As a child and into my teens Brighton was the go to destination. It’s where my Mum lived, as well as where my best friend from school moved, whilst I lived in London with my Dad. It wouldn't take much arm twisting to make the hour long train journey from Victoria, so I could go mackerel fishing on the marina or wander the lanes buying Star Wars toys.
Having not been there in a while, Mum having sold up, and moved back to London, a few years ago, and not being able to crash on her sofa bed at the drop of your hat, it’s perhaps lost some of the draw it once had, until recently. That reason being a football team, with a special kind of following.
I must though for a moment remove my heavily rose tinted specs, because reality has hit hard, it's cold, it's super cold, the spits of rain as I wait for my train, are turning to snow, and I’m only wearing a jumper, it’s time to invest in a jacket.
Tom on the other hand, waiting for me at London Bridge, looks equipped for arctic warfare, like he is about to dive into an ice hole, drag himself out with his ski poles and reel off his name and number. Despite all his kit, despite telling me moments after saying “hello”, that he has “got his snood”, oh the shame, he is still “freezing”.
A familiar sight at most stations on a Saturday morning, are football fans on their way to different corners of the country. A small group of Sutton United fans, in their distinctive yellow and brown, have congregated, and roaming around solo is a Leeds fan, Tom pointing out he's “a long way from home”.
Although I understand Southern Rail to be the devil incarcerate to many people, for us, today at least, we can't grumble. Our train is on time, warm and not too busy, despite the industrial action going on, so we can't complain. We find a table, and settle down for the short trip south, only occasionally disturbed by our fellow travelers, such as the the woman next to us slurping her coffee like a baby with a beaker, or the couple, old enough to know such public displays of affection are not acceptable, who are snogging like teenagers.
There are plenty of woolly hats on board, the choice of headgear completely justified. Tom our resident weatherman, is peering out the window grimacing, “it's not clearing up”. The people underneath the sheep's wool to a man are all tucking into some giant warm pastry of some kind, making Tom and I very jealous. We pass the time, having our own little flashback session, sparked by talk of the amusements on the pier. Tom tells me how he lost his front tooth on the dodgems once, and I explain my hatred/fear of the unwieldy electric powered cars, because of a traumatic experience as a child, when my Mum insisted going on with me and my brother, whilst holding the fish in a bag we had just won, very distressing.
Whizzing through Preston Park station means we are nearly there, Tom still on weather watch is a little more upbeat, “it's a bit brighter” he tells me, now being able to point out a “bit of blue” which doesn't look much bigger than a picnic blanket, buts its cheered him up, so I let him have that one.
This mind you is not your average pub, and while Tom searches out the water closet, I survey my surroundings, my Richard III portrait, shield and sigil covered surroundings, in what I can only describe as some kind of medieval reenactment, acid trip of a pub. Once relieved, Tom joins me for our mead, I mean Pepsi, I’m sorry, it's just so fucking mental in here, and was far from impressed by the stable door on the toilet cubicles, he found it a “a little unnerving” at quite how open to the world they made you feel.
At each end of the great hall, two knights of the game they call football cover the walls, modern day tapestries if you will, Trevor Sinclair and Ian Holloway ten feet tall, comment on their respective matches, on competing TV channels.
We don't spend long at the knights round table, in fact it was two brown leather sofas, with a Pacman machine in between, and soon we have a stiff gust rolling off the English Channel hitting us in the face, “oh it’s getting a bit breezy” says Tom, with a hint of Frank Spencer, as we finally see the sea and the twinkling lights of Brighton Pier.
Giant seagulls circle, perhaps scoping out the woman walking around dressed as a lobster or maybe they, like us, would like to dive bomb the “Brighton Palace pier DJ” who is singing along with Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, adding in his own improvised, but unimaginative lyrics “you go girl” he says over and over again, occasionally mixing it with up a “one time, one time” and at one point let out a hideously out of tune “oooooooo, the kid is not my son”.
“Dolphin derby” says Tom excitably, only put off from having a go, because he doesn't want to spend the day lumbered with a giant Garfield if he wins.
The pier itself is a bit of microcosm, a world within a world, where you can get your fortune read by a ‘gypsy’ in an ornate caravan, eat only 100% sugar based food, knowingly play games that are rigged, spend hours in a room full of flashing lights, 2p machines and arcades and not go insane, and if the young slightly blue, shivering lady dressed up like a Victorian, with a sign around her pointing to ‘ye olde photographs’, who I say “she looks depressed”, but Tom puts it better “she looks cold”, is correct, you can also dress up like a turn of the century factory owner and pay for the privilege.
Before we go, remembering through a mist of our donkey filled nightmare, we are here to watch football, I treat Tom to a ride on the carousel, as he says he doesn't think he has ever been on one before, criminal. Climbing on top of a giant cockerel, I opt for a more luxurious red seated carriage, we pick up speed, and must look quite the picture I’m sure, spinning around, having a thoroughly good time.
Our cab driver, we could have got the bus very easily, but spent too much time prating about on the pier, is doing everything in his power, to make sure he doesn't get a tip. When he asks who we support, he spends the next ten minutes, first laying into Spurs, “something not right there” he explains, and then Arsenal, “they will fade”, it's not until he moves his damming sights onto West Ham, do we get a bit of respite.
A narrow hedge lined lane comes to an abrupt end, and our driver insists on dropping us off, if he goes any further he tells us it's just too much hassle. Adjacent to a Caravan Club camp site, a sign next to a farm style wooden gate welcomes us to Whitehawk FC (WFC).
“Funny little place” says Tom as we leave the sign, and the caravan site behind us, continuing onward, eventually coming to a small grey block of turnstiles. Once in you can't but stop and marvel at the wall side mural, more akin to something from the NFL than non league football, a towering menacing red hawk, talons showing. In front, a stack of drums, ultra sticker covered drums, of all shapes and sizes, means only one thing, we are going to be in for a good day.
“I like that scarf” comments Tom, as he peruses what's on offer at the small, pitch covered flat roofed club shop, having to consider a different purchase, after being told they don't have any pins, “shame they don't have any” he says like a kid, whose last in the queue for a Tamagotchi, fighting off the lip wobble.
Even though we have arrived well before kick off, there is already a noticeable, if not ever so slightly frantic buzz around the Enclosed Ground, which not only is one of the bizarrest names for a football ground, but it's already giving me the chance to tick a few boxes in my I-Spy book of non league football: dog in a jumper of the clubs colours, tick. There will also be some new editions, such as the fact that only three sides of the ground are in use, one whole side of the pitch is a grass bank, and beyond are the rolling South Downs covered in sheep.
It’s curious name, is matched by the curious hodgepodge of stands, seats and scaffolding. The main stand, all seater, with a one man wide tunnel at its centre is the most permanent of structures, along with the red brick clubhouse next door. A stranded little stand, nothing hugely remarkable about it, except for the steps, yes that's right the steps. On the front of each one someone has painted, what you might call the clubs mantra, “Love, Peace, No Racism, No Sexism, No Violence, No Homophobia” an idea I believe adopted from Millerntor stadium, home to grandads of the left wing ultras movement, St Pauli.
Behind one goal a corrugated topped, fragile looking green seated stand, is plastered in ultra stickers, and some health and safety conscious bod has covered the bolts and fixtures that make it up, with reams of silver duct tape, to ensure no one snags their best Ben Sherman shirt on it. Opposite the same green seats make up an uncovered bank, dwarfing everything else, and only adding to the patchwork nature of the place.
Not that there wasn’t plenty of life already around the ground, camera crews setting up, players and fans arriving and club officials bombing about, but when The Clash start playing over the speakers, it’s taken to another level.
The bar is warm, the bar is busy, the bar is the place of choice for most seeking shelter from the cold. Only distinguishable by accent, because as Tom puts it both teams play red and white, it's only when the Stourbridge FC (SFC) supporters comment on the Wolves match on the big screen, does their midlands twang give them away, and its clear who is supporting who.
We rest our pints in front of a newspaper cutting covered wall, one man checks out all the club news that's appeared in the local press, and I quickly tick off ‘man in top hat’ and ‘man with drum slung over his shoulder decorated in a rainbow flag’ in my I-Spy book, and hope that whoever keeps treading on the tiny jumper wearing dog, by accident I’m sure, would stop, because the noise is horrible.
Our single pint has got Tom all full of beans, I think he is about one sambuca away from sacking off the match, and hitting the pier with a “pot of 10p’s”, but I talk him down, and remind him why we are here.
“Four and a half hours” is how long it took a couple of SFC fans to get here today, and they are not the only ones, SFC support is here in good numbers. Along with the majority of WH fans, they are waiting outside the clubhouse, for the teams to appear, the ends to be decided, so they can make the move towards where they will spend the first half. When I ask him if he fancies his team's chances today, he is unsure, choosing instead to reply with one of the better football cliches out there “you never know, it’s the cup”.
The crowd continues to swell, those following SFC are the first to offer a song “we are Stourbridge”, a group of WH ultras, that currently have the air of a marching band on a fag break about them, the floor littered with their instruments, reply with the bang of a drum. A nearby little girl, is very interested and is told by her Mum that “Father Christmas will get her one”.
“Let's keep together, lets keep in time” instructs one drummer to the rest of the Ringos, who are all ages, shapes and sizes.
The path from the changing room to the pitch is lined by so many children, I don't see how there is enough room for any players. The team's arrival passes me by a little, I’m only really aware they have when the visiting fans start to sing and clap, “we are Stourbridge”, this time the reply from WH fans is not one drum, but four or five “hawks, hawks, hawks”, and it's not only drums but for the second time at a non league FA Cup match, a man sounds his bugle, although the Staines fan didn't have a latex hawk/eagle mask balanced on top of his head.
When the SFC supporters try and reply again, it's with the same song, “we are Stourbridge” this repetition is quickly pounced upon by the WH fans, “you've only got one song” and “you are Stourbridge” they sing back.
A bottleneck caused by drums, is not something you are likely to see many times in your life, but that's what happens, as I, I’m not sure where Tom is if I’m honest, join the exodus of the WH fans on the way to the scaffolding, with the SFC fans going the other way, both groups making a good racket.
Flags are quickly up at each end, and not too long after finding a spot a row from the front, people are jostling for space, trying to find somewhere to watch from, and quickly the stand is groaning under the weight of the crowd. Those who are spilling out into the aisle, or down in front, are pleasantly corralled by a steward in a straw hat, with feathers in. Perhaps the most un stewardly, stewards behaviour, no screaming or shouting, just gentle gestures with his hands, asking people to move back.
It could perhaps be perceived as a bit naff of me to describe the stand behind the goal as ‘rocking’, as the game gets under way, sounding like some aging ZZ Top fan, but I mean it in the most literal of senses, as the fans led by a cowbell, maraca, whistle, bugle, someone who is hitting the scaffolding with what sounds like a bit of scrap metal, producing the most piercing of rings and countless drums, they start their deafening roar of support for their team, “super hawk party army” they sing, they being men and women, young and old. The first row is predominantly kids, passed to the front to avoid the swell like it's the 1960’s, some have mounted the stand, pumping their firsts, it's breathtaking. When they say “we’re Whitehawk FC, where football is for all” they mean every word of it.
Considering what's going on around me, the skinhead with the ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) patch on the back of his jacket, the old couple next to me singing their hearts out, the kid in a Halloween mask hanging from a pole, it takes a quite marvelous goal, to focus my attention on the game on twelve minutes, which until now has been something going on in the background.
“1-0 to the super hawks” they sing, following the pandemonium caused by the outside of the box, top right hand corner goal. The players rush the barrier, the fans rush it too, meeting in the middle for a joyous football bundle. “Quality goal” I just about hear someone say, over the continued signing, “we win when we’re singing”, keeping up their promise that they will “sing for 90 minutes”.
Staunchly political, there is someone with an RMT placard in the crowd, and left wing in their standing, they do not hold back in making their views clear on certain key matters. “Homophobia we say no, racism we say no” and some matters not quite as important, but still worth a mention “FA drinking rules we say no, Wealdstone Raider we say no”.
SFC supporters may well have been singing just as loud, but I would never know, it's just far too loud. The ultras do offer them the stage, trying to goad a song out of them, “Stourbridge give us a song”, asks the collective, “shhhhhhhh” they then say, making sure they can hear them. “Red army, red army” they reply, which gets an instant reply “we’re more red than you”
Again apologies for the lack of onfield reporting, frankly whats going on in the stands is a lot more interesting, however SFC go very close with about twenty five minutes gone, “dangerous” says a man behind me, as the shot just skims over the bar, and into the crowd behind.
I think the moniker of a good fan base, is a good selection of chants and songs. The Clapton Ultras showed us anything is possible, signing to the tune of the Spice Girls, and even the Super Mario theme, WH Ultras are just as imaginative, with clearly a vast back catalogue to pick from, “meat pie sausage roll, come on Whitehawk, give us a goal”, one is a nod to the traveling fans “you've got more flags than us” and one to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’, “you've got the power you know, Hawks”.
When the fans ask the manager for a wave “Richard give us a wave” he obliges, but he could have been forgiven for ignoring them, as on the pitch, SFC are finishing the half the stronger. One weapon they have brought from the midlands is a player with a “massive throw” who hurls the ball into the box at every possible opportunity. They almost draw things level after a mazy, solo run, which comes to nothing, just inside the box, and they almost scored from a free kick, which is well saved and gets a loud “ohhhhhhh” from the WH fans.
The half ends with a WH penalty shout being turned down. “He caught it!” claims one supporter, but the referee is having none of it, and waves it away, this in turn gets the man in charge his very own song, which he takes in good humour, smirking back at the fans in front of him, “the referee is a referee”.
The halftime move is a bit more free flowing compared to pre kickoff. Thinking I might find Tom in the bar, I soon abandon that notion, after seeing the state of the queue for a drink. I therefore head towards the green seated mountain, now bathed in a fair bit of sun, which has been an all to infrequent visitor today, and won't be around for long, as it's already dipping down behind some trees.
Although intrigued by the SFC fan carrying what looks like a sex doll in a club shirt, with a paper mask covering lets say, its receptive orifices, I continue on my mission up the green seated stand soon to be joined by my Passepartout, for our new, but extremely chilly view of the ground.
The drums and flags of both sets of fans are soon in place, and as if like a conductor, on the blow of his whistle, all the elements that make up this wonderful rag tag orchestra commence, followed with a mighty “come on you Hawks!”
One advantage of our new lofty position is undoubtedly a better view, no metal pole or child hanging from the rafter to obstruct you now, plus one can quite clearly see a slope on the pitch “I thought it was a funny angle” commented Tom, the WH Ultras feel it gives them the upper hand “we’re so much better uphill”, in terms of noise, it does have its disadvantages. Where as before we were cheek to jowl, all under one metal roof, now we are all much more spread out, and the lid of the stand is not there to contain and channel that tremendous energy, in fact it’s now the SFC fans turn to sound the loudest.
This isn't to say they have stopped, not by any stretch of the imagination, the singing continues, and a few more chants are pulled out of the song book, “she'll be singing with the ultras when she comes, she'll be drinking Smirnoff Ice with the ultras when she comes”.
With almost fifteen minutes of the second half gone, SFC draw it level, despite some fans around us hoping that WH will “kill off the game”. A flash of white, and the SFC players are joined by their followers in a not too dissimilar pile as that which played out in the first half when WH scored.
For the first time, the WH fans mood drops, but only for a fraction of a second, “we're gonna win 2 -1” they sing optimistically, I say optimistically, because post goal SFC are dominant, WH only breaking out occasionally, they are firmly on the back foot. When their keeper pulls off a smart save from a free kick, its puffed cheeks, and sweaty brows, all round, WH are clinging on.
Growing up in middle class North London, some of you may have incorrectly assumed, that seeing someone ask around for his bugle, was a regular occurrence around my house, but I can assure you that when the WH fan in front starts asking about for his, it’s a first for me, at football or at home.
“We’re the southern Whitehawk fans” sing a small group of the crowd, which then gets a reply from, another equally small group “we’re the northern Whitehawk fans”. Whatever hemisphere or compass point you come from, one could be mistaken in feeling that perhaps this geography based singing, is to distract from the continued SFC pressure, it’s only the fingertips of the WH keeper, who tips a powerful snapshot wide, preventing it from going in.
“What's your intellectual opinion on the game” ask one fan to another, whose musings are completely correct, “you might snatch it, but don't deserve it, they have had their chances”. One man in the group, which the bugle hunter is a part of, points to the near by hill and the “stampeding” sheep, to be honest they are kind of shuffling along, and takes a more primal stance on things, suggesting the animals movements, are some kind of pagan “omen”, a sign from Mother Nature of a WH win.
Maybe it's the introduction of the hand held bubble gun, which one WH fan is firing off it's non lethal rounds, maybe it’s the rampaging sheep, but WH are giving this everything they've got, I'm sure hoping to prove the intellectual ones analysis correct.
A succession of corners stirs the crowd, “come on Whitehawk, come one Whitehawk”, they shout, when the keys come out again, marking a key moment in the match, like 100 school caretakers, they try and suck the ball in, one player even trying to score with a back heel, but it comes to nothing
It’s so cold, the sun has all but gone, my feet feel like lumps of something you find in the deep freeze at Iceland and the imminent end, has forced people to consider the idea of going to “Stourbridge on a Monday night”. There is some joy, when someone announces that local rivals Eastbourne Borough are “losing 7 - 0” but it's fleeting.
“Attack, attack, attack, attack,” demand the fans, but not before reminding the players they are “proud” of them, regardless of the outcome.
As if the positive vibes from the stands, are hardwired directly into the players, they comply, throwing men forward, wave after wave of attack. It is then a little shocking, when their somewhat talismanic number 9, doesn't score, from a mere couple of feet out. The ball across the box, at the death, needs the simplest of finishes, however he takes a touch, and puts it over, how?!?! And as if to rub salt in the wounds, SFC then go up the other end and nearly nick it themselves, but fail, just.
One last rally, one last call to the troops, the bugle sounds off, charge.
We have seen and experienced some remarkable things doing this blog, we have stood on the yellow wall at Dortmund, seen a woman push a dog around in a pram and watched a man carry a pint around in a woolen necklace, they though now have all been eclipsed by the final two or three minutes at the Enclosed Ground.
There can be but a few ticks of the referee's watch remaining, when WH are awarded a corner, it's quickly whipped in, and via a few headers and a blocked shot it falls to one WH player on the edge of the box, who is shaping up for a volley. His perfect body position means he is able to hit it as sweet as a nut, but hang on, what's that sound, the referee has placed his whistle to his lips, at the precise time, polyester boot, meets polyester ball.
Sending it like a rocket, flat and with little movement in the air, it flies past the keeper and bulges the back of the net, the player has scored a fabulous goal, he is surely the hero of the day, and will go down in WH folklore, or will he?
Mid celebrations, the player and fans eyes turn to the man in charge, whose whistle is surely still moist, from having only moments ago been in his mouth, no goal. Sorry what, that's right, no goal, whistle blown, game over, romance is dead, football is ruined, everyone is off to the midlands on a Monday night.
Quickly the referee is enveloped by a swarm of players, no idea what was said, but the WH keeper, perhaps didn't chose his words wisely, and is shown a red card.
Going to football you will inevitably see contentious decisions, you will see some level of controversy at every game you go to, at any level, but there was something so cruel, so visceral, that made it quite unlike the ending of any football match I have ever been to.
“2-1 to Whitehawk, 2-1 to Whitehawk” sing a shocked, bemused and gobsmacked home crowd. One man leaving calls it a “disgraceful decision”, others are already thinking about the replay, as the voice over the tannoy confirms its date, “they will do them” says a confident supporter. Whatever the opinion of the fans might be, the record books will always show it finished 1 - 1, however as one leaving fan puts it , “they will be talking about it for years”.