Thursday, 13 December 2018

You Can't Boo The Bee - Barnet FC Vs Stockport County FC, FA Cup 2nd Round, The Hive (02/12/18)

Tom never sings show tunes, especially from Annie. Tom never insists on an in depth conversation about the scent of the miniature Yankee Candle car air freshener and why it’s called Red Raspberry, when there are no other colour raspberries. It is soon quite apparent that the absence of my normal companion is going to be more telling than I thought, and as it stands, his stand in is being, well frankly a bit annoying.

I’m pretty sure it’s the exhilaration of just having dropped off our daughter at my Mums and the idea of a whole five or six hours without our demanding one year old, which has just dawned on Rachel, my other half, as to why she is acting a bit loopy. In between the never ending stream of comments about raspberries, she mocks me, joking about how nice the “sky” and “clouds” are, in preparation of my usual flowery blog opening, that she will ultimately have to proof read.

Although the weather is changeable, flitting from bright sun to rain, it's not worth the grief, expanding on how calmly the dense white cumulus float by, so I’ll leave it at that. The fender bender on the way to today's ground, somewhat aggravates me, the slowly moving and then redirected traffic frustrating, but that pales into insignificance, compared to what the man who has wrapped his BMW around the central reservation, must be going through.

The drive to The Hive the relatively new home of Barnet FC (BFC), that is not in fact in Barnet, but is in Harrow, is no more than twenty minutes from home. A journey that is littered with an almost supernatural amount of signs from the football gods.

I refuse to accept that the amber and black scarf wearing BFC fans around the corner from my Mums house were a mere coincidence. You can't tell me that once past the electronic billboard and the large orange sign at the entrance to The Hive, that it means nothing that the car we park behind has DAN in the number plate and a small blue Stockport County FC (SC) scarf, BFC’s opponents, is hanging in the back window.

It must be some kind of sign from the football Gods, there is surely some significance in that ten years ago, Rachel and I on one of our very first dates, yes I know, I don't hold out any stops, was at Underhill, to see exactly this same fixture, albeit in the league then and not the FA Cup and that was the Football League, not the National League.

Oh how the fortunes of both clubs have changed in the past ten years.

Underhill was one of the good ones, nestled among semi detached houses, with crumbling concrete terracing, bright orange railings and of course it's famous sloping pitch. A place I spent many an afternoon and evening, whenever Spurs were away, enjoying a match for a £1. Getting off the bus at the Odeon, walking under the railway bridge and down the alleyway next to the pub.

Like I said a lot has changed in the past decade, I’m bigger, hairier and now have two children and both teams positions in the football pyramid has taken a significant nose dive. BFC fairing perhaps a little better. Tom and I were here in 2015 when they gained promotion back to League Two, however that didn't last for long, relegated last season, meaning they are back where they started, non league once more. SC find themselves even lower down the ladder than BFC, their fall from grace, probably a lot more dramatic than that of the home teams.

Climbing out of the car, behind us numerous games of kids football are taking place on the artificial pitches, before us the black and orange build by numbers stadium, named no doubt by some bright marketing executive, because of BFC’s nickname being the bees. I’m all for progress, but it's not a patch on Underhill.

Wearing her blue SC scarf, the very one her parents gave us each, the first time I met them, to be clear we were going to a SC home game that weekend too, they don't just hand out random pieces of club merchandise and although I have a strong affinity for BFC, the signs are just too strong, I’m very much in the County camp today.

There is little character to The Hive, it's all very municipal, feels a lot like a council built sports centre. From the outside the most interesting thing is the man carrying what looks like a stuffed border collie in a Father Christmas hat.

Outside the club shop, I indulge Rachel, just as I do Tom. Both of them sharing the need to procure one piece of football tat per game, we are stopped by a BFC fan, drawn towards Rachel's scarf, who asks her quietly,

“How many will you bring?”

The home fan does not wait around for long, and although Rachel doesn't have the exact figures to hand, it is clear by the abundance of coaches lined up at one end of the ground, what seems like a shops worth of retro SC shirts on show and the slurred chants of the group of three lads who just passed us “Edgeley, Edgeley” it's going to be a lot or as the BFC supporter puts it, “more than us”.

Inside the shop her keyring or as she calls it, her “objet d'art” is secured, as is a pin for Tom. As we wait to pay, it's hard not to eavesdrop on the conversation taking place behind us, I say conversation, more of a monologue, from a man venting about the fact that BFC no longer sell a programme. They have joined the ever growing list of online only, much to the disgust of the person behind us who is getting quite agitated, “I don't want digital”.

Also in the shop wearing a Father Christmas hat, is not the border collie, but perhaps BFC’s most famous fan ‘Village’. White beard and all, he poses for a picture with a young home fan, before firmly shaking my hand and recalling our previous encounter, under the narrow railway arch on Zampa outside The Den.

“Knew there was something wrong with her” he says, not best pleased to hear it will be the away end we will be sitting in today. I shrug my shoulders, that decision was made for me about thirty years ago when Rachel was born. He is also the second person to use the phrase “more than us” when discussing what apparently is going to be quite the gulf between the home and travelling support.

If Tom thought I had a thing for flags, Village has made his obsession for them a lifestyle choice. The national flags plus a few other curiosities, line the long wooden fence outside the shop, where they flap and billow, in a stiff December breeze.

As I’m driving, and it's only one o'clock in the afternoon and I have to be in some kind of reasonable
state to be a parent later on today, its coffee for me and not beer. I’m not talking about anything pretentious, I’m more than happy with some brown water with plenty of milk sugar in, all served up in a white polystyrene cup. I wouldn't in a million years expect to be offered hazelnut syrup, Kenyan roast or for it to come in a seasonally appropriate designed cup.

A Starbucks, what at first glance looked like a gleaming chrome filled bar, is a Starbucks. It’s not until I see the green and white mermaid on one corner of the ground, do I realise that I’m about to get a venti latte, from a Starbucks, attached to a football ground. Like I said, a lot has changed.

Waiting for Rachel outside, not wanting an encounter with one of the door staff, yes a Starbucks at a football ground with bouncers, I have my third encounter with a BFC fan, perhaps their second most well known one, Matthew of the YouTube channel LoudmouthBFC. He in his Deadpool hoodie and shorts, and completes the hat trick of “more than us”, he doesn't use that phrase exactly, as the other two had, but the sentiment is the same.

“We’ll be the away team” he says despondently, “always have been since leaving flipping Underhill” he adds. Today's game at The Hive is not the only coming together between two titans of the game in the north of the capital, there is a little matter of the North London derby happening too, which I’m doing my best to record and not find out the score. I think Matthew is both impressed and baffled by the fact I’m “missing Spurs and Arsenal for this”. “Oh wow” he replies when I confirm I am with a sheepish nod of my head.

What is it with us trains and football grounds at the moment? They seem synonymous with our recent outings, today is no different, standing by the turnstiles of the Stand ‘66, the standalone bank of black and orange seats, it's hard to ignore the constant rumblings of the nearby Northern line trains, I say nearby, they’re practically part of the ground.

Through the turnstile, past a man in a long black coat and top hat, a camera crew and member of the Stockport band the Blossoms, the pub which they are named after, Rachel will without fail point out whenever we are up in her neck of the woods, is a sign that “thanks” the SFC fans for making the “380 mile round trip”, and coming through the double glazed doors of what is actually a bar and not a high street coffee chain, is a sound challenging the tube train for being the loudest thing in the vicinity.

Perhaps on reflection the idea of selling a day on the beach bucket sized double pints on special offer, will maybe go down as an error. Not because people are pissed and out of control, not because anyone is get lairy looking for trouble, but because the limited amount of furniture that is dotted about the ‘66 Bar, might not make it to the end of the day intact.

Currently at the far end of the long hall, which has a large picture of an agonised looking Geoff Hurst on the wall, is a boiling, heaving group of SC fans who are going headlong into chant four or five, and that's just in the short time we’ve been here. Chairs held aloft, the sound of a drum emanates from somewhere within the crowd, its electric.

This way to the match, reads the black lettering on the wall. Having edged past the friendly moshpit of still singing fans, the pile of furniture being nervously guarded by a steward, and doing my best to avoid the man whirling his scarf above his head or to bump into the gent ticking off a few Mancunian stereotypes, in his bucket hat and parka jacket, floating around to the beat of the drum, in his own world, pint in one hand the other in the air, the bright light of the outside takes a moment to adjust to, and things just get, in the words of John Motson, "better and better and better".

Flags, flags, flags and more flags, only one continues the theme of nations from around the world outside, a small Uruguay one, a nod to SC legend Danny Bergara, the rest are very much all in honour of SC. “What a fucking atmosphere”, says one supporter emerging behind me, and he's not wrong. Having eventually got in and minus the pop star, the man in the top hat, spins his blue and white rattle, much to the delight of one BFC steward, “not seen one of them in a while”.

Bunches of blue balloons bob above the heads of the fans, who have already and still with a fair old few still inside, done a good job in packing almost the entire stand. The seats fenced off with red and white tape, become the perfect place to drape one of the many flags. The juxtaposition between the home end, quite, not even half full and the bustling away end, is striking.

The appearance of the BFC mascot, a giant bee is followed by a torrent of boos, “you can't boo the bee” says Rachel disapprovingly. This scalding of her fellow fans though does not last for long and she is soon back on weather watch, the similarities between her and Tom increasing by the hour.

“Oh I'm turning into Tom” she says when it dawns on her too.

Jim Gannon's appearance, SC’s manager, near the mouth of the tunnel, takes the attention off the large wandering insect for a moment, as some people surge towards him for the chance of a photo. The bees attempt to ingratiate himself to the away fans with a round of applause in their direction, backfires. “Who are ya, who are ya” they sing, his large felt face, unresponsive to the barrage.

The departure of the SC team, jogging past the away end, gets almost everyone on their feet, balloons are frantically waved and a chorus of “blue army” serenades them.

Turning as he walks up the touchline, in his National League sky blue coat, Jim Gannon, raises his hands above his head and applauds the fans singing his name, “Jimmy Gannon's blue and white army”. Not far behind him, the two sets of players appear from the orange tunnel, to the backing track, which I thought was a joke, a case of the wrong CD being put in, the last time we were here, but it turns out BFC actually walkout to, Sweet Child of Mine by Guns & Roses.

Thankfully the volume of the SC fans drown out the hair metal classic, with a song of their own to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, “we’re the County, the mighty County, we always win away”. Everyone to a man is singing, clapping, some like the man behind me, pumps his fist to the rhythm of the song.

The final actions of the bee is to high five each member of the BFC team, before performing a few stretches as the teams line up to shake hands.

Before kick off the ground is tinged with sadness, a moment of reflection for the home fans who had
lost one of their own, who died in the week before the match. Some SC supporters “shhh” the others as the teams gather around the centre circle, ensuring silence, to make sure the moment is well respected. However instead of a minutes silence, it's a minutes applause, which is well observed by both sets of fans.

The tail end of one my all time favourite football chants, accompanies the kick off “at Edgeley Park our greatest pride, is the scarf my father wore”, which is then followed by an earth moving roar, with scarves held above heads, the drum at maximum and numerous shouts of “come on County” flooding forwards.

On a near loop, the drum drives the SC fans as they sing their managers name once more, “Jimmy Gannon's blue and white army” and with no bee to heckle, they take the opportunity to reel off a long song sheet of chants about the state of the BFC attendance, “you're supposed to be at home”, “shit ground no fans”, “what's it like to see a crowd” they ask, before the ultimate insult to any home team, “shall we sing a song for you?”.

Small kids on the back row, stand precariously on the folding seats to ensure a better view above the clapping hands and scarves. “You've got to be having a fucking laugh” shouts one fan, at the sight of a BFC player going down on the edge of the SC box. The visiting player is booked for foul and there the slight hush as the BFC free kick is lined up, taken, and whistles just wide.

There are plenty of sarcastic jeers as it does so, but they are nervous ones too. It was close, and with only four minutes on the LED scoreboard to our left, it's been a slightly shaky start by the Hatters.

The lull in singing and drumming is only for as long as it takes the free kick to be taken and it’s soon back up to speed athe noise when SC fizz a dangerous looking ball across the BFC box.

It's taken a back post header and one of their players executing the perfect knee slide celebration to coax the first bit of noise from the home fans. The SC supporters efforts, “blue army” does not dip for a moment as their team go a goal behind. The orange nought on the scoreboard flicks to a one alongside BFC’s name. “Come on lads”, shout a few fans between songs, “1 - 0 and you still don't sing”.

The SC players seemingly haven't let the goal dent their confidence either and are looking for a quick reply, minutes after the restart they are back on the attack. “Come on County, come on County” sing the SC fans, whose support of their team so far has been faultless. Their next song is to the tune of the Dambuster Theme and is just one of many different chants they will belt out today.

Somewhere else that can suffer from a lack of atmosphere, Wembley Stadium’s arch is visible over the squat terracing opposite, that on inspection contains a couple of handfuls of BFC fans congregated around a drum secured to the brushed steel railings along with a few small flags.

A short stop in play, allows a downed SC player to be treated, he returns to the pitch with the full Terry Butcher head gear and not long after the SC defence is a bit slow to respond to the BFC player on the edge of their box, who is given far too much time to get a shot off.

SC have been far from out of the running in the first quarter of an hour, despite being a goal behind, but there is a feeling they are going to have to really be at their very best to get anything from today and at the moment they are just a bit off the pace. A smatter of grumbling infiltrates the crowd. Not much, just enough to be noticeable, but not enough to interrupt the as of yet never ending singing, “hello, hello we are the County boys”.

“Ahhh” gasps the SC fans as their free kick goes close, just shy of twenty minutes gone at the beginning of a brief purple patch for the visitors. The Hive still devoid of any home noise, one SC fan suggests that his “local library is livelier than this”, another fans replies his “local library” has been “shutdown”.

The SC player just can't control the ball in the BFC box and the opportunity of a shot on goal goes begging, “come on County” shout the SC fans, as they craft their clearest chance of an equaliser. Minutes later and another goal bound shot is deflected and sent looping up and into the BFC keepers arms, who is in action again once more not long after. Clutching onto a curled angled SC shot from the edge of the box.

It's been all SC since they went behind, it's been all the SC fans since the doors opened around 12:30, “olla, olla, olla County” they sing before being caught in a near hypnotic trance of “blue army” 

The disapproving shake of Rachel's head, is not something anyone wants to see I can tell you. The venomous shouts of “cheating bastard” from the fan behind us mean all but the same, but there's something about the look in her eyes, that makes it far worse.

If I had been the BFC player who just committed the most blatant of dives, near the edge of the SC box, who should have been booked, but wasn't, the referee just simply waving at him to get up. I would rather have a large man from the North West call me a “bastard” one hundred times, then be subjected to her mean wobbling head.

It has taken almost half an hour before we hear the BFC fans for the first time, “come on Barnet” they chant, which gets a much louder, “weeeehhh”, then a few lines of “we forgot that you were here”.

Having been unable to make the most of their time in and around the BFC box, it's now the home teams turn to go close. Again with a header, a point black range one at that, which the keeper is able somehow to fist clear. A coming together between two opposing players, the BFC one a pony tailed man mountain and the much shorter, follically challenged SC one, almost results in a flare up. The fans around us are far from pleased with the Khal Drogo lookalikes antics, “you dirty southern bastard”.

The groans and grumbles among the SC fans are increasing, they have had plenty of possession, plenty of chances to get the ball into good positions, but their passing has been poor. The man directly behind me, has boiled down all his dissatisfaction into a single word, “shite”, that he blurts out after every failed move and for the first time the SC fans have fallen quiet’ish which allows me for the first time to actually hear the BFC drum, and not just see the young man hitting it.

The wind has changed direction and is now blowing in our face, the respite in singing means I start to notice the passing tube trains again and Rachel's face is scrunched right up at the, as she puts it, “load of nothingness” currently happening on the pitch. Going into the last ten minutes of the half and the match has all but fizzled out and cruelly the most entertaining thing is a BFC child fan playing ball boy. He takes a tumble retrieving the ball from the stand, and gets a “wehhh” for his troubles, the same one people give in a pub when someone drops a glass, but he is quickly back on his feet, and is applauded as he skips back to his seat.

“Ohhh” gasp the SC supporters, who are jolted into life, when a hopeful looking volley form the edge of the BFC box, slams into a defender. With just over five minutes to play, the slow trickle towards the bar and refreshments starts. A lady passing down the front in a rainbow jacket jogs people into making the decision, stay until the whistle or head off now.

Another BFC chant, the same as before, “come on Barnet” is given short shrift by the still much, much louder SC fans, “come on County”. Rachel unlike Tom, is still in her seat, despite deciding she will be going “full Tom today”. She has “bought something”, “moaned about the weather” and now it's just a case of getting something to eat. “Chips” will be her food of choice, but she won't be moving until the referee says so.

The lady in the rainbow jacket and anyone else who had gone in search of a double pint, would have missed BFC nearly scoring their second. A waist height ball across the box, falls to a lunging BFC forward, who makes contact with it, but his shot flies over, and he ends up in a heap, just short of the goal line, tangled with the neon green wearing SC keeper.

Instead of chastising their players for conceding the chance, they celebrate their keepers heroics, who is currently looking a little worse for ware, to the tune of a bit of Madness, “in the middle of our goal Hinchcliffe.

A slide rule pass into the BFC box looks to be getting SC somewhere, the chop from the forward inside his marker looks to be getting them even closer. The robust but fair BFC challenge stops any inkling of danger, “defending like beasts” says Rachel, puffing out her cheeks.

“Three additional minutes of added time” says the velvet smooth voice of the BFC stadium announcer, and as Rachel puts it, it’s “not much considering” the stoppages there have been. Once more I can hear the dull thumps of the BFC drum, but it is soon muted by ones mans violent exclamation of his dislike of the referee, “you're a fucking wanker” he bellows, confirming to a neighbour if it wasn't clear, “I hate him”.

SC control added on time, much like they have controlled long periods of the game since going behind. A smart exchange on the edge of the BFC box, ultimately breaks down, pretty much summing up their attacking form so far today, just not clicking when it matters.

The players depart, almost to the same level of rapturous acclaim as they had received when they arrived. Lousy pop music, replaces the signing of the travelling SC fans. The stand pretty much empties, including Rachel who in the finest Tom tradition is off in search of food. Those who've stayed behind take the chance to rest and take a seat, except for the man in the long black coat, who's scruffy white hair pokes out from under his top hat. With his back to the pitch, he jabs his finger towards the home fans, with a look on his face like he is delivering a Churchillian speech.

A couple of kids given the freedom of the away end, break out into a little scrap, until what I imagine was a stern shout from a grown up, that puts an end to it, so they just floss instead. The voice over the PA wishes those in attendance a happy Hanukkah and Villages Norwegian BFC fan, who he was talking to the shop, before us, gets a shout out.

I check the score of the North London derby and Spurs are 2 - 1 ahead. If SC could grab a couple of goals in the second half, then it could turn into a pretty splendid day.

It’s boos for the Barnet players as they reemerge to what I think is some Daft Punk and the stand is only half full, Rachel still MIA as the game restarts. The drum is back at it, there are the odd shouts of “come on County”, however with little more than a minute on the clock, not many SC fans witness the early dangerous SC cross that is cleared for a corner.

SC look to have picked up where they left off, BFC also seem determined to throw their weight around in the penalty area at set pieces, the jostling around the home keeper, catches the attention of the referee. The SC fans claim for a penalty, but the ref just has a word with the players involved and waves on the corner taker to get on with it.

“Took you forty eight minutes” laughs a SC supporter at the sound of the BFC drum. As has happened all day so far at the slightest bit of home noise, it is quickly mocked by the away fans, their go to loop of “blue white army” is soon doing the rounds again.

The home fans largest on mass chant, “come on Barnet” follows them going close once again to a second goal. An excellent cross into the box, is matched by the leaping header, which thankfully for the SC fans is bettered by the one handed save of their keeper who keeps them in the game. Around me, a mass exhale from the SC fans, sounds like a giant fart, running through each and every one of their heads is not ‘did I just make a noise with my mouth that sounded like a fart, but, ‘we got away with that one’.

As the clock ticks, the tensions grows, and not because Rachel only returned with a packet of crisps, explaining the queue for the food was too long, but because the longer the game goes on, the less likely SC look like they are going to score and there is a feeling the game is getting away from them.

For the record Tom would have stayed in the queue, even if it was only “hot dogs, burgers or cold baguettes” and “no chips” on offer. Starbucks and baguettes, so overwhelmingly North London. Rachel tries to change the subject, doing her best to deflect my displeasure, I really fancied pinching some of her chips, suggesting that the queue was “full of kids” because people send them to “do their bidding” and I’m to ask Tom if this is the case at other matches.

Both teams are sloppy, but the fact the BFC drum is slowly becoming ever more present, means the party atmosphere of an hour ago is slowly waning, and a few more people are sitting now. SC apply some good pressure on the ball in the BFC box, but it just doesn't pay off. The fans still singing, “SUFC”, still have plenty of energy to give the man in charge some stick, “you're not fit to referee” but the players on the pitch are just not able to replicate the efforts of the fans off it.

The lure of the double pints has become too much for one SC fan who is bundled out by the police just a couple of minutes shy of sixty. Two minutes later and a mistake in the SC defence sees BFC back in possession just outside of their SC box. The home player jinks his way through the SC back line and lets free a fierce rising shot that is just tipped over. The rock steady beat of Madness fills the stand again, “in the middle of our goal Hinchcliffe”.

On the hour mark its all SC but its growing tenser by the minute, the inflection in the fans voices changes from one of support, to one of mild desperation, “come on County”. The worldly voiced stadium announcer, introduces a BFC substitute, which prompts some fans to ask, “who are ya, who are ya?”.

“I thought that was in” cries one SFC his face in his hands turning away from the sight of the poked chance that went inches the wrong side of the post. Going close stokes the fires within the SC fans “I O County, County I O” they sing. “You wouldn't know there were any Barnet fans here” says Rachel nodding towards the BFC supporters, “remember last time they were very polite” she recalls from our visit to Underhill in the home end, “they only clapped”.

The situation though has not changed, because despite the lion's share of possession, BFC look threatening on every attack.

I can literally feel the beat of the SFC drum in my chest, the guys standing on the back seats, hanging on to whatever they can, mostly the fine black netting that lines the roof to prevent the pigeons taking roost, squirm and react to every pass. “Jammy bastard” says Mr Shite, mixing it up a bit. What looks like might be a stroke of luck, in the BFC area, just won't see the ball fall right for the SC forward, and the moment passes.

A quarter of an hour to go and the SC fans are now the quietest they have been all day. There are the odd shouts, “come on boys” but all the intensity of earlier has slipped away, the BFC drum now even more frequent. On the pitch and BFC are sat right back, happy now to counterattack, while SC are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the home defence. BFC’s chances on goal have been few and far between, but when they get them, they just look that little bit more composed.

BFC are not only content with setting up camp in their half, but with still over ten minutes left are more than happy to waste as much time possible, at every opportunity, “cheating bastard” scowls one SC fan, the BFC keeper the main arbiter of the lollygagging.

SC continue to go close, ish, half chances you might say, getting in the right position but then fluffling their lines. Skipping into the box, the player makes enough room for himself to shoot, but there always seems to be a “beast” in orange to block the shot. The bandaged headed defender goes close with a back post header, but its wide, “go again” demands one fan.

“Fucking shite” says Mr Shite, almost returning back to his catchphrase, “he should get that on a t shirt” whispers Rachel. BFC’s keeper is taking the piss, the drummer rattles off a native American style beat as he goes through one of his overly long goal kick routines.

Down the front and the space between the seats and the barrier, marked with yellow hatching has slowly filled with fans, wanting to get that bit closer to the action. The other side of the shiny black railings more police appear in yellow high vis and hats, to bolster their defences.

Into the final ten minutes, and “great ball” says one nearby fan, sees SC momentarily look like they are on to something, but again an all orange “beast” hoofs it clear. SC still have all of the ball, BFC are still happy to not move much further forward than the edge of their box, SC just can't make it count.
The home fans sing, which gets the customary “wheyyyy” and “we forgot that you were here”. Spurs are also losing 4 - 2 now, as Rachel puts it, it's “not a good day for either of us”.

Heads slowly but surely start to lift and the sea of standing fans has been restored, with less than five minutes left to play, there is a resurgence among the SC fans, spurred on perhaps by the home supports attempt at a song, which is quickly blown out of the water, “Jimmy Gannon's blue and white army”.

The SC fans contest everything, “how can we see it, but you can't, tosser” shouts one, as the away fans just don't feel like they are getting the rub of the green. The SC fans continue to will on the player, BFC have erected a big orange wall and the ref, who again in the eyes of the SC fans has made a mistake, gets a deafening song of his very own, “the referees a wankers”.

One last SC push, while their team go in search of an equaliser or in BFC case they try to cling on to their lead, fans of each team or as Rachel points out, “children” gesture and posture, trying to emulate a bygone era, with lots of chest slapping and pointing outside at each other, but considering the vast distance between them, not to mention all the police, it’s embarrassing.

A single piece of a bright orange seat spins through the air slowly, finding a home on top of the net as more and more police pile on to the edge of the pitch, the hatched area down below almost overflowing and the fans are so angered by the BFC time wasting, it's getting a bit toxic.

I can't be sure, but what might be the most blatant case of time wasting by a team there has ever been, forces a SC player to climb over the railings and into the stands to retrieve the ball. A ball when it's in play they are very rarely out of possession of, but the goal just doesn't look like its coming.

In the seconds before the final whistle, the glimmer of a single tin foil FA Cup catches my eye among the BFC fans, much larger than the one in the SC end that looked more like an egg cup. The big cheer that follows shortly after the game is over, almost doesn't sound real, like its happening a lot further away than it is.

"We love you Stockport we do" sing the SC fans, as the forlorn players, the look of missing out on the third round and a glamour tie, against one of the big boys as they say, visible across each and every one.

A scarf is tossed towards them, and I can smell it before I see it, someone has let off a blue smoke bomb, sending wispy blue tendrils up in to the sky. Some players breech the gap in the police line to talk to the fans pressed up against the railings and its then things take a very Iceland 2016 turn, as players and supporters join each other in a thunder clap.

The BFC players huddle at the far end of the pitch, a single flag from their fans is hung over the railings. The acrid smell of the smoke bomb now permeates everything. The SC players sit in what was the BFC six yard box, dwelling on the defeat, before a coach slowly but surely starts to pick them back up to their feet. The vast majority of fans are still yet to move, still singing and clapping, the name of their manager once more not far from their lips. 

It would be slightly remiss of me to ignore what happened on the way our. What I believe was triggered by some goading by BFC fans, turned into a bottle being chucked at the BFC manager and ended with people being pushed, shoved and hit with batons by the police. Accusations that "all cops are bastards" by one fan seemed unfair, admittedly the polices response did seem a little heavy handed, but it takes two to tango, and there were SC fans more than up for ruck.

My day ends with me shuffling back towards the car, half deaf from the banger someone let off, half deaf from Rachel's squeal in response to it and someone half hanging out the passenger window of a passing car singing at me, "Hagrid, give us a wave, Hagrid, Hagrid give us a wave".

"A lesson in going sideways" is Rachel's rather scathing assessment of SC's performance, she is also equally harsh about the BFC celebrations on the final whistle, "its like they put 10p in the fan meter". I am at this point, staring at my phone and the final result from Spurs vs Arsenal, waiting for the traffic to subside, and a deluge of Whatsapp messages from Tom, ogling the mountain of Domino's pizza making their way I would think to the victors dressing room.

Despite the result, and the silliness at the end, today only bolstered my affection for SC and its supporters. The pride and passion they display, out singing the home fans, travelling all this way for a frankly inconvenient two o'clock kick off on a Sunday, which is only for the benefit of the TV producers and nobody else, is stirring stuff. "Do it for the fans" shouted one SFC supporters towards the end, today the players couldn't do it, but that never stopped them backing them.

A sleeping giant, a fan base that deserves more, and as I said last time we saw them, my SFC scarf, alongside my Spurs one, is the only one that hangs in my house.

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Thursday, 6 December 2018

Back Row Under The F - Waltham Abbey FC Vs Southend United FC, Essex Senior Cup 4th Round, Capershotts (28/11/18)

“I bet he doesn't bring you Christmas biscuits” replies Rachel when I tell her Tom has offered to drive this evening. To be clear I don’t live very far at all from tonight's venue, which I suspect has something to do with him offering and although he didn't bring me Lebkuchen, he did give me half a Sainsbury chocolate cookie that he said he'd “saved” for me.

Although Spurs are playing in a crucial Champions League tie tonight and instead of preparing myself for a night on the sofa with the heating on, watching it on the TV, I’ve spent the whole day refreshing the Twitter account of Waltham Abbey FC (WA) to see if their pitch will pass the three o'clock inspection.

It did, and that's why I find myself standing at the end of my road, with the rain coming down around me, waiting for Tom.

Still slightly in shock, it's not until I see the blinding headlights of Toms car coming towards me, the rain now even heavier, that I realise this is actually about to happen. Flashing his lights as if to say ‘get in’, I open the door to the immortal question, “shall I put the seat warmers on for you?” and fantasy becomes reality.

My car feels little more than an old tin can, in comparisons to Tom’s, which feels like being on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Moody lighting, soft furnishings and cup holders galore. “Tell me if your bum gets hot, it's on max”, he warns me. His caring side shining through, as he ensures I’m comfortable. He puts his windscreen wipers on their highest setting, the rain now lashing down.

For those of you who have never been in a Mini Countryman, let me tell you you're missing out. The dashboard is dominated by a large special screen, which Tom can control everything from the Sat Nav to the radio with the dial down to his left. Embodying Commander Chekov and with a few turns of his left wrist, he plots our journey and we’re off.

“This is nothing” he says, the rain we are currently encountering, not a scratch on what he had to endure on the drive to mine, and the both of us share the feeling we might not be seeing a game at WA. Which wouldn't be the first time, our last attempt to visit them was scuppered by a waterlogged pitch.

The woman bedraggled on the side of road, wet through and in a mild state of disarray, prompts Tom rhetorical question, “we’re choosing to go out in this?”. At the moment I’m more concerned about the fact that my back is now getting very, very hot and that Toms car is better in every single way than mine. Instead of a useless and surly Sat Nav, his says “please” when dishing out the directions.

Having not been the passenger in a car for nearly two years, It's nice for once to be able to sit back, relax and enjoy what was more accurately no more than a bite of a cookie that Tom “saved” for me, but it's the thought that counts. Not having to concentrate on getting us where we're going is a bonus, watching Tom have to pull a very quickfire three point turn on an Essex trading estate, because although she might be polite, his Sat Nav has sent us the wrong way, gives me a mild sense of pleasure.

To be fair to her, the entrance to Capershotts is not exactly clear, opposite the entrance to a graveyard, it's well let's say secluded. There is a tall, green unlit sign, but that's about it and when we eventually find ourselves in the right place, indicating to turn left off the main road, we find we’re not the only ones.

About three cars back in the queue, ahead of us a man battles with the lock of a yellow gate, the traffic around us slowly starting to build. Commuters on their way home from work, already with frayed around the edges start to lose their cool, “where do you want me to go?” asks Tom, as the beeping of car horns increases.

More and more people start to join the growing line behind us. One who turns out to be the WA tea lady behind us, has a far from happy face on and parking almost slap bang in the middle of the road in front of us, the WA manager Mark Stimpson, has just arrived, jumped out of his Audi, abandoning it in a very precarious position, to help with the gate.

The tension is building, not so much in our car, we just put the radio on and are quite enjoying the drama going on around us, although Tom does point out, “we can't sit here all night”. What was one man, using the torch on his phone, is now three men, using their torches on their phones to guide them, however three quickly becomes two, one man has had enough of the struggle. The traffic is growing by the second, Tom tells me he is “starting to need a wee” and who we think are players trying to get in, are now causing tailbacks in both direction, Tom is sure the “police” will arrive at any moment.

Celebratory car horn honking usually reserved for New Years Eve or major sporting victories, accompanies the opening of the gate, a man manically waves us through and being one of the first into the car park, we realise just how many cars were waiting behind, as a procession of cars snakes in. Including the blue minibus of WA’s opponents, Southend United FC (SU).

The iridescent green colour scheme of WA’s home, is made clear once someone hastily flicks on the floodlights. Underfoot there is an unmistakable squelch every time you take a step and in the background is the near constant roar of a nearby motorway.

“Shit isn't it” replies the ever Jovial Tony Gay, a WA coach, who we have crossed paths with many times over the last four year, when I bring up the weather. He is the kind of bloke you can hear before you see, larger than life probably doesn't quite do him justice, but although he thinks the weather is less than ideal, he is far from downbeat.

Sitting under the small shelter behind one goal, the rain having gone full Forrest Gump, it’s coming down on the horizontal. Watching it swirl around the floodlights, it’s almost hypnotic, Tom wonders “if anyone will come”. With very little as far as cover goes, there is more fence then anything, places to keep out of the rain are few and far between. Tom has already worked out where he wants to spend the game, “back row under the F” he tells me. The ‘F’ being the one in WAFC painted on alternative green and white bands on the back of the main stand along one side of the pitch. It’s pale blue seats, the only place you'll find to sit.

Considering the setting our last outing at Farnborough FC’s opulent Cherrywood Road, Capershotts
is worlds apart. No corporate lounges or mega stands here, it's all scaffolding, roped off no go zones and a portacabin tea bar, proper non league.

For the moment, the pitch is looking in surprisingly good nick, no ominous pools of water, but as ever Tom fears for the sanity of the groundsman, and what will he have to deal with, come full time.
Surrounded by the never ending sound of dripping water, that tap, tap, taps on the metal roof above us. I almost feel guilty from my low wooden bench vantage point, as the already drenched coaches from either team, put out the cones in preparation of the warm ups.

“Who is the lonely dude in the stand, he is very eager” ponders Tom, pointing to the single dark figure, who isn't under the ‘F’, but has already taken up position in the main stand and means at least one other person, will be here tonight. Keenly studying the Met Office app, it's a mixed bag for the next few hours. Currently its showing a black cloud with two rain drops, however its forecast for the rest of the evening is white clouds, with one raindrop. “Is it easing?” wonders Tom, looking up from this phone, with a sense of desperation in his voice.

The wind is picking up, the rain a blur in the floodlights, the bare brown trees behind the dugouts sway from side to side and inside the portacabin tea bar, visible through a single grate covered window, the lady from behind us in the queue to get in is busily working away.

“I just wanna know who that guy is?”, asks Tom again, transfixed on the stranger in the stand. A second person joins him, just as eager to secure their spot, but when he thinks he has, he realises he’ll get wet there, so starts the process again. In fact there is a steady stream of people now coming through the tatty yellow brick turnstiles, where between taking money the man manning them brushes away the standing water. Sadly, none coming in, seem to be holding a programme.

“Oh it's definitely easing” says Tom triumphantly, celebrating the accuracy of his beloved Met Office app. The lights flicker on in the main stand, so at least the two men in it no longer have to sit in darkness. At its far end a man unpacks the PA system from a cardboard box, and with the aid of his zoom lens, Tom is on programme watch for me.

“Come on Southend” shouts an SU fan from the sidelines as the team jogs out in their bright yellow tops. At the same time, after his brief sound test, the PA opens his set with Crazy Horses by The Osmonds as the first song of the night, slowly fading it in. The weather might be crap, but so far the music is excellent.

Another SU fan cheers the name of each player as they walk out, the WA team not long behind them, don't quite get the same fanfare, a couple stop at the edge of the pitch to cross themselves, before continuing. “Nice snood” beams Tom, the all black Nike number with a white tick, being worn by the WA keeper, gets Tom’s seal of approval.

I just couldn't bare not knowing any longer, so breaking free from our cover I head towards the turnstile, “twenty minutes, girls stuck in traffic” is the reply of the man who no longer has a broom in his hand, but seems just a tad fed up of having to answer the same query from large nerdy men like myself, about if there will be a programme or not tonight.

The rain has stopped or has it, I have to double check by looking into the floodlights, slightly starry eyed, I can see that it hasn't quit yet, but it's far improved. Time for tea, and the tea bar is also in keeping with the high non league standard already been set. No airs and graces, just bare walls except for the faded wonky pictures of old WA teams, one of which most of the lineup have the most wonderful sideburns and cut out luminous stars, displaying the prices of what's on offer.

Considering it's actually quite mild, we don't get a hot drink, instead just opting for a bottle of water and Tom a Lucozade, keen to replace all those electrolytes he's lost so far today, from sitting about. Back in the stand behind the goal, along with the pigeons, we continue to be surprised by the amount of people arriving, “so many more people here than I thought there would be” says Tom, taking the words out of my mouth. Perhaps it's the draw of SU, albeit their under 23’s or WA have a pretty die hard following.

We also notice the as I put it Old Trafford style slope around the edge of the pitch, that Tom can't help himself saying is like the one at the Emirates.

Night Boat to Cairo by Madness makes me think of home and how much my daughter loves to dance to it. Congregated around the turnstile a posse of men, is starting to form, like me waiting on tenterhooks for the arrival of the woman who was only “twenty minutes” away, twenty five minutes ago. Tom just can't wrap his head around it, people “waiting for a bit of paper” but I can't be bothered to explain again how it's so much more than that.

It's quite subdued as far as entrances go, as the players appear from the caged tunnel to one side of the stand behind the goal. The voice over the PA noticeably lifts when he starts to read the names of the home side out. One home fan, with a green and white scarf above his head, shouts “we are the Abbey” as the teams cross the pitch. “We can do this” he says confidently, but quietly to himself. His score prediction however is far from positive, “reckon we’ll lose 4 - 1”,  “well you can go home” replies a fellow fan, far from impressed by his prognosis.

In the brief moment between the players preparing for kick off and the whistle, I nab my programme. Post kick off and SU are straight at it, four minutes gone and the boy with the scarf has a premonition, “they're going to score” he says as SU race towards the WA goal, showcasing their fighting pace.

A small group of the most committed of SU fans pass us, one of whom is soon under fire, seemingly not aware of what red tape means, he passes under it, into no mans land and and is soon bombarded with whistles and shouts. A long chat about concrete paths ensues, not the most riveting topic in the world. Who I think is the WA chairman explains the need for a continuous concrete path all around the pitch, to keep in line with FA rules, whose visits he jokes “cost” him “£30,000” every time they come.

Ten minutes gone and SU dissect WA, “do not let them score” implores scarf boy. “You can’t let them do that” comments another WA fan, the ease in which SU got down the wing, cut inside and were able to get a shot off, was far too easy.

After nearly a quarter of one way traffic, surrounded by anxious home fans, and the both of us sure this is game going to be over before it's begun, WA go ahead, albeit slightly fortuitously. It’s a well
hit free kick, however its straight at the SU keeper, who makes a bit of a meal of a simple save and as the WA players celebrate, we are treated to the ringing of a green fire bell just along from us in the stand. WA’s version of the Harlow air raid siren.

“Come on you Abbots” shouts scarf boy padding about restlessly, who is singlehandedly, creating what one might call an atmosphere. Tom on kit watch has taken to SU’s all blue get up, it has a bit of the “France” about it. For me it's all about the green and white hooped socks of WA, green a colour I still think is all too underutilised in football.

Tom tries for the second week in a row to be ball boy, but returns empty handed, the ball having disappeared into a spooky space behind the main stand, and he didn't look up for venturing down there. His slight exertion has got his stomach rumbling, “I’m hungry” he tells me before letting out a sizable “ohhhhh” at the sight of a WA foul on a SU player, it’s a real shin clutcher.

For all the difference in pace, touch and quality, it’s WA who double their lead on around twenty minutes. A pirouette in the SU area, sees the WA player away and in on goal, only to be clattered from behind and the referee has no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Some of the younger WA fans, including scarf boy, dash towards that end of the pitch, phones in hand to capture the moment.

As the fire bell sounds again, the voice over the PA is now even more excited than when he was announcing the first goal and he has every right to be. Although they find themselves on the other end of wave after wave of SU attacks, it is they who find themselves in front. “Clinical” is how Tom puts it, two attempts on goal, two goals.

SU are so fast, scarily fast, in their number 9 and 10 they have two players with it to burn. A scintillating counter attack just before the half an hour mark, results in a deftly hit curling shot that strikes the post. Ten or so minutes later and I’m pretty sure everyone is scratching their head, wondering how they are not at least level pegging. A slide rule pass forward is latched onto by the number 9, who before going down under the attention of a WA defender is able to touch the ball off to number 10 who through on goal, instead of just shooting over eggs the pudding, and one step over too many later the chance has gone.

There are claps from the stand that are either applauding the defending or the apparent mercy being shown indirectly by the SU player for not scoring.

Considering my last paragraphs, it would be wrong for me not to say, that WA have their own moments, they are tenacious and should probably have three goals by now, a whipped ball across the SU box goes untouched, all it needed was someone on the other end for a simple tap in.

“Offside again” tuts East London's Pep, “if they just held their runs’’ he adds. SU have been a bit over eager some might say or even lazy, when it comes to staying on side. As Tom put it if they just held their runs for a fraction they would have been in on goal at least “five times”, and Tom adds, WA “ain't catching them”.

Another late WA challenge, causes more SU shin clutching and this time a yellow card. The WA players insist to the referee, who Tom is convinced is “semi famous”, that their man got the ball, but he’s having none of it. SU’s free kick is on target, it circumnavigates the wall, but is straight into the arms of the WA keeper.

Into the final five and another WA ball into the box, this time results in a huge threeway coming together between the SU keeper, an SU defender and a WA forward, the ball is loose momentarily but is eventually cleared.

SU’s number 10 hops in frustration, it's just not coming together for him, some of this is down to the WA defence who are a little fortunate at times, but are doing enough to keep the rampant visitors at bay so far. The home fans cheer their teams clear determination to go in for the break, still two goals to the good.

In football you have halves that feel like they were only ten minutes long, and you have halves that feel, well the opposite. “Long half” says Tom, surely the whistle will be blown any minute. “Stay switched on” shouts someone from the WA bench, following another SU attack.

The half ends with no great surprise, another SU chance, but again it's thwarted by some more backs to the wall, Gandalf impressed, ‘you will not pass’ defending. Free and away at goal, SU’s number 9 only has to finish. With shades of Ledley King against Arjen Robben at White Lane, in YEAR, the WA defender who looked like he’d been left for dead, finds a second wind, catches up with the striker and from behind, with faultless timing and precision, tackles him and prevents the certain goal.

What a challenge, what a way to finish the half.

You could almost go as far as saying he sounds coquettish, as the best way to describe how the man reading out the score sounds, following the half time whistle. I can't obviously confirm it, but I think he might have been ever so slightly on cloud nine. The cheers of the crowd are followed by a mini stampede towards the tea bar, much to Toms annoyance, “oh no everyone is going” he says at the thought of having to wait a whole two minutes in line for his chips.

For all the praise I heaped on the DJ for his pre kick off song choices. Deciding that I Don't Like Mondays, by the BoomTown Rats is a suitable way to start the break, undoes all his good work. Even Mother Nature is appalled, as its start to spit, just about the time the song gets to the first chorus. The rain having so far held off since the biblical down pouring on arrival. Thankfully the mood skyrockets, with the introduction of a bit more of everyone's cheeky north london Ska outfit Madness and we in attendance are no longer subjected to Geldof.

Our brief chat with Tony Gay, Tom having arrived back in no time at all, who makes the silly mistake of having his chips out on show and Tony is not shy in helping himself, at least until the “soup” he just asked someone to get him, appears, was like being in the presence of an all seeing prophet. His order by the way that got such an extraordinary response, you would've thought he'd asked for a lobster bisque, “a soup?!?!” the man bellowed back, in shock.

“They would have got the biggest rolicking” he tells us, there was a distinct chance of some flying teacups in the SU changing room he thinks, they are “professional”, WA “train once a week”. One of the biggest differences between the two sides in the second half will be “fitness” and he is somewhat understated when he suggests the SU’s number 10 is simply a bit “lively”. I get the distinct impression from Tony that with WA having “six reserve” players in the team, he thinks its a minor miracle they are two goals in front.

Some 70’s hair metal with high pitched vocals welcomes the teams out. “Come on you Abbey” shouts someone from the back of the main stand.

“Too fucking easy” screams one WA player, it’s taken SU all of two minutes to grab a goal back. The PA is far from coquettish now, he’s downright depressed. The visitors number 9 has come out the traps flying, it's his ball into the box from out wide, that is slotted into the back of the net.

Bumping into Peter Miles, A.K.A. Mr Southend, A.K.A groundhopping royalty, really puts into perspective, just how little football we get to each season, today's match being his “one hundred and twenty sixth” he tell us, and that's not in the whole of 2018, but the 2018/19 season.

MIND BLOWING!

He also tells us of his attempt to visit every “member state of UEFA” his recent trip to Gibraltar taking his tally to “forty” of “fifty five”.

He also fills us in a bit on SU stars of the future, number 10 having made a few “first team” appearances, but he reckons is not “fancied” by the manager. He also lets us in on the fact that SU were 2 - 0 down at half time in the last round, and went on to with “5-2”.

Thirteen minutes gone and the SU comeback is complete, which they achieve in the most outrageous of fashion, an almost halfway line lob, no less, the scorer falling just short of going the full Cantona, his arms out by his side, but his shirt has no collar to pop.

A minute later and WA go a whisker wide with a header, “ohhhhh” go the crowd, the memory of being two goals to the good a distant memory, now they are only able to cling on to the smallest of moments. SU are showboating, WA make a double substitution, and scarf boy is still confident, despite the turnaround in his team's fortunes, “it's gonna be 3 -2”.

Nineteen minutes gone and SU have flipped the game on its head, “oh dear, I feel a bit sorry for them” mumbles Tom. The man on the PA now is in a near state of despair and just as Tony had predicted, SU that have come out this second half a different team and have blown WA away. From a “shambles” as Peter put it, to half volley scissors kick finishes, I can't understand how they made such hard work out of it before, 3 - 2 up now and they are cursing.

“Come on Abbey take your chances” shouts someone from the main stand. I’m not quite sure what “chances” they are referring too, they've not had a shot on target in the past twenty five minutes. It’s SU crafting all the chances, their unrelenting pressure almost sees them grab a fourth, only for the shot to sail a fraction over.

Not that SU need any assistance up front, but WA are clearly feeling generous and give them a bit of help with a short pass back to the keeper, that is soon pounced upon in a flash. Lucky for the guilty WA defender, his keeper reaches it just a moment before the SU player, but hearts are still in mouths as he makes his hoofed clearance, that strikes the SU player on the arse, sending the ball goalwards and wide.

Just shy of thirty minutes on the clock and WA register their first shot on target and it's a good one, low down to the keepers right, it stings his palms and he’s forced to push the ball back into the box. “Come on Abbey” shouts a fan, “greens we go again” shouts a player, both still holding on to slightest thread of positivity. As WA slowly, but surely, edge themselves back into the game.

Despite WA’s slight resurgence, a cross that almost catches the SU keeper out and a second shot on goal in as many minutes is lacking any venom, but it's something. The football romantic in me is stirred and I ask Tom is there any way WA can get something out of this match, “no” he replies emphatically.

SU are so skillful, the impertinence of youth makes it looks like they don't even care, they are able to do things with a football, that someone like me could only dream of. At moments it looks like the ball is glued to the end of their feet, to they swagger about the pitch doesn't quite emphasise just how self-assured they are, cocksure might just about get there.

With just over ten minutes left, SU grab their fourth, an edge of the box screamer low into the left hand corner of the goal, well out of reach of the WA keeper, the voice over the PA ambivalent now. Instead of dwelling on the score, he informs all “eighty eight” of us here, how many other people have braved the rain. “Thought there was more than that” says Tom, as did I.

Scarf boy screams at the sight of a WA header that goes just over, but if I was him, I would be screaming every time SU get the ball, they look like scoring on every attack, as Tom puts it, you would be very “optimistic” about the future if you were an SU fan.

A late lunging and totally unnecessary SU challenge sparks a bit of a flare up, however the referee who Tom is still trying to work out where he has seen him before, has things under control pretty quickly. “Keep battling” insists a WA player.

I manage, with not long to spare to add a tick to my big book of football cliches, when SU send a ball right down the “corridor of uncertainty” as one home fans put it, in the WA box.

The WA supporters wince at the sight of one of their players taking a hammered free kick right in the midriff and then wince again, when SU get their fifth just after, bizarrely replicating the result in the last round exactly. The voice over the PA is nonchalant, he’s completely over it. ”Ohhhhh” says the lady from the now closed tea bar. “Different level” comments one home fan as his team prepare to restart again, and he makes a good point that some of the WA players would have “done a days graft today”.

SU to go close their sixth into added on time, but they start to loose their discipline, awarding WA two free kick in as many minutes on almost the same spot. “Finish” pleads one WA supporter as the ball falls to a WA player on the penalty spot but his shot is blocked and I’m trying my best not to throttle the man behind me, who has ruined my attempt to record the Spurs game and watch it when I get home, “Tottenham have scored”.

The rain held off for the whole match, little consolation for the home fans I'm sure, with the teams back inside, the ground is plunged into the darkness, and the heavens open. Never have we seen a match, that was a game of two halves in the truest sense of the word. The battle of the two ex teammates, who both played for SU no less, was won by SU's manager tonight, but for a moment, just a brief moment I'm sure Mark Stimpson thought the bragging rights might be his.
 
A green and white flag flaps at the end of its flag pole as we leave, its at this point we notice the clubhouse the other side of the car park for the first time, bet its nice and dry in there and I've still got Toms ginormous belch, "shouldn't eat dinner in five minutes" ringing in my ears, and I can't help but wonder if Tony Gay got his soup?

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

 


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Friday, 30 November 2018

Nanny Can I Have A Scarf? - Farnborough FC Vs Gosport Borough FC, Evo-Stik Southern League Premier South, Cherrywood Road (21/11/18)

“Provisions, just in case” says Rachel, handing me half the contents of a Greggs in a blue and white carrier bag, as well as a packet of German Christmas biscuits, Lebkuchen. I decline the Mexican baguette, chicken with jalapenos and the doughnuts, tightly packed in their cellophane wrapper, opting for a bottle of water, the cinnamon biscuits, thinking surely lighting can't strike twice.

There is no time for flowery words about sunsets, skyscrapers or clouds, there is not even time to try and catch a glimpse of how White Hart Lane is coming on, by the time I arrive at Tom’s, my eyes are ready to pop out of my skull, there is a pain in my forehead akin to a train trying to smash out of it, so much so I have to get out the car and dive head first into Tom’s bathroom cabinet, resurfacing having necked two Nurofen.

The stress of the rush hour traffic, has done a right number on me. Stop, start, stop start, and a near coming together between me and a blue convertible Mercedes, means I am in a bad mood to say the least.

I’m not the only one to come prepared though, not long into our journey, and Tom produces a single banana from his bag and a small pre used bottle of water, that has clearly been filled up from the tap.

I think it must be the anxiety of what is potentially around the next corner, that means it's probably the quietest drive we’ve ever made. No music, no radio, no Red Dead Redemption chat, just the crackle of Toms vape, the rustling of me taking another biscuit, I’ve had far too many already, the inside of my mouth feels like a Yankee Candle. Toms banana skin sits folded up on my dashboard, and despite my glares, he has not got the hint, that I would like him to close the window, because it's fucking cold.

Considering it was only moments ago he reeled off a long list of the articles of clothing that he has with him tonight to combat the chill and considering he just said “I’m dreading the cold” I can't understand why he is insisting on having the window open, that is allowing all the warm air out and all the arctic wind in. Talk of investing in “military grade” winter clothing, “Everest” type gear to get him through the months ahead, sounds like a sensible investment. Talk though of him making his own “fingerless gloves”, that won't reveal all of his fingers, just two of them, so he can use his camera, is not so sensible.

“Cobham services” says Tom, with all the dread of a veteran returning to the scene of some great battle. The very palatial motorway service station, was the very place our two hour stay on the M25 last week culminated, after a mixture of emergency resurfacing and a one wheeled caravan, put the kibosh on us getting to our intended game.

Sweaty palms and nervous ticks start to lessen as we fly by, the chance of a repeat of all the sitting, sitting, sitting with no movement at all, constant checking on our ETA, before realising we weren't going to make it, very, very unlikely. The appearance of some red sections on Tom’s Google maps fastens ones heartbeat a bit, but they prove to be false alarms.

I’ve never been to Farnborough before, as with many of our trips, it takes us to places neither of us have been to or were likely to go to, had it not been for football. I’m aware of the famous airshow, but I’m sure the locals would attest to there being a lot more to their town, then a few days a year, where a Spitfire does a fly pass..

One thing I can certainly tell you, and this may be worth adding to the 2019 Farnborough edition of the Lonely Planet, in fact I’ll quote Tom, because he put it best, there are “sooooo many roundabouts”. Motion sickness has near enough set in, by the time we arrive at the well lit sign at the entrance to Cherrywood Road home of Farnborough FC (FB).

“Oh I can feel it”, shudders Tom climbing out of the car, the cold making its presence known instantly. Getting my coat and bag out of the boot, it is difficult to not be somewhat dumbstruck by the sheer size of Cherrywood Road. Part of me has to almost pinch myself, double checking that we’re in the right place. Its huge,I feel like we’ve pulled up outside a League One or Two teams ground, and in a minute someone is going to tell me we are supposed to be around the corner.

Your town your team, it reads either side of the turnstiles, the other side of which the ground is still only half lit, not quite revealing its full splendour quite yet. Standing pitchside, Kevin FB’s Vice Chairman, who I’m sure is able to tell from our gawping faces, that we are both quite taken aback by the ground around us, I need to emphasise this is far from your average non league ground by any stretch of the imagination, he tells us it can “hold 6,500” but they would “expect 200 tonight”.

Except for a few stewards, I’m pretty sure we are the first in tonight, the home players are here, we can hear their music coming from the dressing room, but to give you an idea of just how early we are, when Tom notices the woman rolling up the shutter of the fast food kiosk with a fag in hand and asks her when she will start serving, he catches her a bit by surprise, however her reply is fast and overwhelming friendly in equal measure, “anytime, I can cook something for you now if you want?”.

Half of the wiry towering floodlights flicker into life, slowly but surely a bit of life starts to course through the spacious grounds veins. Maybe down to just how cold it is, the whole place feels like it's moving at half speed. Tom opts for a cup of tea for now, I do too, and although it's not your customary non league hot, i.e. you can take a sip of it without needing a skin graft, at least its warm.

A man standing under the shelter of the supporters trust stand, sets up a small blue and yellow tombola in preparation I hope of a 50/50. The whiteboard behind him, the results of the last one having been only half wiped away, means I’m hopeful of being able to have a flutter.

I can assure you it's not the array of shocking coughs that seem to be plaguing most people
here that drives us towards the club shop, but more the curiosity of wanting to look at the panels either side of the blue door, dedicated to FB’s history. One denotes FB’s previous incarnation, Farnborough Town FC’s, time in the FA Cup. The other explains why FB are not called Farnborough Town anymore, after going into administration and reforming in 2007.

Much like the ground, the shop is a lot grander than those we are used to. Most shops, if there is one at all and it's not just a case of selling scarves and hats from behind the bar, or from a shed like at Cray Wanderers or a cupboard like at WIT, normally there is not enough room to swing a cat, and the shelves are quite bare. Although the racks are hardly bursting, there are a nice array of shirts for sale. The counter is covered in all your usual football tat and some a bit more unusual, a Bertie Bassett statue and a red and black scarf covered in enamel pins from football clubs all across Europe.

“Nanny can I have a scarf” asks one young fan of her grandmother as she enters the shop, the debate between her grandparents is, she may well want one, but “will she wear it?”.

Its piece de resistance is the “treasure corner” as Tom calls it, a storage box mountain of old programs, that one man is almost waist deep in, that according to the woman behind the till, took her and her husband “fifty hours” to sort through and categorise.

The first of our football essentials trifecta is soon completed, when I purchase a much more up to date
programme then the fading, sepia tinged ones behind me. A programme that not only covers tonight's game, but FB’s next home game too, ‘double issue’ it says, splashed across its bright yellow cover.

Tom tests my programme nerdiness, when he poses me a scenario: if I was an FB fan, and I attended both games, would I still “buy two?” to ensure my OCD in these matters was satisfied. I tell him even my football programme collection obsession doesn't stretch that far, but I don't think he believes me.

Cherywood Road is all go when we emerge from the club shop, steam from the fast food kiosk grills, hangs below its low ceiling, before billowing out, rolling over the shutter and into the nights sky. Box number two of our football essentials checklist is soon fulfilled, the second half of the floodlights allows Tom to assess the menu, “sausage roll and Bovril, 2 quid, dinner sorted” he suggests to me, after saying I was a bit hungry, and he has very kindly worked out what I should get.

“Do you want onions?” asks the lady serving, to which she gets a very enthusiastic “yes please” from Tom.

Burger sauce applied, which Tom then tells me he “always regrets” because it’s “too sickly” and a copious amount on his chips, Tom insists for the next ten minutes we go and find a seat in the club bar, not only to allow for some some respite from the cold, but also because he has got all precious all of a sudden about needing a table to eat off. I’ve seen him inhale a currywurst on the packed terraces of the Yellow Wall, so I don’t know what's changed all of a sudden.

I relent, but before we head inside, I slip the elderly man in a black hat behind the tombola £2, and he tears four yellow tickets from his book, handing me two, and folding the other two in half, before opening the small door on the side of the octagonal drum and popping them inside.

Tom grabs one of the faux green leather diner style booths in the bar, maybe because they look like the most comfortable place to sit or because they give him the best view of the TV. “Like being at Mums, Emmerdale and crinkle cut chips” he says, momentarily overcome with nostalgia, the theme tune of the ITV soap playing and the irregular shaped potato soggy from vinegar, poking out from underneath his “good burger”.

“Happy boy” he says to himself, one eye on his food, the other on the very odd conversation happening over my shoulder on the TV about erotic fiction.

As with everything else here, the bar is much larger than most places we've ever been to. Two fruit machines instead of one, two dart boards, the plush booths, not just second hand pub furniture, the stage, which every good clubhouse or bar should have, looks big enough for a slightly scaled down production of Cats. Even the size of the club badge hanging behind the bar, seems that little bit more opulent.

“I don't think anyone is coming", whispers Tom, “should be here by now” he adds, with just over half and hour to kick off, one may of expected to have seen a few more fans than are here currently. At the moment the bar staff almost outnumber the home supporters. We do though catch a glimpse of our first way fans, both in matching Gosport Borough FC (GB) woolly hats, having a pint at a table not far from us.

Tom has something in his beard, but considering how ungenerous he is being when it comes to sharing his chips, I break the normally cast iron bearded brother code, and don't tell him. Tossing the last small crust of his burger bun into its box, he hoovers up the final few chips, saying to himself as does “very nice, very nice”, as he prepares to put his hat on, the sign he is ready to go back outside.

Our second look at Cherrywood Road, now bathed completely in the stark glow of the floodlights, it allows us both to fully appreciate it in all its glory. Along one side of the pitch, the same side as the dugouts and from where the players will appear, is what one might call the main stand. All seater with its intriguingly named Platinum Bar hospitality suite at its top, that Tom is very keen to investigate.

Opposite the main stand, and the full length of the pitch is a half standing, half seated stand, and behind one goal is a half covered bank of concrete terracing with white railings. There is not a lean to, repurposed bus shelter, piece of scaffolding or a broken seat in sight, Cherrywood Road is not very non league at all.

You may well have noticed, I’ve only described three sides of the ground and this is not because of an Oxford United type set up, with their three sided Kassam Stadium, but because the fourth stand, the one behind the other goal, is so large, so imposing, one could be forgiven for thinking it had once been part of Maine Road, saying that, and keeping to the North West theme, it does bare a striking resemblance to the Cheadle End at Edgeley Park. It’s hundreds of blue seats more than capable of managing the expected attendance tonight, with some to spare.

I’m convinced that some if not most of the ground will be out of bounds, why would you bother to have it all open if you were only expecting two hundred? Why bother having the necessary stewarding and such when no one will be here to use it, however the patrolling men in hi viz and the lack of red and white tape, leads me to believe this will not be the case.

So intrigued by the Platinum Lounge, Tom has disappeared. Pressing his nose up against the glass like a Dickens character at Christmas, he couldn't stop himself peering through the window, to see how the other half live. Reporting back, we recounts fanciful tales of “silver service” a “programme at your seat” and a “three course meal”, but this can't be true, this is the seventh tier of the football pyramid, not Stamford Bridge.

I think the idea of a sit down meal and someone serving you broccoli with tongs, appeals to Tom. The sight of the finer things, reignite in him a fire that has always been there. Putting to the sword his salt of the earth, man of the people persona he likes to portray. Hospitality and prawn sandwiches is right up his street, no great surprise mind, considering his stint in club level whilst a season ticket holder at the Emirates.

A young FB fan in matching club shirt and hat waits at the mouth of the dark brick tunnel at the base of the main stand for the arrival of the players. She is on mascot duty and is more than eager to thrust her gloved hand into that of the FB’s captain, confidently strides out across the pitch. Leading from the front she shakes first the hands of the referee and his assistants, before them of the GB players.

So used to hearing a bit of music pre kick off, essential on some occasions because it gives something for Tom and I to talk about, it is a bit strange when we don't hear anything at all. I’m not saying everyone has to go to the extent of creating a bespoke mix, like they used at Newhaven as the players walk out, but a little music goes a long way to building the atmosphere. I’d be happy with a bit of Radio 4, but I’m probably the only one.

Other than the sizzle of the hotplates and the players warming up, Cherrywood Road had been relatively quiet, until the booming, stern voice, of the stadium announcer thunders from the speakers. His “welcome” a little frosty, and his sudden introduction, makes me think of the first time Dorothy met the Wizard of Oz.

Let’s be honest, we were never going to sit anywhere else but in the “ridiculous” stand as Tom calls it. As nice as the main stand looks, “ohh mood lighting” says Tom as its lights go out, in preparation of kick off, we opt to climb the few steps into the grandstand, that is near enough empty, looks so out of place, but as Tom crucially points out, it is certainly “comfy”.

“Come on boro” and “come on yellows” are the shouts from the scattered crowd. Any of those FB supporters who have opted to sit in what we are now referring to as the ‘Mega Stand’, who offer up their own shouts, it almost echoes in the cavernous empty space that surrounds us.

There is barely no time for us to have our brief and always ill informed discussions about who is going to win, because with merely two minutes on the clock, the GB players are screaming at the referee, who in turn is glaring at his assistant for guidance, because they have just had a header cleared from what they think is from behind the line. All the players look at the referee for a decision, whose eyes are still locked onto his assistant, who shakes his head.

The promising start by the visitors I think somewhat colours Tom decision making process when trying to work out who will be victorious tonight. Not long after seeing GB nearly go ahead, he tells me it is them who he thinks will win. Normally such decisions are based on current form or past head to heads, however Tom informs me he thinks GB will leave with all three points, in a significant departure from his normally Pep like analysis, because they looked the “more energetic” in the warm up.

I also feel GB will be the winners, but must admit this is based on equally ridiculous reasons. I have failed completely to do the slightest bit of research on either team, so opt for the one whose kit I like the most. GB’s shirt and shorts are a shade of green more familiar in a glade than on a football kit. With the black detailing around the shoulders, it makes it one of the more curious designs we are likely to see this season.

I’m doing my best to concentrate on the game, but it's hard, I just can't get my head around this stand.
I don't know why I’m so transfixed on it. We’re watching a football match in the Southern League, but it feels and looks like Sheffield Wednesday will be playing here next Saturday.

Proving that how fast you run in the warm up or what colour your shirt is, have little impact on anything at all, FB take the lead on nine minutes. A dinked ball into the box, is latched onto by one forward who takes a few touches before finishing well from a tight angle. Wheeling away the scorer is met by a teammate, who puts him in a headlock and ruffles his hair, much like an overly enthusiastic aunt, you haven't seen for ages, might do.

A single gruff voice from in front of us, dishes out loud advice to FB. The shouts from the technical areas are equally as loud, if not a bit more angry, but both benches are at such close quarters, I’m not sure if its the home or away manager, who is pissed off.

It may well be the home one, a quarter of the half gone and GB go close again, despite being ahead FB are hardly in control. A superb flick on the edge of the box, sees the player away and heading towards the goal, he shoots high towards the top corner, from an acute angle. Too powerful for the keeper to hold, he is forced to pad it away for a corner.

“Fastest yellow card flash I've ever seen” says Tom, the referee dishing out a booking to a FB player, as Tom puts it, without even raising the card “above his head”. The croaky voiced FB fan is bemused. “Whats wrong with you?” he asks his keeper, who Tom confirms, “that's the second time he’s done that”, the FB stopper having sent his second consecutive goal kick straight into touch.

Another FB booking, allows GB the chance to swing in a free kick, which results in moment of panic, the visitors claim for a penalty, but its waved away. FB regain possession and counterattack. Their eventual shot is pushed wide and receives the muted gloved applause of the fans. FB go close with a header from the resulting corner and more shouts of “come on boro” echo around the Mega Stand.

I finally succumb to the cold, always keen to portray Tom as a bit of a softy and me a hardy mountain man, that isn't bothered by the silly cold, I cave. Rummaging around in my bag for my black and white shemagh or what Tom calls my “tablecloth”, I wrap it around my neck. He tells me I should get a snood, a shemagh is basically a middle eastern one, just not anywhere near as douchie. Sounding like someone who has shares in Snood Inc, he suggests “everyone should have one” they “make all the difference”.

Tom who rapidly taps his feet as he does his best to bring them back to life, as well as on occasion slapping his thighs, to do the same he points to the man in front of us in a mobility scooter, “he’s got the right idea” he says. The man's legs and lower torso concealed within a blue sleeping bag.

To suggest the game was dead, would imply it had been alive in the first place, the first thirty minutes, except for the goal and the oh so brief moments where GB forge a half chance, it’s never really got off the ground. Just after the half an hour mark, and a dangerous GB ball across the FB box, hits the heels of the intended forward, who can’t meet the pass in his stride.

Tom is longing for his half time snack, “I want a chocolate bar”. I’m trying my best to not write even more about the Mega Stand, because the game is not giving me anything. There are the odd flashes of excitement, like when one FB winger flies down the wing, into the box, makes his way along the byline and lets fly a close range shot and for a fraction of a second, I and all the FB fans thinks they have doubled their lead, but the all seeing eye that is Tom, brings me crashing down to earth, “side netting”.

The shot that ended up hitting the side of the goal must have taken a deflection, FB are awarded a corner. GB’s keepers attempt to clear it through a sea of people, sees him make a right meal of it, flapping he doesn't quite make the intended contact, but is saved by the referee who gives a foul.

Such was the velocity the man in GB's goal hurtling into the other players, he has come off worse for wear and is down in his yard box. What's wrong with the keeper I ask Tom, sometimes the lens on his camera can give us a bit of an insight into what's happening at the other end of the pitch, but he doesn't look, “the cold” he replies.

Other than their very sweetly taken and well worked goal, FB whenever in position are either bobbling the ball around in midfield or are hitting hopeful looking passes up the channels, to exacerbated forwards and wide players who without fail, give the same shrug of the shoulders, each with a ‘what am I supposed to do with that’ look on their face.

As cold as it is, I would still rather be shivering, than inside watching Emmerdale and as the half heads into its final five minutes. GB who much like FB have been very little more than simply present, seem determined to drag this game up by the bootstraps and almost score. Crashing a shot off the foot of the post, they have no intention of giving up on their rare moment of forward momentum easily. Retrieving the rebound, the player who just saw his shoot hit the woodwork, turns and heads back towards the goal, leaving the towering defender whose marking him for dead. The skyscraper knows full well he's been beaten, and can only hold up his hands, and watch the much smaller man race towards the six yard box, where instead of shooting, he cuts the ball back to a better positioned teammate.

Prompted by a shout to leave it the second of the GB players lined up on the edge of the box to drive the ball goalwards, does just that, letting the ball roll to the man behind him, whose side footed effort goes well over.

“Totally whipped him out” laughs Tom, a FB player is down having been accidental forearm smashed by the referee in the centre circle. However such is the strength of the call from the food kiosk, that Tom can’t keep his eyes off, and instead of watching to see if the man in black is about to perform the People's Elbow. He’s waffling on instead about how “stuffed” he is, how he only wants a hot drink, and he “couldn't eat another thing”, even if he wanted to, after his “banana, lots of biscuits, and burger and chips”.

On the stroke of forty five minutes the steely voiced announces their will be “two minutes of added time” and what looked like a “good tackle” to both Tom and I, is awarded as a foul in FB’s favour, giving them one last chance to get the ball into the GB box.

Once again the GB keeper does his best to reach the cross, once again he can't quite make it and flaps once more. This time though he remains unscathed. With what must be only seconds left to play, it is a “lively” finish as Tom puts is as GB have not one, but two pops at the FB goal. The first is blocked by a GB player, just about summing up this game, the second by the poked out leg of a FB defender.

A lacklustre blast of the referee's whistle brings the half to an end. The PA confirms the score, then the fact I have not won “£66” on the 50/50 or as it transpires the “golden goal” either, which I didn't even know was an option. Music for the first time fills the ground and I can't work out if the people bobbing up and down are dancing to Katy Perry or are trying to keep warm.

In a blue and yellow FB scarf and with a pint in hand, Luke, FB’s programme editor joins me. “Came after they went under” he explains, my first question of course about the origins of the Mega Stand, which much to my surprise it came post 2007 thanks to a previous owner, which there have been few. It has been a far from easy revival since the clubs return from the ashes.

Talking to Luke, he quickly joins the long list of committed volunteers, who make non league football tick. Living no more than twenty minutes away from me in North London, he follows FB home and away, he explains his rather convoluted journey here for midweek games, that relies on a lot of moving parts being in sync, to ensure he gets here on time. As well as being the programme editor, he also has a rather large camera round his neck, so I would not be shocked if he told me he moonlights as the clubs photographer too.

Tom spends nigh on the whole of the break in the shuffling queue of woolly hat wearers for a cup of tea, returning slowly, having the steps of the stand to contend with, as he makes the return leg with a cup of tea in each hand.

A combination of nattering with Luke and trying desperately to eat my rock hard Kit Kat, without cracking a molar, the first fifteen minutes of the second half are a little hazy. I can tell you that GB go
close twice, picking up where they left off, and Luke is growing increasingly anxious, “getting closer”. He then utters the immortal words every football fan will say at some point during a match when their team is holding on to a one goal lead, “we need a second”.

“Come on” he barks, right in my ear, half out of his seat, as an FB forward races towards the GB goal, one on one, but his shot is saved.

The GB player who was a hairs breadth from getting on the end of a cross in the FB six yard box, lies on the pitch head in hands, mulling over just how close to it he was. As nice as the “great tea” as Tom puts it is, and as welcome as the mild sugar rush the Kit Kat brings is, the game still has failed to catch light.

“Come on boro” shouts an animated Luke when a FB free kick travels all the way through the GB box and out the other side unmolested, resulting in much disgruntled groaning from the home fans. They look to go close again, but sadly the cross into the box, can’t match the quality of run and delicate touch, that would have been the perfect end to an inspired solo move. The groans this time are not of disapproval but concern, as the wide player at full pelt careered heavily into the hoarding, and most in attendance take a sharp intake of breath.

“He got up quick” says Tom, relieved as I’m sure everyone is, that the player whose run came to an abrupt and what sounded like a very painful end, is back up on his feet.

Luke fills me in on more about the ground, as I badger him for more information, he tells me it is “league standard” and was recently used by a top flight “Russian club” to train in. Then my cross examination is put on hold, when with less than a quarter of an hour left, GB have been reduced to ten men, after a player is shown his second yellow, and as he makes the long slow walk off, he is serenaded with chants of  “cheerio, cheerio, cheerio”.

“Shit” shouts Luke, FB have just conceded. The joy of being a goal up and having a man extra, lasted all of about six minutes. The two GB fans from the bar, have been joined by at least four others behind the goal and they watch the scorer, who just dispatched the ball high into the roof of the net, come to a stop in front of them, after an impressive knee side.

The PA shows for the first time, the faintest hint of emotion, clearly annoyed as he has to confirm the time of the goal and name of the scorer. “It's been coming since about the sixtieth minute” says Luke astutely. There are the odd shouts of “come on you yellows” but they are few and far between, with the ten men of GB now well on top.

A deep GB cross looks like it might be heading for the top right hand corner only for it to be plucked from the air by the FB keeper. “Come on boro” shout the fans, without an ounce of optimism One member of the home bench almost quotes Journey, but gets it wrong, “keep believing”.

“Happy with a 1 - 1” says Tom, the GB keeper, not surprisingly now taking an eternity to do the simplest of tasks. “Get on with it” shouts one FB supporter, his shenanigans have not gone unnoticed by them either. There is much debate between two GB players who should take the latest free kick, when they eventually decided it should be the keeper, he ends up kicking it right out of play, much to the delight of the home fans.

Into the final five minutes and GB are trying to waste every possible second they can, “you've been mugged off”, shouts a member of the ever increasingly vocal home fans to the referee, a GB player has gone down, apparently injured and the physio is called for. Sarcastic applause rings out as to no one's great surprise, the injured player is back on his feet and is as right as rain.

The late appearance of the much coveted number 12, Michael Fernandes, who Luke tells me has been scouted by a swathe of “Premier League clubs” and who I don’t think is the person of the same name I went to primary school with, will in Luke's opinion, “make the difference”. Fernandes is “very fast” and “very skillful” adds Luke, only his “decision making” can let him down, but he’s young and his early touches are very promising.

“Win the game for us Michael” implores a voice from the crowd.

Fernandes introduction has roused the fans, their shouts are a bit more hopeful now, “come on boro”. Luke is now permanently perched on the edge of his seat, “come on” he shouts once more, almost directly into my ear and on the other side of me I’ve got Tom hammering his thighs again, trying now his best to thaw out his hand.

“For a team with ten men, they're playing alright” says Luke begrudgingly, no end of enthusiastic clapping from the home bench, is really inspiring the home team. “Get on with it” booms one voice from behind us, the GB keeper is back at it, and his antics are starting to wear a bit thin.

Like an excited school boy, Luke is a bundle of energy every time Fernandes gets near the ball, “come on Michael” he screams. The crowd are growing increasingly desperate for their team to get something out of the game, it is now simply a case of giving the ball to the number 12 and hoping he can do some magic.

“Make it count boys” pleads one home fan, FB having been awarded a free kick with perhaps no more than two minutes on the clock. It’s hooked in, but it is far from threatening, but they at least get a corner from it. The team form up, jostling with each other for space in the GB penalty area.

“Fucking get it” shouts a relieved Luke, who just leapt from his chair, punching the air, his team in the eighty ninth minute, with a back post header, from the player he tells me, a bit quieter than most of his deafening cries, is making his “debut” tonight, having just signed from Wingate & Finchley.

Seconds after the restart, and the PA, without even the slightest hit that he might have enjoyed the potential winner, informs us all of the “five minutes” of added time there is to play. Which has pretty much everyone scratching their heads, unable to work out how the officials have come to that total.

However considering the marked improvement in the home fans sprites, in particular that of the two standing gentleman, about halfway up the main stand, with hands firmly shoved in pockets, who have not been shy of sharing their opinions, “we like you now lino” says one, to the nearby assistant who before then had been the main focus of their wrath, I don't think they are going to start splitting hairs.

One of the two men, overcome by the sight of seeing his team take the lead, is reprimanded by his daughter, “Dad don’t say that”, she says, when he gets a bit ahead of himself, with still four minutes of the match to play, “it's in the bag, it's in the bag”, he says on repeat.

Luke now even more buoyant before, but falling short of giving a blow by blow commentary, he leaves that to the two men in the stand, is still giddy at the sight of Fernandes getting the ball, “look at the pace on him” he says, like a proud father at Sports day.

“Take it in the corners” instructs one fan, the pain of previous ninety minutes noticeable in his voice, they’re in front now, and that how he wants it to stay. When the player gets there, the shout from the manager echos, that of the supporters, “stay there!”.

There is a brief moment when time almost stands still, the ball has escaped the corner, and are we about to have a Ginola for France against Bulgaria moment? The ball now back in GB’s possession they are allowed the space to take shot at goal, it's on target, but also straight at the keeper, who grasps the ball with two hands and sinks to the floor, and everyone can exhale.

“You can't go early, you don't know what will happen” says one of the two standing FB supporters to a group leaving, “need to beat the rush” replies one of the departing trio.

This is it, GB’s last chance to salvage what wouldn't be a completely undeserved point. “Oh God here we go” says a nearby FB fan nervously, almost unable to watch, “we can't concede now” he says as the visiting team shape up to take their corner. “Well in” he cheers as an FB defender gives it the full Peter Kay, and wallops the ball well clear.

“Blow that whistle” demands of one home fan to the ref.

It’s all handshakes and pleasantries from both teams following the final whistle. Emerging from the tunnel, the dismissed GB player, changed and apparently holding a pair of pink trousers, is looking for trouble. It's only thanks to the quick thinking of one steward, who prevents him from getting much further than the edge of the pitch, that disaster is averted.

In Luke today we met another person who without the need of financial reward, has devoted a large chunk of his life, most of it to travelling, to support and help run his football team, simply as he put it, because of his "love of the club”.

In FB we encountered a club, that our brief time with posed more questions than it answered. Was the person doing the PA a man in a green suit with a curly moustache in a tiny cupboard? Was Tom the happiest he’s ever been in almost four years, when he got to be ball boy, tossing the ball back to a player? Will either of us ever get the feeling back in our hands? Are FB the only club at this level, offering a matchday hospitality experience?

Most importantly though, and to justify the efforts of Luke and his fellow fans and volunteers, will they ever fill Cherrywood Road again?

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE


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