Monday 21 December 2015

The Oxfam Cup - Tottenham Hotspur FC Vs AS Monaco FC, Europa League, White Hart Lane (10/12/15)

“I’m off to White Hart Lane, to see Tottenham in the Oxfam Cup” says the long haired, hat wearing, Ray Mears extra in front of me, as I get on the bus from work. Recent trips to the N17 area of North London, have been to visit the totally awesome Haringey Borough FC. A team at the opposite end of the football spectrum to Tottenham Hotspur FC (THFC), and one I’m sure many fans have passed, just like I had, but have never been in, but you really should I cannot sing their praises enough.

Tonight however will be my first visit of the season, to a place I first visited back in 1996. I subsequently went on to become a season ticket holder, but am now reduced to visits thanks only to the good graces of friends, Christmas and Birthday presents, or when tickets are at a reduced price, like tonight’s last group game of the Europa League. Already qualified, but with the group still to be won, the prize of avoiding the Champions League dropouts, for now at least, is still on offer. Standing between THFC and the chance to miss the likes of Valencia CF or FC Porto in the next round, are the visitors from the car park, the Principality team of AS Monaco FC (AS).

Coming out of Seven Sisters station, my night nearly comes to a premature end, when I'm almost run over by a man on a hoverboard, who is courteous enough to shout at me to inform me of his imminent arrival, expecting all pedestrians in his way to step to one side, because his floating sedan chair is coming through.

Not normally making my way to games this way, I forget about the circus that is catching a bus around here, the combination of rush hour and swelled numbers because of the game, has sent one driver into near meltdown, telling people to get off, get on, trapping a few people in the doors as he goes, causing a tailback of five or six buses long.

I’m relieved to hear the next stop is “Tottenham Sports Centre”, the short bus ride has been spent cheek to jowl, and once off it’s nostalgia overload. We have been to a lot of football over the last year, visited a few biggish grounds, but the vast majority have been non-league. The grandeur and the sheer amount of people, the rows of police vans, and horse mounted coppers, that all comes with a top flight fixture, are almost a shock.

The generators of the tarpaulin roofed stalls hum away, illuminating their eclectic mix of tat, pointy foam fingers, flags, scarves with new summer singing Son Heung-min’s face on or the much discussed ‘half-and-half’, one batch has a bit of a typo, “SUPERSPUR”.

Steam rises from the hotplates of the various burgers vans. “Follow the smell of the onions” says a man to a child whose hand he's holding as they cross the High Road. Small groups of people already committed to dinner standing up are huddled around, slightly hunched over, digging into God only knows.

Tom has conveniently had to “work late” this evening, his Arsenal-ness perhaps making him prefer to slave away, rather than go to a THFC game. Tonight then will now be the continued adventures of ‘One Man And His Fiance…….’, and with some time to kill before her arrival, I pay a visit to the official club tat shop, with its slightly more permanent roof. Inside it’s hard to make your way down the aisles for people considering ‘cockerel cufflinks’ or a ‘Spurs cat bowl’, my head is turned for a second by the Christmas baubles, but refrain, wondering if I would even be able to take them in the ground, as they would make a pretty nifty missile.

The section selling Ledley King’s book ‘King’ makes me stop, and I bow my head in respect to the omnipotent honeycombed kneed one, posing on the front cover, hand on chin, deep in thought. Seeing him always reminds me of the the impression my other half does of me, screaming his name like a ‘One Directioner’, from when I watched his striding, effortless all too short playing career, making that tackle against Arjen Robben, “LEDLEY!!!!”

A low rumble, quickly turns into a certified racket as a group of AS fans, maybe 30 strong, dance, sing, shout and wave flags, as they make their way to the South stand. Snaking through police fans, the nearby officers stay static, their low number, and good nature, mean it's not really worth turning their heads to acknowledge.

One of the pre mentioned friends, who gives me first dibs on spare tickets, and the very same person I stood through the agony and ecstasy of the 3 - 2 win at the Emirates in 2010, a season ticket holder himself, Matthew is meeting me pre game for a catch up. Our usual haunt, the Haringey Irish Centre, seems too far away, and considering it's a school night, a cup of tea and a wall to lean on will suffice.

Although Tottenham High Road is in a major state of change, perhaps the biggest since White Hart Lane was built, there are a few surviving landmarks, but some have been lost in the wake of progress. Gone in their own mysterious, smoke shrouded way are the small family businesses, gone is the red brick Salvation Army building, where the band would play at Christmas, saddest of all though, gone is the gate on Bill Nicholson Way. The Stonehenge of N17, the immovable Valentino’s is still there, as is, still nestled on the corner of Park Lane, Jacks Cafe.

Such are its ‘Shire’ like dimensions, a thick blanket of steam hugs the ceiling, and conscious I’m not far from touching it with my head. It almost has it’s own micro climate, and has gone from December cold outside, to Manaus hot inside. The man behind the counter pretty much tells us we are having “takeaway” as we only order a cuppa, and not a large plate, of whatever the other people are eating in the long narrow cafe.

Much like the AS fans arriving earlier and making just as much noise, but only smaller and younger, two single file rows of hand holding children arrive, watched over by nervous looking high viz waistcoat wearing adults, making sure not to lose one. Matthew is quite right in saying it's “brave taking kids to a football match for a school trip”, but it beats the Science museum for the 49th time.

Rain is now steadily falling, and when Rachel finally arrives, I’m ready to go in, but not before she tells us both about the guys on her tube journey trying to get a Pochettino song going to the tune of ‘supercalafragalisticexpialadoshus’, from Mary Poppins. “Mauricio Pochettino, he has a bit of whisky in his morning cappuccino, and he’s better than Mourinho, dum dilly dee, dum dilly da”.
We say goodbye to Matthew, and take the short walk to the 1950’s sized turnstile, it’s a bit of a squeeze and my mind does briefly flit to thoughts of the Fire Brigade and the jaws of life, but we are in, just. Beyond there is nothing of much note, just white walls and a few kiosks. We go in search of the blue round sign suspended above each small flight of yellow steps to their respective blocks, and quickly find ours, “36”.

The one thing that sticks in my mind the most about my first match, was that walk up the stairs, at the top beyond the barriers and stewards, you see the brilliantly bright green pristine pitch, the blue and white seats, the columns of the East stand, all the features that were then so new, but now all wonderfully familiar.

The AS keeper warms up in the goal in front of us, and seems to be letting in more than he is keeping out, the Park Lane make their opinion known “you're not very good, you're not very good”.

A large Europa League emblem covers the the centre circle, the continuous rain has pooled on top of it making the jobs of the people who have to lift it up and shimer it that little bit harder, I imagine. Their que to do so is the beginning of the montage of all montages played just before kick off, footage of glory days past, voiced over by Roger Lloyd-Pack, Trigger from ‘Only Fools & Horses, “we are about playing with style, we are Tottenham Hotspur”.

Not content with one stirring video, a second shortly follows, this one is less Jimmy Greaves, and a lot more Harry Kane. At one point a player featuring in it has a Terminator style eye not in an unacceptable red, but a much more agreeable shade of blue.

As the teams are read out, “Hugo, Hugo, Hugo” Rachel is happy to hear that “Son is playing” she has turned into quite a fan. THFC are all in white, and as the players set themselves, handshakes and coin tosses over, there is a brief exchange between the small contingent of AS fans, who are out numbered by stewards and mostly all standing in the first few rows of their block to our left, and the THFC fans here are part of the 1882 movement, standing to our right.

Started by the Fighting Cock Podcast @LoveTheShirt, the 1882 ethos of ‘Love The Shirt’ rings true with many fans, who have grown weary of the diminishing atmosphere, the lack of singing, not only giving their support for the first team, but all levels of the club. The blocks they occupy for games are always quick to sell out, even watching at home, you notice the rise in decibels when they are present.

Normally the tireless job of one steward to tell a few 100 if not thousands people to “sit down”, the usual instruction is conspicuous in its absence, and without it, the whole of the South Stand around us is on its feet. A roar goes up on the whistle “COME ON YOU SPURS”, “COME ON YOUR LILYWHITES” and the singing from 1882 starts, “everywhere we go”.

The corresponding fixture, in the near empty Stade Louis II stadium, saw THFC go ahead, only to be pegged back by a late goal for a 1 - 1 draw. Early on it seems unlikely to be a similar result, THFC are creating chances with ease, and after just 2 minutes Lamela scores “Yiddo, Yiddo, Yiddo, Yiddo” My view is from the aisle, and not my seat, as I let a late comer into our row, only for him to be back again before the players have stopped celebrating because he was in the wrong seat.

“It’s going to finish 1 - 0 now” says one fan to another, walking to their seats. The early goal not inspiring thoughts in him of a goal fest, but that he has seen all he is going to see, and it will be 88 minutes of sideways passing, luckily for us all, that could not be further from the truth.

Hands are raised, fingers begin to wiggle, and my favourite chant begins “Oh when the Spurs go marching in” but not quite to my liking. I think its best, when it starts slow, painfully slow, treacle slow, building up as it goes, drawing more and more people in, until it's a wall of noise. When it's sung in full flow, there is nothing quite like it, it will bring a tear to the eye of any football romantics like me.

Lamela strikes again, this time with a little help from the AS keeper, the fans again quick to offer their assessment of his performance “dodgy keeper”, the Argentine's shot is not particularly fierce, but the keeper lets the ball go under him. A Father and his small Son high-five in front of us, he is forced to stand on the seats, watching between the heads in front of him.

One fan close by celebrates the second goal by waving his fist and mouthing swear words at the handful of away fans. Unjustifiable anger distorts his face, he has the look of someone readying himself for war, and looks close to bursting a blood vessel or three, he might want to consider a prescription of ‘chill pills’.

It's not only the substitutes warming up, the fifth official standing on the goal line, goes through a routine of squats and jumps, and when Dele Alli jogs our way, he is serenaded with “oh Dele Alli, oh Dele Alli, knees bent, arms stretched, rah, rah, rah” Some other players are demanded to wave, most oblige, Nacer Chadli is a little more hesitant, but eventually caves in.

Despite their number and the on field display the AS fans sing, even trying a ‘Poznan’ for a brief moment. One topless fan, and one in a pink bucket hat, stand at the front, taking turns trying to whip up the crowd.

On 35 minutes the hat-trick is complete, an interception in midfield, and pass into the run of the forward, sees him bury it from just inside the box “Everywhere you go, always take Lamela with you” to the tune of the Crowded House hit, rings out from block 35.

Behind us our THFC very own Beavis and Butthead, whose topic of conversation range from exactly where is Monaco, how prepared one of them is now for a pitch invasion, because his new phone has a selfie setting, but most damning of all is a question one posed to the other about a friend “does he like coming to Tottenham anymore, or does he like watching it at home?”. SIGH!

The elongated number one on the jumbotron, which looks like a seven, signals the amount of extra time that has been added on, to what has been a routine but enjoyable first 45.

Normally people take the break to stretch their legs, after being sat for nearly an hour, but the fact most have been standing, means the opposite occurs. Instead though of being able to use the break in play to discuss the intricacy of the 4-2-3-1 or the value of a ‘False 9’, a scene plays out in front of us, between the Son and Father who celebrated the first goal together, that is enough to make you want to curl up in a ball and cry.

It would seem Daddy’s Highland Spring water bottle, had a bit more in it than your finest Scottish spring juice, and by halftime he is wrecked. We have all seen people a little worse for wear, I once saw a man be sick in a bush on the way to Craven Cottage on Boxing Day, as his family watched on, but this fella was in charge of a child. Perhaps slightly more worryingly he had started to become a bit handsy with women around him, in particular a young blond woman, whose hair he found particularly fascinating.

Perhaps saddest of all was watching his Son, trying to tell him to rein it in, not a sight you ever want to see, the position of responsibility thrust upon him, because Daddy can't hold his shit together. Such were the concerns of one Mum, there with her own family, and who had been forced to move seats, because of his advances, the stewards are eventually called over, and the man and his Son are removed from the ground, thankfully with no resistance.

The tune of ‘McNamara's Band’ playing clears my mind slightly, as I try and forget the horror of half time as the team's reappear and Lloris approaches,“Hugo, Hugo, Hugo”. Someone near us makes a blunt, but accurate assessment of AS “they are shit now, I’m told they were a very good team last year” just proving when all the money is pulled out, as quickly as it's put in, and what a deflating effect it can have on a team.

THFC have eased off to say the least, although when Rachel asks “have we switched off a bit this half” they almost score, but on 61 minutes it's not a huge surprise when AS grab a goal. When the away fans celebrate, “Monaco, Monaco, Monaco” the fans around us are quick to reply “we forgot that you were here”. It's always an anxious time for the typical THFC fan flying with a 3 goal lead, conceding to a lesser opposition and conjuring up thoughts of Manchester City FC in the FA Cup in 2004, letting a 3 goal lead slip and not until the final whistle blows, will everyone be able to relax.
In the home end the high pitched voice of one child, is the font of chants “what do we think of West Ham?” the fans reply “SHIT”. He is encouraged when someone shouts to him “give us a song little man” and Rachel quite rightly asks me “do we have children as Capos?”

“Can't take them, can't defend them” is one person's analysis of THFC at corners, after AS look close on a couple of occasions of taking advantage of this, but on 85 minutes Tom Carroll cements the three points. Dancing through the box, for a moment embodying the soul of Ricky Villa, he pokes home a truly lovely goal, Villa departs, but was with him long enough that he has scored the the best goal of the night, “Yiddo, Yiddo, Yiddo”.

4 -1, game over.

Walking to the bus stop, the rain has not relented, I notice an Arsenal FC sticker on a lamp post, and can’t believe it’s there. Also for the first I see the glowing white monolith that is Lilywhite House, towering above all around it, the clubs new administration building, looking like the headquarters of Marvel super villain.

Change’s will continue, and Christ a lot has changed, in the short time since my last visit, and a lot more will before THFC are playing in the ‘Lidl Arena’ or ‘Miss Selfridge Stadium’, along with the NFL’s newest franchise the ‘London Beefeaters’, when we will swapping the crossbar for field goals, and a bit of ‘gridiron’ action.  I’m not even sure how many more visits I will get before the familiar is no more, and like so many others we will all have to start again, when we move house.

Is it the bricks and mortar that make a home? Is it the memories made there? Or is it the people who live in it? The move is inevitable, we will have to wait and see, a lot will happen between now and then, players and managers will come and go, seasons will start and finish, games will be won and lost, but one thing is for sure, there will never be anywhere quite like White Hart Lane.


For all our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Sunday 13 December 2015

Raffle Players Anonymous - Welling United FC Vs Carlisle United FC, FA Cup 2nd Round, Park View Road (06/12/15)

The tail end of a storm named after a 90’s sitcom buffers me a little as I make the walk to the tube, I can't really complain though, if the morning news is anything to go by. The underground is far from my favourite mode of transport, but early on a Sunday morning it's a little less commuters shouting “can you move down please” and a little more the dishevelled husks of revellers rolling home from the night before, or the devastated faces of those people who have to work on a Sunday. I’m not a religious person, but Sundays are for roasts, that old film you have already seen 100 times and Italian football, not for having to help quench the constant thirst for retail therapy.

Tom is making his own way, so it's a solo mission from North to South, and it's not long until I’m missing out on the front seat of the driverless DLR (Docklands Light Railway) , but I’m quickly above ground, and the chap who did get the front seat, is having a whale of a time. Admittedly it’s not the most picturesque of days, but the unique perspective the DLR gives of vastly contrasting parts of London, from the high shimmering towers of Canary Wharf to the Tate and Lyle factory looming over rows of terraced houses on its doorstep, is enough to keep me captivated until I disembark at the last stop on the line, Woolwich Arsenal.

Once the all important coffee is bought, I find Tom and we climb aboard our bus, we only have a 20 or so minute journey to today's ground. We are back on the Wembley trail, it’s the 2nd round, and as the non-league numbers dwindle, for the first time, we will see a team we have already watched in the competition this season

The opinion of most people who were at Mill Field in the 4th qualifying round, was that Welling United FC (WU) are lucky to still be in the cup. Only a late goal saved their blushes, after Grays Athletic FC had chance after chance, but could not capitalise, only to convincingly win 4 - 0 in the replay.

Our bus ride is unremarkable, except for one curiosity, which leaves us both scratching our heads. Behind one bus stop, in front of a bungalow/funeral directors, is a row of gravestones, of different styles and designs. Not your usual garden decor, I’m more of an ornamental pond man myself, but I’m sure you get what people on the Apprentice would call ‘footfall’ and not a lot else is going on in the crazy paving garden, so why not display your wares. It was one headstone in particular that caught our eye, like a tacky advert for double glazing, written in gold across black marble “this memorial £399.90”.

The very regal sounding ‘Guy Earl Of Warwick’ is where we disembark, only this is a busy high road, with a couple of car dealerships and a jellied eel shop, surely not enough room for a football club one step below the football league. We have been surprised a few times in the last year, of grounds secluded by houses or a supermarket, but wedging in a football club here would be a minor miracle, but blessed be on the 6th day god built Park View Road where WU have been playing since 1977, I guess long before Wrangler jeeps and about the same time that someone last enjoyed a jellied eel.

The winged horse of WU welcomes you through the turnstiles, but not before the away team, Carlisle United FC (CU) are filmed getting off the coach, as the BBC & BT Sport continue their considerable coverage. This also gives Tom enough time to add a very snazzy pin to his collection to go along with the WU one, he now gets a small silver replica FA Cup and he is beyond delighted.

CU are a team who have every right to moan about the weather, considering their ground Brunton Park is under about 6 foot of water, Desmond Ambrose storm has hit Cumbria hard in the last 24 hours. The grey skies, and a few spots of rain are relatively tropical in comparison to what they and their fans have left behind, at silly o'clock this morning to get here for a 14:00 kick off.

Once inside the ground, the sanctuary of the fantastically named ‘Wings Bar’, which conjures up visions of a venue in a 70’s disco film, is sought out quickly, considering today we are standing on the uncovered, bare concrete steps of the terrace behind the goal, and kickoff is over an hour away.

Like a moth to a flame I’m drawn in by the signed football shaped tractor beam, sitting on top of a box of Quality Street flanked by a bottle of Pinot Grigio and whisky. I have handed over £2 to the woman behind the white patio table, with the prize’s expertly displayed in front of her, and only the clunk of it hitting the bottom of the bucket, collecting for the Cumbria flood fund, do I realise what I have done. Tom has seen enough, and walks off, I take some relief that it’s going to very good cause, but will have to attend ‘raffle players anonymous’ next week, I really feel like I have let my sponsor down.

It’s hard to ignore the club shop on the way to the bar, the door propped open, and a man clad head to toe in all things WU, sitting in front of a large St George’s cross with WUFC written across it. The shop itself is not a lot bigger than your average garden shed, you could probably stand arms outstretched and touch each wall, but what it lacks in space it makes up for in character. Every inch of the wall and ceiling is covered in old shirts and flags, a large part of the room is devoted to football programmes old and new, from different teams, and it’s a wrench to not indulge in a few purchases. I have one meeting to go to already next week, I don't need to go to ‘programme hoarders anonymous’ as well.

Wings bar is already bustling as we walk through the glazed, dark brown, double doors, and into a cosy TV lined room, with a choice of the previous days match between Stoke City FC Vs Man City FC or a live offering from Serie A. Wherever there isn’t a TV, there is some kind of sports memorabilia, the dark red walls are barely visible, not just football though, someone round here is a boxing fan. When I finally find a seat, after marveling as the Playstation set up on one of the TV’s I have Muhammad Ali and Carl Froch looking at me from behind a frame.

Sitting next to the doors we came in through, I get a cold breeze up my back, with the constant stream of people coming in. Behind us it’s hard to not notice the tin foil marvel, the home crafted masterpiece FA Cup, leant up against the window, in one corner of the room. What makes this one a bit special, is that it has wings,Tom comments on the quality of its construction “it's well made, they are normally all floppy”.

“We can beat Chelsea” says one fan only half joking to a friend on the phone discussing the possibilities of the next rounds draw, as we make our way to find our spot for the game. The lack of cover, and the drizzle means Tom is a little down beat “this could get miserable”.

Standing at the back of the terrace, the constant noise of traffic, being at eye level with people on the top deck of the bus, is a first and with nearby shops almost on top of the ground, means people are able to stand on a fire escape and take some pictures. From what I’m sure is normally a plumb spot to watch the game, high behind the goal, is today slightly obscured by the scaffolding that has been erected with a camera on top. It’s operator making his way up, as the teams come out to warm up to a bit of U2, the same U2 song that plagued us all, for those few sad seasons that ITV had the football highlights, and it sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear it.

There are plenty of kids in scarves, most of them taking the opportunity to have a picture taken pitch side, with about 30 minutes to kick off Tom rightly says “it’s filling up nicely”. We are joined by our FA Cup stalkers @AcrossParkBlog who are continuing their own cup odyssey, this will be their 4th time seeing WU, as they follow the winner from each round. Who better then to get the low down on the home team from, “Welling are ruthlessly efficient”, and thinking back on the performance at Grays, that was exactly what they did, an undistinguished display, but got the job done when required.

The one occasion I don’t bring a umbrella we need one, and every time I open my notebook, the pages get a bit soggy, I’m always nervous of doing a Steve Mcclaren impression, and Tom confirms that I could look a little “wally with the brolly”.

A voice booms over the tannoy, welcoming all in attendance, and starts to read out the team sheet, the gap between names, makes it sound more like a memorial than the lineup, and is in stark contrast to the WU warm up, where the whole team stands in a row on the edge of the pitch, doing what I can only describe as a dance hall move, not quite a Bogle, but a lot of hip swiveling going on.

The TV tower is causing a few issues for some people's view, people take turns standing in one place, having a look, not liking what they see, moving a foot to one side, taking another look, and deciding that small shift in position, gives them the ideal view of the match.

With kickoff just over 15 minutes away, WU finished the warm up with shooting practice, in the goal right in front of us, and in turn have the whole crowd entertained. The proximity of some pricey cars, and shop fronts, means a WU coach has taken up position in the street behind us, ready to try and prevent any damage. He is called into action on a few occasions, as his team’s accuracy is well off, even the high net can’t catch the ball, and he is sent scrambling trying to stop an accident, or a bill for someone’s window. Every time a shot is high, a huge cheer goes up, and the crowd turn in anticipation, the largest cheer is probably when a nearby police van is about to get whacked, only to be saved by the branches of a nearby tree.

‘We will rock you’ by Queen plays around the ground, and all eyes are fixed on the main stand. Its mix of wooden and plastic seats are all nearly full, and under the corrugated metal roof, between the two dugouts, a camera films, which not long ago had been doing a interview on the pitch and now waits as we all are for the teams to come out.

Queen is quickly replaced by ‘Live and let die’ by none other than Wings, PERFECT! When the teams are read out this time the home team players get a warm reception, the away team get booo’s.

Within a minute from the off, CU get a chance from a cross whipped in from the left, “reds settle” shouts someone from the bench, “wake up Welling, for fucks sake” bemoans a fan near us. What follows is a one sided game between two teams, a league apart, it is quite apparent the chance of any cup upset, is zero.

“United, united, united, united” sing the CU fans who are here in great numbers, standing opposite the main stand, almost filling the smaller, more modern looking one. A few flags hang from the back of it, and one has been draped over the advertising boards pitchside.

At the opposite end of the ground is an identical terrace full of what would seem the noisier of the fans, and they respond to the CU singing “we are wings, we are wings, we are wings”. Occasionally a car goes along behind us, beeping its horn, one person has wound down the window shouting “come on Welling!”

The initial nerves of the first 15 minutes or so, are slowly subsiding, the WU number 20 in central midfield is holding things together admirably, and seems the main fulcrum of the side, but his team mates are guilty of giving the ball away far too easily. On about 18 minutes CU go 1-0 up, and there is no looking back. A simple through ball between the defence, the scorer out muscles one WU player in the box enough to get away a slightly scuffed shot past the keeper.

CU’s scorer runs along the touchline, high fiving the traveling fans, “oh we love you Carlisle we do, oh Carlisle we love you”. They are almost treated to a quick second goal, not long after the restart, the WU bench are livid, the team is slow and sloppy and sitting back far too much “up, up, up” shouts a coach.

“Come on Welling, come on Welling”

Mid conversation, Tom interrupts me and lifts his camera to his eye, the tin foil creation count hits two, this time in the front row of the main stand “oh another FA Cup is out”.

With 30 mins gone both WU players and fans shout for a penalty, Toms opinion is that it “would of been harsh”.

CU double their lead just before half time. A cross is cleared off the WU line, and the resulting corner goes the long way round to getting in the back of the net. The first ball in is well defended, the ball bobbling around is poorly punched to the edge of the box, where a CU player hits a low shot, that the keeper makes up for the iffy punch with a low save, the loose ball once again falls to a CU player whose shot goes in off a teammate.

“Oh when the blues go marching in”

The WU players and fans alike are all convinced that the last touch was off a hand, and remonstrate with the referee, as the CU players celebrate, he stands pointing to the centre circle, shaking his head, with a large smug look on his face.

His half time whistle is followed by a chorus of “boooos”. CU’s fans are understandably happy, at their team’s test book performance “United, United, United, United”.

Tom has headed off before the final whistle, I’m left alone, hanging on tenterhooks, waiting for the raffle numbers to be announced, “£336 has so far been raised for the Cumbria flood fund”. I hold my ticket, the signed ball first prize will not be mine, the second prize bottle of Scotch will not be mine. The 3rd prize “white ticket 296, 297, 298, 299, 300”.

I take a second, staring at the ticket in my hand, and as the voice on the tannoy reads the numbers out again, I realise we have done it, not the first prize admittedly, BUT WE WON SOMETHING IN A RAFFLE, but I’m on my own, Tom has gone to the toilet, I refrain from hugging and celebrating with strangers, and wait for his return.

“I can’t believe you have won” he says, like I would joke about a thing like that, but you can tell he is relieved, my dry spell is over, and I have that winning air about me. There is a bottle of Pinot Grigio with my name on, all I have to do is collect it from the club shop, but that means making my way through the hoards, which Tom just explained was not the easiest, but full of endeavor and pioneer spirit, I set off.

The second place winner is a CU fan, and is equally happy to be getting his hands on his winnings, a bottle of Bells, only to be told, because it’s glass, he can’t take it into the ground, and the same goes with me, we will both be back at full time. Nothing however can dampen my spirits, I swagger back to Tom, I move through the crowd like something from the Matrix.

“Welcome the Wings” says the voice over the tannoy, speaking over ‘Eye of the tiger’ playing as the players come out. Despite the motivational music, and the upbeat voice, there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm around the ground.

Conversations around us cover a broad spectrum, the game itself is doing little to hold people’s attention. One man starts to sing ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’ by Brian and Michael, others talk about how odd it is to be segregated, and not being able to swap ends, as they usually would, and a group that have appeared for the second half, standing at the foot of the scaffolding, are very vocal, easily antagonised, and are directing it at either the bench or their number 10. “He will get the sack Faz” bellows one of the them, “change it now, change it while we are still in it” adds another.

The first real thing the home fans have to celebrate is not a goal, but their keeper preventing one. At the far end a CU player goes down under a challenge, and the referee points to the spot. Saving low to his left the man in goal does his best to make sure WU still have the slenderest of chances of getting something out of the game.

When WU do have their own shout for a penalty the referee declines. A long ball is expertly controlled on the player’s chest, once in the box, his touch looks to have fooled two players shadowing him, leaving just the keeper to beat. One of the two players sent the wrong way with the clever touch, looks as one man put it to have “taken his fucking legs away” but the man in black had other ideas.

WU number 10 eventually goes off, and not to the bench but straight down the tunnel, much to the satisfaction of the nearby group “shit, shit, shit, shit”, and not long after start singing “burger in the goal, burger in the goal”. Not being sure if someone has hiked their lunch in disgust, on in their opinion someone is a little rotund.

Although WU have looked a lot more spirited in the 2nd half, you get the feeling that perhaps CU have taken the foot off the gas a little. All signs of a comeback diminish when another tackle in the WU box, results in another penalty, and a red card, the player who is sent off takes an age, and when he is finally off the pitch, the CU penalty taker dispatches the spot kick top left, no chance of a save this time.

“Deh, deh, deh, deh, deh Carlisle”

It’s become very gloomy at Park View Road, the clouds have rolled in, the floodlights are on, and the fans continue to give their opinion to the management “very negative”.

On about 70mins WU get a 4th. A ball across the box from the right, is pushed out into the centre of the box by the keeper, to be side footed in by a CU player on the penalty spot.

“What a load of rubbish”

“Deh, deh, deh fucking useless”

One fan is a little more optimistic “we’re going to win 5 - 4”

“I hope that camera ain’t got sound” says Tom, as the swearing is turned to constant, and someone has had enough, and chucks a “toilet roll on the pitch, toilet roll on the pitch”, but even the noisy gang have gone quiet now, much like the rest of the ground, except for the CU fans who are jubilant “Wembley, Wembley”. The only time the home fans stir, is when they ironically jeer a decision that goes their way, they all feel a little hard done by today.

“We nearly scored, we nearly scored” says someone a little high pitched, and as Tom puts it “how did that not go in?!?!” A free kick from the left, sails over the back peddling CU keeper, who can’t get near it, and is only saved by the inside of the post, the ball bounces down, along the goal line, and is cleared.

A 5th and final goal for CU, this time the ball is passed tamely across the box, there is little effort to clear it by the now leggy defence, and the CU attacker tucks it in from close range. “We are not very good” someone even attempts to start a slow hand clap, but it never gets off the ground. It’s almost 6, but it hits the post and I’m sure most people like me were convinced it was going in.

“BOOOOOOOOO” on the final whistle, the biggest round of applause is from the home fans,towards the away fans, “well traveled”, and how right they are, God only knows what a state peoples houses and livelihoods are in because of the weather, and they still schlep 300 plus miles to watch the game, very commendable.

Before we leave, but not forgetting to pick up a fine 2014 vintage Pinot, the tin foil cup count hits a record 3, a young girl in a woolly hat, has one with red and white ribbons on the handles.

Once on the bus home there is a long queue of traffic disappearing up the high road in front of us, visible through the steamed up windows of the top deck, Tom takes up his seat like the cool kid he is on the back row, and tells me “wake me up, when we get there”.



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Sunday 29 November 2015

Release The Jeffrey - Boreham Wood FC Vs Lincoln City FC, National League, Meadow Park (25/11/15)

The names Peter Sellars and Gregory Peck adorn the pavement, in the style of Hollywood Boulevard stars, outside Boreham Wood & Elstree station and I finally realise after seeing a display honouring Barbara Windsors career, that the ‘Elstree’ in ‘Boreham Wood & Elstree’ is one of the hub’s of British film making, and the place they made The Dam Busters, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Shining.

It is confusing for two city mice, when the familiar red roundel of London Transport isn't sitting above the bus stop, and so not wanting to worry about half fares or returns, or if we have the right kind of money, we find a local cab firm, and for the princely sum of £3.50 they will take us to the ground, which we reckon is probably cheaper than the bus anyway, so jump in.

The animated, high pitched, flat cap wearing cab driver is off like a shot, talking football, once we tell him our destination, his topic for discussion, Jose Mourinho and his daughter. His theory for why Jose is “so grumpy”, which is followed by an impression of a grumpy person, “mergh, mergh, mergh”, taking his hands off the steering wheel a little long, is according to him a two pronged issue, one completely plausible, one a little less so.

Firstly the recent defeat by Liverpool, where they “busted them up” is a genuine explanation for the managers mood, the second is perhaps a little bit more Daily Star than Guardian, when it comes to fact checking and tone. Apparently according to a previous customer, Jose is not the congenial at the moment because his daughter, who I'm sure is the shining light of his life, “opened her legs” for a footballer, the ‘Special One’ found out, and is not best pleased.

Trapped in the back of a small four door, both of our heads pressed against the roof, we look at each other, overcome with nervous laughter, not quite sure what to say, agreeing with his first point, but wanting to distance ourselves as quickly as possible from the second, I grip the door handle and consider taking my chances with a commando roll onto the high street. Only the brief moment when Tom points out a Wimpy, and we both reminisce about square burgers, do we not feel a little less dirty after the “open leg” comment.

Our driver perhaps can pick up our PC North London sensibilities, and falls silent for the rest of the journey, unceremoniously dumping us on the curb outside Meadow Park, home of Boreham Wood FC (BW), as the away team coach pulls in, Lincoln City FC (LC), and he doesn't want to go in the car park because he “might get stuck”.

As the LC players pile off the bus, after what is a long trip for both fans and players on a Wednesday evening, just over 120 miles, the turnstiles are not even open yet, we hope to find a bar or clubhouse, until they do.

First impressions are important in all walks of life and our welcome from the the two stewards on the door of the bar, flanked by a large RoBoCop, is less than ideal. When asked “what you looking for gents” and replying "the bar”, instead of a smile and “this way”, we get a unfriendly and aggressive “you Boreham Wood?”. Considering we are ‘home’ fans for the evening, we say “yes”, but this only encourages more cross examining. “Who's the manager?” I’m a bit flummoxed, and try and recall the Wikipedia browsing I had done earlier in the day, but can't for the life of me remember his name, Tom mutters the name of the previous manager, who was replaced last month, but I know that it’s not correct.

“Well I’m not Lincoln”, I finally reply.

Two other locals are getting the same dressing down, just out for an evening of football, not quite prepared for all of this. When someone eventually explains to us the need for the examination, it's because of the chance of “trouble” after some issues at LC in the corresponding fixture, earlier in the season.

It reminds me of a friend who went to a Barnet FC Vs Lincoln City FC match, and after some similar heavy handed police/security, he ended up getting carted off, he assures me because of a police dog's interest in his cheese sandwich.

Anyway we are in, the fairly empty bar decorated with Jackson Pollock esq pictures, illuminated framed home shirts celebrating games of note. An older man just inside the door shows the guys outside how it’s done, in his long club jacket and scarf “evening chaps”. His simple, but well received greeting, dampers the anger the two outside have riled up in me.

Tom’s description of the bar looking “like a strip club without the strippers” is about the most accurate description I can give you. The frosted glass, red top baize pool table, and bad music, all have a hint of Spearmint Rhino. Nonetheless we take a seat and grab a drink, whilst at the bar Tom hears more chat of potential problems, one person's explanation of why is simply, “well it’s Lincoln”.

My attention is drawn away from Sky Sports news, when I see a boy at a nearby table is selling 50/50 raffle tickets. “It’s a mug’s game” proclaims Tom, feed up with dealing with the emotional aftermath of me never winning anything, it is him who has to pick up the pieces. £2 and a “good luck” later, I secure the tickets in my notebook, in preparation of the draw at half time.

The combination of music and the TV on at the same time, is driving Tom a little nuts “make your mind up, I’m trying to watch the news”, so we drink up, hoping the gates are open and we can enter the ground.

More stewards, and more people severely lacking in people skills, in fact of the two, one barely said anything, because who turned out to be his boss was doing enough shouting, for them both. This was brought on by stating we were “neutrals” when asked again who we support, thinking that would just be easier, as our knowledge of the 1956/57 starting lineup is a little lacking, and we wanted to avoid any more quizzes. Playing Switzerland had quite the opposite effect however, it resulted in him telling us we had to go to the neutral section, and when I tried to explain we had been in touch with the Press Officer, he just continued to shout at me. When a break in the barracking occurred, I was finally able to show him evidence of my correspondence, and after a quick chat over the radio, the guard dog relented.

Tickets bought, programme purchased, turnstile squeezed through, another pin for the collection from the portacabin club shop, after which Tom noticed all of his badges look very, very similar, and is contemplating a conspiracy, we have to ask a much calmer and rational steward about the heightened security. Our first question is how many he thinks LC will be bringing, he hopes the combination of mid week, and their “coach breaking down” means that it won’t be many, if any at all. He curiously used the word “retaliation” and makes us both wonder, what the hell went down up there?

Tom makes a beeline for the ‘Lunch Box’ opposite where we came in, next to one of two stands along each side of the pitch. Flags hang from its back wall, "small town - big dreams" states, the seats are the BW colours, black and white. The smaller stand opposite, also all seater, has red seats with “BWFC” spelt out in white ones. At each end is an uncovered concrete terrace, the away end already looks almost full, and the stewards hope of fewer people due to coach technical issues has not come to pass.

Once Tom has visited the toilet, which he said smelt like “Armani” he peruses the menu of the Lunch Box, returning with two polystyrene cups of chips, and a burger for himself. We stand behind the goal, using the black metal railing as a table, with Tom developing a theory that the higher you go, the better the food is, until about halfway through his dinner he has to admit that the “burger sauce was a bad idea”.

“Welcome to Meadow Park” says the the voice over the tannoy, as both teams finish their warm up, a BW coach after some final sprints, instructs the players “in you go, in you go” as the voice reads out the teams. The first name is greeted with an enthusiastic “waahay”, which is not replicated with any of the others. He is either very popular, or no one likes any of the players.

To the tune of the Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy In The U.K’ the LC fans, who out number the home fans start to sing “I am a city fan”, and accompanied by either a “drum or an advertising board” says Tom, they make a good level of noise, and only get louder “oh when the Imps, go marching in”.

As the team's walk out, under a full silver moon, in a cloudless sky, from the opposite corner of the ground, the away fans go up another level “eh, i, eh, i, eh, i, o, off to the football, here we go”, they drown out the home walk out music, ‘Tom Hark’ by the Piranhas, and every so often the BW fans closest to us, standing underneath a flag with a fist wearing a club crest sovereign ring, shout “wood army”.

Sitting 5th in the table, LC are hopeful for promotion this season “we’re on our way, to the football league, we’re on our way”, and as the referee gets things under way, they sing and sing “we are the red and white army”, “come on city, come on city” really impressive. The noisy BW fans, a lot less in number, try their best to hold their own “we are, we are, we are the wood”.

It dawns on me not long into the first half that this is the first segregated game we have been to in ages, no swapping ends at half time, we will be located within touching distance of the Lunch Box for the rest of the evening.

LC are rapid on the flanks, and venture into the BW half down the left or right with ease, but its BW who score first, but it doesn’t stand, the referee disallows it for offside. Not long after LC score, this one counts, it’s about 15 minutes in, and it’s a super header. A raking ball from the left is met perfectly by the player on the penalty spot who leaps, heads it, the placing and accuracy leaves the BW keeper rooted to the spot, it really was a purler, and one of his team mates lets him know, as they celebrate in front of us “great fucking header”.

“The imps are going up, the imps are going up”

BW are almost straight back in the game, after some good work in midfield the player holds off a few of the opposition, turning out of danger well he distributes the ball wide, a cross is whipped in, and the attempted header is glanced well wide. Tom puts it perfectly “that’s a glaring miss”.

Almost 30 minutes in, we get another goal from a pinpoint cross, this time it’s the home team’s turn. The powerful header sends the ball over the grasping hand of the LC keeper, who can’t get near it. This is all unfurling at the opposite end of the pitch, and no one is sure if it’s gone in, but it has, the fans reaction is a little delayed, but brings celebrations and more singing “wood army, wood army, wood army”.

LC’s end is almost silent now, and even though they almost go ahead again, another headed chance missed, the player annoyed with himself, screams to the heavens, they are making a fraction of the noise they were previously.

“Wished we lived in California” says Tom, fed up with the cold.

Sustained LC pressure, can’t bring another goal, the BW keeper does however pull off a notable save after a cross field pass finds the attacker with space to cut in from the wing, and makes a powerful attempt at goal. One shot though is way off target and ends up in the car park behind. A fan peers over the fence, perhaps anticipating some damage, and it would seem it did hit someones car, “he didn't look impressed” he says to a fellow fan, after seeing the owner inspecting it.

We make the short move from the terrace to the stand for the second half, as the voice over the tannoy explains the club are offering subsidised away travel and thanks the fans for “their continued support in the fight to stay up”. With our undrinkable cup of tea, not because of the taste, but because of the temperature “it’s always nuclear hot” says Tom, as he mimes with one hand the action of drawing a cup from the urn.

The 50/50 announcement is made, no win this time, some other “mug” pockets the £12.00 on offer!

“Come on the wood”

Two early chances in the second half go to LC, and their fans are showing some of the form they had showed at the beginning of the first 45 making a great racket. The group BW supporters in the stand, who are now mostly all standing, are certainly giving a much better account of themselves, and start to add a few other chants into the mix “Hertfordshire, la, la, la, Hertfordshire, la, la, la”, all backed by the noise of people stomping their feet on the metal stand, the man behind me wonders quite rightly if it’s “just to keep warm”.

The second half is dominated by the direct, pacey wing play of BW number 25 ‘Jeffrey’, whose ability to push the ball ahead of him, turn on the afterburners and sail past his marker, time and time again, means LC’s number two is in for a torrid half.

BW’s first of many chances, is down to the brute strength of their number 24, or “the beast” as Tom dubs him, some good overlapping, results in a cross into the box, but it's behind his teammates, by the time he can get a shot off, it’s straight into the arms of the keeper.

Both the team and the fans have woken up, the players look so much more composed. The fans even have the nerve of calling out the LC fans “can you hear the Lincoln sing?”

“Wood army, wood army, wood army, wood army, wood army ,wood army”

Jeffrey is standing alone, and the fans urge him to “call” for the ball, “you got him all day son” shouts one fan, “you can skin him” adds another. Chance after chance, and it’s all down to the same player, coming from the left hand side, LC are helpless to stop him, when for the umpteenth time he makes a run, leaving the LC number 2 in his wake, Tom shouts “release the Jeffrey!”

One of the group behind us make a very solid point “we’ve got to score with all this pressure”, and as if the grim reaper was listening, just as he says “when it’s like this it unnerves me” all the ball, but no goal, an LC player goes up the other end and crosses into the box, only for it to just be cleared from underneath the crossbar, and the person next to him, with impeccable timing says “just like that”.

A conversation behind us, is one you will hear at every football ground, in every country, when your team are on top, but just can't score, “you know what's going to happen now?

“They are going to score”

“Of course they fucking will” replies a person a few rows behind.

BW suffer from perhaps not having the most adaptable of names, when it comes to chants, forcing the fans to abbreviate “we’re the barmy, b-wood army”, nonetheless they continue to roar their team along, who on the pitch, are giving them every reason to, but as one person says “they just can’t get it in”. Also with the increased atmosphere and watching Jeffery fly up and down the wing, my mood has finally softened, compared to the first half where the greeting before the match conspired to make me be a bit of a grump.

On the other hand LC’ fans are so quiet now, only coming to life when they shout for a free kick, which isn’t given, the fans around us poke even more fun “we forgot that you were here”. The team although pushed, back into their half, every so often get up the other end, and get close to scoring, there is a familiar feeling of tension in the air, WD would be very unlucky to go behind.

“We hate Barnet”

Tension is turning to outright narcissism, you would think they would be happy to see LC score, it would relieve some great pressure in them. Every time LC get the ball, the group around us are almost hysterical “it would be typical Boreham Wood”, “it’s coming”, “seen loads go in from there”.

One couple are a bit more optimistic, and instruct the team “FORWARD!”. An old looking mod type in a long parka jacket turns to the crowd, “come on get behind them”. The small group who have left their seats, and are now standing pitch side, are quickly ushered back to their seats by the stewards.

Some have even turned on the mercurial Jeffery, who has been an absolute star this 2nd half setting up the first goal, and since the restart has created a hatful of chances, but they think his final ball is not good enough, I don’t think the other players seem to be busting a gut like him to get in the best positions, and when they do, it culminates in what happens to be the last chance of the game. His cross across the six yard box, finds the attacker perfectly, whose back heel attempt is blocked.

The players applaud the fans, who in the second half did everything they could, really supported their team well, its was relatively non stop singing, which you would like to think the players appreciate and feed off.

Everything is of a very high standard at BW, the ground is very nice and you can see why the Arsenal FC ladies team call it home as well. The football in the second half was a good watch, it was not obvious the teams were at opposite ends of the table, if BW could have taken one of their countless chances, they would have been worthy winners. The LC fans, of which there were over 300 today, a remarkable turnout, talk amongst themselves at the station on the way home, and we agreed with them, “if they (BW) had a decent striker, we would of lost”. I hope it’s not a result or the issue of not scoring goals that seals their fate come the end of the season.

I know the stewards were just doing their job, it must be undoubtedly tough when you are at the forefront, and there is a threat of violence, grief or marauding gangs of barbarians. I’m sure the pressure that comes with that, must be huge. I guess in every line of work and in life there are just ways to do things, and ways to not, this evening felt like the latter, but we will get over it and wish BW all the best for the rest of the season.

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Monday 23 November 2015

Not The Waltons - Wadham Lodge FC Vs Clapton FC, Essex Senior League, Wadham Lodge (18/11/15)

Tom is a happy chappy tonight, not only has he not had to work today, Wednesday is his day off, but also instead of a trip to South East London, we are going east, only a short train ride from his trendy East London recently converted septic tank, open plan all glass roof top apartment. For me it’s a bit of a dash from work on the tube, and a rendezvous at Walthamstow Central station at the end of the Victoria line.

A short bus ride, and a walk through street light lit streets, we arrive at the open metal gates of tonight's home team, Wadham Lodge FC’s (WL) ground, its name spelt out in metal work across it “Wadham Lodge Sports Ground” . The young man on the gate, in a high viz waistcoat, is not very visible, and appears from the gloom like a spectre, confirms we are in the right place and ensures us that beyond the complex of 5-a-side pitches is what we are looking for. “Won’t know whats hit him” says Tom as we make our way across the car park, in search of the way in, because today's visiting fans are a slight departure from the ‘one man and his dog’ we usually see.

We are early as ever, in fact the away team, Clapton FC (CFC) are arriving as we are.

They are counting up the float in the turnstile, as someone else puts up a sign declaring “no alcohol in the stadium arena, no smoke bombs to be used” again in preparation of the Clapton Ultras, who have received a few pleas on social media from WL to leave their own brand of support at home, it’s most definitely the first time we have seen a non-league club insisting “no flares”. To be clear it’s about WL being party poopers, it’s about the financial penalties from the league, if these things happen during a game.

“Can't believe I was searched at the gate for alcohol” says an old man minus his dog buying his ticket, “preparing for the siege?” he asks in reference to the curious sign being sellotaped to the window of the turnstile.

Our previous enquiry asking for ‘Sharon’ resulted in us waiting as someone went in search of her, and not long after we are greeted by the smiling club secretary, in a red club jacket. She escorts us through a small labyrinth of corridors, up a flight of stairs, ending up at the door of the boardroom.

“Cup of tea?” she asks, as we take a seat on one of the black leather sofas around the edge of the room, beneath a TV showing Sky Sports. As the large tea urn is drained, and a small paper plate is piled high with custard creams, we are joined by not one Sharon, but two and the grilling begins.

Sharon two is in charge of club hospitality, as well as cleaning the kits, no one is restricted to one job title at this level.

After explaining what we do, we are much more interested to hear about their story, and it’s a familiar and interesting one comprised of a love of football and community. Sharon One explains that she has always been involved in youth football “been around the block a bit” she says smiling. WL are only tenants at the ground, not owners, in fact no one can own it, because the site is part of a charity, donated to the local area to ensure there is always a space for local people to play sport.

Both Sharon’s tell us with much delight that one of those local’s was non other than former England captain, Manchester United and Real Madrid player, David Beckham, who was a regular fixture around here, playing on the very pitch tonight's game will be played out on, even at one point using the clubs function room for a party.

The good cop, good cop Sharon duo, is joined by Martyn Fitch the ever smiling and enthusiastic club Chairman, and one of the founding members, along with Sharon One back in 2008. We sit back, sip our tea, and get a whirlwind history lesson, and a fascinating insight into the mind of a Chairman and the ethos of this young club.

His first dilemma as with any new team is getting interest in the club, reeling off a long list of other clubs in the area “they are just one bus ride away”, it’s not wanting for football teams around here at almost every level, for every budget, there is plenty of competition.

The floodlights come on behind us, illuminating the big window looking out from the boardroom over the pitch, “about time” says Jamie, Martyn’s son, who is the club’s goalkeeping coach.

Martyn quickly turns to tonight’s game, “I don’t fear anyone at home”. He is confident that the “big pitch” and “long grass” plays right into their game plan, currently sitting 5th in the Essex Senior League, two places above CFC, with the turn of the year only a month away, they must be happy with their progress, but he emphasises that there is still work to do.

“It’s about learning” WL have been guilty of giving away leads, and conceding goals late on in games. “We are the draw specialists” says Jamie.

It’s been a meteoric rise through the ranks in the last 7 years “exceeded all expectation, since we started” adds Martyn which is hard to disagree with, “6 promotions in 8 years” is not a record to turn your nose up, their latest being last year. “I want to go into the last games of the season 15 or above”. Jamie every so often gets a chance to chip in, when his Dad takes a breath, he perhaps has slightly loftier ambitions “think we would be disappointed if we’re not in the top 10”.

It’s around this point I start to get a little confused, and need to clarify something with Martyn, as he keeps referring to “Sharon”, and her involvement in running the Wadham Lodge complex and I’m not sure which one he means.

“So is Sharon (One) your wife?” I ask.

“Ex wife” and this is where things get interesting, he then points to Sharon Two, and tells us she is his new partner. His ex wife and long term partner working side by side running the football club, I look around not quite sure what to say, wondering if I have majorly put my foot in it, but Martyn with all his good spirit and East End charm relieves the atmosphere after my potentially interview ending question, I thought we were going to have a Bee Gees on Clive Anderson moment, “we’re not the Waltons with a football club!”.

Martyn is off again, this time regaling us with the story of Waltham Forest FC, the other club who share Wadham Lodge, for who he was Assistant Manager, and their remarkable recent FA Youth Cup run, when they got all the way to the last 16, managing to beat West Bromwich Albion FC on the way. When WBA payed them a visit, the players marvelled at the coach they turned up in, with one player referring to it as looking like a “hotel” and the cases and cases of energy drinks, of every description, they brought with them.

After beating WBA the then coach thanked Martyn after the match “I have to go and explain that to the board!”

There seem to be plenty of highs around here, but they come with plenty of lows, most of them stemming from a lack of help and money. “Really scratching around to get volunteers”, as well as finding sponsors, says Martyn, but the biggest thing holding back the club is only being tenants, and not having their own ground. It means all the money from behind the bar, goes in someone else's pocket, only the money from the gate and the tea bar outside, lines their coffers.

“Well I’m hungry” says Tom, happy to help them out, will his obligatory delve into food at football.
Jamie lets Tom know they are “good burgers”.

With CFC appearing on the pitch, this is Tom’s que to go off and Martyn’s to get on. I finish up my notes from the conversation, trying to remember everything that was said, I could not keep up at times. The talk in the bar quickly turns to which local pub the CFC fans have taken over pre match.

I finish up, and join Tom outside, where the WL players are in a row, legs up on the fence around the pitch, like a scene from the Bolshoi. There seems to be a bit of a tension in the air, one WL coach on the pitch shouts to the congregation of high viz clad men “got more security than fans”, with 15 minutes to go the Ultras are not yet here in any great numbers, just one or two fans make their way in, not the great Mongol hordes they seem to be anticipating.

“All a bit German this cage” says Tom, and he is not wrong about the corridor of chain link fencing that leads from the changing rooms to the pitch, it's a lot longer than your average tunnel, and has a distinctly 1980’s European feel about it, it’s not the prettiest of things if I'm honest.

Standing in his long black coat the large figure of the Essex Senior League secretary stands ominously next to the pitch, casting his eye over proceedings. When the referee as part of his warm up runs by he shouts, “you’re lagging”.

There has been so much rain the last couple of the days, the pitch looks heavy to say the least, the covered standing areas behind each goal might come in handy, as well as the black and blue seated stand on the halfway line. The winter weather I’m sure will start affecting more and more games, and the cold is already getting to Tom “wish I had a vest on”, I think the DM’s are going to have to come out the cupboard, because my feet are freezing.

Martyn’s like the Duracell bunny, continues to talk and joke with people, even from a fair distance I can hear him.

Five minutes to kick off, still no Ultras, Tom thinks it might be down to some local train problems, I think the elephants for their grand entrance must be late.

“Alright fellas, please lets go, its kick off time” shouts the referee's assistant through the door of the home dressing room, and once they emerge, he checks their boots, shin pads, and jewelry “you know the drill”. The referee stands in the doorway, fiddling with his watch, then takes the short walk to the edge of the pitch.

Each team stand single file, encased by the cage, the WL captain turns and addresses the rest of the team “come on boys”. Tom tells me he likes “an all white kit” which WL are in, but the fact that’s what Spurs play in, makes it hard for him to admit.

As the players walk out on to the pitch, we can see the heads of the Ultras bobbing above the fence next to the turnstile, they are here.

“Everywhere we go, everywhere we go”.

The flags go up quickly behind the goal, just in time for the minutes silence, in memory of the recent atrocities in Paris. The whistle ever so slightly confusing one CFC fan, who starts singing, only to be quickly “shhhhhhed” and the ground falls silent. When it’s over, the Ultras start again, as the rest in attendance applaud the silence well observed “oh East London, is wonderful”. There are a few familiar faces in the CFC end, the friendly Italian who has a lot less hair now, then when we saw him last, already straddles the fence around the pitch and close by is the ‘lifesaver’, as well as many others from our previous two encounters.

“We are the Clapton, the mighty Clapton”, a replacement for Jinky’s drum at home games, is the metal panelling of the stand, which is kicked to keep the rhythm, and shakes the structure to what feels like near collapse. Tom has taken Jamie’s advice and has gone early to get a burger, which on his return he describes as “one of the best”, and once he’s finished, his post meal vape smoke rolls across the pitch, and sadly will be the only pyro Wadham Lodge will be seeing tonight.

The early first half action is predominantly the subs scrabbling around for spare balls, as the gardens of the nearby houses keep gobbling them up, every time someone makes a Row Z clearance. At one point a WL player is fed up with the bench being a bit slow in getting one to the CFC player waiting to take a corner “FUCKING WAKE UP!”

As far as the on field action is concerned it’s all CFC, with WL limited to a few moments of possession, and a quick counter attack when they manage to win the ball back.

“Wadham give us a song, Wadham, Wadham, give us a song”

With 25 minutes gone, the chances start to come thick and fast for CFC. A good cross seems like a certain goal, but the header is blocked last minute, and two big penalty shouts, one after the other, go unheard. “The first one was a dive, but the second seemed a good shout” says a nearby fan, Tom is a bit more cynical “he made the most of it”. An unorthodox save by the legs of the WL keeper, sends the ball high, spinning back towards his goal. He scrambles, and lucky for him the bounce takes it wide, just.

As ever it’s hard to concentrate on the game, in such close proximity to the Ultras, their song choices always make me smile “Tell me why, I follow Clapton away” to the tune of Backstreet Boys ‘I Want It That Way’. They continue to goad the small group of home fans behind the opposite goal, “give us a song”, “we’re not fucking leaving until you do!”.

A CFC goal finally comes, with 10 minutes of the half remaining, after a shot hits the post, a second shot is blocked, and on the third attempt it’s put away. Standing on the fence, the Ultras go off “win away, win away, we’re going to to win away” followed by a high pitched, milk curdling “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh”.

WL seem to have an appetite for their own destruction, poor in possession, prompting one player to shout “KEEP THE BALL!”. When they try to play out from the back, CFC pinch it back, and so follows a series of back heels, the drop of a shoulder to pass his man, and a tee’d up shot deserving of a goal, but nothing comes of it. On one of the times WL do get a shot off at the CFC goal, the keeper makes a fine one handed save tipping it over “Senegal number one, Senegal number one” sing the Ultras. When they look certain to double their lead, the CFC player can only shoot tamely into the arms of the WL keeper on the edge of the box.

“Are you smoking crack!?!” shouts one CFC fan, after the referee chalks off what would have been their second, after he deems the scorer to have pushed his marker, to get an advantage to bury his header. 

With the half coming to an end the WL fans muster a song, to which the Ultras “shhhh” each other so they can hear it, replying with “your fans are adorable”.

As most people make their way for refreshments, someone reminds them “don’t forget to take your rubbish with you”. The tea bar is doing good business, some much needed money for the club, lots of people walking away with tin foil wrapped morsels. We each grab a cuppa, take up a seat in the front row of the stand, Tom rues not getting a Kit Kat, and the away fans have quickly swapped ends, one on his way asks us “what would the score be if people could finish? 6,7?”, he is not wrong, WL rode their luck at times. Their flags are erected, our favourite one being what looks like a Subbuteo figure in CFC colours.

WL are first out “come on boys, lets fucking raise it” shouts one of the players. Although CL have the first chance of the half, a wicked free kick from the edge of the box, instead of going up and over, it goes low and around, the base of the wall. The Ultras are convinced the fumbled save goes over the line, but the referee says no, despite the early scare WL are a lot more on the front foot this half, and CFC are sitting much further back.

When CL do break through the defence, one player racing through the lines, WL are convinced it’s offside, the linesman tells him to stop moaning “just because he ran faster than you”. The CL number 9 is what Tom describes as a bit “clumsy”, but he is very young, gets in some great positions and has a lot of raw talent.

“If you’re not jumping, you’re not Clapton”.

Another save from the CFC keeper, as WL continue forward, brings a song from the away fans to the tune of Madness ‘Our House’, “Pepe in the middle of our goal”.

At the far end of the pitch a WL player goes down in the box, and as the referee points to the spot Tom confirms “he has given it!” and in his opinion “it’s a bit soft” it would seem to have been awarded for a shove in the back. The spot kick is dispatched, which inspires one of the few songs from the home fans “wad army, wad army” as the players sprint from the box, to celebrate with the bench.

“We forgot that you were here” reply the Ultras, still confident they will win despite the setback “we’re going to win 2-1”.

The tables have really turned now with 15 minutes left to play, WL are applying all the pressure and someone shouts to the home fans from the bench “I can’t hear you” which draws another short chant from them “wad army” as they take their turn to bang the metal fence. The ever threatening rain appears, not in the form of a few gentle drops, but like a scene from the film Twister, which forces us to the shelter of the main stand, as the rain whirls around the ground.

Chances are few and far between for CFC now, but when the WL keeper rushes out of his goal to meet the attacker, the CFC player easily rounds him, but the angle is too tight and he can’t finish. Even if the
game is close to petering out, both teams by this time happy for a draw, the Ultras continue to sing, “la, la, la Clapton” and when some fireworks go off in the distance they sing “no pyro, no party”. The large contingent of Italian amongst them start singing in their mother tongue, forcing the non Italians just to hum the tune, as they belt out their song

What seems like the last chance of the game falls to WL, but the shot is pulled well wide, and the crowd let out a collective “ohhhhhhhhhh”. When they manage to squeeze in one last foray into the box, a CFC player appears to dive in, another WL player is felled, and the referee points once again to the spot, for the second time in the last 15 minutes. The result is the same, bringing perhaps the most noise from the home fans of the night. Their choice of chant directed at the Ultras, is slightly misjudged “you’re not singing anymore”, as they are now probably louder than ever, showing their disgust at the awarding of the penalty, “2-1 to the referee”.

“Surely they can’t fuck this up” says Tom, alluding to their previous record of giving away leads in the final minutes, and as someone near us confirms “we are very good at 2-2”.

Martyn is next to us, his attention firmly fixed on the match ”come on Wadham”, he continues to emphasise the need to “keep” the ball, when one player gets into range of the goal the fans shout “SHOOOOOT” only much to Martyn’s relief he ignores them and runs it into the corner.

“Well done boys” WL have pulled it off, the two Sharon's are clearly overjoyed, I don’t think they have budged from their spot next to the pitch all night. The WL players applaud the fans behind the goal, and without fail the CFC players approach the still singing Ultras, lined up with outstretched hands, as each and every players gets a commiseration, and in return gives a thank you back, for their support.

Each side of the chain link fence has people pressed up against it as the players start to leave, in the distance the column of Ultras are making their way out, still loud and in song “Clapton Ultras” and as they get closer the song changes as the WL players still on the pitch, stand applauding the away support, who in turn congratulate the home team “well played Wadham, well played Wadham”.

The Ultras add to the crowd around the enclosure applauding both teams, as they make their way off.

When Tom is invited into the changing room by the WL manager to grab some pictures of the victors, he is slightly surprised by the naked man posing for him, get some pictures nonetheless, wishes them well, and gets the hell out. The offer from almost everyone to join them in the boardroom post match, is hard to turn down, and I am a bit of sucker for a tiny triangle sandwich.

As the Ultras take over the bar adjacent to the boardroom, and start to sing, we are joined at our table by the familiar face of Haringey Borough FC player Macauley, who had been invited along by WL, as he is scoping out both clubs to co-sign with, in his search for those all important  minutes on the pitch. He admits that the support of the Ultras is a draw for him, but there are also reasons why he fancies WL as well, so has a bit of working out to do in the coming days.

The young lady in the boardroom, tempts a pound from my wallet, “all you have to do is pick a team” she says, I regret it as soon as I drop my pound in the plastic cup holding all the possible winnings. If the team you pick is underneath the shimmering silver scratchcard you are the winner, and with Tottenham available it was a sign from the football God’s, but not my football God, not a kind football God, a football God that wants your team to lose a Cup Final, or your best player to leave on a Bosman, because someone else won, not us, AGAIN!!

Once more the support of the Ultras is outstanding, it is one thing packing the scaffold on a warm August afternoon, but an away game, midweek when most people look out the window and think sofa time, is for me the real mark of clubs support.

WL welcomed us in with open arms, and really gave us a good idea about life on Walton's Mountain. Except for a few messages on Twitter, they didn't know us from Adam, but flung open their doors, were warm and inviting, not at any point guarded or sceptical of what we were up to, and displayed a great passion for football.

We must thank the two Sharon's, Martyn, Jaime, Tony, and everyone involved at the club, and implore all to make the trip East and check out #LodgeLife.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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