The first game on our football tour of London was a local one.
Wingate & Finchley FC, of the Ryman Premier League. Only about 10 mins from my house as the crow flies, and nestled between a rugby club, a David Lloyd Centre and a Vue cinema complex in N12. Before attending the game, I had fired over a quick email on the club website to see if we could arrange a photo with a player or even the 1st team coach or manager. The reply was almost instantaneous from Paul, who offered not only a picture, but a chance to look around behind the scenes of the club. He suggested coming along on match day and asking for him on arrival. As I arrived at about 13:00 on a near perfect day for football, a cool crisp January afternoon, with a blue sky and not a cloud in it I was met by Paul, and after spending £10 on my ticket and £2 on my program, off we went for a tour of the club.
Paul is a board member and lifelong Wingate & Finchley fan, although he did admit in dabbling in the dark arts and is also a Man Utd fan. His Grandfather, who was 98 this year and still attends home games when the weather is agreeable, was a founder of Wingate, one half of the two clubs that had merged to become Wingate & Finchley.
Wingate had a fascinating history as they were set up by Paul’s grandfather and others, as a way to combat anti-Semitism in post war England. They are named after a British war time General Orde Wingate credited as one of the founders of modern guerrilla war fare, creator of the Chindits and trained Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization which went on to form the Israelis Defense Force. The Star of David is still visible today on the clubs badge.
We first visited the home changing room, it was still early but the home shirts had been hung, and were awaiting the players. A few people milled about, including Ronaldo the clubs kit man. The walls of the changing room were adorned with motivational prompts for the players, such as “Sport doesn’t build character, it builds it”, my favourite was the slightly modified version of the famous JFK 1961 inauguration address, “Ask not what your team mates can do for you, but ask what you can do for your team mates”
As well as the tactics board, football themed clock and the “don’t wash your boots in the shower” sign, there was a gold plaque above a door way dedicated to a youth player Dean Saunders, who had sadly died on the pitch due to a heart defect.
As we left the changing room and walked up the tunnel to go pitch side, a few of the away team players piled out of their team bus, and made their way to to their changing room. As Paul and I got to the pitch we were soon joined by the groundsman Andy Ward, who I was introduced to. I commented on the previous night’s deluge of rain causing him a headache, but he was quick to say it was only x millimeters and would not be a problem. By this quick response and obvious great condition of the playing surface you could tell he was man who was very good at his job.
Pitch side I was also introduced to the first team coach, Daniel Nielsen. He was what you might call a Wingate & Finchley “Man”. A product of the clubs youth team, who had spent the majority of his career with the club other than a 3 year spell away, had returned to take the reigns as head coach, as W&F have adopted the very continental system of head coach and director of football.
At this point the referee and his assistants approached, they to, inspected the pitch commenting themselves what great condition it was in, as always. With the ref inspecting the pitch this meant the board room was free, and that was going to be our next stop.
The board room door was an innocuous looking blue one at the base of the main stand, a main stand which for all you architecture aficionado’s is the oldest canter leaver stand in the country. The “NO PARKING” sign was bigger than the “Boardroom” one, and as we entered before me laid out on the bar were a few dozen cups and saucers and an older gentleman in a blazer holding a very large metal tea pot, as well as two other gents going about club related duties.
A welcoming hand was offered by all three, as well as a much needed cup of tea. The Board room was not grand, no large oak board table, and was not huge, perhaps only the size of your living room. What it lacked in size and grandeur it made up for in character and history. The walls were liberally decorated with many interesting pointers to the clubs previous success and history. The gold gilt framed painting of one of its founders, the pennants of visiting clubs, the varnished wooden honors board, adorned in gold lettering and just under the TV was a picture of the 1961 England team including World Cup winner Bobby Charlton, who had trained at the Wingate ground before a game against Ireland.
It was getting close to 14:00 and Toms arrival was imminent, a quick glance at my phone, and I saw a txt and a missed call. The txt was from Tom, looking for a reply to his question earlier in the day asking me to let him know if there was a burger van, and the missed call was because he had arrived.
I was conscious of not taking up too much of Paul’s time. He had said previously that no one had rung him yet, so things must be ok. So after grabbing Tom, and heading to the Clubhouse “The Wingate”, I introduced Tom to Paul, thanked him for all his help, and Tom and I sat down for a pre match pint, and a chance for us to catch up on the afternoons events.
The TV was the main focal point for the people in there, a mixture of home and away fans watching the FA Cup round 3 take place and a match between Blackburn & Swansea. W&F had equaled their best FA Cup run this year, only going out to Havent & Waterlooville, who not so long ago famously took Liverpool to a replay at Anfield. Not long before kickoff the same guy who was manning the turnstiles was handing out team sheets, when he got to one table and had run out, he was asked if he could print off a few more, and the man asking was the Lewes manager!
The Lewes manager did what he could with repeated shouts of “make the pitch big”, but 13 mins later the away end was an even more unhappy place to be, as a burst pace from the F&W number 11, Karl Oliyide, who was described to me by a home fan as “running like a scolded cat”, burst down the right and shot across the keeper making it 2 – 0. It was not long after that the number 11, the best home player of the first half was subbed off after suffering a large gash on the knee right in front of us, the intimacy of lower league football brought sharply in to focus. After the game Daniel Neilson said he was “ok”, he just had to have it “glued closed”.
The 2nd half started, and we had moved to be closer to the home support. Curiously they had moved as well to what was now behind the Lewes keeper. The small covered terrace behind the goal, The Harvey Ackerman Stand was now very full, and as well as flags hanging from the roof, they were generating a good amount of noise. The bulk of that noise seemed to be led by a group of fans from Northampton who used to hold season tickets at Arsenal and would travel down to every home game, who happened to go to a W&F game by chance, and had now replaced the Emirates with the Harry Abrahams Stadium. They had also been priced out for following their first love, so wanted to redirect that passion somewhere it was appreciated.
The main talking point of the 2nd half, which unfolded right in front of us was a dubious offside call, which resulted in a very classy 3rd goal for W&F being chalked off. A great bit of skill from the number 8, Tommy Tejan – Sie, saw him jink pass his marker as he cut in to the box after a pass from a short corner and slot it in to the bottom right hand corner, only for the refs assistant a few feet away from us, and who only looked about 17, to raise his flag for off side. He claimed a home player was standing offside, and was interfering with play.
As seems to be the way nowadays with all players, regardless of the league W&F descended on the refs assistant, pointing out in their eyes the mistake he had clearly made. The ref, much older and who had had a good control on the game, communicating well with the players and management, at one point telling the Lewes manager to have a word with one of his players because “he keeps yapping in my ear”, demanded the players leave the area, so he could consult with his assistant. As if the Sky cameras were on them and to prevent the red tops and Gary Neville scrutinizing their discussion, they covered their mouths and discussed the call he had made. The call stood, the ref pointed for a free kick and the game continued.
2 – 0 was the final score, and a much deserved home win. Lewes really lacked any threat in the 2nd half, especially after their very lively number 7 went off, something Daniel Nielsen was very chuffed about when we spoke to him after the game. As with some managers/coaches after a win, they always seem to think they could have been that little bit better, and he thought they were “OK”, “should of scored more, probably had a penalty, but did enough to win”.
I had been invited by one the blazered gents I had met before the match to join them for a drink at full time in the board room. Another sign of how friendly and welcoming they had been, since my first contact with the club. I knocked on the blue door, let myself in, to what was now a much fuller room, the FA Cup scores updating on the TV, not a good day for Spurs, but today was not about them. The cups of tea at the bar had now been replaced with beer, and I thanked Paul again for all his help, and generosity, and left them to their drinks and post-match meal.
From talking to Paul it clear he has a real passion for the club, and is doing everything in is power to make them a stable team in the division, two recent relegation battles have made this their top priority. Visiting local schools and holding community days to drum up support and funds. I also saw him get a stray match ball from a hedge behind the goal, so he is happy to get his hands dirty! Most of the staff are volunteers, and Paul was quite honest in saying that with their budget they should be in the league below and are punching well above their weight. The lower leagues it would seem are also vulnerable to the money men of football and only recently the “Manchester City” of the division, Margate have recently got a billionaire board member, so a team with a 150 average gate, are always fighting an uphill struggle.
I have been to some “big” games as a Spurs fan, and have enjoyed myself a lot, but today was different. The closeness, the stripped back feel of it all being there for the football and enjoying the game and the atmosphere with Tom, the obvious connection with the club the board and fans have is a very special thing indeed. I hope their work in the local community will open people’s eyes to the fact that everything you could want in football team is right on the doorstep, and soon hopefully they will have more fans than flags.