Sunday, 12 February 2017

IOU - Barking FC Vs Sporting Bengal United FC, Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy 2nd Round, Mayesbrook Park (31/01/17)

It is only the lights on at the adjacent running track, that give any kind of inkling that we are in the right place, or in fact, there is a football club here at all. The ‘Welcome’ sign is nailed high up on some chipboard on top of a graffitied, makeshift white fence. It does at least confirm, as it puts it, that this is the “Home of the ‘Blues”, Barking FC (BFC).

Undeniably gloomy, and with a faint whiff of what Tom thinks is “pickled onions”, which he hopes with his one track mind has no bearing on the “burgers”, the car park is at least quiet, which allows me a few moments to decompress and unwind.

My journey here was mostly solo, having picked up Tom from a nearby Tube station. I navigated the rush hour filled North Circular and a large chunk of the East End alone with only the voice coming from my phone, barking instructions at me, my phobia of large roundabouts, and the thumping of my heart, as company.

Once we've squeezed through the tight white turnstile, manned by Geoff in his blue BFC scarf, who is kind enough to let us in a bit early, even though they're not strictly “open” yet, it is still only thanks to the second hand light from next door, partially illuminating Mayesbrook Park, that it’s clear there is a football ground before us.

The weather doesn't help, it’s overcast, miserable, and dark, very dark, also the fact that the floodlights are yet to be turned on, means we are really unable to get a good look at our surroundings. Geoff and a small posse of staff are waiting for the club Chairman, Rob, to do the honours, who is yet to arrive. Because of this, our tour by Geoff is cut short, as by his own admission, there's “not a lot you can see in the dark”. He is though able to check if there is any standing water in the goal mouth, which amazingly there isn't. Considering the recent deluge across London, much to his surprise, and that of the BFC manager who had told him the pitch, “was better than he thought it would be”.

Nearby, coming from a doorway of what looks like a white shipping container, there is a glow, which has the same warmth and dazzling quality of the briefcase in the diner in Pulp Fiction. The clubs crest fastened to the inside of the door, drawing us in. We can soon hear the chatter of the large TV on the bar, just in front of a mirror, with ‘BARKING FC’ spelt out in blue, between two black and white footballs.

The kind offer of a cup of tea, is hastily retracted, on the realisation there is a shortage of cups, only enough currently for the referee and his assistants. The ability to see, and now drink, hinging on the arrival of the all powerful, demigod of a Chairman.

Loud music from the home changing room, a blue shipping container, which the use of Tom thinks is great, "cheap and cheerful", soon floods into the clubhouse, drowning out the TV and pretty much everything else. Not arriving on a cloud or with thunderbolts shooting from his fingers, Rob is finally here, in his long club coat, not only with cups, but with the capability to turn the lights on.

Leaving the clubhouse, along with another stunning example of an over dressed referee, I mean really, he looks like a pimp. Geoff is able to finish showing us around, telling us, I’m sure much to Tom's dismay, that the “burger bar is not ready yet”. Passing through the wire tunnel, which evokes the feeling of some South American stadium I've seen on YouTube, all enclosed because of a fear of breeze block or severed animal head being thrown, but in East London, he tells us smiling he is also “security” and one of his jobs is to “keep the tunnel clear”.

With the light, comes the drizzle, visibly falling though its rays. One player takes the opportunity to tentatively shuffle towards the pitches edge, in socks and flip flops. “How soft is it”, he asks me, I tell him I've no idea, not having braved it myself yet, even though I have a far more sensible choice of footwear on than him, he lightly prods at it with his beachwear, “very soft”, he says, before beating a hasty retreat back inside.

Drizzle has turned to full blown rain, Tom with his practical hat on, is reassured by the fact there is at least, “enough cover”. We have the pick of a corrugated roofed terrace behind one goal, or the 'Brad Robinson Memorial Stand', which runs almost the length of one side of the pitch, with it’s curved roof and red seats. He is though a little perplexed, by the blue and white barrier that surrounds the field, “not often you see a brick wall around the pitch”.

Having spent the past few moments staring off into the distance, Tom turns to me, looking like he's just seen something he shouldn't have, like the small Amish boy in 'Witness', he murmurs “weird ritual”. I delicately ask what he means, handling someone with a mild case of shock, with the required kid gloves, he eventually tells me how he watched a player “poor two polystyrene cups of water” one on each boot, “before coming onto the pitch”. I must admit, my first thoughts were not voodoo, black magic or any other form of the dark arts, but a bit more of a sensible one: perhaps he was cleaning them? I suggest, which seems to put his mind at ease.

“At least it’s not cold” says Tom, as we both huddle in the away dugout, which if you can imagine, looks like a half finished conservatory, with no windows, trying to keep dry. He is however correct, it is certainly not cold, not Canvey Island or Harlow Town cold, but even with the lights now being on, it does still seem very dark. Compared to the ]nuclear glow of next door, it does still feel a little murky, Tom reckons that BFC might just be “saving on a bit of power”.

Tom sees a coach of the away side, Sporting Bengal United FC (SBU) coming across the pitch, and it's time to scarper, Tom seems especially keen to make a move, because it is in fact the manager, or the“angry one” as Tom put its. Angry is doing him somewhat of a disservice, vocal and passionate from the sidelines yes, but angry no. His team when we saw them earlier in the season were having a particularly bad day at the office, so he was a little emotional, but in fact, he is probably one of the nicest people you could meet.

He’s happy enough to let us stay put in his dugout, as he prepares for the warm up. He is a little
concerned about the pitch, telling us his foot “sank in” on the walk over. As far as the game is concerned, he wants to make sure they can keep it “respectable”, BFC are top of the Essex Senior League and somewhat flying, SBU are languishing, near the bottom, their biggest problem at the moment is they are “creating chances, but can't put it in the back of the net”.

I feel a little bit guilty disturbing the lady in the clubhouse, who is midway through having a bit of dinner, when I ask her for a cuppa. Thankfully there are now plenty of cups, however the same could not be said for change, my £20 note sending her into such a tailspin, that she eventually just gives them to me, and tells me to come back later.

Tom and I enjoy our fine cup of tea, standing at the back of the terrace, as the two teams warm up, who in spite of the conditions, are very sprightly. That can’t be said though for one BFC late comer, who is making slow progress across the pitch, to join his team mates, one coach telling him, he is “oozing with enthusiasm”. The same can also be said for one SBU coach, shivering, he declared to me, how he “hates Tuesday football", reeling off reasons why they shouldn't have to do it, which mainly focused on, the traffic when traveling at rush hour, and the cold.

Finally the lights are at full power, but all they do is highlight quite how much rain is falling, Tom is concerned for the groundsman, “this pitch will get ruined”, it's already showing signs of wear and tear, and we've only had the the warm up. I’m surprised to hear when one person says it wasn't even “touch and go” as far as the pitch was concerned. A few of the home fans seem to be optimistic also, one suggesting that “as long as its doesn't start pelting” that the pitch should hold up.

There is not much waiting about, the players are not contained to the all wire tunnel, similar to something your hamster might be kept in, for long. There is though an ever so slight delay, for the presentation of an engraved silver dish, to a BFC player for making his 100th appearance for the club, but it’s a short ceremony, and soon the players are lining up, shaking hands and preparing for the kick off.

Tom is already very comfortable in the press box, just shy of the halfway line, in the main stand. Its slightly raised position, and curved wooden back chairs, that look straight out of a local pub, give us a great view of the two early BFC chances. The second one brings out a bit of the Carry On in Tom, as a player tries to lob the keeper, “cheeky”.

It’s all BFC, chances are coming thick and fast, so the crowd is a little stunned when SBU look to have gone ahead, only for it to be disallowed. The referee deciding that the indirect free kick had not had the required amount of touches, before hitting the back of the net. Chalking it off much to the dismay of the SBU’s, chain smoking, coach, the shiverer from before, who's standing next to us, instead of in the dugout, because of the “better view”, who was adamant a player, “touched it”, before it went in.

The occasional roar of a plane overhead, the lights of a nearby block of flats twinkling through a line of leafless trees, and the not quite pelting, but very close to it rain, is a somewhat bleak, but not unpleasant backdrop, for a game, that since the disallowed free kick, has become very entertaining. An end to end affair, and fast paced, as fast as the sodden pitch will allow, it's only slowed, by the astronomical amount of offsides.

“It's a 50/50” challenge, says a BFC supporter, nonchalantly, after a big clash, that leaves one SBU player clutching his leg, rolling in the mud. It results in a yellow card for the home player, and although I’m sure the conditions had a big part to play in it, it certainly didn't look cynical, however it was the kind that makes you draw a short sharp intake of breath, through your teeth.

The SBU coach, can now add fidgeting, and doing a running commentary, to the list of skills, that accompany his loud advice, and plenty of supportive clapping. He only occasionally breaks character, to ask a friend for the up to date Liverpool score, but quickly slips back into the role, very method, when he is appalled by one players missed chance, that really should've drawn the game level. “How you miss that?” he bellows, but he can play the good cop too, when SBU get close to scoring, soon after, he is quick to praise them as well, “good effort”.

I have little sympathy for Tom when he starts moaning, “I’m fed up of being wet”, he tells me, this little outburst coinciding suspiciously with hearing that Arsenal are currently losing 2 - 0 to Watford at home, which he simply rolls his eyes at. I’m even less inclined to feel sorry for him, with the arrival of an old fella, wearing BFC blue almost head to toe, scarf, hat and jacket. Clutching his brolly, with the the sound of a squawking, Talk Sport presenter emanating from a radio, secreted somewhere about his person. He is sodden, he’s on stray ball duty.

With the rain inching closer and closer to being considered “pelting” the SBU coach, doesn't think either team “can do anything on this turf”. Prompted by the ball getting held up during a SBU counterattack, he reiterates his point to the nearby assistant “lino can't do anything on this surface, not playable”.

A collective “yes” rings out, from the small pockets of fans dotted around the ground, after BFC break the deadlock, not that I had a great view of it, the man with the flag, was ill positioned, right in my eye line. “Come on Blues” shouts the blue man, now sitting in the front row of the stand, the SBU coach next to us, a little dejected, “we don't deserve that”.

We soon witness his best bad cop, after a another glaring miss, “yo shit man how many you going to miss?” he asks from the stand, before reverting to good cop again, “next one” he says, making sure to knock the player down, then build him back up, in a matter of seconds. Under his breath though, he curses them “what a time to fucking concede” they had held out almost the whole half, only to go behind on the stroke of forty five minutes.

As the players drudge off, some whacking their boots on the wall by the tunnel, clearing them of the accumulated mud, most people stay put, wanting to keep as far away from the ever increasing rain for as long as possible. Instead, like me, they stay in their seat, half listening to the hysterical, hyperactive shouting that is Talk Sport, coming from the radio. A few hardy BFC subs, take to the pitch, for some shooting practice, however Tom, is nowhere to be seen.

He soon materialises from the gloom, hood up, damp, but it’s fleeting, he has to go back and get his burger and chips in “ten minutes” The teams are already coming back out, and it's time for him to “get my burger”, thinking he had a few moments to sit, their arrival only reinforcing the fact he feels, “halftime always goes so quickly”.

“Come on you Blues” shouts the man all in blue, his radio almost as loud as our SBU neighbour, who is still offering instructions, “smash it”, he shouts as the away side rack up the first chance of the half, the shot is well hit, saved, spilled, then recovered.

The intrepid food explorer is back, clutching two white paper plates, his meal concealed between them, he looks like a greedy person returning from a buffet. He seems happy, revealing his cheeseburger, with onions, always going to get extra points if you give Tom onions, but his reply does make me question the mood he is actually in, when I ask him how he is, “soggy”.

“Offside lino”, “bad defending lads” is the exchange between an SBU supporter and the official, after BFC double their lead, with about ten minutes of the new half gone. Once again the man in blue, offers up the only kind of a chant or song from the crowd, if only he would mix it up a bit “come on you Blues”.

“It's like watching Porto Vs Chelsea away” says Tom, a comment I think we can all agree, is a little bit out of left field, on a wet Tuesday night in Barking, but when he explains his thinking, the similarities in the clubs kits, I can see where he is coming from, kind of. Our banal conversation, is somewhat put to the sword, when the home keeper, quite suddenly, and with nobody near him, falls to the ground, sprawled out on his back.

There is a sudden blast of the referee's whistle, someone in the crowd suggests a “head injury”, however I didn't see anything. It’s a little tense, and a hush descends, as the referee jogs over, to attend to the downed player.

Cramp, totally undramatic, cramp. The keeper it would seem has been struck down by a particularly violent strain, “how long will this cramp last?” asks someone in the stand. The players look miserable, the rain has gone up another notch, and they do their best to stay warm. The break does allow for a bit of audience participation with the assistant however, when one chatty soul asks him if he's, “got his trunks on?”

Eventually he's up, but needs plenty of assistance to limp off, “that doesn't look good, he can barely stand on it” says Tom, who then wonders if BFC, “have a replacement?”. They do, and after a good eight or nine minutes, he's on, and the game gets back underway.

Regardless of Tom’s appraisal of the pitch, “the ball just ain't moving”, it really is a mess, with Tom adding that it must be like “playing in custard”, it is however moved well enough by BFC that they are able to get a third, with just under twenty minutes of the game left. “Nice move” says a suitably impressed Tom, a move, that sends the winger down the right, he cuts the ball back into the box, allowing for a simple finish. “School boy error” comments the SBU coach, once again in bad cop mode, he's not impressed.

SBU’s managers assessment of their recent problems is not far off the mark, they have indeed missed some sitters, they have had a hat full of chances, some which they really should've converted.

“That's their third disallowed goal”, says Tom, when once again, the ball is over the line, but again SBU are offside. Tonight has been a case of them very much being in the game, but never looking like at any point, that they were going to take it by the scruff of the neck and win it. One player does have a hit and hope moment, from far out, just before the end, a speculative shot , that is just saved, that draws a “wooo” from the crowd, but once again, it’s close but no cigar.

“I don't think this pitch will ever be playable again” says Tom, both of us looking out across a marshland, a new inner city RSPB waterfowl sanctuary. The referee, perhaps having had enough of running around ankle deep in cold mud, catches everyone out, with the full time whistle, not playing any of the anticipated extra time, because of the “freakish cramp” as Tom puts it.

“Can think of better things to do on a Tuesday night” says a drowned rat BFC coach, soaked to the skin, but still cheery. Geoff is pragmatic, only once he has apologised for Mother Nature, “sorry about the weather” he says, but “at least you got to see a good game”. Before we skedaddled, I get talking to the father of the substitute keeper, who is seventeen, and is one of his two sons playing tonight. I ask him if he knows what struck the keeper down with such ferocity, he confirmed it was “cramp”, adding that the players were royally taking the piss out of him, and his theatrics.

The car once again becomes a sanctuary, a safe place out of the wind and rain, such is Tom's dampness, he goes as far as to ask me if I've "got any towels?" About halfway home, it hits me, I come out in a cold sweet, I'm ashamed, I'm a father, what kind of example am I setting, I'm not a good person, as 'The Simpsons would say', "I'm histories greatest monster", I never went back and paid for the tea!

Barking FC, IOU £2.00.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE




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Monday, 6 February 2017

Sometimes We Have Three - Harlow Town FC Vs Metropolitan Police FC, Ryman Premier League, Harlow Arena (24/01/17)

‘Welcome To Essex’ reads the road side sign illuminated by the car's headlights, as we wind our way along a dark, tree lined road. As we weave through the pitch black, which Tom had previously described as “countryside”, although it’s not really, we're only just outside the M25, not that I’m going to correct him, we're not talking, we've had our first in car argument.

I think I’m quite within my rights to be a little miffed, his chief responsibility is to get us there, but when we miss our exit, because he has started to play Candy Crush, well I’m not best pleased. The deathly silence, is soon broken though, “logs”, he announces, reading a small sign on the verge. Thankfully conversation is soon flowing again, predominantly about the thought process of the jogger we pass, in the middle of nowhere.

Talking of nowhere, that’s exactly where Tom thinks we are “driving to”. At one point, he thinks it’s funny to suggest a scenario, for us to imagine: what would happen if he had “put the wrong place” in the Sat Nav?. Considering our Sleepy Hollow surroundings, it doesn't bare thinking about.

Shouting “there”, as we whizz pass our turning, is not adequate notice, when we’re going at about 40 miles an hour, forcing me into a three point turn, admittedly my favourite, of all the maneuvers, in a nearby road. Retracing our steps, all is soon forgiven, a brown sign about halfway up a lamp post, points us in the right direction “Harlow Town FC”, it squashes any notion of being lost in no man’s land, and for the first time, the warm, comforting, glow of the floodlights are visible.

The entrance to the Harlow Arena, once we've parked, is not that dissimilar to a leisure centre, although, I’ve never been to a swimming pool with a bouncer. Tall and of WWE proportions, with a clipboard in hand and a pencil thin red tie, he ticks us off his list, like the doorman at the Camden Palace, and lets us in.

Midway through a sandwich, Tim, Harlow Town FC’s (HT) stadium General Manager, he has to do that hurried chewing thing, we all do, when you have a gob full, but need to talk. He swiftly joins the list of non league men with incredible handshakes, it’s like a Boa Constrictor. Walking down the tunnel towards the pitch, the entrance of, also having very visible security, Tim gives us the lowdown, pointing to the covered terrace opposite, as to where the “main support” will be during the game.

What he says next, he does so casually, it catches me out at first, my face I’m sure looking a little puzzled, “if we score, you'll hear the famous air raid siren”. You what? I think to myself, is he having us on? Not wanting to seem rude, I don’t question it, perhaps he hears it in his own head, we both nod along, thanking him, and let him get back to his pre match munch.

Before we “look at the shop”, Tom loves a club shop, he’s gotta get his pin, I take a moment to try and figure out the significance of a sign on a pitch side gate, “BERNABEU”. They don't seem like a club, with unrealistic notions of grandeur, and although I’m sure their 3G turf is just as hallowed to its fans, as those in Madrid, they are surely not comparing the Harlow Arena to the eleven time Champions League winner's home, or are they, it is quite nice here.

In one corner of the ground, just beyond the turnstiles, the small club shop, is one of the finer examples we have seen. A healthy selection of mouse mats, coasters and mugs, surround the decapitated polystyrene head wearing woolly hats, and the armless torso, displaying the clubs red and white, ‘Where’s Wally’, hooped shirt. Interestingly leant up against one wall, a selection of drums, and large flags in the clubs colours, catch my eye.

“Should win” says an HT fan in the shop, when I ask him, how he thinks they will get on tonight, he follows up his prediction with a shrug, and one of my top five cliche's of all time, “ but football's a funny old game”. I have him to thank, not only for raising a grin on my face, but also from sparing me from looking like a complete tit, post my entrance into the clubs “golden goal” competition.

Having handed over my £2, my penchant for a non league flutter is well known, 50/50’s and other such club money raisers, have been a bit thin on the ground lately, so it’s nice to be able chuck a bit of cash about, like billy big bollocks. Under the instructions from the lady behind the counter, I choose two white balls, that look suspiciously like dried old haricot beans from the back of the cupboard, each with a number on.

This is where the aforementioned fan does his good deed, noticing me start to walk away, he tells me that they, “go in there when you're done with it” pointing to another tin, next to the one I had just drawn my numbers from. Ahhhhhhh, the bean lottery is just the way to get your number, the number on the ball, corresponding to a minute in the game. You're not expected to walk around with two tiny spheres about your person, you tell the woman running the shop your number, or numbers in my case, that you've picked, give her your name, and Bob's your uncle.

‘1’, I tell her. The noise she makes on hearing this, priceless, a kind of ‘I’m disappointed for you’ exhale of air, and I know exactly what she means, without any need of an exchange of words, not a good start. My second number, ‘17’, is not greeted by the same disgruntled sound, so I might be in with at least half a chance.

No bone crushing handshake, but a warm welcome nonetheless, and talk of football players known as “The Machine”, when we meet the host of the ‘Ryman Round Up Show’. He records his weekly show in the HT board room, high at the back of the main stand, overlooking its mostly red seats, bar a few exceptions, a few white ones that spell out HTFC.

Again I don't want to be rude, but first people are talking about air raid sirens, now it’s mechanical players. The android in question, Alex Reid, will be chalking up his “150th” goal for the club today, if he scores tonight, we’re informed. His nickname by the sounds of it, is warranted, after he “scored 46 goals in his second season, part of which he had a broken ankle”.

“Welcome to the Harlow Arena” says the voice over the tannoy, as the players arrive from the red extendable tunnel, at the foot of the stand, passing a small boy, with his hand outstretched for a high five, all while a bit of the Dave Clark Five, warms the cold night air “Glad All Over”, they sing. “Come on Met” shouts a Metropolitan Police FC (MT) player, to his teammates, all who are sporting the most dazzling day glow yellow kit.

The inkling of an animated support, after seeing the drums and flags in the shop, is confirmed, before we've even made it round the pitch to take up position behind the dugouts, which I must add had red velvet seats in them, very grand. A small group in one corner of the terrace, are already at it “Harlow Town, Harlow Town”, they chant, using the metal back of the stand, to add a bit of rhythm. A more conventional form of percussion, can soon be heard, as they move onto another song, now to the beat of the drum slung over one mans shoulder. I can’t quite make out the words, but it’s definitely to the tune of The Champs, ‘Tequila’, only I think they've replaced the 1958 songs single word, with a player's name.

“Goal number 150, The Machine” howls the stadium announcer after four minutes, a simple close range tap in, gets the player his milestone, and the first goal of the game. Now I’m sure many of you are thinking, ‘you must be gutted, that’s one of your golden goal picks down the drain’, but I must be honest, that is far from my thinking right now. Because right now, right at this exact moment in time, as the players finish their celebrations and start to jog back to their own half, an ear splitting sound starts to emanate from the terrace, slowly at first, but steadily building, into a deafening wail.

Tim wasn't pulling our leg, he wasn't drunk, mad or both, they really have a bloody air raid siren, which instantly surpasses any kind of fan atmosphere aid, if there is such a thing, we have ever seen. I am forced to suppress the emotions it’s stirring in me, of the 1940’s twelve year old, I was in a previous life: Doodlebugs, V2’s, Anderson Shelters, spirit of the blitz, Mum sleeping with GI’s for chewing gum and tights. Tom hands me my cup of tea, which I put it down on the ice covered railing around the pitch, we gawp at each other, Tom as ever, able to sum up the moment perfectly, “I didn't expect that”.

Following the mind blowing experience, that was the siren, Tom and I still in a mild state of shock, there is a quick reminder to the sparse MT following, of the score from the home supporters, “your 1 - 0 down”, which in turn is succeeded by some police based ‘banter’, which must plague MT, wherever they go, “you're nicked”, shouts someone. What crime the player is accused of, I’m not sure, perhaps it’s ‘crimes against defending’, it was fairly easy for HT to move the ball around them to score, or maybe ‘crimes against football shirts’ MT’s shade of yellow is somewhat garish.

“I've got something you're gonna hate”, says Tom, looking at me, as his hands rummage around in his rucksack, “spare socks”. I’m sure regular readers will know, I’m a stoic, old school, stiff upper lip, Bovril guzzling, rugged kind of guy, and not a snood wearing, East London type like Tom. So the sight of him hopping from foot to foot, putting on a pair of fluffy socks, to keep his toesie woesies warm, well I can feel the bile start to rise, in the back of my throat. He should just let his toes go black, then snap them off without flinching, like all the other proper men, pah.

Having made it around the pitch, Tom now with his cashmere socks on, the nearby drum, reverberates off the metal roof, “hello, hello, we are the Harlow Boys”. To suggest those around us are ‘boys’ might be a bit far fetched, but we have both noticed, that it’s certainly a “younger” crowd as Tom put it, compared to most games we go to. There are of course a smattering of oldies, and white beards, and surprisingly it's them guilty of the police themed ribbing, which rears its head again, this time after a robust MT challenge, “that was criminal”.

Tom’s thoughts of half time food, are a little premature even for him, however after seeing someone pre kick off tucking into a burger, he described as a “monster”, I doubt he has been able to the think of little else. His attention, is soon brought back into focus, after a fizzing shot from the edge of the box, just misses the top corner, “bit lethal that number 11” he comments, before falling silent, and back to deciding, burger sauce or no burger sauce?

Not content with singing among themselves, banging their drum, and letting the banshee out of her box, after a goal is scored, the group also make demands of other members of the crowd, like a maniacal Disney villain. They insist at one point that an elderly man on the opposite side of the pitch, waves at them, he quickly does what he’s told, raising his oversized red and white scarf above his head, and waving it back at them, but looks happy enough to do so, so no harm done.

MT’s bench is a scene of much head shaking and quiet contemplation, as their team struggle to have any effect on the game. The so far dominant home performance, has got the home fans geed up and full of song, “we are Harlow, super Harlow, we are Harlow, from the farm, next to Poundland, next to Poundand, next to Poundland, over there” they sing, all pointing in unison, to what I can only imagine is an actual Poundland, (other budget retailers are available) that I imagine is along the road, behind the goal.

Just before half time, HT create three solid chances, non of which are converted, but in doing so they  reassert their dominance, and turn the MT manager, an even more ashen colour. “Really great stuff” says one fan, after their first chance. Tom’s fan crush, number 11 goes close, only a last ditch save, one on one, sends the ball over the bar, instead of into the back of the neck, and a whipped ball across the box, after a surging run down the right, needed only the faintest of touches, to turn it goal wards.

The half comes to an end, with a resounding rendition of a chant, sung to the tune of ‘The Adam’s Family’ theme. On the half time whistle, there are a few left shivering on the terrace, most people, Tom included, have made a beeline to the marquee, for something to eat and the warmth of the bar.

“Sometimes we have three” Ian tells me, in his HT woolly hat, “Ian’s here today”, adds Ian, pointing to another Ian, custodian of the battleship grey siren, on its own little stand, as he makes the short walk from one end of the of the terrace, to the other. I can’t even start to compute, what three of them, would be like. The raw power, so overwhelming, I fear it might make me faint, like a Victorian lady, Tom having to revive me with a dose of smelling salts.

Ian in the hat, is the partner of Donna, the match day secretary, who was also well prepared for the wintry weather, in her smart and very fetching long bright red HT coat, she was kind enough, to get us a team sheet before kickoff.

Tom returns a happy man, clutching a floury bap, that he says is much better than his most recent burger, at Canvey Island. Tonight's, is warm for starters, and has the added bonus of “onions”. The half time music is soon off, and in the brief moment of silence, all I can hear is the nearby road purring, but peace and quiet is a rare commodity round here, and the sudden loud bang of the drum, makes me jump, blowing away any half time cobwebs, preparing me of the second half.

HT comfortably pick up, from where they left off at halftime, scoring early, this time from a corner. The stadium announcer once again, has just about enough time to tell us it’s “The Machine’s” 151st goal, before we witness the thunderous power of the siren up close, which Ian with the hat had described as their “trademark” during our half time chat. It’s certainly loud, that goes without saying, but it’s Ian with the sirens technique, the slow start, that really makes it awesome, it quickly builds, putting you a little on edge, until it drops.


One fan, from the school of tough rugged blokes, like me, our motto, ‘why do players wear long sleeves?’, shares his ethos with an MT player, only for it to somewhat backfire. “Real men don't wear gloves”, he shouts, only for a player from his own team, to wave his gloved hands, back at him. I’m pretty sure, if you were that way inclined, you could insert a meme right about here, titled, AWKWARD!.

There are a couple of mainstays in our blogs, things you can be sure we will comment on, be it if we’re in Dortmund or Dagenham. Tom and his search for the ultimate football snack is one, the weather is another. Not wanting to disappoint, tonight is no different, it's cold, it's bloody cold. Much like when he gets his snood out, my derision of him, only masks, my own inadequacies, and I wish I had brought a spare pair of socks, my feet are numb, I’m about as rugged as a silk scarf.

MT score, but it’s quickly disallowed, sparking another deluge of police themed jeering, “book him Danno”, “arrest him”. At least shortly after, when a HT player, wins back possession, the choice of “robbed there”, at least kind of works.

“That's our song”, says a protective Tom, after the latest rendition of, “we're red, we’re white, we're fucking dynamite”, like Arsenal have some ownership on it, and the world of football songs is not plagued with plagiarism, it’s a dog eat dog world, my man.

With about quarter of an hour left, sloppy HT play, allows MT a toe hold in the game, as they halve the home team's lead. “Shall we sing a song for you” ask the home fans generously, to the MT supporters who are conspicuous in their silence, and for the first time, HT don’t look completely in charge, it would really be scandalous if they ended up allowing MT back in the game. Not that the majority of home fans near us are bothered, except one who lets out a booming, and slightly annoyed sounding “come on Harlow”. The rest though have given up on the drum, and someone is now playing The Champs on their phone, another supporter suggesting, “let’s all have a disco”.

“We’re 3 - 1 up, we’re 3 - 1 up” sing the fans, after the best goal of the night, a curling, outside of the box beauty, well out of the reach of the diving MT keeper, that instantly extinguishes, any thoughts of an MT resurgence. Once again, the name of the scorer is read out, and although Tom and I now know, exactly what to expect next, we are no less excited by the third rendition of the sirens song.

We leave the terrace, and slowly make our way around the pitch in the dying minutes of the game. We are not the only ones troubled by the weather, “we’re fucking freezing” says someone in the main stand, one person goes as far as to ask the referee “how longs left?, I’m frozen”. A few people are making their way home, but not in any great number, a person behind us wondering if they have been “spooked, by the fog coming in?”. Something not lost on Tom, having only moments before asked, “is it me, or is the pitch smoking?”.

HT really should have finished with four on the board, a chance right in front of the goal, only a few feet out, is put wide, Tom thinks it must be down to the players “cold feet”, why don't you lend him your socks? They are presented with another chance, soon after, but once again, when it would seem easier to score, they miss, Tom this time, suggesting it must've hit a “divot”, not sure you can use that excuse, on a 3G pitch.

On full time, my hand is once again subjected to an onslaught from Tim's Titan hands, on our way to the car. We comment on what a good turnout it was tonight, which he quickly tells us is “not a big crowd” for them, even on a weeknight. We also tell him how much we enjoyed the character of the terrace, which he says are not near their normal number, however, “they make enough noise for the ones not here”.

Back in the car, thawing out in front of the heater, the relative silence, is almost unnerving, after the audio assault of the last couple of hours. We both come to the conclusion, when all things are considered, that it’s worth the admission price alone, to be deafened by the siren.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE




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Monday, 30 January 2017

Bit Late For That - Canvey Island FC Vs Bognor Regis Town FC, Ryman Premier League, Park Lane (21/01/17)

With not even a month of 2017 gone, the world has already witnessed a major historical event, one that might join that list of such monumental happenings, that it will forever punctuate people's lives, “I remember where I was when…….”,

Now don't go and get ahead of yourself, I’m not talking about that micro handed buffoon, who unnecessarily mouthed “thank you” a lot, and quoted whether deliberately or not, a baddie from a Batman movie, no I’m talking about something much more seismic, I got a car.

I’m sure some of you might think, ‘but hang on Dan, you're inadvertently sabotaging yourself, how will you now fill a large portion of the opening of your blog, with petty tales, of your hatred of public transport?’, and alas that has dawned on me, but do not fear concerned reader, I have not set fire to my Oyster card quite yet, and we will still be traveling on the train or bus, like the rest of you, again soon. However, having our own wheels means our horizons are now a little broader, and what better way to mark the arrival of our silver steed, than popping down to Essex, for the afternoon.

Before I am able to break free of the M25, I must navigate the Holloway Road, alone, with only the sound of my beating heart for company, as I do everything in my power, not to kill or be killed, on the way to pick up Tom.

Having only taken one wrong turn, ended up down one dead end, and been glared at by one cyclist, I feel it was a successful journey, on my arrival at Tom’s swanky converted shipping container, grass roofed, flat, in London’s fashionable Dalston.

No longer having to rely on scribbled directions on a piece of paper on the passenger seat, Tom turns out to be quite a proficient navigator, with a little help from the lady on his phone, he relays her instructions well, and an hour later, we are making our way through an Essex housing estate, but not before we pass a woman in the road clearing up after a crash, “why’s she got a broom?” asks Tom, and a zombie apocalypse car, covered in fake blood, and with a severed hand, decorating the front grill.

The car park of the Len Salmon Stadium, home of Bowers & Pitsea FC, is one we have been in before, although it was summer then, today it’s crisp and frosty, but it’s a ground we’ve never watched a game in. Our last visit, was not for our other blog, ‘Non League Carparks’, but because it was the staging post for the coach, which took us, and the team to the Essex Senior League Cup Final in 2015.

Bowers are a team, who in the short time we have been doing what we do, we have shared some big highs, as well as some big lows with, and today was our chance to finally see them at home, after watching them three times, all away. For one reason or another, whenever we try to come, something occurs, an inevitable spanner in the works, illness, train strike, family emergency, and today is no different, in fact I would be suspicious, if it was all plain sailing. Today the culprit, a frozen pitch.

We arrive to a scene of much mulling, the players and staff of Bowers, in a group on the pitch, as a frankly over dressed referee in a blue suit and pointy brown shoes, walks the side of the pitch, which lies the shadow of the main stand, that is currently rock hard, conducting his inspection.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Robbie Williams explodes over the sound system, serenading a near empty ground. When the away team arrives, bolstering Robbie’s audience a little, they quickly dump their kit bags, and are soon on the pitch, looking it over, themselves. Some producing keys from their pockets, and giving the surface a prod, some just doing the age old, ‘smash your heel into it’ routine.

“There's a couple of faces I recognise” says the ever smiling, Rob Small, Bowers manager. His prognosis is less than positive, “not hopeful” he tells us. They are waiting on the arrival of the club groundsman, Darren, to see if he can work his magic. “Brush it”, “water it” are all things Rob tells us might work, or they have tried, I’m sure I even saw on Twitter, a picture of a pitch with running cars on it, to thaw out the ground, anything to make sure the game can go ahead. The rest of it is “perfect”, adds Rob, it’s just the thin strip, holding us all to ransom.

Darren soon arrives, and unless he can “move the sun a bit”, he doesn't think there is much chance of the referee letting things go ahead, he tells us the man in change is going to “put his boots on” and give it one last check, but not until he's “had his coffee”. One arriving fan has his own drastic suggestion, “just cut this off, then we’re on”, he says, pointing to the roof of the stand, that is currently blocking out the sun.

Now with more appropriate footwear on than before, his winkle pickers back in the changing room, the referee and his assistants run the line, but it’s soon clear that we are not going to be breaking our Bowers hoodoo today, “destined not to see a game here” says Darren, today at least he is right, but much like the Terminator, we will be back, hopefully in a cool, second movie kind of way, and not an old, and kind of embarrassing third and fourth movie kind of way.

The away team, notified of the cancellation, quickly shift their focus from the game. On our way to the car, we hear a very loud suggestion from one player, of going “down the pub”. We on the other hand, will not be heading to the nearest ‘Dog & Duck’, but must see if we can rescue today, and find another game.

Deeper into Essex, towards the coast, via a multitude of roundabouts, that I traverse with varying levels of success. The pot holed, gravelly car park of Canvey Island FC (CI), is already reasonably full, manned by what I think is a father and son team, both in matching orange high viz, the boy a smaller carbon copy of his Dad.

The entrance to Park Lane is a contrast of old and new, what looks like a brand spanking new clubhouse and turnstile, sit just in front of the Danny Green Community Stand, an uncovered concrete terrace, with yellow railings. On the side, it's easy to miss a mark showing the “sea level”, which is about four foot off the ground, and is I’m sure, making today our first ‘subaquatic’ match.

Like lizards on a rock, most people are spread out on the pale grey steps of the terrace, a natural sun trap, because despite the clear blue sky, with not a cloud in sight, it iss bitterly cold, and they are a small haven for those wanting to keep their core body temperature above ‘0’.

“They got Bovril”, says Tom as we pass the ‘Food Bar’, outside it among the familiar local Essex twang, we hear a few not so common broad Lancashire one’s, a few Bolton fans whose game at Southend, was also scuppered, have made their way here.

There are a mixture of children hovering around the entrance of the pitch, moments before kick off below a faded sign, “Welcome to Park Lane” , imagine like at the top of the steps at Anfield, just more seagully. There are those appropriately dressed for the weather, done up to the nines in winter coats, waiting for autographs, and there are the rest, today's mascots. A mixture of the clubs and Benfleet FC’s, under sevens, all in shorts and shirts, who are jogging on the spot, trying their best to keep warm.

“Welcome the teams out”, says a voice not dissimilar to Deputy Dog, over the tannoy, a little melancholic, and it’s greeted with the distant high pitched hoot of an air horn, which in turn is followed by a mention of today's sponsors, “T.I.T., Trotters, Independent, Traders”.

Both teams huddle, a column of steam rises from them both, “it's warm up here” says a relieved fan behind us, the terrace most definitely the place to be, until the flip of the coin that is, and the teams change halves. “Other end we go” says a miffed Bognor Regis Town FC (BR) fan, who I imagine quite fancied at least one half in the sun, but now has to go and stand in the shade.

“Still 0 - 0 a minute after kick off” are the fateful words of one CI supporter, delighted that his team are yet to concede, though this is short lived, and not long after a chorus of “come on Canvey” from a group at the back of the terrace, banging on its wall, CI go a goal behind, and the mood quickly changes. “Gonna be 8 - 0” says one particularly pessimistic fan, “two minutes in!” says another exasperatedly.

CI currently lie twenty third in the Ryman Premier League, BR first, “could be a long afternoon”, suggests one supporter. Another seems to think the writing is already on the wall, telling a friend, that they will at least have the “best clubhouse in the Ryman North”, that’s the league below the one they're currently in.

Despite their early setback, CI slowly but surely, get back into the game, and find no difficulty in creating numerous half chances. A hooked shot from inside the box clips the face of the crossbar, “most excitement we've had in about a year and a half”, announces one fan. The current score though doesn't diminish the enthusiasm of the small group behind us, who continue to bang the wall, and cheer on their team, “Canvey, Canvey”. I must admit this is far more agreeable, than the BR air horns, or tortured woodland creatures they are manipulating to create a quite ghastly noise, which is already wearing a little thin. It’s ear piercing squeal, is normally preceded by a shout of, “green army”.

“Want one of the world's hardest sweets” offers my companion, on his return from the tuck shop, where we watched the first goal go in, whilst queuing for his tea, and pre made sandwich bag of pick and mix. The mood of those also in the line was far from optimistic, with one small child not pulling any punches, “we’re gonna get battered”.

BR think they have scored again, but it’s chalked off, for offside, quite to the relief of the home fans, whose team almost score themselves, only for the chance to be missed, a “fucking free header”, quoting I think, the Harry Redknapp manual of coaching, CI continue to create chances, and are getting in good positions, but just can't capitalise.

A clearance from the BR keeper, cannons off the rear end of a CI player, sending the ball looping towards the goal, all eyes are fixed on it, willing it in, but it’s just over, landing on the roof of the net, “ohhhhhh”. “Come on Canvey, it’s gonna come”, shouts the flat cap wearing man next to me, encouragingly, who has continued since the start, with his positive vibes.

It’s CI that are playing the better football, they are more than able to string a few quick passes together, but as Tom quite rightly puts it “they need someone who can shoot”. The slick play, has caught one fan off guard, “whats going on?” he asks out loud, one is so delirious, a madness brought on, by his team's efforts, he goes as far as to suggest, “it’s like watching Brazil”.

“Yellows, yellows” sing the fans, buoyed by the team, who are also fed up with the BR supporters choice of instrument, “stick your air horn up your arse, from the first min to the last”, I wouldn't dream of being so crass, but it really is annoying.

CI have a big shout for a penalty turned down, the referee waving away any claims of foul play, one fan suggesting the pull in the box, was so blatant, it was more like a, “fucking hug”.

Shortly before the half is over, the opinion of the home fans is that the BR keeper is already trying to buy his team a little time, “1 - 0 up, and you're playing like this?”, “it’s embarrassing!” one bellows half over the railing, at the keeper who is making extra specially sure, that the ball is in the right place, for every goal kick.

“This the same team I’ve been watching?” asks one fan to another, who is so confused by the performance, of the team he supports, they have become unrecognisable. Again they get the ball in the right place, but again, can't get it over the line, this time two players go for the same ball, just outside the six yard box, both missing, the ball eventually bouncing tamely into the keeper's arms.

Regardless of where you are, there are a few almost certain things taking place, rituals if you like, at every football ground, around a quarter to four: the extra time is being worked out, the tea urn is getting a top up, a fresh batch of onions are going on the grill, and if it’s a game we are at, without fail, Tom is thinking about eating, “how's the food here?” he ponders.

One person, already making his way to the bar, asks a fellow fan, “how are we not winning?”, the reply again, is like a cattle prod in the side of fate, much like the comment of the fan in the opening minutes of the game, “you've gotta take your chances”.

“Two shots, two goals” mutters someone, when BR score again with the half all but over, “fucking useless” mutters another. The man next to us, tries to see the best, of what has been a difficult half for the home team, “best we've played” he says quizzically, not sure after all those chances, how they are now two behind, which is nearly added to, BR though unable to make it three, from three.

Tom is off like a flash, abandoning me for the already snaking queue for food, which by the amount of people already returning getting their food on, is doing a roaring trade. I take a seat on a cold step, and watch a tanker, pootle up the Thames estuary, which lies just beyond the opposite goal. We have enjoyed our view from the peak of the terrace so much, as well as Tom insisting on taking advantage, of every last ray of sunshine, we ignore, normal non league protocol of swapping ends for the second half, and decide to stay put.

‘Morning Glory’ by Oasis, is momentarily interrupted by the stadium announcer, informing all of the imminent draw of the 50/50. I remove the bright yellow tickets from my notebook, and cross my fingers that I can get my hands on the “£86” on offer. Yeah right, new year, same old shit.

The Stone Roses replace there fellow Mancunians, still on my own, I pass the time, taking a series of Instagram worthy shots of the sun dipping over the roofs of the nearby houses that surround us on three sides, and finally disappearing down behind the yellow and blue stand, that runs along the side of the pitch.

Shouts of “Canvey”, have been replaced with shouts of, “come on you rocks” and the abundance of yellow and blue, has now been replaced by green and white, which is of course accompanied by the horns, which on closer inspection, are not air horns, as you would know it, but what looks like a bicycle pump, used very much in the same way you would to re-inflate a tire, but instead producing its signature sound.

There is a familiar symmetry between the start of the second half, to the start of first, except that the pale blue sky, has now turned many hues of orange, pink and purple, one might even say Turner esq, get me, very high brow. CI craft a chance, don't take it, then BR score early again.

When I use the word ‘lanky’, don't think I'm trying to be offensive, or demeaning, but it's really the best way to describe the scorer of BR’s third, their number 9. Tall, athletic, rangy, raw, would also be suitable adjectives to sum up the forward, who gets a bit of luck with a deflection, to grab his goal. He is the point at the tip of the BR attack, and by the end of the day, will have done a thoroughly good job of single handedly terrorizing the CI defence.

Slowly descending into a pit of self loathing, the stadium announcer, who had admittedly sounded a little dispirited before, I’m sure he would just like to read out a CI goal scorer, once in a while, now sounds distraught. Confirming the name of the most recent scorer, and the time of his goal, with a noticeable deflated tone, he sounds like he is all but ready to go home.

Once again a shout of “green army” goes up, one BR fan is spot on when he says almost apologetically after his team have furthered their lead, that CI “played well in the first half”, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce, as he put it, they just, “didn't take their chances”. There is a single cry of “come on Canvey” from the estuary end, but as one BR fan puts it, it's a “bit late for that”.

It’s hard not to be hypnotized by the slow moving boats, floating past silently, combined with the ever plummeting temperature, I find myself slumping into a kind of glazed state. Thankfully the continuous noise of the BR horns, stop me going fully catatonic and Tom noticing my hands are turning a shade of blue, he offers me a tiny pair of what I imagine are child's gloves, that are so tight, it’s more comfortable not to wear them, and to expose my extremities to Mother Nature.

There is suddenly a moment of controversy off the pitch, a flashback to a bygone era of football hooliganism, when the local hard nuts, a couple of kids maybe no older than fourteen, infiltrate the BR end, decry that they “hate Bognor”, and then quickly revert to type, running away, like children playing knock down ginger.

“Save” says almost everyone, me included, when BR’s keeper gets a hand down low, to a close range snapshot, that prevents CI clawing back some kind of dignity. The resulting corner and clearance, which quickly becomes a counter attack, just about sums up the home team's day.

A big hoof up field, and in the blink of an eye, it’s gone from a CI set piece, to an instant break away, BR outnumbering those CI players not in the box, two to one. It’s no huge surprise when the towering number 9 coolly slots it past the keeper, making it four for the visitors. The late tackle from the recovering CI defender catches him, but he effortlessly rolls out of it like a commando, springing to his feet and punching the air.

As ever, football fans fail to show an ounce of sympathy to the plight of their opposite numbers, I’m especially worried about the announcer, when everyone in the BR end start to sing, “you're going down”.

Every BR attack feels like it’s going to result in a goal, “few holes in that defence”, says Tom as CI are carved open again, as we make our way from the terrace to pitch side, he's not wrong, you could sail a couple of those tankers, right thought it.

Over my shoulder, I’m conscious of not getting in the way of those stood up against the glass of the clubhouse, pint in hand, enjoying the central heating, with a look on their faces of, ‘I know I should be outside, but I need to self medicate with alcohol’. It’s the marauding, Aquascutum wearing children, who are still singing, only their high pitched shouts, are all that now can be heard from behind the the goal their team is attacking.

It’s of course a different situation if you're winning, the BR ranks still fill the concrete monolith, it could be snowing, and they could all be in t-shirts, and they wouldn't give a damn. One person, has taken one small precaution against the cold, having draped his green and white flag, “BRTFC GREEN ARMY” over his shoulders like a cape. The majority though keep warm, by singing to the leaving CI fans, I wonder if the announcer is one of them, “we can see you sneaking out”.

“Should of just cleared it, it’s embarrassing” snarls one CI fan, his yellow scarf around his neck, he stands side on to the pitch, turning away, unable to watch anymore, after a CI player dawdles on the ball in the box, has it pinched off him, allowing the the mountain BR number 9, to gets his hat trick, and BR’s fifth. He rocks a bit of a John Cena celebration, before jogging towards the fans, many who are now lining the fence, “who are we, green army”. I’m relieved when a familiar voice comes over the tannoy, and although he’s clearly not in a good place, he is at least ok, and hasn't walked off into the sea, like Reginald Perrin.

In the dying moments, CI almost get a consolation, an expression I have never understood, when an outside of the box screamer is just helped over the bar, by the fingertips of the keeper.

There is a touching moment, an expression of real die hard support, when a young boy, stands by the tunnel, his hand outstretched, high fiving the sullen CI players, as they leave the pitch. No words are exchanged, every player good enough to respond to his offer of support, except one, who not only hits his hand, but asks him, how his recent “holiday” was.

On the pitch, the mood is quite the opposite, walking towards their supporters, clapping, the BR players acknowledge the traveling fans, whose horns have finally broken Tom's last nerve, “that fucking horn”, but what do they care, “we are top of the league”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE





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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Twenty Eight Wins, Two Draws - Bridon Ropes FC Vs Crowborough Athletic FC, Southern Counties East League Challenge Cup 3rd Round, Meridian Sports Club (11/01/17)

Hello 2017, hello first game of the New Year, hello shiny North Greenwich station, hello smug look on my face, as for the second game running, I’m early, and here before Tom, don’t let anyone say you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Annoyingly Tom doesn't allow me to wallow in my new found  smug glow for long, or to gaze at the impressive sky line, the shimmering Canary Wharf just off in the distance, as he soon arrives, bearing gifts. Handing me a long, slender box, wrapped in a curious goth black paper, which he apologises for, “sorry”, he wishes me a late “happy birthday”.

I needed cheering up, not because I’m a year older since our last match, I’ve done that crying, but because I spent a large portion of today watching the new Martin Scorsese film, ‘Silence’. A graphic, heart wrenching tale of the attempted introduction of Christianity into Japan, that has left me feeling a little low. When I unwrap my present, but only once I’ve made it past the overly used sellotape, do I feel very touched, when I discover I’m now the owner of a sparkling, silver Parker Pen.

“Fed up of you chewing” he says, in reference to my propensity to gnaw on the end of my biro, between notes, which I imagine is a less than attractive site.

Tom's gift giving, and me opening it, has meant we have taken our eye off the ever expanding queue for our bus, we really should have paid more attention, the bruises on our arms from the elbows of pensioners, desperately trying to get to the front, should've set off the alarm bells, but I was too busy gushing about my new pen, and Tom was too busy lapping up the praise, I was heaping on him.

Eventually on board, Tom somehow finding a seat, I’m stuck in the doorway, deflecting the tuts of people trying to get off, as we wind our way through South East London, where every stop seems to start with ‘Millennium’, but not one of them ends in ‘Falcon’.

“Always think that’s a bit morbid”, says Tom, the bus dropping us off outside a care home, which is only separated from the nearby cemetery, its headstones partially lit by the full moon, by a stone wall and black iron railings. He then makes a kind of motion implying that they, ‘they’ being the elderly residents, once expired, are simply tipped over the fence.

A potholed, tree lined car park, where Mums and Dads wrangle their children after the end of football practice on the nearby astroturf, who beep their horns at us to get out of the way, as they race home, is where Google maps has brought us, “Meridian Sports and Social Club” reads Tom out loud from the sign in front of us, but something doesn't feel right.

We continue on, in that pioneer spirit we both embody, ignoring the ‘where the fuck are we’ look, Tom is giving me, we round the corner of a big white building, that dominates surroundings, eventually arriving at the poorly lit doors of the Meridian Sports Bar, peering through the windows, at a room full of people inside.

Adjacent it looks like there is a further pitch, there are certainly flood lights, but they are off, the full moon quite literally unable to shed any light on, if we are in fact in the right place. We are somewhat relieved, when who turns out to be the groundsman instructs, who turns out to be the coach of the visiting team, that they are to warm up away from the pitch, but can jump on “ten minutes” before kick off, so they can “get used to it”. I suspect it might be in a bit of state, something to do with the recent inclement weather.

Tom’s glare has now been dialed back a bit, but he is still not convinced. Once in the bar, the players of tonight's home side, Bridon Ropes FC (BR) are sitting side by side, with their opponents, Crowborough Athletic FC (CA), all in their respective club tracksuits, their kit bags littering the floor, we both can finally breathe easy.

It’s a cup of tea for Tom, which he waits for as the staff discuss the rota for an upcoming wedding. He returns from the long bar, excitedly, with a green packet of crisps, the bold writing on the front, has got him intrigued “pleasingly punchy”, they claim. However after a few bites, he informs me slightly disappointed, that they are “not very punchy” and are “just cheese and onion crisps”.

Being the trooper that he is, he is quickly reassessing his options, “looking forward to curry and chips” he tells me, reading from the menu above the stainless steel topped food counter, a young woman uses it to keep her balance, standing on top of a gold hoverboard. “Bacon roll”, announces the tabard wearing woman from behind, “BACON ROLL” she shouts, finally getting its recipients attention, who goes up to claim it.

“Maybe a baked potato, you can't go wrong with a baked potato”, Tom informs me.

It’s a short, but sweet “hello” from the BR’s Chairman, Clive. Not in any way suggesting he was dismissive or rude, but he just seemed like someone with a 101 things to do, and one of them was not gassing with us two. He very kindly tells us we are welcome to look around, and then he’s off again.

Outside the floodlights are now on, and it gives us a much better idea of our surroundings. The big white building, with the children in their gi’s doing laps of the upstairs function room, is very much the main feature of the ground, the lights have also illuminated the small turnstile, next to it a sign, “home of Bridon Ropes FC”, which features the clubs badge, a coil of rope.

“It’s too cold”, says the woman hovering between the turnstile and the bar, not wanting to commit herself to standing outside for too long. When she does take up position, I overhear her suggesting to Clive, they should get a heater, he jokingly replies that they “can't afford one”.

I think its right to say that the Meridian Sports Ground is minimalist in appearance, no unnecessary
clutter, except for a ride along mower that looks like it's seen better days, I bet the place has great feng shui. A pale fence, the kind you have in your garden surrounds the ground, a simple white metal railing separates the spectators from the players. There is a small, blue seated stand on the halfway line, opposite the clear perspex dugouts, and behind them a long line of bare trees, on the horizon the blinking light of Canary Wharf. Behind each goal large nets prevent stray balls going in the car park at one end, and into people's houses at the other.

Despite its low key setup, it has everything you need, and is very tidy, the pitch in particular catching Tom’s eye, who he thinks the person responsible for it, might be partial to a bit of “Fifa”, because of the geometric pattern mowed into it. I suggest that perhaps they have taken inspiration from the King Power stadium. Also any thought of it being a mud bath, after the groundsman's comments before, are quickly dismissed, it looks like a fine surface, which is confirmed by a CA player leaving it after the warm up, when a club official says, it “looks nice”, the player replies “it is”.

The players tunnel is long and dark, the referee's assistant, a mere silhouette, only when the changing room door opens, does the light from inside flood out. As is more often the case in non league football, BR ground share, so they have their own ‘home’ changing room, upstairs, and the visitors use the actual ‘home’ changing room, of the team who they share the ground with, a bit of a head scratcher.

Unlike the Olympistadion in Berlin, there is no escalator, to bring the pampered stars from upstairs to down, just an unpainted staircase, with a pair of double doors with round portholes at the bottom.

Both teams line up side by side, shivering and fidgeting. Some I imagine are already cold, and some nervously anticipate the wall of cold air that is about to hit them, once they step outside.

“Come on Ropes”, “come on Crowborough” shout both supporters and players as the teams arrive on the pitch, greeted also by a stiff wind. Above where the players emerged, a couple of people have bagged the best seat in the house, the first floor balcony of the sports bar/changing rooms/dojo. They only get a couple of feet onto the pitch, before the referee stops them, initiates the handshake, between the hopping, hand in shorts to keep warm players, no need to walk in this chill all the way to the centre circle.

With the visitors being from a league above BR, it is no great surprise that they start very much on the front foot, however it’s the underdogs if you like, that get the first meaningful chance, much to the announce of one CA player who remonstrates with the lino, after losing the ball in a robust challenge, asking, while still on the floor, “how is that not a foul?”, all whilst BR counterattack, their attempt requiring a fingertip save to keep it out.

There are the occasional shouts from the two sets of supporters, the majority of the home ones are gathered around the dugouts, the majority of the away ones sitting, or standing near the stand. The players as ever are noisy, shouting instructions at each other, those kind of inspirational, could be from a poster, kind of one liners, however both fans and players are overshadowed, about a quarter of an hour into the half by the young girl, maybe 7 or 8, in a white winter jacket, running down the side of the pitch shouting “FOOTBALL”, and looking as happy as Larry.

“Game heads” shouts the BR keeper to his teammates who have all just mobbed their coach on the sideline, joined by the rest of the bench, following a quite unexpected goal, that puts them in the lead, completely against the run of play.

There is a lot of the game to go, but one nearby BR fan is already speculating about how it would be a, “good result for us”, if they were able to win. I also hear him explain to the person next to him, the somewhat mythical run CA, are currently one, “29 unbeaten”, he explains, for it to come to an end against a team from a league below, would be a bit of shock.

CA almost equalised straight away, a constant of the match so far, has been their prowess in the air. Two corners, one right after the other, are very dangerous. BR’s coach looks on, “that's a ball you don't know what to do with” he says to himself. His keeper, in his own words, being a little bit “flappy”, they are lucky to come out unscathed.

Since their goal BR have come on leaps and bounds, growing into the game you might say, fashioning themselves a chance to double their lead, the shot is flashed across the goal, bringing the bench to its feet in anticipation, but its wide. The home coach is a real picture, turning and squirming, either standing bolt upright arms crossed, or rocking down low on his haunches, he doesn't know what to do with himself. CA look a different side since the goal, rattled and out of sorts, lacking any of the confidence they were showing, before they conceded.

“Tell my ankle that” says a downed CA player to the referee, after a big, “50/50” challenge, as Tom puts it, which is not the first of the night by any stretch of the imagination. The man in charge saw nothing wrong with it, and let’s play continue, and certainly doesn't enter into any kind of conversation with the CA players talking joint,  which if I was him, I would keep under wraps.

Much like, if such a thing existed, I wouldn't know about these kind of things, I’m a family man, some kind of food pornographer, Tom whispers in my ear “jacket potato”, which sends a shiver down my spine.

This must mean the end of the half is close, if he is thinking about food again. It does end shortly after his sweet nothings, but not before one last scare for BR. A skewed kick out from their keeper, puts the ball at the feet of a CA player, just outside the box, which doesn't come to anything, but one female spectator is on her last nerve, “STOP IT” she screams.

Lucky for her the whistle blows, allowing some respite, Tom joins pretty much everyone else making their way back to the bar, leaving me, watching the substitutes, try and keep warm, with a a bit of shooting practice.

Players have to crisscross with fans, holding hot drinks in white cups, as they return for the second half, a couple of standoffs break out, “you first”, “no you first”, but I’m happy to report, they all end amicably, without gunfire.

In one hand a cup of tea, in the other a groaning, yellow polystyrene tray of what Tom says are “half cooked chips”. With no obvious place to rest his drink, my frozen hands are full, so I’m of no help, he finds himself with a bit of a conundrum. There is a brief moment of silence, and I think if I were to look close enough, I could see the cogs in his head, trying to figure out how to overcome his predicament.

Surely what any respectable person wouldn't do, would be to lift the tray to their mouth, reject millions of years of evolution, the need for an opposable thumb, and attack the the chips, head on, like a character from Hungry Hippo. Oh wait, hang on……..

Once he’s removed the mayonnaise, which I think is in fact salad cream, but he won’t hear a word of it, from his face, as well as the BBQ sauce, which he liked very much, he tells me of a halftime, handbags, that has spilled outside, meaning the second half is a bit of a blur of watching Tom devour chips, with no hands, telling me why he did not get a jacket potato, because of the “20 minute” wait, and pointing out one of the main protagonists of the aforementioned handbags, who is not very far away from us, and is repeatedly, and very loudly  using the expression, “mugging me off”.

Not sure of the context of the “mugging off”, I wonder if he thought his chips were half cooked? He should have just slathered them in the BBQ sauce, and everything would've been good in the world.

As we all the know, the basis of most male friendships, is taking much glee in watching their friends
embarrass themselves, and as we moved to a new vantage point, I was the length of a white shatterproof ruler away from being able to recount the story of Tom being hit in the head by a stray ball, for years to come, it was so close!

Usual service has resumed once again, and it’s all one way traffic, the idea of BR getting out of their half, seems like fantasy, eventually CA’s pressure pays off, the constant waves of attack prove too much, and they get themselves a penalty. “Horrible challenge” says Tom, it wasn't cynical or dangerous, just poorly timed.

“Possibly the worst penalty I've ever seen” states Tom ,”power over precision” he adds, proving pressure is a two way thing, after CA’s number 10 skies the ball over the bar.

There are many expressions applicable, to BR’s current situation, ones that adequately encapsulate how the game is playing out for them right now, ‘backs to the wall’, ‘in the trenches’, or why not reference a well known 13 siege Texas Revolution, ‘ The Alamo’. Following a long range, screamer of a shot from CA, which is just fractions over, one BR player shouts, “regroup”, chillingly echoing some fallen platoon, on its last stand, just need Michael Caine, and a dodgy upper class accent to complete the scene.

CA are being equally stoic, their keeper yelling at the top of his lungs, “give everything”. Tom on the other hand, while the poetry of human suffering is playing out in front of us, is talking about “wintering in Spain”, as the cold slowly gets to him.

With the game entering its final moments, BR get a rare corner. “Why’s the big man taking it” queries Tom, as the towering BR player approaches the corner flag, and is joined, by a much shorter teammate. His stature would imply he would be better off in the box, but when his team mate nudges him the ball, the man mountain stands inches from the flag, the ball at his feet, with two CA players trying to win the ball back, to no avail. With not a single BR player in the box, Tom cotton's on, that we are witnessing the dark arts in play, running down the clock. “That's why” he says, as the ball bounced off the unit for a goal kick, eating up valuable time, and their dastardly plan is complete.

It was coming, CA’s impending goal seemed inevitable, there was some small glimmer of hope that the football Gods would allow a bit of an upset, but CA had been so relentless, looking particularly dangerous all game from corners and crosses, it’s not a huge surprise, that it’s a headed goal, that draws things level. There is little celebration from the away team, the scorer jumps and punches the air, dishing out a few low fives to his teams mates, but one player has already picked up the ball and is jogging towards the centre circle, there is no time to waste. BR like statues in the blue, are motionless and distraught that they were unable to hold out.

The CA player with the ball, puts it on the centre circle, and the visitors now have the air of a team, going for the kill. The BR coach from the dug out, does his best to lift the players, “heads up”.

“How much is left” asks Tom, as the match descends into a bit of a twilight zone, it feels like it should've been well over by now, but it just carries on, each minute that passes, feels like a minute closer to CA scoring again. It’s a small miracle it’s not happened already, following the most almighty of goal mouth scrambles, which had goal line clearances, and a cross come shot hitting the bar, and going out, BR are holding on for dear life.

Stunned silence, from everyone in the ground except the celebrating CA players and supporters. The supplier of the cross from the wing, which resulted in CB’s second goal, their second in maybe just over a minute, another header, is getting all the plaudits, his teammates rushing over to him, even the keeper, makes the full pitch dash to jump on top of the bundle.

Once again, there is a cry from the home dugout, “we fucking go again”, but it’s wishful thinking, this dream is over, heartbreak all round.

BR’s coach has the job of literally picking his players up off the floor, following the final whistle. The dejection and sorrow of the last minute loss, is clear to see across everyone's faces. CA have been gathered in a group, for an on pitch debrief. I’m sure the sentiment of the management being, that’s what happens when you don't give up, that's what happens when you give it everything you can until the last.

As they leave the pitch, their supporters line the exit, “come on Borough” someone shouts, one person is whirling a wooden rattle, in recognition of their efforts.

With the ground empty, the cold and wind driving everyone inside, it’s only us and the BR cameraman, climbing down from his homemade gantry, which has a tripod and a bar stool on top, left in the ground. He explains how the videos are a massive help for the coaches, amazing how at this level, measures like that are being taken to improve the team, but also in case a player scores a “worldy”, they can see it again.

Before we leave, Tom needs to visit the loo, which it turns out are also the away team showers, he returns with the look of someone who has seen more than he was prepared for.

Having already been aware of CA’s remarkable current record, before the BR fan had mentioned it in the first half, such is its near Biblical status, I wanted to confirm it for myself, with someone from the club, to make sure I wasn't mistaken. I interrupt a man in a CA jacket, who's just about to dig into a plate of chips, to confirm the run, “twenty eight wins, two draws”, he confirms, wow!

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE





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