What a glorious day, a ‘hello boss, sorry I’m ill, cough, cough’ kind of a day, I would refrain from going totally Mad Max and saying its one good enough to die on, but it’s certainly one where you just need to be outside. Alas though I have been stuck in an office with a man moaning about the fan making him “cold” while I sweat away in my woolly jumper, peering out the window at a slither of bright blue sky between two buildings.
When 5 o'clock rolls around I almost go full Fred Flintstone, get to the tube station near work before the door to the office has closed behind me, and join all the other hot and bothered, over dressed people on the Underground.
My previous vitriolic statements about commuters are starting to bore even me, so I will keep my references to zombies, drones, shirt wearing slugs to a minimum, and from this day forth it can go unsaid that I’m not a huge fan of traveling at this time of day. Tom is not far behind me, but for the third time running I’m early, so have plenty of brownie points stored up for a few late arrivals next season.
Tom somehow looks even younger than the last time I saw him, and I fear he may be turning into Benjamin Button. Despite his slow slide back into infancy, he has good news as we board our train “got a surprise for you” he tells me. The fact I think I’m getting another crazy but tasty sandwich is clear from my face apparently and in combination with a mini fist pump, Tom finds it necessary to nip my excitement in the bud before it gets out of hand. “It’s not a sandwich” he says softly, just as my hopes had peaked, but after knocking me down, he is quick to build me back up “it’s home made cake, sparrow has been busy”.
( To clarify ‘Sparrow’ is my affectionate nickname for Tom's waif of a girlfriend, who eats about the same as your average chirping garden visitor and will inevitably take home a doggy bag when we go out for dinner. Disappointingly it is not the case that Tom has trained a small bird to bake)
Our train journey feels overly long, and is punctuated by three major talking points: One - Tom tells me about a BBQ restaurant where you can “inject gravy” into meat, only in Dalston. Two - The man next to us with the biggest pair of headphones either of us have “ever seen” that look like he has two tinned sponge puddings stuck to the side of his head. Three - the cackling group of youths, whose volume occasionally hits a level to where I think a street fight has broken out, only for Tom to tell me “nothing has happened”.
Red, blue and white bunting strung from the ceiling of the platform is the first thing we notice once off the train at Thames Ditton, a much nicer sight than a half eaten box of chicken wings or mountains of discarded free newspapers that litter most inner city stations. We also see for the first time a fan of one of today's teams, his allegiance is given away by his green and white scarf of Hendon FC (HFC).
Not distinguishable by tribal colours, but off to the football nonetheless the fans behind us are already thinking post match, “what if it goes to extra time?” says one to another. The idea of a late finish is too much to bare for one, who cracks under the pressure of not knowing and shoots off in search of the time table.
I know where we are, but I don't know WHERE we are if you know what I mean. Its very nice, very green and lush, with extremely pretty houses. I think we even pass a woman putting up a sign on the parish church notice board, it's all very twee.
Google maps has us a little perplexed, Tom seems to think the entrance to tonight's ground is one way, his directions seem to be sending us a very circuitous route, and he is convinced the ground is surrounded by two raging rivers “look at the map” he keeps saying to me. I think there is a much more direct route, but we don't panic, we coolly assess our surroundings, and if I learnt one thing at 2nd Muswell Hill Scout group: if lost, follow someone who looks like they are going to the same place as you. Thankfully the old chap in a blue jacket with an embroidered London Football Association badge on his breast pocket is the perfect star to guide us to the promised land.
Through the glare of the sun, we can just make out the meccano esq flood lights of Imber Court the home of Metropolitan Police FC, tonight however the venue of the London FA Senior Cup Final, and our crest covered, unsuspecting guide is no longer needed and we home in on our destination. Considering our location the bloke shamelessly smoking a joint in his car whilst sitting in traffic is brave and a bit daft, but each to their own. The club's blue sign is empty of fixtures, only the painted ‘Vs’ are visible, as football prepares for its summer hiatus.
Despite the floodlights the entrance to Imber Court throws us a little, as it's more like a leisure centre than a football club. The cabinets full of police hats, handcuffs and ornate truncheons reinforces we are in the right place, but the surroundings are not of the like we are used to. The bustling ‘Imber Bar’ is reminiscent of a golf club I used to work at in the summer in my teens, it's deep blue carpet with gold fleur-de-lis is very plush.
Plenty of people are enjoying the opulent surroundings, but we make a beeline for the tables outside, it's far too nice not to, and join the sunshade, shorts and flip flop wearing people soaking up a bit of early summer sun. Outside we also see the first black and white striped shirt of HFC’s opposition tonight, Tooting & Mitcham United FC (TMU)
“Oh this is nice” says Tom on his return from the bar, as he takes a seat. Is he talking about the pleasant weather or the fact the bar was “cheap”.
“Pitch this way?” asks a player holding a pair of boots and a kit bag to the table next to us. Once pointed in the right direction, he makes his way past kids with wet hair and towels emerging from the nearby swimming pool and a guy with a ‘No Pirlo, No Party’ t-shirt on.
As much as we would like to stay lounging in the sun, there is a game to watch and we go in search of the entrance to a ground that is clearly there, but is being effectively hidden in a maze of small buildings, and an open mouthed penguin bin.
We eventually find the way in, which is via a simple brick turnstile between two blue gates, a few posters advertising tonight's fixture have been stuck up, and through the bigger of the gates is a police horse wagon, what kind of turnout are they expecting?
Once in, we are almost straight away under the roof of the concrete covered terrace behind one goal. Behind a wooden table set up on one of the steps a woman hands out a free match day programme, and like music to my ears asks “golden goal, pound a go?”. I hand over my money and take my chances, picking the folded yellow tickets from an empty quality street box.
We are both having a lovely evening so far, one man at the turnstile on the other hand is not. What started as a low level barney, has escalated into full blown screaming, directed at a steward and a blazered man whose demeanour makes it very clear he his quite aware of the almighty power his jacket bestows upon him. His high pitched outbursts are increasing in volume, something about being let in for free, but his squealing delivery makes it hard to understand.
If Alanis Morissette had been here enjoying a bit of non-league football, she would've revelled in the irony atom bomb the shouty man is about to drop. After telling the head steward, who has now joined the melee to “throw me out” when this is not done and he is still refusing to budge, he yells all red in the face “well call the police!”.
“Welcome to Imber Court” says the voice over the tannoy, half of which is bathed in sun, half in shade, the main stand already has a fair few of its blue seats occupied. As the teams are read out in a voice verging on the monotone, the person doing it could do him self a favour and pay a visit to Beveree Statdium or Hornchurch Stadium as his approach has neither the regal elegance of Hampton or the boundless energy of Hornchurch.
Tom joins the pride of photographers circling around the steps leading down on to the pitch, waiting for the teams to arrive. The ring of the bell from up the tunnel, momentarily interrupts the music playing that sounds like it's straight out of Lord Of The Rings, and brings the rumbling of the blue metal tunnel which is extended from the stand to the pitch.
As the music builds, all very dramatic, all very, very exciting, for a moment I expect Gandalf to appear, but sadly it's only the physio, with handfuls of equipment. HFC are first to appear all in red, the shout from one of their fans “come on greens” is a little redundant. TMU appear in their black and white stripes and not long after the burly linesman informs the referee that both “first 11’s are good”. There is a brief pause, before the referee leads the way, “ok lads let's go”.
“Please welcome your teams” says old cheery draws on the microphone, when he reads out the teams again one TMU players “Simeone” gets his own rapturous welcome from his personal fan club “Simeone, Simeone, Simeone” sitting in the stand behind me, when they sit down and put their pom poms away, although they are not talking in English, I’m pretty sure they are laughing or moaning about the pronunciation of his name.
“Enjoy the game” how about you try and enjoy life, are my thoughts as proceedings are handed over to the referee and we are underway. Kick-off brings the change end shuffle as the TMU fans who were making a racket as the teams came out “Tooting, Tooting, Tooting” are now making their way to our end of the pitch, and we decide to stay up this end with them.
Both sets of fans are quick to erect their flags, most noticeably a green and white skull and cross bones at the HFC end, TMU's is a dominated by a large black and white St Georges Cross. The boisterous lot from South of the river, “South London. La. La. La”, set their stall out early on, they’re going to be making lots of noise, “we love you Tooting we do”. The HFC keeper’s long hair is proving particularly amusing to the fans behind him “get a haircut” one shouts “put your curlers in” shouts another. It’s also not long into the half that an air horn is brought into play, thankfully not AFC Hornchurch close, so I don't curl up in a ball and start to rock, but they are making their presence felt.
HFC travelling support are silent in comparison, which the TMU lot are quick to pick up on “can you hear the Hendon sing?”. Although there is little chanting and certainly no horn, they do create an almighty din by hitting the metal back of the terrace, which sounds like thunder.
Our quota of challenges that make you want to cry has yet to be met this season, maybe a few eye waterers, but no full blown tears. When the HFC number 10 goes through the back of a TMU player, we get a striker's tackle bonus, and I’m reaching to Tom for some tissues, the referee is only reaching for a yellow, very lucky number 10.
All the early pressure is from TMU much to the delight of their very rarely quiet fans, “South London's black and white army”, however there have been few clear cut chances for either team. HFC go close with a free kick, but it's a long range shot from TMU that is the best of half, it stings the palms of the keeper, it’s to hot to handle and he is forced to push the ball back into the box, lucky for him it falls close enough so he can scramble down to collect it. The TMU fans don't miss the opportunity to let him know what they think of the long haired one's efforts “dodgy keeper”.
When a TMU player goes down, after clearing a ball and looking to have kicked his own player as well, the magic spray holders are called on, and one HFC fan wonders if the injured players is “their main man, he might be their Aguero”.
Tom’s food run ends up with a hotdog minus the onions, they had “run out” he tells me, he is also doubting his condiment choice “not sure what I was thinking, mustard and mayo”. Perhaps the main reason for not joining Tom when he indulges his football food fetish, is not wanting to be the fat guy with schmutz all in his beard and down his front. I’m happy to look like one of the Twits in the privacy of my own home, but when Tom has a mayo/mustard mixture all over his face and a huge yellow stain on his jacket, I feel totally vindicated.
The half finishes with more sustained pressure from TMU, their last chance follows a tricky flick by the forward, which allows him to evade the attention of two defenders, “that was nice” says Tom, just before he shoots wide.
We see a few curious things whilst at games, today we have already seen a man in a Hawaiian shirt and green wig, but we have never seen anyone in what I can only describe as an old black and white jockey cap with ‘TMU’ sewn on the side in gold. As the players make their way inside, we overhear the hat wearer tell someone it was left to her “in someone’s will”, a touching story, and nice to think of that little bit of football history being passed on.
The music from the Shire starts again, but not for long as someone has got fed up of the floaty elfish strings and whacks a bit of a Michael Buble on. We swap our side of the pitch for the other, but not ends, we will spend the second half with the HFC supporters. Two of them spend the break puffing away on cigars, of the Churchillian monster variety, filling the air with its unmistakable smell. They are deep in conversation with a fellow fan about the decision for the team to be playing in red, “my heart sank” was one's reaction to hearing the news, he reckons their first half performance is solely down to the choice of kit, “we think we are Harrow Borough” when we wear it, and then we're “shit” he explains.
Sitting down with my back against the still warm wall that has been basking in the sun all day, Tom announces its “cake time”. He pulls a small Chinese takeaway box from his bag, and pops the lid to reveal two equal slices, with a deep purple centre. He informs me it's “moist” apparently “sparrow has a fear of dry cake”.
“Welcome your team’s back”, reverberates through the speakers. With the players returning I remember my golden goal ticket, the small black ‘55’ on it, means I'm still in the running. The HFC fans near us are critical but fair, and are hoping for better “not very good in that half was it”.
A stunning day is turning into a stunning evening, the sky is a mix of pinks, orange and pale blues, criss crossed with the vapour trails from planes. A nearby conspiracy theorist shares his views on them with a friend, “chemtrails” he calls them, suggesting they will “infect 1000’s of people” he must have left his tinfoil hat in the car. More fans passing us are grumbling about the kit “hate that red kit”, one announces, another though is happy they have at least still got “10 men”.
This years final, is a replay of last years, where HFC pipped TMU in extra time with 10 men after drawing level in the dying moments of normal time. “We didn't turn up until 20 minutes to the end” explains the HFC fan with his green and white scarf looped around his belt, and more cameras of different sizes hanging off him than should be possible.
“Oh when the Stripes go marching in” sing the TMU fans who I’m sure have doubled in number and are now occupying almost the whole terrace behind the goal. Their singing is continuous, and particularly impressive is what might be a never ending rendition of “we’re the black and white army” to the tune of the much used White Stripes song, ‘Seven Nation Army’.
“Assault with a deadly pair of boots” shouts the nearby crackpot who is applauded at the TMU players challenge. The resulting free-kick creates HFC’s first chance of the half, a free header, but it's straight into the arms of the keeper. Perhaps noticing all the big boys are up from the back, he makes a quick kick up field, aimed at one of the two players who had not come back to defend. One of the two accompanying HFC’s players, makes a hash of a simple header, which allows the ball to bounce and the two TMU players are on the loose ball like a flash, tearing towards goal in a wicked counterattack from just over the halfway line, and in mere seconds the black and white stripes are bearing down on goal, and score with a cool finish.
There is a instant outpouring of joy, the whole far end is moving, the whole team chase’s down the scorer who has made his way to the side of the pitch to celebrate. Tom asks “what minute?”, I wait for the announcer to say but can't hear him over the singing “come on you Terrors”. Now that’s what you call a nickname, Hampton & Richmond that is how it's done, not only is it up there with the best, but it's also a Game Of Thrones reference without me even trying, this though is all irrelevant, I need to know the time of the goal, I need to know if I've won!!
HFC fans are now even quieter, standing motionless, one pipes up though “we lose every week, you’re nothing special, we lose every week”. Tom is feeling very poetic as the TMU players gather themselves and prepare for kick-off, “revenge is a dish best served on a nice spring evening”.
When HFC’s followers finally look like they might have something to shout about the TMU keeper pulls off two saves one not long after the other to prevent the equaliser. In keeping with the end to end nature of the match, TMU then nearly grab a second we an audacious and vicious long range free-kick that draws a slightly startled “fucking hell” from Tom, half for the attempt, and half for the save. The long haired one has really been on fine form for HFC and has almost singlehandedly stopped the score getting embarrassing.
“That was our chance!” says a HFC fan with all the distress of a person who has just missed the last escape pod from a war torn planet, as an HFC forward covers his face, and looks to the heavens after squandering a gilt edged opportunity. Super wing play, and a pinpoint cross found him on the edge of the six yard box, only needing a simple side foot finish, but he put it wide.
As with most football matches, your team misses that golden chance and moments later the other team go up the other end, pull back the duvet for you, dim the lights, kiss you on the cheek and put the whole damn game to bed. Tonight is no different, when the referee points to the spot at the far end of the pitch, not long after HFC’s chance and awards a penalty to TMU.
Some HFC players can't bare to watch, one is on his haunches with his back to the goal, I imagine just wanting it all over and done with.
It’s not every day you see a keeper, a blur of yellow run the full length of the pitch to celebrate with his teammates. The penalty is dispatched, the scorer wheels away to the same spot as before, followed by the rest of the team, and the goalie, the late arrival jumps on top of the bundle. The fans are now in full party mode, it looks like a very fun kind of bedlam, “we’re gonna win the cup, we’re gonna win the cup, and now you're gonna believe us” they sing in full voice.
Once again the single HFC fan reiterates to the jubilant TMU supporters, that their team geting beaten this season has become quite typical, “you're nothing special, we lose every week”.
The end of the game is marred ever so slightly, after on field tensions boil over, and what initially seems like a bit of handbags, turns into a full blown, full team altercation, where Tom is sure one player “punched” another. When things finally calm down my ringside reporter informs me he saw at least “3 throat grabs”. When the referee pulls the guilty parties to one side to dish out his judgement, one TMU player doesn't take kindly to being given a yellow card, pushes the arm of the referee and gets a red instead, “what an idiot” says Tom, quite rightly.
“Champions of London, we know what we are” sings every TMU fan as the final whistle goes, they have won the cup, one HFC fan’s attempt at a dig falls on deaf ears as they fold up their flags, “you should of won last year, when we were quite good”.
A couple at the TMU end jump the fence on to the pitch, and are followed by a few more, buoyed on by the first few's success. A ball of black and white forms not far from the centre circle, a mixture of players and supporters enjoy the occasion “we love you Tooting we do”, many phones are held aloft, capturing the moment. The black and white St George’s cross is handed to the players for their photo call.
Only a foot or two away, the HFC team are a scene of devastation, many are on the floor, contemplating the loss, cruelly forced to witness the celebrations, as a small table is set up, and they have to wait to be awarded their runners up medals.
“Please leave the pitch” is the request, which is dutifully acknowledged and when a steward gives the thumbs up that it's all clear the officials are “called forward” to receive their recognition for their nights work. Next it's “the runners up Hendon Football club” in that fateful red, who have to walk past their spoils from last year, which is huge, it’s of Stanley Cup proportions.
Waiting for TMU to lift the cup, I overhear two of their fans leaning up against the railing in anticipation of the presentation, giving the HFC goalie his much needed dues, “if it weren't for the keeper, it could've been 4 or 5”, maybe a small positive for HFC but I'm sure not much of a consolation.
A pile of small red boxes next to the towering silver cup on its black plinth are handed out to the beaming TMU players who have formed an orderly queue. At the back their captain, a unit, who has a bit of the Tom Huddlestone about him, but clearly eats bricks with his protein shakes, doesn't mess about once he has his hands on the prize. A short “wayyyyyy” ends quickly as he hoists it above his head, which gets an almighty cheer from both the players and fans. One player is quick to pinch the lid, which has managed somehow to stay in place so far, and pops it on his head, he looks very happy with his silver headgear.
“We love you Tooting we do” sing the fans, one has his black and white scarf held out. Once the players have taken their turn to hold the trophy, they approach the railing, sharing their victory with friends and family, and posing for pictures.
The floodlights are soon off, the players with cup in hand make their way inside and it's not long until we can hear them continuing the celebrations in the changing rooms. Not wanting anyone to hang around to long, the stewards are quick to start ushering people out “thank you gentlemen, time to move along now please”.