A short walk along a rush hour filled high street, our directions take us towards a large branch of Sainsbury's, not your usual venue for a football match, but the familiar remnants of stickers on lamp posts, their faded left overs, a dagger to the heart for a sticker hunter, like seeing that rare flower you have been looking for, trampled to the floor, give us the notion that somewhere between the supermarket and a car wash, a football club is lurking.
Past some bizarre grunting noises, which we later find out are people playing squash in a nearby sports centre, through the players entrance, a woman on reception greets us, and after asking for “Stuart”, sitting in her Terrarium she points us towards the bar.
The familiar blue & white tracksuit clad players of Wingate & Finchley FC (WF) todays opposition, lounge around the long pitchside bar, at what turns out to be the back of the main stand at Champion Hill, its large windows looking out over the pitch, where one man braves the wind, and puts out the corner flags.
Very kindly one of the bar staff goes in search of Stuart our contact at the club, and it's not long until, dressed all in black, tall and smiling, he appears from behind the scenes, says “hello”, gives me the most crushing handshake I have ever received, and quickly makes a joke “I’m one of the undertakers”, in reference to how I had described him and his brother, when we spotted them at a recent Fisher FC (FFC) away game at AFC Croydon Athletic, the mistake would be avoidable if you didn’t hang out near a crematorium in a black suit.
He invites us to join him in the boardroom, and Tom asks if he is expecting much of a turn out, “well it's the best game in London tonight”, he then rattles off a couple of the nights other games, with a little bit of distance, he clearly doesn't think any of them come close to this fixture. Another corridor traversed, we enter its picture lined walls, and are promptly offered a cup of tea, as we peruse the walls, and marvel at the poppy covered war memorial.
As nice as it all is, and particularly the memorial, which is very poignant, just like the service we saw at Leyton Orient FC, it quickly puts football into perspective, but none of it has anything to do with FFC, another non-league ground sharer, because this fine little stadium is the proud home of the famous Dulwich Hamlet FC.
We decline the offer of a drink, and instead opt for a wander about the ground, which is mostly empty except for a few stewards, FFC coaches and kids tearing around, after an earlier training session.
I still find walking down the tunnel at a football club exciting, the inner sanctum, always curious to see what’s going on. Along with the recognisable sights and smells, a small boy asking an older man if he can “make some toast” is a first, but so was seeing a man produce a hunting bugle at a match, so it's all by the by now. FFC players sit chatting in the changing room, and at the other end of the bright white corridor the WF kit is laid out, tidy and clean, before the payers get in there, and change its appearance rapidly. The smart James Bond like, WF manager is kind enough to allow us to grab a picture, before we beat a retreat and let him and his assistant prepare for the match.
The WF assistant manager has done an Oscar quick costume change, and walks out, shorts on holding a large mesh bag of footballs, but might have a job getting the kids practising free kicks off the pitch. The FFC coaches are not quite ready for the rigours of the warm up, and instead opt to “put the kettle on”. When the FFC players do walk out, one in his civvies, he is not happy about the puddle next to the pitch “my trainers are going to get dirty”.
The wind seems to be picking up by the minute, so we go in search of the soft seats and shelter of the bar, and leave all the sporty types to it. The staff behind the bar talk amongst themselves, and a few WF fans have taken over one table. The biggest stirring is not when a chant is started or a bit of argy bargy between fans, but the entrance of a dog in a blue light up collar, who is fawned upon, especially by the WF President, Harvey. who is very happy to see him “my lovely Bentley”.
Stuart who joined the club at the beginning of the season, and his brother Ian, or as Stuart describes him as “the one with the hair”, has been the club Secretary for the last 3 years and they are both constantly on the move, as they go about running the show on match day. Stuart joins us at our table briefly, taking a quick break. I mention that I thought it looked like young WF team, which he is happy about “good” laughing nervously, perhaps a little anxious about the two league difference, hoping a non full strength side might give FFC a fighting chance.
Once Stuart leaves us, it's not that long until we are joined by one of the media wizards from WF Khalid. Although we have not met before, we have talked on Twitter, and are interested to get the away team's thoughts on the evening.
His knowledge of the team is of course a lot more informed than ours, and he tells me how “surprised” he is at the “strength” of the squad. Having debated with his colleagues in the media team, a group of 3 who rotate the responsibility at games, as to what kind of team the manager would bring, he can see he is taking this competition seriously. However, he does say after just passing the team that some of the youth players “look really young, younger than me!”
Tom enquires if he thinks anyone will be making the trip from North London to watch, “the usual lot, about 10”.
Like an episode of Parkinson, the constant revolving door of guests sees Khalid leave us, and we get the chance to introduce ourselves to FFC Chairman Ben, who at this point is selling programs and tickets for the game. Clearly in the middle of doing 101 things I ask if “we can catch you for a word when you are not running around?”.
“Running around” replies Ben grinning, “this is non-league football, I will be running around until about 22:00” and then he’s off.
With our mind slightly drifting to future games, like a big headed boxer, who should be concentrating on today's fight, we ask if the TV can be turned over from horrible tennis, to the FA Cup 2nd round draw. With the changing of the channel, a crowd quickly forms around the large TV on the wall and conversations break out about the previous rounds results, and the stand out potential ties to come. Tom notices that WF are now warming up, and heads out begrudgingly into the night.
Garth Crooks, who someone in the huddle says “has let himself go” has been kind, and picks just the game we wanted. I leave the bar and on my way out, I bump into the ‘life saviour’ the Clapton FC fan who found my note book, after I left it in a pub following Clapton’s FA Cup game back in August.
FFC are well known for the eclectic music they play at the ground, and as the obsessive in me delights at the untampered football stickers that cover the metal fence and railings behind one of the goals, I sing along with the ‘Fudges’, with my back to the WF players taking shots, and only occasionally flinching when one goes astray, waiting for a smack in the head, and relieved when they miss me.
“Starting 11 with me” shouts the WF coach, and off they go down the tunnel. FFC are not far behind, Ben holds open the gate that leads to the pitch, acknowledging each player as they come off, shaking hands, a hello or just a simple nod of the head for others.
Standing out of the way in the tunnel, next to a gurney, I wait for the teams. FFC are first out, and except for the odd shout of motivation “come on lets start early, switched on” it’s calm. WF need a nudge from the referee's assistant, and leave FFC hanging about a bit “come on let's go” he shouts. This results in lots of noise from the other side of the door, and then out they come. The referee tells the players there will be a minutes silence before the match, as they fidget, slightly adjusting their shorts, shin pads, socks, waiting to be led out.
An FFC coach leans against a wall, nibbling a biscuit and expresses his hopes for the game ahead to the
passing referees assistant, “have a good one”.
“I’m due one” replies the man with the flag, making his way through the players, to join the referee at the mouth of the tunnel.
Each team takes up positions opposite each other around the centre circle, shoulder to shoulder, heads are bowed, and the silence goes off without a hitch. When the referee signals the end, the crowd that are mostly sitting in the main stand applaud, except for one man who simply shouts “FISH!”
A WF match would not be the same without a chat with Paul a WF Director, who I bump into with a pint in his hand. He is a little late in arriving after finding a local Vietnamese restaurant, having wanted some “proper food”. The amount of football he goes to, you can understand he probably never wants to look at a burger and chips ever again. He informs me that WF went out in the same round, to a club from the same level as FFC last year, “so we know upsets can happen” that would explain the strong team, considering on paper it should be a straightforward game. “I’m off behind the goal” says Paul, as he joins a few fans who are hanging up their flags.
The press area is empty, so we take a seat at the white desk. Next door Harvey sits outside the boardroom, in the Directors area, and is joined by the WF manager who now has a blue & white scarf on Mancini style, as his number two stands pitch side.
“Go on you blues”
“Come on Fisher”
The first 20 minutes or so are equal, with perhaps WF just shading it as far as possession is concerned, but their passing and decision making in the final third is lacking. It’s end to end, but without either team having any cutting edge. When FFC do get the ball, they are looking for a quick, direct counter attack, but too often the forwards become isolated, and WF win the ball back easily.
One WF defender gives explicit instructions to his teammates, when they lose possession, or an attack comes to nothing. Standing on the halfway line he shouts “shape, shape, shape” then turns and trots back towards his goal.
From early on there seems to be a tension on the pitch and it's not long until some late FFC tackles are flying in. One in particular, after the pace of the WF winger takes him past his marker, leaves a large scar in the wet pitch, and seems like a certain booking “no yellow ref!?!” shouts someone on the bench, but it's not given. Tom had said how quiet he thought the man in charge had been, not what you would call a ‘commanding’ type.
Before Tom heads off in search of food, he notices something on the FFC bench, it’s clear perspex roof giving us a window into the fishbowl “that’s the first managerial vaping I have ever seen”.
With almost 30 minutes gone WF get a goal, and from then on there is no looking back, despite what the coach on the FFC bench says “we go again”. A low shot from just outside the box, bounces just in front of the outstretched keeper, making a save almost impossible.
Not long after the goal, an FFS player jumps into a crunching tackle, a real eye waterer, one where you’re not sure if someone is going to stand up with all their limbs, the following melee in front of the dug outs, almost boils over into a full on punch up, the WF player has every right to be upset, it was a shocker, but the players do a good job of calming it down, the referee continues to be timid, and Toms prediction of it “getting out of hand” is close to becoming a reality.
Tom’s hunt for food was a short and unsuccessful one, only returning with two cups of tea, which I'm thankful for, it’s really cold. Tom in his fur lined jacket (NOT REALLY) hits the nail on the head “for once I wore the right attire, and you didn't”.
A second goal was coming, and arrives with just over 5 minutes of the half left. A short corner is chipped to the back post, where a header is blocked, the loose ball is pounced upon by a WF player whose shot is saved, the FFC keeper pushes back out into the 6 yard box, where an away player controls the ball with his head, and finishes with a scissor kick from close range.
FFC are losing their heads, the match, and are almost out of the tie altogether.
The remaining minutes of the game, are filled with one WF attack after another. One slick passing move dissects FFC, ending up with a good shot from a very tight angle, that is well saved, and the resulting corner, ends up with a goal line clearance after a bullet of a header is blocked by the man on the post.
As the half comes to an end, the home supporters in the grey roofed terrace opposite can't be happy, WF’s on the other hand have witnessed a very tidy first half, and thoroughly deserve the lead.
Our chat about taking up the invite to have a drink in the boardroom at half time is a short one, I’m cold, so off we go, as we do Ben comes over the public address system, chipper and informs the crowd about upcoming fixtures.
The boardroom table is covered in a smorgasbord of Sainsbury’s best finger food, picnic eggs, mini sausages, and for the more cultured tastes’ some mini patties and olives, and during a spare couple of minutes where Ben is being neither MC or ticket seller, I get a chance to discuss FFC with him.
The story of FFC is a all to familiar one, formed out of the ashes of Fisher Athletic Football Club in 2009 when they were wound up by the courts due to financial problems, and it’s only because of “the passion for starting it up again” by those original 42, who Ben was one of, that there is a club to watch today.
For most ‘Phoenix clubs’ a new beginning means a lot of the time, losing your home, moving out of the area where your club has forged its history and as Ben puts it “we are not in our local community, it’s missing its heart”. Even though Bermondsey is 5 miles down the road, give or take, it's a vital part of the club's identity, so much so it’s on the clubs badge, and as nice as Champion Hill is, it’s not the same as The Surrey Docks Stadium, and until they can get back to their borough, they are “treading water”, but that is about to change.
In March 2016 FFC will be moving back to a brand spanking new ground, in Bermondsey, where they will be able to grow, flourish and engage with the community once again.
“Buzzzzzzzz” goes the dull sounding bell in the boardroom, signalling the start of the 2nd half, leaving the olives untouched, and the sausage rolls all gone as the men in blazers take their seats outside. It also means Ben has to break away from our chat, and turn down the music playing around the ground.
We continue our chat standing in the door, watching the players walk out. “It’s fun, but it’s hard work” he says, which echoes the advice he was given by Supporters Direct. The club was set up as a ‘co-operative society’ and is “nudging 100 members” some from Norway, Sweden and Italy, £10 a year gets you one vote in club matters.
Ben speaks with such enthusiasm for as he puts it, the “long term project” that FFC is. Towards the end of our chat, I can tell he wants to get back to watching the game, he says perhaps one of the most beautiful, poetic, eloquent things I have heard someone say in football, his description of what the club will have to do, once it moves home, “we can start to stitch back together all the parts of Fisher”.
Stuart and Ian have had enough of the corporate, mini sausage crowd, and tell Ben, “we’re going to rabble rouse with the fans” and off they go, making their way to the opposite side of the pitch. The WF manager stays put, still overlooking proceedings from the stand, and although the first chance of the half goes to FFC, his team are quickly back in their stride, at one point stinging the palms of the FFC keeper, who can only push a fierce shot out, and as Tom puts it, it’s too “easy” for them to make chance after chance.
The WF defender continues to organise the team from the back “shape, shape, shape”, which inspires Tom into a little bit of 70’s disco “Shake, Shake, Shake. Shake Your Booty”. Tom also learns one benefit of the press area are plug sockets, and he produces the charger for his R2D2 sized vapouriser.
“Come on Fisher”
With a 3rd of the 2nd half gone, WF exploit a huge gap in the FFC defence, a simple pass through the middle puts the attacker in range, and whose subsequent curling shot hits the post on its way in, as straightforward a goal you will ever see. “Keep the intensity going” says one WF player, I’m sure that’s the last thing FFC want to hear.
WF don't stop, don't slow down, when someone from the dugout, shouts “one more, one more” they oblige, about 10 minutes after the last one. A corner is not cleared, FFC have chances to, the keeper saves well but can’t hold on, parries it once again, the WF scorer controls the ball well, evades a few defenders with quick feet and dinks it in. When Ben reads out the scorer, or who he thought was the scorer, he is quickly told he is wrong, “correction coming” which gets a jeer from the small traveling WF support.
Things go from bad to worse, as WF get a fifth, and compound the home team’s misery. This time a deep cross, is met by the sliding WF player, who has been left to his own devices at the back post, and finishes really well, goal of the game. Just like on the four occasions previously the FFC keeper screams at his team mates, after conceding.
Ben’s voice comes over the speakers one last time “thank you for your support”.
When an FFC coach, kicks the ball from the bench towards the goal, after the match ball ended up over the fence, he kicks it well wide. “You playing for time?” asks the smiling WF manager, who has now joined his number two on the bench, “give them time to mark up” replies the FFC coach.
Both teams warm down following the final whistle, WF laugh and joke amongst themselves, FFC sit on the pitch heads down.
“You guys are a jinx” says Stuart, and we have to agree. We briefly talk about the first time we saw FFC, where they hammered the home team, I mean HAMMERED them, and lost 3-0, I say it’s one of the strangest games we have seen, he says “it's probably the strangest game anyone, has ever seen”.
We go to thank Ben for having us tonight, and when we meet him at the door to the boardroom, he lets out a knowing sigh, that says it all. It’s here that I have a bit of a dilemma, I’m very kindly offered a spot on the WF coach, back north of the river, getting dropped off at their ground about five minutes from my house, but this means leaving my fellow blogger in the field, leaving him to make his own way home, we come together, we leave together, but Tom is cool, so I’m heading home in style.
I bid farewell to Tom, and wait in the bar, which has a good spread laid on, with a sign marking out what's for the “HOME” team & what's for the “AWAY” team. Some FFC players are quick in, fill their plates and make a quick exit. When the WF captain walks in, he gets a small round of applause by the away fans, “well done Mark”.
So me, the dog, the directors, the team and Tom the master ground hopper, who tells me about all the grounds he’s visited, weave our way through a dark and quiet London, across the river to the right side of London.
Two things reinforced my new and ever growing love of non-league football. Firstly, getting a lift home on the WF team bus, where everyone was welcoming and friendly, behaviour that is not surprising, considering how we have been treated in the past, and they really are a top notch club.
Secondly the vivid and committed fashion in which Ben spoke about the club, this is a man who lives in North East London, works in North West London, and runs a football club in South East London. Not only does it sound like he spends a lot of time in his car, he is doing what I’m sure is not an easy job for the NHS, he still remains firm to the cause of, all for free, and it’s this kind of devotion I personally find totally inspiring. He and many like him for me are the really interesting stories behind these clubs we visit. A special mention must also go out to Ben’s two Lieutenants, Stuart and Ian, whose help makes the day to day running of the club possible.
We salute you all!