It really feels like an age ago, that we were rocking up at the gates of Wingate & Finchley’s, Harry Abrahams Stadium, and right off the bat getting the opportunity thanks to Paul Lerman to have a tour of the ground. It was an instant realisation for us both of what we were getting ourselves into, of what non-league football had to offer, how friendly and welcoming people were going to be, and after that first 90mins shivering in the cold January sun, we could not wait for more.
The original mission was to visit every ground outside the Premiership inside the M25, so our next visit took us quickly back to the more familiar surroundings of the top flight, and a visit to Fulham FC, and a 4th round replay against Sunderland AFC. A Craven cottage pie, a photo opportunity with Phil Brown, and a brief encounter with Jermain Defoe, were probably the highlights of a bitter February evening, and although the grandeur of a once premiership ground was on offer, it lacked all the things we had fallen in love with at Wingate, so it was that game that made our minds up for us, and we wanted to be a lot more non-league focused, then perhaps we had first thought.
One team we really wanted to visit, ever since that drunken New Year’s conversation was AFC Wimbledon. This was partly due to a friend of Toms singing the praises of the atmosphere, partly because of their story as a fan owned club, born out of a reaction to the decimation of their club, but most of all a chance to see “The Beast” in all his glory. The atmosphere, much like “The Beast” did not disappoint, and the constant singing of the crowd, once again threw open our stuffy Premiership minds, to how much a singing adds to your enjoyment of a match.
Our next attempt to watch a game was one of two at a time of year that led to games being called off due to the weather taking its toll on the pitch. An aborted visit to Hemel Hempstead FC resulted in us jumping of the train at Wembley, and then arriving at Wealdstone FC, to be also told that the match was off. A brief glimpse of the Wealdstone Raider made up for no game, and a few pints and a cheese roll later, made for not a totally unpleasant afternoon.
In inner city London and in the shadow of Canary Wharf, we watched Tower Hamlets FC. A club run with an ethos, of community and inclusion for all walks of life in a very diverse neighbourhood. At the helm on match days, Adam Richardson and his young staff of volunteers guide the club along.
The next two games were an international affair, with two games in Berlin. An opportunity for us to witness the much lorded match day in Germany, and it did not disappoint, if anything it is slightly depressing to see what you get, what you can experience for a fraction of the price, and 10 times the enjoyment. It was the lower leagues of German football that we enjoyed first, and from the beginning to the end it was nothing short of football perfection. Tennis Borussia Berlin were our hosts on a Friday evening, and from pitching up at the secret fan base, the welcome we got and in particular from Alex and Lenin who took two German football virgins under their wings, and ensured we had a great time. The setting of the Mommsenstadion, the sausages and mustard, the beer and the TeBe Party Army truly made it a football experience, we will never forget. Although it was a defeat on the day, TeBe have now gone on to secure their division title and promotion.
Hertha Berlin and the Olympic Stadium confirmed everything and more in terms of what people say about football in Germany. It showed that the sanitised Premiership has so much to learn from its German cousin. The ticket price, the relaxed atmosphere, being treated like an adult, but most importantly the Ostkurve for the first time showed us what a group of fans, who are allowed to demonstrate their passion can be like, and I think we spent most of our time watching the Capo pull the strings of the all standing crowd, rather than the match itself.
Once back from our international ground hopping, it was a game much closer to home, in fact a club I must of passed a 100 times on my way to Spurs over the years, but had never seen play. Haringey Borough FC are another fine example of the friendly attitude adopted by so many of the clubs we visited, from the board member selling the tickets to the Chairman introducing himself to us in the stands, it was a real pleasure, a thrilling game and the only club we visited twice this season.
Towards the end of the season now, and it seemed to be manly finals we were attending, along with a few nail biting do or die end of season games.
Non more emotional, non-more exciting than the FA Trophy Final at Wembley and the performance of a life time from a village club from Yorkshire, North Ferriby United AFC. 2 – 0 down, being out played by a team from a division higher, to dramatically drag it back to 2 – 2, and take it into extra time. If you thought things could not get any more exciting, they took a 3 -2 lead in extra time, only then for their opponents to get a late goal and take it to penalties. To round things off in the most dramatic of ways, they sealed the victory with a tense penalty shoot-out. The only game I have ever been to that has reduced me to floods of tears. Yes Wembley was only a quarter full and it was raining cats and dogs, but never have I been so emotionally affected by a game of football in my life. Since the win, Ferriby have been somewhat plunged into the headlines for the wrong reasons, with the owners of the club looking to sell, jeopardising the stability of such a great club, with some of the most passionate fans we came across.
A trip down Donkey Lane took us to the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium and the home of Enfield Town FC, England’s first fan owned club. What interested us particularly about our visit, were the Enfield Ultras. Ultras are synonymous in some parts of the world, with violence. The Enfield Ultras could not be more opposite, and were die-hard fans, there to support their team all to the rhythm of the ever beating drum. Another case of non-league football putting the higher leagues to shame with the noise level and unwavering support. It was only a shame that the FA decided to rain all over Enfield Towns parade, and after a long but well played season, deduct 3 points from them, and forcing them out of the much deserved play-off position, their seasons efforts had rewarded them. I’m sure they will be back bigger and better, all with the fantastic support of the Ultras.
Hitchin Town FC was like a bit of non-league time travel. The original wooden stands around the Top Field that have not changed for many years were great to see. The man selling programs from a garden shed, all added to the character of a fine little club.
Another final next, but this time from a completely different perspective. The chance to shadow Grays Athletic FC, for the Ryman League Cup Final was a daunting and remarkable experience. To travel on the team bus, share their pre match meal, watch the manager talk his players through his ideas in the changing room before the game and watch the player’s ready themselves, for the test ahead. Unfortunately for Grays Athletic FC the game did not go their way, after a close fought game. The feeling of being in the changing room after a cup defeat was a unique one.
The second visit of the season to Haringey Borough FC, was on the day that they could win the Essex Senior League, and just like the last visit, they did it the hard way. A screamer from the half way line was the winner in a 3 -2 seesaw game, and to be on the pitch as the team and staff celebrated, was a real joy. Getting soaked in champagne in the changing room at full time was an absolute season highlight.
Things at this time of the year are not only about cup finals and promotion, but also about dreaded relegation. We were aware when we visited Bromley FC home ground to see there lodgers Cray Wanderers FC, that things had been a little bleak this season, and they were down the wrong end of the table. Their victory on this day was the last 3 points required on a remarkable turnaround, a run of something like 12 unbeaten, and the “Great Escape” was complete.
Things were very much a formality when we visited The Hive, for Barnet FC’s last home game of the season, sitting on top of the Conference a victory would seal the title and promotion back into the Football League. Barnet dominated the game and cruised to a 2 – 0 much like former manager and player Graziloi had told us, when we managed to talk to him before kick off, in the bar newly named after him. Standing pitch side, and the seconds to full time counting down, and on the final whistle the out pouring of emotion spilled on to the pitch in a full blown pitch invasion, is something neither of us will forget in a hurry.
The second of 3 finals was the Essex Senior League Final, and is up there in our best games of the season, not only because of the resounding 7 – 1 victory for Bowers & Pitsea FC over Clapton FC, but the day from start to finish was amazing. The final was the second of the season where we got to follow a team on their big day, and what an insight it is to watch a team prepare for such a big occasion, traveling with the team, watching the manager instruct the team and then up close watch them, put his words into action. An added bonus to the whole day was our first encounter with the Clapton Ultras, just like the Enfield Ultras, hard core fans with a strong message of antifascist, anti-homophobic, and singing for teams regardless. With half time chorography, pyro, the Capo sitting on top of the dug outs, the flags and the drum, were all a sight to behold, and something you can only really understand if you see it for yourself.
The long awaited Ryman Premier League Play Off was the last game of the season for us. Much later than it should have been, due to the point’s deduction and subsequent appeal of Enfield Town FC, but things went ahead and 2nd took on 3rd as Hendon FC hosted Margate FC. An early red card for Hendon FC, and a single goal for Margate won them promotion, and a strong season for Hendon where they picked up two bits of silverware, ended on home soil, with a bit of a damp squib.
We cannot emphasize how much fun we have had, how many nice people we have met, how many memorable experiences we have had in such a short amount of time. We genuinely had little or no idea what the nonleague world was all about, and we have been so pleasantly surprised, by the quality of football, the grounds, but most importantly the people and the fans, and how quick people have been to involve and include us, and some people going above and beyond to help us to get a real insight in to the world of football.
There are so many people to thank, especially everyone at, Wingate & Finchley FC, Tower Hamlets FC, Tennis Borrussia Berlin, North Ferriby United AFC, Enfield Town FC, Hitchin Town FC, Grays Athletic FC, Haringey Borough FC, Cray Wanders FC, Metropolitan Police FC, Bowers & Pitsea FC, Clapton FC, The Clapton Ultras and Hendon FC.
A very special thank you has to go to Grays Athletic FC & Bowers & Pitsea FC who were so generous in letting us follow them on the day of their Cup Finals. It is an experience I’m sure few people have ever had, and we are eternally grateful for the opportunity.
On Twitter we must acknowledge: @thecoldend, @, @, @
@enfieldfanzine, @ who have been a great help in sharing our work with the wider world, it has
been much appreciated. A big cheers to everyone on Facebook for their kind
words, and the all important “likes”.
We have a few ideas brewing for 2015 – 16, are very much enjoying where our involvement with Hackney Wick FC is heading and are looking forward to it all already, see you next season,
Daniel & Tom.