The turnstile is not yet open, and as we get closer a man in a white shirt bounds down some stairs and welcomes us, it’s Clive the club secretary, who has been kind enough to allow us to come along today.
Reynolds Field the home of Hanwell Town FC (HT) is perfectly pleasant, just what you would expect of the Evo-Stik League South side, except for one striking feature, the big white house over looking the pitch. Imagine a grand house like something from ‘Gone with the Wind’, from some plantation in the Deep South, but plonked next to a football pitch in Middlesex. Home of HT since 1981, it was previously a local schools changing room and sports field, a bit different from the grotty old changing room at my old school.
We join Clive, and other people with their clubs ties on the veranda.
“Normally everyone is here by now, but not today” Clive gestures at his watch. “The pitch has just been marked out” Clive tells us, who at this point seems like a nervous ball of energy, he obviously has a lot on his plate today, and I’m sure the fact that Brian, who runs the turnstile is late is not helping.
There is a busy road along one end of the ground, behind one of the goals, and everyone is eagle eyed on the lookout. The opposition, Mildenhall Town FC (MT) are due any minute, and like a meerkat on sentry duty, once the shout goes up, the onlookers scatter “the coach is here”.
The MT coach squeezes in reverse up the drive, and the players disembark, and I must admit they look very professional, all in matching tracksuits, some with large headphone cans, cooly walking into the the ground, up the stairs and into the changing room, it requires a double check, having to remind myself this is a FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round game, and not some top flight team who has just arrived.
My attention is somewhat distracted from the events around me, as on the TV in the clubhouse I can hear the commentary of Spurs Vs Man City, and I have to pinch myself, when Tom tells me we have gone 2 - 1 up, and my first assumption is that he is winding me up.
Since the dam has been breached, there is now a constant stream of men in suits and blazer, and members of the home team, with bags slung over their shoulders, looking smart but perhaps not quite as dazzling as the away team from a step above.
Through the main lobby of the big white house, past a large mirror with the club crest on, we are very lucky to to be shown around the boardroom by the club Chairman, Bob “Mr Hanwell” if you like, who has been involved with HT since he was 16 years old, has 750 appearances under his belt, and is this year celebrating 60 years at the club. He very modestly points out a few of the many pictures covering every spare inch of space, with him in, alongside signed shirts, and all sorts of club memorabilia. The tea urn is bulging on a small wooden table, crammed with very snazzy club mugs, waiting for the big wigs to have a cuppa.
Bob is probably the best person to ask about what the FA Cup means at HT, and he does not mix his words, “it’s an enormous game for us today”, he remembers fondly what a big day it was the first time they played in the competition, back in the 1988-89 season, he seems quite a shy chap, but his face lights up when he starts talking about the club's history. He never played in the Cup himself, but is very proud of what the team has become “from a parkside to where we are today”, he beams in his own reserved way.
“Ring me if no-one is here” says the sign on the dinnerladies bell at the bar. Thankfully today I’m not required to do a town crier impression, as the attentive lady behind the counter, is quick to serve us, and we take our drinks outside, it's been lovely, bright and warm all day, Tom ruing the fact he brought a jacket, and we sit on a bench on the verandah, the quiet chatter between people is occasionally broken, when someone shouts the Spurs score.
“Anyone want a 50/50 ticket?” bellows a man clutching a green jug, and like a couple of addicts, gluttons for punishment, we hand over a couple of quid, and cross our fingers for a windfall.
The much more agreeable “Whisky in the Jar” is now playing over the sound system, accompanying the constant ticking of the turnstile, when Tom informs me about the arrival of fantasy royalty, “Gandalf has just walked in”, however instead of clutching a wooden staff, it's a cloth ‘bag for life’, but minus his hat, he has the most marvelous long white beard and hair, putting both our facial hair to shame.
We get talking to the Father-in-Law of the HT Manager who emphasises how crucial the competition is financially to the club “it’s so important the money, someone told me it’s £4,500 this round”.
HT come out first to warm up, we chat with Clive from our vantage point in the Big House, we discuss quite how ginormous, in height that is, not width their keeper is, all the while he nervously clicks his pen. “One of the coaches says when he has his gloves on he looks deformed”.
There are a few late comers from MH as they walk at a quick pace to the changing rooms, and not long after the click of studs on concrete and the bouncing of balls, announces that the opposition are on their way out.
Once again my attention is diverted as Tom tells me Spurs have gone 4 - 1 ahead against Man City, and I had to verify this myself, surely he is definitely pulling my leg this time.
There is a good atmosphere steadily growing, with a continuous stream of new arrivals, including another amazing beard, and one cool customer in a suit, shades and a black and white striped scarf around his neck, he looks right out of an M&S catalogue. Only the occasional drone of a low plane overhead, making its way to Heathrow can interrupt.
We are not the only people in search of the romance and history of The FA Cup, we meet the guys from @AcrossParkBlog, two Uni friends, who are attempting to to watch every round from “Wembley 2 Wembley”. They started at Hillingdon Borough FC Vs Wembley FC and have followed the winning team since, thinking it would also give them the chance to explore different parts of the country, they seem to have only seen the London Borough Of Ealing, but at least with the last round they got a trip to Suffolk.
“The away fans have arrived” announces Tom, as another coach squeezes up the drive, and the noisy away supporters are quick to announce their arrival “Mildenhall, Mildenhall, Mildenhall” as they make there way through Dave’s strained turnstile.
Tom & Martyn from @AcrossParkBlog seem to have made quite the impression on one fan of MT, as not long after arriving she is quick to thrust a cupcake, with icing in the shape and colour of the MT shirt on top, upon them and by association we get one shoved our way as well. Trying to be polite, and in no way a comment on what looks like a tasty Bake Off signature bake, I kindly refuse, but it just stays in front of me, at the end of an outstretched hand until I accept it, she was not taking ‘no’ for an answer.
The arrival of the traveling fans has ramped up the atmosphere, they are making plenty of noise “come on the Hall”, and when the teams emerge from the changing rooms, and funnel down a green garden fenced lined “tunnel” the noise continues to rise.
Manning the gate on to the pitch, is another chap in a club tie, and as both teams walk out, he shakes the hand of every player, and wishes them luck. A giant of a man in a blue jacket, taps the end of the microphone, makes sure its on and welcomes the teams.
The MT fans have not stopped since the minute they arrived, and @AcrossParkBlog had mentioned what a well organised bunch they were. They said within minutes of winning in the last round, a note was up their clubhouse, advertising the coach for the next. They quickly take up position behind the home goal, with an air horn, and their yellow scarves hanging on the fence around the pitch, it's too hot for scarves.
A clash of heads moments into the game, results in a lengthy stoppage, and only thanks to the power of Toms zoom, could we see that one of the MT players has his wound stitched on the pitch. A round of applause went round when he got to his feet and walked off, and an even bigger one rang out, when he changed his shirt, with a big bandage around his head, and makes it back on the pitch.
Other than that the first 45 was lacking in any real talking point, in fact I’m not sure there was a shot on goal, but there was certainly a few boxes to tick in your “I-Spy Football” book, so pens at the ready, here we go.
- Goalkeeper in a cap
- Physio giving a player a rub down on the side of the pitch
- One player looking like a professional. In this case the MT keeper looking like Fabianski
- One player shouting “fuck” at himself, every time he did something wrong, and looking like he might explode, just like the HT number 7
- Away fans trying to distract the the home keeper with the timing of their air horn, every time he takes a kick.
- One player with an exotic name. HT player called “Diego”
“We’re red, we’re white, we're fucking dynamite” sing the MT fans, but how far from the truth they are, neither team has even resembled a sparkler let alone TNT. You know it’s been a bit of a dire half, when you end up hypnotized by the action of the linesman running sideways, clicking his heels together as he goes, and Tom and I discussing my love of goalkeepers in pink shirts.
“Boys fucking lift it” shouts a HT player, but it falls on deaf ears, and the half finishes 0 - 0.
“Not a lot to write about” says one of @AcrossParkBlog as we walk back towards the bar. “we have had a replay every round, no one looks like scoring” and considering we have yet to see a home team win, we are both bringing our own curses to the table.
“Burger time” says Tom, but returns with only drinks as the queue for food was too long. We take up a seat in the front row of the main stand, and await the second half, the HT fan next to us sums up the first half perfectly “two poor sides”.
Again all the noise is coming from the away fans as the teams come out, “Mildenhall, Mildenhall” and they are quick to poke fun at their quiet hosts “can you hear the Hanwell sing?”.
Steve Pound the Labour MP walks past us, and makes his way to the back of the stand to sit with the giant in a blue jacket, and Clive who is desperate for the game to be resolved today “I don't want to go to suffolk on Tuesday”.
The jibing from the MT fans has woken up 4 or 5 HT fans who have taken up position behind a HT flag behind the away goal, and offer their first songs of the day “come on Hanwell, come on Hanwell” and “Toon Army, Toon Army”. No, they are not hideously confused, HT play in black and white stripes and are nicknamed the Geordies. Steve Pound says smirking “our boys giving it large? Keep it classy lads”.
Clive and his little mob at the back of the stand, have probably been the most vocal of anyone since the half began, constantly offering support to the team “come on town, let’s get going”.
Tom looks at me, “can you hear……..?” and we both reply at the same time “bagpipes”. The game however, has not driven us into early senility, from somewhere, God only knows where, and for most of the second half the game is played out to the music of a single piper.
The HT players have started to tackle each other, and the fan next to us hits the nail on the head “this is a mess”, unfortunately the game is continuing on a downward spiral, and a goal looks even more unlikely.
A song perhaps more familiar at Fratton Park, has been reworked by the noisy bunch of HT fans “play up Hanwell, play up Hanwell” and they continue in good voice to encourage the team “attack, attack, attack, attack”.
Double points in your “I-Spy” book because a second half substitute has an exotic name. He turns the game on its head, and something happens, something football related actually happens. Denielson has struck up an instant partnership with his HT teammate number 11, receives a ball in the box with his back to goal, turns on a sixpence and crashes the ball off the crossbar. “I think Denieslon is better than Diego”.
“Denielson, Denielson, Denielson”
He is just what this game needed, someone who can single handedly make a difference, create something out of nothing, because as Clive puts it “we have no creativity in the final 3rd”.
The relief amongst the fans around us is palpable, HT have gone ahead, with 15 minutes left to go.
I’m not sure either side has deserved to win or lose today, but great hold up play and distribution by the Brazilian sounding game changer hitting the ball out wide, has left number 11 only having to pass the ball into the “corridor of uncertainty”, the keeper gets down and manages to get a hand on it, but this only manages to chip it up and into the path of a HT player who pokes it in from point blank range.
“You're not signing anymore, you’re not singing anymore”, but the MT fans are quick to respond “you only sing when you’re winning”.
One MT fan sitting by us is positive, despite going behind “its only one goal” but Tom think he is “optimistic” considering the teams toothless display up until now.
The remaining quarter of an hour sees Denielson and Number 11, Harry, single handedly try and and grab a 2nd goal. “Harry is totally gassed, but he’s not stopped running” says a fan behind us, and they are not wrong.
A second half sub for MT causes everyone to sit to attention, after the booming voice over the tannoy informs us of the imminent introduction of "Harrison Ford". Steve Pound reply brings a big smile to a few faces around us, "welcome to the Temple of Doom"
“Corners H, corners H” shouts Clive. His desire for no trip to East Anglia is almost a reality, so he advises the team to kill the game off, don’t give MT a chance.
To say the last moments drag would be an understatement, “you got a calendar or a watch ref?” One person apologies to the team for the protracted extra time “sorry lads, 5 to go!”
“Wembley, Wembley” sing the fans, HT have done it, and in doing so have now progressed the furthest in the FA Cup in their history. There is a bit of a full time melee, where the MT keeper is booked, and the referee gets all sorts of shit from the away fans, as he makes his way off.
There are two very different groups of players on the pitch, heads are low in the MT camp. For his constant running HT’s Number 11 is named Man of the Match and is handed a bottle of Champagne by Steve Pound.
Both teams are applauded as they leave the pitch, “well played Hanwell”, “Mildenhall, Mildenhall”.
Drinks are on Clive in the bar afterwards, as two blogging duos, Steve Pound and Clive discuss the match, and what the win means, “the money is a huge help, because we are in a constant state of flux. You get £7,500 if you win the next round!”
MT are quick into the clubhouse, for a post match bowl of what looks like curry, and we make our way home, thanking Clive and bidding farewell to our fellow bloggers. I can’t have been the only one who thought there was a kind of doppelganger thing going on, wondering if they were Terminator bloggers from the future.
Tom put it perfectly in the cab home, because the Central line has decided to break down “a bad game rescued by a nice ground and great hospitality”. The FA Cup is alive and well, good luck HT in the next round, go on and make some more history!