It’s been a soggy few days since arriving in Bournemouth, for my summer holiday with my Son and girlfriend. The forever reliable English weather has kept up its side of the bargain, and has provided my week by the sea with sideways rain so far, only breaking to allow us to see the Red Arrows display and not need a yellow sowester.
In exchange for a day at the arcades and a visit to see Pixels, the new Adam Sandler film where he goes toe to toe with Donkey Kong and Pacman, and wins, I was so routing for Donkey Kong to trap him in a barrel and fuck him up, and having to sit though the awkward moment when an advert for the new Dads Army film came on in a cinema full of bored German exchange students, I was granted permission from the family counsel, after much deliberation, an evening of non-league football.
After an afternoon wandering around Poole Quay side, looking at a tall ship, trying to eat the biggest box of chips you have ever seen, avoid playing glow in the dark golf, after an extremely negative experience in Berlin and watching a parade of vintage motor bikes, we cross a bridge in the harbour, and make our way to a kind of no man’s land behind the shipyards, with their Wolf Of Wall Street mega yachts moored up in front of them.
What we had seen of Poole so far that day was very pleasant, but the area where we were now venturing into was let’s say, a little less developed, and my girlfriend would occasionally glance at me, with a “where the hell are you taking us” kind of look, but my instinct told me the trail of Saint Pauli stickers that were dotted on for sale signs and lampposts, meant we were going would be alright.
My resolve was tested by perhaps one of the strangest experiences of my non-league life, or in fact my 31 years on this planet, while waiting outside a shop on the way to the match, while my son stocked up on his new addiction of lime and mango Ribena, a man/boy/twat rode up behind me on a bike, like a cycling ninja and barked in my ear. That is correct, a grown man/boy/twat barked in my ear like a dog, followed by the sniggering of his fellow cycling compatriot, and by the time I had got over the initial shock, screamed like a Victorian heroine and turned around, they were gone in a flash, I was left vulnerable and wanting the safety of more familiar North London climbs.
Having to explain this to my girlfriend and 8 year old Son was a strange experience. My girlfriend went into work mode, she is an audiologist, so reeled off a list of professional sounding questions and my Son just looked at me, wondering what all the fuss was about, but we did not allow the dog man to ruin our evening, and anyway we were not far from the ground now, so with my ear ringing, my wits about me, and my girlfriend checking on my audiological health, we soldiered on.
Through the car park, past the shuttered entrance to the clubhouse, a single, breeze block turnstile, and £6 later, my Son was free, we were in. And straight away, the week’s weather was not the only topic of conversation, as members of both teams staff discussed where the team would be warming up.
Considering our location the fact that Bon Jovi’s,” Living on a prayer” is playing, when we walk in, with the opening line “Tommy used to work on the docks”, you can tell someone here has a sense of humour, and this evening after the barking, might just be ok.
Tonight’s venue was a simple, but charming one, surrounded all the way round by a low wall, with the back drop of an electricity sub station, electricity pylons disappearing into the distance. I was particularly enamoured by the original 1950’s main stand, which sits along one length of the pitch, a wooden structure with a few rows of benches, instead of seats, and a curved/humped roof. The Directors sections, almost bang on the halfway line, was marked out by yellow bars with a “H” painted on one half of the benches, and an “A” painted on the other.
HU have a very similar badge and club colours to a certain East London team, who also share the same nickname “The Hammers”, this is clear in the club badge, two crossed hammers, but they do not play in claret like the London Hammers, according to the programme its maroon. Maroon and blue is a welcome splash of colour, on what is otherwise a grey evening, the railing around the pitch alternates maroon and blue, as well as the porta cabin boardroom, and main stand. The boardroom makes up one side of a grassy square with picnic tables, the clubhouse and the changing rooms making up the other.
It’s been a relatively tropical afternoon, compared to the rest of the week so far, and this evening looks like it actually might be half decent, until distant rumblings of thunder, reinforce hurricane holiday is always close by.
“Come on boys, everyone in” shouts a HW coach, letting out a sharp whistle as well, calling in the team from the warm up. The referees are also going through their slightly unorthodox pre match regime, which looks like a game of “it” running around with smiles from ear to ear, avoiding each other.
A fan next to us has come prepared he has brought a small foam cushion to combat the hard wooden benches.
Once again the long haired one from New Jersey comes over the sound system, as the players line up in two orderly queues, along a concrete path from the changing room to the pitch, waiting for a man in a high viz jacket, like the starter at a horse race, to open the gate and let them on. Something I have noticed at non-league level and it must be a way to look after those all-important pennies, the flood lights are turned on, literally as the first player’s foot touches the grass.
As has been the case all over the country, at all levels of football, a moment of silence it taken, to offer remembrance to everyone recently lost in the Shoreham Air Show, which was respected flawlessly.
On the referees whistle, shouts come from both sets of supporters, “Come on Hammers” and from the away contingent who have taken a place under the only other cover in the ground, The Irvin Brown Stand, a standard terrace behind one goal, “come on Sholing”.
Our vantage point from the main stand is low, but close and really gives a good view of the game, except for a few pesky posts, but you soon forget they are there. The rain is back, forcing most people under its shelter, giving for a good atmosphere for the game ahead, certainly one of the better evening game attendances we have seen.
“We all follow the Sholing, over land and sea” sing the four or five away fans that have made the short trip from Southampton and stand in front of a large St Georges cross with “Sholing FC” written across it.
SFC have the early chances a one on one, with a lacklustre shot from a tight angle, but a much better header that goes fractions wide, and on the half hour mark, the away team are just shading it, but with the teams close in the league, neither one is really taking charge of the match.
HU attacks start well, but never quite culminate into anything, after all the promise of the build up their number 9 is tiny, but rapid, and is the main outlet, but it keeps breaking down at the vital moment. An early SFC substitute, who was injured on the far side of the pitch, grimaces, and has taken what feels like an age to limp around the pitch, in obvious pain.
It’s a manic end to the first half, with both teams giving the ball away, but with no final product in front of goal. SFC’s stocky, fast number 7 has started to come into the game, and is proving a hand full, but the half finishes 0 – 0.
A big queue emanates from two opened windows, next to the entrance of the clubhouse, stretching across the grassy area in front. The tea is dispensed expertly, by two white haired women, with giant metal teapots, who chat with the regulars, making their drinks telepathically working as one.
The tea is McDonald’s apple pie hot, and takes about 10 minutes, before I can even consider taking a sip. Their tea room is suitably stocked with Europe’s largest selection of cuppa soups, displayed neatly across two microwaves, it also doubles as the club shop, because behind them up on the wall is a cork board with the club shirt pinned to it, with the price written on a piece of green card, cut into the shape of a star.
Men with ties on sit in the well-lit board room, tucking into sandwiches. I peer in the window like an overweight Oliver, trying to get a glimpse of the food on offer.
HU come out the much better side in the second half, but its SFC who get the best chance early on, “come on Sholing” cry their fans. “Got to take the chances lads” says the SFC keeper clapping his hands after they almost score. HU though are quick to reply, with a point blank header, but it's tipped over with the slightest of touches, and they can’t believe they are not ahead.
Every so often in the first half a stray pass or clearance would land on top of the stand, with an almighty crash, what happened next though, made my life flash before my eyes, as a low fizzing clearance, shot off the pitch, and made its way straight for me and my family, only for the man next to us to stick out a foot, and prevent it smashing into us, the only casualty was a few drops of my girlfriends tea, after she flinched, I was of course preparing to dive to her safety, only for other people wanting all the glory, to save us. For some people it’s only about the medals!
It’s an own goal that breaks the deadlock, and puts the home side ahead. A whipped shot from just inside the corner of the box is deflected in by the wafted head of an SFU player, not committing to the clearance, just putting his bonce in the general vicinity of the ball. The keeper is moving to his right to deal with the shot, but the deflection takes it to his left, he is stranded, 1 – 0.
“Come on yellow, pick it up” the SFU keeper motivates his team, who don’t really deserve to be behind, and they are not for long, as they equalise almost instantly from a penalty. The referee has to consult with his assistant, and after a brief chat, points to the spot. WU on mass remonstrate with the referee, the SFU players calmly applaud his decision, they have their way back into the match, moments after going behind.
1 – 1 the scorer dispatches the penalty with ease “COME ON SHOLING, COME ON SHOLING” the “Ultras” as one man next to us, refers to the traveling fans as, remind us they are here after equalising. Although they are few in number, like any good away support they are doing their team proud, breaking into song regularly, boasting when they can about their recent FA Vase victory at Wembley “I was there, I was there”.
The remainder of the match is end to end, and has really come to life. SFC almost scores from a free kick and WU flash a shot across goal.
I watch the final moments of the game, standing beside a slightly tense home dugout, opposite the main stand, everyone on their feet, biting their nails. The man in black has been tough tonight, and is starting to get on the nerves of the home coach “there is going to be 30 minutes of extra time, just from the ref talking”.
1 – 2 a sucker punch from SFU, they have taken the lead in the dying moments. A WU player facing his own goal dawdles on the ball, has it pinched off him, and is punished as the SFU player slots it in the back of the net.
“SHOLING, SHOLING, SHOLING”, “WE ARE SHOLING, NO ONE LIKE US”
The bench is dejected to say the least, but one person tries to motivate the team “5 minutes left, we can get something from this”, but it’s not the case, the points are going back to Southampton, it was a well fought encounter that always had the feel of one team doing a smash and grab.
As quickly as the lights go on before the match, as soon as the pitch is clear, The County Ground is plunged into darkness. I call a cab from a Freephone in the clubhouse, opposite a large gold gilt mirror with the teams badge on, hanging next to a fruit machine.
While we wait to be picked up, some WU club officials discuss the imminent fine from the league:
“Well that cost us £150”
“What did he get booked for?”
“He called him a see you next Tuesday!”