Sunday 29 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on the wood”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They are going to score”

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

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

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

“We hate Barnet”

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Monday 23 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everywhere we go, everywhere we go”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Sunday 15 November 2015

FISH! - Fisher FC Vs Wingate & Finchley FC, London FA Senior Cup 1st Round, Champion Hill (09/10/15)

Another bustling commuter train, another evening that starts at London Bridge station, another trip to South East London. Our destination is only a few stops down the line, and by the time Tom has eaten a “very dry” baguette from one of the stations vendors, points out The Den, we get off with what seems like the rest of the train at East Dulwich station.

A short walk along a rush hour filled high street, our directions take us towards a large branch of Sainsbury's, not your usual venue for a football match, but the familiar remnants of stickers on lamp posts, their faded left overs, a dagger to the heart for a sticker hunter, like seeing that rare flower you have been looking for, trampled to the floor, give us the notion that somewhere between the supermarket and a car wash, a football club is lurking.

Past some bizarre grunting noises, which we later find out are people playing squash in a nearby sports centre, through the players entrance, a woman on reception greets us, and after asking for “Stuart”, sitting in her Terrarium she points us towards the bar.

The familiar blue & white tracksuit clad players of Wingate & Finchley FC (WF) todays opposition, lounge around the long pitchside bar, at what turns out to be the back of the main stand at Champion Hill, its large windows looking out over the pitch, where one man braves the wind, and puts out the corner flags.

Very kindly one of the bar staff goes in search of Stuart our contact at the club, and it's not long until, dressed all in black, tall and smiling, he appears from behind the scenes, says “hello”, gives me the most crushing handshake I have ever received, and quickly makes a joke “I’m one of the undertakers”, in reference to how I had described him and his brother, when we spotted them at a recent Fisher FC (FFC) away game at AFC Croydon Athletic, the mistake would be avoidable if you didn’t hang out near a crematorium in a black suit.

He invites us to join him in the boardroom, and Tom asks if he is expecting much of a turn out, “well it's the best game in London tonight”, he then rattles off a couple of the nights other games, with a little bit of distance, he clearly doesn't think any of them come close to this fixture. Another corridor traversed, we enter its picture lined walls, and are promptly offered a cup of tea, as we peruse the walls, and marvel at the poppy covered war memorial.

As nice as it all is, and particularly the memorial, which is very poignant, just like the service we saw at Leyton Orient FC, it quickly puts football into perspective, but none of it has anything to do with FFC, another non-league ground sharer, because this fine little stadium is the proud home of the famous Dulwich Hamlet FC.

We decline the offer of a drink, and instead opt for a wander about the ground, which is mostly empty except for a few stewards, FFC coaches and kids tearing around, after an earlier training session.

I still find walking down the tunnel at a football club exciting, the inner sanctum, always curious to see what’s going on. Along with the recognisable sights and smells, a small boy asking an older man if he can “make some toast” is a first, but so was seeing a man produce a hunting bugle at a match, so it's all by the by now. FFC players sit chatting in the changing room, and at the other end of the bright white corridor the WF kit is laid out, tidy and clean, before the payers get in there, and change its appearance rapidly. The smart James Bond like, WF manager is kind enough to allow us to grab a picture, before we beat a retreat and let him and his assistant prepare for the match.

The WF assistant manager has done an Oscar quick costume change, and walks out, shorts on  holding a large mesh bag of footballs, but might have a job getting the kids practising free kicks off the pitch. The FFC coaches are not quite ready for the rigours of the warm up, and instead opt to “put the kettle on”. When the FFC players do walk out, one in his civvies, he is not happy about the puddle next to the pitch “my trainers are going to get dirty”.

The wind seems to be picking up by the minute, so we go in search of the soft seats and shelter of the bar, and leave all the sporty types to it. The staff behind the bar talk amongst themselves, and a few WF fans have taken over one table. The biggest stirring is not when a chant is started or a bit of argy bargy between fans, but the entrance of a dog in a blue light up collar, who is fawned upon, especially by the WF President, Harvey. who is very happy to see him “my lovely Bentley”.

Stuart who joined the club at the beginning of the season, and his brother Ian, or as Stuart describes him as “the one with the hair”, has been the club Secretary for the last 3 years and they are both constantly on the move, as they go about running the show on match day. Stuart joins us at our table briefly, taking a quick break. I mention that I thought it looked like young WF team, which he is happy about “good” laughing nervously, perhaps a little anxious about the two league difference, hoping a non full strength side might give FFC a fighting chance.

Once Stuart leaves us, it's not that long until we are joined by one of the media wizards from WF Khalid. Although we have not met before, we have talked on Twitter, and are interested to get the away team's thoughts on the evening.

His knowledge of the team is of course a lot more informed than ours, and he tells me how “surprised” he is at the “strength” of the squad. Having debated with his colleagues in the media team, a group of 3 who rotate the responsibility at games, as to what kind of team the manager would bring, he can see he is taking this competition seriously. However, he does say after just passing the team that some of the youth players “look really young, younger than me!”

Tom enquires if he thinks anyone will be making the trip from North London to watch, “the usual lot, about 10”.

Like an episode of Parkinson, the constant revolving door of guests sees Khalid leave us, and we get the chance to introduce ourselves to FFC Chairman Ben, who at this point is selling programs and tickets for the game. Clearly in the middle of doing 101 things I ask if “we can catch you for a word when you are not running around?”.

“Running around” replies Ben grinning, “this is non-league football, I will be running around until about 22:00” and then he’s off.

With our mind slightly drifting to future games, like a big headed boxer, who should be concentrating on today's fight, we ask if the TV can be turned over from horrible tennis, to the FA Cup 2nd round draw. With the changing of the channel, a crowd quickly forms around the large TV on the wall and conversations break out about the previous rounds results, and the stand out potential ties to come. Tom notices that WF are now warming up, and heads out begrudgingly into the night.

Garth Crooks, who someone in the huddle says “has let himself go” has been kind, and picks just the game we wanted. I leave the bar and on my way out, I bump into the ‘life saviour’ the Clapton FC fan who found my note book, after I left it in a pub following Clapton’s FA Cup game back in August.

FFC are well known for the eclectic music they play at the ground, and as the obsessive in me delights at the untampered football stickers that cover the metal fence and railings behind one of the goals, I sing along with the ‘Fudges’, with my back to the WF players taking shots, and only occasionally flinching when one goes astray, waiting for a smack in the head, and relieved when they miss me.

“Starting 11 with me” shouts the WF coach, and off they go down the tunnel. FFC are not far behind, Ben holds open the gate that leads to the pitch, acknowledging each player as they come off, shaking hands, a hello or just a simple nod of the head for others.

Standing out of the way in the tunnel, next to a gurney, I wait for the teams. FFC are first out, and except for the odd shout of motivation “come on lets start early, switched on” it’s calm. WF need a nudge from the referee's assistant, and leave FFC hanging about a bit “come on let's go” he shouts. This results in lots of noise from the other side of the door, and then out they come. The referee tells the players there will be a minutes silence before the match, as they fidget, slightly adjusting their shorts, shin pads, socks, waiting to be led out.

An FFC coach leans against a wall, nibbling a biscuit and expresses his hopes for the game ahead to the
passing referees assistant, “have a good one”.

“I’m due one” replies the man with the flag, making his way through the players, to join the referee at the mouth of the tunnel.

Each team takes up positions opposite each other around the centre circle, shoulder to shoulder, heads are bowed, and the silence goes off without a hitch. When the referee signals the end, the crowd that are mostly sitting in the main stand applaud, except for one man who simply shouts “FISH!”

A WF match would not be the same without a chat with Paul a WF Director, who I bump into with a pint in his hand. He is a little late in arriving after finding a local Vietnamese restaurant, having wanted some “proper food”. The amount of football he goes to, you can understand he probably never wants to look at a burger and chips ever again. He informs me that WF went out in the same round, to a club from the same level as FFC last year, “so we know upsets can happen” that would explain the strong team, considering on paper it should be a straightforward game. “I’m off behind the goal” says Paul, as he joins a few fans who are hanging up their flags.

The press area is empty, so we take a seat at the white desk. Next door Harvey sits outside the boardroom, in the Directors area, and is joined by the WF manager who now has a blue & white scarf on Mancini style, as his number two stands pitch side.

“Go on you blues”

 “Come on Fisher”

The first 20 minutes or so are equal, with perhaps WF just shading it as far as possession is concerned, but their passing and decision making in the final third is lacking. It’s end to end, but without either team having any cutting edge. When FFC do get the ball, they are looking for a quick, direct counter attack, but too often the forwards become isolated, and WF win the ball back easily.

One WF defender gives explicit instructions to his teammates, when they lose possession, or an attack comes to nothing. Standing on the halfway line he shouts “shape, shape, shape” then turns and trots back towards his goal.

From early on there seems to be a tension on the pitch and it's not long until some late FFC tackles are flying in. One in particular, after the pace of the WF winger takes him past his marker, leaves a large scar in the wet pitch, and seems like a certain booking “no yellow ref!?!” shouts someone on the bench, but it's not given. Tom had said how quiet he thought the man in charge had been, not what you would call a ‘commanding’ type.

Before Tom heads off in search of food, he notices something on the FFC bench, it’s clear perspex roof giving us a window into the fishbowl “that’s the first managerial vaping I have ever seen”.

With almost 30 minutes gone WF get a goal, and from then on there is no looking back, despite what the coach on the FFC bench says “we go again”. A low shot from just outside the box, bounces just in front of the outstretched keeper, making a save almost impossible.

Not long after the goal, an FFS player jumps into a crunching tackle, a real eye waterer, one where you’re not sure if someone is going to stand up with all their limbs, the following melee in front of the dug outs, almost boils over into a full on punch up, the WF player has every right to be upset, it was a shocker, but the players do a good job of calming it down, the referee continues to be timid, and Toms prediction of it “getting out of hand” is close to becoming a reality.

Tom’s hunt for food was a short and unsuccessful one, only returning with two cups of tea, which I'm thankful for, it’s really cold. Tom in his fur lined jacket (NOT REALLY) hits the nail on the head “for once I wore the right attire, and you didn't”.

A second goal was coming, and arrives with just over 5 minutes of the half left. A short corner is chipped to the back post, where a header is blocked, the loose ball is pounced upon by a WF player whose shot is saved, the FFC keeper pushes back out into the 6 yard box, where an away player controls the ball with his head, and finishes with a scissor kick from close range.

FFC are losing their heads, the match, and are almost out of the tie altogether.

The remaining minutes of the game, are filled with one WF attack after another. One slick passing move dissects FFC, ending up with a good shot from a very tight angle, that is well saved, and the resulting corner, ends up with a goal line clearance after a bullet of a header is blocked by the man on the post.

As the half comes to an end, the home supporters in the grey roofed terrace opposite can't be happy, WF’s on the other hand have witnessed a very tidy first half, and thoroughly deserve the lead. 

Our chat about taking up the invite to have a drink in the boardroom at half time is a short one, I’m cold, so off we go, as we do Ben comes over the public address system, chipper and informs the crowd about upcoming fixtures.

The boardroom table is covered in a smorgasbord of Sainsbury’s best finger food, picnic eggs, mini sausages, and for the more cultured tastes’ some mini patties and olives, and during a spare couple of minutes where Ben is being neither MC or ticket seller, I get a chance to discuss FFC with him.

The story of FFC is a all to familiar one, formed out of the ashes of Fisher Athletic Football Club in 2009 when they were wound up by the courts due to financial problems, and it’s only because of “the passion for starting it up again” by those original 42, who Ben was one of, that there is a club to watch today.

For most ‘Phoenix clubs’ a new beginning means a lot of the time, losing your home, moving out of the area where your club has forged its history and as Ben puts it “we are not in our local community, it’s missing its heart”. Even though Bermondsey is 5 miles down the road, give or take, it's a vital part of the club's identity, so much so it’s on the clubs badge, and as nice as Champion Hill is, it’s not the same as The Surrey Docks Stadium, and until they can get back to their borough, they are “treading water”, but that is about to change.

In March 2016 FFC will be moving back to a brand spanking new ground, in Bermondsey, where they will be able to grow, flourish and engage with the community once again.

“Buzzzzzzzz” goes the dull sounding bell in the boardroom, signalling the start of the 2nd half, leaving the olives untouched, and the sausage rolls all gone as the men in blazers take their seats outside. It also means Ben has to break away from our chat, and turn down the music playing around the ground.

We continue our chat standing in the door, watching the players walk out. “It’s fun, but it’s hard work” he says, which echoes the advice he was given by Supporters Direct. The club was set up as a ‘co-operative society’ and is “nudging 100 members” some from Norway, Sweden and Italy, £10 a year gets you one vote in club matters.

Ben speaks with such enthusiasm for as he puts it, the “long term project” that FFC is. Towards the end of our chat, I can tell he wants to get back to watching the game, he says perhaps one of the most beautiful, poetic, eloquent things I have heard someone say in football, his description of what the club will have to do, once it moves home, “we can start to stitch back together all the parts of Fisher”.

Stuart and Ian have had enough of the corporate, mini sausage crowd, and tell Ben, “we’re going to rabble rouse with the fans” and off they go, making their way to the opposite side of the pitch. The WF manager stays put, still overlooking proceedings from the stand, and although the first chance of the half goes to FFC, his team are quickly back in their stride, at one point stinging the palms of the FFC keeper, who can only push a fierce shot out, and as Tom puts it, it’s too “easy” for them to make chance after chance.

The WF defender continues to organise the team from the back “shape, shape, shape”, which inspires Tom into a little bit of 70’s disco “Shake, Shake, Shake. Shake Your Booty”. Tom also learns one benefit of the press area are plug sockets, and he produces the charger for his R2D2 sized vapouriser.

“Come on Fisher”

With a 3rd of the 2nd half gone, WF exploit a huge gap in the FFC defence, a simple pass through the middle puts the attacker in range, and whose subsequent curling shot hits the post on its way in, as straightforward a goal you will ever see. “Keep the intensity going” says one WF player, I’m sure that’s the last thing FFC want to hear.

WF don't stop, don't slow down, when someone from the dugout, shouts “one more, one more” they oblige, about 10 minutes after the last one. A corner is not cleared, FFC have chances to, the keeper saves well but can’t hold on, parries it once again, the WF scorer controls the ball well, evades a few defenders with quick feet and dinks it in. When Ben reads out the scorer, or who he thought was the scorer, he is quickly told he is wrong, “correction coming” which gets a jeer from the small traveling WF support.

Things go from bad to worse, as WF get a fifth, and compound the home team’s misery. This time a deep cross, is met by the sliding WF player, who has been left to his own devices at the back post, and finishes really well, goal of the game. Just like on the four occasions previously the FFC keeper screams at his team mates, after conceding.

Ben’s voice comes over the speakers one last time “thank you for your support”.

When an FFC coach, kicks the ball from the bench towards the goal, after the match ball ended up over the fence, he kicks it well wide. “You playing for time?” asks the smiling WF manager, who has now joined his number two on the bench, “give them time to mark up” replies the FFC coach.

Both teams warm down following the final whistle, WF laugh and joke amongst themselves, FFC sit on the pitch heads down.

“You guys are a jinx” says Stuart, and we have to agree. We briefly talk about the first time we saw FFC, where they hammered the home team, I mean HAMMERED them, and lost 3-0, I say it’s one of the strangest games we have seen, he says “it's probably the strangest game anyone, has ever seen”.

We go to thank Ben for having us tonight, and when we meet him at the door to the boardroom, he lets out a knowing sigh, that says it all. It’s here that I have a bit of a dilemma, I’m very kindly offered a spot on the WF coach, back north of the river, getting dropped off at their ground about five minutes from my house, but this means leaving my fellow blogger in the field, leaving him to make his own way home, we come together, we leave together, but Tom is cool, so I’m heading home in style.

I bid farewell to Tom, and wait in the bar, which has a good spread laid on, with a sign marking out what's for the “HOME” team & what's for the “AWAY” team. Some FFC players are quick in, fill their plates and make a quick exit. When the WF captain walks in, he gets a small round of applause by the away fans, “well done Mark”.

“Let's Marvin Gaye and get it on” sings a WF player, quite well I may add as he climbs on the coach. When James Bond, sorry I mean the WF manager gets on, he acknowledges me, and others sitting around me, before he makes his way further back with the players “Gentlemen”.

So me, the dog, the directors, the team and Tom the master ground hopper, who tells me about all the grounds he’s visited, weave our way through a dark and quiet London, across the river to the right side of London.

Two things reinforced my new and ever growing love of non-league football. Firstly, getting a lift home on the WF team bus, where everyone was welcoming and friendly, behaviour that is not surprising, considering how we have been treated in the past, and they really are a top notch club.

Secondly the vivid and committed fashion in which Ben spoke about the club, this is a man who lives in North East London, works in North West London, and runs a football club in South East London. Not only does it sound like he spends a lot of time in his car, he is doing what I’m sure is not an easy job for the NHS, he still remains firm to the cause of, all for free, and it’s this kind of devotion I personally find totally inspiring. He and many like him for me are the really interesting stories behind these clubs we visit. A special mention must also go out to Ben’s two Lieutenants, Stuart and Ian, whose help makes the day to day running of the club possible.

We salute you all!

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Sunday 8 November 2015

Your Dad Is A Legend - Leyton Orient FC Vs Staines Town FC, FA Cup 1st Round, Brisbane Road (07/11/15)

Sitting at my desk at work doing a late shift a few Mondays ago, I waited patiently as the BBC, who had decided to televise the first round FA Cup draw from a cramped clubhouse in Yorkshire, to see what the red velvet bag would bring us this time.

Two draws jumped out, the visit of Colchester United FC to Wealdstone FC, or Staines Town FC’s visit to Leyton Orient FC. We had previously attempted a visit to Wealdstone only for it to be canceled within seconds of arriving due to a waterlogged pitch, and instead of watching a game we ate a very nice cheese roll and got a look at the lesser spotted raider.

Leyton Orient FC (LO) has been a club Tom has repeatedly mentioned he would like to visit, and the idea of a non-league away day, sitting with the fans of Staines Town FC (ST) a club from the Ryman League, visiting a League Two club, made Brisbane Road the obvious destination for us.

Although we have enjoyed the smaller, intimate, fudge raffle grounds of the non-league sides, in the previous rounds of the FA Cup, today we are somewhat thankful we are visiting a League side, with appropriate pitch drainage, and covered stands because it has not stopped raining, Twitter was awash with canceled games, but with League status comes money, and with money brings the ability to prevent your pitch turning into a bog.

As Tom is a trendy East London type, his journey to Leyton was a relatively straightforward one, and mine should have been too, arriving at Leyton tube station, only a short walk from the ground, but in need of a cash point, I had to take a detour. A nearby Post Office gave me my readies, it was then that my mini nightmare began. Following the yellow arrows on the local totems, I somehow ended up in the sprawling car park of an ASDA and B&Q.

My lateness had prompted a text from Tom “are you alive?” and even a message from my fiancee, who Tom had called to ask where I was. If I had a flare, I would have shot it skywards, and waited for the chopper to get me out of Dodge. However, the second best thing to a flare gun, is UBER, and after the driver got lost, I was finally rescued in a Chevrolet Orlando, basically a bright white, four by four footballers car, and was dropped off 3 minutes later by the LO supporters club..

Just before getting on the tube I had received a text from Keith, who runs the ST Twitter account, and who had kindly offered to meet me with some tickets for today, as neither of us were available previously to get to ST to pick the tickets up in person. We had both said we would be arriving at 13:00, but after my hair pulling moments outside ASDA it was almost 14:00, and considering he was doing us a favour I didn’t want to take the piss, however he to had his own travel issues, and thankfully arrived at the same time as me.

In his yellow ST shirt, and blue and yellow scarf, Keith handed over the tickets, I wished him well, and I could finally relax, apologising profusely to Tom for being so late, and start to enjoy the day.

Standing outside between the ST player's coach, and an NHS pharmacy, that is somehow incorporated into the structure of the ground, and would not be the first curiosity of Brisbane Road. The sign on the wall notifies you of the next fixture, the name of the away side, looking like it had been hastily made, a little bit Blue Peter, we sipped the slightly over fizzy lager, and both discussed the previous nights FA Cup match between Salford City FC and Notts County FC, and hoped all the giant killing magic had not been used up.

Tom also described the bustling bar of the supporters club beyond the red doors, with it’s inordinate amount of cask ales on offer, which are sadly a bit wasted on Tom and I’s heathen palates, and the fact he almost did not get in because today of all days, he had decided to wear his Arsenal FC jacket, and although it only has a small red cannon on the breast, the eagle eyed door men still spotted it, but smiled and let him pass, but not without paying £1 first for his guest pass.

I also purchase my first square programme, I slight novelty to the programme obsessed like me, and after commenting to the man selling them I never seen one like it before, he said “you can't of been round in the 70’s then”

The miserable weather prompted us to make our way to the away end, and the shelter of the Baskin and Robbins stand, hoping for the fine ale selection to be replaced by rum & raisin or mint choc chip. Due to the makeup of the ground, a mixture of residential and commercial, we start walking down a slope towards a gate with some flats beyond, “this doesn't look right” says Tom as we continue, past some discarded mattresses, which Toms seems to know are from IKEA, and it’s only when we see two people in yellow jackets, asking to search our bags, does it become clear that it is a turnstile they are standing next to, and not someone’s front door.

Post search, post check for pyro, we are in, to be greeted by the bizarrest ground I think I have ever been in. The ice cream away end is a standard modern stand, which already has a few ST flags hanging at the back of it. What you might call the “original” or oldest looking stand along one side of the pitch  is empty and looks closed, with ”The O’s” spelt out in black seats, against the rest that are red, and its large gabled roof with “Leyton Orient” written on the front is a nice feature, the rest though is slightly less formulaic.

Opposite us is a block of flats, with a single tier all-seater stand attached, each open corner of the ground is filled with more flats, whose balconies look out over the pitch, Tom has somehow found out that this view will cost you £1,200 a month, if you wanted to live there. Down the other other side of the pitch, are more red seats by the dugout and the players tunnel, and then this large grey void before what looks like executive boxes, way, way above the pitch, like watching football from the top of the Shard.

Following the large white dragon footprints, which I cant work out what they are, until Tom reminds me that the LO badge has two red dragons on it, and realise we are not being led into a child’s playground. The concessions under the stand, all breeze block, exposed steel work, is a little dreary, even a smattering of enlarged child's art on the wall and an ST fan in a pink pig hat can’t cheer it up, give me the Harry Abrahams Stadium, over this any day.

Tom, as always, begins to furiously dissect the food menu, deciding what to have at some point, but pre-game another drink will do for now. Somehow we do spend quite a lot of our time standing next to a bowl of UHT milk and sugar, trying to work out what a “pizza pod” is, wondering if it’s a spelling mistake or just some delicacy, these two couscous lovers from North London, have yet to experience.

“We’ve got the tin foil FA Cup” sing the supporters at the bar, and in doing so highlight one of my favourite sights at a football match, a gleaming silver facsimile of the famous trophy. “Yellow and blue, yellow and blue” is the next of what will be many songs, as the group at the bar swells, and our away day starts to come together.

We climb the stairs to the back of the stand, grateful that the Serie A type net behind the goal is being taken down, and was to prevent balls hitting us in the warm up, and not stuff from us hitting the players. “We might be standing a lot, I don’t think they will be sitting” says Tom grinning and pointing to the noisy ST fans standing in front of us, armed now with not one, but two homemade FA Cups.

“Oh West London is wonderful”

Two rows of children, accompanied by a large red dragon, wave flags as the teams enter the pitch.

Keith is sitting in front of us, and produces a triple points score item for your I-Spy football book, a brass bugle, with red and gold braiding around the handle. I thought I was going to have trouble getting my umbrella in, but it would seem anything goes here. It also prompts Tom to pose a question, “did we get our tickets off the ring leader?”, the horn a sign of his capo status perhaps, the leader of the fans, the conch from Lord of the Flies, for ST supporters.

“Ryman League and we’re having a laugh”

The walk on music, is completely drowned out by the fans once they see their team, “COME ON YOU SWANS” and “OH WHEN THE SWANS GO MARCHING IN”

The game's proximity to Remembrance Sunday means the teams gather around the centre circle, joined by the large red dragon, and the crowd stand and fall silent, in unison we all take a moment to remember those lost in conflict. The blast of the whistle confuses a few ST fans who think it’s to notify the end and not the beginning of the minutes silence, but after a few “shhhhh’s” it is impeccably, and respectfully observed by all in attendance.

When the referee blows again, all around us explode, I’m not sure the same can be said for the LO fans, who are not here in any great number at all. When Keith gives his bugle a blast, it causes his immediate neighbours to flinch, turn round and give him a bit of a glare.

To the tune of Joy Division's ‘Love will tear us apart’, with a few lyrical tweaks, the game gets under way “the Swans will tear you apart again”.

Very soon into the beginning of the match, the league difference, becomes strikingly apparent, and regardless of the non stop singing, ST are powerless to stop LO going 3 goals ahead in a matter of about 15 minutes. The first goal is a cross from the left, and a back post header, which instead of quieting the fans their reply is pragmatic and positive “we’re going to win 2 - 1” and have a dig at the still quiet LO fans “1 - 0 and you still don’t sing?”

LO’s second is an attack down the left again, but this time the cross is along the ground and it’s side footed in, still no effect on the mood of the fans “yellows, yellows, yellows”. The third is a tap in following a paired shot from outside the box by the ST keeper, who is in my personal favourite of all the possible colours a keeper can play in, pink.

At this point I think it is more than clear that the tie is over, and although Tom and I look at each other after each goal, with a kind of “oh shit” look, and Tom says “it’s going to take a miracle from them to score 3”, the people around us are quite the opposite. One fan says quite rightly “ that’s the difference” and as far as the on field action he is right, that 15 minute blitz has really taken the wind out of their sails, but the supporters on the other hand are quite rightly unperturbed “we’re having more fun that you”.

Strangely though after the third goal ST start to get into the game, perhaps LO have eased up a little, but none the less, they start to trouble LO particularly from out wide, and especially when the slightly indecisive and flappy home keeper is called into action.

With almost thirty minutes played, the LO keeper offers ST a tiny sliver of hope, and something for the ST fans to really get happy about. A corner is crossed in, cleared poorly by LO to the edge of the box, and headed back in by a ST player. Two LO players then jostle with each other, one heading the ball up instead of out. With the ball about to drop onto the edge of the 6 yard box, the keeper bombs out, limply punches it straight to a LT player just inside the area, who deftly hooks a shot over the stranded keeper, and ST have their goal.

“Dodgy keeper, dodgy keeper”

Keith’s bugle and the tin foil cup’s are held aloft, as they celebrate. A few blasts of the horn, signify not the start of the hunt, but the start of even more singing, even more jibes at the quiet home fans, more banging of the back wall of the stand “Staines Town” and many more pretend cup lifting ceremonies. The fans huddling low, “ooooooooohhhhhhhh” and then when the cup is lifted Wembley style, they all celebrate together.

“Que Sera Sera, what ever will be, will be, we’re going to Wembley”

ST players heads are up, “if they could just get another one” says Tom, and he is correct the goal has really buoyed the team, they look to have punished LO lifting their foot off the pedal, all of a sudden ST look more solid at the back, and spend the next ten minutes offering some resistance to the red onslaught.

“Yellow army, yellow army, yellow army”

The people on their balconies, braving the weather for a bit of Saturday entertainment, are duly rewarded, when they as well as us, bare witness to the best goal of the game so far, and a very, very fine example of the perfect free kick, up and over the wall, and right in the top left hand corner, a real beauty, making it make 4-1, and as Tom puts it “that might of killed it”.

A man near us, is an example to Tom on how to prepare for a football match, having previously handed out boiled sweets, he now tucks into some bread and butter from his bountiful rucksack, as the standing fans around him praise the team,“it’s just like watching Brazil” after ST muster an attack. A man in front, after returning from the loo, and with the regularity of the scoring, asks a small boy “have I missed any goals?”

Only when the LO fans behind the opposite goal shout for a penalty, do they make their first considerable noise of the day, and the ST fans are quick to sarcastically acknowledge it, “we forgot you were here”.

Just before half time ST are awarded a free kick, which comes to nothing, except Tom notices an unorthodox technique used by a ST player to distract his marker. Now this is not for the faint hearted, Victorian or Under 18’s of you out there, so please move on if that is you, but the ST player appeared to pretend to finger the bum of his opposite number, and I'm not sure what's more harrowing, the thought of it, or Tom's actions that accompany him telling me

As the team's walk off, the ST supporters serenade the players “we’re Staines and we’re proud of you”.

Tom like every good Arsenal fan, left just before the half time whistle to get a drink and something to eat, only to return with some bad news, as well as what turns out to be bad food, they have run out of beer, and I warn him “there will be a riot”. Once we have grieved the lack of beer, Tom eats an onion loaded burger, and I have an awkward and uncomfortable public eating experience, when my mince and onion pie, which is Alan Partridge hot, disintegrates in my hand, once I have removed it from its battered red tin case, I’m left with what looks like a hand full of shit. I wish I was like the boiled sweet and bread and butter man, who is now eating a homemade stir fry from a tupperware box, oh to be organised.

We are however pleasantly distracted by an on pitch ceremony led by an actual bugle player, not Keith, honouring the members of LO who joined the Football Battalion, as well as staff of the club who were lost in the Great War and since, and when they play the Last Stand, and lower the flags, it sends the hairs up on the back of my neck, “we will remember them”.

The returning fans are less than impressed by the lack of refreshments, “no beer, shit ground, no fans, no beer”. On the blast of the whistle the ever supportive away fans let LO know “we’re going to win 5-4”, and an early chance for ST encourages even more singing “yellow’s, yellow’s, yellow’s”, but one is a little frustrated “he is trying to walk it in”.

In all honesty the game is dead, and it’s only a matter of time before LO score a 5th, but they are doing their best to miss easy chances. ST’s keeper however having conceded four, has pulled off some marvellous saves, and has kept the score in single figures.

ST’s songs get a bit more colourful you might say in the second half, and more creative, particularly towards the LO fan in a “fake Stone Island jacket”. One woman screams in a demonic fashion and they all sing “we’ve got a lunatic” A group of young LO fans “a shit One Direction” as they are dubbed, bite at every chant, standing and posturing, only to be told to sit down by a steward, and create ever more entertainment.

Although ST look more solid, they have little going forward, and they have their keeper to thank over and over.

It’s not until almost full time that the home fans get a song going, only to be hit with a barrage in reply from the ST fans, “you’ve got more stewards than fans”, “have you heard the League team sing?”

LO get two goals in the final moments, ST’s keeper can’t stop everything even though he has tried, and as the home fans start to leave, a new song starts around us “is there a fire drill?”

Around this time the majority of fans have left their seats, not to leave and sulk, but to congregate on the edge of the pitch, still singing, waiting to applaud their team.

On the final whistle the announcement from the travelling fans “we’re going on the pitch” is not followed through, except by two. One man runs on, slips over, runs off. One girl on the other hand, sprints to the halfway line, talks to an ST player, and then sprints back, jumps the barrier, and with a little help from some fellow fans, avoids the clutches of the stewards.

The remaining fans form a line behind the goal, and the obviously down beat players, must be lifted as the supporters sing, shake hands, and congratulate them on their efforts, the result is immaterial, the fact they tried is all that matters, some players hug and kiss loved ones all whilst ‘Rockin all over the world’ plays by Status Quo over the public address system. The absolute best moment is when the manager is handed his small Son from the crowd, and the fans sing “your Dad is a legend, your Dad is a legend”.

Walking back to the station we end up in a pub inside the old Town Hall, and find a warm dry corner and once Tom tells me of a recent dream he had where we visited Borussia Dortmund, he did not have a ticket, refusing to buy one on the gate, because it was too expensive, but then getting a cheaper “special one” only to find himself watching the game from a concrete box with a window, but no sound. After I question my friend's mental state, we deliberate our experience, both coming to a similar conclusion.

The ST fans were every superlative under the sun, and why not make up your own for good measure, like “amaziastical”. When I say non stop, I mean that in the most literal way, it was relentless. I love it when a fan base and players meet like they did tonight, we have seen it a few times, and it never gets old, it’s that connection we are searching for, not fancy stadiums or the best players, but when they both recognise what each other has brought to the occasion, it is so uplifting.

A mention has to go out to the LO fans who stayed after to applaud the away team, and supporters, very classy.

I fear we might not see anything like that again, or at least it is becoming more and more unlikely as the non league teams numbers start to dwindle, and the bigger teams start to dominate, but fingers crossed, maybe someone will prove me wrong!

For all our photographs from the match, click HERE

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