The first sight of my fellow blogger is when I see a flat cap jogging up the platform, at the Austin Powers themed stop, Shadwell. Tom has slightly misjudged where to stand, so is forced into some early afternoon exercise, making sure he beats the beep, and gets on the train. He joins me staring, pointing, ohhing and ahhhinnng, out the window, hoping we won't need Jeff Goldblum to save us, as we travel South East to Woolwich Arsenal.
Tom is bizarrely excited to be back on the turf of his beloved Arsenal which they deserted in favour of the other side of the river, his vision of a Gooner wonderland, are dashed as we get out of the station, and queue for the bus.
Today’s game is at the wonderfully named Badgers Sports Ground, the home of the equally wonderfully named Cray Valley Paper Mills F.C. although it’s not them we are here to see. It's the team who also call it home, Erith Town FC (ET) as they take on Horsham YMCA FC (HYMCA), as we continue our quest to attend all the early rounds of the FA Cup.
On arrival we are both amazed at the amount of people already walking into the ground, and the line of cars waiting to turn into the car park. Does the FA Cup still have such draw in these parts? Is Eltham full of non-league fanatics? Or has it something to do with where the pumping music is emanating from? Sadly it’s the latter, a party in the clubhouse. The car park is full of kids in their Sunday best, followed by parents clutching presents making their way past manic sugar fuelled children and a bouncy castle.
A single turnstile greets us, built from white breeze blocks, a large sign on it welcoming you to the home of Cray Valley PM FC, and only a small paper sign in a plastic sleeve, pinned to an adjacent fence, informs you it's also the current home of ET.
Badgers Sports Ground seems relatively new in its construction, surrounded by allotments and fir trees, the two stands, have a flat pack Meccano feel about them, along with the non-league standard, of a single storey building which houses everything from the changing rooms, to the public toilets. Due to the party in the clubhouse, a hastily built shelter of scaffolding poles and tarpaulin has been erected, as a temporary hideaway, in case the ever threatening weather appears.
We have been very lucky once again, as we have been so many times before, after a few tweets, the club have agreed to allow us to take some pictures, on this occasion we are met by Danny, who after introducing us to the club Manager, is very happy to allow us to snap the team preparing from the match.
Understandably for Tom, it can sometimes be a little awkward sticking a camera in someone’s face, so we hover around the door of the changing room, overcome by the smell of Deep Heat, wondering if any of the players are bothered by the constantly skipping music. Tom takes a deep breath, and cracks on doing his thing.
“Come on boys, we can do it” shout some kids from the party, forcing their faces through a gate, applauding the unimpressed looking players, coming out to warm up. The majority of them though do seem happy with the conditions, testing the ground as they make their way to an area, behind the main pitch.
One ET player has not joined the rest, he is hanging about on the edge of the pitch, and someone gives him a nudge to warm up, “I’m waiting for the phys”. As he waits for treatment, he natters to people on his phone about coming to the match, but has to explain he can’t get them in for free because it’s the FA Cup, but he can get them in at a concession price. Another player, with a flip flop on one foot, and a football boot on the other, is getting impatient at the fact the physio has not yet arrived, pacing around in front of the changing room.
With a cup of tea in hand, we both pay a visit to the tarpaulin clubhouse. Three large functions tables are surrounded by chairs, one person is not enamoured by what looks like bird poo on one seat, and opts for another, giving it a good whack before sitting down. “If it rains, we will still get wet” says one woman, not convinced she will be protected if the rain starts.
Tom wants food, but the explanation from the woman selling it, has him a little bemused. She explains that it will take “five minutes” to warm up the grill, which is fair enough, she has done a big “preload” but it’s not quite “busy enough yet” to get things going, so Tom sits there eying other people’s, when all of a sudden the sizzle of the grill cheers him up “sounds like those burgers are warming up”.
It looks like being good turnouts for the match, as a steady stream of people make their way through the turnstile, but the music of the party is threatening to drown out the game, with today’s proceedings being played to a MTV soundtrack
“That smells unreal” comments a HYMCA player returning to the changing room, the bacon sandwiches cooking just next door, almost too good to resist.
We wait for kick off, and get chatting with the ET club secretary, clutching his clipboard; he tells us just how important the FA Cup still is, and what he thinks ET’s chances are today.
“It’s important for the money, it’s impossible to deny that, you don’t get £1,900 for winning a league game”, but he is very quick to emphasize “it’s also about a bit of glory, for the boys at this level it’s huge!”
He hopes they can emulate their best progress in the competition, the 2nd qualifying round, when they took on Dover, who were a Conference South side at the time, drawing a team from that level he describes as a “dream”. The match had a crowd of around 250 “mostly Dover” he says laughing, but although they lost, it was a proud day in the club’s history.
As far as how ET are going to get on today, he can’t quite call it, “both teams got off to a good league start, both from the same level, it’s going to be 50/50, it will be tough”.
We hear the referee's assistants banging on the door of the two changing rooms, notifying them that kick-off is soon, it sounds like they are trying to kick them of the hinges, it sparks both rooms into actions. Standing outside we can hear the shouting through the walls.
The assistant checks the player’s kits, and there is a bit of a debate with a member of the HYMCA team, but
he is quick to pass the blame “the kit man is a bit dyslexic, he makes it up as he goes along”.
Four mascots stand waiting to be taken by the hand, and led out onto the pitch, the referee, who doesn’t look much older, says he would have brought them something if he had known. He then produces a coin from his pocket “I wonder if they can share a shilling?” It becomes a talking point between a player and him, as the teams get ready to walk on, they both inspect the 1962 Shilling he uses for the toss.
Once again there is a sad reminder of the Horsham Air Show disaster, after the players shake hands, they all bow their heads in remembrance of the people lost. The referee's whistle breaks the silence, “come on boys” and the more dramatic “stand up and be counted today!”
All the mascots are presented with a signed ball as they leave the pitch. One Dad swoops in and prevents his Son bouncing it on the concrete, or running off and playing with it, Dad has other ideas. He explains how when they get home he will put up a “shelf” to display his FA Cup memorabilia, from the expression on his Son’s face, I don’t think he was convinced.
The party next door can’t be up to much, because a few kids have climbed the fence and are precariously perched on top of it in the opening moments of the match. Tom returns from taking his pics of the kick-off, talking of a story of pure fantasy, or is he?
Someone had mentioned in passing, that there was a journalist from Austria at the game today, and we spot him around the ground with his camera filming and chatting to people, his wife was pointed out to us as well, standing patiently with a buggy, as her husband get’s his non-league fix. It just so happened on passing, Tom had peered into the buggy and instead of seeing a rosy cheeked new baby, he saw a dog.
The first half is incredibly open, the best chances falling to ET, a good squared ball across the box is not matched by the finish, and a shot from close range requires a sharp save from the away keeper. A HYMCA player is quickly getting frustrated with his team “Got to be louder, communicate, got too be better”.
With the home side edging the half so far, it’s somewhat against the run of play almost on the 30 minute mark when HYMCA take the lead, a good finish across the goal.
“Too fucking easy” shouts someone on the home bench. The Father and Son, manager and assistant at ET are not amused at going behind, and stand side by side, arms crossed, oblivious to the children's heads appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing as they bounce up and down on the bouncy castle behind them.
Every time ET go long the HYMCA defence gobble it up, and get the applause of the manager who replies every time with a gruffer than gruff, “well done”. When an ET player finally plays a ball along the ground for the forward to run onto, they get themselves back in the game about 10 minutes after going behind, but he nearly, nearly didn’t score.
The slide rule pass allows the ET forward to venture into the box, with only the keeper to beat, he rounds him well, but his touch sends him wide, and the pace of the ball means his chance to shoot is decreasing rapidly. Almost on the touch line, he rolls a shot from a narrow angle that rolls all the way across the goal, clips the foot of the far post and sits in the back of the net, great finish, lucky finish.
“LINO!!!” The HYMCA bench and players explode, they are livid to say the least, and the referee has to mime calm down to a few players, never actually saying it, but just mouthing the words. The assistant, who had already been getting a lot of verbal, is now getting more stick than ever now.
A HYMCA supporter next to us chats to his side’s keeper, as the game gets back underway “He was about a foot of side, I was bang in line with him”
The half finished all equal, it’s been incredibly open, back and forth. ET number 8, sitting in a deep midfield role is small in stature, but effortlessly glides by players and is pulling all the strings, like a non-league Iniesta.
A kick about breaks out in one goal amongst the mascots, and some away subs warm up at the opposite end, one player’s shot pings of the crossbar, over the fence and into the allotment behind, forcing him off in search of it. The music of the party once again, provides us with upbeat halftime entertainment.
One ET player half-heartedly warms up, mostly talking to his friend on the sidelines, occasionally calling to his team mates, for them to pass the ball, returning the pass and continuing his conversation. It’s around this time that Tom suggest he thinks the HYMCA manager was smoking in the dugout, he was sure he saw a big puff of smoke, and this would explain his gravelly voice.
There are lots of burgers and polystyrene cups around us in the main stand, as the referee counts the players on the pitch, and blows his whistle for the second half. The tempo is high, and around the ground a good buzz, all in anticipation of the next 45mins.
The game continues to be very, very open ET getting an early chance, but the HYMCA keeper smothers the shot well, and a free header for a HYMCA that he has to score, but misses, the look on his face is priceless.
ET midfield maestro number 8 goes in the book, much to the confusion of the fans around us, simply based on the size difference between the two players “how can he hurt him?” Regardless of his size, he is fearless, and has been the standout ET player by far.
On 56 minutes the whole game changes, on what the home team feel is a controversial free kick, awarded just outside their box. The ET keeper organises his wall, the referee marches them back the required distance, and two HYMCA players talk between themselves. One takes a short run up, shoots, it skims over what doesn't seem like the world’s tallest wall, and straight in the back of the goal, 1 - 2. Most of the team run off in the direction of the bench, to celebrate.
“That was a disgrace referee, he fell over” yells the ET manager, and as the game kicks off again, the Father and Son double act, both take turns barking at their team, talking over what to do, the managers son, leaning over whispering in his Father’s ear.
Since the second goal, ET have been slipping further and further out of the game.
There is a comical moment when a HYMCA player goes down injured and the referee signals to the bench for the physio. The HYMCA person with the magic sponge is a lady called Princess, and on she comes clutching the tools of her trade. As she does, the downed player starts to stand up, and so as to prevent the injured player going off, if he receives the treatment, another player quite forcefully waves her off. Unimpressed at his lack of manners, she stops dead in her tracks, raises her hand, and with a big smile on her face, flips him the bird!
Heads have dropped, things quickly unravel for ET, as they concede a third goal, a header from a free kick, HYMCA’s number 5 he was standing all on his own, and it could not have been simpler. HYMCA’s growling manager ask his team a rhetorical question “When are you most vulnerable? WHEN YOU JUST SCORED”.
Another free kick to HYMCA and an ET fan near us, poses the team a question “One of you going to pick up the number 5 this time?!”
4 - 1, it’s well worked, a player in the box receives the ball, turns and lays up a teammate just outside the area who finishes well. Even though his team are ahead by 3 now, the HYMCA manager is apoplectic with rage every time his team do something wrong, and I think he might explode when ET get a goal back with about 10 minutes left. The keeper parries the ball, and ET put away the rebound “FOR FUCKS SAKE”, the keeper is less than happy with his work.
“Fucking hell, get it forward” shouts the ET manager, desperate for his team to give it one last go. The last moments of the match are a barrage of shouting and swearing from both benches, ET have one last flurry, but no goal, the hosts are out the cup.
“Yesss, that’s £1900 in the bank” says a HYMCA supporter on the way out.
Both teams are clapped off the pitch, and despite the most amount of swearing since a Derek and Clive record, the managers shake hands, and take turns congratulating and commiserating each other.
On the bus home I’m forced to dodge a smashed apple pie on the floor, and get verbally abused by a 12 year old girl, but even this can’t dampen what was a very enjoyable cup tie.
The FA Cup still gets the respect that it deserves, at this level, after people as far as Dundee and Austria were in attendance, there is clearly a passion from the fans and the players for this competition.
We can’t wait for the next round, all the best to HYMCA and in the words of one of their players “only 25 games to Wembley!”.