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.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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