Sunday, 15 October 2017

Dirty Santa's - Brentwood Town FC Vs South Park FC, FA Trophy Preliminary Round, The Arena (07/10/17)

“Should I bring an umbrella?” asks Tom, climbing into the car, with no obvious sign of rain. Not for the first time I explain that having a brolly anywhere within one mile of a football match, post 2007 will only conjure visions of Steve McClaren, whose decision that night at Wembley, effectively means no one will ever be able to stay dry at a match again.

Anyway we're late, well I’m late picking Tom up. I want to blame it on the baby, but FIFA 18 has to take some responsibility, as does the woman going down the Holloway Road at twelve miles an hour, who was then replaced by a huge yellow digger, that was going even slower.

I don't like to be rushed, I get all of a dither when I’m rushed, and time is ticking. The traffic heading east isn't improving my mood much, my eyes probably lingering that little too long on the clock and off the road.

The amount of time we spend on this particular stretch of motorway, heading away from the capital, yes you guessed into Essex, you would think I would be able to get around blind folded, but alas no, and as I deviate from the magenta path laid out on the Sat Nav, I add another fifteen minutes to our journey, SIGH.

“I did wonder why you turned her down” adds the back seat driver, telling me he can't understand why I have turned down the audible instructions of the digital lady perched on my dashboard. It’s because she’s so tedious, and do you know what, you're not helping with comments like that mate, so keep your opinions to yourself, I’m feeling fragile.

Entering the borough of Brentwood, I inform Tom that it's the home of a certain nightclub, which he expresses his desire to visit at least once in his life. I’m not sure why. I’m so beyond clubbing, I don't think they would even let me in the queue, let alone the front door.

The cherry on the top of the cake, vis-a-vis increasingly worsening mood, is our brush with death. My thirty three years flashing before my eyes, as what I think is a conker or perhaps an acorn, ricochets off the windscreen. It’s all a bit of a blur, we got through it, somehow, all I remember is screaming “I WANT TO GO HOME”.

It might be my confused state, having just stood shoulder to shoulder with the grim reaper, but I drive right past the entrance to today's ground. Again it's not completely my fault, the entrance to The Arena, home of Brentwood Town FC (BT) where we are spending Non League Day this year, is actually that of a leisure centre. The hand car wash is more obvious than the football club, but I shouldn't be surprised, have I learned nothing these last three years? A non league ground can be anywhere.

“Funny little place” says Tom once through the single turnstile, now able to see what's on the other side of the blue metal gate with “Welcome To Brentwood Town Football club” on it. He is particularity intrigued by the couple of armless yellow mannequins, mutilated silhouettes of people dotted around the pitch, the kind players bend free kicks round during their warm up.

The Arena, which I think sounds very Mad Max, somewhere Tina Turner would pitch wonders from the wastelands of a post apocalyptic universe against each other, which might explain the limbless chaps on the pitch, is far from post apocalyptic looking, just your usual hodge podge of non league fixtures and fitting.

Behind one goal is nothing, then behind the other you have the choice of a large covered terrace that Liam the clubs Twitter handler informs us is “affectionately known as the bell end”, because of the presence of a bell and not because of anything smutty. Next door to it is a small seated stand, that looks like something borrowed from Badminton Horse Trials.

The clubhouse, which has the look of a slightly aging Swiss holiday chalet, is all wood by the looks of it, with its bar set back from the pitch and seats out front. Some of which on closer inspection are more like red leather thrones, and are in fact from Highbury according to the faded stickers on the underside. Liam tells us one of the club staff works for Arsenal, so that would make sense. Gotta admire non leagues resourcefulness and ability to recycle.

Just like the sign outside, the one stenciled on the narrow corridor outside the changing rooms, that I spot through the extremely narrow tunnel, it’s about one Tom wide, or the one above the bar, Liam welcomes us to the club, in his flat cap and short sleeve shirt which shows off his extensive tattoos, which he tells us laughing, keep him out the boardroom at away games.

Non league day is quickly the topic of discussion, between handshakes and hello’s that he’s dishing out to the BT players heading off for their warm up. Although for us having Essex on our door step, with it’s never ending amount of clubs to visit is a benefit, for clubs like BT it means lots of competition for bums on seats. He tells us they do so much to try and “entice” people to come, handing out free tickets to local schools is one of them, but it's the “Dads” they want, because they are ultimately the ones who are going to spend some money.

Usually coinciding with the first round of the FA Trophy, Non League Day can be a bit of a mixed blessing, mainly because FA regulations mean you can't augment the price of admission, as lots of other clubs will do today to as he puts it to “entice” people to come.

They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don't by the sounds of it. One common non league initiative is to offer season ticket holders of League clubs not playing today because it's the international break, half price entry, but that can rub up the regulars who are paying full price the wrong way.

He is though ultimately positive, with the “size” of Brentwood, there is “potential” he tells us.

Where as some clubs will really see a lot more clicks of the turnstiles today than normal, Liam doesn't think that's going to be the case for BT. Also having checked their opponents attendance so far this season he tells us it's “unusual” for a club to have “less” than them, so he's not expecting many South Park FC (SP) fans today either.

Liam's story is a familiar one, local, but not a BT fan man and boy as they say, instead a disillusioned ex season ticket holder at West Ham, who as he puts it has “fallen out of love” going to see them, especially since the move to the London Stadium. Not only was he fed up of having to watch with “binoculars” but also the experience his young children was having was not a good one. When your daughter has come home crying, some things are bigger than your team, and you have to reevaluate.

Offer his kids the chance to go and see the Hammers “not interested”, offer them a Saturday at The Arena, they bite his hand off. Not as he explains do they actually watch the match, they’re much more interested having their own one behind one goal on a patch of grass, but win or lose, they'll always be waiting for the players at full time for a high five.

“Normally win, normally win” says Jessica, Liam's daughter confidently clutching her bag of pick and mix, which is about as big as her.

Lastly he tells us that the ground is going to be a little sparser than normal today, normally there are a few flags hanging around the pitch, unfortunately the “well refreshed” person responsible for them on a recent away day, has lost them and now they are doing a “whip round” to replace them.

Once more we are offered a “warm Brentwood welcome” this time by the slightly stern sounding person on the PA. If you could imagine the voice doing a public address warning, which is calm, but with a hint of urgency informing you of an impending natural disaster, he's your man. It’s not to say he’s not enthusiastic or cold, but his delivery is very authoritative. “Enjoy the game” is how he concludes, having read out the teams, I’m not sure if it’s a suggestion or an order.

The appearance of the teams from the blue PVC tunnel catches me out a little, our late arrival has not allowed me the usual time to settle, to get the lay of the land, so I’m caught somewhat on the hop.

As the teams prepare for kick off, the visitors will be be getting us underway, there is plenty of pre match encouragement, forceful clapping and inspirational two word statements blurted out by both sets of players. With the game only seconds old, one BT player demands of his team mates, “get me that ball back”. Another just shouts “up, up, up” I don't think in reference to the heart melting Pixar film, nonetheless, Non League Day is GO!

With the home team attacking towards the small pocket of fans behind the goal, it's not long until they are celebrating. "Great header" cackles one clapping supporter, it looked like an own goal to me, but they all count. The bulk of the plaudits are aimed not at the scorer, but at the BT number 2 whose well delivered cross resulted in the home team going ahead.

Tom informs me he’s “hungry”, having arrived late he was unable to grab anything prematch. He is though a little cautious, “what weird meat we enjoying this week, partridge?” he asks me churlishly after our dabble into faggots at Stourbridge. Today he is free to order whatever he wants. Which I’m sure he will, but he’ll have to wait until half time now.

SP or the “Christmas team” as Tom has christened them, on account of their all red with a hint of green kit, are pinned back, on the ropes and looking like they are going to ship a hat full today. “Liver” is how one player bizarrely abbreviates 'deliver' when he tells the full back who crossed for the first goal, to whip one in. BT go close to a second, a towering header flying just over. “Dangerous” says Tom about the constant BT attacks.

“Got to do a lot better than this” pleads one of the “Christmas team”. After it’s only thanks to the face of their keeper, that they have not gone further behind. “Unlucky blues”, “well played wood” shout the fans.

Just over quarter of an hour gone and it seems like a nailed on second, “Izzy” the zippy BT number 17, has just slotted the ball past the SP keeper from an angle. We all watch on in slow motion as it rolls goal wards, the keeper helpless, some fans already celebrating "yesssss" but instead of going into the back of the net, it hits the foot of the post, and rebounds perfectly into the arms of the man in goal, “unlucky Izzy”.

The BT captain who bares a resemblance to “Stephen Ireland” just a bit shorter, according to Tom, is marshaling the midfield. I reckon he is a bit more Cambiaso than the main protagonist of 'Granny-gate'. Stout and robust he tackles like another son of Cork, Roy Keane, he's not afraid to put himself about, and his distribution isn't half bad either. “Unlucky blue” shouts a fan, following a pass from the captain that results in another BT chance, that's just over. Which triggers one of the BT substitutes to scamper off to get the wayward shot, and you thought you were just chilling on the bench today, and for one fan to lift his arms up above his head, awarding the field goal, like an NFL referee

“What delights are on the menu?” ponders Tom, halftime getting ever closer. Ever since our trip to the West Midlans, he seems to have lost his confidence in the food on offer. Although he explains a “plus of going up north, outside the M25” is that “gravy” will be “involved” with whatever you order.  His keen nose has already detected the whiff of fried onions, which he informs me “smelt good”, and he is very excited when he sees someone pass with a “double trouble” a two patty burger.

Almost thirty minutes in, and SP are offered a lifeline back into the game, thanks to the “dodgy” BT keeper, as one nearby fan put it, after a bit of a flap at a cross results in a scramble and a deflected shot, that goes just wide of the post. “He did not look comfortable” says Tom, one fan can't bare to look, turning his back on the action, “ohhhh”. The man in goal redeems himself not long after, after his goal kick goes directly through one of the small windows of the SP dugout, “good shot!” says one supporters laughing, “hole in one”, adds Tom.

2 - 0, it's not a spectacular goal, BT's number 17 sliding in on his bum to prod home, and is soon back up on his feet he soaring off arms out by his side like an aeroplane. Much better is the celebration of one fan, who momentarily embodies the spirit of ‘The Nature Boy’ Ric Flair, “WOOOOO” he says just like the white haired WWE Hall of Famer.

Cruising with a two goal lead, some fans want “more”, and that might be a good idea. Despite looking pretty well out of it, SP have their moments and with ten minutes of the half to go, they counter following a BT attack. A single player goes on a “wonder run” as Tom puts it, almost single handedly pulling a goal back. Riding tackles he makes it almost the whole length of the pitch, before setting up a team mate, whose shot is saved.

Once again the keeper is applauded, not for his eagle eyed accuracy, but for the fine save that prevents the SP halving their deficit.

BT craft another chance to further their lead, but continue to be wasteful in front of goal, “power not placement” suggests Tom, as one player blasts wide, instead of showing a bit more finesse. However on the stroke of half time Ric Flair is back, as they add a third.

The glory almost goes to my favorite player of the game so far, the marauding BT full back number 2 with his half shaved head. The SP keeper does well to get a hand to his shot, but can't hang onto it, Johnny on the spot, BT's tall forward number 9, is on hand to scoop home, who then gets the first song of the day “Brentwood loves you more than you will know”.

“You guys don't want a season ticket do you?” asks a buoyant Liam, on his way to the clubhouse, our
presence he seems to think is like one of those saluting golden Chinese cats.

At the back of the cramped but lively clubhouse, Tom secures himself a burger from the kitchen not a lot bigger than my car, which is somewhat tardis like, as somehow it's got two people in it.

“Hot” he says, talking that way people do when they have taken a bite of something that is far too hot to eat, and are forced to juggle it around their mouth with their tongue, gob wide open, steam visibly coming out, desperately trying to avoid an injury. Once he’s recovered, he informs me it’s “cooked” and it’s “good” if not a little “charred” I tell him you call that “caramelized”.

“Welcome back onto the pitch our players, Brentwood Town” says Mr Serious on the microphone. Not sure if it’s a veiled jibe at the away team, or he's just forgotten, but there is a definite and considerable pause until he welcomes back the “opposition” onto the field.

Everyone is full of beans, Tom is full of a burger, in the small horse show stand, “three well taken goals, three well crafted goals” is one happy fans assessment of his teams first half, another thinks BT should be “six up”.

Jessica gets the half underway with a few rings of the bell that hangs from the roof of the covered terrace, a half of football with a conclusion, that let's say, we didn't see coming.

“Switch on Brentwood” screams Liam, agitated at the home team's sloppy start, SP are far more sprightly. BT’s number 17 gets his half off to a less than auspicious start, although to be fair to him it’s not his fault he got a “fucking karate kick” in the face, and gets no foul given in his favour. “You bent ref?” asks the fan next to me with the Marshal Mathers hair, who descends further and further into a dark place as the game plays out.

3 - 1, SP are rewarded for their energetic start. Awarded a penalty, after a player is hauled down in the box, the spot kick is dispatched, and there is not a moment of celebration, as the players rush back to their half. “Here we go” says one supporter, with that tone of ‘I've seen this all before’. “Get your heads up, we're winning this” calls out someone, reminding the players of their significant lead, who are playing like they're the ones three nil down, “come on, wake up”

Two minutes later! “Fucking hell”, it’s now 3 - 2, “we could be 7 - 0” says Eminem, who can't comprehend what is happening. “What is it with us and 3 - 0” mulls over one of the group behind the goal.

Less than two minutes later! “Their bench got him sent off” suggests a fan, as BT’s number two makes his way back to the changing room, up the narrow blue tunnel, no one really having any idea why he got the red.

In the space of about three or maybe four minutes BT have conceded two and had a man sent off. Someone has angered the football Gods, who were smiling on them so favourably in the first half.

“Come on referee” shrieks, the 8 Mile star next to me who can't believe the big lunge on their keeper, whose flat on his back for a moment, but soon recovered, has gone unpunished.

Unbelievably BT don't register their first meaningful attack until nearly twenty five minutes of the second half gone. It’s like a different eleven were welcomed onto the pitch after the break, than the one who had to all intense purposes, put this game out of sight in the first forty five. One fan reiterates this anomaly, “how can you play like that the first half, and like this the second”. It’s SP now doing all the tricks and flicks, who also look like a completely different side, however BT are going some way by handing this game to them on a plate.

“Come on Brentwood, these lot are dog shit”. The manager's reply to his team's dismal second half performance is the introduction of a unit, their number ten who in no uncertain terms has been sent on with one job to do, “hold up the ball” . With his arrival and with “twenty to go”, BT are still in it, just.

Tom is now fully committed to the home team's cause, letting out a considerable “ohhhh” as SP flash a header just wide. “Come on Brentwood, lift yourselves” demands one member of the ever increasingly disappointed group around us, who have seen near to no action this end.

The home supporters instructions to their players is for their team to run the clock down, at every opportunity. “Take your time lad” suggests one to a player being replaced, when they are awarded a free kick deep in their half, they emphasise there is no rush to take it, “time, time” repeats one.

SP’s manager rooted to the edge of this area, sleeves of his shirt rolled up, looking a bit like a exasperated deputy head master, watches his team go close again. Liam is getting increasingly hoarse, as his language gets increasingly blue.

Five to go, and the BT keeper is looking shaky, “I get nervous every time they get a corner” mutters a fan.

That was it, that was the chance to rescue what has truly been a game of two halves. The cut back is near perfect, a foot outside the six yard box, all he has to is get his shot on target, but he blazes over, “fucks sake”. I don't think there is a single person who doesn't have their head in their hands. “Only bit of football we’ve played second half” says my neighbour quite rightly. It was well worked, but the finish was wild.

3 - 3, one minute of the game remaining. Murmurs that the keeper should have done better, the ball did seem to go right through his hands, are quick to bubble to the surface. "Talk about frustrating" says one fan with what might be the understatement of the season, another thinks they've “given it to them!” one hopes that it’s SP’s turn to “fall apart, now they're back in the game” with five minutes of extra time to play, and judging by the previous ninety, anything is possible.

The game boils over in added time, and there's a brief outbreak of rutting, which the referee soon gets to grips with, dishing out a couple of yellow cards. “Ref you're a disgrace” howls one fan, who apparently does not agree with his handling of the situation. Another suggests his willingness to blow his whistle, is because he's "probably got a book coming out".

SP almost polish off BT, completing the perfect non league day for them, with three back to back chances in the dying minutes, “come on” shouts the increasingly sweaty deputy head, whose team have done him proud, but can't complete the ‘Miracle at The Arena”. Their final shot is inches over, “should've buried that” says a pragmatic and in equal measure relieved home fan.

It’s mixed emotions on the final whistle, “fuck off” says one fan to no one in particular, Liam offers some encouragement, “heads up lads, we ain’t lost”, one says the kind of thing a parent says to a child, “could of been worse”. There are also differing opinions on the SP fight back, who look dead on their feet, sprawled out on the pitch, I’m sure they're getting a more positive pep talk than the one they got at half time. “Fair play to them” says one supporter, someone else is less generous “we gave it to them, poor side”.

I don’t think it could ever be said BT don’t care, they might have just thrown away a three goal lead, but I don’t think that is down to not giving a shit. As they walk the line of fans behind the barrier, they are all visibly drained and dejected, they shake the hands of the supporters, who in turn wish them luck in the replay.

"Maddest three minutes ever" says Liam, still upbeat, but I reckon wishing he had never offered us those season tickets.

For what was only our second Non League Day, I leave asking myself is it always like this? Six goals, one red card, a warm welcome, Ric Flair, Eminem, Tom burning his mouth and calling SP "dirty Santa's" when they get a bit physical. However, thinking back over the last three years Tom always says odd things, he always burns his mouth, I don't think we've left somewhere thinking, 'God them lot were horrible', we normally see plenty of goals at least one celebrity look-a-like and its not uncommon to see the card of cards brandished on a regular basis, non league football is like this every day of the season.

Non league is for life, not just for non league day.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Sunday, 8 October 2017

I Wanna Watch Match Of The Day - Stourbridge FC Vs Alfreton Town FC, FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round, War Memorial Athletic Ground (30/09/17)

Tom looks me dead in the eyes, as I pull up to the tube station, on what is not too common an occurrence for us, a match on a Saturday. He pumps his right hand like the driver of a big rig pulling his horn. Climbing into the passenger seat he unleashes an ear piercing “road trip”

“Autumnal” is his appraisal of the weather, he is quite right, the trees that line the early sections of the M1 as we head to the West Midlands, breaking free from Essex, and heading a little further afield, are many shades of copper and brown. He has come to terms with the fact now that he won't be getting an “Indian summer” this year.

Despite the changing trees, the sky is blue, however this is not the case the more we head into the unknown territories they call Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. “Greying up” says Tom. It really isn't, it really is still quite pleasant, so much so, I’ve spread my still damp jumper across the back seat of the car to dry in the September sun.

I try to distract him from his sneering weather watch, with some honey roasted cashew nuts or pointing out a giant Jaffa Cake on the side of an HGV, but it's only momentary, and he’s soon glaring skywards once more, just willing it to turn nasty.

Between mouthfuls of sugar coated nuts, he recounts a recent workplace injury. Being a barber it would seem has it’s risks. He tells me of the fleshy “u” he cut into one finger with a new pair of scissors. Not missing a single gory detail, he tells me about each minute of continual bleeding, as he held said damaged digit under the tap, and when he pulled off the plaster, how it yanked open the bloody wound.

Cashews demolished, and sure that we would encounter some traffic or would make one stop in a service station for Tom to oggle at what's on offer at the Road Chef, we are neither held up or feel the need to pull over, instead we play ‘spot the football fan’, debating where the many passing coaches and cars are off to. Predominantly it seems to be Watford supporters, unmistakable in their yellow tops and scarves, heading we work out after a quick Google search, to the Hawthorns.

I must admit the the West Midlands, Birmingham, The Black Country, are not areas I know very well. I’ve been on a couple of occasions to watch Spurs at Aston Villa and Coventry, as well as a family day out to Match of the Day Live at the NEC circa 1999, but I can’t admit that it ever struck me as being overly pretty. I’m not saying it’s unattractive, let me be clear, just nothing to write home about.

Making our way ever closer, the promising sign of Stourbridge now on the Sat Nav, we both coo and ahhh, like idiots at a firework display, at some genuinely nice scenery, as we inch ever closer to the home of the Stourbridge FC (SFC) the ‘Glassboys’, the War Memorial Athletic Ground.

Known as the ‘Glassboys’ because of the area's affinity with exactly that, making world famous glass, my eyes are peeled but I see few signs of this once thriving industry. We do see a water slide, protruding from the side of a leisure centre, wobbling as people shoot down it, which if Tom got his way we'd stop and do, but if I didn't stop for Cadburys World, I’m not going to stop for that mate, we need to plough on.

What might go down as the finest of football club entrances, with its red brick arch, stone wreaths and wrought iron red and white gates, it was never going to be missed. Driving through the miniature Arc de Triomphe, I’m not sure whether to carry on into the car park, or to stop and lay some flowers at the foot of it, it’s almost sombre.

Just before making our way inside, it’s hard also to miss the garish neon orange posters that cover the outside, that are far from sombre, detailing today's and future fixtures, like something from a fairground. They also show off the clubs main sponsors a local dental practice.

“A thousand” is how many spectators the steward the other side of the turnstiles reckons will be here today, average gate is about “800” he tells us. It won't be the first time we've encountered the fans of SFC, having crossed paths with them at Whitehawk last season. Having been impressed then at what a racket a couple of hundred if that made, times that by three or four and we should be in for a cracking day.

Well early, of course, we’ve arrived long before kick-off, but are not the only ones. We join the others watching the Women's Premier League match on the TV, below it Tom waits at the bar, standing on a very fetching football inlaid lino. Waiting to see what he returns with, I admire the many mementos of SFC’s extraordinary FA Cup run last season. Pictures and signed shirts, fill every available inch of wall space.

“Like it up north” says Tom, still with change from a fiver, flabbergasted as he always is, by the price of everything compared to home. He also praises that general area beyond the confines of London Underground, “the north” once more, when someone tells him he can smoke his vape, where he sits.

If the bar from Cheers had red and white blinds, a small stage and women with non league football club branded aprons on, well you could be forgiven for thinking you were sitting in the aforementioned Boston watering hole. As more and more people arrive, each one is greeted with a “hello” a hug or a friendly pat on the back. We are treated no differently, a silver haired man in a club tie passes us, asking if we are “ready?” what for I’m not sure, but we smile. And players walking through carrying their kit bags, offer us a friendly “hello” too.

It’s table service for the match day officials, a lady emerges from the behind the bar, with a tray carrying three mugs of tea, there is though still no sign of Norm.

Talking to Nigel the clubs Press Officer, he thinks today's match against Alfreton Town FC (ALF) is an “interesting” fixture, a “good test” against a club from the league above, a league that as he puts it SFC are “aspiring" to be in.

Three quarters of the War Memorial Athletic Ground is your standard non league ground. A mixture of uncovered terracing, what the locals call the ‘The Shed’ which has SFC written across its back wall in large red letters, situated behind one goal, and running almost the whole length of one side of the pitch, the grandstand if you will, all seater flanked by two small terraces, all covered by a corrugated roof.

“Never seen that before” says a man in an ALF tie to two other boardroom looking types, standing on the steps of the clubhouse, looking out over the ground. What I think they have “never seen”, is in fact something we have already encountered this season. Nigel had described it as an “unusual ground” the ALF suits seem to agree.

They could be pointing to the dugouts, their curious position having already caught Tom's eye, “never seen a ground where the dugouts are so far apart”, and neither have I, they're nigh on next to the corner flags.

However, what I suspect they are commenting on is the proximity of the cricket club next door. One boundary and touchline are only really separated by a shoulder height green fence. The brown wooden score board is almost bigger than ‘The Shed’ and the splendour of the pavilion, with its gabled roof, almost makes you want to go and sit on its steps with a G&T, however with the weather as it currently is, no cricket is getting played today.

Opposite an actual shed which is the spot to pick up your programme and 50/50 tickets I’m told, however no one is there at the moment, so I'll be back, Tom is shifting his weight from side to side, nervously waiting for what I’ve just ordered us from the beaming young lady in the SFC apron. Acting as translator, I have nearly ten years under my belt living with a northerner, I’m able to explain to Tom what a “barm” is, but he’s not really listening, he can't stop thinking about what he is about to eat.

I say “us” intentionally, because the local delicacy that is being whipped up for us, as Tom grows increasingly anxious, has me intrigued, so much so I’m breaking my no eating at football rule.

“I love them” said the young lady when I asked her what we are about to eat is like. Tom overhearing someone else ordering what you might call a more traditional football snack, he scowls at me “that's what I should be having”.

Not Bovril, we’ve established that's horrible already, not a samosa, a first for us at a game, and sadly
not what we’ve ordered, I love a good samosa. For the princely sum of £3 we’ve gone for faggots. In fact not just faggots, but chips, peas and gravy too. Almost spilling out of the struggling yellow Styrofoam container, with two forks pointing out of it, lunch is plonked down in front of us. A mass of green, beige and brown. In fact it’s more brown than anything else, it’s all swimming in a thick glossy gravy.

Using the red roof of one dugout as our table, the rain getting heavier by the minute, we look out over the pitch, and tuck in.

Soft. Soft is the word that seems most appropriate to describe a faggot. It’s certainly not unpleasant tasting, but it is certainly soft, and not what I was expecting. Not that I necessarily thought it was going to be hard, however it's so far removed from the explanation of one that Tom gave, after having had them before, because his girlfriend bought them by mistake, and if she paid for them, he's eating them, it’s taken me aback a bit.

Not that Tom would know what it taste likes, he must think I’m a fool, if he doesn't realize how obvious it is he's only eating the chips and peas and is circumnavigating the star of the show.

Soft is also the only word Tom can muster, again it tastes nice, but the texture has thrown us. It looks like a meatball a bit, but doesn't feel like one when you eat it. I suggest it's a bit like a “kofta” but feel so shockingly middle class saying that, I shudder just recounting it.

Whatever it is, it can't be all that bad, the container is soon empty, only a few gravy smears remain, oh and what Tom calls the “sack” the pig membrane casing that binds a faggot.

“He eats his faggots” points out Tom as the players start to dribble out of their respective changing rooms and into the rain to warm up. “He” is the “stocky” ALF keeper with his jet black gloves, whose legs are as thick as railway sleepers.

The arrival of the players seems to coincide with the arrival of more and more fans. “It’s filling up” says Tom, pointing to the main stand, many of the seats or spots on it’s long benches have been occupied. One such fan, Stuart, is putting up a flag on a nearby fence, performing what he calls his “tradition” but not before offering us both a animated “welcome to Stourbridge” and a sturdy handshake. He tells us there will be a few more flags going up soon, when their owners are “out of the bar”.

“See you at Wembley” says Stuart, heading off, and out of the rain. I think he was only half joking, considering SFC’s extraordinary run last year, making it to round three, knocking out the likes of Northampton on the way, anything is possible.

The voices of Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael suddenly fill our ears, however it’s only for a moment. There seems to be a level of indecisiveness from the man in charge of the music, as he soon skips to the next song, not happy with that one, he skips again, in fact he does it a couple of times, before settling on a bit of Evelyn Champagne King, who is telling everyone about how her “baby” makes her “love come down”.

50/50 secured from the man in the club tie in what the voice over the PA informs us is the “programme shed”. The choice of music though is a little misleading, Lovely Day by Bill Withers, doesn't quite reflect reality, the rain has not stopped, but at least it’s the original version. As positive about non league football as I like to be, I can't abide a knockoff cover of a classic. The funk version of Stairway to Heaven, is just plain awful.

“FA Cup day, know what you’re doing” shouts an SFC coach as the team's return to the changing rooms. Hoping I’m sure that they are now focused on the task ahead, there is though a chance they could be a little distracted by the man in the red suit covered in white hearts, who is turning a few heads. One ALF players certainly doesn't have his head in the game, "chips smell lovely bruv" he says to a team mate.

“Come on Stour” shout the fans, who have rammed the main stand, and ‘The Shed’, which is certainly the loudest section of the ground. Governed by the drum which leads them, a chorus of “red army, red army” rings out, moments after kick off.

Squeezed on the end of the front row, having passed the many flags that have been put up joining Stuarts, their custodians having dragged themselves from the bar, we continue to get a little damp, however there is plenty to occupy us, allowing us to ignore the fact we are not totally out of the rain.

The ALF keeper does himself no favours, with a very dodgy goal kick just four minutes in, cementing his position as the focal point of SFC fans attention. “Jammy bastard” one fan brands him, as he just gets away with his iffy kick. Every subsequent one is accompanied by either a “ohhhhh” a blast of a hunter's duck call or both.

“We are Stourbridge, we are Stourbridge” sing the supporters, the drum which sounds like it has seen better days, does a good job in getting a chant from them. One fan though seems more interested in continuing to target the ALF keeper, when most others seem to have let him off the hook. “Kick it you tosser” he shouts, as the ball is rolled back to the man in goal. When he does it again it's joined by an “ohhhhh” but no duck call. “He on your list?” asks one man to the keepers tormentor, “might be” he replies, as he carves the man in goals name into his granite vendetta list.

The slick pitch allows for some dramatic sliding tackles, the kind that never look like they are ever going to end well. The wet weather has not though deterred the ALF fans who I can just about hear at the opposite end of the ground, “Alfreton, Alfreton”. One supporter in particular is unperturbed by the downpour, top off, arms outstretched, calling Mother Nature out.

In the space of six minutes the match goes from a relatively dull one, to one that is well and truly spun on it’s head. Two events so similar, that I’m sure the whole ground is overcome with a powerful sense of deja vu when it’s all over.

“Cherrooo, cherro, cherro” sing the fans around us, waving to the ALF number 6 who is making the long walk back to the changing room, only nineteen minutes into the match. Having hauled down the SFC attacker who was bearing down on goal, who had latched onto a lumped long ball over the top, he was quite rightly shown a red card.

There is much remonstrating with the referee from the ALF players in blue, whose shirts say “the reds” on the back, but it was about as stone wall a sending off as you're likely ever to see.

Six minutes later we all share the overriding feeling of, ‘hasn't this already happened today?’. The crowd singing their second rendition of “cheeroo, cherro” waving this time even more enthusiastically than before. The similarity in the foul that has resulted in the second red card of the match, another long ball over the top, another last ditch tackle that fells the forward, and the way the player, head down seems to take an age to walk off the pitch.

Whereas the set piece that followed the first red card was pretty unforgettable, the second just outside of the box, it’s fair to say, has an outcome which is a little more memorable.

As the scorer of the free kick that has just walloped the ball past the now not so stocky looking ALF
keeper, his own players berating him, many arms flapping and accusations of you should have had that covered, flying back and forth, he is running toward the main stand. Leaping up and into the crowd to celebrate, before he is mobbed by his teammates, and he quickly becomes the base of a team bundle.

The fans sing the name of the players who has just put the home side ahead, “Tommy, Tommy Tonks”.

Now with a two man advantage, you can imagine the traffic is only really going one way, and we look on as a red and white swarm surges towards the ever shrinking ALF keeper.

The away fans curiously, perhaps inspired by their thirty five minute off target shot, that gets a quack, which until now Tom had not noticed, asking me “what's that?” looking over each shoulder for the responsible mallard, they have started to sing again. Perhaps having recovered somewhat following their team's meltdown, I can just make out what the small sodden group are singing, “come on Alfreton”.

Despite the extra players SFC just can't make it count. It's almost like they have so much of the ball, such a huge proportion of possession, they don't know what to do with it. “Hows he not scored that?” asks Tom under his breath, the fans moaning at the missed opportunity. Their team outnumbering and overpowering the ALF defence. The ball is rolled across the box for what had to be a second, only for the ALF keeper to have regained a few inches, helped admittedly by the poor finish, he blocks the point blank shot.

Just before the announcement of “one minute of extra time” there is a shout of “shooooot” towards the player with the ball just outside the box, he does just that, but it’s just wide. However its hard to concentrate on the match, Tom has just informed me there is a person in a "wizard's hat” just along from us, next to the person in the red tinsel wig.

I’m not sure if it’s directed at the man in charge or the players that were fouled, but the ALF fans are at their loudest so far today, as they bellow “cheat, cheat, cheat” towards the leaving officials and players. This is soon drowned out though by another 80’s classic, which in turn is then replaced with an update of some other half time scores.

“I wanna watch Match of the Day” shouts a boy sitting on the railing behind us, disappointed his evening in front of the TV been ruined, when the score from “the Albion” match is read out. Most of the stands are still pretty full, no mass non league exodus, the weather making sure that most people are staying where they are. One fan braving the rain, tells another that he's a “bit disappointed with the crowd” I’m assuming he means the amount, they can't be faulted on the noise they’ve been making.

Someone else venturing into the drizzle is Tom, who throughout the first half was a little bit sulky, on the account of being a bit wet. He suddenly announces he wants some “tea and a Kit Kat”. He pops the hood up on his jacket like a Broadway diva, and struts off, past the smokers, who are forced to take one step out of the cover of the stand, and into the drizzle to hurriedly smoke their moist cigarettes.

Halftime entertainment is the local kids having a go on the drum. One’s thumped out beat gets a muted shout of “Stourbridge”. More impressively though is the person who attempts to play along with James Brown’s, Living in America, even singing along a bit. Got to give him an ‘A’ for effort, unfortunately his choice of song gets little reaction from anyone else.

The small group of ALF fans are fully embracing the change of ends, all now fully clothed, they take up position in ‘The Shed’, which is a little less well occupied than before, but has still enough home fans in it, that things quickly get a bit frosty between the two sets of fans.

Both groups try to out sing each other as the teams emerge, “come on Stourbridge”. The SFC fans coming out on top, purely because of the extra numbers, and not because of any less effort from the new arrivals.

“Oohhhh” cry the SFC fans as their team fizz over an early shot. The resounding feeling among the ALF fans is that they are not getting anything their way at all, “fall over you'll get a penalty” shouts one, another pleads with the man in charge “come on ref, bloody give us something”. There is a joint religious outpouring when in their eyes, they get a decision finally given in their favour “HALLELUJAH”. Unfortunately for them, the free kick they praised the almighty for, ends up on the roof of the stand, don't think it’s going to be their day.

Things continue to get a little fractious in ‘The Shed’. Nothing outrageous or untoward. One ALF supporter is accused of being “abusive”. He quickly counters the accusation put before him insisting he's “not fucking sworn”. Another ALF fan makes his own accusation, complaining that an SFC steward tried to “poke” him in the “eye” with an “umbrella”, but it all soon simmers down.

Tom returns, with a small bowl of chips balanced on top of his cup of tea. “Shall we sing a song for you” sing the ALF fans, towards what has become a relatively quiet home crowd, and not towards Tom, although I am always impressed at his ability to juggle his food.

“Who are ya, who are ya” sing the SFC fans still in ‘The Shed’, antagonising the ALF gatecrashers further, as their team finally double their lead. A close range hooked over the shoulder finish, sees the scorer running off one arm aloft Alan Shearer style. The home fans can finally see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, “que sera, sera, sera, whatever will be will be, we're going to Wembley”.

We’ve moved. Tom wanted to eat his Bounty in peace, and if he gets round to it he’ll finish his cuppa which he bought “twenty minutes ago”. I wondered why he was still nursing it, and there seems a very, very good reason, “fucking hottest tea ever” he explains. We have encountered this phenomenon before, non league tea does have a habit of being far hotter than any other tea.

As well as wanting a more convivial atmosphere to finish Tom’s confectionery, the bickering between the SFC and ALF fans was getting a little tiresome. Once again we use the dugout as a table, peering over it’s red roof, just as ALF take a limp shot on goal, that gets a sarcastic “wehhhhhh” from the fans.

I think we can all name a time in our lives when we have instinctively done something, fractions of a second before the rest of our body, more importantly before your brain catches up, normally resulting in a less than ideal outcome. The decision to inexplicably flick his hand at the ball in the penalty area, can be the SFC defenders example of just this brain/body disconnect for 2017. The referee was in no doubt, a blast of his whistle and a commanding point towards the spot, means ALF have a lifeline back into the game, remember they have nine men!!

“Alfreton, la, la, la”, 2 - 1, penalty duly dispatched, the AFC keeper going the wrong way. “How are they not spanking them?” asks Tom, “are they going to fuck this up?” he wonders.

Not sure what it is, a shift in the wind perhaps, but the momentum is definitely going ALF’s way now. An appeal for what looked like a definite free kick on the edge of the ALF box is turned down.
The fouled SFC player falling to his knees, arms outstretched, he looks like the front cover of “Platoon” as Tom puts it, he turns to appeal to the referee, but gets nothing.

The mood has most definitely changed, it’s tense, “pick it up Stour” shouts a single voice. All the party atmosphere of the first half has drained from everyone, the ALF fans the loudest now, Tom thinking that might have something to do with them being “wankered”. Their team look like the ones who are going to score next, despite their huge handicap. They go close with a whipped cross, that no one can get on the end of, and then have another shout for a penalty denied.

There is one fan though who is still flying the SFC flag high, still giving his all, a young man maybe no older than twelve .Who fidgets and squirms with every pass, has an opinion on every decision. “Come on” he shouts in his own high pitched way, “we need a goal for goodness sake, they've got nine, we've got eleven, come on Stour”. When his team do get a shot on goal, he offers them a bit of praise “well done lads” but is soon back hammering home the fact that they “need a goal”.

Time is running out for ALF, their bench seem to think SFC are playing for time, their keeper in particular, who they think is taking far too long to take his goal kicks, “speed them up ref, seen paint dry quicker” insists a member of the ALF staff on the bench in front of us.

With five minutes of the half remaining, SFC probably get the closest they have come to killing the game off, a riffled ball across the box, only has to be prodded in at the back post, but the two footed flying attempt to do so from the SFC player comes to nothing. One non inebriated ALF fan goes all 1930’s musical, suggesting that would have been “goodnight Vienna” had it gone in.

Much to the delight of the wizard, who is standing right behind the goal, he uses his powers to conjure SFC;s third. Having played now for well over an hour with two extra men, it finally feels like they have put this tie to bed. Pumping his fists, pointing both fingers towards the player who's just headed in the third goal, I’m not sure if he’s celebrating or performing another spell.

“Consolation lads, they do a cracking curry after the game” says a voice thought the red caged tunnel, towards the ALF players, watching on from the edge of the pitch, apparently showered and changed and waiting for the final whistle. They are let's say less than amused with that attempt to console them.

On the final whistle, the referee waits for his escort and for the players to leave the pitch, like it’s an Istanbul derby. One ALF player has said too much and is booked. The SFC players have bigger fish to fry and babies to hold, handed to them from the crowd. As they get closer to the tunnel, they take the time to high five the waiting fans, "red army, red army". One small group of particularly vocal children, beckon over individual players, who are more than happy to oblige with a handshake.

As we get closer to the tunnel, we notice the patched up door, the glass of which has been hurriedly covered with a flattened out cardboard box, which doesn't completely conceal the spiderweb of long cracks, caused I suspect by it being kicked or punched, maybe by one the dismissed players? "No call for that" says a miffed looking Nigel.

We just about find somewhere to sit in the clubhouse, which is now like Cheers on steroids. On the table next to us a large baby, what my girlfriend would affectionately call a "chuff", in his SFC shirt, does his best to evade his Grandmothers control, clasping at beer mats on the table. She tells us she thinks he's SFC "youngest fan". Behind us there is a very, very excited conversation about Harry Potter going on.

I have one last thing I must do before we leave, I've got to drive to Manchester, but not before I've dropped Tom off in Birmingham to get the train home to London, I need to find out if I've won the 50/50. I didn't hear the numbers called at half time, so still have a modicum of hope running through my veins I could break my duck.

It's been "claimed" says Steven who runs the SFC Twitter, he says it very casually, but has no idea how much his words hurt me. We say goodbye to him and Rich, his Twitter guru predecessor, who tells us he'll see us in the "fourth round".

Despite the ALF fans suggesting that the black county is "wank, wank, wank" from our experience today, that could not be further from the truth. Yes they play dodgy covers, yes there was a child in the crowd with a bow and arrow, but these cannot take away from the simple fact that everyone was just so nice.

I could eulogize for many more paragraphs, diving deep into my rose tinted, non league bag of superlatives to describe our day and SFC in particular, but for once less is more. I'll leave you with something that Tom read of the clubs code of conduct, that hangs on the wall of  'The Shed':
 
Remember entrance to the ground is a privilege not a right!


For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Monday, 25 September 2017

See You In Cinderford - Potters Bar Town FC Vs Hampton & Richmond Borough FC, FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round Replay, Pakex Stadium (19/09/17)

“Very green” says Tom, who's forgotten what a tree looks like, since moving to the sprawling concrete rain soaked, Blade Runner back lot set that is Dalston. He is though quite right, I think I could go as far as describing our short hop to the other side of the M25 (miraculously not to Essex, and instead to Hertfordshire) as very lush indeed.

As with lots of these satellite towns that surround London, where the 07:32 to Kings Cross looks like a meme about the Japanese railway, it feels far enough from the hustle and bustle, and you pass enough fields, that yo think you're going on a bit of an outing, picnic optional, but if the draw of the smog, bright lights, poorly parked Ubers and the smell of fried chicken and skunk, is too strong, you could be on Oxford street in forty minutes.

Potters Bar most recently has become a little more than just that place up the road, to now that place where my sister and my brother in law now live. In fact I’m retracing the route to her house almost exactly, ending up on her very road, in the search of tonight's game.

“I wondered why you were speeding up” queries Tom as we pass the low slung sign pointing to our destination. A short time later, and after almost surpassing in awfulness my Austin Powers three point turn disaster from our trip to Braintree, saving it only at the very last, we’re now making our way down the narrow road towards the ground.

The modestly sized car park is somewhat bulging under the weight of the many cars that fill its spaces. A few cones reserve a couple of them for more important people than us, and we’re bang out of luck as the two cars in front of us take the last two spots available for the likes of you and me.

A mild dilemma, where do we go now? Opposite the residential parking is clearly sign posted with angry yellow signs, threatening all sorts if you park there without all the relevant passes. The adjacent schools entrance with its jagged yellow road markings outside its gate make it clear they’re not to be parked on, so Tom suggests my sisters, who is only two hundred meters down the road, but she is not someone who takes kindly to unexpected visitors, so that is somewhat out of the question.

Such are the demand for spaces, when we finally find somewhere on the ever narrowing street leading to the ground, a car pulls up right behind me, almost touching my bumper, making sure it can squeeze into the very last space. Now his turn to be out of luck, a forlorn looking man rolls down his window, and asks if I know of where else there is to park, all I can do is shrug.

“Dinky” is how Tom describes the Pakex Stadium home of Potters Bar Town FC (PB). Dinky being a nice way of describing somewhere as small, but still perfectly formed, the opposite of words like pokey or cramped. The latter conjures up images of where Harry Potter had to live during his formative years on Privet Drive. If you are not a fan of JK Rowling’s wizard, I’m not either but recently did the Warner Bros. Studio Tour for my thirty two year old brothers birthday, this is not a good thing, anyway I digress.

Through a wooden gate, following the signs, at the end of a short alleyway, a squat rectangular turnstile greets you. Although it technically has two entrances, one seems to have become the place to store old patio furniture and the rest of the contents of your average shed, so instead has been reduced to one.

The gleaming white foot operated turnstiles are more than comfortable, a fixture from the old Wembley I understand, are far from an Edwardian squeeze like so many others, for lumpus maximus here, allowing me to make a more than graceful entrance. On the other side, under the autumn sky, on what might be the years last nice evening, temptations are close at hand. Sitting, due to his apparent injury in a high viz waistcoat and battleship grey cast on his leg, I’m immediately asked if I want to by some tickets for the “raffle”.

Tom having sidestepped him, impervious to his powers, was sure to tell him that I’ve “never won”, and I’m handing over £2 for two strips of white tickets, without the foggiest idea of what the prize even is.

Sitting on one of the few benches dotted around outside the clubhouse, pint of coke secured, its apparent there is a considerable amount of regeneration going on. Someone having had already commented to Tom about the “big investment” in the sparkling new red brick clubhouse and adjoining changing rooms, which admittedly look to be an improvement on the marooned portacabins on stilts near by, which are the same colour as the scarves many of the home fans are sporting, that look like they've been condemned.

With the sun dipping ever further behind the trees, trees which make up a large proportion of the scenery here, that and a large block of flats that run the whole length of one side of the pitch, it’s getting chilly. My promise that Dagenham was going to be the last appearance of my shorts for 2017 was a lie, and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise to you about that, but I wish I’d kept my own promise, because my legs are cold and I’d put on my jumper, if Rachel hadn't shrunk it in the dryer.

As well as trees and flats, there are a few other fixtures that give it the necessary feel of a non league ground. Behind one goal is a small covered terrace, with no apparent counterpart opposite. Beyond the compact flat roofed brick dugouts, is a larger flat roofed brick stand with a single bench in it. What you might call the ‘main stand’, the Bert Wright stand with it's curved roofed is all seater, with a patchwork of different coloured seats. It’s within this that the PA/DJ/Chemical Brother, is fiddling with the many knobs, button and levels of the sound system, that is producing some curious results.

I can't say I’m all that bothered about Ocean Colour Scene as a band, I can take them or leave them, shifting more towards ‘leave them’ if I’m totally honest. So I must admit I prefer it when the PA/DJ/Chemical Brother has managed to turn down their song to a more acceptable level, than the ear bursting volume it was at previously, as he continues to fiddle about.

It’s not an infrequent sight within non league, to meet a person so bursting with energy, that if you were that way inclined, you would say you can almost see all the passion and positivity physically coming out of them.

Adam is no different, bounding over to our table, hand stretched out to greet us, in his club fleece. He tells us his role at the club is “fixture secretary” but admits quickly “it's not all about titles” at PB, stiffening his back as he tells us, doing a bit of a lord snooty impression, implying that at other clubs it's quite the opposite, and frankly it’s probably more accurate to call him the “general dogs body”. As is the case with all non league clubs it's all about “pitching in” when and where he's needed, everyone here, as with so many other clubs, are “volunteers”.

At PB it’s a family affair he explains, his Dad’s the chairman, and his Mum among other things does the food in the boardroom.

Newly promoted to the Bostik League North, he agrees they are “doing well” but they are still a “small club” with “no money”. Therefore the visit of a National League South side in Hampton & Richmond Borough FC (HB) is “massive”. Not only is it a good test for the team, who Adam says “jelled well” in preseason, but I’m sure a few extra people than normal thought the gate, and not to
forget the winnings if they do go through tonight, are all very welcome indeed.

By the sounds of it, if the constant clink of the raffle man's bucket, and the already busy bar, are anything to go by, they are doing ok so far tonight, but no drinking outside. Don't want to upset anyone at the Football Association. Remember tonight is an FA Cup game, so all the FA’s draconian rules are in play.

PB were very close to progressing at the first attempt, going ahead on seventy four minutes in the original tie. Only for HB to equalize via the spot on the eighty sixth, and saving themselves some blushes.

It's the home team first out to warm up, not on the pitch, the red chalkboard making it clear that's out of bounds "KEEP OFF THE PITCH TA!". Instead they head for the field behind the main stand, where the DJ has at least got the volume correct, but has managed to turn down the lyrics, treating us to an instrumental version of ‘What's the frequency Kenneth’ by REM.

With around twenty minutes to kick off there is as of yet no sign of any great number of HB fans who I know travel well, perhaps they are the fashionable late types.

We are finally treated to some music with words “sit down next to me” sings James, and I notice a few HB supporters, but still none of the noisy rabble we saw when we paid them a visit at the Beveree Stadium.

“Have a good one” says a man quietly, as he sips from his polystyrene cup, to the PB players heading inside. Their coach from the sidelines having instructed them “in we go”. From behind the door of the home dressing room, The Next Episode by Dr. Dre, words and all is playing.

In contrast to his sometimes raucous music, when the announcer comes over the airwaves, he’s incredibly quiet and softly spoken, “warm welcome to the Pakex Stadium” he says. When he reads out the HB team there is not an ounce of emotion in his voice, when it’s the turn of the “Scholars” as PB are known, so called because the club was formed by a local P.E Master for former scholars, there is a notable change of tone in his voice, a slight spike in excitement. However it’s all relative, he goes from almost deadpan and whispering, to not so deadpan and talking a little louder.

Beside me, a great debate is in full flow, the ‘where do we sit/stand’ debate. “That’s always packed” says one of the group, pointing to the stand behind the dugouts. In the end they stay put, the elder of the three, producing a foldout chair and plonking himself in it.

“Come on Hampton”, sing the HB fans who have somewhat appeared from the ether, occupying the stand behind the goal, their red and blue flags quickly going up. At the opposite end, PB’s equivalent respond “Bar army”. Their chant getting a sarcastic “wehhhhh” from the visiting fans.

The back and forth doesn't stop there, “where were you on Sunday?” asks one particularly hoarse sounding PB fan, “I was there watching us being shit” replies a HB supporter, and as if knowing fair well there is no coming back from their next chant, it really is a bit of a conversation killer, the stand belt out a couple of “who to be beaver’s”, which as expected, gets no reply.

Oh yeah, while all this has been going on, a football match broke out, HB notching up the first shot on goal of the game after only a couple of minutes.

After being stumped for a moment by the militarized buck toothed animal chant, the PB five start up again, their ringleader giving each chant a hell of a lot of whelly, “Bar army, Bar army” it almost sounds painful. One HB fan is concerned “watch that voice” he suggests.

With two divisions between them, it’s no great surprise that all the early pressure is coming from HB, who are somewhat piling it on their opponents. Encouraged by this, although admittedly they need little excuse to sing from my experience, the HB fans are at it again, “come on Hampton”. One although he doesn't fully commit to it, lets slip a couple of low key “Wembley, Wembley’s”, but it's not with a huge amount of conviction.

“That will do” says a HB supporter, after PB finally get close to an attempt on goal after a quarter of an hour. A shot that isn't even on target and is well wide. “Bar, Bar” shouts the gravelly one, who is once again warned about his strained delivery, “I’d really watch that voice”.

The HB fans are not short of a one liner or two, “he fell over the length of the grass” shouts one when a PB player goes down rather easily looking for a free kick. Others though are less concerned with making witty quips, and more concerned about their side having PB by the scruff of the neck for twenty minutes, it has been relentless one way traffic, but they’re just not being decisive enough, “lets see some control” one demands.

For all the warnings and concern for the PB fan’s voice, ironically it’s a HB supporters voice, that's first to crack. Midway through a chant, it goes, he abandons the chant, sounding like a teen whose voice has just broken. Turning a few heads, he explains to the inquisitive faces in front of him, “I told you twenty minutes, my voice will go” he says like someone with a terminal case of laryngitis.

“There's a mans cock behind you pissing” says Tom, I must be clear he doesn't mean a mans cock independent from the body urinating all by it's self, close enough to be able to hear it leaving and falling on the floor, but a fully grown man with cock and all, who can’t be bothered to make the short walk to the loo and instead is not very discreetly standing behind the small terrace, relieving himself.  “We know what you're doing” sing the rest of the group, I think everyone knows what he’s doing, he’s hardly hidden.

With his voice faring much better that the HB fans, the PB supporter cries out for the first time in a while, “Bar army”. “You still here?” asks one of the HB supporters, who with half an hour gone, are in the process of taking down their flags, as talk turns to half time drinks. “To the bar” says someone a little over eagerly, the match still very much going on. One person explains how Chelsea have an app that means you can pre order your drinks, and pick them up at half time. I think PB intended to have that scheme rolled out, around the summer of 2127.

“Keeper, that was your get out of jail free card”, says a HB fan, following a near fatal error by the
man in goal for PB. His attempted kick is blocked, I’m not sure if he was trying a bit of a fake out with the opposition, but it didn't work, and his bluff was called. The hurried clearance comes off the encroaching player, falling kindly at his feat. With the keeper in no man's land, the forward swings his foot, Nwankwo Kanu style from the goal line. His wedged chip almost lobs the stranded keeper, missing only by a fraction, and ending up in the side netting.

From the look on his face, he didn't need reminding he's a lucky man, he's almost ashen, head down, as he collects the ball to take the goal kick.“Come on you scholars” shouts what I’m sure is a relieved fan.

With five minutes to go in the half, PB make an attempt on goal. Again it can only really be called an attempt, because its off target, another wayward shot. Tom questions if they have even had a shot “on target” and that would have to be a resounding no. They've only had two shots, and both were well wide of the mark.

As profligate as HB have been with possession, one of their fans asking of his team to try and pass to "someone wearing our shirt", they have certainly given PB enough of the ball. However they are just as excellent at picking the PB players pockets and winning the ball back, as they are at giving it away. Almost toying with the home team's players, who must think ‘yes we've got the ball now, go, go, go’, only to have it taken away again, quickly falling once more under the HB cosh.

“I think I cursed number 11” says a guilty sounding Tom, who since singing the praises of the diminutive, silky attacker, he’s been a little bit out of the match. Going from the most dangerous thing since a nuclear powered bowie knife, to a toothpick, all thanks to the big grey cloud of Toms expectations hanging over him.

Somehow the half is going to finish all square, unless either team score in the “two minutes” of additional time the softly spoken announcer has just informed us there will be. There is one last rallying cry from both sets of fans, “Beavers, Beavers, Bears” and “Bar army” from the person who I can report still has his voice.

It’s fair to say the cool calm voice of the announcer could probably tell you about a less than positive test result at the doctors, his smooth delivery making it all sound ok. When he explains that if the game goes to “extra time” there will be “hot chocolate” available from the “gourmet kitchen” well, that just makes the idea of standing around for another thirty minutes in the cold, seem just dandy.

I couldn't ask for a better person either, to break it to me that I have been unsuccessful in tonight's raffle. My tickets are not even the right color, they are not “yellow” or “green” but white, that’s 0 - 5 for the season now, however I don't feel too downbeat, because the way it was broken to me was so charming.

“You Potters Bar?” asks a twelve year old. I tell him I am, concerned about the repercussions if I tell him otherwise, sorry Spurs. Him and his friends satisfied with my reply, turn their attention to the PB players warming up. “1 - 0 to the Potters” replies the player when quizzed what he thinks the score will be, “only 1 - 0” says the appalled and slightly overly optimistic child.

A bit fed up of all the ‘banter’ coming their way, one line “are you a WIFI, because I feel a good connection”, the bizarrest of the stream of nonsense heading their way. I suspect the shot that is well high and wide, that sends the kids scattering to find the ball was totally intentional, “that will keep them busy”.

While I’m bearing witness to these strange interactions, Tom has disappeared with my £20 note, for a hot drink and a snack. Before leaving he double checked if I wanted something, he didn't want me getting “jealous” of his.

Tom obviously went at the right time, one nearby fan won't contemplate going now, down to the fact as he puts it, the queue is “horrendous”. I also think his mind might have been made up by the soft clicking of the players studs, returning for the second half.

“Burnt fingers” yelps Tom not only clutching two hot drinks, but also managing to balance a ketchup smothered hotdog in his mitts too, remember he's already had dinner. I nearly fainted as we got out the car and he told me he'd "eaten", before leaving the house. Having missed lunch due to Destiny Two, and only having had a "cup of tea and a penguin", not that long ago he had a large burrito, but as he puts it “I couldn't help myself”.

His balancing act almost goes south, “I’m losing my onions” he says, forcing me to help him, his snack teetering on the edge of oblivion. Giving him a free hand, this only allows him to rummage deep in the pockets of his jacket, to produce two Tunnock's Caramel Wafers.

Both teams are back out, both HB flags are back up, both sets of fans are back singing. Now standing with the “Bar army” their first song of the half, is a new one “his name's too long, hes got no song”.

It is though the visiting supporters who are singing the loudest, only three minutes into the new half when they finally break PB’s resolve, and score.

Despite being a goal behind, the kids from half time continue to lead the PB fans who now occupy the covered terrace, “come on you scholars” they sing, the adults replying with manly broken voices, one of whom who has opted for the Tom Baker Dr Who style home scarf, that is near to touching the floor.

Unfortunately for the ever optimistic home fans, clearly firm believers in the magic of the FA Cup, who start signing “we’re gonna win 3 - 2” when their side concede what from the outside looks like a great goal. A clever run and a powerful low driven shot from the edge of the box, into the bottom corner, but if you scratch the surface, some home fans around us tutting. They think the keeper really should have done better, and it would've been nice if a defender or three had tried to stop him, however that number 11 is pretty elusive, and deserved his goal. The gulf between the two teams is more apparent than ever.

With eighteen minutes of the second half gone, the game feels all but over.

Not that this means the home fans are going to stop chanting, one of the younger ones always starting it, the older ones joining in and taking his lead. It might be worth explaining however to the young man singing “is this the library?, that it’s not one you generally sing about your own ground.

If only the team, were giving as much as the fans. Overhearing the PB coaches, one seems to think the performance and “mistakes” are down to tiredness. They have been without the ball for long periods, chasing the game, number 11 constant torment.

Standing next to the HB bench, and momentarily blinded by the dazzling subs board, it’s hard not to be somewhat transfixed by the tall, lean, silver haired Martin Tyler pacing about, offering his own well mannered opinions and instructions to the players. In his obligatory sky blue Vanarama National League coat, jogging bottoms, tucked into socks, and well worn but comfy looking Adidas boots, Tom admits he thought he would have been more of a “Puma king man”.

One of the many joys of non league football, is the proximity to the pitch that it allows you, and being able to enjoy the conversations between players and officials. Tonight we are treated to two exemplary examples of this.

Firstly from a HB player, following a less than legal PB tackle right in front of the HB bench, that does not result in a booking. “Don't feel sorry for them” says one HB player to the referee, who reckons the man in charge is going easy on the underdogs.

The second example, is from the opposite side of the coin, this time a PB player, after his team are not awarded a foul and freekick, “they don't need anymore help”.

With ten minutes to go a small group of PB fans have seen enough, they leave through a small crack in the hedge behind us, like four kids in fur coats disappearing into a large wardrobe. A HB coach who also spots this unorthodox exit, saying it must play havoc with the attendance figures, the official one saying “12” people are here, when in fact it’s more like “200”.

On the other hand, the HB supporters are still in good voice, they won't be going anytime soon, “red and blue army, ally, ally o” they sing. They also suggest to the now quiet home fans that they "have more songs” than them, admittedly they have been a little less forthcoming with a tune from their small repertoire, since the second goal.

Although Tom calls HB’s third goal of the night the “final nail in the coffin”, and one PB player seemingly agrees with him, “it’s 3 - 0, it’s done” he says to a teammate. The game has been somewhat out of sight since the forty eighth minute. HB have been making chances at will, their number 9, holding up the ball well, with plenty of keen runners willing to have a go. Number 11 who so often is in acres of space, is constantly demanding the ball, swapping wings, visibly annoyed more than once when the ball isn't passed to him.

Three goals to the good, and with three minutes of added time to play, one HB player still demands of his team mates that they “keep going to the end”, which he delivers with a hearty motivational hand clap.

“Where the fuck is Cinderford?” sing the HB fans, who are not quite sure where the next round of the FA Cup is taking them. The players in what I must admit is a very dashing pale blue and white vertical stripped strip, which almost looks like a jockeys slicks, approach the traveling supporters  to applaud them.. In single file the players shake hands and hi five the lined up fans, some telling them “see you in Cinderford”, wherever that may be.

Tonight offered so much, so many things that alone would have made the trip worth it: the kind voice of the announcer, letting me down easily with news of my raffle failure, the decent turnout, two sets of singing fans, the member of the HB coaching staff at the food bar at full time, desperate to get his hands on a burger, because "they smelt so good from the bench", an HB fan shouting "Aguerooooo" when one of their players took a last minute shot at the end of the game, or was it when Martin Tyler pumped his fist just before the final whistle to a man on the side lines, asking him if he remembers the "conversation we had in the car park" which sounded ever so slightly Mafioso.

In fact it was none of these, but a passing comment I heard someone make about PB, being a "work
in progress". A throwaway comment perhaps, but to me the sign of another reason to love non league football. Yes PB is not a massive club, with an abundance of bells and whistles, but it seems the money they do have, is being spent in the right way, on the kind of things that will help the club have longevity, for years to come.

Thanks to the stewardship and devotion of one family and a committed group of volunteers the "dinky" Pakex stadium is a friendly, welcoming and comfortable place to enjoy watching a match, with a decent hot dog by all accounts. Now who could ask for any more than that? 

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE ↓

 

 

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Falling In Love With U's - Dagenham & Redbridge FC Vs Sutton United FC, National League, Victoria Road (12/09/17)

I’m normally quite ambivalent about listening to the recounted tales of someone else's holiday, however sitting in the car, staring at the back of a Ford Focus, for the twentieth consecutive minute, our impromptu international break officially over (Tom went to Italy, I went fishing in Surrey). I nod along half listening as Tom insists on telling me about cannoli, gelato, insane Italian drivers and how people speak into their phone like on the Apprentice, instead of holding it to their ear, because I can no longer find anything interesting about the boot of the car in front.

Anticipating a fair bit of traffic, and still driven by my fear of missing the start of a game, it happened once before in 1997 and I have no intention of letting it happen again. We left with what I thought was plenty of time to spare, but time is now well and truly ticking, and as much as I enjoyed hearing about Tom biting into what turned out to be a big cheese filled doughnut from his hotel's breakfast buffet, I would much rather just get to Dagenham on time.

My mood is inexplicably lifted when my compatriot, who admittedly I’m not in the best of moods with, following his mocking laughs, when we discover we have a joint love of arancini, a risotto filled Italian taste sensation. I tell him my favourite filling is bolognaise, his response is to smugly chuckle to himself, telling me I wouldn’t find that in Italy, they call it “ragu”. However, I’m able to forgive this blatant display of food snobbery, you've changed by the way mate, you used to eat sirloin steak with ketchup, when he produces a gift for me.

Not much bigger than a fifty pence piece, garish pink, and in the shape of a t shirt, on closer inspection he has only gone and got me a miniature plastic replica Palermo shirt key ring, which has my name on it! “I know you love a pink shirt” he remarks, my heart thawing instantly, after the aforementioned bolognaise comment. It’s not what someone gets you, but the thought behind it: pink, Italian, football tat, ticks all the right boxes, it’s also as he calls it, “custom” which makes it even better.

A yellow sign sheds a bit of light on the crippling traffic “broken down vehicle”, so at least we know what we are dealing with, and eventually we catch a glimpse of the flashing lights of the emergency services in the distance, so know we’re getting close to the scene of the hold up.

Not wanting to wish ill on anyone, but considering we’ve spent nigh on an hour sitting, scooting along in second gear, only to see it’s an abandoned people carrier straddling two lanes, being attended to by a single policeman, I really wanted to see an overturned oil tanker to justify my lost time.

Other than a bizarre road side pyramid of sorts, that Tom says he "recognises", perhaps from his Close Encounters’esq visions, I imagine he has a mash potato version of his own at home, the rest of the journey passes without anything else of note worth mentioning, however we have lost quite a bit of time, my OCD is close to boiling point, only finding a parking space opposite the bright orange steward at the top of Victoria Road puts a hold on a full meltdown.

It’s a short walk from the car to the overly high welcome sign, so high up you get a crick in your neck craning to read what it says “Welcome to Dagenham & Redbridge FC”. With about twenty minutes to kick off, which to most people is totally acceptable, but to me is a nightmare, I squirm at the sight of those people arriving to their seats as the teams are walking out, I’ve already been sitting down for twenty five minutes, where have you been, I’m a mess. I should probably take inspiration from one of the visiting fans of Sutton United FC (SU) who is serenely walking around with a small baby in a sling, while I’m close to a panic attack, because I haven't got a programme yet.

Time to get my priorities straight, it’s time to pull myself together!

“50/50?” asks the man with a small Tupperware box, “pound a go” he informs me, making sure to reiterate its the “50/50” and not the “golden goal” and without even being in the ground, without even having secured a ticket for tonight's match, the most important part of the evening is sorted. Next stop the club shop.

The strip light lit red prefab building is pretty standard, minimal, but has the pin Tom requires. On our way to the turnstile, we notice the Programme Shop, outside a jumble sale of programmes and other goodies are laid out on the floor, I think I spot a framed West Ham shirt, but we don't have time to investigate, or the pennant and scarf adorned room next to it.

We’re in! The red walls of Victoria Road, home of Dagenham & Redbridge FC (DR) have been breached, the players are just finishing their warm up, we've about fifteen minutes to kick off, what were you worried about, I can hear you all asking yourselves.

Although the queue at the gaily coloured Julie’s Fast Food Bar is not very long at all, and what's on offer is “cheap” as Tom puts it, having cast his eye over the extensive menu plastered across its facade he decides to decline getting anything at this time, and waits while I have a muffled conversation with a man in what I can only describe as a phone box, exchanging £2 for a programme, through a small letter box sized hole.

“Covered my ass” says a somewhat perturbed Tom, as we turn a small corner, the ground opening up before us, and we realise that my understanding of the terrace that was recommended by someone on Twitter as the best place to stand, is probably the most underdeveloped part of the ground, and is sans roof. With Toms keen weather eye pointed to the heavens and the dark rolling clouds, he every so often puts out his hand, palm upwards, waiting for a raindrop, he is not happy. “Breezy” he mutters passive aggressively.

Standing on the small windswept terrace behind the goal, our backs quite literally against the wall, as the final wayward shots of the substitutes crash against the wall just inches above our heads, all while Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones plays over the PA, a gentlemen in a flat cap and distinctive East London accent, strikes up a conversation, that takes some interesting turns, and is in fact more of a bizarre monologue, with lots of me nodding, than a conversation at all.

“You see the result of the mighty Hammers?” he asks/says in my general direction. I smile, not wanting to divulge my true allegiance. I make a bit of a quip how they just squeezed past Huddersfield the previous evening, thanks to a deflection, he doesn't look very amused, so I stop. It doesn't seem to matter anyway, he’s soon moved on to DR’s last match, “played us off the park, and we won” he explains.

Please don't think me unfriendly, I’m happy to shoot the breeze as much as the next guy, but it’s hard to chat, when my knowledge of the subject matter is a little lacking, so I continue to politely nod along, wishing a little bit that I could join the procession of burger carriers making their way in front of us towards the long pitchside terrace to our right, which has a roof.

When the next topic is about telephone scammers, his language turning a little colorful to say the least, calling one person he recently received an unsolicited phone call from “scum” among a lot of other four letter words, and implying they must think he is a “prat” if he is going to ring a “premium number”, I’m praying for rain, so we can do a runner.

At the base of the largest stand, which has Daggers spelt out in white seats, the rest are red, a huge St George's cross with Sutton United FC on it has been strung out across the seats. Nearby the away fans are holed up in one corner, below them the red vinyl tunnel is extended, and the teams wait to walk out.

Always intrigued by the music played at football grounds, having always thought that most clubs fall either into the ‘dad music’ or ‘naff new pop music’ category, DR go and blow this out the water, with their choice of Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra, most well known as the opening theme to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey. The dramatic opening bars are briefly interrupted by the announcer asking all to “welcome the teams onto the pitch” and I’m momentarily distracted from the theatrical choice of music, by the large limping dog shaped mascot in DR colours, following up the team at the rear.

When the lineups are read out, SU first, then the home side, it’s made clear its not any old side, just like M&S’s sandwiches are not any old sandwiches, but John Still’s “manager of the month's” side.

With kick off imminent the voice over the PA makes a request of the home fans, “let's make some noise for the boys”. It is though the visiting fans who are the loudest at the moment, “United, United” they sing. There is the odd shout of “come on you Daggers” from a few around us, but they are again outdone by the traveling SU supporters, “we love United we do, we love United we do”.

SU get the first shot of the game, their fans encouraged by the that decree SU are the “team for me”.

Having not got anything to eat, Tom’s ravenous hunger has only increased, no thanks to the passing of “ohhh pie and chips”, which he has not failed to point out on every occasion he's seen some, despite all this, he is not let's say thrilled by the sight of the bacon filled half a baguette that has just been handed to the person next to him. It’s not lacking in filling, its positively overflowing, however it’s a little grey, a tad underdone. He turns his head to me, looks me dead in the eyes, and slowly shakes his head.

Singing is about all there is to do for either set of supporters as far as entertainment is concerned, the game so far is hardly gripping, the away team's fans are easily ahead off the pitch, “Sutton till I die” they sing. On it, it’s a relative stalemate, scrappy, no real quality from either side. When one SU player attempts to flick the ball on to a teammate with his shoulder, but it just ends up being a hand ball, Tom is quick to inform me with a huge amount of pride that the player responsible is, “ex Arsenal youth”, got to cling onto whatever you can I guess, you Gooners.

The sky has only continued to worsen, and with some sick kind of gratification, Tom leans over and whispers in my ear, “here it comes”, the rain is well and truly here. This is not grin and bare it British rain, this won't ruin my BBQ, kind of rain, but the kind that goes from barely any at all, to all of it at once.

Big long terrace here we come.

There are a few hardy exceptions, those not joining the mass exodus for cover, instead rummage around in their backpacks for a waterproof, or erect a large golfing umbrella, they will not be shifted.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but walking along the back row of the well populated terrace, with its
low slung angled roof, reducing our view to a long narrow strip, that apparently the only place to stand is within a stone's throw of the small hatch surviving food and drinks, with its condiment crammed table just in front.

Even with the slightly restricted view I’m able to see the red dot matrix scoreboard that had been above our heads. It currently reads H - 0, A - 0, not sure why they missed out the other three letters. The metal roof contains the murmuring and conversations of the home fans, the mixture of that, the rain and the occasional crash of a ball on the corrugated roof makes for quite a din.

On twenty two minutes the red ‘0’ after the ‘H’ has been replaced with a ‘1’, as the home team go ahead with a sweetly taken goal, that sneaks in at the near post. Shouting over the first bit of real noise from the home fans, Tom bashes out his first football cliche of the match, “should of done better” the keeper that is, who was beaten, all those in the know say he shouldn't have been beaten, but to be fair to him it was a fiercely struck shot.

Closer to the SU fans now, they are even louder and are quick to reply to the now lively DR fans “U's, U's, U's"

The excitement of the goal celebration subsiding, Tom informs me once again, “oh I’m hungry”. He then lets me in on the fact that he doesn't know if he can “wait twenty minutes to half time”, my theory about the proximity to the food is proven correct. “All I can smell is gravy” he tells me.

A deep curling SU free kick almost makes its way to the back of the DR net, both home and visiting fans “ohhhh” but for different reason. It’s also the first time I hear the “shit, shit, shit, shit” man, whose repetitive string of expletives flows out of him every time the ball gets anywhere near his team's box.

SU go close again, this time a header just flashes wide. “United, United, United” sing the very seldomly quiet SU fans. Most of their noise it seems coming from the group standing on the final few rows of the stand. “South London wankers” is what one snarling DR fan brands them. Mr “shit, shit, shit” once more expresses his displeasure at SU nearly scoring.

“Come on Daggers, let's get that second goal” pleads one fan, a sentiment most supporters, whatever team you follow can empathise with. That feeling that unless you are at least five goals ahead, you have no confidence at all that you might go on and actually win the game.

Both teams are what you might call probing at each other's defences. That pawing jab boxers do, it's just so far lacking that mighty right hand, that does all the damage. All this while the rain continues to lash down. Tom reckons for a moment it’s stopped, or at least eased, but a quick glance at the floodlights, and it’s clear it’s still falling.

SU almost land a decisive blow, but the chance is well blocked. One DR fan down front in a baseball cap, offers some advice to his team, the same bit of advice he has offered since we started standing a few rows behind him, “in his face” he barks.

Thankfully for us all, there is no time to dwell on the fact that there are “no chips”, because seconds after Tom has dropped that bombshell, returning from the food bar, and now regretting he only got a quarter pounder and not a half pounder, ordering smaller because he wanted chips, but now he doesn't have any, SU have drawn things level on forty five minutes.

It’s very kind of the announcer to inform us that it is in fact the scorer's 100th goal for SU. I’m pretty sure 95% of the people here couldn't give a damn. As far as goals go to clinch your century, it’s far from spectacular, but they all count. “Dundo’s, gonna get ya” chant the SU fans. A chant that always sounds like it has a veiled threat attached, that the one hundred goal man not only scores a few, but might have something else in mind for you too.

“United, United, United” sing the SU fans once more, following their ever so slightly menacing song about the fan favourite.

The end concludes surrounded by a shed full of angry East Londoners, their anger directed solely at the referee. “What kind of drugs you on ref?” asks one fan, then adding that he “would like some” if the man in change is able to tick him a little something. Another suggests to the man in black that he must get some thrill out of blowing his whistle, and therefore that's why he does it “every 30 seconds”.

None of this can mask the real anger that their team on the stroke of half time, conceded a scrappy goal, that just about sums the first half.

The teams depart, and the break in the game gives Tom a chance to reiterate that he still “wants chips”, his sizable burger having only felt like a “small starter”. Much like the DR fan's learning that is was Craig Dundas 100th goal, I couldn't give a shit. I’ve just learnt that I won't be taking home the “£145” prize fund from the 50/50.

“Halifax top of the league” announces one fan, looking up from his phone, the bright glare of which illuminates his face rather sinisterly. Instead of looking like someone from the Blair Which Project, he could do with lending it to the man next to me who is visibly doing himself harm, straining to read his programme in the gloom and murk of the terrace.

“Tea and Kit Kat time” discloses Tom. I thought after all that ragu, it would be only espresso and biscotti from now on? Anyway I’m much more interested in the man walking along the front of the stand, with a small leather bag over his shoulder, shouting “programmes” with one held above his head, wonder if he sells peanuts too?

For a moment I think the rain might have finally relented, until a glance at the floodlights once again, and I can see it’s very much there. Tom not a fan of anything resembling the cold says it feels like “fucking winter”. It’s not quite that bad, but it might be time to retire the shorts for 2017 at least, I have very damp shins.

I never would have taken Tom for an Elvis fan, but as the players return, while 'Can’t Help Falling in Love' by The King plays, he goes a bit gooey and soft, looking off into the middle distance, like someone in a Spielberg film, and tells me it's one of his “favourite” songs.

“Please welcome the teams back onto the pitch” asks the announcer, a few home fans oblige with shouts of “come on you Daggers”

No amount of half time snacks, or gloating at rivals doing badly during the break, means the referee is any less in the cross-hairs of the home fans. They just don't feel like anything is going their way, “you don't know what you're doing” they chant, before going as far to suggest he’s a, “cheat, cheat, cheat” and other than the celebrating the goal, it’s about the noisiest they've been tonight.

With the rain now at its absolute worst, “match abandoned” shouts one fan, half joking and half hoping, Tom suggesting its coming in “sideways”. Yes the wind is blowing into us now and we are getting a few spots on us, but if we look to our left the hardy souls still on the open terrace, are really putting us to shame.

The first quarter of the new half, has pretty much picked up where the first half left off, uneventful and scrappy. SU are the first to get a chance of any real meaning, a curling shot, a “skimmer” as Toms calls it, that skids across the grass, and into the arms of the keeper. Not long after DR shoot just
over, and the game has officially got going.

You might think that going close would have lifted the spirits of the DR the fans, but it does nothing of the sort, they are still more focused on giving the referee as much stick as possible, and my grumble-o-meter is going through the roof. There is thankfully a moment of brevity among all the darkness, when the name of an oncoming DR substitute causes a few laughs. Chike Kandi has only one foot on the pitch, when the less than original cry of “it's chico time” goes up. However, the next attempt, “we've got candy” to the tune of the 1965 hit 'I Want Candy' by The Strangeloves, is at least worth a wry smile.

SU go close, but the player at the far post is unable to get the final touch to poke it in. This gets a  song from the fans, “we’re the Sutton boys”. When one player makes a great effort to take the game to DR, gliding through the midfield, surging forwards, Tom once again has that glint in his eye, “Arsenal academy”.

“HOW?” mouths Tom with his head in his hands, much like the player who's mazey, slinky, jinky almost balletic run down the left wing, his quick feet getting him into the box, all while he evades what seems like the whole SU team, does not result in a goal. His shot is blocked, the rebound falling to a teammate, who shoots wide with the goal gaping.

The fans instead of chastising the player who missed, applaud the player responsible for the awesome run, “come on you Daggers”.

Finally the game between these two teams at the top of the league, is living up to a bit of its potential. First the wonderful solo effort, then SU almost give DR the lead, when they nearly scored an own goal. Another deep free kick almost catches out the SU keeper, he just tips it over, not sure if it was an audacious shot or just a wind assisted cross, but the keeper was almost embarrassed. The resulting corner, is headed over by the SU defense, the second is met by a DR attacker whose own header goes fractions wide.

Finally the moaning isn’t the loudest the home fans have been “come on your reds”. I nearly have to eat my words, when Mr “in his face” thinks the SU keeper in his Barney the dinosaur shade of purple kit is time wasting, “fucking horrible team Sutton” he shouts.

The “horrible” teams fans reply to their now vocal rivals, “United, United, United”, things are hotting up a bit.

It’s really the final quarter of the match that is the best of the whole ninety. SU almost take the lead, but the player can't convert the big looping ball into the box. DR get another deep free kick, almost in the same place as where the effort earlier just saved, was taken from. “Shooooot” demand the fans, he does, “ain't gonna do it twice” says Tom as the ball sails well over.

Into the final ten minutes there is that feeling among the home fans, that their team are going to screw this up, “Oh here we go” says someone whose clearly seen it all before, SU’s attack this time comes to nothing. Two SU corners follow not long after, causing more consternation in Mr “shit, shit, shit” who is now in overdrive.

The outrage towards the man in charge hits its peak when nigh on the whole terrace is directing him to where an SU throw in should be taken from. To be fair the SU player is taking the, ‘edging along the touchline’ thing all footballers do, a bit far. About fifty pairs of hands, fingers pointed, wave manically around us, accompanied by shouts of “back” until the player in question is finally re-positioned.

It's all SU, “United, United, United” sing their fans, most of them on their feet, a goal for them seems imminent, one DR fan makes a solemn statement, with the ball a constant around his teams box, and very rarely in SU's half, “should be down the other end”.

The board goes up showing the three minutes of extra time, from the response of some of those around us, you would have thought it said three hundred. The idea of their team having to hold on to for a whole one hundred and eighty seconds, without conceding, seems impossible. And they are almost proven right when an SU player rounds the keeper, but fires over from a tight angle.

A fan's sixth sense is very rarely wrong, that ability to know exactly when your team are about to blow it, is a skill every supporter learns not long after deciding, ‘this is my team’, also if Mr “shit, shit, shit” said it enough times, he was going to be correct at least once.

“Shit, shit, shit” he repeats for the umpteenth time, about one minute into the three added on. The cross into the box, finds the SU forward between two defenders, and with a glance of his forehead, SU take the lead. “Oh shit” he says as the visiting players in white, not yellow for some reason, don't quite get that clash, as DR play in red, run off to celebrate. Their fans erupt to our right, the home fans taking it as their cue to leave in their droves, rain or no rain.

“We are top of the league, we are top of the league” sing the SU supporters, someone has had a quick look at their mobile, and it would seem that thanks to other results tonight, SU have jumped from fifth to first.

All the commotion of the shed has gone, we stand almost completely alone, except for one soggy steward who wants us gone, as we watch the SU players applaud the singing fans, some whirling their scarves above their heads, “Sutton, Sutton, Sutton”.

As the final players leave the pitch, the one hundred goal man gets one last song “Dundo’s, gonna get ya”, before they round things off with a their own rendition of The Kings classic, “falling in love with U's, U's, U's”.

Outside I do my best to walk at double time, wanting to avoid any further moistening of my lower legs. A group of SU fans continue to celebrate their teams ascension to the top of the league, with a bit of a sing song on a dreary Victoria Road, as they start the long journey back to South London.

Back in the car, preparing for Uber duties as Tom plays a game on his phone I'm still wondering, why were SU playing in white, it just doesn't make sense. Why are chips such a problem at non league football, this is a problem we have encountered before, and Tom wants answers, and if Dundo did get "ya" what exactly would he do to you?

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE ↓

 


 

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