Thursday 24 October 2019

Engage - Highworth Town FC Vs Swindon Supermarine FC, Southern League Challenge Cup 1st Round, The Elms (02/10/19)

“You live in a stupid area” whines Tom, annoyed that the space my car has just pulled out of, yes I’m driving, the status quo has resumed, is not big enough to accommodate his wide hipped gas guzzler. “Silly small car, silly parking” he mumbles under his breath like a cantankerous white haired muppet on a theatre balcony. It takes him at least three tries, in three different spaces, before he eventually finds one he can get into, much like the Goldilocks of parking: one was too short, one was too narrow, the third being just right.

Just about settled in, just about over his parking debacle, Tom’s choice of topic of conversation is of course the weather. “Is it going to rain?” he asks himself, peering out of the car. “Its that time of year” he says, exactly what he means by that I’m not sure, but it's clearly causing him much consternation what combination of numerous items of clothing he has dragged from his car into mine.

The latest incarnation of FIFA occupies almost the entirety of our drive west, and Tom's upcoming honeymoon in the Maldives, that despite my best efforts, will be happening during the season. Tom going all European on me, having himself a winter break, while we’re all Brexiting at home.

As is the case each year, Tom talks to me through the intricacies of Football Ultimate Team, speaking almost in another language, I try and decipher a few bits I think I understand, but it's all a bit over my head. I’m very much a career mode guy, got to get Southend to the Premier League, as I have done, with the few exceptions of when I did it with Barnet, every year for the last fifteen.

Only two other subjects manage to crowbar their way into proceedings, one is, unusual player celebrations, and Tom’s aversion to anything including mixed cheese. He’s OK with a single cheese, like on a pizza or toast, but mix multiple cheeses in one meal, well let's just say it’s not pretty, “does not react well” he says while having a momentary flashback.

Something that certainly is pretty, is the countryside we are winding our way through, in this particular part of Wiltshire. Yes Wiltshire, when I said West, I didn't mean Chiswick and after all the cheese and FIFA chat, the car has fallen very quiet. A quick glance over at Tom and I understand why. He is astutely studying his phone, I ask him what he is doing, and he tells me “buying and selling”. His FIFA 20 grind extending much further than his living room sofa, as I negotiate the motorway, he’s flogging second division Spanish players, to earn a handful of FIFA coins.

Anyone who is a regular player of computer games, will know grinding is a routine part of 99% of games nowadays, collecting thousands of stone or wood to craft a new cart, but who knew such behaviour was required in FIFA?

Despite the well meaning sign, what it is actually pointing to is not exactly clear on first inspection. A further sign, one displaying the details of tonight's match confirms we are in the right place and I can see The Elms home of Highworth Town FC (HT), floodlights and what I’m guessing is the clubhouse perched overlooking the pitch, however between us and it is a sizeable field with kids playing on it.

It is soon apparent why all the signs direct you to the spacious car park, the other side of the field, and not to the one directly next to the ground, that it shares with the neighbouring swimming baths, because it's tiny and full of parents dropping their children off for their lessons.

I must do at least three or four laps of it, until I’m lucky enough to stumble across a space just about big enough to fit my modestly sized car, the same could not be said if it had been Tom’s, so up yours mate. However some people are not so lucky, as we approach the single turnstile, one man is going around and around and around, all signs of hope having completely drained from his eyes.

At the far end of the pitch, one very eager Swindon Supermarine FC (SSFC) supporter has already fastened their flag to the fence behind the goal, however there is something much more apparent between us and it, that needs mentioning, something the kind of which you won't see everyday, even in non league.

“You looking at that hill?” asks one SSFC player barely able to contain his laughter to another coming in, who looks slightly in shock. The change in gradient from one corner of the pitch to the other is staggering, as Tom puts it, it's like a pool table in the pub that too many people have sat on the corner of. Regardless of what you do, the cue ball always ends up rolling that way.

Other than the slope, there is not much else of mention. It’s a very peaceful setting, the sound of dogs being walked in the park behind occasionally break, the relative silence. It's getting a bit dark for anyone to be playing in the playground visible over the fence, and in another twist, to add to the rarity of the slope, the ground is only three sided, which we later learn is down to the adjoining cricket club, the fence having to come down whenever a game is on and HT have to get “special dispensation to play without it”.

The man in one of the two flat roofed stands with their mixture of black and red seats, sloping down the hill along one side of the pitch, the same side as the large tree that might be responsible for the conkers littering the goal mouth, is absolutely hammering his packed lunch and won't have any left if he carries on at the rate he’s going and I can only hope Tom’s premonition of rain is wrong, because there is a distinct lack of cover.

“Lots of wood here” notices Tom, and he’s not wrong. The Elms most definitely has a bit of a Nordic sauna feel to it, well at least one part of it does. The brand spanking new structure by the entrance stands out quite a bit compared to the rest of the ground. Opposite it, with a plaque on the wall celebrating past glories, Hellenic League Champions 2004-05, is a building much more in keeping with what we’re used to seeing. Single storey, white UPVC windows and swinging doors, the clubhouse.

“Not coming in here with them” says the apparent HT prefect standing guard on the door to a man who has just arrived with his own chips, “disrespectful” he mutters to those clutching their non club sanctioned food.

The sun now gone, having set gloriously over the cricket pitch side of the ground, its now cold, really cold and Tom smirks, “I bet you’re glad you don't have shorts on”. The warm lights of the clubhouse draw us in, the doorman is nowhere to be seen, our entrance is accompanied by the Champions League music buzzing through the speakers of one of the TV on the wall.

It’s been a while since I’ve stepped into one, the summer to me at least making them a bit redundant, much rather sit outside, then be cooped up inside, but edging closer and closer to winter they really come into their own. The shelter from the cold, the promise of a warm drink, the reassuring blinking of the fruit machines lights, absolutely delightful.

“Food is limited” whispers Tom, after his brief stint at the small table covered in milk and sugar, making our teas. “Pot Noodle” he informs me is about as good as it gets, before slinking off to the loo in a bit of a grump. On his return, he doesn't bother to sit down, “time for a Pot Noodle and a pie” he tells me, the menu having doubled in size in the brief time he was in the toilet, and although it's not going to be as plentiful as his usual order, he admits it will “fill a hole”.

Sitting in its own silver tray, which is sitting in half of a yellow polystyrene one, Tom looks far from enamoured with his dinner. “They've got a Cornish pasty” he tells me before taking a bite of his pie, his back drop the kind of advertising covered board you'd usually see Brendon Rogers conduct an interview in front of, and I’m trying to suss out why he is drip feeding me the menu information, it’s so tedious. However with a mouthful of pastry and chicken he’s soon moved on, ruing the fact he “should have bought a thicker coat” and for at least the two hundredth time in almost five years, he tells me that he needs to get himself a “Wenger jacket”.

It’s quite the descent down the slope from the changing rooms behind the clubhouse to pitchside, where the referee waits with a neon yellow ball in hand and it’s now we get our first taste of the booming PA. Which had previously been playing a reasonable selection of music at a very appropriate level, but the volume the starting elevens are being read out at, is of Deaf Leppard’esq proportions.

Tom is far from a fan of midweek cup action, the possibility of extra time and even penalties, winds him up no end, so I know he will be just about the happiest person here when we are all told by the person manning the microphone, that he has been “intelligently informed that the match will not go to penalties” if it is a stalemate at the end of the ninety.

A very angry “get into them” from a SSFC player follows the whistle as we get underway and Tom having had a quick scan of our surroundings, is somewhat surprised that “there are a few people here”, but no one stands with the SSFC flag still hanging alone at the far end of the slope, sorry I mean pitch. Some have “not bothered leaving the bar” he laughs. The terrace outside the bar, is as far as a few are prepared to venture, but as Tom points out they've probably got the “best view here”.

It’s a feisty start to the game, which Tom confirms is normally the way according to an overheard conversation earlier, two home fans discussing how there is always seemingly a “red card in this game”. Both sets of players are very shouty, very vocal, and there is a reasonable amount of chatter and general football noise coming from the end SSFC are attacking, however the other, where the sad flag is, is deserted. Which might have something to do with quite how narrow it is, about a man wide or the chance of being hit by a falling conker being very high.

“Cheeky” scoffs Tom at the sight of a slightly ambitious snap shot by a HT player, that is well, well over and its soon SSFC, the team from the league above time to have a pop, there shot at least hitting the target. An unfortunate slip by a home defender sees them in, but the HT keeper is equal to the attempt, and stops it with his feet. Then HT go close once more, the match swinging from one end to another, a low shot wide of the post and then SSFC sting the palms of the man in goal for the home side with a long range dipping shot, all this action condensed into about four or five minutes.

Now you will understand why I won't pass comment on Tom’s latest observation, as it could be construed to be a little hypocritical if I did, but he is convinced the referee is a “bit fat”. When he gets no reply from me, he answers his own quandary, “he looks a bit tubs” and when I don’t entertain his body shaming, he sharply changes topic. Informing me as he always does around this time of the season, about how he’s “not looking forward to winter this year” and I remind him as I always do of the time he told me how much he looked forward to the day of a snow covered match, and we conclude that he likes the idea of aspects of it, how nice it will look on his Instagram feed, but he has made no practical consideration of how fucking cold it might get.

Both the home and away players cackle at the referee's latest decision, for wholly different reasons. The SSFC player went down very softly, “he dived” interjects Tom, winning the set piece in a threatening advanced position.

A quarter of an hour in, and as Tom puts it SSFC have notably “ramped it up a bit” kicking into a higher gear, they stroke the ball around effortlessly, testing the home keeper again with a thunderous
strike, that he is only able to palm away. “Fucking hell” he says to himself, the ball moving all over the show, almost catching him out.

The introduction of an early SSFC substitute is unfortunate for the player going off, clearly in some discomfort, and is also the cue for another assault for our eardrums. I’ll take some responsibility for the fact that we are standing quite close to a speaker, but the volume the announcement is being broadcast, I’m surprised isn't forcing locals in their droves to write angrily worded letters to the council.

Looking on in woolly hats and gloves the substitutes watch HT work the ball up well to the edge of the box, cutting in from the wing, a home fan senses some promise, “go on” he stammers, but the final ball is nigh on assaulted out of the box by “big blue” as Tom dubs him, a hulking SSFC defender and the danger passes.

The way footballers talk never ceases to intrigue me, their choice of words and blurted one line sentences, make up a whole dialect, reserved only for the ninety minutes of the match and very rarely at any other time. Sometimes it can be easy to decode, easy to get the gist of what they are getting at, but sometimes it can be impenetrable. To this day I still don't know what “pigeon steps” means. The SSFC winger though fluent in footballer knew exactly what the man in the box meant when he said “a little one”, the wide man dinking the ball to him perfectly on the edge of the six yard box, but his flicked header is over.

Judging by their performance so far, with almost twenty five minutes gone, it's clear SSFC have ever more gears to change up into if they wish, they are running at half speed if that, them scoring feels like only a matter of time, their number 9, Tom points out is “the one to watch” his dribbling “amazing”. He is very much at the centre of everything.

“Bit harsh” sniggers Tom, the home bench far from happy at the foul being given against them, “fuck off”. Another HT indiscretion, another free kick awarded, this time there is little complaint, the tackle getting a teeth sucking “ohhhh” from Tom, it wasn't pretty. The resulting set piece sees SSFC go close once more, they are giving the home keeper a right work out. The low stooping header is somehow kept out and minutes later the HT stopper is at it again, his one handed save from another header even gets the plaudits of the SSFC substitutes “save”. Managing to push the ball wide, he looks on as it bobbles along the goal line and out for a corner.

Our conversation with Derek an HT official about the “tricast predictor” and how “half” the money raised goes towards helping to maintain “the pitch”, is interrupted by him becoming very animated, “good save” he cries. It’s now the turn of the SSFC keeper to display some cat like reflexes, a header at the end of a quality cross is kept out and would have been quite an undeserved lead, had they taken it.

Derek also confirmed, something we have known for a while that the League Cup equivalent in this division, is as well respected as it is everywhere else, which is not at all. This season the Southern League couldn't even find a “sponsor” for it he tells me, and tonight's encounter is “more competitive than it normally would be” because “of who the teams are”, otherwise it would be a very damp squib.

It’s only the home players laughing this time, when their reasonable claim for a free kick is waved away and then its the turn of the SSFC number ten to reel off a few expletives when he can’t get the ball out of his feet in the box, “fuck off”. He needn't be too hard on himself, they have another chance to take the lead shortly after, but the stabbed effort is right at the keeper, it’s only a matter of time.

“Get hold of the game ref” barks a man from the SSFC technical area, following a home attack that started after a very heavy challenge. One HT player insists the player responsible, “got the ball”, making his sides case, as the player now in possession flies down the wing, but nothing comes of it

It’s a low key response to the half time whistle to say the least. Tom follows Derek having taken him up on the offer of a much needed cup of tea or coffee in my case. A SSFC official clutching a clipboard passes us having a hotly contested debate with himself, suggesting, to himself may I reiterate, that it’s “only a matter of time before the first red card”.

With Tom having already eaten, and no anticipation of the raffle or 50/50 results to come for entertainment, although it’s more entertaining for Tom of course, who takes much glee from how depressed I get when I don’t win, it's a rather sedate half time for us, however we are both shaken from our reverie brought upon us by the hot drink by the growling SSFC keeper making himself comfortable at our end, “straight in” he barks.

Surprisingly, it's the home side who go close first, the new half only minutes old. “You what, no way” says a SSFC player, dumbfounded that the referee has awarded HT a corner, many of the visiting players each wear a look of unbridled shock across their faces and this phantom corner kick, rears its head the next time the ball goes out. “Corner, corner” appeal a couple of SSFC players, the referee not seeing the funny side, instead pointing to the keeper to signify a goal kick with a very sour look on his face.

Despite the amount of time the ball has spent in the HT box, Tom is certain the game has “0-0 written all over it” and if no one is going to make the effort to at least get in the penalty area, “no one in the box man” laments one SSFC player, a cross into the channel goes unchallenged, he might be right.

“Ohhh that would have been nice” grins Tom, his mood improved by a rising SSFC shot from the edge of the box, that just misses the cross bar, the ball having been latched onto after a poor punch from the HT man in goal.

We might not be getting any closer to a goal, but we are certainly edging ever closer to a red card. “Oh that's a tackle” grimaces Tom, a full blooded HT challenge wins the ball back, but how fairly I’m not sure. SSFC’s number 9 trademark slick passing is just not sticking anymore and the “home players are fighting among themselves” Tom highlights, all making for an unpredictable final thirty minutes.

I’m trying to keep upbeat, but the chance of a goal is diminishing by the second, the fact the the visitors almost score directly from a corner, but don't, makes me wonder what have they got to do to take the lead and a slightly scything SSFC tackle sees the first booking of the game.

“Does it really need to be that loud” gripes Tom, the PA is deafening us both once more, “you’d be really pissed off if you lived over there” he states, pointing way off in the distance. He rightly adds, there are “only a couple of hundred people here” so it really does seem unnecessary.

Just before the quarter of an hour mark SSFC go agonisingly close with a back post volley, Tom is close to freezing and is asking me to go and get him “some woolly gloves”, and much like a London bus, we then don't just get one goal, but two in as many minutes.

“That was a very muted celebration” says Tom, the fact they have actually finally taken the lead only
made certain by the return of the PA, but he’s not much help, “scored by Supermarine and I‘d love to tell you who he was”.

If Tom thought the display that followed the first SSFC goal was underwhelming, he’s not seen anything yet. The reaction to doubling their lead by the SSFC players is “even more muted” than before, says a confused Tom. We know barely anyone gives a toss about this competition, but they could at least pretend to be happy. Tom’s overriding concern now, is not that we are going to see no goals, but that we are going to see “loads”. He also wonders if HT are going to well and truly “fall apart” after quite a spirited performance so far this half, SSFC second might just tip them over into, ‘we just don’t give a shit territory’.

“Engage, engage, engage” repeats the SSFC keeper, a clear Star Trek fan, doing his best to instruct a defender to stop the HT player getting closer and closer to his area. On one bench someone is blasting away on their vape, leaving a massive and slightly guilty looking cloud hanging above them and not for the first time tonight, the HT keeper, despite conceding, does his man of the match credentials no harm with a super save beating out a goal bound header.

SSFC keeper is continues to quote Jean-Luc Picard and Tom is pretty sure HT haven't had a shot on goal yet, with more than twenty minutes on the clock, which might explain the players continued squabbling, one calling another a “fucking dickhead”.

“Ohh he’s back” shudders Tom, the PA is on again, and as Tom adds the “bar sounds lively” the goings on in the clubhouse more than audible and having watched a fair bit of Star Trek as a kid, I was a Next Generation enthusiasts, sod Deep Space 9 I never heard Jean-Luc Picard say “fucking engage”. This time the SSFC keeper taking it up a notch, his defenders sloppy, allowing the HT player far too much time on the ball to send his dipping shot just over.

Heading towards the final quarter of the game, the chances are still coming. A SSFC cross causes all sorts of confusion, the ball eventually hacked clear by a HT defender, but the visitors don't have it all their own way, the crowd “ohhhh” following a save by the SSFC keeper low down to his right, only for SSFC to show just what they are capable off, racing off straight down the other end, outnumbering the HT defence, but can't capitalise

“That dog is pissed” says a concerned Tom, a nearby K9 going bonkers somewhere off in the darkness, that other than the Enterprise obsessed SSFC keeper, it is the loudest thing here. The home crowd are silent, so much so that when someones phone starts playing Tequila by The Cramps, I don't think there is a person here not humming along.

Applause, an actual emotional response, SSFC have just added to their tally, and the bench are feeling ruthless, “lets score again”.

One way to not ingratiate yourself with your teammates, is the overuse of flashy unproductive footwork, especially when you are three goals down. Back and forth, back and forth goes the HT winger, one drag back after another, that gets him nowhere, eventually he loses the ball, his teammates livid and his manager even more so. “Tell him” he shouts. What I imagine that would be is, stop prating about.

Even though they have well and truly taken their foot off the gas, no need to expel any unnecessary energy, SSFC crown their rout with a forth, that gets a “yesss” from the crowd, there is life out there after all, the SSFC scorer slamming it home from the edge of the box.

The final five minutes is just one SSFC attack after another, the visiting players are queueing up to score, Tom thinks for all concerned that referee should just call it quits, “come on blow the whistle I’m cold”.

It's only because we hear the referee tell one HT player there are “two minutes” left, that we have any idea how much more of this we have to endure. As Tom points out, “they don't even bother with the stoppage time board” and when the game comes to an end it's only because all the players starting walking off towards the slope to trudge back up the hill, do we know the game is actually done. A few SSFC fans offer up a few shouts of congratulations, “well done”, but all in all, tonight might just be the dearest four nil win, we are ever likely to see.

We learnt two things tonight, firstly about the interesting relationship between the two clubs which are no more than four miles apart, where as Derek put it over the years there has been "quite the interchange of players" between the sides. Players "fall out with one club" but "don't want to travel too far" so just end up playing for the other, more than a few "go round in circles".

We also learnt something really we already knew, something that we are reminded of each time we see a game like this, in a competition no one gives a toss about, the only saving grace tonight being the match up was between two "local rivals" as the booming PA put it, which gave it a modicum of intrigue, but as Tom put it, there was the distinct feeling from more than one person, that "no one wanted to be here".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

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