Not that we need a specific day to sing the praises of lower league football, but today along with it being the FA Cup 3rd Qualifying round, and our 5th game out of 5 in the competition this season, it is also the annual “Non-League Day”. Taking advantage of the international break, now in its 5th year, it is a chance for the teams towards the bottom of the pyramid to raise their profile, without the bigger local teams stealing all the limelight, dazzling people with shiny things, and in a lot of cases flattering to deceive.
On arrival at the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, or what I am now aware is affectionately called the “Donkey Dome”, (which just makes me think of Tina Turner) home of Enfield Town FC (ET), the coach of today’s opposition is pulling up in front of the lovingly restored Art Deco main stand. On being here however I do break a recent vow I made in a piece for the ET programme, having said we would avoid attending any FA Cup games, considering our poor record of seeing every home team lose so far this season, but with the curse being put to the sword when we saw Hanwell Town FC claim a victory in the last round, we thought we should be hex free now.
The players of Hitchin Town FC (HT) all pile off the bus, pick up their bags, and make their way into what they all the think is the entrance, only once halfway in the building, they are told to turn around, and go in an alternative door.
I spot Tom through the fence next to the turnstile, and make my way into the ground. I was solo the time we did our last blog here, so Tom is quick to share his views on the Donkey Dome, since he has had a bit of time to wander about and take some pictures, “I hate a running track”. I think most of us out there would agree, a running track at a football stadium is not ideal, I remember visits to the old Wembley, and although it was not a running track, I think it was used for Speedway, that distance from you and the action is a bit of a nuisance.
ET however have set things up slightly differently say from Tower Hamlets FC whose main stand is so far removed from the pitch it kills the atmosphere somewhat. Here the two covered terraces behind each goal are inside the running track placing you within touching distance of the keeper, as is the seated stand, opposite the main one, which has you right up against the fence around the pitch, so you don’t miss a thing. Although the gorgeous main stand is a fair way from the pitch, its elevated position gives you a good view
Various flags hang from the railing of the balcony of the main stand, one says ‘carefree’ and there is a Catalan flag with a donkey on it, but they are all out done by the giant blue and white St George’s Cross, with the ET badge slap bang in the middle of it, that hangs from the first floor all the way down to ground level, and is very impressive.
The HT players are now out on the pitch, and Tom and I stand watching as they perform what you might call a pre match ritual. They form a line on the edge of the 18 yard box, then in turn approach the goal, one by one taking turns to touch the crossbar. I can only assume the lamb was sacrificed behind closed doors, the bright sun might have affected the blood reading.
There is an undeniable buzz around the ground, even with about an hour and a half to kick off, all despite there not being many supporters here yet. One old chap however has already taken up his spot on the small raised standing section pitch side, in his blue club jacket, he leans against the back almost motionless, watching as people scurry about getting ready. One main contributor to the small groups of the ET staff standing around chatting, and the heightened feeling, is the presence of Copa 90. The online purveyors of all things football culture on YouTube, who are here to make a film about Britains first fan owned club, Non-League Day and the fanatical fans “The Enfield Ultras”, and behind one goal Muzzy, who I have yet to meet, but have chatted to on Twitter, is being interviewed. It was after meeting Copa 90 at a five a side football tournament in the Summer, and explaining the ET story, that they are here today.
Perhaps unaware of the conditions required for filming, as the camera crew take up a new spot to to interview the ET manager, the ball boys having a kickabout on the running track with their red bibs on, crash a ball off the dugout, and are shooed away.
One player walks out on to the pitch, holding two different boots, tests the playing surface, and turns around and walks back inside, Tom who is a bit more clued up on these things says “blades it is”.
A young man perhaps 10 or 11, whose role is signified by his red bib, strides up to us like a little Boss, introduces himself “I’m the head ball boy” and commences to cross examine us like Columbo. Asking who we are, and if our work is going to be in the “Mirror” we have to break it to him, we are not going to be appearing in a national newspaper, and he looks very disappointed. We ask him for his opinion on the game, “we have not lost in 7”, “bit of a tough game, but we could win”, and as quickly as little Clint Eastwood had appeared, he was off again, walking away with a undeniable air of "I run this town" about him.
It has become apparent, that at most clubs, the FA Cup is the game you get your best suit and tie out of the cupboard for, the one reserved for weddings, funerals and job interviews, and pop it on for the big day. So when Ken the club's Press Officer introduces him self, he is no different, and although we have exchanged a fair few emails, as he has been very kind to include some of our work in the ET match day programme, we are meeting for the first time on the edge of the pitch, exchange handshakes, and he escorts us to the changing rooms, to grab some pics. Our quick photo opportunity, as people busily move around each other in the narrow corridor, is accompanied by what seems the music of choice at most clubs, very loud R’n’B.
Ken also tells us that the “BBC are allegedly going to be here at 14:00”, they will be trialling a new concept of the first mobile only broadcast football match, but no one from the Beeb have yet to be spotted.
Your go to place for club merchandise at the QE2 is a hole in the wall of the main stand, covered by a
blue shutter when we first arrived, it’s now open and overflowing with all sorts of football goodies, to tempt every collector/hoarder, and Tom and I add to our pin and programme collections respectively. The woman in the bright orange club shirt jokingly apologises for the level of customer service on offer from her accomplice this afternoon “sorry the usual guy is at Twickenham watching the rugby”.
Although there has been a growling feeling of excitement around the ground, it has also been relatively quiet, almost a bit eerie, but this is all smashed into next week, by a combination of the music coming over the tannoy, some of the best the 1980’s has to offer, who doesn't love a bit of Cindy Lauper? and the noise of the players warming up.
Having grabbed a quick hello with Muzzy as he accompanied the camera crew, we now get to have a chat with him and Eli the Copa 90 host. Our conversation is interrupted by the first appearance of the Ultras, taking down their flags on the balcony, and making sure Muzzy doesn’t forget where he has come from, and all the limelight doesn't go to his head, he goes a bit red as they direct a few chants his way, one of them is his brother, who looks especially happy to embarrass him “all you do is hop, all you do is hop”, no one has any idea what it means, but you can tell from his face he knows exactly “they like to remind me of the stupid things I say”, he says.
Muzzy is not only a bit of a mover and shaker now in the media world, but runs his own little “football highlights” empire, filming the games for the club, and sharing them on YouTube. His Dad is the Under 18’s manager, side had a victory over the HT Under 18’s in the FA Youth Cup the previous night, which he agrees is a good omen.
The odd flecks of green and gold, start to appear, which means the HT fans have started to arrive, but the drum of the Ultras takes us inside and up the stone spiral staircase of the main stand, to the first floor bar, usually overlooking the pitch, except on this occasion there are some very odd blue tarpaulins obscuring the windows.
“Everywhere we go” sings the Ultras, as they move in single file through the heaving bar, down the stairs and back outside. I wait for Tom on the balcony, by another snazzy looking club official taking an extra £1 from people who want the Art Deco surroundings of the main stand to be there vantage point to watch the game from. A phone call from Tom, quickly explains why the tarpaulins are here, FA regulations mean you can’t drink alcohol in view of the pitch, stranding Tom in the bar until he drinks up.
“Wembley, Wembley, Wembley”
Tom reappears from the bar “there are fucking loads of people in there!”
With 5 minutes to kick off the music is off, and the calm quietness is back. The Ultras are standing on the halfway line, waiting for the toss of the coin, which decides which end they will be occupying for the first half.
“Shut the gate, they are coming out” is the instruction from the head ball boy, whose eyes dart frantically between the door leading out to the pitch, and the gate keeper. “I could hear the ball”, he informs a fellow ball boy, who is baffled he knew they where on their way, before he could see them. His eyes are frantic, but he never loses the cool exterior of a man in charge and the gate keeper, a much larger and older man, is quick to do what he is instructed, and closes the gates, that form the ‘tunnel’.
The ET players are much noisier, and are first out in their blue and white strip, “come on lads”, HT are significantly quieter in their green and yellow, and once both teams are lined up, the referee gets things under way “let’s go”.
“Welcome Hitchin Town” says the game show host sounding voice on the tannoy, as the team's walk out. On the centre circle the coin toss triggers a movement of people, the likes of which have not been seen in modern times, as the fans of each side, make their way to behind the goal their team will be attacking, and quickly the flags are going up, HT have 2 huge St George’s crosses, but nothing to rival the ET mega flag.
“ENFIELD TOWN” and the Duracell Ultras are off, as the drum really gets underway, and a new phenomenon to me, the banging of metal spoons on the stand, adding a little percussion to the singing.
"EVERYWERE WE GO, IT'S THE TOWNER BOYS"
The stand is fit to burst, and I’m just to the side of the goal, leaning on the railing next to a Father, with his young Son. Although the HT fans have some impressive flags, the Ultras are not very impressed by their lack of noise, and are quick to tell them “can you hear the Hitchin sing?”
“NORTH LONDON IS WONDERFUL”
There seem to people everywhere, each stand looks full, and the whole pitch seems to be surrounded, by people leaning against the railings watching the match, the shame is that unlike the Ultras, the players have not really not got going, even a finger wiggling accompanied rendition of “oh when the town go marching in”, can’t spark the game into life, and someone behind us is a bit frustrated, “come on town”. On turning round, I recognise the older man in sunglasses from the first time I came, and recall his constant less than positive offerings from the sidelines.
“TWIST AND SHOUT”
“So far this is the dullest game in the world” says the Dad to his Son, “and I have been coming for years”. You can tell when the fans are a bit bored, never quiet in the case of the Ultras, just a bit bored, when they start slagging off the rivals “clap, if you hate Barnet!”
The frustration levels are rising around us “get it on the floor” and one person is getting fed up as ET continue to loose possession, “come on let’s keep it for a bit”.
HT’s keeper is entertaining the fans behind the goal, even if the football isn’t. His kicking has been less than accurate, and the biggest cheer of the day so far, is when he kicks the ball straight out into touch “he’s got his IQ on his shirt”.
“LETS ALL DO THE POZNAN”
It takes around 30 minutes for either team to get a chance, and then both have one in short succession. First it’s ET with a header from a free kick, but it’s straight down the keeper's throat, and then HT get a chance from a good cross, but the header from close range, is put wide.
“If we win, do we get a trophy?”, says the boy to his father, “no just a bit closer”, he reply's.
A quite unorthodox move by the raffle master at ET, is the announcement before the half is over of the winning ticket and guess what, we didn’t win, whatever!
I think to say it’s been a bit dull so far would be a fair assessment, and as one person near us says it’s been a bit “scrappy”, which I would agree with. The boy next to me has been driven to practicing WWE wrestling moves on his Dad, and has his old man gets lined up for an RKO.
“COME ON WHITES”
To prevent his Son doing a swanton bomb on him, he explains after a player is booked, how the yellow card system works “no he doesn’t get to keep it and take it home, the referee just shows it to him, and puts it back in his pocket”.
The realisation that the half is about to finish dawns on both sets of players and both teams spring into life, and have more chances in the final moments, than in the rest of the game. A shout of “charge” rings out as ET breaks on HT, but the counter attack comes to nothing.
“Got away with that” says a fan behind us, after the ET defender heads back to the keeper, but has misjudged where he is, and sends the ball over him. The ball drops in the 6 yard box, the HT player ready to tap it in, wrestles with the keeper, and in the eyes of the referee was too forceful, and his attempt to get past him is deemed a foul.
“WE ARE ENFIELD TOWN, SAY WE ARE ENFIELD TOWN!”
It’s ET’s turn, this time a cross finds the forward alone and unmarked, but his attempt to head it in is all wrong, and his body position momentarily leaves him hanging in the air horizontally, before crashing to the ground with his head in his hands, “should of scored that” says someone.
Like a game of basketball, there is now a chance at the other end, only for a last ditch ET tackle preventing a tap in, and the boy next to me has the right idea “GET IT OUT!”
The last attempt of the half in these final end to end moments, goes to ET. A clever short corner, taken by a player with big hair who Tom heard a teammate call “Sideshow Bob” rolls the ball along the ground to a player ready to meet it, and his first time shot, from just inside the box is tipped over. The two resulting corners come to nothing.
There is almost nothing of any interest to write about the first 30 minutes of the new half. A point blank save from the ET keeper is a stunner, and keeps the game level, and the HT keeper continues to be the main source of fun, but shoots up in my estimations after doing an impression of an officer from WW1 going over the top “FORWARD” as he urges on his team mates.
The monotony is finally broken after a spellbinding run by the ET Number 11, which deserved a goal so much, after he slalomed past so many of the opposition, only for his shot to be blocked.
It’s around this time we bump into a familiar face @SupriseTruck, who we first met at the Greenwich Borough FC game in the 1st qualifying round. “thought I would come and get some warmth and atmosphere”, as he joins us in the ET end, “nothing coming from that end, just the odd shout to the linesman”.
And then it starts, much like the never take a breath chant in ‘The Temple Of Doom’ “ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC” and it keeps going and going. A couple of Ultras have their shirts off, as they continue to support the team, despite the average game. Eli from Copa90, who confessed earlier on to not being very well, is front and centre with a drum, banging away.
“ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC”
One of the shirtless Ultras is now standing above the crowd, steadying himself with his hand on the roof of the small rammed stand, he gestures to the non singing fans around him, cupping his ear “I can’t hear you”. They only stop for a fraction of a second, to berate the HT keeper for a shonky kick, and then they start where they left off “ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC”.
HT almost perform a bit of a smash and grab, after a fine ball across the ET box, offers the HT attack a chance for all the plaudits, only to miss. The ball must have taken a touch off the sliding defender, who has prevented a certain goal, the resulting corner is dangerous, but cleared.
A final moment of heroics from the ET Keeper, as he saves from a one on one, and very much keeps them in the tie, and cements the fact that the game will now be going to a replay. All along the Ultras continue their low rumbling chant “ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC”
The blast of the whistle brings the game to an end, but signifies the beginning of a mass team on team brawl, nothing too serious, and it is quickly over. I do wonder though if the child WWE fan, is pulling on his Lucha libre mask, and is itching to do a tombstone or a crippler crossface.
The flags at both ends come down for the last time, and as the once bustling stand empties, the core of noise, the Ultras, remain applauding their team, and the players respond in kind, approaching them, with their hands above their heads, clapping like only footballers do, and repay the compliment, for their flawless and non stop support.
Someone tells us on the way out, it’s been a good day on the turnstiles for the club, pulling in about £7,000, when the normal gate is around £2,000, he also tells us the bar has done a roaring trade. If the day could not get any better on the way out we bump into BBC pundit, former Crystal Palace FC and Charlton Athletic FC player Mark “Brighty” Bright, who is happy to pose for a pic with our flag, once we have assured him he is not “endorsing” anything.
The football was lacking today, ET have been on such a great run of late, I think everyone would have been hoping for a better performance, but these things happen. The people however, the fans, the ground, the atmosphere are just bang on. Enfield Town FC and it’s supporters deserve every moment of exposure they can get in the wider football loving world. It’s important for all to know what is going down at the Donkey Dome!
“ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC”