Friday, 23 February 2018

Did Your Heart Flutter? - Welling Town FC Vs Sporting Club Thamesmead FC Reserves, West Kent Challenge Shield Quarter Final, Bayliss Avenue (16/02/18)

I’m struggling to find the words to adequately describe just how fucking frustrating it is crossing the river at around 16:30/17:00 on a weeknight. In fact I may well have started a blog just like this before, the last time we headed to the other side of the Thames. My hope was that with it being half term it meant it wouldn't be the normal ordeal, I was wrong. The amount of time we spend edging closer to the Blackwall Tunnels entrance, staring at the number plate of the car in front feels like an eternity.

Most annoying of all is that it's my fault, well partly, due my customary driving faux pas, I took a wrong turning, the kind of which I make at least once an outing..

Due to the fact we’re late, there will be no talk of what I’m listening to on the radio, what Tom’s been up to on FIFA or his weather forecast for the evening. Instead we’ll start just around where I make my second driving indiscretion of the day, almost there, almost close enough to touch our destination, but again I take a wrong turn and we watch today's ground whistle past us, all lit up, from our dual carriageway overpass vantage point.

The only thing getting me through this unmitigated disaster of a journey is knowing there is some Friday night football at the end of it.

My first impressions of Bayliss Avenue is that its modern, very modern. It looks like the Football Association headquarters of a small European once soviet satellite state. Lots of stainless steel and concrete. It is also hard to ignore the near constant hum of the already mentioned dual carriageway and that of the nearby airport. This is urban inner city football at its best.

Not out of the car long, Tom informs me he is “cold already” as we make our way across the gravel car park and heading towards the vivid green light emanating from beyond the large glass doors.

Bouncing down the stairs to greet us, in his white club polo shirt is, is Welling Town FC’s (WT) chairman, secretary and all round fixer, Kevin. Smiling and amiable he is quick to give us some insight into his team which is very much in its infancy, they were only founded in 2014, but have as he puts it had a “rapid rise” from “playing on a park pitch” into a “multi million pound stadium”. A ground that “matches” those at “Bostick league” level, at least four steps above them, although he admits it looks more like a “leisure centre” than a football club, but, “beggars can't be choosers”.

A life long Welling United fan, he like so many can't fail to see the substantial gulf that has grown between what he knew growing up going to Park View Road with his Dad and what football is today. The top flight as he puts it, simply isn't "reality anymore”. It’s the simple things like being able to “stand where you want” and that you are able to “socialise with opposition fans”, that makes non league football for him.

Standing with your opposite number on the terraces and not being corralled into one particular section of a stadium, are not the only differences, between the top and the bottom of the football pyramid you might come across. Admittedly seeing a player slip off from the warm up, to have a cheeky fag is not something you are likely to see in the Essex Senior League, let alone the Champions League, regardless of how relaxed people tell you non league football can be.

However no-one here even bats an eyelid at him lighting up. He does his best to do it discreetly, but the great plumes of smoke somewhat give the game away. The Sporting Club Thamesmead (SCT) player has a look on his face that having a pre match smoke is as much a part of his warm up routine, as doing stretches are.

It’s a very short walk for the players from the changing rooms to the pitch. A small slope leads from the doors out onto the “billiard table” like surface, Kevin's description of it when I asked if there had been any chance of a postponement, after all the recent rain. Either side of them, set back in to the base of the stand above are the almost brutalist in design dugouts. Just a single wooden bench and a small home and away sign hangs above the respective one. It looks more like a machine gun bunker than your traditional dugout.

Overlooking the ground a fair few people occupy the green and white seats of the two tier stand, most though with a pint in hand are getting their non league lean on, admittedly a bit higher up than I’m usually used to, as Kevin puts it the “draw of Friday night football” has worked.

The swelled numbers also I'm sure are down to it not being any old match, but the quarter final of the West Kent Challenge Shield which WT are the current holders of and its not any old opposition. WT the 'lodgers', are taking on SCT the 'landlords'. WT come into the game in imperious form. Undefeated in “league and cup” Kevin told us, SCT aren't doing too bad themselves, only one defeat so far this season, so tonight could be a hum dinger.

The spoils for the eventual winner of the competition, currently sits in the boot of Kevin's car. He wanted to have it out on show, the players walking past it as they came out, but the manager suggested that might be interpreted as being a bit “arrogant”.

Post kickoff we get a taster for the kind of challenges we are to expect. It's not so much the sight of one man clattering into another that makes the both of us feel a little queasy, but the sound. It’s the shin to shin contact that turns my stomach. Miraculously both players nine times out of ten get up without a scratch.

“Good challenge” says someone on the SCT bench, as the players untwist themselves from each other. I really am too soft and am dreading the thought of seeing a bad one.

Although it shouldn't be a massive surprise, considering it just dawned on us that the pre match smoker is in fact the SCT captain, but the attitude towards fitness is a little more lax this far down the pyramid. With the seams of one SCT’s yellow kit being put through their paces by its sizable wearer, there is maybe a debate to be had for getting some larger sizes. I wouldn't dare mock the bigger man, that would be a little bit stones and glass houses, if anything he is an inspiration.

A quarter of the game gone and it's a chance a piece for the teams, WT shooting wide of the post and SCT’s keeper being forced into a canny save. Other than that, it's been a little flat. There is plenty of noise coming from the stand, that mingles with the stacked up planes and the nearby HGV’s, but on the pitch is just a bit muted.

Tom points out the ketchup blob congealed on his camera from our last game, I’m only half listening mind. I’ve just spotted the reason we are here, Jon Main, in his grey sweatshirt and magenta bib, standing on the touchline, and I can confirm without a cigarette. The former AFC Wimbledon, Tonbridge Angels and Welling United player, according to Kevin, is still the National League's youngest scorer, he was “16” when he set that record.

At the beginning of 2017/18 we decided to sponsor a player, with the intention of following his exploits throughout the season, and ultimately going along to a game and meeting him. The resounding winners of our vote was WT and Jon Main was the player we picked. A brief hello and handshake from him as he joined his team mates for the warm up, sent us both a bit One Direction fan. Seeing him now though in his natural habitat, dishing out advice to his fellow subs, we just hope we get to see him in action.

“Ref we ain't here to watch you” shouts a person in the crowd, the man in charge having been a little bit inconsistent so far. Laissez-faire on some occasions letting the game ‘flow’ some might say, but then in the next breath he's a little whistle happy and the game gets a bit stop start.

When one player WWE body checks another, no problem, when Tom thinks I’ve spent too long seeing if Jon Main is coming on, he tells me “I’m not allowed near” him and that if I'm not careful he will get a “restraining order” against me, it feels like a total miscarriage of justice.

Having not seen SCT’s number 4 run yet, the same man with the struggling kit, he has clearly been deployed as sweeper, not a roll you see much anymore. I wonder when he approaches a SCT free kick on the edge of the WT box, that this might be his moment. His lack of mobility, given up in exchange for his prowess on set pieces.

“He's walking away” says a disappointed Tom. 4 having spoken briefly with a teammate decided this one wasn't for him and leaves number 10 to do it. His attempt is poor and Tom is convinced even more now than ever, that like an NFL special kicker, “thats why’’ number 4 is “here”, I hope so, I really do.

Admittedly the quality of football is lacking at times, but there are brief and fleeting moments of real class. One SCT players excellent turn away from his marker in midfield is followed by a precise ball out wide, that kick starts an attack. The ball is eventually turned into the box, the player with his back to the goal also turns well, still in possession of the ball, he seems to have his legs taken out from under him, but his shout for a penalty is waved away.

WT not wasting any time, playing to the whistle, I’m sure much to the delight of their manager, quickly counter, but can't quite capitalise on all the time and space SCT have allowed them.

“That's why they got him” says Tom on the confirmation that SCT’s number 4 is a bit of secret weapon. Only his broad shoulders are able to cope with the pressure of a penalty. With half time only moments away, there was an considerable coming together of two players just inside the WT box, this time the man in charge saw something he didn't like, I just saw something he had been saying was fine for the last forty five minutes.

The WT keepers attempts to psyche him out, pointing to one side of the goal, are futile, number 4 isn't falling for that, he slots the ball home, 1 - 0 to the Landlords.

A goal that the game has desperately needed. Just before the break, it could not have come at a better time for SCT. I don't think either team if I’m honest deserves to be ahead, neither side really shining, so WT might just feel a little aggrieved to find themselves behind, but they don't stand about licking their wounds, they do something about it.

I don't know for certain, but in less than two minutes, maybe two and half, the game is all square. “He was kicked in the face” says Tom about the WT player in green with black shorts currently face down in the area. It’s not though the referee who has given it, but his assistant. The referee having adopted his now familiar low swinging armed stance to signal he didn't think it was a foul, but his assistant running the line had other ideas and has raised his flag.

It’s down to the WT players to bring this to his attention, he was all but back turned and making his way up the pitch, before he blew up. He has a quick conversation with his colleague, turns, points and reverses his previous decision.

Bizarrely I think it's the same voice shouting “he's gotta go” before both penalties from the technical areas, from which one I’m not sure. Was one manager or coach being overly honest or a bit loopy. “Ref you bottled that” says another person, again I’m not sure if its because he didn't stick to his guns, he gave the penalty or because he didn't send off the SCT player responsible for the face kicking. That being the same player who moments before was fouled for the SCT penalty and who was smoking before the game.

Excellent penalty, from the much more slender taker. Right into the top corner.

WT end the half on top, their number 15 going on the most superb of runs, the SCT defender trying to mark him is a mere inconvenience, he just pushes the ball into the space ahead and runs around him. “Love that” shouts a person in the crowd. Another sliver of skill in a game that has been all but devoid of it.

No PA, no programme, no gambling, no problem. The lack of our match day staples didn't really occur to me until the break. As we have found however football and food are synonymous with each other, so that is certainly on offer. The players are already coming back out, “boys come on” shouts one fan, when my pocket buzzes and Tom tells me his is "just waiting for some chips".

Surrounded by an overpowering smell of vinegar, Tom is barely in his seat, when WT take the lead. All the action so far, being condensed into ten minutes either side of the break. It's a very tidy finish and an even better hurdle over the on rushing keeper, that puts them ahead. The scorer having avoided being wiped out well, celebrates with a jump and a punch in the air, before he is mobbed by his teammates.

“Get your fucking heads up” roars on SCT fan, one WT player at the other end of the spectrum claps his hands on his way to his half, happy with what he saw “better, better”.

Despite being behind, SCT are not out of the game by any means. A goalmouth scramble and a string of last ditch saves by the WT keeper, stops them equalising. With number 4 or “fat Xavi” as Tom has dubbed him, bit mean if you ask me, no need to bring his BMI into it, but as Tom points out, being compared to the diminutive Spaniard is a great honour, having been pushed up further into midfield, he can now show off his full range of passing

The guy has a genuine eye for a pinged ball forward. At one point he sends it over the WT defence with pinpoint accuracy, setting his teammate away and bearing down on goal, only for keeper to save preventing the goal. He is also not shy of a tackle, and not a late bone cruncher like some have been, but a well measured one where he inevitably ends up with the ball.

“Best chips I’ve ever had at football, might get some more” says Tom. He admits he would normally lean towards a “french fry” however the vinegar drenched fence post he has just polished off, each one about four inches long and two inches wide, has turned his head.

Big chips are not the only thing turning his head, “├»ts like watching Arsenal play” he says, with SCT really finding their rhythm, playing some excellent stuff. Their manager emphasises that it's “easy isn't it” annoyed that they have not been showing their real potential so far, and its takes them being behind to turn it on.

Jon Main continues to warm up, just below us, “did your heart flutter?” asks Tom, when he is within touching distance.

The shared notion that we both thought it was mild when we first arrived, is well and truly out the window. It’s not Thurrock United cold, that will be tough to beat, but it's certainly chilly and Tom is doing this thing he does when he tries to hide that he's shivering, and ends up looking like someone from Alive.

“Oh calm down” says a voice in the stand, after SCT’s number 9 absolutely loses his shit about the ball being a bit flat. He is nigh on frothing at the mouth, as he shouts to the sidelines demanding a new one.

With roughly a quarter of the game left, SCT are looking a “bit one dimensional”. Is it a consequence of number 4 being taken off, I think so. They are getting more of the ball, but even with the constant reassurance from the bench that they have “time” the players take no notice, panic and lose possession.

What might be the brightest example of technique all evening, comes with the execution of WT’s third, having been behind, they now edge even further in front of the team from the league below them, it looking unlikely now that there '0' is going to go.

The initial save from the SCT keeper right on the edge of his box stops one problem, but creates him another. When one door closes, another opens, as they say. This door is about 24 feet by 8 feet with a white net. Without a moment's hesitation the WT players delicately swings his right foot at the ball and sends it sailing over the stranded keeper, past the player trying with all his might to stop it on the line and into the back of the net from about twenty five yards.

If ever a goal deserved a Street Fighter style tiger uppercut celebration, it was that one. So eager to celebrate with him, one teammate jumps on his back, putting him in a rear naked choke that BJ Penn would be proud of. So impressed was the keeper with his efforts he's run half the length of the pitch to congratulate him and the whole bench are on their feet applauding .

“Well I was wrong” says a humble Tom. He was sure at 2 - 1 WT that was it for the goals.

Two goals behind now, but SCT still look like they have some fight left in them, their number 9 is causing all sorts of “problems” comments Tom, with his loan front man routine. An epic foot race sees the ball carried right across the pitch, the two players tussling and battling with each other all the way to the corner flag. It's the one in yellow who prevails, bettering his marker. His ball across the six yard box sadly lacks any conviction, and its hoofed clear by someone in black and green.

He's coming on “Main is here” says Tom in hushed tones, tapping me on the leg and bringing to my attention that he is stripped down, standing on the touch line blowing into his cupped hands to keep them warm, waiting for a break in play.

“Score!” demands the man in the stand to the SCT player one on one with the keeper, but he can't, the toe poked effort is saved by the keepers feet. Quickly follows another SCT chance, one can’t say they haven't had them, this time the goal bound header is cleared off the line.

There doesn't seem to be one of the WT bench actually on the bench, it's a busy little technical area. They watch on as they go close themselves, but don't have long to wait to have another goal to celebrate. Their fourth is from much closer range than the last, hit high up into the roof of the net, well out of reach of the keeper.

Maybe it was passing the spiritual home of Arsenal on the way here, but I opt for the Woolwich Wonders SEGA yellow and blue number as my option for today's, ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’. Tom likes the stylish faded numbers on the back of it, telling me its a “good look”, but also tells me its not blue, but black and I “need glasses”. WT’s dark green shirt and black shorts has Tom a little stumped, me too. I can't think of anyone who plays in that colour combination, green the least used colour in the football kit pallet. In the end I suggest Borussia M├Ânchengladbach, but don't think I'm even close.

So close, our Friday was almost complete, Jon Main nearly scored!.

The whole WT area lets out a collective “arghhh” in near perfect unison when they threaten to get their fifth, except for one player, who has his back to the match and is asking a friend in the stand, “where you going after?”.

“Fuck off ref” says the WT manager in the dying moments of the match, when the referee gives a late penalty to SCT. Well I say the referee gave it, again it was his linesman, the man in the middle once more having “waved it away” as the WT manager quite rightly pointed out, only to be won round by the vigorous waving of his assistants flag who “gave it”. “That proves just how shit he is” says the WT manager to someone in the crowd.

With no number 4, it's no great shock the late penalty is not as clinical as the first, the big burly back of the big man not there to take the strain of the watching crowd and expectant teammates. The WT keeper almost saves it, diving the right way he looks to have got a hand to it, but can't keep it out “Come back is on” shouts an optimistic SCT fan. It being the 91st minute I think any kind of heroics are doubtful, I put his wishful thinking down to the free flowing beer.

There is no time for a reply from the referees assistance when he is asked by the WT bench if he was “getting bored” hence why he awarded the penalty, because the whistle blows, and WT are through to the semi final. Just two games away from retaining their title.

“Wins, a wins, a win” says WT’s assistant manager, he reckons the team were a bit “nervous” the “pressure of defending” their title got to them a bit.

SCT are clapped off, “well done lads, chins up” says a man in the gallery. Their captain, isn't on his way in yet, it's a no smoking changing room.

Other than the joy of getting to watch football on a Friday, something we are big fans of, there are few better ways to end the working week, what was most satisfying about tonight was the lack of pretence. No paraphernalia, no distractions of a raffle or finding a programme, no badly made mouse mats with the clubs badge on, just football.

On the very odd occasion we visit clubs where their opinion of themselves isn't quite in line with what level of football they are playing at.. Almost what you might call deluded, I'm all up for being professional, and striving for greatness, but sometimes a reality check is in order. A reality check that football is in need of from top to bottom, even more so in some places that in others.

Tonight there were no inflated egos, no one lording it up over anyone else, just people appreciating the game we all love. Where the chairman is also the secretary and he does the clubs Twitter too, where his wife cleans the kit in the week and an old pro laughs with you afterwards without hesitation "nearly got your goal for ya". It's certainly a few steps up from jumpers for goal posts, but a hell of a way away from the madness of the top flight, its just about football in its purest form.

Kevin said to me when we'd spoken previously, that we would be "pleasantly surprised" when we eventually paid them a visit. Thinking that we were somehow dropping down to their level, lower than we're used too, that it might not be up to our standard. I can assure anyone who is interested in knowing, that our evening at Bayliss Avenue ticked every box going.

I'm not a smoker anymore, haven't been for a while, horrible habit. Tom has his vape, and when he gets drunk has the odd puff of the real thing, then regrets it. The sight of seeing SCT's captain puffing away got him thinking, "If he can smoke and still play so can I", our people will be expecting a call from your people Welling Town FC. Tom will only be a free agent for so long.

 

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Thursday, 15 February 2018

Got To Be In It To Win It - East Thurrock United FC Vs Spennymoor Town FC, FA Trophy 3rd Round Replay, Rookery Hill (06/02/18)

Small flakes of snow fall as I ready myself and step outside into the world, from the warmth of my flat. It’s still light, but its already bitterly cold and with light fading it's only going to get colder.

I’m starting to think it's some kind of a wind up, but once again the offering from Radio 4 is the bloody Kitchen Cabinet again, that's the third game in a row that I've had to listen to these twits go on about food related lunacy. Today it's about the best kind of dish to bake your cheese in. I’m so thankful that the few sentences from the “resident cheese head” are some of the last of the show and I don't have to suffer them prattling along for long.

Some of you may be thinking why don't you just change channel, well I will tell you why I don’t. The radio in my car picks up three channels, four on a good day LGR (London Greek Radio), Heart, Radio 1, sometimes Classic FM and of course Radio 4.

So when push comes to shove choosing between programmes in another language, shit music or shit music, my options are limited, and not wanting to sit in silence, I’m left with little choice and the very high probability of having to suffer someone going on about the best way to cook a pigs cheeks.

Anyway they're gone now and I’m only half listening to the next programme, but the quote from Charles Dickens about the ravages of winter, “the desolation of a winter night sat brooding on the earth, and in the sky”, seems quite apt.

It’s Toms turn to come bearing gifts today. Last time out I brought him a fresh and lovingly made cup of tea. Today he is offering, an apple Chupa Chup lolly, it's the thought that counts I guess.

We’re not long under way when he starts talking about the elements. He's yet to take his massive jacket off and when he tells me that it's going to be the “coldest night of the year” tonight, for once I don't think hes being his usual overly dramatic self. Normally a hefty pinch of salt is required when he inevitably shares his weather forecast, but there might be some semblance of accuracy in what he’s going on about today.

Regardless, there are much more important and frankly hysterical things to talk about. Having lent him FIFA 18 at the weekend, he has started his Arsenal Career mode, a career at his beloved Gooners which was short lived.

A new feature of the latest game is the more involved contract negotiations. Keen to tie down his creative German number 11 he goes head to head with the play maker and his agent, thrashing out the finer points of his new contract. Thinking he's come out on top, inserting a sizable buyout clause of £1,500,000 he reckons hes secured the services of the former Real Madrid player for the next four years, except.

Except that, two days later, two days after thinking his Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang front three were going to win that all important 4th place trophy, PSG swoop in, triggering his release clause and Mesut is on the first private jet to Paris.

I’m pretty sure I laughed the whole way to Essex, yes we're off there again. I’m not sure what was funnier, Tom thinking he'd got a good deal after some considerable back and forth or the fact he just turned it off and started again.

It’s dark now as we meander along the A1014 in search of today's ground. Tom thinks he sees the floodlights off in the distance, but I think he's confusing them with the nearby docks. This particular nearby stretch of the Thames estuary is positively glowing with the lights of ships and cranes.

I’m almost forced into a Fast and the Furious: Essex Drift type manoeuvre when our turn off, catches me out, despite the instructions on my Sat Nav. It's so dark, I’m dubious if there is even a road there to turn into, but try my luck.

The dimly lit entrance to the car park at Rookery Hill, home of East Thurrock United FC (ETU) is hardy visible. “Time to get cold” says Tom climbing out of the car onto the uneven surface under foot. We both head towards the nearest source of light coming from the small square windows of the clubhouse.

Pints & fruit machines and plenty of brown leather, fill the low ceilinged room. The pool table has been covered, and pushed up against the back wall, next to those machines which in exchange for 20p, dish out some Minstrels that look like they’ve been there too long. Tom’s first choice of where to sit he tells me is intentionally uncomfortable. I couldn't understand his thinking considering all the plush armchairs, he was just worried that he “wouldn't get up again”.

The high arms and soft back are like a warm leathery hug, I can understand his misgivings in choosing them, but they were too hard to resist. He isn't sitting for long mind, the call of the food menu coming from the bar is too loud.

“No chips” he tells me, but they did have turkey and stuffing flavoured crisps that he has quickly made a dent in, before offering me one. Looking out of the window, it looks cold, it's stopped snowing, there are no obvious signs of the “yellow weather warning” that Tom must have mentioned fifty times already, but I’m glad I’ve brought a hat, scarf and some Fagin gloves.

As ever Tom has taken his quest to stay warm to the next level, not just satisfied with a snood and his creepy gloves that allow him to use his phone, he has hand warmers. The same ones that made the four hundred mile round trip to Mossley, and he was too embarrassed to get out. A little closer to home, and well travelled, they are originally from Italy from when his other half went skiing, he finally plucks up the courage to reveal them.

They are out of date and not working, regardless of how vigorously he shakes them. The fact his “pocket is warm” I’m not sure quite justifies having them. The fact they are defunct means his back up, a pair of thermal socks, “might make an appearance”.

Although it’s predominantly black and yellow in the clubhouse, many of the home fans here are wearing their much needed striped scarves, except the dog at one person's table, he's just eyeing the crisps tantalisingly out of reach in front of him. In dribs and drabs there is the introduction of some black and white, and the unmistakable north east accent of the fans of ETU’s opponent tonight, Spennymoor Town FC (ST).

Locals and visitors are soon mingling, a couple of away fans are keen to get the lay of the land, finding out all the important things like where the loos are and if they can get food in the ground.

“Can I interest you in a 50/50?” asks the man in the ETU hat and Hi Viz waistcoat, yes you bloody can, I’ll take two. I hand over my money, he puts it in his Tupperware box and heads off to the next table, “got to be in it to win it” he says to the ST supporters, as he wraps us his latest sale.

Before heading off to flog some more, I overhear him confirm to them that there will be “no chips” or “pies” available tonight. Two hundred and fifty miles and no pies, they must think it a wasted journey.

Toms snood is out well early and for once I can't blame him. Peering in the window of the container that's been converted in to the snack bar, Tom looks a little like Oliver. He is trying to suss out if the lady unfurling great reams of tin foil sells her sausage rolls that currently sit under a plastic cloche hot or cold. “Think they're served cold” he says after some investigation, a little disappointed.

As what Tom calls “dandruff snow” starts to fall, his way of describing the lightest of light smattering of the cold stuff, he remonstrates with himself, “should of brought long johns”. People take all sorts of things to football, various “accessories” as Tom calls them. The horn one small person is blowing is not one Tom is particularly enamoured with, tonight the “ultimate accessory” would be a “hot water bottle” according to my chilly companion, whose “warm pocket” is doing very little to heat the rest of him.

While he finishes his sausage roll, he of course succumbed. I leave one person eating, only to interrupt someone else doing just that. The woman on the turnstile is mid snack, when I disturb her for a programme. Next to her a man stands next to a small wooden table, on top of it an even smaller tombola and in front of that a Quality Street box. Thinking I’ve stumbled across another opportunity for a flutter, he tells me its the “50/50”, gutted.

The club shop isn't open yet, I say shop, it is in fact a miniature conservatory. The large windows means the goodies inside are close, but oh so far, we will have to revisit it later.

Preceded by a crackle and then a hum, the speakers bring some life to a relatively somber ground, filling it with music I don't know. Tom couldn't care less about the music, the cold is the only thing on his mind, the socks have appeared much sooner than I thought they might. One passing steward is very impressed, “I see you've come prepared”.

There is not a lot to please the eye at Rookery Hill, a nice church is brightly lit behind one goal, and its quite intriguing to see what can be done with a shipping container, but other than that there is no real standout feature, saying that though the all glass dugouts are a first. It’s perfectly nice and in great nick, but it's just not abundant with character. Tom is not a huge fan of it, only because the colour scheme of green and yellow, is the same as our secondary schools PE kit was.

Behind one goal though, the same as the church is a large flag, we like a flag, we’re big fans of flags. It’s a yellow and black St George's cross with “We Are The Rocks” written across it. In the middle, is the club's crest, “why they got a grim reaper on their badge” asks Tom? Investigating closer he is quite right and I’m not sure. I’m not sure it is in fact the harbinger of death, but it's not far off, and I’m not sure why that would be your choice of badge. A frightening looking chap all in black, with a hood, beady black eyes and a sizable scythe.

To add to his deathly persona, it's not totally clear what he's “standing over” points out Tom. Lying at his feet is it the vanquished remains of other teams or rude groundhoppers?

The signature blue jackets of the National League, being worn by a few players as they materialise for their warm up, reminds me we are watching two teams from their respective north and south divisions going head to head. When Tom gets a glimpse of ETU’s keeper, stocky, bearded and bald, he’s sure he is the spitting image of a WWE wrestler, but can't remember his name. This bout of early 00’s nostalgia is halted when the CD player starts to skip and is allowed to do so for overly long

While the officials run their laps, the main man with his Britney mic already taped to his face, both teams go through the final throes of their pre match drills, and there is quite the stark contrast between the two.

The home team are quiet, lethargic and “lack enthusiasm” says Tom. The visitors, well they couldn't be more poles apart. It's like a scene from 300, loud and raucous. The pitch is “heavy” one of their coaches points out, some teams would baulk at this, but the men from the north east are unperturbed, “perfect from us” the same coach adds.

It really is cold, lost finger cold, Toms hand warmers are officially useless. It’s the toes though, that are starting to screaming the loudest. Things have got so bad for one home fan, that he's been forced to take desperate measures. He is nigh on forced to beg the custodian of the shop to open up. He tells her he wants a hat, pointing to his near bald head he tells her “its cold” and she relents.

Someone has finally found another CD, not that it's really needed. A decent sized group of fans from each team have set up shop behind each goal, and the ST fans have strung up their own flag. Its them who start to sing first, but I can’t quite make out what they are saying

Behind me a fierce debate has broken out between a fan of each team, a little bit of one-upmanship, about the playing surface “We love a flat pitch” says the ST fan thinking he's trumped the ETU one, however he has an ace up his sleeve, “we love a flat pitch” he says in reply aping his counter part. There is a brief pause, each thinking they have the better of the other, thankfully they don't come to blows.

“Hello good evening everybody” says the voice over the PA, who definitely sounds like he could be an East End villain in a Guy Ritchie film, cheeky, charming but with the distinct possibility of owning pigs. The away fans reply to the welcome with shouts of “Moors, Moors”. The considerable home turnout, most of whom are pushed up against the railing around the tunnel, offer up their support “come on your rocks, come on lads”.

There is a quick swap of ends for the fans, the MT supporters crack out a black and white chequered flag on the end of a thin spindly flag pole and the game kicks off, and what a game it proves to be, and we don't have to wait long for the action to start.

“A goal for the Rocks on 4 minutes” says Bricktop and is was not your everyday run of the mill goal. Tom is not sure he “meant it”, he reckons it was a “cross’’ that ended making it all the way in, catching out the scrambling man in the ST goal. I think it's a work of genius a thirty yard free kick that finds the top corner of the goal with deadly accuracy.

Quarter of an hour gone and its cautious. The away fans are certainly the most vocal, “Moors,
Moors, Moors” they shout and their team are most definitely still in the game, despite conceding early. One of their players embarks on a remarkable solo run, weaving in and out of the ETU players only for a last ditch tackle stopping his shot, “lucky bastard” mutters an ST fan.

Chances are coming thick and fast, ETU fire a ball right across the ST box, have a freekick which is not far off, then curl a shot just over. ST go close themselves with a shot that is spilt by the ETU keeper, but no one can get close, and he gathers up the loose ball.

Still the loudest of the two sets of the fans, the ST supporters stick to their reliable cry of “Moors, Moors”, occasionally brandishing their flag and mixing up the chants by singing “everywhere we go”.

Tom reckons in tonight's round of ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ that its “Leyton Orient Vs Barnet” which is so wrong on so many levels, that I kind of don't want to play this game anymore.

Half an hour gone and the temperature on the pitch is rising, in the stand and on the terraces it is only spiralling downwards. The ST bench are livid at one foul which has left their players head “pissing with blood” as Tom puts it. The player a little aghast, does his best Terry Butcher impression, standing on the sideline while a bright white bandage is wrapped around his head. Such is their anger they have encroached a fair way onto the pitch, “get a grip of the game” shouts one of the bench to the man in charge. “Back on again and you're off” he says in reply, waving his hand at them, as they edge back closer towards their fish tank dugout.

This time the crowd are joined by the bench “Moors, Moors” they cheer, with just over ten
minutes of the half left. A slightly stooped close range ST header, means the game is all square. There is a brief celebration, the scorer dashing behind the goal among the flags which are in the air once more. He doesn't though revel in his glory for long and is soon making his way back to his half, along with his teammates.

“Have a grope around in your trousers” suggests the voice over the PA, his way of advising people to check if they have won the 50/50. The draw having been done, with the game still playing.

Alone now and sitting in one of the small stands,Tom has gone for food, I'm surrounded by people with blankets over their knees and Thermos by their sides. I find my tickets, not in my trousers but my notebook and suffer the ignominy of only being three numbers off the prize. The people at the next table along from us in the clubhouse I should think the winners.

Both teams are playing some “great football” as one fan puts it. When ETU have a shout for a penalty, one ST fan lets him know of in no uncertain terms what he thinks of his attempt to win a spot kick, “get up man” he says in his thick Durham accent.

“Come on rocks” barks a home fan, with the game flowing from end to end at quite a pace. The ST bench are close to peaking, I'm not quite sure what's wound them up so much, admittedly the referee has been a little dire, but they are near to erupting.

Tom returns clutching the most gargantuan burger “back on the double” that's a double pattie he tells me, the thing is dripping with cheese, the thin cheap paper serviette wrapped around it has almost disintegrated, unable to cope with its oniony greasiness.

In to added time and it's all change. The quite magnificent volley from well outside the box from the ST player all in red is destined for the top right hand corner of the ETU goal, is matched by an equally magnificent athletic save worthy of any top flight WWE wrestler, by the man who according to Tom looks just like one. At full stretch he tips the ball over for a corner.

2 - 1 ST, the “goal scorer to be confirmed” says the now hurting voice over the PA, this close to halftime I wonder if he has tidied away his team sheet, in preparation of his own “double” waiting for him in the wings.

There is a sizable evacuation after the half time whistle, most people making a beeline for the shelter of the clubhouse. Those fans not heading inside silently brush past each other right in front of us, the narrow pathway causing everyone to get very intimate. The ST fans going one way are led by the young man wearing a St Georges cross like a cape, rubbing shoulders with the ETU supporters most in yellow and black scarves going the other way.

Still not having confirmed the scorer, the voice does though remind everyone of the “FA regulation that everyone likes” that is in play today, that alcohol can’t be brought “back into the ground”.

Tom having finished his behemoth of a burger, realises the genius of the fans around us, “they've got the right idea” he says to himself, “where is my blanket?” he asks, like I forgot it.

The relocated ST supporters are quick to get back into the swing of things at the start of the second half, “Moors, Moors, Moors”. On the pitch it's got off to a bristling start. ST’s bench are in constant dialogue with the referee. “I appreciate the clarification” he says at one point, following one coaches observation on his latest decision.

Having been treated to one spectacular free kick tonight, I feel almost greedy, when we are offered up a second helping of set piece deliciousness. This one just as astonishing as the first. The ping of hitting the woodwork before heading in, the keeper caught out from the most ridiculous angle, it’s almost from the corner spot, is deafening. It’s replaced by the now familiar chant of the travelling fans “Moor, Moors, Moors” and a mighty shout of “get in” from the away bench.

Such is the enthusiasm of one ST player, there is a slight coming together between him and the referee. Tom suggest its a “barge”, I’ll stick with coming together.

Having been a goal behind, ST now find themselves two ahead, 3 - 1. One would think we’ve already had our allocation of allowed drama for one game. The remaining forty minutes of the match destined to be a dull affair. Anymore theatrics would just be gluttonous.

With the third ST goal feeling like it’s put this tie to bed, ETU have other ideas. Still with a little bit of fight left in them, they rally quickly and almost get one foot back in the game straight away. However they don’t have to wait long for an ST player to present them with another opportunity back into the match.

Through a body of players I can't quite make out what's happened, there is an almighty claim for a “hand ball” from both ETU’s players and fans. The referee has clearly seen something, blowing his whistle he reaches for his pocket. Not only is it a second yellow for the player responsible for the offence, but has also pointed to the spot too.

“Goal for the rocks” says a now much more animated announcer. Tom is also roused by ETU’s second, “interesting, interesting” he says to himself.

It’s a black and yellow siege in the moments following their goal, ETU taking advantage of being a man up, “come on you Rocks” pleads a fan in the stand.

I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing, let me get this straight, the team with the fewer players have just furthered their lead. Its a player in red, not yellow and black who is wheeling away from goal in celebration. Its a member of the away bench not the home bench punching in the air in response to a
goal.

The lady behind us sitting next to her young son in not best pleased with the language used by one let's say unhappy ETU player returning to his half head down. “Cunt” he shouts, the cunt in question being the referee, who in Tom's opinion has been “awful” all game. The unhappy player irked somewhat that he didn't give a foul in favour of ETU, allowing the game to play on, which ultimately led to the fourth.

Not that any of this is of any concern to the ST fans, “Moors, Moors, Moors”. They then give up on words all together and just go into a cycle of “ally, ally, oh, ally, ally, oh”. They have the best metaphorical seats in the house now, as despite having ten men, all the action is down the ETU end. Another fine fingertip save prevents a fifth, yes fifth goal, “Moors, Moors” they sing once more.

Unbelievable, might be one of the best games we’ve ever seen, I suggest to Tom, he reckons that's “bold”, but let me recap, oh and by the way the games not over, this is not the most abrupt ending to one of ours blogs ever, come on there are far too few superlatives. It's just ST have scored a FIFTH, and I’m struggling to think of a game which has had more than this one, my head is a mess.

One ETU fan thinks his team have “given up” one player certainly still seems to believe, “fucking loads of time left” he shouts, he's not wrong, thirty minutes to score three goals is not outside the realms of possibility, frankly I think anything is possible today, but the heads of the payers are low, very low.

Now in dreamland having just watched their team pull ahead by three, no pies, but they have all but secured the win and a place in the quarterfinals, they sing the loudest they have all night “we are Spennymoor”. To add to one fans good mood, Tom tells me it was one of them that won the 50/50. Having walked past the victor as he announced his wife was going to get “something nice” with the winnings.

The rest of the crowd is in shock, its gone very quiet. It’s just the very “merry” ST fans as Tom describes them, who are no longer singing just “ally ally o‘ing”. One in particular is beyond “merry” and is simply “very drunk” according to Tom. I’m not sure if it's him who is the ringleader of the six man conga, I imagine he is no position to start moving around, I imagine the only thing he wants to do is stand very still.

ST’s number 9 has been a menace all night. He is denied an absolute peach of a goal thanks to the quick thinking of the ETU keeper. The “touch” that one fan celebrates by simply blurting out the aforementioned word very loudly, on the run, is a thing of artistry and worthy of a goal.

Another conga and jibes of “you’re supposed to be at home” are usurped by a new song “black and white army”. A home supporter, fed up with watching, strikes up a conversation with a fan in the stand behind us, assuming he is from the north east, until he tells him he's from “Bracknell”.

It’s desperate measures for the home team, Tom noticing that they've put their “speedy full back up front”.

There has been an underlying current of tension all match, which has almost boiled over, but not quite. With about “2 mins to go” according to the ST bench, things get a bit out of hand, a spot of “handbags” as Tom calls it. The overriding consensus from most people, as the referee dishes out “another card” says an astonished Tom, and as one player puts it directly to the man in black “you've lost it”.

Toms theory that “you know when a ref is shit” because he is “dishing out all the cards” is a fair summing up of the man in charge. It’s never felt like he's had a tight grip on things.

On the pitch the players are flagging, the fans are just getting started, “we’re all going to Bromley” they sing, their opponents in the next round and another trip down south. No pies if I remember correctly at Hayes Lane but they do have a Pizza Hatch.

“Come on ref blow that whistle” implores an ETU player. When the boards lifted with five minutes of extra time on it, Tom can't work out where he “got that from”. As one fan in the stand states, “most” of the players are “going to work tomorrow” so lets get this game sewn up.

There is a slight spike in excitement when ST once again threaten to get a sixth on not one but two occasions. With his back to goal the player turns on a sixpence and shoots just wide. Again surrounded, this time next to the corner flag, the slippery player somehow manages to get the ball free and into the box, but the resulting shot is straight down the keepers throat.

The liquid in Toms vape is frozen, “enough is enough" he says, time to go home, the players feel the same, again an ETU player demanding  "ref fucking blow up”.

Clearly dejected its a nice touch of the voice over the PA to wish the ST fans a "safe journey" home, and what a journey that is on a Tuesday night. The ETU keeper also shakes the hands of those who have stood behind him for the second half, I hope in appreciation of their unwavering support all night. Their ever so slightly slurred version of what I've always known as the 'The Greasy Chip Butty Song' a highlight of mine, much better than any goal.

Although I'm sure in a rush to get off the pitch, changed and on the coach, the ST players have plenty of time to converse with their fans waiting by the tunnel. One replying to the thanks of one player for being there, tells him it was a "priviledge''.

A fellow Essex non league football enthusiast we bumped into during the match, David, was never put off coming tonight, despite the cold, the terrible crippling cold or the fact he'd had a long day at work. If he had been he would have missed the most thrilling cup tie, a 'proper cup' tie as people call them. Seven goals, one red card, and a comeback and victory with ten men of theological proportions, completely justifies sitting in the car, desperately waiting for the heating to kick in, hands and feet tingling with pain.

He much like us doesn't want to be "sat inside" because everything that has happened since 19:45, including the weather, "is what its all about".

P.S. To the person who forgot to order the pizza for the ST team coach home, did they let you on, or did you have to make your own way home?

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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Thursday, 8 February 2018

We Love You Iceland We Do - Merthyr Town FC Vs Weymouth FC, Evo-Stik Southern League Premier, Penydarren Park (03/02/18)

It’s 08:45, I’ve been up since 07:00 and I’m sitting in the car park of a desolate retail park, waiting for Tom to arrive. For once I have someone else to blame other than myself, for not being in bed still or being at home having breakfast with my family like the Walton's, instead of being half awake and eating some pineapple out of a carrier bag. 

I will normally happily hold my hands up and take full responsibility for why I’m up so early and why I’m heading off to another corner of the non league world, but today is a little different. I can firmly place the blame at the door of two very persistent Welshmen, as to why I’m waiting for Tom contemplating the three hundred and fifty two mile round drive ahead of me.

When Tom eventually turns up, he doesn't look totally sure he’s opened the door of the right car. It’s raining and he couldn't make out if it was me inside, so decided on a bit of car door Russian Roulette, which in this particular corner of North London could have had a regrettable outcome. He is relieved to say the least, that it is me smiling back at him, all chirpy and raring to go. Handing him a cup of tea in one of those Thermos’s you see organised people on the tube with in the morning.

West, west, west, we just keep going west. Tom enjoys his tea, not talking much, only to ensure that I brought my copy of FIFA 18 for him to borrow, Tom is not a morning person. His to the point four word message to me first thing about it, came before any hellos or how are yous.

I’m not sure how long we’ve been on the road when I turn to Radio 4 for company. It's not that the conversation has dried up, but that Tom is easing into the day in his own special way, occasionally tinkering on his phone, messaging his beloved or at one point I think playing some kind of golf game, but still not talking much.

It’s only recently that I became a regular listener to what is perhaps the most highfalutin of all the radio channels. Frequent long drives up to Manchester around Christmas meant I had to expand my entertainment options, the same CD’s I have getting pretty old, pretty quickly.

Bizarrely it was the Archers, something my Dad listened to, that hooked me. I don't know why an inner city boy from West London had any interest in the goings on in Ambridge, but the theme tune is one I remember growing up, listening to it on long journeys with him, so it feels kind of familiar and nostalgic, so I got quite into it, but I digress.

There are no arguments about Tumble Tussocks cider on this morning, but a show we listened to on our recent trip to Margate, The Kitchen Cabinet. The premise being a panel set in front of an audience, discussing food. However it’s not what you might call normal food, everyday sensible people food, but Radio 4 food.

Ever heard of a Bath Oliver or a Bath Chap? No me neither, not before today anyway. The first I now understand is a kind of cracker, the second a braised pig cheek. You see what I mean, not the kind of thing anyone is having after a day at work, unless your day at work consists of being one of the landed gentry.

The last straw is the woman in the audience, a teacher no less, asking if Jammy Dodgers are the scariest of biscuits. It’s at this point I hurriedly turn off the radio and decide I’d rather sit in silence. All the talk of food mind, has roused Tom and sparks a very apt conversation.

“I love Welsh Rarebit” he proclaims. Welsh Rarebit by all accounts is a lot more than just a bit of mild cheddar on a slice of bread, it includes mustard and all sorts. I admit I don't really even like cheese on toast, despite his Mum always giving it to us when I used to crash on his spare bed, in our more hedonistic days.

“Don't think we can be friends” he says, when I admit to what you would think was some awful crime. It’s just all too salty and rank. Give me a baked Camembert, four different cheeses on a pizza, soft and runny. But thick wedges of cheddar on toast, I’ll pass thanks.

Time for a pit stop, Tom needs the loo and I need a tissue stop for my runny nose. Tom takes the opportunity to “get some snacks”, returning with two bags of Hula Hoops, “I wasn't sure about beef” he tells me, and a pack of any road trips staple, Peanut M and M’s. The presence of a drive through Starbucks means I don't even have to get out of the car to top up my caffeine levels, and we continue along the road like a right couple of Jack Kerouac's.

For maybe the first time ever, the weather is improving, instead of worsening as we head close to our final destination. The whopping great Severn Bridge is our gateway to our first ever international non league match. The large red dragon perched on the roadside sign, officially declares “Croeso I Gymru”.

Other than the edition of another language on every sign, it doesn't feel like we're in another country. We’re still driving on the same side of the road. There is a definite improvement in the scenery, but I guess it won't really feel like we’ve ‘gone abroad’, until we see what kind of crazy flavoured crisps they sell.

The slight bit of traffic around Cardiff, people making their way to the rugby, means that by the time we are climbing the narrow winding street leading to today's ground, catching our first glimpse of Merthyr Town FC’s (MT) home Penydarren Park, which on first impressions is a lot more modern than I had anticipated, pay our £2 and find a space to park, we’ve been in the car dead on four hours.

Arriving just after us, the coach carrying Weymouth FC (WFC) must have struggled along the single file road here. Hopefully with the handbrake fully on, its quite the incline, we are effectively perched on top of a hill overlooking the town. The away teams kit is unpacked from the coach, along with the drum of one of the travelling fans.

It’s normally pretty clear not long after arrival, what kind of club the one we are visiting is going to be like. A friendly club, a not too friendly club, a music off all turn round and stare when we walk in the clubhouse kind of club. MT quite quickly earns the rarest and highest accolade we can bestow upon one that only a very few of the clubs we have visited have earn.

In a black t-shirt and ageing MT scarf around his neck, Phil, one of MT’s board members, who came to his first game in “1958”, is soon showing us around the most modern part of his teams home. One bar is closed today, rented out for a function, a wedding reception for one of their own players.

Beyond the glass, stainless steel and beige fire doors, there are little hints as to what a special club MT is, and what a rich history it has. One wall is covered in white ceramic bricks, each with a name of one of the clubs owners. Since their rebirth in 2010, their original incarnation going bust after over 100 years, MT have been fan owned.

Next to the new is the old and an insight into the depth of MT’s illustrious past, a few mementos from their foray into European football. A framed Atalanta shirt, programme and poster hang on the wall, from MT’s game against them in the the Cup Winners Cup, which they celebrated the “30 year anniversary” last year Phil tells us.

Carrying on past various offices, among all the fixtures and fittings which make it look a bit more like a new office block than a football club, is a Lego model of the ground and opposite and grandest of all, is the clubs award from UEFA no less, winner in the Best Club category in the 2015 UEFA Grassroots Awards.

“A draw would suit me” says Phil, when I ask him how he thinks MT will get on today. With the recent financial issues that reared their head in November, that have hit the club hard, causing a sizable exodus of players, it means the team is in a state of flux to say the least and results have been hard to come by as of late.

Talking to another member of staff, he tells us the Wales game in Cardiff, will affect the gate today, by at least “50/60” this despite him telling us “Merthyr is a football town. Football through and through”. With money needed even more than ever at the moment, the fact that MT are playing at home for “three” of Wales “five” Six Nations games, is really something they could do without.

Phil is spending the day in a corporate box, a treat from a friend, so he heads off to eat some prawn sandwiches, leaving us to it. We’re not alone for long however, its like some kind of relay, us being the baton, which is soon picked up by someone else equally welcoming. Mark and Mike the creator and editor of MT's fanzine Dial M For Merthyr.

Mark who must be pushing 6’4. His imposing stature and a wildlings red beard, making him a
fine example of someone who should not be judged by his cover, is warm and loquacious. He's more than happy to dive straight into a chat about the goings on at the club he has supported since “1974”, when his Dad dragged him along for a game, who he was “fucking pissed off with” because it was so “fucking cold”. Reminiscing about the weather, he tells us today, overcast but fine, “is a good day” in these parts.

Mike with his black hat pulled down almost over his eyes, a fan for “40 years” calculating that makes him stop for a second to process the fact it’s been so long. “Fucking hell” he says to himself, puffing out his cheeks. He talks at about million miles an hour, and like Mark is overflowing with passion.

Penydarren Park is a bit of a dichotomy. The contemporary frontage and functions rooms, sit side by side with uncovered concrete terraces and along the whole side of one side of the pitch an almost agricultural looking shed with a steep bank of wide long steps.

The pitch a 3G one only adds to that conflict, but it's been a Godsend according to Mark and Mike. One thing MT certainly can't afford at the moment is games being postponed, a “thousands pounds down the drain easy” says Mike when that happens. So at least the 3G gives them the security of knowing that games are going to go ahead.

What is abundantly clear, is both of them are not going to go down quietly, some might have seen what happened in November as the beginning of the end, these two I think just see it as a hurdle, one that can occur when the focus of the people in charge is off. As Mike puts it, it's not going to be the “ten of twelve” in the boardroom that are going to fix their problems. It's going to be the “four hundred’ people he says pointing to the terrace, the fans who can turn things around.

They've had bucket collections at “Cardiff and Swansea” on match days, they had a “Burns night” recently where they “toasted” the “haggis”, there's a Motown night booked in the bar coming up, anything they can do to bring that money in, as Mike points out, it’s about “reinventing” themselves, to make sure they can stay afloat. Most damning of all perhaps is the fact that the people in charge have “lost the support of the people” and that needs to change fast.

Although we’ve never met, only spoken via Twitter, and his selfie of a Twitter avatar is not the clearest. I having a feeling I know exactly who the person walking towards me is, with a broad smile, his MT shirt poking out from beneath his jumper and his arms full of folded flags. Kieran is 50% of the reason we’re here. “Most random place, up on the hill”, he says, his way of confirming we got here OK. However he’s not around for long, he's an arm full of flags to hang.

It's Scottish football on BT playing in the bar, not Sky Sports early afternoon offering, they had to ditch the Sky package, cost cutting. Kieran has finished with the flags and joins us at our table. He as most have been so far is forthcoming and matter-of-fact about MT’s chances “2/3 Weymouth” he thinks. Certainly a defeat whatever the score, he’s “resigned to that” he tells me, admitting in almost hushed tones, ‘’it's getting depressing”.

In the space of about five minutes the level on the nice'o'meter is nearly through the roof, in fact we might need a whole new way of how to measure just how nice people are, as the old way is just not sufficient. Tom is offered as am I but decline only because I’m driving some local whisky, the bottle plonked in front of him and he's told he can help himself. Not sure how much to take Mark tells him if it touches the “rim of the glass” there might be problems, other than that pour away.

Tom’s necking neat whisky, I’ve just had a football scratchcard thrust into my hand, I’ve handed over my £2 to the lady in the woolly hat and Hi Viz jacket as I scribble my name next to Tottenham, Tom tells me I should have gone for “Wolves”, the team who won me the cash at Taunton, but they’re not on there, don't you think I would have if they were. I put his name next to Ajax because of the lack of Arsenal.

It’s as if they knew we were coming. I’ve almost dropped £7 now, taking into account the two 50/50 tickets I got with my program, but how could I resist the two young ladies selling the raffle tickets. I’m not even sure what the prize is, one of the duo is holding up a home made poster with the details on, but I don’t read it, I just tell myself it's all going towards a good cause and hand over my cash.

Kieran knew full well one of the ways to get us here, was to tell us about the food, knowing Tom is happy to travel when what's on offer to eat is good. “Please try the cob and chips” he implores, Tom I’m not sure aware of what a cob is and I having lived with a Northerner for ten years translate for him, a cob being a bread roll. Kieran goes on to explain that they hollow it out and fill it with chips and cover it in curry sauce, it's a good thing Tom is sitting down.

“What else you do?” enquires Tom. “Ice cream” replies Kieran, “bit cold for that” says Tom half laughing, “not in Wales” replies a deadpan Kieran.

Being the exemplary host he is, and wanting to make sure I’ve covered all the betting bases today, Kieran asks if I’ve got my 50/50 tickets yet, I tell him I have. He takes a sharp intake of breath. “Don't buy them first thing” he explains, bit late now, “wait until 2-2:30pm” to get them he explained. He reckons you have a better chance of winning, if you get them then, FUCK.

Seemingly out of the running with the 50/50, and I think in an attempt to lift my spirits, he does the scratchcard in front of us, it's neither Tottenham or Ajax, but bloody “Manchester United” he announces.

I need to clear my head, and by the looks of it so does Tom. “Fucking whisky” he blurts out, once free of the free pouring clubhouse, the straight shot on an empty stomach may have been an error.

Having spotted a few people in the very stylish grey MT bobble hat, with the club's badge on it, a demure looking lady with a cowl on, pulling a bit of a Princes Diana Taj Mahal face, Tom is disappointed to find out the small club shop has sold out.

After filling us in on the mascot situation here at MT. That it used to be “shaggy the sheep” who the FA told them to get rid of and now its a very common animal in the Brecon Beacons a “zebra” after a competition in the local schools, “at least its black and white” comments a confused Tom. Kieran on finding out on Toms bad luck in the shop, offers to send Tom one he has at home. Does his generosity know no bounds, we only met him an hour ago.

Tom is not downhearted for long, how could he be with the distraction of the most incredible smell of food wafting around. It’s been there since we arrived, both of us like bloodhounds trying to work out where it’s coming from. Some people whose disappointment cannot be quelled by the mouthwatering aroma, are the couple looking for a seat in the main stand, who can't believe the rugby is being played over the PA. Having just missed a rousing rendition of the Welsh national anthem, they are gutted to hear the commentary begin, “oh no we’re recording it”.

“Think they’re going to play that during the whole game?” asks Tom, as the roar of the kick off from the Principality Stadium stadium reverberates around the ground. The egg chasing though is soon replaced by some grade A Dad music, which hopefully will mean the couples programming of their Sky+ box was not in vain.

Black Knight by Deep Purple, is followed by Sweet Child In Time by the same band. When all nine
minutes of that has played out and with the players ready to walkout, it's left to Thin Lizzy to welcome the teams onto the pitch.

On the opposite side to the black tunnel the players walk along, the decent turn out of WFC fans are stringing up their flags, whilst a silver dish is presented to one MT player for having recently scored his one hundred and fiftieth goal for the club. Instead of joining in with Phil Lynott and the Dublin six piece in their wisdom they have started belting out a rendition of God Save The Queen, and not the Sex Pistols version.

There is a minutes silence that’s well observed, people pay their respects to an old MT physio who had recently died. The silence is broken by the whistle of the ref and then the shouts of the home fans around me in the main stand, “come on Merthyr”.

One young MT supporter in his wellies and red Stone Island coats day doesn't get off to the ideal start, when he trips following his Dad, spilling his tray of chips. The two St Johns ambulance women he fell in front of are not exactly forthcoming offering their help, they are too busy chowing down on their sausage rolls.

With the game underway, the WFC fans are the first to start chanting, spelling out their name to the rhythm of the drum that we saw being unloaded from the coach. The home fans, just along from the visitors in the large covered terrace, reply with an airhorn. Starting the precedent of a near constant back and forth between both sets of fans for the whole afternoon, their off field antics almost render the match inconsequential. Which is no bad thing if you’re an MT fan, because its very obvious, from very early on, it's going to be a tough day for them.

The WFC supporters are certainly the noisier in the opening quarter of an hour, which is cagey, with little to no action. “We’re from sunny, sunny Weymouth” they sing, one fan is so happy that this is the case he is whirling his scarf above his head and doesn't stop, such is his ardour, when the song changes “claret and blue army”.

As I said anything of interest is going on in the stands, to our right the MT fans stand behind their own flags, their drum fastened to the railing, “come on Merthyr, come on Merthyr”. The visitors reply, telling us all they are “on their way” not to the National League or the Football League, but very modestly and sensibly, not wanting to get their hopes up, to the “play offs”.

The young girls selling the raffle tickets, are still doing so, but are struggling to get the attention of the MT fans singing along to the drum, so stand looking on patiently, waiting for a break to see if anyone else will by a ticket.

There are seemingly two custodians of the drum, Kieran and Wesley in his dark blue baseball cap, the other reason we are here today. When he gives me a knowing nod of acknowledgement, it's like the one people at my school used to give each other in the hallway, far to cool to trouble himself with a hello.

We’re all about constant singing, constant support regardless of what's going on on the pitch, and today both sets of fans are exemplary examples of this. With half an hour gone, the closest we've come to a chance is MT flashing a header wide. In the stands though, it's quite the opposite. WFC fans although loud are showing perhaps they don't have the most diverse of song books, nothing as eclectic as the Spice Girls or Mario theme song like at Clapton here, but just “we’re on our way” over and over.

We had been warned they only have “one song”, the same song they have been singing non stop for about about the last fifteen minutes.

MT’s fans are a little more diverse with their song choices, “I just can't get enough” and they have the horn too which mixes it up a bit. Watching on as two goal bound WFC shots are blocked nigh on on the line, the fans heads don't drop, if anything it motivates them to sing louder, “come on Merthyr, come on Merthyr”.

Edging closer to half time, the smell of curry sauce is verging on overwhelming, which I’m thankful
for, Tom stinks of booze. He ponders if he can “have a sausage in his cob?” because a hollowed out bread roll filled with chips isn't enough. On the pitch, the home team are growing into the game, but just don't look like they’re going at the same speed of the much snappier looking WFC side.

It was coming, it always felt like it was coming, so it's no great shock when WFC take the lead, with just over ten minutes of the half left.

“Fuck off” shouts one MT fan towards the now bouncing WFC ones, who are understandably cheerful. Once they’ve told their team that they love them “we do”, they decide that post goal is as good a time as any to let us all know their thoughts on the town of Dorchester, “wank, wank, wank”.

The response from the home fans towards their players is not to boo, tut or gripe. They don't turn on them or all become little Mark Lawrenson's, sour and miserable, it’s quite the antithesis of that. It’s all very new age, in the best possible sense, positivity is the key and is the only way they are going to overcome the slump. Conceding the goal just prompts them to sing louder, not shrivel up and moan, “come on Merthyr, come on Merthyr”

There does though seem to be a few definite cases of comfort eating among the MT fans, I know it when I see it. There isn't one of them that isn't tucking into something, all this gluttony makes Tom’s mind up for him, no cob, its “sausage chips and gravy” for him.

A goal up, and watching a shot from one of their players almost decapitate an MT fan in the stand behind the goal, the WFC supporters declare it's time to go “fucking mental”, but their arranged mental-ness is not for long, and they are soon singing about “how they do love to be beside the seaside.

I suppose it had to happen at some point, I kind of wish they'd just kept with repeating “we’re on our way”, but I was sure we were going to hear one ovine related chant before we left. “Sheep shagging bastards”, sing the WFC fans, which is neither very imaginative or particularly shocking. Quite tame in the vast gambit of football chants, it's just a bit passe. The response though from one MT fan is priceless, “jealous” he shouts back. Before the whole group do a half turn, raising their arms above their heads they all sing back, "we know what we are”.

I’m happy to report that MT have a shot on target with five minutes left to play.

Just before the whistle, one WFC fan gets very animated, verging on the hysterical, berating one MT player for a poor cross or something equally inconsequential, “you should be ashamed” he yells with a strained high pitch voice. One MT supporter next to us, sums up the feet firmly on the ground, and level headed attitude of the home fans we’ve met so far, “ohhhhh calm down, its only football”.

The voice over the PA confirms the score, and the fact I haven't won the 50/50, when he reads out the result. Kieran, who knows just how invested I am in such things, thinks he’s helping when with a grin, he lets out a playful ‘booo’, but really I would rather suffer in silence and work through this on my own thanks, some sensitivity would be appreciated.

Tom returns with his grub, no cob, they had “sold out”. Not wanting to offend our hosts, Tom thinks he has been the victim of discrimination, “racism” even, he was sure everyone else in the line before him got two sausages, but he only got one down to the fact of being English. Not wanting to cause an international incident. I tell him to keep quiet and concentrate on not spilling what looks like about a pint and a half of gravy his food is swimming in, all over himself.

I’m interested to know what Kieran and Wesley make of all the Margaret Thatcher, national anthem, sheep shagger stuff, does any of it cross that fine line between banter and just being inflammatory, I guess some might even say racist, and proper racism, not sausage racism like Tom thinks he encountered.

They both just laugh it off, each with a look of ‘you don't have to be offended for us’ on their faces. “We’re a Welsh club in the English pyramid” explains Kieran “what do you expect”.

‘’Let's make some noise” says the announcer like an operator on the waltzers as the team's return. He also makes sure the salt is fully rubbed in the wound when he confirms my hattrick of failure, when he reads out the raffle ticket numbers.

For the homeside the second half is much like the first, a struggle. They do have an early freekick in a good position but its a limp attempt, on target but limp. They also send a header wide once more, which gets an “ohh” from the fans. However unlike the start of the first half, there is none of the noise and fervour, its very “subdued” as Tom puts it, and I think I know why.

Carbs or carbohydrates, are to blame I’m sure. If you fill everyone up with half a loaf of bread each or a mountain of chips, then you can't be surprised that everyone is a little sluggish. It’s therefore at least a full ten minutes in, when the away fans break the silence, “oh Weymouth” they sing. One of them bleats in our general direction, but has forgotten that the MT supporters are going to give as good as they get, and get a wall of “we know what we are”, once more.

2 - 0, sixty five minuets gone, game effectively over. The visiting fans have fully woken up now, “Weymouth” they reply to the der, der, der of the drum and again they sing of being “on their way”.

The mood around us certainly doesn't dip, in fact if anything its lifted by watching their team almost grab a goal back straight away, “ohhh” they all cry as one, before singing the loudest they maybe have all day, “Merthyr, Merthyr, Merthyr”.

They also make sure the WFC fans don't get a big head, pointing out they are “nothing special” because they “lose every week” and showing off some of that trademark never say die philosophy, their response to the latest WFC goal is simple, “we're gonna win 3 - 2”.

Their next song I can't quite make out, but there is a line about “finding a rat” after “looking in a bin for something to eat” and the person who found it thinking its a “treat”. We’ve been to a lot of football, and I've never heard that before, it must be a Welsh thing.

With just over seven minutes of the game left, I’m happy to report MT did something, they had a shot that forced the WU keeper into a save.

Into the final five minutes of normal time and age old rivalries boil over as the back and forth intensifies. The MT fans bluntly explain that “they always shit on the English side of the bridge” which is lovely and referencing the troubles at the recent Euros, start singing about “England running from Russia”. This gets a chorus of “England, England” back at them, which in turn gets a few lines of “we love you Iceland we do”. This final dig at our frankly embarrassing national team calls for only one thing, the second rendition of the the day of God Save The Queen, and again not the Sex Pistols version.

3 - 0, eighty five minutes gone. “Can we play you every week?” ask the WFC fans. Who certainly have committed fully to going “fucking mental” this time, as a small mosh pit has broken out in their
corner of the ground.

In extra time MT go the closest they have all day, when a free kick is hit low and straight, and comes back off the post, what you might call a daisy cutter. The shout of “second ball boys” just before it was taken really should have been taken notice of, because the rebound was primed for a tap in, but no one gambled, much to the annoyance of one fan, “second ball and no one there!”

“Weymouth till I die” sing the ever increasing rowdy away fans. As loud as they are being, they fail to drown out the fact that the announcer has confirmed that the 50/50 has been “claimed” and any hope that a mistake was made, that I had in fact won and mine were the winning tickets is kiboshed.

“It's just too easy” grumbles an MT fan, as WFC look to add to their lead in the dying seconds, one player skipping past the statuesque MT defenders and almost finishing his excellent run with a toe poke finish, but it goes just wide.

The voice over the PA wishes the travelling WFC fans a “safe trip” home, just after the final whistle. The WFC players and staff make sure to applaud the fans, who although some of their topics to sing about were slightly questionable, they really have been quite the force today. One coach, so delighted by the three points, does a small jig in celebration, punching the sky as he does so.

“Told you it would be 3 - 0” says a still smiling Kieran. He’s a rare breed among football fans, one who is still able to be chipper, when he's just watched his team lose by three. Although I’m not as bad as I used to be, I’m generally a bit of a grump in the hours following a Spurs loss. As he reminds me again, there is a certain amount of being prepared for the defeat, it's the “usual thing now”, but he doesn't let that get him down, “we go again”.

Mark also makes sure we had a “good day” when we see him in the the bar afterwards, “apart from the score” of course. He sings the praises of both the home fans who “kept the noise up” and that of the WFC fans, who he is very complimentary about.

As we prepare to leave, a montage of Arsenals recent fuck ups play out on the big screen, and Kieran is counting today's donations made in support of a small group of MT’s fans who are climbing the Pen-Y-Fan the highest peak in south Wales, one of their many fundraising activities. With a hefty amount of cash in his hands, I ask him when they are doing it, Wesley one of the climbers is standing just being him with a pint his hand, “tomorrow” he tells me, fucking hell.

Mark is the penultimate well wisher, making sure we enjoyed ourselves, he's minus his hat now and is wearing a very fetching Juventus shirt, few better things in football than black and white stripes.

It seems fitting Phil is the last person we see, as he was the first. Down in the bar from his corporate experience, he echoes the sentiments of everyone else. A “shit result”  of course but first and foremost making sure we know that we are “always welcome”.

I'm not sure I have any words left to describe just how friendly everyone was today, we didn't meet a single person who didn't smile back or didn't want to ensure we were having a good time. I can only hope that the fine efforts of Mike, Mark, Wesley, Phil and Kieran, and everyone else is enough to to keep MT afloat.

If the football Gods are listening, I haven't been to confession recently, so I might not be the best person to ask, but please, please, please let MT be OK, the world would be a poorer place without them. We don't want Mike or anyone else to have to "bankrupt" themselves to make sure they are, he admits as many others would, they're "stupid enough" to do so, and that's the beauty of the place.

 

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

 

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