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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Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Curse Has Been Lifted - Dagenham & Redbridge FC Vs Stockport County FC, National League, Victoria Road (08/02/20)

“Ohh it’s sunny” says Rachel, as we beat a controlled retreat from my Mum's front door towards the car at the bottom of the long array of steps, having just ditched the kids, on the promise that we will return at some point later today after the football, baring fish and chips. Fiddling with something in the boot, Rachel is confused at what's causing the hold up. We are sans children, which is an all too rare occurrence these days, so she asks me quite plainly, “what are we still doing here?”.

I imagine the fans of Stockport County FC (SC), regularly ask themselves a similar question, ‘what are we still doing in the National League?’. Nine years since relegation from the Football League, how have they still have not managed to ascend back to the promised land is anyone's guess. Until our visit to their home Edgeley Park in early January it was looking like a possibility, but since they've not won a game, not scored in the league, and have crashed out of the FA Trophy to a team from the step below them, their form has been of some concern.

We said after watching them take a bit of a hiding from Boreham Wood, that we would give them some space, as they never seem to do all that well when we are there, but the fact they are playing thirty minutes from our house today, it’s too hard to resist.

There are a couple of welcome differences from the last time Rachel and I went to a match. It’s sunny for one, my right ear is being toasted as we head east, for the first time in a while catching a glimpse of Spurs’s new ground which looks majestic. Secondly, and most importantly Rachel is not hung over, and I mean puking when you get up, trouble speaking, need to eat four Greggs sausage rolls before you can even consider moving, kind of hangover. Which is nice.

The sky is clear pale blue, there is not a cloud to be seen, one could not ask for a better day for a match, and although the kids are not here, we still spend most of our time in the car together talking about them. It seems like there is one McDonalds drive through after another as we get closer to the ground and a learner driver and their panicking passenger prove to be of some entertainment, before we eventually see a small brown sign high up on a lamppost, pointing us towards Dagenham & Redbridge FC (DR).

I’m frankly shocked at how close to the ground we can park, non league football showing once again its many benefits, but having parked, and after Rachel's impromptu sojourn had concluded, where she crossed the road, then realised she was on the wrong side, so crossed back, it became clear why such a prime spot was free. Adjacent to my car was a front garden full of dogs and not lively pooches enjoying the late winter sun, but a strange selection of furry statues, one of whom had “died” according to Rachel, pointing to it lying on its side.

A short street that's lined with terraced houses, one of which someone is having a bit of a barney in with the windows open that everyone can hear, leads us to the ground that shares its name, Victoria Road. This is made abundantly clear by the red and white henge that towers over the way in, welcoming you and despite the very loud and sweary domestic and the prospect of some football, Rachel is still somewhat perplexed by the sight of all those dogs, “I've never seen anything like that”.

Under the monolith and past a silver haired lady in the car park, her timing is impeccable, “50/50?” she calls out, “it's like she knew” laughs Rachel. Opposite her a couple are selling programmes and golden goal tickets, and within less than a minute of arriving, as Rachel put it I’ve “all the bases covered”. The man who has joined the silver haired lady flogging the 50/50’s, is slightly less cheery than his silver haired counterpart, “£1 a ticket or I'll beat you up” he says to some potential customers.

Victoria Road offers up not one, but two opportunities for a bit of pre match shopping. The supporters club office is essentially a bric-a-brac shop full of tatty cardboard boxes full of programmes, a rail of fading t-shirts hanging from thin wire hangers, and that’s only outside. Inside among the framed shirts and pennants, there is plenty more stuff, tons of it, however its chaotic organisation means it’s not exactly clear what's what and there is barely enough room to swing a cat.

If it’s a more sterile and organised shopping experience you want, the official club shop is not far away, where the latest training gear or branded hoody is available, however much to Rachel's disappointment there are no “keyrings”. Nothing to add to her jailer sized bunch of lock openers, that she has picked up from everywhere from the RAF Museum to the Ampelmann shop, but despite this and although she has minimal retail experience, she bizarrely tells me she “likes” their “stock”.

Much like at every football ground, the away fans entrance is the least well kept and it's no different here. It’s also nine times out of ten the place with the highest concentration of stewards, and there are no end of men and women in long hi vis coats waiting to look at you suspiciously, before rummaging through your bag.

Led Zeppelin greet us on the other side of the red turnstiles, the red turnstiles which just took £21 each off us each. “Get it now, so I don't have to get it at half time” says Rachel, making an immediate beeline for the back of the long queue to the burger bar. Our time waiting allows her to fully peruse the significant menu, “might get a pie, didn't get a pie last time”, offering me all sorts of options that I decline. “You can get a Pot Noodle”, “sure you don't what a jumbo hot dog?” and by the time we’ve made it to the front, having listened to one SC supporters attempt at a southern accent, roundly laughed at by the woman serving, the pies have “run out” we are told.

The two interlocking yellow polystyrene trays can barely contain Rachel's food, as she staggers over toward the condiments table, having left my coffee to fend for itself on the counter. No pie, meant she went for a “pasty” and although it's not a long walk to our eventual seats, it's slow going. The DR mascot, a large dog in a home shirt, marches past us, clutching a red bucket, as Rachel devotes all her concentration into not spilling any of her mountain of chips.

As I have come to expect from the SC fans, they have done their best to transform their little plot of East London into a home from home, plenty of their flags adorn the red seat filled stand at one end of a ground, that for all you Fifa connoisseurs out there is basically Court Lane. The Who are now blasting over the speakers, and the first wave of “I O County, County I O” rivals  Roger Daltry.

The announcement that we are all to welcome the “guard of honour” by the man on the PA, which is a troop of flag carrying children doing a lap of the pitch, is given short shift by one SC fan “who?”, when it's added that they are all players from a local team the “Romford Fliers”, and although Rachel is having no issue whatsoever dealing with an Eddie Hall amount of food, she does admit the pasty is a bit “flaccid”.

Almost flattening half the guard of honour, one SC player warming up does well to stop himself just in time before we have a major disaster on our hands. When the players do depart up the red vinyl tunnel that extends curiously from the middle of the away end, this will prove to be significant come full time, they are serenaded, “we're the famous Stockport county and we’re from Edgeley”.

Three quarters of the ground are bathed in brilliant sunshine, except the away end which is shrouded in frigid shade, this though does little to deter the SC fans coming over all Lion King with a song to the tune of In the Jungle the Mighty Jungle, “win away, win away”. Moving between the two dense lines of kids and their flags, one tries to add a bit of showmanship to his waving duties, seemingly keen to try a bit of baton twirling, but not quite having the confidence to toss it up in the air, the returning players emerge and head out across the pitch.

Even more flags go up, following the teams DR’s mascot and SC’s manager Jim Gannon, who then share a strange moment of synergy, when both at the same time raise their hands above their heads to applaud their respective supporters, within just a couple of feet of each other.

Not that the away supporters were thin on the ground before, but edging ever closer towards kick off, the bar in the bowels of the stand Rachel and are are sitting on the front row of, empties, flooding out through the double doors to our right, to find somewhere to sit. The extra fans adding a bit more volume to the chant coming from the standing last five or six rows behind us, “can you hear the Daggers sing?”.

More jabs are aimed at the locals, “you’re support is fucking shit” however to be fair to them, many can’ actually see whats going on, one benefit of the shade is being able to see the game, 90% of the home fans have to raise their hands to shield their eyes from the blinding sun. The SC supporters deducing that the lack of singing for their own team, must mean then they are “here for the county”.

“First one gone” declares the man behind me, the game only minutes old and the first hoofed clearance sees the ball clear the main stand and off into the neighbouring car park and much like the Dr’s famous Tardis, more and more people continue to emerge from the tea bar, some in various states of inebriation, Rachel asking “where have they all be hiding?”.

The singing is non stop and the opening exchanges are far more like that of a basketball match, than a
football one. Up and down, up and down the players go, I want to say it's because of intense quality attacking football, but it's more a case of each team being unable to hold onto the ball for more than a few touches.

Rachel lets out a satisfied groan as she finally finished her food, and somehow more and more people appear, although admittedly the flow is slowing somewhat. The all colour dot matrix scoreboard at the far end of the pitch reads 0 - 0 and the songs keep on coming, “I O County, County I O”. None of the back rows have sat down, and I’m sure none of them will, it is from there the songs emanate, “hello, hello we are the County boys”. One person who is sitting, although she doesn't look very comfortable, is the woman sharing her foot space with a large suitcase, almost having to sit side saddle on account of the massive piece of luggage.

Stuck in a loop of “blue army” the SC fans take direction for a moment from a large man at the front, “look at the capo” points out Rachel, at the man conducting the crowd, she does though make a good point adding, “in Italy though they don't have a burger in their hand”.

Twelve minutes gone and a low DR shot strikes the SC keeper and spins out wide and having thought that SC had a good chance here today after reading that they are undefeated at Victoria Road, it's pointed out to me by someone that they have only ever played here “once”. The early signs are though that SC might not be able to keep up this illustrious record. Having advanced close to the DR box, their attack breaks down and the home team is off. Jim Gannon is appalled, and scolds the players from his technical area.

I’m starting to wish the sun was in our eyes, because the less than convincing start by SC, is making for difficult viewing. “Same issue again” bemoans Rachel, SC are unable to retain possession. A “good corner” as she puts it, almost punishing them after giving the ball away. Zipping right through their box and right out the other side. Rachel's biggest peeve is that her hometown team is coming off second best in all the aerial duels. “If you're losing the ball in the air to Dagenham it's a worry, they are midgets”.

As the sun slowly starts to set, the shadows it casts gets longer and longer and one of the group behind us are not very hopeful we'll see any goals, “got 0 - 0 written all over it”, and just as the final syllable leaves his lips, SC are in, but are thwarted by the courageous DR keeper, whose Herculian save, stops an almost certain goal, but also sees him injured in the process.

A a complaint about flags blocking advertising, forces some SC fans to move them, distracting me from the match for a moment, but it's right back on it, when one of DR’s “midgets”, a very diminutive forward glides away from the SC defence thanks to a great first touch, but his shot isn’t on par with his ball skills and he shoots, well, well over.

I’m not sure what they mean when they sing “we’re Stockport County we’ll do what we want'' maybe it's putting out the recycling a day early, but the fans are singing it anyway. Just shy of the half hour mark and SC are in on goal, but the DR keeper is equal to it again, and in saving it he awards SC a corner, the SC supporters excited at the prospect, let out a booming “I O County” but the corner is poor and Rachel rightly points out, “it's easy to forget a football match is on” with all the goings on in the stands. The fracas with the flags, the singing, trying to work out why the woman has brought a suitcase, the football can sometimes become a bit secondary.

If it hadn't been for the off field antics, then the last thirty minutes would have been just about the most unforgettable of my life. The game has been dire, it’s only the SC fans stopping me from slipping off into slumber, the latest jibe at the home fans, penetrating my coma, “football in a library” and not that either team has looked remotely dangerous, SC are at least having some joy down their left. “He’s done that twice now” comments one man, as the winger sails past his marker. “Skin him” demands one fan, and the player does it with ease, but the final cross is poor.

“Everyone is off for their pie, you see I was clever” bristles Rachel, as the crowd starts to thin in search I think is more likely beer, than limp regional baked goods, but I could be wrong, and the group behind us are proving to be good for a quote, summing up the half pretty perfectly, “a game of very few chances”. When people are getting excited about disappearing footballs, and I include Rachel in that group, “oh my god that’s three” she says, like they are going to run out, as another is hammered into oblivion, it's a poor reflection of the state of the match.

Those in search of refreshments miss the final action of the half, DR’s keeper is back at it again, this time with face, stopping another nailed on SC effort and keeping his side in the match. “Two added minutes of added time” advises the PA, with a powerful air of the Wizard of Oz about him. SC star Danny Lloyd gets a song as he approaches to defend a late DR corner, giving the fans an understated clap and a wry smile. Much may I add, to Rachel's absolute disgust, “you wanna concentrate on the game”.

The exodus from the stand is almost complete come the half time whistle. Gimme Shelter strikes up, but not before the Wonderful Wizard of Oz instructs us to “stick around” for the 50/50 and a “special presentation of a new signing”. He however doesn't leave me hanging on for long, fading out Mick and the boys, to of course inform me I haven't won. He thanks me and every other mug for “taking part”, but it doesn't really soften the blow.

It turns out the “special presentation” is a tractor, “he won't score many goals” jokes the announcer, who for some reason has decided to assign a gender to the red ride along mower. The accompanying joyful tractor song Rachel thinks is “cute”, a programme seller is doing the rounds with a copy of Dagger held above his head, which is a bit of a throwback and I’m hugely envious of the group with a big green thermos, and box of biscuits. “Help yourself” offers one man to another, I wish we were that organized. The sign pointing to the tea bar nearby suggests I might be able to bag myself a Kit Kat in there if I wanted, but what is beyond the double doors is far from a tea bar. More like a dingy speakeasy, where anything but tea and biscuits are being served, and the SC fans are in fine voice, tossing around an unfurling roll of loo paper.

The stand is half full as the referee raises his whistle to his lips, and gets the second half underway. A
man below us becomes my own personal football hero, when I spot him inserting his programme in a zip lock freezer bag and at the moment the children at the front of the family stand, are louder than the entirety of the rest of the home support, “Dagenham”. Inside the ‘tea bar’ the fans are still singing and with the sun fading, the floodlights have come on.

Dribs and drabs are slowly slipping back from the bar and the DR kids are putting the grownups to shame. “Fill the fucking box” shouts one SC fan, with a player venturing down the wing, but with few options to aim at. Rachel has now come to the conclusion if she was “a scout”, this train of thought inspired by having bumped into an acquaintance pre kick off, a once non league manager and now scout for a League Two side, her notes would simply read “these lot are shite”. Her sweeping summary of all twenty two players is only a mild improvement on the Spinal Tap album review, “shit sandwich”.

The fact that it's cold only makes what has continued to be a rather drab game, seem even worse. SC’s fans almost back to full strength fire off a shot at their opposite number and the lack of noise, “football in a library”. When we are treated to three quickfire chances in succession, two for the home side and one for the visitor, it feels just that, a treat. First its SC when the DR keeper is slow to claim the ball, bobbing around in the box, it just won't fall right and they don't capitalize. Minutes later and DR are in, but SC’s keeper is far more decisive, and he’s able to smother the ball.

It’s taken almost twenty minutes for what seems to be the last of the bar dwellers to return, their sing song, and pints far more appealing than the prospect of more sub standard football and the falsetto “win away, wooooooooooo” is commendable by one of the aforementioned late comers.

If you put a gun to my head, I’d say that DR are edging it, they do just seem just that bit more composed. Winning the ball back in midfield, and taking an early shot, the ball ends up in the garden behind, is though the antithesis of composure and as Rachel points out its “number 4 ball gone”. Summarising that your position in the pyramid, directly relates to how many footballs you go through in a season, “the lower down the leagues you go, the more balls you loose”.

A home corner sets away heart racing, but it's just about scrambled away. DR are in again, not long after, but the shot is tame and easy for the keeper to claim. All of DR’s chances now stemming exclusively from SC being so unbelievably bad. The moon is now visible, a tiny sliver hanging above the pitch and after the latest ball to exit the ground is noted, “number five” mumbles Rachel, I’m starting to lose the will to live.

With a couple of the stairs next to us proving to be a bit tricky for some people to negotiate, one person after another stumbling up them, I find myself cruelly waiting for their next victim, rather than subject myself to more the dross in front of me. My favorite line, from my favourite SC song “is the scarf my father wore”, goes some way to rouse me, but the SC performance is getting worse. “Get hold of it!” pleads one fan. Each time an SC player is in possession it's like they are playing a game of hot potato. The chorus of groans, sighs and tuts is deafening. “Come on” pleads another, one reckons if SC do somehow manage to bag a goal, as unlikely as it seems, it's worthy of vaulting the railing, “we're on the pitch if County score”.

“They're going to have to change that song” sneers Rachel after the latest rendition of the “win away”. Into the last quarter of an hour and an SC corner is so poor, it allows DR a free run at their goal, luckily for them the shot is right at the keeper.

All elements of the SC performance are riling up the fans, “what's this long ball, get it on the floor”. When a home player goes down injured, they take their frustrations out on him, “let him die, let him die” they sing. The break for the player to be seen to, allows the teams to congregate around their respective benches for some last instructions and for the SC fans to remind along with their local National League rivals, they are on course for relegation, “you're going down with the Chorley”.

The length of time to attend to the injured player, is not to one fans approval, “get him off the fucking pitch shit house” and with the sun almost gone behind the tress in the distance, the temperature has plummeted, and Rachel is now tapping her shoes to the rhythm of the cold feet dance. Through almost chattering teeth she tells me, “I think next time we should bring a thermos”.

Until now the away fans had little more than their own devotion or the quiet home fans to sing about, “what's it like to see a crowd”. For the final ten minutes, all under the watchful eye of a couple of the Metropolitan Police's finest, it gets as close to pandemonium in the away end as you can get, without it being classified a riot, and the army being drafted in. The spark for my most enjoyable and depressing ten minutes of the season so far, all starts with a low stinging Danny Lloyd drive, which is followed by a song all in the main man's honour.

Despite the upturn in SC’s performance, Rachel is far from happy with their propensity for a hoof, “can’t they play it on the ground?”. When Danny Lloyd, the focal point for all of SC’s new found endeavour, is scythed down, and no foul is awarded, the response from the SC fans is a furious one.

“Jim Gannon's blue and white army” is now stuck on repeat, it’s SC, a curled in cross is headed over and for the first time today, it feels like SC are on the ascendancy. DR are placid, and SC still feel a bit toothless, if anything is going to happen it will be down to Lloyd. The DR kids are quite commendably still at it and the SC supporters are begging for everything their team has left, “get at him”, “chase him down”.

DR flash a shot across the SC goal, which gets a “ohhhh” from all quarters. A loose SC pass offers them up another chance, but the shot is over. Rachel in one of her many moments of punditry today makes the point, “if Dagenham were a better team”. One SC fan is close to having seen enough after another “wasteful” long ball, taking his displeasure out on the plastic seats, “horrible” moans one fan,
as SC revert to type with aimless punt up front.

Danny Lloyd is a man on a mission, and almost single handedly provides SC with the goal they want, the goal they need. Running to the byline he bustles his way to the edge of the six yard box, where he stabs the ball towards the penalty spot, ricocheting and bouncing all over the place, it falls kindly to one SC player whose half volley looks destined for the top right hand corner only of a combination of the DR keepers hand and a man on the line, is it kept out. Having picked himself up, the DR keeper gives his defender the bear hug of all bear hugs, lifting him up off the ground.

Other than goals scored by Spurs, very rarely, if at all, do I get caught up in the emotion of goals scored by other teams. I can appreciate a fine move or the significance of one, but never does it affect me like ones scored by one's own team. That though goes right out the window on eighty nine minutes, when in the scruffiest of fashion SC takes the lead. The back post tap needing the help of the post before hitting the back of the net, sending me, Rachel and all the SC supporters around us into raptures.

The fans rush from their seats towards the pitch, none vault the high metal railing, where they are met by the celebrating faces of the players, pumping their fists and embracing, only inches away. Rachel and I are both out of our seats, I bring to an end a, ‘weyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy get in’, that seemed to go on forever.

It’s not only the back few rows on their feet now, the whole stand is bouncing, the singing reaching an all new decibel level, “County”. Rolling across the scoreboard that has taken so long to change since three o'clock, is the amount of time SC have to hang on, four minutes.

“Ally, ally O, SCFC” chant the fans, as quite astonishingly SC go in search of a second, no sitting back on their laurels, no attempt at game management, they have the bit between their teeth. The DR keeper once more on hand to frustrate the SC players, scoping the shot off his line, after a storming run down the right and the cut back ball into the box.

Jostling with the stewards, the ever growing group pressed up against the railings, wait out the final minutes, “I’ve not seen the board” says one man, unsure of how long is left, how long SC have to hold on, it soon transpired, it was just that little bit too long.

I have to admit I don't see the DR goal, it's only when the wave of cheers from the DR fans hits me and the sight of the prancing DR keeper, stood in the back of his goal goading the baying SC fans, do I realise they have thrown it away. “Can you not use that language please” repeats one steward to a man, who is only able to use expletives in response to his teams fragility. “Cheer all you want you wankers, you're still getting relegated” screams one man in attempt to feel just a tad better about his team falling at the final hurdle, missing out on a vital two points as the scoreboard goes into overdrive, goal, goal, goal, goal, is plastered all over it in red.

It's far from the result anyone wanted, but it's no excuse for the silly bollocks that came after the final whistle. I want to blame it on the fact that the tunnel I mentioned at the beginning dissects the away fans exit and the actions of the DR keeper really got some people very agitated. So sadly as the players leave there is some kind of melee, police rush one way, fans the other, and the hapless stewards just stand there looking hapless. One man when asked to "move along" points out he would happily leave if only the ground had been "properly designed"

I'm far from blinkered from the reality of some of the SC fans behaviour, a minority leaving an unsavory taste in the mouth. However as ever I'd rather focus on the positives, on the amazing travelling support, the welcome from so many of them Rachel and I received, and the man with the sandwich bag, oh I could have hugged him.

I've said before how much I like SC, I've said how much I think their fans are fantastic, It's probably worth adding how much I like Victoria Road too and I never knew I had it in me, that visceral reaction to another team scoring, like I had today, it almost felt like cheating. All I can think about though as we leave, once we finally left after all the nonsense had simmered down, was what one SC
fan looking me dead in the eye, in the moments after the goal said to me, "the curse has been lifted", after I suggested before there was some voodoo a foot, whenever Rachel and I watch SC play.

I'm not sure It's totally gone, I'm not sure why he felt it necessary to say anything in the first place, have you never heard of a jinx, but at least its getting better.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE


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