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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