Sunday 16 February 2020

Skittle Master - Long Buckby A.F.C. Vs Lutterworth Athletic FC, United Counties Football League Division One, Station Road (29/01/20)

“There is not much fun in a 15 nil’er” says my other half as I peruse the league table of the team we are heading off to tonight, while I wait for Tom to arrive. The home side Long Buckby FC (LB) are second and have an impressive goal haul so far this season, over + 50. The away side, Lutterworth Athletic FC (LA) who are bottom of the table have a goal difference of - 50. Each team's form couldn't be more polar opposite if they tried. As I rub my hands in anticipation of a bit of a goal fest, Rachel reminds me of the match where we saw a team get pumped 15 - 0 and the referee called it early, which on reflection, was a bit of a relief, it made for very uncomfortable viewing.

The admittedly stunning sunset means I have to endure Tom singing Nants' Ingonyama, after pointing out that it looks “a bit Lion King”. The rest of our journey North is thankfully sans any more Disney singalongs, and by the time we arrive at Station Road, Tom is getting tetchy about quite how far from home we are, its pitch black and the only real sign that we are in the right place, is a charming back lit sign high above the doors of what I’m guessing is the clubhouse.

“Can I ping you in?” asks a man with wispy white hair, unloading music equipment from the back of a van, probably wondering who the hell are these guys. The unfamiliarity of our surroundings has us a tad flummoxed, and neither of us really know if what is effectively a working man's club or British Legion in front of us, is anything to do with where we are supposed to be or not. Passing through the double doors he kindly held open for us, we enter a scene from the lesser known Back to the Future spin off, Marty McFly does the 1970’s.

What very much turns out to be LB’s clubhouse with its low slung ceiling and bar so long it doesn't seem to have an end, the front of which is adorned with a whole host of pennants, is probably, and I don't say this lightly, the finest one we have ever been in.

It has all the required staples that any good clubhouse should have, a dart board, fruit machines, those half sized pool tables and of course a dance floor, but what elevates it to the next level, into a stratosphere we’ve never reached before, are things I’m not sure we'll ever see the likes of again.

Big cushioned benches, a trophy cabinet pulling the screws from the walls, it's so full, that you need sunglasses just to gaze upon, it's so sparkling. Once you've overcome the initial glare, you'll spot maybe the finest trophy you'll ever set your eyes upon. One that is simply the silhouette of the Victoria's team, one that I’m struggling to actually describe, so will simply ask you to reference the attached photo, which I’m sure you will agree once you've looked, is magnificent.

A jukebox fastened to the wall, which at the moment is offering up some quite serious EDM, not quite in keeping with the surroundings. but hey ho. Tom’s time at the bar is reasonably lengthy, his request for a hot chocolate has come up against some resistance, only because the woman serving him is not sure how to use the machine, not on account of her not being accommodating. When he finally returns, its with a mocha and a packet of prawn cocktail crisps and whereas normally I would chide him for his chosen food combo, I’m far too transfixed on the goings on in one corner of the room, I could not give a shit.

Again it's hard to adequately describe exactly what I’m looking at, exactly what the man who someone at the bar has just called the “skittle master” has just pulled a cord above him to illuminate is. Open faced, with padded dark leather sides and brass studs, a hard beige base and a net at the back, its looks more like something out of a museum, than something that should be in a clubs den, and it's not until the “skittle master” has set up the small wooden skittles, does it become clear what is going down. Standing at its very own oche, clutching onto what look like wheels of cheese, the room is soon filled with the clattering noise of dispatched pins, that the “skittle master” as his name would attest, is able to displace from range with ease.

Such a treat could not go untried, and much to my amusement Tom is absolutely shit. I’m told by the quite delightful “skittle master” who is happy to coach us two fools, that I’m a “natural skimmer”. Skimming being one of the two recognised techniques for the game, the other an under arm toss, neither of which Tom is able to get to grips with. What I thought and told Tom looked like cheese, are confirmed to be called just that and the Guardiola of skittles, informs me there is both a “summer” and “winter league”, all while someone in a neighbouring room, rattles off a few fills on an electronic drum machine.

“Can we just stay here?” wonders Tom, the draw of the clubhouse is strong, but having been here since we arrived, and having not got any further than it, and as nice as my Lotus biscuit with my coffee was, I guess we should really venture a little further. The woman at the bar points to what looks like a fire escape at one end of the room, as the direction we should be heading in search of actual football.

The poorly lit, narrow path leading from the clubhouse to the pitch and the time on it, I think constitutes a mission. It’s certainly a case of needing to keep your eyes peeled, the chance of taking a tumble feels quite high, at the other end of the trail, Sherpa optional, past the kids enjoying their training session, despite the far from ideal conditions, is a pitch and its long main stand beside it, and very little else, all shrouded in darkness.

Welcome To Station Road says the sign on the front of the way in, that is not quite a turnstile, just a hole in a white wall, with a kiosk to purchase your ticket. When the lights eventually come on, mist hugs the ground and Tom reckons the whole place has a bit of a “World War Two” vibe about it, on account of the main stand, which as I said much like the clubhouse bar goes on forever, looks a bit like an “Anderson Shelter”.

I do my best to distract Tom with what someone has just told me, that they have been to Station Road “three times” this season, and have seen LB score “four every time”, but he’s far too distraught. His attempt to go and get something to eat wasn't very fruitful, he informs me there is “no food” and when he says there is none, he means none. Not even a pasty, some chips or a sausage roll, he has to make do with his second packet of crisps, disappointingly telling me he'll “get something when we leave” and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him so sad.

There is not really a tunnel to speak of, just a concrete slope between the changing rooms behind the
main stand and the edge of the pitch. The players are forced to loiter around for the stragglers, acclimatizing to the wintry conditions, before the referee leads them out. There is no noise from the modicum of a crowd on the green seats of the stand, just the noise of the players cliched slogans, “come on, heads on”.

Less than a minute gone, and it's soon apparent why LA are struggling this season, “oh my god I can see why they are bottom” mutters Tom, a rather straightforward long range shot is pawed wide by the visiting keeper, who makes a hash of the following corner, spilling what again look liked a rudimentary cross. Tom is slack jawed, “has he got no hands” he ponders, telling me in no uncertain terms, “they are going to get absolutely battered”.

Considering their shaky start and league position, it seemed that this game was only going one way, but a flurry of possession and a rising snap shot by LA, has somewhat settled the nerves, “they’re not that bad'' reconsiders Tom, whose fingerless gloves are out and the underdogs are slowly growing on him. “I quite like their kit” he tells me, “who’s the Portuguese team who play in hoops?” he asks me. The green and white of LA, reminiscent in Tom’s eyes of a bit of Lisbon.

In fact the amount LA have pushed LB back into their own half, is of concern to the home bench, who are demanding they “step it up”.

A slight break in proceedings, because for some reason I’m doing the tea run, sees me pay the tea bar with it’s front door right off a terraced family home, behind the main stand a quick visit. Returning past what is now a reasonably sized crowd, more than one person had the bright idea of bringing a blanket, I asked Tom if I had missed anything, which he emphatically told me, “no”.

LB’s roving cameraman Lee, who is in his shorts, yes shorts, its freezing, with his wild ginger beard and beanie hat, who is not afraid to mount any nearby wall or ledge to get the best shot, tells us with the game almost twenty five minutes old, that is “not going as expected” and in fact in his opinion he thinks LA have “been the better side”.

The home side test the questionable LA keeper again with a shot from inside the box. Attempting to play out from the back LA give the ball away and the player responsible gives a damming precis of his own performance, “I’m having a fucking mare”. An LB substitute instructs the players on the pitch that they have to “hold on to the ball for a bit” and we both shudder, when one has to venture into the thick pocket of brambles pitch side, to retrieve the ball. Continuing with the World War Two theme, the brick wall and thorny weeds, severe enough to halt any invading Nazi.

Still claiming offside, one LA player stands still despite the lack of a flag, the game carrying on around him, allowing LB to sting the keepers palms with a powerful shot, and the same defender still it seems oblivious to the match going on, tells the lino to get his “fucking flag up” and then a stunning LA tackle wins them the ball back, LB on the attack, the slide, the winning of the ball and getting up again all in one motion, it's almost balletic. Tom reckons the game is getting “dirty”, but I'm not sure, and now perched atop a wall Lee encourages his team, after going close, “unlucky Bucks, that's better”.

The celebrations of the man manning the gate to the pitch, which is basically a scaffolding pole on a hinge, the kind you might see on over spill car park, is understated to say the least, “well done Buckby” he says quietly, between puffs of his latest cigarette. “Didn't think that was ever coming” says Lee, popping up between us, having leapt off a nearby wall like a mountain goat, and by the way I’m still alarmed he is in shorts.

He tells us diplomatically that LB has the bad habit of dropping to “the level” of teams they play, who are below them in the table, his explanation of why they are making such hard work of tonight's game.

Called into action again, LA’s keeper still looks iffy and Tom asks Lee if they only have “one sub” the solo player looking “very lonely”. Their bench is a little sparse, but it's just a case of them trying to keep warm, and those ready to come on are jogging along the touch line and Tom can sympathize. His “thermals” are not sufficient, and he asks me in all seriousness, if we should just “go and play skittles”.

“Fucking hell” shout both LB players and fans, an LA defender has just hit his own cross bar from the edge of his six yard box, in an attempt to clear an LB cross into the box. “Heads on boys” says the keeper, having picked himself up, after doing his best to stop the ball across his six yard box, looking behind him and wondering what the hell had just happened.

My suggestion to Tom that we get another cup of tea at half time, is met with mixed emotions. He’s not much of a fan of my tea making skills, my last one he explains was so milky it was “like a bowl of cereal” so I think he’ll be getting them then and on almost the stroke of half time, and deservedly so, LB double their lead.

Rolling his marker with ease on the edge of the LA box, the LB forward lets fly a low powerful shot, which LA’s keeper this time is equal to, getting enough on it to force it upwards, where it strikes the bar and rebounds back into play and following it up the scorer has the simple job of poking into the empty net, the LA keepers final lunge to pull off a miracle fails, and he can only watch as is rolls into the back of the net.

Having picked himself up, you can't question his optimism, “keep working, that came from us slacking off”, but I think that’s hopeful at best. It might only be behind by two, but they feel now well out of it already. The man on the gate stays true to form, “come along Buckby '' and the remaining minutes of the match, all belong to the home team, they go close to a quickfire third, but the lashed shot keeps on rising and clears the bar and it’s never a good sign when a team starts arguing. “Shut up and get on with it” grunts one LA player, another determined to have the last word, brands a teammate “shit”.

LB go close to a third again in the dying moments of the half, “he had more time” says Tom, the home player in the box in acres of space, drags his shot wide, but it's surprisingly LA who have the final effort of the half, drawing the entire crowd into a considerable “ohhhhh” when they fire the ball across the home box, just out of reach of the players inside and the chance goes begging.

When the whistle comes its shrill, the players and crowd are silent, many of whom are straight off for tea. It is so quiet, I can hear the LA keeper discussing LB’s second, “two fucking away players right next to me and I’m like what the fuck.” Half time is subdued, with no burger to eat, Tom is instead engrossed in his phone, only looking up to tell me “oh I'm cold, go and warm the car up”.

With the new half underway and Tom having put his phone away, he asks Lee “do you start every
half slow?”. The home side's sluggish start into the first half, has been replicated at the start of the second. “Wake up guys” shouts a nervous sounding Lee, a loose LB pass is latched onto and LA are in, great persistence on their part nearly gets them a goal, but that little stroke of luck just won't come their way, and the ball is cleared. “Come on Buckby” says the man on the gate, with no change of inflection in his voice as to how he’s said it after each goal, but somehow I still know what he means.

Ten minutes gone and LB hit the bar directly from a free kick, “finish it” shouts one player, but this time the rebound cannot be converted. The crowd are silent and Tom has a good explanation as to why, “because its fucking freezing”. To be fair to LA they have had plenty of possession so far this half, but they have no cutting edge, however soon any notion they might be able to make a contest out of it becomes a distant memory, because LB finally score a third and the game is effectively over, with thirty minutes still left to play.

Breaking from their frigid state, the crowd let out an excitable “yeahhhhh”, at the sight of what was a quite marvelous goal. A slick passing move, pulls LA apart and all ends with a nutmeg through the keepers legs. Despite the quality of the goal, there is no change again in the tone of the gate man's voice, and he gives up his own brand of mild mannered encouragement, “well done Buckby, carry on Buckby”.

To give you an inkling into the state of the game, yes we've had three goals, but really it's not up there with the classics, we are discussing the pros and cons of VR pornography. The referee comes in for a bit of grief, not because he has joined in on our conversation, but because of his failure to give LB a corner which gets some players very animated. “Fucking hell ref” screams one. The back post tap in, after a long ball right across the box is seemingly saved, but not rewarded with a corner, which is greeted with the same level of anger I suspect he would get, if he was demonstrating VR porn on the centre circle.

A quick LA free kick, this time sees their forward roll his marker, but his shot is lacking any fervour, and the LB defender who was so easily circumnavigated, is putting it down to a “fucking arm in the back” and is having a right old moan at the ref.

It’s no longer VR porn, but C&A and the United Colours of Benetton, we are discussing now, the game has got worse. The gate man is full on chain smoking and the match is going at half pace, case in point when a good pass forward by a LB midfielder which was ripe for conversion, is met with all of the enthusiasm, by the intended forward, of someone who has just had seconds after Christmas dinner. He’s hardly busting a gut.

Much like a scene out of Space Jam, one LA player hurdles two LB ones after they collide and I half expected Daffy Duck to appear or R Kelly to start singing. LA are now coasting to say the least, one player pleads “lads this is too easy”. LB are cruising, allowed a criminal amount of time on the ball, it's turned into a training match, but gate man, regardless of what is actually going on, still offers up his own brand of cheer, “come on Buckby”.

Tom is close to polar and with still a quarter of an hour to go, the game is deader than dead. A halfhearted hooked cross by LB, could of easily led to a forth but no one is in the area, no one cares, and I’m either seeing things or I'm so desperate for something to happen, that I concoct it, but I’m sure I’ve just seen someone bend over and vomit, until Tom tells me he was just sorting out his “shin pads”.

“Go warm the car up” instructs Tom and this time I’m close to doing just that. The game is plodding along at best, “end already” mumbles Tom, the half eventually ends with a sarcastic jeer from the home fans. What was probably their easiest chance of the half has just been missed, a glaring miss, a cross from the right and all it needed was the finish, but somehow the player missed it, but we are soon all saved by the whistle and his error is soon forgotten.

Proving he can say other things, the gate man on gate man duties as the players depart, congratulates LB’s manager on the “clean sheet” and a young Statto among us, asks if he is correct in thinking that LB’s fifth tonight is their “98th of the season” which is confirmed by a broad smile on the face of the home gaffa.

In the middle of Northamptonshire, at the end of a long path you will find a rather unremarkable football ground, and a club that play there who are sponsored by a vape company, that according to the “skittle master” produced the “youngest person to ever be on the winning side of a European Cup”. A team flying in the league, who scored in the FA Vase and are scoring goals for fun, managed by someone who became the “manger by default” after the previous one “quit ten days before the season” and I think it’s fair to say he is doing an alright job.

According to the man in charge, it would be a “disaster” if they don't get promoted, even though they have far exceeded their targets this season, and by how effortlessly they saw off LA today, I would imagine going up is a certainty.

All of this, and the obvious “good buzz about the place” Dan the LA manager alluded to makes it a visit well worth making, put on top of that the clubhouse of all clubhouses and really you've no excuses not to get yourself to Station Road, except if you want a burger perhaps.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

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