Tuesday, 7 April 2020

I Won't Shake Your Hands - Banbury United FC Vs Oxford City FC, Oxfordshire FA Senior Cup Semi-Final, Spencer Stadium (11/03/20)

I have to be honest I’m a bit sad that Tom has not said anything about my new shirt, but not as sad that it's the Strokes playing as I climb into his car. Their dirgey New York sound was never one I was particularly enamored with, but let's be honest it wouldn’t have taken much effort to pay my new clobber a little bit of a compliment would it?

Much of our drive is occupied with the hottest of topics, the Coronavirus epidemic sweeping across the world, Tom’s other half has already been instructed to work from home, but Tom’s profession, a barber, means he’s unable to do it via Zoom, and his clients, much like his wife are able to “work at home” so his days are getting quieter and quieter. As well as the dent it's going to take on his pay packet, how it’s going to affect football and what we do comes up too, but considering what's going on in other parts of the world, it frankly doesn't seem all that important.

We try to not dwell too much on the negative, Tom is soon sharing another and equally important life choice challenging him right now, the getting of a dog. He thinks a “puppy is a bad idea” his IKEA showroom of an East London pad is not quite suitable for all the chewing, pissing and endless bounding of a young K9, so thinks he might “adopt”. However that in itself comes with its own concerns, an element of the “unknown” with a pre owned pooch has him worried, his biggest one and I’m not joking, is that it might be “racist”.

As well as animal adoption, we talk briefly about a new mode on Call Of Duty, that Tom explains ends with you in a “Russian toilet” and I don't know how Tom is still awake with the Strokes playing, they are so dull, I can't tell if its still the same song playing when I got in, an hour later.

It feels like we have been stuck in a perpetual state of god awful weather since late last year, the seemingly never ending rain has played havoc with attendances, so the appearance of the sun, “it’s really hot” comments Tom, has got him very excited and as we head further into 2020, the fact it’s not yet dark as we make our way to our latest game is a pleasant change. However Tom is always on high alert, “it's getting a bit grey over here”.

“Milton Keynes is weird” pipes up Tom over the sound of the radio, jabbing his finger at the Sat Nav, at the succession of interlinking roundabouts he says look like “alien crop circles”. Prattling on about his new coffee machine, which he explains has a fine selection of possibilities such as “Roma, Caramel and Cosy” but this high end living doesn't come cheap, “34p a pod mate” and he certainly won't be sharing.

We finally ditch the Strokes, who are replaced by Nirvana, which is far more preferable, but it might not actually be a case of us ditching them, more that we've listen to everything they have ever recorded, because as Tom rightly points out it “feels like we've been driving forever”. A spot of the wet stuff gets him all of a dither, “ohhh it’s raining” and this brings its own conundrum, “I didn't bring a waterproof jacket” but he’s relieved that just like Steve McClaren he’s got his “trusty brolly”. More ominous clouds appear on the horizon, but the sun is able to break though them, “Jesus rays” Tom calls them, blazing down on the surrounding countryside, gives us hope that the match we are off to is not in jeopardy, as it flips between an impending downpour and “fucking spring again” mutters Tom.

“You've reached your destination” announces Tom’s Sat Sav, but there is not a football ground in sight, just our two bemused faces wondering where we went wrong and asking each other why we are sitting in the car park of a train station. We retrace our steps, after seeing a small bit of signage alluding to the ground, but the narrow road alongside the aforementioned station and industrial estate, doesn't really give us much hope. The dilapidated Union Jack covered burger van is a landmark one will struggle to forget for a while and then all of sudden, beyond the latest corrugated roofed warehouse, Spencer Stadium appears, home of Banbury United FC (BU). “It's very red and yellow” states Tom.

Wrestling with a large gate and the apparatus used to prop it open Stephen, BU’s Secretary has quite the fight on his hands, but is just about able to get things under control before greeting us, “welcome to our humble home”. Tom had said it was quite “breezy” only seconds out the car, and Stephen confirms that “it’s always windy here”. The sky's now filled with a whole gamut of clouds from fluffy Disney ones to alien invasion Independence Day ones. The visiting team Oxford City FC (OX) are already walking the pitch, of a ground that really offers up a little bit of everything.

A slightly rickety looking cage tunnel on wheels, is where the OX players disappear up after surveying the surface. Surrounded on two sides by the backs of neighbouring buildings, the Spencer Stadium feels cosy, but not cramped. The clubhouse is sizable, a squat white fronted building like something off a caravan site isn't open yet, and other than it, everything else as Tom pointed out is indeed very red and yellow. The large main stand on the halfway line, with BUFC spelled out in yellow seats, sticks to script and is of course in the clubs colour scheme. Behind one goal is a long covered terrace with the clubs name spelled out on its back wall, and yet to be turned on, the four aging floodlights poke out from each corner.

Despite the clear amount of cover, Tom reckons because of the many bare trees that surround some parts of the ground, that there is a “distinct lack of protection from the elements” and feels it is necessary to go back to his car to “get” his “hat”. To be fair to him, the constant wind does mean that most things are swaying, rattling or creaking around us. Alongside it, the hubbub of match day life continues. The clattering of beer kegs outside the bar, the sorting of change by the man on the turnstile, the noise of a nearby rumbling train and the lady in the boardroom putting out plates of biscuits for the expected bigwigs.

I thank the man in the red and yellow scarf handing out the programmes after he doesn’t expect payment, but he’s quick to point out the fact it's free has nothing to do with him, “don't thank me, it's the FA” and the reason for its zero price tag is because as he adds, it’s got “sod all in it”.

The sound of the floodlights coming on, is one akin to some great battleship coming to life, and our surroundings are soon basking in a brilliant white light. One man tinkers in the doorway of the red portacabin cabin that houses the clubs very own radio station, one dugout is briefly smothered in green and red light as someone sets up the subs board all while one of the bed sheet sized red corner flags, is absolutely whipping in the breeze.

The opinion of one BU fan is that the National League South side OX will take tonight “very seriously”, not something we normally see in regional cups, when a bigger side comes up against a relative minnow. Some local kids are having a pitch side kick about, as is the norm at most non league grounds, they even have their own goal. Another re purposed portacabin has been transformed into what looks like the world's smallest gentlemen's club, inside the BU coaching staff sit cheek by jowl.

“Testing 1-2” says a voice emerging over the PA, before the music starts to blare and the players come out for their warm up. The wind is only getting stronger, and our inquiry if the club shop will be opening, highlights non leagues 100% reliance on volunteers, “we’re struggling to get someone to open the tea bar” says a man with a large silver beard in a BU club tie.

For what will not be for the first time today, the question of to shake hands or not comes up, “welcome to Banbury United boys” says one man cheerily, “I won't shake your hands” he adds laughing, so we take inspiration from the recent SheBelieves Cup and exchange elbows instead.

The playlist is about the same age as the speakers, that struggle with the volume of the music, and I've not heard Black Eyed Boy by Texas in probably fifteen years. I snag my 50/50 tickets from the man by the turnstiles, but Tom is not very hopeful for me, and “warm welcome” from the man on the microphone, is swiftly followed with a bit of Elton John.

OX’s players are clapped off by a small showing of their fans in blue and white striped scarves. With a spot in the final at stake, the PA emphasises how “important” tonight's game is, and the referee now waiting for the players at the mouth of the tunnel, is put in an awkward position, when someone offers up their hand to shake, and he just leaves them hanging.

With three minutes to kick off, there is no sign of the players, but a bit of classic Two Tone is a suitable distraction.

The instruction to the players in the tunnel is that they can shake hands there, but once out on the pitch, they are to follow the recent Premier League example of just walking past each other like a FIFA glitch. Heather Smalls is rudely cut off mid sentence and the crackling PA offers up another “warm welcome” signing off with a “come on your reds”. A single BU flag has gone up in the small shelter behind one goal, where the home fans will be spending the first half, “come on Banbury” shouts one. Another tells me optimistically it will be a “tight game” and a sarcastic “weyyy” goes up, because post kick off, the music is still playing.

Seconds in, the music finally off, the heavens open, sending those standing pitch side, scurrying up the steps of the terrace we are on and under its roof and with less than ten minutes gone, the home side take somewhat of a shock lead, although Tom points out it's not really a shock considering the games only been playing “six seconds”.

Standing with his hand out in front of him, his palm turned to the heavens, one young man is checking for his Mum if it’s still raining, “has it stopped?” she asks and said woman is not just a mere spectator, worried about getting wet, but she is also I think the Mum of one of the BU players. “Oh Luke” she cries, when he blazes his shot over, there is no critic quite like your own mother.

After such a quickfire start by the home team, the twenty minutes since have been rather uneventful, the BU keeper had to be on his heels to claim a poked ball into his box, but that's about it. Wondering what the man next to us has in his pick and mix is proving to be much more entertaining. On the topic of food, Tom is already thinking about half time, “I’m hungry” he tells me, I must admit I am too, and after two successive fish finger sandwiches, I want to complete my hattrick, however Tom thinks I’ll be lucky if I do, “something tells me they won't, but you never know”.

It’s all gone a bit flat and one nearby warming up OX sub, is far from impressed by one teammates performance, “so fucking shit” he says to himself. A poor attempt at a cross field pass by the home side is easily cut out, resulting in the away side's first real go at goal. The eventual shot a straightforward one, but it’s spilled and tapped in from close range, the match all square. Tom reckons it’s a sign of things to come, “the onslaught begins” he says like a WWE character, “they are going to get ripped apart”.

His prediction is not far off, and it almost seems in the blink of an eye that OX have finally clicked into gear, going from almost spectators to being right on top. A swift, crisp passing move ends with a shot just over, Tom muses “you can definitely tell they are from the league above”.

Ignoring all the angry shouts off “off, off, off” and demands of “ref card him”, “he’s gotta walk” and “do your job properly, don’t fucking bottle it” the referee does not dismiss the offending OX player who has just given away a penalty, much to the disgust of one high pitched home fan, “its a red card every day”.

Just out of reach of the diving OX keeper, the ball hits the back of the net and BU take the lead once more, rushing off towards the home fans battering the metal stand around them, the scorer attempts to perform a bit of Roger Milla hip thrust, which leaves Tom dumbfounded. “I think that's the weirdest celebration I've ever seen”. He even finds it necessary to replicate it, that's how baffled by it he is.

A mad scramble in the BU box, almost hands OX an equaliser, the home keepers penchant for spilling straight forward shots at him, is a recipe for disaster. Skipping down the wing, OX’s number 11 rides one tackle after another, before sending in a low driven cross into the box. “He’s good at that” purrs Tom, about OX’s number 11’s ability to beat his man at will and then he gets all technical on me, which always gets my heartbeat racing, pointing out how the OX wingers have “switched” sides, to target one BU full back, who is looking a bit wobbly to say the least.

Tom takes a brief break from his coaching, to give me a run down on both teams kits, boiling it down to “QPR” for OX, in their blue and white stripes, and “McDonalds” for BU, on account of the red and yellow looking like a “pack of chips”.

Into the final five and BU showed some of that early promise, with some quick exchanges, slipping in one of their forwards, only for him to shoot wide. They then show their other side, their somewhat calamitous side, with an absolute horror show in the six yard box. One defender after another leaving it for the next, which sees it bounce all the way through their box and out the other side, just missing the goal.

The half somewhat fizzles out, but not before OX are in again, behind the home defense, “don’t fucking concede” cries a fan, this time the shot is blocked, however there is just enough time for one
last try for an equaliser, this time the head height whipped cross is just out of reach of any of their players in blue and white.

“£61” confirms the crackling PA, reading out the winning number of the 50/50, the ticket of which I do not possess. I don’t even check my pocket, what's the point. Jump Around by House of Pain plays as Tom strides back from getting food, not only for him, but for me too. “Custom made” he tells me, “ordered off menu” he explains, the fish finger sandwich in my hand, made at his request, that makes up for not noticing my shirt.

Confusion reigns supreme as the new half gets underway. Kick off is with a white ball, despite the referee insisting in the first half they stop and change it to an orange one. “Make your mind up” says Tom in his best parental voice.

If we thought the start to the first half was blistering, it’s got nothing on the start of the second. In what feels like no time at all, less than two minutes to be precise, OX have first equalised, another close range headed finish, but this time after an excellent one handed save by the BU keeper tipping the shot onto the bar, only for it to fall straight to a OX player, instead of a gaff and then a long range effort, that didn't look like it was hit with much venom, that just kind of skimmed its way into the bottom left hand corner of the BU goal.

“It's all gone quiet over there” sing the OX fans now in the small metal stand, having changed ends. Now standing with the sullen BU supporters, I can confirm it is very quiet indeed, almost silent. Which is only emphasised as the wind gets ever stronger, sending the nearby ginormous corner flag into overdrive. I can't stress enough quite how massive they are.

After such a spate of action the match has “gone flat again” says Tom, much like it did before. “Concentrate” demands the OX manager, BU being somewhat over run at times, resort to desperate measures. “That was a tackle and a fucking half” gasps Tom, when one OX player is almost erased from history in one fell swoop. Long periods of nothing are punctuated with the odd testing challenge, “you can forgive one foul, but not three” says one home fan, after this time it's one of their players downed.

OX have a notable fire in their belly now, BU are second best to everything. Their only outlet is Luke, who with every touch of the ball, gets a cheer from this three person fan club. “Come on Luke, come on Luke” they shout as he embarks on one of his mazey runs forward, carrying on and on and on, only for his final shot to be a bit wild and way, way over.

It’s all a little bit too easy for OX to grab their fourth, with still almost half an hour left to play, effectively killing the game stone dead and it's the OX fans turn to use the metal stand they now occupy to create a bit of racket when celebrating. “Going to be hard to come back from that” affirms Tom.

The announcement of a “198” attendance doesn't seem enough, “kind of feels like more” says Tom. With OX now comfortably ahead, letting their foot off the gas somewhat, it naturally allows BU back into the match and they are starting to create the odd half chance, however their inability to capitalise on them, is starting to frustrate their fans. “Oh come on” remonstrates one, after their shot is wide of the mark.

A plea of “do something” from the home bench and sighs of “too easy” from the home fans, resonate every time OX are on the ball. This is not to say BU don't have their moments, and good well orchestrated ones at that. Just shy of the half hour mark they move the ball around with consummate ease, there are goals here for them, but they just can't make it count. “Well done.. Keep playing” applauds the home manager, a former OX player with a bit of a point to prove against his old team.

The appearance of the moon, previously shrouded in clouds, is greeted with a fair few firework display, ohss and aahs. It’s huge and low, and is enough to distract the home fans from what is turning into a bit of a rout on the pitch. The kids who were previously having a kick about are now racing around, and I’m struggling to understand why Tom thought it prudent to make reference of the size of my face, within seconds of the moon coming into view.

As I’ve said all along there are goals here for BU, they go close with a smart turn and shot, but the strike hits the foot of the post. The rain returns, sending those who had ventured from cover, racing back again, except the kids, they are of an age where rain is yet to be an inconvenience.

BU waste another good chance, the curling shot lacking any accuracy and one home fan in shorts,
thinks his introduction could be a game changer, “I'm coming on in a minute”. The rain is now battering the roof above us, at one point it's coming in almost on the horizontal. One lady calls her son still braving the downpour, instructing him to get under shelter, “come on you're going to get soaked”. One of our new neighbours driven in by the rain, makes a very salient point, that his side were “doing alright in the first half”. Another reckons the poor performance is down to “too much youth”, the side is lacking any real “experience”. He asks those around him “where is your John Terry, your Drogba” and they all just look back at him blankly.

Edging closer to full time and the crowd slowly starts to thin, “come on reds move your feet” encourages one supporter, one thinks judging by the collapse, its “no wonder people are leaving”, especially with a fifth for OX looking likely.

Football is cruel, football is full of false hope, football tests fans to the nth degree. “How the fuck did he save that” screams one BU fan, leaping around with his head in his hands. For a brief moment it looks like BU are going to push OX right to the end, after an excellent half volley from the edge of the box cannons back off the bar. Falling perfectly to the player on the follow up, his side footed effort is somehow stopped by the sprawling OX keeper, at point blank range. Falling kindly for a second time to a BU player, he makes a short pass to a teammate with his back to goal, who spins and shoots, only for this time a falling OX player on the line to block it, but he blocks it quite clearly with his arm, giving the referee no other option than to point to the spot.

It’s almost the whole length of the pitch the OX player has to walk, while serenaded with a chorus of “cheerio, cheerio”. The resulting penalty, well the resulting penalty much like most of BU’s attempts today, just doesn't quite cut it, it’s saved. “A bloody shambles” tut’s one disgruntled fan on his way home.

After seeing BU at the same point of this competition last season, go through to the final, that won't be the case today. A final where they played OX, where they led 3 - 1 until the 89th minute, only to lose 4 - 3. Perhaps for the health of the fans, it's no great loss they won't be going this time.

I write this blog, slap bang in the middle of lockdown, the Coronavirus having stopped a lot more than just football, but life as we know it. No work for Tom, no going outside unless its to the shops or for a walk around the block. It’s hard to imagine how long it’s going to be until we get to go somewhere like the Spencer Stadium again, somewhere well, well worth visiting may I add. Worth it for the long terrace or the winking Puritan on the clubs badge, from which the club gets its nickname.

The only worry is will BU, like so many other clubs, still be there once this is all over. We just don't know. All we can do is wait and see.

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Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Snot Rocket - Sutton Common Rovers FC Vs Ashford Town (Middlesex) FC, Southern Combination Cup 1st Round, Gander Green Lane (26/02/20)

Pulling up next to Tom, having been in the gloomy car park of Gander Green Lane for all of ten seconds, he is already moaning, holding up his left hand showing me three fingers, I can just about make out what’s he’s saying from inside his dimly lit station wagon him mouthing, “three degrees”. It is soon clear this is not a reference to what is playing on the radio, but the temperature, and he is soon wobbling about on one foot by the boot of his motor, putting on a hefty pair of socks.

The car park is well patronised, one could maybe even say bustling, sadly though that is not down to an expected bumper crowd at tonight's match, but because of all the extra curricular activities going on. Tom seems to think there is a gym somewhere nearby and beyond the half open blinds in the windows of a large function room, where a group of older ladies are sitting in a circle, they are not playing “bingo” as Tom suggested, but are members of the local Weight Watchers.

As is usually the case, I only really have half of Tom's attention, he is busy on his phone, in the throws of a domestic with his wife. Some of the purchases on his recent spending spree, have not been well received. Along with his new “coffee machine” the kind you insert those multi coloured capsules George Clooney is always banging on about, his choice of garlic crushing implement has not gone down well either, “she doesn't like the garlic press”.

In search of food, and still engrossed in ‘garlic press gate’, he heads off hoping “Jenny's kitchen” is “open”. Through the double doors and into the bar, it like everywhere else so far is a bit gloomy and sparsely populated. Despite appearances, I do not possess the same voracious appetite as him, so instead of looking for chips, I have a quick chat with Gary, who has a choice array of football related pins fastened to his jacket, like a well decorated military man. One of which is the blue, red and yellow crest of Sutton Common Rovers FC (SC), who Gary, much like in all of non-league holds multiple roles at the club. Press officer, president and photographer or as he puts it, “everything beginning with P”.

Gary's opinion of the rather minor cup competition that SC are playing into tonight, is pragmatic, “it’s something else to play”. Especially as he points out when they’ve been “knocked out all the other cups in the first round”. Not that that is the case this season where they've had their “best” ever runs in the FA Cup and Vase. He explains that it will be a “pretty much full strength side out”, and considering how many games they have played so far, maybe this is one they could not try as hard at, but before I have worked out a subtle way to say ‘throw it’ he interjects laughing, “no its not”.

After the success of the behemoth of a fish finger sandwich I had at Cambridge City recently, and having found that Jenny’s is open, Tom thinks her version on the chalkboard menu to one side of the hatch, the imaginatively named, “Jenny's fish finger bap”, has my “name written all over it”. The bar is dark, the shutter is down, and all I can hear is the sound of cooking and the commentary of the Rangers match playing on the small TV high up on the wall.

The multi coloured lights that surround the bar are blinking away, as is the fruit machine, but other than that it’s all a bit deserted, reminding me of the days I used to work in a pub, and we’d kicked out all the punters.

Over the last five years, we have encountered few stadiums better than Gander Green Lane, home of Sutton United, and their lodgers SC. On our previous visit, for a match on a Saturday afternoon, the place was positively buzzing. A large crowd congregated on the various sections of sweeping open air terracing, with its bright yellow barriers, in the all standing shelters behind each goal or on faded blue plastic seats of the impressive main stand.

Tonight though, and with Gary predicting at a push a crowd of “50/60”, there is none of that life, just the stark white floodlights, illuminating empty spaces, and all manor of football related furniture littered pitch side. The place if I’m honest doesn't really look like a game is going to be happening at all, and as can be the case with some setups where one team is sharing with another, there will be the odd hint of their presence, but not here, it’s United, United, United.

Back inside the shutters have been rolled up, but to serve who? We are only interested in tea. Gary bags himself some chips, and you can only hope Jenny isn't cooking too much, because much like the bar, I’ve no idea who she expects to buy it, Tom will of course, but who else? He holds off on his dinner, getting us both a tea, that is solar hot. Hotter Tom says then the boiling water that comes out his “kettle” and after ten minutes, it's still as hot now as it was when he was served.

Parquet floor and no programme, sounds like the start of an Alan Bennett monologue, although I very much doubt he was into football, but I might be doing him a disservice. One patron at the bar, a bloke with a quite terrible cough is somewhat put back by the price of his drink, “£4.20 for a shandy? Blimey” and his payback to the bar woman, is to share some of his recent groundhopping gripes, and judging by the look on her face, she is not remotely interested. She, like me, I'm sure is more interested in hearing how the outcome of the story of the only other two people here will conclude, about a beer called “Dog’s Bollocks.”

“Yeah I've had dogs bollocks”.

A single dark turnstile to one side of the main stand, between some toilets occasionally ticks over, and it's there you can find the only sign that SC player here, the admission prices blu tacked to the wall. The introduction of a bit of music has lifted the atmosphere a bit, the beaming dot matrix scoreboard sat atop a tower of portacabins in one corner, a by product I think of Sutton United's fine recent FA Cup run, is a sight to behold.

Pitch side among all the training goals and aforementioned furniture, are some bizarre training aids, the kind that are used to form a wall for practicing set pieces, that for some reason have faces on. The departing SC players each get a high five and some words of encouragement, as they leave down the cage topped tunnel in the middle of the main stand, and it's around now that I realise that the scoreboard is a lot more than just a scoreboard, as it cycles through a hole host of groovy graphics, worthy of any Hollywood Bowl or Italia 90 venue.

The all pink SC keeper, loudly claps his gloved hands as the players walk out, “come on then yellows”. Those members of the public who were two long in the bar, are held back by a steward as the players enter the pitch, the tunnel for both spectators and players one and the same.

Making my way round the pitch, while the teams shake hands, underfoot is a soggy squelching green
carpet, and just like when you go to the cinema and its empty, but for some reason, a later comer sits next to you, the small contingent of Ashford Town (Middlesex) FC (AT) fans, one of whom has a very fetching chunky knit scarf on in the orange and white of this team, come and stand almost on top of us. I mean they are almost on our laps.

Five minutes on the clock and AT are already showing their higher division credentials, skipping through the home defence, one player is taken down and moments later he rattles the crossbar with a sweetly hit free kick. Another away attack, another what looks like a clear foul in a similar position, but this time no free kick, much to the displeasure of one man walking around the pitch who is absolutely frothing. His anger I think directed at the home defender responsible for the foul, “you stopped, you stopped” he screams. However I’m far too scared to get any closer to work out exactly who he is so angry with or about what.

It’s not like the opening exchanges haven't been lively, SC have just had what looked like a solid penalty shout turned down, the game has started at a million miles an hour, everyone and I mean everyone is in a heightened state, shouting obscenities, but Tom has already moved onto a topic reserved for quieter times, “odd kit”.

The orange and white vertical steps of AT, with a white shield on the back, looks straight off the front of an early 1900’s cigarette card. I have to admit I like, Tom is not convinced, “shield on back, it doesn't work for me. If you're going to do orange, do orange. Looks like a Sunderland top that's been in the wash too long” The AT keepers kit is a tad more modern, a dazzling neon pink, but as Tom points out correctly I’m “more of a pastel pink” kind of guy, but soon a far more pressing topic dominates our conversation, “cold innit”.

SC might be from lower down the pyramid, but they move the ball about effortlessly. Out wide, they overload the AT fullback, who manages to take out the winger, but he’s got back up, and the overlap continues. The player with the ball whips in a low cross into the AT box, but this time nothing comes of it.

“Yes'' shouts one of the AT fans, following a corner that almost results in a goal. Nigh on on the goal line, one of their players has just skimmed his shot wide, down on his haunches with his head in hands, he beats the pitch. It’s clear from his reaction, just how resolutely he should have scored.

The response from the home manager, after his team are almost punished when their keeper attempts to usher the ball out of play, but an AT player pinches it, but can't find a teammate to tap into the empty net, is a brief and resounding one “we’re too casual” and less than a minute later, his team's lack of urgency, sees them go behind. Not quick enough to close down the advancing AT player, he’s allowed all the time in the world to ping a low bouncing long range shot into the bottom left hand corner. Chasing after the scorer, one AT player lets out a loud, elongated, “yeahhhhhhhhhhhhh”.

I’m not sure whats better, the all colour clunking graphics on the scoreboard or the goal, Tom is prety clear which camp he is in, “fucking miles out” he chortles. “Come on Rovers” encourages an SC player, attempting to rally his teammates, who in Tom's opinion play in a kit that “looks like a cereal box”, but he admits his view might be coloured somewhat, having been “eating lots of Golden Grahams recently”.

Flattened, absolutely flattened, one AT player is stopped in his tracks, and Tom offers up the technical term relevant for such an occasion, “that's what you call a professional foul”. Just over twenty five minutes gone and AT almost made it 2 - 0, but the player in the box can't get the ball out of his feet, and SC are able to block the eventual shot. A minute after, how much he is going to regret just not being that little bit more creative will be apparent come the end of the game, because SC deservedly so, draw things level.

“Bit of a howler” whispers Tom, as to not rile up the AT fans next to us, who have been left somewhat stunned by their keepers' antics. Caught in no man's land, AT’s man in goal can only watch as the SC player curls in his shot, from well outside the box, after completely misjudging his charge out of goal. “Looked like he was going to miss” comments Tom, but the effort had just enough pace on it, to find the back of the net, and as the players mob the scorer, I’m marveling at the personalized graphics on the screen, with the player who equalised face, looking down over us.

Tom has a problem, and that problem is an inability to switch off from work. More often than not, I have to endure his constant chatter about people's hair. “Bounces nicely when he runs” he says about one player, he is particularly keen on the SC forward with the “bleached dreads” that has a very definite Allan Saint-Maximin vibe about them, on account of the headband and my Dad always said you have to be bloody good if you want to wear one on a football pitch, and he is casing AT all sort of concerns.

Without a doubt SC are more than able to to stroke the ball about, however they are also not afraid of putting in a reducer or two either. “You fucking chinned me” says the downed AT player, when the SC one suggests he “can get up” after a coming together near the home penalty area.

“Come on ref, it came down his arm” is the appeal from the AT fans, when the referee waves away their team's penalty appeal. Since drawing level, it's been all SC, their threat from out wide is troubling AT time after time, SC are looking increasingly dangerous. Into the final ten minutes they nearly took the lead. “That was clever” imparts Tom, after a well worked free kick routine almost puts them in front. A side footed attempt back across goal after the dinked ball finds the man running from deep, is wide and gets the first muted “ohhhhh” from those people hear who are almost exclusively on the other opposite side to us around the main stand, all except for our closest neighbours of course.

When a rare AT attack breaks down on the edge of the SC box, the group to our right are quick to share their dissatisfaction, “oh come on”. Ventures out of their half have been few and far between, SC are growing increasingly dominant. “Fucking statues” mutters one home player, when AT come forward again, but they can’t make anything of the questionable home defending.

Quick passing and swift movement, shows once more just what SC are capable of, but they just can’t convert, especially when the finishing is as horrible as that at the end of their latest attack. Into no man's land again, AT’s keeper almost hands the home team the lead, but the attempt at a Beckham Vs Sullivan long range lob goes wide. Holding his hand up to apologise, the AT keeper submits to his bemused looking teammates.

In a slightly unorthodox turn of events, the starting elevens are read out as the teams depart, and a new graphic, a spinning one, straight out of the Eastern bloc, appears on the scoreboard. With Cardi B blaring, Tom’s visit to Jenny’s, returning with “Jenny’s double cheeseburger” has left him a little dumbstruck. “Six quid, that’s Burger King prices' ' and he reports back that more people are watching “City Vs Madrid” in the bar, then are pitch side watching the match.

“Ref get hold of that, get hold of that” screams the man back on the sidelines for the start of the new half, after a foul on an SC player, meaning that must be which way his allegiance lies, after one of the flying home wingers is hacked down, however Tom thinks the player who has drawn the foul, should be a “bit embarrassed” he had somewhat bought the free kick, is how I think the pros would put it.

A millisecond of Pulp's Common People over the PA’s is not to Tom’s liking, he’s not a fan of the Sheffield based Brit pop outfit. Someone's hand slipped in the PA’s booth perhaps, the song lined up for some other use later. Post break and a much needed rocket from their manager, AT look a slightly more cohesive outfit, chalking up two chances in as many minutes. Reminding SC they won't have it all their own way, the second coming from the home side giving the ball away needlessly, however this is undone in the sloppiest of manners, when they fail to deal with a rather tame SC corner, and the home side pull in front.

A close range bundle over the line, the cheers that follow giving away that there are maybe more people here than I thought, and the celebrations of the home players, are verging on the giddy.

According to Tom, the temperature has dropped a bit in the time we were musing, “I think it's got colder”, and after their opening wobble, SC are back on top, but the latest ball into the box is a fraction behind it’s intended target. The AT fans, now in the main stand, start a song, but it only lasts
slightly longer than the fleeting appearance of Jarvis Cocker. A great ball forward by the visitors splits the home defense, exciting their fans for a moment, but there is just a fraction too much on it, and the SC keeper is able to get to it before the AT player.

Not that he’s had much of a part to play so far, but Tom’s has noticed in the referee, some “primadonna” tendencies, imagining for some reason he spent all of half time “stroking himself”. The sight of a huge snot rocket from one AT player is not only disgusting, but kick-starts an interesting conversation about the term ‘snot rocket’, which amazingly Tom has never heard before.

SC are well on top, the AT players are arguing among themselves, “fuck off” shouts one to another. The game is lacking some of the quality of before, its gone a bit, big hoof back and forth, but it’s enjoyable. Sloppy but fun, you might say. A bit like Tom on a night out and all that hard partying of his youth, has caught up with him tonight, showing me his hands, they look like the old ladies from Titanic.

The shock wave of a thunderous home shot, sends the AT keeper staggering backward into his goal net like he’s drunk. SC’s player with the red hair is down but the game plays on, down again not long after and Tom thinks his “hamstrings” gone, the physio is called on and he is somewhat unceremoniously rolled off the pitch. The break in play lets Tom indulge in a bit of pudding, a Wispa bar appearing fleetingly from the pocket of his jacket.

Shouty man reappears for his obligatory roaring input, “come on yellows, we need another 10%”. Right on the edge of the pitch, his front line vantage point, gives him the perfect view of a “hand ball”, that he duly brings to the referees attention, shouting louder than any man has ever shouted before.

AT are all over the place and another error from their keeper, almost hands SC their third, “oh wow” gasps Tom, following a poor throw out, straight to the home side, and soon he’s back peddling frantically again, trying to get close to a determined cross, that ends up hitting the crossbar. “Was that a shot?” asks Tom.

“Ref” screams one home player, the whole ground up in arms, after another foul on a flying winger, goes unnoticed, SC are relentless in their targeting of the visitors weak point, and in a moment of pure redemption AT's keeper pulls off a save of the highest draw, tipping a header over that looked destined to go in. Frustrating the player who had connected with the ball so well, to the extent he pulls down his shorts, letting out a mighty “fucking hell”.

Into the final ten minutes and it’s yellow attack, after yellow attack. “Finish, finish, finish” urges a home fan with a player bearing down on goal, but his side-footed attempt is wide. Comfortably in control, SC do what so many teams in a similar position do, they start to slip back deeper and deeper, allowing AT more and more of the ball. Two corners in quick succession cause little trouble to the sturdy home team defense. The AT bench asks the team to “give it a go”, one home player asks his team to “not give them nothing”. Into four minutes of added on time and it's now that the away fans pipe up with a song, “everywhere we go”.

Sitting on the corner of the pitch, with a camera that looks like something Schwarzenegger used in Commando, in all weather gear, Gary now has his photographer hat on. “That would have been the icing on the cake” he says smiling, the home number 3 and our pick for man of the match, having been asked by him to choose it, curled the most spectacular long range shot, that came back off the post with the most glorious ping.

“We’ve got to manage the game” insists one SC player, AT have just threatened again, there is a fine
line between letting your foot of the gas and seeing the game out and keeping you lead intact, at the moment SC have a foot on either side.

It's the full 4.14 minutes of Common People after the final whistle, the sounds and nostalgia of being eleven, mixes with the noise of jubilant home players and fans, who have claimed themselves somewhat of a scalp with their win.

I have to admit neither of us were very hopeful with the prospect of much of a match, in a one of what you might say the lesser cups, on a cold Wednesday night in a half empty ground, but tonight was a real surprise. SC really play some entertaining football which helped, come on a Saturday and they do a programme too, which is a plus. Plenty of reasons to come here, plenty of reasons to check out a side who don't have their own home for now, just maybe give the fish finger sandwich a swerve.

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Sunday, 15 March 2020

They Don't Like It Up Them - Hashtag United FC Vs Hadley FC, Essex Senior League, Chadfields (19/02/20)

As car parks at non league grounds go, the one at Chadfields is a bit of a shocker, I’m not sure it’s even legal. The narrow unlit drive up the side of the clubhouse, leading to the spaces behind, feels fraught with danger. The main car park at the front is already full, I’m late on account of a police roadblock, stopping me from getting here the way I wanted, sending me instead on a circuitous tour of the towns that litter the banks of this part of the Thames estuary.

My detour does allow me at least to get a good view of the nearby docks, all lit up like a Christmas tree, crane after crane covered in bright white lights, the ships that they service and a whole slew of slowly turning wind turbines. As I wind and weave through the dark Essex countryside, eventually the floodlights come into view, through the cast iron gates, I arrive to find Tom, who is back to his loitering ways, but not before I’m scared half to death by the ghoulish face of, not my compadre, but part of a fairground ride in the neighbouring plot.

The words of Journey’s Don't Stop Believing drift over the breeze block wall that separates us and the ground beyond. Not even here five minutes and we catch a glimpse of the baseball cap wearing reason for us being in this corner of Essex on a wet Wednesday evening. Spencer Brown of Spencer FC, YouTube royalty and co founder of what might be the most divisive football club in recent memory, Hashtag United FC (HU)

For the second weekend in a row, the UK has been battered by a storm so powerful, they felt it worthwhile giving it a name, although Dennis hardly strikes fear into the hearts of men. A brief break in the atrocious weather, might just mean we will get a game tonight, with so many having fallen by the wayside already today.

I’m sure it’s no accident that Bon Jovi's Livin' On A Prayer and the opening line ‘Tommy used to work on the docks’, is the song playing next, as the lady from inside her modestly sized tea bar is setting up. Deep into a game of head tennis, four kids arch their necks standing behind a HU branded head tennis table. Much like a ping pong table, but with sloped edges, that has us both intrigued. “Never seen one of them before” says Tom, with all the amazement of a first time visitor to Jurassic Park.

Chadfields most definitely falls into the 'a bit worn out' column, but in the best possible way, crumbling, a bit shabby and full of character. Tom reckons since our last visit, long before HU were even an idea in a brainstorming meeting, it's been a bit “tidied up”. Maybe it's the influence of the much vied and followed lodgers, and he is not wrong. There is very little sign though to suggest HU, for this season at least, are calling it home. It’s all very black and white, the colours of the the landlords Tilbury FC. Other than the head tennis table, there is a large blue hashtag painted somewhat incongruously on the wall behind one goal, and that's about it.

This close to the mouth of the Thames I imagine it's always a bit blustery, but thankfully it's not raining. It feels like it's been raining non stop for weeks, so the fact that it's not, currently, it's somewhat of a blessing that it has eased off for now. Concern about such things though, are reserved for people of a certain age, which sadly Tom and I are most certainly are, but is of little concern though to the myriad of kids here and I’m not just talking about one or two dragged here by their Dad’s, in fact they might just outnumber the adults. Many of whom are displaying a fair bit of HU merchandise. “Careful in your studs' ' shouts one nervous parent, as a young boy, too young to understand the peril he is in, bombs about on concrete in football boots.

Youth it seems is very much the theme, and the voice over the PA is chirpy and young, and clearly has none of the concerns of a father of two, with a bad back, and a dodgy knee. He is warm and high spirited, welcoming everyone, but then curiously reminds us all to “stay off the pitch at all times”. The dark underbelly internet inspired semi professional football rearing its ugly face? With their level of popularity and millions of online views, comes a fanbase who like a pitch invasion?

Did I mention by the way, that there are loads of kids here?

The warm up of the visiting team Hadley FC (HFC) is far louder and far more vigorous than that of the home side. The top of the table clash, 4th Vs 3rd is as one HFC coach put it, going to “be a tough one”, however they did “beat” HU “at home”, so it’s a hard one to call.

Standing beside the head tennis table, the reason for the warning about going on the pitch becomes clear, a local band of mini Ultras, have just broken out their HU sticker covered drum and horn, slung around the neck of one. Huddled around the black cage that substitutes for a tunnel here, the kids, let me emphasise again, who there are loads of, have swarmed like bees, many rocking the HU hand gesture to the multitude of cameras.

“Kick off now only six minutes away” announces the ever increasing ebullient voice of the PA, he nearly blew a casket when reading out the “Hashtag starting eleven”. The mums of tonight's mascots whoop and holler from the first floor seating in the main stand, set back from the pitch, which the tunnel emanates from the base of, a bit like something from a safari park, when the name of the local football team they are representing is read out.

When the players emerge, the kids still waiting steadfast, push themselves even more against the black chainlinks of the cage, to get that little bit closer to their favorite player. The players inside are somewhat oblivious, they are far too busy exchanging encouraging inspirational slogans like “hungry, hungry” or in the case of the one away player, repeating, “come on Hadley, come on Hadley”.

As the referee prepares to kick off on what is a slightly agricultural looking pitch, not only am I amazed that the game is actually happening, but that Tom could not be further from the truth with his prediction that there was only going to be around “seven” people here tonight.

With the ends decided, the game underway, the kids with the drum have now taken up position behind the goal, where a large net prevents the wayward balls whacking them or clearing the monochrome wall, into nomansland beyond, and are quick to beat a rhythm out on their drum “ohh Hashtag United”, followed by a random blast of the horn.

The action on the pitch is quick to get started also.“Where are we?” asks one HFC defender, after an excellent HU cross field pass has dissected them, finding its intended target, his superb first touch sees him away, however the HFC keeper is on his toes and is there to meet him. Smothering the ball, he then loses it, managing to smother the loose ball for a second time, but getting hurt in the process, resulting in a long break as the prone keeper is attended to.

Another long stoppage, this time due to an injury to a HU players, gives the HFC fans at the far end of the long covered terrace down one side of the pitch, a chance to break into song, which the kids are quick to pounce on, “who are ya?, who are ya?” they ask. Tom laughing to himself, suggests they are about “the most unthreatening Ultras ever”. They might be young, and might not have the menace of a face covered German with a flare, but they are loud.

When play resumes, it’s clear HFC have a game plan, and set their stall out very early, physicality. A few early robust challenges have the home players already annoyed. The HFC fans offer up another song, but for now they're being outshone by the constant singing of the home supporters, who have a whole playlist of songs, “Oh hashtag we love you”, “we’re gonna win the league” and “hello, hello, we are the Hashtag boys” and boys they very much are. The fish and chip eating away supporter next to us mind, who has broken away from the main pack is also loud, but a lot less coherent.

Thirteen minutes gone and a glancing header from the blond HU number 10, sees them go in front. His celebration, a homage of the Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Erling HÃ¥land from the night before. Crossed legged sitting on the floor, eyes closed, thumbs and index fingers pressed together, he takes a brief moment of contemplation, before being mobbed and I'm sure that must be some kind of record. In less than twenty four hours, something that happened at the very pinnacle, has already filtered down to almost the base of the pyramid. “You're not singing anymore” chant the kids, leaping on the grief of the travelling fans, just like any fan should do, regardless of age, in no time at all.

HFC are really not at the races and their bench is livid, so is fish and chip man, shouting angrily with a mouth half full of hake, when HU are awarded a free kick, “ref you're having a laugh”, which sees the home team enough space for a glancing header, but this time it hits a teammate and not the back of the net. HFC need to liven up fast and it takes them nearly twenty minutes to show their first real bit of attacking intent. An excellent ball up the right channel, sends one wide player on his way, the move breaks down, but it was something. For a moment it looked like being over for them, before it
had even begun.

The tackles continue to fly in, mostly by the visiting team, and when the inevitable blast of the referees whistle that follows comes, it does not go down well with fish and chip man at all, “no fucking way ref”. The kids behind the goal are a lot more sanguine and are serenading their goal scorer “are you Haland in disguise?”, breaking from their revelry to cheer on Halands fellow forward darting into the box, “come on Harry''. Again the HFC keeper is quick off this line, but Harry reaches the ball first and the HFC keeper is unable to slow down, his momentum sending him clattering into the front man, taking him out, and giving the referee no other option but to point at the spot.

“Spanked that” gasps Tom, as HU Haland leathers the ball into the top left hand corner and instead of repeating his previous celebration, he’s straight off towards the arms of bounding fans behind the goal, who again are quick to pipe up with another new song, “Hashtags on fire, you’re defense is terrified”.

A late tackle this time on a HFC player and it's their fans turn to ask for a foul, instead of being appalled at one being awarded against them. The rain has reared its head, but it doesn't dampen the home fans, who increasingly goad the small pocket of HFC supporters, “it's all gone quiet over there”. Talking to a member of the HU club staff, he tells me HFC “bullied us” in the reverse fixture earlier this season, admitting that HFC are the “only team” to have “outplayed” them “this season”. Tonight I’m not sure HFC have even had a shot on target yet, so are clearly nowhere near their best, but are still very much committed to a spot of roughhousing..

Fish and chip man having finished his fish and chips, is no less angry, whatever was in the white paper has not left him in any better of a mood. “Fucking get up” is quickly becoming his catchphrase, after a HU player goes down, and he’s not having any of it. However when the tables are turned, and one of his players hits the deck in similar circumstances, he is surprisingly quiet. Much to the amusement of the people behind him, “get up, get up” they shout, I say shout, they are too busy laughing their heads off. “They enjoyed that” says Tom grinning.

“We've got to want it” demands one HFC player, in an attempt to rally his teammates, who with the half rapidly coming to a conclusion, have been second best. “Skin him, skin him” screams one HFC fan with a player flying down the byline, but he’s unable to completely shake his marker, only winning a corner. At the moment the chants of the away fans are about as rare as their sides attacks, “come on Hadley, come on Hadley”.

Surrounded by almost all twenty two players, it's hard to make out the referee at the centre of the melee, his decision to award HU a free kick has gone down like a lead balloon with HFC and HU don't understand how there isn't at least a booking. The kids in the main stand think he should get a red, “get him off, get him off” but it's not even a yellow. “Ref sort it out” screams fish and chip man, prompting Tom to go a little bit Carry On through pursed lips, “oh angry”.

The final minutes of the half are a stop start, stop start mess, one tit for tat lunging tackle after another. One HFC player hurdles a couple before the referee pulls it back, the accosted visiting midfielder not best pleased with the treatment he’s getting, and although the final free kick is over, it can maybe at least be considered an attempt on goal. They register one more, the last of the half, the referee playing advantage, but again the final shot is over, the kids behind the goal asking, “how wide you want the goal?”.

The PA has been affected by a gremlin during the first half, so the voice of the young man manning it, is far from clear, however the kids that line the front row of the main stand make up for it, cheering off the teams, before Sweet Home Alabama drowns them out. Proving it’s not all about the youth here, and there is something for the Dad’s and Mum’s too. Tom is soon back with some quite fantastic chips which I pinch a few of, all while an HFC substitute pretends he is keeping warm and doing his required stretches, but is actually on his phone.

In Tom’s absence, I was joined by another Tom, a Tom we’ve met before. Tom who in his small sports holdall, has all manner of flags, scarves and banners, which in no time at all he has fastened to the fence near us, as the HFC fans relocate for the new half. From his head, and not his bag, he reels all sorts of fun facts, worthy of the back of any Penguin, about HFC’s current form and having finished his chips, Tom goes all boxing fan on me, when he tells me he “loves this song” as Neil Diamond starts to play.

It's a high pitched welcome back for the teams. The shouts of the home keeper are far more post puberty, “come on yellows, win the ball back” and once the match is back underway, it’s a lightning
start not by the home side as you might expect, but the away one, who come out like a new team.

A minute on the clock and one of their players has beaten the offside trap, “he’s on, he’s on” shouts one of the HFC fans behind us, but the ball just won't fall right for the advancing player and in the end he hooks his effort right at the keeper. “Great chance Bricks” applauds one of the few, but very vocal HFC supporters.

HFC almost scupper their strong start when their keeper makes a meal of a hoofed ball from HU’s own half, that doesn't half travel some, the bounce of which nearly catches him out. Joined by more fans, other Tom who is always in a constant state of motion, not my Tom, is joined by some late comers from the bar, this latest chant has a bit more volume, of “come on Hadley”. Admittedly they are nigh on our shoulder, it is only them we can hear over the HU supporters now, who are far off to our right behind the goal, whose drum and horn I can still hear, but nowhere near as much as those from North West London.

Other Tom’s unwavering optimism, looks like it’s going to be rewarded, “come on Bricks it’s coming” as the away side continue to show all the skill, they were severely lacking in the first half. “You'll get another one” assures one away fan, when the latest chance goes begging. “Come on Hadley” they sing, long and loud, their voices reverberating off the roof of the terrace and when a HU player goes down, let's say easily, it’s met with howls of derision, “Olympic sty-le fella”.

Thirteen minutes gone and HFC are in again for what feels like the zillionth time so far, round the keeper the shot is blocked, going out for a corner, which is headed just wide. “Much better Bricks” shouts an encouraging away fan, one buoyed by his team's up turn in performance, like Tom did, went a bit Carry On, “they don't like it up them”.

In a Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game first, although it's not totally clear at first, because Tom is convinced the HFC player has been sent off, we see our first player sin binned, which is effectively an adult naughty step. Other Tom thinks the player has taken the bait, bitten when he was provoked by HU and off he stomps, my Tom says the sin binned player looks very “angry” as he gets “in the bin”.

Considering they are down to ten men, it makes HFC scoring that little bit more impressive, rushing off the terrace other Tom is almost over the fence leaping up to celebrate, racing back to pound the back of the stand, starting a song with the opening line “we don't need no Tottenham Hotspur” before giving the sin binned player his very own to the tune of Star Man by Bowie, as he warms up readying himself to return. Tom wondering if he should really bother, “they play better without him”.

It’s all HFC, it’s like two different sides have come out, HU are showing none of that early swagger. Their mini Ultras group and their drum is all but silent, all the singing is coming from the rowdy six or seven over my right shoulder, “come on you Bricks” and such is HFC’s dominance, it's taken HU just over twenty minutes to muster a chance on goal, my Tom reckons the change in fortunes, is down to the referee having “changed sides”.

“Fucking hell it cleared the fence” is Tom’s appraisal of HFC’s free kick, in a dangerous position, other Tom reckoned we were about to see the “goal of the season”, but its far from it, another attempt at a Ronaldo knuckleball set piece that is a horror show. It’s then the turn of the HFC manager to get his own song, “black and red army” and the HFC fans have a great knack of switching between their own extensive song book, the next is to the tune of a Supergrass song, and my Tom is very impressed, “very tuneful”.

There is the odd ripple from the HU drum, but not often. Tom is obsessing over the recent HFC substitute, their number 14 who is running the show, whose beard has him captivated. “Manny is a game changer” comments Tom, as the wonderfully bearded ones hard running sets up a chance.

“Shocking, what, no” implores one HFC fan, not having witnessed some great tragedy as his response would imply, but the chalking off of an HFC equaliser, which would have been totally deserved, but it isn't given and queue an absolute tirade aimed at the referee and his assistants. The disallowed goal, with a quarter of an hour to play, feels like a massive turning point, after HFC have run HU ragged for the last half an hour.

With Manny having made such a huge difference since coming on, one has to wonder why he did not start, but Tom has an inkling why, his fitness. Having been on the pitch maybe twenty minutes, as Tom delicately puts it, “he’s breathing out his arse”.

Into the final fifteen, and HU ventures up field for a rare attack and not long after other Tom is back half over the fence, irate at the referee once more, “how did you not see that?”, when Manny looks to have been felled to the ground in the box. HU look rattled, shell shocked even, it continues to be all HFC and one of their fans are so incensed at the latest mistake by the officials, he circles half the pitch, to give the referees assistant opposite a peace of his mind.

I do enjoy a hummed rendition of the Entry of the Gladiators, and I know based on a previous encounter with them, there is no better set of fans than HFC's to pick the most opportune time, to mark a gaff or mistake correctly. When HU's keeper and a defender play a game of 'you have it, no you have' when it comes to taking a free kick, the opening bars emitting from the crowd behind me, feels just like being under the big top.

With the continuing HFC pressure, it's the turn of the home players to start to lose their cool, quarreling with the referee and each other, "boys you're fucking walking". They really have been a
shadow of their first half selves. The sound of home singing and the drum, has now been replaced with the noise of an impromptu kick about and Tom points out that with youth, comes inpatients, "you know what the problem with kids as Ultras is? They get board. Not got long enough attention spans".

The HFC bench instructs the players to "pile on the pressure", one man in the technical area gets very serious with a string, "until the last". Falling short when going toe to toe with HFC, the HU players attempt a few other methods to finish off their opponents, one taking the art of the dive to a new plain, "like a dying swan" cackles one HFC fan.

Growing ever more frustrated, the HFC supporters are watching there chance to gain ground on their fellow promotion pushing contenders slip away. "A sending off offence" barks one, after a HFC player goes down, and while still down, has the ball booted right in his face.

"Keep believing reds" cries one HFC player, "big fucking effort" replies the HU keeper and the departure of HU's goal machine could be telling. "Oh no Haland is off" says Tom, the player on course for his "hattrick" looks to have "done his back in".

There can only be minutes left to play and one HU defender orders his teammates to "keep switched on, these are the last fucking moments". A big tackle up the touchline by a HU player sees the tension raise even higher, "getting spicy" murmurs Tom. When a big away tackle leaves one home player rolling around, the whole of the main stand are on their feet and up in arms. There is an underlying feeling that things might boil over any second.

From point blank range, what looked like HFC's final chance to bag a point, is cleared. The tackles are flying in now even more frequently, the home fans are getting tetchy, "he's having one" says one when the referee once more keeps his cards in his pocket. "Heads up, heads up" are now the shouts from the home bench.

Standing at the back post, Manny looks on hand to grab the glory, right at the death, but a teammate pinches the chip aimed at him, and that feels like that. Flooding from the sidelines the home fans are doing whatever they can to will their team over the finishing line, "come on boys want this", everyone, I mean everyone is shouting, players, fans, from all corners. HU are just about hanging on.

A late away corner is poor, the claim for a penalty feels a bit more like desperation than reality. HU counterattack, bearing down on goal there are calls to "finish it", but the shot is right at the keeper. "How much longer ref?" is the question now on everyone's lips.

To quote the person on the PA, I would agree that the game we just watched was indeed some "scintillating non league football". The points are HU's, just, and just how just, is clear from the relief painted all over the faces of the players in yellow and blue congratulating each other on the pitch.

Plenty of people have their own opinions on HU, and have been more than willing to share them, when this club grabbed all the headlines in the last few years. Opinions about the way they were formed, where in the pyramid they were allowed to enter, and for some just their name.

There is so much snobbery in football, plain and simple, at all levels, and walking hand in hand with traditionalism, it can get a bit unsavory at times. I'm sure in 1882 when a team called Hotspur FC was formed, plenty of people thought that was an odd name too, and when in 1886 a group of munitions workers started a team, people thought who are these upstarts, thinking them can form their own football club.

My point is a name is just a name, be it based on something on a keyboard or a character from Shakespeare, does it really matter? Is a team started by a YouTube channel, not just the 2020 equivalent of a team started by the workers of an electronics company, like PSV?

I saw two things today, that in the five years we've been doing what we do, are far from common sights at all levels and especially non league, an atmosphere for one and at the end did the players march off, get in the shower and go home, did they hell. They signed the autographs, posed for the selfies, they took the time to thank the fans.

If that's what Hashtag United FC are going to bring to the football universe, then call me a Hashtag United FC fan.

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Sunday, 8 March 2020

I've Tried Cashmere - Horsham FC Vs Burgess Hill Town FC, Isthmian League Trophy 2nd Knock Out Round, Hop Oast (12/02/20)

With a belly full of Mexican food I should really be preparing for a siesta, not embarking on a two hour drive towards the South Coast. It will be of no shock to hear I’m without Tom, but like some kind of minor miracle, call the Vatican and tell them I saw the face of Jesus in the display of my until now broken radio, it now, without explanation is working again. So I flit between Michael Jackson’s History, and Radio One’s drive time show.

The further into Sussex I go, the signs on the motorway read more and more like the Isthmian league table, each exit seeming to have it’s own team. Passing through Dorking, there are an abundance of cocks, and in a couple of rare moments of excitement I notice first a dog in its own car seat, and at one point have to wait behind a police roadblock, because someone has been dragged from their estate car and is currently face down on the roof, with their hands in cuffs.

There are new football grounds, The Emirates, really new grounds, White Hart Lane 2.0 and really, really, really new grounds, which is the category tonight's tongue twister of a venue falls into, The Camping World Community Stadium or as I believe it’s known as by locals, The Hop Oast.

The driveway in and the tiny lights that guide you, is more like the kind leading to a plush day spa, then a non league football ground. Most car parks we encounter put your life at risk, such are the magnitude of the potholes, but there is no chance of that here. You are more likely to be asked by a waistcoat wearing valet if you would like your car parked, then fall down a crater.

So small are the trees and shrubs that fill the borders surrounding the car park, that one could be forgiven for thinking they are in Lilliput, but it's actually just a case of them by the looks of it only having been planted last week, and if it wasn't for my slightly dodgy sense of smell, I’m sure the scent of fresh paint is probably still hanging in the air.

Loitering in car parks seems to be Toms MO at the moment, if he’s not careful he’s going to get himself a reputation. Stepping out of his car, he is quick to tell me he “feels like Pepe'', and he doesn't mean over priced and severely lacking in end product, but because he has a woolly hat and a snood on. Overlapping, I can just about only see his eyes.

Inside the Horsham FC (HFC) crest fronted clubhouse, it is sparkling. In one corner a small TV welcomes the away team, hoping that they “enjoy” their visit, “but not too much”. On a much larger screen front and centre the cricket from some far flung corner of the world is playing, which has most people already here engrossed. Tom’s visit to the bar, where a HFC scarf is stretched out across the optics, is a short one, because in the place of a cuppa, is one of the vending machines in the corner, just past the obligatory non league clubhouse dartboard.

We get an oh so brief and teasing glimpse of what's beyond the door with club shop written above it, but it doesn't look like it’s going to be open any time soon, so we will have to wait a little while longer to see if we are able to purchase a HFC mouse mat.

The TV in the corner is not only dishing out the niceties learns Tom, but also informs all of the Sunday breakfast club they have here. “Eggs Benedict” he says, far from your normal non league football fayre, which he will learn soon is a theme, because really where we are right now, is not very non league at all.

I want to ask the man why he is whistling the Indiana Jones theme, but leave him to it and just enjoy the John Williams tune. Tom is oblivious to this, instead he is studying his phone, and as is normally the case, the weather app especially. He is concerned, rain is forecast, and lots of it, double black raindrop amounts according to the Met office.

His mood is lifted when we overhear the discussion between a couple of HFC club officials, “scores level after extra time, straight to penalties” one tells another and seemingly of all the things to dislike about football, a game going beyond the scheduled ninety minutes, is by far Toms biggest bug bare.

One young man takes advantage of the facilities, and is chucking a few darts, each one landing on the board with that tell, tale thud. The referees pass us, newly arrived, off to the board room in search of biscuits and Tom is also thinking about food, it is very rarely far from his mind, telling me, “I think I might eat early”. Interrupting him, a person approaches our table, stopping me from gormlessly staring at the cricket, “gentlemen can I interest you in a 50/50 ticket?”. The answer is of course yes, and the lady in her yellow and green club scarf, with a handful of tickets is soon in possession of my £2, which disappears into the small black bag slung over her shoulder.

Not that I admit to be an expert on cricket whatsoever, but Tom clearly knows even less about it then me, at one point shouting “thirty points” indiscriminately. When not channeling his inner Boycott, he is somewhat taken aback by the man at the bar wearing shades, “is it sunny outside?” he asks me, before I comment that the man in the Bono’s might have a pre existing eye condition, and he is to be kinder to old men in massive specs.

Tom’s final bit of cricket analysis, is a very excitable mention for the “little things on the stumps” the bales I explain, that “light up”. Flashing red after the latest wicket has been taken and although I’m slightly suspicious of the side by side vending machines in the corner of the room, they are at least “super stocked” as Tom puts it, as one women does her best to get every packet of Mini Cheddars in existence inside of it.

Taking in our customary wander around the ground, it's hard not to be impressed. “For a 3G” says Tom “it’s one of the better ones” and he’s not wrong, even if his praise is a tad muted. My favourite bit has to be the clubs initials spelt out in yellow seats, among the green ones, in the sizable main stand on the half way life. There are a couple of flat pack terraces dotted around, and for the discerning fan, a veranda outside the bar, where you are protected from any scary shots, by a large black net.
Having been outside for less than ten minutes, the cosy shroud of the clubhouse has already fallen and I’m starting to feel the cold. Noticing this, and through his steamed up glasses, “yeah that’s the only downside” Tom once again regales all the benefits of his mighty snood, “you need to get one” he implores, “wear it as a scarf, as a hat” he explains, however his sales pitch falls by the wayside, when his hunger kicks into action, “smells like roast down here”. Looking at him blankly, he continues regardless, “you know what I mean? Broccoli?” I don't know what he means at all.

Leaving me in the main stand, to deliberate just how much the dugouts look like fish tanks, Tom is off, his hunch that he was going to eat early has come to fruition. Returning not long after, he seems almost a bit overwhelmed, shell shocked even, only able to tell me, “I might have to eat twice”. Sitting down next to me and after composing himself, he explains the reason for his bewilderment, the menu. Reeling off such delights as “chicken tikka and chips' ', “chilli and chips” and not any old hot dog, but a “chorizo” one, he is astounded. HFC’s new home continues to dazzle, and if Tom was not unable to get as excited about the stand as I was, he makes up for it, by going on and on about the refreshments.

As important as a nice setting is, good food and the chance of a flutter. It's kind of irrelevant if the match, because despite what Tom thinks, it’s that and not the chips we are here for, is not up to scratch, then it can ultimately detract from all the peripheries. HFC would “normally” according to one of their helpful stewards expect “five or six hundred” on a match day, however today will probably be half that, “if we're lucky”. Why I hear you ask, are the people of West Sussex not hardy, don't fancy a late night or perhaps Bake Off is on the TV, nope it's because as the steward so eloquently puts it, it’s because it's the “Velocity Trophy thingy”.

Not that him telling us this is a something we didn't know, we learnt very quickly that the League Cup, of whatever league we happen to be watching a match in, at all levels of the game, is held with such disdain, and so very rarely makes for good viewing, the opinion of it shared by fans and players alike, you have to wonder why they bother with it all.

Warming up nearby are the HFC players, one of which the steward points out is playing his “six hundred and third game” tonight, having been with the club since he was “eighteen” and is “ still doing a job” for them. The zeal of his warm up, suggests he is still very much enjoying himself. The same though cannot be said for one player in a big long black coat beside him, “looks like he's never
warmed up before” laughs Tom. The player, who I suspect already knows he is not starting, is hardly giving his pre match routine his all.

It did occur to me Tom had been quiet for a while, I allowed him some grace considering he was eating, before checking on him, but that's all gone now, and he’s still silent, and I soon learn why. “I made a mistake” he admits, as nice as his burger was, he seriously regrets his choice, he just wasn't brave enough to order something other than his norm. By his own admission, his lack of exploratory spirit means he’s missed out, “I wanna eat again!”, he says, falling short of slamming his fist, like a massive bearded toddler.

“50/50” is the high pitched call of the lady by the turnstiles, adjacent to the man selling programmes from atop an ornate garden table. The turnstiles which for the moment are in a constant state of motion as more and more fans arrive, one of whom appears optimistic, “might be a good game tonight”. Although the competition is not all that well respected, the fact HFC are playing somewhat local rivals Burgess Hill Town FC, might give it a little extra verve.

Leaning in to tell me, one BH fan, with his black and green tie hanging around his neck, the club's supporters group way of distinguishing their allegiance, informs me they have had their drum “confiscated'', which is a shame to hear. The reason the clubs “neighbours”, they must mean the woodland creatures in the surrounding forest, because I didn't see any houses nearby. As the traveling fan puts it, “we wanna get a bit of noise in this sanitized ground” which is something I can certainly get behind.

Quiet, but jolly is how I would describe the man on the PA, “good evening ladies and gentlemen''. Showing a slight spike in energy, when it's time to read out the home starting eleven, “and for the Hornets”. He confirmed what we had overheard earlier, that “if the scores are level after ninety minutes. It's straight to penalties, no extra time”, adding that “if you see ten substitutions, don't be surprised. Five each are allowed”.

Edging ever closer to kick off, people continue to arrive, “smart isn't it” says one. Still coming over the speakers, the man with the microphone is plugging away the “Hornets lager” and if you happen to have come straight from work and “not been home yet, not been able to get any dinner” they more than have you covered. Hanging from the net in front of the clubhouse a couple of home flags have appeared and the players feel well overdue. It is though not far for them to come down once they start to appear from the small door at the top of a gentle slope, passing through at the bottom the world's smallest tunnel, which can be no longer than five feet.

It’s about the most rapid of handshakes you are ever likely to see performed, it’s now well past kick off, but the formalities must still be observed and there is one last request over the speakers, “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls enjoy the game”,

Considering BH are from the division below, they are not showing any sign of their underdog status, straight out the traps and on the front foot, they threaten the home goal within minutes of the start. Two blocked shots in quick succession, the second after winning the ball back superbly and supplying the man in the box, there is an early case for them looking like they might bestow HFC a tough night. Their “high press” as Toms puts it, I do love it when he gets all technical, wins them an early free kick, and their fans to one side of the goal and the giant black net, let out their first chant of the night.

More home flags have gone up, now at the opposite end to the clubhouse and a rapid counter attack by the home side is the first time they've been able to flex their muscles, however the shot at the end of it, is right at the keeper. Back and forth the home fans call and respond, “yellow, yellow” quickening the pace of the chant each time until it's almost inaudible. The BH fans then change the noise level game pretty comprehensively, with not even ten minutes gone. They may have lost their drum, but they were allowed to keep their bugle.

Another blistering home attack sees almost the whole team surge towards the visitors goal. The awarding of a corner after the shot was deflected is greeted with more shouts of “yellows, yellows” and with about just over five minutes on the clock, and after such a promising opening run by BH, they find themselves behind. “Too easy” grumbles one of the BH managerial duo in the technical area, “deal with the first ball coming in” shouts the other angrily.

The unwaivable BH fans reply with a few shouts of “Burgess Hill, Burgess Hill” happy to carry on, unaffected by conceding, but they are somewhat drowned out by the now much louder home supporters “Horsham, Horsham”.

HFC officially have the bit between their teeth now, fizzing a low cross through the BH box. Tom thinks it’s a “bold move” by the home side to try and “emulate Brazil” with their yellow and green trim kit. The BH bugle player strikes up, I say player, he’s just holding it up to his mouth and blowing through it, and BH have gone full circle, from being well in it, on top even, they now feel well and truly on the skids.

“What happened there?” asks Tom, BH initiates their own counterattack, striding out of defence the player makes it to the edge of the centre circle and attempts forward a pass, but it's like he had forgotten how to play football and it's horrible.

The BH fans team might be behind, however they keep singing. Their own flag has gone up now, and their resolve is tested again, ten minutes after going behind, the deficit increases, again from another corner, again the corner is received with shouts of “yellows, yellows”, they really like a set piece around here. All the BH bench can do is slump. Two nil down, and looking a shadow of the team who looked so promising, Tom confirmed just what I’m sure everyone is thinking, “it’s going to be a long night”.

Hammering the metal hoarding by the side of the pitch, the BH fans make just as much noise as any drum would, “oh Burgess Hill is wonderful ''. They do the opposite of what most supporters do after conceding, they do all they can to lift their teams spirits, instead of compounding them with negativity. This holistic approach is then rewarded with a glimmer of hope. Letting loose their number 8, he rides the incoming tackles as he enters the eighteen yard box, momentarily losing possession, he is able to recover, but his cross to a teammate, is just out of his reach.

Twenty four minutes gone and the game is all but over or at least it seemed that way, until the linesman on the far side raised his flag to chalk off HFC’s third. “Liven up” insists one of the HB coaches, the home players on the other hand are more than fired up. Getting into the referee and his assistant, “how the fuck was that offside” screams the home number 3, whose persistent profanity, makes Tom think he’s “going to get sent off for swearing”.

Tom’s weather app is correct to almost the second as the rain starts to fall, the home fans are relatively quiet, where the BH one's, and remember their team are being pretty roundly trounced, are still going, “ole, ole, ole”. The home fans are now huddled underneath the flat roof stand to our right as the rain gets harder, seemingly not concerned with such a trivial thing as keeping dry, they come over all 80’s Classics Volume One, with a song to the tune of Bryan Adams ‘Heaven’.

More HFC corners surely spell more trouble for BH, again the kicking of the ball from that flag by the corner, proves to be a real crowd pleaser, each one without fail is met with a rousing shout of “yellow, yellow”, however this time nothing comes from them. A very slick HFC move proves its not only from set pieces that they are dangerous, the eventual shot though is straight into the grateful arms of the HB keeper. The away bench is growing increasingly concerned with how much heads have dropped, “it's getting quiet again”.

Eight minutes from the break, and without any doubt that the goal should stand or not, HFC added to their tally. “Sums their night up” prophesizes Tom about BH and specifically their number 4 who is having a bit of a shocker. The goal kick whacking him in the back, the ball falling straight to a HFC player, who with the goal gaping, had the simple task of rolling it into the empty net.

Tonight might have to go down as one of those occasions when if a team had just taken their chances,
how different a game it could have been. It’s not like BH have had no time in front of goal, they've just been unable to convert, they spurn a chance to grab one back just before the break, shooting wide. Half watching the match, half talking to Aveley FC’s Chief Executive Craig, all while trying to avoid having my eye poked out by Toms large black and white golf umbrella he scampered off to the car to get, Craig tells me there was no way the HFC 'offside’ goal should have been ruled off. It was in fact an own goal, “he stuck it in his own net”.

One HFC player stabs the ball wide of the post as the home onslaught continues in the dying seconds of the half, but there is just about enough time for their forth before it’s time for tea and orange segments. A swinging effort from outside the box, that from behind we have a grandstand view of just how much it moves, it’s an absolute belter.

Under an emptying sky it’s BH who have the last chance of the half, “get in” shouts someone from the bench, but the header back across the goal is over and come the whistle, the rain now lashing against the top of Tom’s brolly, there is an understandable exodus. The voice back over the PA reminding everyone “the bar is open”.

Getting soggier by the second, the fact I'm not the winner of the “£91” up for grabs in the 50/50, does little to lift my morale. The PA is back plugging everything from the “curry” being served to the availability of the “function room”, his chirpy voice coming at me loudly from less than an arm's length away, the speaker attached to the floodlight, right above my head.

New HT flags now adorn their new end, for the new half, which include a rainbow one, and one that I'm sure is the national flag of Peru. The new half sees them up their flag game quite considerably, going from one, to at least six. A big one hangs from the back of the stand, and they now have green and black ones on the end of white flag poles. “Come on Hillans, come on Hillans” they sing, drowning out the sound of Tom reminding me that when I bought my 50/50 tickets, he told me I wouldn't be going home with the money, “told you, not winners”.

One day we'll see the Ronaldo knuckleball free kick pulled off, but it won't be today. The first chance of the new half a free kick to HFC in a good position, but the toe punt is well over. More goals seem inevitable mind, but HFC haven't really got their shooting boots on yet, the majority of their fans playing sardines in the small stand to our right, who have the ideal view of their teams next effort, which not only clears the goal, but the net and the clubhouse too.

The rain is close to torrential, and the home fans are singing a song I’d only ever previously heard sung by one of the seven dwarves, “hi ho, hi ho”. On one of BH’s all too rare attacks, a BH player hits his shot so hard, sending it thundering into the back of the stand his fans now occupy, if it was any lower, there could have been a death.

“Every time” mouths one of the now exasperated HB coaches, they have just watched their team concede a fifth, and despite the away fans upbeat song “we’re going to win 6-1” in reality we are close to a rout. Five goals in my mind does not quite constitute a rout yet, more a drubbing or a thrashing, but there's still plenty of time, “could be six/seven/eight” says Tom.

I could have my eyes closed, and just by hearing “yellows, yellows” know that HFC had won a corner. We are both sad to hear that “Sparks” is coming off, I’m not sure we have ever encountered a namesake playing before, and it's a bit of a slight on Tom’s heritage if I'm honest, that he couldn't even last the whole ninety, “oh I went off”. Still much the louder of the two groups of fans, the BH ones are now partaking in some kind of Olympic relay. Two fans, each with their own flag, are entertaining themselves with their own time trials. From the stand to the corner flag and back in the quickest time.

“Finish it” screams one of the home fans braving the rain and sans a brolly unlike us two Steve McClarens. A low free kick is spilt by the HB keeper, but the attempt to convert the rebound is put wide.

Having conceded five, it would be fair to say the HB keeper has not had the best of days but having learnt at half time he is only seventeen and thinking what a useless bag of stoned bones I was at that age, he’s actually done remarkably well. His standout highlight of the night is a save right out the top drawer, one that prevents what Tom said would have been the “greatest goal” he'd “ever seen”, which is no faint praise.
A flick, a spin, a back heel, a step over or two all leads up to the wonder save, a one handed lurch to his right, that stops the bouncing ball hitting the back of his net. Recounting the build up has made Tom go all high pitched, “like watching Holland'' he reminisces, but the save was more equal to all the fancy footwork that preceded it.

Rattling the stand, the home fans belt out a few songs, the Lardy Army, as their flag reveals they are called, have not been super vocal this evening, unlike the BH fans who one way or the other have not stopped, “Burgess Hill, Burgess Hill”. I wish I could say the rain had stopped, but it's now a fine mist, that is excellent in luring you into a false sense of security.

With a simple square ball available, the BH bench don't understand why the player out wide has chosen the speculative drive from an and acute angle, instead of passing, “why are you shooting from there?”. Five goals to the good, HFC have eased up a lot, allowing BH much more time on the ball, which in turn increases their time in front of the goal. Another chance presents itself, but the forward snatches at it, and the bench have seen enough, turning their back on the pitch in disgust.

The BH fans are of course still singing, the Lardy Army belt out the odd tune, “we all follow the yellow and green”, the terrace outside the bar is well populated, but you could almost hear a pin drop at times, the game is done. The silence is only broken briefly by the referee barking at HFC’s manager, “I gave the foul Bill, what are you moaning about?”, after one of his players was clattered to the ground right in front of him.

Some might call it the phantom zone, others the twilight zone, I’m not sure what's the right terminology, but whatever it is, we are stuck in it. That time between the last goal of a one sided hammering and full time. Tom does what he always does, letting his mind wander, he informs me that a HFC fan on the terrace is wearing some dubious leg ware, “there is a man in there with shorts on” and he soon realises why people don't generally take umbrellas at football, other than the obvious ‘wally with a brolly jibes’, when he is unable to judge the flight of a high clearance coming our way, the ball casting a large silhouette on his canopy, “is that going to hit me?”. It doesn't, but it was close, instead it almost destroys the woman next to us.

On the realization that he is OK, and so is the woman next to us I'm glad to report, he is noticeably upset, “I didn't see you jumping to my rescue”.

One could be forgiven for thinking BH were still in this game, with the amount of possession they are getting, but don't be fooled, it's not a case of them finding some old form all of a sudden, but that HFC have well and truly clocked off. They actually hit the target with one effort, their first of the half I think, and one player shows a high level of determination, riding one tackle after another, eventually being brought to a halt on the edge of the home eighteen yard box, much to the delight of the BH fans, “oh Burgess Hill”.

Both wet and cold, Tom tells me he has “given up with double socks” and no matter what they're made of, “I’ve tried wool, I've tried cashmere” the results are the same, frozen feet. The sight of one HFC sub in a full waterproof suit, gets Tom all giddy, but I'm not sure he has the figure to pull it off.

I know you have to set an example to your players, but the BH bench should just save the attempts to rally the players, “composure” urges one man, with five minutes left to play and five goals behind, it just seems like a waste of breath. The departing home crowd has not gone unnoticed by the BH fans, “we can see you sneaking out” and guess what's just happened, I'll give you a clue, “yellows, yellows”.

In one last gasp attempt to reward their fans with something, BH bit the bar. The home fans still left on the terrace let out a sarcastic "weyyyyyy", before staring a song, the relevance of which needs pointing out. "Riding on a donkey" they sing, after which one fan makes sure the BH knows they are talking about them, "that's you Burgess Hill". A late home challenge almost mars the night, "someones in trouble" mutters one of the stewards ready to pull the tunnel into place, but its not even a yellow.

The BH Olympics has been expanded to include other events, the quick sprint from before, is now a marathon, well a lap of the pitch at least. Still with flags in the hand, the two participants belt in around the ground. Once back in place and having caught their breath, their next song fells appropriate, "we have more fun than you".

"A minimum of two added minutes" says the PA, one home fan leaving who has seen enough points
out correctly that both sets of players are now simply "going through the motions". There is some gentle ribbing by the local kids come the final whistle, as the HB players depart, "cheers for the results lads", those dejected players having been serenaded by their fans, while they all shook hands and there is plenty of loud clapping from the home supporters, gathered around the tunnel, as their players head off victorious.

When the first visitors to Disneyland walked though the gates, they must have felt like they had stepped into the future, and we felt a bit like that today, just minus the beaming Californian sun or massive walking mice. The Hop Oast is quite something, its not a crumbling character filled ground, but as they become fewer and fewer, I suspect that more and more of the grounds we visit, will look like this one, anyone looking for ideas of a new place to call home, could go a long way to model it on this corner of West Sussex.

The problem is though, a day at a theme park is nothing with out colour, noise, and overpriced chips. So I hope HFC and any other club who are not pro drums, will reconsider in the future, because in my opinion it's that, along with flags and singing that makes for an excellent experience, not just chicken tikka and chips.

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