Monday 11 July 2016

No Winter Break - 2015/16 End Of Season Review

Well, well, well, where do I start? Now the distraction of the Euros has passed, it allows us some time to reflect on our first full season, and there is a lot to take in. We dived head first into the non-league FA Cup, ventured to the Ruhr to gorge on sausages and German football culture, finally won something in a raffle and made our furthest UK ‘Away Day'. I think I can say for the both of us that the last eleven months have been astonishing, and I guess there is no better place to begin our review of 2015/16, than with the very first match.

The new black and red sign outside Haringey Borough FC’s ground, was proudly on show and said it all after last seasons promotion, “Member of the Ryman Football League”. Having been there on the last day of 2014/15, getting soaked in champagne and enjoying the raucous changing room celebration after winning the Essex Senior League, it seemed a no brainer being at Coles Park for the first game, of the new season. Despite a reasonably uneventful draw, it did nothing to dampen my love affair with my most local of local clubs - Welcome To The Ryman League - Haringey Borough FC Vs Dereham Town FC

When one thinks of ‘The New Den’ and Millwall FC, all sorts of stereotypes and tall tales from football folklore are conjured up. For Tom, a visit to that particular part of Southeast London, and Zampa Road, has always been very high on his list of places for us to go, so when they drew Barnet in the first round of the League Cup, we popped along. Not only did we witness a bit of a South East London sing song “Let 'Em Come” and met Barnet FC’s most famous fan, but we also watched a bit of a cup upset as League Two beat League One much to the delight of the travelling fans from our side of the river - Let 'Em Come - Millwall FC Vs Barnet FC

The August Saturday afternoon in East London, where we killed two birds with one stone, feels like a lifetime ago now. Not only did we both for the first time watch a game in the very first round of the FA Cup, but we also got to tick off ‘The Old Spotted Dog Ground’, home of Clapton FC.

The match was a relatively straightforward away win for Stanway Rovers FC, the ground is far from being in the best of nick, and has no outstanding features, except perhaps the giant mobile phone masts, but the atmosphere, it’s worth the visit just for the atmosphere and support that could rival any team, at any level of the vast football pyramid, joining the Clapton Ultras on their home patch, was a sight to behold - On The Scaffold - Clapton FC Vs Stanway Rovers FC

The following weeks were dominated by the oldest cup competition in the world, as we continued our self imposed challenge to attend every round of the FA Cup. Round after round was coming thick and fast, and it wasn't long into the season that we had clocked up visits to Erith Town FC, Greenwich Borough FC, Hanwell Town FC, where we saw them progress the furthest in the competition in their history, Enfield Town FC, where we spent our first ‘Non League Day’ and Grays Athletic FC, another team we have a close affinity for, who almost pulled off our first giant killing when they took on, and very nearly beat Welling United FC.

As much as we were loving and enjoying what you might call the ‘real FA Cup’, the real nitty gritty of the competition and not the 3rd round reserve ladened affairs we have been used to following Premier League clubs, we are sluts, harlots, football junkies if you like, always looking for our next fix, keen to take in as much as we can, and unfortunately on the odd occasion, we strayed from the path.

Like a cheating lover, we would creep off on a weekday, telling loved ones we were ‘meeting the guys for a pint’ only to be rubbing shoulders with Sky Sports presenters at Walton Casuals FC, have a fleeting rendezvous with an old flame, and the first non-league team we watched when we popped by Wingate & Finchley FC and slinked down an unlit, unmarked road next door to a crematorium to watch AFC Croydon Athletic, where Tom went chipless.

Getting brazen, I even managed to shoehorn a game into a family holiday, such was my ever growing addiction to all things non-league, ‘Two Men…..’, briefly became ‘One Man, His Son and His Fiancee’, when on a close summer evening just outside Poole I visited Hamworthy United FC a club with a badge that has an uncanny resemblance to West Ham’s, as well as sense of humour when the players walked out to Bon Jovi's ‘Livin' On A Prayer’ - Tommy Used To Work On The Docks - Hamworthy United FC Vs Sholing FC

No trip, holiday, weekend away or visit to the soon to be In-Laws from this point on was now safe, and when I made one of my obligatory trips to the North West, to be lavished with omellete sandwiches and constant reminders of how much better Manchester is than London, the opportunity to watch FC United of Manchester was too good to miss. Our Friday evening at the flag adorned fan owned shrine Broadhurst Park did not disappoint, and was undoubtedly one of my highlights of the year, in fact of ever watching football. It will take a long time to forget the low rumbling of ‘Dirty Old Town’, rolling across the red barriered terrace. “BRING ON UNITED, BRING ON UNITED” - Who Gives A F**k, I Own This Club - FC United of Manchester Vs Worcester City FC

Not content with one game, and feeling a little delicate, after being the last two out of the bar at FCUM, the quiet and leafy surroundings of Chorlton-cum-Hardy was the perfect place to conclude our North West double header, where we saw a staggering 16 goals, in an FA Vase 2nd Qualifying Round match. Unfortunately for Dinninginton Town FC they only scored one, the rest were bagged by the home side West Didsbury & Chorlton A.F.C. Great beer and an even better welcome, made my trip to Manchester a very satisfactory one - Come For The Beer & Stay For The Football - West Didsbury & Chorlton A.F.C. Vs Dinnington Town FC,

The final months of 2015 brought a hotchpotch of competitions, leagues, and even a taste of European football, as well as our first two games in the FA Cup ‘proper’, where non-league pitched themselves against league opposition.

Nowhere more than at Brisbane Road was it clear that a deep lying love for the FA Cup was still alive and more apparent, not in the near deserted home end mind, but in the bugle tooting, ice cream named away end, when we joined Staines Town FC’s fans, cheering, singing and chanting their team through a difficult 6 - 1 loss, but not at one point did they stop, not at one point did that passion waver in the face of defeat - Your Dad Is A Legend - Leyton Orient FC Vs Staines Town FC

Nights were now cold, and football in darkness was the order of the day as Christmas got ever closer. Thankfully half time in the director's lounge at Champion Hill, where the warm tea and mini samosas, went a long way to alleviate the chance of losing any extremities one November evening, as we watched fan owned Fisher FC get knocked out of the London Senior Cup.

Possible frostbite, this time at Wadham Lodge FC, was only avoided by our second run in with the Clapton Ultras and one of the friendliest welcomes we have ever received from the fine people who run the club, whose devotion to the cause is inspiring.

An officious steward, a clubhouse that looked like a strippers and our first taste of non-league crowd segregation, got things off to a funny start a stones throw from Elstree studios when we watched Boreham Wood FC take on the Imps of Lincoln, and what was possibly going to go down as our first ‘bad’ non-league experience was only saved by perhaps the finest styrofoam cup of chips we have ever had.

I won, I won, I won, my addiction to 50/50's and raffles finally paid off, after I scooped second prize at Welling United FC, in their FA Cup 2nd round match against Carlisle United FC.

The last two games of what had been a football filled 2015, could not have been more poles apart.

For the penultimate match, I was forced to arrange an emergency transfer and draft in my Fiancee once again, Tom for some reason was reluctant to join me for the match at White Hart Lane. On this occasion Spurs took on old money bags Monaco in the Europa League, and even though it was a deviation from our non-league focus, we revelled in it. The evening was punctuated by an Eric Lamela hat-trick and a Dad drinking neat vodka out of a coke bottle, and getting a bit handsy with the women around him. It was also maybe my last visit to that part of N17, in its current guise at least, before the bulldozers roll in - The Oxfam Cup - Tottenham Hotspur FC Vs AS Monaco FC

Bloated with stuffing and with Terry's chocolate orange stained faces, in that weird limbo week
between Christmas and New Year, we made our way to Wheatsheaf Park to see Staines Town FC, and said goodbye to 2015, as the home team got back to the mundanity of league football after their FA Cup foray had come to an end a few weeks before - It’s Like Barbados Here - Staines Town FC Vs Farnborough FC

Hello 2016, hello to the tail end of Tom’s two day New Year's hangover, hello torrential rain, hello burnt out car, hello old man singing Elvis, hello Silver Jubilee Park, hello Edgware Town FC vs Ampthill Town FC. Winning had almost become a bit old hat in these parts considering the season Edgware were having, and what better way to get the new year underway than another victory, one of many that would ultimately help them win the Spartan South Midlands League - Listen To Geoffrey - Edgware Town FC Vs Ampthill Town FC

Although there were many rounds of the FA Cup left, our non-league cup adventure, ended at sodden Silverlake Stadium when Eastleigh FC welcomed once Premier League Bolton in the 3rd Round. A match that was touch and go, with both of us constantly on the lookout for the dreaded ‘GAME OFF’, as we travelled to the south coast. Eastleigh were so close, so close to knocking out Mr Hesky and Mr Lennon, the same Mr Lennon who a year before was beating Barcelona in the Champions League, so close to joining that list of true FA Cup giant killers, but the football romance Gods weren't smiling on us that day - By Royal Appointment - Eastleigh FC Vs Bolton Wanderers FC

400 appearances, yes 400 appearances for one club was the almighty achievement we saw recognised at Sutton United as “Dundo’s gonna to get ya” rang out around Gander Green Lane, and the man of the moment led from the front as his team picked up a further 3 points, and a pattern of teams doing well after we visited started to develop - 400 - Sutton United FC Vs Dartford FC

Before March took on a distinctly Germanic feel, the end of February saw a non-league trip to Essex sandwiched by our final games in the FA Cup, as we drew our challenge to an end, on a very poignant note. The filling in this FA Cup sandwich was an evening where our good juju had deserted us, and we watched Redbridge FC rack up another loss, a loss that contributed to their eventual relegation.

The bread in my poor lunchtime snack analogy were two thick cut slices of FA Cup action. First up was a trip to the three sided Kassam Stadium, to watch the yellow and blue of Oxford United FC. After their previous rounds masterclass against Swansea, there seemed no better place to try and keep our FA Cup dream alive, but silly us for thinking lightning would strike twice, silly us for thinking we could tempt fate, and although we bore witness to the awesome support, Tifo and singing, from the home fans, the FA Cup was slowly losing some of the charm we had experienced in the previous rounds - Forza United - Oxford United FC Vs Blackburn Rovers FC

Saturday the 20th of February for most was a normal day, an inconveniently rearranged TV centric lunchtime kick off of a day in Islington, as Arsenal took on Hull for what most people thought would be a straightforward win for the Champions League regulars. For Tom the football somewhat faded into insignificance, as not only was it the first time he had been back to the Emirates since his Dad passed away, but it was also a year to the very day, that Steve left this mortal realm for the big Arsenal pub in the sky - Why Fly When You Can Walk On Water - Arsenal FC Vs Hull City A.F.C.

Having dipped my toe into the remarkable world of German football on a trip to Berlin in early 2015, it was time for Tom and I to pack our bags, mentally adjust ourselves for a diet of chips, beer and currywurst and head to the Ruhr for 3 games in 4 days, across 3 levels of the German game.

Jumping out of a cab near a railway crossing, we were greeted by the local Ultras marching down the road, you could say our introduction was immediate. Armed with only some simple directions thanks to someone I met on a Facebook group, we eventually arrived at the doors of the Rot-Weiss Essen fan-pub, to collect our tickets. Thick with smoke, decorated with scarves from teams all across Europe, we were dazzled by a man's knitted beer bottle holder, and continuously pinched ourselves, as only a few hours previously we were eating a Pret A Manger on a train - Westkurve - Rot-Weiss Essen Vs SG Wattenscheid 09

Why can I still taste bratwurst, were my thoughts moments after waking up on the morning of game two. Not really able to face any food, and only really wanting to down litre bottles of water, once arriving at VfL Bochum’s modernist and angular beauty of a stadium, chips with mayo and a pint of the local brew seemed like the best way to start the day, a breakfast of champions if you will. Mesmerized by the singing, beer chucking, and more knitted drinks holders and a cooler than a cucumber shade wearing Capo, we stood in the shadow of the Ostkurve, all for the price of a child’s ticket at your local cinema - Ostkurve‬ - VfL Bochum Vs SV Sandhausen

Our final day in Dortmund, started with a little bit of culture, and a visit to the German Fussball museum, spitting distance from our city centre hotel. After watching a film where Thomas Muller tried to act, we boarded a train from our second home, Dortmund Bahnhoff for the short trip to the holy grail, the one place we both had said over and over that we wanted to visit, the Westfalenstadion and the ‘Yellow Wall’.

Beer where you stand, pretzels you can wear, singing, flags, more singing but with a little touch of Merseyside, it was perhaps the best Sunday afternoon either of us have ever had - Südtribüne - Borussia Dortmund Vs TSG 1899 Hoffenheim

With the smell of sausages finally flushed from our nostrils, the culminating months of the season, meant only one thing, crunch time, and the calendar was awash with ‘relegation six pointers’, playoff securing games, and cup finals galore.

By far our furthest trip of the year was to the wilds of Northumberland, for Bower & Pitsea FC’s FA Vase semi final second leg match. Having followed their exploits in the competition closely, it was unthinkable that the chance to see them potentially secure themselves a day at Wembley, was too good to miss, however far it was.

Tom slept, we struggled with the accent, men were burly and imposing but ultimately friendly, we stopped in Yorkshire and had platters of tiny sandwiches and pickled onions, then endured the agony of a last minute winner for the home team, and it was tears from the boys from Essex - Are We There Yet? - Morpeth Town A.F.C. Vs Bowers & Pitsea FC

By chance, and only because of storm Katie did we end up at Beveree Stadium to watch Hampton & Richmond Borough FC get ever closer to promotion. Getting rained on was not the only thing that happened that day, we think we met Prince Vultan from Flash Gordon, we definitely met Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler and I came to the realization that Tom has a very juvenile sense of humour, yes Tom their nickname is the ‘Beavers’ - Who To Be A Beaver - Hampton & Richmond Borough FC v Leatherhead FC

Because of family and work, 15:00 Saturday kick-offs were a bit of a rarity for us, so when the stars aligned we grabbed the chance, to go to a match. Many had been called off again because of rain, but the pitches of Essex are made of sterner stuff, and we watched A.F.C. Hornchurch secure a playoff place, but not before some heart flutters and the appearance of an air horn - Rockabillies, Owls & Urchins - A.F.C. Hornchurch Vs Heybridge Swifts FC

Five of our last seven games were finals, one was a semi final where we made the journey to the end of the Piccadilly Line, for the ‘piccadilly line derby’, no one has ever called it that, Rayners Lane FC Vs Cockfosters, and we made two trips to Wembley in a week.

The first final was a routine victory for Kingstonian FC in the Ryman League Cup final at the overly patriotic War Memorial Sports Ground, kicking off at the slightly unorthodox 19:30. Confetti was the order of the day, and we were all treated to an impromptu appearance from the Ryman League Chairman - It's Like Watching Brazil - Faversham Town FC Vs Kingstonian FC

Next up was a match just screaming out for a Game of Thrones blog title, when the ‘Terrors’ Tooting & Mitcham United FC took on Hendon at the old bill FC’s Imber Court, which is hidden behind a swimming pool and a penguin bin, in a replay of the 2015 London FA Senior Cup Final. On a balmy cake filled, cigar scented evening, South London overcame North London - The Night Is Dark & Full Of Terrors - Tooting & Mitcham United FC Vs Hendon FC

“Wembley, Wembley, we’re Two Men in search of a Beautiful Game, and we are off to Wembley” is a song that is far too long winded to sing, but we might get made into shirts, as just like Elton John or Celine Dion at a Las Vegas Casino, we took up residency in HA9, saw the same team twice, got cabin fever after being locked in Wembley Stadium for over 6 hours, with only pick and mix and bad hip hop to entertain us.

“FISH, FISH, FISH” will be permanently seared into my psyche, after we watched the ‘Mariners’, Grimsby Town FC beat Forest Green Rovers in the National League promotion final, and not only did they reinstate themselves as a ‘league’ team, in doing so they became ‘non-league no more’, but their fans joined the top of the list of some of the noisiest and passionate we have ever come across - Non-League No More - Grimsby Town FC Vs Forest Green Rovers FC

Last but not least, we took in the inaugural ‘Non League Finals Day’ as the FA Vase & FA Trophy were played out on the same day.

Victory over Bowers & Pitsea in the semi final meant Morpeth Town were pitched against phoenix club Hereford, who were the strong favourites, and who brought an inordinate amount of fans. Lesser in number, but equal in voice those from the North East watched their team pull off a bit of a shock, beating the favourites resoundingly with a 4 - 1 win - Non-League Finals Day: Part One - Hereford FC vs Morpeth Town A.F.C.

The cries of “FISH” were a little muted in the FA Trophy final, as Grimsby couldn't make it two wins in a week under the Wembley arch, falling to a 1 - 0 defeat to FC Halifax Town. A subdued performance was met by a subdued atmosphere, and there was very little of the energy, noise or pyro we had seen from the Grimsby fans seven days earlier. Once free of Wembley, neither of us were sure if the ram packed non league extravaganza had actually worked -Non-League Finals Day: Part Two - FC Halifax Town Vs Grimsby Town FC

It would be easy to go on for another few pages, to thank all of the people who have made 2015/16 so enjoyable, those who have given us the most wonderfull feedback, those who have helped us with tickets and advice, those who have taken the time to help us share our blogs, photographs and videos and those who have given us the platforms, be it in print or online to reach out to people about a subject which we are both incredibly passionate about.

There are though a few people who are worthy of a mention in dispatches, only because their help has exceeded anything either of us could have thought possible: @ldnfootyguide, @TheDaisyCutter1, @MarkNLDaily, @TheNonLeagueMag, @Phil_Football, @TheFootballPink, @NonLeagueNews, @Copa90, @FanVoxCo.

We both hope that 2016/17 will be more of the same and then some, as we will do our damnedest to bring to those that are interested the very best we can. One of our biggest aims for the new season and beyond is more interaction with those who follow us be it on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram, we are greedy for you comments, your stories, your feelings about what we do, be it good or bad, we want your help to improve.

From the bottom of both our hearts, thank you to each and everyone of you. D&T.

For a full photographic review of 2015/16, click HERE

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