Sunday 27 September 2015

Willy Wonka's Factory - Greenwich Borough FC Vs Slimbridge A.F.C., FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round, Princes Park (13/09/15)

Tall, wrought iron gates greet us, like the ones in front of Willy Wonka's factory, not long after getting off the bus. They are impressive to say the least, imposing is probably a better word, jet black, the hazy sun means you have to squint when you look at the top of them.

We know we are in the right place, another ground share in fact, the name of the landlord is across the top of the gates “DARTFORD FC”, but this doesn't look like a football ground, not like any we have ever seen, the concrete and steel has been replaced by trees and grass, like the welcome centre at a nature reserve, we walk and gasp at quite how pretty, and quiet it all is.

Admittedly we are here well before kick-off, but the usual noisy urban setting of your typical football club, has been replaced by an air of tranquility, and on a barmy Sunday afternoon, it’s very pleasant indeed.

“Are you lost?” asks an old chap in a blazer, at what must look like two numptys walking around with their mouths open. Another man appears from the same double glass doors, his older counterpart had,

“Tom, Dan?”.

“Yep” we both reply.

The second man smiling, walks towards us, holding out his hand asking “Now who is the Tottenham fan?” I smile and Tom points his finger at me, our reply sends the outstretched hand in Tom's direction first. I can only assume he is a sympathiser of the nomadic South London football club Tom supports.

Once again social media, matched by people's incredible generosity and passion for football, means we have been given the opportunity by Greenwich Borough FC (GBFC) to observe their preparations for todays FA Cup, 1st Qualifying Round match against Slimbridge A.F.C. (AFCS).

The smiling hand shaker is in fact Geoff, the club's Webmaster and the man sporting the blazer is his father-in-law Norman, who is the club Secretary, somewhere in the ground is his wife who is the treasurer and turnstile operator, a real family affair. All four of us stand in the sunshine, and quickly start to chat about the day ahead, and the first topic of conversation is the remarkable venue.

“It’s a little above our station” says Geoff, GBFC play in the Southern Counties East Football League but Princes Park, is the home of National League South side Dartford FC, a fair few steps higher, he is quick to point out though, “we pay enough to squat here”. In 2013 GBFC started the ground share, after leaving their home of over 70 years at the end of the 2008/09 season, and have been sofa surfing ever since.

There has been some local press about the game today, so they are hopeful for a good turnout, a regular league game would have anywhere between 50 - 100 spectators, but a combination of the FA Cup, being a Sunday and a special price deal for Dartford fans, should mean numbers are higher than normal. Norman is banking on the ultimate fact, that “people just want to see a game” and quite right he is.

“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” the famous words of French Nobel prize winner and philosopher Albert Camus, are written above the door of the tunnel, as we
make our way into the bowels of the ground. Geoff has left us to our own devices, giving us the chance to explore.

We are the first people in the ground, and stand pitchside taking it in, Princes Park continues to surprise us, and the more we see, the more I wonder that it must be a one of a kind. “Never seen a wooden stadium before” says Tom, marvelling at the beams holding up the roof. Home to Dartford FC since late 2006, it has been described as “one of the most ecologically sound ever built”. Some of it’s features are quite unique, like the fact the pitch has been sunk below ground level to prevent noise and light pollution, the grass we saw outside, growing on the roof, is not bad house keeping, but what is called a “living roof” to help with air purification, along with solar panels, it really is a marvel!

Considering no-one else is here, it would seem rude not to have a quick sit on the home bench, and get the players perspective, and as Tom wanders off, perhaps to get a close up picture of the roof tall wooden sculpture of a man, like an Ent from Lord Of The Rings, who is totally out of place, but then also completely in keeping with the apparent eco ethos of the club.

I take up a seat just to the side of the home dugout, and from my pitchside location, start to take some notes, only to be interrupted by someone walking across the pitch, occasionally treading down divots. A comment Tom made when we first walked in rattles around my head “something quite eerie about an empty stadium“, I can’t work out if eerie is the right word, but whatever it is, it feels very special sitting here in near silence, before all the mayhem of the game.

Walking back down the tunnel, past the medics trolley, covered in all sorts of gadgets, we hear what sounds like a cult in ritual, instead it’s the home dressing room going a through a pre match exercise which involves a lot of clapping. With so few people about it’s hard not to take the chance to pose for a picture in front of the backdrop you see the managers being interviewed in front of on ‘Match Of The Day’, covered in the league and club sponsors.

We bump into Geoff, who is kind enough to offer us a drink, and leads us to the bar, which he says will also be the “make shift boardroom for the day” the distinction between bar and board room is made by two folding screens, which look like they have been borrowed from someone’s house, stretched out across the room, dividing it in two. The referee and his team sit around a small table, still in their suits, quietly talking amongst themselves.

Considering what a nice afternoon it is, we break free of the corporate shackles of the top table, and sit outside, mulling over our plan of attack for the rest of the day. Once again Geoff appears bearing gifts, a match day programme, “they will be like gold dust now the coach (AFCS) has arrived, they have brought a good amount”.

The quiet of our pre match drink, has now been shattered by the music coming from the home dressing room, but no one is in there to be deafened by it, the teams are now warming up.

“Everything we did on Tuesday night was for fucking today, don’t spunk it up the wall”, are the instructions of one of the two almost identical, stocky short wearing, every other word is a swear word coaches taking the GBFC squad through a high tempo possession game.

AFCS on the other hand amble out the tunnel in dribs and drabs, not quite showing the same energy as GBFC, who are tearing around their small section of the pitch, trying to win the ball off each other, accompanied by the drill sergeant encouragement on offer from their coaches “hunt in packs”, “work your fucking tits off”.

“Starting 11 with with me” shouts one of the coaches, quick to do what he says, they make their way over to him, leaving the remaining players to chat and kick a few balls around amongst themselves. While this is all going on AFCS on the other hand take a very relaxed warm up, a little more sedate if you like.

To the side of one of the goals the GBFC keeper is put through his paces. He stands sideways, only turning face on when instructed by one of the two men taking shots at him. These are no normal shots, these are shots the immortal words of Alan Partridge could be attributed, “he has a foot like a traction engine”. The spectators standing just behind him, have their lives in their own hands, because when a stray shot flies into the stand, it pings off anything in its way, occasionally drawing a raised hand of apology from the keeper. One shot is so colossal, it destroys one of the the advertising boards, sending small bits of white plastic like shrapnel into the air.

Tom’s hangover from a friend's previous nights Birthday Party, means his need for football ground food is even more heightened than usual, “time for a pie”. His choice of flavour is Balti, he also has a present for me, a small piece of shrapnel, a keepsake from the day.

Geoff who has been non stop since we arrived, fills us in on a little bit of news about today's opponents, explaining that they have only brought 3 subs, even though the FA Cup allows 5, “low on numbers or did they not fancy the journey?”, and what a journey it is, over a 300 mile round trip.

AFCS are clapped off the pitch by their fans “come on boys” and we follow them down the tunnel, with about 10 minutes to kick-off, waiting for both teams to re-emerge.

The home dressing room is a lot louder, music is playing, and we can hear through the door the occasional shout over the music “HELP EACH OTHER BOYS!”. Every so often the door is opened, and we see players hugging each other, geeing each other up. AFCS’s on the other hand is whisper quiet in.

When we have been in similar situations at other games, the linesman have near had to kick the door down to get the teams out, as the players savour every second of the protection the changing room offers, before the game starts, but no battering ram needed here to get their attention. Just one assistant tamely knocking on the away dressing room door, and both teams appear almost simultaneously.

GBFC look relaxed, as they are checked for jewellery, some of them even singing along with the music, still playing behind them, only their keeper who is a little slow, needs a nudge to hurry up.

“THIS IS PRINCES PARK” is written above where both teams line up in the tunnel. Its relatively dimly
lit, and there is a small slope leading upwards, it is very much a light at the end of the tunnel. The referee takes the lead, his assistants at the rear, and I’m a few steps behind. I feel we are very lucky to be given the chance to do the things we have done, I know its not walking out at Old Trafford or the Nou Camp, but it really is a great feeling following the players out, your eyes having to quickly adjust to the bright sun, and before you know it you are pitchside, and the players are lining up and shaking hands.

The voice over the tannoy reverberates around the stand, in fact he shouts so loud, the speakers slightly distort, COME ON THE BORO!” A small group of travelling fans reply, “come on the swans” but the man with the microphone has the upper hand.

There is a step difference the two teams, so when GBFC get off to a flyer, the chance of a bit of an upset seems on the cards. First when they hit the post 3 minutes in, and then the same player grabs the first goal of the match. Fists are pumped heartily on the home bench, and the away manager has to get to work on his team, “let’s wake up boys!”

Standing in the mouth of the tunnel I get to see some of the dark arts of football at play. When a clearance goes over the stand, the GBFC manager looks around the dugout for a ball, and kicks one on the pitch. “They can’t play with that”, says one of his assistants. “I know, it’s a bit of time wasting” replies the Gaffa.

AFCS manager in no uncertain terms let's his team know what’s what, their performance so far is very poor, they are just not in the game, “we need to get going”.

25 minutes in and totally against the run of play AFCS get back in the game, after an own goal. They had not had a sniff up to that point, and understandably the home manager is annoyed his team have let the opposition back in the match.

The own goal has transformed AFCS, they are like a team reborn, and grab two goals in quick succession, taking them from one goal behind to three ahead in what seems like a heartbeat. AFCS’s manager offers the same advice almost every time the team get the ball anywhere near the box, without fail he says a single word “deliver”, and until now they had failed to do so, but this time a sweet cross is met flush on the head, and it sails past the GBFC keeper, lovely goal.

GBFC’s coaches hands are now permanently glued to his head, the place is in shock, after the perfect start, it’s quickly gone south, heads are dropping “let’s regroup lads”. His opposite number must be relieved beyond belief, and wants his team to keep this up “more workman now”.

Between AFCS 2nd and 3rd goals GBFC are given a golden chance to grab a second, the freest of free headers, is put wide at the back post, the bench are astonished, but try and keep positive, “next one”.

The first half collapse of GBFC and the resurrection of AFCS is complete when a daft tackle in the box, results in a penalty, the home manager is rubbing the bridge of his nose, as the referee points to the spot.

Despite a late rally from the home team, they can’t grab a goal, and their coach is not happy, “it’s just hit and hope”, “IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”

I get myself back down the tunnel as both teams make their way back in for a orange segment, they are soon followed by a couple of away supporters, who I think speak for almost everyone in attendance “the way that started, I didn’t see that happening”

Geoff remains chipper, and hits the nail on the head “first 20 minutes you didn't know what step each team was from, but the own goal changed the whole thing”.

GBFC’s manager and coaches are out early, he must have done his talking, and left them to think about it, they are followed out by AFCS players. One of the linesman, walks at normal pace to the edge of the pitch, and all of sudden goes into full T1000 mode, running at full pelt to the other side.

Once again the man with the microphone tries his best to lift what has been quite a muted crowd. There are a fair few people here, scattered around, but never really making much of a noise “let’s get behind the boro this second half, COME ON THE BORO” he shouts so loud, it brings the previous night into focus for Tom, “my headaches back”.

Up front for GBFC they have what you might call a “unit” not quite a “beast”, but almost. He is strong,
not very mobile, what some might call an “old fashioned English centre forward”, but holds up the ball expertly, wins every ball in the air pumped in his direction, and has a mean, hard shot. His name is Gary Alexander, who once played for Millwall, West Ham and AFC Wimbledon to name a few , and not long after the break scores a wonderful free kick to get GBFC back in the game, after starting the half much like the first, on the front foot and in control.

The free kick is not a curler, as Tom puts it “it’s a great angle” for a hammered shot that bypasses the wall, and leaves the AFCS keeper at 6’s and 7’s unable to deal with the sheer ferociousness of it. He had tipped a similar effort around the post before, but this one was unstoppable.

“Get the fucking ball” screams someone from the bench, no time for celebrating.

For the next 30 mins or so the underdogs go hammer and tongs at AFCS, trying to get the equalizer, and this wakes the crowd up “COME ON BORO”. The coach perhaps asking a bit of his team, suggests a “back heel would of scored”, when a player with his back to goal can’t turn to shoot.

“Unlucky boys, we go again”.

And that they do, a curling shot is just saved and another free header from 2 yards out can’t be converted.

“It’s coming”.

The early steam since the goal has started to disappear, and with 10 minutes to go, there are a few tired legs out there, and the pace has slowed down considerably.

In Alexander they have a player who is perhaps in the twilight of his career, but clearly still cares. This was displayed perfectly in the last few moments of the game, when he has a chance almost identical to the free kick he has already scored. He places the ball on the ground, turns, says a few words to himself, looking to the heavens, grabbing at the club badge on his shirt.

It’s another fine effort, but no glory for him today, no story for the grandkids, the AFCS keeper gets his fingers to a real rocket of a shot, and tips it over.

“Everything boys!” is the the request of the GBFC coach, like an officer in the final throws of a battle.

There are a few half chances, and what seems like a considerable amount of extra time, AFCS are doing a good job of running into the corners. The two home coaches stand side by side, hands locked and resting on the top of their heads, and despite all the will in the world from the sidelines “come on lads, big winner” it’s not meant to be this year, and the away team will progress to the next round.

The small band of travelling fans, make the most noise of the day, hugging each other, then hugging and applauding the players who come over to celebrate with them, their long trip here was not in vain.

In the boardroom its sandwiches and sausage rolls galore, someone even produces a bottle of champagne. Speaking to the AFCS President, as he tucks into a few things on a paper plate, he is clear the FA Cup is all about the adventure and hard graft “we know we will never win, but you get to see new places, set ups like this”, “we are about the battle, and that’s what we did today”.

GBFC Chairman, Perry, is gracious in defeat, but I can tell he thinks it's an opportunity missed today “that 15 minutes in the first half was suicidal”, but his sentiment is the same as the other clubs we have visited in the competition so far “pick up the money and see how far we can go”. In fact the previous season's cup run turned into something he called their “nemesis” after the fixture congestion put them 7 or 8 games behind.

Sitting on the train home, well I was sitting, Tom was lying, his exploits of the birthday party, had finally won, and after a person flashed me the top of his cock and pubes. I mulled over the day.

It must be awful being forced to play away from the area your club is associated with, the place its history is formed. In the hands of Perry, it sounds like there is a long term plan in place, a world away from the “right here, right now” attitude of so many clubs and owners. He spoke of “no pressure” on the management, which must be music to the ears of the fans, as stability is key, instead of playing manager musical chairs. “5 year plan to be in the conference, to be independant. The facilities are great here, but we should be back in the borough soon”.

Congratulations to the Swans who march on to the next round, commiserations to our fantastic hosts, you put up a great fight. If you get a chance to to visit Princes Park to see GBFC or Dartford I would highly recommend it, I’m not sure you would not have seen anything quite like it before.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Monday 21 September 2015

The Girl Who Does The Chips Isn’t Here - AFC Croydon Athletic Vs Fisher FC, Southern Counties East League, Mayfield Stadium (09/09/15)

After a yomp up Streatham High Street in search of a cash machine, seeing a woman spit on another woman pushing a pram, finally finding a cash point, but then being held up in traffic because of the police dealing with the pre mentioned gobbing, and then seeing two cash points next to the train station we got off at in the first place, this evening has been quite eventful already, but it’s a perfect night for a game, clear and crisp, so all is quickly forgotten as we sit on the top deck of the bus, on our way to a new ground.

As with most games, we hop off the bus in another nondescript suburb, solely relying on Google maps to take us the right way, with no obvious sign of a football club, just kids bombing up and down the streets on bikes, enjoying the last hours of daylight.

It’s not until we see a brown sign pointing down a un-tarmaced, unlit road, that we vaguely think we are in the right neck of the woods. The “road” also seems to be the local point for the eco conscious fly tippers, so we weave past old mattresses, computers and some things it is probably just better not asking what it is.

Next to a paddock with horses in, we finally come across a sign, like something from a horror movie, pointing the innocent college summer breakers to “Camp: going to cut your head off” finally affirming we are where we are meant to be, and relieving Toms notion I had done some duff research, “WELCOME TO CROYDON ATHLETIC FOOTBALL CLUB”.

The sign has seen better days, but the long thin arrow points us further up the path, in for a penny in for a pound I say, so on we go.

The ground itself is somewhat secluded, surrounded by high trees, so we hear the players warming up before we see anything. Past the Ryman League signs, alluding to the club's lofty past, and through the turnstile, “The Charlie Bennett Gate”, which itself is a simple breeze block construction, but the mechanism is clearly much older, the chap on the gate, seems to think they had come from Southampton, we get our first look at the Mayfield Stadium, and bare witness to the formidable glare of the floodlights, they are dazzling bright, this is the home of AFC Croydon Athletic (AFC), “The Rams”, of the Southern Counties East Football League.

First impressions are very good, in what is a compact ground, certainly one of the better standard ones we have visited, although perhaps needing a little lick of paint, it feels like a good setting for the night ahead. Our first port of call is to find the clubs Chairman, Paul who has kindly agreed to impart some of his considerable knowledge on the club upon us, and after asking the man at the gate the best place to find him he suggests the clubhouse.

Around the back of the main all seater stand, painted from top to bottom in the maroon of the clubs colours, past a metal staircase, that looks like a fire escape, is in fact what leads to a slightly unceremonious looking door with a “Director's Box” sign on it, Tom’s spider senses kick into action “I can smell onions!”.

The clubhouse is the beating heart of any club, and AFC is no different, a well stocked bar decorated with pennants from previous cup fixtures, and taking pride of place dead centre is a large silver cup. Each table has a linen tablecloth and a small dance floor, for when the room is used for someone’s 12th birthday or 60th wedding anniversary. Paul is behind the bar, in shirt and club tie, and welcomes us with a big handshake.

Having arrived at the game a little later than we had wanted, we don’t have much of a chance to chat with Paul about the club, as we are both interested to hear about the club’s history, considering the club was only formed in 2012, by far the youngest club we have seen in action, and it’s not until I received a considerable email a few days later that I realise quite what a soap opera the life of this young club has been. Tom though has had time to scout out the food on offer, and is impressed “hot dogs, that’s a new one”.

When an email starts with “Prison... Cricket... News of the World... Suicide... Danish Takeover/collapse... Prison”, you know you are in for an interesting read, and I was not wrong. What unfolded over the next couple of pages had more scandals, and intrigue than Jackie Collins novel. Perhaps most intriguingly the involvement of one of the main protagonists in the Pakistani cricket betting scandal revealed by the News Of the Word. As well as the clubhouse being burnt to the ground, and the land amongst other things being used as a traveler encampment. The fact there is a club and team to come and see at all is remarkable.

Paul also points out that “on 6th February 2012 a gathering of supporters that I chaired decided to form a new club, AFC Croydon Athletic (2012) Limited. It is a company limited by guarantee. The old club remained in existence and therefore the new club is not a reformation of the old and has no link with the old other than the supporters themselves. The new club's history began on 6th February 2012.”

We take a seat in the front row of the stand, not long after a player clutching his kitbag races past us and into the changing rooms, a little late to say the least, considering both teams are on the pitch. Tonight’s opposition are Fisher FC (FFC) of Bermondsey. AFC’s warm up is disrupted by an injury to a player, and after making sure he is ok, talk quickly turns to changing the starting line up.

Once the players make their way into the changing room, connected to the clubhouse behind us in the stand, the turnaround is quick, and in no time at all both teams line up, ready to go, AFC in an all maroon number, FFC in a fetching black and white striped jersey. Players from each side occasionally offering their own advice to their teams mates, “lively, guys”.

FFC are clapped on by a small but noisy contingent of fans, noticeably by two tall chaps dressed all in black who have the look of undertakers about them “Come on Fisher”. One of them, sounding like a broken record, occasionally just says “come on the fish” not particularly loudly, or aimed at anyone in particular, just happy in his own little world. An equally sized, but not so noisy group of AFC fans reply, “come on you Rams”.

The undertakers and their chums make their way around the pitch, and take up position opposite us, not far from the dugouts, which resemble Anderson Shelters. They are quick to make what is a considerable turnout aware of their presence, “Fisher, fisher, fisher, fisher, fisher”, banging on the metal roof of the standing terrace.

Shortly after kick-off a man carrying a Quality Street tin, and wearing a club scarf entices us with the chance of a “£25 prize” if we buy a ticket for the 50/50 raffle, and once we buy one, he is quick to pounce on people just arriving, with the same alluring offer.

“We all follow the fisher, over land and sea” “there is only one fishers FC”. FFC’s early non stop support, is accompanied by their teams early dominance, noticeably the searing pace of their forward players. An early good save from the AFC keeper keeps FFC at bay for now, as a goal seems likely from every attack.

The silver haired lady from the food hatch, has popped out for a ciggie, a chance to watch the game, still wearing her apron, and is more than happy to offer her opinion on proceedings “handball, ref!”.

“It’s only a matter of time” says Tom as the FFC onslaught continues, and the home fans behind us feel their teams display is only helping FFC “we are giving them too much time on the ball”. It’s been one way traffic from the get go, and with 20 minutes on the clock, AFC have not even registered a shot on goal. Although it’s one of the largest turnout for a mid week match, it’s not the loudest, the FFC fans however are doing enough singing for everyone, occasionally the small group of home fans behind the goal FFC are attacking will every so often let out a shout “come on Croydon”, to be fair so far their team has not given them much to shout about.

Something you quickly notice at non-league grounds, is the dilemma a hefty, high clearance, can cause. As the stands are not as big, the Mayfield Stadium is only surrounded by a low wall, with some tatty nets at each end of the pitch, which have seen better days, and are ineffectual against a Peter Kay type “have it” clearence. It is therefore down to someone to go and retrieve the ball, tonight it is the responsibility of the 3 or 4 youth players sitting behind us. When the first said clearance occurs, the group behind get into a “it’s not me” back and forth, until one gives in, and goes in search of the lost ball.

The player injured in the warm up, emerges, hopping with only one shoe on, its awkward to watch him move around without a crutch, and to add insult to injury his phone pops out of his pocket and crashes to the ground, it’s not his day today. He also makes his life harder than it has to be, hopping all the way to other end of the stand, the opposite end of the changing room, to sit down

“Come on you Rams”

“I’m going on a walkabout, then its burgers and chips time” are the immortal words of my co blogger, as he fetches his other lense from his camera bag, and disappears into the night.

Thanks to a touch of good luck, and when I say the goal is so against the run of play, the expression has never been so relevant in the history of football, AFC go 1 - 0 up. A not very good corner arrives at the foot of an AFC player near the front post, who hooks a “shot” towards the back post, the tameness of it means the FFC defender should not have an issue clearing it, but he misjudges the ball, it bounces in front of him, hits him on the thigh and into the back of the net, own goal, he almost stamps his feet like a toddler, beyond annoyed at what happened. AFC dont care, they are somehow ahead, and run off towards the bench in celebration.

“We are Croydon, super Croydon, no one likes us”

Since the goal, it’s like a new team have miraculously appeared, AFC go in search of a 2nd, a good shot from outside the box, is just pushed wide by the FFC keeper. Their search for a second is not a long one as they score again in slightly dubious circumstances. Not an own goal this time, but what looks like some help from the linesman. The goal results from another high looping hooked shot from the outside of the box, and looks like only ending up in the FFC keepers hands, only for a FFC player who looks miles offside, standing alone in the box, to nod it over the keeper, 2 - 0. Paul who has forgone his bar duties to catch some of the game, is sitting next to me and can’t believe it was given “he had to be offside”.

I think it’s fair to say the home supporters, are surprised to say the least they are 2 - 0 ahead. The small group of AFC fans are happy, and break into song again “2 - 0 to the Croydon boys” And that is how the half ends, much to the annoyance of the FFC players and staff who look pissed off as they leave the pitch.

Along with what has been an engrossing game on the pitch, perhaps more interestingly has been the person in the AFC tracksuit, perhaps an injured player, leaning against the railing a few feet away from us. He has lived out every kick, header and pass as the game has unfolded. Annoyed at a stray pass and ecstatic at the goal, as if he was playing in the game himself.

Most of the stand make their way to the clubhouse at half time, Tom like every good Arsenal fan, beats the rush and goes slightly before the final whistle to get in line for the food. By the time I get in there the queue is considerable, and the choice of music has me slightly confused, the slow ballads of Elton John would not be my pick for half time entertainment.

Another raffle, another occasion lady luck is not on my side, “648, the winning ticket is 648”. The noise of the rattling sweet tin had me glued to the draw, but when I knew the £25 was not ours, my dreams were dashed for another evening.

Tom seems to have been standing in the same place in the queue, not moving an inch, and by the time he does make it over to our table, grasping a burger with a different size top to bottom, he is slightly exasperated “she will be there all night, doing one burger at a time”. He does though tell me about the chip situation that he was advised about, which leads to another sentence for the non-league gem pile “I wasn’t going to do chips tonight, the girl who does the chips isn’t here!”.

FFC are out well early, are in a team huddle which goes on for an eternity, and once two of their coaches tip toe across the pitch with a cup of tea in hand, the second half in under way.

The small group of AFC fans have stayed put, now behind the goal they are attacking, the FFC fans have moved, now both at opposing ends of the pitch. And although they are behind, they continue to out sing the the home side.

The visitors take off in the 2nd half from where they started in the 1st. It’s a credit to them, you would not know they are behind, and are quick to push AFC all the way back into their own half. A succession of 3 or 4 songs in a row come from the unwaivable FFC support, still banging the roof of the stand “Can you hear the Croydon sing”, “it’s just like 7 oaks” “shall we sing a song for you”.

“Well they’re having a nice time” says Tom.

“I’ve got skinny jeans on” proclaims one of the youth players, who have returned to their seats well into the half, with yellow polystyrene trays full of food. Restricted by his fashion choice, he is unable to climb over the seats, and has to go the long way round. Tracksuit man, has not moved, and continues to flinch and move with every pass and cross, becoming increasingly twitchy as AFC are forced further and further back, and 15 minutes into the half they have not had a shot.

AFC fans finally get a short song going, only for the FFC to sarcastically applaud their first effort of the half.

An optimistic shout goes out from one AFC player to the rest  “come on boys let’s have a winner”, and finally a great solo run from a team mate looks like grabbing the 3rd, only for a tame shot, not doing justice to his previous efforts.

Is danger money included or at the very least are his chips free? is the question I ask myself, as the same youth player goes off in search of a lost ball, this time leaving his friends doubled up in laughter, as he scales a ladder leaning against the roof of one of the terraces, and like a well trained circus performer, he performs a daredevil walk across the roof, arms stretched out wide for balance.

AFC are riding their luck with 10 minutes to go, it looks well within the realm of possibility if FFC get a goal, they could go on to win it. They hit the post, and a free kick from the edge of the box is just pushed wide, but the footballing Gods are smiling on AFC tonight, as they manage to grab a 3rd in the last minutes of the half. A high aimless ball in the general direction of the FFC box, after a ineffectual AFC corner, is flicked on and finds a FFC player perfectly placed on the edge of the area as the FFC defence rush the opposite way leaving him all alone to control the ball, take advantage of the indecisive FFC keeper, who doesn't know if he is coming or going, and coolly lob it over him for 3 - 0.

“ARE YOU MILLWALL IN DISGUISE” is probably the loudest cheer from the home fans, directed at the visitors, as the final whistle goes. Regardless of defeat the FFC fans are happy to continue singing “We love you fisher we do”.

Although they won, the AFC number 2 who has not had the best day at the office, marches off the pitch alone, followed by the rest of the team, who are in much better spirits and are happy to pose for a couple of pics for us.

The FFC team are getting the full Phil Brown serivce, heads are low as they sit on the pitch getting a talking to, and once they start making their way back inside I overhear one of them say to another “we are going to get hammered!”

Tom goes on the pitch, to grab a few pictures of the stragglers, and a member of the FFC staff comments that he is amazed he can, considering the lights. It would seem that it is not only us who have noticed how strong they are, but in fact more at one end than the other, there is a dark and bright end if you like.

I pop back into the clubhouse to thank Paul, who is back behind the bar, and get another monster handshake. I ask if AFC will be playing in the upcoming FA Cup fixtures, “sadly not, we went out first round, probably our worst performance of the season, along with this one”.

The now pitch black lane back to the main road, is a completely different animal, with only the headlights of a few cars creeping along it, to light the way. We order an Uber who arrives at the opposite end, doesn't fancy driving down, and cancels on us, thankfully the next attempt to book one, is successful and he gets us to the station sharpish.

AFC are another fine example of a fan owned club who powered by their own passion have resurrected their team, not allowing the miss-dealings of others to ruin what is important to them. If you are going to a night game take a torch and some sun glasses, that would be my only advice, other than that make sure you get down to The Mayfield Stadium, it is well worth the visit.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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Tuesday 15 September 2015

Riddled With Cockney - Wingate & Finchley FC Vs Tonbridge Angels FC, Ryman Premier League, Harry Abrahams Stadium (05/09/15)

This afternoon was a bit of last minute decision, as we could not find a fixture on Sunday, and I was supposed to be shopping for furniture for my new flat, but a late start to the day by the other member of my household, put that to the sword, so the only conclusion was a Saturday afternoon at the Harry Abrahams Stadium, home of Wingate & Finchley FC (WF), the first non league team we visited, back where it all began.

Today saw 3rd Vs 4th in the Ryman Premier, with the visitors Tonbridge Angels FC (TA) the opposition. The team in the words of Paul Lerman a WF board member, who was such a fantastic host back in January, are “flying”, in fact a few teams have got off to a strong start, flexing their muscles early on.

Considering we only decided to come to the game gone 14:00, and once certain people got ready, we arrived at the match with about 15 minutes to kick off. Just enough time to grab a cup of tea, the milk, sugar and spoons laid out on a table, allowing you to make it to your own taste.

Our scientific tea making is interrupted by the rattling of the blue cage used by the players to get from the changing room to the pitch,  I can only imagine that it’s required to prevent all the baying fans pelting the away team with coins or flares, it extends from the beautiful blue and white art deco stand, which dominates the ground.

As the, according to my girlfriend, dishy referee strolls up the tunnel, gripping a ball in one hand, I slip past the person manning the cage to stand between the dugouts, and manage to get a few picture of the teams lining up, jostling, shoulder to shoulder, waiting to walk out. Following up the rear is the dapper looking WF Manager, not any old Manager, but the Manager Of The Month, according to the voice over the tannoy.

“Kiss of death!” shouts a TA fan, but she is unable to piss on his parade, and for a moment he looks very chuffed at his achievement. The “support” from the TA fan is just the tip of the iceberg, and the beginning of the very vocal travelling contingent.

What was once a dreaded week for me, the international break, a footballing desert, and even more so now after falling out of love with watching England play, especially against San Marino, but since discovering a universe outside the Premiership, it is no more, the show still goes on, illustrated by what is a great turn out by both sets of supporters, and as the teams change ends after the toss, the TA fans migrate to behind the goal their team is attacking.

The first half is a relatively turgid affair, both teams looking dangerous-ish, getting off to a quick start, but guilty of giving away possession. Both teams threaten in their own way, WF pass the ball to feet, exchange passes around the edge of the box, and get into good positions. TA look great from out wide, and look close to scoring every time the ball is crossed into the area. Neither though look like they will make the break though, and at times it turns into a bit of lump it from end to end competition. A highlight is the long haired, alice band wearing TA number 10, who is distributing the ball well, and looks a little notch above the rest.

“Come on Angels” is perhaps the nicest chant you will ever hear at a football match, and is quite a juxtaposition to their burly following, who at any opportunity give anyone they can, the referee in particular, some grief. The WF keeper must have tinnitus by halftime. Every time the man in charge makes a call against TA he sends them into near hysterics, “how much are they paying you!?!”

13 minutes on the clock, my £1 golden goal ticket is now defunct, I could have been rich if someone had just scored 1 minute earlier, I rip it up into confetti, and toss it into the air.

The WF captain is getting exasperated by his team, “we are just giving it back to them” and demands more from them “TEMPO LADS!”. Their early performance, has also brought the manager down from the stand, to take up position in the technical area, ticking off one player “I tell you to swap, you don’t just swap”, the player in question assumes his manager has amnesia, and intimates he thought he had told him to. The main stand is a fair distance from the pitch, maybe he misunderstood the hand signals.

TA’s best chance of the half, is the result of a good corner, and the resulting scramble, can’t provide a goal, much to the annoyance of their fans behind the goal. WF go close to grabbing a goal not long after, but instead of shooting the number 11 is unselfish, passes square, giving the keeper time to close him down and save, forcing a corner.

Before kick off, I had noticed a man in cycling shorts wandering around the ground with a bucket, but just put it down to one of those odd things you sometimes see. It was however made clear that he was here for a very good cause, raising money for charity. Cycling from TA’s home ground to each of their away matches this season, I was happy to donate, but he gave us a little incentive,  “the more you give the more your team score, it’s true! Last match Tonbridge scored 7!”

I’m lucky enough to bare witness to two pieces of “football speak”, sentences that would be defunct and ridiculous outside the confinements of a football pitch, but somehow seem relatively normal and sane when spoken at a match. The first was just before half time, courtesy of the WF manager, and was so wonderfully profound “be careful we don’t go blind when we squeeze”

I have noticed the word or expression “squeeze” is a very popular in non league football, I don’t think I have heard another word more.

The same young man from the turnstile who sold me my golden goal tickets, convinces me to part with another £1, perhaps the half time raffle will make me rich instead.

As the TA manager with his scouring pad voice, has had enough of his players whinging, and puts them straight, “stop moaning, get on with it” the familiar rattle of the cage means the half time whistle is any minute.

The break is relatively uneventful, other than sitting on a discarded chip and not winning anything on the raffle, now I’m £2 down, we do though walk around to the opposite side of the ground to check out the awesome flags of the home supporters “COME ON YOUR BLUES”, “RIDDLED WITH COCKNEY” and my favourite, one that was here the first time we came, and was what we nearly named the blog, written across a red London Transport sign “MORE FANS THAN FLAGS”.

We stand under the the Jack Fisk stand, opposite the still lovely main stand, if architecture and football
are your things, old stands with lots of character WF has to be top of your list, it is a thing of beauty. Far in the distance Alexandra Palace, is visible on what is a turing into a nice clear almost Autumn afternoon.

There are two definites in the first 15 minutes of the new half, all the pressure is going one way, TA are looking better and better from wide positions, their corners must bring a goal at some point, and the noise from the TA fans, not so much singing or chanting, except for the odd shout of football sweetes chant, but just chit chat/banter/verbal, call it what you will, it doesn’t stop.

Three TA players make a meal of a free kick in a good position, neither of them knowing what to do, and it all ends in a bit of a flop “congratulations on that one from the training ground” shouts a WF fan.

Regardless of the level, someone will always be checking the scores from around the league, working out how things will look if the results stay the same, come a quarter to five, and going through a multiple of permutations like some sort of Rainman, the chap next to us gives his friends a constant update “Bognor 0, Enfield 1, SHIT!”

Whenever the home side play their game, they look to threaten, but there has been a distinct lack of that in the 2nd half, and as someone said to me after, you have to commend TA for forcing them to play their way, because they are dominating in the air, WF can’t get close, and the pressure is about to pay off, with a little help from a deflection. TA’s number 10 latches onto a loose ball in the box and his team go ahead, resulting in a big cheer from the TA fans behind the goal. They almost go ahead by two, the ball squirming under the WF keeper, rolling towards goal, but he manages to get hands on the ball, and prevent the goal.

The WF fans near us are getting annoyed at their team’s style of play. “That’s a stupid ball” one fan shouts after the team gives up possession again. An attempted cross field diagonal pass, that doesn't come off he expresses his annoyance to a fellow fan “they keep playing the Hollywood pass”.

Today’s second gem heard at a football match, comes from a WF fan. He has been getting increasingly annoyed to say the least as his perceived ease that a certain TA player has been going to ground, and in a moment of sheer genius, I pray to the football Gods it was a moment of pure adlib, because that would make it even better, he shouted these immortal words with such gusto, totally disgusted at the ungentlemanly conduct of the player “you must have a cauliflower arse”. Regardless of anything else, this alone made it worth coming today.

It’s almost 16:45 and the points are only looking like they are going back to Kent today. The WF captain is becoming increasingly red faced and frustrated, when he has the ball at his feet just shy of the halfway line, no one from his team is very forthcoming in looking to drive on, and he is a bit fed up “ANYONE WANT IT!?!?”

A first for me today, was a brief conversation with the linesman, during the game, he looked like a smiling Hedghood Syvalin family toy. It comes after one player calls another a “woman” and my girlfriend says how stupid that was. He is standing right in front of us, looks over his shoulder and agrees with her. I pose him the question has anyone ever been sent off for being sexist? People have been sent off for lots of other ‘isms, but how about this one, is there even a rule in place?

As the final whistle goes, I spy Paul standing arms crossed on the touchline between the dug outs, and the TA players walk over to their supporters and offer the ever noisy fans a round of applause, “Well done reds”. As the migration back to Tonbridge beings, I overhear an away fan rub one last bit of salt into the wound of the WF Manager “that your lucky suit gaffa?”

I will try not to repeat word for word, the end of the blog I wrote the first time we visited, because my opinion has not changed, if anything it has improved. WF is such a cracking club, run by great people, with one of my favourite stands. Todays match will go down in the not so great pile, but I’m sure it’s just a blip, because when they did do there thing, they looked great going forward, and always looked solid at the back. If a team ever deserved to keep on “flying” in fact soaring, it’s Wingate & Finchley FC.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Saturday 12 September 2015

Only 25 Games To Wembley - Erith Town FC Vs Horsham YMCA FC, FA Cup Preliminary Round, Badgers Sports Ground (30/08/15)

Notting Hill Carnival is on today, so my tube ride is a little bit more colourful than it usually would be on Sunday afternoon, as I make my way to meet Tom. Today’s match means we get to enjoy the driverless delights of the DLR (Docklands Light Railway). An elevated space age train or at least it was when it was originally conceived in the 80’s, a much more pleasant way to travel than the stuffy Underground. It snakes its way past the shimmering Canary Wharf, rubs shoulders with City Airport, like a Jurassic Park tour of the ever changing old docks of London.

The first sight of my fellow blogger is when I see a flat cap jogging up the platform, at the Austin Powers themed stop, Shadwell. Tom has slightly misjudged where to stand, so is forced into some early afternoon exercise, making sure he beats the beep, and gets on the train. He joins me staring, pointing, ohhing and ahhhinnng, out the window, hoping we won't need Jeff Goldblum to save us, as we travel South East to Woolwich Arsenal.

Tom is bizarrely excited to be back on the turf of his beloved Arsenal which they deserted in favour of the other side of the river, his vision of a Gooner wonderland, are dashed as we get out of the station, and queue for the bus.

Today’s game is at the wonderfully named Badgers Sports Ground, the home of the equally wonderfully named Cray Valley Paper Mills F.C. although it’s not them we are here to see. It's the team who also call it home, Erith Town FC (ET) as they take on Horsham YMCA FC (HYMCA), as we continue our quest to attend all the early rounds of the FA Cup.

On arrival we are both amazed at the amount of people already walking into the ground, and the line of cars waiting to turn into the car park. Does the FA Cup still have such draw in these parts? Is Eltham full of non-league fanatics? Or has it something to do with where the pumping music is emanating from? Sadly it’s the latter, a party in the clubhouse. The car park is full of kids in their Sunday best, followed by parents clutching presents making their way past manic sugar fuelled children and a bouncy castle.

A single turnstile greets us, built from white breeze blocks, a large sign on it welcoming you to the home of Cray Valley PM FC, and only a small paper sign in a plastic sleeve, pinned to an adjacent fence, informs you it's also the current home of ET.

Badgers Sports Ground seems relatively new in its construction, surrounded by allotments and fir trees, the two stands, have a flat pack Meccano feel about them, along with the non-league standard, of a single storey building which houses everything from the changing rooms, to the public toilets. Due to the party in the clubhouse, a hastily built shelter of scaffolding poles and tarpaulin has been erected, as a temporary hideaway, in case the ever threatening weather appears.

We have been very lucky once again, as we have been so many times before, after a few tweets, the club have agreed to allow us to take some pictures, on this occasion we are met by Danny, who after introducing us to the club Manager, is very happy to allow us to snap the team preparing from the match.

Understandably for Tom, it can sometimes be a little awkward sticking a camera in someone’s face, so we hover around the door of the changing room, overcome by the smell of Deep Heat, wondering if any of the players are bothered by the constantly skipping music. Tom takes a deep breath, and cracks on doing his thing.

“Come on boys, we can do it” shout some kids from the party, forcing their faces through a gate, applauding the unimpressed looking players, coming out to warm up. The majority of them though do seem happy with the conditions, testing the ground as they make their way to an area, behind the main pitch.

One ET player has not joined the rest, he is hanging about on the edge of the pitch, and someone gives him a nudge to warm up, “I’m waiting for the phys”. As he waits for treatment, he natters to people on his phone about coming to the match, but has to explain he can’t get them in for free because it’s the FA Cup, but he can get them in at a concession price. Another player, with a flip flop on one foot, and a football boot on the other, is getting impatient at the fact the physio has not yet arrived, pacing around in front of the changing room.

With a cup of tea in hand, we both pay a visit to the tarpaulin clubhouse. Three large functions tables are surrounded by chairs, one person is not enamoured by what looks like bird poo on one seat, and opts for another, giving it a good whack before sitting down. “If it rains, we will still get wet” says one woman, not convinced she will be protected if the rain starts.

Tom wants food, but the explanation from the woman selling it, has him a little bemused. She explains that it will take “five minutes” to warm up the grill, which is fair enough, she has done a big “preload” but it’s not quite “busy enough yet” to get things going, so Tom sits there eying other people’s, when all of a sudden the sizzle of the grill cheers him up “sounds like those burgers are warming up”.

It looks like being good turnouts for the match, as a steady stream of people make their way through the turnstile, but the music of the party is threatening to drown out the game, with today’s proceedings being played to a MTV soundtrack

“That smells unreal” comments a HYMCA player returning to the changing room, the bacon sandwiches cooking just next door, almost too good to resist.

We wait for kick off, and get chatting with the ET club secretary, clutching his clipboard; he tells us just how important the FA Cup still is, and what he thinks ET’s chances are today.

“It’s important for the money, it’s impossible to deny that, you don’t get £1,900 for winning a league game”, but he is very quick to emphasize “it’s also about a bit of glory, for the boys at this level it’s huge!”

He hopes they can emulate their best progress in the competition, the 2nd qualifying round, when they took on Dover, who were a Conference South side at the time, drawing a team from that level he describes as a “dream”. The match had a crowd of around 250 “mostly Dover” he says laughing, but although they lost, it was a proud day in the club’s history.

As far as how ET are going to get on today, he can’t quite call it, “both teams got off to a good league start, both from the same level, it’s going to be 50/50, it will be tough”.

We hear the referee's assistants banging on the door of the two changing rooms, notifying them that kick-off is soon, it sounds like they are trying to kick them of the hinges, it sparks both rooms into actions. Standing outside we can hear the shouting through the walls.

The assistant checks the player’s kits, and there is a bit of a debate with a member of the HYMCA team, but
he is quick to pass the blame “the kit man is a bit dyslexic, he makes it up as he goes along”.

Four mascots stand waiting to be taken by the hand, and led out onto the pitch, the referee, who doesn’t look much older, says he would have brought them something if he had known. He then produces a coin from his pocket “I wonder if they can share a shilling?” It becomes a talking point between a player and him, as the teams get ready to walk on, they both inspect the 1962 Shilling he uses for the toss.

Once again there is a sad reminder of the Horsham Air Show disaster, after the players shake hands, they all bow their heads in remembrance of the people lost. The referee's whistle breaks the silence, “come on boys” and the more dramatic “stand up and be counted today!”

All the mascots are presented with a signed ball as they leave the pitch. One Dad swoops in and prevents his Son bouncing it on the concrete, or running off and playing with it, Dad has other ideas. He explains how when they get home he will put up a “shelf” to display his FA Cup memorabilia, from the expression on his Son’s face, I don’t think he was convinced.

The party next door can’t be up to much, because a few kids have climbed the fence and are precariously perched on top of it in the opening moments of the match. Tom returns from taking his pics of the kick-off, talking of a story of pure fantasy, or is he?

Someone had mentioned in passing, that there was a journalist from Austria at the game today, and we spot him around the ground with his camera filming and chatting to people, his wife was pointed out to us as well, standing patiently with a buggy, as her husband get’s his non-league fix. It just so happened on passing, Tom had peered into the buggy and instead of seeing a rosy cheeked new baby, he saw a dog.

Now we have seen a few odd things on our travels, but this ranks pretty highly up there with a woman brushing her teeth at half time at Clapton, or a man barking in my ear on the way to see Hamworthy United FC.

The first half is incredibly open, the best chances falling to ET, a good squared ball across the box is not matched by the finish, and a shot from close range requires a sharp save from the away keeper. A HYMCA player is quickly getting frustrated with his team “Got to be louder, communicate, got too be better”.

With the home side edging the half so far, it’s somewhat against the run of play almost on the 30 minute mark when HYMCA take the lead, a good finish across the goal.

“Too fucking easy” shouts someone on the home bench. The Father and Son, manager and assistant at ET are not amused at going behind, and stand side by side, arms crossed, oblivious to the children's heads appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing as they bounce up and down on the bouncy castle behind them.

Every time ET go long the HYMCA defence gobble it up, and get the applause of the manager who replies every time with a gruffer than gruff, “well done”. When an ET player finally plays a ball along the ground for the forward to run onto, they get themselves back in the game about 10 minutes after going behind, but he nearly, nearly didn’t score.

The slide rule pass allows the ET forward to venture into the box, with only the keeper to beat, he rounds him well, but his touch sends him wide, and the pace of the ball means his chance to shoot is decreasing rapidly. Almost on the touch line, he rolls a shot from a narrow angle that rolls all the way across the goal, clips the foot of the far post and sits in the back of the net, great finish, lucky finish.

“LINO!!!” The HYMCA bench and players explode, they are livid to say the least, and the referee has to mime calm down to a few players, never actually saying it, but just mouthing the words. The assistant, who had already been getting a lot of verbal, is now getting more stick than ever now.

A HYMCA supporter next to us chats to his side’s keeper, as the game gets back underway “He was about a foot of side, I was bang in line with him”

The half finished all equal, it’s been incredibly open, back and forth. ET number 8, sitting in a deep midfield role is small in stature, but effortlessly glides by players and is pulling all the strings, like a non-league Iniesta.

A kick about breaks out in one goal amongst the mascots, and some away subs warm up at the opposite end, one player’s shot pings of the crossbar, over the fence and into the allotment behind, forcing him off in search of it. The music of the party once again, provides us with upbeat halftime entertainment.

One ET player half-heartedly warms up, mostly talking to his friend on the sidelines, occasionally calling to his team mates, for them to pass the ball, returning the pass and continuing his conversation. It’s around this time that Tom suggest he thinks the HYMCA manager was smoking in the dugout, he was sure he saw a big puff of smoke, and this would explain his gravelly voice.

There are lots of burgers and polystyrene cups around us in the main stand, as the referee counts the players on the pitch, and blows his whistle for the second half. The tempo is high, and around the ground a good buzz, all in anticipation of the next 45mins.

The game continues to be very, very open ET getting an early chance, but the HYMCA keeper smothers the shot well, and a free header for a HYMCA that he has to score, but misses, the look on his face is priceless.

ET midfield maestro number 8 goes in the book, much to the confusion of the fans around us, simply based on the size difference between the two players “how can he hurt him?” Regardless of his size, he is fearless, and has been the standout ET player by far.

On 56 minutes the whole game changes, on what the home team feel is a controversial free kick, awarded just outside their box. The ET keeper organises his wall, the referee marches them back the required distance, and two HYMCA players talk between themselves. One takes a short run up, shoots, it skims over what doesn't seem like the world’s tallest wall, and straight in the back of the goal, 1 - 2. Most of the team run off in the direction of the bench, to celebrate.

“That was a disgrace referee, he fell over” yells the ET manager, and as the game kicks off again, the Father and Son double act, both take turns barking at their team, talking over what to do, the managers son, leaning over whispering in his Father’s ear.

Since the second goal, ET have been slipping further and further out of the game.

There is a comical moment when a HYMCA player goes down injured and the referee signals to the bench for the physio. The HYMCA person with the magic sponge is a lady called Princess, and on she comes clutching the tools of her trade. As she does, the downed player starts to stand up, and so as to prevent the injured player going off, if he receives the treatment, another player quite forcefully waves her off. Unimpressed at his lack of manners, she stops dead in her tracks, raises her hand, and with a big smile on her face, flips him the bird!

Heads have dropped, things quickly unravel for ET, as they concede a third goal, a header from a free kick, HYMCA’s number 5 he was standing all on his own, and it could not have been simpler. HYMCA’s growling manager ask his team a rhetorical question “When are you most vulnerable? WHEN YOU JUST SCORED”.

Another free kick to HYMCA and an ET fan near us, poses the team a question “One of you going to pick up the number 5 this time?!”

4 - 1, it’s well worked, a player in the box receives the ball, turns and lays up a teammate just outside the area who finishes well. Even though his team are ahead by 3 now, the HYMCA manager is apoplectic with rage every time his team do something wrong, and I think he might explode when ET get a goal back with about 10 minutes left. The keeper parries the ball, and ET put away the rebound “FOR FUCKS SAKE”, the keeper is less than happy with his work.

“Fucking hell, get it forward” shouts the ET manager, desperate for his team to give it one last go. The last moments of the match are a barrage of shouting and swearing from both benches, ET have one last flurry, but no goal, the hosts are out the cup.

“Yesss, that’s £1900 in the bank” says a HYMCA supporter on the way out.

Both teams are clapped off the pitch, and despite the most amount of swearing since a Derek and Clive record, the managers shake hands, and take turns congratulating and commiserating each other.

On the bus home I’m forced to dodge a smashed apple pie on the floor, and get verbally abused by a 12 year old girl, but even this can’t dampen what was a very enjoyable cup tie.

The FA Cup still gets the respect that it deserves, at this level, after people as far as Dundee and Austria were in attendance, there is clearly a passion from the fans and the players for this competition.

We can’t wait for the next round, all the best to HYMCA and in the words of one of their players “only 25 games to Wembley!”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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Sunday 6 September 2015

Tommy Used To Work On The Docks - Hamworthy United FC Vs Sholing FC, Wessex League Premier Division, The County Ground (25/08/15)

It’s been a soggy few days since arriving in Bournemouth, for my summer holiday with my Son and girlfriend. The forever reliable English weather has kept up its side of the bargain, and has provided my week by the sea with sideways rain so far, only breaking to allow us to see the Red Arrows display and not need a yellow sowester.

In exchange for a day at the arcades and a visit to see Pixels, the new Adam Sandler film where he goes toe to toe with Donkey Kong and Pacman, and wins, I was so routing for Donkey Kong to trap him in a barrel and fuck him up, and having to sit though the awkward moment when an advert for the new Dads Army film came on in a cinema full of bored German exchange students, I was granted permission from the family counsel, after much deliberation, an evening of non-league football.

After an afternoon wandering around Poole Quay side, looking at a tall ship, trying to eat the biggest box of chips you have ever seen, avoid playing glow in the dark golf, after an extremely negative experience in Berlin and watching a parade of vintage motor bikes, we cross a bridge in the harbour, and make our way to a kind of no man’s land behind the shipyards, with their Wolf Of Wall Street mega yachts moored up in front of them.

What we had seen of Poole so far that day was very pleasant, but the area where we were now venturing into was let’s say, a little less developed, and my girlfriend would occasionally glance at me, with a “where the hell are you taking us” kind of look, but my instinct told me the trail of Saint Pauli stickers that were dotted on for sale signs and lampposts, meant we were going would be alright.

My resolve was tested by perhaps one of the strangest experiences of my non-league life, or in fact my 31 years on this planet, while waiting outside a shop on the way to the match, while my son stocked up on his new addiction of lime and mango Ribena, a man/boy/twat rode up behind me on a bike, like a cycling ninja and barked in my ear. That is correct, a grown man/boy/twat barked in my ear like a dog, followed by the sniggering of his fellow cycling compatriot, and by the time I had got over the initial shock, screamed like a Victorian heroine and turned around, they were gone in a flash, I was left vulnerable and wanting the safety of more familiar North London climbs.

Having to explain this to my girlfriend and 8 year old Son was a strange experience. My girlfriend went into work mode, she is an audiologist, so reeled off a list of professional sounding questions and my Son just looked at me, wondering what all the fuss was about, but we did not allow the dog man to ruin our evening, and anyway we were not far from the ground now, so with my ear ringing, my wits about me, and my girlfriend checking on my audiological health, we soldiered on.

Like a sign to a Museum or a place of historical interest, a brown sign points us in the direction of this evenings ground “Hamorthy United”. The County Ground was the setting for Hamworthy United FC (HU) Vs Sholing FC (SFC), Wessex League Premier Division, the Hammers Vs The Boatman.

Through the car park, past the shuttered entrance to the clubhouse, a single, breeze block turnstile, and £6 later, my Son was free, we were in. And straight away, the week’s weather was not the only topic of conversation, as members of both teams staff discussed where the team would be warming up.

Considering our location the fact that Bon Jovi’s,” Living on a prayer” is playing, when we walk in, with the opening line “Tommy used to work on the docks”, you can tell someone here has a sense of humour, and this evening after the barking, might just be ok.

Tonight’s venue was a simple, but charming one, surrounded all the way round by a low wall, with the back drop of an electricity sub station, electricity pylons disappearing into the distance. I was particularly enamoured by the original 1950’s main stand, which sits along one length of the pitch, a wooden structure with a few rows of benches, instead of seats, and a curved/humped roof. The Directors sections, almost bang on the halfway line, was marked out by yellow bars with a “H” painted on one half of the benches, and an “A” painted on the other.

HU have a very similar badge and club colours to a certain East London team, who also share the same nickname “The Hammers”, this is clear in the club badge, two crossed hammers, but they do not play in claret like the London Hammers, according to the programme its maroon. Maroon and blue is a welcome splash of colour, on what is otherwise a grey evening, the railing around the pitch alternates maroon and blue, as well as the porta cabin boardroom, and main stand. The boardroom makes up one side of a grassy square with picnic tables, the clubhouse and the changing rooms making up the other.

It’s been a relatively tropical afternoon, compared to the rest of the week so far, and this evening looks like it actually might be half decent, until distant rumblings of thunder, reinforce hurricane holiday is always close by.

“Come on boys, everyone in” shouts a HW coach, letting out a sharp whistle as well, calling in the team from the warm up. The referees are also going through their slightly unorthodox pre match regime, which looks like a game of “it” running around with smiles from ear to ear, avoiding each other.

A fan next to us has come prepared he has brought a small foam cushion to combat the hard wooden benches.

Once again the long haired one from New Jersey comes over the sound system, as the players line up in two orderly queues, along a concrete path from the changing room to the pitch, waiting for a man in a high viz jacket, like the starter at a horse race, to open the gate and let them on. Something I have noticed at non-league level and it must be a way to look after those all-important pennies, the flood lights are turned on, literally as the first player’s foot touches the grass.

As has been the case all over the country, at all levels of football, a moment of silence it taken, to offer remembrance to everyone recently lost in the Shoreham Air Show, which was respected flawlessly.

On the referees whistle, shouts come from both sets of supporters, “Come on Hammers” and from the away contingent who have taken a place under the only other cover in the ground, The Irvin Brown Stand, a standard terrace behind one goal, “come on Sholing”.

Our vantage point from the main stand is low, but close and really gives a good view of the game, except for a few pesky posts, but you soon forget they are there. The rain is back, forcing most people under its shelter, giving for a good atmosphere for the game ahead, certainly one of the better evening game attendances we have seen.

“We all follow the Sholing, over land and sea” sing the four or five away fans that have made the short trip from Southampton and stand in front of a large St Georges cross with “Sholing FC” written across it.

SFC have the early chances a one on one, with a lacklustre shot from a tight angle, but a much better header that goes fractions wide, and on the half hour mark, the away team are just shading it, but with the teams close in the league, neither one is really taking charge of the match.

HU attacks start well, but never quite culminate into anything, after all the promise of the build up their number 9 is tiny, but rapid, and is the main outlet, but it keeps breaking down at the vital moment. An early SFC substitute, who was injured on the far side of the pitch, grimaces, and has taken what feels like an age to limp around the pitch, in obvious pain.

It’s a manic end to the first half, with both teams giving the ball away, but with no final product in front of goal. SFC’s stocky, fast number 7 has started to come into the game, and is proving a hand full, but the half finishes 0 – 0.

A big queue emanates from two opened windows, next to the entrance of the clubhouse, stretching across the grassy area in front. The tea is dispensed expertly, by two white haired women, with giant metal teapots, who chat with the regulars, making their drinks telepathically working as one.

The tea is McDonald’s apple pie hot, and takes about 10 minutes, before I can even consider taking a sip. Their tea room is suitably stocked with Europe’s largest selection of cuppa soups, displayed neatly across two microwaves, it also doubles as the club shop, because behind them up on the wall is a cork board with the club shirt pinned to it, with the price written on a piece of green card, cut into the shape of a star.

Men with ties on sit in the well-lit board room, tucking into sandwiches. I peer in the window like an overweight Oliver, trying to get a glimpse of the food on offer.

HU come out the much better side in the second half, but its SFC who get the best chance early on, “come on Sholing” cry their fans. “Got to take the chances lads” says the SFC keeper clapping his hands after they almost score. HU though are quick to reply, with a point blank header, but it's tipped over with the slightest of touches, and they can’t believe they are not ahead.

Every so often in the first half a stray pass or clearance would land on top of the stand, with an almighty crash, what happened next though, made my life flash before my eyes, as a low fizzing clearance, shot off the pitch, and made its way straight for me and my family, only for the man next to us to stick out a foot, and prevent it smashing into us, the only casualty was a few drops of my girlfriends tea, after she flinched, I was of course preparing to dive to her safety, only for other people wanting all the glory, to save us. For some people it’s only about the medals!

It’s an own goal that breaks the deadlock, and puts the home side ahead. A whipped shot from just inside the corner of the box is deflected in by the wafted head of an SFU player, not committing to the clearance, just putting his bonce in the general vicinity of the ball. The keeper is moving to his right to deal with the shot, but the deflection takes it to his left, he is stranded, 1 – 0.

“Come on yellow, pick it up” the SFU keeper motivates his team, who don’t really deserve to be behind, and they are not for long, as they equalise almost instantly from a penalty. The referee has to consult with his assistant, and after a brief chat, points to the spot. WU on mass remonstrate with the referee, the SFU players calmly applaud his decision, they have their way back into the match, moments after going behind.

1 – 1 the scorer dispatches the penalty with ease “COME ON SHOLING, COME ON SHOLING” the “Ultras” as one man next to us, refers to the traveling fans as, remind us they are here after equalising. Although they are few in number, like any good away support they are doing their team proud, breaking into song regularly, boasting when they can about their recent FA Vase victory at Wembley “I was there, I was there”.

The remainder of the match is end to end, and has really come to life. SFC almost scores from a free kick and WU flash a shot across goal.

I watch the final moments of the game, standing beside a slightly tense home dugout, opposite the main stand, everyone on their feet, biting their nails. The man in black has been tough tonight, and is starting to get on the nerves of the home coach “there is going to be 30 minutes of extra time, just from the ref talking”.

1 – 2 a sucker punch from SFU, they have taken the lead in the dying moments. A WU player facing his own goal dawdles on the ball, has it pinched off him, and is punished as the SFU player slots it in the back of the net.


The bench is dejected to say the least, but one person tries to motivate the team “5 minutes left, we can get something from this”, but it’s not the case, the points are going back to Southampton, it was a well fought encounter that always had the feel of one team doing a smash and grab.

As quickly as the lights go on before the match, as soon as the pitch is clear, The County Ground is plunged into darkness. I call a cab from a Freephone in the clubhouse, opposite a large gold gilt mirror with the teams badge on, hanging next to a fruit machine.

While we wait to be picked up, some WU club officials discuss the imminent fine from the league:

 “Well that cost us £150”

“What did he get booked for?”

 “He called him a see you next Tuesday!”

The sandwiches arrive for the players in the boot of a car as we leave, and make our way back to Poole bus station for the short bus ride back to Bournemouth. It was a fun night had by all, it would seem the best way for my Son to have a good time, as he is not really that in to football, is to make sure I bring my tablet loaded with Sonic and Marvel games, and a pair of headphones, so Dad can watch the game in peace, and what a good game it was, at a very nice club indeed.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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