Thursday, 27 August 2020

The Season That Never Was - 2019/20 End Of Season Review

One could not have asked for a better start to the season, a sweltering hot day on the coast, we do love a trip to the seaside, and two sets of boisterous fans spectating a local derby no less, with one section of the home support marching from the local pub, banners, flare and a very accomplished drummer in toe, 2019/20 kicked off perfectly. 

The match wasn't half bad either, improved somewhat by the nearby presence of the away teams very own club radio commentator, and as we drove home somewhat singed by the 30c plus heat, Tom’s air con blasting, we and none of the almost one thousand other people watching the ‘El Clasicoast’ had any idea that this particular season would be cut short by a worldwide pandemic, which would claim the lives of hundreds of thousands, changing life forever, and bookmarking it as the strangest post war season on record.

Before the angst though, before lock-down, before only being able to see my friends via Zoom, my Mum from the bottom of the steps outside her house, when I dropped off her shopping because she was too at risk going herself, before the hours of Call of Duty, many more of Championship Manager, ups and downs in my own mental health as the months shacked up at home started to tell, there were still twenty one games, there were still monster sized fish finger sandwiches and a dog in a pram. There were still plenty of good memories, fine times and some brilliant goals. Well before they were expunged from the history books, like a painting with Trotsky in.

I can’t bring myself to take the customary glance over my right shoulder to catch a glimpse of the de facto White Hart Lane, after yesterday's shit show against Newcastle. Knowing full well it will be glimmering like a brand new penny, looking quite resplendent with a cloudless backdrop, all lit up by the late August sun, I’m still just that little bit annoyed.

Tottenham's quite dismal run out against Steve Bruce's men, very nearly ruined what was until then a quite excellent Sunday. Ben Stokes heroics at the crease, followed by a BBQ at my Mum’s. I set my Sky box to record, catching the game a few hours after the final whistle hoping with a beer in hand it would be the crowning glory, but it was quite the opposite.

It really doesn't feel all that long ago since we were staggering away from Wembley stadium, exhausted from the FA Vase final, talking about a football free summer, with plenty to occupy us until it all started again, not least of all Tom’s wedding. El Clasicoast - Worthing FC Vs Bognor Regis Town FC, Isthmian League Premier, Woodside Road (26/08/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Worthing FC Vs Bognor Regis Town FC

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

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

“False alarm” says Tom, ever so slightly out of breath, our journey to deepest darkest Essex getting off to a worrisome start, after he thought he had forgotten to double lock his front door, and we ended up doing a lap of the block at breakneck speed, the car not quite at a standstill before he swung open his door to find out it was a lot of rushing around about nothing. BLOG: He Can't Head The Ball For Toffee - White Ensign FC Vs Takeley FC, FA Cup Preliminary Round Replay, Burroughs Park (04/09/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - White Ensign FC Vs Takeley FC

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

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

For a medium sized market town, Biggleswade is somewhat spoilt for choice when it comes to non league teams. Last season we saw two of the three that take their name from it, United and FC, but tonight’s visit to Langford Road will mean we can consider this part of Bedfordshire complete. BLOG: Fake Brioche - Biggleswade Town FC Vs St Neots Town FC, FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round Replay, Langford Road (11/09/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Biggleswade Town FC Vs St Neots Town FC

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

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

His song choices reflect perfectly the “anxiety” he admits to feeling as we head towards the M25. “It never ends well" he sighs as we head down the ramp and merge with the four lane behemoth. He’s right of course, any previous venture where this particular highway has been required has very rarely gone to plan. Tom pointing out “as long as it's not closed”, we might just be OK. BLOG: Stanley Matthews Would Have Scored - Bracknell Town FC Vs Westfield FC, Isthmian League South Central, Larges Lane (18/09/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Bracknell Town FC Vs Westfield FC

“You live in a stupid area” whines Tom, annoyed that the space my car has just pulled out of, yes I’m driving, the status quo has resumed, is not big enough to accommodate his wide hipped gas guzzler. “Silly small car, silly parking” he mumbles under his breath like a cantankerous white haired muppet on a theatre balcony. It takes him at least three tries, in three different spaces, before he eventually finds one he can get into, much like the Goldilocks of parking: one was too short, one was too narrow, the third being just right.

Just about settled in, just about over his parking debacle, Tom’s choice of topic of conversation is of course the weather. “Is it going to rain?” he asks himself, peering out of the car. “Its that time of year” he says, exactly what he means by that I’m not sure, but it's clearly causing him much consternation what combination of numerous items of clothing he has dragged from his car into mine.

The latest incarnation of FIFA occupies almost the entirety of our drive west, and Tom's upcoming

honeymoon in the Maldives, that despite my best efforts, will be happening during the season. Tom going all European on me, having himself a winter break, while we’re all Brexiting at home. BLOG: Engage - Highworth Town FC Vs Swindon Supermarine FC, Southern League Challenge Cup 1st Round, The Elms (02/10/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Highworth Town FC Vs Swindon Supermarine FC

It’s officially that time of year, where it feels like the chance of the football match you intended going to is more likely to be cancelled then go ahead, in the non league world at least. Rapidly hurtling towards winter, each check of my Twitter time line is tinged with apprehension, scrolling past tweets about games being called off come thick and fast and it's surely only a matter of time before the club we'll be making our way to fires one off about Mother Nature getting the better of their pitch.

The short video from Tom of the torrential rain overwhelming the storm drains near his work and the vision out of my own living room window of almost twenty four hours of solid rain, doesn't bode well for our first Saturday afternoon match of the season, and it’s not any old Saturday may I add, but the final international break of the year too, which can only mean one thing, its Non League Day.

We were relatively slow on the uptake when it came to non leagues holiest of holidays, but since having devoted ourselves completely to the cause, we have tried to make as much of a grand day out of it as we can. Last year's trip to North Ferriby meant this year had a lot to live up to, however I’ve an inkling where we will be going won't disappoint. BLOG: From The Road - Corinthian-Casuals FC Vs Folkestone Invicta FC, Isthmian League Premier, King George's Field (12/10/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Corinthian-Casuals FC Vs Folkestone Invicta FC

Thank Christ for A Tribe Called Quest, was never a sentence I ever thought I would utter, I say utter, I just roll it around in my head, having tentatively opened the passenger side door of Toms car in anticipation of a deluge of morose music like last time out, but instead I’m greeted by the New York four pieces 1993 hit, Electric Relaxation, what a relief.

Although I don't have long to enjoy their melodic hip hop beats, as tonight's ground is less than ten minutes away from my house, its eight minutes to be precise, I have just about enough time to consider the advice of my other half, “I don't know if its a big jacket day” she said to me as I left and just how thankful I am for ignoring her this time, because the last game we went out I was freezing and tonight's even colder.

Another reason for a coat, is not just the plummeting thermometer, but the very high chance of getting wet, “at least it's not raining” mutters Tom as we step out of the car, the fact it's not is a minor miracle. It's been raining non stop for what feels like days and looking out across the floodlit pitch, the car park within touching distance of it, Tom says pretty much exactly what I was thinking too, “there is not much here, but it's very nice”. BLOG: I'd Go Closer, But I'd Need A Snorkel - London Lions FC Vs Enfield Borough FC, Spartan South Midlands Football League Division One, Rowley Lane (16/10/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - London Lions FC Vs Enfield Borough FC

Bumper to bumper traffic and 40 mile per hour speed restrictions make for slow going, but at least I have the unusual, but not to say enjoyable mix of the Queens of the Stone Age, George Michael and Soundgarden to entertain me, as I journey along the M25. With no Tom, the music fills a void, however I miss our banal chatter and friendly bickering. Tonight, as has been the case on a few occasions this season, because of the location of our destination, we are both travelling solo.

Entering the Guildford Spectrum Leisure Complex, the UK’s number one leisure complex by all accounts, the name I accept is quite a mouthful, and not one I think that will be remembered in the annals of time with other more evocative stadiums like Anfield and the Camp Nou, is visible from quite a distance.

Illuminated like something from a Spielberg film set, it's about as far from the usual non league set up then we are used to then you could imagine. The rows and rows of parking bays, many if not most are filled, signs pointing off in all sorts of directions towards one thing or another, an ice rink and bowling alley and not one of them says club shop. Modern, bright, and more concrete then you could shake a stick at, a monolith built in honour of wholesome family entertainment. BLOG: In Direct Line Of The Burgers - Guildford City FC Vs Hanworth Villa FC, Combined Counties League Premier, Spectrum Football Ground (30/10/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Guildford City FC Vs Hanworth Villa FC

There are certainly some grounds and therefore some clubs who for one reason or another we have passed through the turnstiles of and spent more time in the company of, then others. Be its because of a personal obsession with a certain non league club in N17, the fact it’s the team of your other half or that particular club just happens to play on Wednesdays, which for the last couple of years has been our go to midweek match day.

The fact that Hampton & Richmond Borough FC (HRB) are neither local, play on a Wednesday or as far as I know are not supported by any known loved one, I'm not quite sure why our visit today to their tidy West London home, The Beveree, tucked away at the end of cul-de-sac a stone's throw from the banks of the Thames, is our third, having seen them play a total of five times at home and away.

No end of nice cars, parked outside nice houses surround their little corner of the football world, and when I finally find a place to park with what in comparison to some of the motors, is a complete shit show of a car with it’s broken rear window windscreen wiper, drooping down like a gun dog's tail, it is a more than an agreeable walk to the ground. BLOG: Felt Like I Was Sucking On A Cow - Hampton & Richmond Borough FC Vs Wealdstone FC, National League South, Beveree Stadium (16/11/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Hampton & Richmond Borough FC Vs Wealdstone FC

It’s another slightly lonely and quiet solo drive for me today, as I retrace my steps South, as our Wednesday match day handicap means we are heading back to a ground we visited only a couple of weeks ago. Tonight I do have the dulcet tones of former England and Arsenal physio Gary Lewin, no I’m not giving him a lift to Tolworth high street, but he happens to be the guest on the podcast I’m listening to and as interesting, uplifting and slightly horrifying the story is about being credited with saving Eduardo's leg, but it’s not a patch on the witty back and forths I usually enjoy with Tom.

The railway arch that precedes the final few steps to King George's Field, is even more foreboding in the misty darkness, than it was in the light of day. The two men manning the impromptu road block, instruct me to park under the aforementioned arch, right in the middle of it’s deepening shadows and I’m hoping its a case of them offering me the best place to leave my car and not because they think I resemble its usual goat eating resident.

A train races by not far above my head, along the track that runs all the way along one side of the ground, instantly lighting up the place, before quickly disappearing again and plunging my surroundings into darkness once more. BLOG: Three Stewards For A Flying Teddy Bear - Kingstonian FC Vs Enfield Town FC, Isthmian League Premier, King George’s Field (20/11/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Kingstonian FC Vs Enfield Town FC

The A1 is odd, very odd indeed. For such a major highway stretching all the way from London to Edinburgh its only two lanes in places, very poorly lit and littered with sex shops. Lone gaily lit petrol stations occasionally appear on the horizon like a mirage, disappearing as quickly as they appeared. The people who decided that slap bang in the middle of nowhere was the ideal spot for a caravan dealership and Christmas tree outlet was a good idea, might struggle if they ever decided to have a pop at the Dragons. They don't sound like the kind of people dripping with business acumen.

As you can maybe tell by the fact I'm not recounting chats about FIFA, that once again I’m alone, so even if I did want to stop off for a whip or the latest copy of Playboy, I don’t have anyone to hold my hand as I did. For the fifth time this season, Tom & I have traveled separately, and he’s arrived well before me, although his journey was far from seamless.

“A farm” he screeches over the speaker on my phone, his Sat Nav has forced him to do a “dodgy u turn” in the dark, where he was “sure there was a ditch” that he and his motor nearly disappeared into. BLOG: Well Saved Legolas - Huntingdon Town FC Vs Burton Park Wanderers FC, United Counties Football League Division One, Jubilee Park (27/11/19) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Huntingdon Town FC Vs Burton Park Wanderers FC

Scrambled eggs, a side of jalapeno pretzels, James Bond with my half asleep mother and my son glued to his laptop, all topped off with a can of American Fanta and that's before we have got into the nitty gritty of the Hootenanny and the half cut guests pretending to celebrate the dawning of a new decade in and around the second week of October.

New Years Eve is a lot different now since having children. It all used to be ecstasy, too much booze and rejection and ultimately not having a nice time. Now there are no drugs or girls to fawn over, just crap music and bar snacks that give me heartburn.

Fireworks display consumed and having just about successfully ignored the fact I’m turning 36 in less than a week, for a few hours at least, January the 1st sees Grandma on babysitting duty, while I make myself scarce for a few hours. BLOG: Three At The Back, Undertaker Up Front - Berkhamsted FC Vs Welwyn Garden City FC, Southern League Central, Broadwater (01/01/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Berkhamsted FC Vs Welwyn Garden City FC

Sitting on a bench outside a Co-Op, waiting for my other half to stagger her way over from Greggs with a bag full of sausage rolls and pizza slices, doing her best not to vomit, because last night she forgot she is in her 40’s and is not a teenager anymore, after going out with some old school friends, was not quite how I envisaged starting today.

I say starting, because in fact this debacle began about eight or nine hours earlier with a swathe of drunken selfies and the sounds of retching as she crashed around the downstairs of her parents house attempting to make toast, being frankly quite annoying.

It’s grey, dry and cold, the weather doing a fine job in summing up my mood. What was supposed to be an early birthday present, a trip to one of possibly my favourite places to watch football, has instead turned into babysitting an almost fifty year old Harry Potter lookalike, making sure to shield her from even the slightest of noises, because they might force her to curl up on the floor and I'll have to call her Mum to come and pick her up. BLOG: No Need For The Boos - Stockport County FC Vs Boreham Wood FC, National League, Edgeley Park (04/01/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Stockport County FC Vs Boreham Wood FC

Sitting in Tom’s car, pootling along through the Saturday afternoon traffic, Feeder tumbling from the speakers, I can’t quite get my head around why Tom isn't anywhere near as tanned as I thought he would be.

Two weeks in the Maldives and I expected him to come back looking not far off beef jerky, but not quite David Dickinson. Tom very much falls into the sun worshiper category and admittedly he is glowing, he’s taken on a bit of colour, however I frankly thought I was not going to recognise him.

Not long into our journey and I'm starting to slightly regret accepting his offer to drive, by his own admission he is a little “spaced”, having only landed forty eight hours ago, and still feeling the effect of a five hour time difference. I do manage to coax a bit of detail out of him, his trip to “turtle reef” where most of the passengers vomited on the transfer. His evening on the “top deck of a boat on a bean bag” being “given canapes'' and the night of the “three lobsters” and sounding a tad spoilt, admits “I never want to eat lobster again”, as well as lazy sun drenched days “kayaking” and “paddleboarding” a “once in a lifetime” experience. BLOG: Head Says Move, Heart Says Stay - Chesham United FC Vs Taunton Town FC, The Meadow, Southern League Premier South (25/01/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Chesham United FC Vs Taunton Town FC

“There is not much fun in a 15 nil’er” says my other half as I peruse the league table of the team we are heading off to tonight, while I wait for Tom to arrive. The home side Long Buckby FC (LB) are second and have an impressive goal haul so far this season, over + 50. The away side, Lutterworth Athletic FC (LA) who are bottom of the table have a goal difference of - 50. Each team's form couldn't be more polar opposite if they tried. As I rub my hands in anticipation of a bit of a goal fest, Rachel reminds me of the match where we saw a team get pumped 15 - 0 and the referee called it early, which on reflection, was a bit of a relief, it made for very uncomfortable viewing.

The admittedly stunning sunset means I have to endure Tom singing Nants' Ingonyama, after pointing out that it looks “a bit Lion King”. The rest of our journey North is thankfully sans any more Disney singalongs, and by the time we arrive at Station Road, Tom is getting tetchy about quite how far from home we are, its pitch black and the only real sign that we are in the right place, is a charming back lit sign high above the doors of what I’m guessing is the clubhouse.

“Can I ping you in?” asks a man with wispy white hair, unloading music equipment from the back of a van, probably wondering who the hell are these guys. The unfamiliarity of our surroundings has us a tad flummoxed, and neither of us really know if what is effectively a working man's club or British Legion in front of us, is anything to do with where we are supposed to be or not. Passing through the double doors he kindly held open for us, we enter a scene from the lesser known Back to the Future spin off, Marty McFly does the 1970’s. BLOG: Skittle Master - Long Buckby A.F.C. Vs Lutterworth Athletic FC, United Counties Football League Division One, Station Road (29/01/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Long Buckby A.F.C. Vs Lutterworth Athletic FC

Necking a handful of Ibuprofen, I bid my daughter farewell, but it's tinged with a modicum of disdain. It is after all because of her and all her snotty little friends at playgroup that I feel like shit. Her kinds propensity for bad hygiene, sneezing and drooling on everything, means it's only a matter of time before I’m struck down with whatever lurgy she has brought home, along with her latest collage of painted pasta shells and glitter.

I’m sans Tom once again, a sentence I seem to be writing more than not this season. Instead I have Trevor Francis for company, the “million pound man” proves to be a worthy replacement, his self-deprecating tales of making his debut for Forest in the European Cup final, where he scored the winner, all said in his slightly monotone West Country way is very endearing and helps the time pass satisfactorily.

We're both early, both because we made the mistake of believing Google Maps tells the truth, so it means we have some time to kill, and I find Tom hunkered down his car, with the heater blaring. There is some time of course for a brief bit of Fifa chat, Tom is back at it after a short hiatus, but more interestingly he tells me after effectively retiring, he is playing Pokemon Go again, yeah I didn't think anyone played it anymore either. Like many millions of people I was too caught up in its initial fanfare, but had stopped long ago. Much to his delight tonight's ground, Bridge Road, is a Pokestop. So while I talk at him, getting very little back in reply, he is catching a whole host of Snorlax and Rattata. BLOG: Bloody Flags - Cambridge City FC Vs Soham Town Rangers FC, Isthmian League North, Bridge Road (05/02/20)VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Cambridge City FC Vs Soham Town Rangers FC 

“Ohh it’s sunny” says Rachel, as we beat a controlled retreat from my Mum's front door towards the car at the bottom of the long array of steps, having just ditched the kids, on the promise that we will return at some point later today after the football, baring fish and chips. Fiddling with something in the boot, Rachel is confused at what's causing the hold up. We are sans children, which is an all too rare occurrence these days, so she asks me quite plainly, “what are we still doing here?”.

I imagine the fans of Stockport County FC (SC), regularly ask themselves a similar question, ‘what are we still doing in the National League?’. Nine years since relegation from the Football League, how have they still have not managed to ascend back to the promised land is anyone's guess. Until our visit to their home Edgeley Park in early January it was looking like a possibility, but since they've not won a game, not scored in the league, and have crashed out of the FA Trophy to a team from the step below them, their form has been of some concern.

We said after watching them take a bit of a hiding from Boreham Wood, that we would give them some space, as they never seem to do all that well when we are there, but the fact they are playing thirty minutes from our house today, it’s too hard to resist. BLOG: The Curse Has Been Lifted - Dagenham & Redbridge FC Vs Stockport County FC, National League, Victoria Road (08/02/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Dagenham & Redbridge FC Vs Stockport County FC

With a belly full of Mexican food I should really be preparing for a siesta, not embarking on a two hour drive towards the South Coast. It will be of no shock to hear I’m without Tom, but like some kind of minor miracle, call the Vatican and tell them I saw the face of Jesus in the display of my until now broken radio, it now, without explanation is working again. So I flit between Michael Jackson’s History, and Radio One’s drive time show.

The further into Sussex I go, the signs on the motorway read more and more like the Isthmian league table, each exit seeming to have it’s own team. Passing through Dorking, there are an abundance of cocks, and in a couple of rare moments of excitement I notice first a dog in its own car seat, and at one point have to wait behind a police roadblock, because someone has been dragged from their estate car and is currently face down on the roof, with their hands in cuffs.

There are new football grounds, The Emirates, really new grounds, White Hart Lane 2.0 and really, really, really new grounds, which is the category tonight's tongue twister of a venue falls into, The Camping World Community Stadium or as I believe it’s known as by locals, The Hop Oast. BLOG: I've Tried Cashmere - Horsham FC Vs Burgess Hill Town FC, Isthmian League Trophy 2nd Knock Out Round, Hop Oast (12/02/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Horsham FC Vs Burgess Hill Town FC

As car parks at non league grounds go, the one at Chadfields is a bit of a shocker, I’m not sure it’s even legal. The narrow unlit drive up the side of the clubhouse, leading to the spaces behind, feels fraught with danger. The main car park at the front is already full, I’m late on account of a police roadblock, stopping me from getting here the way I wanted, sending me instead on a circuitous tour of the towns that litter the banks of this part of the Thames estuary.

My detour does allow me at least to get a good view of the nearby docks, all lit up like a Christmas tree, crane after crane covered in bright white lights, the ships that they service and a whole slew of slowly turning wind turbines. As I wind and weave through the dark Essex countryside, eventually the floodlights come into view, through the cast iron gates, I arrive to find Tom, who is back to his loitering ways, but not before I’m scared half to death by the ghoulish face of, not my compadre, but part of a fairground ride in the neighbouring plot.

The words of Journey’s Don't Stop Believing drift over the breeze block wall that separates us and the ground beyond. Not even here five minutes and we catch a glimpse of the baseball cap wearing reason for us being in this corner of Essex on a wet Wednesday evening. Spencer Brown of Spencer FC, YouTube royalty and co founder of what might be the most divisive football club in recent memory, Hashtag United FC (HU) BLOG: They Don't Like It Up Them - Hashtag United FC Vs Hadley FC, Essex Senior League, Chadfields (19/02/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Hashtag United FC Vs Hadley FC

Pulling up next to Tom, having been in the gloomy car park of Gander Green Lane for all of ten seconds, he is already moaning, holding up his left hand showing me three fingers, I can just about make out what’s he’s saying from inside his dimly lit station wagon him mouthing, “three degrees”. It is soon clear this is not a reference to what is playing on the radio, but the temperature, and he is soon wobbling about on one foot by the boot of his motor, putting on a hefty pair of socks.

The car park is well patronised, one could maybe even say bustling, sadly though that is not down to an expected bumper crowd at tonight's match, but because of all the extra curricular activities going on. Tom seems to think there is a gym somewhere nearby and beyond the half open blinds in the windows of a large function room, where a group of older ladies are sitting in a circle, they are not playing “bingo” as Tom suggested, but are members of the local Weight Watchers.

As is usually the case, I only really have half of Tom's attention, he is busy on his phone, in the throws of a domestic with his wife. Some of the purchases on his recent spending spree, have not been well received. Along with his new “coffee machine” the kind you insert those multi coloured capsules George Clooney is always banging on about, his choice of garlic crushing implement has not gone down well either, “she doesn't like the garlic press”. BLOG: Snot Rocket - Sutton Common Rovers FC Vs Ashford Town (Middlesex) FC, Southern Combination Cup 1st Round, Gander Green Lane (26/02/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Sutton Common Rovers FC Vs Ashford Town (Middlesex) FC

I have to be honest I’m a bit sad that Tom has not said anything about my new shirt, but not as sad that it's the Strokes playing as I climb into his car. Their dirgey New York sound was never one I was particularly enamored with, but let's be honest it wouldn’t have taken much effort to pay my new clobber a little bit of a compliment would it?

Much of our drive is occupied with the hottest of topics, the Coronavirus epidemic sweeping across the world, Tom’s other half has already been instructed to work from home, but Tom’s profession, a barber, means he’s unable to do it via Zoom, and his clients, much like his wife are able to “work at home” so his days are getting quieter and quieter. As well as the dent it's going to take on his pay packet, how it’s going to affect football and what we do comes up too, but considering what's going on in other parts of the world, it frankly doesn't seem all that important.

We try to not dwell too much on the negative, Tom is soon sharing another and equally important life choice challenging him right now, the getting of a dog. He thinks a “puppy is a bad idea” his IKEA showroom of an East London pad is not quite suitable for all the chewing, pissing and endless bounding of a young K9, so thinks he might “adopt”. However that in itself comes with its own concerns, an element of the “unknown” with a pre owned pooch has him worried, his biggest one and I’m not joking, is that it might be “racist”. BLOG: I Won't Shake Your Hands - Banbury United FC Vs Oxford City FC, Oxfordshire FA Senior Cup Semi-Final, Spencer Stadium (11/03/20) & VIDEO: Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Banbury United FC Vs Oxford City FC

At this time of the year, it is so important to thank all those Twitter accounts,YouTubers and organisations who have regularly helped us this season, in some cases giving us a platform in print or online to reach an audience we could only dream of & all the clubs, officials, teams & players who without their help, what we do would be impossible.

Also a big thank you to anyone, who has shared, re-tweeted, commented or liked any of our blogs, pictures or videos. Your kind feedback about the work we do is so greatly appreciated.

Maybe because of the way the season so abruptly came to an end, looking back over the games we did get to, I feel even more sentimental than normal, even more dare I say emotional about the memories I forged with my best mate, the fact we saw a dog in a pram AGAIN, discovered that there is an active skittle league at Long Buckby A.F.C. and that for the fifth year running, non league football has outdone itself when it comes to the generosity and kind spirit of nearly everyone we met.

It would seem the great powers that be after allowing seemingly every other sport to allow spectators to return, have determined that outdoor arenas with little more than ten men and a dog are not at risk of causing a Covid spike, and the return of non league football is only weeks away. Five months since out last match, where people joked about not shaking hands, and laughed at the idea of touching elbows instead, are like so many yearning to get back to a match, and will hopefully be standing pitch side somewhere again soon.

However the next time Tom is tucking into a burger or I'm deliberating how much to spend on the 50/50, there is a very high chance our choice of places to visit will have diminished. Many clubs have found the lockdown too much to bare, their minute budgets decimated and in some cases hundreds of years of history have been wiped from the face of the football pyramid.

The far reaching tentacles of Covid 19 will be affecting us all for many, many years to come and as much as I'm looking forward to getting to a game again, what exactly I will be returning to, is a tad daunting.

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Tuesday, 7 April 2020

I Won't Shake Your Hands - Banbury United FC Vs Oxford City FC, Oxfordshire FA Senior Cup Semi-Final, Spencer Stadium (11/03/20)

I have to be honest I’m a bit sad that Tom has not said anything about my new shirt, but not as sad that it's the Strokes playing as I climb into his car. Their dirgey New York sound was never one I was particularly enamored with, but let's be honest it wouldn’t have taken much effort to pay my new clobber a little bit of a compliment would it?

Much of our drive is occupied with the hottest of topics, the Coronavirus epidemic sweeping across the world, Tom’s other half has already been instructed to work from home, but Tom’s profession, a barber, means he’s unable to do it via Zoom, and his clients, much like his wife are able to “work at home” so his days are getting quieter and quieter. As well as the dent it's going to take on his pay packet, how it’s going to affect football and what we do comes up too, but considering what's going on in other parts of the world, it frankly doesn't seem all that important.

We try to not dwell too much on the negative, Tom is soon sharing another and equally important life choice challenging him right now, the getting of a dog. He thinks a “puppy is a bad idea” his IKEA showroom of an East London pad is not quite suitable for all the chewing, pissing and endless bounding of a young K9, so thinks he might “adopt”. However that in itself comes with its own concerns, an element of the “unknown” with a pre owned pooch has him worried, his biggest one and I’m not joking, is that it might be “racist”.

As well as animal adoption, we talk briefly about a new mode on Call Of Duty, that Tom explains ends with you in a “Russian toilet” and I don't know how Tom is still awake with the Strokes playing, they are so dull, I can't tell if its still the same song playing when I got in, an hour later.

It feels like we have been stuck in a perpetual state of god awful weather since late last year, the seemingly never ending rain has played havoc with attendances, so the appearance of the sun, “it’s really hot” comments Tom, has got him very excited and as we head further into 2020, the fact it’s not yet dark as we make our way to our latest game is a pleasant change. However Tom is always on high alert, “it's getting a bit grey over here”.

“Milton Keynes is weird” pipes up Tom over the sound of the radio, jabbing his finger at the Sat Nav, at the succession of interlinking roundabouts he says look like “alien crop circles”. Prattling on about his new coffee machine, which he explains has a fine selection of possibilities such as “Roma, Caramel and Cosy” but this high end living doesn't come cheap, “34p a pod mate” and he certainly won't be sharing.

We finally ditch the Strokes, who are replaced by Nirvana, which is far more preferable, but it might not actually be a case of us ditching them, more that we've listen to everything they have ever recorded, because as Tom rightly points out it “feels like we've been driving forever”. A spot of the wet stuff gets him all of a dither, “ohhh it’s raining” and this brings its own conundrum, “I didn't bring a waterproof jacket” but he’s relieved that just like Steve McClaren he’s got his “trusty brolly”. More ominous clouds appear on the horizon, but the sun is able to break though them, “Jesus rays” Tom calls them, blazing down on the surrounding countryside, gives us hope that the match we are off to is not in jeopardy, as it flips between an impending downpour and “fucking spring again” mutters Tom.

“You've reached your destination” announces Tom’s Sat Sav, but there is not a football ground in sight, just our two bemused faces wondering where we went wrong and asking each other why we are sitting in the car park of a train station. We retrace our steps, after seeing a small bit of signage alluding to the ground, but the narrow road alongside the aforementioned station and industrial estate, doesn't really give us much hope. The dilapidated Union Jack covered burger van is a landmark one will struggle to forget for a while and then all of sudden, beyond the latest corrugated roofed warehouse, Spencer Stadium appears, home of Banbury United FC (BU). “It's very red and yellow” states Tom.

Wrestling with a large gate and the apparatus used to prop it open Stephen, BU’s Secretary has quite the fight on his hands, but is just about able to get things under control before greeting us, “welcome to our humble home”. Tom had said it was quite “breezy” only seconds out the car, and Stephen confirms that “it’s always windy here”. The sky's now filled with a whole gamut of clouds from fluffy Disney ones to alien invasion Independence Day ones. The visiting team Oxford City FC (OX) are already walking the pitch, of a ground that really offers up a little bit of everything.

A slightly rickety looking cage tunnel on wheels, is where the OX players disappear up after surveying the surface. Surrounded on two sides by the backs of neighbouring buildings, the Spencer Stadium feels cosy, but not cramped. The clubhouse is sizable, a squat white fronted building like something off a caravan site isn't open yet, and other than it, everything else as Tom pointed out is indeed very red and yellow. The large main stand on the halfway line, with BUFC spelled out in yellow seats, sticks to script and is of course in the clubs colour scheme. Behind one goal is a long covered terrace with the clubs name spelled out on its back wall, and yet to be turned on, the four aging floodlights poke out from each corner.

Despite the clear amount of cover, Tom reckons because of the many bare trees that surround some parts of the ground, that there is a “distinct lack of protection from the elements” and feels it is necessary to go back to his car to “get” his “hat”. To be fair to him, the constant wind does mean that most things are swaying, rattling or creaking around us. Alongside it, the hubbub of match day life continues. The clattering of beer kegs outside the bar, the sorting of change by the man on the turnstile, the noise of a nearby rumbling train and the lady in the boardroom putting out plates of biscuits for the expected bigwigs.

I thank the man in the red and yellow scarf handing out the programmes after he doesn’t expect payment, but he’s quick to point out the fact it's free has nothing to do with him, “don't thank me, it's the FA” and the reason for its zero price tag is because as he adds, it’s got “sod all in it”.

The sound of the floodlights coming on, is one akin to some great battleship coming to life, and our surroundings are soon basking in a brilliant white light. One man tinkers in the doorway of the red portacabin cabin that houses the clubs very own radio station, one dugout is briefly smothered in green and red light as someone sets up the subs board all while one of the bed sheet sized red corner flags, is absolutely whipping in the breeze.

The opinion of one BU fan is that the National League South side OX will take tonight “very seriously”, not something we normally see in regional cups, when a bigger side comes up against a relative minnow. Some local kids are having a pitch side kick about, as is the norm at most non league grounds, they even have their own goal. Another re purposed portacabin has been transformed into what looks like the world's smallest gentlemen's club, inside the BU coaching staff sit cheek by jowl.

“Testing 1-2” says a voice emerging over the PA, before the music starts to blare and the players come out for their warm up. The wind is only getting stronger, and our inquiry if the club shop will be opening, highlights non leagues 100% reliance on volunteers, “we’re struggling to get someone to open the tea bar” says a man with a large silver beard in a BU club tie.

For what will not be for the first time today, the question of to shake hands or not comes up, “welcome to Banbury United boys” says one man cheerily, “I won't shake your hands” he adds laughing, so we take inspiration from the recent SheBelieves Cup and exchange elbows instead.

The playlist is about the same age as the speakers, that struggle with the volume of the music, and I've not heard Black Eyed Boy by Texas in probably fifteen years. I snag my 50/50 tickets from the man by the turnstiles, but Tom is not very hopeful for me, and “warm welcome” from the man on the microphone, is swiftly followed with a bit of Elton John.

OX’s players are clapped off by a small showing of their fans in blue and white striped scarves. With a spot in the final at stake, the PA emphasises how “important” tonight's game is, and the referee now waiting for the players at the mouth of the tunnel, is put in an awkward position, when someone offers up their hand to shake, and he just leaves them hanging.

With three minutes to kick off, there is no sign of the players, but a bit of classic Two Tone is a suitable distraction.

The instruction to the players in the tunnel is that they can shake hands there, but once out on the pitch, they are to follow the recent Premier League example of just walking past each other like a FIFA glitch. Heather Smalls is rudely cut off mid sentence and the crackling PA offers up another “warm welcome” signing off with a “come on your reds”. A single BU flag has gone up in the small shelter behind one goal, where the home fans will be spending the first half, “come on Banbury” shouts one. Another tells me optimistically it will be a “tight game” and a sarcastic “weyyy” goes up, because post kick off, the music is still playing.

Seconds in, the music finally off, the heavens open, sending those standing pitch side, scurrying up the steps of the terrace we are on and under its roof and with less than ten minutes gone, the home side take somewhat of a shock lead, although Tom points out it's not really a shock considering the games only been playing “six seconds”.

Standing with his hand out in front of him, his palm turned to the heavens, one young man is checking for his Mum if it’s still raining, “has it stopped?” she asks and said woman is not just a mere spectator, worried about getting wet, but she is also I think the Mum of one of the BU players. “Oh Luke” she cries, when he blazes his shot over, there is no critic quite like your own mother.

After such a quickfire start by the home team, the twenty minutes since have been rather uneventful, the BU keeper had to be on his heels to claim a poked ball into his box, but that's about it. Wondering what the man next to us has in his pick and mix is proving to be much more entertaining. On the topic of food, Tom is already thinking about half time, “I’m hungry” he tells me, I must admit I am too, and after two successive fish finger sandwiches, I want to complete my hattrick, however Tom thinks I’ll be lucky if I do, “something tells me they won't, but you never know”.

It’s all gone a bit flat and one nearby warming up OX sub, is far from impressed by one teammates performance, “so fucking shit” he says to himself. A poor attempt at a cross field pass by the home side is easily cut out, resulting in the away side's first real go at goal. The eventual shot a straightforward one, but it’s spilled and tapped in from close range, the match all square. Tom reckons it’s a sign of things to come, “the onslaught begins” he says like a WWE character, “they are going to get ripped apart”.

His prediction is not far off, and it almost seems in the blink of an eye that OX have finally clicked into gear, going from almost spectators to being right on top. A swift, crisp passing move ends with a shot just over, Tom muses “you can definitely tell they are from the league above”.

Ignoring all the angry shouts off “off, off, off” and demands of “ref card him”, “he’s gotta walk” and “do your job properly, don’t fucking bottle it” the referee does not dismiss the offending OX player who has just given away a penalty, much to the disgust of one high pitched home fan, “its a red card every day”.

Just out of reach of the diving OX keeper, the ball hits the back of the net and BU take the lead once more, rushing off towards the home fans battering the metal stand around them, the scorer attempts to perform a bit of Roger Milla hip thrust, which leaves Tom dumbfounded. “I think that's the weirdest celebration I've ever seen”. He even finds it necessary to replicate it, that's how baffled by it he is.

A mad scramble in the BU box, almost hands OX an equaliser, the home keepers penchant for spilling straight forward shots at him, is a recipe for disaster. Skipping down the wing, OX’s number 11 rides one tackle after another, before sending in a low driven cross into the box. “He’s good at that” purrs Tom, about OX’s number 11’s ability to beat his man at will and then he gets all technical on me, which always gets my heartbeat racing, pointing out how the OX wingers have “switched” sides, to target one BU full back, who is looking a bit wobbly to say the least.

Tom takes a brief break from his coaching, to give me a run down on both teams kits, boiling it down to “QPR” for OX, in their blue and white stripes, and “McDonalds” for BU, on account of the red and yellow looking like a “pack of chips”.

Into the final five and BU showed some of that early promise, with some quick exchanges, slipping in one of their forwards, only for him to shoot wide. They then show their other side, their somewhat calamitous side, with an absolute horror show in the six yard box. One defender after another leaving it for the next, which sees it bounce all the way through their box and out the other side, just missing the goal.

The half somewhat fizzles out, but not before OX are in again, behind the home defense, “don’t fucking concede” cries a fan, this time the shot is blocked, however there is just enough time for one
last try for an equaliser, this time the head height whipped cross is just out of reach of any of their players in blue and white.

“£61” confirms the crackling PA, reading out the winning number of the 50/50, the ticket of which I do not possess. I don’t even check my pocket, what's the point. Jump Around by House of Pain plays as Tom strides back from getting food, not only for him, but for me too. “Custom made” he tells me, “ordered off menu” he explains, the fish finger sandwich in my hand, made at his request, that makes up for not noticing my shirt.

Confusion reigns supreme as the new half gets underway. Kick off is with a white ball, despite the referee insisting in the first half they stop and change it to an orange one. “Make your mind up” says Tom in his best parental voice.

If we thought the start to the first half was blistering, it’s got nothing on the start of the second. In what feels like no time at all, less than two minutes to be precise, OX have first equalised, another close range headed finish, but this time after an excellent one handed save by the BU keeper tipping the shot onto the bar, only for it to fall straight to a OX player, instead of a gaff and then a long range effort, that didn't look like it was hit with much venom, that just kind of skimmed its way into the bottom left hand corner of the BU goal.

“It's all gone quiet over there” sing the OX fans now in the small metal stand, having changed ends. Now standing with the sullen BU supporters, I can confirm it is very quiet indeed, almost silent. Which is only emphasised as the wind gets ever stronger, sending the nearby ginormous corner flag into overdrive. I can't stress enough quite how massive they are.

After such a spate of action the match has “gone flat again” says Tom, much like it did before. “Concentrate” demands the OX manager, BU being somewhat over run at times, resort to desperate measures. “That was a tackle and a fucking half” gasps Tom, when one OX player is almost erased from history in one fell swoop. Long periods of nothing are punctuated with the odd testing challenge, “you can forgive one foul, but not three” says one home fan, after this time it's one of their players downed.

OX have a notable fire in their belly now, BU are second best to everything. Their only outlet is Luke, who with every touch of the ball, gets a cheer from this three person fan club. “Come on Luke, come on Luke” they shout as he embarks on one of his mazey runs forward, carrying on and on and on, only for his final shot to be a bit wild and way, way over.

It’s all a little bit too easy for OX to grab their fourth, with still almost half an hour left to play, effectively killing the game stone dead and it's the OX fans turn to use the metal stand they now occupy to create a bit of racket when celebrating. “Going to be hard to come back from that” affirms Tom.

The announcement of a “198” attendance doesn't seem enough, “kind of feels like more” says Tom. With OX now comfortably ahead, letting their foot off the gas somewhat, it naturally allows BU back into the match and they are starting to create the odd half chance, however their inability to capitalise on them, is starting to frustrate their fans. “Oh come on” remonstrates one, after their shot is wide of the mark.

A plea of “do something” from the home bench and sighs of “too easy” from the home fans, resonate every time OX are on the ball. This is not to say BU don't have their moments, and good well orchestrated ones at that. Just shy of the half hour mark they move the ball around with consummate ease, there are goals here for them, but they just can't make it count. “Well done.. Keep playing” applauds the home manager, a former OX player with a bit of a point to prove against his old team.

The appearance of the moon, previously shrouded in clouds, is greeted with a fair few firework display, ohss and aahs. It’s huge and low, and is enough to distract the home fans from what is turning into a bit of a rout on the pitch. The kids who were previously having a kick about are now racing around, and I’m struggling to understand why Tom thought it prudent to make reference of the size of my face, within seconds of the moon coming into view.

As I’ve said all along there are goals here for BU, they go close with a smart turn and shot, but the strike hits the foot of the post. The rain returns, sending those who had ventured from cover, racing back again, except the kids, they are of an age where rain is yet to be an inconvenience.

BU waste another good chance, the curling shot lacking any accuracy and one home fan in shorts,
thinks his introduction could be a game changer, “I'm coming on in a minute”. The rain is now battering the roof above us, at one point it's coming in almost on the horizontal. One lady calls her son still braving the downpour, instructing him to get under shelter, “come on you're going to get soaked”. One of our new neighbours driven in by the rain, makes a very salient point, that his side were “doing alright in the first half”. Another reckons the poor performance is down to “too much youth”, the side is lacking any real “experience”. He asks those around him “where is your John Terry, your Drogba” and they all just look back at him blankly.

Edging closer to full time and the crowd slowly starts to thin, “come on reds move your feet” encourages one supporter, one thinks judging by the collapse, its “no wonder people are leaving”, especially with a fifth for OX looking likely.

Football is cruel, football is full of false hope, football tests fans to the nth degree. “How the fuck did he save that” screams one BU fan, leaping around with his head in his hands. For a brief moment it looks like BU are going to push OX right to the end, after an excellent half volley from the edge of the box cannons back off the bar. Falling perfectly to the player on the follow up, his side footed effort is somehow stopped by the sprawling OX keeper, at point blank range. Falling kindly for a second time to a BU player, he makes a short pass to a teammate with his back to goal, who spins and shoots, only for this time a falling OX player on the line to block it, but he blocks it quite clearly with his arm, giving the referee no other option than to point to the spot.

It’s almost the whole length of the pitch the OX player has to walk, while serenaded with a chorus of “cheerio, cheerio”. The resulting penalty, well the resulting penalty much like most of BU’s attempts today, just doesn't quite cut it, it’s saved. “A bloody shambles” tut’s one disgruntled fan on his way home.

After seeing BU at the same point of this competition last season, go through to the final, that won't be the case today. A final where they played OX, where they led 3 - 1 until the 89th minute, only to lose 4 - 3. Perhaps for the health of the fans, it's no great loss they won't be going this time.

I write this blog, slap bang in the middle of lockdown, the Coronavirus having stopped a lot more than just football, but life as we know it. No work for Tom, no going outside unless its to the shops or for a walk around the block. It’s hard to imagine how long it’s going to be until we get to go somewhere like the Spencer Stadium again, somewhere well, well worth visiting may I add. Worth it for the long terrace or the winking Puritan on the clubs badge, from which the club gets its nickname.

The only worry is will BU, like so many other clubs, still be there once this is all over. We just don't know. All we can do is wait and see.

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Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Snot Rocket - Sutton Common Rovers FC Vs Ashford Town (Middlesex) FC, Southern Combination Cup 1st Round, Gander Green Lane (26/02/20)

Pulling up next to Tom, having been in the gloomy car park of Gander Green Lane for all of ten seconds, he is already moaning, holding up his left hand showing me three fingers, I can just about make out what’s he’s saying from inside his dimly lit station wagon him mouthing, “three degrees”. It is soon clear this is not a reference to what is playing on the radio, but the temperature, and he is soon wobbling about on one foot by the boot of his motor, putting on a hefty pair of socks.

The car park is well patronised, one could maybe even say bustling, sadly though that is not down to an expected bumper crowd at tonight's match, but because of all the extra curricular activities going on. Tom seems to think there is a gym somewhere nearby and beyond the half open blinds in the windows of a large function room, where a group of older ladies are sitting in a circle, they are not playing “bingo” as Tom suggested, but are members of the local Weight Watchers.

As is usually the case, I only really have half of Tom's attention, he is busy on his phone, in the throws of a domestic with his wife. Some of the purchases on his recent spending spree, have not been well received. Along with his new “coffee machine” the kind you insert those multi coloured capsules George Clooney is always banging on about, his choice of garlic crushing implement has not gone down well either, “she doesn't like the garlic press”.

In search of food, and still engrossed in ‘garlic press gate’, he heads off hoping “Jenny's kitchen” is “open”. Through the double doors and into the bar, it like everywhere else so far is a bit gloomy and sparsely populated. Despite appearances, I do not possess the same voracious appetite as him, so instead of looking for chips, I have a quick chat with Gary, who has a choice array of football related pins fastened to his jacket, like a well decorated military man. One of which is the blue, red and yellow crest of Sutton Common Rovers FC (SC), who Gary, much like in all of non-league holds multiple roles at the club. Press officer, president and photographer or as he puts it, “everything beginning with P”.

Gary's opinion of the rather minor cup competition that SC are playing into tonight, is pragmatic, “it’s something else to play”. Especially as he points out when they’ve been “knocked out all the other cups in the first round”. Not that that is the case this season where they've had their “best” ever runs in the FA Cup and Vase. He explains that it will be a “pretty much full strength side out”, and considering how many games they have played so far, maybe this is one they could not try as hard at, but before I have worked out a subtle way to say ‘throw it’ he interjects laughing, “no its not”.

After the success of the behemoth of a fish finger sandwich I had at Cambridge City recently, and having found that Jenny’s is open, Tom thinks her version on the chalkboard menu to one side of the hatch, the imaginatively named, “Jenny's fish finger bap”, has my “name written all over it”. The bar is dark, the shutter is down, and all I can hear is the sound of cooking and the commentary of the Rangers match playing on the small TV high up on the wall.

The multi coloured lights that surround the bar are blinking away, as is the fruit machine, but other than that it’s all a bit deserted, reminding me of the days I used to work in a pub, and we’d kicked out all the punters.

Over the last five years, we have encountered few stadiums better than Gander Green Lane, home of Sutton United, and their lodgers SC. On our previous visit, for a match on a Saturday afternoon, the place was positively buzzing. A large crowd congregated on the various sections of sweeping open air terracing, with its bright yellow barriers, in the all standing shelters behind each goal or on faded blue plastic seats of the impressive main stand.

Tonight though, and with Gary predicting at a push a crowd of “50/60”, there is none of that life, just the stark white floodlights, illuminating empty spaces, and all manor of football related furniture littered pitch side. The place if I’m honest doesn't really look like a game is going to be happening at all, and as can be the case with some setups where one team is sharing with another, there will be the odd hint of their presence, but not here, it’s United, United, United.

Back inside the shutters have been rolled up, but to serve who? We are only interested in tea. Gary bags himself some chips, and you can only hope Jenny isn't cooking too much, because much like the bar, I’ve no idea who she expects to buy it, Tom will of course, but who else? He holds off on his dinner, getting us both a tea, that is solar hot. Hotter Tom says then the boiling water that comes out his “kettle” and after ten minutes, it's still as hot now as it was when he was served.

Parquet floor and no programme, sounds like the start of an Alan Bennett monologue, although I very much doubt he was into football, but I might be doing him a disservice. One patron at the bar, a bloke with a quite terrible cough is somewhat put back by the price of his drink, “£4.20 for a shandy? Blimey” and his payback to the bar woman, is to share some of his recent groundhopping gripes, and judging by the look on her face, she is not remotely interested. She, like me, I'm sure is more interested in hearing how the outcome of the story of the only other two people here will conclude, about a beer called “Dog’s Bollocks.”

“Yeah I've had dogs bollocks”.

A single dark turnstile to one side of the main stand, between some toilets occasionally ticks over, and it's there you can find the only sign that SC player here, the admission prices blu tacked to the wall. The introduction of a bit of music has lifted the atmosphere a bit, the beaming dot matrix scoreboard sat atop a tower of portacabins in one corner, a by product I think of Sutton United's fine recent FA Cup run, is a sight to behold.

Pitch side among all the training goals and aforementioned furniture, are some bizarre training aids, the kind that are used to form a wall for practicing set pieces, that for some reason have faces on. The departing SC players each get a high five and some words of encouragement, as they leave down the cage topped tunnel in the middle of the main stand, and it's around now that I realise that the scoreboard is a lot more than just a scoreboard, as it cycles through a hole host of groovy graphics, worthy of any Hollywood Bowl or Italia 90 venue.

The all pink SC keeper, loudly claps his gloved hands as the players walk out, “come on then yellows”. Those members of the public who were two long in the bar, are held back by a steward as the players enter the pitch, the tunnel for both spectators and players one and the same.

Making my way round the pitch, while the teams shake hands, underfoot is a soggy squelching green
carpet, and just like when you go to the cinema and its empty, but for some reason, a later comer sits next to you, the small contingent of Ashford Town (Middlesex) FC (AT) fans, one of whom has a very fetching chunky knit scarf on in the orange and white of this team, come and stand almost on top of us. I mean they are almost on our laps.

Five minutes on the clock and AT are already showing their higher division credentials, skipping through the home defence, one player is taken down and moments later he rattles the crossbar with a sweetly hit free kick. Another away attack, another what looks like a clear foul in a similar position, but this time no free kick, much to the displeasure of one man walking around the pitch who is absolutely frothing. His anger I think directed at the home defender responsible for the foul, “you stopped, you stopped” he screams. However I’m far too scared to get any closer to work out exactly who he is so angry with or about what.

It’s not like the opening exchanges haven't been lively, SC have just had what looked like a solid penalty shout turned down, the game has started at a million miles an hour, everyone and I mean everyone is in a heightened state, shouting obscenities, but Tom has already moved onto a topic reserved for quieter times, “odd kit”.

The orange and white vertical steps of AT, with a white shield on the back, looks straight off the front of an early 1900’s cigarette card. I have to admit I like, Tom is not convinced, “shield on back, it doesn't work for me. If you're going to do orange, do orange. Looks like a Sunderland top that's been in the wash too long” The AT keepers kit is a tad more modern, a dazzling neon pink, but as Tom points out correctly I’m “more of a pastel pink” kind of guy, but soon a far more pressing topic dominates our conversation, “cold innit”.

SC might be from lower down the pyramid, but they move the ball about effortlessly. Out wide, they overload the AT fullback, who manages to take out the winger, but he’s got back up, and the overlap continues. The player with the ball whips in a low cross into the AT box, but this time nothing comes of it.

“Yes'' shouts one of the AT fans, following a corner that almost results in a goal. Nigh on on the goal line, one of their players has just skimmed his shot wide, down on his haunches with his head in hands, he beats the pitch. It’s clear from his reaction, just how resolutely he should have scored.

The response from the home manager, after his team are almost punished when their keeper attempts to usher the ball out of play, but an AT player pinches it, but can't find a teammate to tap into the empty net, is a brief and resounding one “we’re too casual” and less than a minute later, his team's lack of urgency, sees them go behind. Not quick enough to close down the advancing AT player, he’s allowed all the time in the world to ping a low bouncing long range shot into the bottom left hand corner. Chasing after the scorer, one AT player lets out a loud, elongated, “yeahhhhhhhhhhhhh”.

I’m not sure whats better, the all colour clunking graphics on the scoreboard or the goal, Tom is prety clear which camp he is in, “fucking miles out” he chortles. “Come on Rovers” encourages an SC player, attempting to rally his teammates, who in Tom's opinion play in a kit that “looks like a cereal box”, but he admits his view might be coloured somewhat, having been “eating lots of Golden Grahams recently”.

Flattened, absolutely flattened, one AT player is stopped in his tracks, and Tom offers up the technical term relevant for such an occasion, “that's what you call a professional foul”. Just over twenty five minutes gone and AT almost made it 2 - 0, but the player in the box can't get the ball out of his feet, and SC are able to block the eventual shot. A minute after, how much he is going to regret just not being that little bit more creative will be apparent come the end of the game, because SC deservedly so, draw things level.

“Bit of a howler” whispers Tom, as to not rile up the AT fans next to us, who have been left somewhat stunned by their keepers' antics. Caught in no man's land, AT’s man in goal can only watch as the SC player curls in his shot, from well outside the box, after completely misjudging his charge out of goal. “Looked like he was going to miss” comments Tom, but the effort had just enough pace on it, to find the back of the net, and as the players mob the scorer, I’m marveling at the personalized graphics on the screen, with the player who equalised face, looking down over us.

Tom has a problem, and that problem is an inability to switch off from work. More often than not, I have to endure his constant chatter about people's hair. “Bounces nicely when he runs” he says about one player, he is particularly keen on the SC forward with the “bleached dreads” that has a very definite Allan Saint-Maximin vibe about them, on account of the headband and my Dad always said you have to be bloody good if you want to wear one on a football pitch, and he is casing AT all sort of concerns.

Without a doubt SC are more than able to to stroke the ball about, however they are also not afraid of putting in a reducer or two either. “You fucking chinned me” says the downed AT player, when the SC one suggests he “can get up” after a coming together near the home penalty area.

“Come on ref, it came down his arm” is the appeal from the AT fans, when the referee waves away their team's penalty appeal. Since drawing level, it's been all SC, their threat from out wide is troubling AT time after time, SC are looking increasingly dangerous. Into the final ten minutes they nearly took the lead. “That was clever” imparts Tom, after a well worked free kick routine almost puts them in front. A side footed attempt back across goal after the dinked ball finds the man running from deep, is wide and gets the first muted “ohhhhh” from those people hear who are almost exclusively on the other opposite side to us around the main stand, all except for our closest neighbours of course.

When a rare AT attack breaks down on the edge of the SC box, the group to our right are quick to share their dissatisfaction, “oh come on”. Ventures out of their half have been few and far between, SC are growing increasingly dominant. “Fucking statues” mutters one home player, when AT come forward again, but they can’t make anything of the questionable home defending.

Quick passing and swift movement, shows once more just what SC are capable of, but they just can’t convert, especially when the finishing is as horrible as that at the end of their latest attack. Into no man's land again, AT’s keeper almost hands the home team the lead, but the attempt at a Beckham Vs Sullivan long range lob goes wide. Holding his hand up to apologise, the AT keeper submits to his bemused looking teammates.

In a slightly unorthodox turn of events, the starting elevens are read out as the teams depart, and a new graphic, a spinning one, straight out of the Eastern bloc, appears on the scoreboard. With Cardi B blaring, Tom’s visit to Jenny’s, returning with “Jenny’s double cheeseburger” has left him a little dumbstruck. “Six quid, that’s Burger King prices' ' and he reports back that more people are watching “City Vs Madrid” in the bar, then are pitch side watching the match.

“Ref get hold of that, get hold of that” screams the man back on the sidelines for the start of the new half, after a foul on an SC player, meaning that must be which way his allegiance lies, after one of the flying home wingers is hacked down, however Tom thinks the player who has drawn the foul, should be a “bit embarrassed” he had somewhat bought the free kick, is how I think the pros would put it.

A millisecond of Pulp's Common People over the PA’s is not to Tom’s liking, he’s not a fan of the Sheffield based Brit pop outfit. Someone's hand slipped in the PA’s booth perhaps, the song lined up for some other use later. Post break and a much needed rocket from their manager, AT look a slightly more cohesive outfit, chalking up two chances in as many minutes. Reminding SC they won't have it all their own way, the second coming from the home side giving the ball away needlessly, however this is undone in the sloppiest of manners, when they fail to deal with a rather tame SC corner, and the home side pull in front.

A close range bundle over the line, the cheers that follow giving away that there are maybe more people here than I thought, and the celebrations of the home players, are verging on the giddy.

According to Tom, the temperature has dropped a bit in the time we were musing, “I think it's got colder”, and after their opening wobble, SC are back on top, but the latest ball into the box is a fraction behind it’s intended target. The AT fans, now in the main stand, start a song, but it only lasts
slightly longer than the fleeting appearance of Jarvis Cocker. A great ball forward by the visitors splits the home defense, exciting their fans for a moment, but there is just a fraction too much on it, and the SC keeper is able to get to it before the AT player.

Not that he’s had much of a part to play so far, but Tom’s has noticed in the referee, some “primadonna” tendencies, imagining for some reason he spent all of half time “stroking himself”. The sight of a huge snot rocket from one AT player is not only disgusting, but kick-starts an interesting conversation about the term ‘snot rocket’, which amazingly Tom has never heard before.

SC are well on top, the AT players are arguing among themselves, “fuck off” shouts one to another. The game is lacking some of the quality of before, its gone a bit, big hoof back and forth, but it’s enjoyable. Sloppy but fun, you might say. A bit like Tom on a night out and all that hard partying of his youth, has caught up with him tonight, showing me his hands, they look like the old ladies from Titanic.

The shock wave of a thunderous home shot, sends the AT keeper staggering backward into his goal net like he’s drunk. SC’s player with the red hair is down but the game plays on, down again not long after and Tom thinks his “hamstrings” gone, the physio is called on and he is somewhat unceremoniously rolled off the pitch. The break in play lets Tom indulge in a bit of pudding, a Wispa bar appearing fleetingly from the pocket of his jacket.

Shouty man reappears for his obligatory roaring input, “come on yellows, we need another 10%”. Right on the edge of the pitch, his front line vantage point, gives him the perfect view of a “hand ball”, that he duly brings to the referees attention, shouting louder than any man has ever shouted before.

AT are all over the place and another error from their keeper, almost hands SC their third, “oh wow” gasps Tom, following a poor throw out, straight to the home side, and soon he’s back peddling frantically again, trying to get close to a determined cross, that ends up hitting the crossbar. “Was that a shot?” asks Tom.

“Ref” screams one home player, the whole ground up in arms, after another foul on a flying winger, goes unnoticed, SC are relentless in their targeting of the visitors weak point, and in a moment of pure redemption AT's keeper pulls off a save of the highest draw, tipping a header over that looked destined to go in. Frustrating the player who had connected with the ball so well, to the extent he pulls down his shorts, letting out a mighty “fucking hell”.

Into the final ten minutes and it’s yellow attack, after yellow attack. “Finish, finish, finish” urges a home fan with a player bearing down on goal, but his side-footed attempt is wide. Comfortably in control, SC do what so many teams in a similar position do, they start to slip back deeper and deeper, allowing AT more and more of the ball. Two corners in quick succession cause little trouble to the sturdy home team defense. The AT bench asks the team to “give it a go”, one home player asks his team to “not give them nothing”. Into four minutes of added on time and it's now that the away fans pipe up with a song, “everywhere we go”.

Sitting on the corner of the pitch, with a camera that looks like something Schwarzenegger used in Commando, in all weather gear, Gary now has his photographer hat on. “That would have been the icing on the cake” he says smiling, the home number 3 and our pick for man of the match, having been asked by him to choose it, curled the most spectacular long range shot, that came back off the post with the most glorious ping.

“We’ve got to manage the game” insists one SC player, AT have just threatened again, there is a fine
line between letting your foot of the gas and seeing the game out and keeping you lead intact, at the moment SC have a foot on either side.

It's the full 4.14 minutes of Common People after the final whistle, the sounds and nostalgia of being eleven, mixes with the noise of jubilant home players and fans, who have claimed themselves somewhat of a scalp with their win.

I have to admit neither of us were very hopeful with the prospect of much of a match, in a one of what you might say the lesser cups, on a cold Wednesday night in a half empty ground, but tonight was a real surprise. SC really play some entertaining football which helped, come on a Saturday and they do a programme too, which is a plus. Plenty of reasons to come here, plenty of reasons to check out a side who don't have their own home for now, just maybe give the fish finger sandwich a swerve.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE


Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE



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