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 He rummages around in his bag only to find some out of date Polo’s, which despite being a good six months past their use by date, he necks a handful of, to stave off the hunger pains.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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Saturday, 12 January 2019

Stockport Must Be Empty - Altrincham FC Vs Stockport County FC, National League North, J. Davidson Stadium (01/01/19)

Having consumed my own body weight in Parma ham less than twelve hours ago and for about two hours straight having been plied with prawn cocktail, sausage rolls, coleslaw and eight types of cheese, I’m feeling sluggish to say the least. The temptation as the alarm on my phone starts to wail is to turn it off, roll over and pull the duvet over my head.

Although I can't roll over, because I’m in a bed that apparently was made for Tom Thumb, and if I do move too suddenly there's a chance of going through the plasterboard. I am not at home, I’m over one hundred and seventy miles from home, I’m in the spare room of my other half's Rachel's parents house. Where any minute now her mum will be knocking on the door with a coffee and I'm pretty sure I can hear my daughter stirring in the adjacent room, so there is no chance of getting back to sleep now.

Not a drinker anymore by any means, I am at least unlike a few people today, i.e. Tom who was at a very fashionable New Years Eve party back in London last night, who probably hasn’t even been to bed yet, and is still drinking the latest must have brand of artisan gin, not feeling the effects of alcohol and have a hangover to contend with, I peel myself out of bed, down my coffee and prepare for the day.

A day that is bright, clear and a bit chilly. The usual discussion between me and Rachel whenever we go to a match about if she should bring an extra jumper or scarf etc holds us up momentarily, however we are soon on the road, the very quiet and clear roads, making the short drive to our first game of 2019.

“Follow the football” announces Rachel, and the brown sign with a white ball is soon guiding us, not only to this afternoon's destination, but also the local ice rick. Although it's a three o'clock kick off, the red brick terraced houses that surround the J. Davidson Stadium, home of Altrincham FC (ALT), look bereft of life. Many of them still have their twinkling Christmas lights up, but they all still look half asleep, so I ensure not to slam the door of my car too hard, as we find a place to park only a stone's throw from the ground.

Those who have ventured out and are not at home nursing the aftermath of last night's revelry or are finishing off the potato salad in front of a special New Year’s Day edition of Bake Off, are wandering around in almost silence. The sky is as clear as anything, the pavement is littered with orange cones, and the grey and red facade of the J. Davidson Stadium, looks a bit like the outside of a major DIY chain store.

Like well wrapped up, woolly hat wearing lemmings, we join the steady stream of Stockport County FC (SC) fans, ALT’s opponents, and follow the large black arrows on the laminated signs, stuck to the concrete wall, that read “away fans”. Poorly printed posters, smothered in sellotape and each in their own tatty red frame confirm the fixture, and kick off time.

As a larger man, few things in football bring a sweat to my brow quicker, than the sight of a turnstile. Most of which were designed for the smaller more malnourished people of the 1900’s, they don't deal well with my hulking frame and each time I encounter one, I have the same recurring nightmare I’m going to get stuck in it and end up as some hideous meme.

Passing those finishing up their nondescript looking lunch, wrapped in white paper, I take a deep breath, and head in. Handing over my money to the lady behind the mesh, I edge on through, making it out the other side in one piece.

Segregation is something that still feels very alien at non league football. Seeing a ground partitioned at this level just doesn't seem right, there will be no halftime change of ends no access to the club shop or any cover if the weather decides to turn. The SC fans have long steep crumbling banks of uncovered terracing, with its rolled top red railings to call home for the day.

The lack of protection from the elements is the least of Rachel's concern right now. She is staring slack jawed, poking me in my side and bringing to my attention the four “portaloos”.

Not adverse to standing, as long as I can get my appropriate lean on, and I can attest to the ones today of being at the perfect height not only to relieve the strain on ones back, but also to allow a comfortable flick through the programme that Rachel's just bought from one of the two men in red and white scarfs on the way in. One young SC fan though, whose stature means leaning will not be an option, is less than impressed by the lack of seats.

“Do we have to stand up during the whole match?” he asks his Dad, “yes” he replies, “why?”.

What I first thought was a prime place to stand, just to the side of the goal, and a few steps up from the front, soon turns out to be the complete opposite on the arrival of the SC keeper and his coach, who start to go through his warm up right in front of us. Each hefty kick causes everyone in the vicinity to have an involuntary tic. The only comfort is the thud of the ball hitting the keepers gloves. “Good save” comments one person, as he gets his finger tips to a shot and tips it around the temporary posts.

I do my best to occupy myself, trying not to concentrate solely on the ball hurtling towards us. I take in my surroundings, that all lie in the shadow of the most monumental mobile phone mast. As far as the ground is concerned it's just the right side of shabby. Flags hang from the back of the covered terrace opposite us and the majority of red seats in the reasonably sized main stand to our left are yet to be filled.

The black and white cat bombing about, its bell going crazy, does its best to get away from the danger, but the ever increasing amount of people means unlike the cat, we don't have many other options of where to go, so must endure the fear of getting walloped in the face for just a little bit longer.

“Shock coffee” is how Rachel describes the drinks she’s just returned with from the red shipping container food kiosk. It’s 90% brown, caffeinated liquid, 5% sugar, 5% milk. She tells me such is her picnic egg malaise, she almost put “salt” in mine, but is pretty sure it was sugar as she intended. Such is the curved top of the railings, there is nowhere to rest them, so we are forced to clutch on to them, turning them into impromptu hand warmers, until they become cool enough to drink. The instant hit is “well nice” as Rachel puts it, and we both shudder in unison, like a cut scene from Trainspotting.

I think its Post Malone who is single handedly trying to break the already shaky sounding speakers dotted around. The presence of the tattooed faced one is much to Rachel's displeasure, “keep it in the changing rooms and out of the stadiums” she grumbles. Having heard my stories of non league football obsession with 80’s dance music, she is disappointed to say the least to hear this modern guff.

A considerable ripple of applause washes over the terrace as the SC players emerge from the centre of the main stand to warm up, the players respond with that overly exaggerated above the head clapping, that only footballers do.

There is an epidemic spreading across football, that is only getting worse, and that is people nearly dying because of stray balls from players warming up, nearly killing innocents. “Heads” scram those that the ball passes over and into the crowd, mercifully the football Gods have shown some mercy today, and the woman who is hit, is still alive and is only slightly embarrassed.

The SC players let out an excitable squeal in the middle of one of their warm up, a single SC flag has been hoisted on the very front row of red railings, as more and more people arrive. “It's well busy” says Rachel as what was a completely empty terrace when we arrived, we are now rubbing shoulders with those trying to carve out their own little bit of space.

Rachel points out the two sides only met five days ago on Boxing Day, SC coming out victors 2 - 0. Which is a promising sign on our ten year anniversary since we first saw SC play at Underhill, as the last two times they drew and lost, we might actually see them win.

The low slung winter sun, is causing problems for a few, anyone who wants to talk to the person to their side, has to raise one hand to shield their eyes from its dazzling rays. Taking a moment away from his drills, the SC keeper reaches out his giant glove covered hands towards some kids, who are looking for a fist pump. As more and more people arrive, many have that slightly gormless look of ‘where can I go?’, stopping briefly to asses the situation, turning their head like a meerkat on lookout, before moving on in search of some space.

I realise in our rush to leave today, I forgot something, when a man pitches up in front of us, and start to tuck into his home made sandwiches. Rachel's mum makes a mean sandwich, ever had an omelette in a sandwich? No I hadn't before about nine years ago, and now I can’t get enough of them. Such is the growing size of the crowd, the stewards have just opened up a second part of the ground, a covered terrace, just past the beer “gazebo” as one person has dubbed it, which is doing a roaring trade, and like the very safe and controlled breaching of a dam the SC fans file through the newly opened red gate. One of those being ‘Mr Shite’ who sat behind us at SC’s recent game at The Hive, and spent 90% of it saying everything was “shite”.

The group of friends in front of us, fall into the Tom camp of how to celebrate New Year, they weren't by the sound of it watching Suggs and eating blue cheese. The mere sight of beer is turning their stomachs, almost each and everyone of them is sipping from a Lucozade bottle, trying their best to recover. “Can't be doing with staring into the sun” says one, turning his back to it peeking over the roofs of some nearby houses.

SC's manager Jim Gannon’s brief appearance on the far touchline, kick starts his song, that ripples through the crowd. The chance of being smacked by a ball, for us at least, has shifted twenty yards up the pitch to our left. The SC players are going through their final shooting practise. Lucky for those directly around the goal, the players are generally on target. Each shot that goes in gets a “weyy” the odd ones that don’t, which I’m happy to report is not many, get a “boo”. The only deviation from the almost panto like routine, is one that comes back off the woodwork, that gets a  “ohhh”.

Whenever a chant or song from the SC fans does break out, it's always from the far end, and has normally petered out by the time it gets to us, “SCFC is the team for me” almost makes it to us, but
not quiet, sore heads, mean things are slow to get going. One of the worse for wear from the group in front of us has had enough of all the waiting around, with a quarter of an hour until kick off, “can we start this football match, I'm bored already”.

What was a bleak swathe of concrete is a now a sea of heads. We’ve finished our coffees, “good job” says Rachel following her final sip, her concoction has done just as she had intended. A new arrival behind us on his phone is trying to find a friend, “I’m in” he says, having to slightly raise his voice over the noise of the crowd, they are doing their best to find each other, “there is a lot here”, he replies, before giving out directions and hoping that he can be found.

“Stockport must be empty, everybody is here” jokes a man nearby, as more and more people squeeze past each other to find a spot. The spine tingling “scarf around my neck” song bubbles up from the crowd for a moment and although I’ve no Tom today, I’ve still got a person billowing vape smoke in my face and there is still plenty of food chat going on. “I'll wait until half time” says the tall thin redhead “queue is too long”, who when he is offered a pint, declines emphatically, “I’ll be sick”.

The teams depart, one young SC fan leans over the hoardings to beat out a rhythm as they do. The rest of the ground is certainly busy, but it's nowhere near as heaving, as in the away end as more people continue to arrive. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen” says the perky voiced announcer. Faintly in the distance I think I can hear an SC drum and even fainter still I can just make out the singing of the home fans, “bring out the Alty”.

Europes, The Final Countdown, is the song of choice in these parts to get the crowd going in preparation of kick off, a mild improvement on Post Malone, but only just. Those fans in the newly opened stand have to shield their eyes against the sun as Fanfare For The Common Man, welcomes the teams out, not from the decoy yellow and green striped tunnel to the side of the main stand, but from its centre, all while one SC fan is being mercilessly mocked his choice of “suave” jacket.

Each team surround one half of the centre circle, while the voice over the PA, whose tone has noticeably changed, explains there will be a moment of reflection, a “roll of honour” a chance to “celebrate” those “connected to the club” who have died over the last twelve months, “and so we remember”.

With the whole place on their feet, the applause is punctuated with the odd shout of “blue army” from the SC fans and the end is signified by a blast of the referees whistle, which evokes even louder cries from the crowd of, “come on County”.

In what must be close to some kind of a world record, in the brief time between the players finishing the applause and the intended kick off time, the PA rattles off both teams starting elevens at breakneck speed. Completing them faultlessly may I add, as the ALT player lifts his foot to kick off and still with just enough time to ensure we all “enjoy the game”.

The whistle draws more shouts of “come on County” and the first of many chants about SC’s home, “Edgeley, Edgeley”.

Over all the heads I just about see the early ALT chance at the far post, the forward is unable to hook the shot over his shoulder, the sun almost making the goal we are behind invisible. The first home chant of the game, “we all follow the Alty” gets a sarcastic response from the SC fans, the choice of the home fans second, gets a few quizzical glances, “no one likes us, but we don't care”.

Just over five minutes gone and SC go close with a long range effort, but not as close as the “ohhhhhhh” maybe suggests according to one fan, “miles away”. The supporters in front of us have stopped grumbling about their hangovers and have moved on to the state of the pitch or “shit turf”. SC go again, the latest chant of “come on County” is interrupted by firework display esq oohs and ahhs. The latest attempt on goal, an always rising off target shot that well clears the bar, is put down to by the resident groundsman, because the ball was “bobbling”.

Late arrivals swivel their heads back and forth, scanning the terrace for somewhere to stand, but it's rammed. Rammed but quiet, one person puts it down to “everyone” being “hungover”, as another adds “fuck making any noise yet”.
“Robust” says Rachel, when one ALT player disposes an SC one with a firm shoulder barge in midfield, which inspires a song from the home fans. “Come on Alty, come on Alty”. The sun once more causes issues as the ball all but disappeared when it crossed into the SC box, forcing the woman behind me to leap forward, grasp my shoulder and ask, “what's happening”.

I tell her not a lot, in fact very little has happened in the opening fifteen minutes at all.

“I, O County” sing the visiting fans in response to their teams shot at goal, that takes a nick off a defender for a corner. The resulting set piece almost brings about the opener, only for the SC player, who those around us are calling “Danny Zuko”, header to be cleared off the line. “First goal is massive” states one fan whose turned to the person next to him, “whoever scores it, wins it”.

I think it's fair to say the tall thin redhead, who is still yet to eat, has so far dished out the most eclectic mix of insults towards the home players, I’ve ever heard. “Shitty ass” he shouts, straining every sinew of his body. SC go close again, a low edge of the box shot is saved, and again the crowd sound like they are at their local 5th of November display, “ohhhh”.

A home injury stops play, and allows each set of players to take on some water. The back wall of the mini stand rattles as the SC fans pound itmCHECK belting out their latest rendition of SCARF songs. The home fans respond with a low and slow, “Altrincham, Altrincham” which gets a few camp, slightly Carry On, “oh”,

As was sadly proven the last time we saw SC, they don't always “win away”, despite what the fans sing, and if they give the ball away at the back like they just did, much to the anger of one fan, “thats fucking shit” they certainly won't be winning today. They are not punished this time and the home side go again with a foray forward, but the ball into the box is cleared.

For a fraction of a second it looks like the SC number 10 has been forced too wide by the on rushing ALT keeper, to be able to take a shot. He dives at the feet of the SC player and for a second looks like he has done enough to claim the ball, but he hasn't. The goal now gaping, and from a tight angle, three ALT defenders reduced to spectators as the scorer of the SC goal on thirty minutes, rolls it in. He wheels away from goal, his arms out by his side Vincenzo Montella style, soon to be mobbed by his teammates.

One man down in front has removed his scarf from round his neck and is whirling it above his head, one beside has his stretched his out above his head all to the tune of “win away, win away” which for the first time today looks like it might be the case. One man who has vaulted the railings and is running up and down the touchline, certainly thinks so.

The announcement of the the golden goal is like a hard kick in the dick, I would of course been well up for that, however us in the away end, were not given the option. Not long after the restart and ALT let fly a low but ultimately very saveble shot, which is gathered up, to a chorus of relieved sighs. One fan demands that SC “go and get a second”, others are caught up in the spreading song of “we’re on our way”, that quickly and briefly consumes the terrace.

SC are on top, they have ALT pressed back in their own half. They are getting in the right positions, but as one fan points out, after he stops laughing, “at least get one on target” after one SC players attempt at a shot from the edge of the box that is neither a slice or a miss kick, but a mess, a real head scratcher. “What was that?” asks one supporter as the ball spins up into the air, and well away from goal.

It is only the slight deflection from an ALT defender that sends the latest SC shot on goal, narrowly wide of the post. “I-O County” goes up a few decibels while the team prepare to take their 75th corner of the half, but like so many of the ones previously, they don't make anything of it.

“He don’t play for us anymore” points out one SC fan, after a player gives the ball away, which in tennis they would call, an unforced error. In fact in the final five minutes there are a few grumbles around us, as the SC players intensity takes a dip. “Oh come on County wake up” shouts one person, what looked like an attack with so much promise, ends up being slow and lethargic.

A dilemma of historic proposition and one I am all too familiar with, is playing out in front of me. The tall thin redhead, is “starving” but is struggling with the distance he is required to travel to resolve his issue, “I can't be arsed, its miles away”.

When SC win corner number 76, and remember other than the header by “Danny Zuko” they have been almost inconsequential, one person is content, “that'll do”.

“Oh, oh, oh” go the SC fans, like a person juggling a jacket potato, as the ball bounces, pings and ricochets off almost every player in the packed ALT box, but not one player in SC blue is able to get a solid touch on it or bring it under control, when one finally does and is able to set himself, his shot
is over.

A rare ALT attack results in a shot on the SC goal, but it's easy for the keeper to mop up. Food dilemma man saw it, he’s still not moved, he still going on about how “starving he is” but still can’t be “arsed” to do anything about it.

Surely not, I saw him pass us, but I thought he had gone on the side terrace, but is Mr Shite from Barnet behind us? It sounded like him, “ that's shite” says a man in a strong Mancunian accent, when a SC free kick routine doesn't go as planned.

Except for food dilemma man, the thing on most people's mind is getting “a second before half time” and they are presented with many more chances to do so, before the half is done, however most go the way of the recent free kick and are “shite”.

A fine run down the wing, and a shimmy later, the wide player is running up the byline into the ALT box. They win themselves another corner, but make a meal of it. The SC players and fans want a foul on the edge of the ALT box, but the referee waves play on and only thanks to a well timed tackle in midfield are the home team not able to exploit the missing players at the back.

Another corner, another busted flush. With the sun slowly setting and the temperature dropping, people have started to do the cold feet dance, “my feet are fucking frozen” claims one man, as he shifts from foot to foot to the tempo of another round of “I-O County”. Someone who should certainly be cold, due to his inactivity, is the SC keeper, who one person points out, has “not had a save to make”.

“The referee has indicated a minimum of two minutes added time” announces the voice of the PA, as SC prepare for yes you guessed it, another corner. This one at least made it into the box, “ohhhhh” gasp the fans, when the ball is cleared, quickly recycled and lumped back in, only to be cleared once more.

Beaming from ear to ear, the food dilemma man, is dilemma free. “You got two?” asks his friend, “you that hungry?”. Clutching two white paper bags he has returned triumphant, “they've got chicken balti pies” he explains. Also the “queue is massive” so there was little chance of him making a second trip.

The ALT players seem a lot more eager to get back inside then the SC ones, they positively sprint down the tunnel, while the SC players take their time. Rachel cracks out a can of Sprite from her bag, but she has a far from happy look on her face as she does. “I’m frozen” she tells me, as Berlin mark two rears its head. Thankfully I have a scarf for her in my bag she let me borrow, but my attempts to hide the significant coffee stain on it from her, does not go as planned. So now she's cold and angry.

SC are the first of the two teams to reappear, the pop music is still blaring and when ALT run out a far-off home chant wafts our way, the ALT fans attesting once more that their team is, “by far the greatest”. Two pie man is now one pie man, the speed in which he inhaled it, he would really give Tom a run for his money, in some kind of non league eating contest.

The fans around us are singing about how their team make them “happy” when an early chance flies over the bar. One pie man is now no pie man, both gone in not time at all. Orange streaks criss cross the dusk sky and the songs are coming thick and fast, “we’re on our way”, “scarf around my neck” as the home players grow progressively more frustrated and are starting to get a bit overly physical.

A slow opening fifteen is capped with SC winning a free kick and working it well to get the ball into the box. A short pass down the channel is chipped towards the penalty spot, only to be cleared before reaching the intended SC player. The second half has also seen the bustling side stand really come to life, “here's to you Jimmy Gannon” they sing. One of the men in front of us puts it down to the after effects of last nights partying, “they're all still gurning”.

Although it's not spectacular from SC, as one fan puts it the performance is “professional”, the same fan adds that it might to result in a few people “moaning” it’s hardly thrilling stuff, but they look comfortable and are managing the game well.

From a boiling mass of supporters toward the back of the side stand, where most of the away noise is now coming from, comes a long string of goading songs, that fail to get a rise from the home fans, “what's is like to see a crowd?” they bark, “shall we sing a song for you?”. Perhaps the most patronising of all is the suggestion that they are only “here for the County”.

Just shy of twenty minutes gone and a home corner, stirs up no end of panic as the ball knocks about the SC box. “Get it out” urges one person, before the keeper is able to fall on the ball, snuffing out the danger to a cacophony of cheers, at the start of a period of home team dominance. The tide ever so slightly starting to shift on and off the pitch, the home fans grown louder and louder as their team starts to assert its self.

“Not a foul you soft cunt” snarls one SC fan when the home side are awarded a free kick. “Walking right through us” says another, the foul a necessary evil after a meandering run which went unabated and desperate measures had to be taken.

An SC substitution is deemed “defensive” by one fan, the SC manager is shutting up shop as they say. The home teams robust approach and lack of reprisals from the referee is really starting to wear thin, “book him you bastard”, another suggests the foul play is simply “because you're losing”. A wooden rattle somewhere in the crowd to my right ticks over and a rousing song of “we love you Stockport we do” rings out.

Rachel has returned from the toilet, with tales of “no lights”, “loo roll on a coat hanger” and having to use her “torch”, oh and the fact the whole toilet block “moved”. The ALT players are really walking a fine line, “off, off, off” shout the SC fans after another borderline tackle. “You shithouse” screams the now pie filled tall thin redhead. A tidal wave of abuse floods towards the referee who after his chat with the player, where no card was brandished, he is bombarded with booos.

“You've got to beat the first man!” crIes a supporter, as another SC corner, their 77th, doesn't get very far. ALT have a surge up the other end but its comes to nothing and it's now Jim Gannons, name the fans are singing. The referee continues to be the main focus of the supporters “ref you fucking shithouse’’ as another foul on a SC player goes unpunished.

The man in charge must be secretly relieved when the ALT keeper in unable to deal with a simple back pass, taking an almighty swing and a miss at the ball, not going the full Paul Robinson, but close, “You fat bastard” shouts one person at him. The keeper who is giving the player who rolled him the ball the dirtiest of looks, when he has no right to, is far from fat.

Two more SC corners, number 78 and 79, fail to produce. SC suffering as Rachel points out from a very "Tottenham" problem, of not being unable to get the ball into the box, the same person as before bemoaning, “you've gotta beat the first man”.

With less than ten minutes to go a trickle of stewards appear, taking up position for the final whistle, which is like a red rag to a bull to one SC fan, “we’re on the pitch, if County score”. A quick exchange on the edge of the ALT area sees one SC player away and into the box, with his back to
goal he turns sharply and lets loose a rising shot that is tipped over, winning SC their “eleventh corner” according to the man behind me, but I’m sure its more like their 79th.

Whatever number corner it is, nothing comes of  it, ALT are awarded a foul, an infringement on the man in goal apparently, one fans asks, “what did he do, tickle the keeper you soft bastard?”.

Into the final five and a huge shout for a home pen is declined. A blocked home shot means the SC fans are growing increasingly nervous. A stunning home ball, a flat pinged switch of play out to the wing to a player in acres of space means he can with ease get the ball into the box, but it's cleared. All that “professionalism” from earlier in the half has somewhat melted away and its all getting a big frantic. The home fans can sense it and are at their loudest of the day of so far, “come on you reds, come on you reds”.

I’m not sure what a “mard arse” is, however it is the man in front of me’s go to when addressing the referee. His request that he “book” the player who has just fouled an SC one, falls on deaf ears and I might have to ask Rachel to translate. I sense out of not really wanting to watch, so uses talking to me as a distraction, but one man turns his back on the game and is telling me how this season is SC’s “best chance” to “to go up”, he puts it down to the fact that unlike in previous seasons, “not one team is dominating”.

The announcement of the attendance, “3,383” gets a significant cheer, a big chunk of that must be the SC fans, and it sparks songs of “you're only here for the County”.

It’s all ALT, SC are fighting a rearguard action, “I can't watch this” says one person, the sight of maybe conceding a very late equaliser too grizzly to bear. “Four” blurts one fan at the announcement that the “referee has indicated four minutes of added time” everyone to a man is bemused at how he came to that number, one fan puts it down to that the referee must be “wearing a red shirt”.

A late home corner tests the SC fans nerves, but is just about as threatening as theirs have been. “Blue army” is the latest song, and a relieved “weyyy” goes up, when ALT curl a shot over. ALT win a corner, its curled and SC look to break but loose the ball, not long after they win the ball back high up the pitch and break again, this time winning a corner, but guess what.

The final whistle goes with SC in the ALT box. Many home players fall double, resting their hands on their knees, while the fans around me punch the air.

A child on his fathers shoulders, a man in a rainbow wig and the tall thin redhead, are just a couple of the hoard of SC fans singing "win away", the ALT keeper still on his haunches in his six yard box contemplating the defeat, who has not moved an inch. The SC players applaud what has been a fabulous performance by them considering the conditions, so many hangovers, the captain takes things a little further, he high fives and shakes hands with those who are pressed up against the rail around the edge of the pitch, pumping his fist in celebration as he walks away.

Slowly shuffling forward the crowd make the short walk out. One asks a steward if funnelling so many people through such a small space is not a "safety issue". Another takes it up a notch, suggesting he might be "crushed to death" and then has a premonition of what tomorrows newspaper headlines might be, "stewards gave no assistance".

On Rachel and I's ten year anniversary of first seeing SC, its a joy to see them win, we've not exactly been blessed with super games the last few occasions we've watched them. I still struggle for an explanation as to why SC have grown on me quite like they have, why I check for their score almost as quickly as I do Spurs.

I always thought I would die a one team man, but I think that's changing.

 

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