Thursday, 5 July 2018

Come Wind, Rain, Snow Or Shine - 2017/18 End Of Season Review

I’m not sure if its the added strain of having had a new baby this season, my daughter arriving just before 2017/18 got off and running, turning up just around the same time the dress rehearsal for this summer's World Cup was coming to an end, but I feel even more exhausted than I have ever felt at the end of previous seasons.

It's not a long day at work tired, but a headed out early, got back late from a day of fun on holiday tired. Satisfied not drained, but ready to relax, kick back, feet up and take a minute to recharge.

For the last eleven months our search has been pretty relentless, covering more ground than ever before, even venturing to new countries and right at its conclusion, experiencing international football for the very first time, but in a far more exciting way than attending a bleak meaningless friendly at Wembley.

As with 2016/17 we started on the coast, and with the extra preliminary round of the FA Cup. The first of many long drives this season, it was worth every mile, as we finally got to tick off a club, whose charming ground is nestled between the red brick town hall and a cricket club. Once upon a time the simple fact one of the two teams had a bear on its badge, would have been enough to justify three and half hours in the car, however glorious sunshine, biblical rain, drums, Galatasary references, saxophones, a man in a hockey mask, another in a horse one and the chance to see the tin foil FA Cup waving fan group Pier Pressure, meant we got the season off to the perfect star. BLOG Welcome To Hell - Eastbourne Town FC Vs Bearsted FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Eastbourne Town FC Vs Bearsted FC

Oh Essex, we do love you so, how often we have traversed your highways and byways these past few years, how good it is to be back in your hearty non league bosom. Although we didn't know it then, our visit to Cressing Road would not be our last encounter with The Irons, in their garish orange strip. Not only did we encounter what may have been the finest club shop we’ve ever come across, an Aladdin's cave of programs, general football tat and old shirts, but Tom tucked into a burger that not until the last months of the season, all other burgers would be compared to. BLOG Sexy Football - Braintree Town FC Vs Dartford FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Braintree Town FC Vs Dartford FC

If the world of football is so scathing of the 50/50 scarf, what would it make of a 50/50 stadium? This is what we went to find out as we dipped our toe into the FA Cup once again, where an ambulance drove on to the pitch, and not because I found a wall of mugs for sale at the ramshackle club shop, among them one so nostalgic, so beautiful, a diamond in the rough, I almost needed a defibrillator. BLOG Man Sandwich - Erith & Belvedere FC Vs Cray Valley Paper Mills FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Erith & Belvedere FC Vs Cray Valley Paper Mills FC

It was a slightly rainy, miserable, chipless evening in East London at the home of The Daggers, where we watched our second National League game of the season, from the dark and grumbling terrace of Victoria Road. The visitors Sutton United breaking the home fans hearts and in doing so went top of the league. BLOG Falling In Love With U's - Dagenham & Redbridge FC Vs Sutton United FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Dagenham & Redbridge FC Vs Sutton United FC

More FA Cup and not for the first time we cross paths with Hampton & Richmond Borough. The National league South side had made hard work against their Bostik league North opponents Potters Bar in the first match, so a replay at the Patax Stadium was required. The well travelled blue and red army did not disappoint, making perhaps the most noise this sleepy commuter belt town had ever heard. We were treated, I say treated, we were horrified at the up close view of a man pissing behind a stand, and got an insight into the mindset of then Hampton & Richmond coach Martin Tyler and his mafia esq touch line chats. BLOG See You In Cinderford - Potters Bar Town FC Vs Hampton & Richmond Borough FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Potters Bar Town FC Vs Hampton & Richmond Borough FC

Unbelievably our visit to The Arena was our first ever Non League Day. A comeback of Istanbul type proportions, a chance meeting with Ric Flair and Eminem and the away side dressed like Christmas, oh and a near death experience thanks to an conker. BLOG Dirty Santa's - Brentwood Town FC Vs South Park FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Brentwood Town FC Vs South Park FC

It’s not only the later rounds of the FA Cup that can kick up an upset, our rain soaked Saturday in the West Midlands, the other side of Stourbridge FC’s very own Arc De Triomphe and once we had tried the faggots, did just that. A fiery ninety minutes played out under drizzly grey skies, roared on by
boisterous shirtless fans and a man in a wizards hat. BLOG I Wanna Watch Match Of The Day - Stourbridge FC Vs Alfreton Town FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Stourbridge FC Vs Alfreton Town FC

In the presence of Essex's own football loving Yoda, in the shadow of one of Europe's largest container ports, preceded by a quite magnificent sunset, but no 50\50 but at least there was a raffle and the chance to win a box of chocolates, a single goal, which thankfully was a bit of a special one, separated the two teams. BLOG Easy This Managing Lark - Tilbury FC Vs Cheshunt FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Tilbury FC Vs Cheshunt FC

Wind, wind, wind, wind, wind, some wind and a bit more wind, punctuated our long drive to Dorset. Once there the flags of the Wimborne Massive, a man dressed as a town crier and a thumping home win, made up for spending most of the day scared that one of the nearby trees or a loose bit of the stands roof above us was going to get blown over or ripped off and kill someone, in the end the worst thing that happened was that Storm Brian blew over my Coke. BLOG #StormBrian - Wimborne Town FC Vs Swindon Supermarine FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Wimborne Town FC Vs Swindon Supermarine FC

Little was expected from our Tuesday evening in Hertfordshire, if I’m honest. Once we'ed made all the possible ‘Ware’, ‘where’ jokes, the home of Ware FC was not exactly one that will top any list for looks or style, the centre line of the pitch looking like it was drawn by a drunk spider. However we were pleasantly surprised, and ended up bearing witness to a game that will live long in the memory, where the man of the match was the keeper who conceded four and we saw the most ridiculous free-kick, thanks to our old friends Bowers & Pitsea. BLOG Back On The Burgers - Ware FC Vs Bowers & Pitsea FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Ware FC Vs Bowers & Pitsea FC

November's here and it's woolly hats a gloves time, as the first of what felt like a never ending stretch of chilly games begun, that took place on a Sunday of all days, a near non league miracle a match on the sabbath. Three things stood out that day, one sad: I didn't get a programme, one remarkable: forty five year old Barry Hayles was playing for the away team, one jaw dropping: Windsor FC’s shirt. BLOG Cockneys All Together - Erith Town FC Vs Windsor FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Erith Town FC Vs Windsor FC

It was hardly a classic match, a 1 - 1 draw thanks to a brilliant team goal and a goal keepers howler, but the presence of one particular person, the ‘Witham Town Ultra’, a stand right out of a non league coffee table book and al fresco dinning, plus pick and mix, and a bit of harmonica from the musical home fans, meant Tom truly caught some feelings as I think those on Love Island would put it, for a certain Bostick League team with a stag on their badge. BLOG Clap That Rivals His Shout - Hertford Town FC Vs Witham Town FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Hertford Town FC Vs Witham Town FC

Good chips and Christmas cards were some of the highlights of our time at the home of Cambridge City, although it's not really their home, that's not even in their city. Cold again, and a far from entertaining game, which was robust but lacking somewhat in quality, allowed plenty of time for poor puns from Tom and talk of Shepard's pie. BLOG Moneyfields Not Moany-Fields - Cambridge City FC Vs Moneyfields FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Cambridge City FC Vs Moneyfields FC

In a ground where machines are replacing people and the linesman wore tights, with a main stand gleaming like a new build housing development, with more glass than a minimalist's dream, the home side fell to a last minute sucker punch and the club merchandise was sold out of a cupboard your mum keeps the good china in, as we pushed the limits of our midweek excursions, ending up in Suffolk. BLOG Rise Of The Machines - A.F.C. Sudbury Vs Soham Town Rangers FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - A.F.C. Sudbury Vs Soham Town Rangers FC

It's December now, so Santa outfits are a must. Passing Stonehenge on the way and getting dietary advice from the server in Costa, ended up as mere footnotes on an afternoon in Somerset of epic proportions. Six goals, an ex Premier League player and TV pundit turned manager losing his head and being pelted with paper aeroplanes, cherry Tango and a Cornish pasty, the police and just the small matter of winning on a scratch card, made for one of the best days out of the season. BLOG Whatever Will You Write About Now - Taunton Town FC Vs Salisbury FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Taunton Town FC Vs Salisbury FC 

Snow, ostentatious Christmas lights, and a cat, made our final game before the chocolate orange binging commenced, a bit of a odd one. It was so cold, and so close to never happening, it was only thanks to the witchcraft that is 3G that meant we were able to see a game, but no programme and plummeting temperatures meant it is a game I look back on with mixed feelings. BLOG No Room For Numbers - Bromley FC Vs Margate FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Bromley FC Vs Margate FC

Our last game of 2017 saw us visit another Bostik League new build, Parkside home of Aveley FC which is about as new as new can be. The smell of fresh paint is still in the air, and they've only just taken the plastic covering off the furniture. The outstanding facilities, and last minute drama of the away teams equaliser, both fell into second and third place respectively, to the winner of best thing we saw that day, which was the man in the stand pulling on waterproof trousers, without a drop of rain in sight. BLOG The Future - Aveley FC Vs A.F.C. Sudbury & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Aveley FC Vs A.F.C. Sudbury

To this day I still don't understand how this game went ahead, climbing higher and higher into the snow covered Pennines, the fields around the town of Mossley, nothing but white, I was sure that Tom’s train ride to the North West, for our first game of 2018 was going to be a wasted one. Pardon the pun but only thanks to the grit and sheer determination of the locals, and their bag fulls of grit, and some help from a very lenient referee meant that we saw a match. Frozen hands, partially obscured excellent views, unused hand warmers and eight goals all in conditions similar to them on Hoth. BLOG Get The F**king Grit Down - Mossley A.F.C. Vs Skelmersdale United FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Mossley A.F.C. Vs Skelmersdale United FC

What better way to celebrate our third birthday than with a day at the seaside? Many of you would probably agree, but not in February. The sight of Margates desolate promenade, was not quite what we were expecting at the end of our drive. A go on the 2p machines was certainly what we had in mind, but the sticky handled arcade a little spooky considering we were the only ones in it, but still enjoyable, until Tom cashed in his winnings and got Black Jacks. A stunner of a goal from the son of an ex Spurs player, the effigy of a man sized stuffed crocodile and a certain Margate fan, made for a perfect birthday. BLOG Temporary Coffin Stand - Margate FC Vs Thurrock FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Margate FC Vs Thurrock FC

The first and only time I’d been to Wales was about twenty years ago on a school trip, where the most exciting thing I saw was a dead pheasant and my English teacher drinking Baileys. If I’d known going back the next time I would be plied with whiskey, have the chance to eat chips from a hollowed out loaf of bread and be welcomed by a group of people, I’d never met, like I was family, I would have been back sooner. Our first ever International non league game, was one of the best we’ve ever done. BLOG We Love You Iceland We Do - Merthyr Town FC Vs Weymouth FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Merthyr Town FC Vs Weymouth FC

Compared by a Guy Ritchie baddy, by far the coldest game we have ever been to, thanks to the football Gods, was also one of the most exciting. The FA Trophy replay, where the away team made a two hundred pluss mile trek down from the North East, is one of those games one can proudly stand up and say “I was there”, as seven goals filled the nets, and free-kicks from absurd distances were the order of the day. BLOG Got To Be In It To Win It - East Thurrock United FC Vs Spennymoor Town FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - East Thurrock United FC Vs Spennymoor Town FC

A spot of Friday night football took us to South East London, to cross paths with 2017/18's sponsored player, where we watched football at the lowest tier we would all season, but in no way did that detract from having an excellent time. A positive goal fest and the appearance of an AFC Wimbledon legend and an overweight Spanish one too, got a busy footballing weekend off to the best possible start. BLOG Did Your Heart Flutter? - Welling Town FC Vs Sporting Club Thamesmead FC Reserves & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Welling Town FC Vs Sporting Club Thamesmead FC Reserves

What should have been a very pleasant spring afternoon, under a cloudless sky, was tinged with mixed emotions, as we finally got to see Thurrock FC at home, after all the fun of last years Play-Off Final. However with it being one of their final home games, of their final ever season, after 2017/18 this well respected club would cease to be, it wasn't exactly a happy reunion. No win either for the home team only added to the strange atmosphere, a wonder solo goal and the added beauty of Tom’s burger loving cousin improved the mood, but all in all it was a bit of a sombre affair. BLOG Better Than Stamford Bridge - Thurrock FC Vs Hendon FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Thurrock FC Vs Hendon FC

Hertfordshire I hear you say, not Essex, are you OK? Yes we're fine, we just fancied a change, so we headed north instead of east for once, where we nearly ended up at the bottom of a pothole in one of non league worst maintained car parks, at the home of the Tottenham women's team, we witnessed a goal filled local derby, with the possibility of seeing a Champions League winner pull on his boots. BLOG Outmuscled - Cheshunt FC Vs Waltham Abbey FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Cheshunt FC Vs Waltham Abbey FC

It’s really, really hard to mention anything other than the unrelenting and punishing cold, where your hands hurt, you worry you might have your feet amputated, all while a man walks around in shorts, and you wonder how the fuck is he doing that. However once we’d got over quite how freezing it was, and my attempt to record Tottenham’s FA Cup Quarter Final and watch it when I get home was ruined, because I simply couldn't stay out of the clubhouse any longer, for fear of death. We enjoyed a bit of an upset in the Southern League Premier, as the league leaders came up against an all firing Basingstoke Town. BLOG Wonder If They've Got A Sausage Roll For Me? - Basingstoke Town FC Vs Hereford FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Basingstoke Town FC Vs Hereford FC

Will it ever be warm again we wondered as we crossed a snow covered Tower Bridge, not to Champion Hill to watch Dulwich Hamlet, but to the home of their arch rivals, and their temporary digs, while their unscrupulous landlords considered other ways how to screw them over. Another tick in the column for games that had no right to go ahead, but managed to. Snow covered goal lines and treacherous ice covered steps in the stands, were never going to put off the pink and blue faithful, or those fans of the far from local visitors, whose drummer is one of the best we've ever come across. BLOG Two Pairs Of Socks Today - Dulwich Hamlet FC Vs Worthing FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Dulwich Hamlet FC Vs Worthing FC

I’m pretty sure we’ve never seen a phoenix non league club, who used to play in the Football League that Tom remembers playing on FIFA before, have you? Getting ever closer to crunch time in the season, it promised to be massive match at the top of the Southern League East. A match that only thanks to a merry band of locals and their tireless efforts to prepare Hayden Road, happened, as the poor weather continued to play havoc. A shrine to a lost player, a welcome up with there with the best, the chance to win a manicure and a burger that officially topped the table as the best ever, made our evening at AFC Rushden & Diamonds, one of the the best of the season. BLOG Belly Buster - AFC Rushden & Diamonds Vs Hayes & Yeading United FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - AFC Rushden & Diamonds Vs Hayes & Yeading United FC

It is no secret that I’m a Spurs fan, I have been for twenty plus years, and I can think of nothing better than watching Harry Kane destroy another Premier League defence, but right next to their place in my heart, is a slightly smaller, but just as cherished place for another one who also play in N17 and who actually play on White Hart Lane. You can really do few worse things in life than getting yourself down to Coles Park. BLOG Tottenham's Mbappé - Haringey Borough FC Vs Mildenhall Town FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Haringey Borough FC Vs Mildenhall Town FC

Soggy and brioche bun less, was how our Bank Holiday Monday panned out. What was supposed to be a top of the table humdinger, as both teams chased promotion at the top of the Bostik League South, turned into a bit of a damp squib, which was salvaged by the all singing, scarf whirling, many flag owning, urinating in a pint glass, weed smoking fans of Corinthian Casuals. BLOG No Brioche Bun As Advertised - Walton Casuals FC Vs Corinthian Casuals FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Walton Casuals FC Vs Corinthian Casuals FC

I wish I could remember anything else other than being cripplingly ill, so much so that it very nearly floored me and ruined our day in Sussex. With the battering heat of the sun, a large woolly jumper and a high temperature meant I was close to being delirious. I’m told the man in the club shop trying to sell us a single dart flight, Tom referencing Borussia Dortmund and the San Siro, away fans dressed as scousers and one with a bucket on his head, actually happened, and wasn't a fever dream. BLOG It's Not Pie Weather - Lewes FC Vs East Grinstead Town FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Lewes FC Vs East Grinstead Town FC

Back in Essex, on an island, a slightly smelly island, next to a gas works, thankfully the quite excellent music, a mix of 80’s and 90’s dance classics, and a bit of Michael Jackson, made up for a bit of a drab game and a strong smell of eggs, at the wrong end of the National League south. BLOG It's Like Being In Kavos - Concord Rangers FC Vs Bognor Regis Town FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Concord Rangers FC Vs Bognor Regis Town FC

The play-offs are perhaps my favourite part of the season. Perched on the edge of a running track, not far from a hammer cage, with a place in the National League South Promotion Final at stake, The Clarets took on The Beavers under an unrelenting sun, in a stadium fit to burst, with two sets of fans creating an atmosphere that might be the best of the season. BLOG Don't Worry Love - Chelmsford City FC Vs Hampton & Richmond Borough FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Chelmsford City FC Vs Hampton & Richmond Borough FC

What was that I just said about unrivalled atmospheres, scrap that, we had not been to The Walks yet. More sun, more forearm ruining, back of the neck scalding, if I stand out in it anymore I might collapse sun, under which The Rebels snatched the spoils right at the death. Police dogs, battens drawn, Joy Division and Blur, plus a ground to make you go weak at the knees, this was a truly unforgettable day. BLOG It's Quite Hot You Know - King's Lynn Town FC Vs Slough Town FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Evo-Stik Southern League Premier Play-Off Final 2018

The culmination of all those months of hard work boiled down to one match. Two teams went head to head, with the chance to be just one promotion away from the big time, almost in their grasps. The sun was shining, but not as harshly as previous outings, the fans of each team did themselves proud, with Essex stocks of inflatable palm trees, comedy wigs, big glasses and bowler hats depleted. The cruel mistress that is penalties decided this one. BLOG Generic Football Shouting - Hampton & Richmond Borough FC Vs Braintree Town FC & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - National League South Promotion Final 2018

Following the final at the Beveree that was supposed to be it for us, our towels metaphorically laid out on metaphorical sun loungers, as we were supposed forget about football for at least a few weeks, readying ourselves for some serious sofa time and the World Cup, but then the chance presented itself to checkout something a bit different, the chance to dip our toe into international football for the first time, that was too intriguing to miss out on. 

At the other end of Donkey Lane, at the only ground such is the beauty of its main stand, it doesn't make my skin crawl when I remember it's got a running track, a game took place between Tibet and Northern Cyprus, in a competition neither of us had ever heard of, where there was a chance of seeing a green card, yes that's right not a yellow, not a red, but a green card, that had nothing to do with Gérard Depardieu. BLOG Magic Spray & Britney Mics - Northern Cyprus Vs Tibet & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Northern Cyprus Vs Tibet

After all the sights, sounds and non stop flute playing of Tibet Vs Northern Cyprus, and fully captivated by this extraordinary competition, the semi final at the War Memorial Sports Ground had a lot to live up to. Two teams with Hungarian roots, but both from different countries, battled for a place in the final back at the Donkey Dome. Pyro, plenty of goals and Mark Clattenburg, what else could a boy ask for? BLOG Get A Grip Clattenburg - Karpatalya Vs Szekely Land & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - Karpatalya Vs Szekely Land

Well, well, well, well, our final game of the season arrived, and Tom couldn't even be bothered to turn up, great calender management dude. No worries, because after an emergency transfer I drafted in my fiancee, and for the second time in a week we headed down Donkey Lane, for the CONIFA World Football Cup Final. The game a shocker, the bullying and over physicality of the Northern Cypriots not the prettiest of sights, but the off field antics of the Hungarian hoards supporting Karpatalya, were mind meltingly brilliant. Pyro, pyro, pyro, pitch invaders, flares and men dancing with scythes were just some of the things that made it the perfect end to the season. BLOG It’s In Die Hard Three - Northern Cyprus Vs Karpatalya & VIDEO Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game - CONIFA World Football Cup Final 2018

At 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 off: @AshAndAlPodcast, @thetoughtackler, @ldnfootyguide, @ShootTheDefence, @TheDaisyCutter1, @NonLeagueNews,  @knockernorton1, @winkveron, @richbeedie, @LasVegasWI, @wagnerc23, @VFTAE, @muzzy333, @athurston_1996, @GroundhoppingFC, @TonbridgeFanTV, @Andyspage1, @oddsunevens, @TheTeamOnTour, @TheNonLeagueMag, @NonLgeProgs, @NonLeagueCrowd, @IsthmianLeague.

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.

Last but not least a huge thank you to all the clubs and players for their co-operation, time, patience and assistance this season. Without it we would not be able to do half of what we do & to you we are indebted.

I'm beat. Grabbing a spare minute to conclude this review as my daughter sleeps, I'm trying not to type too loudly so as to not wake her up. It is always so much fun looking back over the games we've been to, remembering all the people, the goals, the chants and the burgers, oh the endless burgers, and trying not to add up quite how much I spent on raffles, golden goals and 50/50.

Into our fourth year, our little corner of the internet, has really snowballed into something neither of us ever expected it too. We are not huge by any stretch of the imagination, but the positivity coming back from those of you out there who follow our search, really spurs us on.

As long as people keep reading our rambling blogs and watching our shaky videos, we'll keep making them.


For a full photographic review of 2017/18, click HERE

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Thursday, 21 June 2018

It’s In Die Hard Three - Northern Cyprus Vs Karpatalya, CONIFA World Football Cup Final 2018, Queen Elizabeth II Stadium (09/06/18)

It is with a very heavy heart, and I might as well tell you first thing and get it out of the way, but Tom
is not with me today.

Christ he’s not dead or anything, put the Kleenex away, but due to the bumbling management of his calender, he was unable to make our final game of the season, yes I’m pretty sure we said the National League South Promotion Final was our last one of 2017/18, but this one is now, I promise.

I do have a replacement, an emergency transfer following meetings with the FA, someone a little more acerbic than Tom, “Toby looks like a dickhead” they say, passing the Toby Carvery on the way to today's ground. The sight of the jolly three cornered hat wearing man, clearly rubbing them up the wrong way, but thankfully they are as obsessed with food, as my usual compatriot, so they're not really that different. Pointing out the “yorkie wrap”, which looks like a burrito made with a Yorkshire pudding, right below the “dickhead”.

AKA The Ball and Chain, AKA The Peanut, AKA The Mrs, AKA The Other Half, AKA My Better Half, AKA The Mother of My Daughter, AKA my Fiancee, AKA The Toad of Bramhall, today I’m joined by Rachel.

Donkey Lane, that never gets old, leading to the Queen Elizabeth II stadium, venue for the final of the CONIFA World Football Cup 2018, that in just two games, has totally and utterly caught us in its spell, is bustling. All manner of people are jostling for space on the narrow pavement, many of them in matching tracksuits. The United Koreans in Japan stand out somewhat among the locals, and not so locals who have made their way here today.

As with the two other games we've attended, we arrive just as the first of a double header is finishing up. According to the CONIFA official in his floppy sun hat, selling programmes, the third fourth place play-off has been a “dull affair” and is heading for penalties.

The handiwork of a local football celebrity is apparent seconds after arriving. ‘Village’ the bandanna wearing, Santa Claus bearded Barnet FC fan who has a penchant for flags, his collection of seemingly every national flag going, that puts our single one to shame, surrounds at least a quarter of the pitch.

His offerings are not the only ones on show either, there is a rich tapestry of different flags already up. A vast Bristol Rovers/Tibet one hangs from the balcony of the exquisite art deco main stand, and it’s not the only one representing the west country club. A second one, a much smaller one is being flown by the Croydon Gas, not far from another, representing a club slightly closer to home, Colchester United.

Also on display, and perhaps just showing off quite what a draw this tournament has had, set back from the pitch a Port Vale banner, tied to a nearby fence, a black and white one featuring the crest of the Ramones, flutters in the breeze.

The fans of Szekely Land, whose team we saw miss out on a final place just a few days ago, have claimed the small covered stand opposite the main one for themselves. What has somewhat become of their calling card, coloured smoke, consumes it.

With the new addition of a megaphone and drum, their short bald Capo at the front with the loud hailer, flanked by the drummer, leads the whole stand, clapping above their heads in a song, “la, la, la, la, la”.

There is your typical non league change of ends, for one half of the crowd at least, as the game comes to an end, and the officials and players prepare for the shootout. Unfortunately we seem to be somewhat of an unlucky charm for Szekely Land as they miss out on third spot. One fan of Padania, their opponents, behind us punches the air “viva Padania” he shouts as they secure the win.

The drum of the Szekely Land fans is still going, as the remnants of the first game melt away and everyone prepares for the final. They don’t look like they are going anywhere though, staying I assume to support their fellow Hungarians Karpatalya (KAP) in the final. Considering it's basically a home tie for Northern Cyprus (NC), going by their considerable support here last week against Tibet, it's good to see that they are sticking around for moral support.

It's only a very brief lull between the games, the slight spitting rain makes Rachel almost turn inside out like she’s eating a lemon, but it’s just light enough to prevent her from digging me in the ribs, because she forgot her umbrella

Sitting on a slightly wonky picnic table, the CONIFA world flows around us. “Lots of babies and kids, which is nice” points out Rachel, this competition more than any other we've ever attended, has most definitely been a family affair. Plenty of players from the other competing nations are enjoying a pint or two. People stroll about in souvenir final t shirts. The NC band leader from the game against Tibet is here and thankfully has his shirt on, he had got very over excited the last time we saw him. A very burly Hungarian in a shirt bearing his country's flag, with a scarf hanging from his belt, tries to inconspicuously stick up some ultra stickers but fails miserably.

As naff and and as corny it sounds, a bit like a United Colors of Benetton ad from the late 80’s its a real melting pot of people, something that has been a real highlight of the last ten days. A sudden swell by the turnstiles sees quite a dramatic influx of people, many sporting different Turkish club shirts, many holding the white flag with the red crescent moon of NC. The strung out blockade of stewards tries its best to hold them back. According to one of them they are still trying to get the still singing Szekely Land fans to “leave”, good luck with that.

The ride along tractor is soon doing lengths of the pitch in preparation for the main event, not long after its completed, the teams are out to warm up. The diminutive NC coach who had what I could only describe as a ‘Bjork haircut’ his silver locks twisted up into stiff peaks, has had a makeover. Still
with his hairy spikes, it now looks as if a small child has been let loose on his barnet with a can of pink spray paint, it's quite the picture.

Another tick is added to the check list of ‘never seen that at a football match before’, something this tournament has been a great contributor to, when we see the men and women in traditional Turkish dress who are causing quite a stir. In blue fringed fezzes, knee high socks and gold embroidered waistcoats the men look both fabulous and devilishly manly in the same breath. The women in long ivory smocks and gold necklaces are each carrying a small terracotta pot, the men scythes.

There is absolutely no quibbling with the man in the Szekely Land shirt when he asks for a picture with them, sitting on the floor before them he holds up his scarf. In fact he is enjoying the limelight so much, quite the bank of photographers have swarmed around him to grab the picture, he has be asked to “get out of the way” in a loving, but you’re a bit pissed so we need to talk to you a bit like a child, kind of way, so a picture just of the impeccably dressed dancers can be taken.

A man appears with a microphone on the far end of the balcony of the main stand, talking in Turkish for a second it feels like I’m at some kind of political rally. Behind him,a band prepare themselves for a performance. The dancers having shifted now to the running track, still the focus of many of the cameras, they are not adverse to a bit of posing, ready themselves to dance.

Much like the dancers, but much louder, with not as good makeup, and with far more bears on the go, the Hungarian contingent have moved. Such is their enthusiasm, one steward has asked for someone to have a word with them, informing the messenger that he needs to tell them to “calm down” he says with his palms to the ground, gently lifting his hands up and down in front of himself or they are going to have to “ring the police”.

With so many people here, it's getting harder and harder to see a spot not occupied, every possible place for a flag or banner is also taken, you think I would have overheard someone mentioning the the matches kick off time had been delayed. Considering not one of the two previous games we’d been to had kicked off on time, it’s no great surprise.

It’s ok though, no one seems overly fussed, there is plenty going on, the NC band of a drummer and flute play, the kind of which Tom assured me you hear everywhere on your Turkish holidays, and the flag bearer are already doing laps of the pitch, all while the NC coach with the pink hair, is whipping up the crowd into a mild frenzy. Running along in front of them motioning with his arms that he wants more noise, “whoa, whoa, whoa”.

Not prepared to be outdone by the NC hype man, the same Hungarian who was posing with the dancers, enters the pitch, clambering over the railing, still with his pint in hand he does his best to provoke the crowd. When Bjork hair starts to run towards him, he instinctively runs away, his built in fight or flight kicking in, and it ends up looking like a Benny Hill sketch. When he realises through his boozy fog that the 5’4 man in a tracksuit and pink spiky hair means no harm, that he is friend not foe, they combine forces.

We’ve seen the odd bit of pyro in our time, funnily enough non from our trips abroad worth talking about. The vast majority has been here, and normally it's the odd smoke bomb cheekily smuggled into the Ryman League Cup Final. The most spectacular we've ever seen, was in of all places Yorkshire. The show at The Shay for the National League North Promotion Final 2017 now has a challenger, in fact I think it's safe to say that it has now been surpassed by the theatrics of the Hungarians in the five minutes preceding the teams coming out.

There had been a little bit at the Semi-Final, but today its seems thicker, even more acrid, even more plentiful, again it's in the colours of the Hungarian flag. Tom would be so impressed at the logistics of it. One green, one white and one red, each letting out a plume of dense smoke, that all but engulfs the small terrace behind the goal, blotting it from view. Billowing out from the back, it hits the low metal roof, causing it to curl upwards and out in broad mingling columns.

One fan instead of just simply holding his scarlet smoke bomb aloft, he rotates in concentric circles, causing the trail to almost dance. Along from him among the chest beating scarf waving supporters under the cover of the stand, the back of which you can’t see for all the chanting people, “ria, ria, Hungaria” a man lights an actual flare, the kind of which that is more commonly found on a life raft, that is so bright and dazzling it’s hard to look at for too long.

The teams are read out, as they have been all tournament, by someone who knows what they are doing, and not someone who would stumble, mumble and massacre their way through the team sheets.

If there were any spots free, there aren't now, as the teams arrive down the green cage sided tunnel, people are quite literally pushed up against it to get a glimpse and a picture of the arriving players. The NC band welcome the players too, the flutes high pitched squeal as it did the last time I heard it, makes a b line straight for my inner brain, and a white haired NC coach, not Bjork hair, offers a high five up to every player in their gleaming red tops as they cross the running track on to the pitch.

Sadly the piddly PA doesn't quite do the anthems justice, each rousing in their own right, time conscious Mark Clattenburg checks his watch between them, ensuring there are no more delays, and on their completion both drums are back to it.
                                              
 Kick off almost passes off unnoticed, with the NC fans behind the other goal producing two flares of their own, as the NC band forever mobile is back racking up the miles as it circles the pitch. It battles its way through the crowd, all you can see is the flag at its front, but without being able to see the two responsible for its distinct sound, The attendance is insane, people have been forced to stand on two green banks either side of the small covered stand, just to get a glimpse of what's going on.

It's a rather cagey opening quarter of an hour, in fact it will turn out to be a rather cagey ninety minutes with very few clear cut chances. KAP have in their number 9, someone who we saw in the semi-final who is able to deliver the most tremendous of corners and free kicks, but NC are just so big, the size difference between the teams so blatant, it's hard to imagine that it's going to be a ball in the air, that is going to be the way to get past them.

Thankfully what's going on off the pitch, more than makes up for what's going on it, or to be precise what's not going on it. There are quite literally people everywhere, the drum of the KAP fans has not stopped. They start to sing a song to a very familiar tune, I just can't put my finger on it, and although I’m sure it's not where I recognise it from, Rachel tells me “it’s in Die Hard three”.

The spitting rain is back, however I don’t think that's what keeps bringing the NC bench leaping to their feet. The slightest infringement against their players and they are up, shouting and waving their arms. If it had been any other referee, he or she may have been affected by the constant barrage, but old Clattenburg just takes it in his very suntanned stride.

Much like their bench the NC fans are just as animated, quick to squeal and scream when their forward looks likely to meet a well timed through ball, but just can’t make it. Their band, as it did the last time, seems to drop in and out of my consciousness, I’m not sure if it's ever gone, just that I’m becoming immune to it.

The effect it has on Rachel is interesting, but not surprising. She nudges me and tells me it makes her feel “hungry”. To be fair to her it is very similar to the only CD they seem to have in our local Turkish restaurant. I had hoped a different companion today, would have meant some different topics of conversation, but no such luck.

Front and centre of the KAP fans is the man with what Rachel calls the “weird” megaphone. I’m not quite sure why she finds it so strange, but it does make the man talking though it sound a little creepy. A brief moment of quiet doesn't last for long, as the KAP fans start banging the stand around them for added percussion. The NC supporters reply with a bit of chanting of their own “la, la, la, la, la” accompanied by the second member of their woodwind section, a man with a Vuvuzela.

With thirty minutes gone Rachel calls it “exerting their dominance” I call it being a bit overly physical, but whenever a KAP player looks to have got away from his NC marker, KAP who look much more willing to attack, their quick exchanges causing a few headaches for NC, the NC players are more than happy to simply cut them down.

“You’re fucking shit” shouts someone through the megaphone, unimpressed with the NC approach. This erudite tactical appraisal is soon replaced with a new song, “please don't take me home, I just don’t wanna go to work”.

If I’m honest I was expecting more from the NC supporters, considering the size of the local community, I really thought we were on for some fiery ‘Welcome To Hell’ kind of shenanigans, to accompany the band, but they have really failed to get going as of yet, a reflection almost of their team.

The man on a primary school chair sitting on the apron of the pitch has lucked out, he looks dead comfy. He has a front row view for another NC shocker. The KAP players ask for a card, will it be a green one, last chance to see one of those, will it, nope. Clattenburg does not take kindly to the request for the booking and gives the KAP attempt to take the free kick early short shrift, blowing his whistle, he calls back play.

“You’re fucking shit” chant the KAP fans again, followed by a blast of an air horn to add to the unorthodox orchestra, and Rachel ask disappointedly “who let the English person in charge of the megaphone?”.

Another NC foul, they are now just looking “thuggish” as Rachel puts it. KAP go close from one of
the deadly corners “ohhhhh” cries the crowd. The KAP fan who posed so effortlessly with the dancers before, has hopped the railing again and is running along behind the NC goal, his appearance is welcomed with another blast of the air horn, and his trespassing has the stewards circling.

Into the last five minutes of the half and KAP’s attacking intent continues to shine, it’s a speculative shot from long range, but at least they are trying. Minutes later and their quick feet and sharp passing nearly catches out NC, causing the players to berate each other.

It is clear to me now that the only time the NC fans at the far end of the pitch really get noisy, is when the band passes them on their continuous laps of the pitch. This has not been lost on the KAP end, “your support is fucking shit” someone announces once again via the megaphone.

Now I doubt what was being said in Hungarian was anymore poetic or highbrow, but it not being in English seems to automatically give it an air of mystery. When some bloke from Enfield gets hold of it, it just sounds a bit crass. Rachel a real deep thinker, asks “is that all we can offer the world” this great nation of England the birthplace of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Owen, “songs about shit”.

KAP right into the final minutes of the half continue to push forward, is it a case of NC being a bit reserved or just having a complete lack of creativity. Rachel ponders if NC got to the final by simply “pushing people over?”. Although she is unable to hypothesise for long, as a native has got hold of the megaphone again and she is back to shaking her head, just like she does when our daughter stands in front of the TV and hits it.

The half finishes slightly unceremoniously, with another NC hatchet job and the KAP fans chanting “off, off, off, off”

It's an uneventful half time, it's far too busy to contemplate going anywhere. So we stand and watch the KAP fans jumping to the sound of feedback from the megaphone, which then starts playing some police siren esq noises. Rachel is trying to work out what to do if the “rain comes” and everyone I imagine is straining to hear what the PA is saying, with so much to compete with, I don't know why he is bothering.

One NC coach is very relaxed as the team's reappear, he saunters back to the bench holding an ice cream. Its green smoke that welcomes the KAP players, the NC keeper forced to prepare for the restart surrounded by a thick haze, “poor goalie” says Rachel as more and more comes forth from the KAP supporters behind him, and the stewards are again on high alert.


“Hacked them again, boring” says Rachel, NC picking up where they left off at the beginning of the second half. “Hack them down and do nothing” is Rachel's summation of the NC approach. She is pretty spot on, but at least they have come out for the second half a bit more attacking minded. Although they are still mostly consumed with stifling KAP, they now look a little bit more willing to venture forward, they have a header from a corner just tipped over within the first five minutes.

There is also certainly more singing from the NC end too, “la, la, la, la, la” and the blasts of an air horn gives some suggestion that there is some life among the hoards of people. This is still though not deemed enough by the KAP end “your support is fucking shit”.

Despite NC’s new found vigour, KAP continue to play the far more attractive football, with just under ten minutes gone, they have an attack that results in a fine solid shot, that is well held. Again though the action around the pitch is far more fascinating, however well KAP are playing.

The Abkhazia fans, many with their green and white “Lord of the Rings flags” as Tom dubbed them, because of the single white hand print on them, have somehow found enough space to form their own little enclave, on the roof above the changing rooms, most if not all are singing away, some sit with their feet dangling over the edge resting on the top of a St Johns Ambulance.

To my right a Tibet fan struggles to get through a gate, because he is wearing a hat that is also an umbrella in the countries flags colours, and to our left the KAP fans are doing their very own thunderclap, however their drum sounds like its on its last legs.

“Another one, yeah” grumbles Rachel as NC strike again, “very odd team tactic” she adds. I have to admit I thought this final was NC’s to lose, having seen both teams before, I’m surprised they have gone down this route, making the game “quite drab” as the nearby @TerraceTrav put it. His pessimism though might be down to the disappointment of seeing the queue for the burger van, and has decided he's going to have to “give it a miss”.

Rachel suggests that NC must be very confident in their ability to take penalties.

KAP flash a ball across the NC box which seems to stir the flute and drum, NC then have a horrible shot over, which is jeered by the fans behind it “who are ya, who are ya”. The drum still about holding up, beats out the rhythm of the latest song, as their end of ground is once again soon filled with green, red and white smoke.

Things are getting tense, even the row of Tibetan players behind us look pensive. KAP have a shout for a penalty waved away and then in the words of one nearby person the NC player alone at the back post “bottles it” when the ball drops to his feet, but he's all sixes and sevens and can’t score.

NC are finally starting to show some of their muscle in attack, going close again with a header, balls into the box aimed at their giant players, certainly seems the way to go. This missed effort is again ridiculed by the KAP fans, “you're fucking shit, you’re fucking shit”.

As the spitting rain turns to proper rain, the man on the primary school chair, tears apart his burger, looking decidedly unimpressed, as is Rachel who has made a makeshift hood out of a hi viz waistcoat. One man has been even more inventive and stands holding a cardboard box over his head, as those a little better prepared than us, unfurl their brollies.

Into the final ten minutes and NC have noticeably upped the ante, there is a lot more purpose in their play, they have KAP all but pinned back and they get as about as close as you can to scoring, without actually doing so, when they hit in the woodwork.

The KAP fans heckle the NC player who went down claiming he was fouled and asked for a penalty, which Clattenburg is having none of. All the action is being condensed into the final minuets, like NC finally decided to pull their finger out. Rachel wonders if their plan all along was to “rope a dope” KAP.

They go close again after a chipped ball into the box  is stabbed wide and when it seems all set up for the former St Mirren player, NC’s towering number 99 to grab the glory, his power header whistles just over.

There is not much hanging around following the final whistle, it just isn't the Clattenburg way. A few moments are allowed for a drink and for each team to decide on who is stepping up to take a kick and that's about it, a simple raise of the hand from the KAP players seems to be enough to signal they are happy to take one.

Such are the sheer amount of people here and the stadium looking almost full to bursting point, it means there is little to no room to allow for much movement towards the end the shootout will take place in front of the NC fans. Three of which like us have been caught out by the rain, shelter under a
NC flag.

It’s all very panto as the first KAP player steps up, plenty of boos, hissing and hysterical arm waving from those behind the goal. They are unable to put him off though, the NC keeper went the right way, the ball just evading his grasp, he lies prone his face in his hands, that was close.

NC’s big number 99 is not so lucky, the KAP keeper who showed his prowess for saving a penalty in the semi-final, dives the right way, pushing the ball wide. Number 99 pulls his shirt up over his face and walks back towards the half way line.

KAP score their third, but NC fail again, the keeper choosing the right way once more. Its then KAP’s turn to miss, the takers attempt striking the foot of the post and bouncing out. NC’s next attempt is expertly taken, right in the top right hand corner. One young lady behind me letting out  a blood curdling scream as he makes his run up, only stopping once has scored.

The tide starts to shift momentarily, it's the NC keepers turn to save. NC’s next one is even better than their last, absolutely unsavable. One NC player on the half way line falls to the floor in relief.

More boos, but they fail to distract the KAP taker, whose penalty just squeezes in, the NC players were sure their keeper had done enough. This time they’re falling to the floor in despair.

For a very brief moment after standing up, I genuinely don't think the KAP keeper has realised what he's done. He’s pulled off another fine save, including his performances in the semi-final, he really has been a standout player. He stands motionless, the NC player whose just seen his kick saved knows it's over, but I’m still not sure if the KAP keeper has realised it yet.

His teammates struggle to catch him, such is the sudden surge of adrenaline that overcomes the man in goal, once its dawned on him they’ve won. His lime green jersey is already off and whirling above his head as he races up the by line. Not towards his team mates, the bench or fans, he’s just running, because I don't think he knows what else to do.

Tears, hugs and kisses, more shouts of “ria, ria, Hungaria”. The pitch is soon filled with KAP’s fans, a whirlpool of players and staff forms in the eye of a mass of celebrating people.

With the backdrop of more green smoke, the players form a long line, all holding hands they applaud their excellent support, as the odd verse of “championes, championes” breaks out.

There is somewhat of an overly long pause between the players and fans singing what I think was the Hungarian national anthem in a circle on the pitch, the players eventually disappearing, finally remerging on the balcony above a sign that reads “World Football Cup Champions 2018”.
The man with the megaphone was certainly growing impatient, as were most people, finding himself one of the primary school chairs to sit on, with his drum set up in front of him, which he would occasionally hit with what looked like a ginormous wooden spoon.

Each player in red stands beaming with a large gold medal around their neck and most have a phone in hand to capture the moment. It's pretty much dusk when they are awarded the trophy, the flashes of the numerous cameras in attendance, bounce of its reflective surface.

Sometimes its very easy to conclude these blogs, sometimes they pretty much wrap themselves up, this one is not so easy, because I see it more as a conclusion of three separate experiences, across the three games we attended, making just so much more to consider.

I’d never heard of CONIFA, I’d never heard of 99% of the teams taking part, I was honestly a bit sceptical, really not sure what we were going to see. I can tell you now, I wish we had seen more. Three games was simply not enough, the atmosphere and spirit was completely infectious, it had us hooked straight away, and was almost the perfect football experience.

Yes sometimes it all felt a bit disorganised, yes the final was ultimately a bit of a disappointment, and
yes we never saw a green card given, just the one the @TerraceTrav  got after the final signed by Clattenburg himself, but all of this was completely immaterial, except for not seeing a green card dished out.

You could write pages and pages about how marvellous the platform CONFA gives those people who are not able for whatever reason to represent their small corner of the world.

We met so many friendly people, so many people who embraced the competition wholeheartedly who accepted all its foibles, and simply out of a love of football, willed it along from beginning to end.

For me the one resounding moment I’ll take away from it, is not the effortless coolness of Mark Clattenburg and the way he swaggers about, but the makeup of the KAP support at the final. 99% of which I’m sure were the fans of the team KAP beat in the semi-final, remarkable. It was their pale blue and yellow scarves, shirt and flags that filled the packed terrace, and if that is not the dictionary definition of the ‘Beautiful Game’, I don't know what is.

Well done CONIFA, consider us converts, when and where is the next one?

 

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Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Get A Grip Clattenburg - Karpatalya Vs Szekely Land, CONIFA World Football Cup Semi-Final 2018, War Memorial Sports Ground (07/06/18)

When one thinks of Hungarian football, one recalls the exploits of the Magical Magyars and their
1953 dismantling of England at Wembley, which included among them the great Ferenc Puskas. The three time European Cup winner with Real Madrid goal machine, who scored 514 goals in 530 club appearances.

It is therefore fair to say there is something folkloric about this European nations rich football history, that should fascinate any football fan. I did however never think I would be getting my first taste of it at a non league ground in Sutton.

It was quite the ordeal heading from the north to the deep dark south. Riding solo, Tom opting for the train instead, to navigate half of London at rush hour. I keep myself entertained, I say entertained, I think I mean ‘I creep myself out’ by listening to a very odd play on the radio, sipping regularly from a 2 litre bottle of water as I shuffle slowly from one end of London to the other.

My keenness though to keep hydrated, it's not exactly sunny, but it's still warm, backfires as I find myself in somewhat of a predicament, around the Richmond area, desperately in need of the toilet. I scan the passing side streets, trying to see if there is somewhere I can stop to relieve myself and not look like a total yobbo, but I can’t so carry on, squirming, growing thirsty but not wanting to exacerbate the situation.

I pass pubs, cafes, restaurants and coffee shops. A Pizza Express I’m sure that has a very fine loo, but I can't see anywhere to park. Things are getting desperate, when I notice on my Sat Nav, the gleaming icon of a nearby BP garage.

It’s not far, but the traffic is hardly free flowing, I edge closer to it, the need to wee building by the second.

I hurriedly park my car and dash for the loo, but it's occupied. I stand trying to look like I’m not about to have a major accident between the grapes and the craft ale in the adjoined M&S, when I hear the click of the door lock, a man emerges, and I try my best not to barge him out of the way into the pitta chip stand so I can get by.

Life is good again, the remainder of the journey is fine, if not a little slow. I’m able to drink without fear, and I’m soon turning down the narrow lane leading to the War Memorial Sports Ground, home of Carshalton Athletic FC, the venue for our second CONIFA World Football Cup game.

At the end of the allotment bordered road is Tom, I'm of course happy that he has been able to find his way here by himself, I’m not so delighted at seeing the squat chalkboard opposite him that reads, “Car Park Full”. Shit.

I won't go into too much detail, but there is a considerable amount of embarrassing pleading with the kind man in the high viz, to find me somewhere to park my very small and humble VW Polo. He asks me to wait in some kind of car park purgatory, while he makes a call.

“One space left round the back” he tells me, pointing to the far corner of the rammed car park, towards a pothole covered track, that leads along the side of one of the grounds stands. It’s a bumpy ride, the surface sea of tranquility esq and I’m glad I no longer need the toilet. Just about making it to the other end all in one piece, where another man directs me to my space.

As with our first game in this competition, there is also one happening before ours as we arrive. It was the not inconsiderable roar of one set of fans celebrating a goal from inside the ground that greeted my arrival. Talking to the man in the car park, he informs me the score in the first semi final, is currently 2 - 2, and if it stays that way what a “logistical nightmare” that poses, because it will mean extra time and potentially penalties, and he doesn't see how they are going to get all that done and be able to kick off on time for the second semi-final.

It was maybe then the car park coordinator who was the happiest, and not the supporters of Northern Cyprus, when they not long after score again, the second roar from the crowd even louder than the first.

Once inside, we watch on as what by all accounts has been a super game comes to an end, and the both of us are left wondering if we picked the right match. Explaining to Tom that Padania, Northern Cyprus’s opposition is in Italy, he doesn't think they “look very Italian”, until about thirty seconds later when one is shown a red card right in front of us. Arguing with the referee in the finest of Serie A traditions, with a single half clenched hand that he gestures with in front of himself, Tom reckons “he does” now.

This healthy stereotype is reinforced further when another player is booked for another robust challenge, and can't believe he is being shown a yellow card, his arms out by his side. Flabbergasted that his crunching tackle was not deemed within the rules of the game.

“We should stay and watch, see how good they are” suggests one Northern Cyprus fan, his team having just secured their spot in the final, thinking it might be worth sticking around to check out who they will be facing in forty eight hours.

Tom takes the break between games to sort himself out, “maybe I’ll get a burger” he says looking longingly off into the distance. Its less than an hour to the supposed kick off of the next game, and the Northern Cyprus players look in no rush to be getting changed and vacating the changing rooms, the players of Szekely Land (SL) and Karpatalya (KAP) are standing around and looking a little frustrated, as a definite air of disorganisation descends.

“You know the seasons ended, where there's no cheese” says a returning Tom, who despite the lack of toppings still seems satisfied with his burger, the pattie of which is far too big for the as he puts it the “childs bun”. Wanting to sympathise with the fact he was unable to have his customary cheese burger, and had to make do with a plain one, I’m also trying to work out why there is a person here with a CCCP shirt on.

At the moment it feels like there are more press, camera men and photographers here than anyone else. One person with a laptop, attempts to string his charger over three rows of seats in the main stand from the only working plug socket. He eventually forages his preferred place, and moves forward, having made a bit of a spectacle of himself.

Someone not holding a large telephoto lens or a camera on a body mounted gimbal, makes a point, which might just be the reason people have been attracted to this specific match, “two sets of Hungarians should be a good atmosphere”. KAP being Hungarians from the Ukraine and SL Hungarians from Romania.

After being quite taken aback by the officials “jazzy kit” at Enfield, Tom is far from impressed by tonight's offering, “don't like that refs shirt, looks like a rugby kit”. On the far side of the pitch a single SL flag has been draped over the railing around the pitch, next to it a single Hungarian one.

All the fuss regarding the changing rooms caused let's say by Northern Cyprus hardly being prompt about their departure, means Mark Clattenburg, yes Mark Clattenburg the once Premier League referee who is now Head of refereeing for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, looks a little perplexed as he saunters to the mouth of the caged tunnel, with quite a nice tan, and his much talked about tattoos, each one denoting the major finals he's officiated on show, that both sets of players are still warming up on the pitch.

For a moment, the fact that the game is clearly going to kick off late, seems insignificant, as the sheer presence of The Clattenburg, and the stir that his appearance has made, people are clambering to get a picture, he did not warm up with his assistants, so seeing him has caught a few people, me included by surprise.

“No one want to play football?” he asks, in his thick Northumberland accent, grasping the match ball.  Pointing to someone in the stands, he then points to his watch exaggeratedly, with a perplexed look all over his face. When he gives a sharp blast on his whistle, most around him flinch, he now points to the teams, telling them forcefully, “I want you here”.

There is potential for more delays, the players are still out on the pitch by the way, when a heated discussion breaks out between a CONIFA official in their distinct white shirts with green trim and a member of the KAP coaching staff. There is an issue with the team sheet, and they are waiting for a “translator”. A man in a poorly fitting suit, who is profusely sweating, does his best to mediate between all parties involved.

Never before in all our time, have we seen the two teams about to play, walk up the tunnel, line up as
usual, certain players going through their little pre match rituals, one or two offering up encouragement, and then moments later walking back out again. KAP ended up changing in a portacabin, and SL on the pitch.

The worlds of music and football are inexplicably linked. Some songs are pinched from the charts and adapted by the fans, and pieces are synonymous with particular clubs. You'll Never Walk Alone or that overused bit from Star Wars are good examples, but never did I think one by 90's band Right Said Fred would be one of those, but considering their song ‘Bring The House Down’ is the tournament official anthem, and its miles better than 'Waka Waka' by Shakira, I guess it makes sense.

What is normally the most patriotically English ground in all of non league football, due to the long line of St George's Crosses, that fly from the top of the long covered terrace on one side of the ground, tonight that mantle has shifted a bit, tonight it’s most definitely Hungarian. In what feels like no time at all the red white and green of the Hungarian flag is hanging all around us, dotted among them the pale blue and yellow ones of SL. One of which is at the end of a wooden flag pole with a gold phinal, being carried by the burly bearded man next to me, and right into the face of the man next to him.

There is an almost sombre feel to the singing of both nations anthems, KAP are up first then SL. A few of the KAP player hold their hands up to their chests, all are stiff, few of them sing along. When it's the turn of the SL players, they stand with their arms over the shoulders of the man next to them. In the crowd a few fans join in, many who do, do it with their scarves held up above their heads.

We eventually get underway, about six minutes late, every one of which I’m sure Clattenburg is irate about. Both teams set a quick tempo, both of them settling into their stride instantly and its SL in their pale blue tops, who have the first shot on goal.

Clattenburg's let's say ‘laissez-faire’ attitude is apparent very early on, allowing on one occasion a clear tug of the shirt go unpunished, instead waving the game on in his very nonchalant manner.

The SL fans on each side of the pitch, sing back and forth to each other, the much smaller group focused around the large man with the flag, exchange songs, “ol-a, ol-a, ol-a”, with the much larger group surrounded by all the flags, behind the benches. From what I can work out, the SL supporters many sporting blue and yellow in some form or another make up the majority if not all of the crowd, except for a decent sized handful of people like Tom and I here for the spectacle. There doesn't seem to be any KAP section if you will, but with both teams Hungarian roots, are they just cheering on everyone?

Lenient to say the least, some may say Clattenburg is allowing the game to flow, some may say he doesn't really give a shit, one thing that is clear is he is making up those lost six minutes if its the last things he does. One thing at least, his relaxed attitude is allowing for is quite an exciting encounter. With fifteen minutes gone, SL whip a ball across the KAP box to the back post, but the player whose well positioned, is off balance and unable to hook the ball home.

Tom was sure that Clattenburg had “retired”. I explain his current employment status and he asks much like the stars friends, if hes being paid “$1,000,000 a match?”. However much he is racking in, he's certainly had plenty of time to soak up some sun, he has a very healthy glow. He is eventually forced to use his whistle for the “first time” as Tom puts it, with twenty or so minutes on the clock, following a foul even he couldn't ignore.

What I can only describe as big blue balls up almost results in KAP taking the lead, a pass back of course means the keeper can't pick it up and the encroaching player in red puts him under all sorts of pressure, forcing him to rashly attempt a clearance, that ends up hitting the forward. The ball bouncing towards the goal, there is a sharp intake of breath from the SL fans, before the keeper eventually makes up for his mistake, somehow getting it to safety. There are plenty of angry shouts from the fans to our left, and a firework display ohhhh's from the stand to our right.

I can't quite emphasise enough quite how much whip the KAP number 9 is able to get on the ball, he somehow manages to wrap what looks like his whole body around it, getting it to deliciously curl into the box every time. KAP are really coming into their own, playing some very neat, quick and intricate football. A ball inside the SL full back on twenty five minutes is a real gem, the winger meets it perfectly, cutting the ball back into the box, only for the eventual shot to be deflected over.

Not uncomfortable by many means, the War Memorial Sports Ground is really one of the better ones we have visited, but two young ladies have taken comfort to the next level, giving themselves what Toms says is the “best seat in the house”. Having dragged a nearby bench right to the edge of the pitch, they can watch on with an uninterrupted view, without having to do any of this standing nonsense.

Toms constant need tonight to suggest something looks like something else, is verging on the preposterous and ill advised. With diplomatic tensions between the UK and the rest of the world already at an all time low, he really needs to be careful when suggesting the SL badge, a yellow crescent and sun, looks like “Portsmouth”.

Headaches for the Home Office narrowly avoided, he shares with me his thinking for a new approach for 2018/19. If our little dabble into international football has taught him anything it’s that eating before kick off is the “way to go” and may well be his “new tactic for next season”.

Despite all the high energy on the pitch, each team are doing a reasonable job of containing each other. The SL fans are still singing back and forth, a bit of a call and response breaks out between the two groups.

If I only get to see one thing during this tournament, a green card, I will be a very happy man. A frankly horrible and scything SL challenge from behind, we were both sure was going to bring this about. “Thought we were going to see green”, said no-one ever before, until seven days ago, and now Tom says its like its as much a part of football vernacular as 'put it in the mixer'. On this occasion it’s only a yellow, but as he points out the game is developing into a “physical one”, so he senses there will be more chances of seeing one ahead.

Tom was not aware of this new addition to the referee’s arsenal that is unique to this competition, a middle ground between a yellow and a red, it's basically a signal to the bench of, get this fella off now, or I'll end up sending him off. Although he’d never heard of it, until about an hour ago, he is now desperate to see one, “I’ll have to find” Clattenburg “later and ask to see” it, he says rather sinisterly.

Another heavy challenge, and despite Toms deranged muttering “green, green, green”, he is again disappointed, it's only yellow.

“Fucking hell” says Tom, as one KAP player almost dismantles one man in the wall with his thunderbolt of a freekick. What it was lacking in finesse, it made up for in sheer unadulterated, in the words of that shaggy haired, global warming denier twat Clarkson, “power”.

Although there has been plenty of attacking intent from both sides, much like with the freekick, neither team has shown much subtlety, that though changes on the 40th minute when one KAP player, not big and bulky, but small and slight, jinks and glides his way through the SL defence, neatly slipping the ball under the keeper, and almost before it's even hit the back of the net, he is wheeling away, his index finger pressed up against his lips, followed by his teammates nearby and then his keeper, who didn't want to miss out on the party.

I’m not sure anyone has quite yet had the time to absorb the quality of the KAP goal, it really was a nice one, when up the other end of the pitch a clattering challenge by the KAP keeper on the SL player thought on goal, who is “taken out” as Tom put it, the ball continuing to bobble goalwards, Clattenburg blows up regardless of it looking like it still might just go in and points to the spot.

“Red card” says Tom, as the on time Premier League referee raises his hand.

There are various types of penalty in the world, a Waddle, a Southgate, a Panenka. For the keeper at least, the cruelest one is the one where he saves it, can’t hold onto it and the taker, gets to the loose ball and scores off the rebound.

For the briefest of moments that's exactly what looks like has happened following the quite brilliant save by the goal celebrating KAP keeper, getting low down to his right, he manages to get both hands to the ball and pushes it on to the foot of the post, “great save” shouts Tom.

Instead of heading into touch the ball bounces up, hitting the bar, and is now heading towards the centre of the six yard box, with the goal gaping.

With the taker steaming in to nod it home, the man in neon green and trousers is already back up on his feet, and flying across the area to literally punch the ball off the forehead of the SL player who I’m sure thought he was going to make up for his initial blunder.

I’m not sure if it was the speed in which it all happened or the distance from us to it, but we are both starting to doubt if the red card we think has been awarded, was in fact given. “Looked like one” says Tom, but in hindsight neither of us can remember seeing anyone go off. A quick head count like a teacher on a school trip, confirms there is still a full complement of players on the pitch, Tom putting the lack of what seemed like obvious dismissal down to Clattenburg wanting to keep it “fair”.

The remainder of the match bookended between the drama of the saved spot kick and the half time whistle, which happens bang on fourty five minutes, Clattenburg not playing a second of added on time, Tom now more sure than ever that he doesn't “give a shit”, Tom describes like it's the alternating colours on a striped football scarf, “red, blue, red, blue” he says as the action swings from end to end.

SL have a great chance to draw things level, the player on the edge of the box has the ball put on a plate for him but he skies it over and then KAP have a gilt edged chance to double their lead, but the player glances his header just wide. “Ooooooooh” gasp the fans as the chance goes begging, but are soon back to singing across the pitch towards their compatriots, as the teams go off and the fanciest of match day flags I’ve ever seen is unfurled.

Tom having eaten before the game, means we spend the half time break together for the first time in a while, watching on as the SL substitutes take some woeful shots on goal, most of which clear the goal, the large green net there to prevent them clearing the stand, and out into the night. My smirk at their shocking attempts is soon wiped from my face when Tom asks, “are you parked in that car park?”.

The flag bearer cuts a bit of a lonely figure as the second half gets under way, both groups have united like football Power Rangers, and are much, much louder now they have combined forces, and their songs are a lot more frequent. Tom tells me “lots of Budweiser and watermelon seeds” are being consumed among them.

“Wake up Clattenburg” shouts Tom, the man in charge now seemingly overlooking the need to enforce the passback rule. The SL player clearly nudging the ball back to his keeper who drops down on it and picks it up after an early KAP attack.

There is no other way to put it, but the SL keeper has fucked up there, about ten minutes into the new half, diving down to collect a relatively simple shot, the ball has somehow bounced over him and in. The SL substitutes warming up in front of us, exchange a look and a few words, I don't know in what language, but it's not hard to decipher they are not impressed.

It's not a Hungarian, Ukrainian or Romain voice that pipes up with, “we’re gonna win 3-2” from within the bustling crowd, whose allegiances are becoming harder and harder to deduce.

SL are slowly starting to dominate, one winger presents a well placed player in the box with an excellent chance to lessen the deficit, but taking a leaf out of the substitutes book from half time, he sends his close range shot towards my car. Almost, not quite as bad, but almost, the crosser of the ball nearly goes full Ketsbaia. Right in front of us, he is not far off putting his foot through the hoardings, but keeps his shirt on.

The SL bench have seen enough, time to make some changes, one of the players warming up is called over.

Before carrying on any further, another SL chance is coming up, I must first apologise on behalf of all Spurs fans, for one of my fellow Lillywhites whose decided now was a good to start singing “yid army, yid, army, yid army”. I'm not apologising because of the contentious language in the chant, but because of the simply moronic timing of it.

Back to the football, and that SL chance. Another one on one, and again the KAP keeper takes the man and not the ball, not once but twice. Showing his trademark agility, he is up again in a flash, not content with whipping out one player, he charges into the second, preventing somehow in a tangle of limbs the rebound ending up in the back of the net.

“He don't wanna give a penalty” says Tom now suspicious Clattenburg is on the take, “maybe he's making some money on the side”.

A rare KAP breakout, ends in a wild shot over. However the football for a few moments at least takes a bit of a back seat, as from the crowd to our left, the colours of the Hungarian flag, in the form of three smoke bombs, start to smoulder then erupts from above the heads of the fans. Soon it engulfs all around them, rolling up into the sky and slowly seeping across the pitch.

Maybe it's growing up in the UK, where such sights are so unfamiliar, but it never stops be a source of great intrigue, when a bit of pyro goes off on these shores. Wooden rattles and more recently plastic inflatable clappers are about as exciting as it gets for us.

Tom is impressed by the logistics of it, praising the “very organised” people who are putting it on. “You buy red, you buy white, you buy green” he says, imagining how the conversation between the three protagonists had gone.

Through a vale of white fog KAP go close again, then SL spurn another chance, a free header, the player was totally unmarked but he conspired to put it wide, resulting in another Ketsbaia impression, “they like kicking the advertisements” says Tom.

The man to our left sums up SL’s last twenty five minutes perfectly, they've had “three golden chances” he says, but failed to take even one of them, at the moment as he puts it, “that's the difference between the sides”.

Tom can be a little bit of a conspiracy theorist at times, a tad tinfoil hat, take your fillings out they are tuning into my brain waves on occasion, but even I am starting to suspect Clattenburg is up to something. “Lenient” as Tom puts it, doesn't seem to describe his approach enough. Another SL player through on goal is unceremoniously hacked down, and there isn't even a sniff of a card.

“Unless he’s waiting for him to get up” ponders Tom, as the fouler, has ended up doing a bit of a Gascoigne ‘91 and has hurt himself in the process of halting the KAP attack. When he is eventually carried off by two of his teammates, no booking is forthcoming.

Even though the smoke has gone I can still taste its acrid presence and maybe in an attempt to clear the residue from around him, one person is whirling their scarf above their head.

So let me get this right, there is no booking for the now injured player on the sidelines, but he’s given a penalty to KAP, which is rolled home, this time the players are heading for the bench to celebrate. The third goal catching out one person nearby, the last time he looked “there were loads of players down” he looks away for a second and KAP are now further ahead.

“We’re going to win 4-3” says the optimist in the crowd.

What a save from the KAP keeper, who has been positively superhuman all game. From point blank range he blocks the goal bound shot and the ball is scrambled clear. He is though helpless just after, when this time a well placed cross is met in the air by the leaping player who heads home SL’s first goal.

The SL players don't go over the top, they hardly celebrate, they're much more interested in getting the game back underway. A few KAP players have other ideas, holding on to the ball which nearly causes a punch up. "Get a grip Clattenburg" bellows Tom.

I know I said just two paragraphs ago that the person singing “we’re going to win 4-3” was optimistic, well I might have to think about retracting that, as minutes after grabbing their first, SL have bagged a second. A crashing second from just inside the box, that sends their fans loopy. The KAP keeper hoofs the ball into the crowd and again the SL players are not getting ahead of themselves, racing to retrieve it from their fans, no times wasted celebrating and head to the centre circle.

Booo’s ring out from the few KAP fans after a bruising SL challenge, but instead of ensuring the victim is OK, Clattenburg drags him to his feet, “is he allowed to do that?” reflects a confused Tom. SL though, regardless are on fire, KAP are rattled, this puts the physicality levels through the roof.

Keen to see more pyro Tom and I are caught between watching the match and watching the terraces, “I don't know where to look” he says. We think for a second another pyro show is about to begin, “oh, oh, oh” says Tom in anticipation as some smoke starts to rise from the crowd, but it turns out just to be someone having a vape.

KAP are now hanging on for dear life. Players from each side are showing signs of the all their effort, going down with pangs of cramp. There is a bizarre moment when one SL hits the deck close to the main stand, a KAP player approaches him, and the people in the stand respond like he is about to assault him, only for him to help the stricken player.

Some of those suffering though, particularly the KAP players, Tom thinks might be putting it on, “they keep dropping, then getting picked back up” he points out, like they are playing some kind of parlour game.

Five minutes left, and the pale blue siege continues. “How?” shouts one man next to us, SL now seemingly the neutrals favourite, when a pinpoint ball to the back post finds the player waiting to receive it, but he's too slow to react and can’t get his feet in order, and fluffs it. “Think he thought he was offside” suggests the same man who can’t believe he didnt score, as a reason perhaps for his poor touch.

More booing, this time not for a rash challenge, but time wasting, KAP taking an age to do the simplest of things. The resident Spurs fan is back, doing his best to improve international relations, by suggesting that in the spirit of the EU they all “go fucking mental”.

SL are getting closer and closer but as the man next to me points out “there isn’t much time left”, just as SL flash another header wide, which is followed by cries of “ahhhh”. Invested, might be an understatement, the man next to me is pleading with some higher power, “oh please” he says as SL lump another ball into the box, but it comes to nothing.

Three minutes of extra time left, and KAP are going to try and waste every second of it, and continue to be booed.

For all the fight SL have shown since going three behind and then grabbing back two of their own, with so many bodies committed forward, they were always going to be susceptible to a break way. With what can only be seconds left to play, they are just that, KAP scoring their fourth. The keeper once again makes the run from his goalmouth to congratulate the scorer.

There is one last sniff of a SL third, when they are awarded a free kick, that very nearly catches out the KAP keeper, who had to be on his toes, and just manages to get enough on it to tip it over. Even if it had gone in, and enough people here were willing it to do so, there would not have been enough time to get a fourth.

KAP are heading to the final.

With any kind of knockout football, emotions on and off the pitch are always much clearer to see. Lose a league game and well, you'll be playing again in a few days time, where you can hopefully rectify your mistakes, so it’s not maybe the end of the world. Lose in a cup, well that always feels that little bit more painful, because it's potentially a very long wait until you have a chance as they say, to go again.

Many of those in pale blue fall to the pitch, those in red obviously ecstatic, the keeper, who Tom owes an apology to after calling him “dodgy” after he was anything but, seems to be getting some extra attention. In the stands the SL fans are no quieter than they had been during the match, they applaud their team, who looked for a moment like they might just pull off a “comeback” as Tom put it. Those with flags and scarves hold them proudly above their heads.

Plenty of manly sporting kisses are exchanged, a few of the KAP coaches overcome, embrace the players, picking some up off their feet and rag dolling them like toddlers.

In an excellent sign of sportsmanship, the KAP players fall silent, linking arms just as the SL players have in front of their fans, as a hush falls over the ground, a first for the evening, as flags and scarves continue to be held aloft, but instead of loud chanting, the fans and players again join each other in an almost mournful recital of their anthem.

As the KAP players squeeze into their portacabin changing room, the walls and ceiling pounded, "ria, ria, Hungaria" they sing, one Northern Cyprus fan who did stick around says to his son, "I fancy them" for the final.

I'll tell you very simply how good this evening was, how good it was despite Clattenburgs antics, and regardless of pyro, singing and flags. The numerous 50/50 scarves the SL fans had, couldn't ruin it, that's how good it was.

 

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE




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