Monday, 10 April 2017

China Mugs & Onion Rings - Bowers & Pitsea FC Vs Dereham Town FC, Ryman League North, Len Salmon Stadium (01/04/17)

The sun is doing it’s absolute best to break through, however the signs of rain make me a little nervous, we've not had the best of luck one way or another seeing the team we’re visiting today. Admittedly it’s not always been Mother Nature's fault, train strikes and illness can bare some of the brunt, but anything other than near perfect conditions, make me a little jittery.

Thankfully it gets sunnier the further East I go, so by the time I pull over on a nondescript suburban East London street, where the only thing of note is the blue suit, brown shoe wearing estate agent, who sticks out like a thousand thumbs, with ‘I’m a thumb’ placards, it’s positively Summery. I call Tom who confirms I’m in the right place, “yes, that’s the cock”, he tells me, the quiffed thumb has just finished showing him around his third flat viewing of the morning.

“It’s a lot warmer than I thought” says Tom, who instantly strips off his jumper. By the sounds of it, his property prospecting has been less than perfect. One he described as “fucking horrible”, one was full of a bunch of stoner students, who refused to move, rooted to the sofa due to the influence, Tom and his girlfriend having to tiptoe round them and their bong collection, to inspect a myriad of damp patches, one which he could only describe as having the smell of “stewed meat”, but the best of all, was the one where the current tenants were required to show him around, and were not best pleased that they had to, where he couldn't look in one of the bedrooms, because the Mum of the house was still in bed after her “night shift”.

The A406 and A13 are two particularly unremarkable dual carriageways, so really not much to report, the only single thing of any interest we saw, was the owl covered Oldham FC'mobile, bombing down the middle lane, a long way from home.

Hoping to catch a glimpse of the “zombie” car we saw on our failed visit in January, we are sorely disappointed not to see the fake blood covered motor, but that might have something to do with the roads all looking the same, and us being a little lost. We perform a fair few three point turns, before we finally spot the floodlights, that draw us in like a B Movie tractor beam, and down the gravelly drive of The Len Salmon Stadium, home of Bowers & Pitsea FC (BP)

What might be our most frequented non league car park, this time though there is no coach and a glaring squad of players all thinking ‘who are these clowns’ or a fine layer of frost and not a car in sight, in fact it's quite the opposite. The “sun is shining” which Tom must have said one hundred times already, cars with club scarves on the back seats and mini kits in the back window fill it's spaces and the bright spring sun is casting shadows of the nearby trees across the white wall with “The Bowers” painted across it.

Since the first time we were here, back in 2015 and after the gawking had subsided, we have been embraced and treated like one of their own by the small Essex club. Darren club fixer, media mogul and groundsman is running behind schedule, “I may be a bit late today, got to negotiate a kids party beforehand”. However there are still lots of other familiar faces, and when we bump into Wayne the goalkeeping coach, whose welcome, is as friendly and familiar as the faces we see, he is more than happy to stop and chat.

It’s been two consecutive losses for BP in the last couple of weeks, a “blip” as Wayne puts it, in what so far has been a super season for the newly promoted club, sitting just outside the play off spots, it's not been too bad going at all. They are a club with very “high expectations” of themselves, and he’s modest when he says “playoffs would be nice” but they are in a prime position as things lie to take one of the two places. He almost purrs in delight when he tells us how “dangerous going forward” they are, and when I ask him how he thinks they should fare against today's visitors, Dereham Town FC (DT), he tells us “on paper” they “should” get the points. 

Having not hung about after our previous aborted visit, instead hitting the motorway and flying down the coast to Canvey Island, he tells us the reason the game was called off due to a frozen pitch was “a good call”, he tells us they “trained on it” that day, his face grimacing as he recounts the session.

In a nice change to fanatically going on about the weather, Tom makes an excellent suggestion, “cup of tea?”. Through the doors of the clubhouse under the low ceiling, where people are trying their best to watch the Merseyside derby, but the Sky dish might need looking at, because the reception is woeful, I take a seat. To my right the BP players already here are huddled around the pool table, to my left BP manager Rob and his assistant, are talking quietly among themselves, occasionally looking up to shake the hand of an arriving player. Tom stands under the flickering fairy lights above the dark wooden bar, waiting to place our order.

Wayne joins the players for a game, but they know what he's up to, “it's like darts, you pretend you’re shit, but you’re well good”. When he realises he's short of change, he asks his challenger if he's “got a quid?”, the player's reply is quick “yeah I'll pay coach”, his eagerness to help, gets a few laughs from the other players, I think the polished apple might come after the match.

With a packet of crisps in his mouth, Tom crosses the room holding a white mug in each hand. Dropping the crisps he announces, “china mugs and onion rings”, before placing what turns out to be the hottest cup of tea ever in front of me, that scalds the back of my hand when it brushes it. Tom insisting it was made using a "regular kettle".

Both Tom and I agree although we've only ever been here for a fleeting moment before, it all feels “very familiar”, like the local at the end of your road. I bet Tom wished his swanky East London quail and heritage pork scotch egg serving watering hole was as “fucking cheap” as it is here, “£2 a pint” he tells me, and not for any old swill, but “Heineken”.

“You think we can drink this by halftime?” wonders Tom, both of us just staring at the steam rising from our molten tea, too scared to touch them, the onion rings now long gone. The sign about unsupervised children is put to the test, when a deafening alarm is set off by a boy leaving through a
fire exit. From behind us all I hear is the angry shout of a parent, “Charlie” in front of us a sheepish looking twelve year old and his laughing sister. When the lady from behind the bar comes and turns it off, she’s sure he “won't do that again, will he”.

Time for pool is nearly over, Rob looks over to the captain, “1:45 please mate, don’t be late”. One player cutting things a bit fine, first apologises to the manager for not having his “tracksuit on” then walks over to the players and is greeted like a character from ‘Cheers’, “Guesty”. Leaving a few minutes early the pool table is now free, and it's not long before the clubhouse is a little quieter with all the players gone.

In the short time we have been inside, eventually able to finish our tea, without suffering any major injuries, the weather has held out. Music is now playing around the near empty ground, only the suited referees are being entertained, as they inspect the immaculate looking pitch.

Rob once again with his assistant look deep in conversation, they potter about on the pitch briefly before disappearing up the white vinyl tunnel, that looks like it’s seen better days. Although it's hardly hot, the sun is certainly bright, and the shade of the red brick and corrugated roofed stand comes in handy. I pick one of the faded maroon fold down chairs, Tom for some reason decides to perch on a wall, striking a pose like a catalogue model.

The ‘Sweet Lady’ arrives, Julia, who was dishing out the snacks from a massive bag for life on the coach to Newcastle, when we joined BP last season for their FA Vase semi final. Tom knows her by her other name, the “drum lady” as it was her at the same match, who was banging on the huge Southend FC drum from the sidelines, that I imagine she had in the same bag as all the custard creams. I ask where it is, it’s strange not seeing her with it, and she tells me she’s got a “smaller one in the car”.

A white mini bus, sporting a large magpie pulls up in the car park, a bit like the Tardis, more people than can surely fit in it, pile out. Each of them making straight for the away dressing room, which is going to have to be like the Doctor's ship, because it’s tiny. They all drop off their bags and head for the pitch.

We’ve certainly been aware of the music playing, that started not long after we arrived, although I’m not sure if it was in our honour, however it's not till we take five minutes, watching the BP keeper going through his warm up among some luminous poles and cones, are we able to really give it much consideration, but when we do, we both come to the same conclusion, it’s questionable to say the least.

Tom is trying to figure out how a woman can have a “body shaped like a rock guitar” as one songs puts it, and although I can't be sure, DT don’t hang around on the pitch for long, perhaps driven in by the dodgy DJ? Each new song gets a sigh and an “oh God” from Tom sitting behind me, suggesting it's “like we’re at a rave”. Imagine foam, groups of men in offensive t-shirts, paint, bad drunken tattoos, and a drink in a bucket called the ‘Head Fucker’ and you will know the kind of music I mean.

“How was the journey down?” asks a BP official to one from DT, “yeah ok, new fixture of course, not played here before”.

The BP players arrive, but soon disappear behind a metal fence in the far corner, “where are they going?” asks Tom, but don't fear, they are soon back, and the ground is filled with the noise of, players warming up, some play a tiny game of foot tennis over a low net, which does a good job of offsetting the iffy playlist.

Darren with ever so slightly puffed cheeks, wearing a red baseball cap, looks a little worn out, “roller
skating” is all he says, but his two words speak volumes, it’s clear what kind of a morning he’s had. Darren is complimented on the pitch, but is humble as ever “bit bobbly in the middle from training”, he explains. He tells me it’s like “concrete” and is probably as “hard as it was when it was frozen”.

The old chap struggling to roll his cigarette, better not try and get in my way, cause I know he's also spotted the man with the pint glass and yellow raffle tickets, and if he thinks he’s going to get there before me, he has got another thing coming. Darren’s already got his, I can see him putting his tickets away, he can see me eyeing them up, telling the seller, “he'll have the lot”.

Rattling the pound coins in the cup, sauntering up to me, with a look of ‘you know you're gonna’ written all over his face, the ticket seller is approaching, I have the feeling he knew I was coming. You know the drill, the money is handed over, tickets go in my notebook, in about forty five minutes to an hour I'll be disappointed.

At least he is kind enough to “make sure” mine are the “winning ones”. Also you get three strips for your £2 here, so it's good value too.

There is a steady queue for the burger bar now, the sounds of sizzling and frying must be like music to Tom’s ears. Between it and the world’s smallest boardroom with its pennant covered walls, the teams are going up on the whiteboard. “There's the microphone” says Tom impishly, doing everything in his powers, to stop himself from grabbing it and saying something, probably something about the weather again, “can’t work out if it’s going to stay nice”. The weather it would seem is not far from most peoples thought's, "lovely day" comments someone in the queue, "hope it stays like it" responds their friend.

A major disaster is only narrowly avoided when for some reason one of the referee's assistants wallops a loose ball, not back across the pitch from where it had come from, but straight into the crowd, he properly nailed it. Tom turns to me, a little shocked and horrified, telling me he was “worried about women and children”.

“Come on” barks a DT coach towards the players, who follow orders and go in.

The scene immediately outside the door to the changing rooms, above which hangs a motivational quote, “fire in the belly head in the freezer” is of one man trying to wrangle nine small children all in BP kits. Trying hard to keep them in order, the ring of the bell from the referee, does him a favour, scaring them into settling down and getting ready for the teams.

DT are out first, and there are some low level "boo"'s from the mascots, who are now in a line, but are arguing among themselves, about which player they are supposed to be with.

It’s not Tom on the mic introducing the players, thank God, its Julia, but there is about as much echo on it as a U2 song, and I can barely hear what she is saying.

Emerging from the stands, from the sea of children eating chips, another face we know, the BP keeper, who we saw warming up, but he isn't on the pitch. “Thumb round here” he tells me, describing the injury that’s keeping him out of the team, his own attempt to realign his dislocated digit causing a bone to break.

Darren asks the club photographer for “Nash's prediction” before moving off and cutting a lonely figure on the small pitch side terrace. A steward manning the tunnel is already a little irked “two minutes into the game, and I’m getting balls already”.

“Big start reds” shouts the BP keeper, who do exactly that, taking the lead after only five minutes. The tall number 7, jumps with the DT keeper who tries to collect an incoming cross, only he beats him to it, and nods it in.

Once again it gets a bit Joshua Tree, as Julia is back on the mic, her effect pedal making it hard to hear the name of the scorer, who Darren tells me “can’t buy a goal at the moment” only for him with five minutes gone, does “he fucking head it in”.

“Come on reds” shouts a single voice from the wooden floored stand behind the goal, he is accompanied by some of the mascots banging the stand adding to the early atmosphere. The drum from Julia’s boot has made it out, the “one man band” as Tom puts it, is leading the kids in a song, “come on Bowers”.

Occasionally one player will really stick out from the rest, for better or for worse, when we go to a game. Today is one of those occasions, and it's in the shape of BP’s electric number 11 the one they call “Nyanja”, which when I first heard it, sounded like 'ninja'. He brings himself to the forefront of our attention, when he assists himself. Kicking the ball up the touchline, speeding past and around his marker, then meeting his own pass further up the pitch, we are talking a Bale Maicon situation, just on a field in Essex, not a 36,000 seater stadium in the Champions League. 

“Nyanja different class son”, “Nyanja superb” are just a few of the accolades going his way from team mates and the crowd. When he bursts down the wing again, cutting the ball back into the box, it looks like we are on for a second, only for it to be shanked over, “ohhh” say the expectant crowd. Tom reckons the fans might “love" him, yeah just a little bit, why wouldn't they, he’s fantastic.

The four thoroughly depressed looking DT fans, slumped up against the railing behind the goal, have had almost zero to get excited about, and it only gets worse with twenty minutes of the game gone.

“Controversy” says Tom, a bit like Richard O'Brien on the Crystal Maze, after there is some debate surrounding BP’s second goal, which is eventually given, but not before a bit of a conflab between the referee and his assistant, at one point the DT players are convinced he’s not given it, but he has, he even gets a “thank you” which is delivered with an heavy dose of sarcasm from a member of the crowd.

Quiet until now, and for good reason, his team I'm sure have executed his instructions almost to the word, two goals ahead, dominant, Rob can be heard for the first time, just after DT kickoff again. “Don’t sit back” he insists, “keep up the pressure”. Tom thinks the strain of the constant BP attacks, is going to result in DT “imploding”, meaning they might just disappear into a non league wormhole.

A rare DT chance is thwarted by a “great block” as one BP fan puts it, but the attention is not away from Nyanja for too long, as he is back at it again. “Excellent Nyanja", well played son”. Him and BP's towering centre forward are combining particularly well, his hold up play is second to none, DT just can't get the ball off him.

It’s not only their on pitch combination that works, but their names “Nyanja and Manor” when said together, has a certain ring to it. Is it just me, or does it sound like a 70’s cop drama? One a young rookie, new to the force, the other, hard, no nonsense, who does what it takes to get results, you know the drill.

“Broken leg” blurts out Tom after a late tackle by a BP player, which one DT player refers to as “naughty”. Thankfully no limbs were broken, the BP players receives his booking graciously, but the DT player had a point, it was it a bit tasty.

It’s as if Tom is intentionally trying to anger the football Gods, who by now I’m sure have noticed how one sided this game is, when he asks me “DT haven't had a shot have they?” with over thirty minutes gone. Showing their displeasure in Tom’s doubting of their powers, firstly with some ominous looking clouds rolling in, DT almost out of nowhere are nearly given the gift of a goal.

BP’s keeper makes contact with the shot, but the ball skids off him, and heads towards the goal. Perhaps in a mischievous mood, the Gods allow the BP keeper to recover just in time before it goes in, but leave it in limbo long enough to give DT some hope, which is then snatched away.

Never in one spot for more than a few moments, one of the tiny BP mascots passes us holding a ginormous hotdog, which is really a monster, or just looks big because it’s being held by a small person. Tom doesn't care either way, “I want a hot dog” he tells me, the added bonus of “onions” has him drooling. I’m not sure if he was intentionally making a ironic Chico reference, but when he asks me “what's the time?” and before I can reply he answers his own question “got to be hotdog time”, I question my own existence.

“Manor” definitely the bad cop of the duo, with a troubled past, who bends the rules, almost gets his second and BP’s third, but the ball kicking almost child killer linesman, raises his flag for offside. A stunned looking Darren looks over at me, mouthing “how?”.

Nyanja is continuing to cause absolute havoc, the young rookie new to the job and keen to impress, is running DT ragged, making them as Tom puts it look “awful”. The ease in which he is able to get down the wing, and cut the ball into the box at will, is a frightening asset.

Someone is back on the drum, every DT goal kick, it’s given a whack, trying to put him off. Manor almost scores an audacious backwards header, but it goes just over. He also has the run of the DT defense who are now squabbling among themselves, “got him all day son” shouts someone from behind the goal, “he's scared of you” shouts another. If he was a Premier League player, someone by now would have undoubtedly made a meme of him with a picture of the DT back four in his pocket, and tweeted it from an account called @SportJoeBants.

DT again almost grab a goal out of thin air and to be fair to them the pass and control that led to it, deserved it. An exquisite diagonal crossed field ball, is plucked from the sky by the attacker to the right of the goal, and almost in the same motion, he lets off a shot that is just over, very classy stuff, that so far today has been infrequently on show.

“Well done Bowers” shout the fans in the stand behind the goal, who are quick to leave it, probably off to join Tom in the queue for something to eat. The referee is escorted off the pitch by two BP stewards, with DT players flanking him on each side, trying to get their point about something over to him.

One passing BP fan, is surprised Darren is still here “you staying to the end this time? he asks. Darren has not been able to stomach the recent defeats, and by the sounds of it has been doing a runner, however his explanation would seem to contradict that, telling the person he “stayed” , however the passing fan is skeptical, “we thought you left”.

Hearing it read out over the tannoy, watching the results scroll across the bottom of the scoreboard, trying to make it out on the illuminated board being carried above the head of the woman doing a lap of the pitch, confronted by a man with a clipboard like a holiday rep, are all ways I’ve learned of my loss in the raffle, 50/50 or golden goal, but overhearing someone on the phone next to me, who's just been rung to be congratulated, is an all time painful low. “Sorry Dan” says Darren after learning he just won a bottle of wine.

With an arm full of crisps, but still managing to carry a pint and not spill a drop, the mascot rancher is returning to the game, just after kick off, with some Walkers calming aids for the manic kids. He better hurry though, because one of them just brained himself on something metal, that sounded like something from a Vic & Bob routine.

“You're in” shouts a BP player to the forward bearing down on goal, who wins a good battle with his marker, rounds the keeper, but goes a little wide, his shot ending up in the side netting, “great stuff Knighty” says a team mate, to the player obviously frustrated not to have got on the score sheet.

Although its only £9 to get in, some people are still trying to sneak a peek of the action for free, peering over the wall behind us, instead of coming in. Spotted by one paying customer they are jokingly branded “cheapskates”. Not splashing the cash might have something to do with the faint whiff of smoke, “can you smell BBQ?” asks Tom, maybe they are too busy tending to the sausages. Whether you are inside or on top of a step ladder getting a freebie, all you will see is wave after wave of red and white attack, BP are non stop.

“Love that” comments Tom, who shares my affection of a fine cross and a good headed goal, although the header is not a goal, but a knock down to a well positioned player right on the edge of the six yard box, who BP think was impeded and they appeal for a penalty, but it's waved away. “You don't know what you're doing” chant the kids, the crisps must be finished, because the drum is back out.

When for the umpteenth time BP get the ball out wide, the player tries a first time cross which goes a little wayward to say the least, a teammate reminding him “you've got 100’s of time”, you what?

“I told you they would implode” says the oracle, as BP rack up their third. “Finish it, finish it” demands a team mate to the player one on one with the keeper, and there was little doubt he would do just that, Tom commenting what a “composed” finish it was, as the ball rolls into the net.

A physical team certainly, but BP are a football playing one too, their well worked throw in routine, nearly bags them a forth. The ball hurled to the man on the near post, who flicks it towards the center of the box. With his back to the goal, the player hooks a shot over his shoulder, and gets a pantomime “ohhhh” from the fans, and a few bangs on the drum from the mini ultras “Bowers, Bowers”, with it just going over.

Manor will no doubt be slamming the scotch in his John McClane Die Hard vest to help him get over missing a golden opportunity. Crossed in from out wide again, he watches his free header, that he knows full well he should've tucked away, tamely drop into the keepers arms. After remonstrating with himself, he thanks the crosser for his pinpoint accuracy.

Tom is starting to feel the strain of all this standing up, fidgeting on the spot he tells me of his “stiff back” as he tries his best to stretch it out. He is though not suffering as much as one fan just along from us appears to be, who is near enough horizontal, feet way back behind him on a step, his hands and chest on the railing around the pitch, he is mid yoga session.

BP continue to get in good positions, working the ball well to the forwards, but can’t get the fourth to crown their fine performance.

DT momentarily silence the crowd, for what must be the first time today, after a succession of attempts batter the BP woodwork. First a fine free kick is over the wall, but it cannons off the upright sending the ball back in to the box, the rebound is latched onto quickly by a visitor in green who unleashes a second attempt, that hits the bar, rebounds down, looks to hit the foot of the other post, sending the ball back up in the air, allowing the keeper, who until now has been a spectator, to claim it, all while the original free kick taker, with his head in his hands, still cant believe his shot did not go in.

If that wasn't proof enough that it’s just not going to be DT's day, that notion is compounded when one of their players running for a ball, doesn't reach it, but is going at such a rate, he can’t stop himself, and his momentum takes him over the hoarding. The referee dashes towards where the accidental gymnastics took place, only for the player to appear, unhurt, vault back over and onto the pitch like nothing had happened, before he can even get there.

“Oh I felt a drop” says Tom, as not long after his predicted time of four o’clock rain, do the grey clouds produce, and although we are about to get wet, he is too busy being smug that his obsessive checking of his weather app, paid off. The fact it’s raining has not been lost on the mascots either, who are now tearing around like something from a Peter Kay sketch, each one screaming “it’s raining” as they dash for the cover of the stand.

Things don't get any better for DT, along with the rain, it’s their turn to miss a free header, then they have a free kick, which Tom is only able to describe as “dog shit”. BP then get a fourth, another header this time from a free kick, which puts the rubber stamp on the near perfect home team display. One of the kids behind the goal, gives making up his own chant ago, he's not going to win any prizes for creativity, but it's to the point, "we are Bowers, we are good".

“Come on you reds” shouts someone for the last time, as the light rain, turns into proper rain, so much so it's now sending the adults scattering for cover, us included. DT have the last effort of the match, a wild and high shot that the BP keeper, suggests to the player responsible, that he can do that “all day” if he likes.

“Not too shabby” says a chuffed looking Wayne walking across the pitch towards us and despite the rain and the waiting crowd, wanting to clap their team off, Rob holds the team back for a post match debrief.

After a massive hot dog, a bag of crisps and a go on a drum, surely the obvious way for a 12 year old to finish the day, is with a drink in the bar. The mascots can't get past us quick enough, a couple of them screaming, “let’s get drunk”.

Just like the players did before the game, the kids now surround the pool table, the draw of pinging the cue ball off the cushions, is to hard resist. With the players changed into their tracksuits, ready to have some of the chilli con carne, which Wayne kindly offered us some of, many of the little ones congratulate their older and much taller heroes, “played Manor”.

I sometimes wonder if we are too positive, too glowing about the teams and grounds we go to, for once should I take off my rose tinted glasses, that I endlessly go on about and look at what we are doing in the stark cold light of  modern Brexit Britain?

I could and even if I did, I don't think it would change my opinion of a genuinely very special club, who all the way from the top to the bottom, from the volunteers like Darren and Julia who make things tick, to the staff and players, they've always have had time for us. A club that has never hesitated in giving two amateurs with a shared passion, some amazing opportunity's and experiences, and has never once asked for anything in return.

We have received some remarkable welcomes over the last couple of years, met some wonderful people and been bowled over by some unselfish generosity, but few if any can rival a Bowers welcome, just don't ask them for any music recommendations!

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE

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