It’s a cool crisp evening, and Tom and I meet at Mile End Tube station, only 10 minutes’ walk from the ground. Tonight there is a full complement of Premiership fixtures, with both our teams playing, but a visit to see a relativity brand new team, in football terms, under the flood lights, is much more intriguing.
Thanks to Twitter and its legions of ground hopper, grass root, lower league, non-league football supporter’s on there, it did not take long to get in contact with Adam Richardson, the match day secretary, and a few tweets later, he was more than happy to grant us a few moments of his time for a few words on the club.
On arrival at the ground its self, after weaving ourselves through the numerous games of five a side, we entered through sliding doors to a reception reminiscent of your local swimming pool, and not that of a football ground. I think it was quite clear from the speed we were asked if we were here for the football, that we weren’t hear to use the running track, like the numerous, tall, fit, lycra clad people milling about.
£5 each later, and £1.50 for a very modest programme, 5 or 6 pieces of printed A4 paper folded together, but still a programme non the less, with the all important team sheets on the back, and words from the chairman, what else do you need? It will still be proudly added to my countless other programmes, that I cherish.
The same man who sold us our tickets, pointed us in the way of where we could find Adam, and through a second set of sliding doors, past more runners warming up or down, we were in the ground. At whatever ground we have been to, or any I have been to in the past, there is always that excitable feeling you get when you see the pitch, knowing it’s not long to kick off.
For a team in the 9th tier of football, the Essex Senior league, this must be one of the most impressive grounds. Admittedly not over flowing with age and character, but the facilities are very impressive, a great looking pitch, surrounded by a running track. As we stand track side, in front of the stand, a large covered bank of wooden benches. Adam finds us, welcomes us, and says he will be with us shortly, and allows us to go pitch side, to take some pictures, as he went about his match day routine.
Past the long jump pit, and over the running track, we wandered around, Tom with camera in hand, trying not to get in the way of the runners, still using the track, and as the away team warmed up on the pitch. Most grounds I have been to in London, are in built up suburbia, surrounded by semi -detached houses, but the Mile End Stadium is quite different. It has the feel of being inner city.
Canary Wharf dominated the scenery, all lit up and towering over everything else, a busy train line is only a stones thorough away as commuters thunder along and huge residential tower blocks surround you, various windows light up, but you somehow doubt any one is peering out to watch the game for free. If it wasn’t for the iconic land mark, you could perhaps think you were in any inner city, anywhere in the world.
After what I’m sure are umpteenth things to do, Adam invited us to the board room, for a chance to grab some insight into what the club is all about. The board room was a porter cabin, but had a comfy chair, some custard creams and a cup of tea made by one half of Adam’s right hand ladies, Twins Cholee & Charlie, who are in charge of hospitality, amongst other things, both said how much they enjoy being involved with club. Adam stressed how invaluable they are to the running of the club on match day
Adam has been with the club 5 and half years, since he was 17 years old. A local boy, with a clear passion for his local community and grass roots football, which has been noticed by a local radio station where he was promoted from their local football expert, to having his own show. He started from the bottom and rapidly climbed the ladder, within the club to his role today. Although only 22, he has the air of someone with a much older head on his shoulders.
As with most if not all the lower league or non- league teams, they are competing with the big boys for fans. With West Ham, and Leyton Orient only a hop skip and a jump away, it’s tough to get the younger generations attending regularly. Average attendances are about 30 – 40, but they do benefit from playing on a Wednesday he said, so they do attract a fair few ground hoppers.
The club itself started in 2000 by Mohammed Nural Hoque, and was originally called Bethnal Green Untd, but the name was changed in 2012, as they did not feel it was inclusive of the whole borough. There is real ambition here, rooted in a real sense of helping and including the local community. Tower Hamlets is very diverse and multicultural, and that rings true in the clubs ethos of an open door, welcoming all from all the many communities that surround the club. They hope with the help of the local council, that they can get the ground to an even higher spec, climb the leagues, and put Tower Hamlets on the footballing map. Last season they had one of their proudest moments in its very short history, going out in the last 16 of the FA Vase to the eventual winners Dunstan UTC. No mean feat for a club of its size and age.
Perhaps the biggest sign of their ambition is the recent appointment of Godfrey Obebo, as first team assistant coach. Who has represented Nigeria at the African Cup Of nations, and also played in League two for Bury and Halifax. His experience, at international and league level, if channelled correctly, could be a fantastic addition to the club.
The players exit from a door at the base of the stand, and line up next to each other, ready to walk on the pitch. Tower Hamlets in bright neon orange, with a black stripe, is in stark contrast to the kit of their opponents Takeley FC, who play in a light blue, and whose keeper’s shirt is the same shade of pink as Palermo’s. Takeley are from near Stanstead, and are playing only their 3rd game since Christmas, due to the bad weather playing havoc to their fixture list. Both teams walk out, across the running track, Takeley do the obligatory warming up, but TH join in a tight huddle on their side of the pitch.
Adam had referred to the season so far as a hard one “lacking in consistency”, currently 17th in the table, and at the point in the season where making sure you are not dragged in to a relegation battle is on your mind, this was clear from the time the team spent in the huddle, I’m sure discussing the finer points of their game plan, and insuring they get those all important 3 points.
I take my seat in the stands behind the four people representing the away team, a collection of older chaps with clip a board and flat cap. Tom is walking pitch side, trying to grab the action on film. The running track it would seem, whether it be the Stadio Olympico or the Mile End Stadium, is not really fan friendly and does make you feel sometimes a bit removed from the action.
The first half is dominated by a great goal, both teams being guilty of giving the ball away, and in the case of TH not taking their chances when presented to them. And what a nice goal it was, the Takeley player, Ogboing was unchallenged about 25/30 yards out, and was allowed all the time in the world, to strike the ball past the keeper and the home team were 1 – 0 down.
The rest of the half TH were on top, a spurned succession of chances and on one occasion only had the Takeley cross bar stopping them going in at half time equal. The most notable of chances was from a deep cross from the right hand side, that found a home player on the back post, unmarked, whose header looped over the keeper, and bounced off the cross bar and over, and their last chance of the half, a hard low shot from the number 10 Ayinde, from just outside the box, only for the keeper to make a smart, quick save down to his left and push the ball wide. As if like a signal to the ref, a plane roars over head from city airport, and the home team go in at half time 0 – 1 down.
Tom re-joins me in the stand for the second half, and we discuss the 1st half. One of the twins approaches us and asks if we want to buy a raffle ticket. £1 gives you the chance to win half of the takings they make selling the tickets. A nice idea to earn the club a little extra cash, but I’m not sure I would have been able to except the winnings with a clear conscience.
The second half was certainly exciting, nail biting, but ultimately disappointing for TH. The first half ritual of a team huddle is performed again, hopefully this time, having a bit more effect than the first time round.
The first chance of the half goes to the home team. A shot from the edge of the box, takes a deflection off a defender, sends the keeper the wrong way, and only goes a fraction wide. The resulting corner is met well by a home player, whose attempt is cleared off the line. We were sure it was in, but the ref and linesman, and without the aid of vibrating watch technology, thought the other way and played on.
Things just get worse for the TH, and it’s not long after their big chance to level, that they are 0 – 2 behind. A low flat cross from the left, finds a Takeley player unmarked in the box, a nifty glancing back header later, and things are looking dire for TH. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and the TH manager makes all 3 subs at once. Something you don’t see a lot of, unless you’re playing FIFA, and things are simply just not working.
TH continues to make chances, and finally they take one, and are back in the game. The TH player, Ayinde pinches the ball off the dawdling defender to the left of the box, and from a narrow angle one on one with the keeper, fires a shot over his shoulder, and they are back in the game.
“Come On Oranges” “Come On Hamlets”
We were in for a frantic last 15 minutes, and the home fans are getting a bit tense. Number 10 is a bit trigger happy, the straw that breaks the camel’s back, results in a woman behind us hollering out, “stop shooting the ball number 10, and pass the fucking ball!!” The sentiment seems to be shared by the TH coaching staff, as not long after a person in a woolly hat appears behind the away goal, shouting, “don’t you understand get the ball in the box!?!?!”
The home team are looking leggy, and are desperately in search of the equalizer. The towering captain, number 6, who has not stopped talking to the team with his booming voice all game, and who has started to swear more and more, as things don’t do their way, injures himself running back, trying to stop a counter attack. They have used all there subs, so he is going nowhere, and shouts of “AJ walk it off” come from the group behind us.
The subs have made a difference, especially the predictably compared Peter Crouch’esq player, who is causing problems at free kicks and corners, but whose hold up play and chasing down the ball seems to inevitably result in a free kick to the away team.
On 85 mins the football Gods are shining on TH, as a hand ball by a Takely player in the box means the ref can only do one thing, PENALTY!
Even though the crowd is small, there is a definite tension, over what could result in all important point. And it’s all down to the home number 18. I rush down track side to catch the penalty on film, set myself as does the taker, he runs up, and takes the penalty in what one fan described as like something from rugby, and blazes over the bar. The home crowd are stunned! I turn to see even Tom, with his jaw on the floor, he missed it, or as another fan put it, “he fucking fluffed it”
The game finishes 1 – 2, and I’m still pitch side when the teams come off. The booming Captain is muttering under his breath and the home keeper is in absolute disbelief at the manner in which his team mate took the penalty.
The 2nd half of the match, made it £5 well spent, and in Adam Richardson they seem to have someone who has the drive and passion to drive this club forward as best he can. With the facilities at their disposal, with such a large community on their doorstep, and even if they could win a tiny percentage of the battle with the big boy and continue to concentrate on youth development, I’m sure they will only progress, just perhaps more training in penalties.