A short bus ride, and a walk through street light lit streets, we arrive at the open metal gates of tonight's home team, Wadham Lodge FC’s (WL) ground, its name spelt out in metal work across it “Wadham Lodge Sports Ground” . The young man on the gate, in a high viz waistcoat, is not very visible, and appears from the gloom like a spectre, confirms we are in the right place and ensures us that beyond the complex of 5-a-side pitches is what we are looking for. “Won’t know whats hit him” says Tom as we make our way across the car park, in search of the way in, because today's visiting fans are a slight departure from the ‘one man and his dog’ we usually see.
We are early as ever, in fact the away team, Clapton FC (CFC) are arriving as we are.
They are counting up the float in the turnstile, as someone else puts up a sign declaring “no alcohol in the stadium arena, no smoke bombs to be used” again in preparation of the Clapton Ultras, who have received a few pleas on social media from WL to leave their own brand of support at home, it’s most definitely the first time we have seen a non-league club insisting “no flares”. To be clear it’s about WL being party poopers, it’s about the financial penalties from the league, if these things happen during a game.
“Can't believe I was searched at the gate for alcohol” says an old man minus his dog buying his ticket, “preparing for the siege?” he asks in reference to the curious sign being sellotaped to the window of the turnstile.
Our previous enquiry asking for ‘Sharon’ resulted in us waiting as someone went in search of her, and not long after we are greeted by the smiling club secretary, in a red club jacket. She escorts us through a small labyrinth of corridors, up a flight of stairs, ending up at the door of the boardroom.
“Cup of tea?” she asks, as we take a seat on one of the black leather sofas around the edge of the room, beneath a TV showing Sky Sports. As the large tea urn is drained, and a small paper plate is piled high with custard creams, we are joined by not one Sharon, but two and the grilling begins.
Sharon two is in charge of club hospitality, as well as cleaning the kits, no one is restricted to one job title at this level.
After explaining what we do, we are much more interested to hear about their story, and it’s a familiar and interesting one comprised of a love of football and community. Sharon One explains that she has always been involved in youth football “been around the block a bit” she says smiling. WL are only tenants at the ground, not owners, in fact no one can own it, because the site is part of a charity, donated to the local area to ensure there is always a space for local people to play sport.
Both Sharon’s tell us with much delight that one of those local’s was non other than former England captain, Manchester United and Real Madrid player, David Beckham, who was a regular fixture around here, playing on the very pitch tonight's game will be played out on, even at one point using the clubs function room for a party.
The good cop, good cop Sharon duo, is joined by Martyn Fitch the ever smiling and enthusiastic club Chairman, and one of the founding members, along with Sharon One back in 2008. We sit back, sip our tea, and get a whirlwind history lesson, and a fascinating insight into the mind of a Chairman and the ethos of this young club.
His first dilemma as with any new team is getting interest in the club, reeling off a long list of other clubs in the area “they are just one bus ride away”, it’s not wanting for football teams around here at almost every level, for every budget, there is plenty of competition.
The floodlights come on behind us, illuminating the big window looking out from the boardroom over the pitch, “about time” says Jamie, Martyn’s son, who is the club’s goalkeeping coach.
Martyn quickly turns to tonight’s game, “I don’t fear anyone at home”. He is confident that the “big pitch” and “long grass” plays right into their game plan, currently sitting 5th in the Essex Senior League, two places above CFC, with the turn of the year only a month away, they must be happy with their progress, but he emphasises that there is still work to do.
“It’s about learning” WL have been guilty of giving away leads, and conceding goals late on in games. “We are the draw specialists” says Jamie.
It’s been a meteoric rise through the ranks in the last 7 years “exceeded all expectation, since we started” adds Martyn which is hard to disagree with, “6 promotions in 8 years” is not a record to turn your nose up, their latest being last year. “I want to go into the last games of the season 15 or above”. Jamie every so often gets a chance to chip in, when his Dad takes a breath, he perhaps has slightly loftier ambitions “think we would be disappointed if we’re not in the top 10”.
It’s around this point I start to get a little confused, and need to clarify something with Martyn, as he keeps referring to “Sharon”, and her involvement in running the Wadham Lodge complex and I’m not sure which one he means.
“So is Sharon (One) your wife?” I ask.
“Ex wife” and this is where things get interesting, he then points to Sharon Two, and tells us she is his new partner. His ex wife and long term partner working side by side running the football club, I look around not quite sure what to say, wondering if I have majorly put my foot in it, but Martyn with all his good spirit and East End charm relieves the atmosphere after my potentially interview ending question, I thought we were going to have a Bee Gees on Clive Anderson moment, “we’re not the Waltons with a football club!”.
Martyn is off again, this time regaling us with the story of Waltham Forest FC, the other club who share Wadham Lodge, for who he was Assistant Manager, and their remarkable recent FA Youth Cup run, when they got all the way to the last 16, managing to beat West Bromwich Albion FC on the way. When WBA payed them a visit, the players marvelled at the coach they turned up in, with one player referring to it as looking like a “hotel” and the cases and cases of energy drinks, of every description, they brought with them.
After beating WBA the then coach thanked Martyn after the match “I have to go and explain that to the board!”
There seem to be plenty of highs around here, but they come with plenty of lows, most of them stemming from a lack of help and money. “Really scratching around to get volunteers”, as well as finding sponsors, says Martyn, but the biggest thing holding back the club is only being tenants, and not having their own ground. It means all the money from behind the bar, goes in someone else's pocket, only the money from the gate and the tea bar outside, lines their coffers.
“Well I’m hungry” says Tom, happy to help them out, will his obligatory delve into food at football.
Jamie lets Tom know they are “good burgers”.
With CFC appearing on the pitch, this is Tom’s que to go off and Martyn’s to get on. I finish up my notes from the conversation, trying to remember everything that was said, I could not keep up at times. The talk in the bar quickly turns to which local pub the CFC fans have taken over pre match.
I finish up, and join Tom outside, where the WL players are in a row, legs up on the fence around the pitch, like a scene from the Bolshoi. There seems to be a bit of a tension in the air, one WL coach on the pitch shouts to the congregation of high viz clad men “got more security than fans”, with 15 minutes to go the Ultras are not yet here in any great numbers, just one or two fans make their way in, not the great Mongol hordes they seem to be anticipating.
“All a bit German this cage” says Tom, and he is not wrong about the corridor of chain link fencing that leads from the changing rooms to the pitch, it's a lot longer than your average tunnel, and has a distinctly 1980’s European feel about it, it’s not the prettiest of things if I'm honest.
There has been so much rain the last couple of the days, the pitch looks heavy to say the least, the covered standing areas behind each goal might come in handy, as well as the black and blue seated stand on the halfway line. The winter weather I’m sure will start affecting more and more games, and the cold is already getting to Tom “wish I had a vest on”, I think the DM’s are going to have to come out the cupboard, because my feet are freezing.
Martyn’s like the Duracell bunny, continues to talk and joke with people, even from a fair distance I can hear him.
Five minutes to kick off, still no Ultras, Tom thinks it might be down to some local train problems, I think the elephants for their grand entrance must be late.
“Alright fellas, please lets go, its kick off time” shouts the referee's assistant through the door of the home dressing room, and once they emerge, he checks their boots, shin pads, and jewelry “you know the drill”. The referee stands in the doorway, fiddling with his watch, then takes the short walk to the edge of the pitch.
Each team stand single file, encased by the cage, the WL captain turns and addresses the rest of the team “come on boys”. Tom tells me he likes “an all white kit” which WL are in, but the fact that’s what Spurs play in, makes it hard for him to admit.
As the players walk out on to the pitch, we can see the heads of the Ultras bobbing above the fence next to the turnstile, they are here.
“Everywhere we go, everywhere we go”.
“We are the Clapton, the mighty Clapton”, a replacement for Jinky’s drum at home games, is the metal panelling of the stand, which is kicked to keep the rhythm, and shakes the structure to what feels like near collapse. Tom has taken Jamie’s advice and has gone early to get a burger, which on his return he describes as “one of the best”, and once he’s finished, his post meal vape smoke rolls across the pitch, and sadly will be the only pyro Wadham Lodge will be seeing tonight.
The early first half action is predominantly the subs scrabbling around for spare balls, as the gardens of the nearby houses keep gobbling them up, every time someone makes a Row Z clearance. At one point a WL player is fed up with the bench being a bit slow in getting one to the CFC player waiting to take a corner “FUCKING WAKE UP!”
As far as the on field action is concerned it’s all CFC, with WL limited to a few moments of possession, and a quick counter attack when they manage to win the ball back.
“Wadham give us a song, Wadham, Wadham, give us a song”
With 25 minutes gone, the chances start to come thick and fast for CFC. A good cross seems like a certain goal, but the header is blocked last minute, and two big penalty shouts, one after the other, go unheard. “The first one was a dive, but the second seemed a good shout” says a nearby fan, Tom is a bit more cynical “he made the most of it”. An unorthodox save by the legs of the WL keeper, sends the ball high, spinning back towards his goal. He scrambles, and lucky for him the bounce takes it wide, just.
As ever it’s hard to concentrate on the game, in such close proximity to the Ultras, their song choices always make me smile “Tell me why, I follow Clapton away” to the tune of Backstreet Boys ‘I Want It That Way’. They continue to goad the small group of home fans behind the opposite goal, “give us a song”, “we’re not fucking leaving until you do!”.
A CFC goal finally comes, with 10 minutes of the half remaining, after a shot hits the post, a second shot is blocked, and on the third attempt it’s put away. Standing on the fence, the Ultras go off “win away, win away, we’re going to to win away” followed by a high pitched, milk curdling “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh”.
WL seem to have an appetite for their own destruction, poor in possession, prompting one player to shout “KEEP THE BALL!”. When they try to play out from the back, CFC pinch it back, and so follows a series of back heels, the drop of a shoulder to pass his man, and a tee’d up shot deserving of a goal, but nothing comes of it. On one of the times WL do get a shot off at the CFC goal, the keeper makes a fine one handed save tipping it over “Senegal number one, Senegal number one” sing the Ultras. When they look certain to double their lead, the CFC player can only shoot tamely into the arms of the WL keeper on the edge of the box.
“Are you smoking crack!?!” shouts one CFC fan, after the referee chalks off what would have been their second, after he deems the scorer to have pushed his marker, to get an advantage to bury his header.
With the half coming to an end the WL fans muster a song, to which the Ultras “shhhh” each other so they can hear it, replying with “your fans are adorable”.
As most people make their way for refreshments, someone reminds them “don’t forget to take your rubbish with you”. The tea bar is doing good business, some much needed money for the club, lots of people walking away with tin foil wrapped morsels. We each grab a cuppa, take up a seat in the front row of the stand, Tom rues not getting a Kit Kat, and the away fans have quickly swapped ends, one on his way asks us “what would the score be if people could finish? 6,7?”, he is not wrong, WL rode their luck at times. Their flags are erected, our favourite one being what looks like a Subbuteo figure in CFC colours.
WL are first out “come on boys, lets fucking raise it” shouts one of the players. Although CL have the first chance of the half, a wicked free kick from the edge of the box, instead of going up and over, it goes low and around, the base of the wall. The Ultras are convinced the fumbled save goes over the line, but the referee says no, despite the early scare WL are a lot more on the front foot this half, and CFC are sitting much further back.
When CL do break through the defence, one player racing through the lines, WL are convinced it’s offside, the linesman tells him to stop moaning “just because he ran faster than you”. The CL number 9 is what Tom describes as a bit “clumsy”, but he is very young, gets in some great positions and has a lot of raw talent.
“If you’re not jumping, you’re not Clapton”.
Another save from the CFC keeper, as WL continue forward, brings a song from the away fans to the tune of Madness ‘Our House’, “Pepe in the middle of our goal”.
At the far end of the pitch a WL player goes down in the box, and as the referee points to the spot Tom confirms “he has given it!” and in his opinion “it’s a bit soft” it would seem to have been awarded for a shove in the back. The spot kick is dispatched, which inspires one of the few songs from the home fans “wad army, wad army” as the players sprint from the box, to celebrate with the bench.
“We forgot that you were here” reply the Ultras, still confident they will win despite the setback “we’re going to win 2-1”.
The tables have really turned now with 15 minutes left to play, WL are applying all the pressure and someone shouts to the home fans from the bench “I can’t hear you” which draws another short chant from them “wad army” as they take their turn to bang the metal fence. The ever threatening rain appears, not in the form of a few gentle drops, but like a scene from the film Twister, which forces us to the shelter of the main stand, as the rain whirls around the ground.
Chances are few and far between for CFC now, but when the WL keeper rushes out of his goal to meet the attacker, the CFC player easily rounds him, but the angle is too tight and he can’t finish. Even if the
game is close to petering out, both teams by this time happy for a draw, the Ultras continue to sing, “la, la, la Clapton” and when some fireworks go off in the distance they sing “no pyro, no party”. The large contingent of Italian amongst them start singing in their mother tongue, forcing the non Italians just to hum the tune, as they belt out their song
What seems like the last chance of the game falls to WL, but the shot is pulled well wide, and the crowd let out a collective “ohhhhhhhhhh”. When they manage to squeeze in one last foray into the box, a CFC player appears to dive in, another WL player is felled, and the referee points once again to the spot, for the second time in the last 15 minutes. The result is the same, bringing perhaps the most noise from the home fans of the night. Their choice of chant directed at the Ultras, is slightly misjudged “you’re not singing anymore”, as they are now probably louder than ever, showing their disgust at the awarding of the penalty, “2-1 to the referee”.
“Surely they can’t fuck this up” says Tom, alluding to their previous record of giving away leads in the final minutes, and as someone near us confirms “we are very good at 2-2”.
Martyn is next to us, his attention firmly fixed on the match ”come on Wadham”, he continues to emphasise the need to “keep” the ball, when one player gets into range of the goal the fans shout “SHOOOOOT” only much to Martyn’s relief he ignores them and runs it into the corner.
“Well done boys” WL have pulled it off, the two Sharon's are clearly overjoyed, I don’t think they have budged from their spot next to the pitch all night. The WL players applaud the fans behind the goal, and without fail the CFC players approach the still singing Ultras, lined up with outstretched hands, as each and every players gets a commiseration, and in return gives a thank you back, for their support.
Each side of the chain link fence has people pressed up against it as the players start to leave, in the distance the column of Ultras are making their way out, still loud and in song “Clapton Ultras” and as they get closer the song changes as the WL players still on the pitch, stand applauding the away support, who in turn congratulate the home team “well played Wadham, well played Wadham”.
The Ultras add to the crowd around the enclosure applauding both teams, as they make their way off.
When Tom is invited into the changing room by the WL manager to grab some pictures of the victors, he is slightly surprised by the naked man posing for him, get some pictures nonetheless, wishes them well, and gets the hell out. The offer from almost everyone to join them in the boardroom post match, is hard to turn down, and I am a bit of sucker for a tiny triangle sandwich.
As the Ultras take over the bar adjacent to the boardroom, and start to sing, we are joined at our table by the familiar face of Haringey Borough FC player Macauley, who had been invited along by WL, as he is scoping out both clubs to co-sign with, in his search for those all important minutes on the pitch. He admits that the support of the Ultras is a draw for him, but there are also reasons why he fancies WL as well, so has a bit of working out to do in the coming days.
The young lady in the boardroom, tempts a pound from my wallet, “all you have to do is pick a team” she says, I regret it as soon as I drop my pound in the plastic cup holding all the possible winnings. If the team you pick is underneath the shimmering silver scratchcard you are the winner, and with Tottenham available it was a sign from the football God’s, but not my football God, not a kind football God, a football God that wants your team to lose a Cup Final, or your best player to leave on a Bosman, because someone else won, not us, AGAIN!!
Once more the support of the Ultras is outstanding, it is one thing packing the scaffold on a warm August afternoon, but an away game, midweek when most people look out the window and think sofa time, is for me the real mark of clubs support.
WL welcomed us in with open arms, and really gave us a good idea about life on Walton's Mountain. Except for a few messages on Twitter, they didn't know us from Adam, but flung open their doors, were warm and inviting, not at any point guarded or sceptical of what we were up to, and displayed a great passion for football.
We must thank the two Sharon's, Martyn, Jaime, Tony, and everyone involved at the club, and implore all to make the trip East and check out #LodgeLife.