Wednesday 24 February 2016

Why Fly When You Can Walk On Water - Arsenal FC Vs Hull City A.F.C., FA Cup 5th Round, Emirates Stadium (20/02/16)

Sitting having my haircut this morning, in the few moments I can hear myself think over the brash man talking loudly about the tires on his Rolls-Royce, his Russian wife, or white water rafting with his Mother-in-Law, who he talked about in the manner akin to that of Alf Garnett, I consider my approach to today's game.

I respect the etiquette of the hairdressers perfectly, not saying a word except for the garbled instructions of what I would like done, and then keeping schtum, smiling occasionally when I make eye contact in the mirror with the barber. Admiring the picture covered walls help the time go by, the likes of Maradona and Gazza look down on me, underneath a mural of a black and white football on the ceiling, I consider the counsel of the football greats, hoping for some help with my predicament.  Every so often I catch a glimpse of Pierluigi Collina over my shoulder, like Jiminy Cricket he helps me decide if today is about football rivalry or friendship?

Within moments of getting on the bus to the match, hoping my new ‘do’ will cut the mustard with my professional hair sculpting blogging comrade, I'm quickly reminded by the hats a group of children are wearing and the yellow and blue shirt poking out from underneath one mans jacket, of exactly where I'm going.

It's hard not to be wracked with a slight amount of trepidation and a hint of guilt, although this will not be the first time I have ventured ‘behind enemy lines’, in fact I think it might be about the sixth: A couple of visits with friends or visiting relatives from abroad to Highbury, the Emirates Cup with my Gooner younger brother, as well as a trip to Holland for the Amsterdam Tournament with him, a game during the Champions League experiment at Wembley, but most recently and by far the most memorable in 2010 when Spurs were 2 - 0 down at halftime and went on to win 3 -2, and I'm still in one piece, so I must be doing something right.

Some familiar smells, but unfamiliar sounds welcome me to the closed road on approach to the ground. The distinctive stink of cooking onions is accompanied in these parts by music of a Latin American persuasion, wafting out from behind the hot plate.

I hope that my red jumper, which is the same shade as the Arsenal FC (AFC) Highbury commemorative home shirt, will help me blend in, although I’m sure the home fans I pass can tell I'm not one of them, they can sense I'm an invader from up the Seven Sisters road.

Thankfully my dear friend, fluent in the customs of this part of North London, meets me by a flag topped stall, stopping to get himself a pin. A brief visit to the club shop was unsuccessful as he had not wanted a “fucking keyring” which came with the official option. Feeling very much under his wing, and comfortable to continue, we get ever closer.

The cannon synonymous with the club, which must have taken one hell of an effort to pull all the way from South London, sits proudly outside what is now AFC’s third home, only a stone's throw from the Art Deco masterpiece of Archibald Leitch. The Emirates is a giant football stadium of the future, what it lacks in character, despite the best efforts of its designers, homages to old players line the outer wall, it makes up with its sheer size. On the bus here, it was visible far in the distance, looking like something from Independence Day.

“Never seen it like this” says Tom, as we approach the steward lined steps, leading up to the main concourse around the ground. Security is high, even for an FA Cup game against Hull City A.F.C. (HC), as AFC and us continue along the road to Wembley, with this now our eleventh game in this years competition. AFC perhaps have a little more at stake, the chance of a hat trick if they bag this years trophy, a feat not performed since Blackburn Rovers in 1886.

Successfully past the first line of defence, bags searched and each with a scalding cup of tea in hand, we find a place to briefly sit, not far from the the statue of “Bergkamp with a pole up his arse” as Tom describe it, people flocking around the bronze Dutchman to take a picture. This is something a Spurs fan should not readily admit, but he is one of my all time favourite players. I could wax lyrical about that goal against Argentina during World Cup ‘98, but keep that to yourself, my well earned Tottenham points are already going to be taking a bit of a kicking by the end of the day.

Tom talks fondly about touching the number 10’s shoes at a Summer football camp, and less so about Ray Parlour chatting up his Mum. He is however, not his usual font of quotes and profound questions, I'm sure many will remember the walnut debate, because today is tinged with a profound sadness, despite our best efforts to lighten the mood it is one year exactly since Tom suddenly lost his Dad.

For Tom football and his Dad are two things that would normally be said in the same breath, he has Steve to blame for his near lifelong addiction to all things red and white. Since his first game at the age of nine they celebrated, commiserated, lived and breathed all things AFC, they were season tickets holders for the first three seasons at The Emirates. I once had the very strange experience of watching the North London derby on a big screen at Highbury with them both, having to firmly sit on my hands when we scored a last minute equalizer, totally delighted whilst others around me seethed with anger.

On a lap of the ground, we take in more statues, something I hope Spurs will adopt for the new stadium, I think a large golden David Ginola would look smashing. Tom’s opinion is they don't bear much resemblance to their subject, particularly the Thierry Henry one, which one young fan is convinced is Theo Walcott, his Dad having to explain how someone much more worthy of a statue wore the number 14 before him.

Looking on contentedly with his hands behind his back is a statute I can certainly get interested in, the once Tottenham player, (42 appearances 16 goals) previous Arsenal Manager and football revolutionary Herbert Chapman, who we all have plenty to be thankful for, not just AFC supporters. Tom also informs me the artwork has its own ‘pigeon patrol’ to ensure any unbecoming droppings are swiftly removed from the club's legends heads.

Tom is far from a fan of the early kickoff, all for the convenience of BT Sport, and no one else. I’m sure they are hoping for some of the drama of last years encounter. The chance of HC going two ahead, and AFC clawing back a 3 - 2 win, is minimal, but I guess they have to speculate. A pre match pint is part of the ritual for a lot of people, but it is a bit of a chore this early in the day. I do though kindly except the one Tom hands me, but maybe wish I hadn't when he tells me “it's fucking horrible”, and he's not wrong: fizzy, weak and in a plastic cup. If Carlsberg did make nice beer, it would be a bloody miracle! The bad beer, is also compounded by the fact that it's started to rain.

Tom knows I have seen him, and he knows what I’m thinking, his reply to my inevitable comment is well prepared, in fact I don't say anything in the end about the Guardian reader with bright orange cagoule and red can headphones, posing next to us, “he’s got an avocado sandwich in his pocket”.

“Come on you Gunners” shouts a fan a little bit more up for the game, than everyone else around us seems to be.

Getting tickets for today, has been the toughest so far on our FA Cup quest, neither of us being members meant it was only down to the fact my boss is the red way inclined, that she was able to snag us a couple, but I did have my concerns: I don't look like a Felicity! Thankfully a faceless scanner, much like a self service till in the supermarket has replaced a person, it thankfully didn't notice Tom is not a Christine either, and we are in, just, and I mean just, my diet has a little further to go.

The first way to shed some pounds is to climb the red railed stairs to the upper tier of the east stand. As we make the way round to our block, the walls are smeared with bragging quotes, the majority a poke in the chest at Spurs, firstly about the 5 - 4 win at White Hart Lane, and the second about winning the league there. If only I had known, I'm sure I could have fitted a tin of paint in my bag, but I'm not sure it would've all fitted through the turnstile.

Regardless of this being the ground it is, it is still impressive to walk out into a stadium of this size, the emerald green pitch surrounded by a sea of red seats. A band around the middle displays various dates of note in the club’s history as well as the flags of numerous supporters clubs from around the world, Japan, America, Australia, and further nods to past great players. Tom points out his favourite “why fly, when you can walk on water” in reference to Bergkamp's well documented fear of flying.

Behind us is a climb of ‘Hillary Step’ proportions, oxygen and crampons are a must as we make our way a few rows shy of the very top. Once we get our breath back, and take a seat the effort is proved to be worth it, almost bang on halfway we have a wonderful view.

“They got a fucking pizza!” says Tom, a mixture of envy and amazement can be heard in his voice. Some have traded their climbing gear at base camp for a thin crust, and make the trek up the red mountain, much more concerned with food than their own safety.

Music it seems has become a lot more intrusive at football than I ever remember, I vaguely recall it always playing in the background, but not to the volume of a night at Camden Palace. We have certainly noticed in our non league travels some very dubious song choices, and the top flight is no different as shocking song after shocking sound is forced down our ear holes “what is this music?” asks a tortured looking Tom.

After the stadium announcer explain there will be a penalty shootout at half time between children and an interesting foe, which I have got to see and the HC players approach their fans and get a round of applause, the crowd's attention is pointed in the direction of the big screens, for segment named ‘a word with the boss’. Mr Wenger appears, the opening statement from the interviewer although managing to include an interesting fact, he then ruins with a ridiculous follow up, that gets the kind of response, not words, just a look, that any normal person would be entitled to give an idiot, “it’s your 100th FA Cup match, the FA should've sent you a cake”.

A camera in the ground pans around the crowd while ‘London Calling’ by the Clash plays, the attentions of the camera, breaks people from their ‘12:45 is such a daft time to start a game’ funk and turns them into something from the audience of a children's game show. When the line “lives by the river” plays I can't help myself whisper to Tom “should be wrong side of the river”.

People continue to pant past us on the way to their seats, even ones in good shape, which makes me feel slightly better. Some consider the distance so considerable they have even gone as far as breaking out a pair of binoculars.

“Emirates stadium are you ready?” asks the stadium announcer, as the red hat wearing Emirates air line stewardesses appear at the mouth of the tunnel. A montage plays out on the big screen, followed by a countdown, “8, 7, 6”. Most people are on their feet, large flags behind each goal are lifted and swayed, and over the heads of the people in the lower tier to our right a huge red banner appears with an equally huge white cannon on it. Tom is briefly distracted and goes as high pitched as a choir boy “Ohh there's Gunnersaurus”.

“Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal”.

Danny Welbeck gets the biggest cheer as the teams are read out, after his recent heroics from the bench against Leicester, and as the first whistle goes Tom joins in with his fellow fans “COME ON ARSENAL!”

Not long into the game the home fans are quick to remind the traveling supporters of their team's efforts in the 2015 FA Cup final “and you fucked it up 2 - 0, and you fucked it up 2 - 0” football fans are well known for their sympathy. When the home fans announce that they “are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” the away fans reply with the same song.

From the start, AFC have HC pinned back in their half, and it feels simply like a matter of when, not if AFC will score. For the time being though the shots on target are straight at the keeper, or are comfortably saved. The HC fans are in good voice, despite the feeling of an imminent goal “we are Hull, we are hull” they even take the customary jab at Arsenal for their perceived lack of atmosphere “is this a library?”

In front of us, it has been brought to our attention by his incessant stream of consciousness that we are in the presence of what you might call a bit of a “character”. Every club has them, every club I’m sure has more than one, it's all relative to their size. Sitting in his red and white bobble hat he subjects the people around him to a non stop tirade of opinion, geed on by his two immediate neighbours who laugh at everything he says, encouraging him to go on, while everyone else in earshot just wants him to shut up.

With quarter of an hour of the half left, the game has gone a little flat which inspires one particular chant. The same one bubbles up at similar times at White Hart Lane when not a lot is going on, obviously with an alternative target “we hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham”.

“La, la, la, la Giroud” sings a small section of the crowd as the Frenchman warms up, but quickly dies out as he returns to the bench and out of the pissing rain.

AFC are guilty time and time again of overplaying the ball, making things over complicated. They dissect the HC team with ease, all the slick passing and movement their followers have become accustomed to, getting to within shooting distance time and time again, but then always choosing to make one more pass instead of just letting fly a shot fly. When they do, they are scuppered by the man between the sticks for HC, who is in fine form and pulls off some quality saves.

“Shoot, shoot, shoot” plead the AFC fans, whenever they are anywhere near the goal, regardless of the angle, they just want them to have a go. When they choose to cross into the box, the burly Championship topping defence gobble it up, especially when Theo Walcott is your target man. When the referee waves away an AFC appeal for a penalty, the fans around us are on their feet, arms out wide, much like the statue of Tony Adams outside.

With seven minutes of the half left the “beer exodus” begins as Tom described is it, which he joins and the half finally ends with a chorus of mumbling.

The break on our row at least is lacking in ‘Hawaiians’ or ‘Mighty Meatys’, as people tuck into little packed lunches in Tupperware. “Oh my God” pants a semi exhausted Tom, after his second climb of the day, I stayed put on the top of ‘East Stand Mountain’. He is back just in time, to bare witness to a form of entertainment I thought had died out in the middle ages: people Vs animals. This is not any old animal however, but a dinosaur, a red flat cap wearing dinosaur, it's time for the shoot out.

“Have you got a plan against Gunnersaurus?” asks the microphone shover to the ever so slightly quacking child, whose own image on the big screen, combined with hearing their voice reverberate around the massive arena has ever so slightly freaked them out. Will they hold their nerve, will they do enough to get a goodie bag of average stuff with a cannon on from China? I personally would opt for a Panenka, give old Gunner the eyes and chip it down the middle, I'm one for a bit of theatrics. Tom considers the ‘Cruyff” penalty, but perhaps not, they don't have a great track record of them around here, and you don't want to go and upset Danny Mills again. Most of the little people go for a standard smack down the middle, the apex predator displays the same goal keeping skills as Łukasz Fabiański so they never should've worried.

The start of the second half is a carbon copy of the first, as AFC create a chance in the opening minutes only to be thwarted again.

Seeing pizza has got Tom’s food at football juices flowing, and when a late returner for the concessions is clutching a sausage roll, Tom says to me “I would give him a fiver for that” I have to remind him though, it probably cost him £8. When he gets the briefest of glimpses of what someone else passing has, he asks me drooling “has he got the foot-long?”

There are a fair few ex Spurs players at HC, but due to injury and squad rotation, none are in the starting line up. When it's announced that Tom Huddlestone is coming on, he gets a warm welcome “booooooooooooo” , one fan even going as far as calling him “scum”. I day dream, imagining one of his low, hard shots all Spurs fans know he is more than capable of, with 93 minutes on the clock, clinching the victory.

The amount of chances AFC are creating is verging on the embarrassing, it has the air of will this come round and bite them on the arse. When they hit the the foot of the post with a free kick, the replay shows it's a save once again, the keeper is having a good day at the office.

“Come on Arsenal, come on Arsenal”

Patience is wearing thin amongst the masses, and maybe the manager as well. The “juggling” of players with the visit of some little team from Spain in the coming days, which had been the main topic of conversation in the press this morning, has not brought the required results, so on come the big boys, Giroud and Sanchez. The “Chilean pitbull” as Tom has dubbed him, gets a massive cheer. On the ball he is a class act, slaloming past the opposition like they are not even there, Tom looks at me proudly, “that's what you pay your £40 for”, moments later he plays a ball so bad, the whole place is left scratching their heads.

Our local commentator, who so far has kept up a furious pace, is suddenly knocked down a peg or two, after the arrival of a humble pigeon. The look on his face is of pure horror, he squirms in his seat, tracking it with his eyes, twisting his head almost 360 degrees until it flies off.

With AFC camped out in the HC half, they are susceptible to a counter attack, which start to present themselves more and more as the game goes on. One such chance is very close, leaving Tom only able to say “ohhhhhhh” and look at me with concerned eyes.

“Come on” says an ever growing frustrated fan, this game should be well out of sight by now, but with ten minutes to go it feels like either side could snatch it. Tom maybe hits the nail on the head, “I think we thought this was going to be easier than it was”.

HC get one last chance, before AFC batter at their door for the final moments. A square ball from Huddlestone is tamely shot into the keeper's arms, hearts are in mouths, Tom wonders if the early start means the players “haven't woken up yet”.

“Is this a fire drill?” sing the away fans, one that is leaving is not best pleased “this is ridiculous, struggling against Hull”

“Fucking shoot”, “fucking keeper” sums up the game perfectly as the chance’s keep on coming, but still can't be put away, people are pulling their hair out.

The half time grumbling, has on a few cases been replaced with boos, but not what you would call an epidemic. “Next game Barcelona” says an obviously downbeat announcer, quite a shift from his high octane pre game style, his announcement of the next visitors is met with ironic cheers. One child is hushed by his Dad, when he makes his predictions for the game against the Catalans “5 or 6 - 0”.

Outside the rain has eased, and the crowds have dissipated quickly in that way they do after a game. With food now very much on both our minds we make the short walk to a local pie shop that Tom highly recommends. A long queue of HC coaches has formed, waiting to make the long trip back to Yorkshire. One in particular, much smaller than the rest a mini bus rather than a coach is rocking, it jumps up and down like a creation from ‘Pimp My Ride’. Heads and arms are sticking out of every available window, Black Betty plays inside and the fans sing along “ohhhhhh Hull City”.

“Wish I had the Patrick Vieira sausage roll” is a sentence I never thought I would hear a person say, but considering I'm eating a Dennis Bergkamp pie, I should not be surprised. Maybe it's the beer or the early start, but both of us sit mesmerized, you might even go as far as to say hypnotised, by the two women in AFC shirts dancing badly in the first floor window of a bar opposite us on the Holloway Road. We both wonder what exactly are the “matchday specials” they are advertising.

Having lost my own Dad not so long ago, I understand the anguish Tom must have felt today. Not that my Dad was anywhere near as football mad as Tom’s, but it's something we enjoyed together. He would pretend he knew what he was talking about, like most Dads do, and I will always be grateful to him for driving me all the way to Bradford in a transit van to watch Spurs play, that is a memory I would not trade for ten Champions League trophies, or all the tea in China.

I’m sure some Spurs and Arsenal fans would find it hard to do what I did, the great football rivalry is so strong that it would be unthinkable, some would be mortified at the mere notion of having to spend two hours of their time on ‘enemy soil’, amongst the ‘scum, but let's be honest with ourselves it's not one born of religious or political tensions, the fact is a small team from South London decided to move north and set up home.

The bigger picture though, what really matters in life became crystal clear when Tom told me how grateful he was I had come, how hard he knew it would be for me, but it's not like I performed some great Herculean task, or feat of heroism, I watched a game of football.

I will never be able to replace Tom’s Dad, or he mine, but I hope we can go some way to being suitable substitutes for each other on match day, minus the repeated bad jokes and temper tantrums of course. Today was not about rivalries, it wasn't even about football it was about helping a friend, it was about the Dads, it was about Steve.



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Sunday 14 February 2016

At Home With The Motormen - Redbridge FC Vs Thamesmead Town FC, Ryman League North, Oakside Stadium (09/02/16)

It’s chilly and still light as I enter my local Underground station, and start an hour and a half of personal hell, rush hour. Living on the peripheries of North London, means that going into town is relatively calm, and there is still enough room to swing a cat and enjoy my free copy of the Evening Standard, reading all about how Harry Kane does not feel there are any ‘bad apples’ at Spurs anymore.

It’s only when I change trains at Bank, am I overcome by the mindless one track drones, bombing around in brown shoes, or tailored suits and scruffy trainers, armpit to face, so close I can tell what someone had for lunch. My personal highlight was a woman lighting a cigarette on the platform, and looking at me like I'm the mental one, when I tell her she can't smoke here.

Tonight is another post hurricane match, Imogen has being doing her thing, and turning plenty of clubs pitches into an unplayable mess. Her wicked reach has not however been able to affect the Oakside Stadium, home of Redbridge FC (RFC) whose Twitter account defiantly proclaimed earlier in the day ‘GAME ON’.

A few stops from the imaginary secondary school Grange Hill, I seem to have been transported to a station from a bygone era. Barkingside’s ornate green iron work pillars, holding up a decoratively edged white roof, along with a men’s and women’s waiting rooms, I think it is fair to say you don't get them like this up North.

Tom is a couple of trains behind, and when he arrives he is fully snooded up. Such is the proximity of the ground to the station, a solitary floodlight rises from behind the opposite platform. It is only a short walk along a whisper quiet road with the occasional lamp post lighting the way, each adorned with a Clapton FC Ultras sticker.

Once we have navigated the potholed driveway of the stadium, past the children in RFC tracksuits carrying a Tesco bag for life full of footballs from the boot of a car, and the group playing five a side on the nearby enclosed pitches, we are warmly greeted at the grounds blue and white gates by the RFC webmaster, Adam.

He is very quick to fill us in on what the evening has in store, and sadly it's a familiar story, we have heard many times before. “We’re low supported, they’re low supported”, he tells us, it all comes down to “lots of competition”, he explains “draw a circle around us and you’ve got Dagenham and Redbridge and West Ham”  the fact West Ham are at home tonight, means the attendance can take a knock. Perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that, “not many people know we are here”.

Tea is first on the agenda, before we have a nose about. The double doors of the clubhouse are open, 'Thong Song' by Sisqo is playing in an otherwise quiet bar, one man studies his programme, and one woman tucks into her dinner, no tea here though only the hard stuff. On the way out we notice the RFC doormat, which is a dark red, and has a badge on it that’s remarkably similar to that of Benfica.

‘Jeannette’s’ a large open window at one end of a blue portacabin, just next to the clubhouse is the place for a cuppa, as well as anything you might want to eat “the lure of onions is too much” says Tom, but he fights his urges “NO, its diet day!”.

“The most makeshift stand we have seen, it's literally held up by scaffolding” is Tom’s impression of the main stand, which covers a large portion along one side of the pitch, just in front are two squat flat roofed dugouts. Despite its minimalist design, the red flip up seats work, and there is a roof over our heads, so tea in hand we aren't complaining and take a seat. Once settled, Tom drops a painful bombshell.

“I've done the unthinkable, I've brought my own dinner” he tells me. Once I pick myself up, the blow of deceit was that powerful, I claw the dagger from my back, and hand it back to Tom to help him tuck in to his chicken couscous. I sit glaring as my companion lives up to every Dalston stereotype, watch out Tom you might get some in your massive trendy beard. He knows full well I'm a little disapproving, “this going in the blog?” he asks, “yep” I reply, “I knew I should've eaten it in the toilet”.

The rest of the ground is sparse, much like the surroundings. Not too far in the distance a large illuminated tower block is the only thing that sticks out in the night sky, along with the occasional rumble of a train behind us, it’s peaceful. Behind one goal is an uncovered terrace, the other a thin strip between the edge of the pitch and the green fence for spectators. Opposite is a corrugated roofed lean to, but at least you won’t get wet.

“Oh the old tea bag trick” says a delighted Tom, as he squeezes it out, and revels in the warmth it restores back in his fingers, although he describes it as one of the “milkiest teas you will ever have” it's doing the job, and goes down well.

The tranquility of the empty ground is all of a sudden shattered, as the large black speaker like one from a float at carnival, suspended above us comes to life, cracking out a mix of garage and RnB. “Know where all the money went” says Tom as we are engulfed with music. On a couple of occasions such is the volume we are forced into that type of conversation you have in a nightclub, a few notches down from screaming in each others faces. The introduction of a bit of entertainment sparks Tom’s great philosophical question of the evening, “wonder what it would be like if football was played to music?”.

As the players emerge to warm up, never has such a description of an activity been so relevant, the cold is really biting, most walk out with their hands in their shorts, trying to preserve as much heat as possible. Many test the conditions underfoot, the pitch passed inspection this afternoon, but I'm sure it would've been a close call.

All of a sudden rain starts to fall, like a special effect on a Hollywood film set, the players though keep up their high spirits, because with the combination of the rain and cold, you would be crying otherwise. As we venture into the stop start, on off rain, Tom looks at me smugly “think the snood is going to come in handy”.

RFC are doing some passing drills, one player demands more “talking”, he wants more animation from the players, “very quiet today lads”, compared to TM who are full of beans. Perhaps this is down to the fortunes of each team, RFC currently sit second from bottom and TM are seventh in the league, you could not have two teams with more vastly contrasting seasons.

After a full lap of the pitch, and after spotting one gent squeeze his way in through a disused turnstile on one corner of the ground, the VIP entrance perhaps, we bump into Adam again this time clutching a laptop, on his way to perform one of his many match day duties as stadium announcer.

“Too long” he replies jokingly when I ask him how long he has been been involved with the club. In fact he has been at Oakside Stadium as long as RFC have, since 2001. He also lets me in on a bit of added drama that surrounds tonight match, the current TM Manager used to be RFC’s, he took them all the way to the 2nd round proper of the FA Cup, the furthest ever and a moment in the club's history that Adam says “we still talk about today”.

“Let’s go” shouts the referee, banging on the door of the home changing room, with equal force he gives the away changing room a bashing “Thamesmead let's go”. The RFC keeper brings a touch of Turin, a hint of the exotic to East London in his glorious pink shirt.  Each player passes a sign on the door that leads to a blue caged holding area before they walk on to the pitch “this is Redbridge”.

“Come on Thamesmead” shouts one of the few travelling fans, most of whom are wearing some green and white, the same as the team in their hooped shirts.

Adam offers a “warm welcome to the players and supporters” of TM, his voice clearly heard over the Ministry of Sound sound system.

A few late arrivals are grabbing something from Jeannette’s “how are you darling?”, and may well have missed the first goal of the game, a header from a corner with only two minutes on the clock, TM go ahead. There seems an air of inevitability amongst the few fans here, I get the feeling it sums up their season perfectly. The steward standing next to us lets out a simple “oh well”.

As far as the turnout is concerned, I'm sure we've seen worse. Most are sitting in the main stand, except for two TM fans who are standing behind the RFC goal.

RFC’s keeper is a busy man in a frantic first fifteen minutes, TM are attacking at will. When they roll the ball across his six yard box from the flanks, just waiting for a tap in, but no-one is there to take advantage, he screams, he is almost rabid “too fucking easy!”. When TM get their second, with not even a quarter of an hour gone, he takes it up a notch, this time what he is saying is not even audible, imagine an extra from 28 Days Later in a bright orange jersey. The bench and players are all in agreement that there was a foul in the build up. Such is the 'just get on with it' attitude of the referee so far, I'm not sure he even has a whistle.

At least the two TM fans behind the goal are happy, they have the best seat in the house so far, and celebrate with each other.

The early frenzy has calmed, and the RFC keeper makes a good save from a corner to ensure TM  don’t get a third. The home team have a penalty appeal waved away, the RFC keeper who we can at least understand now, pleads with the man in charge “referee anything will do”.

RFC are now at least getting in the opponent's half, and I think with their first effort on goal, score much against the run of play. Two RFC fans using the roof of the home dugout as a table to eat a burger off, at least have something to cheer, it's been pretty barren up to now. The TM fans just along from us are less than impressed with the defending “he's not off side, you're just standing around like statues!”

“Game on” says Tom.

The couscous is back out again as Tom finishes off of his dinner, but it's just not scratching the itch, “I would kill for a cheese burger”.

What was one way traffic, since the RFC goal has turned into an end to end encounter. The home keeper has a lucky escape when he flaps for a cross, that falls to the feet of a TM player who is instructed by a fan to “FINISH IT”. He shoots, the floundering keeper slips and watches the ball roll past him, with his heart in his mouth, but luckily sees it hit the foot of the post and roll into his arms.

Behind the RFC goal is a small hill, with some wasteland beyond and not a lot else. On top two children, like the boomerang wielding ones from Mad Max sit on a pile of pallets, but these are not the spawn of a post apocalypse universe, they are the ball boys. Taking turns to scurry beyond the reaches of the floodlights, into the darkness, miraculously finding the ball in the pitch black amongst the long grass.

A lightning burst of pace from an RFC forward, he breaks free of the TM defence, finishes calmly, the game is all square. The RFC bench plead with the players “don’t let it slip back”. The tide has really turned now, Tom is quite right when he says TM “are on the back foot now” one home player agrees with him “we are on top”.

Once again the referee and his assistants get an earful from TM “fucking linesman” but I don’t understand what their gripe is, he was just too fast for them, the defenders just watched him go by. One of their fans puts it perfectly “what are we doing, someone going to make tackle?”.

One RFC fan starts to sing, but much like their keeper, we can't make head nor tail of what he is saying.

“Come on Redbridge”.

Such is the high level of whingeing, from players and staff of each team, the referee has to take a minute to talk to the TM bench. If there was a Champions League of moaning, these two would at the same standard as Barcelona or Bayern Munich.

Tom’s healthy living still continues to rankle in the back of his mind “I could do with a Kit Kat”.

The half finishes with a member of the RFC bench kicking a ball up the field for a corner, but instead crashing off the side of the face of his counterpart on the TM bench, RFC have probably their best move of the half you could even call it slick, and getting justifiable praise from the bench “good football, unlucky” and the referee continues to get shit from all quarters, this time from an RFC fan “what a clown”.

Determined to get some life back in our hands, Tom heads off for tea, and I get chatting to the two TM fans from behind the goal. “Go everywhere with the ‘mead” they tell me, “we’re about the only ones”. They had a back up though, if RFC’s game did not go ahead “if this had been called off, we would of gone to Cheshunt”. With various badges, and one wearing a Dartford hat on, it’s clear it’s just about wherever they can “catch a game”.

The RFC subs have lined up water bottles on the bench of the dugout, and from a few feet away are taking turns at a bit of target practice. Along with myself getting the odd stray ball, one player hops over the fence to get some too, and one players wayward shot crashes off a seat just in front of him, “easy lads”.

Moments before the players come out, one RFC fan wants to get some chants going, and discusses the options with other supporters, “he's one of our own” he suggests would be a good choice for Charlie Portway the scorer of the first goal. When the players do appear he is off “here we go” taking up position behind the TM goal.

The solo singer is quick out of the traps, within moments of the restart, with one song after another “ohh Charlie, Charlie”, “come on Redbridge, come on Redbridge”, “he's one of our own”.

“Let's start this half, like we started the first” commands a clapping TM player, getting the troops geared up, and he almost gets his wish granted when they almost score their third. A scissor kick in the box, following a fine bit of chest control is blocked.

Standing behind the the home dugout, or I should probably say limping, is an injured first half RFC sub, who by the sounds of it has broken a toenail. A friend is less than sympathetic about his pain “you should pull it off with pliers”.

“Fucking get in” shouts a TM player when they go ahead, again RFC are undone by a corner, the initial header is blocked, but is tucked away from the resulting scramble. TM’s fourth is not far behind, a free header at the back post, to say set pieces and crosses are their Achilles Heel could be an understatement. One fan’s advice is simple, and the players could do themselves a favour and take it on board “we have to challenge”, the benches comments are a little more damning “they can't defend”. Considering the constant change in fortunes this game has already displayed one TM player is a little cautious “we haven't won anything yet”.

The solo singer is solo no more, he has been joined by a fellow fan, the Sonny to his Cher the Lennon to his McCartney “come on Redbridge”.

The TM players caution about complacency is quickly justified when RFC get a third. One on one with the keeper, someone on the side lines offers his advice “lob him” as the pink clad keeper rushes out of goal. Ignoring this completely, he gives the keeper the eyes, sends him one way and rounds him with ease, rolling it in from a narrow angle.

“4-2 you see the game out” says an annoyed TM player.

No celebration, just an instruction from the bench “get the ball” there are ten minutes left, and anything could happen, and it nearly does. A fourth for the home team seems a certainty only for a loss of footing from the man bearing down on goal “what a time to fall over” says one BR fan aghast.

Despite the late BR pressure and the clear TM time wasting “speed the game up ref” shouts a home fan, many of whom are sporting flat caps, and one puffs away on a vape cigar which has Tom intrigued, that fourth goal looks like it’s going to elude them. Two last gasp chances present themselves, only for the TM keeper to pull off a couple of good saves, first from a header and secondly, outnumbered at the back two on one, he charges down the attacker.

The grounds stewards, in their yellow waist coats are huddled around the radio in Jeannette’s, by the sound of it listening to the final throws of the West Ham Vs Liverpool FA Cup replay.

“Well done boys” says a fan to a clearly dejected RFC, head’s are low as they come off. TM on the other hand are having a right good old sing song back in the changing room, must be tough to hear for RFC, salt in the wounds.

Adam is pragmatic post game “saw a good one, shame we were on the wrong side of it”

Back at the station, the music from the ground can still be heard, in fact crossing over the footbridge you get a grand view of the pitch, a tip for anyone too tight to shell out the £10 it costs to get in, which would be a bit harsh on RFC. Although the club heavily rely on the function room and the five a side pitches for funds, gate receipts are pretty low, so depriving them of any would be a bit of a kick in the teeth. They are a club with a tumultuous recent past, and a proud history forged from the local car industry, they were known as Ford United until as recently as 2004.

They are just another team from a long list of non-league clubs, run by local committed volunteers, struggling from season to season and are well worth the admission fee.


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Sunday 7 February 2016

Forza United - Oxford United FC Vs Blackburn Rovers FC, FA Cup 4th Round, Kassam Stadium (30/01/16)

A packed train with a driver who is so laid back, that when he delivers the news that the train has a fault and we will have to swap at Reading, instead of turning into a band of wild commuters ripping up seats and storming his cabin people smile, laugh and think yeah that’s ok he sounds like he has a beard and keeps bees, think he fancies going for a pint? His friendly demeanour is so powerful, it stops me being sick over myself as the man next to us tucks into his ‘Egg McNasty’ or ‘Bacon McDirtyShit’, or some such stinking crap.

Rolling through the Oxfordshire countryside, a blue sky overhead, we continue our FA Cup expedition. Before changing trains we are treated to an insight into the world of the upper classes. Perched on our seats next to the Louis Vuitton luggage of two young women, we are treated to tales of how one of them was accosted whilst shopping by someone who “looked homeless” his comments on how tall she was “could you be any taller”, did not go down well as he blocked the crisps she wanted, and one about a recent camping trip with “Millie and Jack”. Not that our topic of conversations are going to change the universe, “do you like walnuts?” I ask Tom “no, too big” he replies.

An easy skip across the platform, and the new train continues us along, “hey its me again” says everyone new best friend over the speakers, “hopefully this one works”. Having not had the chance to tell my proud parents “I’m off to Oxford”, cannabis and Championship Manager put a stop on that. My only previous trips to one of England's great learning centre's, were to visit a friend who actually had the application and intelligence to go, or taking in a museum or three and seeing Einstein's blackboard and a cabinet of shrunken heads.

“I should've brought my sunglasses” says Tom as the bright dazzling sun, catches the metal work of a sea of shimmering bikes outside Oxford station.

Two day’s short of completing his dry January and Tom has capitulated and he is eager for a pint, as am I. Google's suggestions were less than inspiring when we asked for places to drink near The Kassam Stadium, a Holiday Inn Express and a Gala Bingo came top of the pile. We opted instead for a bit of a wander into central Oxford, choosing the first place we found, a nautical themed riverside joint nestled on the edge of a bridge. The ‘Quarter Deck’ outside seating area overlooking the water in the shadow of a willow tree, is a very nice place to top up my January tan. “I can think of worse places to have my first pint of the year” says Tom.

We get chatting to a Blackburn Rovers FC (BR) fan, his shirt hidden under his jacket. His prediction for the match is pessimistic to say the least “think we will lose” he says definitively, his opinion of the squad's depth and qualities is damning “ we have nothing, no pace”. Not noticing a strong North West accent I ask where he is from, “Salisbury” he tells us. My next question is greeted with the kind of eye roll a celebrity gives interviewers, when they are asked the same question for the 100 time, when I ask how come he is a BR fan, “everyone always asks me that” but he is polite enough to tell me “picked a kit off a market when I was 5” .

With time ticking, and always keen to get to a ground in plenty of time we head off, first considering a cab with Tom thinking it will only cost a “couple of shillings”, he doesn't get out of London much. However, instead we take the advice of the BR fans friend, a local, who tells us we can catch a bus to the ground around the corner, and it will take only “15 - 20 minutes” so under his direction, we head off.

There is plenty of Oxford United FC (OXU) yellow and blue in the city centre amongst the Saturday shoppers. I stop at every lamp post, traffic light and piece of street furniture to indulge my football sticker obsession, which is suitably satisfied, by lots of Russian ones. Having not eaten yet, we consider the delights of a Chinese restaurant called the ‘Opium Den’ but think better of it.

All of a sudden a slightly panting and sweaty person approaches us, it's the BR fan from the pub “the directions we gave you were wrong” he tells us, and has been nice enough to find us and let us know, restoring a small bit of faith in humanity. “Follow me” he says like a football Tenzing Norgay. We do follow for a short while, only for me to spot a particularly fine example of a Borussia Dortmund sticker, and in the few short moments it takes me to take a picture, we lose sight of our guide and are now lost in Indian country.

Half remembering something he had said about an “ Oxford castle” we follow the signs, eventually stumbling across what we think is the correct bus stop, which is thankfully confirmed by a scarf wearing OXU fan, with an hour to kick off we feel we are making good time.

The bus is full with either bag ladened people who have satisfied their thirst for retail therapy and are on the way home, or fans of both teams making their way to the ground. Getting snarled up in Saturday afternoon traffic, our bus ride has turned into a bit of a crawl .The driver is pulling up at bus stops with long queues, only letting a few new passengers on, and leaving huge swaths of people behind waiting for the next one. What seemed like an adequate amount of time to get to the match, is rapidly ticking away. Three BR fans have adopted a local, asking her every so often like children on a long car journey “are we nearly there?”.

Tom and I look at the time and look at each other, not feeling like we are getting any closer, we start to consider the unthinkable, missing kick off!!

Our anxiety is relieved a little when a cheer goes up, someone has spotted the ground in the distance, but when the bus drops us slap bang in the middle of a housing estate, we still feel a million miles away, at least the badgered local gets some peace as most of the bus piles out with us. We hang back, follow the crowd at a brisk pace with only fifteen minutes to kick off. We can only hope that ‘Merlin Road’ will bring us some magic and get us to the ground on time.

The smell of roasted chestnuts and the thin grey struts of a stand poking above the rooftops, relieves our anxiety further as we are now at least getting closer. Between the semi detached houses through a small gap in a fence, the claustrophobia of suburbia opens up into some green wasteland, beyond which for the first time we can see two large stands of The Kassam Stadium. Over a small bridge people take the opportunity to finish up their beers, under the watchful eye of the local police, and a man sells everyone's favourite half and half’s “last chance to get your match day scarves”.

“A queue to get in” says an amazed fan, as we join the considerable snaking line from the turnstile. Some in the queue happily refer to themselves as “plastic fans”, not regulars I would guess, just here for a bit of FA Cup glory. Such is the design of the ground, big gaps on each corner between the stands means the noise from inside floods out, a song I would have always associated with Chelsea, The Liquidator by Harry J All Stars, but have now heard at numerous grounds, plays as we wait to go in. Kick off is imminent, only a wooden fence separates us.

Despite the wait, people are understandably in a great mood, the family behind us all have their faces painted, and we clock up our first tin foil FA Cup of the day, “gonna take it to Wembley” they tell us.

From handing over my ticket, squeezing through the turnstile, getting through the scrum to get a programme, being pleasantly surprised they have a 50/50 draw, and getting a ticket from the young lady behind the counter, who is clearly rushed off her feet, to sitting down, is a blur of noise and colour.

Making our way up the small set of stairs into the stand we are hit with a wall of sound, unlike anything I think I have heard before in this country “YELLOW, YELLOW, YELLOW”. The whole ground is chanting as one “YELLOW, YELLOW, YELLOW”. The stadium announcer does a fine job conducting the crowd “give me an ‘O’, give me an ‘X’, give me an ‘F’, give me an ‘O’, give me an ‘R’, give me a ‘D’”, each time he asks the whole stadium replies with what I can only describe as a roar.

The Kassam is unique in that it only has three stands, behind the goal to our right is a huge gap with the aforementioned Gala Bingo visible in the distance. The stand to our left however, is what you might call the ‘Ultras section’, OXU’s very own ‘Yellow Wall’ is decorated with huge banners “against modern football”, “Forza United” the biggest of all states “time for heroes” and makes up for the slight quirk of the missing stand. As we take our seats a display of flags and Tifo on par with anything you would see on the continent is in full swing, and is by far the most we have ever seen. Flags of all different sizes and colours sway back and forth whilst a huge Tifo stretches out across the middle of the stand “all we need is Oxford”.

Some people use their hands and some their programmes to shield their eyes from the blinding sun peaking over the stand opposite. In the top tier a large yellow and blue banner of the club's crest is unfurled above the heads of the fans.

“It’s kick off time at the Kaz, let's make some noise”.

It’s a tense opening ten minutes, the first real chance going to BR. When OXU do get forward people jump to their feet, followed by the bang of their seats flipping upright, straining their necks trying to catch the action at the opposite end of the pitch. The ‘Ultras” are all standing and break into song regularly “everywhere we go”. At one point they sing back and forth between themselves “we’re the left side, we’re the left side London Road” the other half to the stand quickly reply “we’re the right side, we’re the right side London Road”.

BR’s number 35 is small, quick and very easy to go down. It's not long before his ability to crumble to the floor at the slightest hint of an opposition player being anywhere near him, starts to annoy the home fans “wanker, wanker, wanker”. When he picks himself up glaring at the crowd, this only riles them up more. The referee also gets an earful, the fact he keeps blowing up every time he “dives” as one fan puts it means he gets a song all for himself “you don't know what you're doing!”

“Oxford United FC are by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen”.

OXU register their first shot, with about thirty minutes on the clock, a low hard drive which is tipped
around the post, this draws another mass chant “yellow, yellow, yellow”. There is still an unwavering and palpable sense of tension around the ground, as the whole place “oohh’s” and “aahh's” in unison, squirming in their seats whenever a move breaks down or a half chance goes begging. It’s very hard for me to describe quite how earth shatteringly loud the fans are on occasions, without trying to sound over-dramatic, but you could feel it “YELLOW, YELLOW, YELLOW”.

“Ahhhh the beefy goodness” says a fan a few rows in front of us, as he thrusts a cup of Bovril under the nose of a friend.

As if it was written in the stars, there is an undeniable predictability about BR’s goal, it was coming and I’m sure everyone knew it would have something to do with the much despised number 35. His ability to lose all control of his legs, falling to the ground like a stropping toddler in a supermarket pays off when he is ‘fouled’ in the box, I use that word in the loosest possible sense, the referee laps it up, penalty!

The spot kick is dispatched clinically in front of the ‘Ultras’, the BR players are hardly reserved in their celebrations just a feet away from the OXU fans, but it's the man in charge who gets the most grief “to the referee 1 - 0”. The visitors from Lancashire at the other end of our stand make their first real noise of the day, the blue smoke of a smoke bomb drifts across the crowd and fills the air with it’s distinctive smell.

Regardless of going behind, the home fans rally “come on Oxford”.

BR don’t seem to be here to play football, a fan behind us quite rightly describes it as, “unattractive”. Committing a constant stream of small, game stifling fouls, BR stop OXU getting into their rhythm, never giving them the chance use the abundance of pace they have in their team. The referee has his whistle in his mouth every other minute, “let it play shouts” Tom. When he does blow in favour of the home team, he gets a sarcastic cheer.

Whenever enemy number one gets the ball, he is suitably singled out “he’s gonna dive in a minute”.

In added time there is an overriding feeling of doom when BR score again, the fans feel that the referee has missed a glaring foul in the build up, one going as far to re enact the action performed by the BR player who won them possession. Once again the away fans awake from their relatively dormant state, no smoke bomb this time, but a few whirl their scarves above their heads, “Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Wembley”.

The goal has made a lot of people's minds up about going to get a pint, and the bang of the seats this time is when scores of people leave to find solace in the bottom of a plastic pint glass. One fan is quite sure that BR “are not going to Wembley” regardless of what their fans think.

Tom’s search from refreshments, turns into a bit of an ordeal, as the concourse is heaving, people struggle through a bottleneck, and the fans start to lose patience with the wait “what the fuck is going on?”. As I wait one group have decided that the two goal deficit is enough, and make a b line for the exit, discussing plans to find more drink. When Tom does finally appear, looking beaten, with the intermission all but exhausted, we both down our warm fizzy pints the quickest a person ever has.

“Don't tell my mates” was the plea of the OXU fan Tom had spoken to in the queue for a drink at half time. His dirty little secret was that he had put £100 on BR to win, his justification was that it would “pay for my night out”.

BR’s action plan for the second half is much the same as the first, creating a stop start, stop start game which is verging on the tedious. The biggest cheer of the day from the home fans at least is when naughty number 35 gets a yellow card, “cheating Jackson got his just desserts” says an animated father to his young slightly bemused looking son.

When OXU manage to break out, nine times out of ten on the counter attack, it's halted by blatant shirt pulling, or a cynical foul, and the fans have had enough, “you dirty Northern bastards”. Tom is caught up in the drama waving an imaginary card towards the pitch, how unsporting of him. Although we can see the home players are full of endeavour, spirit and plenty of running, their final ball at the crucial moments, holds them back time after time.

In this modern day of commercial money obsessed football, where anything and everything has its price, we see something that forces us into a double take, a sponsored substitution. After each change, the usual protocol of reading the name of the player coming off and the player coming on occurs and then the announcer's voice changes, to that of a cheesy radio advert informing us that is had been “brought to you” by some local hotel.

The final nail in the OXU FA Cup dream coffin is BR’s third goal, which comes from a direct free kick on seventy six minutes. This sparks an exodus, one fan from our row mutters to himself as he squeezes by “I can't handle this”. The BR fans sing of Wembley again, and jibe the leaving fans, whose number I can't quite believe, “cheerio, cheerio”.

Despite the painful sight of seeing your team undone by a bullshit penalty, and not really ever being in the game, the ‘Ultras’ don't leave and don't stop “we love you Oxford we do”, they even have time to mock the BR fans “3 - 0 and you still don't sing”. After such a storming result against Swansea in the previous round, some people, although I'm sure they would not want to admit to it, must have thought that a tie against a struggling Championship side would have meant progression to the next round was on the cards, but since the first whistle it's never looked the case, I think you could even say some around us are even getting frustrated at the team's performance, “come on” a few say.

Moments before the final whistle, the announcement of the Man of the Match brings people to their feet. Once the game does end talk quickly turns to that of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Regional Final against Millwall in the coming days “90 minutes from Wembley” says the stadium announcer.

“George Baldock - Goodbye For Now” says the banner revealed at the back of the ‘Ultras’ stand as the players applaud the fans. A few days before the match, Baldock on loan from MK Dons had been recalled to Stadium MK. With thirty nine appearances under his belt, he had become a firm fan favourite “Georgie Baldock we want you to stay”. He removes his shirt, tossing it to a fan.

Outside, people streaming in all directions, the nearby car park of a cinema is gridlocked, one fan thinks you must be mad to “go to the cinema on a match day”. A quick visit to the club shop, which is like a scene similar to that of a supermarket before a hurricane, it's been stripped, bare rails and empty coat hangers. They are also out of pins, much to Tom’s annoyance.

Such are the crowds that the buses back into Oxford politely apologise as they pass us “sorry bus full”. Back at the station, after failing to find a suitable birthday card for a friend in WHSmith, we don't have a long wait for our train.

To see what the fan base of a League Two team are capable of is what made the biggest impression on us today, it once again shines a shameful light on so many of the country's bigger teams fans. Why are these teams able to organise themselves, but so many in the top flight can’t? It’s not just Germany, Italy and South America that supporters can take inspiration from when it comes to display and support, why not try a little closer to home, why not get yourself down to The Kassam.

For all our photographs from the match, click HERE

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