two pounds”.

Madonna warbles over the speakers, the security guard in his crisp white shirt welcomes us, as we step into what is just a bit different from the club shops we are used to, a lady with a box full of pins and a couple of old scarfs behind the bar. Tom is quickly taken by the mint green SU keepers shirt, before disappearing, and leaving me surrounded by foam fingers.

“You can buy everything here” says Tom, beaming, showing off his pin, pointing at the, “golf tees” and “tote bags”. I as many of you may well know, am I big fan of what I call ‘football tat’, a chipped mug, an old shirt a poorly made mouse mat, however everything in here is as Tom put a bit too “swanky” for me, a bit too well presented, clean and new, so I leave empty handed.

Not being our usual overly early selves, I would have expected with not long to kick off, to maybe have seen a bit more life in the streets around the ground. Everything is here that screams major football venue, but the roads are lifeless. Where I’m sure normally there would be great throngs of people, there are only dribs and drabs. One burger van is preparing for the day, but I can't imagine on this showing so far, they will be doing much business. The dot matrix sign announcing the fixture, in the shadow of a towering stand with forged in steel written across its side, seems a waste of time. Many of the skinny red doors with the turnstile beyond, are closed, and why the local police force thought coppers on horseback were necessary, I'll never know.

The sound of bagpipes was not one I expected to hear today, however a lone pipesman has taken up position behind a red bucket, collecting for charity. It may well be the case that Bramall Lane will hardly be packed today, however the sight of a BFC family, sporting not one, but two homemade tinfoil cups, one an absolute giant, justified the time spent in the car alone.

It’s depressing how the interior of large all seater stadiums are all almost identical, bare concrete, small TV’s showing Sky Sports News, the odd flourish of colour in an attempt to brighten up the place. It is not until you take the few steps up to the opening to your block, that if you’re like me, you
get that sensation, the very same one I got when I first saw the hallowed pitch at White Hart Lane, a sensation that is very difficult to put into words.

With each step you see that little bit more, it's all about the slow reveal and then all of a sudden it's there in front of you. The emerald green pitch, the dugouts, all the little details that make it the ground it is, like SUFC spelt out in white seats in the stand opposite us. A multitude of red and white flags top the stands to our left and right, like candles on a birthday cake and front and centre the red clock that sits proudly with gold roman numerals and the date the club was founded, 1889.

“Sit anywhere you want” says the beardy steward at the top of the steps, “if you wanna stand, go at the back”. With the middle of the upper tier of the away end already well occupied, we ascend the frighteningly steep steps, crampons are advised, and plonk ourselves down in one of the seats on the the edge of the crowd. Mulling over the words of an old work colleague and friend, also called Daniel, who we bumped into outside, who was looking I think it's fair to say a little bit worse for wear, he reckons there will be “800” BFC supporters who have made the trip up the M1 today. He also shares with us a brief moment of nostalgia, of away days of yesteryear, “to think 14 years ago we took 6,000 to Old Trafford”.

Almost just a mere spec on the touchline below, a man with a mic and clipboard, tells us that SU are “delighted to welcome Barnet” which is received with a considerable amount of cheers from the travelling fans and shouts of “come on Barnet”.

Tom is “envious”of those home fans who are able to bask in the early afternoon sun. We are now and will be for the remainder of the day, shrouded in shade, which in combination with the sheer nature of the stand, makes it feels a little bit like we are clinging on to the side of the Eiger.

As every good stadium announcer should be, the font of knowledge informs us, that it's the “first ever meeting between the two sides” in the FA Cup, however despite this, there is still a curious connection between the two clubs, the stand the announcer is standing in front of, is named after the SU “legend” who is the uncle of the current Barnet first team manager.

Each BFC player gets a fervent cheer when his name is read out, before the stadium music is cranked back up to a level that makes it difficult to think and one BFC fan with an orange scarf tucked in his belt, despite having his choice of seats to sit in, decided to nigh on sit on my lap.

“Not a lot of choice” says Tom, having returned from his hunt for food. Unfortunately it seems the higher up the pyramid you go, the fewer options or variety of things to eat you get, it's all a bit bland, all a bit mass produced, it’s all a bit boil in a bag and try and shift two thousand units. Little chance of getting a Burger Monsters Belly Buster here, little chance of a whiteboard ladened with eight different types of burger on it. Instead it's simply either or, “pie or hotdog”. Tom says his pie is “cold” and I reckon the best bit about it is probably the cardboard tray it came in, with forged in steel on the side. The lack of “no chips” means Tom has already decided that we are are “gonna have to stop on the way home”.

“United, united, united we stand” sing who we are reliably informed is Judas Priest, by the man with the mic who makes another one of his short cameos between songs, who has a voice that I’m sure was honed by years of local radio. “He’s absolutely brilliant live” he tells us, he being “Sir Roderick Stewart”, who will be playing at Bramall lane in the summer. “You wanna go see Rodders?” asks Tom.

Presented to the BFC supporters by a large sword carrying pirate, the BFC mascot applauds the travelling fans, who respond in kind, as well as more shouts of “come on Barnet”, all while a few black and orange balloons start to gently bob about. Behind him the BFC players depart, waving to the fans as they do, their warm up complete and a low rumbling rendition of “bee army” serenades them as they disappear down the tunnel.

“Let's have a countdown to kick off” suggests the voice over the PA, the big screen to our left goes dark, and the sound of an ever quickening heartbeat starts to play. Moody stirring music accompanies the montage that follows, doing its bit to get the home fans in the mood. The BFC supporters continue to sing, the three of four next to us, we've moved to the very back of the stand, are banging the wall behind them, while singing, “bee army, bee army”. A song which quickly joins that of the Hampton & Richmond Borough fans,“come on you beavers” and Tonbridge Angels, “come on you angels” as the nicest and least threatening in all of football.

All but drowned out by the rousing music, they don't let this put them off, they sing regardless, “we love you Barnet we do”. Getting ever closer to kick off the sprinklers come on, giving the pitch one last soak, the red FA Cup hoardings are carried out onto the pitch and I notice down to our right, perhaps BFC’s most well known fan, Village. Still sporting his Father Christmas hat. Sitting near just a couple of his extensive collection of flags, it looks like a cuddly toy fox sitting on the chair next to him.

The temporary goals for the warm up are carried in. The music blaring still doesn't deter the BFC fans, “Wembley, Wembley, we're the famous Barnet FC and we're going to Wembley”. One supporter is whirling his scarf above his head, and among the now sizable crowd, which I’m sure is very close to exceeding Daniels suggestion of “800” I see a border collie stuffed toy, also in a Father Christmas hat, being hoisted above one mans head.

It is certainly not a Kasabian song that I’ve been looking forward to hearing, but it is one of theirs that plays as the teams walk out. Both sides applaud the welcome that they get, the BFC fans belt out “come on Barnet, come on Barnet” as a flurry of balloons cascade forward. Each team huddles, while the tail end of the SU supporting bands tune finishes. For me it’s The Greasy Chip Butty song I'm here for, the SU club anthem. The first lines of which are played over the PA, before it cuts out and the fans carry on acapella, and although it's not being sung by many, “Like a packet of woodbines, like a good pinch of snuff, like a night out In Sheffield” it’s one of those nuances that for me makes football so fascinating and emotional.

It's a rampant first ten minutes on and off the pitch for the National League side and its fans. More scarves than before are stretched out above the heads of the fans, their singing is constant, a baritone “bees, bees” that you can feel in your chest and with only two minutes gone BFC have already had a shot, admittedly its wide, but it shows their intentions. They are not here simply to make up the numbers.

“If you love Barnet stand up” is the latest song, but everyone in already on their feet, despite the instructions of the beardy steward. The lack of noise coming from the sparse home crowd, also hasn't gone unnoticed, “your support is fucking shit”.

For a split second the hundreds of BFC fans thought their Christmases and Birthdays had all come at once following a glanced header on about four minutes, that ghosted past the SU keeper and into the back of the net and for a brief moment they thought they had gone in front. The scorer realises it, but it feels a long time before the fans do who are still jumping and pounding the back of the stand. The BFC number 27 can’t bring himself to look over his shoulder at the linesman who has raised his flag.

What's telling in the moments after the goal is disallowed, is that the BFC fans are not overcome with
grief, they are not depressed or feel hard done by, but quite the opposite, their songs grow louder “oh North London is wonderful”, with now even more of them are on their feet, then before.

Over the din of the crowd Tom tells me Bramall Lane reminds him of “Charlton”, because it's “red, white and empty”. Two quickfire shouts for BFC penalties confirm the start of this match as absolutely chaotic. The first follows an excellent ball over the top, that sees one of the rapid BFC front three off and away, but what is sublime recovering tackle and not a foul, denies him a shot. The second just inside the area looks a little less clear cut, but is also waved away.

An away day beyond the Watford gap for any team from down south, would not be complete without the chant of “you dirty northern bastard” on at least one occasion. The irony being that the southern fans, always pronounce bastard, like a northerner. An SU foul in midfield brings about the songs first outing.

BFC go close once more with a shot over the bar. Their fans are still going great guns, “Underhill, Underhill, we’re the famous Barnet FC and we come from Underhill”. On the pitch though they are not having it all their own way anymore. SU are slowly getting a grip on the game and are probing at what until now has been a resilient BFC defence, which is thoroughly appreciated by one fan, “fuck them up, get into them”.

The BFC fans ask, “can you hear the Sheffield sing?” and then what I think is the most damning, they offer up their services to the apparently shy home crowd, “shall we sing a song for you?”. Again trying to talk over the clamour, Tom points to a glistening, sumptuous looking pie on the big screen, one of the near constant rotation of adverts, “my pie didn't look like that”.

Another burst into the SU box from one of the BFC three pronged attack, however this time the last ditch tackle is not so well timed, and the referee has no hesitation pointing to the spot. Allowing themselves a moment to celebrate the awarding of the penalty, one man rubs his hands together with glee, but its not to long before they are calling for the dismissal of the SU defender, “off, off, off” they chant, punching the air, but it's only a yellow, “booooooo”.

Although he is the full length of a football pitch away, the BFC fans want to do everything they can to give their man the best possible chance, so quiet is requested, “shhhhhh”. For the first time today the BFC supporters fall silent, some people clearly don't know what to do with themselves, however the hush doesn't last for long. BFC’s number 10 has just slotted the ball into the side netting, not far from the left hand of the SU keeper who guessed the right way, and the celebrations for the offside goal, are made to look like how someone might react if they found a pound down the back of the sofa.

The scarves being whirled above people's heads are being done so at such a rate they are a blur. The crowd boils, jumping, hugging, sheer pandemonium. The scorer falls to his knees, his hands pointed to the heavens, his moment of reflection is short lived as he is soon mobbed by his teammates, one quite literally knee sliding into him.

Some fans thoughts have already turned to “Wembley, Wembley”, however they are almost brought crashing down to earth only two or three minutes after going in front, when a clumsy BFC challenge on the edge of their box, is only inches away from undoing all their fine work. “Looked like a pen to me” says Tom. The referee blows up, all those around us faces are contorted with anguish, but the minuscule dot of foam from the referees spray can, signals the foul was just the other side of the white line and it’s a free kick.

A free kick that comes to nothing, and each and every BFC supporter can breath again, “1 - 0 to the Barnet boys”. The visitors have a plan and by god are they going to stick with it, spraying balls out wide, their number 10, who is pulling all the strings, has so far has been faultless, and either side of him they have a couple of devastatingly quick forwards. The diagonal ball from the defence out to the wings has worked for them more than once, but this time the wide player takes just one too many touches and is dispossessed in the box.

“Who cares about horse riding in Italy?” asks Tom, the advert for an equestrian holiday one of the many on loop. Tom thinks they are used as some kind of distraction, something to stop the score appearing on screen. Like a scene straight from Yankee Stadium, a man appears below us, holding aloft a programme, trying to sell them to the crowd, who are far too busy singing, “you are my Barnet”. Most chants seem to be emanating from the gruff voiced BFC Capo down to our left, every shout sounding like it's doing permanent damage to his vocal chords

“Unlucky” says one fan, a good exchange on the edge of the SU box results in a shot but it's over. Again someone asks “stand up if you love Barnet” again those who are not already, which now is hardly anyone, do so. It's quite the stark contrast as the odd chair bangs shut, looking at the stand opposite us, which does not have a single person in it.

A single handful of homemade confetti is hurled into the air, then flutters down slowly around the person whose pocket, and the people either side of him, that it just came out of. With more in reserve, he does it again. A lone female voice like clockwork lets out a “come on Barnet” and the man next to her replies without fail, “come on Janice”.

“Can we play you every week?” ask the BFC fans, when a long range SU shot goes well over. Although the game has slowed dramatically on the pitch, no one could have kept up that tempo for a whole forty five minutes, the BFC fans are still motoring, “glory glory Barnet FC”.

The home fans booo their teams lack of endeavour, in possession they want to see the ball go forward, but instead its rolled back to their keeper. When they do get it forward they don't exactly have their shooting boots on. A back post attempt at a shot is horrible, and ends up going behind the player who swiped his foot at the ball, which as you can imagine gets unrelenting volume of sneering, “weyyyyy”.

Still confident that they are “going to Wembley” the BFC fans on the performance so far have every right to think so. They have restricted SU to simply passing the ball around in front of their two solid all blue banks of four. When they do launch the ball forward its lacking any of the accuracy required, much to the delight of the BFC supporters, “same old Barnet, taking the piss”.

Into the final five and the BFC defence is putting out fires everywhere. To say they are hanging on might be a little unkind, but they are certainly under the cosh. Attack after attack is squashed, while the fans again sing about the fact “no one likes us”. “Two minutes of added time” says the man with the clipboard, SU surge forward again, but there is always a player in blue to snuff out the danger.

The blast of the referee's whistle brings a few sighs of relief, but also the resounding feeling from the BFC fans of, we are halfway there. By no way is it a fluke they find themselves in front, they have been the better side in every department and their fans know it, “come on Barnet, come on Barnet”.

“Why would you go out and play football in the rain?” ponders Tom, the sprinklers are back on, but a few players are still warm up on the pitch. Some iffy dance music shatters the pleasant murmur of people chatting, and the man with the mic tells us “Sheffield United women are drawing with Spurs”. He then proceeds to read out the results to some kind of fan match day gambling that wasn't available to the away supporters, which gets the expected unsympathetic comment from Tom, “you didn't win!”.

The music takes a couple of funny turns before the players reappear, first a bizarre cover of The Human Leagues, Don't You Want Me, then on the big screen appears who Tom refers to as the “northern Katy Perry”. A young lady neither of us are familiar with and the quality of her video, is somewhat up for debate, “why is she standing in front of those Amazon pickup lockers” says Tom, “cheap video I suppose”.

“Who are ya, who are ya” chant the BFC fans when SU return to more Kasabian, and are put through some sprints on the touchline. BFC appear to the familiar chant of “come on Barnet”. The man with the clipboard hopes we “enjoy the second half” before the The Greasy Chip Butty song starts to play, cutting out like it did before, leaving the fans to finish it off.

Considering what I imagine was quite the rollicking the SU team got at half time, they were second
best to everything in the first half, it’s no great surprise they are straight on the front foot at the beginning of the new half. Whispering, Tom leans over, he thinks it's just a matter of time before the hosts score, and ruin the party, “I think they're gonna win 2 - 1”.

The BFC fans are a little slow back to their seats, many of the late arrivals are holding something to eat, that they've ordered from the extensive menu, “pie or hotdog”. Those in place for the restart are soon back to singing, just as they had been nigh on the whole first half, “come on Barnet, come on Barnet”.

If the FA Cup could be won simply by how amazing your players hair is, then SU would already have the trophy in the bag, their number 20 has the most amazing flowing locks, that bounce about while he runs. The locals are getting increasingly frustrated with their team and the BFC fans can sense it, and are more than happy to rub it in, “your grounds too big for you”, “you're supposed to be at home”.

A goal for the home side though feels like a matter of when, not if, another last gasp tackle by a BFC defender stops a certain goal scoring chance, and Toms premonition seems like coming true, sooner rather than later. However BFC are far from out of it, ten minutes of the new half gone and they very nearly double their lead. Another rapid counterattack, a ball across the six yard box, that is only prevented from being tapped in, by the outstretched boot of a sliding SU defender.

The corner is well delivered and the attempt at a clearing header almost creeps under the bar, only the fingertips of the keeper, keeps it out, setting up BFC for a second set piece which leaves every BFC player and fan thinking ‘how?'. Maybe no more than two foot from the goal line, a BFC player at the far post, the ball dropping kindly for him, can't sort his feet out. Instead of poking the ball in the empty net, he seems to stand on it instead, allowing an SU player precious seconds to hoof it clear.

He can't believe it, he clasps his hands to the back of his head. The BFC fans can't believe they have not doubled their lead, which they would have more than deserved. Some fans bend over double exacerbated, some hold their hands up to their face, some just look sick at the sight of the missed opportunity.

Deep and low the BFC fans chant, in the truest sense of the word, the clubs nickname, “bees, bees”. I’m starting to lose count of the number of SU attacks the BFC back line have extinguished, and there's not even fifteen minutes on the clock. “Tighter” shouts one fan, demanding even more of his team. However among all the near chances for SU, BFC are still creating their own, “shoot” shout the people around us, “unlucky” says one as the effort goes over.

A high pitched squeal of “come on Barnet” from one person makes Tom ask, “is that a child?” when in fact I think it was just a very excited adult. Boo’s ring out from the BFC supporters, one of their players is down, and the SU ones clearly have no intention of putting the ball out of play, “you dirty northern bastards”. One man instead of singing it, chooses to wolf whistles it, with four fingers in his mouth.

Eventually the balls goes out and the player can be attended to. The home fans jeer at the sight of him making his way to the touch line, the BFC supporters applaud him, before having a jab at the muted crowd, “we forgot that you were here”.

The always hummed Entry of the Gladiators that accompanies any kind of a mistake at a football match, rears its head when SU are almost caught out by over playing it at the back. “Bee army” sing the BFC fans, before all letting out a sizable “ohhhh” when a SU shot skims the bar as it flies over. The chance causes a commotion among the home supporters, the BFC fans are quick to put them back in their place, “sit down”.

Ready to come on is “the famous Billy Sharp” as Tom points out. The local hero who I assume his manager wanted to rest for the visit of a lowly non league side, is being chucked on to try and save the day and in front of us apparently one of the Three Tenors has arrived, the delivery of the songs and chants like something right out the Last Night of The Proms.

A BFC shot from the edge of the box, through a sea of legs, very almost catches out the SU keeper, who sees it at the very last moment and manages to push it wide. Not long after and SU start one of their now far more familiar challenges towards the BFC goal, only for a well timed trip or professional foul in midfield cutting it short.

“I know we should be winning by more” says a man half shouting into his phone behind me and he’s not wrong. SU’s latest shot is tame and gets an apathetic “weeyyyy”, but BFC are having less and less of it their own way. With fifteen minutes to go, the home side are finally showing some of that calibre that makes them a Championships side, stroking the ball around with an air of confidence.

Such is the desire of the BFC players to slow the game down, it is they shouting loudest when an SU player is injured, for the ball to be kicked into touch. They would be more than happy for the referee to halt play, to allow some respite. One man hums the funeral march as the downed SU player is attended to, when he gets to his feet he cries, “Lazarus has risen, hallelujah”. Plácido Domingo takes it things step further letting loose a couple of his own very dramatic, “hallelujah, hallelujah”.

SU have well and truly forced BFC way back into their own half, the fans try to relieve the tension they must all be experiencing, with a few more digs at the home fans, “are you Wednesday in disguise” and “you've come to see the Barnet”, but it's going to be a very nervy final quarter of an hour. “Get it out” cries one fan, an SU cross into the box, is knocked down by the keepers attempt to catch it, but the SU player it falls to can't control the ball. The BFC backline having once again smothered a SU attack right at the last.

When BFC do get the ball, their counter attacks are lacking some of that zip from earlier in the match, to be fair to them they have not stopped running, so undoubtedly there must be a few tired legs out there. Still in possession after what looked like a promising attack had fizzled out, the ball is eventually delivered into the SU box but the flicked header hits a defender.

Each “come on you bees” from now on, is less and less assured and more and more panicked.

“Justice” shouts one supporter, when the ball strikes the referee and bounces back into BFC's possession, having just awarded SU a free kick for a very dubious looking foul. SU are getting closer and closer, a header goes just wide, “ohhhhh” gasp the home fans, however the chants of the BFC supporters, “we love you Barnet we do”, remain just as loud.

With just over five minutes plus added on time left to play, BFC are so close to a full blown cupset, but have to stay switched on. The last thing they want to do is be the orchestrator's of their own downfall. A blind back header from one defender nearly puts them under all sort of unnecessary pressure, but they get away with it this time and then, as they have all afternoon fly up the other end and have a decent looking shot blocked.

Into the final five and BFC have been forced back almost onto their own goal line, their fans continue to distract themselves with a endless amount of different songs, “que sera sera” as well as an en masse version of, “oh when the bees go steaming in”, one fan standing on the small back wall, clings onto the roof of the stand half stooped, giving everything he has into every single word. Still with time to play one supporter has seen enough and can't take any more, “blow your whistle ref”.

“We can see you sneaking out” sing the BFC fans as the clock ticks down, some home supporters have taken all they can bear and more and more orange and black scarves are now popping up above the crowds heads, taught between outstretched arms. “Squeaky bum time” says Tom as he always does in times like these. One SU player shaping up to head the ball in the box, is struck by it, more than making any kind of meaningful contact with it, and the chance goes begging.

BFC are well and truly camped out around their own eighteen yard box, nerves around us are starting to fray. When an SU attack breaks down the sarcastic jeers are tinged with a heavy dose of relief.

SU have just hit the bar, a close range header has just been tipped onto the woodwork, and the next few seconds almost happen in slow motion, as the ball bobbles along it, before dropping back into play. Only for time to return to normal, when it's headed out for a corner.

"Five minuets of added time" announces he with the mic, which is not received well by the BFC fans, booooooooo". One last invitation to "stand up for the Barnet boys" goes up, but its a wasted effort, there is not a person in sight not upright, fidgeting and counting down the seconds. Into what must have been the final moments of the match I'm able to tick off  'grown up in a silly wig' in my I Spy Book of the FA Cup, when I catch a glimpse of someone in an orange one. There is time for one last declaration of their devotion for their team, "we love you Barnet we do" before all hell breaks loose.

Among the leaping and embracing fans, the scarves now going around at close to light speed, and with people close to falling over, having to be steadied by their neighbours. I find myself concentrating on one man, his emotions close to getting the better of him. Standing still, his hands covering his face. All while one of the most concentrated outpourings of joy, I've ever seen at a football match goes on around him.

The response of the players is not all that dissimilar, the keeper after his last minute heroics is the main focus of his teammates attention. An outbreak of knee sliding sees more than one BFC player approach the away end sliding across the turf. The BFC manager in his orange tie shakes the hands of his victorious players, who punch the air, soaking up the moment, the fans telling them, just how they feel, "we love you Barnet we do".

Another knee slide from the BFC captain, because why not, brings the celebrations to an end. The players walk off to one last song, "que sera sera, whatever will be, will be, we're going to Wembley", almost everyone to a man is still in place, rooted to the spot, paralysed by sheer excitement.

The high spirits don't stop on the concourse as we make the slow descent down to street level, the singing continues, one man is strolling around with a large flag over his shoulders and the fans gather in an impromptu street party, the coaches ready to whisk them off, but surely there is enough time for one last sing song,"twist a little closer, let me know that your mine".

"We deserved it" said one man on the way out, reporting back to someone on the other end of this phone, who perhaps couldn't make it today and how true that was. BFC put on one of the finest performances of a non league side against a league side there is ever likely to be. I'm not sure if its going to join the highlight reel trotted out each season, around this time of year, but it should. "its the magic of the FA Cup" said the man with the mic at one point today, and oh he was right. Don't listen to anyone who says the FA Cup is dead, yes it may be being pulled from pillar to post, games on a Friday, games on a Sunday, odd kick off times, but at its core the true essence of what is my favourite cup competition, and what should be yours too, is alive and well. Nowhere was that clearer to see than across the face of every fan and player today.

Sitting in the car, Tom searching online for the closest McDonald's, I cant work out why the BFC sing "no one likes us", I live in Barnet and its really nice and as Tom put it, "who doesn't like them, they are so polite".

 

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