As with most games, we hop off the bus in another nondescript suburb, solely relying on Google maps to take us the right way, with no obvious sign of a football club, just kids bombing up and down the streets on bikes, enjoying the last hours of daylight.
It’s not until we see a brown sign pointing down a un-tarmaced, unlit road, that we vaguely think we are in the right neck of the woods. The “road” also seems to be the local point for the eco conscious fly tippers, so we weave past old mattresses, computers and some things it is probably just better not asking what it is.
Next to a paddock with horses in, we finally come across a sign, like something from a horror movie, pointing the innocent college summer breakers to “Camp: going to cut your head off” finally affirming we are where we are meant to be, and relieving Toms notion I had done some duff research, “WELCOME TO CROYDON ATHLETIC FOOTBALL CLUB”.
The sign has seen better days, but the long thin arrow points us further up the path, in for a penny in for a pound I say, so on we go.
The ground itself is somewhat secluded, surrounded by high trees, so we hear the players warming up before we see anything. Past the Ryman League signs, alluding to the club's lofty past, and through the turnstile, “The Charlie Bennett Gate”, which itself is a simple breeze block construction, but the mechanism is clearly much older, the chap on the gate, seems to think they had come from Southampton, we get our first look at the Mayfield Stadium, and bare witness to the formidable glare of the floodlights, they are dazzling bright, this is the home of AFC Croydon Athletic (AFC), “The Rams”, of the Southern Counties East Football League.
First impressions are very good, in what is a compact ground, certainly one of the better standard ones we have visited, although perhaps needing a little lick of paint, it feels like a good setting for the night ahead. Our first port of call is to find the clubs Chairman, Paul who has kindly agreed to impart some of his considerable knowledge on the club upon us, and after asking the man at the gate the best place to find him he suggests the clubhouse.
The clubhouse is the beating heart of any club, and AFC is no different, a well stocked bar decorated with pennants from previous cup fixtures, and taking pride of place dead centre is a large silver cup. Each table has a linen tablecloth and a small dance floor, for when the room is used for someone’s 12th birthday or 60th wedding anniversary. Paul is behind the bar, in shirt and club tie, and welcomes us with a big handshake.
Having arrived at the game a little later than we had wanted, we don’t have much of a chance to chat with Paul about the club, as we are both interested to hear about the club’s history, considering the club was only formed in 2012, by far the youngest club we have seen in action, and it’s not until I received a considerable email a few days later that I realise quite what a soap opera the life of this young club has been. Tom though has had time to scout out the food on offer, and is impressed “hot dogs, that’s a new one”.
When an email starts with “Prison... Cricket... News of the World... Suicide... Danish Takeover/collapse... Prison”, you know you are in for an interesting read, and I was not wrong. What unfolded over the next couple of pages had more scandals, and intrigue than Jackie Collins novel. Perhaps most intriguingly the involvement of one of the main protagonists in the Pakistani cricket betting scandal revealed by the News Of the Word. As well as the clubhouse being burnt to the ground, and the land amongst other things being used as a traveler encampment. The fact there is a club and team to come and see at all is remarkable.
Paul also points out that “on 6th February 2012 a gathering of supporters that I chaired decided to form a new club, AFC Croydon Athletic (2012) Limited. It is a company limited by guarantee. The old club remained in existence and therefore the new club is not a reformation of the old and has no link with the old other than the supporters themselves. The new club's history began on 6th February 2012.”
We take a seat in the front row of the stand, not long after a player clutching his kitbag races past us and into the changing rooms, a little late to say the least, considering both teams are on the pitch. Tonight’s opposition are Fisher FC (FFC) of Bermondsey. AFC’s warm up is disrupted by an injury to a player, and after making sure he is ok, talk quickly turns to changing the starting line up.
Once the players make their way into the changing room, connected to the clubhouse behind us in the stand, the turnaround is quick, and in no time at all both teams line up, ready to go, AFC in an all maroon number, FFC in a fetching black and white striped jersey. Players from each side occasionally offering their own advice to their teams mates, “lively, guys”.
FFC are clapped on by a small but noisy contingent of fans, noticeably by two tall chaps dressed all in black who have the look of undertakers about them “Come on Fisher”. One of them, sounding like a broken record, occasionally just says “come on the fish” not particularly loudly, or aimed at anyone in particular, just happy in his own little world. An equally sized, but not so noisy group of AFC fans reply, “come on you Rams”.
The undertakers and their chums make their way around the pitch, and take up position opposite us, not far from the dugouts, which resemble Anderson Shelters. They are quick to make what is a considerable turnout aware of their presence, “Fisher, fisher, fisher, fisher, fisher”, banging on the metal roof of the standing terrace.
Shortly after kick-off a man carrying a Quality Street tin, and wearing a club scarf entices us with the chance of a “£25 prize” if we buy a ticket for the 50/50 raffle, and once we buy one, he is quick to pounce on people just arriving, with the same alluring offer.
“We all follow the fisher, over land and sea” “there is only one fishers FC”. FFC’s early non stop support, is accompanied by their teams early dominance, noticeably the searing pace of their forward players. An early good save from the AFC keeper keeps FFC at bay for now, as a goal seems likely from every attack.
The silver haired lady from the food hatch, has popped out for a ciggie, a chance to watch the game, still wearing her apron, and is more than happy to offer her opinion on proceedings “handball, ref!”.
“It’s only a matter of time” says Tom as the FFC onslaught continues, and the home fans behind us feel their teams display is only helping FFC “we are giving them too much time on the ball”. It’s been one way traffic from the get go, and with 20 minutes on the clock, AFC have not even registered a shot on goal. Although it’s one of the largest turnout for a mid week match, it’s not the loudest, the FFC fans however are doing enough singing for everyone, occasionally the small group of home fans behind the goal FFC are attacking will every so often let out a shout “come on Croydon”, to be fair so far their team has not given them much to shout about.
Something you quickly notice at non-league grounds, is the dilemma a hefty, high clearance, can cause. As the stands are not as big, the Mayfield Stadium is only surrounded by a low wall, with some tatty nets at each end of the pitch, which have seen better days, and are ineffectual against a Peter Kay type “have it” clearence. It is therefore down to someone to go and retrieve the ball, tonight it is the responsibility of the 3 or 4 youth players sitting behind us. When the first said clearance occurs, the group behind get into a “it’s not me” back and forth, until one gives in, and goes in search of the lost ball.
The player injured in the warm up, emerges, hopping with only one shoe on, its awkward to watch him move around without a crutch, and to add insult to injury his phone pops out of his pocket and crashes to the ground, it’s not his day today. He also makes his life harder than it has to be, hopping all the way to other end of the stand, the opposite end of the changing room, to sit down
“Come on you Rams”
“I’m going on a walkabout, then its burgers and chips time” are the immortal words of my co blogger, as he fetches his other lense from his camera bag, and disappears into the night.
Thanks to a touch of good luck, and when I say the goal is so against the run of play, the expression has never been so relevant in the history of football, AFC go 1 - 0 up. A not very good corner arrives at the foot of an AFC player near the front post, who hooks a “shot” towards the back post, the tameness of it means the FFC defender should not have an issue clearing it, but he misjudges the ball, it bounces in front of him, hits him on the thigh and into the back of the net, own goal, he almost stamps his feet like a toddler, beyond annoyed at what happened. AFC dont care, they are somehow ahead, and run off towards the bench in celebration.
“We are Croydon, super Croydon, no one likes us”
Since the goal, it’s like a new team have miraculously appeared, AFC go in search of a 2nd, a good shot from outside the box, is just pushed wide by the FFC keeper. Their search for a second is not a long one as they score again in slightly dubious circumstances. Not an own goal this time, but what looks like some help from the linesman. The goal results from another high looping hooked shot from the outside of the box, and looks like only ending up in the FFC keepers hands, only for a FFC player who looks miles offside, standing alone in the box, to nod it over the keeper, 2 - 0. Paul who has forgone his bar duties to catch some of the game, is sitting next to me and can’t believe it was given “he had to be offside”.
I think it’s fair to say the home supporters, are surprised to say the least they are 2 - 0 ahead. The small group of AFC fans are happy, and break into song again “2 - 0 to the Croydon boys” And that is how the half ends, much to the annoyance of the FFC players and staff who look pissed off as they leave the pitch.
Along with what has been an engrossing game on the pitch, perhaps more interestingly has been the person in the AFC tracksuit, perhaps an injured player, leaning against the railing a few feet away from us. He has lived out every kick, header and pass as the game has unfolded. Annoyed at a stray pass and ecstatic at the goal, as if he was playing in the game himself.
Most of the stand make their way to the clubhouse at half time, Tom like every good Arsenal fan, beats the rush and goes slightly before the final whistle to get in line for the food. By the time I get in there the queue is considerable, and the choice of music has me slightly confused, the slow ballads of Elton John would not be my pick for half time entertainment.
Another raffle, another occasion lady luck is not on my side, “648, the winning ticket is 648”. The noise of the rattling sweet tin had me glued to the draw, but when I knew the £25 was not ours, my dreams were dashed for another evening.
Tom seems to have been standing in the same place in the queue, not moving an inch, and by the time he does make it over to our table, grasping a burger with a different size top to bottom, he is slightly exasperated “she will be there all night, doing one burger at a time”. He does though tell me about the chip situation that he was advised about, which leads to another sentence for the non-league gem pile “I wasn’t going to do chips tonight, the girl who does the chips isn’t here!”.
FFC are out well early, are in a team huddle which goes on for an eternity, and once two of their coaches tip toe across the pitch with a cup of tea in hand, the second half in under way.
The small group of AFC fans have stayed put, now behind the goal they are attacking, the FFC fans have moved, now both at opposing ends of the pitch. And although they are behind, they continue to out sing the the home side.
The visitors take off in the 2nd half from where they started in the 1st. It’s a credit to them, you would not know they are behind, and are quick to push AFC all the way back into their own half. A succession of 3 or 4 songs in a row come from the unwaivable FFC support, still banging the roof of the stand “Can you hear the Croydon sing”, “it’s just like 7 oaks” “shall we sing a song for you”.
“Well they’re having a nice time” says Tom.
“I’ve got skinny jeans on” proclaims one of the youth players, who have returned to their seats well into the half, with yellow polystyrene trays full of food. Restricted by his fashion choice, he is unable to climb over the seats, and has to go the long way round. Tracksuit man, has not moved, and continues to flinch and move with every pass and cross, becoming increasingly twitchy as AFC are forced further and further back, and 15 minutes into the half they have not had a shot.
AFC fans finally get a short song going, only for the FFC to sarcastically applaud their first effort of the half.
An optimistic shout goes out from one AFC player to the rest “come on boys let’s have a winner”, and finally a great solo run from a team mate looks like grabbing the 3rd, only for a tame shot, not doing justice to his previous efforts.
Is danger money included or at the very least are his chips free? is the question I ask myself, as the same youth player goes off in search of a lost ball, this time leaving his friends doubled up in laughter, as he scales a ladder leaning against the roof of one of the terraces, and like a well trained circus performer, he performs a daredevil walk across the roof, arms stretched out wide for balance.
AFC are riding their luck with 10 minutes to go, it looks well within the realm of possibility if FFC get a goal, they could go on to win it. They hit the post, and a free kick from the edge of the box is just pushed wide, but the footballing Gods are smiling on AFC tonight, as they manage to grab a 3rd in the last minutes of the half. A high aimless ball in the general direction of the FFC box, after a ineffectual AFC corner, is flicked on and finds a FFC player perfectly placed on the edge of the area as the FFC defence rush the opposite way leaving him all alone to control the ball, take advantage of the indecisive FFC keeper, who doesn't know if he is coming or going, and coolly lob it over him for 3 - 0.
“ARE YOU MILLWALL IN DISGUISE” is probably the loudest cheer from the home fans, directed at the visitors, as the final whistle goes. Regardless of defeat the FFC fans are happy to continue singing “We love you fisher we do”.
Although they won, the AFC number 2 who has not had the best day at the office, marches off the pitch alone, followed by the rest of the team, who are in much better spirits and are happy to pose for a couple of pics for us.
The FFC team are getting the full Phil Brown serivce, heads are low as they sit on the pitch getting a talking to, and once they start making their way back inside I overhear one of them say to another “we are going to get hammered!”
Tom goes on the pitch, to grab a few pictures of the stragglers, and a member of the FFC staff comments that he is amazed he can, considering the lights. It would seem that it is not only us who have noticed how strong they are, but in fact more at one end than the other, there is a dark and bright end if you like.
I pop back into the clubhouse to thank Paul, who is back behind the bar, and get another monster handshake. I ask if AFC will be playing in the upcoming FA Cup fixtures, “sadly not, we went out first round, probably our worst performance of the season, along with this one”.
The now pitch black lane back to the main road, is a completely different animal, with only the headlights of a few cars creeping along it, to light the way. We order an Uber who arrives at the opposite end, doesn't fancy driving down, and cancels on us, thankfully the next attempt to book one, is successful and he gets us to the station sharpish.
AFC are another fine example of a fan owned club who powered by their own passion have resurrected their team, not allowing the miss-dealings of others to ruin what is important to them. If you are going to a night game take a torch and some sun glasses, that would be my only advice, other than that make sure you get down to The Mayfield Stadium, it is well worth the visit.