Thursday 21 December 2017

No Room For Numbers - Bromley FC Vs Margate FC, Kent FA Senior Cup Quarter-Final, Hayes Lane (12/12/17)

Heading south of the river for a match on a weeknight can prove to be such a pain in the arse, that if I’m honest it can be a little off putting, and hence why our map of clubs visited is a little lopsided, however tonight we have little choice, quite literally.

The recent snow, that in any semi prepared nation would not be a remote issue, a spot of salt here, a snowplow there and we can all get on as normal, but oh no, not in good old Blighty, has brought some places to a very melodramatic standstill. Its snowdays all round, news pieces about people slipping over outside major railway stations and memes of cars trying to go up hills or coming down them sideways.

Whereas the rest of the country really needs to get a tight grip of itself and just fucking get on with it, non league football must be given some amount of slack. Most clubs if not all, don't have the finances for undersoil heating or a fancy tractor to sort things out, not to mention how it affects the local infrastructure to that particular club, like the roads, railways etc and of course the players and volunteers that might not able to get there, so they are exempt from my unpatriotic bashing.

Our original game, which was a breezy forty minute drive north of my house, was finally called off earlier today. Going on the various pictures of the pitch at said game appearing on social media, I’m not sure why they went through the rigmarole of someone walking over it for thirty seconds to confirm what everyone thought, that it was unplayable, but rules are rules and they did and its was no great surprise that it was colder and harder than a show giants abs, and I as Beautiful Game fixture secretary, was left at the 11th hour, looking for a new match.

With Tom away for the holidays soon and my next few weeks about to become all about family and eating, finding a day or days where we can both do a match has been difficult, so just giving up, capitulating to Mother Nature was too hard to take, andI wasn't going to allow us to fall at the first hurdle.

So when in the distance I saw a 3G pitch shaped star, with three groundhoppers on camels heading its way, it was a sign.

The state of the car park outside my block of flats almost meant I didn't even make it as far as the end of my road, let alone south east London. I was moments away from a full pirouette and a fractured shin, before I managed to fall into the driver's seat, and prepare the de-icer.

High on the fumes of the contents of the snowflake covered can that has been in my boot untouched for months, I inched along my slush covered street, emerging at the end unscathed and hallucinating but grateful to see the roads before me are in a better state, however the pavements still glisten and glimmer like tinsel in the evening sun, and I’m grateful I’m not a pedestrian.

The further I head east, the more and more apparent it is that the council's I pass through have their acts together much more than mine, and by the time I end up outside Tom’s there is not an icicely in sight, and I make a mental note that I will be writing a strongly worded email to Barnet town hall when I get home.

I’m sure it goes without saying that Tom looks like he's ready for the second battle of Hoth as he climbs in the car, just minus his Tauntaun, but he’s clearly ready for whatever the night has in store for us.

The main issue with going from north to south or vice versa is the Blackwall Tunnel, which I’m sure when it was built in 1987 for the three or four Ford Escorts or Honda Accord’s making the trip through it was more than suitable, however in 2017 with the hundreds of thousands of people using it each day, its near gridlock, like a scene from a Beijing nightmare, rows and rows of red and white lights stretching off into the distance as far as the eye can see.

Once under and out the other side, it’s ever so slightly improved, but not hugely. The only thing getting us though it is critiquing the Christmas lights on show on the front of the houses of the good people of Bromley and Greenwich.

Some are “half arsed” as Tom puts it, the string of red lights draped over the top on the garage does not constitute a display. Some are positively Vegas, Tom’s frugal mind unable to quantify how much the electricity bills must be, and how glad he is that he doesn't live next door to some of them, as he doesn't reckon he would ever be able to get to sleep.

The final house we see, moments before turning down the narrow lane to tonight's ground, Hayes Lane, a turn we've made once before, many moons ago, and if I remember rightly there were horses, is a sight quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Imagine Las Vegas and Regents Street had a baby, which was dressed by Liberace. A massive garish twinkling baby with its very own miniature big wheel and giant inflatable snowman, and you'll have and some idea of what kind of display I’m talking about.

For the second time this season I’ve managed to park in such a place that means Tom is moments away from getting wet feet, only this time the large puddle in the pothole ridden car park, some that are so sizeable you could lose my car in them, round the back of Hayes Lane is frozen, and he's more likely to go arse over tit, than get his thermal socks soggy.

“No room for numbers” says Tom about the kit of one of the youth teams taking advantage of the hallowed synthetic turf of Hayes Lane, their match coming to a conclusion under the floodlights as we pass through the turnstiles.

The sponsored covered shirts make the overalls of an F1 driver look understated. Smothered from front to back with adverts for God knows what they are quite in keeping with the rest of the ground, where no inch seems to be untouched by advertising of some sort, including the main stand with its black seats. Black maybe because of the local sponsor written across its back wall, that of a local funeral directors.

A brief chat with Bromley FC’s (BFC) General Manager Jeff is a little disheartening, despite tonight being a cup quarter-final, admittedly in one of the lesser competitions the club will play in this season, but still only two games from a final and a shot at a bauble, it's not it seems one that is taken very “seriously” he explains. With it also being a “freezing cold night” plus a full program of “premiership” games on the TV too, Jeff doesn't think there will be much of a turn out at all, in his words it's a fixture they would be “happy” to be drawn “away”.

Perhaps what's on offer in the portacabin club shop can lift my mood, after schlepping all this way, it's not exactly what you want to hear that the game is all but considered a bit of a dud. The confined space of the shop throws up a few points of interest like the scale model of Hayes Lane with a very large “do not touch” sign on it, the black and white wig perched on top of the limbless mannequin displaying a scarf and the tiny rosette pinned to a black, white and red flag on the wall.

The rest is pretty standard, manned by a busy and quiet man, who looks a little shocked that there is in fact anyone to serve at all. He shuffles around attending to the various rails and piles of club merchandise, trying not to crash into the many perspex boxes of old programmes that litter the floor.

Unfortunately, they're going to be the only programmes I’m going see tonight. No its not Erith FC all over again, I haven't left it too late, they just simply aren't doing one. I think I need a sit down, the attempt to comfort me with the fact there will be a team sheet available soon, is of little condolence.

To someone not in a near state of utter depression, the sight of what one person describes as a “fussy”
ginger cat roaming around, jumping up on the counter of the turnstile, while someone prepares something to eat for it would warm the cockles of anyone's heart, but not me, I’m feeling very White Walker right now.

For the second time in a week, the ingenious use of signposts lets us know where we can potentially at least get something to eat or drink, following the arrow to the ever so slightly copyright infringing named Pizza Hatch, it's a relief to see its shutter is up, but there is not much going on, on the other side. Tom doesn't think anything has been “turned on yet”.

Returning with a little more than he thought was available, having seen someone with a hot dog, it was a good sign, its a cup of tea only for me, while he showers himself with the “flaky” pastry of his sausage roll. We sit in the macabre stand as the PA is turned on, which is followed by some almighty distortion, then the deafening sound of someone blowing into the microphone, before the music starts to play, to absolutely nobody. Hayes Lane is currently as dead as the customers of the aforementioned undertakers.

The tea is of course boiling, but nice, Tom letting me in on his secret of allowing it to “brew” for a while. For Tom his has a bit “too much sugar”, caught out by the dispenser that he tells me he wasn't sure how much was coming out. Mines perfect and I finish it rather promptly, with no sausage roll to stuff in my face, Tom can't quite believe it, inquiring if I have an “asbestos mouth”.

BFC’s opponents tonight Margate FC (MFC) are the first out to warm up, and it’s snood central, Tom should feel very at home. When the home side appear in their unmistakable National League blue jackets, it reminds me of the league difference between the two clubs, which improves my mood somewhat, that and the guzzled tea, as the chance of a little bit of an upset could at least make tonight interesting.

“You've had your winnings for this year” says Tom, when I spot a man carrying a tombola in to the club bar, assuming, hoping, praying that there might be some chance of a flutter, to make up for the lack of programme, I pursue him. Ducking my head into the very swanky Ravens Bar, more wine bar, than non league clubhouse, he's nowhere to been seen, lost among the people watching the football on the big screen.

The voice over the PA offers its welcome, before informing us that one end of the ground is closed due to the “thickness of the ice”. Those that have braved the cold and don't fancy watching whoever Sky are showing, occupy a few seats in the main stand or loiter on the long concrete terracing behind one goal, everyone seemingly in different states of malaise.

It seems to have taken a reasonable amount of effort for the man, draping what almost look like reins over his shoulder to drag out the extendable black tunnel into its final position. No Seven Nation Army here, no syndicated song you might hear at Stamford Bridge or the Etihad to greet the players as they walk out, they do things differently here at BFC, they have their very own song composed just for them “there's just one team for me and that's the town that I come from, in Bromley, in Bromley, in Bromley” sing the Darknesse’ssq sounding band, one steward so well indoctrinated, he joins in mouthing the words, but with no life in his eyes.

Two early chances fall the way of the home side, and quite early on the difference in league positions is apparent.

Stood on the somewhat lonely uncovered and windswept terrace behind the dugouts, that I’m happy to inform you are a sensible space apart, after the silliness at Taunton Town, we are joined only by a couple, one half of which looks like they have little to no interest in being here. We watch on, and it soon becomes clear that the two benches directly in front of us, constantly barking out instructions, might just be the loudest thing we hear all night.

“That's your responsibility” shouts one of the MFC coaches, when BFC are allowed the time to take a shot at goal that just goes wide. By far the most vocal of the busy bench and just out of sight, is the person with the thick Scottish accent “keep going boys”.

BFC look by far the more dangerous, with twenty five minutes gone, they curl a shot goal wards, which in the end is easy for the keeper to pluck out the air. This is not to say by any means that MFC are just going through the motions, they are getting plenty of the ball, and when they do they move it about well, but they just don't look to have the same cutting edge as the home team.

The near constant directions from both benches are verging on the distracting as well as the intriguing, quite how much they are walking the players though their positions is fascinating. Because of the competition that it is, I suspect who we are watching are a mixture of the second string and youth players, who need that guidance, mixed in with a couple of the older heads to help steady the ship.

“Come on Margate” shouts the single voice of one of the few traveling fans in their blue and white striped scarves, and it is a welcome change to the never ending chatter from the technical areas, and it goes some way to affirm that we are not in fact at a training match.

On the half hour mark, the fleshy figures in the stand and terrace finally prove they not only here for the sausages rolls and are here to actually get behind their team, when they let out a collective “ohh” one of them going as far as to shout “come on Brom” the only notable noise from the home fans so far, when a goal bound shot is stopped by the “face” as Tom points out of one MFC player. Thirty minutes gone, and the game has far from got going in fact it's verging on dull.

There is the occasional flicker of hope, the odd moment when I feel like I’m about to see something that Tom and I will talk about on the drive home, like when one BFC player tries an audacious little attempt at a back heel, latching on to a high looping ball into the box, he gets there before the MFC keeper. His faint touch catching out the man in goal, sending the ball goal wards, there is a sharp intake of breath from those here as it looks to be going in, but sadly there is a player in blue at hand to shepherd the ball until the keeper can get back into position and scoop it up.

A good indicator of what kind of a time Tom is having, is how soon he begins inventing and then playing his own little games, to keep himself entertained. The fact we spend the final quarter of the half playing the ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ game, says it all.

“Fulham Vs Chelsea” is who we are watching tonight according to Tom's own algorithm, who after a moment to reconsider, swaps Chelsea for Porto. “Definitely Porto” he insists, before second guessing himself again, suggesting now that BFC, could in fact be “Derby. Derby vs Porto”.

Now I’ll give him the Fulham and Derby comparisons, BFC playing in white shirts with black shorts it’s easy enough to make and I could just about give him the Chelsea, MFC comparison, they are both in blue, plus it’s too cold to argue, but Porto, I’m sorry, but that's just wrong.

So adamant am I, and so adamant is he, that instead of watching the game, I’m going to assume nothing happened, I’m instead watching him scroll though the results of a Porto Google search on his
phone, but he doesn't stop, just keeps on scrolling, unable to find the example to prove me wrong and him right.

Around the forty five minute mark there is a sudden and quite uncharacteristic flurry of chances. BFC first go close from a corner, and a big sigh from the crowd lets us know that again we are not alone, “That's a let off” says someone on the MFC bench. By far the best moment of the game so far is saved for last, that's if you don't count just after the ref taking the ball in the “nuts” as Tom so eloquently puts it, when one BFC player shows some extraordinary feet, wringing out of the tightest of spots right on the byline, leaving two MFC defenders in his wake, and off he goes into the box.

“I’m quite warm” announces Tom, without prompting, just his “feet” need a bit more attention apparently, maybe he will wear “three pairs of socks” next time he tells me. Before reverting to his near silent and statuesque pose, the only occasional movement is when he brings his vape to his lips and the only noise he makes is the woosh that follows, he gives me an insight of how his mind works. A full ten minutes after our Derby Vs Porto debate, his mind has not stopped “maybe Schalke” he offers up, I’m afraid he is now just saying teams who play in blue.

On the half time whistle, my wish that despite no one caring about today's game, and no one being here, and those that are here are near comatose, we might still witness the game of games, one that will go down in the annals of time, a gift from the football gods for being committed is quickly fading, Tom as ever more the realistic than romantic, thinks BFC are “gonna win 1 - 0”.

The sound of someone doing doughnuts in a nearby car park soon fills the air, once the voice over the PA reminds us of the score, and that the Raven Bar and Pizza Hatch are still open, which sees Tom off again, leaving me alone sat on the cold concrete, a tiny, tiny bit of me wishing I had stayed at home.

If you are going to have signposts, one to where to play the raffle or half time draw might not go a miss. Depressed enough as it is, the voice over the PA running through the prizes that have been won, which I would have happily shelled £2 out for to be in the mix for, just feels like being kicked when you're already down.

Tom returning for the second time tonight ladened with gifts, he once again does a good job lifting my mood. This time not in the shape of a cuppa but a bag of chips, quite excellent chips may I add, near Cambridge FC quality. The reason for them being in bag we’re not sure about, as Tom’s burger and chips are in a tray, Tom thinks the bag maybe in honour of the visitors being from the seaside.

A squeal from Tom signifies the wind has nearly robbed him of his dinner, almost toppling it, having caught the lid of his tray like a polystyrene sail, balanced on top of the thick white metal barrier. It’s an altogether more attractive noise that signifies the return of the teams, the now confirmed official dance track to non league football, Insomnia by Faithless which is seemingly following us around wherever we go.

Early BFC pressure sees one player attempt a back to goal flick, spin and volley of near Bergkamp esq proportions, only for the side of the MFC defender blocking what up until then was going to be a splendid effort. They then head wide, and are showing all their skills once again, they go close not long after with another header, which gets the biggest “ahhhh” of the night.

Just under twenty minutes of the second half gone and BFC eventually break the deadlock. The ball is cut back to just inside the box and with a drilled low finish the “super sub” as Tom calls him has put the home side ahead. The celebrations of fans and players alike are muted, but at least we’ve seen a goal.

Finally some energy, some spirit. The goal has breathed some much needed life into what was turning into a turgid affair. MFC who have always looked capable of scoring send a shot agonisingly wide, and not long after going close they equalise, the home side only ahead for roughly eight minutes. Thanks to as the non shiverer of the couple behind us says a “good ball” from out wide on the right that is headed home at the far post, MFC are on level terms.

At least the MFC players look vaguely delighted they have scored, same goes for the four of five of their supporters behind the goal who are enthusiastically applauding the goal with gloved hands. BFC are far from impressed at conceding so soon and try to score with a shot directly from the restart, but it's a bit of a limp effort.

Sadly from MFC it only takes BFC two minutes to take the lead again, you're never more vulnerable than just after scoring, someone on the MFC bench will more than likely have muttered to themselves.

The celebrations on and off the pitch are far more animated for the second goal, that has finally shaken the crowd from their slumber and much like the game they seem to have warmed up. “Come on Bromley” one fan shouts, but they are no competition for the lone MFC supporter who despite seeing her team go behind so quickly, is still backing them “come on Margate”.

Tom is now maybe the happiest he's been all night, even happier than when first tucking into the excellent chips, as extra time seems quite unlikely, in fact BFC look close to pulling away from their Bostick League opponents, close to putting more distance between them, when they flash a header wide.

Although the game has been less than enthralling, a few BFC players have certainly done their prospects no harm, a couple showing an effortless ability to move at pace with the ball seemingly glued to their feet. One such run, sees the player charge towards the box, skipping and slaloming past the MFC defenders before being well and truly taken out in what on first impression looks like the area, but the ref has other ideas, pointing to a fraction outside of it for a free kick.

Unfortunately the set piece, has none of the elegance of the run that won it, and its fired over.

Ten to go and one MFC player is certain they still have a chance “come on boys we can get back in this”. To score though you need the ball, and one clearance from a BFC defender is so astronomical it easily clears the stand and is off into the stratosphere, “didn't want that in the ground” chuckles Tom as the ball sails over us and out of sight.

Where did this come from I ask myself, as the game swings back and forth from end to end in the dying minutes, where was all this activity in the first eighty five? MFC counter quickly, out numbering BFC at the back but the final shot is wild, and the single voice, whose tone and volume has not changed at all lets out her final cry “come on blues”.

There is the faintest whiff of a twist, a second comeback from MFC, some late pressure, a last ditch block after a corner and a free kick in shooting range, “come on Margate, come on lads” shouts a fan in the stands, but it comes to nothing.

When the fact that the ball going flat, the chips we were served in a bag, the Laurel and Hardy moment on the way to match when the snow covering my roof, shot down and over my windscreen as we stopped at traffic lights and the ongoing argument about what other teams kit the ones being played in look like, are the most memorable things you can take away from the ninety minutes, you know you've not been treated to a ‘great’.

However that is just the nature of football, no guarantees, no certainties, that's what makes it exciting,
and more power to those fans who did show up tonight. The diehards, what some might call the real fans, not the ones who cherry pick the best fixtures, turning up with their scarf and rattle, like they're there every week, but the ones who turn up for every match, for every regional cup quarter final, whatever the weather, whoever is on TV.

One note though, some kind of indication that clubs are not doing a programme for what reason may be would be much appreciated, just so I can prepare myself, because tonight is going to take hours of counseling to resolve.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE



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Thursday 14 December 2017

Whatever Will You Write About Now - Taunton Town FC Vs Salisbury FC, Evo-Stik Southern League West, Viridor Stadium (09/12/17)

You would think the sight of the precariously balanced sandstone slabs of Stonehenge would be the absolute highlight of today's drive. Set quite wonderfully in a green field with a clear winter sky backdrop, you can’t imagine that anything could surpass it in the previous two hours we've been heading west in the car, but you would be wrong.

Dietary advice from the woman in Costa at Solstice Services, chicken satays, paprika crisps that evoked memories of foreign holidays and Tom deciding on where he is going to get married, at Sparkford Hall no less, they all knock the prehistoric monument quite far down the pecking order.

Only a full pint of coffee in a John Smith’s glass was ever going to be enough to both warm me up and wake me up this icy morning. The frost that covers my car will need some attention, I will have to set off a little earlier than planned to pick up Tom, however the near frozen water coming out the taps in the bathroom does more to rouse me, than one hundred espressos ever could.

Despite having to thaw out my car, not quite having to assist my squeaking windscreen wipers
with my debit card, but almost, I’m still on time to meet Tom, but he is nowhere to be seen.

About as good as getting up early as Kevin or Perry, it’s a relief when I finally see him, better late than never. My thoughts of a quick getaway, we've one hundred and fifty six miles to drive today, and that's only one way, are soon put on hold as he strips down two or three layers, before emptying a PC Worlds worth of electrical equipment from his bag.

His reasoning for having everything short of his “Playstation” is the “long journey” ahead of us, his reasoning for being half reclined already in the passenger seat with a coat over his legs like an old lady on Clacton sea front is because it's “too early for this shit” and its a “bit chilly”.

“Wake me up when we get there” he says, snuggling into the fur trim on his coat. I want to be angry with him, but when he notices my “new jumper” it's hard not to be flattered and I don't hold a grudge for long.

The need for more caffeine and breakfast is strong and for at least an hour we play the game of ‘wait till the next one’ until I cave in, and we pull of the motorway, to be greeted by a large sculptured kneeling man praying.

Tom’s decision not to have cream on his mocha, because as I explain over the tannoy to the server at the drive thru is because he is on a “diet”, is the catalyst for the lengthy explanation from the multitasking headset wearer, that a regular black coffee is only “one colour” so that would be a better choice for him.

Not afraid to make a mess in someone else's car, Tom’s flaky choice of a croissant rankles me a little, but the fact that its “dry” makes me think that karma has played its part, and he ensures me all the crumbs are going back in the bag, but they’re not.

The aforementioned chicken satay with chilli dip are not my usual breakfast food, but what did I expect I was going to get sending the guy who thinks Cheetos are an appropriate way to start the day. The paprika crisps not only make me think of being on a Greek island and washing them down with a lemon Fanta, but they also make one of my hands stink for the rest of the day, regardless of how many times I wash it, they also repeat on me like a bitch.

Some hard braking is required, when even though my Sat Nav has plotted our course, I’m a little caught out by the hard right hand turn, that creeps up on us a bit, as we barrel down the dual carriageway. The single file blind corner a plenty lanes beyond are a little tricky to navigate, but clearly not for the white van behind us though, who I’m guessing is a local, well versed in the numerous hairpin corners, which might explain why he is up my arse, annoyed I’m sure at my sedentary twenty five miles an hour.

The claret sign of the Viridor Stadium is a welcome sight after nearly four hours behind the wheel. Directed precisely to spot in the carpark by the man in hi viz, I take a moment to compose myself, stretching my ever so slightly hunched spine, before stepping out into the fresh afternoon air.

“Home of the Peacocks in the Heart of Somerset” reads the sign on the gate adjacent to the turnstiles where we are greeted by Taunton Town FC’s (TT) Chairman Kevin, in his black baseball cap and club scarf tightly stuffed into his jacket.

Softly spoken and friendly Kevin welcomes us, but has the air of a distracted man or at the very least someone who is so hands on and with only two hours to kick off, in what might be the clubs biggest game so far this season, it's first vs fourth, TT top of the table, he has a lot on his mind and a lot to do.

Considering the amount of postponements that littered my Twitter timeline, it’s certainly a relief to see the pitch and ground looking immaculate and most definitely playable. As I said Kevin is not one to sit back and watch everyone else do the hard graft, for him its not as he implies it might be for other Chairman's and owners about his “ego”, it's about mucking in, he suggests every Chairman should “pick up” a pitchfork and get on the “pitch”.

Manning the hefty white gate to the ground, there is quite the fanfare every time Kevin swings it open for a single car or a couple in procession containing the first team players. There is plenty of shouting and horn beeping as they pass into the ground.

There is much to take in at the Viridor Stadium, almost every inch of which is painted in the clubs colours of claret and blue. Thankfully though there is a signpost, pointing you in the direction of all the relative points of interest you might require.

Ever so slightly concealed by large conifers that surrounded it on three sides, the sizable claret and blue building in one corner of the ground, does not have any obvious purpose. On closer inspection and helped by the coming and going of some of the newly arrived players, it is in fact the changing rooms, with no tunnel to speak of, just a stretch of car park to cross before entering the pitch.

“Fucking cold mate” says one of the shivering players of Salisbury FC (SFC), TT’s opponents today and fellow promotion hopefuls. Someone who certainly looks far from cold is the lady behind the closed glass window of the Pies & Pasties hut, the prices of her wares scrawled on the window in white marker. Studying what looks like the paper, I don't think she is open for business quite yet, but Tom has been unable to keep his eye off her since we arrived.

“Pumped for today” says an already excited TT fan to a fellow supporter coming out of the clubhouse.

Warm, comfortable and welcoming is about everything you could ask from a clubhouse, the claret blinds a welcome hint of colour in an otherwise neutral space. The patrons already here watch Ronnie O'Sullivan on the TV, as the snooker displays its awesome power of making anywhere it's occurring very sedate, the powers that be should investigate in using it as some kind of weapon against civil unrest, because the gentle sound of resin on baise and the low timbre of the commentary is so calming it sends all that witness it into a coma.

Tom ums and ahhs about what he’ll have, it's a very boring lemonade for me, but he is feeling adventurous, “fuck it I’m having a pint”.

Sipping from his glass of nondescript european larger, he studies his purchase from the neat little club shop, which the sign post does not accurately point to, Tom almost walking into the physios room by mistake. His pin and newest addition to his ever growing collection, was retrieved from an illuminated glass fronted cabinet, the likes of which you might more commonly see at a jewelers, but its contents of badges and key things just as pretty.

The stand in bar man is struggling, plagued by a batch of “frozen Guinness” cans, he lets out an almighty sigh as he pours what is effectively an Irish slush puppy and tells the person he's serving that he “only came to watch the football”.

As more and more people arrive, the spell of the snooker is broken by people talking about Chelsea losing at West Ham. A boy with elves ears on is watching it on his phone, while another fan at the bar asks Google what's the score. When she confirms they are losing, which goes down very well, Tom leans over, “even over here they’re hated”.
Joining one of his helpers in the bar, Santa Claus arrives, his outfit with a local twist. The traditional red and white of the Coca Cola company has been replaced with, well I’m sure you can guess.

“Going down well this” says Tom, having sunk half his pint and he's already talking about “road beers” for the drive home.

Saint Nick, beard and all, which is a little tatty, I’m sure Tom can lend him some beard oil, is an unexpected but welcome visitor to our table, he’s on football card duty. You know the score, pick a team, £1 in the plastic cup, if the one you pick is under the silver panel once it’s been scratched off, you get half the takings.

Tom of course goes for Arsenal, however the distinct lack of Spurs is a little perturbing. Tom reckons it's because and I quote they are “that shit” they don't feature, but I let his juvenile comment wash over me and opt for Wolves, having once upon a time owned a Wolverhampton shirt, it seemed an obvious pick.

“Top of the league” points out Kris Kringle, as good a reason as any to pick the midlands club, who has crushed the illusion a little having half removed his beard, “too hot in here to wear it” he tells us. Before he leaves us, he has his rounds to do, he confirms this is just the first of two opportunities to get a bit of action today, there is also a “half time draw”, the guy doing it will be around “shortly” but he's currently “late”.

Tom returns to his seat having popped out for a vape, informing me there is a “steward in shorts” and there is “good Dad music” being playing outside, bursting into the chorus of the Starship hit, “we built this city”.

Another caller, another warm reception as one half of the reason we are here today, complete with a
box of cheesy chips in hand, Callum joins us. He’s quietly confident that TT will get a “2-1” win today, he tells us between mouthfuls of cheddar smothered fries. He also reckons there could be over “six hundred” here this afternoon, with at least “ten to fifteen” of them singing behind the goal, all
led by him and his drum.

“I never win, but don't mind giving people my money” says the bar man to Santa Claus, dropping his money into the cup, picking his team, somehow already knowing he won’t be victorious.

Outside the drum has already started, its competing with The Proclaimers playing over the tannoy. In the small group of fans surrounding the supporters percussion is the other reason we are here today, the awesomely named Daniel, who unlike Callum is far from sure that today is a sure thing for TT.

“Everyone thinks it will go Tauntons way, I’m not convinced” he tells me nervously. His reasoning being that SFC “can throw the kitchen sink” at TT, as they have “nothing to lose”.

In the short time we took our pitstop in the clubhouse, a fair few people have turned up, already looking like the crowd might be edging towards what I thought was an ambitious guesstimate by Callum. Also a bake sale has commenced, across a couple of trestle tables there are all manner of  icing covered delights spread out, all in aid of a local charity.

I battle past the frosting covered faces of the cake eaters and the group of kids who start chanting TT’s nickname to the beat of the drum “peacocks, peacocks, peacocks”, to make my way to the programme seller and the man with the "don't forget to buy your jackpot tickets" sign at his feet.

“Three for two pounds” he tells me, tearing the tickets along their perforated line, as people jostle past, through the bottleneck being created by the lady wielding her rattling bucket in search of donations, programme purchases and fellow gambling addicts.

Appearing out of the crowd, much like he will be appearing out of the sky in a few weeks time bearing gifts, TT’s very own Father Christmas, asks us “who had Wolves?”.

Clutching the football card and a £20 note, I think I know what he is about to say, I think I’ve just actually won something, but I don't want to jump the gun, so tentatively reply “me”.

“Thought it was you” he says, handing over the money, wishing me a “Merry Christmas” letting me keep the card as evidence. Unable to grasp the significance of what has just happened, from behind his homemade beard, he looks a little perplexed, why is this big bloke in front of me so delighted. Because and I’ll tell you why, you have just restored a piece of my soul, that had all but been obliterated these last three years, chipped away by the constant losing.

Well people I’m no longer a loser, I WON!!!!!

“Come to Taunton, make money” says a smiling Trevor, after I tell him of my victory. Tom wonders if I can “make it two out of two”. With ‘fairytale of New York’ playing, my favourite festive pop song, it genuinely feels like Christmas has come early.

I’m in a slight daze but the drum soon breaks me out of it, one stacked on top of the other, the top one wrapped in a claret and blue union jack. The terrace behind the goal where they currently reside is getting busier by the minute, but not as busy as the Pie & Pasties hut, whose window has now been opened and plenty of people are tucking in to its meaty delights being dished out in white paper bags.

Chatting with Tim the clubs photographer, doctor and director, he tells us the manager will be receiving a presentation to celebrate his three hundred games in charge, “not many managers get three hundred appearances in non league” he says. He like Callum thinks the crowd will be a big one today, “disappointed if not 600”. When we ask him how he thinks TT will fare, he gives us what will turns out to be a scarily accurate prediction.

“Whorever scores early could run away with it”.

One thing he is certain of is “there will be goals”, It’s first Vs second in the league as far as goals scored. His “top tip” for Tom is to get a pastie, they are “very good” he tells us, and going by the amount of people stuffing their faces with slices of coffee and walnut cake passing us, he shouldn't have any problems getting one.

The traveling fans arrive, around the same time the voice over the PA tells us we’re “ten minutes away from kick off”. The SFC supporters make their presence known not long after getting in, “who are ya, who are ya” they sing, the TT drum responds, seemingly getting louder.

TT’s fans have put three flags up, but they are hanging at the opposite end of those who have congregated around the drums waiting for the toss of the coin to find out what direction they’ll be attacking and where they will be spending the first half.

“For the claret blue army” roars the super animated voice over the PA, reading out the team sheet. Doing that thing every decent stadium announcer does, reading the away teams names out first, each one leaving a bad taste in his mouth, but when it comes to the home players, he delivers each of their names with the energy of someone who has just taken a Pulp Fiction sized dose of adrenaline straight to the heart.

I have to ask Callum, standing steadfast behind his drum about the relevance of the betting slip paper airplanes many of the fans are holding, “to throw at Steve Claridge” he explains. A dig I think at SFC’s well documented money issues, which has seen them go bust more than once, but it's too noisy to really question him about it, it took about three goes at him shouting for me to hear his first answer.

Other than the jaunt over the car park, the teams entrance is a relatively standard one. There is a moment before kick off, when Trevor presents the manager with a bottle of bubbles and an eerie portrait of the gaffa, his face made up of lots of different words. He seems less than enthusiastic to walk down the guard of hour made up of his players, doing it in double time, more out of being humble and a tad embarrassed than anything else.

“Only here for the Taunton” sing the TT fans around me, Callum beating out the rhythm on the drum. The SFC supporters are giving them a run for their money, but with no instruments, they were always going to be fighting a losing battle.

The coin toss completed, the exodus to the other end of the pitch is a sudden surge, “every time” huffs one supporter, who can't understand why they don't just stand down the other end of the pitch to start with, with the flags, as they always seem to end up there anyway. Both sets of fans cross paths halfway, “stick your drumsticks up your arse” sing the SFC fans, at the moment the back and forth seems good natured, unfortunately by the end of the day that will not still be the case.

Settled and comfortable, Steve Claridge suitably showered in mini paper aeroplanes, that were chucked over the dugout roof at him by the Bash Street Kids with much guffawing and sniggering, they start to sing, and sing, and sing, “we’re the claret blue army”.

Having replaced us in the stand we just left, the SFC fans are quick to get back to singing too, “mighty, mighty, Salisbury”, however they are soon drowned out by the home fans quickfire reply, “we love you Taunton we do”, “oh when the town go marching in” and one we've not heard since The Shay last season “we’re on our way, we're on our way, to the National League we’re on our way”.

The kids having a kick about on the nearby patch of grass, who seem to have lost their ball over the fence, don't know what they're missing. Although they might be better off where they are for now, because the TT lot are currently offering up their spouses as some kind of prize to one player who they have very kindly told he can “shag”.

Although SFC are the first to go close with about ten minutes gone, it’s TT who open the scoring on eleven minutes and the first part of Tim’s Gray’s Sports Almanac prediction has come to fruition. Arms out by his side, the scorer runs down the front of the stand, high fiving the outstretched hands of the fans, before a teammate jumps on his back and he lets out a mighty “come on”.

The elated voice over the PA reads out the name of the scorer while The Dave Clark Five plays in the background. In the lead, and very much on the front foot, the home fans are lightening quick to rub it in to their adversaries “it's gone quiet over there”.

Any attempt to goad an already depressed and thoroughly dejected looking Claridge doesn't work, he
stands firmly on the edge of his box looking steely eyed. “Stevy what's the score?” the fans ask, their request of a “wave” is also declined, but what can you expect if you are all suggesting he is going to get “sacked in the morning”.

When news of my win filters back to my fiancee, I say filtered back, I sent her a picture of me holding my winnings, her response is not as congratulatory as I had wanted and frankly is just a bit sarcastic and rude, “OMG...whatever will you write about now xxx”.

SFC’s fans are now very quiet and Tom is playing ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ and suggests today is like watching “Burnley Vs AFC Wimbledon”.

Tom’s game is soon put on hold, when TT double their lead, its been looking like its been coming, and it does, only seven minutes after the first. Assisted by the scorer of the first, the scorer of the seconds deft flick of his foot sends the ball past the keeper.

“We are going up” sing the now even more overjoyed fans, they then ask SFC cheekily “can we play you every week?”.

First he’s pelted with paper aeroplanes, secondly his employability is questioned, thirdly and the hat trick of Steve Claridge slurs is when he is asked “what are you teaching them?” following a poor tackle that earns the perpetrator a booking. “Dirty” decries one supporter.

The foul is the first sign of SFC looking rattled, Tom being quite plain, he's made up his mind, they’re just “not very good”. As bad as they have been, TT have been clinical and quite excellent so far, their number 10, the first goal scorer, is like the Mousa Dembele of Somerset, not tall and rangy, but small and robust, but just as immovable off the ball as the Belgian. He holds it up masterfully, and at times seems to want to take on the whole SFC defence by himself and on occasions he looks like he might just be able to.

When SFC win a corner in front of their fans, it stir them into making some noise, “we forgot that you were here” sing the near ecstatic TT fans. Tom though has bigger concerns, “food or toilet queue?” he asks himself fidgeting like a toddler trying not to wet himself. Will his desire to beat the half time rush for a pastie override the possibility of an embarrassing and very public accident.

Claridge always seemed like quite a nice guy on Final Score, having never seen him in his playing days, I can't really comment on what kind of a player he was, but I saw a dark side of him when a foul is given against his team. “He’s laughing at you ref” as the smirking TT player walks away from the scene of the crime, as the SFC manager his eyes full of rage bellows at the top of his voice, “look at his face”.

The home fans are quite the opposite, happy, smiling and non stop singing and in the words of D:ream “things can only gonna get better”. They get very energetic when one suggests they “all bounce if you’re going up” and the whole terrace is a sea of bobbing heads.

“Easy, easy, easy” they sing, as the third goes in. We get a front row seat to the players celebration, a few fans rush the fence, one man pumping both fists shouts “you beauty”. The final reserves of paper aeroplanes are sent into the Saturday afternoon sky and Dave and his chums get their third airing of the day.

SFC have a header cleared off the line with five of the half to play, this stirs their fans “ohhh” and encourages the TT supporters to ask if they should “sing a song” for their quiet visitors.

Since becoming a Dad for the second time in June, I think I have become hypersensitive to people being unkind to others, some might say I’ve gone a bit soft, but I don't like people being horrible to each other. I therefore give the TT fans my best disapproving Dad face when they start singing at the SFC keeper about his Mum, like her not being able to keep “her legs closed” just like him, because of the manner in which he conceded the third. Tom can sense my displeasure, bit “mean” he asks me, and I give him a stern and silent fatherly nod of the head.

TT’s players are relishing the fact that SFC seem to be falling apart, allowing them to chuck a few flicks, tricks and back heels into the mix, a little bit of samba football in the Southern League, and their fans appreciate it “it's like watching Brazil”.

Three goals to the good, you can imagine the supporters are thrilled to say the least on the half time whistle, some as going as far as to say the three points are “in the bag” and it's hard to disagree. While the flags are taken down and neatly folded, the rest of the group from behind the goal make a beeline for the clubhouse and the other end of the pitch, one passing child gives his own version of ‘you're getting sacked in the morning’ to a downbeat Claridge drudging off to talk to his beleaguered players, “say goodbye to your team”.

Replacing the adults on the pitch, the hoard of mascots appear, and start to have a small match of their own. One players skills and subsequent goal catches the eye of a few of the people watching on, “great goal, sign him on”.

Tom’s wait for the loo and food, was far less arduous than he thought, so much so, that by the time we find each other, I having learnt I haven’t won the halftime draw, which is fine, as he said “don't be greedy”, he has already as he put it “demolished” his cheesy chips, but still has one of the recommended pasties to go, which he tells me is “warm” and asks me “if I want to hold it” to heat up my hands.

“TAUNTON TOWN” booms the voice over the PA welcoming the teams back as they reappear, going toe to toe with a 90’s dance classic, a song we’ve come across already this season, a favourite on the non league scene, Insomnia by Faithless. Kevin leaves the pitch with trusty fork in hand and the numbers behind the goal seem to have swelled, the sloped roof of the terrace unable to contain them all, and they pick up, where they left off, “oh when the town go marching in”.

It’s going to take a while to get the tune of Glad All Over out of my head, considering I’ve now heard
a fourth snippet of its catchy chorus. Three minutes into the new half TT continue their rampant ways, scoring from a corner. The players run off towards the corner flag, before stopping and acting out some kind of pre arranged celebration, that kind of looks like someone trying to learn to surf.

TT cruising, their fans in good voice and Tom sipping away at his Cherry Tango that tastes like bathroom cleaner, I’m not sure we could ask for a more perfect scene, until all of a sudden a disturbance in the good time rift, takes the edge of it a little. Perhaps it was the sight of seeing their team going further behind or something was said, we'll never know, but all of a sudden a scuffle breaks out to our left, punches are thrown and by the looks of it an SFC fan is being carted off briskly by a couple of strapping TT supporters.

“Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio” sing the onlookers as the away fan is strong armed out, flanked by two chaps who I think I would do what they told me. For the remainder of the game, it's the activity on the terrace and the drama that ensues that occupies most people's attention.

Still bubbling away, it's hard not to rubber neck a little, the nosy side of us both, wondering what happened, and what is still going on. One supporters makes his opinion clear, “get out of Taunton” he shouts fiercely, the rest of the fans also share their thoughts on the visitors “we hate Salisbury”.

There is though a nice distraction from the nonsense, a boxer dog, paws up on the fence, with his head through it, straining at his leash and close to bolting on a couple occasions. “Seen the ball” says Tom, the dog's owner doing his best to hold on tight.

Although TT are creating chances at will, they have a shot well saved preventing their fifth, its SFC who score next, from the spot, with fifty eight minutes gone. A lifeline perhaps, “game on” says Tom, I doubt it, anyway I’m not sure many home fans are particularly bothered by the slight dent in their lead, the few SFC fans dancing and celebrating are, but they are soon muffled by the TT fans, who don't let them be heard for long.

Both Callum and Tim were right, in excess of six hundred here today and one of them is still yet to claim the half time draw prize, the man I bought the tickets from, is now doing a lap of the ground, with a blackboard with the winning numbers on, trying to find the victor.

SFC’s fans are again silent, buts its positively rocking in the home end, “claret blue army” they repeat over and over in a state of near hypnosis snapping out of it only to tease the away end “it's all gone quiet over there”, while Tom stomps his feet, despite having about five pairs of socks on, his toes are still going “a bit numb”.

TT have all but sat back, foot well and truly off the gas, I think they might have even taken the keys out and pulled over for a picnic and aren't showing any of that swashbuckling endeavour they had before, meaning SFC get the odd sniff at a chance. With seventy five minutes gone they almost pull another back, but it doesn't seem to worry anyone, they’re all having far too much of a good time and whenever SFC do seem to threaten, TT respond by just wandering up the other end and almost scoring themselves.

Being someone who knows a far old bit about this particular chant, I can't understand why it's never
sung properly, slowly, painfully and tediously slowly “oh when (insert team here) go marching in” is at its best when it starts at a snail's pace, building to a hair raising crescendo, with a few wiggling fingers at the end of arms held aloft tossed in for good measure.

With full time fast approaching and now in the presence of a few coppers, the distinctive blue lights of their cars flashing above over the wall behind us, there is a mild sense of tension as the ground slips into a state of shutdown. There is a lot of pointing, the hiss of radios and the shutting of gates, by the looks of it to keep both sets of supporters apart.

“Not seen much of the game” says one member of TT staff to another, I must admit the second half does feel somewhat like a blur. One TT fan suggests that the kind of behaviour we’ve seen today, which let me be clear was fleeting, and not involving any great numbers, is the first of its kind we've ever seen, and as the home fan puts it you “don't expect that kind of thing at non league football”.

A fully stocked riot van rolls up and may be required, not to contain the SFC fans, but the home fans, as the floodlights start to flicker, like the one in the downstairs loo, just before it blows. “Last thing we need” says a steward, the match being called off, TT 4 -1 up, with maybe only a couple of minutes to play. However Trevor is calm, watching on from the corner of the pitch, “don't panic, they blow at home”.

It's a rapturous send off for the players, either side of the way off the pitch is packed with cheering and clapping fans, Kevin looks on proud as punch, offering his own congratulations to the odd player and coach as they pass. Once back inside the shelter of the big shed, the sound system is quickly on, and the noise of the TT players singing Sweet Caroline soon fills the night.

As the supporters finally stream out, the sight outside the ground is similar to that of a Premier League game, not a Southern League one. Half of Somerset's police are seemingly here, their lights still going good guns, but it all seems a bit OTT and the fans make their way home, without incident.

I'll be honest when I accepted Callum and Daniels invite to their corner of the non league world, I don't think I really understood quite how far away they where, but I can say with my hand on heart that it was worth every one of the three hundred plus miles we travelled.

Time spent in the car or the time you have to get up is immaterial when you are treated to five goals, an excellent atmosphere, seeing what might be the world record for how far apart a club can put the dugouts and the sight of a once top flight footballer being bombarded with paper aeroplanes.

Of course the Viridor Stadium will always be a special place, it will live long in the memory as the venue of my very first win, the blue plaque is in the post - 'Daniel Magner Won £20 Here' it will read.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE


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Thursday 7 December 2017

Rise Of The Machines - A.F.C. Sudbury Vs Soham Town Rangers FC, Bostik League North, King's Marsh Stadium (28/11/17)

Darkness, unrelenting and unnerving darkness. I have no faith in my Sat Nav, God only knows where it's taking us, we left London over an hour ago and we’re still going. Only a small sign on the side of the road gives us hope, relieving the mounting tension in the car that we are currently somewhere that falls into American Werewolf in London territory, ‘stay on the road’ rattle the words of a patron of the Slaughtered Lamb around my head, “Sudbury 13 miles”.

The town of Halstead is a pleasant surprise, it's Christmas light illuminated high street, a welcome change to the twisting country lanes of the Essex, Suffolk borders. With its decorations, quaint pubs and busy little shops, it's almost picture perfect. However much like the two guys from the aforementioned 1980’s horror films, which my older sister showed me when I was about eleven, we are just passing through, doing our best to ‘stay on the road’, because soon the last lights of the high street are fading behind us, and we’re once again relying on my headlamps and limited driving skills to navigate the narrow roads.

Its right for once, it’s garish pink route has taken us to the right location, confirmed white road signs, A.F.C. Sudbury (AFC) they read, and after a long journey, where we discovered WhatsApp is a little bit racist, we are pulling up in the shadowy car park of the King’s Marsh Stadium.

Any regular non league watcher will know, you're never quite sure what you're going to get at the other end of your bus ride, train journey or drive. Grounds/stadium/arenas can vary so greatly even within the same league. Unless it's somewhere particularly well known for one standout feature, like the art deco stand at Enfield Town FC or the south stand of The Shay, your eventual surroundings can end up being somewhat of a surprise.

The King’s Marsh Stadium certainly falls into the ‘we weren't expecting this’ category, not because it's a few old bits of scaffolding and a portacabin, like some places we’ve been, but for quite the opposite, because it looks like the setup of a team much higher than the Bostik League North.

Before even entering through the turnstile which from the outside looks relatively normal, but once on the other side you feel like you've just walked into the extension on the back of a semidetached house, it's hard to miss the clubs Academy no less, housed in its very own gleaming headquarters, with the many unlit pitches surrounding it. It’s an academy we later learn, that is the bedrock of what AFC are all about.

Emerging underneath the electronic scoreboard, a first for us at this level, on which is advertised a local tipping and haulage company, we both need a moment to take in what is before us.

I don’t think anyone at AFC or anyone who may have ever visited their home, could say it's one overflowing with any kind of old worldly charm. There is no crumbling stand, no knackered terrace or mouldy clubhouse. In fact it's quite the opposite, I don't think there is a hair out of place or a single stray spot of paint to be seen.

AFC’s home sits right at the other end of the spectrum, it’s flatpack sparkling Ikea’ness is almost just as impressive for a whole other list of reasons as a ground that's not changed since the turn of the last century.

What first strikes you, well it's impossible to miss, is the double decker glass fronted clubhouse, from in which we are enthusiastically waved at by Kevin the clubs media wrangler, who is quick to welcome us into the warmth of the laminate floored bar, offers us a seat, and grabs us both a much needed hot drink.

I may or may not mention a few hundred times tonight that it's cold, or maybe I'll just tell you now, so as I don't have to repeat myself too much.

Kevin who is almost overflowing with positivity soon makes us feel at home, like every good host he ensures we make all the proper introductions, first of all to the clubs Vice Chairman Trevor Smith, who joins us at our pitch view table.

“Not many” replies Kevin when we ask him what kind of a turnout they can expect this evening, tonight's not he explains “classed as a local derby” so isn't much of a draw. Where AFC are drawing those fans from I'm not sure, it’s not exactly shoulder to shoulder with the locals, as Trevor puts it, they are somewhat “out on a limb” with not much of a “catchment area”.

Trevor was the Essex National league South side Chelmsford City FC's Vice Chairman last season. Essex being only a “minute that way” he points off into the distance, with us having only just ventured outside of our favourite non league county. I get the feeling he has made the drop down the pyramid, because he relishes the challenge AFC offers him. His first piece of business was to raise its’ profile within the “local community” one way is “inviting kids in for free” as he admits the average “age profile” of the fan base is “sixty plus”.

It’s youth they want in the stands, and its youth they want on the pitch, the clubs ethos is very clear, develop from within. Kevin sings the praises of the current first team, who “won everything” last season, getting to the “first round of the FA Youth Cup”, and have now made the big step up to the seniors. Trevor adding their partnership with “Ipswich Town” is an avenue for the best of their home grown talent to the top of the tree.

We’re joined at the table briefly by the somewhat imposing and impeccably turned out AFC manager Mark Morsley, who once he's gone I can’t help myself but say that he is the “best dressed” manager we've ever seen, his blazer, shirt and tie are immaculate. Normally it's jogging bottoms tucked in socks and a long sleeping bag jacket, but not here. The managers get up a bit like the ground, from a different level. He’s a “suit manager” adds Trevor, by his own admission Kevin tells us Mark thinks he “looks stupid” in a tracksuit.

Chat almost over, Trevor is off to a meeting, and Kevin has his own work to get on with, he's a photographer and people want their wedding albums for Christmas, so he’s off too, however Tom's reputation precedes him, and before going Kevin recommends he tries the “cheesy chips” they sell here.

The teams warm up on the 3G pitch in front of the near deserted stadium as pop music Tom sings along with, that I’ve never heard of, plays over the PA. The raffle ticket seller by the entrance does his customary call, “get your raffle tickets” but there is as yet no-one to buy any, but he caught my attention and I of course handed over my money.

A Coldplay cover of The Pretenders 2000 Miles is my first festive song of the season, admittedly not a huge fan of Chris Martin and his merry band of UCL graduates, but it's better than Slade.

Someone who is here, wearing it seems about four layers, setting himself up in the small press area at
the back of the Brian Tatum Stand, his final layer his BBC Radio Suffolk jacket, is the Beebs local representative, who I ask how he thinks tonight will pan out. “I think Sudbury will win” he says without much conviction. Considering their last game, a 4 - 3 win over Bowers & Pitsea, where they were four up before a rousing comeback from the away team, which AFC “tried their best to throw away”, he adds, he's not entirely convinced the home team will do it, however AFC have “not lost in the league since August at home” so he’s somewhat optimistic.

The refreshments hatch must be open, a single chip eater braves the outside, picking away at the contents of their yellow tray, most other people though are still on the other side of the glass in the clubhouse, but Tom’s spider senses are tingling and he can sense the presence of food.

“Oh cheesy chips” he says like a loutish builder who just saw some cleavage, at a man walking past holding a serving of the recommended local delicacy. He turns into a whole building site of labourers on the perv, when he sees a man passing by with a burger, “oh yeah” he says, and the way he describes the “oozing cheese”, “double pattie” and “onions” is almost pornographic.

“Let's get one now before they run out” he says, nudging me in the ribs, a quarter joking, three quarters deadly serious.

There are now more fans some in blue and yellow AFC scarves and some in the green and white striped ones of the away team Soham Town Rangers FC (STR) watching on as the players go through their final drills before one team's coach instructs the first team to finish up “starting elevens in you go” leaving the substitutes to aimlessly kick the ball about or take shots at an outfield player in goal who really doesn't want to use his hands in the cold to stop the ball.

The very clear, there's no way you're not going to understand what he's saying and very loud announcer welcomes everyone to the “King’s Marsh Stadium”. Tom like a toddler who has heard a noise he doesn't like, cups his ears until the big shouty man goes away.

The choice of music that accompanies the teams onto the pitch, down the short slope, from the relatively toasty tunnel, into the brisk outdoors, is dramatic to say the least. Like something from an action move trailer or an X Factor elimination, it sets the mood for the night ahead.

Both teams huddle, putting their heads together one last time before kick off. “Come on yellows” shouts an AFC player. One of the people in the main stand offers their own encouragement to the home team, “come on Sudbury”. Despite Kevins suggestion there wouldn't be much of a turn out, quite a few seats are occupied as are a few spots on the terraced stand opposite, The Shed. Some people have not ventured far from the clubhouse choosing to stand just outside, some have not ventured at all, and sit at tables and chairs at the windows on the upper level.

“I wanna go to Jamies Meat Inn” says an intrigued Tom, pointing to one of the many advertisements that line the edge of the pitch.

Two minutes in, I know that precisely thanks to the scoreboard, the very scoreboard which has practically made Tom obsolete, “you don't need me” he says somewhat melodramatically, as it is he I always ask the time, to jot in my notebook, when something of interest happens. An STR player takes a long range shot that is well over, “hopeful” says Tom as the ball sails way, way off target.

The first of countless twisting and tricky AFC runs tonight, very early on their penchant for a flick, a dropped shoulder and step over is clear, results in a clean shot and a good save, “unlucky” shouts a fan from the stands. Two minutes later and it's only a smart save from the AFC keeper that keeps out STR. “Save” blurts out a nearby home supporter, no time for an adjective, just a quick statement of fact.

In our previous match we watched a man stop a shot with his bum, this time it's round the front, but at the same kind of height. To make this worse it's freezing cold and the shot was from his own teammate. “Aghhhhh” he screams, folding in two and crumpling to the floor. It's a slow and laboured walk off the pitch, when he eventually picks himself up, he's half smiling half wanting to cry.

The spearhead of the “quick” and staggeringly “young” looking AFC attacks, Tom and I feeling everyone of our thirty three years, who spray the ball around well, switching the play from one side of the pitch to the other with ease, which as Tom points out gives them “so much space” is “Lacazette” as he calls him, their number 10 who does certainly bare a resemblance to the Arsenal and France forward, but to me will forever be the guy who got the ball slap bang in the cock.

Somewhat in the wilderness, standing on its own on one corner of the pitch, and not really in keeping with the rest of the ground is, “Turner's Tea Bar”, Tom's eyes do a better job than mine, to read its name written down its front. The person manning it, peering out from within is better placed than us to “ohhh” as STR go close with a back post header. Despite having been somewhat on the back foot since the kickoff, the away team seem just as adept to break out and create their own chances.

Always keen to discuss the big topics, we take our eye off the game for a moment, instead debating the kits on show. AFC’s is a relatively generic yellow number with a blue shoulder. STR’s for me is the standout winner, a green and white striped design, very Real Betis. Tom is not a fan, something about the “shade” of green is not doing it for him.

As Tom likes to say, with the game swinging from end to end, its “frantic” but as of yet with no end product, each team are more than capable, very impressive at times, but neither has shown that required finishing edge. “Feels like we're gonna see a lot of that today” says Tom, lots of promising passing, AFC very adept at riding tackles and getting to the edge of the box, but frustratingly can’t find that final pass to finish the move.

There is a definite bite in the air, and there is a definite air of grumbling among home fans, who are growing a little weary at their team's profligacy.

With just over twenty minutes gone a flying mid air tackle that a Tekken character would have been proud of, momentarily halts the finely balanced encounter. “Nothing wrong with that” shouts an AFC fan, the downed player waiting nervously for the finishing move from Yoshimitsu that never comes. “Didn't even book him” says an astonished Tom, the spinning bird kick surely worthy of a yellow.

AFC are becoming more and more guilty of over gilding the lily, doing just that bit too much. Perhaps it's the exuberance of youth, but on one occasion they outnumber the STR defense three to two, but over egg the pudding, and miss out again, to the irritation of players and fans a like.

One shoe off, swaying around on one foot, one hand on the railing, almost losing his balance and falling over, Tom has cracked, and his purchases from Westfield earlier in the day are making an appearance. The thermal socks “are coming out”. Eventually getting them on, he has trouble stuffing his double wrapped feet back into his shoe, he informs me he is now as “snug as a bug”.

Almost on the half hour mark, well the twentieth minute if we are going to be anal about it, the super quick feet of AFC’s number 10 sees him away and off towards goal, only to be cynically cut down. One fan is certain it's a red card “last man ref” but the man in change is having none of it.

In fact the referee is becoming more and more of a focal point as the half continues, “settle, settle, settle” he says to the players like a secondary school teacher. One AFC player can't understand all the squabbling with the officials, “stop talking to the ref” he suggests, “organise” instead he tells his team

When there is a flareup in the box, a bit of squaring up, and nothing else, he is back at it, with his catchphrase of the day “settle”.

Tom has a confession, maybe it has something to do with the faint sound of church bells in the distance, but no, it's nothing too dramatic, just that his new “socks are too tight”.

The grumble’ometer is rising higher and higher, like a Comic Relief totaliser. “Ref!” barks an AFC fan when he blows up once again for another niggling foul, but shows no card. “What are you doing, what are you doing?” asks an STR player with his arms out to his side, unable to fathom his decision. When one player in green and white has a bit too much “attitude” says Tom, talking to the referee with a tad to much southern sass, he gets himself booked. A local agrees with what Tom said, but is a bit more direct, “gobby shit, you'll keep your mouth shut in the future”.

STR’s allocation of yellows increases shortly after when one player is less than subtle with his encroachment on a free kick. The maniacal laugh of a nearby home fan, is followed by a congratulatory “well done 11” then a sarcastic “thank you”.

As good at getting themselves booked for daft things as STR are, they are also showing some decent flashes of attacking promise, and go the closest of either team with about five minutes of the half left. The AFC keeper is left stranded by the faint touch of the STR forward, who nudges the ball around him sending it goalward. Luckily for the keeper, a covering defender is on hand to clear off the line.

This threat to their impressive home record, spurs AFC on, and chances come thick and fast for them in the final minutes of the half. Showing that they are about doing things a little differently here, I can’t say I remember any big hoof up from the back from them so far, a defender brings the ball out from the back and with few options has a pop himself from long range. “Good effort” comments Tom as the STR's keeper is forced into a low save he is only able to palm away.

He is soon back in action, this time berating his defence for allowing AFC’s number 10 to turn far too easily on the edge of the box and get a shot off, “keep him away from goal”.

It’s not really a moment of any great skill that bookends the first half, more the continued ability of each team, to “moan, moan, moan”, as one fan puts it. One AFC fan has had enough, letting the away team in no uncertain terms know exactly what he thinks of them,“loud mouth bunch of tossers” he shouts so loudly that he “scared the birds” points out Tom as a nearby tree is emptied, scattering the local wildlife.

There is near silence around the ground as the players walk off, having played out the “three minutes of additional time”, until the PA pipes up again, and I really wish he hadn’t. Much to Tom's delight Spurs are losing away at Leicester, but his mind is not on old rivalries for long, “cheesy chips” he remembers marching off.

Considering the spec of everything here, maybe we should not have been as surprised as we were when we see what we see standing in the queue for Tom’s food.

Its blue LED front is something I think we are unlikely ever to see again, unless Skynet's vile tentacles venture forth from this corner of Suffolk further into the outside world, an automated coffee machine. I don't know if I should be impressed or concerned, am I some time soon going to be clinging to a chainlink fence, watching my children play in a park, before they and then me are eviscerated by the blast of a nuclear bomb.

Does the rise of the machines begin at AFC?

After examining the extensive menu, I'm not sure why though, Tom was only ever going to take Kevins advice, we head inside the clubhouse. My hands tingle as they are exposed to the warm while people in all manner of wooly hats watch the England women's team playing high up on a small TV.

“Too much” AFC might have beaten Tom. In the container his burger an island surrounded by a sea of melted cheese which has covered every inch of everything. He has to abort his first attempt at a bite, it’s “really hot” he tells me, looking down at what his fiver has got him, I’m not sure if he knows where to start.

There are “multiple prizes” to be won in the half time draw according to Tom, watching one as the voice over the PA comes onto announce who has won, “£25”, “£10” or “£5”. Finding my tickets in my notebook, I discover for me it's nothing and I think Tom now instead of pitying me, and my search for the prize, now just thinks my desperation is hysterical.

Unable to even half finish his dinner in the break, the buzzer in the bar signaling that the teams are soon to be back out, we head outside, with too much left to eat, to do it standing up, he seeks somewhere to sit, which also offers an unparalleled view of the pitch.

The “conservatory” as Trevor called it, might be just the place, the unoccupied sheltered disability stand, which is quite literally a white PVC construction on one corner of the pitch, was erected for a fan who suffered from a stroke. Its akin to the see through tunnel at the Etihad or watching an NHL game through a layer of shatterproof glass. Imagine a glass fronted box from any of the world's best stadiums, but at pitch level, I think it might be the future.

Decked out with the finest patio furniture, it gives you all the luxury and protection of the corporate world, but with the closeness of standing pitch side. All you need is a players face squished up against it inches from where you're sitting, and it would be like some kind of football zoo. TOM QUOTE FROM VIDEO

“Come on Sudbury” shouts one of the many fans who have only been able to wrench themselves away from the warm and comfort of the bar a foot or two, propped up against the railing just outside, as their team continue their knack for fast but loose passing of the first's forty five.

When it does come off for AFC they look deadly at times. Within the space of three minutes they craft two gilt edge chances, but just can’t finish. Only thanks to the outstretched boot of an STR player does he prevent a simple tap in, after a pacy ball across the box, “come on yellows” shouts a roused supporter. “Lacazette!” moans a disappointed Tom when again he shows all his skill, skipping past the STR defence, “shoot” shouts Tom, but he doesn't and takes it that little bit too far and is eventually stopped, just about summing up AFC in one move.

Tom normally a quite placid guy, is getting increasingly vocal. AFC have all the individual parts, however are just not coming together tonight, making the straightforward seem difficult “that should've been such an easy pass” groans Tom. Not quite as vocal though as the handyman with his drill working on the tea bar behind us, “come on yellows, come on Sudbury” he booms, making me feel just like one of those pigeons earlier on, scaring me half to death.

AFC once more get into the right position, exploiting STR down the wings, but the ball into the area is poor, and all this squandering is about to come back and haunt them.

On sixty five minutes exactly thanks to the yellow numbers of the dot matrix scoreboard, STR go ahead.

“Wakey, wakey, yellows” says a single voice from The Shed. The returning handyman having missed
the goal is level headed, learning the score from the server in Turners, he is pragmatic, “still got time”.

STR’s coaches direct the team from the edge of their technical area, move by move they organise them. As much as AFC look like they could still score, STR look just as likely to nick another goal.

We finally workout it's not someone's overly loud SMS notification, but in fact a device the referee has to be notified of substitutions from the fourth official, that is making all the R2D2 noises, when AFC go for a double change, a roll of the dice you may say, which is appreciated from The Shed behind the dugouts with some animated clapping.

Toms cold hands means he struggles with opening his winegums, just as I am struggling to hold my pen, my notes becoming increasingly scrawled and illegible.

STR’s attempt to play keep ball, only fuels AFC’s increasing aggression, but it's the visitors with the pick of the tackles tonight that sends its victim all in yellow into a full mid air cartwheel. Toms comment that he was “upended” does not quite accurately describe the violence of the flying spinning outcome of the hefty challenge.

“Make it count” shouts an AFC fan, moments before the free kick. They don't, in fact they almost go further behind. STR quickly counter on them, they outnumber AFC at the back, but they are now guilty of not making the right pass when they should've and eventually shoot wide. One AFC player can't believe it, “from our free kick” he says to himself out of breath, having just chased back arriving as the ball rolled passed the post.

Tom and the crowd's anger both peak at about the same time, with five minutes left to play, “once again” he tuts as AFC break, but can’t find the all important final pass to equalise. The fans wrath is down to STR’s perceived time wasting, “game management” shouts someone from the bench, but I’m not sure they meant going over too easily to win free kicks. “You dived for that” shouts a AFC supporter to the STR player responsible for the theatrical tumble, another fan feels it's all taking far too long for things to happen, and demands the referee “hurry up” as it's “getting cold”.

Off the ball an STR player is felled, letting out an almighty yelp, but the referee plays on, and AFC almost score. Once the attack is over, the official jogs over to the still downed player and signals to the bench that he requires “treatment”. It’s the same bench that not long after, it looks like he sends someone off, a coach we think. No Wenger in the stands here, arms outstretched like an old French messiah, a hop over the railing will suffice.

“Six minutes of additional time” we are informed are left to play. I’ve lost count of the amount of nearlies and almosts AFC have created tonight, and at the death they are presented with the perfect chance to at least get a point, piling forewards, its all them, but they can't score. A few AFC players hold their heads in their hands, quite unable to fathom how they have not managed to score again.

The steward on the gate to the pitch seems resigned to the match being all but over “I hope you enjoyed your evening at AFC” he ask us, with the game still in full flow. The fans in the stand have other ideas, and are sure there is at least one last chance left and scream for the team to “get it up there”.

It’s all hugs and high fives from STR on the final whistle, one player letting out a relieved and extended “yesssss”. AFC are straight off, dejected, “fuck off” shouts a player as he enters the tunnel. The face of their manager from under his black flat cap, pulling off the winter look effortlessly, is one I don't think I would want to tangle with.

STR's players converge post match, when everything is said they almost seem to float over the pitch, “what a win that was” says one, “well done boys” congratulates a coach. It's a bit different as they disappear from sight, and into the tunnel, one player can't contain his excitement any longer “whoooooooo.

“Thank you for your attendance” says the voice almost for the last time tonight, signing off he hopes we all have a “safe journey home”.

We embrace the warmth of the clubhouse one last time, where the food for the players is already waiting for them on reserved tables. Sandwiches or a box of chopped up sausages, burgers and bacon has Tom drooling and Trevor having a drink at the bar magnanimously says it simply didn't “click” for the team tonight.

As much as Tom would like to pinch a morsel from the players post match meal, stealing from them is not the reason we are here, its for someone to open up the white cupboard in the corner of the room, which is not where the best china is kept, but is the clubs shop. With its illuminated shelves there is quite the choice, shirts, hats, key-rings, mugs and bumper stickers and of course Toms pin.

In a ground where the #NonLeagueLean is inconsistent, machines are replacing people and the linesman wore tights, despite this we both got the feeling tonight we might have seen the fledgling steps of some footballers with significant potential. The heavy lean here towards growing your own so to speak is refreshing to see at any level, considering how bombarded we are by certain news-outlets and commentators telling us no one is doing it, and it will be the death of us.

What more could one ask for after a two hour drive to the middle of nowhere, well its not really but to two North London boys it feels like it, two teams playing their own brand of fast, exciting and dynamic football, cheesy chips and a peek at footballs spectating future, the "conservatory".

STR left with the spoils tonight, but AFC's day will come. If only as Tom put it they could've "kept the ball" they would've been "brilliant".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE




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