Monday 6 June 2016

Non-League Finals Day: Part Two - FC Halifax Town Vs Grimsby Town FC, FA Trophy Final 2016, Wembley Stadium (22/05/16)

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

Thankfully Tom is not watching Vikings, so we both find ourselves at a little bit of a loose end, with just shy of two hours until the second kick-off of the day and I’m not left watching him, watching some medieval melodrama. If we wanted to we could eat our own body weight in pick and mix, from a bank of perspex containers, which must contain nigh on the whole stock of the now dissolved Woolworth's, but I give it a miss, pint + hangover + pasty + fizzy cola bottles = bad idea. There is some music on offer, well kind of music, three guys beat-boxing. They have managed to pull quite a crowd, but I think it's more down to the fact that we are all currently inmates at Wembley Maximum security prison and not because of their overwhelming unsigned talent.

I don't think either of us envisaged that we would be spending any part of today sitting on the floor a few paces from a men's toilet, but at least it's cool and in the shade, but I don't think you could call it comfortable. Our spot is also right next to the turnstile, and finally a little bit of life is starting to get breathed into our section, which until now, while the first game was playing, has been quite low key, it’s in need of resuscitation. We are hoping for some of that Lincolnshire enthusiasm that we were only able to marvel at from above at the National League Promotion final, as today we are sitting with Grimsby Town FC (GT) fans.

Tom’s analogy of the first game, that it was like watching other people on a “roller coaster, just waiting for your turn to have some fun” summed up our first half of ‘Non League Finals Day’ perfectly. Not that the match wasn't exciting, it was quite the opposite, but we are greedy for singing, chants and drums, our section was lacking any of that so far today, so bring on the Mariners.

“No hitting!” shouts one Dad to his warring kids, who have taken being given clappers, as a call to arms, picking a fight with their nearest brother or sister. Tom is starting to twitch every time he hears one now, another reason for our move inside, because the random hitting from one GT fan next to us had reached epic proportions.

Watching streams of people arrive through the turnstiles, people whose recent visit here means they know the procedure, emerging through the metal bars and instantly raising their arms to be searched, like a Pavlovian dog. We are able to bare witness to a wild array of headgear, such as a captain's hat, with a nice embellishment of gold braid and what I can only describe as a stovepipe hat, not that dissimilar to Abraham Lincoln’s, but it’s black and white striped, each with Grimsby written all over it, as well as all sorts of other appropriate get up. My favourite is a toss up between two t-shirts, the first says ‘Grimsby is not in Yorkshire’, but if I had a gun to my head, the absolute best is a simple one, ‘clap, clap, Fish’.

I’m starting to worry about Tom, the tell tale signs of cabin fever are starting to show, being locked up in Wembley is starting to take its toll, his emotions are all over the place. One second he is astonished and impressed by the amount of food people are bringing in, telling me he has seen a “pack of ham” and some “tomatoes" so far, the next minute he hits a bit of a low, the clappers are starting to break him “I just don't wanna hear that noise for two minutes”.

I think a change of scenery would do him good, we say goodbye to our toilet side seats, and pass more fighting children. We must stop arming them, the weapon of choice last week, fish, this week clappers, although someones parents didn't get the right memo because two kids are charging about with an orca and a dolphin. There are plenty of kids here, if they were smart enough, we could have full blown mutiny. Our attempt at a wander is only to be met by closed doors and stewards saying Gandalf style “you shall not pass”. By the time we return to our seats we bare witness to a UN, Lincolnshire division aid drop, one young GT fans drops off a “pork pie and Marmite crisps” to a relieved and grateful recipient.

We are not the only ones twiddling our thumbs, most people seem unsure on how to pass the time, Tom at least is finding the inflatable ball cannoning off the back of unsuspecting people's heads, and those straining every sinew in their body to be the next one to hit it into the air “entertaining”. When the referee emerges, along with his assistant to warm up, they become the focus of the boredom, I think GT might have a little bit of previous with him, “tosser”, shouts one fan, “make sure you know what you are doing” shouts another, “make sure it's a game not a spectacle” shouts a woman behind us.

GT’s opposition FC Halifax Town (FCH) are the first out to warm up, “booooooooo”, when GT arrive they are greeted with the now familiar war cry “Mariners, Mariners, Mariners”, for the first time we get to soak up some of that energy we were only able to watch seven days before.

Maybe still feeling the effects of the week long ‘going up’ party, one GT fan is looking a little worse for wear. Bent over double in his seat, head in his hands, a natural exclusion zone has formed around him, he looks like he is going to blow. If only I had a small paper cup to offer him, I could reenact a bit of Wayne's World, ‘if you’re gonna spew, spew into this’.

The GT team leave just as they arrived “Mariners, Marines, Marines” and as they do the recycled roll of red carpet is back out again, and so is the “alien cup” which is how Tom describes the FA Trophy, as he thinks it has a bit of an extraterrestrial vibe about it.

As the teams arrive the fans are on their feet, singing about the previous weeks achievements played out on the same pitch, “we are going up, we are going up” as the banner hanging amongst the GT fans behind the goal states “Operation Double” is on. Just like a few hours earlier, men in suits shake hands with men in shorts, a woman on a temporary stage sings ‘God Save the Queen’, and kick-off is now only moments away.

Before we can get down to the match at hand, we get a visit from the fun police, a female steward in a blue jacket, who walks away smugly with two inflatable balls under her arms. I’m completely on my own, as I give her my best pantomime “boooo”. I’m not sure what came over me, I think it was the look on her face.

It is clear from the get go that there are far fewer GT fans than at our recent encounter, which in part is totally understandable, it's a long way, it's expensive, and I’m sure it was not an easy decision for
some having to pick one over the other. Those who are in attendance, just like the soon to be public puker, are recovering from the high of promotion, and the following open top buses and days in the pub, it means energy reserves are ever so depleted and today feels a little ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’. I’m judging this by three things, let's call it the ‘less inflatable fish, no drummers, less noise’ trifecta of atmosphere.

FCH could not have had a more polar opposite season to GT if they tried, relegation was how 2015/2016 ended for them, so there is a bit of pride at stake, what better way to stave off the fans summertime depression, than with a Cup Final win. The importance of this is quite clear by the fact I don't think there is an empty seat in their end, and they are so far out singing GT.

Also in for the long haul, the blind and partially sighted groundhopper duo behind us are still here, one still offering his full and complete service to the other, covering all topics such as the weather, crowd numbers and what is going on, on and off the pitch. One GT fan is also offering a similar service, but I’m not sure who for, excitingly repeating whatever call the referee makes in GT’s favour “corner, corner, corner”.

Other than telling the FCH fans to “sit down shut up”, after they celebrate a goal, that never was, and I have no idea why, it was not even close, our black and white neighbours are very quiet, not that the team's on field performance is giving them much inspiration.

“It's like a training match” says Tom, it feels like it's being played at half speed, his mind is
wandering to half time already “I want some chips”. GT’s fans on the other hand are getting increasingly frustrated as the half comes to an end, “nooooo” one screams, they are fed up of the lack of ambition, the constant sideways passing.

When an FCH player performs the most hideous dive, people let their anger out on him ”who do you think you are Tom Daley?” bellows one, another demands some kind of punishment “book him for simulating a footballer”.

There is one last push to get the crowd going, “stand up for the Mariners” but it falls a little flat, when the fourth official holds up his board, one GT fan says what everyone else is thinking “too many minutes of extra time”, it's not a case of the officials finding stoppages from nowhere, it’s not an Italy Vs England World Cup ‘98 Qualifying scenario, it's the case that no-one wants to be subjected to anymore of this than they have to be, it's been dull.

“What a terrible first half”, “abandon the game” these are not my words, or Toms, but those of the GT fans who have filled the concourse at half time, all in search of something to numb the pain of the first 45. It’s maybe a good thing that some look “three day festival wasted” as Tom puts it, as they won’t remember anything anyway, along with their names, or where they are.

Regular readers might have figured out by now, Tom is sometimes more interested in the food on
offer, than the football, so it's no great surprise when he points out a guy tucking into a hot dog, it’s not even a particularly miraculous hot dog, he's probably showing me only out of jealousy, he probably wants it, but he is so persistent, I’m forced to pay attention to him, instead of tuning out as I usually do when he starts going on about fried onions and burger sauce. Your regular hot dog bun is brown, dry and always slightly stale, but on closer inspection, this one is white, a special Wembley non-league bun perhaps? Curious now and looking even more closely, it seems the person it belongs to has nibbled off all the brown bit of the bun, all the way over, and is now holding an almost foot long, gnawed monstrosity. I’m not sure who needs more help the nibbler, or the noticer.

Tom and I have moved seats, we had perfectly good ones before, but we thought a change might re-energise us, and there are plenty to choose from the big pockets of empty red seats behind the goal. Much like the first half the beginning of the second has failed to take off, rain seems imminent, and Tom is so bored he is wondering how long it would take, if it could do, to close the roof of the stadium, and at least that snail paced spectacle would give us something to look at.

When GT have their first attempt, it is received in hushed tones, like a person on a safari seeing their first one of the ‘big five’, not wanting to shout too loud as to scare them away, “it’s shoot”.

“Oh, oh my God” mutters Tom, as the opposite end of the ground becomes a blur of blue and white, the FCH fans finally have something to celebrate, perhaps the first good thing to happen to them this season, they have just taken the lead in quite exquisite fashion.

Some lacklustre GT defending, which just about sums up their day, is punished by a curling, side footed, outside of the box, lob. The scorer, runs towards the fans, first with his arms outstretched by his side, then cupping his ears. Followed by his teammates, they rush the barriers, to celebrate in front of their supporters.

“Come on Town” says someone close by, a little limply. Two kids returning with food have the right attitude, “at least we didn’t see it”, quite right, that's my philosophy: didn't see it, didn't happen. Perhaps the problem has been too many people, the players included are still dining out on last week, and they have taken their eye off the ball today, when someone starts to sing “we are going up” not many join him. I start to get the faintest of feelings that most people thought today was going to be a bit of a walk over, but it's proving anything but.

Tom, who I never would've taken as a Statto, tells me that the teams have shared “13 goals across two games” this season, on today's performance from either of them, I would be amazed if this was true, we now have one goal, so fingers crossed there will be more to follow.

It’s now deathly quiet, one GT fan on his feet demands his fellow supporters to “sing!”. Tom tells me to “stop staring” as the aforementioned man starts to almost threaten the people around him to get up, instead of making a friendly request. He looks a little wired to say the least.

The rain has come, and the FCH end feels a very long way away, like it has nothing to do with what's going on at our end at all, such was the desire for tickets we notice since moving a small colony in blue and white, high in the gods up to our right, completely detached from the masses. If it's raining this end, I imagine it's all Hawaiian shirts and pina coladas at the other, they look like they are having a wicked time.

In a less threatening way at least, one GT supporter on the front row in a flat cap, is standing on his chair, back to the game, and is desperately trying to get a song going “fish, fish, fish”, but to little avail. Frustration is turning into outright anger, no more than the kid a few rows behind us “what the bloody hell are you doing!?!”.

Many are urging one player, at the end of probably their first meaningful attack around seventy minutes in, to “hit it, hit it, hit it, hit, hit it, hit”, but he doesn't take their advice, instead he takes a few touches too many, after doing all the hard work and getting in a great position, he puts it wide.

When the very impressive attendance for the whole day is announced, “46,781”, one person has to be reminded it's for both games, doh.

Anger is now turning into outright dismay, the kid behind us sounds like he is going to have an aneurysm “for crying out loud”, one group close by are already starting to look for scapegoats “you're a bad omen you are, every time you come we play shit”, GT’s final ball has been woeful, when they do get close to goal, their shooting is not much better. One announces “if they go 2 - 0 up we’re off”.

A large sign appears in the aisle, carried over the heads of people walking towards the front wearing GT shirts with ‘Dad 1’ and ‘Jeff Smith 1’ on the back. Once unfurled, it's clear that whoever Jeff Smith was, he is no longer with us, having passed away recently, and we log our second heart melting event of the day.

The horns of the FCH fans are non stop as the board goes up, four minutes to go, GT muster a couple of chances from corners, but nothing comes from them. On one occasion the keeper gets the nod to come up, jostles about in the box, only moments later having to leg it back to his goal when they lose possession.

“Mariners, Mariners, Mariners” rings out one last time, but in commiseration, not jubilation, the players applaud the fans, many who are leaving are still singing about “going up”. Once again for the second year running it’s a team from Yorkshire that can boast about winning the FA Trophy, but no tears from me this time.

GT are up first up to collect their runners up medals, once back down they watch on as FCH lift the Close Encounters silverware, all while ‘We Are The Champions’ is blasted out again and a few more quid drops into the Queen royalties piggy bank. In contrast pitch side, the ‘Jeff Smith’ banner has appeared and is being signed by the GT players, one of whom hands one of his boots to a delighted looking fan who has a smile like the Cheshire Cat, but why he decides to give it an almighty sniff will only be known to him and his maker.

In front of their fans, FCH lift the cup again and Tom notices a woman “pre shaking the bubbly” before handing it to the players, assuring maximum effect, and this time it's Tina Turner's turn to earn a few quid as ‘Simply The Best’ is played for the second and last time today. Many players from each side take the opportunity to speak to friends and family, some are handed children to hug, the FCH keeper poses for a picture with a small boy who he hands his giant gloves too. Clutching the trophy the FCH manager is mobbed by people, including his daughter “Dad, Dad, Dad” who with selfie sticks in hand, snap away capturing the moment.

The floor outside is damp, and our six plus hours in football solitary has come to an end, and we both feel a bit like Andy Dufresne emerging from that shit filled waste pipe, after crawling how ever far it was to his freedom.

Before parting ways, Tom and I bump into the Bowers & Pitsea FC kit man, who's a friendly soul, and we inadvertently block quite a major stairway to inevitably discuss what a day it would have been if Bowers had won their semi-final. For a brief moment and to reference the same 90’s film in the same blog, the edge of my vision almost does that wibbly wobbly thing to signify the beginning of a dream sequence.

It makes perfect sense that today didn't feel like the finished article, it felt an experiment, and there were certainly things that did and didn't work. For us the time one is expected to stay in the ground for, is far too long, this is only compounded by the fact you are unable to stretch your legs anywhere else but in your little quarter of the stadium. My vision of a non-league love in, where one would have the chance to mingle with the fans of the other teams, was far from reality.

Be it for security or crowd control reasons, if it's going to remain necessary to contain people in this manner, then what is on offer to help pass the time has to be better, not everyone is as well prepared as Tom, (me included) and has hours of the latest HBO series on their phone or tablet.  Neither of us were expecting elephants, but surely something more than sweets and amateur hip-hop is achievable? I don't think feeling relieved to get out, is the overriding emotion the FA were going for, and it's not one I have experienced before leaving a match, and we have been to some diabolical games.

Assuming that the powers that be listen to the feedback from the people who went, it is bound to improve, and to change. I’m almost certain ‘Non-League Finals Day’ is here to stay, but I just can’t figure out how I feel about it.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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

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