Monday 25 May 2015

Woad Faces - Hendon FC Vs Margate FC, Ryman Premier League Play-Off Final 2015, Earlsmead Stadium (17/05/15)

On the edge of North West London, at the far reaches of the Metropolitan line, we stand waiting for a bus that begins with a letter. We are frequently reminded of the colours of the home team today, as the green and white of Hendon FC is visible on their fans waiting for the bus with us. Some are wearing the clubs kit, but some strangely wear scarves and even a woolly hat, quite unnecessary on this warm day.

Once on the bus we overhear one fan talking to another, “told Granny to get her prayer mat out”.

Today was the Ryman Premier Division Play-Off Final, Hendon FC (HFC) Vs Margate FC (MFC), a day long in coming, after the protracted and poorly managed points deduction of Enfield Town FC, and the subsequent appeal, both teams I’m sure keen to get things under way, after much thumb twiddling, why the powers that be decided the fate of Enfield.

HFC have been on a great run this season in the league and in the cups, we of course saw them lift the Ryman League Cup, back in April, and their commanding performances in the league, had them finish a strong second, going on recent form HFC were favourites to win today, but its 2nd vs 3rd so it would be foolish to think MFC would not be in with a shout.

Off the bus we are greeted by the blast of an air horn, as blue and white clad MFC fans dash across the road, to a pub near the ground. At first glance you would have no idea there was a football ground anywhere close, as we amble down a green and leafy street, following the sign post to Harrow FC’s ground, Earlsmead Stadium, who HFC ground share with.

It’s our first visit here, and also the first time we have witnessed, what we saw on arrival at the ground, a queue! The first non-league queue we had ever set our eyes on. It was fast moving in fairness, and was perhaps only occurring because no one, us included took any notice of the man directing people to another turnstile, round the corner which was back log free.

As soon as we were in, noticing that HFC would not have charged my dog for entry, that’s if I had one, and past the second queue for the food and drink, I snagged a program from the white hut, with a black pitch roof, and we were back out again, and making our way to the bar. The club house is a two storey white box, with a flat roof, reminiscent of my primary school. As we pass through the first set of double doors, the unmissable bang, bang, bang of a drum can be heard coming from the main bar, and through the second set of doors into a cavernous school hall, the bang, bang, bang of the drum is overwhelming, and the blue and white of MFC fans, like ancient Britons of Boadicea’s Army with Woad faces, fill the room with singing, and for all intents and purposes had claimed this as their own, “MARGATE TILL I DIE”, “MARGATE , SUPER MARGATE”.

The barman has a Hogwarts t-shirt on and needs all the powers of the fictional wizard, as the small bar is close to being overrun and the MFC fans are aware of perhaps the uncharacteristically large amount of people here today “WHAT’S IT LIKE TO SEE A CROWD?”

Past the Blue Army from the seaside we are quickly back into the bustling crowd of play-off final day. The players warm up on the pitch, to Tina Turner on the PA, we decide on where to pitch up for the match. MFC fans have already commandeered one end of the ground, on one of the uncovered terraces behind each goal. Behind the red brick dug outs is a long covered standing terrace with a corrugated roof. Opposite is an all seater stand, flanked by two covered standing areas. We decide on the opposite end to the MFC fans, and make our way.

We manage to bump into the HFC Chairman, who is incredibly welcoming, and shakes our hands with a big smile on his face, and is quickly off again, stopping every so often to shake and quickly chat to as many people as he can.

The players will shortly emerge from a metal gate at one corner of the pitch, manned by two fellas in high vis yellow, and what I can only assume to be a long term fixture here, an old gent in a flat cap, attentively manning the gate, and letting the players and staff on and off the pitch.

“Down, down, down into a burning ring of fire” blares out, as Jonny Cash welcomes both teams on the pitch, perhaps some non-league intimidation tactics at play here? HFC in green shirts and black shorts, MFC in blue and white hooped shirts, and blue shorts, line up and shake hands, and as the players go through the motions, we make our way to behind the goal, pass the people sitting on the steps tucking into scotch eggs, and the man navigating a pram through the crowd.

The toss of the coin means the HFC fans flood from the opposite end to ours, it’s a sea of blue and white behind the goal at the far end of the ground, and the drum and chants of “WE’RE THE BLUE AND WHITE ARMY” fill the ground, HFC reply with a blast of an air horn and “GREEN ARMY”, but seem outnumbered by the visitors from Kent.

The outcome of the day ahead is somewhat determined by the first twenty minutes of the match.

Things get off to a scrappy start, with both benches quick to bark out orders from the side lines. The HFC manager frequently pops out from his red brick dug out, to boom out some instructions, and then disappears back inside. A tall man in a suit stands in the MFC area and is happy to let the players know, what’s, what “get it down, and play some football, play your game!”

A yellow card is brandished with only 15 minutes on the clock, and a bit of rutting, after the tackle, doesn’t result in any further punishment, but the atmosphere on the pitch is tense and niggly, perhaps the occasion is getting the best of the players.

Sadly for HFC around 20 minutes in, a slightly overeager challenge from their number 9 is deemed by the referee to be outside the parameters of the acceptable, and a red card is brandished, the MFC players are quick to surround the referee, and make their opinions on the tackle very clear.

I must admit from our position, the view of the tackle was not a good one, but considering the stop start nature of the game so far, and the referees eagerness to stamp his authority on the game from the early minutes, my first opinion was the challenge would result in a red.

With his head in his hands, and the already boisterous support of MFC, now geed up further by their teams early advantage, make the long walk to the changing room, that little bit tougher “CHEERIO, CHEERIO, CHEERIO”.

“You have ruined the game ref!” is the cry from the HFC fan next to us, I would think it’s more the player who had committed the foul, rather than the referee who has ruined the game, but considering our view it’s hard to pass judgment. Regardless there is still a game to play, and HFC are going to have to do it in the hardest of ways.

One young HFC fan sitting on the fence around the pitch, with his Dad behind him holding onto him, does his best to cheer on his team the best he can, “Come on Hendon”.

HFC are pushed back further and further, and the waves of blue and white hoops crash against the defence. The home keeper is tested, and pulls good saves from shots outside the box.

The MFC player tackled, by the HFC player who was sent off, is jeered and booed every time he touches the ball. This at the moment is about as noisy as the home fans are getting, and things are very subdued.

Tom had a small personal epiphany just before half time, next game he is bringing his own food. He watches on jealously as some people delve into a rucksack of goodies, after finishing a less than appetising burger, and perhaps his days of judging the food of non-league grounds around the country have come to an end.

Also just before half time the one man advantage pays off for MFC, and they go 1–0 ahead. Some
fine work down the left and a ball across the area finds a player unmarked near the back post and it’s a simple tap in. The MFC bench explode from their seats, and celebrate on the edge of the pitch, and the players form a blue and white pile in the corner of the pitch.

This only serves to fire up the MFC fans further, and has the opposite effect, and dumps the HFC fans around us in to near silence.

Two late corners look like the start of a mini HFC revival, but nothing comes of them, and HFC have their keeper to thank once again, as a couple of fine saves during a goal mouth scramble, leave MFC very much on top, and HFC are lucky to hear the half time whistle only a goal behind.

MFC clap their team off the field, every player with a spring in their step, “COME ON GATE”

Half time at Earlsmead stadium is a solemn affair. The fans swap ends, and the choice of someone’s 80’s classic CD, and some Huey Lewis and the News and Run DMC can’t lift the crowd, it almost seems in bad taste.

The arrival of Martin Allen and his dog, is only highlighted by the predictable shout of “Mad Dog”, which I imagine can only cause offence and confusion, to what I’m sure is a very nice and friendly family pet.

HFC’s manager comes out well before the team, and is almost sat down, as the players emerge from the cage at the opposite end of the ground. We are now surrounded by the blue and white army, whose drumming and singing is even more impressive this close up.

The Dad with his Son on the fence, attempts to claim back a bit of pride for the HFC fans, and blows a horn, but unfortunately he just scares the shit out of his boy.

Another first for us today was a dog in a football shirt that also has its own Twitter account @FinneyMargateFC. He was presented with a football, and in his excitement nearly pulled his owner to the ground.

It’s all MFC at the beginning of the second half, just how it had been at the end of the first. Their corners are piling on the pressure, and the home keeper is earning his crust today, with another good save from the edge of the box.

Late comers from the bar, with plastic pint glasses in hand, keep one eye on the game, and the other on the way ahead.

Twenty minutes gone, and its one way traffic, HFC are lucky to get the ball out of their half, and the match has somewhat descended into not much of spectacle for any of the 1,228 in attendance.

MFC fans whirl their scarves above their heads, and jump in rhythm to the continuous drum. Flags whoosh back and forth above the crowd, and some fans have hopped over the fence, in preparation of the final whistle, victory and promotion.

We have found ourselves surrounded by members of the MFC board, all suited and booted, and with various degrees of nervousness splashed across their faces. The Chairman stands on the steps behind us, the most anxious looking of them all.

For the HFC players and fans, the emotion and frustration of the day is over spilling. One HFC player is booked for his anger, at the perceived time wasting of the MFC players, and the HFC fans berate the near side linesman, every time he is close by, blaming him for everything under the sun.

MFC are awarded a corner on 90 minutes, and the taker does not have one person to aim at, they are not going to take any risks. Their Captain, a second half substitute is walking the touchline, and is standing in front of us as the final whistle goes, 0-1 MFC.

A surge of MFC supporters make their way across the pitch, the board members around us celebrate, “get in”. The MFC Captain is embraced by the Chairman, who has a tear in his eyes, and is congratulated on his efforts, “well done Charlie” he then trots off to join the swirling mass of fans, players and staff on the pitch, “WE ARE GOING UP, SAY WE ARE GOING UP”

The players leave the pitch, the HFC manager remonstrates with the referee and the stadium
announcer informs everyone on the pitch that the presentation won’t take place until they clear the pitch, so everyone duly obliges.

HFC players and staff are first to reappear from the tunnel, and collect their runners up medals. In the background two men in suits hold up a banner, “Premier Division Play Off Winners”, a cruel thing to see after getting so close to promotion.

MFC follow after HFC’s presentation, to rapturous applause and cheers from their support, “WE LOVE YOU MARGATE WE DO, WE LOVE YOU MARGATE WE DO”. The players applaud the fans, who really have not stopped this afternoon. Some players dance in front of them the stadium announcer congratulates both sides, but is drowned out by the MFC singing, “WE’RE THE BLUE AND WHITE ARMY”.

Right in front of the MFC supporters the players stand behind the banner, still being held aloft, in front of a row of photographers, and are presented with a kind of glass plate, like something from your Grandmother’s cupboard. They turn and celebrate and share the achievement with the bank of blue and white, the HFC team with their heads held low make their way off the pitch and back down the tunnel, applauded by the HFC fans that have stayed to the end. Their Chairman, who I know has a lot of emotion invested in this club, is visibly heart broken and dejected. Two trophy's is nothing to turn your nose up in a season, but this was the priority I'm sure, the holly land, and it has been snatched away from them, so close, but yet so far.
A child with a blue and white chequered flag runs onto the pitch, and embraces someone. The once nervous Chairman is now beaming with joy and pride at his team’s performance. He walks towards the crowd, arms outstretched with a smile from ear to ear and they are all delighted to share this moment with him. He hugs and shakes hands with them, a local boy done good, a man of Kent, who has experience at footballs highest level, they have done it, promotion!

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Sunday 17 May 2015

Not Been Home On A Saturday Since - Bowers & Pitsea FC Vs Clapton FC, Essex Senior League Cup Final 2015, Burroughs Park (10/05/15)

Our cab winds its way thought the streets of a new build housing estate in Essex, it’s an early Sunday afternoon, and the sun is beaming down, it is a glorious day.

The cab driver is a Spurs fan, he travels home and away, and his house backs on to the ground of the team we are spending the day with today, he goes when he can, but as with so many other smaller clubs in and around London, there is a lot of competition and they struggle for attendance.

Between two houses is a road leading to the ground of Bowers & Pitsea FC (BP) of the Essex Senior League. Today is the day of their Cup Final against Clapton FC (CFC) in the Essex Senior League Cup.

We clamber out of the cab, a large modern looking silver coach is parked up, and the players are in a circle talking away in full club training kits, and look quizzically at the big guy and the guy in a flat cap holding up proceedings. After a quick glance, they continue talking amongst themselves and a man in a baseball cap and white polo shirt walks towards us.

The man is Darren, our point of contact at BP, all round social media guru, helper, fixer and landscaper who uses his skills to look after the clubs pitch. He has been involved with the club for 12-13 years, a Spurs fan and ex season ticket holder who like so many has fallen out of love with the top flight. He bought a house near the BP ground, and could hear the noise on match day wandered up there, and in his own words “has not been home on a Saturday since”, much to the dismay of his wife.  He has agreed to us joining the team since we got in touch following their defeat of Haringey Borough FC in the semi-final.

Darren is instantly welcoming and puts our initial anxieties to bed as he introduces us to the club secretary and the Chairman, who with short grey hair and beard in a blue suit looks just like a mob kingpin from an East London gangster film.

Things are quickly underway, and the team, staff and a few fans board the coach, for the short drive to the venue of the final. The players fill the back few rows of the coach and we sit up the front with the club officials.

Not long after hitting the road, a lady with a rosette pinned to her top in the clubs colours, is quick to dish out histories largest picnic, from a straining, groaning bag, which takes up its own row of seats on the coach.

“The players can’t have any cake” says Darren sitting behind us, as she offers out crisps, raisins and I’m sure the rotisserie chicken hiding in there somewhere will be on offer soon.

I’m quick to ask Darren about today’s opponents, a club perhaps more famous for their fans then their football. CFC as Darren says are a bit of a “bogey” team this season. Beating BP once in the league and only managing a draw in the other game, otherwise BP have been flying this season, pushing Haringey Borough FC all the way to the end in the League coming second, but getting revenge and hammering them, 4-1 in the semi-final. They finished the league with a goal difference of +99, scoring 155+ goals in all competitions, and the clubs top goal scorers having a staggering 70 odd goals between them. All under the stewardship of the young coach Rob Small, only in his early 30’s, and only manager since the beginning of the season, he has had a miraculous turn around on the clubs performance. Rob Small is not on the bus, in fact he is cutting short a family holiday, planned long before the end of the season, and is meeting us at the ground. The team have not played for two weeks, and he hears the pitch is far from ideal, but says “if we play our football, we will win”, but admits to his own nervousness, and with a shrug of his shoulders says “it’s a Cup Final”.

The roads are very busy, and we stop and start in the traffic, we are on the main road to Southend, and people are swarming to the coast for a day by the sea, Darren says “it will be a crawl there”.

We stop to pick up two players on the way, and they high five a few of the fans sitting at the front of the bus. The previously reasonably quiet back of the bus sparks in to life, at the arrival of the two late comers.

BP get about an average attendance of 68 and that includes all the staff, and the club secretary thinks they will be lucky to get 100 today. CFC though will have 3 coaches full of the non-league phenomenon which are the Clapton Ultra’s we are even warned we might struggle to film anything today, because they are so noisy. One of their recent home attendances was over 500, which in the 9th tier of football, puts Conference sides to shame. We are both fascinated to hear about the Ultras, having yet seen them ourselves this season, well known for their fervent support, bringing all the colour, noise, enthusiasm and show of their European cousins, but with a staunch ,fanatical stance of anti-fascist, anti-homophobic, anti-violence, as they say themselves, “sometimes anti-social, always anti-fascist”.

Off the main road and making our way thought Essex country side we are close to the venue of today’s match, Burroughs Park, the home of Great Wakering Rovers last year’s Essex Senior League Champions.

The Cup competition itself has bad recent memories for BP, as they lost 9-1 two years ago.

At the top of a narrow lane, surrounded by allotments, the coach driver has to navigate his way along to the ground. Two pensioners look on, from the shade of their shed, as if a silver spaceship is invading their quiet corner of sunny Essex, and half way down the driver abandons the journey, we and the team are walking the rest of the way.

It really is a lovely day, and has got lovelier on the short coach ride from BP. The players gather on the pitch, chatting once again, Rob Small has also arrived, and we wait for the changing rooms to be cleaned, following the earlier game here today.

Burroughs Park is a tight and modest little ground, but more than suitable for the Cup Final. On each side of the pitch is a covered stand, the one behind the dark wooden hutches or dugouts is all standing, opposite is all sitting. Behind each goal is a small strip of concrete for standing, and behind one goal, are nets to avoid any stray balls ruining anyone’s car in the car park. The club house and changing rooms, are all within a one story brick building, and in large green letters reads “Nobbys End”, named after Nobby Johnson, a club official, who sadly passed away a few seasons ago. “Tea bar” is written on a number plate, above two small white windows, and the same goes for the “Home” and “Away” dressing rooms, also written on white number plates.

Gold buttons on the blazers of league and club big wigs, sparkle in the sun, and the players in small groups chatting are bored of waiting, sit down on the pitch, and are keen to get on. A few CFC players are leaning perfectly under the “Nobbys End” sign, and are oblivious to the rest of the team snapping away, sniggering to themselves, taking pictures.

We are both introduced to Rob Small, I ask if we can have a team photo, he is quick to get the players moving over to the goal mouth, and we get the picture.  Someone asks us to “watch the grass” as the players kick up sand and dust that has replaced the grass on this part of the pitch.

The club kit man, with the club 18 years is busily readying the changing room, and ceremoniously and meticulously lays out the kit, which all looks pristine, and neat, but only for the few minutes until the players are let loose. His job started the previous day, getting everything ready for the big day.

I leave the changing room, under a poster saying “no guts, no glory”, the players are given the green light to go in, one player whose job it was to be “on sweets” has forgotten them, his team mates don’t seem surprised, but does leave them stranded with only 2 packs of fruit polos.

Tom and I make our way to the bar, for a cool drink, and let the players get ready in peace. We pass the turnstile which has started to tick over as the first few people start to arrive.

The left overs of the previous games post match meal, are strewn across a couple of tables, as the players and their families make their way home. It is so warm in the club house, and a jolly woman behind the bar serves us a much needed cold drink, Bert a BP fan in his 80’s who also travelled with the team, stands near the bar, seemingly unaffected by the heat, as he is wearing a woolly hat with his name on “BERT”.

As in any good club house, fading pictures of teams from years gone by hang on the walls and banners “Great Wakering Rovers 25th Anniversary at Burroughs Park” in the clubs colours of green and white decorate the room.
BP is first out to warm up, in sky blue tops and red shorts. The coach with the “magic beard” puts the team through their paces. Darren told me before we had arrived at the ground that coach Mark Hunter, had not trimmed his beard in something like 6 months, ever since the team had been on a great run, so the facial hair was staying put.

The chairman of BP watches the team warm up, and is tucking into some of the impressive spread covering about 4 tables in the board room, a cornucopia of sausages rolls, chicken drumsticks and coronation chicken triangle sandwiches. CFC makes their way on to the pitch in red shirts and blue shorts, and the BP changing room is open and the music is pumping out.

All of a sudden like the distant drumming in King Kong, something has become clear, the Ultras have arrived.

The single turnstile and the two women manning it, are struggling and acting like they are under siege from the 3 coach loads of fans that have arrived, I don’t think Great Wakering Rovers FC was quite prepared for this. Within two minutes of the first fans getting in, the first St Pauli reference of the day is made in the form of a t-shirt. St Pauli the God Father of anti-fascist, punk, rock and roll football that many don’t want to copy, but aspire to, and connect with their message. Most people look dressed for a gig in Camden, rather than a football match.

The red, white and black of CFC is suddenly everywhere, scarves, t-shirts, banners and flags, many with the anti-fascist symbol. One fan holds up a flag “GEGEN NAZIS” - “AGAINST NAZIS” another has a drum slung across his shoulders with two red CFC scarves tied together.


The few who have got in and passed the bag check, are now retrieving the “contraband” under the fence, all behind the back of the blazer squad at the main entrance looking on, and not sure what to do. Darren had said that some grounds turn a blind eye to the beer and flares that the Ultras bring in, but they were not taking any chances today, and under the fence it went.

All of a sudden a confrontation breaks out, and one fan is asked to leave the queue, by a tall older gentleman, with his gold buttons gleaming. He has taken exception to what has been said, and a tense standoff ensues, but is quickly resolved, the Ultra is allowed in.

 Within moments of arriving the Ultras have taken over the stand behind the dugouts, and their flags and banners are, “TONS”, “FORZA CLAPTON” and the Jolly Roger quickly hoisted. Not all of them are in, and they slowly drip thought the turnstile, at one point one of the ladies manning it shouts “we need more tickets”. A Clapton fan talking about his fellow fans, says they are “probably shot gunning beer in the car park”

We follow the team off the pitch, and into the changing room, which is now a sea of boot bags and clothes.

“Relax and take your time” are the words of the Manager, as the players strip off their training kit, and get their match kit on.
“Quick Start” is the advice of one player, pacing around the changing room.

“Straight at them”, “We go out there and enjoy it, if the occasion is going to get to anyone its them” 

Everything Rob Small says is delivered in a calm and articulate manner, he emphasises the importance of the players listening to him now, because once they are out there, the noise of the Ultras will mean they won’t be able to hear him.

“Show good character, we wiped the floor with Haringey”.

Some players are deep in thought some are smothering themselves in Vic vapour rub. The keeper is wrestling with his shirt “it’s too tight”, Rob Small instructs the kit man to “give him what he wants”.
The referee bangs on the door, game time. The players all shake hands, and a few offer their own words for the occasion “Come on boys” “We have been waiting all fucking season for this!” Rob Small turns off the music playing, and is the last one out.

The relative darkness of the changing room means its takes a few moments to adjust to the bright sunlight as we follow both teams out on to the pitch. They walk out side by side, one line of blue one of red. The teams line up, and the voice on the PA introduces the club Chairman and the league Chairman, who will be greeting the player’s pre match.

“WE ARE THE CLAPTON, WE ARE THE CLAPTON” accompanied by the constant banging of the drum, huge swooshing flags and billowing smoke, come from the stand the Ultras have occupied.
BP kicks off, and all I can hear is the popping of smuggled beer cans and the smell of skunk mixed with smoke fills my nostrils.

It’s hard to concentrate on the game “EAST LONDON, LA, LA, LA”, I take up position between the dug outs of which some of the Ultras are sitting on. They are sitting there not necessarily to get a better view, but like any good Capo’s with their backs to the game, they are conducting the support, in the middle of the mayhem of the Ultras, I could be forgiven for thinking I am watching a game at Galatasaray or on the Yellow Wall at Dortmund, the singing, and drum is hypnotic, and is everything you could want from supporters.

CFC have the first chance of the game, only for a super fingertip save from the BP keeper denying the goal. For CFC though that will be about it as far as chances go in the half, and in fact the whole game, because what happens over the next 90 minutes is one of the most single handed demolitions I have ever seen, and I should know as a long suffering Spurs fan.

Twenty four minutes in and BP take a much deserved lead, a huge throw in is expertly knocked down, and a stunning strike from just outside the box, flies low past the out stretched CFC keeper, 1–0. The BP bench jump to their feet, and the Ultras are only affected for a nanosecond, and are back to singing almost instantly “Oh East London, is wonderful”.

Two minutes later and BP extend their lead, this time from the penalty spot, via the CFC keepers
hand and cross bar. The BP player puts the ball on the spot, turns, takes a few steps, faces the keeper runs and strikes the ball. The CFC keeper makes a fine one handed save to his left, the ball bounces up hits the cross bar, loops back into play, and straight to the original penalty taker to head it in, 2–0.

Instead of moaning and going quiet the Ultras applaud their keepers efforts “Senegal Number 1”, but bemoan the referees decision, “the referee’s a Tory” “David Ike was right, he’s a lizard, you scaly bastard!”.

Rob Small from the side lines gets a message to the team, “push them straight away, get the ball back”, and they don’t let him down. It’s all BP, and a 3rd goal is imminent, the game could be over before it even begins.

The CFC keeper is bundled over after a BP corner, and it looks like he has banged his head on the post, but it can’t be too bad, because as soon as the referee blows for the free kick, he is up to his feet and is charging out of the box to remonstrate with the players he thinks did him wrong, only to be held back by the referee.

CFC is not in the game at all, but their fans have not stopped. BP get a another chance, but the 1 on 1 brings a great save from the CFC keeper, and Rob Small has his head in his hands, and can’t believe it’s not 3–0, but he will not be disappointed for long. A well delivered cross from the left is flicked on at the front post, bypasses the whole CFC team, and finds the BP player unmarked, untroubled and it’s a simple header and an easy 3rd, 3-0, half time.

BP players sprint to the changing room, like the last 45 minutes in the sun have meant nothing, the CFC players are a little more laboured.

In the changing room you can hear the bustling of half time though a open window, but inside its relatively quiet, and the players sit down, one or two players josh about, one squirts another with his water bottle, but they are all listening attentively.

Rob Small’s first instruction is for his team to take on water, he then delivers a seamless half time team talk.

He was calm, collected and informative, he would make a cool cucumber look positively roasting. Perhaps this had a lot to do with his team being 3-0 up and totally bossing it, he did though highlight points of improvement to one or two players, a few minor tweaks, nothing major, but the sign of a true perfectionist. When he could not remember one of the point's he wanted to raise he asked his assistant, and then was straight back into his flow. Had the result been the other way round, it may have been all hair dryers, boots cutting eyebrows and tea cups flying, but at this moment, this was a happy changing room, God knows what was happening next door.

“It’s only half done”

The players are out first and the Manager is bringing up the rear, and gestures for us go first. Tom congratulates him and I got the feeling from his reaction that the congratulations were for when the game was over. I asked him if he was always the last out of the changing room, a superstition perhaps, “no, I’m just polite”.

As the players get ready for the second half, the Ultras have unfurled their own “Coreografia” choreographed display, a huge flag in their own colours and at the bottom a banner “HATE TORIES, LOVE CLAPTON!”.

Sadly once again CFC can’t do their fabulous fans justice with their on pitch display, and it’s about four minutes in to the second half BP go 4–0 up and put the game out of sight. The BP player cuts in a couple of times and unleashes a shot across the goal, and we are close to a rout.

“4-0 and you still don’t sing?” sing the Ultras, their support once again not wavering despite the score.

Finally the Ultras have a goal to celebrate, not that you could tell the difference anyway, but even with a considerable amount of the half left its feels very much like a consolation at best, as BP have a few more up their sleeves, 4–1.


When the fifth goal goes in for BP, a totally unopposed overlap on the left, a square ball in to the box, and scuffed shot pea rolls into the back of the net, it’s the first time the Ultras seem ever so muted, but still chant “We’re mighty Clapton”, 5-1.

BP are getting so many chances, they don’t seem to know what to do with them, It would be unfair to say CFC have given up, but they really have been out of the game since the 3rd goal went in.

“NO PYRO, NO PARTY” rings out as the Ultras hold smoke bombs above their heads, and once again blot out the stand and benches, what a scene it was when CFC are making a substitution and the referees can hardly be made out through the fog. The Ultras have now completely occupied the roofs of both dugouts, a line of beer glasses along one edge, one holds a large bottle of champagne, with his back to the game, I’m not sure he has seen any of it, and continues to drive them on. The familiar site of Ultras with their scarves half covering their faces, probably so as not to inhale the red smoke or it could be to stop the overwhelming smell of weed.


In the dying moments of the game BP add two more goals, and the destruction of CFC is complete. CFC give the ball away cheaply on the edge of the box, and a queue of BP players line up to shoot, the one who does hits a fine shot, by now what must be a very dejected keeper, 6 - 1

The final goal for BP is a bullet header and seals the Man of the Match performance from Durrant, who gets his hat trick, and in the words of Rob Small, “not bad for a full back”.

On the final whistle many of the CFC players drop to the ground, the BP staff are celebrating and congratulating each other. Instead of booing and jeering their own players, the Ultras show a great sign of class, “Well played Bowers, well played Bowers”. They quickly take the pitch, the ever flying flags still held high, and the songs still being sung. Some fans commiserate the players, but not a negative word amongst them.

CFC and the Ultras gather in the centre circle, and lead each other in a song, a back and forth between the team and the fans, the large bottle of champagne is handed to one of the players who drench the Ultras in bubbles. The team collect their runners up medals, and its BP’s turn to lift the cup.

BP collect their winners medals, clapped by CFC and the Ultras once again “well played Bowers” all beaming ear from ear, from their remarkable result, bogey team you say? Not on this performance. The kit man is giddy, a long time servant of the club, who had said to me earlier in the day “they are going to do it”.

I catch Rob Small’s eye and he tells me he is back off on his family holiday to Centre Parks, he was not joking about going on the final whistle, he has had his winner’s medal in his hands for only a few moments.

A man hands over the cup to the BP captain, the clubs colours in ribbon hang from the handles, the customary “ohhhhhhhhhhhh” in anticipation of him lifting it above his head from his team mates, turns into rapturous applause when he does. Another bottle of something sparkly showers the team, and the team jump and sing on mass, “Champione, Champione, ole, ole, ole”

As they leave the pitch, Bert still in is woolly hat, has the biggest smile of all, and gets a high five from every player.

We leave the Ultras still singing and follow the team into the changing room, who crack into a group rendition of Frankie Valli’s – “I love you baby”.

The Roman banquet of sausage rolls is in full swing in the board room, and Tom and I peer through the window like a scene from Oliver Twist.

We bump into a delighted looking Darren, and thank him for the opportunity today it’s likely the team will be hanging around for a while, and sadly its work for us the next day, so it’s time to work out how to get home to North London. I enquire with one of the many Ultras who have flooded off the pitch into the bar, and one of the 3 coaches have room and we can have a ride home, but not quite yet so we have 30mins to kill. What better way then, after snaffling a few tuna sandwiches, then a big kick about on the very pitch we had watched the game on today, and a jumbo game of headers and volleys commences with BP and CFC fans playing together.

We climb aboard the brownest of all coaches, and take part in a version of Clapton Ultras wacky races, each coach taking turns in overtaking the other at break neck speed on the motor way back to London. The buffet was flung open to all, and some people did not hold back, ones fans paper plate almost buckles under the weight of potato salad, and people pass around bottle of cider. Scarves hang in the windows “ULTRAS E7” like football themed Christmas decorations, and Hotel California on the radio is quickly rewritten in to a new chant, “Welcome to the Hotel Clapton Ultras”.

Today has been quite brilliant in so many ways, the football and support was exemplary.

To see what is possible, what is being done and the passion on show from the Clapton Ultras was exceptional. The love they showed for their team, the message they purvey, the nonstop singing to the tune of 90’s pop songs, and managing to shoe horn in a Spice Girls song takes real creativity, the choreography, the display is truly a thing of beauty, something I thought I would only see on a trip to Germany or Italy, but it’s going on in my own back garden.

In my eyes there is no right or wrong way to support a team, you do it however you want, but the way I want it, the way Tom wants it, is just like how the Ultras do it, and we look forward to be choking on red smoke and cracking open a Tyskie with you soon.

It would only be polite to finish with our host for the day, and a big thank you and congratulations to BP, for their resounding victory. They showed great skill and intelligence during the game, and really dismantled CFC scoring some wonderful goals.

In Rob Small they have a young talented English manager, the Holy Grail in British football, who I’m sure will continue to develop the team, and march them on to promotion and a cabinet full of silverware in the not too distant future. Not only was the football a pleasure to watch, but watching how he conducted himself in the changing room and the way he spoke to the team, was remarkable.

Thank you once again to Darren, Rob and all the staff and players at Bowers & Pitsea FC.

For all of our photographs from the match click, HERE. For all our photographs of the Clapton Ultras, click HERE

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Monday 11 May 2015

17:50 Cattle Truck - Metropolitan Police FC Vs Merstham FC, Surrey Senior Cup Final 2015, Kingfield Stadium (06/05/15)

The day had started with torrential rain, and me having to shut the window at the foot of my bed, because I woke up to wet feet! The rain had been so severe, on and off all day, and it did cross my mind that the game might be called off, but I was reassured by the ever helpful @metpoliceFC, and our trip to Woking for the Surrey Senior Cup final was on.

I do the commute on the Monday to Friday gravy train like most people, Tom just hops on his scooter and zips to work in minutes, but I like along with all the other drones, have to get on the train and tube in the morning and make my way to work. The ordeal is lessened by having to set off at just before 7 o’clock, and the train not being too busy. For all the people who take the 17:50 train or should I say veal crate cattle truck, from Waterloo to Woking every day, I doth my cap to you, that was a truly horrendous experience, forced to be more intimate with a stranger, without even being bought a drink, then I would ever want to be again!

Once in Woking, it was a 5 minute cab ride to Kingfield Stadium, another ground ticked off the list of Game Of Thrones sounding football grounds, the home of Woking FC, the venue for tonight’s Surrey Senior Cup Final, Metropolitan Police FC (MP) Vs Merstham FC (MFC).

Once through the turnstile, £10 less in my wallet, and £2 less change in my pocket for entrance and a programme, and once past the burger van, with a few people tucking into Flintstone size portions of chips, we were greeted by perhaps one of the strangest football grounds we had ever been to.

It was like it was half finished, like someone had run out of money and could not afford to finish it. The end of the ground we came in was what you would expect from a Conference side ground, a covered terrace behind one goal, then a long uncovered terrace of a few steps along one side of the goal, opposite them were two barn like, covered all seated stands, one with a black corrugated roof, and one with a green one.

All of these things you might think are pretty run of the mill, what was wasn’t, and what was very out of keeping with the rest of the ground was the stand behind the goal at the far end of the ground. Imagine one of the stands of the Britannia stadium had been teleported from Staffordshire to Surrey, a huge modern all seated stand with bright red seats, and white ones making out WFC. Due to the expected numbers tonight it was closed, and was quite unnerving and atmosphere sapping as it loomed over everyone.

The players warmed up on the slick wet pitch, and it was a blustery overcast evening, with ominous clouds which threatened rain at any minute. Tom returned from the burger van with a £5 double burger, and quickly demolished it. I looked on in a mixture of disgust and awe.

The black and yellow of MFC is a lot more on show than the blue of MP, and the MFC fans seemed to be there in much better numbers. Perhaps the buzz of their recent playoff final victory, and the chance of crowning the season with another piece of silverware, had drawn out the fans on this far from pleasant evening.

A strange choice of euro dance music, with Sam and the Womp “Bom, Bom” my personal favourite and the banging of white inflatable sticks, which have been handed out to children on their way in, are every so often drowned out by the announcer on the PA telling you where you can and can’t stand this evening.

The players come out of the stand directly behind the clear Perspex dug outs, two red Calour gas flags whip around in the high wind. There are a high proportion of men in blazers here tonight, with lanyards around their necks, the who’s who of the surrey FA are out in force. The gaps in the wooden slatted tunnel, means you can catch a glimpse of the players getting ready to come out. Four kids, two
each in the stripes of each team lead out the players who line up, and shake the hands of a procession of blazered men, then each other’s.

 MP carry out a few sprint exercises on the side lines and look very focused on the game ahead
We take up position behind the goal, where the majority of MFC have taken up residence in front of a large yellow and black flag announcing “WE ARE MERSTHAM FC”, and are doing everything they can to create a bit of atmosphere, on what is after all a cup final.

MFC kick off in all red, and MP in an appropriate shade of dark blue, the grey clouds above start to drizzle and things are under way.

The first couple of chances go to MP and its pretty much one way traffic for the rest of the half. The gulf in skill is clear from the get go, and MP are calmer in possession, have a much better touch, and threaten MFC straight away. Two crosses one from the right, and one from the left cause problems in the MFC box. One is missed by the player sliding in, and the other finds the player at the back post, but he heads it straight into the keeper’s hands.

The game is scrappy, and one sided, but the MFC fans are making a racket and are doing all they can to lift, what is a bit of a flat occasion. One fan, perhaps in his 60’s walks to the edge of the pitch, and bangs on the hoarding, the fans in the stand respond to his rhythmical banging, “MERSTHAM”.

A burly security guard in a long yellow high vis jacket, starts to walk towards the man in his 60’s and he scurries back into the crowd. The majority of them chant at the guard, “we’re not in a library”, but like water off a ducks back, he walks back to lean against his post, and is totally unaffected by the barracking of the mob.

A man walks along the terrace, holding up programs like an usher at the theatre, “£2 for a good read”.
As soon as the man in his 60’s had disappeared in to the crowd, he emerges again, and at the moment he is the most entertaining thing. This time, to avoid the wrath of the sentry for standing where he shouldn’t, he decides to hop up and down, as he bangs the hoarding again, and shouts “I’m not standing, I’m hopping”, getting a laugh from his fellows in yellow and black, but a slight twitch from the security guard, which once again sends him scuttling back to safety.

MFC’s first chance is a free kick in a good position on the edge of the box, and whips up the fans, “COME ON MERSTHAM”, but it comes to nothing, and crashes against the wall. When the physio has to run on for an injured player they imitate an ambulance siren, “ne-nor-ne-nor”

On 31 minutes the game finally gets a goal, and it’s gone to MP and it’s the least they deserve, a far from riveting game, which has one of the ball boys pitch side on his phone rather than watching the match, is sparked into life, when a cross once again, finds an MP player unmarked and he hits a fine shot, back from where it came, across the goal, and it nestles in the corner on the net.

MFC fans for the first time have gone quiet, only the bang of the inflatable sticks can be heard, and the “trouble” making fan is nowhere to be seen.

The MP goal lifts MFC a little and their pace on the left is stretching the defence, and they are getting behind them with ease. Sadly for them this is undone quickly when a hand ball in the MFC area results in a penalty, and the resulting spot kick, is put away with ease. The final moment of the half is a big shout for an MFC penalty, but he has clearly slipped on the greasy surface, and the half finishes 2–0.

It’s been an underwhelming 45 minutes, and a drink, and a bit of shelter from the wind is much in need. “The Cardinals Bar” is hidden behind the two stands, and is reminiscent of where I used to go to Scouts. A long hall, with blue carpet floors, a few tables and chairs dotted around the edge, and a dance floor cut out at one end, replacing the carpet with parquet flooring. Some children dash about in the open space in the middle of the room, as mainly MFC fans huddle around tables, mumbling amongst themselves about the first half.

Consumed by that fuzzy haze you get when you are forced to drink your half time pint too quickly, and once we found our way back to the stand, through a warren of pathways, the teams are coming out to the most ironic of songs, considering the weather, “Walking on sunshine”.

Floodlights illuminate the Independence Day like clouds rolling in above, and do a great job in highlighting quite how odd the mega stand, with no one in, is.

MFC nearly score on the break, and start to show a bit of fight, and this wakes up their fans, and they sing on mass for the first time since the goal, “COME ON MERSTHAM, COME ON MERSTHAM” MP though are getting all the vital blocks, and are thwarting MFC attempts to get back in the match.

Almost half an hour into the second half, and the first glimpse of the MP fans, comes in someone on the opposite side of the ground banging the hoarding, and trying to get a song going. When MP make a sub, and their fans applaud the player coming off, MFC pipe up with “We forgot that you were here!”

Unfortunately the game has reverted back to the scrappy, niggly game just like the first half. MFC players are getting frustrated offer no threat and it is very stop and start free kicks are being dished out galore.

The old MFC fan is back, and has one last go at getting the crowd going, and in turn trying to inspire the team, but as things are going they would need a miracle. I think it has become more about winding up the security guard than anything else, starting at him as he bangs the metal, “COME ON MERSTHAM”, like a matador and a high viz bull, but the bull is not having any of it, and doesn’t move a muscle, there is ten minutes to go, and doing anything now, would just be a waste of time, so he lets the matador prat about.

Things are now moving at half speed, and the game is somewhat petering out. We have made our way behind the dug outs. The fact they are clear Perspex, and you can get up so close, it gives them a strange fish bowl feel, letting you peer in on the players and staff on the bench. Someone on the MP bench shouts to one of the ambling players, “Bradders liven up”, he turns and with a grin on his face says “fuck off” and the bench laugh.

A table has been set up, covered in a red table cloth, with the Surrey FA emblem on it, and the trophy, medals, and a large Children in Need type cheque for the winners.

Once the final whistle goes, they’re not exactly jubilant celebrations, but MP have deserved the win it never seemed in doubt.

The trophy table is carefully carried on to the pitch followed by the blazers brigade, who have come down from the stand to present the trophy. MFC players applaud their fans who have put on a good show tonight, but perhaps the exploits of the promotion play off had taken it out of them, and today’s match was one too many.

MFC graciously collect their runners up medals, then its MP’s turn, one of them has his child in his arms and holds another by the hand, the trophy for Man Of The Match is presented, and goes to MP number 6 Steve Sutherland.

Flash bulbs go off around us, as the captain lifts the cup, and then the players pose with their spoils. The grounds man has perhaps tired of their celebrations, and one set of the huge flood lights go off, plunging us in to darkness, one player says “They want us out”.

As we leave we can hear the team letting off steam in the changing room, and both managers are interviewed, both giving their side of the story.

MP Manager Jim Cooper talks with BBC Surrey on an old fashioned style microphone, like the ones used when Match of the Day was in black and white. He must have been posed a question regarding how such a competition is considered by the club and his reply is clear “we take this Cup very, very seriously”.

We are lucky to grab him for a few words, and I ask him how the current points deduction to Enfield Town FC, and potential change in league position into a playoff spot has affected the team, “preparations for the Cup Final have been distracted, due to the playoff nonsense” but he felt his team had served him well, and the game was won in the first half.

Considering MP lost this final last year to tonight’s host team 6-0, it must have been great to get the victory.

It would seem that at whatever level Cups have perhaps lost the gloss they once did, perhaps because there are too many or the recognition for winning them has been lost over time, and I’m sure in some people’s eyes, they are a little more than an unnecessary distraction. However, I feel, as I’m sure many others do, that they are an integral part of the fabric of footballs tradition, so I hope they continue to get the respect they deserve.

Congratulations to Metropolitan Police FC, winners of the Surrey Senior Cup Final 2015.


For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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