Sat on perhaps London’s most complicated train, Tom and I are surrounded by suits on our way to within spitting distance of the M25 on South London’s borders, but first we have to work out if we are on the right section of the train, a train that at various points along the journey will split into 3, and we need an enigma machine to decipher the long winded explanations from the conductor.
Thankfully we are on the right section, and as we disembark in London’s commuter belt, on a rainy Wednesday evening, at Merstham station, our next obstacle is now leaving the station, as our travel passes don’t work on this section of the network. Sadly my vaulting over train barrier days are long behind me, but Tom is stretching and ready to go, however my lack of athleticism means we have to explore other avenues. Tom’s eagle eyes, and dexterity of foot, mean that he is able to snake his leg under the barrier, drag back a ticket on the floor the other side of our prison gate, and by a stroke of luck, like the magic words “open sesame” the gate opens and we are free.
The streets of this Surrey suburb are deserted, perhaps the oncoming rain has driven everyone inside their chocolate box houses, as we make the short walk from the station to the match.
Tom is getting himself prepared for the match, instead of moaning halfway through the game about not having brought enough provisions, he stops off at a shop he describes as like the one from The League Of Gentlemen, with what he says is selling some very “odd looking ham” and has a poor selection of sweets, and the fact he emerged with Jelly Beans, means I won’t be tucking into any of his camera bag tuck shop this evening.
We begin to see the floodlights, and can hear pop music floating over the roof tops, breaking the silence of the street we are walking along, we can almost make out the song, word for word.
Tonight’s ground is not the home of tonight’s home side they are lodgers for the season, whilst their own ground, Waterside Stadium goes through a major refurbishment. Moatside, of Merstham FC will see Walton Casuals FC (WC) Vs East Grinstead Town FC (EGT) in the first round of the Ryman League Cup, a competition which holds fond memories for us, after spending the day with Grays Athletic FC on the day of the 2015 final.
The outside of the ground, does not do justice to what lays beyond the library and Age Concern flanked driveway, where a large tree obscures the clubs sign, and a wooden notice board, like one outside of a parish Church is wedged closed with a twig. Up the gravelly drive, past the clubhouse, above an ajar gate is a hastily amended sign notifying you of this evening’s fixture. The usual name of the home team is covered by a homemade sign, displaying the name of the ground sharers.
I think it would be fair to say Moatside is not really overflowing with any great character, it is very smart, tidy and the pitch looks great, but it has the feel of a training complex, rather than someone’s home.
Along one length of the pitch there is a low all seater stand, with black and yellow seats and each end is a standing terrace, the largest of the two is called The Church End. Next to the main stand, with its white UPVC doors and windows, and looking like a newly built conservatory, is the boardroom and changing rooms, which outside has an ornate black metal gate, which allows the players on and off the pitch. Tom says it’s like “Lords”, just without the snoozing men in blazers.
Under the shelter of the main stand, from the teaming rain, we both bemoan the fact it’s August, and it’s pissing down, and agree it will be a “slick pitch” to say the least, which could make for an interesting encounter. Tom as ever is more interested in the sausage and chips for sale, from the porta cabin behind the main stand, it does make me wonder if he has any food at home, or perhaps for him this blog is not about football, but more about food.
Sitting and watching the rain falling in front of us, it has become far too depressing, so we go in search a pint to raise our moral, and walk through the door of the clubhouse to be greeted by a ginormous projected image of Sky Sports, a dart board, and Tom challenges me to a game “fancy darts?”
Our quickly drunk drinks, cloud our memories enough, for us to venture back outside again, when we bump into the WC Chairman, former Fulham and West Ham player, and now Sky Sports News regular Tony Gale. “This isn’t a slag off blog, is it?” Gale asks, during our brief chat, and we reassure him it’s quite the opposite. He is very complementary about what we are doing, and is clearly no fan of the weather either as he stands talking to us with a coat draped over his head, but is happy to chat with us for a while.
We watch both teams warming up, again from the safety of the main stand, as the rain continues to fall, and one team do a version of the hokey cokey running in and out, in and out. Behind us a man sets up a camcorder on a tripod. We get chatting and he is the WC goal keeping coach, who informs us of his European pedigree, as he was formerly a coach at Vitoria FC in Portugal, and he films “his goalie” to help with his coaching.
Shortly before kick-off, Kane’s voice softly comes over the tannoy, performing one of his many match day duties and reads out the teams. The floodlights come on, as the teams walk through the metal gate pitch side, and make their way back out into the rain. Tony Gale jogs past us again trying to keep dry as he makes his way to the stand from the board room, but confirms the inevitable “we are all going to get a bit wet”.
Tom is perhaps the least impressed, because as the game gets underway he is annoyed he has to leave our seats, and go out into the howling rain, “I’m getting some waterproofs!” In solidarity I move as well, to behind the goal WC are attacking in the first half, the Church End, a corrugated metal terrace, with some slightly bedraggled bunting hanging from the roof.
Two things are constant over the next 45 minutes, in fact pretty much the whole game, the dominance of the home team, and the extreme and ineffectual shouting of instructions from the away keeper, as the first of many chances fall to the home side, and regardless of what’s going on he does not stop talking, “come on then fellas” “nice and solid”.
There are a few stragglers walking around the edge of the pitch, carrying balls and the substitute boards, making their way to the dugout. Tom after taking some photos, has predictably succumbed to the food on offer, and I get two phone calls in quick succession, firstly asking if I want “salt and vinegar” and secondly if I want any “sauce” on my chips.
“Dining off a bin, are we?” asks Tom, as I set up the candles, and single red rose on top of a green bin, we use as our table, to share our food.
WC’s dominance is confirmed as they get their first goal of the match, and a very well worked one it is too. Great pace down the right wing, a back heel to an unmarked player, and a first touch finish into the roof of the net, from just outside the six yard box.
“We have got to keep the ball fellas” bemoans EGT’s keeper to his team mates, standing like statues, as the WC players run off and celebrate. Tom is a bit fed up already of his constant talking and poses the question, “do you think anyone listens to him?”, and I would have to say no, as the amount of times WC have broken through the defence in front of him, I can only assume they are not listening to a word he says.
A few people are braving the rain, standing pitch side under an umbrella, but the majority of people sit in the main stand, except for a few fearless kids who are dashing about getting soaked, as the game becomes so one sided, EGT are unable to get out of their own half, and the game descends into nothing more than a training exercise for the home team.
The fearless kids laugh in the face of the rain, as well as danger, after a clearance sends the ball over the back of the Church End, they dash up a ladder leaning against one end, and in a health and safety nightmare waiting to happen, clamber on top of the stand, coming back moments later with the ball.
EGT’s shouting keeper is lucky to stay on the pitch, after bombing out of his area, clattering one of the speedy WC wingers, then jogs back into his area like nothing has happened, only to be called back to the scene of the crime to receive a yellow card, and should be counting his blessings.
It’s the pace of the WC attack that is causing a lot of problems, amongst other things and they get two goals in short succession, which are almost identical, both from straight balls over the top, one is deftly struck lob over the WC keeper for 2 – 0, the second is a poked in from close range to make it 3 – 0.
EGT have their first chance of the game with about one minute left on the clock, only for an excellent save from the WC keeper to deny them, I’m sure the Portuguese coach in the stand must be delighted, one for the highlight reel.
The end finishes with the visitors 3 – 0 behind, and the group of kids are now giving the keeper grief from behind his goal, and keep shouting something that sounds like “gibbon”, but I can’t be sure if this is some new ape based insult I have missed, or I’m just not hearing them correctly. The whistle for half time blows with them banging the stand and shouting “Casuals” and “come on the Casuals”, when all of a sudden they are dashing back to the boardroom, after a Dad like figure shouts at them, only like a Dad can, and they know not to ignore him.
Sodden players either walk back or drag themselves back, depending on who they play for, and the main stand quickly empties, as people go in search of somewhere a little drier. There is no great noise and the half ends, just the sound of the rain on the corrugated metal above us.
We swap ends for the second half, convinced of seeing more goals from the home side, and sit under the porch of the Youth Changing rooms, and watch one player warming up ask a fan for a chip.
Although his shouting seems to fall on deaf ears, you can’t fault his spirit, and the EGT keeper comes out for the second 45 with all the same enthusiasm, as he did in the first, regardless of being three goals down, “come on then fellas”, and Tom is quite right to say that at least someone has a bit of enthusiasm, because at the moment The Moatside is a little bit quiet.
“Standards” shouts the WC Manager, “play”. Even though his team are well ahead, and EGT show no sign of getting back in the game, he still wants a better level of performance from his team, because at the moment the team are just going through the motions, and the game is stagnating.
The lack of action makes Toms mind up for him and he goes on a tea run, and comes back having walked half way around the pitch with two china mugs, a step up from your standard white polystyrene, with that look of concentration on his face of someone trying their best not to spill any.
“Got yourselves a nice little spot there. Is that the blog cabin?” says Tony Gale as he walks around to the dug outs, opposite the main stand. We ask him his view of the League Cup, and it seems that regardless of the level of football, the early rounds of Cup competitions are used to “blood youngsters”, and as they have “no reserves or youth team, during the ground share” it’s even more important of an opportunity for the manager to assess all parts of his squad. He is though slightly cautious, as we comment on how well the game is going, “we have lost from better positions”.
EGT’s frustration starts to show as the game begins to descend into a bit of a bad tempered one, on and off the pitch, as the fouls start to mount up, and both coaches exchange a few words, the EGT coach sounding like Taggart, but harder and more Scottish. At one point after two players come together, the WC player signals to his manager “take me off, he is going to send me off” referring to his perceived harsh treatment by the referee, and his coach agrees, as he is subbed off shortly after.
The group of kids have lost interest, and you can’t really blame them, they would rather kick about a flat ball than watch the game, occasionally breaking away from their own game to harangue the EGT keeper again, whenever he takes a goal kick all you can hear is “Woooooooooooooooo”.
Full time is almost upon us, and EGT’s bad night is compounded after they are given a golden chance to score, only for the player under no pressure at all, puts it wide, ironically it would have been easier to score, and then they concede a fourth.
In the words of the EGT keeper “IT’S TOO EASY” as the WC players pass their way into the area, unopposed, and after a short solo run, the player drops his shoulder, leaves two EGT player for dead, and dinks it over the goalie, and that’s how it ends, 4 – 0.
A small child mans the gate allowing the players off, keeping the spectators from getting in their way. The main stand is quickly empty, and is littered with the yellow and white tea mugs. A man straining under the weight of a rice filled pressure cooker makes his way to the boardroom and someone asks him “is that from the boot of your car?”
The rain is at its heaviest, we are quite far from home, and are struggling to find a cab to the station. Once we do, “it will be with you in 10 minutes” turns into 30 minutes, as we stand under a tree, desperately trying to keep dry.
It was a warm welcome, and people were very friendly. WC’s performance on the night was pretty flawless, and the lobbed goal was great, but EGT really did not make it very hard for them.
I’m sure that WC will be looking forward to being back on home soil soon close to their fans, because tonight’s experience was a little bit flat to say the least, but perhaps we can blame that on the rain Gods!