“Well Sir, you are in for a surprise” says Tom looking very happy with himself. Not long after taking our seat on the train, his bag resting on the table, he asks me the immortal question, “chipsticks or Wotsits?”. Slightly baffled, but remembering that after 12 months he has now succumbed to the fact that he, we, can’t keep eating burgers, Pot noodles and chips, he has made us a packed lunch. My moment's hesitation means he makes my mind up for me, tossing me a pack of Wotsits, along with two tin foil wrapped, chicken salad rolls.
There is now way to be poetic about the weather, it’s a shitty day, and the further we go South, the gloomier it gets, “it’s going to be one of those days” adds my ever positive companion. More and more rain covers the windows as we zip along, and only when the concessions cart cracks me on the knee do I break away from constantly refreshing Twitter, making sure our game has not been called off.
Post joint pulverising, Tom reminds me that where there is blame there is a claim “compensation, compensation”, but we are both suitably rewarded when the people on the neighbouring table choose to buy a sandwich, and we both smile smugly at each other, knowing what he have in our bags. “Egg and Cress, BLT, Ploughmans?” asks the cart pusher, they all look the same, so I don’t think it matters which one you go for.
The ticket inspector reminds us that it’s not a straightforward journey, we will have the pleasure of a rail replacement bus for some part of it, and it’s not long after we are climbing off the train in Basingstoke, and onto a coach reminiscent of school.
A few Lancashire accents remind us, that our jaunt from London pales into comparison when you consider the Bolton Wanderers FC (BW) fans long trip from the North West to the South coast, for today's FA Cup 3rd Round game against non-league Eastleigh FC (EFC).
The tedium of the rumbling coach sets in pretty quickly, and I choose to catch up with a bit of Christmas telly on my tablet, the woman just in front is a little more refined and gets to grips with a book of Choral Music. She has also outshone Tom a little in the packed lunch stakes as she pours a hot cup of tea from her flask, and opens a vast Tupperware box of treats, he has a lot to learn.
At one stop we are joined by more fans on the FA Cup trail, this time Southampton. There is probably little doubt that their game is going ahead at St Mary’s, but at EFC they have just announced a pitch inspection, I can just picture the referee walking around in waders, and BW fans behind us point to a flooded pitch in a passing park and voice our thoughts exactly “hope it's not like that in the goalmouth”.
“Breezy down on the coast” says Tom doing up his jacket as we get off at Southampton Parkway, a stone's throw from the ground, we hear a few BW fans asking each other “is the match off?” The answer is no, for now at least. Twitter has informed us that the pitch passed its first inspection, but another is to follow. Trapped in limbo, we decide to jump in a cab, after discovering you can’t walk from here, as we don’t fancy running across the intersection of a busy motorway.
The cab can’t go any further, the normal route is blocked off by bright orange men, and the driver seems keen to get our money and shoot, there is an ever so slight whiff of mayhem in the air. One opportunistic person, unperturbed by the traffic, is happy to wander around offering his wares to every passing person or car “match day scarves, get your match day scarves” he announces, holding a 50/50 out in front of him.
Once Tom gets his pin from a man’s makeshift stall under a large green umbrella in a nearby hotel car park, we make our way down a quiet winding lane, round one corner a large church, and not long after the Silverlake Stadium.
“You can tell the BBC are here” says Tom, pointing at the huge equipment filled trucks, that are taking up a large part of the car park.
No one really knows what to do with themselves, including us, as the ground is yet to open. Some people have congregated around a gate which looks onto the pitch, and over the tops of their heads we can just make out the referee doing his second inspection. Many people like me are glued to their phones, hoping for the green light, one BW fan we meet who set off at 07:30 this morning says “hopes it goes ahead, or it’s a long way back”.
To kill some time we collect our tickets from the prefab club shop, that has a brown door like one from a terraced house. A man sitting behind a low table, once I give him my name, flicks through a pile of white envelopes, plucking one out and handing it to me. My ears then prick up like a police dog, behind me I can hear a familiar sound “50/50 tickets”. I turn to see a woman holding a book of them above her head, as she makes her way out of the door. I pursue, intercepting her just outside, hand over my money and secure the winning tickets, obviously.
The wind is still up, two flags are both almost continuously horizontal. One a St George's cross with Eastleigh written across it, the other has the RAF roundel. A reference to the clubs nickname the ‘Spitfires’, a recently adopted one chosen by the fans in 2005, due to the local area’s association with the famous World War Two fighter plane.
Conveniently the turnstile on our ticket is just next to the shop, and we join the EFC fans in their fascinating array of hats. One group all have matching blue trilby's, another man is in a rainbow hat with no brim or peak, and a propeller on top. Even now with tickets in hand, we still don’t know if the game is on, a muffled voice over the tannoy for a moment gives everyone hope, it sounds like he said “game on” but no one is sure. Conversation around us turns to certain TV channels choice of games for live broadcast over the weekend, Manchester United for example have a quite uninspiring match with Sheffield United, one EFC fans feels they have been overlooked, “one non league team left, that’s the BBC for you”.
“Come on Eastleigh” shouts a fan at the front of the queue, “about time” and “there we go” say others, as the noise of the opening gates, is a promising one, it looks like we all won’t have come all this way for nothing. A quick check on Twitter, and it is confirmed, for the second time in a week, someone unwittingly makes a Wayne’s World reference or nod to a 90’s sitcom, GAME ON!
We join the Black Friday rush into the ground, but no one is trampled or punched for a TV, there is no time for that, people are just relieved, and like us are quick to find their spot in the North Stand. A single storey covered terrace, with a corrugated roof, silver non-slip floor, and two large flags hanging from the back. With just over an hour until kick off, the ground staff are still on the pitch, some with forks, prodding away at regular intervals, one man has a leaf blower, blasting the grass, trying to clear any standing water.
Behind the far goal is a large all seater stand, with green seats, that somewhat dwarfs the rest of the ground. Along one side of the pitch is a terrace similar to ours, opposite it is a much smaller stand, with blue seats, and the dugouts just in front.
Even the howling of the leaf blower competing with the music being played can’t dampen the feeling of occasion surging around the the place. It’s clearly a very tight knit club, I’m not sure I have ever seen so many people hug or shake hands, that community spirit has been evident from arrival, this is a day they are going to enjoy to its fullest.
“That looks quite nice” says Tom as a man clutching a pint walks by, and the temptation only nine days into a dry January is plain to see. The woman who shortly follows, darting from one bar to another clutching two massive bottles of vodka, is just rubbing salt into the wound. He takes his mind off booze with what else, food, and despite the boy next to us with a deep filled square pie, the newly erected marquee with its ‘Food & Drink” sign, or the ‘Grandstand Grill’ with its considerable queue, Tom sticks with what he has brought from home, announces it's “two o’clock” like the Mad Hatter, and devours a sandwich from his bag.
There are kids and families everywhere, two young girls struggle with their overflowing tray of chips. The same debate between people plays out in front of us, over and over again, where to stand? Tom thinks we should have gone to the back to allow for “leaning” as we wait, I think we are better placed with the barricade just in front of us.
Cones are placed on the pitch, for what I can only imagine will be a light warm up, considering the last few days efforts to make it playable. When EFC come out it is to rapturous applause, I think everyone to a man is clapping. Tom returns from the bar, with only soft drinks in his hand, he gives me a bit of an insight into what we might expect from the rest of the day “judging by the bar, it’s going to get a bit rowdy, it’s rammed!”
“Welcome to the Silverlake” says the man standing on the sidelines with a microphone, as the bedraggled looking club mascot, a bear or maybe a dog wearing a home kit, walks along high-fiving people as he goes, perhaps they could not stretch to a fully working miniature Spitfire, if they get through to the next round, perhaps the budget will allow for one.
“It’s a bit sticky out here” he is being very kind, there is a puddle in front of us you could sail a model ship in “but I’m sure we will have a good game” which I don’t doubt, I have a feeling today will be a good one. EFC’s fine league form, and BW’s current plummeting fortunes, plus the far from ideal conditions, it just screams ‘cup upset’ or dare I say ‘giant killing’, I could be watching montages in years to come, the next time Round 3 rolls around and say “I was there”.
“Pass that along” says the man to my left holding a large box of blue and white balloons, each person taking a couple then doing as instructed. For the next 5 minutes all that can be heard is the wheezing and panting of people blowing them up, then the inexplicable farting noise of people letting them go. The occasional stray one flies by, or in a couple of cases some people are guilty of over inflating, and get a bit of a shock. The appearance of them provokes Tom to share a family secret “good thing my sister is not here, she has a fear of balloons”.
Still with half an hour until kick off a drum to our left starts, and I’m not sure I can remember longer than about a minute for the rest of the day, that some rhythm is not being bashed out. People join in by stomping their feet, and the singing begins “I just can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough, Eastleigh FC”. Not satisfied with one song they belt out one after another “blue army, blue army”, “la, la, la, la Eastleigh” it’s non stop, the drummer also has some skills, not just random whacking, he adds in the odd flourish. The rain continues, and is getting harder, but this has no effect on the fans “we’re Eastleigh FC, we’re Eastleigh FC”.
The few people unable to squeeze under the stand, are pitchside against the railing, and are getting wet, but are distracted from their misery by an impromptu rendition of the National Anthem. Perhaps a local patriotic pregame tradition, or maybe because there is a man dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, with a full face mask, white gloves, Union Jack purse conducting the crowd, and then carrying on with his/her ‘Gangnam Style’ dance.
“Apparently Shola Ameobi is playing” says one fan to another behind us “Shola?” he replies, “not even the proper Ameobi” The teams are read out, whichever Ameobi it is, he is on the bench. Each BW player's names are followed by a “booooooo” and when it’s EFC’s turn, each player’s name is followed with a “yeahhhhhhhh”.
The blue and white tunnel has been extended, a “guard of honour” of children, and men holding large flags are out well before the teams, and the man on the mic is back out doing his best hype man impression “let’s make some noise!!” He asks each section of the crowd for a cheer, lastly coming to us “Shed End show them how it’s done” and they do, the loudest by far, “we are Eastleigh, super Eastleigh from the lane”.
Classical music plays, high tempo strings as the team's emerge. The crowd are at fever pitch “Eastleigh FC blue and white army” over and over, the captain's do the toss, EFC will be attacking our end first. One fan with his back to the pitch, the heavens falling on him, conducts the singing “Hampshire's blue and white”. When EFC get an early chance, which his own player blocks there is a deafening “ohhhhhhhh”.
We have so far spotted a few staples for any person with their I Spy book of the FA Cup, such as a wooden rattle and a man in a silly wig, it’s an orange one on this occasion, but a new edition may be in order as we have seen a few things I'm sure would get you plenty of points like her majesty, the propeller hat, a man in the blue and white Mexican wrestling mask and a group of 7 or 8 in brown leather flying hats. The tinfoil FA Cup count is a disappointing one, just one young boy at the front of the stand, but there is still plenty of the day left.
A few umbrella rows break out between people pitch side and those in the first row of the stand. My attention is however on the masterful use of the ‘2 Unlimited’ song ‘No Limit’. “ Eastleigh, Eastleigh, Eastleigh FC”, and it’s the home team with all the early pressure. When the nippy number 7 latches onto a through ball, and is bearing down on goal his shot is a bit tame, it's a good chance, but the crowd love the effort and reply with more ear splitting clapping.
“Wembley, Wembley, Wembley”
“Not a chance yet” says Tom about BW with over fifteen minutes of the game gone, they have been very poor, their fans have had zero to sing about “can you hear the Bolton sing?”. To be fair to both teams it's incredible that any kind of football is being played, “ these are awful conditions “ says one fan, “ the ball did not bounce” adds another.
The rain has not stopped, some people are oblivious to how wet they are getting or just don't care, the adrenaline off the day is fending off the cold. After the initial 30 or so minutes of frantic EFC attack, the game has settled but BW are still yet to register a shot on target. With a moment's break in the singing there is talk of the game being “called” the pitch looks awful, there are huge brown scars all over.
For the first time in the game BW’s travelling fans, make themselves known, they are here in considerable numbers, but have been very quiet, they have however draped a flag over the barrier around the pitch.
One EFC fan behind us, who has been offering the vicinity a pretty constant stream of opinion, does have an interesting theory on why one player is performing so well, it's his birthday. This does though come with a down side because he also thinks the same player will be in a bad mood because he is now one year older.
“You dirty northern bastard” rings out after a late BW tackle, the standard reply from a southern team playing a northern team. With the game so international these days the player himself could be from Lagos or the Cook Islands but is tarred with the same flat cap and whippet brush, non the same.
The EFC number 7 who so far has looked the most threatening is down on the edge of the penalty area, and it doesn't look good “not Yemi” says a disappointed fan. “He is holding his hamstring” comments Dr Tom, and once seen by the physio the worst is confirmed by the hand signal he makes to the bench. Quickly people discuss who should come on, Tom feels his replacement, standing on the touch line waiting for the limping number 7, does not share some of the attributes that had proved fruitful for EFC “he doesn't look quick”.
There is a flourish of activity in the final 10 minutes, EFC have a shot that sends the BW keeper scrambling “she fell over”, shout the home fans in response to his jittery attempt to see it wide. BW finally get their first shot, and it's a good one requiring a strong save to keep it out and for the first time we hear the fans from the North West “come on Bolton”.
“Torrid half of football” says the mini Motson behind us, which I think is a bit unfair. EFC have outshone their higher league counterparts and the atmosphere has been first rate, I'm not sure you could ask for much more. This is the same person who is moaning about one of their forwards “he is just shit, he just scores goals” so I'm not sure how much we should take notice of him anyway.
An army of fork wielders are out, doing their best to repair the damage. We bump into one of the tribal mob from outside, “how do you think we’re doing?” she asks, “not bad, they have only had one shot on target” I reply. Looking at the pitch, and even though it's stopped raining she is a little downbeat “I think it will be called off, its bad”.
I don't win the 50/50 raffle prize that has swelled along with the attendance to a whopping £565, not an amount to turn your nose up at, that would get me a lot of notebooks.
Many fans, “I'm fucking soaked”, take advantage of people going to the loo or to get something to eat, to grab a place in the stand and “get out of the wind”. The man with the microphone for some reason is talking about beach football, but then turns to a much more sensible topic, the scores from around the country. “At least we will be on Match Of The Day Before them” he says laughing, following the cheer because neighbours Southampton are loosing.
“Come on Eastleigh” greets the players coming back out.
Within moments of the whistle, people are talking about the possibility of a replay, and don't seem too pumped about it, “too far” and “too cold up there” are some of the reasons we overhear. Tom is quite frank “we are not going to Bolton”.
The tinfoil FA Cup count hits two, we spot one being held aloft on the other terrace.
Just over 10 minutes have played of the second half, and the fairy tale starts to come true, EFC score, well actually it’s a BW own goal, which feels very far away at the opposite end of the pitch.
Pandemonium, an outpouring of joy that might go unmatched this weekend “who are you, who are you” they shout to the BW supporters who probably wish the ground would swallow them up, and take the team with them. One EFC fan is now standing above the crown , his hand on the roof to steady himself “COME ON YOU BOYS IN BLUE” they sing with all their might, along with the stomping of feet, the kicking of the back of the stand, all contained within the low roofed terrace, it's an awesome noise.
“La, la, la Super Eastleigh”
“Neil Lennon looks worried” comments someone, who is drowned out by another song “Eastleigh FC, blue and white army”, “four years ago Neil Lennon was manager of Celtic beating Barcelona”.
Only the fingertips of the EFC keeper, keeps the score at 1 - 0. Steely faced he goes and collects the ball, tossing it towards the corner flag, knowing farewell he pulled off a good’un, one adoring fan describes his demeanour perfectly “no emotion” no screaming and chest slapping, he knows the game is not won yet, plenty of time for that after the final whistle.
It feels like an age since EFC were able to venture far enough into the BW half to pose a threat, but the attack seemed hampered by the conditions, holding up the ball and allowing BW to smash it clear. I don't think it's a case of EFC trying to sit back on a goal advantage, but more that whatever small sliver of professional pride is left in the visiting players has woken up, and they have been applying some pressure of their own.
Time for a change, time for an Ameobi. I can't work out if the boo’s from the BW fans are for the player going off or the player coming on, but regardless the decision has not been well received.
The tinfoil FA Cup count hits a lofty 3.
With ten minutes to go, EFC almost grab a second, which one would think would put the game beyond the faltering BW, except for another squandered chance, somewhat overshadowed by a bizarre set of events which for a moment has Tom thinking that a pitch invader has stopped a goal. His sudden appearance has every one a bit shocked, especially because he is darting towards the BW box, almost in tandem with the EFC attack. Once apprehended the tit in a red hood is marched off the pitch and is justifiably barracked by the crowd “wanker, wanker, wanker”.
Having not scored what seemed like a golden chance to double the lead, EFC are offered a chance on a plate to grab a goal, when the BW keeper handles a pass back, and the home team are awarded a free-kick just to the left of the 6 yard box, much to the dismay of Lennon on the sideline who lays into the fourth official. With a wall of white shirts on the line to breach, and after much whispering and deliberations, the shot is sent wide, and another chance to secure the win goes begging.
“Ole, ole, ole” shout the EFC as the players pass the ball amongst themselves, “four to go” shouts a fan. When the ball goes out for a home throw in the player tells the attentive ball boy not to rush. For a moment BW think they have saved a bit of face only to be denied by the raised flag of the linesman, much to the delight of the home crowd “who are ya, who are ya”, they shout at the BW fans mid celebrations.
At this crucial nail biting moment, one person has decided to go for a walk carrying two large platters of food, if the prawn sandwich brigade ask for it, they get it, regardless of how edge of your seat the final moments are turning out to be.
“Go for the corner” shouts one fan, “no” shouts another in disagreement “go for the goal”.
A huge bundle breaks out in the goal, the EFC keeper is far from cooperative when the BW player tries to get the ball back. The BW fans celebrate at the opposite end I'm sure fuelled by nothing other than relief. The home end is poles a apart, “for fucks sake”. For the first time it falls a little quiet, everyone is gutted, we are gutted that they were literally seconds away from the win. The drop in noise is only brief, and quickly starts again “come on Eastleigh, come on Eastleigh”.
The voice over the tannoy brings reality crashing down around us “it’s the FA Trophy next week” and whatever your excuse maybe, “Bolton on a Tuesday night” is what is now required to resolve this tie. The final score from Southampton Vs Crystal Palace get’s a half hearted cheer, but the gloss of the day has been ever so, minutely tarnished by the equaliser, but it's barely noticeable it’s barely even worth mentioning.
Depending on which groups of fans we pass as we walk down the now dark lane, you get little snapshots of the mood of each teams supporters, the overriding feeling from the EFC fans is “we didn't deserve that” one is very pragmatic “we are still in the Cup”.
We wait for our cab back to the station, as the last few 50/50 scarves are now being sold out of a Sports Direct bag on the pavement, and once at the station, it's not a long wait for the coach. I get briefly talking to one BW fan who is wearing a SC Paderborn 07 shirt, who gives me my fact of the day when he tells me that the city is twinned with Bolton.
Tom’s head hardly touches the red leather headrest of the coach, and he is out for the count, as me make our way back home.
“I hate football” was muttered by an EFC fan just after the BW goal, three words I'm sure all football fans have said at one point in their lives. The shift from elation to agony in the fraction of a second, can be so cruel, and for a moment can make you question why you do all this in the first place. Today though there was so much to confirm exactly why you do, the atmosphere, the excitement, the anticipation, the Queen, the dog/bear, the propeller hat, the performance of the home team, all enough to make you want to shout as loud as you can “I love football!”