Sunday 26 March 2017

I Refuse To Boo Them - Brentford FC Vs Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, Championship, Griffin Park (14/03/17)

The blithering yakker I’m currently having to listen to on the phone at work, is really fucking up my plans, as I watch the clock tick past my finishing time, he is now officially encroaching on football time. Thankfully my excellent customer service skills allow me to expertly finish the call not long after the man whose thoroughness was verging on the obsessive is now gone, his incessant talking didn't delay things too much, and I meet Tom only ten minutes later than planned under the clock at Waterloo station.

Astounded that we get a seat on the train heading west, expecting to have to cling on the outside or sit on the roof for all the suited types going home, Tom is straight into talking about the previous day's FA Cup semi-final draw, and is apparently very confident Arsenal will overcome Manchester City, and Spurs will brush aside Chelsea, “see you in the final”. Predicting it to be “Wengers last game in charge” he seems to think that a North London derby at Wembley, and an Arsenal victory is “written in the stars”.

Changing the subject, thoughts of losing to either Chelsea or Arsenal in a cup final is too much to bare right now, I ask him what his girlfriend is up to tonight, “smiling” he tells me, remembering quite how much she enjoys him disappearing for the night, so she has the house to herself. It’s hard to concentrate on his reply though, because of the man over his shoulder licking his fingers clean as he finishes has post work snack or because of a man nearby with the most hideous of coughs, God I hate public transport.

Brentford FC (BFC) have been on our radar since day one, Tom quite rightly saying we've been wanting to go for “while”, but neither of us are sure why. Although it's a tick off ‘The 92’ list for Tom, I’ve already done it, awhile ago admittedly, 1999 to be precise, the first match in Tottenham's run to Wembley in the League Cup, and the last minute Allan Nielson winner against Leicester. It was the first time I ever saw someone bring their own home made confetti, tossing handfuls of it into the air from a carrier bag.

I think the main draw is Griffin Park, BFC’s home ground, somewhat of a relic in this day and age of sterile stainless steel stadiums. I mean relic in the most complimentary of senses, an antique if you like, but a high end one, one that gets a round of applause from the Roadshow crowd, not something from Cash In The Attic. It’s small, compact, intimate and still has a terrace, and we’re only one step down from the Premier League, it’s a big draw.

“Now approaching Brentford” announces the train. Not long after leaving the station, along with all the red and white scarf wearing people off to the game, perhaps looking a bit lost, is it that clear we are from the North, that we are set upon, in a perfectly lovely way mind, not like by a savage lion, by a lady in a red sash, asking us if we're “going to the match?”. Before I can even reply, she's dished out the directions, and handed me a postcard sized leaflet, which she informs me has a “map on the back”.

“You know you're in West London” says Tom.

Meccano floodlights wirelyCHECK loom over the roofs of the tightly packed houses around Griffin park, Tom thinks they are very “impressive”. Stacked up planes making their way to nearby Heathrow airport are visible in the clear sky, this evening feeling uncharacteristically “warm” for this time of year, as Tom puts it, and he is therefore not tOo distraught he has “forgotten” his snood.

“Move on past Bee’s, the Wolves are here and they bite” says the stewards on the entrance to the away end, as a handful of tonight's visiting fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC (WW) arrive. We take his advice, pass the Griffin pub, and onto the Stadium Shop, which if it wasn't for the mannequins in the window, you might walk straight past, as it looks just like a house but with a red and white striped paint job.

“Coolest pin yet” says Tom after his whirlwind tour of the snug club shop, the word ‘Stadium’ in it’s name implying it’s a little bit bigger, than it actually is.

Tickets are collected close by, tickets ordered online, that didn't have a gouging booking fee like so many other clubs, classy move. When Tom is struggling to get through the thigh high turnstiles, you know they're minuscule. On the other side groups of people mingle, ensuring not to have a kick about themselves, adhering to the "no ball games" sign on the wall, in what I can best describe as a courtyard, now at the foot of the floodlights, that look even better up close.

“Want some pancakes?” ask Tom, who is seriously considering a crepe from the Coffee & Pancake stall, that’s lit up like a Hollywood mirror. I don't want one, savoury or sweet, I don't care if it’s got Nutella or lemon and sugar on, I want to talk to the small woman dressed in green, the 50/50 seller.

So much about our anticipated meeting is thrilling, we are one promotion away from the highest league in the country, supposedly the best in the world, and I can get a 50/50 like I was at the Champion Hill or Imperial Fields. It even has it’s own Twitter account, I thought getting one at Charlton was remarkable, but this gazumps that. When I do finally get my turn, it's a bit more pricey, £2, instead of your usual £1, and its a little more advanced than tearing a ticket from a book, it’s all done on a tablet, also if you don't have any change, you can pay with a card. She taps away at her flat screen, her ticket machine slung over her shoulder like a bandoleer, sputters to life as it prints off my ticket, handing it to me, she wishes me a cheery “good luck”.

The courtyard where you can gamble, drink and eat French snacks, gives you a slightly false impression of Griffin Park, that it's going to be open and spacious, however making our way to the terrace it soon becomes a warren of tight passageways.

Past the man using the concrete base of the floodlight as a bench, the covered terrace, the pitch and the rest of the stands, which don't look like they have an unimpeded view among them, opens up in front of us.

I don't think cramped or pokey is the right way to describe it, but Griffin Park brings you right into the action, the footballs pinging off the steps, are causing havoc, and is a stark and slightly scary reminder of how how close you are. “Heads” shouts a player whose wayward shot misses the temporary goal, and zips into the crowd. Tom thinks we should move, we are right in the firing line or the “danger zone” as he calls it, one particular misguided shot almost causes actual carnage, “she almost lost her front teeth”, says a shell shocked Tom.

Kick-off can't be far off, the makeshift goal is dismantled whilst ‘Hello Blue Sky’ by the Flood plays and a giant man bee, and lady bee who Tom informs me is called “Buzzette” high fives fans in the front rows of the nearby stand. ‘Hey Jude’ playing now builds to its repetitive crescendo, on the final “nah, nah, nah, nah, Hey Jude” the announcer slides right on in, “welcome to Griffin Park Wolverhampton and BRENTFORD” the visitor's name said with almost a whimper in comparison to the explosive delivery of the home team.

“Fancy a coffee and a pancake now?” says Tom, inspired maybe by the chap behind me, who is practically using my shoulder as a plate, and is struggling, getting more of the topping down his suit than in his mouth.

A wide corridor of flag waving kids form in the far corner of the pitch, as the players arrive, Mr and Mrs Bee, padding around, one tries to get a high five off the referee, but is left hanging.

As the teams line up for the kick-off, the lights of the stands flick off, and each set of fans take turns to cheer on the players “come on Brentford”, “fuck off Brentford” reply the away fans in the two tiered boxy stand at the opposite end of the pitch, before encouraging their own eleven “come on you Wolves”.

WW get the first chance of the match, which sparks their fans into life again “we are Wolves, we are Wolves, we are Wolves”, Tom fed up with me always asking him the time after a moment of note, so I can scribble it in my book, points to the nearby small scoreboard, and tells me I can use that. A BFC corner, quickly turns into another WW attack, which results in a wild shot over, “how much did he cost?” asks a fan.

Racking up their third chance of the first quarter of an hour, a good shot, that is matched by a good save with the keeper's feet, results in a corner. Players jostle in the box as they do, only for the referee to see something he's not happy about, he blows his whistle, calling the culprits over for a chat. One BFC fan thinks the players should take the horse play up a few notches, suggesting he “grab” the WW players “fucking bollocks”.

All these WW chances have got one fan riled, “come on bees!” he yells an inch from my ear, permanently damaging my hearing and making me jump out of my skin.

Over twenty minutes of the half gone and BFC finally register their first chance, that’s just wide, “ohhhhh” gasp the fans. The shoot is well timed, as it puts a momentary halt to an onset of mass grumbling, that has started to infiltrate the fans around us.

“Needs a goal” says Tom, he's not wrong. The guy in the green tweed behind us thinks the game has been “fast paced” but I think frantic would be more accurate. Tom almost gets his wish, but for the home fans it's at the wrong end, WW again nearly taking the lead, and once again a fan demands, “sort it out bees”.

The comment from one local that WW are on a “poor run” and are playing “poorly” may be the case as far as recent results and league position is concerned, but doesn't seem to be the case on the pitch tonight, or are BFC playing even worse, and are making them look better than they are?

“Come on Brentford” shouts someone annoyed when their player is hustled off the ball all too easily just outside the box, and WW are only a good pass away from a golden chance, only for the player in possession to be unable find his teammate in the box.

There is a moment of divine clarity before BFC, somewhat against the run of play, take the lead. It’s as if through some higher power, a hive mind on a third plain, that the man a few people in front of us is somehow communicating with the soon to be scorer, bearing down on goal. Through all the noise of the crowd I hear him mutter his poetic instruction, “fucking bury it” and moments later the ball is in the back of the net, the player having done exactly what he was told, and the crowd around us stops its discontented chatter, and is instead celebrating.

Despite the lead, there is still a sense of nervousness among the fans, every WW free kick, corner, or occasion the ball is near their box, results in manic shouts of “get it out Brentford” which they just about do, but it's often less than pretty.

They are ahead, yes, however it feels like they are only moments away from complete self destruction, some of their decision making, leaving many scratching their heads. It's as if there is a giant bee sized hand hovering over a big red button, that could trigger a collapse at any moment. When the keeper shanks a back pass, sending the ball almost over and behind him, one fan can’t bare to watch, turning away in disgust. You could be forgiven for thinking that the scores of people leaving, are doing so perhaps because the tension has got to them, but Tom reckons there is an ulterior motive, and it’s because there are “too many nice amenities” on offer.

“Shall I go now?” asks Tom, unsure if to join the early birds, or to wait until half time, to go and get something to eat. I can see the anguish all over his face, should he, shouldn't he, he’s caught in a vicious circle of self doubt. Eventually the deep rooted carnal instinct to eat at football kicks in, and he's away, off to try the “local cuisine” as he puts it.

BFC are stuck on the ropes, WW have a shout for a penalty, but its turned down, “shut up Wolves” says a fan. All too many times BFC give up possession, all too often in threatening places. On one occasion one fan screams “get the ball back” towards the player who lost it, he does just that, which in turn allows BFC to move up field, “see what happens” says the same person, smug in the fact the player listened to him.

With a final glance at the scoreboard, the grey haired man in his red and white scarf asks, “come on bees, hold out”.

We need to move, the constant chattering from the group behind, about everything other than the match, has got too much. The straw that broke the camel's back was not the talk of work place politics, but a long winded and awful joke, the punchline having something to do with the crows. The pancake eater among them who has just about got the powdered sugar off his suit jacket sums up the moment they just shared, and that was forced upon me by our close proximity, “surreal”.

Not only does the scrolling results on the tiny scoreboard confirm that there is no 50/50 win for me, but it's hammered home by the person doing a lap of the pitch, holding an illuminated board above her head, like a ring girl at a prize fight.

The lights are back on for the break, which allow me to enjoy the elegant annihilation of the pancake, which Toms manages to devour without using a knife or fork, he just puts it near his face and inhales. When it's all gone he informs me, “that was fucking lovely”.

Food done means we can move, Tom wasn't going to eat and walk, he's not a monster. Despite the many no smoking signs, the thin corridor behind the terrace is hard to traverse and even harder to breath, because of the many fans getting in their half time fag.

Where before we were high to the left of the goal, we are now low, to the front, in fact you couldn't get any lower, we are right next to the fence, an arms length from the sober looking steward, who has not taken his eyes off the crowd behind us. Our new locale also puts us in close proximity to the ‘Family Area’, where ginormous hot chocolate fueled children, are running amuck. When the Buzzette approaches, they all surge forward, demanding high fives and selfies, one little so and so, tries to ruin it for everyone, when they get into a tug of war with the mascots glove. Tom reckons the cups of sugar and chocolate were a, “huge mistake”.

“You ready bee fans?” asks the announcer, “here they come”.

The BFC fans suggest to the approaching WW keeper, “it's all your fault, it's all your fault”. Not sure what he's done, but they think he's to blame, I assume they mean conceding the goal or maybe he left the fridge open?

It may be no great surprise when I tell you, that I wasn't caught up in the ‘dab’ phenomenon, but
whoever was the originator of it, I don't think they intended on it being replicated by a giant female bee with pigtails, not sure that’s doing much for it’s street cred. Tom also wonders if it is actually a woman inside the costumes, because “she’s much smaller than Mr Bee”.

“BRENTFORD” screams the announcer again, shortly after the lights are off again, and we are underway for the second half.

Two minutes in, WW hit the bar, the ball falls kindly to a player in the famous old gold, in a good position, who takes a touch and blazes well over, “that's why you're going down” shout the relieved BFC fans.

It’s now BFC’s turn to go close, a wicked curling shot is tipped over, “we are bees, we are bees” sing the crowd who I’m not sure if it was the half time ciggy that they all had with their coffee and pancake, or it’s just because I don’t have the droning of the group behind me, that I can now hear them, but they have most definitely woken up. The resulting corner is poor, however the fans don't care, they're too busy despising their west London neighbours “we hate QPR” and “we hate Fulham”, they sing.

The front rows of the Family Area are now bedlam, a mad crush of screaming “hyper kids” as Tom describes them, the hot chocolate having taken full affect, some of them berate the warming up substitutes, asking for high fives and God knows what, but they don't give into the baying mob.

Whatever the kids had, maybe the grown ups have had too, as they continues to get louder and louder, “we’re the left side” sing one portion of the terrace, “we’re the right side” respond the other.

We hear the WW fans for the first time this half after they go close. The early BFC pressure, has started to fade, the tide has started to turn and it certainly feels like more is now happening at the other end.

BFC get a rare chance, a good break, which came from some good battling in midfield, but the final pass is inadequate and kills the move. The fans continue to grow in noise “red and white army”, the kids are running riot, a single female steward approaches bravely, but cautiously and instructs  them to take their seats, “see how long that lasts” wonders Tom.

Around the sixty minute mark both teams go close again, the game for a moment seesawing from end to end. WW start the madness with a close range header that is blocked, then a shot from point blank range is stopped, the ball is eventually cleared, allowing for shot from outside of the box that hits the foot of the post, BFC manage to keep them shut out, “come on Brentford” plead the home fans. Then it’s the home team's turn to go close, “ohhhhh”, then it’s back up the other end, the WW fans are sure it's in, there is a sudden but brief outpouring of triumph, like someone turned on a stereo that was too loud, got scared and quickly turned it off. Hanging onto the lead, with dear life, the BFC fans mask their obvious relief, by mocking the away end “ahhhhhhh”.

The tide has now fully turned, it’s now all WW, “clear it” screams a single female voice, when the ball goes in the box, instead of cheering shots on goal, the home fans are now applauding last ditch tackles and blocks, the WW fans muffled by the onset of near panic around us.

Starting in the opposite corner, “come on Brentford” slowly grows and grows, eventually reaching us. The home fans attempt to rally the team is valiant, but it’s just not helping on the pitch, WW are creating chances at will.

On the odd occasion BFC can win back possession and counter on the team from the Midlands, it inevitably breaks down at the final moment, both fans and players, frustrated by the sloppy final pass. The crowd letting out a mighty “arghhh” as the ball doesn't find its well placed target, who flaps his arms by his side in exasperation.

“Time to stand up and be tall” demands one fan, but there is nothing of the sort from the home team, WW continue to dominate.

If it wasn't for one man in the back row of the Family Area, who is going hoarse leading the kids in a chant, which seems to have a calming effect on them, “come on Brentford”, he says over and over, the kids replying, we might have a problem on our hands

Tempers peak when the referee in the eyes of the home fans gives a wrong decision, “you don't know what you're doing”, they sing, people are literally frothing at the mouth, veins are pulsating in temples.

It was coming, the inevitable heartbreaking equalizing goal, which seemed more and more likely, the closer to the final whistle we got, ensuring maximum pain for the home fans. “We’re never going to score now” says a nearby fan, certain that his team just don't have what it takes to turn this game around.

Just like two minutes previously, the WW players celebrate their second goal in front of the their fans who are now in full song,"we're by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen". Their manager Paul Lambert who has been a modicum of calmness for most of the game, dressed all in black, sipping from a bottle of water on the edge of his technical area, is caught up in the excitement of what doubtless will be the winner.

It’s now mainly boos coming from those around us, one thinks it's all the referee's fault, “fucking wanker”, one fan wants an explanation “what's going on bees?”, one tries to offer his support “heads up bees”.

With five minutes to play, maybe there is a chance for redemption. The WW fans are certain the points are theirs, “we are Wolves, we are Wolves” they sing. When a BFC player goes down just outside the box, trying badly to win a free kick in a dangerous position, it’s waved away, even his own fans telling him to “get up”. BFC's final chance comes from a free kick, fairly won, but the limp header on goal matches the limp delivery.

Neither of us are Brentford fans, but both can relate to the heartache of the home fans, we have all been in that place of being so close, then having it snatched away from us at the last. It's not so much the immediate affect of the defeat, and what always feels like the drawn out journey home. It's the potential for grief at work or school, that feeling you get when you see or hear the game referenced and it all comes flooding back, having to turn over the highlights show, because you cant watch it again, unless your a masochist. All of this hangs over you like a black cloud until just before the next match, when it finally clears, and you prepare yourself to do it all again, knowing full well that if the opposite happens this time, and you get a win, it makes it all worth it.

What I liked best from this evening was not the massive walking insects, nearly watching a woman be decapitated by a football and certainly not failing to win a 50/50, again, but the attitude of one fan, whilst many others showed their displeasure panto style on the final whistle, he quietly stated to a friend, "I refuse to boo them".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE


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Sunday 19 March 2017

CAFC The Team For Me - Charlton Athletic FC Vs Scunthorpe United FC, League One, The Valley (07/03/17)

“It's not getting any better” says Tom, as packed train after packed train passes us at London Bridge, leaving us behind on the platform. We decide to split up, a pincer movement if you will, both chancing our arm at different doors. I’m on, just, but I’m not sure if Tom made it, through the crowd though, I can just about make out the back of his head.

At this time of night, you expect the Tube to be busy, however on our way to North Greenwich, instead of men in suits and people carrying laptop bags, it's blokes in skinny jeans showing a lot of ankle and girls in sparkly tops. “Who’s on?” asks Tom, he’s trying to decipher from the multitude of branded hoodies, who's playing at the O2.

We made the mistake of chatting instead of concentrating on the queue at the bus stop at North Greenwich not so long ago, which resulted in a missed bus, so we won't be making that mistake again. We hover around the stop, towards the front of a kind of queue. Only fate deals us a bum card, a bus pulls up, but it’s not ours, ours has just pulled up behind it. We join the stampede or “scrum” as Tom puts, as all good manners are chucked out of the window.

The new build houses around this part of South East London almost feel like they're from a toy town, curious shaped dwellings, with funny little slanty roofs. Not that I can really see much, or where the bus is actually going, just fleeting glimpses through the crammed commuters.

Our bus ride allows me to fill Tom in on a few details of tonight's visit to Charlton Athletic FC (CA), a visit we considered not making, taking into account the club and its fans current relationship, all due to loathed owner Roland Duch√Ętelet. It was suggested to me a way we could stick it to the Belgium, just as a lot of the fans who still go and aren't boycotting, is not to purchase any food, merchandise, drinks etc at the club. “I've gotta eat” replies Tom, horrified at the idea he might not being able to consume something for a whole two hours.

Past the police, who are just kind of hanging around outside Charlton station, not really with a huge amount of people to police and around the corner, Tom’s morale is lifted when he spots a fish and chip shop at the end of the street, “there's dinner” he says, but unlike the couple sitting on a nearby wall, eating something fried out of white paper, we just carry on.

“Voice of the valley” shouts the fanzine seller, holding up the “March issue”. Considering the state of CA at the moment, you would think each edition would come in multiple volumes, a many paged tome full of supporters wrath, that would be far too heavy to hold with one hand, each issue requiring a wheelbarrow to cart it off.

When we pass a flag and club crest covered food truck, Tom just walks on by, not even batting an eyelid, is he ok?

There are few obvious signs of a football ground and no unmistakable glow of floodlights, that we end up almost stumbling across The Valley, secluded among the surrounding houses. Reminders of a happier time cover the walls, Alan Curbishley and Sasa Ilic, whose name while at school used to have me in stitches, celebrate their 1998 promotion to the Premier League.

The draw of a new pin in the club shop is too strong, Tom chucks a few quid in the pocket of Roland. Thankfully he doesn't splash the cash on anything else, there was a gnome I saw him admiring, and he was particularly drawn to the CA away kit, “I like a fade”, its unorthodox design, quite the change from block colours or horizontal stripes.

Our tickets are collected from a half partitioned room, from a man in a white shirt and club tie, with the sound of people playing ping pong coming from beyond the make shift wall.

Admittedly we are a bit early, aren't we always, but you would expect a bit more going on, at the moment it’s verging on a ghost town, a couple of fans wander among the statuesque programme sellers and passing cars pulling into the club car park. With little keeping us outside, the chance of being handed another poster of Lee Novak is not quite enough, we scan our tickets on the unmanned turnstiles, and enter the ground.

Half ripped ‘Roland Out’ stickers cover the walls and red banisters of the stairwell to the upper tier of the North Stand. The concrete concourse, is equally eerie, so we make a beeline for our seats.

We hear there is going to be a fifteen minute delay to kick off, because of a bomb scare at London Bridge earlier in the day, which might explain the low turn out so far, but when you can hear the instructions of the coaches taking the teams through the warm up on the pitch, from the second tier of a 27,000 seater stadium, that I fondly remember being rammed to the rafters, the last time I visited maybe 16-17 years ago, it’s a shock. Maybe it explains the overly loud music being played, an attempt to drown out the silence.

The stadium announcer does his best to liven the place up, when he reads out the “home side”, but it falls on deaf ears, despite all his best efforts, there is not even a glimmer of a response from the sparse crowd. Maybe like Tom, they are preoccupied with trying to figure out how their girlfriend has just ordered a burger using his credit card, having just received an email notification of it being placed.

“I think its a knight” Tom says, Burgergate now resolved, his girlfriend's order having failed, he didn't half enjoy that phone call, pointing to the corner of the pitch below us, where there is indeed a knight, with helmet, shield and sword, climbing the stairs of the lower tier, accompanied by a robin.

When choosing a person to stick it out to the end with, a person you want next to you in a foxhole, battling it out to the last, until all your ammunition is gone, refusing to surrender, don't pick Tom, because his attempt to make a stand on not getting any food tonight, lasts all of about about five minutes, however he's in for a shock.

“It’s like £7.00” he says appalled after comparing the prices at the two food stands, what ‘it’ is I don't know, but it's too rich for his blood.

Perhaps not one for the barricades, you can’t however say he is not resourceful. His visit to the counter, goes on a little longer than expected, much pointing and head shaking ensues, he finally returns, clearly disappointed. ”Knew I should of got fish and chips” he tells me, admitting defeat as far as food is concerned, but he has lined the owners pockets once more, having got us both a cup of tea. It would be rude not to accept it, wouldn't it? I was determined to try and show some defiance this evening, but I think I’ve also fallen at the first.

I ask him what was the debate he was having with the server about, he goes on to recount one of the oddest stories I’ve ever heard.

Having spotted a tray of sausages rolls with his beady eye, at the back of the kitchen, he asked if they were for sale. “No” he was told, the server then showed him the hotdogs that are, not satisfied with them, he enquires for a second time about the sausage rolls, but is again told they are not for sale. The commotion catches the attention of the manger, who joins the deliberation, who goes on to explain that they are “our food” that being the staff, but he can have hers if he wants. Finally realising his request for a pastry wrapped sausage has taken a funny turn, he backs off, but she is quite insistent, claiming she is watching her weight and if he wants it, it's his, but he declines.

I so badly wanted to be the stoic ‘Against Modern Football’ type, not buying a £7 burger or a red hatted gnome, but when I see the hi viz wearing, has a woolly hat on that makes him look like a character out of ' The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' , selling 'Jack Pot' tickets for a half time draw, a first for us outside of non league, I hand over my money without hesitation, I’m a bad person!

“Oh that's horrible” says a grimacing Tom, having just sipped his tea for the first time, serves us right I guess.

Normally I have to remind Tom where we are, the name of the ground, and whose playing, a pre match briefing, however the tables have turned tonight. “16th Vs 3rd” he tells me, adding that CA’s opponents today Scunthorpe United FC (SU) lost their last game “2 - 0”. I let him enjoy the moment, he thinks I’m falling for his attempt to pass off what just popped up on the big screen as his own research, but don’t ruin the moment for him.

“He's in the wrong end” says Tom under his breath, pointing to the man who's just sat down wearing a black and white scarf. I explain he’s far from a lost supporter, but a CA fan wearing his protest, which is his and many others way of showing their displeasure at the regime, much like what Manchester Utd fans did in response to the Glazers. The relevance of black and white among other things, a nod to the 1947 CA FA Cup winning team, who did so in a black and white kit.

I never heard it at a Premier League ground, however in the lower leagues, is there some kind of contractual obligation for London teams to play ‘London's Calling’ by the Clash, at least once on a match day?

The light tapping of the drum, the chatting of nearby fans, “disaster after disaster” says one to another nearby, I imagine discussing just a normal week at The Valley, and the stadium announcer “South East London, the Valley, it's your teams” he yells, soon replace Mr Strummer, kick off is moments away.

Cue the drum, which is expertly played, its clear very quickly this guy knows what he's doing, no out of time thwacking here. Soon comes the clubs anthem "When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along)", which explains the knights partner in crime from earlier. When the teams are read out for the second time, there are now at least a few people to applaud the players names, however no one could possibly be as excited as the roaming portly, microphone carrying announcer, “RED ARMY” he roars.

“Come on ref, I wanna get home” shouts a fan behind us, after the man in charge requires a second attempt at the kick off, something went wrong the first time. The start, is another cue for the drum, this time it really kicks into action, “Oh South London, is wonderful” they sing, Tom is very impressed with the person keeping the rhythm, “great drummer” he turns and says to me, as they share their opinion of a neighboring part of London, “Bermondsey is full of shit”.

CA a fair few places bellow SU in the league, are straight on to the front foot, based on league position, part of me expected a cautious start, but they've hit the bar within the first couple of minutes. “We've had a shot” says someone, who by the sounds of it is happy enough with seeing that tonight, and will be off home soon, satisfied.

The Valley is not even half full, the vacant red seats, outnumbering the people. “It's so quiet in here” comments someone nearby, “you can shout at the ref and he will hear you” they add.

Tom is of course paying attention to the game, every completed pass or won header gets a sarcastic cheer, he does though have one eye firmly on the Arsenal, Bayern Munich game, “the comeback is on” he says, after they go a goal ahead, now it’s only 5 - 2 on aggregate, which I simply roll my eyes at. He gets his own back on me for not agreeing with his suggestion of the comeback of all comebacks, for his beloved Gooners, when I tell him I’m cold, and he smugly puts his snood on.

All through my Arsenal mocking and snood jealously, the drum was ever present, deh, deh, deh it sounds “Charlton” reply the fans. “Forward, forward” shouts one supporter with nineteen minutes gone, without any action or chance of note since hitting the bar, the fans urge their team to attack.

Appalled by the tea, and happy with the fact Mr Duch√Ętelet has had enough money from him, Tom tells me he “can't wait” for his “hot dog or fish and chips”, which he confirms he'll be getting “outside”.

Staring at the away stand, enough of the white chairs are empty you can clearly make out CAFC spelt out by them, I can't get the image of Robin van Persie's, fence topping, arms stretched out celebration, after his wonder goal here in 2006. SU haven't come in huge numbers, those who have travelled have strung out two flags across the unoccupied chairs but it’s not bad turn out for a Tuesday night and four hundred mile round trip.

“Johnny give us a wave” sing a few after an announcement over the tannoy asking for “Johnny Power” who sounds like a Marvel character, “to make himself known” to a steward. When a chap in a flat cap not long after approaches the men in the hi viz, Tom has an inkling that is “Mr Power”.

The fans around us don't have much love for anyone else except for their own team of course, “we hate Millwall” they sing, “we hate Palace” they add, making sure to dish out hostility for their local rivals equally. However their harshest abuse is saved for overlord “hey Roland, you're such a cunt”

Moments of quality on the pitch are few and far between, a big shout for a penalty is turned down “are you fucking blind” asks one person to the referee, who probably heard them. When the fans urge one player to “shoot” as the ball drops to the edge of the box, he does, but it's skewed well wide, “that’s why we're going down” suggest someone.

Thoughts of the owner are understandably never far from people's minds, what happens on the pitch taking their minds off it, until a lull, and then painful memory comes shooting back, “Roland out” they sing, as the game becomes a bit of a dirge. A line from one song is a poignant plea to the owner, almost begging him to move on, “just sell the club, our famous football club”.

SU have a chance, but the volley is wide. CA have their own effort not long after, a long range shot which is close, “that's better” says a fan, excited by the mere notion of getting close to a goal.

When in need of a lift, who better to stand up and be counted, than the club captain Johnnie Jackson who on about thirty minutes, conjures up a quite wonderful goal, a volley direct from a corner, which really feels like it’s come from nothing. Post his celebration, I’m struggling to decide which was better, the goal or the knee slide, that looked like it would never end.

“Red army, red army” chant the fans, to the beat hammered out by the excellent drummer. Again they sing with a kind of heart felt passion that’s not always common at football, a simple line from one song in the context of their dilemma, sums up their unwavering support “CAFC the team for me”. The goal also highlights the fickle nature of your average football fan, who have now decided that “we are staying up”.

Leaving what is maybe one of Britain's most disliked clubs, MK Dons, to take up the job of manager at a club in such turmoil, could be considered jumping from the chip fan, into the fire, however in the short time he's been here, Karl Robinson has already got the fans singing his name “Robinson's red army”.

It gets a little tense in the final five minutes of the half. CA get a free kick, one fan is adamant they “need a second” that all important buffer, that allows for any momentary meltdown or lapse in concentration. Another opportunity comes and goes, again a fan reiterates the urgency for them to double their lead, “2 - 0 for half time” he prays. SU almost spoil things when they make a late break, “oh shit” says a supporter with the air of someone who's seen it all before, their attack results in a corner, which only ramps up the doom and gloom, “can't lose it now”.

The CA fans can relax for at least fifteen minutes, they go into the break ahead, “well done boys” says someone close by, as the teams make their way off. Talking of making their way off, Tom is already long gone, I think he might be hungry, but I’m not sure “might have to get a pie, I’m starving” he said just before he bolted.

Both teams now gone, the announcer is back, first doing a “couple of announcements” he reads out a few birthdays, “lots of love from mum and dad” is one message, another he signs off with “up the Addicks”. He then confirms that at whatever level of the vast football pyramid we are at, I’m still a loser, no Jack Pot win for me.

Tom is back much sooner than normal, he is generally that guy returning five minutes into the second half, who makes people get up, and gets tutted at. Tonight though he is back in plenty of time, not clutching a pie, but a sausage roll, that he can enjoy while we watch a poor middle aged woman attempt the cross bar challenge for £7,000, but she misses, hits the post and gets a signed football instead, which gets a Vaudeville “ohhhhh” from the crowd, one person even suggesting she should “give it fucking back”.

(Some of you may be asking yourself, ‘hang on, how did Tom get the sausage roll you mentioned in the previous paragraph, you already told us they weren't for sale?’, well let me tell you. On his foray for something overpriced to eat, the manager for the kiosk was waiting for him, sausage roll in hand, and gave it to him, how lovely of her!)

“Welcome back your home side, Charlton ATHLETIC” booms the announcer once again, “get behind the boys for the second half, come on you Reds” he adds, in his unique and excitable way.

With the return of the teams, comes a long line of mini casuals, maybe no older than sixteen, streaming past us to the back of the stand. Tom sipping from a bottle of drink from his bag, which I question how we got it in, he tells me he wasn't searched, also offers up a further example of the lax bag checking and an explanation as to why the Adidas attired youth were in such a rush, “they've all got cans of beer back there”.

The fuchsia clad SU keeper gets an ear full from his first goal kick, his run up is accompanied by an “ahhhhhhhh” and when he strikes the ball, it's followed by a “your shit”, which the fans squawk like a mob of crows.

What a tackle, what an excellent example of a last ditch, well timed tackle that stopped an almost certain SU goal. It's been all the away side since the restart, their fans are certain they've scored at one point, celebrating a fraction prematurely, assuming the unmarked player taking the back post header is bound to score, only it hits the post. “Ahhhhhhh” shout the CA fans mockingly towards the away end, “sit down, shut up” they insist.

What the home fans lack in numbers, they certainly make up for it with their almost non stop singing, one rendition of “ally, ally o, ally ally o, CAFC, red and white army” seems to go on forever, the supporters caught in a trance of the drum. “We are the pride of all London, the kings of the south” they announce, with almost everyone is on their feet, when the songs starts to die out, a single female voice, the loudest of them all screams “COME ON CHARLTON”.

“We forgot that you were here” is the sarcastic and angry response to SU scoring with fifteen minutes to go, drawing the game level. SU then almost take the lead not long after the restart and in doing so the mood turns on a sixpence. Where as before they had been singing the managers name, now they stand angrily gesturing towards the bench, “sort this out” one man demands.

Tom with one eye still on events north of the river, suggests it “could be worse”, Arsenal just lost 5 - 1, again.

Having been almost silent until equalising, there is at least now a faint noise coming from the away end, who had been very subdued up until now, a low rumbling “Irons, Irons, Irons” wafts over the pitch from.

The drum attempts to stir the home supporters, and what better than a mass hum along to the theme to the Dam Busters.

A life line, a lifebuoy from the football gods, a pull in the box following a free kick, and CA have been awarded a ninetieth minute penalty. One nearby fan explains what the player stepping up to take it has to do, just in case he wasn't totally sure, “hit the back of the net with this”.

Jumping like giddy school boys, grown men who just before were sullen sacks of sadness slumped in their seats, are now bounding around like Tigger, as their beloved CA take the lead again. The scorer “Tony Watt, Watt, Watt” leaps the barrier, not going full van Persie and perching on top of it, but vaulting it completely, towards the celebrating fans, his chest puffed out, looking like he feels like a million dollars. The yellow card he receives from referee for his exuberance, will go in the ' I don't care about that' pile.

Highlighting the fine margins between happiness and sadness, the fans once more do a 180 on the scoring of the goal, “we are staying up” they sing, with all the confidence in the world.

Extra time is played out to the constant loop of “Robinson's red army, Robinson's red army”, one elderly fan, on his feet, singing along, holds his red and white scarf high above his head. On the final
whistle there is the expected outpouring of glee and palpable relief. The mood has improved so much, the fans and an exiting player perform a little skit, where he disappears down the tunnel, but like a panto they know he's coming back, “ohhhhhhh” the anticipation of his return builds, getting louder and louder, until with perfect timing he reappears, running backwards, smiling up at the crowd.

The good spirits and singing continues in the streets outside the Valley, but it's fleeting, such is the attendance, it’s not long before they are empty, and the passing trains again become the loudest thing around.

If you want a heavy dose of gallows humour with your football, a very nice ground with no one in it, an ardent and devoted fan base, an excellent drummer, bad tea, but there is a slim chance you might get a free sausage roll, then Charlton Athletic is the place for you.


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Monday 13 March 2017

You’re Coming A Long Way For Chorley - Stockport County FC Vs Chorley FC, National League North, Edgeley Park (04/03/17)

The words of the girl at the Stockport County FC (SC) ticket line, “you’re coming a long way for Chorley” are running around my head as I climb into the car around eight o'clock this morning, with a carrier bag full of my best CD’s, three Capri Suns, two cereal bars, and a Northern stowaway.

No Uber service for Tom today, I won't be double parking outside his house this time, so he meets me at my local underground station, with his breakfast, a family bag of Haribo and a packet of peanut M&M's. Petrol is required before we hit the M1, Tom not allowing the early start to dampen his sharpness, hits me with a helpful tip, especially for someone who is a new driver. There is a handy arrow, right next to the petrol icon on your dashboard, that points to the side of the car the petrol cap is on, who knew.

Our stowaway, is in fact more of a guide, a local we've hired, who can share their regional knowledge with us two Southerners. Venturing further than Watford, we need all the help we can get. Rachel my girlfriend of the past ten years, is among other things from the North West, Stockport to be precise. It’s her blue SC scarf, one of the two her parents gave us both the first time I met them, all those years ago, that prompts the person on the back seat of the white Renault next to us, to shake his Manchester United shirt at us.

The brown signs with an elephant pointing to Whipsnade Zoo, and then Gullivers World, distract Tom, and his pestering front seat requests for a detour, almost force me to pull over and make him sit in the back. I explain that if he's good, that we will take him to Stockport's premier attraction, the Hat Museum, but only if he doesn't whinge for the next four hours.

Despite my excellent handpicked choice of music, conversation takes precedence. A wide gambit is covered, but mostly we discuss the choice of sandwich fillings on offer at Rachel's parents house. My personal favourite, the morning special, is the ‘Omelette Sandwich’, Rachel’s is not one I've either had or can quite get to grips with, the ‘Ham & Potato Salad Sandwich’. Tom gleans about all that can be gleaned from this exchange, that the policy at Rachel's Mum and Dad’s is, “stick it in some bread”.

Tom offers out the Haribo, which I regret accepting these along with the tropical juice, are not making for a suitable first meal of the day.

Traveling with Tom, is like traveling with an eye spy book, he insists on pointing out anything of interest that we pass, a sign telling us we've entered “Shakespeare country”, wind turbines, the Ricoh Arena, and an advertisement for “Crufts” on at the NEC which he announces in a very peculiar voice.

Our decision to use the M6 toll road seems completely justified, its near empty and when the sign tells us it's only 64 miles to Manchester, I wonder why everyone isn't using this black hole short cut. The only negative is when we come to pay for using it, and the machine stole a pound from me, which I had to toss from the window into a metal basket, like a fairground game.

It’s time to stretch my legs, only for Tom to inform me as he returns from the loo that there are “no arcades” the staple of every roadside stop, I was banking on at least one turn on an ageing Time Crisis, add this disappointment to the toll both thievery, and this is not turning into a good trip.

You can get a coconut in M&S, but can't play Daytona USA, what is the world coming to? When my choice of sandwich is vetoed, apparently egg mayo is not the most sociable of fillings, I’m really starting to regret getting out of bed this morning.

They say opposites attract, this is no more apparent when we pass a sign for Alton Towers and then the Wedgwood factory. I can think of nothing better than a tour of one of the black country's finest potteries, Tom however would rather spend the day spinning upside down and voluntarily getting nausea, just says it all.

A change of route forced by the closure of the motorway means we skirt the edge of Stoke on Trent, which is apparently overflowing with things to do, such as a shop called Bargain booze and the Monkey Forest, we even see a Vanarama League team in their unmistakable blue jackets being picked up by a coach on a bridge we pass under.

I don't think the gravel patch behind The Bungalow Club, next door to Edgeley Park, home of SC, in fact the back of one of its stands is just opposite where we park, is an ‘official’ club car park. However the woman who tears a small beige ticket from her roll, and takes my £3 is convincing enough, plus the sun has not stopped shining, it was forecast to rain all day, and Rachel’s not stopped beaming since we passed out first sign to Stockport, we throw caution to the wind and drive on in.

Such is Tom’s wishful thinking that the good weather is going to stick around, he tells us he wished he'd brought his “sunnies”.

Turns out the club shop is not the place to collect our tickets, but it allows Tom and Rachel to indulge their joint love of a club shop, Rachel's particular specialty is a museum shop, but branded collections of badges, scarves & t shirts come a close second. Waiting, I do hear an optimistic local suggesting it “should be 3 points today” as he purchases his programme.

Tom doesn't find a pin that takes his fancy, Rachel does though get a key ring she can add to her cannonball sized tangle of Amplemann and Windsor Castle which has some keys on it somewhere.

Tickets secured, the shutter in the small dimly lit room goes up and someone disappears briefly, returning having fetched our tickets.

Edgeley Park's shutters and turnstiles are all firmly closed, the only open door is that for the ‘Players and Officials’ which is being dutifully manned by a burly man. A wander seems in order so we go in search of a pub and a cash machine, but not before we gaze upon the long blue and white wall, with Stockport County A.F.C. written along it, a road's width from the terraced houses opposite that it nestles among. Admittedly it's just a wall, but it's a unique feature of a traditional Edwardian ground, the likes of which that are becoming few and far between in the era of flat pack, out of town stadiums.

The unexpected sun has got a bit much for Rachel, who was suitably prepared for the predicted downpours with a big coat, and now has her SC scarf hanging from the strap of her handbag.

“What? they don't have fresh orange juice” says Rachel when I present her with a neon pint of orange squash and lemonade in the garden of the nearby Robert Peel pub, someone's been in North London too long methinks, Tom on the other hand is delighted at the price of the round, “fucking cheap”.

Waiting at the bar, a fan of SC opponents today, Chorley FC (CFC) asks Tom if he's “confident” confusing him for a SC supporter. Not sure what to say, he shrugs his shoulders, gives a little eye roll and lets out a sigh. This seems to satisfy the traveling supporter, “more confident than me” he says chuckling in response to Tom’s noise.

“I don't want to alarm you, but look behind you” says Tom, pointing skywards to the black clouds rolling in. I take a few moments to turn in my chair to look, and get distracted watching the heads of the passing mounted police bobbing up and down over the gardens fence, making their way up the road.

With the bad weather getting closer by the minute, Tom’s quick to asks if our seats in the ground are “covered”, I put his mind at ease and assure him we are. When I tell him that the away fans aren't, remembering the Millwall Fans when I came last time, snarling at us under the open grey sky, I’m surprised by his response, “good” he says vehemently “that's the way it should be”.

“That's rain” says Tom, as the smallest spot lands on his hand. Rachel is not the only one to be caught out by the day's early sun, one SC fan is wearing shorts and a t-shirt, enjoying a couple of WKD Blues, likes he's on his summer holidays.

Life now fills the narrow streets surrounding Edgeley Park, the turnstiles are open, peering through them we get our first look at the pitch beyond, police horses are doing laps, however the weather continues to be the main topic of conversation. “It’s got cold quick” says Rachel, her scarf now back on, “don't look too clever” says an elderly lady having her ticket checked.

Like a siren in the distance, calling me onto the rocks, I hear it’s song, “half time draw tickets”. No long flowing auburn hair or clam shell bra, but it has got a dark blue money belt and is more than happy to take my cash for ‘Countys 50/50 Draw’, “good luck” it says, sending me on my way full of hope.

‘Lust For Life’ by the Stooges is playing, as players of each team warm up on the pitch, some of SC are on the sidelines, yoga mats and all doing their stretches. What at first glance could be mistaken for a cave, is in fact the concrete covered stairs, whisking us to the upper tier of the Cheadle End, the largest of the four stands, behind one of the goals.

We don't hang around the sparse grey concourse for long, where adverts in the toilet tell you if you take out a life insurance policy with a local firm, they will give you next season's SC shirt for free, instead we climb the last remaining stairs, to the mouth of our block.

Cliches are a bit lazy, naff or even in some cases offensive, however the view before us, and beyond the confines of the stadium, are like something from a Lowry painting. The rolling hills of the Peak District, the dark roofed terraced houses in the neighbouring streets, the church spire, white smoke billowing from chimneys, a railway line running just behind one stand, “there's my train” says Tom as another one thunders past.

“Proper nose bleeds” wheeze’s Rachel, as we find our seats, a few rows shy of the very back of the stand. A stand which has been adorned with all sorts of banners and flags. In one corner a St George's flag and a Union Jack with Hatters written across it, hanging from one side a banner with a SC former captain ‘Captain Fantastic’ above him, ‘Mr Ever Present’ below him, opposite is what looks like a pencil outline of Danny Bergara one time SC Manager, who also has a stand named after him, but my favourite, is the blue and white striped scarf, which goes almost the full width of the stand, written on it “the scarf my father wore”.

A few people are eating chips out of paper, Tom looks on jealously at groups of kids and their “sweets”, Rachel having to remind him they get them, because they are “8”. I’m sure also much to Tom’s dismay is the fact that the CFC fans have been put in a covered corner of the ground, a couple of their flags hang from the railings and they are not exposed to the elements of the roofless stand at the opposite end, its seats below the dot matrix scoreboard, are covered in large adverts, one for a local Italian restaurant.

“Have a great time” signs off the stadium announcer, just before the the players arrive from the concertina blue tunnel. WKD man arrives not long after, he takes a seat a few rows in front of us, however the weather has got the better of him, he has a jumper on now.

“Jim Gannons blue white army” sing the fans, to the rhythm of a drum behind us. He changes beat and with it so does the song “Edgeley, Edgeley, we’re the famous Stockport County and we come from Edgeley”, once again he changes and the fans around us, lots of them kids, fall almost into a hypnotic trance, “blue army, blue army” they repeat, over and over.

“Think Jim Gannon was in charge when we came last time” says Rachel, reminded by the song. I think she’s right, and if I remember correctly he was getting so much grief from one home fan, he asked for them to be removed, however Gannon’s not been here all that time, he's left and come back.

SC have the first chance of the game, a shot flashed wide “County, County, County” chant the fans.

“Oh I’m hungry” blurts out Tom, all the passing pies are getting to him. Looking for the nearest place for something to eat, he spots a tea bar in the distance, but it's the sign below its hatch that has us all scratching our heads, “whats spud vac?” we all ask each other.

For all the early noise of the drum and the boisterous chanting, it’s just general football chit chat that fills the stand now. With a quarter of an hour gone, Rachel comments it's been “evenly matched” so far. Tom suggests it might be the “horrible pitch” that's preventing the game from getting going, “must rain a lot up here” he says, I promise that's not another cliche, he really doesn't get out of London much. Rachel tells him it was “worse than this” when we last came, then SC were sharing the pitch with a local rugby team, the “Sale Sharks”.

SC have another chance, but once again it’s only half of one, and it goes wide “ohhhh” gasp the supporters, coming back to life a bit.

“He likes a pink goalie” says Tom, Rachel quickly correcting him, “he loves a pink goalie”. I’m only half listening to what those two are saying, as I’m far too busy cooing over the CFC keeper in his neon kit, which is a few shades brighter than the Buffon classic, but it’s still by far the best colour for a keeper’s jersey.

At this point the game could be verging on the side of scrappy. The drum stirs again, and with it it’s disciples awake “blue army”. For the first time we hear the booming voice of a Brian Blessed come town crier character “come on County” he bellows from the pit of his stomach.

Whenever a game descends into a bit of a dull affair, people soon start to entertain themselves in other ways. “That’s gone” says Tom when a shot clears the stand. I join him sniggering at the poor attempt on goal, until I remember my cars behind there. A large group of kids pass the time playing “cat and mouse” as Tom puts it, with a steward, way down below us behind the goal. They line the fence, until they are shooed away, and as soon as his back is turned like a Mario World ghost, they are right back at it, only for him to turn around, and the whole caper starts again.

“He’s wearing gloves he’s a fucking wimp” shouts a standing fan, after SC’s attack is brought to a holt by the referee, because of a downed CFC player. The injured players choice of black woolly gloves, in the eyes of the man, means he's surely the type to make a bit of a meal of what at least didn't look like a serious injury. “I love a drop ball” says Tom as the referees way of resolving the stop in play turns into a bit of a highlight, but not for any of the home fans, “BOOOOO”, one is amazed that CFC are going to “contest it”, when surely it should be left to SC.

Half an hour gone, SC blaze over from a tight angle, “could be over by now” says the person directly behind us, “we could of had two by now” he adds.

Rachel much like Tom, is keeping herself amused. The overly tight shorts of the SC keeper are causing her much consternation, she is sure his kit is a couple of sizes too small.

The kids down the front jostle each other to be the one to throw the ball back on the pitch. When it eventually makes it’s way back on, the fans around us are begging for a bit of quality, “get it on the floor”, one shouts, many fed up of the lumping it up front approach so far, “take your time” suggests another, every time they get possession, they seem in such a hurry to move the ball on, but with very little thought.

On one occasion when they do break away, outnumbering CFC, it all comes to an abrupt end, once again due to the lack of a measured final pass “what sort of fucking ball was that?” one supporter asks, they had CFC on the ropes, and all it needed was a that little bit of class.

“Halftime action plan” says Tom, dishing out our jobs for the imminent break, “you get the pies” he tells us.

With five minutes left, CFC get their first meaningful chance, their number 10 is all alone at the far post, the cross is good and it looks like a certain goal, “shit” screeches a man behind me.

There is a mass outpouring of relief from the home fans, as we all watch the CFC player make a hash of the opening, “ahhhhhhh” they all say, “put your laces through it” adds Tom. To be honest he never looked committed to what was a great ball, in the end he just kind of dangled his leg in it’s general direction.

There is a final flurry of chances for SC in the final minutes of the half. A direct free kick, which goes up and over well enough, but is lacking any any real umph, a corner which causes Mr Pink to flap like nobodies business, but still no goal. All the late pressure rouses the crowd once again “I-O County, County I-O.” they sing.

“Off, off, off” demand the SC fans, buts its only a yellow, the town crier/Brian Blessed mash up is applauding, “you're a chicken ref”.

Religion and football are inexplicably intertwined, and for the most part, the outcome can be quite unsavoury, however watching a man with his hands clasped together, one eye to the heavens, one eye on the Edgeley shroud of Bergara, muttering “I'll never ask for anything, if we can just score” well it's almost moving. His commune with God and the SC legend is as SC line up another direct free kick, which once again clears the wall, but goes straight into the keepers arms.

Their last chance, all the action off the forty five condensed into dying moments, is a fine shot, which is well saved by the stinging palms of the CFC keeper. The resulting corner, is another example of SC’s inability to take a set piece. “Did that even go in?” asks Tom as the corner limply goes straight into touch, one nearby fan is far from happy “he can't take corners for Christ sake!”

On the final whistle, Tom springs to feet, “to action stations” he announces.

He descends the yellow stairs, disappearing into the crowd, as the voice of the stadium announcer comes over the speakers first filling us in on the “scores from around the country” and then he reads out birthday well wishes, in between snippets of ‘House of Fun’ by Madness. As nice as the messages from loved ones are, all I want is the 50/50 result, my tickets burning a hole in my pocket, but I can't make it out from the garbled noise coming from the speakers, and when SC reappear, I don't know if I’ve won or not.

“Very professional” says Rachel smugly, as SC go through a quick warm up before the new half, “Spurs don't do that” she adds. The restart is muted in comparison to the rowdy kick off. To be fair there was little in the first half to inspire a raucous welcome, they do try “come on County” but it's a little lacking.

Tom is late back, he returns holding a tray containing some brown and white matter, behind him a man waves his arms towards his fellow fans, asking for more noise, Tom tries to tell me what he's eating, a “chicken balti pie and mash” I think is what he says, which certainly smells good, but he's somewhat drowned out by the the fans, “Jim Gannons blue white army”.

“I like the trough” he explains, the “trough” being the tray his pie is in, he tells us at Arsenal it's made of “cardboard”, which has a tendency to dissolve, requiring much hasty eating, at SC their choice allows a bit more time to leisurely enjoy your food.

“You dosy git” shouts the man behind me fifteen minutes into the half, towards the player who has just shanked SC’s best chance to date. “Just side foot it in” explains someone else, instead the culprit swung wildly at it, sending it high and well over. Rachel looks at me quizzically, “it's like they don't want to score”.

The SC fans are spiraling towards abject misery, they shout for everything, anything “handball”, “penalty”, they know it's not, they can see the funny side, but they are desperate, some fans can only but laugh at the situation, laughter though that is tinged with a kind of maniacal madness that only football can bring about.

Once again they take to their feet, “off, off, off” they demand, this time it’s justified, their teams counter attack was cut short by a cynical foul. Again their request is ignored, it's only a yellow, “you don't know what you’re doing” they shout at the man in charge. “He does” suggests one fan close by, insinuating a conspiracy in a very mysterious X Files kind of way.

Quarter of an hour to go, and the back rows are now mostly on their feet, some around us seem to have caught a second wind, “we can do this now” someone says. The drum is making itself heard more and more “County, County”, they even add a new song to their roster of the day, one that has something to do with “Uruguay”.

Just when the home fans start to rally themselves, the team pushes them back down again, “what the hell was that!” decries someone after another shocking corner, “how many is that” asks Rachel, who's lost count at the amount of awful SC set pieces. It’s no great surprise when shortly after, SC are presented with another corner, its outcome is equally hideous “this is fucking hard work” says a man to the person next to him, puffing out his cheeks.

Behind the goal is now two people deep in places, people have almost seen enough and are slowly leaving their seats, but don’t leave quite yet, instead joining others at a staging post, to watch the final minutes play out from ground level. Rachel and Tom's attention is firmly on the the plastic bird of prey dangling above us, which I assume is there to keep the pesky pigeons at bay, Tom suggesting it will have the opposite effect, enticing fellow flyers for a kind of bird party.

I think the team have broken the supporters, “boring” one shouts as the game has well and truly hit rock bottom, one fan appeals to the players just to see it out, “come on lads not long left”.

For the third time the SC fans demand a CFC player is dismissed, “off, off, off”, for a third time the referee keeps it to eleven a side. The resulting free kick is on target, it's not particularly vicious, however the keeper fumbles, passing it out into the six yard box, there is a brief moment moment of hope it will fall to someone in blue, until it’s whacked clear.

When the man of the match is read out, there is a mixture of applause and boos, not something I’ve ever heard before.

“We’re gonna throw this away” says someone anxiously, although it's been far from a dominant display, SC get a little lax, allowing CFC back into a game they have never really been in.

Finally they get their wish, fourth time's a charm is what they say isn't it? “Off, off, off” they shout, this time they are not let down, a second yellow for the CFC player, who he is given his marching orders, “cheerio” shout some gaily. Some SC fans are not celebrating the advantage, more using it as another stick to beat the referee with, “he's not had control of this match”. The departing player turns to his team mates, clapping his hands, offering them a ‘come on lads don’t lose it now, cause I'll be the one that gets it in the neck’.

“Get it right this time, we'll forgive you for the all rest” are the charitable words of one person, as the free kick taker lines the ball up, well over forty yards out. “This is it, an absolute pile driver” says a fan behind us, sure that he’s gonna shoot. He’s lining himself up in a Ronaldo/Gareth Bale kind of way, but it's a hell of a long way out.

“Ohhhh” and for a fraction of a second it looked like we were going to get our blockbuster of an ending, but it sails just wide of the top corner, “not half bad” says someone supportive of the effort, not often you see a knuckleball free kick attempt from forty yards in non league football.

For the second time today there is a mixture of boos and applause, this time on the final whistle. A few players approach the Cheadle End clapping, before making their way back inside. The majority of people though are concentrating on getting home, I would think writing today off as one of those days and within a flash Edgeley Park falls quiet.

As we leave, I happen to pass a lady in a club uniform, and ask her if she knows the results of the half time draw. By chance she’s holding a folded piece of paper, but before she's even unfolded it, my dreams are smashed “1st prize has already been claimed”. After checking my tickets, I won't be claiming second or third prize either.

The last ten years following Stockport from afar have been eventful, although I can't even start to imagine what it’s been like for an actual supporter. I thought being a Spurs fan was stressful, however being relegated from the football league and having Dietmar Hamman as your manager, might just be the definition of stressful.

Watching them gain promotion at Underhill and my previous visit to Edgeley Park, where I encountered a Millwall fan for the first time, has forged within me an affection for a club that my only connection with, is that it happens to be where my girlfriend is from.

It’s not a regular pilgrimage to the North West, it’s definitely a long one, but it’s one I enjoy making nonetheless. Although it's not a scarf my father wore, or even Rachel's, it is though other than Tottenham's, the only other one that hangs in my house.

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Sunday 5 March 2017

Where Is Gent? - Tottenham Hotspur FC Vs K.A.A. Gent, Europa League Round Of 32, Wembley Stadium (23/02/17)

Making my way to the bus stop, my road is an ever so mild scene of destruction, the culprit ‘Storm Dorris’. She's buffeted my part of North West London all day, bins lie on their sides, fences are ever so slightly buckled and a few overgrown shrubberies have been toppled, it would be far too dramatic to call them trees.

Tonight is the first game since having a car, that I’m not using it. Watching my intended bus pass me, because it’s early, then moments later, despite my outstretched hand another does the same because it's overflowing with school kids, I’m less than five minutes into my journey, and I’m cursing the whole spectrum of Gods.

Third time's a charm, and at least I get a seat. I try to relax, looking out of the window at the moody pale blue sky, hoping it will distract me from the small child yelling in my ear or the medley of strange smells. 

My last Tottenham match was a close September night, full of hope, short sleeves, Chris Armstrong and the Champions League, today it’s late February, big coats, woolly hats, and a one goal deficit to a mid table Belgian team in the Europa League.

No Tom today, work has pulled rank, so he's unable to make it. I’ve therefore had to make a few calls, and I’ve managed to secure an emergency loan.

They’re what you might call ‘well traveled’, ‘in the twilight of their career’, but they are a solid and reliable pro, with plenty of experience. They are no stranger to the Bundesliga, or the rough and tumble of non league football, so I’m confident they will make a good addition to the match day squad. We might though have to think about changing our name and they've already made some somewhat divaish demands, they insisted I brought them a sandwich.

Trundling along on the top deck of my second bus of the night, two older chaps sit close by, both in matching Spurs baseball caps. At each stop the the spare seats become fewer and fewer, and when the young man with the blue and white jester hat, bells and all, takes the last spot, we are officially full, next stop Wembley.

Inching closer, one car length at a time, the mechano arch of our national stadium is visible in the distance, but for some reason it’s daubed with the colours of our enemy, red! As we weave through the traffic it disappears, it’s glow still unmistakable in the distance, however when it reappears, it’s still the wrong colour, this is not a good sign.

Barrelling down the stairs, like the unstoppable boulder from Indiana Jones, I exit the bus, dead ahead, perched up on its hill, thankfully the famous arch now a much more gratifying mixture of blue and white.

I find my less than impressed looking fiancee coat done up tight, scarf and gloves on, who is already well over tonight's conditions, “fuck off wind” she shouts in her mild mancunian accent. She’s keen to move on, having been waiting for me in earshot of the resident preacher with his megaphone, whose loud ever so slightly lipsy wisdom is driving her up the wall, “God is the referee on the pitch of life”.

Walking along the approach, stopping only to get a programme, she tells me of her underground encounter with tonight's visiting fans, the other ‘blue and white’ army in attendance, that of the K.A.A. Gent (KAA).

It was certainly noisy, I would have expected little else after their home performance, watching the first leg, we had both commented what a din they were making, and were interested to see what kind of number would travel, which is already clear, is a lot. I think what struck her most was one interaction between fans, which resulted in one person putting or trying to put his “fingers up the bum” of his friend.

Although there is the occasional shout of “Yid Army” the sights and sounds on the concourse, are most definitely dominated, by the flag waving, native american headdress, blue and white wig wearing, “que sera, sera……. we’re going to Wembley” singing, face painted fans of ‘The Buffalos’. Passing their entrance, it’s hard not to miss the solitary fireman on pyro watch, who is explaining to a baffled looking Belgium, that he must pour his away beer.

Once inside, and prompted by the Saturday morning TV voice presenter of Wembley's own radio station, that they insist on polluting the airwaves with, Rachel tells me “I could do with a hot drink”. It’s certainly a drink, however describing is as “hot” might be a stretch, lukewarm might be more accurate. Rachel with her sometimes dark outlook on life, suggests it is that way “so you can't burn anyone” with it.

Also the fact it's not exactly overflowing rankles her, “don't even fill it up, stingy”, she says pointing to the brown liquid, that's well short of the top of the cup, “don't get that in non league”, she adds. She’s a china mug and sandwich platter passed around by the club secretary kind of person rather than the faceless, money driven world of modern, top flight football.

“Dele Alli, he’ll be here” is the curious way the amphetamine addled voice reads out the teams, “where else is he gonna be, a party?” ponders Rachel.

Through block 33 I enjoy that millisecond of excitement you get, as the sheer size of the ground unfolds before you. Don’t get me wrong I love the quirky, charming and character filled stadiums of the non league games we go to, the curves of Enfield Towns Queen Elizabeth II stadium or the Art Deco stand at Wingate & Finchley, but it’s something about the size, the dimension of somewhere like Wembley that sends a bit of a shiver down my spine.

Bang on half way, in line with the Europa League logo, that covers the centre circle, we find our seats, the KAA fans have almost filled their considerable allocation to our right, and are just finishing off an Icelandic style thunder clap as we sit down. “They’re fucking noisy them lot” says the person immediately behind us, who then asks for some clarification on “where is Gent?”.

I love a football, hell any kind of sporting montage, an emotionally charged shot of sporting romance straight to the jugular. During BBC Sports Personality in my house I can easily do a box of tissues, the end of a World Cup or European Championships, I’m a mess. Late nights watching ones from Italy ‘90 or France ‘98, are not uncommon, so much is my investment in them, sometimes I have to take the next day off work to recover.

There have been some good ones over the years, some vintage tear jerkers, Des Lynam reading ‘If’ for example, but the zenith, the absolute number one, is the Roger Lloyd-Pack narrated compilation Spurs play before home games. Jimmy Greaves "they're the finest team in Great Briton and one of the best in the world", David Ginola's volley against Leeds, "we're about winning with style" it’s a piece of art. A mix of old and new, oh and his wonderful voice, it gets me every time, “to dare, is to do”.

An army of children appear, who encircle the competitions logo, and get shimmering. Some late arrivals, confirm the fine view, “good seats”. Trigger is replaced by Lauryn Hill, black and white players of old, are replaced by a pulsating cockerel, that now fills the big screen. Each pulse is accompanied by the ticking of a clock, each tick getting closer to the arrival of the teams. One Spurs fan, stands, arms outstretched towards the moving mass of Belgian blue and white, in a kind of ‘come on then’ pose.

With all of about three minutes of the game gone, the tutting has already begun, “fucking useless” someone says, when a player makes a misplaced pass. We can though enjoy the most elegant of bulldozers that is Mousa Dembele. His ability to keep the ball, shrug people off and glide on by, has become one of my favourite parts of any recent Spurs match, “he's so fucking good” says Rachel.

“We've got Alli” starts, but soon finishes, highlighting the problem of playing in such a large stadium, with the fans so spread out it seems hard to really get a song going, no century old pillars and tight little corners here to contain the sound, like at White Hart Lane. The KAA lot on the other hand, condensed and distilled in their corner, are non stop. Led by a man with a mega phone, backed up by their drum, I find myself at times watching them more than the game.

“Yiddo, Yiddo, Yiddo” sing the Spurs fans following Eriksen’s ten minute goal, that draws the game level on aggregate and if Tom were here, he would undoubtedly deliver his catchphrase “game on”. The early goal shakes off the cobwebs and calms the jitters, brought on by being, and finally there is some energy and noise, among the home fans. It doesn't quite match the away end, you wouldn't know their team had just conceded, they’re still jumping and singing, like nothing has happened.

Next door to me in his brown flat cap, a man sits half out of his chair, hunched over fidgeting, giving a running commentary. “Ohhh” he says when Vertonghen clatters into the referee, wiping him out and knocking him to the floor. “Give him an option” he demands of the Spurs players, as just like at the game against Monaco, they look “very narrow” as Rachel put it, lacking in any outlets on the extremities of the pitch. When one of Spur’s widest of wide players, Walker does well to get into the box, he shoots, but it's well over, “did all the hard work” groans flat cap.

I'm no great tactician, but even to the layman, KAA’s plan seems pretty damn obvious: Spurs are going to press, play a high line, keep on the front foot, so we’ll just sit back and do them on the counter. This is exactly what happens, when they make their first meaningful foray into the Spurs half. The break is received with an almighty roar from the away supporters. The attacker makes it into the box, before he is tackled, sending the ball out for a corner.

“Poch will be furious” is what I just about hear Rachel say over the nearby blue and white krakatoa, that follows KAA’s equaliser, that puts them 2 - 1 ahead on aggregate. Spurs now have got to score “3”, states a person nearby having already worked out the required permutation, much quicker than I could.

The KAA section is now a churning mass of some now topless men, most of whom are in a small pale skinned gang in the first few rows. After such a promising start, this is the last thing we needed, one person behind us demands “lets get his game going now Tottenham”.

Despite being ahead in the tie, KAA continue to sit back, they seem content on springing their very obvious trap, every time we lose the ball high up in their half. Spurs go close, the ball is fizzed across the box, but no takers. When fans shout it sounds like a prayer, more than an attempt to motivate, “come on Spurs”.

Spurs go close again, flat cap squirming more and more, his body reacting to every pass, tackle and shot. “Jesus” he shouts, when another chance to make a dent of the deficit goes begging.

“Yids, Yids, Yids” ripples through the crowd, but never gets going. On the half hour mark, the first attempt at “oh when the Spurs” starts, but it's too fast, and never takes off. At least we have Dembele, who once again shows his class, slinking past people with such consummate ease. You might say, Rachel is a bit of a fan, “Mousa is so sexy”.

Eighty thousand “noooo”’s is how most react, when Spurs take a corner short, which comes to absolutely nothing. It feels like as a club we are not very good at the normal kind at the best of times, so messing about with it seems a bit absurd.

“It’s happening again” says someone alarmed at the ball rattling around the Spurs six yard box, following you'll never guess what, another KAA break away. They agonisingly turn the screw again, applying just enough pressure to keep everyone on edge. “They know how to take a corner” points out Rachel as once again we go a bit flappy at the back and they look every bit assured at what they're doing.

There's no doubt in my mind the referee made the right decision, when he pulls the red card from his pocket, and shows it to Dele Alli. “silly fucker” says flat cap, which is about right, “heavy challenge” says someone else, which might be underplaying what was really an ugly lunge. Rachel is pragmatic, “he’s walking” she says nonchalantly once the KAA player gets back to his feat, after feeling his shin bone bend a little thanks to the England international.

One nearby person, a well dressed, respectable looking bloke, with a watch on that looks more valuable than my house, seems to think it was all the KAA players fault for putting his leg in the way of the Spurs player, “Belgian wanker” he snarls.

Alli is not a dirty player, but he has an edge, a hot headedness, which is a part of what makes him the wonderful players he is, however it's boiled over at the worst possible time and as he makes his way of, the KAA fans jeer, and the mood amongst the Spurs fans, turns a little sour.

On a lighter note the black trilby with silver spurs pin in the side of it, wins its wearer, who is sat next to a bit of a Robert Plant lookalike, the ‘coolest looking Spurs fan of the day award’.

There is an audacious attempt at a long range lob by Spurs, bang on half time, which sails over. Even with ten men, little has changed in the match, KAA are rigid to their plan, and will not be drawn out. Their fans whistle demanding the referee brings the half to an end, all while they wave at the leaving Spurs fans who are off for some overpriced chicken and chips, or tea they can't even throw over themselves, to distract from the pain.

One fan stays in his seat, summing up the mood of and I would think the opinion of most here, “it’s a long way back”.

Could eating in public be considered a fetish? I don't mean eating in designated places like restaurants, but the guy on the bus eating chicken and chips, the guy who has to have a burger at every football game he goes to or the woman next to me eating a ham and cheese sandwich, do they get some kind of kick out it? The sarnie destroyer claims it’s only because she's, “pregnant”, however I think there might be more to it.

Having devoured the expertly prepared snack I brought from home, “should do that at every game, cheeky little sandwich” she suggests, we spend the rest of the break debating the sacking of Claudio Ranieri. Rachel always no nonsense, no RAM or disk space for emotion, sentiment or compassion, thinks results speak for themselves, “no one wants to be Wigan” she says, alluding to the slippery slope that is relegation. I’m though, perhaps not unsurprisingly, am very much in the ‘guy gets a free pass’ camp, after last years heroics.

“Come on you Spurs” and a somewhat muted applause welcomes the returning players, it goes without saying the KAA fans are doing a lot more, people around me might be singing, if they weren't tucking into their cineplex sized buckets of popcorn.

“The fans are getting restless” says Rachel, minutes into the new half. They jeer and whistle, more and more in response to what is perceived as poor play.

Spurs though at least manage to draw the steadfast Belgians out of their shell, and are really showing some grit, an attitude of not going down without a fight, a trade mark of a Pochettino team. If you didn't count the players, you wouldn't think there was any discrepancy, in fact you would be forgiven if you thought KAA had one less man.

Slowly but surely, the on field performance starts to once again thaw out the Tottenham faithful, there is another attempt at “oh when the Spurs”, but once again it fails to take off.

Not content with out singing us, their latest chant a call and response between two halves of the away section. Just before the hour mark, the KAA end turns for a moment into a Robbie Williams concert, when there is a bulk holding up of mobile phone torches light show. Not that Rachel could care one jot, she’s more interested in what she's spotted over my shoulder, “oh that pie looks nice”.

Kane goes close, and then Pochettino decides to shuffle the pack, with the introduction of Son, which Rachel is delighted with. She is a big fan of the self imposed ginger Korean, his introduction reigniting her pre match positivity, “I still feel it's doable”.

“COME ON YOU SPURS, COME ON YOU SPURS” we all cry, after Wanyama side foots one in, which not only means Spurs are one goal away from going through, assuming we don't concede that is, but it leaves the distress caused by Kane blocking a goal bound shot, nigh on the line, just moments before.

Now that's a rendition of “oh when the Spurs” that will get close to getting hairs up on the back of your neck, that's a rendition worthy of a mild break out of goose bumps, that finally fills the whole stadium, and for the first time KAA are quite, all that can be heard is the drum, but not much else, Spurs fans on the other hand, are now on their feet, with an iota of belief.

Whereas before people sat, sullen in their seats, except for flat cap, he’s not stopped, people are now up and down, every near miss or good pass, gets approving sounds. Heads are very rarely out of hands, as Spurs continue to push for the all important third.

It’s tense, but the introduction of Son, “he's beautiful” coos rachel, has given us a bit of dynamism, a bit of much needed trickery. He whips the ball across the box, it evades everyone in white, but manages to squirm out the other side, and is tossed in again, the resulting header is smothered on the line. The banging feet of the tier above us, sounds like thunder.

With quarter of an hour left, we reflect on the match so far, Rachel summarising, “everything of our own doing. Set piece, shit red card, this could have been done and dusted”, she also wonders if all this strain is “good?” for our unborn baby.

KAA think they've scored, but the angle has deceived them, its wide, “ahhhhhhhh” taunt the Spurs fans, Rachel suggests such goading, is “mean”.

Tackles start to fly in. Firstly one by a Spurs player which is deemed a foul, moments later, a replica from a KAA player on Kane, and it's deemed ok. “That's terrible” says a woman behind me in a thick American accent.

Flat cap continues to be positive, he continues to squirm around in his seat. When Spurs miss with a free header, he blurts out frustratedly, “should of done better”, but he’s quick to praise the players again, particularly Alderweireld, who he like most of us, he clearly a massive man crush on, “well done Toby”.

2 - 2, there seemed only one way KAA were going to score, and that's exactly how they've done it, with all the pressure we've managed, all with ten men, it feels like a sucker punch after so much effort and with ten minutes left, it seems all but over.

The KAA keeper runs almost the full length of the pitch to celebrate, not that I can see, the goal has triggered the upturning of many red folding chairs, followed by scores of leaving people, obscuring my view. The respectful man the other side of Rachel, with the fancy watch snaps, jumps to his feet, pounding his brown leather gloved fist into his other open hand, like a German from a bad war movie, frothing at the mouth, with a scarlet face, he lets out his tirade, “fucking cock sucker”.

The KAA fans on the other hand, have hit a new level of ecstasy.

Spurs keep on plugging away, although it's in front of an ever decreasing amount of fans, and an ever increasing amount of empty seats, including flat cap, who's had enough. Son blasts over in the dying moments, “you know it’s not your night when that happens” says some behind us dejectedly, another fans conclusion is a little more cutting “fucking wanker”. The much maligned Janssen is the last roll of the dice on about eighty nine minutes, I want to have faith in the Dutchman, but he's not a miracle worker, Rachel just feels bad for him, “sorry Janssen”.

“All these people leaving early, will miss the two last minute goals”, says a wishful thinking Rachel, showing an uncharacteristic amount of positivity.

The away end is a sea of scarf waving and triumph, they’re now whistling even more vehemently than ever before, begging the referee to end the match.

Some KAA players lie on their backs some walk around agasp, the size of the scalp they have just taken is just dawning on them, they've done it, they've knocked Spurs out.

Lined up in front of the flags that hang around the pitch, the KAA players and staff of the visitors reel off a repertoire of choreographed routines with the fans. What started off as simply applauding the jubilant supporters, soon goes to another level of appreciation for each others efforts. On the edge of the pitch, down low on their haunches the players bounce, the fans do the same squatting where they stand. A deep rumbling chant, suddenly gets louder as players and supporters shoot up right, many in the crowd spilling out into the aisles, dancing. They leave the best to last, another ‘Thunder Clap’, players and fans alike, hands above there heads, sign off what has been an excellent nights work, in the best possible way.

Outside, the Spurs fans disappear into the night discussing I’m sure, what on earth is it going to be like here next season when it becomes ‘home’ for every match, the KAA fans in high spirits, continue to sing and frolic about. One, an older man, has taken to wearing a flag like a cape, that flutters in the aftermath of ‘Storm Dorris’.

I’ll leave the last words to Rachel, as we join the crowds making the journey home, “Wembleys not really working”.

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