Sunday 31 January 2016

400 - Sutton United FC Vs Dartford FC, National League South, Gander Green Lane (23/01/6)

From one end of the Northern line, to the other is how I start my day getting off at the station so many trains I have travelled on in the past terminate at, but have never been to. Tom is prompt as ever, standing outside the station, as I drag my slightly cold affected body into the light, on what in compared to recent weeks, could be considered as a ‘nice day’. Seeing an old friend you might expect a “hello”, a high five, I’m not even averse to a fist pump, but Tom decides to inform me “they have a Wimpy”.

‘They’ are the people of Morden, no not the place that the ring must be tossed into, and as lucky as they are to be able to enjoy square burgers and the novelty of crockery in a fast food restaurant, we don't have time for a milkshake as there is a bus that needs to be caught. A straightforward and quick journey gives us enough time to have a catch up and notice that someone has gone to the effort to write ‘penis’ on the chair in front of me, which is nice.

It’s not cold, and it's not raining, so a short walk through a park not far from the bus stop at the end of our anatomy lesson bus ride is quite a pleasant one. People have ventured from their houses, marveling at a yellow thing in the sky, some kids are in the skatepark doing a bit of synchronized scootering on a half-pipe.

“Testing one, two, testing” echos in the distance, followed by a bit of Rihanna, who is then rudely interrupted “testing one, two, testing”. Beyond the Merton X-Games a yellow sign above a barbed wire topped fence proclaims “home of football”, which has us intrigued.

The usual things greet us at the entrance to Gander Green Lane home of Sutton United FC (SU) a board telling us the next fixture and kick off time, the fact that AFC Wimbeldon Ladies team play here, something we are seeing quite frequently like at Borehamwood and Staines. The party animal in Tom though is quick to see a relatively small sign in comparison to its much larger neighbours, advertising the nearby ‘Boom Boom Club’. Inspecting its upcoming events he is sad to learn that “we have missed ZZ Top” but his mood is improved by reading it’s “Mods tonight”.

It is impossible as we walk through the car park to pick up our tickets to ignore the splendidly adorned shipping container, not unlike the one at Clapton FC’s Old Spotted Dog ground. I’m sure it’s use is a very practical one, but instead of having some great eyesore ruining the surroundings, it's been graffitied extremely well, this isn't some arse spraying ‘cock’ on the wall, this is art. One end is like a yellow and white Battenburg cake with SUFC in each quarter and along one side is the club's crest and “for the fans, by the fans, come on you yellows”.

My own raffle addiction is well documented its a problem I live with day to day, and I'm not one to shy away from talking about it, you might call me the Tony Adams of the raffle world, but SU are not helping the problem when almost instantly on arrival the friendly man on the door or as I call them ‘pushers’ is on me, he can sense the loose change in my pocket.

“Afternoon can I tempt you with a scratch card?” he hits me with his much used opening line “Sutton's very own” he draws me in, “50p a scratch you could win a grand”, I’m like putty in his hands, “never know your luck”. Next thing I remember is turning to a disappointed Tom with two cards in my hand. I would've given him my children's college fund if I could have, he was a pro, great patter, he must be one of the top earners.

‘Welcome to SUFC’ is written above the door as we walk in the bar past the club's hall of fame. We both feel underdressed and underage, as almost every man is in a club blazer and tie, except for the person in a club shirt playing darts, and with a few exceptions most people have about 20 years on us. Whilst everyone else is on the pints, Tom and I are on the tea and grab one from Jenny's below the blinking blue and red ‘open’ sign above a hatch at one end of the bar.

“Time for lunch” announces a well turned out man, and the room empties, Jenny's closes too, much to Tom's annoyance, he had only just said “I’m getting a bit peckish”. So it's us, the guy at the oche, Norwich vs Liverpool on the TV and further proof that non-league tea is hotter than normal tea, because we still don't dare take a sip. We do both wonder what is happening in the very grand sounding ‘Times Square Lounge’ after spotting a sign on the wall. If it's like the Times Square of the late 70’s early 80’s it could be very interesting.

We swap our stalls in the corner for a table in the middle of the room, and Tom studies the menu from afar, he lets me know that ‘Jenny's Healthy Chicken Wrap’ would fit my new outlook on a healthier lifestyle.

A group directly behind us are as uninspired by the game on the TV as we are and have set themselves the goal of working out a starting 11, of players with only three letters in their surname. Although not struggling for ideas, plucking some names deep from football history, I can't help but chip in with the name of the first person I had on a Spurs shirt, Ruel Fox, “good shout” replies one of them. Their game is momentarily interrupted by the SU Manager Paul Doswell in a long dark blue jacket, after he asks the room if anyone has a “lap top”.

Tea done, and outside, taking the exit from the bar, which is up the players tunnel. “Impressive stadium” says Tom and I could not agree more. The main stand from which we have emerged is huge, all seater, and almost the full length of the pitch. Taking up a seat in the front row, as Tom has a wander, there is a bit of a gap between me and the pitch, as well as the dugouts, but my elevated view, stops that from being a problem. Behind each goal, and opposite are standard covered terraces.

The most interesting feature by far are the two curved banks of uncovered concrete steps, with yellow railings on two of the four corners of the ground. They have the air as Tom puts it of being very “European” it’s not hard to imagine seeing a Tifo display or some coloured smoke pouring off it at kick off, the Curva Sud of Gander Green Lane.

Two games are being played on the 3G pitch, one team in Barcelona shirts according to one person are “struggling”. He finds the fact that a bunch of kids in the Catalan kit not playing well is such a hoot, a juxtaposition so noteworthy he has to say it two or three times, waiting for a laugh, which never comes. I’m a little distracted by the Millwall flag flying in a nearby garden which is not out of the ordinary, but I always find the fact that someone has had a flagpole erected a little unnerving.

Both of today's squads sit in their respective dugouts, their kit bags littering the ground. From behind they all looking very similar, each with almost exactly the same hair cut, Tom a barber himself ponders if they are “sponsored by Brylcreem”.

As well as the games playing, the high pitched children's voices shouting things like “mark up” or “get a shot in”, the rest of the ground is bustling. A boy in a red apron pushes a trolley heaving with bread, a man appears with a box full of SU yellow ‘clappers’ and starts to place them on the seats in the stand. Tom notices that the “banging tunes” have started in the changing rooms beneath us, but more importantly points out that Jenny’s has a “bit of competition” bringing to my attention ‘Roses’ a second burger bar opposite the main stand. Is Sutton big enough for the both of them?

With some time to kill we head to the club shop, a yellow portacabin behind one goal, protected by a high net. Standing outside it’s not long until Tom emerges beaming “it's a treasure trove”, thinking I have not seen him this happy since his Pot Noodle at Edgware Town, I have to check this out for myself. An older man head to toe in SU gear, is barely visible behind the overflowing counter covered in boxes full of programs from clubs all over the country, surrounded by cork boards covered in football pins and shelves of DVDs and books. SU towels, scarves, shirts and flags hang from every available place in this non-league Aladdin's cave. My eye is drawn to a large World Cup ‘90 book, with a picture of Gazza on the front, the price is as with everything else written on a neon star shaped piece of card.

If the scratch cards weren't enough to take in one day, one of the two ladies talking about “the big game”, breaks away from her chat and offers me a 50/50 ticket, and like the chump I am, I hand over a couple of quid, hiding the tickets in my notebook, hoping Tom has not seen. I can't take the judgement.

As I leave, the question of who the Jenny of ‘Jenny’s Cafe’ is, becomes crystal clear thanks to a poster on the back of the club shop door. Having thought she was the lady who runs it, it is in fact the name of SU mascot Jenny The Giraffe, who apparently is being entered into the ‘world famous’ mascot grand national. It does make me then wonder who Rose is. Perhaps another member of the mascot menagerie?

The noise of change dropping into the float of the girl on the turnstile, the clunk as she unlocks it, and the click as it turns can mean only one thing, the fans are starting to arrive including those of today's away team Dartford FC (DFC).

Paul Doswell is clearly hands on and is constantly on the move. We get a passing but very warm welcome, as he makes his way on to the pitch, he moves around talking to people clutching his mug. He chats to some of the children finishing their game, and then with a member of staff about the clappers, asking about their whereabouts. He only stops for a moment in the dugout to have a drag from his vape cigarette.

Having now seen various stations of clappers around the ground, inviting you to take one, they are clearly a big contributor to getting an atmosphere going, very encouraging that the club are actively trying to improve it.

‘The Never Ending Story’ by Limahl plays as the team comes out, followed by 80’s hit after 80’s hit. “The sprinklers are out” comments Tom, spraying high and wide, giving the pitch a good drink, some players are hesitant to get wet when they chase a loose ball.

“I don't usually butt in this early” says the voice on the tannoy half way through another 80’s classic. Such is the absurdity of the Norwich Vs Liverpool result, which was 0 - 1 to Liverpool when we left the bar, he feels he must break with protocol and announce it has ended 4 - 5.

A noisy mob of tiny SU kit wearing mascots appear from the tunnel, are corralled into posing for a picture, and then are coached on what they are to do. Today is the 400th club appearance of what I think is fair to say club legend Craig Dundas, this milestone along with it being 3rd vs 4th in the league means that the main stand and the rest of the ground are “filling up nicely” says Tom. The clappers on the seats are already being brought to life, warmed up for the game,“Sutton”.

A man in a long black DFC coat chatting at the edge of the tunnel, tells them he has “got to gee them up” and makes his way to the changing rooms.

“Welcome to Gander Green Lane”.

A crowd has gathered waiting for the team's two or three deep up against the railings, as they appear people try to get a glimpse of the 400 man. As they make their way out a fan loudly offers his support “good game today boys”, he receives a nod of appreciation from a player as he passes, SU’s Captain does his bit as well, “come on yellows”.

“Dundo's gonna get ya, Dundo's gonna get ya” sing the fans as the man of the moment appears, getting the biggest cheer of all. He walks between a guard of honour formed by both teams, occasionally stopping to shake hands with various players. We've been told there are going to be up to twelve separate presentations, which get underway in earnest. Dundo is handed a picture, flowers, multiple bottles of booze, including some Malibu and stands smiling next to a large yellow banner with him on it. One presentation is made by a fellow member of the 400 appearance club.

Paul kisses and hugs his daughter on the edge of the pitch as the voice over the tannoy announces it's time to “hand over to the match referee”.

“Come on blues” shots someone from the very healthy travelling support, who have a large flag hanging over the railings around the pitch.

Our view is slightly obscured by the dugout, so we make our way around the pitch to the already noisy SU fans behind the DFC goal “yellows, yellows, yellows”. The short walk is ever so slightly impeded by a boisterous young boy, there are other words that could be used to describe him, but I will leave that to your imagination. “Are you a Dartford fan?” he sneers, “no” I reply, “good” says the pint sized oik. I’m so glad to get the approval of someone I have had bigger sandwiches than.

A DFC penalty appeal in the first moments of the game, is waved away, as the game quickly descends into a bit of a scrappy one. They do get a chance from a free kick, which is well struck but equally well saved, each team is restricted to half chances at best.

Standing behind the goal of the pink shirt wearing DFC keeper, it reinforces how much I think is great colour for a jersey. There is something very Serie A, something very Gianluigi Buffon about it, one SU fan is perhaps not as enamoured by it as me, “you pink bastard”.

The referee quickly plummets from the top of each set of supporters Christmas lists, after a string of odd decisions. One tackle in particular or “assault” as Tom describes it, goes unpunished. The fans around us are less than impressed “you don't know what you’re doing”, one fan describes him as a “right package”, no I don't know either!

Thankfully there is enough going on around us to keep us entertained, the group of fans on the terrace are good for a song, it's a mixture of the familiar “come on Sutton, come on Sutton”, and the not so familiar, “singing pie, pie, chippy, chippy pie”.

Although it's a pleasant day, the sun is bright, and it's relatively mild, Tom however can't get his head around the chap in flip flops standing next to us, “he has socks on, but is he fucking mental?”

“La, la, la, la, U’s”

Dundo uses all his experience and size to shrug DFC players off the ball and on the half hour mark SU have the best chance of the game so far, and it's wonderfully crafted. A cross from the right is knocked down to a player in the box, who plays a short square pass to the edge of the area. “Got to be” says Tom as the player tees up his shot, which he tamely fires into the arms of the keeper. The creativity is appreciated by everyone, “United, United, United” rings from the main stand along with the distinctive noise of the clappers.

The DFC fans have been quiet since the start, but come to life when of all things, they get a corner “come on you Darts”

In the last five minutes of the half “the tight top four game” as Tom describes it, has a flourish of chances, all for the home team. First a header just wide, that sends the keeper sprawling, “time to score boys” shouts a fan. Dundo hits a nice volley after latching onto a flick on, that is just deflected wide. The resulting corner is played short, a quick one two, and original taker just on the corner of the area lets fly a curling right footed shot, that sails over the DFC keeper, only to be kept out by the underside of the bar, crashing down the wrong side of the goal line.

“Yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow”.

The compulsory half time non-league leg stretch goes off without a hitch, as the fans swap ends. Tom spots a man with a thermos flask the size of an artillery shell, that reminds him it's my turn to get the tea, but the queue at Roses is too long, so I sherk, and tell him I will get them once it goes down. Me not winning the 50/50 makes Tom think about our upcoming trip to Germany “I wonder if they have one at Dortmund? I would buy a ticket for that”.

“Come on you U’s” is followed by the clack, clack, clack, all whilst ‘The heat is on’ from Beverly Hills Cop plays around the ground, as the teams come out for the second half.

“We’re Sutton United, we’ll never be defeated”.

It’s a fan rather than a player who shows the first skill of the half. In his black and yellow bobble hat, he volleys a clearance back on to the pitch, with his half time snack still in hard “managed to keep his chips” says an impressed Tom. The fan raises his hand, and gets a cheer from the crowd.

It’s all SU early doors, they have maintained the momentum they had started to build at the end of the first half, that was halted by the break. A player who we saw last season at Cray Wanderers, whose talents really shone, who we predicted would shortly be making a step up, and now wears the number 7 for SU. He tests the DFC keeper with a powerful shot from just inside the left corner of the box, which is forced around the post, “Tom Bolarinwa, Tom Bolarinwa” chant the supporters.

Like a cork bursting free of a bottle, with just over a quarter of an hour gone, SU’s mounting pressure finally culminates in an exquisitely assisted goal. A cross from the right is timed perfectly with the run of the forward, flanked by two defenders. Such is the quality of the delivery, the first defender can only watch the ball sail over him. The second defender is also a spectator, as the SU attacker controls the ball and pokes it in on the half volley from close range.

The hoardings take a battering as the fans rush the fence, banging away to make even more noise, “la, la, la, Sutton”. The scorer has wheeled away behind the goal, high fiving the fans.

SU perhaps still revealing in their goal, almost undo all their hard work moments after the restart. Only thanks to their keeper, who pulls off a point blank save following a DFC corner does it mean it’s not all square, “there's only one Ross Worner” sing the appreciative fans.

“Attack, attack, attack, attack” demand some fans in the main stand, they are thirsty for more goals, and it’s not long until the team oblige, but not before Tom asks me one of life's important questions “have you ever had Bovril?”

About five minutes after the first goal SU get a second, and it's the least that they deserve. Another cross, another knocked down ball, the first shot is blocked, but luckily for SU the loose ball bobbles about just inside the six yard box and is a simple tap in. The hoardings get a kicking again, “falling in love with U’s, U’s, U’s, U’s”.

A third goal nearly follows quickly after, only for a super one handed save from the DFC keeper. Dundo “wants his goal” says Tom, what better way to crown his big day, as the clock ticks down his runs into the box seem more and more frequent.

It must be said that the main stand, as well as the terrace have been in good voice today. Occasionally requesting Paul Doswell to “give them a wave” which he does, “yeahhhh”.

One of the ladies from the club shop stands in a doorway, taking in the “big game's” final moments. A few people start to leave and get a bit of stick “is there a fire drill?”

With the three points now all but secured, a victory over top place rivals, means songs in the stands turn to thoughts of promotion “we are going up, we are going up”. One fan is particularly boosted by the win, the current thirteen league game unbeaten run means that perhaps he is quite right when he shouts “we are unbeatable”. The fact is DFC are on an equally impressive eleven league game unbeaten run, proves the value of today's victory cannot be underestimated.

A big crowd once again has gathered around the tunnel cheering the players off, “we're proud of you” says one fan, the players repay the compliment by applauding what has been a fantastic crowd. The biggest reception is of course for the 400 man “Dundo’s gonna get ya”. The DFC squad contemplate the loss with a huddle on the pitch. Once the players have disappeared, the fans follow them down the tunnel doing a right to the bar instead of a left to the changing room. The bar is already heaving, one chap stood at the back is forced to use binoculars to catch up with the day's result on a small TV high on the wall.

We are lucky that Paul Doswell gives us few moments of his time, escorting us to the media room, where quite by accident we end up chatting in front of the media board, with Tom taking pictures, for a brief moment it all feels very ‘Match of the Day’.

His assessment of the day is bang on, “first 15 minutes of the game Dartford had more of the play”, but after that there was a noticeable shift in “momentum” and SU “pinned them back on the ropes”. He is emphatic when he says it's an “important win”. I ask him if even a small part of him is able to think about promotion or the playoffs, but he has been around too long to make that mistake, he won't let that cross his mind until “March”. He fully expects “Dartford to be there with us”, but today SU “were better, all over the pitch”. His praise is not only reserved for the team, and makes the point of praising the fans “today was a good advert for the National League South”.

As we leave we bump into SU number 7 Tom Bolarinwa, whose own career is worth a blog in itself,  I’m sure it's not everyday a player moves from playing in Thailand to non-league football in England. He is humble, and welcoming as everyone has been, and is more than happy to share his thoughts when I ask him what kind of impact a good home support can have, “sometimes you just don't feel up for it, but when the people get behind you you can't help to be”. By his own admission it's been a “slow” start but he has kept his head down and is taking to the step up well.

The park is now dark as we make our way home, a large full moon hangs in the sky, and Tom who is always good for a quote sums up the day perfectly, too perfectly some might say I wonder if he is at home practising,“good game, good club, good victory”.



For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Monday 18 January 2016

By Royal Appointment - Eastleigh FC Vs Bolton Wanderers FC, FA Cup 3rd Round, Silverlake Stadium (09/01/16)

We have replaced one major London train station for another in recent weeks, Waterloo becoming our meeting point today instead of London Bridge. We are breaking free of the M25 that manacles us to our Oyster Cards, and are heading for the coast in search of the second silver named stadium in a week. Many others are using this victory named station as their starting point also, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Ipswich colours to name a few are on show, teams from different leagues, but for this weekend they are all unified by one thing, the FA Cup.

“Well Sir, you are in for a surprise” says Tom looking very happy with himself. Not long after taking our seat on the train, his bag resting on the table, he asks me the immortal question, “chipsticks or Wotsits?”. Slightly baffled, but remembering that after 12 months he has now succumbed to the fact that he, we, can’t keep eating burgers, Pot noodles and chips, he has made us a packed lunch. My moment's hesitation means he makes my mind up for me, tossing me a pack of Wotsits, along with two tin foil wrapped, chicken salad rolls.

There is now way to be poetic about the weather, it’s a shitty day, and the further we go South, the gloomier it gets, “it’s going to be one of those days” adds my ever positive companion. More and more rain covers the windows as we zip along, and only when the concessions cart cracks me on the knee do I break away from constantly refreshing Twitter, making sure our game has not been called off.

Post joint pulverising, Tom reminds me that where there is blame there is a claim “compensation, compensation”, but we are both suitably rewarded when the people on the neighbouring table choose to buy a sandwich, and we both smile smugly at each other, knowing what he have in our bags. “Egg and Cress, BLT, Ploughmans?” asks the cart pusher, they all look the same, so I don’t think it matters which one you go for.

The ticket inspector reminds us that it’s not a straightforward journey, we will have the pleasure of a rail replacement bus for some part of it, and it’s not long after we are climbing off the train in Basingstoke, and onto a coach reminiscent of school.

A few Lancashire accents remind us, that our jaunt from London pales into comparison when you consider the Bolton Wanderers FC (BW) fans long trip from the North West to the South coast, for today's FA Cup 3rd Round game against non-league Eastleigh FC (EFC).

The tedium of the rumbling coach sets in pretty quickly, and I choose to catch up with a bit of Christmas telly on my tablet, the woman just in front is a little more refined and gets to grips with a book of Choral Music. She has also outshone Tom a little in the packed lunch stakes as she pours a hot cup of tea from her flask, and opens a vast Tupperware box of treats, he has a lot to learn.

At one stop we are joined by more fans on the FA Cup trail, this time Southampton. There is probably little doubt that their game is going ahead at St Mary’s, but at EFC they have just announced a pitch inspection, I can just picture the referee walking around in waders, and BW fans behind us point to a flooded pitch in a passing park and voice our thoughts exactly “hope it's not like that in the goalmouth”.

“Breezy down on the coast” says Tom doing up his jacket as we get off at Southampton Parkway, a stone's throw from the ground, we hear a few BW fans asking each other “is the match off?” The answer is no, for now at least. Twitter has informed us that the pitch passed its first inspection, but another is to follow. Trapped in limbo, we decide to jump in a cab, after discovering you can’t walk from here, as we don’t fancy running across the intersection of a busy motorway.

The cab can’t go any further, the normal route is blocked off by bright orange men, and the driver seems keen to get our money and shoot, there is an ever so slight whiff of mayhem in the air. One opportunistic person, unperturbed by the traffic, is happy to wander around offering his wares to every passing person or car “match day scarves, get your match day scarves” he announces, holding a 50/50 out in front of him.

Once Tom gets his pin from a man’s makeshift stall under a large green umbrella in a nearby hotel car park, we make our way down a quiet winding lane, round one corner a large church, and not long after the Silverlake Stadium.

“You can tell the BBC are here” says Tom, pointing at the huge equipment filled trucks, that are taking up a large part of the car park.

No one really knows what to do with themselves, including us, as the ground is yet to open.  Some people have congregated around a gate which looks onto the pitch, and over the tops of their heads we can just make out the referee doing his second inspection. Many people like me are glued to their phones, hoping for the green light, one BW fan we meet who set off at 07:30 this morning says “hopes it goes ahead, or it’s a long way back”.

To kill some time we collect our tickets from the prefab club shop, that has a brown door like one from a terraced house. A man sitting behind a low table, once I give him my name, flicks through a pile of white envelopes, plucking one out and handing it to me. My ears then prick up like a police dog, behind me I can hear a familiar sound “50/50 tickets”. I turn to see a woman holding a book of them above her head, as she makes her way out of the door. I pursue, intercepting her just outside, hand over my money and secure the winning tickets, obviously.

The wind is still up, two flags are both almost continuously horizontal. One a St George's cross with Eastleigh written across it, the other has the RAF roundel. A reference to the clubs nickname the ‘Spitfires’, a recently adopted one chosen by the fans in 2005, due to the local area’s association with the famous World War Two fighter plane.

Conveniently the turnstile on our ticket is just next to the shop, and we join the EFC fans in their fascinating array of hats. One group all have matching blue trilby's, another man is in a rainbow hat with no brim or peak, and a propeller on top. Even now with tickets in hand, we still don’t know if the game is on, a muffled voice over the tannoy for a moment gives everyone hope, it sounds like he said “game on” but no one is sure. Conversation around us turns to certain TV channels choice of games for live broadcast over the weekend, Manchester United for example have a quite uninspiring match with Sheffield United, one EFC fans feels they have been overlooked, “one non league team left, that’s the BBC for you”.

“Come on Eastleigh” shouts a fan at the front of the queue, “about time” and “there we go” say others, as the noise of the opening gates, is a promising one, it looks like we all won’t have come all this way for nothing. A quick check on Twitter, and it is confirmed, for the second time in a week, someone unwittingly makes a Wayne’s World reference or nod to a 90’s sitcom, GAME ON!

We join the Black Friday rush into the ground, but no one is trampled or punched for a TV, there is no time for that, people are just relieved, and like us are quick to find their spot in the North Stand. A single storey covered terrace, with a corrugated roof, silver non-slip floor, and two large flags hanging from the back. With just over an hour until kick off, the ground staff are still on the pitch, some with forks, prodding away at regular intervals, one man has a leaf blower, blasting the grass, trying to clear any standing water.

Behind the far goal is a large all seater stand, with green seats, that somewhat dwarfs the rest of the ground. Along one side of the pitch is a terrace similar to ours, opposite it is a much smaller stand, with blue seats, and the dugouts just in front.

Even the howling of the leaf blower competing with the music being played can’t dampen the feeling of occasion surging around the the place. It’s clearly a very tight knit club, I’m not sure I have ever seen so many people hug or shake hands, that community spirit has been evident from arrival, this is a day they are going to enjoy to its fullest.

“That looks quite nice” says Tom as a man clutching a pint walks by, and the temptation only nine days into a dry January is plain to see. The woman who shortly follows, darting from one bar to another clutching two massive bottles of vodka, is just rubbing salt into the wound. He takes his mind off booze with what else, food, and despite the boy next to us with a deep filled square pie, the newly erected marquee with its ‘Food & Drink” sign, or the ‘Grandstand Grill’ with its considerable queue, Tom sticks with what he has brought from home, announces it's “two o’clock” like the Mad Hatter, and devours a sandwich from his bag.

There are kids and families everywhere, two young girls struggle with their overflowing tray of chips. The same debate between people plays out in front of us, over and over again, where to stand? Tom thinks we should have gone to the back to allow for “leaning” as we wait, I think we are better placed with the barricade just in front of us.

Cones are placed on the pitch, for what I can only imagine will be a light warm up, considering the last few days efforts to make it playable. When EFC come out it is to rapturous applause, I think everyone to a man is clapping. Tom returns from the bar, with only soft drinks in his hand, he gives me a bit of an insight into what we might expect from the rest of the day “judging by the bar, it’s going to get a bit rowdy, it’s rammed!”

“Welcome to the Silverlake” says the man standing on the sidelines with a microphone, as the bedraggled looking club mascot, a bear or maybe a dog wearing a home kit, walks along high-fiving people as he goes, perhaps they could not stretch to a fully working miniature Spitfire, if they get through to the next round, perhaps the budget will allow for one.

“It’s a bit sticky out here” he is being very kind, there is a puddle in front of us you could sail a model ship in “but I’m sure we will have a good game” which I don’t doubt, I have a feeling today will be a good one. EFC’s fine league form, and BW’s current plummeting fortunes, plus the far from ideal conditions, it just screams ‘cup upset’ or dare I say ‘giant killing’, I could be watching montages in years to come, the next time Round 3 rolls around and say “I was there”.

“Pass that along” says the man to my left holding a large box of blue and white balloons, each person taking a couple then doing as instructed. For the next 5 minutes all that can be heard is the wheezing and panting of people blowing them up, then the inexplicable farting noise of people letting them go. The occasional stray one flies by, or in a couple of cases some people are guilty of over inflating, and get a bit of a shock. The appearance of them provokes Tom to share a family secret “good thing my sister is not here, she has a fear of balloons”.

Still with half an hour until kick off a drum to our left starts, and I’m not sure I can remember longer than about a minute for the rest of the day, that some rhythm is not being bashed out. People join in  by stomping their feet, and the singing begins “I just can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough, Eastleigh FC”. Not satisfied with one song they belt out one after another “blue army, blue army”, “la, la, la, la Eastleigh” it’s non stop, the drummer also has some skills, not just random whacking, he adds in the odd flourish. The rain continues, and is getting harder, but this has no effect on the fans “we’re Eastleigh FC, we’re Eastleigh FC”.

The few people unable to squeeze under the stand, are pitchside against the railing, and are getting wet, but are distracted from their misery by an impromptu rendition of the National Anthem. Perhaps a local patriotic pregame tradition, or maybe because there is a man dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, with a full face mask, white gloves, Union Jack purse conducting the crowd, and then carrying on with his/her ‘Gangnam Style’ dance.

“Apparently Shola Ameobi is playing” says one fan to another behind us “Shola?” he replies, “not even the proper Ameobi” The teams are read out, whichever Ameobi it is, he is on the bench. Each BW player's names are followed by a “booooooo” and when it’s EFC’s turn, each player’s name is followed with a “yeahhhhhhhh”.

The blue and white tunnel has been extended, a “guard of honour” of children, and men holding large flags are out well before the teams, and the man on the mic is back out doing his best hype man impression “let’s make some noise!!” He asks each section of the crowd for a cheer, lastly coming to us “Shed End show them how it’s done” and they do, the loudest by far, “we are Eastleigh, super Eastleigh from the lane”.

Classical music plays, high tempo strings as the team's emerge. The crowd are at fever pitch “Eastleigh FC blue and white army” over and over, the captain's do the toss, EFC will be attacking our end first. One fan with his back to the pitch, the heavens falling on him, conducts the singing “Hampshire's blue and white”. When EFC get an early chance, which his own player blocks there is a deafening “ohhhhhhhh”.

We have so far spotted a few staples for any person with their I Spy book of the FA Cup, such as a wooden rattle and a man in a silly wig, it’s an orange one on this occasion, but a new edition may be in order as we have seen a few things I'm sure would get you plenty of points like her majesty, the propeller hat, a man in the blue and white Mexican wrestling mask and a group of 7 or 8 in brown leather flying hats. The tinfoil FA Cup count is a disappointing one, just one young boy at the front of the stand, but there is still plenty of the day left.

A few umbrella rows break out between people pitch side and those in the first row of the stand. My attention is however on the masterful use of the ‘2 Unlimited’ song ‘No Limit’. “ Eastleigh, Eastleigh, Eastleigh FC”, and it’s the home team with all the early pressure. When the nippy number 7 latches onto a through ball, and is bearing down on goal his shot is a bit tame, it's a good chance, but the crowd love the effort and reply with more ear splitting clapping.

“Wembley, Wembley, Wembley”

“Not a chance yet” says Tom about BW with over fifteen minutes of the game gone, they have been very poor, their fans have had zero to sing about “can you hear the Bolton sing?”. To be fair to both teams it's incredible that any kind of football is being played, “ these are awful conditions “ says one fan, “ the ball did not bounce” adds another.

The rain has not stopped, some people are oblivious to how wet they are getting or just don't care, the adrenaline off the day is fending off the cold. After the initial 30 or so minutes of frantic EFC attack, the game has settled but BW are still yet to register a shot on target. With a moment's break in the singing there is talk of the game being “called” the pitch looks awful, there are huge brown scars all over.

For the first time in the game BW’s travelling fans, make themselves known, they are here in considerable numbers, but have been very quiet, they have however draped a flag over the barrier around the pitch.

One EFC fan behind us, who has been offering the vicinity a pretty constant stream of opinion, does have an interesting theory on why one player is performing so well, it's his birthday. This does though come with a down side because he also thinks the same player will be in a bad mood because he is now one year older.

“You dirty northern bastard” rings out after a late BW tackle, the standard reply from a southern team playing a northern team. With the game so international these days the player himself could be from Lagos or the Cook Islands but is tarred with the same flat cap and whippet brush, non the same.

The EFC number 7 who so far has looked the most threatening is down on the edge of the penalty area, and it doesn't look good “not Yemi” says a disappointed fan. “He is holding his hamstring” comments Dr Tom, and once seen by the physio the worst is confirmed by the hand signal he makes to the bench. Quickly people discuss who should come on, Tom feels his replacement, standing on the touch line waiting for the limping number 7, does not share some of the attributes that had proved fruitful for EFC “he doesn't look quick”.

There is a flourish of activity in the final 10 minutes, EFC have a shot that sends the BW keeper scrambling “she fell over”, shout the home fans in response to his jittery attempt to see it wide. BW finally get their first shot, and it's a good one requiring a strong save to keep it out and for the first time we hear the fans from the North West “come on Bolton”.

“Torrid half of football” says the mini Motson behind us, which I think is a bit unfair. EFC have outshone their higher league counterparts and the atmosphere has been first rate, I'm not sure you could ask for much more. This is the same person who is moaning about one of their forwards “he is just shit, he just scores goals” so I'm not sure how much we should take notice of him anyway.

An army of fork wielders are out, doing their best to repair the damage. We bump into one of the tribal mob from outside, “how do you think we’re doing?” she asks, “not bad, they have only had one shot on target” I reply. Looking at the pitch, and even though it's stopped raining she is a little downbeat “I think it will be called off, its bad”.

I don't win the 50/50 raffle prize that has swelled along with the attendance to a whopping £565, not an amount to turn your nose up at, that would get me a lot of notebooks.

Many fans, “I'm fucking soaked”, take advantage of people going to the loo or to get something to eat, to grab a place in the stand and “get out of the wind”. The man with the microphone for some reason is talking about beach football, but then turns to a much more sensible topic, the scores from around the country. “At least we will be on Match Of The Day Before them” he says laughing, following the cheer because neighbours Southampton are loosing.

“Come on Eastleigh” greets the players coming back out.

Within moments of the whistle, people are talking about the possibility of a replay, and don't seem too pumped about it, “too far” and “too cold up there” are some of the reasons we overhear. Tom is quite frank “we are not going to Bolton”.

The tinfoil FA Cup count hits two, we spot one being held aloft on the other terrace.

Just over 10 minutes have played of the second half, and the fairy tale starts to come true, EFC score, well actually it’s a BW own goal, which feels very far away at the opposite end of the pitch.

Pandemonium, an outpouring of joy that might go unmatched this weekend “who are you, who are you” they shout to the BW supporters who probably wish the ground would swallow them up, and take the team with them. One EFC fan is now standing above the crown , his hand on the roof to steady himself “COME ON YOU BOYS IN BLUE” they sing with all their might, along with the stomping of feet, the kicking of the back of the stand, all contained within the low roofed terrace, it's an awesome noise.

“La, la, la Super Eastleigh”

“Neil Lennon looks worried” comments someone, who is drowned out by another song “Eastleigh FC, blue and white army”, “four years ago Neil Lennon was manager of Celtic beating Barcelona”.

Only the fingertips of the EFC keeper, keeps the score at 1 - 0. Steely faced he goes and collects the ball, tossing it towards the corner flag, knowing farewell he pulled off a good’un, one adoring fan describes his demeanour perfectly “no emotion” no screaming and chest slapping, he knows the game is not won yet, plenty of time for that after the final whistle.

It feels like an age since EFC were able to venture far enough into the BW half to pose a threat, but the attack seemed hampered by the conditions, holding up the ball and allowing BW to smash it clear. I don't think it's a case of EFC trying to sit back on a goal advantage, but more that whatever small sliver of professional pride is left in the visiting players has woken up, and they have been applying some pressure of their own.

Time for a change, time for an Ameobi. I can't work out if the boo’s from the BW fans are for the player going off or the player coming on, but regardless the decision has not been well received.

The tinfoil FA Cup count hits a lofty 3.

With ten minutes to go, EFC almost grab a second, which one would think would put the game beyond the faltering BW, except for another squandered chance, somewhat overshadowed by a bizarre set of events which for a moment has Tom thinking that a pitch invader has stopped a goal. His sudden appearance has every one a bit shocked, especially because he is darting towards the BW box, almost in tandem with the EFC attack. Once apprehended the tit in a red hood is marched off the pitch and is justifiably barracked by the crowd “wanker, wanker, wanker”.

Having not scored what seemed like a golden chance to double the lead, EFC are offered a chance on a plate to grab a goal, when the BW keeper handles a pass back, and the home team are awarded a free-kick just to the left of the 6 yard box, much to the dismay of Lennon on the sideline who lays into the fourth official. With a wall of white shirts on the line to breach, and after much whispering and deliberations, the shot is sent wide, and another chance to secure the win goes begging.

“Ole, ole, ole” shout the EFC as the players pass the ball amongst themselves, “four to go” shouts a fan. When the ball goes out for a home throw in the player tells the attentive ball boy not to rush. For a moment BW think they have saved a bit of face only to be denied by the raised flag of the linesman, much to the delight of the home crowd “who are ya, who are ya”, they shout at the BW fans mid celebrations.

“Blue army”

At this crucial nail biting moment, one person has decided to go for a walk carrying two large platters of food, if the prawn sandwich brigade ask for it, they get it, regardless of how edge of your seat the final moments are turning out to be.

“Go for the corner” shouts one fan, “no” shouts another in disagreement “go for the goal”.

A huge bundle breaks out in the goal, the EFC keeper is far from cooperative when the BW player tries to get the ball back. The BW fans celebrate at the opposite end I'm sure fuelled by nothing other than relief. The home end is poles a apart, “for fucks sake”. For the first time it falls a little quiet, everyone is gutted, we are gutted that they were literally seconds away from the win. The drop in noise is only brief, and quickly starts again “come on Eastleigh, come on Eastleigh”.

The voice over the tannoy brings reality crashing down around us “it’s the FA Trophy next week” and whatever your excuse maybe, “Bolton on a Tuesday night” is what is now required to resolve this tie. The final score from Southampton Vs Crystal Palace get’s a half hearted cheer, but the gloss of the day has been ever so, minutely tarnished by the equaliser, but it's barely noticeable it’s barely even worth mentioning.

Depending on which groups of fans we pass as we walk down the now dark lane, you get little snapshots of the mood of each teams supporters, the overriding feeling from the EFC fans is “we didn't deserve that” one is very pragmatic “we are still in the Cup”.

We wait for our cab back to the station, as the last few 50/50 scarves are now being sold out of a Sports Direct bag on the pavement, and once at the station, it's not a long wait for the coach. I get briefly talking to one BW fan who is wearing a SC Paderborn 07 shirt, who gives me my fact of the day when he tells me that the city is twinned with Bolton.

Tom’s head hardly touches the red leather headrest of the coach, and he is out for the count, as me make our way back home.

“I hate football” was muttered by an EFC fan just after the BW goal, three words I'm sure all football fans have said at one point in their lives. The shift from elation to agony in the fraction of a second, can be so cruel, and for a moment can make you question why you do all this in the first place. Today though there was so much to confirm exactly why you do, the atmosphere, the excitement, the anticipation, the Queen, the dog/bear, the propeller hat, the performance of the home team, all enough to make you want to shout as loud as you can “I love football!”


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Sunday 10 January 2016

Listen To Geoffrey - Edgware Town FC Vs Ampthill Town FC, Spartan South Midlands League One, Silver Jubilee Park (02/01/16)

Hello 2016, hello non stop rain, hello endless Tweets about postponed games. Thankfully our match has stuck two fingers up at Mother Nature and shouted in her face “you will not win!”, because Edgware Town FC (ET) have a 3G pitch. You could drop an ocean on it, and once you have swept all the starfish away, you would still be able to play, in the immortal words of Wayne Campbell “GAME ON!”

Tom’s timing is immaculate, I notice a flat cap wearing figure appear from the gloom, at a bus stop en route. Once aboard it takes him a minute to realise that I'm sitting about a foot away, or he is ignoring me, we exchange pleasantries about how annoying our families were at Christmas, how much cheese we ate, and what PS4 game we received that allows us to waste endless hours collecting bobbins or fancy hair brushes.

Off the bus, and a short walk later, a large green notice board at the entrance to a very soggy park lets us know we are on the right track. Not too far in the distance, past the waterlogged fields, and miserable looking dog walkers, four thin floodlights stretch up into the sky, too narrow to even cast a shadow, they are beacon in the ever worsening weather.

Not put off by the burnt out car just past the entrance, a homemade sign written in black marker pen, stretched across a fence next to an intriguing small red brick turnstile tells us we have arrived “Silver Jubilee Park”. I had seen it online abbreviated to SJP, I’m sure the club would like it made clear, as would I, that the abbreviation is in no way infringing on the copyright of ‘Sex In The City’ actress, and wife of Inspector Gadget, Sarah Jessica Parker. No-one wants a Victoria Beckham, Peterborough United FC situation on their hands.

From Inside his cosy, dry turnstile, Chris greets us in his woolly hat. A first year club board member, and newly appointed women's team manager, he is more than happy to venture into the drizzle to excitedly point out works and developments underway, all across the ground.

I think it's fair to say the ground is a little sparse, for now, but you can see that is all about to change. The clubhouse and changing rooms are elevated along one side of the pitch, tacked on end is the main and only seating area. A small green covered terrace sits at the top of a slope behind one goal, with only a low hedge separating you from the surrounding park and picturesque tree covered green hill, that rolls off into the distance.

The warmth of the clubhouse is much appreciated, and except for a few ET fans in their green and white scarves by the bar at one end of the Viking Longhall we are first to arrive. Two things are clearly king here: darts and dancing. There are six darts boards, four on one wall, two on another, and a large wooden dance floor, that takes up the majority of the floor space, and shines some light on the sign on the way in “dancers this way”. The Dundee derby is playing on a large screen at the opposite end of the room, as we take a seat on one of the tables covering the centre of the room, stopping Tom from breaking out a few moves he highlights the obvious “they like their darts”. We can hear the music playing in the changing rooms through the wall, like a neighbour having a party.

“Happy New Year” says the man behind the bar, which is three quarters optics and beer pumps and one quarter tea room, snack bar and club shop. Mugs, scarves, programmes and old pictures fill every available inch of space. The bulging, cling film wrapped rolls take pride of place, stickers written in biro sit on top of them, letting you know what’s inside, it’s just a cup of tea for now, but I have a feeling that we will be back.

Tom is on weather watch, every so often peering over my shoulder out the window behind me “still raining”. The ham salad rolls on the bar proved too tempting, and he is quick to grab us one each, producing a bag of crisps from his rucksack to go along with them. In hunt of a programme I nip back to the ET corner, and meet the club chairman, and former Port Vale FC player Daz.

A tall Northerner, he is beyond modest when I compliment him on their fantastic season so far, “yeah doing alright” he says in a mannered Staffordshire accent. One loss in the league, three in all competitions, a goal difference of +45, score lines such as 6 - 3, 12 - 3 and 9 - 2 twice, I think can most definitely be described as a lot better than “alright”. Perhaps somewhat the perfectionist he tells me of their “100% away record” but he is a little perturbed when he talks about their home form “lost all our points here” he says, pointing outside. That is five points by the way, one draw and one defeat, hardly relegation form.

Back at our table, it’s not long before the inevitable, its raffle time. Curiously Tom gets involved, perhaps the chance of a bit of Kit Kat money has tempted him to the dark side. It’s not your usual set up, it’s a scratchcard the likes of which we have only seen once before at Wadham Lodge FC. Pick your team and if it appears under the silver panel, you’re the winner. Arsenal are taken much to Tom’s annoyance, so he opts for Wolves, Spurs are not even on it, so inspired buy the game on the TV, I go for Celtic.

Patiently waiting, while we deliberate what team to pick, is club committee member Geoffrey, who tells us that the raffle is a big help in raising funds. By his own admission he has never had any interest or “involvement” with football before, but as a recent retiree, he needed something to fill the void. Even though new to the ‘Beautiful Game’ he seems to have got to grips very quickly with the importance of grassroots football. He then encapsulates its necessity, in two effortless sentences, he sums it up so perfectly that I wonder if there is any need to go on, his words will probably be on t-shirts some day, children of the future will ask, when they are watching the PC World International Sky Plus Yellow Tie League One “why did we not listen to Geoffrey?!”

“It’s like a tree, you need the roots. If you don’t keep the roots going, the tree doesn't grow”.

Daz joins us “what’s up?” he asks, I’m now armed with my notebook, and he is more than happy to tell us in more depth about a club with a dark recent past, but with a much, much brighter future.

In 2008 due to the loss of their ground ET’s original incarnation went under, and was reformed in 2014, all due to what seemed to be a flippant comment between friends. “Why don’t we start our own club, so we don’t get fired” said Daz to the now owner, who happened to own the rights to the ET name. Always interested to know what drives people to start a club, it is a well documented headache, what is their plan? “Promotion back to the Ryman Premier and take the club back to where it was”.

£250,000 has been spent on the ground to get it up to a category C standard, which will eventually be big enough for nearly 2,000 spectators. A much higher standard than they require he admits, they get about an average turnout of 80, but they will be ground sharing with Hendon FC of the Ryman Premier League, it’s a perfect partnership. “God send, the 3G” he says as the rain continues, so many clubs at this level I’m sure are envious of it, many away games have been canceled, and a fixture backlog is growing.

“Hard work at this level, but it’s rewarding”

The local community, “lots of local schools use the pitches for free” and attracting new fans is high on the agenda. With a large catchment area, and not a huge amount of competition, only Barnet FC whose prices for a League Two side some might deem a little steep, what better than a local affordable club.

He introduces us to the match day secretary “I do all the hard work, then he takes over so I can relax and have a few pints”.

There feels like a lot going on at ET this afternoon, and it’s not long until we we bump into a familiar face Deryll David the sharpest, youngest referee in the land, who recently made a video with our friends at Pitch Talk. Imagine a dash of James Bond, mixed with the cool kid from your secondary school, he looks well turned out in his suit, and is at ET because his game had been called off. Referees are a bit of a theme, and why the boardroom is out of bounds, the match officials are being assessed and as Daz put it, gesturing to the men in dark suits “we just leave them to it”.

“It’s easing” says Tom, the rain has gone from cats and dogs to a downpour, as he returns to the noisy clubhouse after taking some pictures of the ground ,“some flags out” he tells me, hanging from the back of the covered terrace.

The low slung roof of the main stand and it’s pillars are reminiscent in a very small way of the back of the west stand at Highbury, and make for a slightly obscured view, but Tom is quite right when he says “we will stay dry unless the roof collapses”. Opposite us on the far touchline, someone is “really struggling with that tent” as Tom puts it. The removable roofs of the slightly squiffy dugouts, are getting caught in the wind, a two man job proving almost impossible for the poor soul who drew that short straw. Tom does wonder if something is afoot, you hear stories of clubs making the visiting team’s life as hard as possible, no hot water, smaller changing rooms or in this case a roof “do you think the away team get one?”.

The visitors Ampthill Town FC (ATFC), are oblivious to the shenanigans, and are finishing their warm up just in front of us. The coach can maybe sense a bit of anxiety amongst the players “very quiet today, let’s get the talking going” he says, and attempts to inject a bit of confidence in them “no reason we can’t get 3 points”. One player slips off the edge of the pitch, looking angrily at where he lost his footing, clutching himself, wincing. The coach ushers the team inside “lets go, lets go, lets go” reminding the players there is no-one to clear up after them “make sure you take water bottles and tops in”..

“Ted, you will be able to give up work” shouts one fan over to the man who has just been told he has won the raffle, although not bitter, Tom is perhaps a little sore to say the least considering the winning team was Arsenal.

The King starts to play as the team’s walk out, I love an eclectic choice of entrance music. One ET fan is still full of the New Year spirit and sings along making his way to his seat “it’s the wonder, the wonder of EDGWARE!”. The music is also a cue for the people still inside to make their way outside, there is now a noticeable amount of other football scarves on show Boreham Wood FC and Hendon FC whose games were abandoned.

“Stop cuddling and get on with the game” shouts the singer “hate that huddle” he announces. The voice over the tannoy is a bit more genteel, “hope you all enjoy the game”.

ET get off to a flyer, scoring after four minutes, and don’t look back, “come on you wares” shouts a supporter. Tom thinks the celebration is a little muted, the players perhaps have a feeling they will be getting a hatfull.

Despite Tom’s slight objections, “the rains picked up” we move after the goal, in search of a better vantage point, and join the few who are braving the elements, standing behind the goal, only once we have squeezed past the club photographer under his humongous fishing umbrella, next to the stairs from the changing room down to the pitch. A few people with their own more sensibly sized brollies stand pitchside.

Toms mind is wandering, perhaps not fully recovered from his East End barrow boy themed New Years party “that pot noodle sounded nice”.

Fifteen minutes gone, 2 - 0 the green machine keeps rolling on. One ATFC coach is understandably not best pleased “too easy” he bellows. For a moment, both our attentions are taken away from the celebrations, as what I can only describe as scene from ‘The Birds’ is playing out, a mass of gulls, and smaller darker birds clearly angered by the ATFC defending fill the sky.

ATFC get their first shot on target after about twenty minutes, and even though it’s pretty tame, the fact it was allowed to happen does not best please what is a tough crowd to please round here, “come on Edgware” he says like a disappointed parent.

Just shy of thirty minutes gone ET get their third, a goal one player tells the scorer was “superb” another that it was “mustard”. “They might look like Brazil, but they don’t play like it” is Tom’s opinion on a pretty torrid thirty minutes for ATFC.

“Come on Edgware”

“What you having at half time?” I ask Tom, “a pot noodle with a hot dog sticking out”. However, before he can get stuck into that, ET have a goal chalked off for offside, but they have no reason to worry, they are making chance after chance, it could be in double figures already. When they do get a fourth just before pot noodle time, Tom describes it perfectly “he went through everyone”, the player rounds the keeper and scores, it finishes off a dominant, rain soaked half.

“Well done boys”

A large Geoff Shreeves holds the attention of most people, as he shouts in that way he does, about what looks like a very dull first half in the Premiership. “I love a pot noodle” says Tom, the fiend, I'm not sure how you can it fucking stinks. It’s space age contents stew away and every so often he peels back its tinfoil lid, only to close it back up, because it's not quite ready.

The heads of the referee, followed by the players bob past the small window of a door next to big Geoff, and we make our way outside, the steward on the gate, that lets the players onto the pitch, shares a joke with one “you actually going to start playing?” This half we are joined by a lot more people, ET are attacking this end now, with the shelter it makes for a much more inviting proposition.

More fans means more songs, and the group from Boreham Wood FC, who we recognise from our recent visit, join in a few “we’re green, we’re white, we’re bloody dynamite”.

“Rains back” says Tom, I’m not sure it ever went away, but it’s now difficult to see anything that is not illuminated by the floodlights, except for the Griswold’s house the other side of the park or a Temple, with its golden spires perched on the hill in the distance.

I’m not sure if one fan has been working on this song, slaving away like a creative type, surrounded by scrunched up balls of paper, or has come up with it on the hoof, nonetheless it’s quite impressive “we’re not Real Madrid, we’re not FC Barcelona, we’re Edgware Town and Matty is our owner”.

ET are in complete control, and the game has been a bit of a procession since half time, they make chances, but as one fan puts it “we’re just going through the motions”, like when a burst of pace down the right, results in a good ball across the box, there is not one ET player there to meet in, no player is really busting a gut, much to the annoyance of one screaming fan “why is no-one in the box!?!”

“Got a bottle of Vodka in there” says a fan to the ATFC keeper while he takes a drink “4 - 0 at halftime, you need a drink son”.

A goal from ATFC, a great flicked back header, brings what just seems like a counting the minutes to home time exercise, to life. ET’s players are furious, and argue amongst themselves, as one fan puts it it’s only a “consolation goal”, but a clean sheet always makes for a better result.

“Come on Edgware, come on Edgware”

“Can you hear the Ampthill sing?” sing the group near us, and although there is no response, you can most definitely hear the green and white spirited horn one fan has produced from his bag, giving it a blast every time the ATFC keeper takes a goal kick.

“He comes from Italy, and wears Versace”

The home team players continue to grumble with each other they are being sloppy, “Jesus, boys” shouts one towards his teammates. With about thirty five minutes of the second half gone ET get their fifth goal, a shot from the edge of the box fizzes into the back of the net, and the referee might as well blow the whistle now.

Very little of note happens in the remaining minutes of the half. We do marvel at the fact four people are huddled under the mega umbrella, and I wonder if you have to pay Council Tax on it, it’s so huge. A mass exodus of two fans means they are serenaded by those who are staying for the final whistle “is there a fire drill, is there a fire drill”. There is a chance in extra time for the ET number 11 to make it six, only to hit the post from a yard out, leaving everyone, no more than him, a little baffled.

The saturated ET players are clapped off “come on you ‘wares” and Tom almost gets as muddy as them, as we make own way down the grass verge just in front of where we had been standing, and he almost go arse over tit, I’m fine however, thank God for Doctor Martins!

Things are looking very rosy for ET, so many pieces of the jigsaw seem to be falling into place, just at the right time and it’s quite remarkable so soon after its rebirth. If you fancy some darts, a dance, a pot noodle or some Elvis, ET is the place to be.

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Sunday 3 January 2016

It’s Like Barbados Here - Staines Town FC Vs Farnborough FC, Ryman Premier League, Wheatsheaf Park (29/12/15)

“Sun’s out….been out all’s like Barbados here, plus we have the best pitch in the league” was the reply from one Staines Town FC (ST) fan on Twitter when I enquired about tonight's home game against Farnborough FC (FFC), making sure it had not fallen fowl of the bad weather, as one game we were considering, had earlier in the day.

The resounding response, thoughts of short sleeve shirts, drinks with small umbrellas and a jet sky or two, gave me the energy to wade through the Terry's chocolate orange boxes and HBO box sets that litter my living room floor post Christmas, look past the wind and drizzle outside my window, and head to Waterloo to meet Tom, for our last game of 2015.

Tom gleefully shows off his new camera bag, with enough compartments, pockets and waterproof sections, to ensure he will never be unprepared again going into the New Year. Such is its Swiss Army knife qualities that the 30 minute or so trip to Staines station whistled by, making sure though not to make the same mistake as Tom had and nearly miss our stop, after his beer and Star Wars trilogy fuelled trip to Devon to see his family on Christmas eve.

“I’m here to use the gym” says the driver of the car pulling up, to a security guard apparently manning what we think is the entrance to the ground, he reassures us it is, and Tom is not wrong when he says “this is a bit swanky” as we walk the shrub lined drive.

At first it's not clear where it is, there are no familiar sights, no towering flood lights, but there is a smell, a smell that my basset hound companion could lock onto anywhere, in any conditions “the burger van’s open”.

‘Welcome to Wheatsheaf Park’ is written high on a wall in blue on a yellow background, it would also seem from the sign just below that it is also the home of Chelsea FC Ladies team. We both exchange a look, but are both quick to remember we are here with neutral heads on, no Spurs or Arsenal allegiances tonight, it would also explain the slightly comical “ONE DI MATTEO” sticker at the station.

Once past the turnstile, paying the woman with her rolls of different coloured tickets hanging from the wall, it's hard not to marvel at what is a pristine looking pitch. I’m guessing that having one of the top ladies football teams ground sharing with you, means a little bit more money is pumped into the pitch, than your average Ryman Premier League club, and it really looks like a cracking surface, in fact the whole setup from the outside at least, looks like one of the best we have seen.

Not long in and Tom is paying a visit to the portacabin Jenga which is the club shop, painted in the club’s colours, and with two very inviting homemade signs on the door “Football Manager sold here” and “grab some sweets”. However, it is neither of these that tempt Tom, but a new addition to the pin collection, to which the display of has become somewhat of a conundrum since the new bag, but he is happy it’s not “black and white and round” like so many of the others.

There is not a cloud in the sky, it’s cool and crisp and my shirt and jumper combination is already woefully inadequate. We pass a group of blazer wearing official looking types talking quietly amongst themselves at the mouth of the blue, vinyl extendable tunnel, as I find a seat in the empty main stand, as Tom goes off doing what he does.

It’s a short climb up some metal steps, to the blue seated stand, some of them bearing a sticker “Chelsea Ladies reserved” and I do my best to avoid them, I don’t want to get my jumper dirty. Wheatsheaf Park is simple, compact and immaculately lit, a small grey concrete fence encircles the whole pitch. Opposite me, behind the two dugouts is a single storey covered terrace, which goes almost the full length of the pitch with “Welcome to Staines Town” written across the front, behind each goal is a small narrow strip for people to stand.

“You’re keen” says a man in a club tie clutching some programmes, making his way to the boardroom, situated high above the pitch behind large windows, at the very back of the stand. Me, or ‘Billy No mates’ sits patiently, like a doting wife at a steam engine convention, sitting in the front row watching Tom, as we does a lap of the ground, waiting for him to get on the home stretch so we can find the bar.

In order to get a programme as they didn’t have any on the turnstile on the way in, I drop into the club
shop, shun the sweets, and hand over my £2.50, for the new bright yellow addition to my collection. As I leave the two women in there continue their conversation about New Year “we get a curry in, if we see in the New Year, we see in the New Year” all said in the air of someone like myself, who is not a fan of the must have fun attitude adopted by so many on the 31st.

Through a door in the side of the main stand, the club’s crest painted on the wall at the foot of the stairs, we make our way to the Thames Suite. It feels almost like a wedding reception is about to begin. Large round function tables, dim lights, and a pink glow from illuminated frosted glass behind the bar at the other end of the room, make me wonder when the disco is about to start, and it’s only when I notice the large projected screen, and various TV’s showing football league highlights, I realise that unless it’s a ‘FL72’ themed wedding, there will be no Lady Gaga tonight. As Tom visits the bar, I cast an eye over the various football shirts, QPR, Blackpool, Millwall, and one England rugby shirt that hang framed around the room.

As one man stands pumping pound coins into the single fruit machine next to the covered pool table up against the wall, Tom subtly finishes half a baguette that has emerged from one of the many sections of his new backpack. While chowing down, he peruses the programme every so often stopping, turning it my way, to share what he has found.

  • A whole page picture of club patron and TV Astrologer Russell Grant.
  • A one day free membership to the attached gym.
  • A picture of a scantily clad woman advertising a local lingerie shop.

“Not a bad turn out” says Tom as the bar slowly fills up with big jackets and wooly hats. One of those people coming in, wearing the same blue and yellow scarf he had on when we first met him is Keith, who runs the clubs Twitter account and who kindly hooked us up with tickets for the ST game at Leyton Orient FC in the FA Cup 1st Round. He is also wearing the same big smile he had then too and kindly offers us a drink, after giving us both a big handshake.

Although not our first time seeing ST play, it is our first visit to Wheatsheaf Park, and Keith is quick to fill us in. Things have not really been ideal since we last met at the beginning of November, ST are currently on a five game losing streak, not that FFC are faring much better. He says they “have not won an away game in 2015”. He explains the team have been playing “good football” but have been “sucker punched” on more than one occasion. I ask if the cup run has had a negative effect on league performance, an unnecessary distraction, but he does not think that’s the case, “we have been on good cup runs before”.

Keith explains a little more about the club’s set up, and that the owners are a large electrical company who do the flood lights at various clubs, including Chelsea and this explains the excellent flood lights we both commented on to each other when first arriving. Light quality is a bit of a bugbear, for Tom in particular when taking pictures at night games. Some grounds we have visited have little less than a torch tied to a broom handle, so tonight makes a pleasant change.

He also explains that during Sheffield United FC’s season long dalliance in the top flight, and with having to pay so many visits to London throughout the season, they purchased the facilities from ST to use as a base, only to get relegated, as quickly as they got promoted, and ended up selling it back.

Keith mid chat points out a bit of a local hero, “that's the girl who ran on the pitch at Leyton”. To say she “ran” I think is a bit of an understatement, she flew, I’m not sure her feet touched the ground. Going from the away end to the halfway line and back, before the stewards could blink an eye, and thanks to some fellow fans she was bundled off the pitch, and out the ground, before anyone could get their hands on her. “They say she has the foulest mouth going” explains Keith laughing, “if you get any quotes, make sure you spell them correctly”.

We are briefly interrupted, by the man selling 50/50 raffle tickets, Tom is already rolling his eyes, “mugs game” he tells me, but of course I hand over my £2.

Outside the crowd has increased, most of them milling around the tea bar and the club shop, one end of which has now opened, and one of the New Year talkers is selling programmes. Whilst in the bar Tom had popped off for a quick Vape, and on returning commented that the “wind is picking up” and it really was whirling around, making it feel even colder, perhaps its being so close to the River Thames, close enough Keith told us, that the ground flooded back in 2014.

‘Blue, blue, electric blue’ by Bowie is playing, as the players finish warming up, and the teams start making their way back into the shelter of the changing room. Tom once again comments on the amount of people here, “this could be one of our biggest turnouts”, although it should not be a big surprise, considering the turnout at Brisbane Road, they clearly have a solid fanbase, home and away.

“Welcome to Wheatsheaf Park, and this Crimbo limbo fixture” says the voice over the tannoy. He then goes on to give a brutally honest assessment of both teams league positions, not your usual fluffy, children’s TV presenter positivity, this guy only deals in hard facts. ST find themselves 18th and FCC 21st, “both at the wrong end of the table” he explains, he also reminds everyone, although I’m sure it’s not entirely necessary of the fact that both teams were relegated from the Conference South last season. Not perhaps how I would go about rallying the troops, but maybe it’s a bit of reverse psychology.

As both teams are read out, there is another Chelsea reference, as the same entrance music they use, ‘Liquidator’ by Harry J Allstars starts to play, and a loud blast of the referee's whistle, from down the blue tunnel, sparks the stewards into life, “way hey”, another whistles over to get the attention of the “mascot” who is kicking a ball around on the pitch.

The fact that the extendable tunnel, does not quite meet the edge of the pitch, means one steward in a trilby, and one in a flat cap, hold back the tide of fans, allowing for both teams to cross the small strip of concrete between tunnel and pitch unscathed. The ST captain does his best to undo the work of the club announcers sombre mood and gets his team in the right frame of mind “come on boys”.

“Come on yellows”

Small pockets of fans surround the pitch, but the majority are like us, sitting in the main stand, or are just in front next to the pitch. “Come on the Swans” says a fan quietly, as the lights in the stand go out just before kick off, both of us look at each other not sure if it’s a mistake.

“Come on guys” shout various players from both teams, as we get underway.

FFC apply all the early pressure, and their keeper is vocal in letting his teammates know “great start whites”, an early shot from just outside the six yard box, and two resulting corners, mean it is all a bit nervy amongst the home fans.

Although the bulk of them are sitting around us, the nosiest are standing behind the away goal, their flags hanging from the fence behind, one a St George's Cross with “Staines Town FC Pride Of Middlesex” written on it, the other, with a little bit of help from the zoom on Tom’s camera reads “Football Was Not Invented In 1992”. I get the feeling they are the same bunch we sat amongst at Orient, their non stop singing despite the team's cup exit and 6 - 1 loss, was phenomenal.

A low drawn out chant of “yellow”, prompts the man in front to use the number one cliche from the big book of football cliches: Staines Town FC edition, when he refers to them as the “Staines massive”. I managed to write our previous blog without a mention to “my Julie”, “aight” or other such early 2000’s comedy catchphrases, I’m not going to start now, so will leave that one well alone.

“Late one, must of been delivering the mail” is the slightly odd comment the person in front of us makes under his breath, when he has to move to let in a late arrival to his aisle.

“Everywhere we go”

Fifteen minutes gone, and as Toms says, “a bit out of the blue” ST grab a goal. A cross from the left is glanced in off the head of the number 9, who kisses the badge on his shirt, as he celebrates. There is a palpable relief, but still a level of nervousness, “park the bus” shouts one fan. The desire to remain solid is clearly front and centre, it would be bad luck to once again be “sucker punched”. Not that the noisy few need much reason to sing, but the goal means the volume has gone up “yellow, yellow, yellow”.

Since the goal, ST have got in their stride, the main point of attack coming from the gaggle of nippy, small players gobbling up the flick ons, and knock downs of the number 9, especially the number 10 who is tireless, dogged and is covering every inch of the pitch, Tom’s description of him is perfect a “pitbull”.

Although ST are on top, particularly down the wings, where they seem to have free reign, they are sometimes a bit guilty of overplaying, or are unable to keep up with the speed merchants on the flanks. On more than one occasion however, they show flashes of a real lack of composure, and make life much harder for themselves, like a misplaced passback, which results in a needless corner that thankfully FFC can’t capitalise on.

Half time is nearly upon us, and of course Tom has one thing on his mind “I’m hungry”.

The game has gone a little flat, ST’s post goal confidence has waned a little, and FFC are perhaps a fraction on top, but its nominal.

With only a few minutes left until the break ST are awarded a free kick on the left, almost from the same position the ball was delivered from for their first goal. The ball is crossed in, it takes a nick off two players competing at the front post, hits an FFC player on the edge of the six yard box, and falls to the feet of number 9 to poke home from close range, his momentum taking him to the back of the net, where he celebrates with the fans behind the goal, “yellow, yellow, yellow”.

I always find the music played at football matches interesting, as little excuse is needed to play a song of one kind or another nowadays: an entrance song, halftime song, fulltime song, and in the case of ST a goal song by Body Rockers - ‘I Like The Way You Move”.

“Game over” says Tom, and although there is still forty five minutes left to play, FFC must be feeling pretty low right now, and with their away record, they can’t be very hopeful.

The voice over the tannoy has certainly perked up “2 - 0 to the Swans” he announces, as the team’s walk in, and the lights turn on overhead like the interval at the theatre, but instead of tiny pots of ice cream, we (Tom) goes in search of something a little more substantial.

‘Swans Tea Bar ’is doing a roaring trade. The hatch in a wall decorated with blue and gold tinsel, and an unfortunate miniature Christmas tree, that does a nose dive off the counter, much to the annoyance of one of the women serving tea and burgers, “2nd time today” she huffs. I have been sent to grab a place in the considerable queue, as Tom pops to the toilet, he is a bit concerned on his return such is the demand for something warm, because it’s so damn cold, “is there gonna be anything left?”

As if we had anything to worry about, the tea and burgers are dispensed with the highest efficiency, non league tea urns are plumbed into some nationwide, central reservoir, that is the renewable energy we should all be paying attention to, it’s warm sweet restorative powers do a job on me, and I’m ready for the second half.

It’s about now that I notice the results of the raffle scrawled on a white board, near where we came in. We didn’t win, but I’m ok, I have a mechanism to deal with loosing now.

Tom is still chowing down on his burger, my cup of tea is balancing precariously on the low concrete wall, as we take up our new position behind the FFC goal, for the remainder of the match, which is not underway for long before the FFC keeper is involved in a heavy clash with a ST player, and stays down, no rolling around, you can tell he is hurt.

The flags and fans have swapped ends as well, and are less than sympathetic with the downed man, who after a bit of treatment is up and good to go. One FFC player tries to fill the silence during the thumb twiddling of the stoppage “come on borough” The second half is a little flat, but the wings are still proving fruitful for ST, although one of the few times FFB do manage an attack the ST keepers pulls off a good one on one save.

“Oh West London is wonderful”

A little bit of fisty cuffs boils up after a heavy FFC challenge, but quickly simmers down, it does however get a another song out of the group near us “yellow, yellow, yellow”.

With just over twenty minutes gone ST should have put the result beyond doubt, but a free header ends up hitting the net high behind the goal to catch stray balls, instead of going in. Fans and players alike are left asking each other “how?”

“Everywhere we go”

It’s now FFC’s turn to help the home team get a third goal, when a defender makes a sliding block at the back post after a low cross, which dings off the post and goes out for a corner. “You lucky bugger” says the person next to us, and by the look on the FFC players face he knows that oh too well. Shortly after there is a big shout for an ST penalty, mainly from the fans behind the goal, more than anyone else, the referee waves it away, one supporter is convinced “Clattenburg would of given it”.

“We’re Ryman League and we’re having a laugh”

Whenever FFC do venture forward, they inevitably lose the ball and ST are quick to counter, the number 9 has not stopped, he wants his hat-trick, and when a simple side foot finish presents itself, he scuffs it wide, “Coxie” remonstrates one fan, but not for long as a new song quickly start’s “Cox will tear you apart again”.

“Just like watching Brazil”

We make our way round to the tunnel moments before the the final whistle, the flat cap wearing steward is doing quite a loud running commentary from the sidelines “that’s ours” he proclaims when the ball goes into touch. One fan gives an FFC player a piece of his mind when he takes a throw in from the wrong place “naughty boy” he says like a character from a Carry On film.

A considerable crowd has formed around the tunnel as the players walk off, the number 9 is clapped off, and lets out a loud “get in” towards the applauding crowd. Jubilant fanfare music is playing over the tannoy, but the ever singing group offer their own song to the away team “going down, going down, going down” a passing FFC fan on her way out mutters to a person in her group “good thing we are going down, don’t want to come back here again”.

“I’m the one who ran on the pitch” says one of the singers, who are in high spirits, and are happy to pose for a picture for us, before they head off to celebrate. “You are good luck” she tells us, “well not last time” I reply, considering they lost 6 - 1. Her reply is emphatic “no way, we had a great day, that was our cup final!”

What a warm welcome we received, what brilliant fans, the ST supporters have got it right “Non League Soul Not For Sale”.

For all our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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