Thursday, 18 October 2018

Oh The Tea Lady's Arrived - Beckenham Town FC Vs Erith Town FC, Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division, Eden Park Avenue (03/10/18)

There are some football fans, whose team reside south of the river Thames, who swear blind that “it is wonderful”. I can tell you from first hand experience, that it is far from wonderful, when trying to get there from North London at rush hour. Almost exactly two hours it took us to travel the seventeen miles from Toms to tonight's ground. Bloody Ken, no Boris, no Sadiq, oh whoever it is.

Almost certain we had completely exhausted the conversational topic of FIFA 19, amazingly there is still more to discuss about Tom’s current game of choice. I’m still unsure if I’m going to get this year's edition, as my twelve year old son keeps profoundly telling me, its just the same game Dad, with a different number on the front.

Our extended time in the car though, does allow Tom to fill me in on the Gentleman's Club, he saw situated right next to Whipsnade Zoo, on a recent family outing, and by sheer coincidence I’m sure, starts asking if I know about any non league football clubs in the Whipsnade area.

Having grown up in North London my whole life, there is an unmistakable change in aura, as soon as you emerge from the other side of the Blackwall Tunnel. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but it happens. The houses look the same, so do the people, they have all the same shops, and drive on the same side of the road, but it just feels different.

Perhaps it’s the sight of a decrepit speed boat in the front garden of one house, I say garden, I mean balancing on the doorstep, with Jaws painted along its side. Perhaps it's the trams, the fact we passed somewhere called Peter Pan's Park, or maybe it's just down to the fact that looming in the distance is the Crystal Palace, doing a shoddy impression of Alexandra Palace, that is frankly offensive.

Is he OK? Some of you may be asking yourself, he's going in on South London pretty hard, what's his problem, it's really not that bad. Well I’ll tell you what concerned reader, it is that bad and I'll tell you why. I hold it completely responsible as my final destination today, as to why I came, seconds, I mean seconds away from losing my brand new phone, because I had left it on the roof of my car, and only realised about five minutes later, and thankfully, and consider yourself lucky South London because I might have had to go medieval on you, that it was still there.

It is a relatively unassuming entrance to the delightfully named Eden Park Avenue, which is a welcome sight after being tormented by an overly long Dutch lorry for the last ten miles. The sheer amount of trees that hang over the potholed driveway are certainly in keeping with the grounds name.

Beyond the white turnstiles, manned by a gruff white haired man in a blue gilet, who is fond of a cigarette, I get the feeling he thinks his job is more to stand guard, than to welcome people in, is a quite outstanding fluorescent green pitch. It’s grass not 3G, and it looks like you could roll it up and lay it in your front room. “It's like the Emirates” says Tom, both of us in genuine awe of the playing surface.

Beckenham Town FC’s (BT) kit man explains its because “no one else plays on it” and who would dare, going by the size of the “please keep off the pitch” sign, and there is a chance the gilet man might snap you in half if you do.

BT or the Becks, their nickname written in red across the back of one of two small all seater stands, filled with black chairs that look straight out of a primary school, are really flying so far this season, undefeated in eight. The whole ground is really a very pleasant surprise. With a strict colour scheme of red and white, it is in remarkably good nick, surrounded by the back gardens or the nearby terraced houses, more trees, all sitting under a quite stunning clear sky, filled with flecks of pink and orange.

The serene, suburban peace, is only briefly shattered by the odd passing train, but they are soon gone again and tranquillity is restored.

A small speaker outside the entrance to the long single storey clubhouse, gently pumps out a few pop hits, but not too loudly as to become tedious, or intrusive as the music at so many grounds can become. We take a seat on one of the many picnics tables, surrounded by an inordinate amount of ‘no ball games’ signs, Tom's eyes firmly fixed on the refreshments hatch, which is securely closed, he like me probably trying to work out why it's outside has been covered in artificial grass.

“At least it's a nice evening” says Tom, contemplating already I think the fact he might not be getting fed tonight. “I’m hungry” he announces, like somebody might overhear him, and whip him something up. His frown though, is soon turned upside down, when he spots a lady with a carton of milk in one hand, and an orange mesh bag with three onions in the other, “oh the tea lady's arrived”.

BT’s opponents this evening, Erith Town FC (ET), have flagrantly ignored the message on the very visible sign they passed, newly arrived, they have congregated on the pristine pitch, and out the corner of my eye, I’m sure the gilet man is twitching, but says nothing.

The appeal in the programme for help with the clubhouse roof has Tom occupied, although he’s only half concentrating on the words, as he keeps looking up towards the fake grass covered doors, that are still closed, but his heightened food at football senses can detect some activity, “burgers are cooking, I can smell them”.

Behind Tom, in one of the lean tos, that stand behind the goal are a couple of quite sizable BT flags, not of the left on your seat at a friendly at Wembley, in a desperate attempt to get an atmosphere kind of flags, but swaying on the Yellow Wall kind of one. Part of me fantasises about some local Ultras group turning up, ten minutes before kick off, and that we are going to be treated to a smoke, pyro and Tifo show, but Tom quickly bursts my bubble, when he makes his second Arsenal reference of the night, which he attempts to justify after seeing my eyes roll, “the colour scheme works” he says, it is very red and white here, saying the flags are just like the ones that appear as the players walk out on match days, all we need now are the air hostesses.

It’s getting cold, not so long ago we were being caressed by mild early autumn sun, but now its gone, I’m wishing I had put my jumper on.

Tom is getting ever closer to his dinner, the tea lady has reappeared hands full of teaspoons, milk and sauces. Although it's not the first of my imaginary BT Ultras turning up though, at least it’s someone, it was getting close to a two men and his dog situation. “It’s hotting up” says Tom, as a slow but steady stream of people start to pass through the turnstile.

Not wanting to abandon his post for long, gilet man sprints to the newly opened hatch, gets his cup of tea and quite impressively sprints back, not spilling a drop. Tom of course is not far behind him, buoyed by being able to get his food on, and although I've secured programme number five of the season, that’s five out of five so far, I’m not however getting much of a 50/50 vibe.

When a big man bangs a book of raffle tickets on the same table a BT coach is doing the final tweeks to the starting eleven, he declares loudly, “just need the bucket now” my previous ill feeling start to melt away.

“No chips, only burgers and hot dogs” says Tom, just after very nearly falling over, following his visit to the hatch, a hatch that he said looked like it was a “persons kitchen” by which he means, it wasn't all stainless steel and catering equipment, but Formica worktops, mug trees and kids artwork stuck to the fridge.

I’m not sure what Tom is more impressed by, the burger, which he calls “good” between half full mouthfuls, the fact is was cooked on a “George Foreman” or by the footlong hot dog, he now feels he overlooked, and depending on how much room he has left after this burger, he is considering something I don't think he has ever done before, “eating twice”.

His food envy has rocked him hard, “think I made a mistake” he says, staring lovingly at someone and their thirty and a half centimetres of frankfurter. Like he said the burger was “good”, the “plastic mozzarella” on top a nice touch, but the limited “options” as far as the sauces were concerned, was a disappointment.

Another explanation for why the pitch looks so immaculate, is highlighted when both teams appear for their warm ups, jogging right on by it, heading instead to an unlit field next door. Both teams got through their routines very loudly, considering the lack of lights, maybe it's a way of working out where each other are.

A small group forms around the man sticking tonight's lineups to the top of a fence post, made up of those football types who see it fit to deface their programme, with lines, ticks and crosses, ensuring they have the correct information for posterity. Looking on is BT’s owner Mick who when I ask him, reckons they might get “80” here tonight “if we're lucky”.

Considering BT don’t ground share, I ask why do they play on a Wednesday, most clubs will play on Tuesday in the week, BT changed to “get more people”, less competition on a Wednesday, fewer places for Groundhoppers to go, although by the look on his face, he doesn't look totally convinced its paid off. He explains one reason for not getting bumper attendances, despite there being “lots of money in the area” is that it's just not “very football”.

Both teams appear from the far end of the clubhouse, sheltered for a moment by the veranda, and
once they've been checked over by the referees assistants, one of whom we heard earlier asking his girlfriend who he had dragged along, to go and get him a towel from Sainsburys because he had forgotten his and that he couldn’t hang around with her for long, because he and the other officials were “listening to music” and getting “in the zone”, they step out onto the long, garden fence lined approach to the edge of the pitch.

We’ve seen louder walk outs, there is no PA, no signature tune to greet the players. All I can hear are the eleven high fives the BT kitman gives the players as they pass him.

Mick may have got his wish by the time the teams are crossing the pitch to line up for the handshake. The ground I would go as far as saying has a gentle buzz about it. Both the stands are well occupied, and three chaps have picked their spot behind the goal, all on fold out chairs.

It’s dark now, Crystal Palace and its woeful impersonation obscured by the night, the lights are bright, and its cold, really cold, just about perfect conditions for an evening of football.

The first ten minutes of the game are very, very shouty, everyone is guilty of far too much  unnecessary shouting. Along with the trains, which have become far more frequent as the evening has gone on, occasionally giving a blast of its horn as it leaves the nearby station, and some local cats having a very loud punch up, Eden Park Avenue has got very rowdy.

It’s the visitors bench who just pip the home one to the loudest award, “relax” bellows one of their number, not the man though who has just gone full Bielsa, and is watching from the technical area sitting on a water cooler.

Resurrecting something we haven't played for a while, Tom is straight in there with his picks for  ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’, “Arsenal Vs Inter Milan” he says, and for once I can't disagree. “I like a black and blue shirt” he adds, ET’s striped shirt, most definitely has a bit of the Nerazzurri about it

“Get hold of it Beckenham”, demands one fan, ET have just had a goalbound shot blocked and the match so far has been very manic, still lots of shouting, but not much actual football being played. A distant sound of clattering scaffolding only adds to the din, “has the clubhouse fallen down?” wonders Tom, was the request for help in the programme too late.

I wish I knew how to snap Tom out of his bizarre Rainman like commentary on the different footballs that are in rotation, that he has started, but I don’t. “That's a nice ball that” he highlights when a new one is tossed on the pitch. The downside of having such close by neighbours, big hoofy clearances end up in their gardens, sending poor sods off in search of them in the grassy hinterland behind the fence. “They must go through so many balls” he adds sympathetically, and if it's not balls, it’s the nearby dog he is gassing about. It is a very nice dog, a very “docile” dog as he puts it, but it's a dog.

After a very chaotic first fifteen, BT all of a sudden and quite noticeably change it up a gear, the undefeated BT remember. “Well played Beckenham, good football” says the man next to us, the opposite side to the dog, almost under his breath, as he will do for the entirety of the night, his only little commentary, after BT get a shot of at goal, following some neat passing.

A minute later and they are ahead, “well done Beckenham” says our neighbour. “Ref, ref, that came from your fuck up” shouts someone on the ET bench, not best pleased he gave the free kick in the first place, the referee who will end up being quite a prominent character by the end of the night.

The ET keeper in pink a bit of a spectator, as the header flies passed him, despite his best diving efforts to get close to it.

“1-0, we go again” insists one of the BT coaches, making sure the players don't think the job is done. There really was quite the shift in their momentum in the minutes preceding the goal, “they just look a league above” says Tom. Who doesn't have very high hopes for ET now, “I think they are going to thrash them”.

Someone I did not expect to be adding to the cacophony of noise, both the benches and the players are still at it, and the latest train makes me jump a bit, just like the others have, when it thunders by, blasting its horn, is the now not so “placid” dog, who at the sight of a nearby ball, one just saved from no man's land, has changed into a whole other animal.

Tom has a dilemma, I can see he has been wanting to say something for a couple of minutes, but has been hesitating, and then all of a sudden blurts it out, “would you laugh if I wore a gilet?”. If I’m honest, I would have normally, the gilet is reserved in my eyes for the likes of Tim Sherwood, and not for any friend of mine. Except my Mum just got my daughter one, which she looks great in, effortlessly channeling the spirit of Marty McFly, pulling off a kind of 80’s retro chic with ease, so in fact I’m OK with it.

Tom slips it on, its garish yellow liner looking quite inviting actually, wishing I had brought my jumper once again, it really is quite chilly.

“Ohhhhhh” gasp the crowd, BT have just gone close again, a low powerful shot, just wide of the far post. “Well done Beckenham” applauds one supporter, “unlucky son” mumbles our co commentator.

Maybe it the sight of their meaningful first attack, with twenty odd minutes gone, but one of the ET bench has just shouted, “fuck me in the ass”. However his unconventional praise, I think its praise is short lived. As the game grows increasingly robust, his team are starting to look more and more “overwhelmed” as Tom puts it. It's all BT, a great ball over the top, nearly finds it’s man, but is cut out in the nick of time, it is a simple case of when, not if BT will score again.

The lights of the passing trains through the trees, continues to be a bizarre source of entertainment, as to the ever changing footballs seem to be to Tom, he has without fail, made a comment about every new one he has seen.

ET are given a ray of hope, when BT give the ball away in midfield, one of their first real lapses in concentration, and ET pounce, the eventual shot, blocked in the the box. “Lets up the tempo” shouts one BT player in response, they have been a tad lackadaisical since going ahead, but saying that it doesn't take much for them to craft a chance. “Good football Becks” says you know who, as they put another attempt, a header this time, just wide of the target.

Tom thinks ET “have given up a bit” shoulders certainly seem to have sagged. With ten minutes of the half remaining, their number 4 as Tom put it, is “trying to sort it out”, but isn't having much joy. Edging close to the break, and Tom still a bit cold, his gilet not sufficient, maybe he should have got one with some with arms, is considering a hot drink, “might have to get a tea or a hot chocolate”. I on the other hand, having seen no sight of the big man with his bucket, am contemplating a raffle free half time.

Despite all their dominance, Tom isn’t sure BT have “have had a chance” since they went ahead, “lots of almosts” and the “odd moment” but nothing clear cut. Their final pass a little lacking, they are getting forward with ease, but that killer final ball is missing.

“Are you fucking joking?” asks ET’s keeper resplendent in his pink top, to the referee when he waves away the appeal from the ET player for what looked like a stonewall penalty, the bench are also adamant, no mention of anything to do with his “ass” this time, the same foulmouthed coach as before, just shows his disgust, with a good old fashioned “fuck off”.

The tackling continues to be hard, but mostly within the letter of the law. A man is wandering around in shorts, and Tom is convinced he must be “Scottish or Northern”. The sight of the man's chilly calfs has confirmed he is now one hundred percent getting a “hot drink and a Kit Kat”.

“Last ten minutes we've been shit” says one BT player loudly to his teammates, if it wasn't for ET’s
complete inability to pass the ball into the box properly, they might be level. For the first time today ET are on top, and they finish the half on top. It’s BT who have the final attempt of the half, a long range shot that is easily held, but ET can surely walk in, with a modicum of confidence, after looking like they were going to get brushed aside after going behind.

Thanks to the strange array of available seating, I plonk myself down on one of the three metal seats not far from us and I quickly work out it is probably a bit too cold to be sitting about, Tom is off double speed, leaving me to listen to the trains and watching one ET sub get very, very angry because no one will pass to him.

“Pat makes a good cup of tea” says Tom, returning with a suitably scalding hot cup of non league tea in a white Styrofoam cup. Who’s Pat I ask, the “tea lady” he explains, however he cuts me off when I start to compliment him on how nice it was he found out her name, only for him to inform me that after visiting Pat’s Pantry at Whitstable Town, from now on, all tea lady's are called Pat.

One item of clothing I can assure you my daughter certainly doesn't own, and never will, is a snood, so I assure Tom I would have guffawed heartily had he been able to find his, after rummaging around in his bag for it, “can't find my snood” he says dejectedly.

I’m sure it's become even colder in the short amount of time the players have been away, it also seems to be even darker, the floodlights having to work even harder. The noise of chatter fills the stands, peoples breath is visible, winter is getting ever closer. The sound of a dog barking, makes the ears of our once again “placid” K9, ears prick, but he doesn't seem to feel it's necessary to get up.

The hot tea is doing a great job in keeping my vital signs up, the single finger of Kit Kat Tom gives me was a bit of a struggle to get, “I don't want to take my gloves off” he says, before relenting and snapping me one off, not wanting to get chocolate on his newly acquired hardware.

ET win an early free kick, which has to be retaken because of an encroaching BT player, who gets a few choice words slung his way, and a yellow card. He does well to pretend he is the innocent party, arms out by his side, a look of shock on his face, I was just running past and jumped in the air and flicked out my boot guvnor, what I done wrong?, but he surely knows it was a bit of an arsehole move.

It's been a quick start from both teams, but the game has descended into a bit of a win the ball lose the ball session in midfield, the BT keeper is not impressed, “not a good enough start”.

“I got the ball, I got the ball” says the lanky stunned looking BT defender, who towers over the referee, who has just put him in the book, “loves a yellow” says Tom, and I have to agree, the man in change does seem a little officious, and the case of did he get the ball or not, will be relevant in the not so far in the future, however we have another goal to enjoy first.

ET will be well annoyed at how sloppy the second goal they conceded was, they were nowhere near fast enough to react to the corner, which is eventually bundled clear, and are guilty again of the same mistake, when BT regain possession and are able with ease to slide the ball in to the path of the player, no one has followed. He meets it, but because it's been slightly over hit, all he can do is give it a delicate flick, with the heel of his foot, sending the ball into the six yard box, where it is met by his sliding teammate who finishes the move.

The back heeler and the scorer peel away towards the corner flag, the scorer jumping into the open arms of the quick thinker, who holds him aloft. The ET players just trudge back towards the centre circle, some with their heads down, some livid, the feeling made worse I’m sure by their promising start to the new half.

“That changes everything” sung Billy Currington apparently, but also said by an almost gleeful Tom, who stops just shy of rubbing his hands together like Fagin. The long thin BT defender who was booked earlier, despite his claims of innocence, has just received a second. This one for me, was a lot more definitive, and he has barely stood back up, and the referee is brandishing the yellow card, then his red, inches from his face.

“Back to back reds” points out Tom as he makes the long walk off, the second sending off we've seen in as many games. I can't make out what is being said, but there is much angry manly shouting coming from the other end of the pitch, towards the referee.

ET’s resulting free kick takes a nick off the top of the wall and goes over, Tom looks at me with a glint in his eye, “if they score next, we’re in for a thriller”. “Heads on boys” shouts an ET fan from the sidelines, who like Tom knows full well, that whoever scores the next goal is crucial.

The referee and his assistants are getting it hard from the crowd. “What you watching ref?” asks one angry spectator, when a BT player is left poleaxed, writhing in agony, not rolling around theatrically, he is properly hurt. “Think he might of chundered” whispers Tom about the injured player on the far side of the pitch, “he’s holding his throat”.

They may well find themselves a man down, but at times you would be troubled to know that. BT move the ball around well, have cool heads and are still very much in the game. In the away teams dugout, that is illuminated like a school disco, by the substitutes board being prepared, they are about to try and affect the ease in which BT are still dictating the pace of the game, even with their disadvantage, it's time to roll the dice.

“Going all out attack” says Tom as the double change is made, “Erith playing four up front”, he’s gone “4-2-4” ads Pep, sorry Tom, who has obviously been listening very astutely to FIFA 19 and decided today was as good a time as any, to regurgitate all his newly learnt lingo.

Twenty minutes to go, “liven up” shouts the BT keeper, an ET fan offers his own encouragement in response, “come on blues it’s not over”. ET are certainly showing more and more the difference in the numbers, a sharp turn on the edge of the BT box, allows the player to make a short pass that finds his teammate, only for the keeper to smother the ball at his feet.

A newly arrived ET attacker is frighteningly quick, “he's like having Aaron Lennon” says Tom, surprised he didn't say Walcott, but maybe he didn't want to be rude. His pace allows him to get into the box with ease down the right wing, but his first of many forays for the remainder of the match, ends with a a shot straight at the keeper.

“Oh to be a ref” sighs Tom, the man in charge this time surrounded by both teams players, one BT player down, having let out a sickening scream, he lays prone, clutching his ankle. “Don't listen to the scream, he got the ball” is someones round about way in saying the ET player who made the tackle, didn't deserve the yellow he was about to be given.

The referee is close to losing control, it's all got a bit like the wild west, and not of the unrealistic Will Smith kind. Players are taking optimistic long range lobbed attempts from free kicks, there is again lots more yelling, lots of shouting and claims for things that just aren't things, but among the chaos, BT are still very comfortable, maybe they thrive on the lawlessness, holed up in their own half, untroubled as Tom puts it by ET “throwing the kitchen sink at them”.

“Unlucky” roars the ET board member in his club tie just along from us, the other side of the “placid” dog, who joined our little section after swapping ends at half time, to the player who just hit a volley so sweetly from the edge of the box, it's frankly a shame to see it go right into the arms of the keeper, it deserved more. Behind them, there is a definite crunch caused by a far too big a man, attempting to fence hop, to reclaim a lost ball.

ET go close again not long after, a goal bound header is cleared and the referee is soon in for more grief, “get the cards out then tosser” shouts a BT fan, when a player is fouled, but not looking like he is going to produce one, the BT players tell each other to “keep going, keep going”, and maybe now at their lowest ebb, the ET players have begun squabbling.

The game has fizzled out quite considerably, both benches are very quiet for the first time, maybe a case of them both thinking the result is a forgone conclusion. There is plenty of late ET pressure, particularly in wide areas, with some brilliant overlapping runs, but they inevitably come to nothing. BT do their best to clear their lines and are reduced to straight up counter attacking football. More than once they outnumber ET at the back, only for some last ditch heroics or sloppy passes to just about keep the visitors in the game.

ET hold on for as long as they can, but in the end succumb to the homes teams attacks, grabbing themselves a late third. It really is too easy for BT, carrying the ball from deep, the scorer has an option in the box, but doesn't use him, and slides the ball under the keeper and into the far corner of the net. Arms out by his side, he struts towards the celebrating fans, “get in” he shouts before high fiving one of them. One player, a little late to the party, slides along the pitch on his knees, arriving at the still celebrating scorers feet.

There is some very muted applause and lots of bickering among the BT players when ET get themselves a conciliation goal. An expression I’ve never really understood, I don't think much is going to console any team who have just lost. Anyway I'm reeling from the fact the Spurs game I’ve been recording at home, just got ruined by the person next to me, updating someone else like an annoying talking vidiprinter.

On the final whistle, both teams exchange the customary handshakes, the ET players and staff are
quick to get into dissecting the previous ninety minutes, the BT players are quick to try their best to rid themselves of the previous ninety minutes exertions. Some lie on their backs, legs propped up above them on the hoarding, stretching their legs. When they eventually walk off, their supporters have stuck around to cheer them in, "well played boys".

A bit of a diamond in the rough is how I would describe BT, I say rough, the houses around here are massive, and some of the cars parked in their driveways cost more than some countries GDP. I'll be honest they were not a club really on our radar, only because of Tom's recent change of job, and no longer having Tuesday off, did we come.

The ground is great, the food was good, if you come and try the footlong, let us know what its like, Tom is still upset he didn't have it. I'm sure Mr Gilet is nice once you get to know him, they do a programme and if the big man finds a bucket, they might have a raffle too.

Let me put it like this, I would happily spend two hours in traffic again to come here, without hesitation.

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Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Home Of Football - Sheffield FC Vs Prescot Cables FC, FA Trophy Extra Preliminary Round, Coach & Horses (29/09/18)

It shouldn't make me as uncomfortable as it is, but the sight of Tom loitering about outside the front door of my block of flats, is really a bit unnerving, and it reminds me I must get in touch with the landlord about upping security. For the first time this season he has come to me, parking his behemoth of a car somewhere on my street, as we are heading north today. Not east to Essex or south to Kent or Sussex, but north or as he always calls it, the “proper North” and by that he means further than Potters Bar.

Most of our time in the car heading two and a half hours straight up, is consumed with more FIFA chat. Tom explaining the gratification he gets from winning online due to making people “rage quit”, all while he sips from a ceramic Marvel universe travel mug, containing the cup of tea I made for him. I know, I know, I’m awesome.

The nuances of FIFA 19 are not all that we talk about, we are not totally one dimensional. I can honestly say though I never thought I would hear Tom utter the sentence, “she has good piping skills”, when the topic of the Great British Bake Off crops up, and we both discuss the genuis that was the Christmas scene Kim-Joy managed to do in miniature with icing, on the side of a biscuit.

Tom is a kean vaper, his current device akin to something you might have seen in the early episodes of Star Trek or one of Kryton’s attachments, is omitting a very odd smell. Normally I don't mind the faint odour of grape or candy floss or whatever he has happened to fill it with that day, but this morning, it's horrible. I wonder if what I can sense is in fact some countryside smell from the outside world, but its not, and he informs me its the “strawberry cheesecake” liquid, he’s currently vaporising to my left.

I haven't been a smoker for six years and therefore missed the whole vape thing. I had no idea the possibilities and vast array of flavours available. When he informs me I could be sucking in anything from beef, bacon or pizza flavoured smoke, I’m astounded.

Oh, and I forget to make my obligatory attempt at a poetic comment about the sky or the autumn tones of the trees, that my other half/proof reader finds so amusing, so just for her I’ll keep it simple, today its blue.

Other than our trips north of Watford, Tom doesn't venture outside the M25 all that much, “like being abroad” he says as we approach Chesterfield. A large piece of roundabout sculpture has him mesmerised and the sight of the twisted wonky spire of Chesterfields church of St Mary and All Saints, well you would think we were passing one of the seven wonders of the world. His head is on a swivel, his eyes dart about like he is seeing things, he has never seen before.

At one point he is even convinced we are being followed by an “angry biker” a “Sons of Anarchy” type he calls him. This is Derbyshire for fuck sake, not Charming.

Although my demented Sat Nav looks like it is trying to direct me to a petrol station, it is thankfully spot on with its route planning, steering us pretty much to the front door of the Coach & Horses pub, from which the adjacent ground, takes its name. A squat sandstone building, with a slate roof. It's sign swaying gently, below it some benches and hanging baskets, makes it near picture perfect.

My car struggles up the short but steep slope up into the car park, teetering on what feels like the edge of a cliff, I check, then double check the handbrake is on hard, so we don’t come back and my car has rolled into the road. The main door of the pub is narrow, built for the malnourished hobbits of yesteryear, not 21st century brutes like me. Inside the beer taps are glistening and the sound of Led Zeppelin fills the room, both are very good signs

Having not even seen a blade of grass or a floodlight yet, and even if I didn't know where I was, I would still be able to tell you we are in a place of football significance, because of the sheer amount of football/ultra stickers that are plastered on the cistern in the loo and anywhere else you could put one. The importance of where we are is only reinforced by the vast array of different countries that they have come from.

I don’t think I'm exaggerating when I say, that today's ground and club, is tantamount to a football El Dorado, a shire, a mecca. Somewhere, that someone has a keen eye for a funny, because scribbled on the sign over one urinal that reads “out of order” someone has added in biro “you're”.

We had convinced ourselves the entrance to the ground would be through the pub, like it was some great stone turnstile, where you can get a pint of local IPA with your ticket. It is though only a short walk to the entrance to the “Home Of Football” that the sign on one fence proclaims this particular corner of the football universe is.

I’m not sure, but I bet there are a few football clubs who attest to being the ‘first’, just like I imagine there are a few barns in Bethlehem who claim to be where Jesus was born and a few dingy Soho clubs who claim to be the first place the Stones played, but none of them have been recognised as being so, not only by the FA, but also the all seeing eye, the Big Brother of soccer, FIFA, like Sheffield FC (SFC) have been.

Formed in 1857, they can unequivocally say they are the world's very first football club and they are not shy in letting you know about it. Although we are here to watch SFC, named after one of Yorkshire's major cities, we are not actually in Sheffield or even in Yorkshire, but Derbyshire. Yorkshire is one mile up the road.

“A tough one” explains the SFC physio, who claims to be the “busiest in the league”. Their opponents today Prescot Cables FC (PC) have “not lost” since the start of the season, and as the physio points out, Liverpool have a knack of “producing good teams”.

Bathed in bright autumn sun, the trees that stand at one end of the Coach & Horses are on the turn and Tom is impressed by the “nice pitch” and the fact that its “straight” unlike so many of the wonky, tilted ones we encounter.

Three quarters of the ground are quite charming, with a small seated stand behind one goal, and a small terrace along one side, with “home of football” brandished across it. In one corner is the back of the pub and opposite it a large, manual scoreboard, with stacks of numbers on white boards piled up at its base, ready to be applied whenever a goal is scored, it's a bit like something from a cricket oval.

One whole side of the ground though, the same as the dugouts, is not so scenic. A long blue tarp covers the bare earth bank underneath, a long blue tarp endorsed by FIFA no less, its large badge stamped on one end. Next to the seated stand is a formation of black and red portacabins, that contain the boardroom, club shop, changing rooms and where Toms eyes have fixated, the refreshments.

“Hope they do gravy” he says, running his eyes over the menu, I think that’s the only reason he agrees to these trips further afield is because of his love of all things hot, brown and beefy. “Just says chips and pies” he adds not long after, a tad disappointed. He still orders though, and sits down on of the few benches set out.

In Richard Tims, SFC have a chairman who is not backward in coming forward. In his green tweed jacket, with a vice like grip, he along with his son, the acting mini chairman in his colourful woolly hat, join the already long list of warm welcomers. “You never know in non league football” he explains, when I ask him how many people through the already ticking turnstile they would expect today. “Wednesday and United are not at home today” he adds, so that's in their favour, and not so long ago “two hundred and fifty Cologne fans” turned up, “mental” he says, his face lighting up, so he can never be sure.

With an average gate being around two hundred and eighty, he would hope for close to that, but it being a cup game means “no season tickets” are valid and he probably sums up the life of a chairman and the anxiety of how many people are going to turn up, week in, week out, perfectly in one sentence, “If it's chucking down on a Tuesday night and Barcelona are on the telly, it will wipe out half your gate”.

It being a Saturday, the sun is unseasonably glorious and as far as I know Barcelona are not on the TV, he should be OK.

One thing I certainly wasn't expecting today was an assignment. “Loud and clear” shouts someone on the pitch to the person testing the PA, high up on the second floor of the portacabin heap. The first piece of music to come over the recently tested speakers sounds like the opening of a 1960’s TV show and it is my enquiry with Richard, as to what is it from, that triggers him setting me my homework.

“Shazam it” he tells me when I ask him again what the music is from. Not only was I not aware that was a thing anymore, I think the last time someone used it was around the same time someone asked Jeeves something, it would just be a lot simpler if he would tell me. However he has a mischievous glint in his eye, he’s not giving up the answer easily and he tells us he hopes Shazam is still a thing, because if it isn’t, it’s going to seriously damage his street cred with his kids, “don't want them thinking I’m any less cool”.

The recently arrived PC players like Tom, are more than happy with the state of the pitch, as they do their customary wander about on it before getting ready for their warm up. “That's alright” says one, “like a carpet”, says another. One of their coaches points out that, “if you can't play football here, you can’t play anywhere”, all while You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate. Which of course was on the Full Monty soundtrack, which yes you remember correctly was based in Sheffield.

In the opposite corner of the ground to the man sitting on a low wall listening attentively to his transistor radio, is the members and supporters wall. Long, shiny and black, what it lacks in names on it, the majority of the gold spaces on it are empty, it makes up for in the calibre of the people who are, Ian Rush, Sir Bobby Charlton, Alan Mullery and Gordon Banks.

I can't stress enough quite how lovely the weather is, us southerners do have some daft
preconceptions about how it can be in the North, but I’m delighted to say its a beauty of a day, and although I’m not that a huge Heather Small fan, her warbling is pleasant enough accompaniment and I’m sure she was also on the 1997 miners doing a bit of stripping film soundtrack too.

Tom having finished his pie, a very nice pie at that, served upside down to allow for quick access to the bountiful filling, he is though not as upbeat as I thought he would be, as he puts it, he is feeling “duped”.

“He had mushy peas and gravy, I didn't know that was on offer” he says sullenly, pointing to one of the bigger boys, whose pie is smothered in the thick brown gravy he loves so much, as well as a healthy serving of vivid crushed peas.

Pulp follow the Arctic Monkeys on the speakers, but Richard tells me I've only worked out “half” of his conundrum, but that I’m “on the right track”, when I march up to him, sure I’ve cracked his test, telling him the answer must be that all the music is Sheffield themed.

Of the three games we’ve seen so far this season, we’ve only seen one win, and one goal, “I really wanna see some goals today” hopes Tom, not only for the entertainment value of them, but because he wants to see the “scoreboard in action”.

The chance of a raffle today seems iffy, “depends if someone turns up”, I’m told. Tom is indulging in some retail therapy, his stomach suitably full. Buying himself a one hundred and sixty years commemorative SFC shirt, a red and black harlequin number, with a string tie collar, a kit worthy of gracing any collection. He pays the man at the pop up club shop, a small table set up near the tunnel, the man after him shells out a few pennies for a team sheet and tells the vendor that he “hopes” today is “better than Tuesday”, “can't get any worse than that” he replies. SFC lost 6 - 0 away.

“Cables, Cables” sing the visiting fans, distinguishable by their bright yellow scarves, gathered around the end of the red tunnel, that has just been extended a fair way to the edge of the pitch. “Welcome to the home of football” says the voice over the PA, while the PC supporters sing a song that includes their nickname, one that instantly joins the likes of the Beavers of Hampton & Richmond, The Angels of Tonbridge, as being just a bit too nice for football, a little bit Disney, or in their case Scooby Doo, “pesky bulls”.

Kick off brings more chanting from the moderately sized contingent from Merseyside, it also for the first time makes us aware that the referees assistant running the line in front of us, bares a striking resemblance to a less bulky Chris Hemsworth.

Such is the height of the barrier around the pitch, it allows us to perch on the nearby breeze block wall with a perfect view, which is only spoilt occasionally by the shuffling flag bearing Thor. One man next to us, has taken it to the next level and is on a padded fold out chair, chuffing profusely on a cigarette. The PC fans have changed song, their latest offering to the tune of Anarchy In The UK.

On five minutes SFC have a goal bound shot blocked and I’m not sure the PC fans have stopped singing yet. One of their number, away from the main company has hung his small yellow flag, featuring the red rose of Lancaster, his pint resting perfectly next to it.

A minute later PC attack, the first of a succession of attacks by the away team. Their first sees the home keeper do a big floppy punch to the cross into his box, where he gets more of his team mate than the ball. The second is a jet heeled counterattack, with a curling shot at its end that's just over, and the third, interrupts their fans singing about asking their mothers “what will I be”, and inspires a new one about playing like “Brazil”, bolstered by the fact they are wearing yellow tops and blue shorts.

“I don't think they’re going to stop singing” says Tom, even when they look to be taking a breather, one keeps it up, “I’ll sing on my own” he announces.

SFC’s physios concerns seem to be founded, it’s all one way traffic. PC have what seems a quite legitimate shout for a penalty turned down, “handball” cry the players, but the referee gives a corner instead. “What happened there, he went flying” asks Tom, the one PC player going airborne due to a hefty shove from a PC defender, there is another appeal for a penalty, but again nothing is given. All this action right in front of them, only encourages the PC fans further, “Cables, Cables”.

The PC onslaught is only briefly adjourned by a half chance from a SFC corner, but PC are soon back at it. Attacking down the right, the winger is spoilt for choice as to who to pass to in the box. Chopping the ball one way, then the other, he sends his marker inside out, he chips the ball delicately into the box, only for the SFC keeper to pluck it from the air.

All this, and it's only a quarter of an hour gone.

I understand football has moved on a lot since a time of cigarettes at half time, keepers wearing no gloves, players owning tie shops to earn a little bit of extra money and two points for a win. We are about pink boots, Snapchatting on the bench during games, over elaborate goal celebrations now, which is fine, but I think that the Thor looking lino, with his sparkling blue boots, is a step too far, #AgainstModernFootball.

Tom just thinks I need to get over it, pointing out that that is the “norm” now.

PC are attacking at will, “come on Cables” chant their fans and Tom is fleetingly confused by the mixture of unfamiliar accents, thinking someone is shouting “shooo, shooo”  like the old lady would in a Tom & Jerry cartoon to that troublesome mouse beneath her stockinged leg, when the ball enters the SFC box, a new version of clear it, only for it to be PC fans telling their player to “shoot”.

“Where's he played the ball then dickhead?” asks a PC fan in a thick Liverpudlian accent, when they have their third appeal for a penalty turned down. “Not touched him” confirms the referee to the appealing players. Looked a pretty bang on penalty to me.

SFC incursions into the PC half are few and far between, they are nearly handed the chance at an undeserved advantage, when the all neon green PC keeper, who looks like “Fabianski” according to Tom, charges out of his box and appears to handle the ball, but it goes unpunished.

Not for the first time in the game, the speed of the match ball returning to the pitch is brought into question, “can we get these balls sorted, it’s getting a bit embarrassing” complains a home player. On one occasion when one is hoofed on to the pitch by the SFC bench, it ends up hitting one of their own players plumb on the top of the head. The players demeanour, cowering with his arms above his head, made me think he might have had a premonition it was going to happen, “of all the people to hit” chuckled Tom.

The visiting fans are the far more vocal, Tom doesn't get the “pesky bulls” nickname though, but the shouts from those away supporters around us, like they have been all match are loud and reassuring, “keep going Cables it will come”. One fan though is not quite as positive, “get a grip Cables”, he yells, it’s as if he could sense some kind of imminent danger. An SFC player also has a slight moment of clairvoyancy of his own, “standards” he shouts, and that's just what they do, upping them considerably.

“Started brightly, but not a lot happening now”, says Tom with about twenty seven and a half minutes gone, when the clock hits about twenty eight and a half, he tells me he takes his previous comment “back”, SFC have just scored. A knock down at the far post into the box is latched on to by the sprightly number 8 who crashes it home.

“What's going on here?”, asks one PC fan baffled, unable to get his head around how they have just spent the previous twenty seven minutes hammering on the SFC door, only to find themselves behind. They do not though have long to wait long before they are back battering away at it again.

The scoreboard changed, the man rifled around for his big number one, reached up high, removed the nought and replaced it, and neither of us bloody saw it happen. “Keep going lads, it will come” suggests a still confident PC fan, as they continue their siege of the home goal, seemingly not too dejected by the SFC goal. Great feet sees one of their players graft some enough room to shape up to shoot, only for his shot again to get deflected just wide. It's back to the walls stuff for SFC.

A temporary match of midfield pinball breaks out with about ten minutes left to play, neither team it seems wanting to keep the ball longer for long, give it away, only to win it back again just as quick, it's all shins, knees and loose touches. The sight of which gets the away fans all animated “Cables, Cables, Cables”.

Tom is really relishing the sun, his mood is improved tenfold by what he thinks is the Top Gun esq call for a player called “Ace” coming from the home bench. I personally would rather be standing with the home fans on the black and red striped terrace opposite, I’m really not much of a sun worshipper.

SFC’s number 3 is young, maybe no more than seventeen and until now he'd been having a reasonably solid game, it is however him that Tom is “feeling sorry for” when his poor header, ultimately leads to PC getting back into the match. To be fair to him, there is a lot more that happens after it, but it was the catalyst that starts the attack.

“Get in there, come on” howls one of PC fan. Like I said a lot happened after number 3’s header, the home goalie is in for some stick too, “good save keeper lad” declares a PC supporter, he couldn't hold on to the low angled shot, pushing it right back into the six yard box, allowing for a simple tap in. “you're fucking shit” adds the same sympathetic fan.

What I call dancing, my interpretation of a PC players close control to get past his marker, Tom calls “fumbling”, he didn't think he knew much about it, but however the PC player got into the box for the late chance, he got there nonetheless. “These lot will shit themselves now”, shouts one PC fan, who I suspect is the same one who was trolling the SFC keeper earlier.

Unfortunately for PC a spot of sideline shenanigans breaks up their momentum, when the two dugouts start going at it. From where we are we can't really make out what's going on, I think I see some water being squirted and a hell of a lot of posturing, the players on the pitch from either side just look embarrassed, and the away fans are loving it, “Cables, Cables, Cables”. The referee in his attempt to regain control, goes a little bit substitute teacher, “behave”.

Although there are calls from the home bench to “calm it down” the game is at points close to boiling over. PC have the last chance of the half, a close range attempt is blocked by the keeper who deflects it out for a corner, which comes to nothing. There is no extra time, the tunnel is out, ready and waiting for the departing players.

“Come on lads” shouts on of the PC fans who have stayed put to clap their team off. The music is soon back on, ABC’s Poison Arrow is followed by a long string of Arctic Monkeys numbers, by the sounds of it, someone has just opened up their Spotify page and left it playing. Pulp are next, Tom confesses to not being much of a fan of theirs, so does his best to drown them out, first by explaining to me what a “flat white” coffee is in much detail, then secondly what a “flat mocha” is, cheers dude.

The opposing managers emerge from the tunnel deep in conversation, some kind of peace accord has been brokered, following the pre break spat. The referee is out way after the players, Tom with his vulgar schoolboy hat firmly on, mutters “nice shit ref?” then snigger's to himself. Jarvis Cocker is still blaring over the speaker only seconds before the ball is kicked to restart the match.

PC are first to craft a chance, the half only about three minutes old, however its way, way over. When they win a free kick a couple of minutes later, there is something about the manic, me, me, me, me waving of the PC number 5 that gives an inkling that he might like to take it. He does and it's not half bad, the player at the back post doesn't do it justice, putting his free header wide. Most if not all the players have their head in their hands, astounded.

“They look warm” says Tom passive aggressively, the PC fans have of course swapped ends, along with their flag, more to do with the fact that they want to be closer to the goal their team are now attacking, more than they are chasing the last vestiges of the sun's warmth.

After what was a rather rampant first half the opening quarter of the new one, feels a bit flat. Tom seems to the think that the “longer it goes on” 1 - 1, the more he reckons “Sheffield will win”, but then says in the next breath if PC “score next, they could run away with it” I think that's called having all the bases covered or in gambling circles, hedging your bets.

On about the fifteen minute mark, the course of the match, is inexplicably affected, we’re talking buying the Grays Sports Almanac, taking you Mum to the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance kind of affect, by a very controversial call by the referee and his spangly boot wearing assistant. The looping SFC header is well out of reach of the PC keeper and is destined for the top corner of the goal. Perhaps not so sure that is the case, one SFC player attempts to make sure and in doing so, having supposedly come from an offside position, rules the goal void.

Just for the record the ball was going in and didn't need his extra touch, regardless and as the SFC players attest, “he never touched it” he really didn't, but the linesman has raised his flag, giving it for interfering with play perhaps or obstruction, whatever it is, it isn't a goal, much to the delight of the PC fans who I’m sure were a little on edge for a second, who let out a sarcastic, “weyyyyyyyyy”. A very red faced Richard speaking on behalf of all SFC supporters, is giving the linesman both barrels from the sidelines.

SFC look like a different team, since the restart, far more assured, they themselves however, despite their new found tenacity are not immune to the odd wobble. When PC look to have scored, you can almost see all the swagger draining out of them, only for the goal to be ruled off, for offside, so in response they go up the other end and all but decimate the crossbar with a long range rasping shot. The distant shouts of “Cables, Cables” doesn't sound as confident as before.

It is a bit of nifty wing play and a cynical challenge, with just over twenty minutes gone, that leads to the next major talking point. The SFC wideman leaves his marker for dead, zipping on by him, leaving him no other option but to stick a leg out to trip him up, instead of allowing free reign in to the box.

The PC defender is booked, the free kick is lofted in and the keepers method to clear is a hoaky overhand right punch, that only gets the ball as far as the edge of the box, where his teammate momentarily gains possession, only to lose it again. Once more the ball is sent goalwards, this time it's a bit more up and over, one SFC player breaks free of the defensive line, attempting to latch onto the high ball.

His progress is quite unceremoniously halted by a combination of upper thigh and bum of the leaping PC keeper, who gets nowhere near the ball, and totally wipes out the SFC number 10, which results in a penalty, much to the dismay of one nearby PC fans, “fuck off”.

It is not the most convincing of spot kicks from the number 10, maybe he is still a bit rattled after being attacked by the PC’s keepers arse, but he scores, bobbling it along the ground into the bottom left hand corner.

I think it's for about the sum total of three minutes that the home side look a good bet to see this one out, onto the next round boosted by a win over a tough opponent, until as one PC fan put it, an SFC defender “UFC’ed” a PC forward on the edge of the box and gets a second yellow.

The red card takes the referee a while to administer, because it all gets a little heated once again, there
is plenty of rutting and chest thumping and as Tom notices too, one SFC player is lucky to still be on the pitch once it is, because he clearly stamped more than once on one PC players foot.

As you can imagine the PC fans who had a grandstand view of the melee are delighted, “fucking move” shouts one as the dismissed player takes the long walk of shame off the pitch at a snail's pace.

When the set piece is eventually taken, it is very almost a double whammy for the home side, testing each and every one of the home fans resolve to the enth degree, when the free kick, which never looks like it got off the ground, hit the foot of the post, “Cables, Cables, Cables”.

Into the final fifteen of the match and I honestly have no idea which way this game is going. “If they can cling on to this, it’s a great result” says Tom, but clinging on is just what they are doing, its fingernail stuff. It’s all PC, the home side look for the same ball over the top when they get the ball that is, but its not paying off, and the visitors look certain to be the ones to score next.

“Don't forget we’re one down” might just be the the least helpful instruction from a team's bench we will hear all season. I’m not sure stating the bleeding obvious is going to help anyone, I’m pretty sure no one had forgotten.

“Nice, nice” says Tom when a purposeful run and powerful shot by the SFC number 7 is saved well. As a former goalkeeper himself, I imagined his appreciation was for the skill of the stop, when it is actually because at the moment his score prediction is correct and even though we don't as of yet have anything riding on our wager, the simple case of being able to get one over me, has him delirious. He must have said “final whistle please ref” about five times already, he has no desire to see any more goals.

“Speed it up ref” insists one PC supporter, banging the hoarding, the SFC keeper for some unexplained reason is now taking an age to do anything. 

Not far from the second person I’ve spotted today with a transistor radio, its long silver antennae picking up Radio 5 Live no doubt, updating its owner on all the up to date scores or he’s listening to Heart FM, Richard sits on the low wall, his son next to him, looking on forlorn, “can we hang on with ten men” he ponders as I pass him.

It looks like if SFC have any chance of scoring again, and putting this game out of PC's reach, it's going to be down to their number 10, whose movement, hold up play and positioning, means he is able to single handedly torment the PC defence. He is by no way one of the biggest players on the pitch, we’re talking brain over brawn. With only a few minutes to go, he nearly puts the game out of sight, but his shot is saved.

Edging ever closer to full time, there are plenty of nervous home fans around us, “come on guys” pleads one, as a PC half chance nearly results in a goal. Nerves quickly turn to anger, when SFC don't help themselves, giving the ball away cheaply in midfield, “what ya messing at”.

There can literally be only about a minute left to play, and the familiar cry of the PC fans at the far end of the pitch, rings out again, “Cables, Cables, Cables”, they've only gone and equalized. The voice of the man over the PA is one of absolute dejection, when he reads the name of the scorer and time of the goal aloud.

Deep into injury time and PC clearly want this tie sewn up today, however it is the home team, a man down remember, still reeling from the late sucker punch of an equaliser, who go close to winning it not once, but twice.

Audacious, ambitious, outright ballsy, whatever it was, the attempt at a long range lob, I mean really long range, would have been the perfect end to what has been a engrossing match. Having joined the SFC fans behind the goal, we all watch as it sails just over, no way I say to myself, in anticipation of witnessing something insane, as it soars towards us.

I can't believe what I have just seen, how, oh how are SFC not ahead. The run down the right wing, the ball across the box all perfect, all perfectly timed, and what looked like a simple back post tap in for the picked out player, is not so. How has he conspired to put it wide? It was an open net, lying face down in the goal mouth, I doubt the number 17 wants to get up again, and the sight of such a blatant miss, makes me make an involuntary noise akin to that a long dead human body, being turned over, might make.

“If I was a neutral I'd say that was a fare result, but I'm not” says a SFC fan, the red tunnel extended for the last time today, the players slow to leave the pitch, the rigours of what for the whole was pretty blood and thunder stuff, visible across their faces.

A visit to the Coach & Horses, is tantamount to a visit to a living football museum, but without any out of work aspiring young actors having to pretend for eight hours a day they are a chimney sweep. One can not be anything but a little bit awe struck by the fact that SFC are where it all begun, they are the very first, the first of what must be millions of teams that have come after them.

“Can’t say that wasn't entertaining?” says Richard, as we make our way to leave, asking if we are heading to the pub first, a pub he tells us he has failed to find a “better one” in all of non league. Richard who I now see in a different light, he is more the head curator than the chairman. Custodian of what I imagine can be quite a heavy burden at time. Responsible for the direction of such an entity, with so much history and significance.

If you ever get the chance to see the SFC boardroom you will see they are not short on shiny things, cups, awards and accolades from all around the world, and if we may, we would like to add to the already heaving shelves and sparse wall space. It’s very small award, very understated, but its one from the heart. I think the biggest thumbs up we can give any club we visit, is when Tom says its one he could see himself supporting.

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Thursday, 4 October 2018

How Many More Blue? - Grays Athletic FC Vs Bowers & Pitsea FC, Bostik League North, Parkside (26/09/18)

The sky is a delightful shade of pale blue and there's not a cloud to be seen, but I’m really in no state of mind to appreciate it. I’ve spent well over half my time awake today behind the wheel of my car. I drove me and my family back from Manchester this morning, after a few days with the fiancee’s rents, taking in the rolling Derbyshire dales and an afternoon tea to die for, however that all feels like a distant memory now. Our drive back was held up by roadworks and we spent the last thirty miles trying to drown out my daughter with classic FM because she had had enough and was losing her shit.

There is a significantly sized Tom shaped hole in the passenger seat to my left. Only adding to my condition is the rush hour traffic I encounter at every turn. My attempt to avoid a local choke point, just leads me straight into another one. I hurriedly call Tom, between creeping forward another few feet to tell him I’m going to be late, and he might be better off making his own way to tonight's ground himself. He doesn't disguise his displeasure very well, I think he has become quite accustomed to being chauffeured about.

Despite Tom only living twenty four minutes away according to the message he sent me, I manage somehow to get to Parkside, home of Aveley FC and temporary abode of Grays Athletic FC (GA), who we are here to see tonight before him. I’m surprised not to see him already parked up and waiting for me. I’d also forgotten since the last time we were here, New Years Eve 2017, quite how brutal the black and yellow striped speedbumps are in the car park. The kind of which regardless of how slow you are going, they almost send you airborne and one is scared they may end up snapping your car in half.

I’m not the only early bird, GA’s opponents Bowers & Pitsea FC (BP) kit man is waiting patiently on the steps of the uber modern Parkside, its blue facade the same colour as the sky, surrounded by kit bags, finishing off what looks like a packed lunch from a bright pink lunch box.

Considering Toms first car was a turquoise Fiat Panda, he was the first of our friend group to get his licence, the front seat of which I was very familiar with, being driven around, slouched and stoned, never really go anywhere just mooching about. His new one, a brand spanking Mini Cooper Countryman, is quite the upgrade.

Dark blue and much larger than my little silver tin can, his arrival in the carpark is like a scene from a Top Gear montage, clearing the speedbumps like they weren't even there, he sidles up next to me, the chrome fixtures gleaming. He winds down his window, I say winds his are electric, mine aren’t, and says “hello” in a very suave James Bond kind of way, what a twat.

A little bit of new FIFA chat later, Tom telling me how impossible it is to score and defend, we’re standing alongside Parkside's dull green 3G pitch, remembering quickly quite how IKEA like the whole place is and just how little there really is to look at. GA’s previous home, which also saw them bunking up with Aveley, they've been homeless since 2010, was right out of the old school. There was a very high chance of turning your ankle on a loose bit of concrete, but it had heaps of character and a stunning main stand.

Parkside is pristeen, it still feels brand new, even though its been open for over a year now, and as Tom dubbed it last time we came, it's “the future”. 3G and 4G pitches that can been used not only by the club, but the local community too and all that comes along with that, but it's just a bit sterile.

The devilishly smart looking Wayne Franklin, BP’s goalkeeping coach, still in his civies, having just arrived in a very ritzy white motor, gives a confined nod when I ask him how he thinks they will get on tonight. He’s soon off, back up the concertinaed tunnel, to get changed into his black joggers and long coat, that we’re much more accustomed to seeing him in.

BP’s players, all in matching tracksuits, have occupied a section of the main stands blue seats, their manager Rob Small sits side on with his head in a notebook, I assume putting the finishing touches on his starting eleven. The GA players, in highlighter pen yellow tops, arrive in dribs and drabs, up the short set of steps outside the ground and straight into the home changing room.

There is little sign of life in the glass fronted bar, that occupies the whole bottom floor of the main stand. The same can be said for the food hatch. “I hope there's food” prays Tom, when he notices its doors are firmly shut. In fact there are few signs of life anywhere really, other than the players padding about and around the two grey trestle tables set up around the turnstiles.

Tom may not have his food yet, which he thinks is increasingly “doubtful” because with GA being lodgers, as one GA committee member Glynn has informed him, they are not responsible for it, so he can’t help with his enquiry if it will be open tonight. I on the other hand, have no such concerns re. a little bit of action of my own, a considerable section of one of the grey tables is occupied with a plethora of raffle prizes.

A cuddly toy, bottles of wine, that if I won I'd never drink, a bumper box of biscuits and with Christmas almost here, what could turn out to be a very handy box of Celebrations. “A pound a strip” says the woman sitting behind the mountain of swag. I hand her two pound coins, and in return get two strips of orange raffle tickets.

Adjacent to my potential winnings, is a small selection of club merchandise, keyrings, scarves, magnets, that sort of thing. Tom a keen pin collector can't remember if he has already got a GA one though, and doesn't want a “duplicate”.

There is a quite sudden flurry of activity around the tables, when a succession of people start to click through the turnstiles, most if not all head straight for the raffle, those digestives must be a big draw, before moving on to Glynn, is his GA jacket who is on programme duty, which he’s  fanned out, his small money box, eager for coins.
He, like everyone else we’ve spoken to so far, Sim the kit man, and Peter the club photographer, who without fail every time we see him, asks us are we “still searching”, confirms as Sim put it, it's going to be “difficult” for them tonight. Peter puts it down to the simple fact they “can't score goals”, Glynn the fact that a few injuries means they are “stretched” and Sim that they are just “so inconsistent”, add all that together, and then put them up against a BP side that as Glynn put it “are very ambitious”, it really could be a tough night for the home side.

What until now had been a very peaceful evening, is shattered by the bizarre mix of nearby locals on dirt bikes, a passing chinook helicopter and the slightly nervous sounding voice of the man on the PA, “hello ladies and gentlemen” he says, but we only hear about every other word, because his mic is on the blink, and he currently sounds like the radio edit of a very sweary song.

The attempt to announce the date of an upcoming cup fixture, is undermined by the fact that when he says the date the mic drops again, and no one knows when it will be, “that’s helpful” says an acerbic GA fan. Tom always championing the underdog, thinks it's very unfair that people are making fun of the man and his “speech impediment’’.

Fully extended now, the vinyl tunnel links the cobalt blue stand to the pitch. There is a subdued ripple of applause as the players arrive, the attempt to do one last rundown of the teams is hampered again by the dodgy mic.

“Come on Bowers” shouts an old chap in a flat cap, making his way slowly towards the goal the visitors are attacking, moments after kick off. From behind me and out of the gloom a hand appears and then the face of someone whose own football travels we’ve followed closely, Dave aka or @davethephoto. One half of The Haribo Tour, called such because he rewards his young son with a sweet every time a goal is scored in the match they attend, comes over and says hello. As nice as it is to finally meet him though, I can't pretend that his lack of fizzy cola bottles or pear drops to offer us,
is a bit of a piss take.

The flat cap wearing BP fan eventually joins the small posse of familiar BP faces behind the goal. They watch on as one of their players, is treated for what looks like a considerable bang to the head. The physio is quickly by his side, shining a light in his eyes. The downed player is soon up, but is walking tentatively towards the touchline, “looks a bit confused” says Dr Tom, and I have to concur, he doesn't look with it at all.

“Ref, ref, ref, ref, ref” barks the BP physio, which has the touch of Alan Partridge about him, eventually getting the man in blacks attention, he half shoves the still groggy looking player back on to the pitch.

“Not again” says Tom when play is held up by another heavy fall, this time it’s a GA player. He is up much quicker than the BP player was, who despite the best efforts of the physio, is being substituted off.

A full quarter of the half has elapsed before either team has their first meaningful effort, I say meaningful, it's a shot by a BP player, but its well off target. His technique is good, controlling the ball on his chest, he hits the half volley well enough, but its, way, way over. “Come on Bowers” shouts a fan with an air of, we can do better than that.

The ever present sound of the unmistakable Rob Small, who can be seen pacing his technical area, is non stop with his advice and instructions. When BP’s keeper flaps at a GA corner, Rob talks them through dealing with, move by move, until the danger has passed.

“How you work that one out ref?” asks a not best pleased GA fan when the call for a foul, doesn't go his team's way. The same supporter informs the man in charge that the local “Specsavers is still open”. The referee like me and Tom, may have had one eye on the full moon slowing rising over the small seated stand opposite us, almost glowing red, Tom goes all Sky at Night, describing it as “captivating”.

If it's not the referee the GA fans are grumbling about, its their own team. I wouldn't go so far as saying they are disgruntled, but there is a slight feel their patience is a little frayed. “Keep it simple” appeals one, when his team seem intent on over complicating things. For the first twenty five minutes, they have shown very little threat going forward, confirming all the things we’d been told pre kick off.

GA’s keeper is by far the loudest player on the pitch, he’s a proper screamer, and so far he has been the busier. He’s forced to franticly back pedal at one point, trying as best as he can to get to the back post to intercept the ball, that’s just been chipped across his box. The intended BP player waiting for it, attempts a high hooked shot, that goes wide and BP are creating significantly more chances than the home team.

In GA’s number 9 we have our second hulking centre forward in a week, but he’s not as hulking according to Tom as Hayward Heath’s Unit. GA’s number 9 is too “skinny” says Tom and what he lacks in stature, he also lacks in the ability to hold the ball up and bring teammates into the game.

“Ooohhhhh” gasp the home crowd, when what might have been their first attack of the half, after almost half an hour, goes begging. “Should of fucking buried it” says a man behind us, in a thick Scottish accent, “and he knows it” he adds about the player who just missed a tap in, the ball having flown across the six yard box from the right wing, “look at him shaking his head”.

GA are very hardworking, they are defending well, but panic at times. “Relax” shouts one of their players, when they give up possession once more. They are coping with what is always a pretty rampant BP forward line, for now, but this is soon to change.
The applause is not for the BP player who has just hit the most delicious of volleys, our second chest trap and strike of the evening. This unlike the first is well on target and is destined for the top right hand corner, only for the strong hands and athletic spring of GA’s all yellow stopper, who forces it wide.

Less than a minute later and GA finally succumb to BP. Cutting in off the right wing and into the box, the scorer let loose a low shot from past the full stretch keeper down to left. Under the impression that the blue seats around us were predominantly filled with home fans, this is soon debunked by the sheer amount of clapping and shouts of “Bowers, Bowers, Bowers”, coming from then and in particular a very vocal young fan on the front row.

“Come on blues keep going” shouts one GA supporter.

The moon now even higher and looking even more resplendent, we are not the only ones trying to get the perfect moon rising non league football picture. Cameras and phones alike are snapping and clicking away around us.

Rob Small who is never seemingly content, is still dishing out words of wisdom to his players and he perhaps has every right to remind his team not to rest on their laurels, because not long after going ahead, they nearly give up their lead. Falling foul of the same ball from the right, that travels right across their box, but again no GA player can get a touch, “ohhhhh” gasp the stand again.

Having just gone so close to drawing level, GA perhaps sum up their current form, by then almost gifting BP a second, when a defender attempts a John Terry style, stooping pitch level header, that goes very wrong, giving the ball straight to a BP forward, who just can't quite make the most of the opportunity.

BP can sense GA are wobbling, and are rampant in their search of another goal. Into the final five of
the half and it's only a vital last ditch touch from the GA keeper that prevents the ball meeting the forehead of the BP player lining up to head in. The resulting corner sees them go close again, the keeper once more required to get fingertips to the goal bound effort, tipping it over.

Following the second corner, GA show a brief example of what they are capable off, winning back possession on the edge of their own box, and breaking instantly. The majority of BP are still in the GA box, as the all blue counter attack makes its way down to the other end of the pitch. only for the final ball to be poor, just about summing up their half in one simple over hit pass.

The final five minutes of normal time get a little heated or “feisty” as Tom puts it. When one BP player does well to wriggle free of the attention of a couple of markers, he's unceremoniously stopped with a bit of a hack. BP are then themselves guilty of a very late challenge in midfield, “have a word ref” demands one home fan. He does, and it's a booking, no great surprise. The vocal BP fan child, who is yet to reach peak loudness, exclaims it was a “perfect challenge”, in his own high pitched way.

“Minimum of four minutes extra time” announces the PA, who manages I think to complete his first sentence of the night. Tom has returned double quick with dinner. Having been ever so concerned about when to go, because there are “a lot of people here”, and he’s right, there is, so he mustered all his Arsenal’ness and sacrificed missing some of the game, to ensure he didn't have to stand in a queue for five minutes.

It’s GA who finish the half ever so slightly on top. They hit the target with an effort from outside the box, but its a bit tame and never looked like troubling anyone and then go close with a towering header, the jump of the player responsible something really to behold, he looked to be about eight feet off the ground.

The tunnel is dragged into position at quite a pace, seconds after the half time whistle. “Come on Bowers”, “lets go Bowers” shouts the young fan, who has been joined by a friend, who both stand at the mouth of the tunnel, hands outstretched, looking for a high five from the passing BP players, who duly obliged.

I guess a Tango is like a Coke, just orange. My drink request to Tom a bit lost in translation perhaps, however it’s cold and tastes good, and goes down a treat. Tom is happy with the “lots of chips” he got, but is not impressed with the “raw onions” and is worried he now “stinks” and the burger is more “bread” than meat.

It’s at this juncture between me finding out that I of course have not won anything on the raffle and @davethephoto asking me how many times a season do I say to myself “waste of money”, it's a lot, that Tom informs me of an interesting equation he has formulated over the last three years:

“When someone offers you a double burger, you know you’re in trouble” he tells me, it means its a “thin patty” so the vendor offers “two” to “make up for it”.

The early GA pressure after the restart, breeds hope among the home fans, perhaps the BP win is not the forgone conclusion most thought it might be. The group of GA supporters who have congregated to our left, one with a video camera at the end of a very long telescopic stand, are quick to bring to the attention of the officials, what they think is the flagrant time wasting, being committed by the BP’s keeper.

Tom puts GA’s flying start down to what must have been a “good team talk’. After ten minutes they go close following a surging run into the box. They go close again not long after with a shot from an acute angle, that's just over.

WIth the game finally hotting up, for some reason conversation turns away from it, and onto the fact that I’m wearing shorts again, still holding onto the last vestiges of summer. Tom suggests I should get some of those “fashionable” ones with zip on, zip off legs. He reminds me of a pair he used to wear when we went clubbing in our youth, because of how “hot” he used to get. If I’m honest, I’m still struggling with the suggestion that they are “fashionable”.

“Come on ref, get hold of him” exclaims one GA fan, who is growing tired of the BP keepers time wasting, Tom is sure “he’s going to get booked”. I’m all up for a little bit of the dark arts, they are part and parcel of the game, but he’s not being very subtle about it.

A flying Bruce Lee kung fu volley might have been the best goal we’d have seen all season, sadly for us the GA player responsible for the acrobatics, and everyone in attendance, his attempt is over.

“Come on you blues” shouts one of the animated bunch to our left. Just when things were going well for them, their transformed forward line takes a bit of a knock when a player pulls up after a quite excellent piece of aerial control. The downed player reaches for his hamstring, “oh he’s fucked, he’s pulled something” sighs a GA supporter, as the physio, who as Tom puts it “travels light”, runs to his aid, with seemingly no medical kit, unless it's all stuffed in her pockets.

On the twenty minute mark BP show how dangerous they can be, having been solidly under the cosh, they burst into life with a sweeping counterattack. The ball is hammered across the box, only to be cut out, just before it can be prodded into the back of the net.

“Come on Grays” pleads one home fan, “talk to each other” requests another, when three players all go for the same ball at a corner. Rob Small still prowling, reminds his players to “enjoy defending”.

Without fail every BP goal kick is accompanied with a comment, about how long it is taking for it to be taken. When the keeper goes down, adopting a new tactic think the home fans, “he didn't fucking touch him” points out one, the locals start to get a little “restless” as @davethephoto puts it. “Get up you tart” shouts one to the keeper curled up in a foetal position, “add the time on ref” commands another. When the keeper does get up, there is no booking as had been requested and one supporter anoints him “Lazarus”.

“Bowers are on the ropes” says Tom, unfortunately for GA, who have been on top since the whistle, they just can’t punish them, and persisting with the boxing analogies, BP prove like any good fighter that however much they may be close to taiking a knee, don't underestimate them, they still might just catch you out, and they almost do just that, right against the run of play, only for a last ditch GA tackle in the box stopping a certain goal.

Almost inevitably, when a team are on top, but don't make it count, at some point in the game, the tide will start to shift. “Come on Grays, they're on top now” mourns one supporter. The GA dominance has come to an abrupt end and in the space of about five minutes BP craft three good chances and with this the young visiting fan has found his voice again, “come on Bowers”.

“We had a good spell” laments one fan, almost nostalgic for all those nearlys and almosts that happened only about ten minutes ago, “we always have a little spell” adds another, fed up.

With less than ten minutes to go the prayers of the suffering GA fans are answered. “Whip it” says one standing behind me, as the winger assesses his options. He does just that, drifting in a high looping cross in to the BP box. “Handball” mutters Tom, he like the BP players who have surrounded the referee, some talking to his assistant about GA’s equaliser, are sure he's finished with his hand or at least his arm, all while the player whose bundled it in celebrates and the bunch to our left are on their feet.

The mic is still playing up, crackling as the scorers name is read out, “who?” asks one supporter. “Come on boys, let's get the winner” shouts a buoyed home fan. It would seem if anyone is going to get a second for them, it will be GA’s Carlos who got first, who at times looks like he is going to try and win the game single handedly. His quick feet, allow him to let off a shot, which is deflected wide.

The mood of the home fans has changed dramatically, it’s like the difference between night and day, and in those final five minutes of normal time, plus whatever was added on, I have never heard one mans name said so often, Carlos this, and Carlos that.

Perhaps not completely understanding the rules, I’ll put it down to his age, the now continuously singing young BP fan, has a brief exchange with a much older local one, when the home supporters shout for a handball. “Your goal was a handball” replies the young man quickly, as if one cancels out the other.

“How many more blue?” asks one exacerbated GA fan, after his team curl a close range shot over. “You're fucking joking” blurts out another, who can’t believe they've not gone in front.

All of a sudden and out of nowhere the sound of a drum echoes around the dazzlingly lit Parkside, emanating from the BP fans behind the goal, “where has that been all day?” asks Tom, as confused as I am, as to why it's taken eighty nine minutes for it to make an appearance.

“Let's make it a good one” appeals a GA supporter, in the moments before they line up to take a freekick. The ball is into the right area, but is cleared. Soon enough though Carlos is back at it, shooting from a tight angle, after another of his solo runs, stinging the palms of the BP keeper. The young BP fan is now constantly on his feet having gone full hyper and is literally bouncing, “come on Bowers, come on Bowers, come on Bowers, come on Bowers, come on Bowers”.

Can someone please explain to me what “bits” means, because for the third game running, someone has told someone else to do some “bits” and I’m fucking clueless.
The sound that rings out around us, is one I imagine someone might make in the throws of a huge coronary. The collective agnony of the GA fans, when the ball is lashed into the area, but is missed again, is palpable. A corner to them follows, its cleared, bouncing to a player on the edge of the box. You can see the thought process all over his face, should I hit this or shouldn't I. He does, and it's only inches over.

“Come on Bowers keep pushing” urges on BP supporter. Their youngest fan here, who is also hands down their noisiest, is living quite vicariously through the eleven men on the pitch in red and white stripes. His heart is almost broken by a poor kick by the BP keeper, which results in a one on one with a GA forward. One recovering challenge in the box later, and the GA fans and players claim a penalty, buts its waved away.

Uncomfortably loud feedback this time blights the man with the microphone, as he attempts to tell us of the “four minutes of extra time” left to be play.

“We deserved a winner” comments one GA fan to another following the final whistle and maybe on the balance of play they did, but it didn't come, despite the one man show that was Carlos and all his efforts. One supporter probably put it best, describing the result as a “good point” earned. One they had to work hard for, be thankful for a stroke of good luck for and one that at times, they looked a long way from getting.

We’ve no idea why, but there is a delay to the players leaving the pitch, when an almighty rukus
breaks out, but thankfully common sense prevails and its broken up. BP are last of the pitch, post team debrief and thanking their supporters behind the goal.

I’m kind of glad it ended a draw, I feel we have a foot so firmly planted in both camps, its like watching two family members have a punch up, it's really hard to take any gratification from them taking lumps out of each other.

BP are a team on the up, they have been since we first saw them win promotion and with all the recent upgrades they have done to their ground, if feels like the sky's the limit. GA, well GA have stalled a bit, still sleeping on other teams sofas, fan owned now, which is definitely A positive, their fate firmly in their own hands, after their own financial issues.

GA much like BP have always been so good to us, so helpful, so accommodating, so friendly. I’m not sure we’ve visited a club with a stronger sense of history, with a more committed fan base, who deserve their own corner of the non league world to call home, and when they do, which I’m sure they will, we want to be the first in the queue to watch them.

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