Sunday 17 November 2019

I'd Go Closer, But I'd Need A Snorkel - London Lions FC Vs Enfield Borough FC, Spartan South Midlands Football League Division One, Rowley Lane (16/10/19)

Thank Christ for A Tribe Called Quest, was never a sentence I ever thought I would utter, I say utter, I just roll it around in my head, having tentatively opened the passenger side door of Toms car in anticipation of a deluge of morose music like last time out, but instead I’m greeted by the New York four pieces 1993 hit, Electric Relaxation, what a relief.

Although I don't have long to enjoy their melodic hip hop beats, as tonight's ground is less than ten minutes away from my house, its eight minutes to be precise, I have just about enough time to consider the advice of my other half, “I don't know if its a big jacket day” she said to me as I left and just how thankful I am for ignoring her this time, because the last game we went out I was freezing and tonight's even colder.

Another reason for a coat, is not just the plummeting thermometer, but the very high chance of getting wet, “at least it's not raining” mutters Tom as we step out of the car, the fact it's not is a minor miracle. It's been raining non stop for what feels like days and looking out across the floodlit pitch, the car park within touching distance of it, Tom says pretty much exactly what I was thinking too, “there is not much here, but it's very nice”.

A single all seater blue stand, The Alan Mattey stand, with its many yet to be occupied blue plastic seats runs along one side of the pitch and that and the blue framed curved roofed dugouts really is all there is, Tom was not kidding. A white railing, the kind I always describe as looking right from race course surrounds the playing surface, and like I said, that really is all there is, as Tom puts it, “it feels more like a Premier League training facility than a ground”.

Midweek games can be testing for many non league clubs at the best of times, but according to Velina London Lions FC (LL) 1st team Secretary in her long almost knee length club coat and high red boots, she reckons they would be lucky if they got more than “15 or 17” tonight. She also points out that come kick off, the sections of fencing currently lent up against each other in one corner of the car park will be used to “build the tunnel”.

The clubhouse is more of a “conference suit” than anything else says Tom, a couple of large round tables sit in front of the bar, the rest of the room is empty, the enormous parquet dance floor is yearning for Barry from accounts to start doing his best Travolta impression.

Scouring the bar for things to eat it’s soon apparent that its little more than bar snacks and J20’s available, Tom most likely is going to be going without any kind of dinner tonight. The face on him as he sits down next to me in the seat previously inhabited by either someone at a wedding reception or the speaker at a medical seminar, is not a happy one.

“Dinner: Coke, crisps, Snickers” he explains, plonking them down on the table, he even contemplates nipping off to McDonalds, if it didn't mean he would most likely lose his parking space. He follows all that up with a couple of biscuits pinched from the hospitality table at the far end of the room. Where the hot water urn we grabbed our coffee from, makes a very unfortunate and flatulent noise, whenever anyone uses it.

“It's a nice evening for some football, shame we've had too much rain” says a man on the adjacent table to us, breaking the deathly quiet that shrouds the large room. Tom is head down, food all gone, opening a couple of FIFA 20 packs on his phone, his bad mood emanating from him like a bad smell, only looking up to tell me “they've got free Wi Fi”.

Outside it’s still dry and thank God for that, because the pitch sounds so soggy underfoot of those brave enough to venture out across it without armbands, but it’s getting colder. “Bit nippy” grumbles Tom, trying his best to pretend it’s not his snood he’s just pulled from his rucksack, telling me like I was born yesterday it’s a “hand warmer” and not the much maligned go to for the latest South American import playing in Yorkshire in December for the first time, but that he’s trying to bring back every Victorian ladies staple, the muff.

A man starts to build the tunnel and some very swanky cars jostle for position in the now rammed car park. The click clack of studs on concrete sees the players swerve around the makeshift construction, as they make their way to warm up. “Whats this?” squeals an Enfield Borough FC (EB) player, bending down to touch the sodden pitch, “oh my, Lord” he says on the realisation of just how saturated it is. Tom in a mild state of shock, astonished that anyone is allowed to warm up on it in the first place, the potential for absolute carnage, very high.

Over the constant buzz of the nearby motorway, one EB supporter comments to one coach about the long line of “unfamiliar faces coming out of the changing room”. The coach in hushed tones then reels off a long list of “missing first team regulars”. Those readying themselves to pull on the clubs shirt tonight are a “young squad” many of whom are no older than “seventeen, eighteen” or “nineteen”.

With the DIY complete, the referee stands at the head of the long temporary tunnel, that highlights one benefit of it’s bespoke design, it's probably about wide enough to drive my car down, and there is tons of space for both sets of players, no shoulder rubbing here, plenty of room to swing a cat or even a couple of cats.

It is a rather muted entrance as the players walk out, there are a few enthusiastic shouts from the home players “come on Lions” but there is little noise from the crowd, most of whom are in the stand, that after doing a quick head count, might just exceed Velina prediction.

Standing just to the side of the emerging players, a small group of men with the air of committee members about them, are having a right old grumble about the pitch, the pitch which is showing some rather significant signs of the recent work of a ride along mower. Three or four great scars cut into the turf. “I’m worried about over there,” says one, pointing off into the distance.

I can't be certain if all the vigorous hand clapping by the players is a technique to gee each other on, accompanied by the odd hearty shout or its just a way to keep their hands warm. There is one other EB fan in attendance, he gives himself away by giving up his own shout with kick off imminent, “come on borough”.

In front of us the referee's assistant runs the line, I say the line, because as Tom points out he is about “a foot” off it. To actually run the line, would mean stepping foot on the worst affected part of the pitch. “This side is bad” cringes Tom, on the few occasions the lino does get close to the white line, the squelching sound is akin to that of a person punching a bucket of jelly. Overhearing us discussing his predicament, the man with the flag engages in some top level, non league official bants, “I'd go closer, but I'd need a snorkel”.

With just over five minutes gone the home side are first to hit the target, a rising powerful shot is pushed wide of the post, the home side in a kit Tom is a bit keen on “I like it” he tells me, the unusual design a nice break from the standard Nike template with the name of a local accountants on the front.

The visitors weather the early home pressure well, and the young team slowly but surely start to get their foot on the ball and when they do, they move it around well. So much so, their ability to shimmy past the LL players is starting to affect one or two of them to “this is shit, get tighter.''

Tuned into these kind of things, I must admit it completely passed me by, but Tom informs me of the slew of people who just prior to kick off “sneaked in” via an open gate by the overflow car park, one
person who came in the official way, wished he had just stayed put, “£5 to get in, I could have watched from the car”.

“He's got the right idea,” says Tom pointing to one man, who has just walked the full length of the pitch to get some crisps and a drink and is making his way back to his motor. “Perfect view” as well as a “bit of music and the heaters on” in Tom’s eyes is a no brainer and if he could get away with it, he would be off doing the same thing, but not on my watch.

“Where are we?” screams for what will not be the first time tonight, the LL manager. EB are starting to run riot, the pendulum has fully swung their way now and the home players are rattled, “tighter” shouts one. The captain is emphatic to say the least, waving his arms at his teammates demanding more from them.

A late away tackle doesn’t stop the flowing home attack, the referee allows play to continue, the move coming to an end with a dinked cross, that almost looks like it’s floating, the flight of which almost catches out the EB keeper and instead of praising the man in charge for allowing the match to carry on, Tom calls the referee “fat” and complements him on his dry cleaning, “I like his white collar”.

“There it is” says a home fan, in a moment of clairvoyancy but the shot from the LL player is inches wide of the post, but minutes later they take the lead, much to the displeasure of the lone EB fan, who is prone to the odd outburst, “fucking hell man” as are a a couple of the players watching on as the LL ones celebrate, “too easy”, the ball looking to go right through the keepers midriff.

Despite taking the lead, the home manager is not exactly impressed, “not good enough, by a long way” he hollers. His voice already starting to show the strain and we’re only about twenty minutes in.

It’s around now and not for the first time since going to non league football, I see a sight that I imagine you might be hard pushed to see in your whole life, let alone twice in only four years, a dog in a pram, a dog in a bright pink pram, that by the looks of it is nicer than my own daughters.

“It’s not a baby” clarifies Tom, like for a second I thought it was just a very hairy infant. Peering out of its luxurious carriage, its owner sitting in the front row of the stand like it's totally normal to take a canine in a buggy to a football match.

The home goal has somewhat left EB, following their promising spell, looking a little bit shell-shocked and the home side are now officially bossing it. The linesman has officially given up actually trying to run the line, having stood still for about thirty seconds for a stoppage in play, he has almost sunk down to his ankles, but neither of us can take our eyes off the dog. “It's just sitting there,” says Tom, “licking its lips”.

I must admit the presence of you know who, is a tad distracting. I’m trying to work out why the need for its own personal transport. Tom suggests it might be “too old to walk” or “its got no legs”. Legs or no legs it looks very happy, it's probably better wrapped up than me, its little head poking out from among all its blankets. I do though have to take umbrage with Toms suggestion that it is “cute” it's the opposite of “cute”.

One of the many things that non league football has over its relatives higher up the pyramid, is the chance of the officials giving a little bit back to the crowd, in response to getting it in the neck about something or another, and the half swimming half, officiating one before us, is just that sort, and I have to admire him for it.

Assured, confident and with great feat the home captain is showing all the qualities that you would want from the person leading your team. Playing the ball out from the back, he has been the architect of LL’s resurgence since going ahead. They go close again following a corner, but the effort on goal is caught on the line and within the blink of an eye, EB show off just what they are capable of. Racking up the other end, it's a foot race with only one winner, bearing down on the home goal is the EB forward, but the keeper is there just in time to gather in the ball, curling up and clutching it to his chest.

The pitch is holding up surprisingly well and it's an uncharacteristic error from the home captain, charging out from defence and missing the ball completely, that sees EB in again. A drop of the shoulder and the EB front man is in again, but he shoots straight at the keeper.

Chances are coming at both ends. A curling LL shot from the edge of the box gets a “oohhhhh” from the crowd, and it needs two attempts by the EB keeper to gather it, who is starting to look a like shaky and the first booking of the match is for a EB player and not long after the home players are calling for another. “How many ref?” asks one, after a particularly agricultural EB tackle goes unpunished.

Despite the away side seemingly unable at times to make a two yard pass when it counts and the home side wasting a Pep Guardiola amount of possession, the game has been far from dull. A home shot that’s high and wide bounces off a car in the car park and the away bench is full of praise for the player who just made the slide rule pass inside the LL right back, cutting him out of proceedings with ease, “that’s the ball I want”. The shot at the end of the move is low and from a tight angle, but again it’s right at the keeper.

The simple awarding of a corner, would not normally be worth a mention, however detailed I like to be, however this particular one awarded to EB might be worth bringing up not for the set piece itself, but because for some reason the EB player assigned to take it, decided the corner flag was getting in his way, so he plucked it from the ground and chucked it. Not impressed in the slightest with his unsporting behaviour, the referee blows up and makes the offending player recover it and put it back before we can continue. The EB player looking a little sheepish as he does so.

Reaching ever new heights of displeasure, the LL manager is scathing about this players efforts, “you're going deeper and deeper, that's not good enough, that's lazy” he shouts. This criticism nearly has the desired effect, because they almost score a cracking goal. LL’s number 7, who has a touch of the Griezmans about him, hooks the ball out the air with his right foot, wriggles away from his maker and the crowd are celebrating his impending goal, before it's even gone in, but awkwardly for them, his shot is a fraction off target.

The phrase ‘if that was Barcelona’ comes to mind on the stroke of half time, when a one touch master class by the home team sees them threaten again, however where Messi and the gangs attack would end in a goal, queue the big inflatable pitchside men at the Camp Nou, this one ends with one LL player hoofing the ball right up a teammates arse.

EB finish the half with the last effort of what has been an action packed forty five minutes. In on goal one person in the crowd is not exactly confident, “bet you he misses” which he does. The visitors are more than competent, they have the skill set and are prone to the odd nutmeg or two, but their lack of cohesion across the team is killing them.

With the teams gone, the dog well and truly becomes the centre of attention for those unlike Tom who haven't gone in search of tea. By the size of the crowd that has gathered around the pooch, they could have charged a fiver for people to come and see it with no problem and when Tom returns with tea, the brown sweet liquid in the polystyrene cup is life giving and much needed.

There are new shouts of “come on Lions” from fans and players alike as they appear for the second half, but not one cry of the visitors nickname, The Panthers. If I followed a team named after a big cat, I’d be shouting it at every possible opportunity.

The break and whatever words of wisdom the EB manager had for his team have worked a treat, and it’s a very strong start for them, racking up three half chances early doors, one as Tom puts it “their best of the match”. The mini EB onslaught has one LL player to a point of imploring, “come on guys, what are we doing, do your jobs”. The home side having looked at one point like they were going to roll EB over, have come out half asleep, the bench is incensed for them giving away “too many fouls” and as one player puts it “we’ve gotta start playing”.

What a glorious sound, what a hit from long range that more than deserved a goal, however the LL player responsible for the shot from well outside the area can only look on as we do as his effort comes back off the crossbar, the sound it made as it did so still ringing out as the ball spins back into
play. Winning back possession outside, LL go close gain with a flashed shot wide.

It’s a pass of sublime accuracy that does all the hard work, and makes the actual scoring of LL’s second a formality. “Goal” says the man standing next to me, before playing on the other of the pass from midfield down the right hand channel of the EB box, has rounded the keeper and slotted it home.

The applause from the stand is as much if not more for the player who supplied the ball than the scorer himself. “Great football” says an appreciative voice from behind us. LL have notably stepped it up a gear in the last five minutes, the goal a culmination of three or four chances in short succession. They are stroking the ball about with ease.

Some have paid to get in tonight, some have sneaked in and one man has climbed a rather steep hill to stare through a fence. Whatever way they have ended up watching, they can't ignore the furore the LL manager is getting himself into, high standards doesn't quite go far enough to describe his demands, “keep the ball, keep the ball” he screams, his team absolutely cruising.

When EB have a rare half chance of their own, they are flirting with possession at best, sending the ball across the edge of the LL six yard box, it sends the home manager into near meltdown, “you must do better. KEEP. THE. BALLLL”.

Football is better at changing one's mood, more than any drug. “Benji. Welcome back son” purrs the home manager, “Benji” who I’m not sure where he has been, has just scored LL’s third, making his gaffa sound like he’s just taken a very strong dose of a high grade upper, the EB players are reduced to signifying their discontent by simply letting out a long succession of pained groans.

A shout for a home penalty is waved away, but three goals to the good, they don't seem all that fussed its declined, as Tom points out with the EB defence in such disarray, “I've never seen a back four or three, I’m not sure, look less comfortable on the ball. None of them want it
None of them are talking” a fourth goal for them seems like only a matter of time.

“Well played Lions” gushes a member of the crowd, that fourth goal with us sooner than I thought, a fumble from the EB keeper, pushed the ball to the waiting LL scorer, who even though he was falling over as he does, he is able to poke the ball into the empty net. “That's it” says Tom turning towards me, following the muted celebrations from the home players. The away players are probably louder in their remonstrating with each other, “fucking shit”.

Into the final quarter and Tom suggests LL have, how do you put it, taken their foot off the gas, “it's like they went up a gear and now they've gone down one, happy to just pass it around”.  The EB keeper is forced to vault the barrier in search of the ball, slipping over, his return to the pitch much more straightforward if not a little embarrassing. NAME on hand to open a nearby gate to allow him back on.

“Keep it going to the end lads” motivates the LL keeper and so far his teammates look to be doing every bit of that. “Show off” chuckles Tom, the home side demonstrating a few of their tricks and flicks, totally in charge, they can afford too.

Having eased off, it does allow EB the odd probe forward, one run into the box ends with a poor shot and the home player responsible for the lapse in concentration raises his arm in apology, which does not go down well with the bench, “I don't want your fucking hand”.

Although the EB ball into the box comes to nothing, the home manager is still livid, his voice almost gone, his latest shouts reduced to screeches, “I don't want everyone saying sorry, get it right, get it right”. Tom almost whispering, frightened of getting scolded himself if he hears makes the understatement of the year, “he’s angry”.

When EB score a goal that is little more than a consolation, his anger hits a new peak, ripping into his team, “you think you're all too good”. The players do their best to rally each other, “keep your composure” says one, “we want the three points” says another, sounding like they know full well they are in for a deluge of shit if they somehow conspire to balls this up.

A “cracking save” as one of the crowd puts it by the hand of the home keeper pushing the ball onto the post stops EB’s second going in. “We’ve got to keep the ball” barks the LL manager, “tighten up” instructs one player as the home side suffer what is quite a sizable wobble, putting their comfortable lead in jeopardy. “Get them to liven up” says a concerned fan of one of the players. EB go close again, the keeper forced into another excellent save, this time the visitors are offside, but LL’s drop off in performance, must be causing their manager to have kittens.

"Oh my God" says the EB keeper, prone on his back, for the second time tonight what was a tame shot has completely evaded him. If there was even the slightest suggestion of a comeback, that's been well and truly put to bed with LL's fifth.

A four goal advantage and only minutes left to play, one might think the LL manager might just relax a
bit, the jobs done, the points secured, but not on your nelly, he's still going apoplectic at the smallest of errors. "Want the ball, want the ball" his new deranged mantra. The sight of his team almost bagging a sixth, a curling shot from wide, brings no respite at all. It's only a late tackle on one of his players right in front of the bench, that sees him direct his vitriol at the referee for a brief second and away from his players, "fucking deal with that".

EB very nearly get a second of their own, but a last minute interception saves not only the goal, but everyone in a ten mile radius's eardrums and the crowd have seen enough, they are suitably entertained, but its time to go, "blow the whistle it's cold".

You're not going to come to Rowley Lane for the chance of a hulking great beef burger, the rickety old stand or the years and years of history and non league charm. You're going to come for the chance of seeing a good team play good football, a manager putting himself through the ringer and of course because you might see a dog in a pram.

You'll go to Rowley Lane for the chance to hear your mate say, “it's got a pink jumper that matches it’s pram”, it will be worth it just to hear that alone, I promise you.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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