Sunday 24 April 2016

Rockabillies, Owls & Urchins - A.F.C. Hornchurch Vs Heybridge Swifts FC, Ryman League North, Hornchurch Stadium (16/04/16)

The short video posted on Twitter by Haringey Borough FC of their ground which currently resembles the wetlands from a bird sanctuary, aptly highlights quite how much rain there has been in the last 24 hours, and once again my timeline is awash with cancelled games.

It would seem perhaps the rain has not been so severe or the pitches are made of sterner stuff on the East London/Essex borders as the playing surface at A.F.C. Hornchurch (AFC) is good to go, and despite the continued early morning drizzle, I set my sights East, revelling in the novelty of going to a game on a Saturday and not midweek and make my way to Upminster.

As today is in the general vicinity of Tom’s hipster pad, where you bathe in the sink, but it's ok as there is a market that sells raffata hats and land snails up the road, I’m running solo and for once I’m early. Tom’s reply when I call him “WOW” just shows how poor my timekeeping of late has become. Once united, it's a quick hop, just two stops on a train overflowing with Saturday shoppers, whose bags apparently need a seat.

Although not on it for long, it’s long enough for Tom to produce a packed lunch, a ruddy tin foil wrapped sandwich and a packet of salt and vinegar chipsticks, “because I had so much time this morning” he explains, and if he didn't have a girlfriend I think I would've married him on the spot. I do however have to slightly question our proposed matrimony when he tells me the filling, ready for it? Pastrami, Philadelphia, peppers, sweetcorn, cucumber and garlic mayonnaise, YIKES!

Usually we are keen to arrive well before kick off, but today we are incredibly early, so take shelter in a nearby pub, find a free table, have a pint and keep one eye on the early Premiership kick off between Norwich and Sunderland. My beer choice is poor to say the least, and I’m forced to crack into the companion supplied snackage, just so I have something to take the flavour of this ‘London Pilsner’ out of my mouth.

Tom recounts his previous night's foray into an East London boozer. A gaff where the music stopped, every pair of eyes locked on his rugged, but perfectly kept beard, slicked back long but masculine hair and when asked by the barkeep if he could “help”, was told resoundingly “not in here, you're fucking not!” when he replied and told them he was looking for his girlfriend.

The tranquility of our Saturday afternoon is momentarily shattered, when a man suddenly ups and leaves, kicking open the front door, and smashing a window. It was moments after Sunderland had gone a goal ahead, so Tom does wonder if he was a “Norwich fan?”.

We finish up. Afternoon drinking is neither of our strong points, so the single pint has made us both feel a little fuzzy. Tom in his mild state of inebriation is deliriously happy when he spots “they have a Whimpy!” and I do remind myself that with his birthday coming, I know where I'm taking him.

With the weather still less than ideal, the bus stop proves adequate protection, until we jump on the bus which takes us to within a stone's throw of the ground. The big brown sign ‘Hornchurch Sports & A.F.C. Stadium’ I’m guessing it's meant to be pointing down the adjacent road, but due perhaps to a local on a drunken jape or someone just being a cock, it is instead pointing to the front of a nearby house, but we are two switched on guys, we're not falling for that, so ask our phones for help.

Not too far in the distance, drifting over the roofs of the surrounding bungalows, we can hear the music playing at the ground, that does a good job drawing us in. Along with the occasional sight of a floodlight poking out from behind the single storey houses, we know we are on the right track.

Neither of us are prudish, easily offended, or quick to judge, but when we do notice above the turnstile the spray painted cock and the word ‘shit’ we do wonder what we have got ourselves into, but the familiar and comforting cry of the raffle ticket seller “50/50” coming from the other side, is like a reassuring non-league hug, and we know we have nothing to worry about.

The man under the large umbrella indulges me, handing over my single yellow ticket for the half time draw. Tom is off like a flash, not because he can't stand to watch me waste more of my money on this hideous affliction of mine, but because he can smell mugs, scarves, old programmes and badges, the club shop must be close.

Now imagine the Father Christmas grotto at your local garden centre, a light wood lodge with a covered porch and double doors. Now remove the elves, lights and the fake snow from this familiar festive scene and you have AFC’s shop. Its contents much more interesting than the local fat man in an ill fitting beard. It's wall to wall boxes are hard not to rummage through, and Tom has already got what he wanted. My search for today's programme, takes me in the clubhouse ‘The Squibbs Sports Bar’ with its red carpet, and high vantage point overlooking the pitch.

One thing we both love is a bit of character, a wonky stand or interesting locals, something to make a club, ground or stadium stand out from the rest, but a running track is not one of them. It’s not something we have encountered many times, but when you see its unmistakable red surface encapsulating the pitch, it’s hard not to let out a little sigh.

As the rain continues, we hole up in one of the few seated stands dotted around the pitch, and are both instantly under the spell of the 60’s tunes being played by the engaging stadium announcer, “Welcome to the early comers. Bit of a wet one, spring has sprung. It's like a Japanese car factory, raining Dats and cogs”. Not only does he play the music, he takes requests too “anniversaries, birthdays” poses brain teasers “only Englishman with 4 European Cups winners medals?” as well as his regular duties “back at quarter to with the line ups”.

The home team warm up with a old style black and white ball, as ‘Summer Afternoon’ by the Kinks plays. Unfortunately for Tom, summer feels a long way off, as all we can hear is the tapping of rain on the corrugated roof, and he reluctantly breaks cover to take some pictures. On his return, he points out the DJ’s cubbyhole, not much bigger than a broom cupboard, but with a stack of those cardboard sleeve CD’s you get in your Sunday paper as tall as a small child.

Tom is off again, this time sporting his high-viz waistcoat, to capture the player's arrivals. Just before they do, the man on the microphone is back and letting us all know about the local companies who offer a discount with the club's loyalty card: skip hire, pubs, plumbers, garages and an Indian restaurant who apparently do a “lovely curry”.

Like Cassius from Gladiator, the head of the Gladiatorial Games in the Colosseum and its announcer he roars “welcome the Heybridge Swifts FC and the URCHINS”!

Their entrance must be one of the grandest in all non-league, and befitting their introduction. Both teams stand side by side atop a flight of stairs at the end of a short path from the changing rooms overlooking the ground at one end. AFC in red and white stripes their opponents Heybridge Swifts FC (HS) in black and white ones.

The referee does his final stretches, putting his leg high on a nearby wall like a ballerina on the beam, before descending the stairs, at the bottom a single AFC steward highfives the team as they pass. He continues to lead them across the running track, between the steeplechase water jump and the blue pole vault mattress, and onto the pitch.

“Up the Urchins” shouts the AFC hype man, such is his booming presence, one man almost jumps ten foot in the air. As he reads out the teams again, I’m sure but not certain that he has some crowd noise playing as he does. The players names are greeted with a few very mellow “wey, wey” which soon peter out. His job, no I'm going to call it his craft, is normally performed by such monotone, bland characters, and despite the odd Christmas cracker level joke, this guy is making me want to come back, even if it's just for the chance to hear the haunting ‘Johnny Remember Me’ by John Leyton again.

Just like at most ordinary, run of the mill football matches the local funeral directors are thanked for their support, moments before kick off, “enjoy the game”.

The best view of the match might be on the sundeck outside the clubhouse elevated above the whole ground. A few locals have taken root, their pints resting on the railing, and each with their own comfy seat, it looks very agreeable. We though are drawn in by the fans on the white terrace, “la, la, la, la Hornchurch”, their St George's cross draped in front of them, “hello, hello, we are the Hornchurch boys”. On our way to join them we can just make out in the distance the sails of a nearby windmill.

Tom is already considering something to eat from the ‘Urchins hotdogs and burgers’ van set, but decides to get it at half time.

Both teams have a lot to play for, but at opposite ends of the table. The hosts are trying to secure a play-off place, the visitors trying to avoid relegation. This therefore makes the opening fifteen minutes or so a bit cagey. It’s AFC who get the first real chance of the match, which is quickly followed by a second and then a third.

The first a swerving shot that goes just wide, the second as the young HS fan next to me says brings a “good save” from the keeper, who is at it again not long after with another solid stop. He at the moment is all that stands between AFC, and his team being out of the game before it has really started. The home fans sensing a goal, up the volume “Urchins, Urchins, Urchins”.

If the keeper at one end is shining, stopping everything coming his way, his opposite number is not so fortunate and is to blame for the goal that puts HS in front. A bad case of butterfingers strikes, as he drops a corner, which is stabbed home through a swarm of people on the goal line. “Come on Swifts” shouts one of the few traveling fans, “don't matter how it goes in” says another.

Moments before going ahead the away supporters had been talking amongst themselves about needing “one point to be safe”. Post goal one confidently suggests “we are definitely safe now”. The oldest of the bunch quickly “shhhhhhh’s” him, “don't say that, long way to go!”

Occasionally we see a tackle that makes you want to go home, climb into bed and try and forget you ever saw it. “Not even a yellow?!?” asks one baffled HS fan following a lunging, could have snapped a leg like a breadstick example from the marauding AFC fullback, who is beyond lucky to still be on the pitch. One fan screams at the top of his lungs “DISGUSTING!” another proclaims that it's “the worst tackle I've ever seen”. I wince, gasp and grab Tom's arm like a Victorian lady at a risque show, after seeing saw a mans navel.

A break in play towards the end of the half , means we witness something you don’t see every day on a football pitch, one AFC player uses the stoppage to do a bit of Yoga, and performs a fine downward dog.

When the man in goal for HS saves again, this time from point black range, denying AFC the equaliser, the noise of the home fans, “come on Hornchurch” drowns out the tweeting birds, and sounds of nature blooming all around us brought on by the Sun finally breaking through. Their final chance of the half fizzes just wide and gets a collective “oohhhhh” and a final cry of “Urchins, Urchins, Urchins”

If there was any question I wasn't already totally in love with music being played here, the fact that the first song of half time is everyone’s favourite 70’s Dutch outfit, Golden Earring’s ‘Radar Love’, this is now beyond doubt and I might have to consider being a regular. I sit on the steps of the terrace, singing along softly under my breath “the road has got me hypnotized” waiting for Tom who's on the tea run.

The man over the airwaves has broken free from his booth, and is now pacing pitchside, with a silver champagne bucket in one hand, and a mic in the other. It’s 50/50 time and a chance to win “80 smackaroos”. Tom returns, tea sloshing from side to side, focused on not spilling anymore down his jeans after being informed, “we’re getting lids for next season, promise”.  A lady in the crowd fails to pick my ticket, but instead Fred's, fucking Fred with his £80, not that I’m bitter or anything.

‘Smoke On The Water’ greets the returning players, as does some full blown sunshine, and it's turning into a nice afternoon. Tom is quite right that the music is what might be described as “Dad music” but it's awesome nonetheless. I get the feeling this track is from a Jeremy Clarkson ‘Best Rock To Drive To EVER!!!’ CD from the Mail on Sunday. With the arrival of the first team, it does mean that an AFC sub whose long flowing hair would give Samson a run for his money has to scamper off the pitch.

Even though the game has kicked off track number two from the Stig fronted CD, ‘Silver Machine’ is still playing, and Tom ponders again a question he has posed before “what would it be like if they left the music playing all the time?”.

Although low in number, the voice of one HS fan, not quite on par with the Hampton and Richmond Brian Blessed, but close, makes up for it as he thunders out “COME ON HEYBRIDGE”

The HS fans have decided to dabble in the dark arts, one of them from nowhere has produced an air horn, that goes off less than a foot from me and almost brings on a stroke. It’s first appearance is early into the new half, as an AFC player swings in a free kick, I suppose he was attempting to put him off his stride, but all it does is give me shell shock and hilariously has the opposite desired effect.

“That backfired” says Tom as the AFC players and supporters celebrate equalising following the aforementioned free kick, and the back post header that followed. “Can we have another one?!?” says one AFC fan who has turned along with most of the rest to sarcastically applaud the horn user, who is looking a little sheepish to say the least.

So shredded are my nerves now, we make a move, not being sure that I can take another audio bombardment. The running track and towering hammer cage makes standing behind the goals not an option, so we take up a spot just to the side of the most vocal of the home support, below a plastic owl which I assume is to scare away the pigeons and a dude rocking the Rockabilly look to perfection, with a tidy quiff, leather jacket and upturned jeans, who occasionally checks his phone with its Elvis Presley cover.

Peter the club security, stands with us briefly, occasionally pulling a cigarette from the box in his long blue jacket and puffs away. He suggests we are not seeing the best of what he describes proudly as “a good footballing side” and that they are not at their “most beautiful today”.

If the first half was a little mediocre, the first fifteen minutes of the second have done more than enough to compensate. First the equalizer and now the referee has pointed at the spot in favour of HS, because as one person puts it the AFC player “flattened” the HS attacker. One home supporter can't believe it, and ask someone next to us with a quizzical look “are you joking?”.

Good goals are celebrated, hell players will go down in folklore and be talked about for years to come if they score a blinder in their career, even the occasional tackle will get the same treatment, Ledley Kings on Arjen Robben at White Hart Lane springs to mind, but do goalkeepers get the same plaudits? I can think of Bank’s against Pele, but normally all the man in goal gets is stick, because often their mistakes can be the most costly.

What happens next should go down in AFC history, a collection for a statue should start immediately, because the next thirty seconds, are a thing of wonder. Not only does the keeper save the penalty diving down to his right, but his speed and agility means he is up as quick as a flash not only to save one, but two following attempts on goal in a matter of seconds.

We have had a penalty at one end, why not have one at the other, even it up, it only seems fair, the cry of “come on lads push forward” gets the desired result. The referee blows up, and does the ‘arms around him’ motion they do following a tussle between two players that results in a AFC forward on the floor.

Not only have AFC’s now gone ahead after being behind, not only do they look on course to have secured the points required for a playoff spot, to cap off, the man from his tiny room announces that the penalty taker who has just slammed the ball down the middle, has just scored his “100th goal for Hornchurch”, it's almost too much for one blogger to take!

“Red army, red army” chant the noisy few, one in particular is delighted that AFC have “suddenly decided to play some football” and it's a nice move that almost brings their third thanks to the zippy number 7 who has been a constant and dangerous outlet for most of the game. His low cross into the box, which should have been leathered in, but instead the intended player takes one touch too many and the move breaks down. Everyone to a man lets out a seismic “ARGHHHH”, it was a good chance.

All of us have a bad day at the office, I guess though most of us have the benefit of not having a bunch of people standing next to our desk drinking, shouting and highlighting every error we make. The number 2 for HS has no such luck, as he is becoming quite the target for the home fans, who have taken to humming the tune that might accompany a clown at the circus when he misplaces a pass or misses a tackle. The final straw for him is when he is penalised for a foul throw, and just looks plain fed up.

A club secretary's job is never done, and when not anxiously looking on, inevitably with a fag on the the go, Peter is disappearing into the no man's land behind the stand to get wild clearances. Perhaps more than most I’m sure he is relieved when he sees the board for extra time go up.

“Play offs, play offs” is the ever so slightly relieved chant from the fans, who are able to relax for now at least as their season is not quite over, and the chance for promotion is one step closer. As the players pat each other on the back, the fans celebrate, HS have an on pitch team meeting. Once again a very familiar song is playing, but this one I can't quite put my finger on, but I know a man who can.

“Only play it when we win” says the stadium announcer tidying up, as the ground empties. ‘Out Of The Blue’ or as most know it the tune from Sports Report is “our victory tune” he explains.

We go in hunt of Peter, to thank him for having us today. First stop is the boardroom, its small sign lent up against the wall at the foot of the door has seen better days, but is charming nonetheless. On opening the door I’m hit by a wall of tropical heat, the lady behind the bar looks nonplussed, but I'm instantly sweating, and luckily for me Peter is elsewhere.

With the red carpet of the clubhouse underfoot again, and getting out of the way of two women both carrying a large bushel of balloons for ‘Gillian;s 60th’ we find Peter finishing up for the day, “I’m almost done now, except buying the referees drinks”. We thank him and the other AFC fans who have been very welcoming.

On the way home we try and figure out AFC’s nickname the ‘Urchins’. We’re nowhere near the sea so it can’t be that kind of urchin, there is a stream that runs along one side of the ground, but I don’t think you get them in freshwater. The only other use of the word I know is the Dickensian description of a toe rag, an oik, a bit of a shit, maybe its that, but it's not really in keeping with the norm like Tigers, Blades or Black Cats.

Tom suggest that a more literal interpretation of the club’s name would be a better choice. So how about it Hornchurch fans, what do you think about being called the “horny priests”. I don't think I want to marry him anymore.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Sunday 17 April 2016

It's Like Watching Brazil - Faversham Town FC Vs Kingstonian FC, Ryman League Cup Final 2016, War Memorial Sports Ground (06/04/16)

The weather today has been changeable to say the least, blue sky one minute, rain the next and the occasional bit of moody rolling grey cloud that blots out the sun like in Independence Day. There was no need for a jacket debate, and I’m thankful I have it on, because when I leave to meet Tom I’m pelted with hail stones that leave small icy disc’s all over me.

Moments before heading underground mother nature has changed her mind again, flooding the tube carriage with warm sunlight, turning it for a brief moment into a greenhouse, forcing me to clamour at the zip of my blasted coat, trying to get it off. No doubt though when I get top side again, there might well be a hurricane blowing through.

At Victoria station I’m somewhat caught up in the rush hour crowd, and miss Tom. It's not until he appears from the pack, reaches out, grabs me by the shoulder and starts to pull me against the tide do I escape the mob of half suited, half gym wear wearing zombies and Tom informs me that our intended train to Dorking, which he thought was a “very funny name” has been cancelled, and we only have a couple of minutes to grab an alternative one at the other end of the station.

The train is not surprisingly crammed, but thankfully thins out as we make our way through the suburbs of south London. When we manage to get a seat, we are able to rejoice in the fact this is our first evening game in a while where it’s not been pitch black since 16:00 and there is a high chance at least one of us will return home with all our toes. If it stays clear and a bit breezy, well then we will be in for a fine evening.

When we have to change trains we are briefly separated, but Tom lets me know he is thinking of me,“missing you”, is the message that appears on my phone. I’m stuck though next to an obnoxious telephone bore, talking unnecessarily loudly, using phrases like “needed it like yesterday” and some other jargon too dreary to recount.

I manage to distract myself momentarily by reading an article on-line about tonight's match, The Ryman League Cup final or as it is now known The Alan Turvey Trophy named after the league's long standing Chairman and President. The article informs me that thanks to both teams being well followed and the venue for tonight being close to both their patches, they are expecting “bumper crowds”.

Tom and I are reunited on the platform at Carshalton, it is apparent that Tom has been spending our time apart studying his weather app, “supposed to hail again at ten” he tells me, then quickly changes the subject to his other fetish “looking forward to some chips”.

A sign high on a lamppost on a very nice tree lined road, trees that have been pruned to within an inch of their lives and look like as my Son once described them as bits of “ginger”, points us down an allotment flanked driveway to the the War Memorial Sports Ground.

Everything is very white and red, as a Spurs fan I’m instantly cautious and on my guard when surrounded by the colours of my enemies, it makes me feel like Ned Stark in King’s Landing. I am however intrigued by one sign which alludes to ‘kung fu’ and if it wasn't for the closed gate I would have most definitely investigated. Is there a secret ‘Enter the Dragon’ ninja training camp here?

The turnstile is a white shipping container with two doors in the side, and once in the first thing Tom notices is the already humongous queue for food. His desire for frites is swiftly moved on to the back burner, and such is the brightness of the evening sun he wished he had brought his “sunglasses”.

Carshalton Athletic FC’s ground is dominated by a white terrace with small concrete steps and red pillars, that goes the full length of one side of the pitch. On top alternate Union Jacks and St George's Crosses fly from white flag poles. The rest of the ground is somewhat minimalist in comparison, a couple of covered standing sections behind each goal, and a small all seater stand all pale in comparison to the all standing patriotic behemoth.

“Lots of black and white” notices Tom, as the majority of people we have seen so far are Faversham Town FC (FT) supporters. Some have already picked their spot at the back of the terrace, and have hung two flags on its back wall. One is black and white check, with ‘FTFC’ spelt across it in red, the other also black and white but a lot less Specials in design and says ‘Faversham Town FC’ and ‘Come On You Whites’. Not expecting this evening to have been able to add to our running tally of tinfoil FA Cups, it’s a welcome if not slightly odd sight when we notice a very fine example may I add hanging below the flags next to a FT scarf.

Both teams are warming up, and the sun is proving a little troublesome, low in the sky it is forcing many of the players to run around with an outstretched hand to shield their eyes. One FT coach wants the team to liven up a bit, “too quiet” he shouts, the players instantly start making a racket, like someone flicked a switch. Further up the pitch, and trying to not get hit by stray shots, Tom takes the chance before returning a wayward ball to do a few kick ups in his sparkling new pair of Turkish silk slippers or are they trainers, I can't quite tell.

“Good evening and welcome to the War Memorial Sports Ground” says a voice over the tannoy, who gratefully interrupts the succession of iffy songs that have been playing.

Walking around it's difficult not to notice the amount of signs telling you what not to do. Metaphorical teachers wagging their finger at you, some are justified ‘entering the pitch is prohibited £50 fine’, some are a little child catcher ‘children are prohibited from playing in this stand’ and one on the players tunnel is frankly absurd ‘no ball games are allowed’.

There is a definite feeling of anticipation, which is only heightened when a plinth, not dissimilar to the one you see at the beginning of a Champions League match, but without Gazprom on it yet, the rumored sponsorship is supposedly coming in 2018, is placed on the edge of the pitch with the match ball balanced on top. Behind it, a fair crowd has formed waiting for the players to appear. When someone gets the nod, the tunnel is completed when two large caged doors are closed by the stewards, and not long after both teams arrive. As they wait for what feels like an age, a Kingstonian FC (KFC) supporter jokes with one player about his bright orange neon footwear “they're not proper football boots”.

“Ok guys have a good game” says the referee who eventually leads both teams through a red garden gate, onto the pitch, past the plinth where he collects the balls. With any big occasion, comes the dignitaries, and there must be one third of the world's blazer population here this evening, with gold buttons buffed, club and league ties ironed, the band of them takes their turn shaking hands with the lined up teams, all to the backdrop of “Right Here, Right Now’ by Fat Boy Slim.

KFC’s supporters who have been a bit thin on the ground until now, make a grand entrance, standing at one end of the ground, they cheer their team, and hike huge handfuls of sparkling confetti into the air, “we love you Kingston we do”.

“Enjoy the game” says the voice over the tannoy and moments later we are underway.

Such was their pre match display, we decide to join the KFC fans. As we pass the turnstiles, people are still coming in with the game already started, but by the looks on some of their faces, ‘what the fuck’ it would seem they have been caught out by the slightly unorthodox 19:30 kick off.

The floor and pitch around the KFC fans is a twinkling and sparkling like a Liberace costume, a lot of it has to do with one fans bulging Sainsbury's bag. His hand half cocked like the hammer on a revolver, ready to discharge more into the air at a moment's notice. Every so often the wind picks up, sending it swirling all over the place.

There is a heady, reminiscence of my teens, with a towel at the bottom of the door, God I hope my parents don't come home smell wafting in the breeze, The KFC fans, are clearly embracing their club's chance to add to the silverware cabinet, they also have their own flag hanging from the back of the stand, and are belting out chant after chant, “Shala, la, la, la Kingstonian” and “come on the K’s”. More often than not the games we go to can be quite affairs and Tom is spot on when he says “it's nice to hear a bit of singing”.

Customary at most non-league games, is for the fans of each team to stand behind the the goal they are attacking, and then do the halftime swap. The majority of the FT fans though are hunkered down, spread out across the big terrace which a few of the KFC fans can't understand.

On thirteen minutes the KFC’s supporters are rewarded with sticking to tradition when they and us have a close up view of the FT player chesting the ball into his own net for the first goal of the game. His face drops, the realisation of what he has just done plays out across his mortified face just a couple of feet in front of us, it's almost a bit awkward being so close, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for him. The KFC fans are not so sympathetic as they rush the fence, banging on the hoarding and letting out a long loud drawn out “coooooome onnnnnn youuuuuuu KKKKKK’s”. The remaining contents of the Sainsbury's bag is now fluttering down, and one person is not bothered one iota in the way the team have gone ahead, “it's a Cup Final, take any fucking goal”.

The following minutes are filled with various people re enacting the own goal, turning their chests in slow motion into the imaginary ball, just as the FT player had, but they are not quite able to get his crestfallen expression quite right. When KFC get another corner, the FT player is quickly reminded of his mistake “get your chest out”.

All the action is now only going one way, the league difference between the clubs is evident, as the minnows are pinned back. When they get a rare chance at the KFC goal, it's close, a “rasper” says Tom, but it's just over, “come on you whites” shouts a solo voice.

With the sun gone, and the wind increasing, one corner flag near us is almost horizontal, Tom’s thoughts have moved to food, something to warm him up, but he is troubled by the potential wait “queue has not moved since we got here, want chips!”

“You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong” sing the KFC supporters, towards the FT player's, bench and fans who have just noticed mid celebration the linesman with his flag in the air for offside, and the feeling of being back in the game and all level are quickly dashed. I think it's fair to say they did not deserve to be on a level pegging, but it's a bit harsh nonetheless. At least it injected a bit of life into what has until now been a poor game, and as Tom put it a bit “tense”.

One FT player warming up talks to his teammates from the sidelines, telling them the linesman “fucked it up” it wasn't offside, but they are to “get on with it” they are not to dwell on the disallowed goal. Heads seem to have dropped significantly, and it feels like a long way back for them already. The fans offer their own bit of encouragement “come on Faversham” but it's intermittent, and is not said with a huge amount of belief.

“We are too good for you” is the ever so arrogant KFC chant when they go two goals ahead just before half time, but I guess the score doesn't lie and if I’m honest the game has resembled a training match at points. A swift attack is followed by the players and fans celebrating together and once again the air is filled with more glitter and confetti. When it settles we can make out the torn up pages of The Sun newspaper, about all its good for, that makes up some of it, “love non league confetti” says Tom smirking.

“We love you Kingston we do” sing the fans once again, as the teams go off. We swap ends, the FT fans are sticking to their spot. Tom returns from his food run, most impressed by the condiments to choose from more than the food, “tomato relish” on offer he tells me, which is a “first for non league”. He is accustomed to the Bearnaise sauce or Thousand Island dressing at the Emirates, so has much higher expectations than most.

Once the teams eventually return from the break, a break which felt very long, we overhear one time conscious person who says he timed it at “19 minutes”. KFC warm up with all the intensity of a team who have been told, ‘same again please’ by their manager, going through sprints and stretches all together. FT on the other hand come out in dribs and drabs, warm up in groups of two or three with all the intensity of a team who have been told ‘oh well, that's that then’.

Tom has got so cold, tonight's final quite the contrast to last years, which was a barmy spring evening, all linen suits and parasols, he contemplates a few visualisation techniques, and starts talking about pints in a pub garden in high summer, hoping it will do something to help thaw him out.

If one had any doubt that it's just not going to be FT’s night, it is surely confirmed when not long after the restart they hit the crossbar with a great free kick. The KFC fans, a supportive bunch like most football fans are, ask “how high do you want the goal?”

Such is the confidence of the winning team, the game gets very step over, dropped shoulders, drag back heavy as they start to show boat, perhaps needing to entertain themselves, considering their opponents are little more than just present, “it’s like watching Brazil”.

Any further FT misery is momentarily put on hold when KFC fail to convert a penalty. The camera men with their howitzer sized lenses rush into position, but are disappointed when the player completes his stuttering run up, but can't prevent him dragging it wide of the post, and for the first time the FT fans have had something to cheer.

If FT are going to score it's going to have to be spectacular, and when one player almost lobs the KFC keeper, there is a quick intake of breath, “ohhh close”. The man in goal for KFC has had little to do, but still gets a Pussy Cat Doll themed song for his efforts “don't you wish your keeper was Rob Tolfrey, DONTCHAA!”.

They have a healthy mix of songs and chants, one is a bit Alan Partridge when they mention the “pedestrianisation” of Kingston city centre, one has Tom licking his lips and brings on visions of Zinger Tower Burger “we’re the famous KFC”, my favourite is probably the pitch perfect hummed rendition of Greensleeves.

With the game not really proving to be much of a spectacle, the fans start to chant the name of the league Secretary and President, they seem caught in a hypnotic state like members of a non-league cult, “Alan Turvey, Alan Turvery, Alan, Alan, Alan”. Like every good Devine Being, he will occasionally walk amongst his followers, to reinforce his position. Out of nowhere in his long black jacket and flat cap he appears much to the delight of his followers, chant and he will come.

They demand a song from their leader, we are bit far away to hear if he does, but he is happy to pose for countless selfies and seems delighted to be serenaded by the KFC fans, who try and work his name to the tune of “No No” by Two Unlimited.

Not sure if they are members of a rival cult, and some non-league holy war is about to unfold, but on the far side of the pitch a group of people are waving inflated balloons at us. Not sure if they are FT or KFC fans because the colours of the balloons represent both teams, but they don't seem to be goading anyone, in fact they look very happy, if not a little bit mental.

“Dive, dive, dive” shouts someone from the seated stand, where no children dare play, sounding like the captain of a World War Two submarine when a KFC player goes down in the box.

The game now is in its final throws, and still unable to understand why the man behind us is standing under an umbrella when it's not raining, KFC add three more goals in quick succession, putting the game well out of sight, if it wasn't already. Tom puts it perfectly, FT have been “totally outplayed”. They do hit the woodwork again, and go close from a corner, but can't do anything about the KFC third which is an unreachable curling shot into the corner from the edge of the box.

Between the fourth and the fifth goal there is a flare up which involves most of the players and both benches, but quickly simmers down, the KFC fans seem to think it's “just because you're loosing”.

KFC’s fourth is a close range shot, and as if to add insult to injury to FT, KFC’s fifth takes the final touch off a FT defender, jabbing at the ball rolling goal wards, and taking it beyond the keeper. All three are received by more confetti, which must contain a newsagents worth of newspapers, a can of silly string appears and at just before full time I notice the unmistakable shape of a bottle of Champagne in one fan’s hand.

On the final whistle the conversation amongst the KFC fans turns to “are we going on the pitch?”. Some straddle the fence, some pop over but don't stray too far, one bolts but soon returns, the rest look on waiting for the person next to them to break for the centre circle, but are not quite ready to take the plunge themselves. One thing they all do, and what they have done pretty much the whole match is sing “we love you Kingston we do, we love you Kingston we do” as the man with the Balthazar does his best Lewis Hamilton, popping the cork and wasting every drop.

Not wanting to get a scolding from one of the many ‘you can't do that’ signs, we walk around the pitch to the players tunnel, by this time the bulk of the KFC fans are celebrating with the players on the pitch, holding their flag up, and getting doused by the players this time with more fizz,“can the spectators get off the pitch” says the now slightly grumpy voice over the tannoy.

A couple of people quickly hurry to erect the advertising boards and the plinth reappears this time with the trophy on top which has red and white ribbons on the handles, along with fold away table with tablecloth and all, which has the medals on. Again the choice of music is a bit odd, the ceremony takes place with music that sounds like it's from the credits of a daytime quiz show, and most of the players look cold and keen to get it over with.

The officials get their medals first, then the voice asks for a “warm round of applause for the losing finalists” as FT are up next, I'm sure just wishing they can get changed and go home. The KFC’s players are hovering in the background, waiting for their moment.

It’s not a player but the Son of one who has joined his dad and leads the KFC squad up to receive their spoils. Once the long yellow train behind him collects theirs, they make the short walk to the highly polished trophy, which is waiting patiently to be hoisted.

“Championes, championes” sing some in the crowd, one player vigorously shakes a bottle of bubbly, waiting for the stragglers. “Whooooo, whoooooo, whooooo” gets louder and louder, the player with the bottle can’t wait and sprays his team mates. Alan Turvey has the duty of handing his namesake to the KFC captain, and on lifting it above his head receives a resounding applause and the bang of handheld confetti cannons in the crowd, once again the music changes, this time to a bit of a samba vibe as the players and staff take turns to pose with the trophy.

For all our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Thursday 7 April 2016

Who To Be A Beaver - Hampton & Richmond Borough FC v Leatherhead FC, Ryman Premier League, Beveree Stadium (28/03/16)

Well thanks a lot Storm Katie, you have truly gone and chucked a weather shaped spanner in the works, and no doubt we are not the only ones. Twitter is awash with cancelled games and pictures of waterlogged pitches, in some places it's the high winds causing all the grief.

The match we were supposed to be going to was Clapton FC’s Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy Final, but guess who has put a stop to that. Having put aside bank holiday Monday as the day for football over the long Easter weekend, we were however determined not to miss out, but options were thin on the ground, all because of the buslhey weather mistress chucking her weight about.

Dulwich Hamlet FC or Hampton & Richmond Borough FC (HRB) were our options, and having already been to Champion Hill this season to see Fisher FC we decided, after much deliberation, for a trip to see the Ryman Premier League table toppers.

My biggest decision of the day though is yet to come, the next five minutes could end up impacting heavily on my day, so it's one I dare not make without much soul searching: coat or no coat? Yes rain and wind have been battering at my bedroom window all night, yes some of the pictures from some grounds look post tsunami, but I'm easily fooled. The sun is shining and the always reliable ‘hand out the window trick to see if it's cold’ has made me question the need for my bulky winter jacket. Ultimately though I let my head rule my heart, and by the time I have made the short journey to my local tube station, I instantly regret my decision, should've left the thing at home, stupid head.

Tom and I meet at Waterloo station, busy with people tooing and froing after the pagan decorative egg giving weekend. We are quickly on a train, and crawling through South West London. Tom asks if we are going to a “Lord of The Rings game?” which is his way of asking me ‘where the hell are we going?’ as we pass train stations like Norbiton and Earlsfield, and I have to agree they do have a slight Tolkien quality to them.

Katie's handy work is more than apparent as we make our way to Kingston, bent over rugby posts, football goals and felled fence panels litter the fields and gardens either side of the tracks. Tom informs me that we are “in the eye” of the storm and not being a meteorologist, but having watched a storm themed film with George Clooney once and Twister, I think that means that it's going to be nice for a while, then get really horrible again. The sun however is out, hat on and all and things look rosy, but my personal Micheal Fish quickly brings me down to earth, “for now” he says ominously.

Our short bus ride from Kingston is very pleasant, we cross the shimmering Thames, pass the regal gates to Hampton Court gardens, with their tall white stone pillars with lions on top, notice a rowing club or three and Tom questions the benefits of a house built above the river, “not sure about a house on the water. Build it on land”. Even the bus stops sound grand, Garrick Villa and Hampton Lodge, suitably named to go along with their upmarket surroundings..

Off the bus, for a brief moment we become ‘Three Men In Search…….’ as a young lad in a long black Brentford jacket, overhears where we are going, and tags along, as he tells me it’s “free entry for Brentford season ticket holders”. It’s an initiative we have come across at a few clubs now, and a really clever way of getting bums on seats and people interested in non-league football.

Tom leads from the front, taking us through a churchyard, and finally up Beaver Close. Blue metal gates with the letters HFC in a red circle are the first things we see, just behind them the aftermath of old Katie is apparent, the club sign is flat on its back surrounded by cones. Adjacent are the blue turnstiles with an antique looking red mechanism just about big enough to squeeze a malnourished 4’2 man from the 1900’s through, not quite built for a great lump like me.

“Club shop, club shop, club shop” says Tom possessed, moments within entering Beveree Stadium. He with me in tow make an immediate beeline for the portacabin just opposite where we came in. There is quite a queue, enough time to admire a nice display of mugs and a scarf hanging on the wall. Tom gets his pin, I a programme, no one else is buying anything, they are waiting for the team sheet.

The woman behind the counter is somewhat amazed at the queue forming outside the ground to get in, and the conversation between those waiting for the line up, sheds a bit of light on it as they discuss the fans of other teams who are here, because of games being abandoned left, right and centre. “Some Pompey here” says one man, their game up the road at AFC Wimbledon had been called off last minute. Once back outside it's like name that team, as the colours of many different teams are on show.

One perhaps most apt, considering our proximity to his Royal Palace, is that of Hemel Hempstead Town FC known as The Tudors whose badge has Henry the VIIII on it. Not only is he by a long stretch my number one tyrannical, multi married, Catholicism rebuking monarch, but also Hemel’s my club badge and nickname my just be my favourite of them all.

“Golden goal tickets” announces a woman with a white box around her neck, like an ice cream seller at the theatre. When she is finished a man on a stool in front of a small shed takes over “programmes”. A sucker for a little flutter and the chance to win “£40”, I hand over my £1 which she puts in the top section of the box, then opens the bottom which is filled with minuscule Borrower sized folded up tickets. Such is the turn out she tells someone “on to the second set, big crowd”. One passing fan is a little reluctant to hand over his money “golden goal, want to humiliate myself with another ticket?” he asks himself outloud.

There are a considerable amount of Brentford fans in attendance, most of them in a club jacket or sweatshirt of some kind, one is particularly is very excited at the price of the bacon rolls “only £2.50” he says with absolute delight, you would have thought he had just found a Rembrandt in an Oxfam shop. It does make me wonder how much the food is at Griffin Park, considering he looks like all his Christmases and birthdays have come at once.

With only a slight breeze, and the sun still out, Tom's doomsday premonition for the end of the world has not quite come to pass, yet. People take advantage of the nice weather, with a pint in hand they bask like lizards on a rock pitchside, the novelty of being aloud a drink where you want conjures up a slight feeling of deja vous of being back in Germany.

Beveree Stadium is a bit of a hodge podge of old shed like terracing, no barriers just steps under a corrugated roof, the odd lean to here and there. Behind one goal the newest looking of them all a red and blue seated stand, not the Ostkurve or the Westkurve the Alan Simpson Stand. Next to it is a two storey prefab, a flat roofed building which contains the boardroom and hospitality. We hear some fans who seem surprised the game has gone ahead, considering they describe the pitch as being “notorious” for falling foul of bad weather.

“Sounds like the buzzer” says Tom, as we hear the faint hum notifying the players its game time, the
teams arrival is imminent.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen” says the most silky of all stadium announcers, her voice Tom thinks sounds a bit like “Delia Smith” certainly not the on pitch “let's be having you” Delia, this is most definitely more the pre drink, cover of a Christmas cookbook Delia.

The players appear at the mouth of the beige PVC tunnel between the clubs bar ‘Hammonds’ and the multi storey prefab, which has a balcony overlooking the pitch is now full ,“that's a nice view” says Tom.

“The players are being led out by today's officials” she says again, I’m now thinking her voice is leaning away from Delia and more towards that of the old speaking clock.

As the players shake hands, the Leatherhead FC (LFC) keeper sporting a Barthez esq short sleeve jersey, the referee goes through a few last sprints on the sidelines, readying himself for the start. Tom though is fixated on one HRB player, a towering defender “have you seen the size of that fucking centre-back?” he asks me. The same player, moments before kickoff rallies the troops “come on, come on” he says, clapping his hands.

Behind the LFC goal the most vocal of the home fans get going “come on Hampton, come on Hampton” they shout banging the hoardings around the pitch. Then for the first time we hear what is possibly the the nicest football chant only perhaps equal to “come on Angels” which the Tonbridge Angels fans sing, when they shout “come on Beavers”. The Beaver not perhaps the first animal you think of when wanting to strike fear into the hearts of your opponents, unless they own some land and are causing substantial undercutting to their river banks, which in turn causes considerable soil erosion, but who says football songs all have to be scary or intimidating, I like it.

Most songs and chants are pretty interchangeable, cannibalised by supporters to suit their particular team. Tom’s ears certainly prick up when the first rendition of, “who to, who to be, who to be a beaver” is belted out. Tom, an Arsenal fan of course comments “never heard anyone sing that other than us”!

Not surprisingly the league leaders are showing all the threat. Some nice one touch passing gets them their first shot on goal, and most if not all of the danger and creativity is coming from their number 10.

“Already wasting time, happy for a 0 - 0” moans an LFC fan to another behind us, after their keeper takes a painfully long time to take a goal kick, this has also not gone unnoticed by the home fans either behind his goal, who are starting to get a little agitated by it to say the least.

Not long after Tom returns from his customary food run, with about thirty minutes of the game gone, clutching a burger, but that's not all, because then he produces a white bag from nowhere like Penn & Teller, minus the puff of white smoke and asks me “chip?”. Around the same time it's only the big toe at the end of the outstretched leg of the LFC keeper that prevents what looked like a certain goal, a goal that has seemed destined since about one minute after kick off.

“Beavers, Beavers” sing the fans. Tom with a mouth full of food sniggers like a school boy, food that as far as the kind you find at football goes he’s “happy with”.

When LFC do string a couple of passes together, and break into what must feel like a distant land, HRB’s half, the same disgruntled fan behind sarcastically comments “some footballs broken out”.

Such is the presence of the lofty defender, one LFC forward has had enough and yells at his teammate in goal, “anywhere but there!” as he continues to pump ball after ball in his and the center-backs direction, only for the attacker to be helpless in the shadow of his marker who doesn't even need to jump, easily heading the ball away, without even breaking a sweat. The man in goal is not only annoying the players on his team, but the home fans who are now beyond fed up of his time wasting, demanding that the referee, “gives him a card!”.

If LFC had scored their chance right at the end of the half, it might have been the greatest example ever of a team scoring against the run of play. It was very close, a well hit half volley goes just over. When the half time whistle does go, a collective “meghh” rings out, like the noise the old man in Up would make, before he is softened by all the joy and happiness a Disney/Pixar film can bring.

Her noble voice fills our ears once again, she sounds so regal she is surely in a tiara and ball gown, as she tells as all about the upcoming family fun day, where you can meet “Bertie the Beaver”. Tom is quick to ask “where's Bertie today?”, don't tell me Katie has gone and ruined his day too!

HRB are out first, the noisy bunch have swapped ends and their numbers have swelled, they have taken over a couple of small sections next to Mr Simpsons stand, “come on Hampton”. We have also moved, and are now standing next to the LFC bench. Their very young looking coach, stands pitch side, just behind him is an even younger looking bench. Tom on the other hand is gazing skywards, “definitely greying up”.

Just as in the first forty five it's all HRB in the second, one half of the pitch might as well not be there. They really should go ahead with ten minutes gone, only for the player to blaze over from just inside the box. If the home number 10 was the stand out player of the first half, the number 11 is really coming into his own, everytime he gets the ball Tom calls him “dat man” because of his Danny Welbeck-ish hair.

When the most minute spot of rain hits us, Tom sprints for cover. I stay put, as do the home fans behind the LFC goal, unperturbed by the rain and still singing, “Shala, la, la, la, la Richmond and Hampton FC”. One of them, who has been blessed or cursed depending on how you see it, with a voice off the same richter scale as Brian Blessed. I’m not sure he is even shouting, but when he comments on something, more often than not about the treacle slow LFC goal kicks, it reverberates around the ground like he has his own megaphone.

It's no great surprise, when HRB finally score, it has been a matter of when, not if, and some fans had started to get a little frustrated. It follows a superbly saved free-kick that the LFC keeper does a great job in covering the ground, and pushing it round the post. The resulting corner is played short, passed to the edge of the box, breaks to a player wide and alone who is able to cut in on his right foot and shoot. His shot looks to have squirmed under the man in goal, and is finally put in by a player sliding in.

The home players race off towards the corner flag, jumping all over the scorer, the LFC players trudge back towards the centre spot, their rear guard action finally breached. One LFC sub, warming up as the goal went in, returns to the bench, shaking his head “offside”.

Once the celebrations have died down, I remember my golden goal ticket, when I open it I find I have missed out on £40 by four minutes. I don't however feel as sick as the father of the person next to me, “my Dad missed it by a minute”.

Spitting rain has now turned torrential, looking on jealously at the LFC bench dry under their perspex roof, I give in to the good old British weather, thank my head for making me bring my jacket and join Tom under the shelter, with pretty much everyone else in the vicinity, it quickly turns into a game of sardines.

“Four seasons in one match” says someone when as quick as the rain had arrived, it disappears again, we do hear a rumble of thunder in the distance and Tom is pointing at various clouds, trying to work out which one has the potential for more rain. Such is the unpredictability of the weather, bright one minute, dark the next, the floodlights are turned on and splutter to life.

With HRB ahead and comfortably in control, they are not as adventurous, in turn LFC are getting a bit more time on the ball, but the home team are doing well at slowing the game down. This then provokes the irony of all ironies, when the LFC keeper starts to moan about them time wasting, much to the amusement of the HRB fans especially Prince Vultan behind the goal whose laugh is just as loud as his voice.

“Keep putting the ball in the box” are the instructions from the LFC coach, he seems convinced they will get their chance, but I think it's wishful thinking.

HRB put the game to bed with a couple of minutes to spare, and it's the number 11 who crowns his fine second half performance with a curling free kick. If the goal was good the celebration is even better. He races towards the bench doing only what I can describe as a 1920’s Flapper knee jive. They almost get a third, it would be the least they deserve. One players mazy run, the jinks past, one, jink’s past another, shoots, the keeper is rooted to the floor, the fans behind the goal rush the fence in anticipation, only for all watching on see it crash off the post.

“We are top of the league” resonates around Beveree Stadium as the final whistle goes. The wet through fans, make their way to the mouth of the tunnel, clapping the players off, “well played” says one, “phenomenal” says another.

“Beavers, Beavers, Beavers”

Looking like a drowned rat, I see a familiar face, in fact it's someone who is probably more famous for his voice than his face, drenched, but smiling from ear to ear, it's Martin Tyler of Sky Sports and “AGUEROOOOOOOOO” fame. What’s he doing here? After a quick Google we learn he is the first team coach.

Most people have left now, driven away by the rain, those who have not, are in the bar. A couple smoking outside congratulate the manager, whose response seems to indicate that he was less than satisfied with the performance, but the supporter is correct when he says “it's a win”. Inside the bar we see Martin Taylor, chatting away, now in a much drier tracksuit. We introduce ourselves, and ask if he is happy for a picture. He is, and is very accommodating, if not a little hesitant, he tells us he wants the manager to get all the attention, “he is the driving force” behind the team. He understands that because of his “day job” he gets plenty of attention but insists that he “just puts out the cones”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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