Monday 30 May 2016

Non-League Finals Day: Part One - Hereford FC vs Morpeth Town A.F.C., FA Vase Final 2016, Wembley Stadium (22/05/16)

You can read, Non-League Finals Day: Part Two - HERE

Well this is it, games thirty nine and forty, our curtain closer for the 2015/16 season, and our second visit to Wembley within a week. One could not ask for nicer weather, it’s warm, the sky is blue, there is a slight breeze, and I feel, well I don't feel that great. Always one for an early night, and limiting myself to a glass of sherry with the Queen's speech each year, and maybe another at the chimes of Big Ben on December 31st if I'm feeling a little spontaneous, my fiancee’s birthday celebrations the previous night, were relatively speaking quite boozy, and therefore I’m not feeling my best.

Fuzzy is the word I would probably use to describe my condition, which is only compounded by the fact I have to get up at 08:00 on a Sunday, yes 08:00 on God's special, it's not like I’m off to do a paper round.

You could be quite correct in thinking that perhaps we are off on some far distant ‘Away Day’, but no Wembley is only up the road, perhaps I hear you ask, today's game is part of a ‘Sky Super Sunday’ situation, where the kick-off, 12:15, is decided purely for their convenience and no-one else's so they can squeeze in three average games instead of two, well you're close, I would reply, only it’s not Sky, it’s BT televising today's matches, and yes I do mean the plural, it's not another fine example of my poor punctuation, because the only thing that is getting me out of bed, is the FA Vase and FA Trophy double header, the inaugural ‘Non League Finals Day’.

My bus ride is far more pleasant this week, than last, which I’m sure has a lot to do with the time. Although feeling grim for a different reason, than seven days previously, the distinct lack of screaming children, allows me to concentrate on continually sipping from the two litre bottle of water I have on the seat next to me.

The quiet, if not ever so bumpy and wobbly ride, allows me to reminisce about perhaps the most emotional football match I have ever been to, the FA Trophy Final 2015. It feels like it’s only yesterday I was crying my eyes out, following North Ferriby’s dramatic penalty shoot out win over Wrexham. The cries of “Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire” can still be heard faintly on the wind if you listen close enough. Even now I can still feel the whipping scarf of the pensioner sitting behind me, who for well over two hours smacked me in the back of the head, every time she got excited.

Tom as ever is a compassionate friend, sending me pics of his morning coffee and muffin, and is all bright eyed and bushy tailed when we talk on the phone, “oh the tables have turned” he says smugly, “I’m as fresh as a daisy”, good for you!

In life you must be thankful, and always remember that there are people worse off than you. I in comparison to the woman staggering onto the bus, holding a can of Carlsberg and being guided up the stairs by a less than impressed looking friend/boyfriend/husband, feel absolutely fantastic.

The swaths of black and white Grimsby Town FC fans are nowhere to be seen, in fact there are very few fans of any team on Bridge Road the final stretch before Wembley Park station. The pub that had been overrun a week ago was not even open, no singing could be heard, there was a definite Sunday morning feel about.

On arrival the previous days FA Cup signs and posters are all still up, an older couple, both in Manchester United shirts pull their luggage slowly towards the tube from a nearby hotel, they look like they feel about halfway between me and the bus drinker.

Much like last week, one group of fans vastly outnumber an other. It’s already clear that the Hereford FC (HFC) ranks outweigh those of the opposition, as Tom and a passing HFC fan both say, almost simultaneously, “where is the other team?”. The other team, whose fans so far are a little thin on the ground is Morpeth Town A.F.C. (MT) whose Northumberland ground all six hundred miles plus round trip away, we visited for the FA Vase semi-final second leg.

“We got flat caps and horns” says the man at one of the flag flying stalls that line the way to the stadium, to a woman who needs a few minutes to weigh up her options. The stall much like the rest of Olympic Way is still covered in FA Cup paraphernalia, Crystal Palace and Manchester United scarves are still on show amongst their lower league cousins. One HFC fan, perhaps deliberating the same question ‘cap or horn’ is doing it with a a lot more consideration, standing a few steps back, in a black and white wig, black and white face paint, and sunglasses, his glare is unwavering and intense, never has a person looked at polyester, quite like him, it's verging on the menacing. I would just go for the horn mate, it's really not that big of a deal.

With more and more people arriving every minute, I’m once again able to cross a few things off in my ‘Non-league I Spy’ book, like the woman wearing a Herefordshire county flag like an apron, a man in black and white check trousers or the groups wearing the scalped remains of Friesian cows, horns and all, in some kind of sick pagan nod to the HFC bull.

HFC are famous for many reasons, many reasons that could fill a hundred blogs or more, such as
their much fabled win over Newcastle in the FA Cup, or the fact they that they parade a very large bull, one not dissimilar to that on the club's badge, around the ground before matches, much more interesting than the cheerleaders at Selhurst Park, if you ask me. Their more recent history is initially a sad and increasingly familiar story of a team ‘Hereford United FC’ in this case, going under, only to be reborn in their current guise 'Hereford FC' and since then they have had quite the meteoric rise, this season alone they have achieved a league and cup treble.

My understanding is that the club have been given special dispensation to parade all 1,200KG of Ronaldo, the club mascot around the Wembley pitch before kick-off. The chance of seeing such a sight has us making our way to our seats that little bit early, but not before we dodge, like many others, although some are falling foul as they film the build up on their camcorders or phones, to what I think is Ronaldo's dung. Perhaps some pre-game nerves have kicked in, although I’m sure whoever is in charge is happy it's out here, rather than in there.

“I've seen four Halifax and two Morpeth” says Tom on fan watch, all are still paling into insignificance in comparison to the HFC hoards in white, one holds a large banner over the balcony in front of the Bobby Moore statue, “loud and proud” is written across it. 

Tom’s keen ear picks up on something “I can hear a drum”, zeroing in on it like a bat using sonar, he points out a group of HFC supporters following the drummer, whose small drum is hanging from a strap slung over his shoulder. Their enthusiasm knows no bounds, stopping at one point to devise a chant aimed at a stationary ice cream van.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the countless coaches arriving, full of more and more HFC fans  “their support is going to be mental” says tom. Their black and white flags are quickly hoisted, fluttering perfectly as they are caught in the breeze. In what feels like a matter of moments the concourse around the ground is bustling with black and white rosettes with a golden bull at its centre, shirts with ‘Wembley 2016’ on the back, or for those who like a pun ones with ‘Wem-bully 2016’ on the front with a picture of what looks like at a glance Bully from Bullseye, but without the red and white shirt.

Perhaps a taste of things to come we see our first fish, of the inflatable kind, being carried by a Grimsby Town FC fan, but at the moment it's all about the bovine.

“Doors are now open” announces a voice, he also reminds smokers to have “one last ciggie” as once you're in, and you leave, there is no readmittance. With this in mind, we hold off heading in, and instead take in a lap of the whole of Wembley, not that we are likely to see  anything different, because HFC have taken over.

“I feel like a salmon” says Tom as we battle the wrong way against the tide, only the men with their yellow paper boy bags selling match day programs are unmovable, like rocks in white water, we on the other hand have to bob and weave through the crowd. When we do spot any MT fans they are in small tight groups, doing their best to avoid getting picked off by the great white shark surrounding us, “I bet they feel outnumbered” says Tom.

Although low in number, they are at least a bit more colourful, their black and yellow is a nice contrast from all the white which is close to giving me snow blindness, and they are doing their best to make themselves heard, one gives a few blasts on his air horn, and gets a noisy reply “Morpeth, Morpeth, Morpeth”.

One group is led by a man whose short hair has been dyed appropriately to match the club's colours, and is a definite first for the ‘I Spy Book’. One little mob of MT causal wannabes, are doing their best to look tough, but just end up looking like nice boys with scarves, out for a day at the footy.

“Oh no, not the clappers” groans Tom, when we pass a table handing them out. Not a fan of the atmosphere enhancers, it will be interesting to see how he copes as the day goes on.

Stop, hold the presses, this has gotta be worth a prize of some kind, this must be a first, because I think I have just spotted a Mayor, no not Boris stuck on a zip line, but a man in a HFC shirt wearing his ceremonial gold Mayoral collar. My ‘I Spy Book’ doesn't have a section for such a rare sighting.

First the decapitated cow hats, now the severed head cow logo of the British Burger Co truck who is clearly a relative of the one on the HFC crest, the resemblance is uncanny, will this barbarity ever end?, have people no heart?, more salt rubbed into beefy wounds, I have had enough of this, it's time to find our seats.

Through the glass we can see the ‘Club Wembley” lot, coolly riding the escalator on the way to their padded red throne’s, they disgust me. There are so many more than last week, when we briefly joined the jet set, but today we are with the real fans, not with the jewellery rattlers, we take our proper tickets, not printed off ones, and make our way to our block.

The deja vu is ever so slightly overwhelming, the set up is almost a carbon copy of the week before, does the bald man from BT never go home?, has he set up camp in the away dugout? He along with the cameras are set up at the mouth of the tunnel, the only slight difference is instead of one trophy on a plinth there are two, both looking very splendid in the bright sun.

Thinking we had arrived in enough time to be in place for the battle of the mascots, Ronaldo Vs The Highwayman, we are slightly disappointed not to see the prize heifer doing the rounds, but just a man dressed as Dick Turpin, thrusting his plastic sword, and looking every bit as dandy as Adam Ant.

HFC’s section is ginormous, all three tiers are almost full, MT’s next door is a little more modest, but both have been adorned with flags and banners, one of MT’s largest reads “Morpeth Pride Of Northumberland” with the red and yellow of the county flag. When the HFC supporters break into a spontaneous song, the noise level goes through the roof.

With both teams warming up, watching MT go through the motions it's hard not to think that if only for the width of a post, that could be Bowers & Pitsea FC, and what a day that would have been. It’s also hard not to imagine that the MT players must be delighted to not be playing on the sandy, mess of a pitch they had to play on at Craik Park when we went.

“Oh when the Peth go marching in, oh when the Peth go marching in” sing some MT fans on the big screens, who are being interviewed outside. When the camera sweeps the crowd, Tom is highly amused “I love how people get on camera” he says laughing, as people going about their everyday business, are nudged by a loved one informing them that their five seconds of fame has arrived, and all of a sudden grown men turn into audience members from a children's game show. It is however a distraction from the clappers which are already starting to grate a little, the only respite is when the people with one hold them stretched out to display the messages they have penned upon them, like the ones you see at the darts, but the lack of rhythm, timing or any sense of reason from one nearby Grimsby fan, whacking his randomly as and when he sees fit, means we are both close to pulling out our hair.

“A celebration of non-league” announces the voice over the tannoy, as the players finish up, and head in, both teams are read out, each HFC player getting an almighty cheer. Two men appear carrying what at first looks like the world's largest fruit roll up, only to unravel what is in fact the red carpet, this is also the queue for an army of flag bearing children to appear, who line one side of the pitch.

Sitting behind us it's hard not to hear, what I think is fair to say is a running commentary on what is going on around us. I’m sure most people have been to a match and have had the displeasure of sitting behind a know it all, a motor mouth, that person who finds it necessary to give his non stop opinion and how he would do things 'better'. Today it's different, today it’s far more touching and life affirming, completely the opposite to that bloke who has leafed through half a copy of a Jonathan Wilson book, today gives us both a little faith in humanity and reaffirms why we love football.

“Been to places as hideous as Worksop Town, but never been here for a game” says the partially sighted man to his totally blind friend. His descriptions have us both gripped, leaning back in our seats tuning into the stream of facts and information he effortlessly reels off. It’s only the din of the HFC fans singing “we’re on our way, we’re on our way”, that forces us to break away from listening, as we realise the players are arriving.

On a small white plinth, next to the lined up players who have now shaked all the required hands, a lady in a summer dress, sings the national anthem. I honestly don’t think I can see an empty seat red seat, amongst the HFC supporters, more flags have appeared, a Union Jack is hanging over the edge of the highest section, “that won't last long” comments Tom, after our encounter with the ‘covering up advertising police’ at the National League Promotion Final.

Even for a sun worshiper like Tom, the high temperature in combination with his goth all black outfit, means the heat is getting a bit much, “I’m on fire”, much like HFC who go a goal ahead less than two minutes after the start. A long range shot flies past the MT keeper and into the corner of the net, I’ve not even really settled down, as the players are piling on top of each other, and absolute pandemonium has broken out.

“That might be the fastest goal I have ever seen” says Tom, looking at me with the same, ‘that caught me out a bit’ look, that I'm probably giving him back.

When the players have composed themselves, I think the fans are still dancing, they almost grab another goal, a one on one chance is saved. HFC have come out of the traps flying, one Grimsby fan near by puts it perfectly “Morpeth snap out of it” if they don't, this game will be out of sight before it's even begun. I recognise their very shouty manager from the semi final on the sidelines, he is gesturing wildly, but I can't make out what he is saying over the still singing HFC fans.

“I’m gonna burn bad today, I shouldn't of worn black” says Tom, he should take a leaf out of the HFC manager in his grey cup final suit, who has popped on a baseball cap to keep the sun out of his eyes, and looks much calmer than his gesticulating opposite number.

We all have goals in life, work goals, family goals, football goals. Some people want to be CEO by the age of thirty five, some want lots of kids, some want to do ‘The 92’. My brothers football goal was achieved at an England friendly in this very stadium a few years ago when he was able to catch the ball after it went into the crowd, and threw it back to a player, I don't think I have ever seen him so happy. I therefore recognise better than most, the grin and delight across one nearby man's face, when he plucks the ball from the air, which was going at quite a pace, and tosses it back on to the pitch. “Catch” says Tom like a spectator at Lord’s. Knowing exactly what he’s done, but not milking it though, he just turns to those around him, and accepts their manly ‘well done mate’ looks.

HFC continue to make chances, the MT keeper on more than one occasion makes a bit of a meal of keeping them out, but manages it. MT get their first shot on goal around fifteen minutes in, a rasping shot, which is just tipped over, the effort gets a round of applause from the MT subs warming up in front of us.

MT are slowly but surely starting to look less and less overrun, but still seem a little shaky, “Hereford are on the attack” says our nearby commentator, it doesn't look like it would take much effort for them to score again, just as easily as they did their first.

Number 17 for HFC is tricky, with quick feet, he drives to the edge of the box, shoots and hit's the crossbar. The opportunity to double their lead seems a certainty, after some good play down the flanks, the ball into the box is slightly behind his intended teammate. When he attempts a shot he’s all sixes and sevens, he seems to tie himself in knots “ahhhh” shouts the HFC end.

“Who are ya, who are ya, who are ya” sing the HFC fans following the premature MT celebrations, after their fans think they have scored, but its wide, the ripple of the net was misleading, and gave an altogether different impression.

Tom is not impressed, “some people go their whole lives, not even catching one”, after the same guy manages to catch ball number two, admittedly not with the poise of the first, but nonetheless, he has his brace.

Not long after hearing the MT fans in full voice for the first time, “Morpeth, Morpeth, Morpeth”, they equalise, completely against the run of play. A corner is fumbled at the back post by HFC keeper, the ball slipping through his hands, and straight onto the chest of an MT player who knows very little about the ball bouncing off him and into the back of the net.

The celebration is slightly delayed, perhaps wanting to avoid a repeat of the previous mistake, but when the MT players run to the corner flag, arms out stretched, their fans know this one counted. “You're not signing anymore, you're not singing anymore” they sing, the man behind us tells his friend, who has been so used to hearing HFC, that its “Morpeth who are the loudest now”.

His following statement encapsulates the past thirty five minutes or so perfectly “they have not disgraced themselves, they have not rolled over and died”. In fact MT almost go ahead, and slowly but surely in the final minutes of the half, they start to turn the tide. Within seconds of the sentence “Morpeth are finishing the game stronger” barely leaving Tom's lips it’s HFC’s turn to almost score, following a mind boggling solo run, getting closer enough to shoot, he puts it over, he would have gone down in folklore if it had gone in, there would have been a stand named after him before he had even got home.

The half somehow finishes all square.

Being a football steward can't be much fun, squatting on a plastic stool all day, their backs to the action, the high chance of being punched by an idiot, or freezing half to death on a “cold night in Stoke” it can’t make it a very enticing job opportunity, but very rarely are they as interesting as the woman near us, well to be clear, the hair of the woman near us. Perhaps it is Tom’s professional curiosity, he’s a barber, that has kicked in, or maybe it is just a bizarre curiosity, but we find ourselves flat out staring at the lady down front whose hair honestly looks like it is sculpted from the wax from mini Babybels, Tom thinks she might be from the “Fifth Element”.

A beer only lane, that sounds like a good idea doesn't it? Hair of the dog or a massive mistake are the two ways this half time drink is going, for me at least. Tom is breaking his self imposed ‘not eating at Wembley’ embargo, and is contemplating a “little sausage roll”, its £3 it better be fucking massive. He is also talking about having “lunch between games” like there is going to be some sit down meal in a Versailles banquet hall.

He gives in, I come to the realisation that we aren't going anywhere, the subliminal and not too subliminal message of the day ‘no readmittance’ has been drilled into me, and it might be a good idea to have something other than 2 litres of water and a beer inside of me, so I opt for a pasty. “I might have regretted my choice” says Tom, “feel the weight of that” he says as he hands over his fragile sausage roll, “now feel that” he says as he hands over my weighty and robust pasty, I have clearly come out of this better.

Tucking in, Tom is no stranger to being a little messy, let's say, when eating at football, for some reason his well bred North London table manners go out the window, and he has been known to leave a game with a mustard stain or three. One member of Wembley staff is particularly unimpressed, standing next to him and sweeping up the deluge of flaky pastry raining down as he devours the world's lightest and most expensive sausage roll.

Before heading back to our seats, we enjoy, well I’m not sure that is the right word, we witness a woman swinging a piece of skewered chicken around like a cutlass, who is trying to figure out how to get the meat off the stick and on to the flat bread and rocket below. She starts to strip it with her hands, considering the obvious lack of cutlery available this seems acceptable, but when she starts to use her teeth to perform the same task, I’m done, I’m off, football has gone mad.

The problem for going for a pint, or even if the queue for the toilet is a bit long, you can end up getting back to your seat a bit late, and considering the propensity for early goals so far in this match, you would think we would have been back long before kick-off. As we descend the stairs to our seat, dead ahead of us, we arrive just in time to watch MT grab a second, less than one minute after the restart, amazingly they are now in the lead.

HFC’s end has gone very quiet, only the thudding of the drum can be heard, but somehow even that sounds subdued, considering their already stellar season, they were very much the favourites, things are not going to plan, and its about to go further south.

Like a kid at a school disco the scorer of MT’s third, yes third goal, knee slides across the pitch, and then makes up the bottom layer of a near all team pile on. A mention has to go to the assist from MT’s number 4, diminutive in stature, he has blossomed in the second half, his range of passing and marshalling of central midfield is a joy to watch, I’m almost certain he put in an equally impressive performance in the semi final.

“Wow never saw that coming” adds Tom, I’m not sure anyone did after their less than ideal start. The MT bench is entwined in a mass group hug, the shouty manager looks delighted, and pumps his fist to someone in the crowd. It’s time for the MT fans to “sing their non league hearts out” says the partially sighted man to his friend so perfectly once again, “you're not singing anymore, you're not signing anymore”.

It’s starting to sink in for the MT fans, some are on their feet, swaying their arms like its a concert, but I don't see any lighters, “we love you Morpeth, we do, we love you Morpeth we do”. Watching on from the sidelines is their substitute keeper, who Toms describes as being “tonks” and looking like he is from the “UFC” the guy has some serious guns on him. He, the fans and the rest of the team don't have long to wait, “eight and a half minutes” to be precise, according to the timekeeper behind us, who also reiterates the score, like a human videprinter “Hereford 1, Morpeth 3”.

Such is the MT fans confidence, they are now “ollaying” the team, as they pass the ball between themselves, running down the clock, one pass at a time. They almost come a cropper, when one lofty pass to the keeper, almost goes a bit ‘Lee Dixon’, the scorer of the greatest own goal in history don't forget, only for him to deal with it, like it's no big deal.

“Four additional minutes of time” announces the Replicant sounding stadium announcer, who is set to ‘sound a bit like a game show host’.

On the break, and outnumbered at the back HFC concede a fourth, the route is complete. MT’s keeper runs to join the celebration in front of their fans once again, I’m sure in the melee I see more than one player rocking the ‘Dab’.

“Championes, championes, championes” rings out from the MT supporters and players as the final whistle is blown, the whole bench streams across the pitch colliding with the near hysterical players halfway. Before joining in, the MT manager dishes out his double fist pump only reserved for special occasions. “MORPETH, MORPETH, MORPETH”, accompanies the flag waving and scarf swinging, from the handful from Northumberland.

HFC get a round of applause by all as they climb the stand to get their runners up medals, the MT team wait, some now sporting hats, scarves and flags that have been tossed from the crowd. One player takes his chance to grab a quick hug with his small child, who is passed to him from the crowd in an oversized shirt and hat.

C3-PO is now on the pitch with a microphone in hand, and is bang on when he says in English, but could also have said it in any of the other six million other languages known by a protocol droid, that it's a “momentous occasion” the underdogs have prevailed. Queen’s “We are the champions” blasts out once MT have filled the balcony, and lifted the cup. HFC have formed a guard of honour at the foot of the steps, a very classy gesture, clapping the victors as they make their way towards their fans. More Queen follows, then a bit of Tina Turner ‘Simply the best’ and I have a brief flashback to my parents parties, when air guitar with a badminton racquet was all the rage.

MT are not able to revel in their achievement for too long, because the air is soon filled with the smell of petrol and the low hum of a fleet of ride-on mowers, buzzing up and down in perfect formation, like the red arrows, in preparation for game number two.

“It’s a bit eerie now” says a Grimsby fan, following the speedy exit of the HFC fans, along with almost everyone else. Kids are handed activity books by the stewards, “something to keep you occupied” they are told, their is almost a two hour wait until the FA Trophy final, so it's a nice way to kill the time, wish I could have one. I am clearly not as prepared as Tom, who tells me he's “got Vikings to watch” and asks me “what are you gonna do?”.


For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

You can read, Non-League Finals Day: Part Two - HERE


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Friday 20 May 2016

Non-League No More - Grimsby Town FC Vs Forest Green Rovers FC, National League Promotion Final 2016, Wembley Stadium (15/05/16)

Today is our penultimate match of what has been a long, but thoroughly enjoyable season, and where better place to spend it than at Wembley, in fact it will be our first of two visits there within a week. On this occasion, it is to watch a final where one team will end up being ‘non-league’ no more.

The match has all the ingredients for being a cracker. Grimsby Town FC (GT) have the chance to return to the Football League after a six year absence, Forest Green Rovers FC (FGR) have the chance to, as their Twitter account puts it ‘make history’, and get there for the first time ever. Considering how excitable the GT fans were when I watched their semi-final win over Braintree Town FC and how much fun one of their fans in a black and white striped shirt seemed to be having on the tube on Friday night, I have a feeling we will be in for a good afternoon.

Before I am able to enjoy my Sunday at our national stadium, I must endure an overfilled bus, in warm weather, with few open windows and various children in differing stages of distress, from slight moaning to full blown tantrums, and even though I pass stops called Tudor Gardens and Blackbird Cross, even I am unable to craft a vague, but obligatory reference to a certain much loved and popular fantasy TV show reference.

There are no signs of a major football event anywhere to be seen, only the three teens with the same printed off tickets I have, are any kind of hint that there is a football match about to take place. One asks the others if they “know all the songs”, ones reply is an attempt at a manly growl, accompanied by a pumped fist, which isn't dissimilar from most football chants, so I’m sure they will get on fine. However, all that dramatically changes not long after spotting the Wembley arch over the roof of a ginormous ASDA.

Turning into Bridge Road, the final stretch before I hop off at Wembley Park station, a pub, well I think it’s a pub, is rammed. I can't be sure because of the 100’s of people in front of it spilling out into the street, whose muffled singing I can hear through the closed windows of the bus. I would like to say the remaining short journey is a riot of colour, but I would be lying, there are only two, black and white.

Off the bus and once I have comprehended the scale of the striped invasion from Lincolnshire, I notice Tom, smiling back at me from behind a pair of Ray-Bans, with a blue sky and Wembley backdrop, looking like an extra from a photo shoot for a Sports Direct catalogue.

“There are a lot of sharks” says Tom, slightly confused by the GT supporters choice of match day companion. As we look up Wembley Way, I know it's now called ‘Olympic Way’, but I think its old name is much better, almost every person to a man is holding an inflatable fish under their arm, over their shoulder or up in the air.

Being a keen fisherman myself, I've been known to catch the odd carp or two, I can see that Tom's knowledge of marine biology is way off the mark. What they are holding is not a basking or a hammerhead, it is a Haddock, which I believe is in reference to the city's connection to the fishing industry, they even have ‘Young’s’, the well known purveyor of frozen fish as the sponsor on their shirts, and I’ve never heard of battered great white and chips, have you Tom?

He is also stating the bleeding obvious, when he tells me “there are a lot of Grimsby fans” it would probably be easier to point out someone who isn't. “Not seen any Forest Green” he says, having been on here a while before I arrived, the only green and white of FGR he has seen so far are the flags flying above the nearby unofficial, ‘scarves that give you a rash’ or ‘hats that fall apart before the end of the match’, “tut stalls” as Tom calls them, that line the way to the ground.

To say GT have colonised every available inch be underselling what is already clearly a significant turnout, all the more impressive considering GT are playing in the FA Trophy, back here, in a week's time. Along with the pub I passed on the bus, the Premier Inn next to the tube station has been overrun, music is blaring out from somewhere and Tom tells me there are already casualties “someone is asleep outside”, hopefully it's just a disco kip, and they will be raring to go for kick-off in just under two hours.

“Here we are, this is where it's gonna happen” says one beaming GT fan passing us, taking the opportunity as many are to pose like Tom on the bridge for a picture..

Now at ground level, no longer overlooking the fans, the volume has only increased, chants and songs are starting all over, firstly by one or two, but quickly it’s picked up by more, and like a ripple, before we know it everyone around us is at it. Then it peters out, only for someone else start another one and it begins again, “oh when the Town, go steaming in”.

If like me you never leave the house without your copy of the ‘Non-League I Spy’ book, then you might be a little bit jealous of some of the boxes I was able to tick, on our amble towards the ground. Standard sights such as, foam fingers, jester hats with bells, flags worn likes capes have already been ticked off. I was though able to cross off a few rarer sights, the likes of which are usually reserved for big occasions, such as the man in a suit completely comprised of his club’s colours, this fine example a black and white striped two piece, a man dressed as a penguin, they’re fit the GT colour scheme and  like fish, so I guess that counts or the three GT fans with black and white face paint, wearing grass skirts and flower garlands, carrying an inflatable shark, yes this was definitely a shark. Perhaps my best spot, my triple point scorer was a boy with a broken leg in a wheelchair with a flag fastened to the back, being pushed along and leading his merry troupe in a song, “we only sing when we’re fishing”.

At the official kiosk for ‘scarves that give you a rash’, but they are endorsed by the FA so they are ok, I wait in the queue behind someone contemplating a “half and half”. I get a programme, which was only £5, a pleasant surprise, not to extortionate. Tom’s flick through it finishes up on a full page advert covered in battered fish, and it get his stomach rumbling “only had a croissant all day” he tells me. The pull of the nearby burgers is too great, and we stop. Tom who usually is more than happy to splash the cash on his football food, can't be tempted by eating once inside, “too expensive” and as this is coming from a regular at the Emirates, it must be pricey.

Amongst the football fans we see families and couples, walking against the tide,  tourists I think, who are perhaps staying at one of the nearby hotels or have been spending their Sunday shopping at the local shopping centre. Each one looks a mixture of intrigued and confused, either by the fish carrying Englishmen or the walking talking penguin or perhaps it's the woman who has dismissed the idea of buying an official GT shirt and has spray painted a black number 9 on the back of a white polo shirt or perhaps like us they have spotted their first FGR fan in a shirt with ‘Fat Dad 50’ on the back, which Tom thinks is a “bit mean”, especially if it was a present.

The last photo opportunity for most people is at the bottom of the ramp one has to ascend at the foot of the stadium, some though are not making the climb yet, but have opted for a game of headers with a large inflatable football, each successful header getting a “wehhhh”.

Halfway up, we can hear in the distance, past the 5-a-side pitches outside Wembley arena, another mass of GT fans who are being forced to listen to an appalling rendition of ‘I predict a riot’ by the Kaiser Chiefs. If the original recording wasn't shouty enough, this rendition makes it sound positively operatic.

Above us over the wall a GT flag has been hung “So Proud To Be” is written across it, behind, looking marvelous in bronze, Bobby Moore. Every inch of the armed crossed, effortlessly cool effigy of the England captain’s statue, is surrounded, everyone waiting their turn to have their picture taken with him. It’s mostly children being herded by parents to stand in front of someone I’m sure few have probably even heard of, but they do what they are told, while a Mum or Dad takes a snap.

“We are going up” sing a small group of neon green clad FGR children, their GT counterparts, who have been practically armed by their parents, are doing as we all would do, hitting the grownups with their air filled fish, and enjoying every minute of it.

Despite the fact I have work the next day, the combination of fine weather, Tom admitting to wishing he had “shorts on”,  and the fact this is not your run of the mill league game, a beer seems very much in order, so it's time to head inside. Our tickets, self printed and self folded are informing us our entrance is not a block or section, it has its own name ‘Club Wembley’.

Having scaled to the top, we are immediately sent back down, down into the shadows of the ramp, where silver waist high poles, connected with red velvet rope, like outside a high end nightclub, mark our way in. ‘Welcome To Club Wembley” says the sign above us. Once our tickets are checked, and even with trainers on, we are allowed in.

No tight squeeze through a turnstile here, instead automatic glass doors, no burly grumpy stewards,
instead smiling well turned out men and women, no nondescript concrete entrance, instead the torch from the 1948 London Olympics, and a row of giant plant pots, that for the first time in my life make me feel like a Borrower. Is this how the other half live?, is this the side of corporate football that I moan about, but I’m now experiencing for the first time and one very small part of me is fighting with the rest because I’m quite enjoying being called “Sir” by every smiling person, am I becoming a cock?

Directed up a couple of escalators, each one manned by an attentive and helpful person pointing us in the right direction we pass the ‘Bobby Moore Centenary Amazing Lounge’ and the ‘Champagne For Everyone That’s Not You Suite’. When we finally reach our level it is quiet, a few people are having a drink from the bar that has no queue, this is all very different from the Wembley I know, this is all very different from the football I know.

Tom a more worldly, hoypoloi soul than me, tells me that it's just like the “Emirates” and this level of faceless, slightly soul destroying, its all a bit like a Vue cinema, football “is nothing mate” in comparison to the lofty heights he has reached just off the Archway road.

There is a lot to take in as we enter the stadium proper, the fact the door was opened for us by another person with a permanent grin, the amount of empty seats, not that either of us were expecting a sell out, or for it to be even half full, but in our section, the early bird section, the neutral section we have almost a whole block of red padded seats to ourselves, only for couple of Tranmere fans, a few rows in front.

GT’s overwhelming numbers outside, are replicated inside, their section is twice as big as FGR’s and is a sea of black and white. Flags of all shapes and sizes are being hung from every available point, down the front, pitchside, the club mascot, who Tom is not wrong when he says from afar at least “looks like Captain Birdseye” is padding around. Although not sure of his rank, I can see he is a seafarer, he is wearing a white sailor's cap, but certainly his behavior, astride an inflatable fish which he is riding rodeo style is certainly not that befitting a Nelson or a Cook.

Although the prize today is getting into the Football League, there is also a silver trinket gleaming on a plinth in front of the players tunnel. As the over-familiar, bald announcer from BT prowls about, doing a bit to camera, and girls with tee-shirt cannons limply fire souvenirs into the stands, the Wembley stadium announcer hands over to FGR’s, to read out the teams.

“Come on you Rover's” shouts what looks like a twelve year old looking boy. Kudos to him for standing up in front of the crowd, it must be a little daunting being able to see your own image ten feet high on the big screens. His voice has more echo than a U2 song, but he does his best to excite the small turnout in green and white opposite us.

Proceedings are then handed over to GT’s announcer. Not that they needed much warming up, but he does a great job in whipping them up into a frenzy, like a minister at a gospel church, think James Brown in Blues Brothers. “We are Grimsby Town” he shouts, “MARINERS, MARINERS, MARINERS” reply the fans. Each player gets a huge cheer, the mascot, no longer playing Buckaroo, is bowing, arms outstretched towards the GT keeper warming up in a Wayne’s World, ‘I am not worthy’ style. “This is it” says the GT announcer “let's make some noise” and once again they give a deafening reply “MARINERS, MARINERS, MARINERS”.

Time allows for a quick drink, so we hurry inside. Tom returns and informs me that “they have run out of Tetleys” he is slightly concerned for our safety, knowing that them up North like a proper drop, not this wishy washy lager. Guzzling our ice cold, but ultimately tasteless pints, the couple next to us encapsulate ‘Club Wembley’ when they produce their snacks. Not crisps, not an upside down pie like the men the other side of us or a Kit-Kat, but an unopened bar of Lindt white chocolate, what is this world coming to?. At least one man can see the madness in what's going on, bemoaning the price of the thimble sized bucket of popcorn he just bought his two kids, “£4” he says white with shock to his wife, who's preparing the defibrillator.

The attention I’m now getting from the grinners and tie wearers is starting to get a little unnerving, motionless for a mere thirty seconds, waiting for Tom to get out of the toilet, I am surrounded by two or three people all asking me if “I’m ok?”. I’m starting to wonder if I have walked into an episode of Doctor Who, and at some point they will all peel off their faces, revealing their true identities, and will attempt to take over the world

Free from our potential overlords for now at least, the red carpet has been laid out waiting for the teams, and the military band in their black uniforms and red plumage are standing to attention, highly polished instruments in hand, they must be boiling, with the sun streaming down on them.

Before kick off we get the opinion of our nearby neighbours from Prenton Park. For him he is torn between his “head and heart”, his heart would like FGR to win, as they have “never been there (the Football League) before” his head though, has his team and the others in the league in mind, “get rid of Grimsby and all their money”.

Both teams arrive, both teams applaud their fans, both sets of fans wave and whirl anything they can, and despite FGR’s low numbers and Tom feeling “sorry for them” because they are not even close to filling their section, they are giving a good account of themselves, but can’t come close to competing with the GT lot.

Lined up, many players wave to friends or family in the seats in front of them. Men in blazers of the highest position accompany Bobby Moore's widow along the line, shaking the hands, of the anxious and fidgeting players. On the lifting of the conductor's baton, the whole of Wembley stands, to sing the national anthem.

As the band leave, all kept in time by a single drummer, the GT fans manage to get even louder “we’re on our way, to the Football League we’re on our way”. Many have stay standing, and for the first ten minutes or so of the game, they are continuous and non-stop, much like their team on the field who are making all the chances. Each one is close, but not enough and is greeted with a monumental “oohhhh” or “ahhhh” from the fans below us.

The initial adrenaline from the kick-off has simmered, on and off the field. Although most of the GT fans are still standing, some have taken their seat, occasionally a fellow fan will gesture to them to get back up.

With about twenty minutes gone on the clock, FGR fashion their first and best chance of the half, the ball bounces kindly to an unmarked player, who has a clear shot on goal, only for the heroics of one defender who makes a last ditch block, the keeper in anticipation of it chucks himself to the ground, but the ball doesn't get that far. Inspired by nearly going ahead we hear the FGR fans for the first time.

Now we love a drummer and his or her drum at football, we were ever so impressed by the skill of them in Germany, their ability to keep the crowd in time, to start songs, to ultimately control the atmosphere. Today I could hear one, but I can't see it, it’s not until Tom points it out that I notice there are in fact two, standing side by side, both wearing a pair of white gloves, their reason for doing so is perhaps ceremonial, or perhaps they are fans of Mickey Mouse.

It’s not long after noticing them, I find myself transfixed by them, that that they start a simple chant, not one that is overly complicated, there is no world clever word play and it’s not to the tune of a song by a certain brother, sister duo, in fact it's only one word, but it rocks every one of the 90,000 seats, be they occupied or not, effectively it is the Mariners war cry “FISH, FISH, FISH, FISH”. Funnily enough we have actually heard this chant before, I say chant it was was just one bloke randomly shouting it, not 13,000 people as one.

A GT goal seems imminent, around the half hour mark they have two more chances, both once again bringing a  “ohhhh” from the fans. The second chance crashes off the crossbar, Tom is caught up in the moment, shooting forwards, half out of his chair, joining everyone else making a nondescript ‘that was close’ noise.

Tom not content with watching this game unfolding in front of us, he is also keeping himself abreast of developments in the Premiership, which is playing out its final day. Every time he checks the latest, he takes much delight in informing me of developments between Spurs and Newcastle. It would seem 300 so miles away another team in black and white is causing a defence problems, as Newcastle increase their lead on Spurs. I try not to show him that he is getting to me, but it’s hard to take, fucking football.

There is a lot on the line for both teams today, the step up for FGR or the return for GT is massive, so when GT go ahead, following a back post header from a free-kick, the fans realise they have just put one foot back in the Football League, there is such an outpouring of emotion and a palpable release of tension, that is unlike anything we have experienced before. One fan is so excited they have managed to produce a pink lilo from nowhere, and are waving it in the air like there is no tomorrow.

Now imagine the excitement when the aforementioned team, only a minute later, edge said foot that little bit further into the Football League when they get a second. A speculative shot from outside the box is fumbled by the FGR keeper, the quickest to react is GT player who is on hand to side foot it home.

It's sometimes hard to be eloquent, to try and be flowery about everything, sometimes it's just easier to say it straight: the place went mental, off the fucking hook. Who needs a shirt on when you are two goals ahead, seems to be the thought process of a large contingent of GT fans, who are now stripped to the waist. One third of the words inflatables are being tossed into the air, and their singing says it all “we’re on our way, to the football league we’re on our way”.

Over the din, Tom tells me that the remainder of the game is “either going to be one of the greatest comebacks of all time, or it's going to get a bit sad”, FGR look shell shocked, halftime cannot come quick enough.

The break brings the only low point of the day, when we along with a few others are asked to take down our flags because it's covering up advertising, sighhhh, not a lot more can be said about that.

What doesn't help, and only compounds my flag based sadness is the glee Tom is taking from telling me that Spurs have now gone and got pumped 5 - 1 by relegated, kind of useless Newcastle. I can't let him see he's getting to me though, I can't let him know he's winning. He is though kind enough to go to the bar again and get me a “consolation” beer, which gives me enough time to compose myself.

Our Tranmere acquaintance is now fully going with his head, sod his heart, sod the romance, “get rid of them” he tells us, let them be someone else's problem, get one of the “bigger fish” out of the league.

Perhaps preoccupied with half time drinking, the GT fans post the restart are the most subdued they have been all day, the drummers are still pounding away in effortless unison, but they are just lacking a little bit of that first half intensity. The same can also be said for the players, whose on field performance mirrors that of their supporters, they now seem happy to sit back, they’re being ever so slightly reserved, not so cavalier.

GT’s reluctance to venture too far forward, in turn gives FGR more of the ball, and they are now creating chances. A long range shot which is dragged, and looks destined to go wide, rolls across the floor with little venom, one FGR player though has not given up, ghosting in on the back post he should tap it in, but he puts it wide.

Gasps fill the FGR end, how?, why?, that was their way back into the game. GT’s supporters all exhale, trying to laugh it off, but it's nervous laughter, it is not the time to give the opposition the upper hand. More chances come, Tom once again is swept up in it all, “go on” he squeals, as the ball just needs to be nudged over the line, but in the end is cleared, his delivery is a little bit more high pitched than one might expect from a bearded East End socialite.

“Oh my fucking God” shouts Tom, this time with a bit more of his usual manly gruff, when a swerving rocket of a long range shot leaves the foot of the FGR player, God only knows how far outside the box, far enough though that Tom is able to comment, sit back, with the ball still flying through the air as the whole place watches on, knowing fair well that ball is destined for the top right hand corner, completely out of reach of the fully stretched keeper, it's just now about waiting for it to get there.

“Game on” says Tom.

The green and white end has come to life, “Rovers, Rovers, Rovers”, they know like they have the upper hand now, GT have been punished for being overly cautious, “complacent” as Tom puts it, and perhaps as a way to distract themselves from the fact the opposition have got a goal back, someone has set off a grey/white smoke bomb, which is quickly filling the air with its unmistakable smell, and shrouding many people with a foggy cloak. For Tom it brings back some old memories, from his time in the Mekong Delta, and his “short time in the Army” he looks off in the distance, and I wonder if it's all going to get a bit Deer Hunter.

Into the final twenty minutes the atmosphere is tense, GT muster their first real chance of the half, they are in the hunt for a third, but it's still a bit tentative. I’m not sure why because FGR have had very little threat since the screamer, and if GT just showed a little more killer instinct they could easily kill them off.

The fourth official raises his board, five minutes of extra time. The two time goal scorer Bogle’s, face is blazoned across the screens, he has been awarded the Man of the Match award, “Bogle, Bogle, Bogle” the fans sing, every time I hear his name all I can think of is dancing or a spelling based board game.

“Their support has been amazing” says Tom quite rightly, as they whistle and jeer the referee, surely that's been five minutes they are thinking, but the game carries one. The age old trick of bringing on a sub to waste some time is brought into play, the GT player going off seems overcome with, and I’m sure he is crying. Such is his meandering pace, the referee trots over and asks him to hurry up.

‘Six years of hurt’ would of been the line from a Lightning Seeds song had they written one about GT’s time in the conference, four times in the play off finals and no success, last year they lost the final on penalties, all this explains perfectly the intensity of the moments following GT’s third and final goal. A mass feeling of ‘we’ve done it’ fills the ground, players and staff on the bench can't contain themselves and dash toward their fans, some are on the pitch, suited and booted and absolutely delirious. One fan has managed to clear the barriers, which is no mean feat as they are considerable at Wembley, but doesn't get much further and is manhandled out by four stewards, but he is not giving them an easy ride.

 Any last reserve of fight drains from FGR in an instant, as the GT players run off to celebrate, a pile on in one corner of the pitch, many from the team in green have sunk to their knees, the keeper lies prone, not moving an inch as all around him enjoy celebrate the goal.

When the final whistle blows, promotion is confirmed, and every player, coach and fan is ecstatic. The players now brandishing ‘we’re going up flags’ dance, like sugar fueled children at a party in front of the supporters who continue to applaud, cheer and enjoy what their team has just achieved. Two players appear on the big screen, an interview is cut short when one starts to sing “we’re on…” he turns to the fans behind him who take over “TO THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE, WE’RE ON OUR WAY”.

Watching on dejected, some sitting, some standing, FGR have to look on as GT climb up the famous Wembley steps, disappear from view for a moment, then reappear on the balcony, any hint of being tired, or drained, I’m sure has been replaced by pure adrenaline, and most must have felt like they were flying.

The outstretched wiggling fingers of the players build up to the moment of the cup being lifted, I’m not sure why they even bother with a trophy, the real prize has already been won, also with trophies and cups come lids, and lids can fall off balconies in the midst of celebrations, and metal lids falling from great heights can be painful, so I hope no-one was standing under there.

GT’s return to the pitch is slowed by most players being stopped every foot or so to be congratulated. If GT flew up the stairs then FGR drag themselves, weary and at a snail's pace to collect their runners up medals, just let them go home I reckon.

A photo opp has been set up for the wall of photographers, the team are ushered to stand behind  hoardings set up on the pitch ‘promotion final winner’, once the stragglers have made made it down the last few steps, the sign is given, the cup is lifted again, the corks pop and the bubbly flows, flashbulbs flash, and streamers of black, silver and gold are fired into the air.

“Marines, Mariners, Mariners” sing the outstanding GT support, as the team parade their accomplishment in front of them, fish are now flying through the air towards them, some players salute the fans and reply with the ‘I am not worthy’ bow.

The final hurrah is a combination of a Jurgen Klopp post match celebration and a Klinsmann dive. Lining up, and all holding hands, the line starts at a gentle jog, quickly breaking into a mad dash towards the trophy which has been placed on the pitch. Moments before reaching it, they each perform a German belly flop and skid across the pitch, except for the person who has to dodge the goal post, some are not fussed in the least though and end up in the back of the goal.

Outside the walk to the tube is full of more singing, more chanting, a beach ball is kicked up in the air from fan to fan as we go. We also get a few last minute ticks in our ‘Non-league I spy’ book, such as a fish wearing a scarf and one fan who has delved deep into the dressing up box, and is sporting a near perfect replica mascot beard, and hat.

Tom and I part ways, I’m cursed with more packed buses, and as I wait for my final one home I notice coach and car loads of GT fans making their way home. Flags hang in the windows, scarves hang out of them, one man serenades the people of Hendon with a song about someone “being on fire”. It’s a long old drive back to Grimsby, but I’m sure they don't give a damn, they were fantastic, looking forward to seeing you at Wembley again soon.

For all our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Tuesday 10 May 2016

The Night Is Dark & Full Of Terrors - Tooting & Mitcham United FC Vs Hendon FC, London FA Senior Cup Final 2016, Imber Court (04/05/16)

What a glorious day, a ‘hello boss, sorry I’m ill, cough, cough’ kind of a day, I would refrain from going totally Mad Max and saying its one good enough to die on, but it’s certainly one where you just need to be outside. Alas though I have been stuck in an office with a man moaning about the fan making him “cold” while I sweat away in my woolly jumper, peering out the window at a slither of bright blue sky between two buildings.

When 5 o'clock rolls around I almost go full Fred Flintstone, get to the tube station near work before the door to the office has closed behind me, and join all the other hot and bothered, over dressed people on the Underground.

My previous vitriolic statements about commuters are starting to bore even me, so I will keep my references to zombies, drones, shirt wearing slugs to a minimum, and from this day forth it can go unsaid that I’m not a huge fan of traveling at this time of day. Tom is not far behind me, but for the third time running I’m early, so have plenty of brownie points stored up for a few late arrivals next season.

Tom somehow looks even younger than the last time I saw him, and I fear he may be turning into Benjamin Button. Despite his slow slide back into infancy, he has good news as we board our train “got a surprise for you” he tells me. The fact I think I’m getting another crazy but tasty sandwich is clear from my face apparently and in combination with a mini fist pump, Tom finds it necessary to nip my excitement in the bud before it gets out of hand. “It’s not a sandwich” he says softly, just as my hopes had peaked, but after knocking me down, he is quick to build me back up “it’s home made cake, sparrow has been busy”.

( To clarify ‘Sparrow’ is my affectionate nickname for Tom's waif of a girlfriend, who eats about the same as your average chirping garden visitor and will inevitably take home a doggy bag when we go out for dinner.  Disappointingly it is not the case that Tom has trained a small bird to bake)

Our train journey feels overly long, and is punctuated by three major talking points: One - Tom tells me about a BBQ restaurant where you can “inject gravy” into meat, only in Dalston. Two - The man next to us with the biggest pair of headphones either of us have “ever seen” that look like he has two tinned sponge puddings stuck to the side of his head. Three - the cackling group of youths, whose volume occasionally hits a level to where I think a street fight has broken out, only for Tom to tell me “nothing has happened”.

Red, blue and white bunting strung from the ceiling of the platform is the first thing we notice once off the train at Thames Ditton, a much nicer sight than a half eaten box of chicken wings or mountains of discarded free newspapers that litter most inner city stations. We also see for the first time a fan of one of today's teams, his allegiance is given away by his green and white scarf of Hendon FC (HFC).

Not distinguishable by tribal colours, but off to the football nonetheless the fans behind us are already thinking post match, “what if it goes to extra time?” says one to another. The idea of a late finish is too much to bare for one, who cracks under the pressure of not knowing and shoots off in search of the time table.

I know where we are, but I don't know WHERE we are if you know what I mean. Its very nice, very green and lush, with extremely pretty houses. I think we even pass a woman putting up a sign on the parish church notice board, it's all very twee.

Google maps has us a little perplexed, Tom seems to think the entrance to tonight's ground is one way, his directions seem to be sending us a very circuitous route, and he is convinced the ground is surrounded by two raging rivers “look at the map” he keeps saying to me. I think there is a much more direct route, but we don't panic, we coolly assess our surroundings, and if I learnt one thing at 2nd Muswell Hill Scout group: if lost, follow someone who looks like they are going to the same place as you. Thankfully the old chap in a blue jacket with an embroidered London Football Association badge on his breast pocket is the perfect star to guide us to the promised land.

Through the glare of the sun, we can just make out the meccano esq flood lights of Imber Court the home of Metropolitan Police FC, tonight however the venue of the London FA Senior Cup Final, and our crest covered, unsuspecting guide is no longer needed and we home in on our destination. Considering our location the bloke shamelessly smoking a joint in his car whilst sitting in traffic is brave and a bit daft, but each to their own. The club's blue sign is empty of fixtures, only the painted ‘Vs’ are visible, as football prepares for its summer hiatus.

Despite the floodlights the entrance to Imber Court throws us a little, as it's more like a leisure centre than a football club. The cabinets full of police hats, handcuffs and ornate truncheons reinforces we are in the right place, but the surroundings are not of the like we are used to. The bustling ‘Imber Bar’ is reminiscent of a golf club I used to work at in the summer in my teens, it's deep blue carpet with gold fleur-de-lis is very plush.

Plenty of people are enjoying the opulent surroundings, but we make a beeline for the tables outside, it's far too nice not to, and join the sunshade, shorts and flip flop wearing people soaking up a bit of early summer sun. Outside we also see the first black and white striped shirt of HFC’s opposition tonight, Tooting & Mitcham United FC (TMU)

“Oh this is nice” says Tom on his return from the bar, as he takes a seat. Is he talking about the pleasant weather or the fact the bar was “cheap”.

“Pitch this way?” asks a player holding a pair of boots and a kit bag to the table next to us. Once pointed in the right direction, he makes his way past kids with wet hair and towels emerging from the nearby swimming pool and a guy with a ‘No Pirlo, No Party’ t-shirt on.

As much as we would like to stay lounging in the sun, there is a game to watch and we go in search of the entrance to a ground that is clearly there, but is being effectively hidden in a maze of small buildings, and an open mouthed penguin bin.

We eventually find the way in, which is via a simple brick turnstile between two blue gates, a few posters advertising tonight's fixture have been stuck up, and through the bigger of the gates is a police horse wagon, what kind of turnout are they expecting?

Once in, we are almost straight away under the roof of the concrete covered terrace behind one goal. Behind a wooden table set up on one of the steps a woman hands out a free match day programme, and like music to my ears asks “golden goal, pound a go?”. I hand over my money and take my chances, picking the folded yellow tickets from an empty quality street box.

We are both having a lovely evening so far, one man at the turnstile on the other hand is not. What started as a low level barney, has escalated into full blown screaming, directed at a steward and a blazered man whose demeanour makes it very clear he his quite aware of the almighty power his jacket bestows upon him. His high pitched outbursts are increasing in volume, something about being let in for free, but his squealing delivery makes it hard to understand.

If Alanis Morissette had been here enjoying a bit of non-league football, she would've revelled in the irony atom bomb the shouty man is about to drop. After telling the head steward, who has now joined the melee to “throw me out” when this is not done and he is still refusing to budge, he yells all red in the face “well call the police!”.

“Welcome to Imber Court” says the voice over the tannoy, half of which is bathed in sun, half in shade, the main stand already has a fair few of its blue seats occupied.  As the teams are read out in a voice verging on the monotone, the person doing it could do him self a favour and pay a visit to Beveree Statdium or Hornchurch Stadium as his approach has neither the regal elegance of Hampton or the boundless energy of Hornchurch.

Tom joins the pride of photographers circling around the steps leading down on to the pitch, waiting for the teams to arrive. The ring of the bell from up the tunnel, momentarily interrupts the music playing that sounds like it's straight out of Lord Of The Rings, and brings the rumbling of the blue metal tunnel which is extended from the stand to the pitch.

As the music builds, all very dramatic, all very, very exciting, for a moment I expect Gandalf to appear, but sadly it's only the physio, with handfuls of equipment. HFC are first to appear all in red, the shout from one of their fans “come on greens” is a little redundant. TMU appear in their black and white stripes and not long after the burly linesman informs the referee that both “first 11’s are good”. There is a brief pause, before the referee leads the way, “ok lads let's go”.

“Please welcome your teams” says old cheery draws on the microphone, when he reads out the teams again one TMU players “Simeone” gets his own rapturous welcome from his personal fan club “Simeone, Simeone, Simeone” sitting in the stand behind me, when they sit down and put their pom poms away, although they are not talking in English, I’m pretty sure they are laughing or moaning about the pronunciation of his name.

“Enjoy the game” how about you try and enjoy life, are my thoughts as proceedings are handed over to the referee and we are underway. Kick-off brings the change end shuffle as the TMU fans who were making a racket as the teams came out “Tooting, Tooting, Tooting” are now making their way to our end of the pitch, and we decide to stay up this end with them.

Both sets of fans are quick to erect their flags, most noticeably a green and white skull and cross bones at the HFC end, TMU's is a dominated by a large black and white St Georges Cross. The boisterous lot from South of the river, “South London. La. La. La”, set their stall out early on, they’re going to be making lots of noise, “we love you Tooting we do”. The HFC keeper’s long hair is proving particularly amusing to the fans behind him “get a haircut” one shouts “put your curlers in” shouts another. It’s also not long into the half that an air horn is brought into play, thankfully not AFC Hornchurch close, so I don't curl up in a ball and start to rock, but they are making their presence felt.

HFC travelling support are silent in comparison, which the TMU lot are quick to pick up on “can you hear the Hendon sing?”. Although there is little chanting and certainly no horn, they do create an almighty din by hitting the metal back of the terrace, which sounds like thunder.

Our quota of challenges that make you want to cry has yet to be met this season, maybe a few eye waterers, but no full blown tears. When the HFC number 10 goes through the back of a TMU player, we get a striker's tackle bonus, and I’m reaching to Tom for some tissues, the referee is only reaching for a yellow, very lucky number 10.

All the early pressure is from TMU much to the delight of their very rarely quiet fans, “South London's black and white army”, however there have been few clear cut chances for either team. HFC go close with a free kick, but it's a long range shot from TMU that is the best of half, it stings the palms of the keeper, it’s to hot to handle and he is forced to push the ball back into the box, lucky for him it falls close enough so he can scramble down to collect it. The TMU fans don't miss the opportunity to let him know what they think of the long haired one's efforts “dodgy keeper”.

When a TMU player goes down, after clearing a ball and looking to have kicked his own player as well, the magic spray holders are called on, and one HFC fan wonders if the injured players is “their main man, he might be their Aguero”.

Tom’s food run ends up with a hotdog minus the onions, they had “run out” he tells me, he is also doubting his condiment choice “not sure what I was thinking, mustard and mayo”. Perhaps the main reason for not joining Tom when he indulges his football food fetish, is not wanting to be the fat guy with schmutz all in his beard and down his front. I’m happy to look like one of the Twits in the privacy of my own home, but when Tom has a mayo/mustard mixture all over his face and a huge yellow stain on his jacket, I feel totally vindicated.

The half finishes with more sustained pressure from TMU, their last chance follows a tricky flick by the forward, which allows him to evade the attention of two defenders, “that was nice” says Tom, just before he shoots wide.

We see a few curious things whilst at games, today we have already seen a man in a Hawaiian shirt and green wig, but we have never seen anyone in what I can only describe as an old black and white jockey cap with ‘TMU’ sewn on the side in gold. As the players make their way inside, we overhear the hat wearer tell someone it was left to her “in someone’s will”, a touching story, and nice to think of that little bit of football history being passed on.

The music from the Shire starts again, but not for long as someone has got fed up of the floaty elfish strings and whacks a bit of a Michael Buble on. We swap our side of the pitch for the other, but not ends, we will spend the second half with the HFC supporters. Two of them spend the break puffing away on cigars, of the Churchillian monster variety, filling the air with its unmistakable smell. They are deep in conversation with a fellow fan about the decision for the team to be playing in red, “my heart sank” was one's reaction to hearing the news, he reckons their first half performance is solely down to the choice of kit, “we think we are Harrow Borough” when we wear it, and then we're “shit” he explains.

Sitting down with my back against the still warm wall that has been basking in the sun all day, Tom announces its “cake time”. He pulls a small Chinese takeaway box from his bag, and pops the lid to reveal two equal slices, with a deep purple centre. He informs me it's “moist” apparently “sparrow has a fear of dry cake”.

“Welcome your team’s back”, reverberates through the speakers. With the players returning I remember my golden goal ticket, the small black ‘55’ on it, means I'm still in the running. The HFC fans near us are critical but fair, and are hoping for better “not very good in that half was it”.

A stunning day is turning into a stunning evening, the sky is a mix of pinks, orange and pale blues, criss crossed with the vapour trails from planes. A nearby conspiracy theorist shares his views on them with a friend, “chemtrails” he calls them, suggesting they will “infect 1000’s of people” he must have left his tinfoil hat in the car. More fans passing us are grumbling about the kit “hate that red kit”, one announces, another though is happy they have at least still got “10 men”.

This years final, is a replay of last years, where HFC pipped TMU in extra time with 10 men after drawing level in the dying moments of normal time. “We didn't turn up until 20 minutes to the end” explains the HFC fan with his green and white scarf looped around his belt, and more cameras of different sizes hanging off him than should be possible.

“Oh when the Stripes go marching in” sing the TMU fans who I’m sure have doubled in number and are now occupying almost the whole terrace behind the goal. Their singing is continuous, and particularly impressive is what might be a never ending rendition of “we’re the black and white army” to the tune of the much used White Stripes song, ‘Seven Nation Army’.

“Assault with a deadly pair of boots” shouts the nearby crackpot who is applauded at the TMU players  challenge. The resulting free-kick creates HFC’s first chance of the half, a free header, but it's straight into the arms of the keeper. Perhaps noticing all the big boys are up from the back, he makes a quick kick up field, aimed at one of the two players who had not come back to defend. One of the two accompanying HFC’s players, makes a hash of a simple header, which allows the ball to bounce and the two TMU players are on the loose ball like a flash, tearing towards goal in a wicked counterattack from just over the halfway line, and in mere seconds the black and white stripes are bearing down on goal, and score with a cool finish.

There is a instant outpouring of joy, the whole far end is moving, the whole team chase’s down the scorer who has made his way to the side of the pitch to celebrate. Tom asks “what minute?”, I wait for the announcer to say but can't hear him over the singing “come on you Terrors”. Now that’s what you call a nickname, Hampton & Richmond that is how it's done, not only is it up there with the best, but it's also a Game Of Thrones reference without me even trying, this though is all irrelevant, I need to know the time of the goal, I need to know if I've won!!

HFC fans are now even quieter, standing motionless, one pipes up though “we lose every week, you’re nothing special, we lose every week”. Tom is feeling very poetic as the TMU players gather themselves and prepare for kick-off, “revenge is a dish best served on a nice spring evening”.

When HFC’s followers finally look like they might have something to shout about the TMU keeper pulls off two saves one not long after the other to prevent the equaliser. In keeping with the end to end nature of the match, TMU then nearly grab a second we an audacious and vicious long range free-kick that draws a slightly startled “fucking hell” from Tom, half for the attempt, and half for the save. The long haired one has really been on fine form for HFC and has almost singlehandedly stopped the score getting embarrassing.

“That was our chance!” says a HFC fan with all the distress of a person who has just missed the last escape pod from a war torn planet, as an HFC forward covers his face, and looks to the heavens after squandering a gilt edged opportunity. Super wing play, and a pinpoint cross found him on the edge of the six yard box, only needing a simple side foot finish, but he put it wide.

As with most football matches, your team misses that golden chance and moments later the other team go up the other end, pull back the duvet for you, dim the lights, kiss you on the cheek and put the whole damn game to bed. Tonight is no different, when the referee points to the spot at the far end of the pitch, not long after HFC’s chance and awards a penalty to TMU.

Some HFC players can't bare to watch, one is on his haunches with his back to the goal, I imagine just wanting it all over and done with.

It’s not every day you see a keeper, a blur of yellow run the full length of the pitch to celebrate with his teammates. The penalty is dispatched, the scorer wheels away to the same spot as before, followed by the rest of the team, and the goalie, the late arrival jumps on top of the bundle. The fans are now in full party mode, it looks like a very fun kind of bedlam, “we’re gonna win the cup, we’re gonna win the cup, and now you're gonna believe us” they sing in full voice.

Once again the single HFC fan reiterates to the jubilant TMU supporters, that their team geting beaten this season has become quite typical, “you're nothing special, we lose every week”.

The end of the game is marred ever so slightly, after on field tensions boil over, and what initially seems like a bit of handbags, turns into a full blown, full team altercation, where Tom is sure one player “punched” another. When things finally calm down my ringside reporter informs me he saw at least “3 throat grabs”. When the referee pulls the guilty parties to one side to dish out his judgement, one TMU player doesn't take kindly to being given a yellow card, pushes the arm of the referee and gets a red instead, “what an idiot” says Tom, quite rightly.

“Champions of London, we know what we are” sings every TMU fan as the final whistle goes, they have won the cup, one HFC fan’s attempt at a dig falls on deaf ears as they fold up their flags, “you should of won last year, when we were quite good”.

A couple at the TMU end jump the fence on to the pitch, and are followed by a few more, buoyed on by the first few's success. A ball of black and white forms not far from the centre circle, a mixture of players and supporters enjoy the occasion “we love you Tooting we do”, many phones are held aloft, capturing the moment. The black and white St George’s cross is handed to the players for their photo call.

Only a foot or two away, the HFC team are a scene of devastation, many are on the floor, contemplating the loss, cruelly forced to witness the celebrations, as a small table is set up, and they have to wait to be awarded their runners up medals.

“Please leave the pitch” is the request, which is dutifully acknowledged and when a steward gives the thumbs up that it's all clear the officials are “called forward” to receive their recognition for their nights work. Next it's “the runners up Hendon Football club” in that fateful red, who have to walk past their spoils from last year, which is huge, it’s of Stanley Cup proportions.

Waiting for TMU to lift the cup, I overhear two of their fans leaning up against the railing in anticipation of the presentation, giving the HFC goalie his much needed dues, “if it weren't for the keeper, it could've been 4 or 5”, maybe a small positive for HFC but I'm sure not much of a consolation.

A pile of small red boxes next to the towering silver cup on its black plinth are handed out to the beaming TMU players who have formed an orderly queue. At the back their captain, a unit, who has a bit of the Tom Huddlestone about him, but clearly eats bricks with his protein shakes, doesn't mess about once he has his hands on the prize. A short “wayyyyyy” ends quickly as he hoists it above his head, which gets an almighty cheer from both the players and fans. One player is quick to pinch the lid, which has managed somehow to stay in place so far, and pops it on his head, he looks very happy with his silver headgear.

“We love you Tooting we do” sing the fans, one has his black and white scarf held out. Once the players have taken their turn to hold the trophy, they approach the railing, sharing their victory with friends and family, and posing for pictures.

The floodlights are soon off, the players with cup in hand make their way inside and it's not long until we can hear them continuing the celebrations in the changing rooms. Not wanting anyone to hang around to long, the stewards are quick to start ushering people out “thank you gentlemen, time to move along now please”.

For all our photographs from the match, click HERE

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