Thursday, 9 May 2019

We Ain't Got A Goalkeeper - Punjab United FC Vs Cray Valley Paper Mills FC, Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division, Elite Venue (09/04/19)

I have to admit I’m not exactly overflowing with the joys of spring, my previous nights sleep was somewhat fractious to say the least, a one year old with a leaking face, is not my idea of an ideal roommate.

The weather these last few days has been not far off completely shit, stepping out of my Mum’s it’s at least dry and the sky is a hazy mix of blue and grey, she’s been lumbered with my two dependents while I make my way to pick up Tom. I say stepping out, it’s more like dragging myself out. At some point there is a very good chance I might need some toothpicks to prop my eyes open Hanna-Barbera style.

I’m still somewhat struggling with the notion of daylight after 16:30, but I’m sure I’ll get over it. Listening to a programme on Radio 4 about the reintroduction of Wolves back to Western Europe, and that Holland is now a country where you can find them, I feel altruistic by passing this information on to you via this blog, and would completely understand that right now you may well be overflowing with a feeling of gratitude. To quote a WWE Superstar voiced Polynesian God, “you're welcome”.

The more switched on members of our readership, will have noticed from the date that it's not a Wednesday, but a Tuesday, which is novel. The fact we are going to Kent, is far from the case. Waiting for Tom to get home from work, sitting outside his house, I’m subjected to a programme about Aphex Twin, which is bizarre to say the least and I’m hoping for a quick turn around, once his Lordship has arrived.

Such is my level of exhaustion, oh yes I forgot to add it's the Easter Holidays, so in combination with my leaking face daughter, I have my twelve year old son to contend with too, which may explain my headache, and although I love both of them dearly, it’s nice to be escaping their snot covered hands and endless questioning about what are we doing today.

With no help from the sound of instrumental cheese graters coming from the radio, they broke the mould when they made Aphex Twin, he really is a funny fellow, and the with sun on my face, I think I could quite happily fall asleep, until I’m startled by a dark and shadowy figure approaching me, dressed all in black, my eyes half open, I think I’m about to be carjacked, until the shadow speaks, and their attempt to sound tough, is a massive giveaway to who it is, and any feeling of concern is soon replaced with relief.

“Can you stop loitering about please” says Tom through my half rolled down window, his large can headphones fashionably resting on his shoulder, I bet if you followed the cord, they are not even plugged in, it’s all part of his look.

Having spent a fair bit of the season in this particular neck of the woods, our journey is well trodden and not particularly long. Over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, we are soon passing through some of the charming scenery that this part of the world offers up. “Quaint village” comments Tom, as we zip through one, however neither of us can work out the significance of why it has a “red road” which has us both a bit baffled, another on the string of picture postcard locations like a necklace of pearls, has a shop, called the “small shop” which is about the size of a postage stamp.

“Fucking freezing” says Tom, his teeth almost chattering. The wind is upon us like a rash as soon as we step out of the car. “Maybe it’s because we are high up” wonders Tom, it did feel like we had just ascended quite the peak and are now perched on top, and it’s certainly a little windswept.

The temporary scaffolding stand that backs on to the car park is rattling, sounding like it’s not long before it will take off. At each corner of the ground is a red flag, bearing the crest of today's home team, Punjab United FC (PU). Flag though is probably not the right thing to call them, as they are long and slender, and extend down about halfway along the flag pole, they are more like a sigil that a that a medieval army might carry. Whatever they are, they are flapping and twisting so violently, it's almost impossible to read what's written on them, and much like the DIY stand, they might be off soon too.

While a man who like Tom apparently thinks a snood is an appropriate thing for an adult to wear fiddles with one of the goals, another with a cigarette half hanging out of his mouth in a yellow high viz jacket applies the finishing touches to the white lines, and a third struggles to complete stencilling the clubs badge on the side of what I guess you could call the main stand, a car is doing doughnuts in a nearby field and no one seems remotely fazed, even the gulls pecking at the grass take the sound of squealing tires in their stride.

One could not say The Elite Venue is bustling, yes I agree it’s not the most traditional of names for a ground, but it’s always nice to see some signs of life, instead of the desolation that sometimes greets us.

“Get the heating on. Bloody freezing” says the goalkeeping coach of PU’s opponents tonight, a team who are going to think we are stalking them, considering we only saw them a few weeks ago, Cray Valley Paper Mills FC (CVP). This request from the silver haired keeper, prompts Tom to ask me if I brought my “gloves”, which I haven't, and I’m almost certain I have lost them.

One thing that can be said for non league football, is that it forces people be resourceful. The lack of money knocking about, means its vital to be able to create other streams of income, to help keep the football club afloat. Renting your clubhouse out for functions is a pretty standard way, however I’ve never heard one referred to as a “banquet room” like they have here and I very much doubt I will ever see again, a sign on a door, albeit a hand written one on a piece of A4 paper, pointing to the Hindu funeral service.

It’s a case of make your own coffee from the Station Kiosk, the milk and sugar is lined up on the chest high shelf, the lady within the Tardis like kitchen within hands you a cup and the rest is up to you. From underneath a plastic cloche a samosa is giving me the eye and not normally tempted by football eating, normally down to the lack of diversity and not wanting to feature in a documentary where I have to be removed from my house through a wall with the help of the local fire service, I normally stick to a coffee and maybe if I’m feeling outlandish a bottle of water, however they look as good a reason as any to treat myself.

The lady serving us can sense my interest, it’s probably the staring and drooling and testifies to them being good. “I've just had one” she tells us. Thanks to the power of social media, I already had an inkling that the food was good here, having seen on Twitter a person raving on about a kebab roll they had here recently.

The chain smoking chairman of CVP, today with a camera slung over his shoulder describes today's game as one “they need to win” in their search for the league title, to go along with their day at Wembley Stadium for the FA Vase final. The corresponding fixture was “4 - 4 at our place” he tells us with an air of annoyance, which he confirms seconds later, when he refers to PU as “buggers”, much like a baddie from a Scooby Do episode. However the form of both teams has deviated somewhat in recent months, PU are very much in a relegation battle, CVP are rampant at the top of the table.

Not one person we’ve crossed paths with so far today has failed to mention the wind, the temperature it is April after all or lack of a classic clubhouse. In some cases I’m close to shouting house, when they cover all three topics in the same sentence. For all the suggestion of opulent rooms for grand dinners here, the clubhouse, “for what it's worth” as someone refers to it, is a re purposed shipping container, with bars over the windows, but we’ve seen worse, so I’m not sure what people are getting so exercised about.

Under a sky that wouldn't look out of place in Blade Runner, the PU players are not exactly riveted about the rumoured increased crowd tonight, because of the chance of seeing the title chasers and not to support the team in their hunt for survival.

The loud music coming from one of the many function rooms, of an eastern European folk persuasion, gives the impression that quite the party is in full swing. Tom admits to me that the name of the ground, just “reminds” him of “Call Of Duty”, he is such a odd fish. “Elite car package open” he says in his best manly voice.

What may go down as the most minimalist programme I buy all season, is available from the young man manning the single turnstile, which instead of having at an actual turnstile has a spring loaded gate. It might only be a single folded over piece of paper, but its full colour, on nice glossy paper, and regardless of its size, it is far, far better than an electronic version.

The car park is absolutely chocka, I’m not sure if that's because of the party or those here to watch the match. I’m inclined to think its the former, even with CVP playing some pretty neat football at the moment and the chance of seeing an actual ex international among their ranks. Some kids are playing HORSE against the wall and the CVP manager is heading out for the warm up, who is maybe the sternest looking bloke in non league football, he pulls the whole beard, bald head thing off effortlessly. Soon out of sight, the visitors are warming up on a field I’m happy to report a 4x4 is not haring about on, which would explain why the pitch is looking so pristine. With all the recent rain I was sure tonight was going to get called off, but it looks like a billiards table.

Pre match drills complete CVP keeper is explaining to a teammate how there is hardly any wind at one end of the ground, but at the other its whipping around all over the place. There are lots of shouts of encouragement from both sets of players as they amble in, lots of “come on boys” and one of the kids having the kick about, gives up a very generic, non committal cry of “win the match”.

From somewhere among the hodge podge of event rooms and the undertakers, it's somewhat of a
less than orthodox walk out for the players. Appearing at the top of a flight of stairs on to a small landing on the side of a slightly crumbly building next to the pitch. They are forced to weave through a couple of transit vans, led by the referee and his magnificent beard, and then forced to loiter around half in the car park, half on one corner of the pitch.

Being slightly more specific this time, the kids who have given up with their own game and are now attempting to nutmeg all the waiting players, have narrowed down who they are backing, “blue team, blue team” they chant towards the CVP players.

All the milling about around the back of someones work van, as the kids get even more precocious, is explained when the referees latest stern look gets the response, “we ain't got a goalkeeper” by one of the increasingly cold looking PU players. “He can catch us up” says the referee, whose lower face must be very toastie, protected by his facial hair that would make Brian Blessed, but whose head, is completely bald, and must be getting a bit frosty.

Standing on the edge of the pitch the CVP manager shakes the hand of every player as they pass him and the kids are close to a whack around the head, and even as the players are walking on to the pitch, they are trying to sneak their ball through the legs of the players, one last time.

The comments of the CVP keeper about the variation in conditions are proved as the teams swap ends, by the flags at one end going absolutely nuts, compared to those at the other, which are practically motionless. It could make for an interesting half for the PU stopper.

“Come on Punjab” shouts the young man who was operating the gate as the game gets underway, having shifted his stool from the protection of his tiny booth out into the elements, he conceals himself within his hoodie, transforming his seat into the ideal pitchside seat.

It’s an incredibly shouty opening ten minutes, with no real chances for either team. A looping CVP shot that is just over, and then a free kick which is lumped into the box and is Balrog double punched clear.

Just shy of the twenty minute mark and the first real bit of quality brings about the opener, “first shot, first goal” says Tom. A stunning curling effort from a CVP player is just a fraction too high and instead of nestling in the top right hand corner of the PU goal, pings off the woodwork, making the most melodic tone, sending it back into play where its tapped in.

To say CVP have been asserting themselves since taking the lead, might a bit a of an understatement, complete domination, might not quite go far enough either. “Leathered that” gasps Tom, when the latest CVP attempt, an arrow straight shot, sails just over the crossbar.

Their relentless forward momentum, is brought to an untimely halt, not by a PU resurgence, they are looking every bit the bottom of the table team at the moment, but by a child on the pitch. Who has ducked under the railings and has encroached onto the playing surface. Earning himself either a stadium ban or a ticking off from his Mum, depending which the authorities deem most appropriate.

“Never seen that before” says a shocked Tom, sounding every inch the person who does not have kids. That’s nothing my friend, one day you'll be hoping that's the least your little one does.

A heavy home back pass, almost ends up punishing PU, when it's almost latched onto by one of the much more sprightly looking CVP players. With a major cup final already secured and the league title looking almost like a formality, it will give a person a certain spring in their step. Tom as ever, easily distracted, is pointing out a child whizzing around the correct side of the railings on a bike, “think that’s the kid” he says, the one who not long ago was a one man pitch invasion.

PU are getting desperate, trying to get a foothold in the game by any means necessary. “Lino” one player barks, claiming the ball had gone out of play, when I’m afraid to say it clearly hadn't. CVP hit the target again, this time their shot neither hits the frame of the goal or the back of the net and is kept out. When PU are awarded a free kick, there is a pleading shout from the small stand almost on the halfway line, “come on Punjab”, but the set piece comes to nothing, and with not even thirty minutes gone, it feels like it's going to be a long night for the home side.

The CVP keeper since the first whistle has been giving a near constant running commentary on the game unfolding before him, perhaps he’s practising for life after football. The visitors send a bullet header just over, which get a reasonable panto “ohhh” from the crowd, which is then eclipsed by the “woooooo” in response to the referee's assistant slipping over.

Half an hour gone, and I can't remember a home shot on goal. The people standing at the back of the main stand with its red and white seats behind us, don't exactly look enthralled. Considering the weather, and the situation PU find themselves in, it's not a bad turn out, and I certainly don't think, despite what the PU player was intimating earlier, they are all here for CVP. Someone said not long after arriving that they generally get better turnouts for midweek games, than those at the weekend, which is unusual.

Ten to go and CVP are moments away from doubling their lead not on once, but twice in less than a minute, but their eye is just ever so slightly out and each attempt is just a fraction off target. Their performance so far you might call solid, professional, but not quite clinical enough as I’m sure their slightly Bond villain looking manager would like.

Something I’m sure the CVP gaffa has never said in his life, and I’m sure will never say, even if he was cast adrift on an iceberg and his life was at stake, such is the persona he emits of being a bit of a tough sod, is “time to put the snood on, chilly”. Tom on the other hand has no qualms in uttering such nonsense.

“What a ball” says a person behind us, as PU register their first meaningful attack of the night, a chipped cross into the CVP box is met first time on the penalty spot by a player in red and white whose first time volley looks quite against the run of the play to be drawing the game level. Only for the CVP keeper to get himself from standing to the horizontal so quickly, he is somehow able to get something on the ball pushing it on to the post. The sweetness of the strike, matched only by the strength of the save.

In their eagerness to get to the rebound, the PU players in the box are a tad heavy handed and the referee saves CVP bacon, by awarding the away side a free kick.

“Wish you had the gloves I bought you” says Tom smugly, having noticed me vigorously rubbing my hands together, trying to get some life back into them. I still haven't found the right time to tell him I’ve no idea where they are, I’m scared he’ll be crushed, so go on with the pretence of silly old me, I forgot them again, for a another week.

Looking longingly at a women's tea, the PU keeper barking at his defence, “no cross, no cross” I’m trying to do everything in my powers to avoid looking at Tom doing his cold legs dance, or giving anyone looking in our general direction the idea that we are together. Every couple of minutes, ensuring to give an overly exaggerated eye roll at him hopping from foot to foot, as if to say to the other spectators, jeez I got stuck with the loon tonight.

PU look a fraction more composed since their chance, a chance that although I’m not sure, might just sum up their season, and their game so far tonight, plenty of energy, just no cutting edge. CVP on the other hand are coasting, they don't even look like they have moved out of first gear.

“He’s won the ball ref” insist the PU bench, a player shares the same sentiment, reinforcing what the manger just said about the PU tackle that has left one CVP player poleaxed on the floor. The PU player responsible does his best to plead his case with the referee, but the yellow card is forthcoming regardless, as is always the way.

The referee until now having been rather relaxed, “needs to get a grip of this” suggests Tom as the tackles start flying in.

“Weyyyyyy” go those CVP fans here, “oh dear” says Tom, as PU keep their efforts on target tally to just one, when they send the most woeful shot, way, way over the crossbar, which on its current trajectory is on course to reach the doughnut field two hundred metres away.

Lit up like a Christmas tree, the home bench is bathed in crimson light when the board is prepared to signal how much time is to be added on. What the statutory amount for a foul is, will be added to that after a PU player is left flat out on his back. “You didn't give anything until he started crying” shouts the CVP keeper, who in turn is told to “shut up” by a person in the crowd.

It takes less than a second for almost complete silence to descend, following the referees whistle. The peace is shattered by Toms announcement, “food time” as he marches off.

Passing the clubhouse it is absolutely rammed. I’m not sure I would fit through the door, let alone inside. Arriving at the kiosk it's soon apparent that there are only two samosas left and with someone in front of us in the line, there is a chance we are going to miss out.

Tom won't be persuaded to take a break from his footballing norms and try a kebab roll, opting of course for his usual staple. I tell him he wants to try and be a bit more adventurous, so for a second he
considers a “Pot Noodle”, the man ahead of us turns and quite rightly points out one can be “too adventurous”.

As Tom has to wait for his burger to be cooked and I’ve put my order in for the remaining samosas, much to the distress of the man behind me, who wanted them too, I have taken up a seat in the small all seater stand, not the one which we were told is “new today” with its long red benches, that the man was stencilling the clubs logo on to the back wall of when we arrived, where I’m treated to perhaps the most non league conversation of all time, while the kids now off their bikes are having a kick about on the pitch, “not seen any good signs recently, all real boring”.

Managing well to carry my food and his, plus our drinks, he has previous, so I’m not that surprised, he hands me a yellow polystyrene container, the samosas in one half, a pool of what I think is raita in the other, which is more than necessary, having taken my first bite, it’s required to cool my scalded mouth. These babies are spicy. Tom is left with a bit of a quandary, having been given his chips in one container and his burger in another, and with nowhere obvious to rest them, he doesn't know what to do.

I warned him, I told him it was precarious, using the flipped down white seat as a table. With both his chips and burger on it, in a bit of an Indiana Jones bobby trap kid of way the seat remained in position, but disaster struck when he started to eat, lifting his chips it was only a matter of time before……………..

“You were right, it catapulted right off”, he says. Looking down underneath now the upturned seat, his burger is lying face down in the dirt, the look on his face one of pure agony. I want to gloat, I want to ridicule him, but I would be too cruel. I try and get him to three second rule it, but he’s having none of it, and trudges off to buy another.

Tom is nowhere to be seen when the players start to walk out, each sides fans offer a shout as they do, “come on Cray”, “come on Punjab”. Whizzing behind me, the path around the track has turned into an impromptu speedway track, as a girl on a pink bike thunders by.

From the devastation of Tom dropping his burger, RIP, to the joy on the young boys face tossing the ball back to the PU player, it just proves football as the one and only Jimmy Greaves put it, is a funny old game. It is far from funny for the home side though, who are somewhat under the cosh, CVP have come out meaning business. If their manager AKA Ming the Merciless had told me to step it up I would do just that, for fear of being melted by his ray gun, if I didn't.

A smart back heel sets up one player who fires over. Not long after a short corner routine catches PU napping and the CVP player smashes his shot inches over. “No cross, no cross” demands the PU keeper, but his fullback can't prevent it and the ball is curled in, which is met by a CVP player who sends his header spanking off the post. it's all CVP and it’s looking ominous for PU.

Despite what the PU player says, it was far from a “great challenge” that his team mate just dished out on the screaming CVP player rolling around on the touchline. The PU player is quick to leave the scene of the crime, sauntering away with a slightly guilty look on his face, doing his best to pretend nothing had happened.

It has all got a bit blood and thunder since the restart, lots of clattering into one another, “refs lost it” suggests one member of the crowd. When a CVP player is all but bundled over, the referee just waves play on, “very lenient” admonishes Tom.

When a CVP flying counter attack is brought to an unceremonious end, thanks to another PU foul, the players prepare for the set piece on the far side of the pitch. Up until now CVP although clearly having taken things up a notch, it felt like they were forcing it, rushing the final ball and the frustrations had started to show.

The well worked free kick, with the sum total of three touches, ends in them doubling their lead, was anything but forced, a very slick move indeed. One pass to the man on the edge of the box, a second to set up the player hovering and asking for the ball, the third a low drive from him, right past the keeper.

“Going to be hard to come back from that” exclaims Tom.

It’s not the case of PU having rolled over by any means, they have plenty of “energy” as Tom puts it, they just don't have much quality when in matters. “Unlucky” shouts their keeper, when a teammate flashes a shot just wide. Except for the volley in the first half, I can't remember them hitting the target.

The whole PU bench are on their feet claiming for a penalty but its waved away and although I really enjoyed my samosa, they are repeating on me like a Mother. Every so often my mouth gives up a reminder of my half time snack. That in combination with the kids on bikes who are getting closer and closer to my heels, it's hard to concentrate on the game.

“Ohhhhh, unlucky” gasps a CVP supporter, as the visitors go close once again, I've lost count. The Elite Venue has become very quiet indeed, the game well and truly petering out. “Ref they are taking the fucking piss” snarls a coach from home bench technical area, when a CVP player is booked for time wasting and there is another brief spike in the noise levels, when one of the kids not
doing wheelies, lets out a few “come on, come on”.

CVP have well and truly taken their foot off the gas, which allows PU a bit more of the ball, but even so they don't really seem to make it count.

Is it just me or is the sound of one grown man, saying to another grown man, "good boy" a bit odd? Someone on the CVP bench is very fond of it. "Concentrate" bellows the CVP keeper, his team stroking the ball about now, playing out the final minutes of the match, "keep it, keep it" he instructs his team mates.

In the end it all felt like a formality, PU offering very little resistance to the CVP machine marching on. Not the most memorable game, but a ground that won't be forgotten for a long time, for lots of very non league reasons. Don't get used to me eating, unless they have triangular snacks as good as those wherever we end up, but please have some kind of notice about just how hot they are, blimey.

Tonight though for all the freezing cold appendages, tasty nibbles, one page programmes, and the underlying tension between the manger and referee about who was pulling off good beard no hair the best, will forever be known as the night of two burgers.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE


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