Sunday, 9 February 2020

Head Says Move, Heart Says Stay - Chesham United FC Vs Taunton Town FC, The Meadow, Southern League Premier South (25/01/20)

Sitting in Tom’s car, pootling along through the Saturday afternoon traffic, Feeder tumbling from the speakers, I can’t quite get my head around why Tom isn't anywhere near as tanned as I thought he would be.

Two weeks in the Maldives and I expected him to come back looking not far off beef jerky, but not quite David Dickinson. Tom very much falls into the sun worshiper category and admittedly he is glowing, he’s taken on a bit of colour, however I frankly thought I was not going to recognise him.

Not long into our journey and I'm starting to slightly regret accepting his offer to drive, by his own admission he is a little “spaced”, having only landed forty eight hours ago, and still feeling the effect of a five hour time difference. I do manage to coax a bit of detail out of him, his trip to “turtle reef” where most of the passengers vomited on the transfer. His evening on the “top deck of a boat on a bean bag” being “given canapes'' and the night of the “three lobsters” and sounding a tad spoilt, admits “I never want to eat lobster again”, as well as lazy sun drenched days “kayaking” and “paddleboarding” a “once in a lifetime” experience.

Clearly his mind is still on holiday time and his driving is let's say a bit distracted. His explanation that he is “spaced and hungry” starts the alarm bells ringing.

Having been doing what we do for five years now, Tom is not wrong when he says “I feel like we’ve been here before” big houses set back from the road at the end of gravel drives, countryside pubs with twee names, it's the Lazy Pig today, do seem to inevitably lead to where we're going most days. Pointing out to him that this part of Buckinghamshire is untraveled by us, he admits “it does all kind of blend into one”.

Unfortunately for my nerves, Tom’s driving does not improve, he has the vibe of someone who has not driven for a while, “so sleepy” he admits “feel stoned” he adds, which means a Redbull is required ASAP. The pit stop at a petrol station does not result in a can of synthetic bull semen, but a packet of crisps and a Lucozade. The go to drink of footballers of the mid 90’s and people in hospital, offers him just as much “pep” apparently.

Nestled beside a gym and a cricket club, before entering the home of ‘The Generals’, sitting in the car park I have the joy of listening to Tom devour a pack of Flaming Hot Monster Munch. Inside the the Meadow, home of Chesham United FC (CU) it’s soon clear we could not have asked for a finer setting for an all too rare Saturday out.

The ground and the idyllic backdrop are not undermined by the overcast sky. The undulating tree covered hillside behind one goal is more than picturesque and is clearly popular with local dog walkers, one such K9, a brilliantly white one, is by the looks of it walking its owner, rather than the other way round. Pitchside there are a whole host of different options for the discerning spectators. A corner bank of concrete terracing, a tumble down covered stand on the far side of the pitch, some much newer looking flatpack stands behind each goal, and the all seater main stand high up one one side, flanked by the clubhouse.

Such is the descent from the main stand to the pitch, the staircase, yes staircase, looks mildly hazardous, and is not something I would want to do in studs. The bright yellow handrails screaming health and safety nightmare, huge potential for a lawsuit and if you make it to the pitch in one piece, you have to pass between two of the finest examples of greenhouses being repurposed as dugouts.

The welcome from Tina CU’s Commercial Director is a warm one, and standing in the bar overlooking the pitch through the large UPVC windows, she fills us in some news that has recently caused a bit of a stir among the CU fans, they are “moving”. Before then there will be some refreshments to the Meadow, but puffing out cheeks as she tells us, highlights non league football's biggest problem, “money” and having enough of it to make the changes it’s so desperately in need of.

Tina tells us that the “board has ambition” to climb up the pyramid and “promotion” is the goal, but as it stands the ground “wouldn't pass grading for the next level”. Emotions among the fans she explains are still a “bit raw today” as is the case with 99% of fans put in a similar situation they of course “wanna stay”.

For today though, there is a much more pressing matter at hand, a visit from fellow promotion rivals Taunton Town FC (TT). CU sit top of the table, something Tina is far from a fan of “hate being at the top” she muses, she'd much rather be “nipping” away from behind. The Meadow has become somewhat of a fortress, “we've not lost all season” explains Tina's partner, who points out “statistically” it's got to happen soon, which gets a withering look from Tina, whose nerves are getting the better of her, “I feel sick”.

Creeping into view the TT coach makes a muted entrance and soon the players have disembarked and are out on the pitch. The music is blaring from the home changing room and the first song over the PA sets the theme for the day, Dad Rock. A genre I can usually fully get behind, but the first two songs, Rod Stewart and Foreigner's ‘Cold As Ice', which Tom loves singing along with, but only because he admits to liking the sample used in the M.O.P. song, is a far from ideal start.

“It's going to be tough” admits one TT fan, suitably wrapped up in his sheepskin coat, TT scarf and flat cap, any bit of visible flesh littered with tattoos, with a voice so rough it makes me feel terribly inadequate. He reckons his team might just edge it “I’d say 2-1 to Taunton” but he is sure to reiterate, “today is going to be a real test”.

Tom’s “tapeworm” he picked up on honeymoon or the two weeks of all inclusive has somewhat boosted his capacity to eat through the roof, means he is off for a burger early. Trying the door of the still locked clubhouse, a blue and claret portacabin, before stopping at the traveling funfair style burger van.

The opening chords of Owner Of A Lonely Heart roar out of the PA and we discuss the lack of middle ground in non league football between classic rock and euro dance, all while Tom’s eats his ever so slightly Brexit sounding lunch, his “good old British burger”. The following announcement over the PA though is a sad one, today's game being played “in honor of John Plank” a recently deceased fan, and to commemorate his passing, some “Sri Lankan food” is on offer, which “when it runs out, it runs out, that's life” says the man on the microphone somewhat poignantly.

Both teams are out warming up, as are a group of kids doing the same. Perched on a chair by the turnstiles, a man sells programmes out of a brown cardboard box, as a steady but modest stream of TT fans arrive, many in their distinct colors. Which are very similar to those of the home side, and that of Tina’s nail varnish. Although this season they are playing in a changed strip, one in homage to the clubs visit to Wembley for the 1968 F.A. Amateur Cup, which caused a “bit of a furor” she tells us. Football at all levels, is overflowing with traditionalists.

Marching towards the now open club shop, we follow in his considerable wake, the TT fan in the flat
cap who having heard some team news, has lost faith in his prediction, “our top goal scorer, the league top goal scorer is out”.

Like every club shop should be, CU’s is packed, a bit messy, not very big and full of all sorts of stuff I want to fill my rucksack with, but will get in trouble at home if I do. Books, programmes, scarves and a whole rail of old shirts occupy the little bit of floor space there is. The man who runs it Tina told us, Dan, is a man of many talents, “trust member, runs the tea bar and programme editor”.

What Tom thinks is a “weird drug deal” going down, huddled together outside the door to the bar, is in fact not anything anywhere near as sinister. It's just the golden goal seller, a duo hustling comers and goers with a promise of happiness, so really it's not that far off a drug deal at all. I try my luck of course, dropping my change into the pint glass and for some reason let one of the two sellers pick my tickets for me, which I wish I had not bothered, twenty two and thirty eight minutes, hardly fill me full of hope.

It would have been rude not to try one of the Sri Lankan nibbles, so I opt for what the man dishing them out tells me is a “pattie'', which is more than delicious, and I really should have gone back for more. The man puffing away nearby on a large cigar seems content, however a few passing people are far from impressed with the smoke recoiling in horror as it hits them, and someone who I’m sure has his own food squared away in his bag for life, with his thermos, is the CU fan in a CU scarf on the terrace, working out the best place to stand.

A spot of Lou Reed is about the first agreeable song, the kids who were warming up now pose for a group photo on the pitch and the voice over the PA who is forthright, far from showy and very much to the point, informs any of “those interested in the cricket” that “South Africa” are “41/2” which is received with a mild smattering of ahhhs and the noise levels fail to get much higher, when he tells all to “welcome on to the pitch the two teams”. I was expecting a bit more of an ambience as the players traverse the stairs, but it's near enough silent, other than Marc Bolan.

Even the players, who you can normally put your money on for a bit of racket pre kick off are relatively quiet, “lets start fucking bright” hollers one TT player, but it's not until the away fans off to our right, standing in front of their large Pride Of Somerset flag fastened to the back of the stand, do we get any semblance of atmosphere, “we love you Taunton we do” and as will be the case for the rest of the day, each song thereafter is started by the man with the most gravelly of voices, “yellows, yellows, yellows”.

The CU fans have a flag too, a single doctored Union Jack hanging over the railing around the pitch, but at the moment only one end is singing. The flood lights flicker on, piercing the murk and the game has barely started before a long stop, because of an injury to a TT player, means kick off was a bit of a false dawn. The home fans as you would expect, unless there is an obvious sign of a horrific injury, didn't think there was much in it, “he hardly touched him”.

A nearby man in a CU scarf and Leeds United hat, shuffles about, unable to commit to one spot, and ten minutes gone the home fans metaphorically stretch their legs, with a low and slow “Chesham, Chesham”, however four or so minutes later, and after a opening period of almost exactly nothing happening, the home side take the lead.

What I later hear described as a “non league bicycle kick” is the best way to illustrate the CU goal, a hooked effort over the shoulder of the player with his back to goal, not ever leaving the ground, and without any of the risk of falling badly and breaking your collarbone. As the TT players trudge back to their half, one CU supporter gloats “wehhhhh enjoy the journey?” and the fans behind the goal break in to “deh, deh, deh, deh, Chesham”.

Tom’s tapeworm pipes up not even fifteen minutes in, “I’m hungry”, but even the parasite in his lower intestine has to take a back seat, when a CU player goes down whaling clutching his leg and I fear the worst. Except Tom seems totally unaffected by it and quickly puts my mind at ease, ”he hardly touched him” he says. His opinion backed up by a nearby home fan, who doesn’t agree with the awarding of the foul, “what game you fucking watching?”.

The TT fans have fallen quite, even flat cap. The goal having knocked the wind out of their sails. A handball decision given against CU, stirs one of the group of older men directly next to us, into taking a few steps forward, another bloke in a flat cap but with quite a different overall look to that of the TT supporter, a lot less punk, a lot more Radio Times, he cups his gloved hands to his mouth and shouts, “rubbish referee”.

Despite the early goal and all the promise of a top of the table skirmish, twenty five minutes have elapsed and quite literally nothing has happened. A wicked curling TT free kick and a “well claimed” TT corner as one man announced, are just about all the highlights I can muster, that and a booming clearance by one CU player so big, it clears the main stand and heads into the car park.

It's a tipped over shot come cross, that almost catches out the back peddling CU keeper that inspires the first TT song in a while, “yellow, yellow, yellow” and it’s from the resulting corner, that something of note happens, a goal.

In, out, in, out and in again. The final time the ball is lobbed back in the eighteen yard box, it finds a player who is able to swivel, walloping the ball over the CU keepers right shoulder. The fact CU had so many chances to clear their lines as they say, but failed to, will be of much consternation to their manager and fans, but TT’s will take encouragement from their dogged determination to keep plugging away, and it worked. Running along behind the goal, the scorer, quickly followed by his teammates, high fives the outstretched hands of the fans, who don’t beat around the bush cracking out a song, “we love you Taunton we do''.

The CU manager, that if you weren't really concentrating, could be mistaken for a man just pottering about outside his new extension, asks his team for “energy, energy, energy”. I’m not sure that is what the game has been lacking by any means, however being pegged back can I’m sure be a little sapping, but this doesn't seem to be the case either, and its “energy” he gets, as his team almost take the lead again straight after the restart.

“He’s on” gasps a home fan, the wide player is away and into the box. He finds a team mate, however the finish is scuffed, but the intent excites the the CU supporters.

The home fans are frankly bemused at why exactly the referee has just given a foul against them, and if the free kick that followed had resulted in a goal, the header across the box is held, we might have had a riot on our hands. TT are poised to counter attack at the drop of a hat and it's only a great recovering tackle by one CU player, who is then on the end of plenty of plaudits, that prevents them racing into the CU box.

Perhaps it's the standard of the football or because no one wants to make themselves a target for one of the large birds of prey circling above, but the CU fans have been a little slow in getting started. To be fair to them Tina did say this was usually the case, normally because of the skinfull from the night
before. Their reaction to a glaring miss from a free header, bang on the penalty spot, gets a suitable “ohhhhh” but there have been no real songs as of yet, they don't seem to have in their number a flat cap, a leader, a middle England capo to get things going.

TT’s supporters' heart beats rise suddenly on the realisation that they are in, the celebration of the goal they have just scored though are cut short at the sight of the flag having been raised. Tom beside me is playing out the same internal struggle he puts himself through every match day, “I don't know what to have”. He wrestles with the notion of, “can I eat two burgers in the space of an hour?”.

An explanation perhaps for the lack of any real consistent noise, other than cider from last night, is there is no one committed congregation of people. Neither gatherings behind the goal are very big, there are small groups dotted about, the majority of people are either in the stand, where it's more blanket and a thermos, then raucous singing or they are gravitating to the steps outside the bar, steeling themselves up to head off for another pint.

Serenaded with a chorus of “wanker, wanker” the referee comes in for more stick, this time a booking for a CU player, but no one knows why he has ended up in the book. The same fans are then left a little embarrassed, after doing such a good job in controlling the ball, their number 9 goes down very easily, “bit Saha that” laughs Tom. One home fan though expressing what we all really think, when our team wins a free kick in similar circumstances, “I'll take it either way”.

The slightly fortunate set piece is accompanied with not quite a rumbling home chant, and for the second time right on the edge of the six yard box, unmarked, a player misses a free header.

Tom’s conclusion to his predicament was ‘yes’ I will eat again, but he’s not sure if it will be a burger, and he’s disappeared along the crumbling concrete steps in search of something to satisfy whatever is growing inside of him and I have to admit he is lucky. The final five minutes of the half are just short of a farce, all starting with a hand of god attempt by one TT player, that's not punished, much to the annoyance of one home fan, “you've got to book him, prick”.

Another ball heads towards the car park, one TT player is rolling around all over the place and like something from a comedy of errors, both teams play musical statues, all thinking that the ball has gone out, but it hasn't. Everyone to a man is dead still, until it dawns on them that the referee hasn't blown up, and it's still in play.

A late bit of CU possession comes to nothing, it's scrappy and the passing of the added time, comes under scrutiny from the old man in the gloves, “that was a quick two minutes”.

The Dad Rock returns, as does Tom with some chips. “Regretting my choice” he says ruefully, no reflection on the chips, they are great chips, but he tells me “I should have got another burger”. On the pitch the kids are back, taking part in a penalty shoot out, some of which are top class, which the crowd behind appreciate. Applauding accordingly as the latest one crashes into the top right hand corner.

Tom reports that the TT fans “have a drum” but for some reason “they're not hitting it” and the celebration of some of the child's penalties are getting out of hand. The flags have swapped ends, and I hope the drum has too, could do with a bit of that in the second half. One TT fan struggles to find somewhere suitable to hang one of them, on account of how big it is, so has to make do with just hanging a much smaller one instead. A youngster wheels away in delight after scoring what I assume is the winning penalty, and the appearance of the teams, is hardly greeted with rapturous applause.

Like the Oracle Tina clearly is, the home fans in their new end, hangovers subsided, are straight at it, whacking the metal stand around them and hammering out the chants. TT’s flat cap wearing Capo now has some competition, the home team's quick start, a deflected shot wide after only five minutes, means for the first time today the home supporters are the louder.

Buzzing around in front of us, the non league staple of kids bombing about, makes the Dad in me come to the fore. If one of them goes down on this rough ground, there will literally be tears and probably a trip to A&E, and I’m not bloody driving them, oh wait, these are not my kids, phew. Tom then comes out with a line, said by someone who has no children, “kids just love to run”.

Both sets of fans have well and truly turned up now, feeding off each other perhaps. The TT ones have their now familiar go to's, “yellow, yellow” and “Taunton, Taunton”. The home ones sing one to the Adams Family theme tune, which I’m pretty sure I'd never heard used until New Years Day, and now it seems to be all the rage.

TT are struggling up front, thanks in no small part to the dominance on the home number 6, who is gobbling up every long ball up to the forwards. An issue flat cap had pointed out to us in the break, the latest victory for the home defender, sees the TT number 9 concede it might just not be his day, patting his counterpart on the back.

The home fans now follow every TT goal kick with “you shit bastard” and the TT supporters want their player in midfield to “shooooooot” with the CU keeper way, way off his line, but he doesn't. Both sets of supporters are revelling in the back and forth, and much unlike in the first half, except for the goals of course, stuff is happening, there are no longer these empty periods of nothingness.

A swift home move, ends with a player in the box five foot out missing a chance to put CU ahead, but he puts his attempt wide. The reaction, from the entire ground the same, how did he miss? Everyone, home and away letting out a “oh” in unison. CU are turning the screw, having noticeably ramped it up, now flexing their top of the table muscles, which is making for a far more entertaining half.

The referee shows his laissez faire approach when nothing is given for a blatant shove, but this is all soon forgotten when a minute after a surging home run ends with a dipping long range shot just over the bar. “Come on boys, lets go again” insists the TT manager, his team are starting to fall off the pace.

CU’s increase in intensity is starting to affect the TT back line. A CU dinked cross over the box is
headed clear, but much like with TT’s goal, it's not cleared far enough, allowing for a snap shot from the edge of the six yard box. However the TT keeper is equal to it and is down in a flash, extending an arm, and somehow getting a hand to it.

Away for all of two weeks, Tom has well and truly forgotten himself, coming out with lines like “I forgot how cold this country is”. CU continue to probe, they are as Tom puts it “looking the far better side”. One defender tells them not to “force it” it will come, and on sixty four minuets, the opportunity to take the lead, is handed to them on a plate.

“Off, off, off” bay the fans behind the TT goal, the visiting defender having effectively by the looks of it attempted a slam dunk. Never I don't think have I heard an entire ground call for something, it was as plain as day, and there was no doubt in the referees mind at all, his assertive point towards the spot, confirming the penalty. The Adam Family song resurfaces as the referee chats with the offending TT player and the cheers that goes up, after he is awarded a red, were probably bigger than the ones for when they scored.

“Cheerio, cheerio” sing the home fans, in that slightly smug way football fans do, when they feel ‘ooh we’ve got to win now’. TT’s keeper is lived, and soon the Meadow is silent, like a rugby ground when a player is about to kick a peanlty, this means that the sound of the ball striking the foot of the post, letting out a distinctive ping as it does, is almost deafening.

The TT fans can all but laugh, but it doesn't mask their obvious relief. The CU supporters, much like the players, all have their heads in their hands, many letting out a frustrated “arghhhhh”.

What I’m sure will be even rarer now they are down to ten, a TT attack almost sees them take a shock lead, a great ball across the defence from the wide, almost completely undoes them, only for the stretching keeper to hook it clear.

“Four people!” exclaims Tom loudly, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a four way tackle before” this phenomenon I must admit I’ve never seen before either. The football equivalent of a mosh pit takes place not far from the edge of the centre circle, where two players from each side collide in one hell of tangle. The PA surfaces for what feels like the first time in a while, thanking all “five hundred and fifty one” of those here, and praising them for their “support”. Edging towards the final ten, the TT keeper is getting into ‘how long can I get away taking a goal kick’ mode, you can see the cogs whirring away, and the referee insists he “sped it up”.

CU’s number 7 is dangerous, carries the ball into the box with ease, though his final balls are lacking a bit of cutting edge, CU are just not making that extra man count. Skipping past one defender, then another into the box again, this time shot is spilled, but a last ditch TT tackle stops the tap in, and not for the first time today, like the boughs of a great old ship, the whole place groans.
As you would expect when the traffic is all going one way, the home fans are buoyant “since I was young” and when the CU big number 9 beats the keeper to the ball, the forwards touch taking him well and truly out of it, after rushing out of goal to meet him, it look like we might have our winner, but the bobbling shot towards the empty goal is cleared. “Doesn't feel like it's going to happen for them” says Tom.

“Come on Taunton, keep running” urges flat cap, who has been shy of a song for a while. “Push them up harder” shouts a CU fan, Tom now more convinced than ever, the games “got 1-1 written all over it”, despite what is now effectively a siege on the TT box, I’m just waiting for the trebuchet to be rolled out, but Tom reckons for all the “huffing and puffing”, “nothings going to happen”. The sound of a powerful CU shot crashing into the stand behind is a little sobering, it was close to decapitating someone. The home fans now literally and metaphorically on the edge of their seats. Flat cap has now occupied the role of commissar, “concentration boys, dig in”.

The final minutes, much like those of the first half are protracted and it just feels like a succession of
free kicks, one after another, for one reason or another. A high foot here, a hand ball there, all with the added drams of a mist that has rolled in off the hill, “it's a bit foggy” says Tom.

“Referee get on with the fucking game” snarls one TT fan, the match having slowed to a tedious pace. Another handball, awards CU a free kick on the edge of the D, the fans behind build the tension “Chesham, Chesham” as the player prepares himself, but as is normally the case: the amount of time it takes to talk about it + amount of time trying to look like Ronaldo = shit free kick and in the end its well over.

“Three points” laughs a TT fan, after the successful CU conversion.

I have to be honest it’s “you fat bastard or nothing for me, the CU fans insist on saying “you shit bastard” but like I have already said, football is about traditions. Tom doesn't think you can say it if the keeper in question is “not fat” but what does he know?

The PA heaps on the anxiety, by telling us there will be a “minimum of five added minutes” and then flat cap belts out one of his last songs of the day, “ally, ally o”. Only seconds into the added on time and Tom already feels like things are dragging, “is this game going on forever?, and someone on the TT bench does their best Mutiny on the Bounty impression, addressing the referee, “give us something referee, give us something man”.

A rising thundering CU shot, moving at a rate of knots is well held by the TT keeper, and Tom says its “do or die” time. CU almost nick it, right at the death, only for a header, deep, deep into injury time to be cleared off the line and before anyone can react, the referee has his whistle to his lips and each team will have to be satisfied with a point a piece.

There is much that can be taken from today, firstly how has it taken us this long to make it to The Meadow, it's only thirty minutes from my house and it ticks all the boxes, this afternoon made even better by the TT fans, and flat cap, making for a quite superb day.

The Meadow might not be here for much longer, so for that reason alone it's worth paying it a visit, as nice as CU's new ground will be, modern, tidy, not falling down, it won't come close to what is on offer the other side of the big gates and the sign on it that reads Welcome To The Meadow, home of The Generals. Tom and I know more than most, what it's like to see your team move home, some a bit further than others yes, but move all the same.

Tina made a fine point, it's about their "legacy, their future" which I completely understand, football being the business it is today, at all levels, you have to be so conscious in making sure you can survive. However another point she made is the most telling, the one that will ring true with most if not all fans, who have had to already or are in the process of contemplating packing up, and saying goodbye to somewhere associated with so much history, "head says move, heart says stay".

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