Sunday, 13 October 2019

Stanley Matthews Would Have Scored - Bracknell Town FC Vs Westfield FC, Isthmian League South Central, Larges Lane (18/09/19)

I have to admit I do feel a tad guilty as I disembark the good ship parenting, my daughter in the middle of a full blown meltdown, I can still hear her as I speed march away from my house, leaving her in the capable hands of my other half, who was let's say not best pleased at my decision to ascend the gang plank, at this particular juncture.

The last vestiges of summer are still clinging on, which of course means I’m opting for shorts, despite my ravaged legs, and I don't mean that in a sexy Victorian way, more an eaten alive kind of way, they're looking a little ropey to say the least. In fact the weather is surprisingly good, you'd be hard pressed to imagine it's almost October, however the melancholy playlist Tom’s opted for, oh yes I forgot to mention he’s driving again, insane, is bumming me right out.

His song choices reflect perfectly the “anxiety” he admits to feeling as we head towards the M25. “It never ends well" he sighs as we head down the ramp and merge with the four lane behemoth. He’s right of course, any previous venture where this particular highway has been required has very rarely gone to plan. Tom pointing out “as long as it's not closed”, we might just be OK.

I do my best to distract myself from the absolutely dire music, by staring at his new kidney bean shaped car freshener Tom now has dangling from his rear view mirror, but thankfully soon our surroundings are more than enough to occupy me and help me forget I’ve just been subjected to three Radiohead songs in a row.

“Oh fancy” chirps Tom, as we pass a very swanky looking university, and you can feel the closer we get to the Royal County, that the property prices start to sky rocket. “Bit rich round here” he adds, “Range Rovers, Astons, that's all I’ve seen so far”. I must admit I’m somewhat relieved I’m not driving, my little tin can would stick out like a sore thumb.

Past Wentworth Golf course, past what look like ancient ruins, that are probably just some affluent garden ornament, ‘I’d like a to scale Acropolis out front please’ was one home owners request, and when we roll into Ascot, well it's a game changer, this really is how the other half live.

“Well nice, here” gasps Tom, money quite literally dripping from the street lights. Right before us the monolith that is the racecourse grows up out of the ground, like something from a sci fi epic. The main stand draped in union jacks, barely contained by the piddly red brick wall that surrounds it. It’s quite a sight and has completely taken my mind of Tom’s morose playlist.

Pointing to a shop window, full of mannequins dressed in race day finery, Tom suggests we could stop to get me a “hat”, knowing full well that my ‘megaton warhead’ as my brother calls it, is completely unsuitable for any off the shelf headgear, prick.

A bowed head, purple jacket wearing steed immortalised in bronze stands proudly on the centre of the roundabout we pass as we leave, where Tom lives it's usually a shopping trolley, so makes for quite the change and he reckons, and not for the first time, he says we should consider a “day at the races” some time soon.

Walking through the gates of Larges Lane home of Bracknell Town FC (BT) it's clear from the off that money is a running theme in these parts. The last moments of some local kids training session plays out on the immaculate 4G pitch, the name of the club and their badge emblazoned into one side of it. The tea bar, however this is far more than just a hole in the wall, is totally in keeping with the uber modern feel of the place, with its black leather benches. On the front of the counter heaving with all manner of goodies, is the clubs honours board, but despite the plethora of things on offer, Tom only opts for a tea and a packet of crisps.

Outside the sun has started to set, but it's still warm, sitting on the back row of the prefab covered stand, with its rather flimsy red fold down chairs. Admittedly flimsy for a lump like me, I’m sure they are fine for normal people, Tom explains his reasons for not nabbing a couple of cookies and the reason he’s got chapped lips, that isn't because of a “weeks worth of kissing”, but because he’s a “bit unwell”.

His supposed ill health is certainly not getting in the way of his appetite, telling me in one breath he feels “worse” then he did when he got to mine, but then shovels a fist full of Walkers in his gob in the next, I’m not convinced.

The sound of the kids kick-about and the odd parental shout of encouragement wafts around the ground as we finish our teas, and having been studying it for some time and with no crisps left to occupy him, Tom pipes up with a slightly odd comment, “lots of rules here”. He then proceeds to reel off a whole list of dos and don'ts, including “no gum, no standing” and now he’s come to mention it, there are a lot of authoritative signs scattered about the place.

There is no mistaking there are a few stand out accents among some of the people here, mostly emanating from the teen boys wandering about in flip flops, the undeniable twang of our cousins from across the pond. On closer investigation, the black containers at one end of the ground, are not re-purposed boutiques like Tom is familiar with in London's trendy Shoreditch, but in fact dormitories for foreign players on scholarships. Such was my interest in them, I didn't realise until it was too late that the window I was staring in, looked right onto someone's bedroom, who hurriedly shut the curtain, leaving me feeling slightly chagrin.

The international academy we’re told is modelled on that of the La Liga giants Valencia that has produced the likes of Isco and David Silva and explains the their badge on the left arm of the kids shirts. Those in attendance from far afield and closer to home, hoping that Larges Lane can be their doorway to greatness.

“That's a cool water bottle” says Tom, pointing at a passing child admittedly “not very practical” but very cool looking flask, made up of three interlocking footballs stacked on top of each other, with no apparent convenient place to hold it.

Tom’s head is on a near constant swivel, there really is no end of things to look at, things that aren't exactly the norm at most if any of the other non league grounds we have ever been to before. Don't fancy a spot to eat in “the diner”, which is how I’ve heard one person refer to the tea bar as, then maybe you fancy a go on the red baize pool table in the bar or maybe you'd like to hit the gym? The one next to the bunk bed filled shipping containers, complete with massive tyres for flipping or those long heavy lengths of rope for wiggling.

“2 -2 fuck off” mumbles one of the passing home players, sticking his head in the side door of the now much frequented “diner” where most are watching Spurs chuck away a two goal lead in the Champions League.

It would seem that despite being in a completely different county, the midge epidemic is rife wherever we go. Tom bursting into seizure like movements, blowing raspberries and waving his hands around in front of himself, “a midge just flew in my face”.

It doesn't matter who you are or what level of football you play at, you have to be pretty darn good to
justify gold boots, my Dad would say the same thing about playing with an alice band in your hair, but that's another story. The Westfield FC (WFC) keeper more than does so, with his excellent footwork, impressing Tom to the point that he suggests he should be an “outfield player” who in their blue and yellow kit, Tom thinks look like “Sweden”.

The floodlights flicker into life, but take a while to bathe us in their stark unforgiving white light and I might have to check Tom’s temperature, because he swears blind he just saw “Rick Flair”.

Despite their banner strung up behind one goal, the Bracknell Ultras are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they will be joining us post march from their local watering hole or they are preparing their latest anti UEFA tifo and the sudden spike in the noise levels, is not because of the arrival of some scarf face covered pyro fiends, but because someone has just purchased a coke from the very loud vending machine, that lets out a deafening clunk every time it dishes up its contents, and the arrival of the players for their warm up. All of whom seem in very high spirits, which might have something to do with the top of the table clash to come, it is “first vs fourth” after all, someone reminds us.

Plenty of burgers are being dismantled from white greaseproof paper and the gentle chatter of a football crowd mingles with the sound of the players drills. Who turns out to only be Rick Flair look alike passes us again, and Tom lets out a quiet “wooo” and the promise of a decent sized crowd seems a possibility, even with ultras still nowhere yet to be seen. There were “three hundred” here on Saturday, but as ever it being a weeknight, it's always hard to gauge how many will turn out.

For a moment there it didn't look like there was going to be much of a crowd at all, but then with five minutes to kick off, it's a bit like shit, where did all these people come from. Most of whom are sensibly wearing trousers, with the sun now a distant memory, its chilly, but I daren't tell Tom.

The tap tap tapping on the head of a microphone reverberates over the PA, not that anyone is listening, far too many people are still inside watching the Spurs game, some crane their necks from outside the packed room to catch a glimpse of Tottenham's capitulation. Those inside struggle to hear the commentary over the whir of the machine doing some last minute pumping up of footballs taking place in one corner of the room.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen” says a voice, breaking up after every other word, the reading of the team sheets sounding like morse code. The announcer gives up, perhaps all the giggling got too much, returning after the teams have walked out, the WFC manager high fiving every one of the starting eleven and post the well observed silence, for who he explains with crystal clarity was for a recently deceased former player, “a club” legend and “all time record scorer”.

“Come on Bracknell” shouts a man in the crowd, as the referee puts his whistle to his lips and we are underway.

“Pretty important game” says a stocky man to our right, with a thick American accent, to the small gang of WFC fans who have pitched up just to one side of the almost Bakelite looking bright red plastic away dugout. Which doesn’t have a hint of the homemade or the once was a conservatory about them, they look right out of the showroom.

I’m officially cold now and despite not letting on, Tom can tell I'm suffering, “regretting the shorts?”.

The fact that WFC’s kit has not turned out to look like “Sweden” has somewhat disappointed Tom, he is actually quite scathing about both strips on show, “both kits are horrible” he sneers. WFC’s looking like it has been “washed on too high of a heat” and BT’s looking like a homage to Lady Gaga’s “meat dress”, it’s only saving grace the shorts, with their continuing stripe from just under the armpit to the knee.

A booming home shot after five minutes is touched wide by the gold boot wearing WFC keeper, exiting the packed out section of home fans behind him, some standing behind a solitary flag. Then Tom sounds like one of the ‘football was better in my day’ brigade, passing judgement on the technicolour footwear of one player, “amazing how colourful boots have got” he mutters. Coming from a bloke who used to play in the park with gold and white ones, it’s a bit rich.

Tim Howard, Brad Friedel, Peter Schmeichel, Paul Robinson and now you can add the name of the BT keeper to the illustrious list of goalkeepers who have scored. He can also join an even greater but shorter list, having done it from his own half, this was not a bundle it in from a corner jobby. This was some quick thinking, a free kick taken from just outside his area that has caught out everybody here, and while he is being rightly mobbed by his teammates, and the BT fans are going insane behind the goal, the beaten WFC keeper can only take a sip from his water bottle, rub his hands on his towel hanging from the back of the net and look as dumbfounded as everyone else.

First blood to the home team. “We go again” shouts the stunned looking WFC manager, clapping his hands, trying his best to get his dazed looking players to focus.

“Keep playing Westfield” insist one fan, the same fan next to us who will be a constant stream of quotable one liners for the remainder of the evening. “You've had your bit of luck Bracknell” he announces. And Tom is now concerned about his “burger” as the crowd only look to be getting bigger.

BT unsurprisingly look pumped, having taken the lead they are being more than proactive about getting a second. “He’s got dancing feet” says Tom, out on the right the wide man does a quick shoe shuffle and is past his marker and into the box, but between complementing players on their footwork, he is fretting about his dinner, “I should have eaten early, look at all those people”. He then does his best to try and deduce who he thinks has eaten and who hasn't, to try and gauge the state of the queue come half time.

Home pressure sees WFC attempts to play out from the back, almost end up with them going further behind. “Get after them” comes a shout from the home bench, WFC are showing signs of panic and the BT manager wants his team to capitalise.

An injury to a BT player halts play, the ground falls silent except for a lone voice from the other side of the pitch, “come on Bracknell” and a deluge of instructions from the WFC manager, and despite all the home managers insistence his team “get after” their opponents, two minutes later the score is level, the goal occurring in almost equally calamitous circumstances as the first.

“Keeper, keeper, keeper” goads the loudest of the WFC fans, scrub that, the only WFC fan making any noise, to the BT goalie, whose attempt to catch a high looping ball, ends with him clattering into the post, dropping the ball to WFC player on hand to stab it home, 1 - 1.

“Thats unfair” says Tom, a card carrying member of the goalkeepers unions, feeling sorry for the BT keeper who has gone from the high of scoring, to the absolute low of being single handedly responsible for his team losing their lead, in no time at all. Not that there is an ounce of compassion on show, and quite rightly so, from anyone following WFC.

The familiar feeling of something crawling up my leg is back, I dispatch whatever it is with the top of my foot, smooshing it against the back of my calf, steadying myself on the railing around the pitch. The midges are here, in nowhere near the numbers we have seen recently, but their presence is being felt.

End to end, the match swings excitedly between one goal mouth to the other. The WFC orders of “go get it back” the ball that is, have not really been heeded and it's a case of you have the ball, no you have it, that sees possession yo yo like it does. The tackles are flying in and in their first attempt since being pegged back, BT roll a shot just wide of the post, which gets a “ohhhh” from the crowd.

“Plan B, Plan B” shouts the WFC manager, “whats Plan B?” asks Tom, and I really have to stop myself from making any reference to the UK hip hop artist. Whatever it is, it works and soon the visitors have broken the BT back line, but a poor touch kills the move it in its tracks.

Into the garden of the flats behind, goes the latest BT effort, a lashed half home volley is heading
right towards one of the neighbours gnomes. The WFC commentator now in full flow, lets the “unlucky” number 10, know just what he thought of his wild attempt, however his comments are pretty even handed, he offers up his little jibes not only towards the home players, but his own too. “Poor” he grumbles following a loose pass, by one of his number.

“I don't believe that” groans a WFC fan, the BT keeper has just made up for his clanger with a point blank save, he had no right to get to, the same supporter stands with his head in hands, unable to get his grey matter  around how that didn't go in. “It will come Westfield, be patient” he offers up, having a go at being good the cop for a bit.

A pass like a screwball in snooker almost finds the BT forward but its snuffed out and when the BT keeper is called into action again, Tom is blown away by his “massive kick”. Both the WFC bench, “play, play” and the fans, “it will come” are sure that a second goal is only around the corner, and they look to be almost spot on, going close with a skimming low shot that goes the wrong side of the post.

“50/50, pound a ticket?” asks a man in a quiet American accent, a couple of the international academy have been roped into badgering old gits like me for a couple of quid, that I’m of course more than willing to put some money in the plastic pint glass, and the chance of a flutter makes up for the fact it's only an electronic programme on offer today.

Almost on the stroke of halftime a BT shot is blocked by the WFC keepers feet, but Tom’s mind is on other things, “the queues all the way to Ascot” he says.  Turning on a sixpence a home player looks to be away, but is wiped out, the awarding of the foul doesn't go down well with one WFC player, “stop guessing ref”.

The resulting free kick is taken not once, but twice, much to the annoyance of WFC’s most vocal fan, “why because if wasn't on target?” he asks in the most condescending of tones. The second attempt is another try at a Ronaldo’esq knuckle ball that goes wide too, much to the amusement of the same WFC fan, who comes out with a pearler of a line, to conclude the first half, “Stanley Matthews would have scored”.

His explanation to those baffled faces around him, is because both the player who took the free kick twice and Stanley were “both number 7’s”.

The curse of the crackled microphone is back, and despite the broken pauses between words, I can tell the “winning number” is not mine, and my small pink tickets go back into the breast pocket of my shirt, each moistened by a single tear.

Tom returns in record time, licking his fingers as he walks back. “They had a katsu curry that looked great,” he tells me with a kind of light in his eyes, I don't think I’ve ever seen before, but he decided it was probably a bit “messy” the “kind of meal you wanna sit down for” so opted for his usual. The service he informs me “super efficient”, in and out in no time at all, “I was four from the front, then next please”.

BT are out early for a rather vigorous looking warm up, and when the WFC keeper followed by his teammates appear, he’s almost gone hoarse with still a half yet to play, “straight in, straight in” he demands. The referee just outside the centre circle, raises his whistle, “keeper, keeper” he asks each stopper.

The BT fans along with their flag have shifted ends, there are plenty of them, but there is little to no noise coming from them at all and it’s the home side who have the first chance of the new half, cutting in off the right the wide man’s shot is “poor” says Tom, who thinks each teams overriding desire to not concede, means the game is “too tight” to call.

This though, after quite a fast paced first ten minutes, if not a little bit stilted, is soon to change.

“Finish it” gasps a WFC fan, their hulking great number 10 is away, with only the keeper to beat. Poking it delicately past the onrushing goalie, the table toppers take the lead. The bench are off their feet and while the players celebrate going ahead, one WFC coach high fives the outstretched hands of those WFC fans who have retaken their first half position next to the dugout.

Not the usual response to going behind, the BT fans directly behind the goal, the very young BT fans may I add, are taking part in what you might call horse play, what Tom calls “play fighting” that skirts the line between looking like a laugh and a full blown punch up. “Very, very aggressive” tut's Tom, with his Dad hat firmly on, but secretly hoping that Lita might appear and jump off the top rope, “I couldn't see if Rick Flair was involved”.

A quarter of an hour gone and the home pressure is ramping up, “tell them to weather the storm” appeals the WFC manager, the WFC fans are pleading with their team to “push up” as they drop deeper and deeper. When they are able to break out, their counterattacks look more than dangerous, but on this occasion the final pass is lacking, and it comes to nothing. “Unlucky” applauds the manager, glad to see his team out of their own half.

I’m cold, and Tom suggests I should get myself some of those “rip off” trousers, Mel C style, however I don't have time to respond to his suggestion I should go the “full Dad” with my own pair of detachable drawers , because the WFC manager is shouting “pigeon steps, pigeon steps” and I’m trying to work out what the hell he is going on about.

Turning the screw, BT go as close to scoring as they have since taking the lead in the first half, a deflected shot from the edge of the box spanking the cross bar and a man who sounds frankly scary bellows from the opposite side of the pitch, “come on Bracknell” and one WFC player is calling for “calm” and for his team to “get back on it”. They look a little rattled to say the least and the home side can sense it.

It’s the same player who hit the bar, the one “with no neck” as Tom describes him, who is running the show for the home team, “he’s everywhere”. Both number 11’s are giving a very good account of themselves, but the fans behind the goal couldn't seem to care less about the match anymore, as another rumble broke out. Tom tutting to himself as they start to leap on each other, “too much testosterone”.

“Good save” says one WFC supporter, when a free header is tipped over the bar by the very extremities of the BT keepers fingertips. WFC’s chances are few and far between, BT go close with another half volley and then their twisting forward gets the crowd very animated, turning his maker inside out, sending him one way, then another, eventually getting hacked down, which is received with a mighty cheer.

The resulting free kick is just about as impressive as his earlier ones, and gets a rousing response from our nearby motor mouth “three times 7, not one on target”.

It’s all BT, WFC have been reduced to only the odd counterattack, and Tom is amused by the obvious case that going behind has really “pushed” BT on. “Funny how much better they've got” he muses, their manger can he happy at least by the response he has received from his players, they have anything but given up.

“Ohhhh” go the small group of WFC fans in unison at the sight of the rolled ball from the wing to their man in the box, going fractions behind him, missing out on an almost certain third. “Come on
Bracknell, come on” screams the maniacal voice from the crowd opposite. The players respond in kind, one asking his teammates to “raise it”.

When WFC are on the ball, they could maybe be accused of being guilty of overplaying it at times. “Too many touches” bemoans one supporter, their manager concerned about how easily they are giving up possessions asks his team to “think about looking after the ball”.

It’s the turn of the home crowd to let out a sizable “ohhhh” after their team fizz a ball through the box, but no one is able to get on the end of it and frustrations start to set it, BT are getting increasingly physical, giving away free kick after free kick, which is doing their chances of getting back into the game no good at all.

Into the last five minutes and one WFC player gets no end of shit from his team mates, his attempt at a low direct shot at goal from a free kick, instead of crossing into the packed box, does not exactly go down well and then another high class save, plus a bit of iffy finishing, maybe confirms it's just not going to be BT’s night.

“Jesus Christ” shrieks one home supporter. Turning away from the pitch after instead of tapping the ball into the back of the net, the forward in the six yard box hit it directly at the keeper. The blistering attack deserved more, and it’s a another chance missed.

Not calling on the almighty this time, instead just reeling off a couple of expletives, “fucking hell” the same fan watches on as another ball flies through the WFC box, but it can’t find its intended target.

A flare up of monumental proportions somewhat mars the end of what has been a quite excellent spectacle. Both challenging for the ball in the area, the BT keeper wins the duel, claiming the ball and in the coming together, the WFC forward falls to the ground. On his way back down to earth, with the BT player at his feet, there is no denying that there is contact, the accusation from the WFC players is that it was a stamp by the home keeper, which results in the fracas between both sets of players.

The resulting accompanying sound that follows any kind of handbags, emanates from the crowd and frankly I would expect nothing else. While the referee clears up the mess, the BT keeper entertains himself with a succession of skill level ten keepie uppies. The crowd are losing patience “get on with it”, all this mucking about is eating into their time to equalise, the terrifying voice lets out his final blood curdling cry of the night, “come on Bracknell”.

“Referee how long please” asks a WFC player, the game finally back underway and the league leaders are hanging on to their tenuous lead. WFC’s number 11 is away again, flying down the pitch he is quite cynically scythed down by BT’s number 5, who knowingly walks away, quite at peace with what he has just done. Another big tackle this time by a WFC player, ends with the home player down, the WFC one having started his slide to meet him a fair way away is still going, and the referee waves on play, despite calls of “studs showing” from the crowd.

I have to admit, I somewhat agree with the calls from the home fans that its all "getting silly", the referee looks close to losing control. WFC do their best to waste time, holding onto the ball when its a home throw in, taking forever to take goal kicks, this obvious stalling riling up the BT players more and more.

"Well done Westfield, well, well done", comments the now much calmer WFC supporter who did not take a breath for the whole match, come the final whistle. Quiet descends quickly, the crowd soon dissipates, leaving both teams on the pitch to mull over the match. One BT player applauds the fans before crumbling to the floor, clearly exhausted. One WFC supporter talking to one of their players, points to his marker laughing, "he's still looking for you".

Still relatively early in the season, it was quite a treat to watch a top of the table clash, where it was clear both teams were there to give it everything, not to mention seeing a goalkeeper score, something we I'm sure are unlikely to see again any time soon.

Other than the seventy yard lob, two things stood out for me tonight, the WFC keeper ensuring his manager went the full accidental Partridge, ignoring his gaffa, who just shouting "Rossy, Rossy, Rossy" over and over, just like the well known East Anglian radio star.

Second was a point Tom raised, when discussing the BT kit, that from afar certainly had the air of a raw bit of meat about it, and the dilemma that may cause some people, "unless you are super vegan, you can't not play for a club, because you don't like the kit".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Thursday, 3 October 2019

Fake Brioche - Biggleswade Town FC Vs St Neots Town FC, FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round Replay, Langford Road (11/09/19)

We are blessed once again by the football gods with a lovely evening, but the spots of rain falling on the windscreen of Toms car could be a sign of things to come, however I’m far too preoccupied with the fact that he is driving again, completing his hattrick, I think I’d be ok if we were driving into the middle of a hurricane.

We don't exactly have far to travel tonight, which might just explain Tom’s eagerness to get behind the wheel again, ensuring he has plenty of credit in the bank when it comes to this season's first slog up to Yorkshire or some such far flung parts of the world and it’s not long before we get our first sight of this evenings ground, hurtling past it on the motorway. “Floodlights” squeals Tom, like a child who just spotted the sea first on a family day trip to the coast, cutting short our conversation about “8K” TV’s.

For a medium sized market town, Biggleswade is somewhat spoilt for choice when it comes to non league teams. Last season we saw two of the three that take their name from it, United and FC, but tonight’s visit to Langford Road will mean we can consider this part of Bedfordshire complete.

My legs are still in bits from our last outing, where the entire midge population of Essex convened for an all you can eat buffet on my lower legs, which are no longer the muscular pins of old, but now pot holed, scab covered horror shows. I look like a victim of the bubonic plague, from the knees down at least, but this has not deterred me from clinging onto my shorts for another week, much to Tom’s amusement.

The car park of the Carlsberg Stadium, Langford Roads alternative name, can join the long list of non league shockers. The kind of which where you fear for the safety of anyone who might be unfortunate enough to walk around it in the dark, such are the depth of the numerous craters or for anyone whose car is not quite robust enough.

“Need my sunglasses” says Tom squinting, the low summer sun just skimming the horizon, flirting with the idea of disappearing, but sticking around for just a little while longer. Behind us a sea of turning windmills fill the sky, and having successfully navigated the car park, we head towards a rather bland configuration of single storey tan brick cloured buildings. On the front of one is the large green and white crest of Biggleswade Town FC (FC) featuring a very proment heron or stork, and although I’m no ornithologist, it’s certainly not a wader or a pair of waders, which BT are known as.

There is no getting away from the sound of the nearby motorway, in fact ‘nearby’ might not go far enough to explain quite how close it is. Running behind one end of the ground, the goalkeeper who happens to be up that end, is at risk of being hit by a discarded fag butt or unwanted apple core.

Doing a good job in drowning out the noise of the passing traffic are the kids arriving as we do, rushing off to one of the adjoining pitches for their football training, all from what I can see arrive present and correct, having not disappeared down one of the car parks treacherous crevasses.

In Mr Draxler, BT have a cigar smoking club secretary who has the air of a Sopranos mob boss about him, who tells everyone he is involved in ‘waste management’ but they all know that's baloney. In his long dark blue coat, ornately patterned trousers and club tie, he is smartness personified and chatting to him briefly, it is soon clear being a fellow “Muswell Hill boy” like us, he is unlikely to instruct anyone to give you a concrete overcoat.

His story, like so many we have heard in the past, is such a common one in the non league world. Coming on board a decade ago to help where he could, in his case as the “physio”, he’s quick to point out that he is “not qualified” in any way, but you “didn't need to be then” all you needed was a “bucket and a sponge”, he has risen to the top of the family, sorry I mean football club, now pretty much running the show.

He tells us he would expect around “three hundred” here tonight, which is not bad going, there were “two hundred and eighty eight” at the original fixture, so he sees no reason why there wouldn't be around the same the second time around.

The clouds above us are straight out of a Constable, the sun spearing through them in broken shards, however my enjoyment of the picturesque Cscene before me is shattered by the agonising sound coming from the PA, that’s like metal dying.

“It’s broken” says the young man sheepishly setting it up, but whatever caused the din, is soon sorted, replaced with a playlist of music one would not really associate with a person in their early teens, the first song verging on inappropriate, the opening bars sounding like a panting woman mid orgasm and what follows all has a definite 70’s disco theme, the kind of music which makes some put on their best lilac colored shirt and strut about the place.

“This music's shit” groans Tom, the choice not really in keeping with his current nu metal flex. With the sun now set, the next song arrives with impeccable timing, “ain't no sunshine when she’s……”, which mixes with the hubbub of both teams now warming up and the latest passing HGV.

From the front row of the modestly sized main stand with its BT themed clock above the tunnel and of course green and white seats, I spot on the far side of pitch, dancing in the provocative way they do, a swarm of midges, shit! This though is of little significance right now, because Tom is mid melt down, the appearance of Lionel Ritchie is the last straw. “This music is fucking depressing” he says staring at the floor, his next point though is not a bad one, however its delivery is a little over dramatic, “It's hardly galvanizing anyone”.

The crackled voice over the PA gives a brief respite from the relentless music, however I can barely make out what they are saying and soon the salvo of wedding reception hits has resumed. Sweet Caroline, normally a song reserved for toasting a victory or a punch up in the crowd at the boxing is up next, the green tunnel under the clock has been extended and it welcomes out both teams.

There is no mistaking Mr Draxler who has taken over proceedings as the stadium announcer, his havana tinged vocals more than audible as he divulges the starting 11’s and I’m pretty sure tells off someone for trying to cadge a free look over a nearby fence. Pitchside the turnout he predicted looks pretty bang on, plenty who have paid to come in, now stand under moon filled sky which has turned all sorts of shades of purple and blue, each one I’m certain letting out a small sigh, Tom’s however is far from small, at the announcement of the possibility of “extra time and penalties”.

Surely contravening various FA codes of conduct, the BT technical area is absolutely chocker, at the centre of it the home manager, with his slick back hair, tied up in what I can only describe as a ninjas top knot. Every maneuver, every pass seems to be being dictated from the sidelines, the BT staff very hands on to say the least and from very early on, the league difference between the two teams is quickly apparent. BT are off flying down the right wing, cutting the ball into the box, only for it to be
blocked by the St Neots Town FC (SNT) keeper.

Less than ten minutes gone and I feel the first midge of the night start to tuck in. Next to me sat on the floor a young lady with no interest in the game, who has clearly been dragged here against her will, plays with her phone, above her, her parents lean against the white fence that surrounds the pitch looking like something from the edge of a race track, which lets out a whimpering creak anytime anyone goes near it.

“I think your whitewash might be on, they've been the by far the better team” says Tom, it's been all BT since the off.

“Noooo” agonises one of the nearby SNT fans, at the sight of their first attack of the night breaking down. Presenting BT with the ball they quickly engage a rapid counterattack, that is brought to a momentary halt by a “good tackle” applauds one SNT supporter, only for the loose ball to fall straight to a home player who is on hand to flash a shot across goal, which is followed by a rousing “ohhhh” from the home crowd. The majority of whom, as Tom points out as is always the case, fill the corner closest to the burger van in one corner of the ground. It must be the extensive selection of pick and mix it has strung out across its counter keeping them close by.

Just over a quarter of an hour gone and BT go close with a thunderbolt of a free kick. “Well look at that” marvels a SNT fan, “wouldn't that have been special” he begrudgingly admits, however a minute later he is not anywhere near as complementary, when his team fall behind.

The powerful shot from the edge of the area almost bursts the net as it flies in. There is no shortage of people to hug in front of the home bench, one of them mid embrace letting out a celebratory, “come on”. Mr Draxler is clearly delighted, he confirms the name of the scorer, “Solomon Samboooooo” and sounds every bit like the cat that's got the cream.

“Jesus look at that” calls out one SNT fan, turning to God as the only person who can maybe  stop the BT player skipping through their defence. Six yards out from goal it's maybe the almighty or just a defender in the right place at the right time who manages to get a foot in, and stops the home side scoring a quick fire second.

“You wanna go on the 50/50?” asks a small voice behind me, I turn to be met by a woman clutching a green bucket and a book of white tickets. “Absolutely” I reply, catching her off guard somewhat with my theatrical reply, she almost has to catch her breath, taking a few steps back, before she responds with a line I must admit I've heard a couple of times before, “that's the most enthusiastic response I’ve ever had”. As I tuck my tickets into the breast pocket of my shoulder, the lady tells me over her shoulder as she beats a hasty retreat, that the results will be “announced at half time”.

It takes SNT almost twenty five minutes to register their first meaningful attack, “promising” says Tom. It’s not the most cultured of moves, a well timed ball over the top, that is met by the sprinting forward, who lets the ball bounce once, before hitting his first time shot well over the bar.

The resulting goal kick also gets the first “you’re shit ahhhhh” from a gaggle of SNT youths behind the goal, which is greeted with a smirk from the home bench, who point out to the laughing BT keeper, “you'd take the lot”.

“Sit down shut up” barks one SNT supporter towards the home bench who are all on their feet appealing for a foul, which the referee waves a away. One section of the home fans then squeal in delight at the dancing feet of one player who is turning his marker inside out, leaving him for dead and continuing as he pleases.

The midges are getting worse and you can easily pick out those being plagued by them, they're the ones who almost look deranged, waving their arms around at what appears to be nothing, when it fact something has just flown up their nose.

Half an hour gone and the game has “gone a bit flat”, says Tom. His attempt to lift the mood falls flatter than flat, inspired by one of the away teams apparent nickname “Sharkie” he starts singing “Sharkie and George crime busters of Biggleswade”.


It’s a long succession of general noises of disgruntlement now emanating from the SNT fans, they get so few attacks, when they do happen, they are just not making them count. Someone, who they are following is not abundantly clear, is much more than merely disgruntled, they by the sound of it are not having a very nice time at all, “God that babies loud” recoils Tom, sounding every inch like a person without children. Admittedly the wailing bairn is all the way on the far side of the pitch, but still sounds like it’s right next to us.

“Great ball” shouts the home bench, the curling cross finding the player in the box, who somehow conspires to put his stooping header wide, much to the benches confusion. Each and every one of them buzzing around the dugout clasping their hands to the back of their heads.

A rare away attack is snuffed out as the the match hurtles towards the break and the referees assistant is in for an ear full from the traveling fans. “Lino make up your own decisions” one shouts, the referee behind play, at first doesn't give the foul, blowing up seemingly after the home bench appeal that he does so. In contradiction of his assistants flailing flag.

On the stroke of halftime SNT are awarded a free kick, which is taken, but it's hardly convincing. “No” mutters Tom, turning towards me, however I can see his attention is soon drawn towards something else, something far more concerning. “It's like a snow storm above us”. I slowly tip my head skywards, and he’s not wrong, if anything he’s underplaying it, its like a fucking blizard of insects swirling just above our heads.

“See you after the break,” says a very chipper Mr Draxler, followed by the rattle of the tunnel. Somehow only a goal behind, one SNT fan is still hopeful “we’re still alive” and Tom having popped off for food just before the whistle, you can take the boy out of Arsenal, but you can't take Arsenal out of the boy, returns with dinner. A burger of course, with “good onions” but he is a little bit dubious about the legitimacy of what from the outside at least looks like quite a fancy bun, “fake brioche”.

Mr Draxler confirms I won't be “heading to the bar” to collect the 50/50 prize when he reads out the winning numbers, which of course are not mine and I’m all about football clubs who share their nickname with 1960’s TV shows, one SNT fan letting out a supportive shout as the teams rejoin us and we prepare for the kick off of the second half, “come on the Saints”.

I am somewhat comforted by the fact that it is no longer just me the midges want a bit off. Tom is now sputtering away next to me, swatting at one that just went in his mouth, trying his best to get it away from his face. I’m not exaggerating it's like something out of the bible, we are infested.

On the pitch, the game feels somewhat critically balanced. BT’s slim lead doesn't exactly feel under
threat, they go close in the first five or six minutes when the ball over the top finds its target but his attempt is blocked and then close again with a free header from a free kick, “too easy” bemoans the visiting keeper, is put wide. However SNT still show the odd glimmer of opportunity. Latching on to a loose pass in the final third by the home team, they are quick to counter. Which is brought to an abrupt stop by a hacking home tackle.

“Be interesting to see what the Premier League would be if it was this lenient” ponders Tom, as we witness our second crunching challenge in short succession. This one almost thigh high on one home player, that gets an impassioned response from the home bench, “could have broken his knee” but only a talking to from the referee.

Cannoning off the head of a pitch side photographer, Tom is more than impressed that even though he was struck forcefully by the ball, “he didn't flinch”, and then pulls a Snickers from his pocket, biting off half of it, before putting the rest back in this pocket to attract fluff.

BT’s scowling manager is angry, his team as Tom puts it is creating plenty of “near chances”, case in point when another free header just before the quarter of an hour mark that instead of going towards the goal, goes straight up in the air, much to the bemusement of the players around him, can’t for the life of them put this game to bed. In his mind I imagine the thought of throwing it away again, doesn't bare thinking about.

“That's fucking naughty ref” barks a home fan, the bench are livid too, “he’s gotta go for that”, but it’s only a yellow much to their dismay, “he’s gotta send himself off?” asks one of the multitude of BT staff swelling the technical area. The absolute hatchet job, bringing to an end the most mesmerizing of runs.

Sadly for the home side the free kick is “shit” as Tom so eruditely puts it, the home bench admittedly are not that much more eliquant, “fuck off”, but thats all soon to be forgotten.

“Sambooooo” bellows Mr Draxler back on the mic, the ball having eventually found its way into the SNT net, via a very circuitous route. A mazey run down the left ends with the high pitched ping of the ball hitting the post. Bouncing back into play, the ball ricochets up into the hand of a defender which is followed by an almighty claim for a “handball” by the players, fans and bench, but before the referee can respond, the goal scorer is on hand to bundle home his second of the night.

Despite being two goals to the good, the home bench is still a little anccy you might say. “Proper tantrum” laughs Tom when they somewhat lose their shit over the ten or so yards the SNT player has been allowed to take the throw in from away from where the ball actually went out and exactly because of being two goals behind, the visitors are starting to lose their leads, getting increasingly sloppy.

In their number 11 BT have a player judging by his performance so far, who relishes in a bit of physicality. “He’s a pitbull” shudders Tom as he steamrollers his marker, leaving him prone clutching their shin. His tenacity, matched with end product, he’s not just betting heels then doesn't know what to do, gets no end of praise from the bench. His eyes full of unbridled rage, with clearly only one thing on his mind as he goes after the ball, kill, kill, kill.

The latest SNT foul gets more unanswered protests from the BT manager and his crew, “fucking get hold of him ref” fumes one, “how many times?” asks a player. Another surge forward cut short by a chopping challenge. The BT manager stopping himself midway though telling the player responsible just what he thinks of him, “oh you……..”.

Into the final quarter, SNT attacks now rarer than hen's teeth, it's taken them over thirty minutes to register their first of the half. “Ohhhhh” gasps Tom, “that could have been good” he adds, a blistering attack ends with a rising shot that’s high and wide. One might be able to say the result, which seemingly is all but assured might just be a case of the home side being more clinical, BT taking their chances, the visitors not. I think it’s simply a case of them being the better side.

Lets manage the game” insists one of the many bodies still occupying the small rectangle in front of the home bench. One SNT player could maybe me accused of being delusional, telling his teammates, “let's go on and win”, which as Tom puts it, is “a bit optimistic”.

Nowhere to be seen in the first half, I didn't notice them at least, maybe they were enjoying the pick and mix. It’s taken me almost forty minutes to clock the two green and white BT flags strung out behind one goal, with another hanging from the back wall of the metal covered terrace. Many of the Green Army as one flag dubs them, wearing green and white scarves, offering up their own hearty support.

“Finish, finish, finish” urges one as the home team race way from the SNT defence, who have all but given up, however the pass at the end of the charge across the box is lacking a bit of finesse and the chance peters out.

Flooding forward the green and white machine is in full flow, the SNT team not far off just standing by and watching as they push on for a fourth. “No way that’s rubbish ref” remonstrates an angry spectator in the main stand. The SNT keeper is down, the goal is gaping, but before the ball can be rolled over the line, the officials blow up for a foul.

Outnumbered attack, after outnumbered attack keep coming. “Stay on side” hollers one person from the crowd, but the team can't and the chance goes begging. Forward they come once more, but this time the shot is way off target, but SNT are soon to be put out of their misery, only “three minutes of added time” are left to play according to Mr Draxler.

It’s without a doubt not Neil Diamond singing his well known classic, that gets its second airing of
the night come the final whistle. The Green Armies flags are soon down and Mr Draxler has one last thing to add, over the sound of the strange cover and the clapping of the crowd as the team's walk off, “we progress to the next round”.

The opponents of which has already been decided, they will face Ware FC, which inspires a little comedy back and forth between two leaving fans “where”, “Ware”, “where”, “here”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Monday, 23 September 2019

He Can't Head The Ball For Toffee - White Ensign FC Vs Takeley FC, FA Cup Preliminary Round Replay, Burroughs Park (04/09/19)

I moved house yesterday, which meant despite getting up at the crack of dawn I was still struggling with an array of flat pack furniture come 22:00 and didn't even have the comfort of knowing I had my own bed to fall into. It doesn't arrive for another two days, so I flop onto the sofa, certain of the fact that I will be waking up in the morning with a crick in my neck and a bad back.

I’m too tired to even think about shooting Spurs’s new home a look, so plough on east, relieved that Tom is driving again, because I’d be a menace to other road users if I was. Such is my state of near exhaustion, I don't even have the energy to fully revel in this momentous event. Tom driving to two games in a row, will surely mean today will become some kind of national holiday, joining the other obscure ones you see on calenders, but quite can’t put your finger on exactly why it's there.

“False alarm” says Tom, ever so slightly out of breath, our journey to deepest darkest Essex getting off to a worrisome start, after he thought he had forgotten to double lock his front door, and we ended up doing a lap of the block at breakneck speed, the car not quite at a standstill before he swung open his door to find out it was a lot of rushing around about nothing.

He had looked so jolly and proud just ten minutes before, leaving his house and making a point to show off his new camera bag, his monopod strapped to its side looking like a katana and now he looks all flustered and red, muttering to himself because he can't decide if it's “hot or cold” which of course is playing havoc with his outfit choice. He is certain of one thing though, “its blustery”, which means I end up humming “let's go fly a kite” to myself for the next hour.

As like last time out the entertainment on offer is severely lacking, Tom admitting he has recently “got back into metal” meaning I'm subjected not to “metal” as he put it, more what one might call ‘nu metal’ more decks than thrash guitar, which I point out to him, so he revises his previous statement “ok, my metal”.

You can’t get much more Essex than Southend, with its beleaguered looking palm trees poking up out of the middle of a roundabout and as sure as I am that Tom wouldn't mind a go at Adventure Island, we are merely passing through, curious about where the woman with the dog in a pram we pass might be going, which in turn prompts Tom to tell me about someone he met recently who had a “pet squirrel”.

The music takes a noticeable up turn with a spot of Black Sabbath, as does the weather. Having looked on the turn as we barreled our way towards the coast, “it's warm here” points out Tom as we get closer to our destination or “the Essex riviera” as he puts it.

I can’t be sure, on the account of it being almost five years ago, but I’m pretty sure the last time we weaved our way down this narrow lane, that time on the Bowers & Pitsea team coach, it wasn't tarmaced, just a dusty track heading further and further away from civilization and closer and closer to the middle of nowhere.

I apologise if I have got that wrong, it may have just been the case of it being a baking hot May Bank Holiday and the thundering coach kicking up so much dust, it felt like we were on the set of a spaghetti westen. As was then, and as is tonight, what eventually appeared past the allotments and back gardens, is a very smart ground indeed, everything from the gates onwards, very charming indeed.

The handwritten notice on the way in, is more than most clubs get who groundshare, the sign fastened to one wall that reads “Welcome to White Ensign Football Club” (WE) suggests that tonights ‘home team’ are a bit more than just lodgers.

Very little has changed in the almost five years since our last visit, which is no bad thing, trust me. As someone called it on Twitter in the past week, Burroughs Park is a “hidden gem”. Except for the sheer amount of people in attendance, no Clapton Ultras marching all over the place, filling the covered terrace behind the two rabbit hutch looking dugouts, I think it’s exactly the same.

One could really not ask for better conditions, the sky is clear except for the odd wispy clouds, the sun is still just about hanging in there, slowly sinking behind some trees.

“Breakfast for dinner” states Tom, his bacon butty firmly secured in his right hand, the only thing stopping him from devouring it, is the Mars bar he’s purchased, that is proving problematic to put in his pocket. “We might be stopping at McDonalds” he murmurs, the breakfast bap all gone, the away team not even here yet and he’s eaten, which must be some kind of record, the minimalist menu means by the time we’re done tonight, and there is the chance of extra time and a shoot out, no amount of Mars bars are going to see him home without a pit stop.

“Biggest game in our history” I overhear a WE coach say to a supporter. WE in the FA Cup for the first time ever, each hurdle cleared a new line in the annals of the club's history, but you need an opposition, who are nowhere to be seen, and can now officially be considered late.

There are a couple of Takeley FC (TFC) players here milling about, like the one who has just appeared from the changing room, cleared his throat with a phlegmy cough, then proceeded to pull a cigarette from the box in his pocket and light it up.

The sight of the match day programme in the tiny turnstile is a welcome one, however the look the man manning it in his Portugal baseball cap, is a kin to one you might give a two headed creature that has just crawled from the sea and attempted to kidnap your first born, so I take it’s a no to them having a raffle or a half-time draw.

Vincent Kompany might suck at it, Edgar Davids was no better, but WE player manager Brett is making a much better hash of it then them two, currently “top goal scorer” he tells me, his starting place because of that a certain, “can’t drop me” he adds laughing.

“Not much chance of a badge here” Tom surmises, after telling him of my 50/50 woes. WE soon appear for their warm up and inject a bit of life into the place, that was feeling very, very sedate there
for a moment. “That’s the one” gasps one of the players, the rest all looking on in shock after one's attempt at a shot, which would have looked more at home on a rugby pitch, cleared the high net behind the goal, heading straight towards the car park.

TFC are still nowhere to be seen and the introduction of some music or “beats” as Brett puts it, coming from the tiny speakers at the foot of the wirey Meccano esq floodlights improves our surroundings even further. Whitney Houston the first on the very Best of the 80’s playlist.

“Might have to get some chicken nuggets” grumbles Tom, as nice as his bacon roll was, it was in his words “insufficient” and “barely grazed the sides”. He distracts himself by doing a headcount, “oh nine, oh ten”, the man on the gate is hardly overrun, and Tom even goes as far as to mime his own “clicker”.

See what I have to put up with, if only served some chips.

With less than thirty minutes to kick off, the sight of one TFC coach putting out the cones is a welcome one, “not much urgency” comments Tom. It's not like the away team are rushing by any means to get on the pitch, maybe there is an element of them thinking this is a bit of formality, with
them being from the league above. WE very much the underdogs, but with it being a replay, it only shows they can more than hold their own.

Verging on the explicit, one older lady is clearly enjoying the music. She glides, nah, sashays her way along towards the gloomy all seater main stand, impressing Tom with her moves, “Grandma having a dance”.

Showing about as much enthusiasm as an unenthusiastic thing, TFC finally finally appear. To suggest they are sauntering, might imply there is any haste whatsoever, as they walk out for their warm up. “Ohh here they come” says Tom, with an air of ‘nice for you to show up’.

It doesn't take long to realise that the request from the away team, for a postponed kickoff has been denied. “Residential problems” explains one coach, the clubs strict licensing means the floodlights have to be off by a certain time and any delay could see extra time or a potential shoot out, being illuminated by everyone's mobile phones.

“They told you how bad it is” asks a man to one of the referees assistants knowingly, who is currently dowsing himself in insect repellent from a can. “In my mouth” recounts another person, discussing the apparent midge problem that plagues Burroughs Park, which is news to me, but by the way the guy is napalming himself, it must be close to infestation levels.

TFC are still on the pitch with five minutes to go before the supposed kick off time, the referee with ball in hand and his two assistants with flags at the ready are limbering up outside the changing rooms. WE are going through their last few pre match rituals, judging by the noise coming through the slight crack in the window.

“Groundsmans getting a bit panicky” jokes someone, as the news of a five minute delay to kick off spreads like wildfire. The man with a clipboard and a TFC polo shirt though, doesn't feel the delay that has been agreed is sufficient enough, but he is comforted by the fact “there aren't any midges”.

How wrong that statement will prove to be.

The pause in the wedding reception playlist allows for the low key announcer to make himself heard for the first time. He’s far from showy and although I wouldn't go as far as saying he is amateurish, there are few pauses, dead air you might say. A muffled conversation happening off mic, that can just about be heard.

It’s a rather frantic opening first five minutes, with plenty of early away pressure, the home keeper spilling a relatively straight forward shot, that is scrambled clear, showing maybe a few signs of nerves. “Relax” shouts a WE player in his red and blue kit, in front of what has turned out to be a half decent turnout. I’ll have to check with Tom quite how many it is, the main stand is well occupied, and something has already bitten me. I use one foot to try and stop whatever it is feasting on my calf, but to no avail.

A big TFC tackle sees nothing more than a talking to from the ref for the offending player, “be mindful”, presenting WE with a chance to alleviate the onslaught, but the lumped set pieces is lacking in any guile and comes to nothing. All it does is give TFC the ball and allows them to put the home side back under the cosh.

“I think they’re going to get battered” says Tom under his breath, not holding out much hope for the hosts.

A few people are milling about on the terrace that last time we were here was the setting for an anti Thatcher tifo, smoke bombs and a whole forest of flags. The midges are going to town on my legs and with almost ten minutes gone WE produce their first real bit of quality, a well timed pass forward finds the lead attacker, but he just can't get the ball out of his feet, which brings about the first “ohhhh” from the home crowd, one of which to our left seems a tad more invested than most. Any foray forward by TFC normally results in a chorus of “no, no, no, no” until the attack has danger has passed.

“Ohhhh” go the home crowd once more, a long range shot across the TFC goal signifies WE’s entry into the game, having weathered the early storm and the attempts by TFC to deploy a few dirty tricks. A well timed fart noise just as one WE player was taking a free kick works a treat, putting him right off and gets a solid “fuck off” in reply.

Another free kick, that from what I could hear was not accompanied by the sound of flatulence, is this time delivered with eagle eyed precision. Very, very nearly finding the head of a WE player, only to be reached just before by a TRF defender whose leap was just that little bit more salmon like. All of this action being witnessed through a dense fug of midges now hovering around us, the odd one dive bombing towards my nose or eyes and a strange almost luminescent green glow emanating from the floodlights.

“Unless you're city or Barcelona don't do it” snaps Tom, WE are almost caught out at the back, attempting the in vogue playing the ball out via their defence, but as is so often the case, almost balls it up and nearly concede. Tom then continues the Cataluna theme, with more talk about the WE strip. “Their kit confuses me” he confesses, the mash up between two of Europe's super clubs, “the backs PSG, the front Barca” has him a bit perturbed.

“Like statues” barks an angry WE player, the movement in front of him or lack of it at a throw in is somewhat lacking and someone else glued to the spot, is the quiet voiced lady living every second of the match, “go on, go on, go on” she repeats to herself as a WE attack gets closer and closer to the TFC box.

After somewhat of a lull in proceedings, the inevitable aftermath after such a rampant start, the pace picks back up, and we once again have ourselves an end to end encounter. WE have a penalty shout waved away, then one TFC player looks like he might just score the most sublime goal, his long winding run towards the home area unstoppable, he unleashes a shot from a tight angle, that skims the crossbar on its way over.

Such was its proximity to crashing up into the roof of the net, one teammate starts to celebrate, cutting it short when he realises it's only a corner. “Goal” says a traveling away fan confidently, following the drilled in set piece, only for the WE keeper to manage somehow to get something on the point blank header and touch it over. “Good save, that” says Tom with his goalkeepers union hat firmly on.

This time the latest crunching TFC tackle sees the player in the book. “How many times ref?” asks a particularly vocal home fan from the main stand, “every time” points out another having noticed quite the pattern starting to develop. “The one who was having a fag” as Tom points out, somewhat of a repeat offender.

“That could have been good” exhales Tom, understating quite what a spectacular goal one TFC player almost scored, only for an overly exuberant attempt at a finish, just when a spot of coolness was required, scuppering it. No more than ten yards out, having been found with a wracking pass from the left, which was dropped right onto his right boot, his first time volley is hit so hard, “he’s absolutely taken the leather off it” says one man, it flies well, well over the bar.

I honestly think some kind of press release may be required for future matches at Burroughs Park, because to our left the second person of the night and I’m sure she is not alone, is liberally applying repellent  to her legs and all Tom can do is snigger as I swat away wave after wave of attacks on my bare flesh.

TFC go close again, this time hitting the post directly from a corner, the ball just about scrambled away in time before the rebound can be pounced on. WE have shown a few glimpses of promise, but TFC don't look like they have even got out of third gear and at any moment could kick on and brush the home side away.

Thundering a clearance against a charging WE player, the TFC keeper just about gets away with his kick and then the home stopper is almost caught out himself. An underhit passback reaching him moments before the chasing TFC player, which is greeted with a few revelling laughs and “that was close” through puffed out cheeks.

The most perfect crescent moon now hangs over the pitch and shouts for the home team from the stand are getting more frequent. “Goal” predicts a nearby TFC fan again, but their skills of the clairvoyant are a little off. The curling shot from the edge of the box is reached by the most acrobatic of dives, the shot destined for the top corner tipped over by the very edges of the WE keepers fingertips.

“Gotta beat the first man” laments one TFC supporter, the resulting corner is straight out of the Tottenham Hotspur playbook, not even getting as far as the six yard box. The same person then suggests one of his team “have a go”. Latching on to the loose ball outside the box, he lets loose a shot, only for it to be about as good as the corner, which is greeted with plenty of laughter and a worried “that's a car” as it headed for the car park.

Well out of his goal, and with the ball at the feet of a TFC player in midfield, the WE keeper is neither here nor there and the increasingly demanding TFC fans want the player in possession to take advantage and “finish” with a sixty yard lob and although he considered it, you could see the hesitation written across his face, he thinks better of it and does not attempt the Beckham impression.

A late TFC runner almost gets them the lead that on reflection they probably deserve. “Back door” warns the home crowd, but it's too late and the TFC player is in on goal. He takes a touch to steady himself, then unleashes a rising shot towards the by far the busier of the two keepers, who reaches out with his other hand, going across his boy, instead of using the one closer to the ball, sending is squirreling up into the air. Dropping kindly to an away player in the box, he looks certain to break the stalemate, only for it to be cleared.

Conducting his team loudly from the back, the home keepers counterpart is booming, the referee is in Toms words “very precise” I would say anal in his desire for each throw in to be taken in exactly the right place and the sharp blast of his whistle, followed by a series of claps, brings the energetic first half to an end.

“The bars open, please indulge” says the voice over the PA and Tom suggests I should try and “get
some bottoms” anything to cover up my ravaged legs. With the players all departed and many taking the advice of the announcer, the life somewhat drains out of the ground, except for the bats flitting in and out of the main stand, and the odd nose from the subs warming up.

Like the flick of a switch, as the players return, so does the soul. “Come on boys” demands one WE player, and they are going to need all they can muster, because following the whistle, TFC are right out the traps. There is the distinct feeling that they have no desire for this to go on any longer than it has to, however Tom feels quite the opposite, “it's got extra time written all over it. The neighbors will be moaning”.

A change of seasons is in the air, the breeze chilly at times, many are retiring their shorts for another six months and Tom is considering his winter fashion options, “I think it's time for a winter jacket. Think I might go the full Arsene Wenger”.

Fifty one minutes on the clock and the deadlock has been broken, but I must admit I didn't expect it to be by WE. Many of those shrouded by the gloom of the main stand are on their feet, and by the sounds of it the scorer of the toe poked effort following a sumptuous back heel, has his very own fan club, one small section of them going bonkers.

The quiet muttering lady is close to the edge, the insistence of “don't switch off” by one WE player is almost completely ignored, as moments after the restart they very nearly give away a penalty. “Touch and go” says Tom, who reckons that TFC are unlucky not to have it awarded and he thinks with still over thirty minutes left to play WE are really going to have to “dig in”.

“Oh you are joking” says one woman, breaking away from the conversation she is having on her phone, TFC have equalized, WEare  in front for all of about four minutes. “Not sure what happened there” ponders Tom, “odd goal”. An odd goal indeed, witch a heavy touch of good fortune for TFC, a header blocked, the rebound falling to the denied player, who was able to score at the second time of asking.

Like pulling a plug out of a bath, the buzz that had emanated following the WE goal, drains away and Tom is fearful for the home side, “it's like they've angered a monster”.

TFC’s party is almost as short lived as WE’s lead, a blinding solo run, a Bale Vs Maicon kind of deal, push the ball into space and put on the afterburners, almost results in a goal, only for a covering defender to be on hand to tidy up, which results in a hefty groan from those who thought we were going to see something a bit special.

“Brett” shouts a WE player towards his centre forward playing manger, who gives a quick look up, finds him the box, only for him to put his header just over, leaving the gaffa with his head in hands.

The chances for both sides are coming thick and fast, WE’s opener has kicked open the floodgates, one TFC player tries his luck at a Beckham from just over the halfway line but its tame and then WE are beaten by a “big save” as Tom puts it. The kind of save that gets a round of applause from both sets of fans. “Save keeper” says a WE supporter. Praise tinged with a heavy dose of annoyance.

Almost every home fan sitting is as close to the edge of their seats as they can be, without falling off. The home side go close again with a looping header and then there is a collective sucking of the teeth as TFC surge forward, but nothing comes of it.

“He’s fine, he’s being a tart” says one WE supporter sympathetically, when an almighty collision between the TFC keeper and a WE player sees him laid out on his back. Looked like a fair challenge to me and by the time the physio has made it to him, he’s back on his feet and is waving them away.

The back of the stand commentator is getting increasingly loud, “well played Dave” he bellows and Tom is completely transfixed by the TFC keepers outfit, “horrible kit” he sneers. The all yellow and purple socks combo I admit would not be my first choice.

Swinging back and forth, back and forth the match feels poised for some last minute heartbreak. “Shut him down, shut him down” mumbles the nearby fan in response to the latest TFC attack. Whenever TFC have the ball the mood turns, the feeling of an impending goal infectious, only picking up again when the home side take up possession.

“Oh go on” she shouts, a fine WE through ball looks inch perfect, but again the skilled keeper is there to snuff it out.

The home bench is deserted, and not because the midges have descended upon them, but because every single person on it is warming up. A flying home counter attack is cut down by another TFC hatchet job much to the displeasure of the home crowd, “every time”.

Moments after asking me how long is left, Tom psyching himself up for extra time, the promise of chicken nuggets getting further away, with about a quarter of an hour left, WE lash home their second of the night and take the lead.

The players rush to catch up with the scorer, who ends up almost right in front of us. After being mobbed by his teammates, his reason for ending up where he did becomes clear, it was seemingly no accident, pointing to the sidelines to a member of the crowd. “Keep your heads” counters  a supporter, Tom thinks they have “scored too soon”, if they are going to pull off the upset, they were going to have to score much later on, “fifteen minutes is a long time to hang on”.

A bizarre decision by the WE keeper has home hearts in mouths, a decision to punch, and not a very good one at that, puts them under some unwanted pressure, but they get away with it.

“Come on Ensign” shouts one of the expressive WE supporters. A brave stooping header by one of their midfielders sees him win the ball from a position he could have easily lost a few molars and then off he charges with the ball. Unleashing at the end of his run a squirming shot that squeaks just wide and gets a resounding “ahhhhh” from the crowd.

The introduction by TFC in the last ten minutes of the half of the “blond man mountain” as Tom describes him, unbeknownst to everyone quite yet, is an absolute game changer. The big chunk, who Tom rightly points out “they’ve put up front” will end up having more of an impact on this match then I’m sure anyone could have imagined. Except his manager of course, who will put it down to his own tactical genius.

Another bat swoops above our heads, feasting on the veritable buffet hovering around us. “Come on Ensign until the end” pleads one player and then a move from a TFC winger gets the crowd a little anxious. “Sold him” giggles one away fan, a drop of the shoulder and a burst of pace sees him easily away from his marker, the lady next to us can hardly bear it, but after all the preamble, his final ball is severely lacking.

The departering WE manager gets one of the biggest rounds of applause of the night, “well played Brett” shouts someone as he begrudgingly drags himself off.

Still hanging in there, WE have only got to survive a few more minutes. A big home block just inside the box brings about the most vociferous cries from the crowd so far “come on Ensign”. TFC are quite literally throwing everything they can at the WE back line, their keeper is tossed into the mix at the awarding of a free kick, and it's fortunate for WE “he can't head the ball for toffee” as one person puts it, because on reaching the cross, he makes an absolute meal of it.

“Times up, a minute over” states someone close by, all the added on time they are sure has now been and gone, the WE players are now only seconds away from being history makers. TFC almost hand them a much needed third, not only can he not head a ball, but he’s not exactly got twinkly toes either. The TFC keepers attempt at a Cruyff turn almost goes tits up, and the next pass back to him gets plenty of sarcastic “wooooo” in anticipation of a clanger.

Deep, deep into added time, TFC draw level, every single player, coach and substitute erupting into near fits, a mix of relief and joy, the “man mountain” having hooked the ball over the line from close range. The latest “come on Ensign” is deflated to say the least and there is barely enough time to think come the restart. The blast of the whistle to get things back underway is shortly followd by one to signal we will be heading towards extra time, much to one persons displeasure “fuck off”.

“That was a blatant handball” snarls one of the home bench, which is seconded by one seething home fan passing us, “one hundred percent a hand ball”. “Come on Ensign you can do it” pleads one lady from the main stand and on the pitch a spat has broken out between the two sides, which is quickly squashed.

A hush descends across the ground following one last attempt to unite the team from the crowd and soon it gets even quieter, near silence, people are overcome with shock, because minutes into the first half of extra time, the “man mountain” has done it again, 3 -2 to TFC.

Heads are low, the optimism around the place has bottomed out, WE are on the ropes, one fan tries to rally, “heads up” but it falls on deaf ears. In fact various home players look like they have lost their heads altogether, diving into challenges, committing needless fouls.

A save of the highest order then stops WE drawing level. From point blank range old purple socks in the TFC goal makes himself big, starfishing Schmeichel style, taking a full blooded shot in the midriff he denies WE their third.

“Go on, go on” stutters the lady nearby on to her final nerve. WE’s number 11 shows some classy footwork, laying up a teammate, only for his shot to be woeful at best, one man can't bare to look and turns away in disgust. WE are giving their all, TFC are on the cusp of just being outright dirty. Both benches almost going toe to toe, when one home player is cut down. The awarding of the foul gets a jeering “weyyy” from the home crowd, who have seen too many similar tackles go unpunished so far tonight.

TFC have the chance to wrap it up, one on one with the keeper, but it goes begging and the player fires over. On the far side of the pitch, one home coach is making his way towards the changing rooms. By the purpose in his stride he doesn't look like it’s because he thinks he left the tap on, its an angry gait. Occasionally looking back over his shoulder, Tom wonders if he has been “sent off”.

“Referee! Handball! You bottled that son” screams one home fan, who along with almost everyone else rooting for the home side thinks they should have been awarded a penalty. A headed clearance from a TFC defender striking the hand of a teammate, but the man in charge is having none of it.

The first half of extra time comes to an end with WE doing plenty of huffing and puffing, but just not having the cutting edge to draw things level and one man is being told off by his wife for calling the TFC keeper a “nonce”.

There are plenty of motivational quotes being fired off by the crowd in the break, “heads up now” and such like. The turn around is blistering, Tom pointing out its surely because of the “lights”.

It’s now or never as Tom would say, a quarter of an hour to play and by the looks of it every WE player is fully aware of quite what it means, because they come out all guns blazing. Their main threat is the howitzer of a throw one player possess. An overhead kick is inches wide and gets a loud “argh” from fans and players alike. “Come on Ensign to the end” utters someone offering up yet another quote from a self help book. Another long throw results in a header that brushes the paintwork as it goes the wrong side of the post.

The tension is mounting and the referee is close to losing control, shouting from the main stand is reaching near noise abatement proportions. The latest launched throw in causes problems, but WE just can't capitalize on the panic its causing among the TFC ranks. A fierce shot looks to have been touched wide, but no corner is awarded, they are just not getting the rub of the green.

TFC’s only answer to the onslaught is to foul, racking up one WE free kick after another. The homeside pack the box every time, but just can't make anything stick. On one occasion the ball traveling all the way through the box completely unscathed. The whole place is on tenterhooks, as time slowly ebbs away.

“Get in the mixer” roars a home fan, as the long throw specialist winds up for another chuck. They go close again, another header wide and one person who now seems resigned to the fact in just might not be their night, sums it up perfectly, “they’ve had their chances”.

At every opportunity he can the TFC keeper falls on the ball, quite unnecessarily, each time eating up those vital extra couple of seconds. One optimist shouts, “ there's still time” but there isn't.

The majority of the crowd stick about come the final whistle, TFC's celebrations are hardly raucous, more along the line of 'thank fuck for that'. WE ran them close all the way to the end, it just came down to one side taking their chances.

Both squads gather in their respective halves for a debrief, to talk over a few pointers from the past two hours. When they finally trudge off, the home crowd let the players know, that despite the result what a cracking job they did.

Burroughs Park until today was always just the place we first encountered the Clapton Ultras, but making our way home, we now have some new memories forged in a place that really is a "hidden gem". Burroughs Park will now be the place that the spirit of the FA Cup was once again confirmed to be alive and well. Where the underdog almost triumphed and the unrelenting passion that most if not all the players from both teams showed undeniable.

I'm not a huge fan of the overly exposed former Manchester united and French international fullback, but his tag line, his much used catchphrase repeated by one departing TFC player, seemed apt, "I love this game".

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