The resounding response, thoughts of short sleeve shirts, drinks with small umbrellas and a jet sky or two, gave me the energy to wade through the Terry's chocolate orange boxes and HBO box sets that litter my living room floor post Christmas, look past the wind and drizzle outside my window, and head to Waterloo to meet Tom, for our last game of 2015.
Tom gleefully shows off his new camera bag, with enough compartments, pockets and waterproof sections, to ensure he will never be unprepared again going into the New Year. Such is its Swiss Army knife qualities that the 30 minute or so trip to Staines station whistled by, making sure though not to make the same mistake as Tom had and nearly miss our stop, after his beer and Star Wars trilogy fuelled trip to Devon to see his family on Christmas eve.
“I’m here to use the gym” says the driver of the car pulling up, to a security guard apparently manning what we think is the entrance to the ground, he reassures us it is, and Tom is not wrong when he says “this is a bit swanky” as we walk the shrub lined drive.
At first it's not clear where it is, there are no familiar sights, no towering flood lights, but there is a smell, a smell that my basset hound companion could lock onto anywhere, in any conditions “the burger van’s open”.
‘Welcome to Wheatsheaf Park’ is written high on a wall in blue on a yellow background, it would also seem from the sign just below that it is also the home of Chelsea FC Ladies team. We both exchange a look, but are both quick to remember we are here with neutral heads on, no Spurs or Arsenal allegiances tonight, it would also explain the slightly comical “ONE DI MATTEO” sticker at the station.
Once past the turnstile, paying the woman with her rolls of different coloured tickets hanging from the wall, it's hard not to marvel at what is a pristine looking pitch. I’m guessing that having one of the top ladies football teams ground sharing with you, means a little bit more money is pumped into the pitch, than your average Ryman Premier League club, and it really looks like a cracking surface, in fact the whole setup from the outside at least, looks like one of the best we have seen.
There is not a cloud in the sky, it’s cool and crisp and my shirt and jumper combination is already woefully inadequate. We pass a group of blazer wearing official looking types talking quietly amongst themselves at the mouth of the blue, vinyl extendable tunnel, as I find a seat in the empty main stand, as Tom goes off doing what he does.
It’s a short climb up some metal steps, to the blue seated stand, some of them bearing a sticker “Chelsea Ladies reserved” and I do my best to avoid them, I don’t want to get my jumper dirty. Wheatsheaf Park is simple, compact and immaculately lit, a small grey concrete fence encircles the whole pitch. Opposite me, behind the two dugouts is a single storey covered terrace, which goes almost the full length of the pitch with “Welcome to Staines Town” written across the front, behind each goal is a small narrow strip for people to stand.
“You’re keen” says a man in a club tie clutching some programmes, making his way to the boardroom, situated high above the pitch behind large windows, at the very back of the stand. Me, or ‘Billy No mates’ sits patiently, like a doting wife at a steam engine convention, sitting in the front row watching Tom, as we does a lap of the ground, waiting for him to get on the home stretch so we can find the bar.
In order to get a programme as they didn’t have any on the turnstile on the way in, I drop into the club
shop, shun the sweets, and hand over my £2.50, for the new bright yellow addition to my collection. As I leave the two women in there continue their conversation about New Year “we get a curry in, if we see in the New Year, we see in the New Year” all said in the air of someone like myself, who is not a fan of the must have fun attitude adopted by so many on the 31st.
Through a door in the side of the main stand, the club’s crest painted on the wall at the foot of the stairs, we make our way to the Thames Suite. It feels almost like a wedding reception is about to begin. Large round function tables, dim lights, and a pink glow from illuminated frosted glass behind the bar at the other end of the room, make me wonder when the disco is about to start, and it’s only when I notice the large projected screen, and various TV’s showing football league highlights, I realise that unless it’s a ‘FL72’ themed wedding, there will be no Lady Gaga tonight. As Tom visits the bar, I cast an eye over the various football shirts, QPR, Blackpool, Millwall, and one England rugby shirt that hang framed around the room.
As one man stands pumping pound coins into the single fruit machine next to the covered pool table up against the wall, Tom subtly finishes half a baguette that has emerged from one of the many sections of his new backpack. While chowing down, he peruses the programme every so often stopping, turning it my way, to share what he has found.
- A whole page picture of club patron and TV Astrologer Russell Grant.
- A one day free membership to the attached gym.
- A picture of a scantily clad woman advertising a local lingerie shop.
“Not a bad turn out” says Tom as the bar slowly fills up with big jackets and wooly hats. One of those people coming in, wearing the same blue and yellow scarf he had on when we first met him is Keith, who runs the clubs Twitter account and who kindly hooked us up with tickets for the ST game at Leyton Orient FC in the FA Cup 1st Round. He is also wearing the same big smile he had then too and kindly offers us a drink, after giving us both a big handshake.
Although not our first time seeing ST play, it is our first visit to Wheatsheaf Park, and Keith is quick to fill us in. Things have not really been ideal since we last met at the beginning of November, ST are currently on a five game losing streak, not that FFC are faring much better. He says they “have not won an away game in 2015”. He explains the team have been playing “good football” but have been “sucker punched” on more than one occasion. I ask if the cup run has had a negative effect on league performance, an unnecessary distraction, but he does not think that’s the case, “we have been on good cup runs before”.
Keith explains a little more about the club’s set up, and that the owners are a large electrical company who do the flood lights at various clubs, including Chelsea and this explains the excellent flood lights we both commented on to each other when first arriving. Light quality is a bit of a bugbear, for Tom in particular when taking pictures at night games. Some grounds we have visited have little less than a torch tied to a broom handle, so tonight makes a pleasant change.
He also explains that during Sheffield United FC’s season long dalliance in the top flight, and with having to pay so many visits to London throughout the season, they purchased the facilities from ST to use as a base, only to get relegated, as quickly as they got promoted, and ended up selling it back.
Keith mid chat points out a bit of a local hero, “that's the girl who ran on the pitch at Leyton”. To say she “ran” I think is a bit of an understatement, she flew, I’m not sure her feet touched the ground. Going from the away end to the halfway line and back, before the stewards could blink an eye, and thanks to some fellow fans she was bundled off the pitch, and out the ground, before anyone could get their hands on her. “They say she has the foulest mouth going” explains Keith laughing, “if you get any quotes, make sure you spell them correctly”.
We are briefly interrupted, by the man selling 50/50 raffle tickets, Tom is already rolling his eyes, “mugs game” he tells me, but of course I hand over my £2.
Outside the crowd has increased, most of them milling around the tea bar and the club shop, one end of which has now opened, and one of the New Year talkers is selling programmes. Whilst in the bar Tom had popped off for a quick Vape, and on returning commented that the “wind is picking up” and it really was whirling around, making it feel even colder, perhaps its being so close to the River Thames, close enough Keith told us, that the ground flooded back in 2014.
‘Blue, blue, electric blue’ by Bowie is playing, as the players finish warming up, and the teams start making their way back into the shelter of the changing room. Tom once again comments on the amount of people here, “this could be one of our biggest turnouts”, although it should not be a big surprise, considering the turnout at Brisbane Road, they clearly have a solid fanbase, home and away.
“Welcome to Wheatsheaf Park, and this Crimbo limbo fixture” says the voice over the tannoy. He then goes on to give a brutally honest assessment of both teams league positions, not your usual fluffy, children’s TV presenter positivity, this guy only deals in hard facts. ST find themselves 18th and FCC 21st, “both at the wrong end of the table” he explains, he also reminds everyone, although I’m sure it’s not entirely necessary of the fact that both teams were relegated from the Conference South last season. Not perhaps how I would go about rallying the troops, but maybe it’s a bit of reverse psychology.
As both teams are read out, there is another Chelsea reference, as the same entrance music they use, ‘Liquidator’ by Harry J Allstars starts to play, and a loud blast of the referee's whistle, from down the blue tunnel, sparks the stewards into life, “way hey”, another whistles over to get the attention of the “mascot” who is kicking a ball around on the pitch.
The fact that the extendable tunnel, does not quite meet the edge of the pitch, means one steward in a trilby, and one in a flat cap, hold back the tide of fans, allowing for both teams to cross the small strip of concrete between tunnel and pitch unscathed. The ST captain does his best to undo the work of the club announcers sombre mood and gets his team in the right frame of mind “come on boys”.
“Come on yellows”
Small pockets of fans surround the pitch, but the majority are like us, sitting in the main stand, or are just in front next to the pitch. “Come on the Swans” says a fan quietly, as the lights in the stand go out just before kick off, both of us look at each other not sure if it’s a mistake.
“Come on guys” shout various players from both teams, as we get underway.
FFC apply all the early pressure, and their keeper is vocal in letting his teammates know “great start whites”, an early shot from just outside the six yard box, and two resulting corners, mean it is all a bit nervy amongst the home fans.
Although the bulk of them are sitting around us, the nosiest are standing behind the away goal, their flags hanging from the fence behind, one a St George's Cross with “Staines Town FC Pride Of Middlesex” written on it, the other, with a little bit of help from the zoom on Tom’s camera reads “Football Was Not Invented In 1992”. I get the feeling they are the same bunch we sat amongst at Orient, their non stop singing despite the team's cup exit and 6 - 1 loss, was phenomenal.
A low drawn out chant of “yellow”, prompts the man in front to use the number one cliche from the big book of football cliches: Staines Town FC edition, when he refers to them as the “Staines massive”. I managed to write our previous blog without a mention to “my Julie”, “aight” or other such early 2000’s comedy catchphrases, I’m not going to start now, so will leave that one well alone.
“Late one, must of been delivering the mail” is the slightly odd comment the person in front of us makes under his breath, when he has to move to let in a late arrival to his aisle.
“Everywhere we go”
Fifteen minutes gone, and as Toms says, “a bit out of the blue” ST grab a goal. A cross from the left is glanced in off the head of the number 9, who kisses the badge on his shirt, as he celebrates. There is a palpable relief, but still a level of nervousness, “park the bus” shouts one fan. The desire to remain solid is clearly front and centre, it would be bad luck to once again be “sucker punched”. Not that the noisy few need much reason to sing, but the goal means the volume has gone up “yellow, yellow, yellow”.
Since the goal, ST have got in their stride, the main point of attack coming from the gaggle of nippy, small players gobbling up the flick ons, and knock downs of the number 9, especially the number 10 who is tireless, dogged and is covering every inch of the pitch, Tom’s description of him is perfect a “pitbull”.
Although ST are on top, particularly down the wings, where they seem to have free reign, they are sometimes a bit guilty of overplaying, or are unable to keep up with the speed merchants on the flanks. On more than one occasion however, they show flashes of a real lack of composure, and make life much harder for themselves, like a misplaced passback, which results in a needless corner that thankfully FFC can’t capitalise on.
Half time is nearly upon us, and of course Tom has one thing on his mind “I’m hungry”.
The game has gone a little flat, ST’s post goal confidence has waned a little, and FFC are perhaps a fraction on top, but its nominal.
With only a few minutes left until the break ST are awarded a free kick on the left, almost from the same position the ball was delivered from for their first goal. The ball is crossed in, it takes a nick off two players competing at the front post, hits an FFC player on the edge of the six yard box, and falls to the feet of number 9 to poke home from close range, his momentum taking him to the back of the net, where he celebrates with the fans behind the goal, “yellow, yellow, yellow”.
I always find the music played at football matches interesting, as little excuse is needed to play a song of one kind or another nowadays: an entrance song, halftime song, fulltime song, and in the case of ST a goal song by Body Rockers - ‘I Like The Way You Move”.
“Game over” says Tom, and although there is still forty five minutes left to play, FFC must be feeling pretty low right now, and with their away record, they can’t be very hopeful.
The voice over the tannoy has certainly perked up “2 - 0 to the Swans” he announces, as the team’s walk in, and the lights turn on overhead like the interval at the theatre, but instead of tiny pots of ice cream, we (Tom) goes in search of something a little more substantial.
‘Swans Tea Bar ’is doing a roaring trade. The hatch in a wall decorated with blue and gold tinsel, and an unfortunate miniature Christmas tree, that does a nose dive off the counter, much to the annoyance of one of the women serving tea and burgers, “2nd time today” she huffs. I have been sent to grab a place in the considerable queue, as Tom pops to the toilet, he is a bit concerned on his return such is the demand for something warm, because it’s so damn cold, “is there gonna be anything left?”
As if we had anything to worry about, the tea and burgers are dispensed with the highest efficiency, non league tea urns are plumbed into some nationwide, central reservoir, that is the renewable energy we should all be paying attention to, it’s warm sweet restorative powers do a job on me, and I’m ready for the second half.
It’s about now that I notice the results of the raffle scrawled on a white board, near where we came in. We didn’t win, but I’m ok, I have a mechanism to deal with loosing now.
Tom is still chowing down on his burger, my cup of tea is balancing precariously on the low concrete wall, as we take up our new position behind the FFC goal, for the remainder of the match, which is not underway for long before the FFC keeper is involved in a heavy clash with a ST player, and stays down, no rolling around, you can tell he is hurt.
The flags and fans have swapped ends as well, and are less than sympathetic with the downed man, who after a bit of treatment is up and good to go. One FFC player tries to fill the silence during the thumb twiddling of the stoppage “come on borough” The second half is a little flat, but the wings are still proving fruitful for ST, although one of the few times FFB do manage an attack the ST keepers pulls off a good one on one save.
“Oh West London is wonderful”
A little bit of fisty cuffs boils up after a heavy FFC challenge, but quickly simmers down, it does however get a another song out of the group near us “yellow, yellow, yellow”.
With just over twenty minutes gone ST should have put the result beyond doubt, but a free header ends up hitting the net high behind the goal to catch stray balls, instead of going in. Fans and players alike are left asking each other “how?”
“Everywhere we go”
It’s now FFC’s turn to help the home team get a third goal, when a defender makes a sliding block at the back post after a low cross, which dings off the post and goes out for a corner. “You lucky bugger” says the person next to us, and by the look on the FFC players face he knows that oh too well. Shortly after there is a big shout for an ST penalty, mainly from the fans behind the goal, more than anyone else, the referee waves it away, one supporter is convinced “Clattenburg would of given it”.
“We’re Ryman League and we’re having a laugh”
Whenever FFC do venture forward, they inevitably lose the ball and ST are quick to counter, the number 9 has not stopped, he wants his hat-trick, and when a simple side foot finish presents itself, he scuffs it wide, “Coxie” remonstrates one fan, but not for long as a new song quickly start’s “Cox will tear you apart again”.
“Just like watching Brazil”
We make our way round to the tunnel moments before the the final whistle, the flat cap wearing steward is doing quite a loud running commentary from the sidelines “that’s ours” he proclaims when the ball goes into touch. One fan gives an FFC player a piece of his mind when he takes a throw in from the wrong place “naughty boy” he says like a character from a Carry On film.
A considerable crowd has formed around the tunnel as the players walk off, the number 9 is clapped off, and lets out a loud “get in” towards the applauding crowd. Jubilant fanfare music is playing over the tannoy, but the ever singing group offer their own song to the away team “going down, going down, going down” a passing FFC fan on her way out mutters to a person in her group “good thing we are going down, don’t want to come back here again”.
“I’m the one who ran on the pitch” says one of the singers, who are in high spirits, and are happy to pose for a picture for us, before they head off to celebrate. “You are good luck” she tells us, “well not last time” I reply, considering they lost 6 - 1. Her reply is emphatic “no way, we had a great day, that was our cup final!”
What a warm welcome we received, what brilliant fans, the ST supporters have got it right “Non League Soul Not For Sale”.