Wednesday 30 August 2017

Man Sandwich - Erith & Belvedere FC Vs Cray Valley Paper Mills FC, FA Cup Preliminary Round, Park View Road (20/08/17)

I’m not sure if it's the fact that The Raiders March is the first song on the radio on my way to pick up Tom or the fact that once I have got him, he doesn't “want to talk about football” after his beloved Arsenal lost to the Champions League winner swollen squad of Stoke City both of which give me great pleasure in equal measure. However as we dip under the Thames, heading South of the river through the Blackwall Tunnel, the sun is out, Tom yanking off his jumper as things start to warm up a little, today already has the feel of being a good one.

This afternoons venue could creep up on you a little, one could probably pass it without even noticing it, easily distracted by the large car showroom opposite. It’s coordinates for me though will forever be seared into my internal GPS, like a salmon who despite having a brain the size of a grape knows instinctively what river to swim up, what waterfall to jump, to reach that little rock, on that specific stretch of water, to get its spawn on.

Park View Road is the one and only place I’ve actually won something in a raffle! What an achievement, all the way back in 2015, the 2nd place prize of a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which still sits proudly on the shelf in my kitchen, will never be forgotten. I frequently look longingly at it, a reminder of why I always have a go, even two years later I can’t bring myself to move it, it’s just too precious to me, and it has nothing to do with the fact I hate wine, and have no intention of drinking it.

A much, much, much better three point turn later, far better then the horror show at Braintree and without having to worry about local parking restrictions, as it’s a Sunday. Normally a day I observe my strict code of doing nothing, however football is a powerful force, enough to budge me from the sofa, and away from a very average looking ‘Super Sunday’. Nothing about Newcastle this season is going to be super, and I don't want to face watching Spurs at Wembley Vs Chelsea so I’m recording it. We park right opposite the ground, only the width of the road away from the back of the terrace, the passing buses top deck getting the best view in the house.

Our short thirty minute drive was all done without the hint of Tom being sick, after the previous couple of days of excess at a friend's wedding in Brighton. Where he assures me he didn't go at it too hard, despite his girlfriend finding him asleep on the floor of their hotel room next to the bed, when he had started in it.

There are two types of 50/50 I know of in football. Firstly the fundraising type lots of clubs do. Secondly, and I think better known as a half and half, but for the purpose of this, let's all pretend for a moment we've all heard someone call it a “50/50 scarf”

The first is a fantastic way for clubs to boost their revenue on match day. Something most people, some more than others, are more than happy to chuck a pound in the pot for, on the off chance they might win £15 or a hamper of fudge.

The second, and currently ranked third after Sky Sports and Sepp Blatter, in the all time list of most loathed things in football. There will be at least one occasion a season my Twitter timeline is plastered with a picture of a Spurs or Manchester Utd fan with one on at their respective derby, forcing the internet into near meltdown.

It’s well documented that I’m a fan of the 50/50. I’ve never really had reason to discuss my thoughts on the half and half scarf, but I can’t say I’m a fan. Don't be greedy I say, just have one or the other, or just don't have one at all. In my humble opinion, it’s only ever going to make you look like a cock.

Today though I can increase that list, as certainly for the first time in three years, we come across a concept I’ve never been aware of before, the 50/50 stadium.

As I said we’ve been to Park View Road before, but the winning of a prize in the raffle and angry Welling United fans around us, shouting at their manager as they got thumped in the FA Cup by Carlisle means I must admit that I have no recollection of the setup being this way.

On one side, the red side, you have a building sized image of players, the large welcome sign and grand turnstiles, that you might expect from a National League side.

On the opposite side, the blue side, well let's just say you don't have any of that. The most you get is a small nondescript sign, a small white turnstile, manned by a single person. None of which has any of the razzle dazzle of a club one promotion from being talking about by Colin Murray on a Saturday evening. Honestly it’s a little scruffy, and not instantly obvious what it is in the first place.

Although we’re early, there is a game already in full swing, two local under 11 sides are using half the pitch for a match, as their parents look on from the big blue stand or the all red terrace, all while Wonder Wall by Oasis blares out from a changing room, which won't be the first song choice today reminiscent of my early teens CD collection.

Alan, Erith & Belvedere FC’s (EB), the team that calls the blue side home, club secretary tells me this is a new initiative they have started, a way to engage with the local community. I ask him about the set up here. To say EB simply ground share is not correct. Mainly because of quite how much of a stamp they have made on it. Normally with a ground share, your are either the landlord or the tenant, where the latter is not allowed to use any blue tack or put any of their own pictures up. The property comes fully furnished, and the lodgers can use the pitch every other Saturday.

With Park View Road this is not the case at all. Although it's not always been their home. It wasn't until a “fire” at their old ground in 1997 and after a bit of sofa surfing that followed, did they start calling it home until the start of the 1999-2000 season, taking up a “50 year” lease on the ground with Welling, Alan tells us. The arrangement between both clubs seems relatively straightforward, and one I’m surprised we've not see more of. “Our side, their side”, explains Alan. The pitch that divides the two teams who both live under the same roof, their relationship a lot more Bert & Ernie, than a Mark & Jeremy from Peep Show, is “maintained” by Welling also, as are the terracing behind the goals, which Alan is fine with, “less for us to shell out” he adds. And considering the condition of one end, I wouldn't want the responsibility for sorting it out, it's in a right state.

Looking on in blue tracksuits the EB players already here, watch the game unfolding on the pitch, offering up advice to the players, and getting very excited when one shows off a bit of skill, “did you see that chop?”. All while the second song from Dan's early 2000's mix CD comes on in the home dressing room, Tribute by Tenacious D, “that’s different” comments a slightly baffled Tom.

Always keen to be positive, and never wanting to be mean or unfriendly, I really don't want anyone at EB to get upset when I say that I don't think that the shop from our last match at Braintree Town, the finest example of a club shop we've ever come across, has much to worry about, when compared to that of EB. Again, not wanting to sound rude, its perhaps hard to even call it a shop, a dilapidated shed with an old front door with a broken window, is the most accurate I can be.

Once inside, there are no obvious lights as such, just piles and piles of programmes scattered around,
and the option to buy either an EB tie or scarf. The only light that allows you to see around the small space, is that coming in through the large opening at one end, which has been created by some chipboard having been pinned open.

Accessible only from the outside, and next to the old EB shirts hanging from some coat hangers above a couple of shopping trolleys, is the EB wall of mugs, each one hanging from a large rusty nail.

Among the Hull, Reading and Chelsea chinaware, low bottom right, cooly minding its own business, one in particular catches my eye, an England Euro’ 96 one. Relatively plain and simple, with a couple of dings and chips, it sticks out like a sore thumb. For most people my age, that tournament holds a special place in their heart, it stirs up a unique kind of nostalgia from within them, and not wanting to see it fall into a further state of disrepair and for the sum total of £3, I unhook it from its nail, and put it in my bag, preserving it for generations to come

The young man sporting the slick haircut, who is brimming with confidence, doesn't have to ask me twice if I want the chance of winning a signed EB football. All I have to do is pick a team or teams on the card he hands me, and fingers crossed it’s the one I pick, that gets drawn out the hat later today. Tottenham are gone, they're always gone, so I go for Wolves, because I had a Wolves shirt once. Arsenal are gone, so Tom goes for Rangers. “Wish us luck”, I ask the small red headed vendor.

We chat with two EB fans, @wearethederes in his dark blue EB scarf, with the clubs crest of a stag on it, and Ed who has been watching EB for over thirty years. Both are confident of an EB win, “2 -1” is their score prediction, they both tell us without hesitation and almost simultaneously. Both are confident of the win, despite the league difference between EB and their opponents from the league above, Cray Valley Paper Mills FC (CM). They tell us though their team will have to keep their eye on EB old boy Denzel Gayle who they describe as “quick” one miming fast hands to emphasise the point.

Well they don't mess about here, feels like only moments ago I was riding high on the thought of potentially winning a signed football, and still with a good forty five minutes to kick off, any notion of a win is brought crashing down to earth, with the announcement that the “ball is here” and ready to be collected, but not by me, by whoever picked “Hibernian”. At least the pain of the loss is out of the way nice and early, not having to dwell on its potential outcome, all through the first half.

Toms impending roast dinner, remember it's Sunday, means gambling is not the only thing getting resolved early. No dash for food at half time and heart palpitations about long queues today, and instead of him thinking to himself that he's having a large meal in a couple of hours when he gets home so I won’t bother, he just gets his food before kick-off instead.

Sitting pitchside, Tom two mouthfuls into his burger and chips, a second chance for a flutter presents itself, a chance at redemption. Same set up as before, Spurs and Arsenal are gone just like before, but it’s a different prize, this time the chance to pocket £20. Tom opts for Portsmouth, I hope that picking Stoke, Arsenals vanquishers from the day before, might just give me the edge.

“Welcome to Park View Road” says the voice over the PA, I wonder if it’s the same person who decided that Cotton Eye Joe (I NEVER OWNED THAT) was a suitable song choice? He tells us not if he is guilty of such a crime, but that “if you wish to smoke, please use the terrace”.

Along with his potentially dubious taste in music, his public information film address about smoking, he can add the curious way he reads out the teams to the list of reasons why he is a bit different from your average, run of the mill, non league announcer.

The ‘normal’ way I guess is just reading out the number and the name, quick and to the point. He instead reads out their name, fine, nothing wrong with that, then their number, again all normal, but then adds the word “shirt” on the end. The addition of the extra word, feels like we might be here all day, before he is done.

I’m not sure I’m the first person to be fucked by Leeds United, but for the second time today, the agony of defeat is raw, but quick, like the fast removal of a plaster. Whoever picked the Yorkshire club are the winners this time. I really thought my track record at Park View Road stood me in good stead, how wrong I was, 0 - 2.

Alan reminds the announcer at the back of the stand, just before the players arrive, to give a mention to one player who will be making his one hundereth appearance for the club today. @wearethederes and Ed are ready in the stand, @wearethederes scarf strung out across the seats in front of them. The kids from the game earlier, are now jostling in the small space at the mouth of the short tunnel, that rises up from the base of the stand, waiting to be allocated their player as today's mascots. The consensus among them is that they all want to go with a “striker”.

“Please welcome on to the pitch today's teams”, one fan follows the announcer with a shout for the home side “come on the Dares”. As the teams shake hands, he goes through the lineups again, “Erith & Belvedere in blue and white quarters” or “Blackburn” as Tom puts it, “Cray Valley in black and green”. EB win the battle of the kits today, but I was hoping for a run out of the CM beauty from the London Senior Cup final, a real gem, but it’s nowhere to be seen

Kick-off is slightly marred by the fact a crazy person behind us suggests it's “chilly”, when it's boiling, however first chance of the game, which falls to EB only moments after the start, focuses the mind. The shot on goal though, is not so focused as the ball sails over, almost clearing the nets and heading towards the car showroom on the opposite side of the street.

“Where's the cover?” asks an EB fan as CM race into the lead with only five minutes gone. The scorers dinked finish is almost kept out, the EB keeper gets a hand to it, but its not quite enough, the ball still able to just dribble over the line. Running towards the corner flag, the player who just put CM ahead, is lifted into the air by the player who assisted him.

The same fan who was bemoaning his teams lack of defending, is soon back to supporting them, “come on Erith, come on Erith” he sings. Another fan suggests to the referee, that he must have missed the “handball” that led up to the goal, I must admit I did.

Unfortunately having the best kit, doesn't mean you are impervious to attacks, sadly it doesn't work like something from Harry Potter. Quarter of an hour gone, the league difference between the teams, is looking like a gulf, more than just a few places on a table. This time the scorer of the first, assists with the final ball for CM's second. “Fucking relentless” shouts the CM keeper, who is not far off. It's all been one way traffic.

“This is our house” shouts one EB fan behind us, who apparently has just walked off the set of 8 Mile Two, or a teen dance based drama, talking like that. “Fucking wake up” adds another, Tom just decides to take the Lord's name in vain “Jesus” he says, as the green and black tidal wave continues to crash up against the EB defense, who at the moment look unable to stop them.

There is plenty of advice from the stands, and a little bit of encouragement for them when their forward shows good strength latching on to a long ball from the back, holding off his marker with ease. It’s only a half chance, a tame shot that never really threatened, but it’s their first since the one that almost broke the windscreen of a brand new Alpha Romeo, “that’s better” someone shouts.

Some football supporters in life can be cruel, ripping their team apart at every opportunity, some are the opposite, what people might call a “happy clapper”, the category I’m firmly rooted in. Whatever their name, the EB ones immediately around us also fall into the latter. “Good dummy” shouts one, half laughing, following a defender 100% missing a header, the ball completely bypassing him.

When they have a chance on goal, which are few and far between, the simple fact they register “a shot”, which one fan shouts, only a few notches down from what you might expect if they had actually scored, sparks off one of the only two people in the crowd who are offering any kind of singing or chanting. Curiously though they never do it at the same time, always alternately. “Come on you Dares”, one will shout, “come on you blues” the other will half sing. Maybe it's just the same person moving about to give the impression of a noisy support.

“Looks a bit viking” comments Tom, who without the burger queue to concern himself with has the time to point out some of the nuances of the game playing out in front of us. As ever though he follows up his slightly left field observation, with one that hits the nail on the head, “got to use him more”. ‘Him’ being the EB number 7, “ come on Olla” shout the home fans, whenever he gets on the ball. His frightening pace is EB’s one and only outlet.

Tom thinks EB are “getting better”, post the “relentless” attacks as the CM keeper put it in the first quarter of the match. The main reason in his eyes for the upturn in performance is simply because they haven't “conceded”. I agree, I reckon they look a lot more composed, they are passing the ball about with a lot more authority. I suggest you could even say they are ‘stroking’ it about, Tom’s not so sure however, “wouldn't go that far”.

“That's better blues”, EB’s determination has paid off, and number 7 has bagged himself a very fine goal indeed, and has well and truly dragged his team back into the game. Leaving the CM defenders in his wake, he picks up the ball just inside his half, tears down the wing, once in the box, the keeper racing out to meet him, he slots it past him into the far corner. The mascots sitting opposite us, show their appreciation by banging their seats.

The half finishes with what might be the line of the day, I thought hearing someone shout "man sandwich" when an EB player is caught between two of CM's all jumping for the same ball, but when a CM player shows the slightest whiff of a bit of showboating on the edge of the EB box, and one fan like a heckler at a David Copperfield gig, bellows at the defender “watch his trickery”, the human butty comment is easily surpassed.

There is a brief moment of handbags that I think the kids find the most entertaining of anything that’s happened so far, including the three goals, cheering like bloodthirsty spectators at the Colosseum and number 7, nearly, nearly, gets on the end of what someone quite rightly calls a “good ball” which would have put him in on goal.

As the players leave, a much different atmosphere engulfs the home team, than the one that hung over them after the disastrous first fifteen minutes. Now upbeat with a shared feeling of ‘we might be back in this’, following their performance of the last fifteen minutes. One CM supporter asks a player to “keep tight on their number 7”, he looks back, a few steps down the tunnel and tells him smiling, “I’ll try”.

The departing grown up players are quickly replaced by a hoard of much smaller and high pitched ones, as we are treated to a bit of half time entertainment, a penalty shoot out. Well trained by watching too much Premier League football, the scorers emulate their TV heroes, tapping their shirts badge when they score. One of the keepers is just shy of going full Joe Hart when he concedes, oh the face on him. One attempt is so high over the bar, that as Tom points out if it was “two inches lower, that laptop was gone”.

However all the passion, squeals of success, and moans of failure, might be for nothing, as after about
five or six spot kicks for each team, one of the coaches asks the other if he is “keeping the score?”. All this while music that was released before any of them taking part were born, once again from NOW 31, blares out from the sound system, “boom, boom, boom, let me hear you say wayo”, followed by a bit of Super Furry Animals.

Fancying a change of scenery, we tell @wearethederes of our proposed move, to what he calls the "Welling side", which he says with a mild hint of disgust in his voice, like we're off to join the enemy, If I’m honest we just fancied the look of the padded seats and the carpeted floors.

It’s a spot of Thin Lizzy that greets the players returning to the pitch.

Number 7’s low cross finds its intended target on the edge of the six yard box. Instead of putting his foot through it he decides instead to dummy it, sort of waft his foot at it, an attempt to leave or pass it to a teammate, but to who? There is no one near to him. “Fucking aider” says his manager standing outside the dugout just in front of us, momentarily embodying a cast member of Last of the Summer Wine, looking at his bench for an explanation for why he just did that.

Tom a little less Compo, but just as shocked as the EB manager suggests the player has “gotta to do better than that”.

CM’s coach is quick to acknowledge EB’s swift start and in turn tells his team to “wake up!”. He shouts at his captain, telling him to get the team's heads “out of the changing room”. His instructions almost come too late, as EB nearly score a deserved equaliser. It’s only a smart reaction save, that stops the point blank range header.

“We’re the blue and white arm” sings the fan in the stand, as the low fizzing shot from you guessed it number 7, looks destined for the bottom corner, so much so before it’s even gone in, Tom has blurted out “goal” like a monosyllabic John Motson. Only for somehow, the CM keeper managing to get down, and with a single strong hand turn the ball around the post.

All EB’s promise of a comeback is thwarted, when a “good cross” as Tom calls it, which kind of undersells it, it was a great first time cross, finds the CM number 9 in the six yard box. At first his header is saved, but the ball loops back down straight on to the head of the number 9, who gets a second bite at the cherry and is able to nod it in on his second attempt.

Once again CM look to have put the result out of sight, once again EB go close not long after conceding to reducing the deficit once more. His manager calls it “unlucky” the player looks distraught, his hands firmly clamped to the top of his head, after he watches his dipping shot from the edge of the box, come back off the bar. Only three games in and Tom reckons if he had scored, we would have seen our “goal of the season” already.

With twenty minutes to play, the result of what has been a thoroughly enjoyable match, seemingly all but confirmed, there is what looks like a innocuous tackle on the far side of the pitch, that sadly develops into an injury that requires a bit more than a blast of the magic spray. It’s shadow hanging over the remainder of the match, like a grey cloud. Bringing life into perspective a bit and really making the result irrelevant, because frankly there are more important things in life.

“Banged his head on the fence” we overhear someone say on the CM bench. “Eggy” has now been down for an uncomfortable amount of time, the physio is with him, and right under the nose of those fans pitchside, he is still being treated.

Number 7 once more shows his great feet, if EB have any chance of scoring, it would seem its only going to come from or via him, as he continues to bomb up and down the right wing, almost completely unabated. “Stop the cross!” shouts the CM bench, but they can't, they are powerless to stop him. The “great” ball as someone in the stand describes it, that he whips into the box from out wide, is a hairs breath from being poked in at the back post, only for the last ditch actions of a defender knocking it into to touch.

Tom suggests “I’ve fallen in love” with number 7, not sure my feelings for him stretch that far, he is rather good though, and I do tell Tom I would happily take him out for a set menu meal of his choice, if he’s up for it.

However with CM’s number 10 still down, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. Tom reckons he's getting “stitches”, but he still isn't moving much. Quite how serious the situation is, is made clear when very calmly the referee approaches the CM bench and checks that they have “called an ambulance”.

With the departure of their number 10, by far CM's brightest spark, they have lost all of their dynamism and creativity, with a two goal lead and with ten minutes left to play it doesn't look like it's going to make a big difference on the outcome.

EB’s number 7 though, has enough flare for both sides, the CM bench now instructing the team to “double up” on him. Such is his flamboyance on occasion he seems to be winding a few people up, which boils over into a brief outbreak of silliness, a bit of rutting, but not much more. Not long after, a CM player goes steaming in, a bit of left overs from the previous spat, which a couple of blokes along from us really enjoyed, taking to their feet to applaud the player who dived in. The referee doesn't see anything wrong with it, Tom is amazed that he "didn't book” anyone involved.

“Keep warm” both sets of players are told, as the ambulance arrives at one corner of the pitch. A sickening hush falls over the ground, only the noise of a couple of players doing keepy uppies breaks it. A brief ripple of applause lifts the mood as Eggy is put on the stretcher. The players are told it’s going to be about “three minutes” until the restart, and once again to “get fucking warm”.

“Never get small head wounds, do I?” asks the returning physio to the CM bench

Clapping his hands intensely to get their attention, one CM player demands his team mates are “switched on”, as the game gets back underway following the long delay. EB and I on the other hand are about as switched on as a broken lightbulb, almost from the restart CM add to their lead, 4 - 1. 

The stop for the injury has put to an end any kind of EB fight back, CM are well and truly on-top, almost toying with EB. Number 7 now casts a lonely figure on the touchline, and is far from impressed that he's not getting any of the ball. Almost sulking, and clearly frustrated, he watches the action in his own half, from just inside CM’s, waiting for the ball. When it does come his way, CM’s bench make the same request of the defense, to “stop the cross”, and like every time before that, they are just unable to.

“What a save!” cries Tom, at what firsts looks like an excellent bit of goalkeeping, but was actually the well placed head of an EB defender on the goal line, who manages to get something on what looked like goal number five. The attacker I’m sure could have just put it away, but seems to almost pause for dramatic effect, but it doesn't quite pay off.

“Four minutes of normal time” to be played, replies the linesman, when asked once again how much of the game is left. There is an air of ‘let's get this game put to bed now’ about everyone, on both sides, no one seems to know how much is going to be added on for the injury.

CM continue to create in the final moments, EB’s number 7 continues to demand the ball, but isn't getting a sniff now. The visitors get the final chance of the match, “strike” says the coach from his technical area, as the player shapes up to do so, on the edge of the EB box. A mighty ping follows, not that of the ball crashing off the underside of the bar and in, but off the top of a lamppost behind the goal.

The whole bench laughs, the manager turns to his staff and the substitutes, “that's what he was aiming for”

There were many subplots to today, many little factors that contributed to an excellent afternoon. The
friendly EB chairman on his bar stool in the scarf draped bar, with it's replica World Cup trophy, the wall of mugs, the teams sharing the ground, equal partners, rather than that one person nagging the other to put the milk away all the time, the battle of the kits, the carpeted stand or the fact that CM created a bit of club history, by winning they progressed the furthest they ever have in the FA Cup, however all of this seems inconsequential, when someone leaves in an ambulance.

It was a great game, a back and forth game, with plenty of goals, funny lines from the crowd and some tackles that give us the shivers, but again it all seems somewhat unimportant when someone leaves in an ambulance.

What was truly the best bit about today, was the calmness of the officials and the professionalism of the CM physio, because I imagine when you're lying on your back, looking up at the sky, while someone straps you to a stretcher, its those kind of people you need around you, to help you through a difficult spot, not someone who can write a paragraph about a mug.

Get well soon Eggy!

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Tuesday 22 August 2017

Sexy Football - Braintree Town FC Vs Dartford FC, National League South, Cressing Road (08/08/17)

“Why's it spitting?” asks Tom grimacing as he looks out of the window, at the small spots of rain hitting the windscreen. They are so inconsequential, I hadn't really noticed them until he had pointed them out.

For our second game of the season, and after going to the south coast for our first, it seemed almost rude not to venture into what might be the most abundant football county in the UK, Essex. I’m pretty sure we spend the majority of our time traversing it’s highways and byways, so much so that it’s almost become a second home.

Thankfully the minuscule amount of rain has not gotten any worse, so Tom unscrews his face, and we are able to continue our journey without anymore grumbling.

The long tailback that greets us as we arrive in Braintree, is not exactly the welcome we wanted. We follow the Sat Nav diligently as we do, until we realise where its directing us, doesn't exist, and we go from being as cool as cucumbers to having a mini meltdown, Tom desperately trying to direct me, as I navigate the rush hour traffic.

Turning down a nondescript suburban road still feels wrong, when in search of a football ground, despite the countless amount of times we’ve done it, and always find at the end of it what we’re looking for. Some part of my subconscious is still convinced that all football is only played in ‘Mega Domes’ and 90,000 seater stadiums.

You would think if we were clever, that we would've used the man in the lurid bright orange shirt of tonight's home team, Braintree Town FC (BTFC) like the lights on a runway (trust me the kit is bright enough) to guide us, however and long time readers can attest to this, but for those of you new to the blog, I'll let you in on a little secret, we’re not, so we don’t.

Ignoring him, we pass what I can only describe as prefab yellow houses that are almost toy like, almost completely square like something from a model village, and continue onward down a road, which quickly turns into a lane, then a path then a gravelly patch of wasteland in the middle of the Essex countryside.

Abort, abort, abort I scream to myself in my head. Putting the car into reverse, we retrace our steps, clearly in the wrong place, and only moments away from needing mountain rescue to save us.

I can only apologise to the people of number 39 Muddy Lane, for spending the next ten minutes loitering outside of your front door, continuously revving my engine as I perform what Tom later describes as the “strangest” three point turn he has ever seen.

Back and forth, every couple of seconds I make another small, but totally pointless adjustment. We are getting nowhere and are heading into Austin Powers territory. About a foot away from number 39’s living room, the bottom of my car scraping on the curb, I can only hope that no one wants to leave or get in, because my bonnet is almost touching the letter box.

For the second time tonight I scream, abort, abort, abort as the inside of my head has now gone fully Das Boot. I stop, and use Tom's face as motivation, it's a mixture of sheer embarrassment and terror. I just about manage to compose myself long enough to get us the hell out of this heinous situation, which was completely of my own making.

One again, I cannot apologise enough to the poor people of number 39.

Thankfully another BTFC shirt presents itself and we take heed this time, following it like the star of Nazareth, crawling ever so creepily in first gear behind the wearer of the orange of orangeist kits, not wanting to overtake them or deviate from the path whatsoever, to ensure we make it to Cressing Road.

Not quite the pearly gates, however the large wrought iron blue ones at the entrance to the ground are a very welcome sight. Not quite Saint Peter, however the man who sells us our pass to the car park, is just as cordial and patient, as I’m sure the guardian to heaven would be. When I spill my in car change pot all over the floor, sending a good £10 worth of coins to the unreachable realm of under the seat, and I have to cobble a couple of quid together from mainly shrapnel, he doesn't show for one moment that he might be getting annoyed, he just waits with a holy air, then happily waves us on.

I’m well aware the turnstiles of the last century were not built for great hulking lumps of the 21st century, however it feels just like the icing on the cake of a shocking past hour or so, when I genuinely think I might be stuck. Trying my best not to look completely panicked in front of the ticket seller, half a foot from my face, trapped in his cage fronted, tiny brick cupboard. I eventually pop out the other side, unscathed physically, but with my self esteem a little bruised.

What better way to restore one's morale, than a look around a club shop, we do love a club shop, and a little birdie has told me that there are two of them here, one being so magnificent, it has its own Twitter account. The one admittedly before us though, is pretty standard, a blue shipping container with a gazebo being erected in front of it. A man in a club baseball cap, lays out his wares on a fold out table, and hangs shirts on a portable clothes rail. I fail to see how it warrants its own social media presence.

Hidden between two banks of terracing that stand behind one goal, out of the way, and off the beaten track as all treasures generally are. Never heard of the X on the map, being just off the highroad have you? No you have to search a little, go down a few fiery rat filled sewers, almost get chopped up by the propeller of an ocean liner, or have to bring your own Dad back to life using the cup of Christ, before you can get you hands on the goodies.

I’ll tell you right now, if you're a true connoisseur of football related trinkets, the Supporters Club Shop at BTFC, is worth being chased by a one hundred boulders for.

Before I go on though, I think it’s important to clarify that we saw no rats at Cressing Road. I don't want anyone to take my Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade analogy too literally. Unfortunately though I must report we did spot some vermin, just a solitary mouse, Mickey Mouse to be precise, waving from the side of Mr Cheers ice cream van, which Mr Cheers had parked in one corner of the ground.

Get me a chair I’m feeling light headed, hide my wallet this could get expensive, and make room for the big man because once you make the short step up into the low ceilinged blue and orange hut, there is just about enough room to swing a smallish kitten.

Some call it Shangri La, some call it Valhalla, the Ancient Greeks called it Elysium, whatever your faith, whatever your name for Nirvana is, I might have just found mine.

Surely this is now the club shop that all future clubs shops are comparable to, the pinnacle of their kind? I’m choked up just writing this, it quite honestly is a thing of pure beauty. Step aside Mona Lisa, move over Sistine Chapel, because when people hear about this, your visitor numbers are going to plummet, and people will be taking their holidays just off the A120 to marvel at what I have just walked into.

If you have been unlucky enough to watch one of the many thousands of TV programs about home improvement, not the one with Tim Allen, then you will know it’s all about maximizing the space you’ve got, making the most of your ten square foot £1,000,000 apartment in London, by putting your shower under the stairs, oven in the second bedroom, that kind of thing.

This ethos has been embraced with both hands here, although not big, I think my head is almost touching the ceiling and if I stood with both arms outstretched I could touch both walls, however this has not stopped the them using every available inch of space to cover, hang, drape or suspend a whole array of football awesomeness.

Scarves from clubs as far afield as Madrid, Paris and Clacton. One whole wall is covered with programmes, everywhere else you look there are perspex boxes overflowing with more of them. Pins, you want pins, there is a corkboard teeming with them. Teddy Bears, key rings or maybe shirts are your thing? How about a Juventus, Celtic, West Ham or signed Southend one, all for the price of less than a pint in Toms local.

Somehow I resist, the strength of the tractor beam coming from the dark blue Juventus away shirt was strong, but something stops me from handing over what was essentially peanuts and I depart with only with a programme, cherished memories, and the coordinates on the map to find the next X, the 50/50 seller.

I think it would be fair to say BTFC’s home is a tad run down, just in need of a bit of TLC. I expected though a bit more from a club that was last season in the National League. I just have this feeling that I might catch my shirt on a loose nail every time I walk past something. Surrounded on three side by trees, you have the choice of the main stand on one side of the pitch, or what you might call a shed, a long covered terrace on the other, everything in the clubs unmistakable garish shade of orange.

It’s the reaction of two young BTFC fans, scarves around their necks, both clutching their programmes so tightly like they’re going to run away, when they see the players emerging from the narrowest tunnel I’ve even seen, it’s about a man and a half wide, for the warm up, that does away with my bad mood. According to Tom I’ve been well “grumpy” since picking him up.

“Actual footballers” says one to the other, his eyes on stalks, popping out of this head at the sight of seeing a man in his mid twenties in shorts jog onto a football pitch. The second boys response is even better, he is so overjoyed, so clearly delighted by the simple fact, as he puts it “they came close to me” he looks as if he’s had a minor religious experience.

With not only the finest hair in all of non league, but a fantastic name to boot, we bump into Daniel, who is perhaps the most dedicated of groundhoppers and life long BTFC fan. In the shelter of the shed I ask him his thoughts on tonight and on the rest of the season. After the disappointment of relegation, I’m sure immediate promotion is the only thing on their mind.

His reply is brief, but the tone of his voice gives away an apprehension and nervousness of what is to come for his team in the months ahead, “I don’t know, I don’t know” he repeats shaking his head. The main reason for his uncertainty is the fact as he puts it, “this team's all new”.

“Good evening and welcome to the Ironmongery Direct Stadium” says the voice over the PA, no we haven't moved on somewhere else, that's the official, sponsored name for the ground, but I’ve been told the locals still stick with Cressing Road.

The few fans of BTFC’s opponents tonight Dartford FC (DFC) one striding along with a black and white drum slung over his shoulder, are waiting for the arrival of the teams, on the very back row of the terrace behind the goal. The buzz of the bell from the changing room, which can easily be heard, due to its close proximity to the pitch, so close are they that not long before we could hear Zorbas Dance being played from one of them, inspiring the first chant of the night, “Dartford, Dartford”. One fan shouts “come on whites” at the waiting players confined within the extendable tunnel.

Back on the PA, and having read out the DFC team, it’s now time for the BFC line up, which he reads out with noticeably more gusto, than he did the visitors. He then asks the not inconsiderable turnout, to “put their hands together for both teams” and instructs us all to “enjoy the game”.

Their arrival, the players I imagine delighted to be free of their cramped confinements, is indeed greeted by applause as well as the drum. Playing a low rumbling beat, the fans respond to it, “Darts, Darts, Darts”.

With kickoff comes the latest offering from the drum, I’m sure the same that would have been played before an execution. A large cry of “come on your whites” follows, which is met with a sarcastic jeer from the majority of the noisiest home fans who are holed up behind the dugouts in the shed, and reply with their own chant, “Iron, Iron, Iron”. Their good spirits though are soon tested, when DFC craft the first chance of the half.

“Iron army” sing the home fans. Not long after watching their own team nearly concede, do they watch their team go close to scoring themselves. Only a strong hand from a tight angle stops them going ahead, in what early on is a very end to end contest. “Keep going Darts” shouts one of the drummers gang, who responds to everything, literally everything that happens on field, with a rattle of his drum.

Fifteen minutes gone and a big cruncher of a tackle, brings the frantic game to a halt. Our first teeth sucker of the season, the kind that makes you flinch a bit. “Off, off, off” demand the DFC fans. Nearby BTFC don't quite see it the same, “thought it was a 50/50”.

I do wonder about Tom sometimes, what’s going on in his head. Because when a friend can flit from describing a nearby tree as a “bit Omen” due to the abundance of birds circling it, and then in the next breath tells you how much he wants a team we visit to “do a good hotdog” it's a bit of a concern.

What had started as being relatively evenly matched, with about twenty five minutes gone, the tide starts to shift in favour of the away team, who Tom suggests so far are the “better side”. When BTFC do go on the attack, one visiting fan is so distraught, the anger in his voice as he screams at his team, asking them rhetorically “where are we?” as BTFC venture closer to his teams goal, is almost indescribable.

The home fans respond to their chance with a chant “Essex, Essex, Essex”, and then have a hell of a lot more to sing and shout about when one of their players displays a moment of sheer brilliance, real bit of class and flair, performing what I think is called a rainbow flick, Tom cooing “bit Brazilian”. With one flick of his boot, he sends the ball over his head, away from the opposition defenders, and continues down the wing.

“Come on Braintree, come on Braintree” sing the fans, at the sight of their players inventiveness. However the good mood is soon somewhat ruined after one of their players shapes up to shoot, from just outside the box, and under no pressure, he let's rip with the most woeful of shots, that goes miles wide, and the chants are replaced with groans.

Although admittedly Tom has moments when his mind does wander, he is also prone to very great moments of clarity and has the knack for a well timed comment. He is aghast when all the DFC player had to do was poke the ball into the open net, for what some might think was a deserved lead, but instead as Tom points out “he fell over”.

When it comes to timing, tonight he could not have been more spot on. Plenty of chances are being fashioned, however until now no one has been able to convert, the game as Tom puts it, “needs a goal”.

“The build up was nice” says a DFC fan about the move that puts BTFC ahead, somewhat against the run of play some may argue.

As classy of him as it was to recognise and admit that his team has been out foxed, bettered on this occasion, to call the play only “nice” however, doesn't do it justice. I admit I’m prone to the overuse of superlatives, but the pirouette that spins the attacker away from his marker, really is exquisite, his quick feet, gives him the space to make a neat diagonal pass to a teammate approaching the edge of the box, who is able to continue his run unabated, thanks to the precision of the ball, and coolly side foot it in. It really was very “nice” indeed.

The drum has fallen silent. When the voice comes over the PA to announce who has scored “for the Iron”, the announcer can barely be heard over the celebrating fans, who are so close to him, who can hear them rejoicing over the speakers.

Tom briefly thought the noise was some tragic attempt to pipe in a bit of atmosphere, like canned laughter from a poorly made sitcom, I explain it’s the fans opposite, going nuts by the sounds of it on the lap of the man with the microphone.

Dah, dah, dah, “sexy football” they sing, and they have every right to.

Going ahead has certainly buoyed the home team, who pour it on in the final moments of the half, the shed only getting noisier and noisier, “Iron, Iron, Iron”. One player turns nicely on the edge of the box, curling a shot just over the bar.

As I’ve said already, I like to be a little flowery sometimes, look at life through rose tinted glass, however one passing fan, in his thick Scottish accent, eulogising about the BTFC opener, takes it to another level, suggesting to a fellow fan that the lead up to the goal, “was like watching Barcelona”.

“Iffy pen” suggests Tom, when for the second time in just a few days, we see one given for handball, when I don't see how the penalised player could've really done anything about it. The same nearby fan, who moments ago was evoking thoughts of Messi and the gang, calls the player who steps up “Mr Braintree”, and adds he’s just returned from his “holidays”.

The mood of the home fans, is quite the opposite of the solitary away fan next door to us, who bows
his head, continually rubbing the bridge of his nose, as things go from bad to worse for his side.

2 - 0, penalty well dispatched, looks like it was a good holiday. “Mr Braintree” scores with ease from the spot, runs a short distance, before leaping and punching the air. When the PA comes on again to announce the scorer, he sounds fully caught up in the moment, the mayhem of the fans can be clearly heard once again.

“Good time to score” says Scottish fan, with two minutes left to play and BTFC very much on the front foot. Tom on the other hand can't take his eyes off the blue kiosk adjacent to the ice cream van, “burger queue is growing”.

With the DFC drum on the move, it was practically silent for the final quarter of the half. The home fans are in a palpable state of shock, “impressive weren't it” says one to another in the queue for food, “not used to seeing them play football” adds someone else. Someone who is far from impressed is Tom, after being informed there are “no chips” for sale, which he has had confirmed by the man in front of us, an issue with the “wiring” of the fryer he's told.

We all know a person who when you go out for something to eat with, and it comes to ordering, it’s never straight forward: can I have the chicken caesar salad with the dressing on the side and no chicken? that kind of person, the kind of person I never took Tom for.

However, having heard on the grapevine, of a double cheeseburger, but not seeing it on the menu, Tom doesn't have long to decide if he is to try his luck asking for it, or does he just stick to what's available according to the small chalk board. The man in front makes his mind up for him, ordering the doubler, Tom turns to me with a new found courage in his eyes, he’s going to do it, he’s going to order 'off menu'.

“Cheese between the burgers” is the apparent secret to what makes the “beast” of the double cheese burger Tom is tucking into, a “good choice”, accompanied by some Kinks being played, and in-between humongous mouthfuls, he tells me what a “fine summer's evening” it’s turned into. 

I’m always amazed at regardless of what he orders, regardless of how big it is or how much of it there is, it only ever seems to take him two or three mouthfuls to eat. A group of boys arrive in front of us, not long after we’ve take up position at the very back of the terrace. Talk among them though is not of the two goal lead their team has got, the large flag the DFC fans have put up, that was nowhere to be seen in the first half, but of a topic, very close to Tom’s heart. One of the group is as dismayed as much as Tom, or maybe even slightly more, at the fact they “don't do chips”.

I’m not sure why I even bother mentioning it, but I didn't win the “grand total of £70” in the 50/50, meh.

The first quarter of the new half sees the BTFC fans ole-ing their team, which is inevitably interrupted by DTF winning the ball back, and almost going close themselves with their first real attempt on goal.

Putting a bit of a damper on the home fans party. Their parade is further pissed on a little, when they have what looks like a completely valid goal chalked off for an apparent foul. Supporters and players alike are bemused. “You’re joking?!?” asks one fan nearby loudly, to no one in particular, the players remonstrate with the referee, Tom pointing out what seems to be almost what everyone else thought about it, that it was in fact the scorer “being fouled” not the defender.

All the deliberating nearly catches BTFC out, because while they're still debating the decision, the man in charge has allowed DFC to restart the match and take a free kick, and before it’s dawned on most in attendance that he's not given it, the away team are racing up the other end and almost score.

Taking up almost where it left off, the game continues to ebb and flow from end to end, each team taking turns at going close. DFC blaze over, BTFC go close with a low shot, which is kept out with what the home fans quite rightly call a “good save”, BTFC then go close again, however for the second time it’s the team under the cosh that score, almost a sucker punch, once again, against the run of play. DT poke home from a corner, the scorer left in a heap on the floor, while his team mates race back to the centre circle.

Although it’s too far away to tell, but judging by the deluge of abuse the DFC fans are aiming at the referee and the BTFC players involved, I think there is a chance they think someone needs to be booked for flattening their player, who's just halved the goal deficit, they are not happy. Their drum wakes up, the majority of the BTFC fans now on the terrace along from us, reply, “Iron, Iron, Iron, Iron”.

The goal has turned BTFC from a team being ole-ed, to a nervous wreck, their fans a little edgy to say the least. When one DFC player goes down, he get its both barrels after the foul is not given and as one person puts it, it's “a miracle” when he springs back up to his feet, after acting like he'd been chopped in half. Others are a little less Christian, branding him a “cheat”. Although number 3’s behaviour was a little dastardly, he was an easy target for a group of fans who are looking for a distraction away from their teams current state of mind,  which seems to be to chuck this lead away.

A good ten minutes since the goal not being given, and one BTFC fan is still stuck in a bit of a loop, asking anyone and everyone for answers, why was the goal disallowed? Wandering the terrace, he tries to catch the eye of whoever he can, tapping people on the shoulder, getting their attention anyway he can, to discuss the great injustice of it.

Once more a BTFC player does his bit to lift the game, with a moment of skill. “Not bad for a centre back” says Tom, about the towering and broad defender, whose delicate touch and quick thinking, means we see our second pirouette of night, which leaves the pressing attackers for dead.

With almost exactly a quarter of the game left, I overhear someone perfectly sum up BTFC current position, pulling out the much used Sir Alex Ferguson quote, that although a tad overused, describes where BTFC find themselves currently so perfectly, “squeaky bum time”.

“Oh dear” mutters Tom, “can you hear us over there? ask the DFC fans, as their team celebrates after doing what everyone knew they were going to do, and get that second goal, drawing the game level. “We’re the black and white army”  they sing, “orange, orange, orange” is the reply from the fans on the terrace, and for the first time since the first half, the ominous tell tale sound of the executioner is back.

“Don’t know who’s gonna win it” says Tom, and I have to agree, things have been far too back and forth, far too open, for it to finish all square.

Two curious things happen during what is usually quite an innocuous part of a football match, the announcement of a substitution. Firstly the fact that the announcer says it's BTFC's “fourth” substitution, Tom and I both turning to look at each other, mouth but don't say “fourth”, likes it’s a dirty word. I don’t think it’s a mistake, we must have missed that memo over the summer.

Secondly is the announcer using his air time to ask the fans for one last hurrah, “final ten minutes of the game” he tells us, “get behind the boys” he asks..

BTFC are chucking everything just shy of the broken chip fryer at DFC, which allows the team in white to test the home fans resolve a bit, “don't lose it now” pleads one in the build up of a DFC counterattack.

The announcer tells us how much time has been added on, and for one final time addresses the supporters, requesting one last push, “four minutes injury time, let's make some noise”. I’m not sure it's the noise he wanted, but the drum rumbles once more, it’s perhaps this that prompts one last chant of “come on Braintree, come on Braintree”. Their team respond, with one final chance, but it's DFC who nearly steal it, it’s only for a great save, and a miss in front of an open goal, that means home hearts aren't broken.

“England’s number one, England’s number one” sing the home fans, their keeper has well and truly saved his teams blushes, and by all intents and purposes has secured them at least a point. Tom who can appreciate a good save as much as the next man, not a bad goalkeeper at school I can tell you, just can’t understand how the DFC player didn't score, “how did he miss that?” he asks me slack jawed.

“Good night and god bless” says the dejected sounding announcer, on a bit of a comedown, after all the excitement of the first half. DFC’s players applaud their fans, the referee escorted off by a burly steward is bombarded with boos and demands of an explanation for why he “disallowed” the goal. He doesn't even flinch, his eyes remain fixed forward, he leaves the pitch under a cloud of even more boos and accusations of being a “cheat” and suggestions that he was “rubbish”.

The BTFC team and staff gather on the pitch for a debrief, the majority of fans stay put where they
are. When the players do eventually start to make their way off, some warming down as they do so, the fans who stayed, make sure to clap them off, the choice of music is a little inappropriate, ‘Happy’ by Pharrell. The mood is far from happy, the captain and scorer of the goal that wasn't a goal, discusses the decision with a fan, the look on his face of someone who also doesn't have a clue why it didn't stand.

If the league gave out wins for excellent shops and players replicating Fifa moves, BTFC would have won hands done. DFC gave it their best shot, their drummer, drawing his inspiration from a wide range of styles, the executioners block to the indigenous people of the great plains, but two pirouettes, a rainbow flick and a treasure trove, was always going to be near enough impossible to beat.

I regret not getting the shirt, I should have just stumped up the cash and got it, it niggles in the back of my head as we make the long dark drive home. For Tom, a first tonight, "never seen a ice cream van in a football ground" he reflects, but its clearly a front, a ruse, an attempt he thinks to distract me from what I know he's really thinking about.

No chips.... REALLY?!?!

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Monday 14 August 2017

Welcome To Hell - Eastbourne Town FC Vs Bearsted FC, FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round, The Saffrons (05/08/17)

Fatherhood and fishing, is how I’ve occupied my summer break. Tom tried to buy a house, but sadly it fell through, down to a slightly unscrupulous seller by all accounts, he knows who he is, and if you happen to be reading this I hear you're quite the dickhead.

As you can imagine with the sudden and slightly early arrival of a baby, football was forced to take a bit of a back seat. I thought timing her conception to coincide with the summer break, I had been very clever, however there has been plenty to watch, it doesn't really feel like it’s even stopped.

I think it was around day four of labour, that I managed to turn my eye briefly to the Confederations Cup, sitting in the corner of our hospital room with my tablet. However the deep Darth Vader type inhales of the gas and air and the agonising screams coming through the walls from the other rooms, as well as being sat right next to the sink as a steady stream of nurses and doctors washed and scrubbed themselves, practically on my lap, made it hard to concentrate to say the least.

When she eventually arrived, all 6lbs of her straight into her oversized Spurs babygro, which instantly made everyone think she was a boy, we had a short stay in the hospital, while aforementioned baby spent some time under what was essentially an infant sized sunbed, to banish the jaundice. Once home, and in between looking over to her bassinet to see she was still alive, I was able to enjoy the England under 20’s win the World Cup and did my best to avoid the tidal wave of cliches after the England Under 21’s lost to Germany on penalties.

Not really being one for pre-season games, I’ve done them, they mean nothing, they're boring, I turned my hand to my other passion instead, to occupy my time (between being totally in love with my new daughter of course) a day on the river bank, covered in meaty flavoured ground baits and chocolate orange boilies, but before I could hook into a double figure carp, our first game of 2017/18 was upon us, and I’m laundering our flag, ordering new stickers, and arranging with Tom what time to pick him up.

Such is my excitement for the arrival of football, as I pull up outside the train station to collect Tom, and before I realize what I’m doing, my arm is out the window, with my outstretched hand giving him a rapid burst of Ali G finger snaps. With the BN postcode already in the Sat Nav, the embarrassment of my outdated hand gesture subsiding, and deep in conversation about Tom’s choice of breakfast, chocolate covered peanuts, we are under way.

If you have not met Tom, the best way to describe him is a bearded vape smoking, weather obsessive, prone to the occasional bout of over excitement. This comes to the fore on most of our car journeys, particularly when we pass the brown motorway signs to local attractions. He almost goes full dolphin, on par with a dog whistle, hitting the highest of high notes when we see one for “CHESSINGTON” and I almost have to restrain him from leaving the car, when he spots a bumper crop of what he calls “motorway blackberry's”.

Another recurring scenario is what seems to be his inability to dress himself properly.

Me in my Alien Ant Farm shorts and light shirt, I'm just about dealing with the increasing temperature in my air conditioning devoid car, he on the other hand in dark jeans and Danny Zuko jacket, with collar popped, is suffering, and threatens me with an “outfit change” if things don't improve.

After we clear the backlog of Brighton Pride goers and the numerous horse boxes, containing their sad, travel sick looking inhabitants, the rolling hills of the south coast, more than make up for the insufferable traffic, and the grey spitting clouds are now far behind us. Tom is elated that the closer to our destination we get, the bluer the sky continues to get, “that’s better”.

M&M’s consumed, ear test booked, after I thought Tom couldn't go any higher, but was proven wrong after he sees a sign for a “medieval fair” and I threatened to take him to the Sussex Tent Show 2017, if he doesn't stop squealing every time he sees another poster for Sir Lancelot's get together.

I do love a seaside town. I’m not sure if it's spending a lot of my time as a kid in Brighton, and now most of my summer holidays with my own family at some slightly dilapidated but charming once thriving Victorian or Edwardian holiday resort playing endless rounds of mini golf, but there is a unmistakable and unique feel to them, that they all seem to share and Eastbourne is no different.

Sadly our plan to explore the esplanade, pier and doughnut stands are curtailed, by the traffic getting here. For us it's only the briefest of glimpses of the “SEA” between two houses, Tom spasming in delight at being the first of us both to see it.

The Saffrons Sports Ground is far from your average non league set up, mainly because on first appearances it's not instantly apparent that there is a football ground there at all. Driving in, the narrow road takes us round a cricket match, and past men and women with longer slender hammers, hitting various colored balls through hoops.

Parking behind the large electronic scoreboard for what we’re later told is a local derby “Eastbourne Vs Bognor”. The batting order relax on the veranda of the clubhouse, we shuffle by, the noise of leather on willow and muttered praises of “good shot” emanate from under hat wearing folk in deckchairs.

In the not too distant future, beyond the heated Sussex derby, and just before the bowls pitches, and beyond them, the imposing red brick town hall, with its single tower and four sided clock, above a wooden fence, we spot the familiar outline of a stand, and blue and yellow striped goal nets, reassuring us, we’re in the right place.

I think one thing that most people will say more often than not when talking about non league football, is that you’re nigh on always guaranteed a warm welcome. Yes I'm sure there are those clubs where this is not the case, but Eastbourne Town FC (ETFC) certainly could not fall into that category. In fact the welcome was so nice, so friendly, verging almost on the overwhelming, I struggle to remember quite how we got from the entrance to the picture lined boardroom.

Carried along on a tidal wave of handshakes and introductions, the first thing I remember after having had a chance to admire the collection of pennants hanging from the ceiling, was that someone had already put the kettle on for us.

I have to ask myself is this what living near the sea does to you? or are these people on drugs? And I mean that in the most flattering of ways, not in an awful Trainspotting climbing into toilets, with visions of babies kind of way, but in a Willy Wonka endorsed, family friendly drug, the only side effect is the taker exudes a mind boggling amount of infectious friendliness.

The club secretary Richard busily sorting today's programs, quickly joins the long list of well wishers, which spans every possible position at the club, from coach, groundsman to the guy who runs the bar.

Traveling on the whirlwind of hospitality like Dorothy and Toto I did notice in a short corridor between the door with the “Welcome To The Saffrons” sign above it and the boardroom, what I would describe as the best school project ever, meticulously laminated coloured paper covering the walls, chronicling the clubs history. One fact that stuck from the bombardment of ETFC facts, is that they are the oldest club in Sussex.

When we’re introduced to Chris who is described as the clubs “historian”, who by the way is nowhere near as beardy and pirate like as he was in his ETFC playing days, he coyly points to himself in one of the many pictures that line the walls, he tells us he is responsible for the numerous hefty binders, that fill a groaning bookshelf, that document in more detail of the clubs long and illustrious history

In one corner of the the room stands what might be mistaken for a drinks cabinet or sideboard which when opened gives little clue to it’s actual purpose. It’s green baize lined inside not giving much away, in fact it seems to be filled with the kind of things you might find in that cupboard at home, where everything that doesn't have a home ends up.

The box is in fact the home of the Eastbourne Charity Cup, large child sized trophy, that we’re told is more valuable than the FA Cup, is “uninsurable” says one person and is currently in a vault somewhere. The cup itself, and not the cardboard version that Chris has appeared clutching, is pointed out in one of the largest of the black and white pictures in the room, filled with stern looking men, posing manly.

Considerable injection of club history received, we emerge into the sun of the afternoon, to the first of the many quarterly chimes of the town hall clock, and are soon sitting down with the bronzed Peter Heritage, club coach, and ex Gillingham, Hereford United and Doncaster Rovers player.

“Bit of a dream for them” says Peter about ETFC's opponents today Bearsted FC (BFC), who are appearing in the FA Cup for the very first time in their history. He admits they don't “know much about them” which might make things “difficult”. However he adds that ETFC have been “looking good” in “preseason” against teams from a few divisions higher, so is quietly confident.

It’s at this point talking to Peter, and not for the first time today, a brief chat before with the club kit man, whose own links with the club go back eighty years, long ties with what is clearly a close and community based club are something of a resounding theme today, conversation turned to the clubs fan base, their Ultras, known as ‘Pier Pressure’.

Having sought out similar fan groups at Clapton and Whitehawk, fascinated by this kind of support, that is so common all over the world, but in Britain is looked upon skeptically. Pier Pressure’s presence on Twitter, their politics, immaculately crafted stickers and art work, I certainly suggest trying to find a picture of today's unofficial matchday poster, featuring the bear from BFC’s badge, who is amorously intertwined with the FA Cup, they have been hard to ignore.

Most impressively however, is seeing the way people involved with the club, genuinely light up, talking about them. The kit man dave tell us he thinks supporters like them are the “future of football” and he “loves” them. Peter is no different telling us about their commitment to the club, eulogising about how they travel “everywhere”, the fact they donated the tops the players warm up in. Excitedly he describes their ingenuity, telling us they have been known to use a “car manifold” as an instrument, like some kind of football Scrapheap Challenge crossover, telling us he thinks they are “fantastic” for non league football, and thanks to them gone are the days of “one man and his dog” watching games here.

“1-2-1-2” crackles the PA. At the moment the chimes of the clock, the noise of the cricket and the blaring questionable music coming from one of the nearby changing rooms, are the only noise to speak of, for now.

Food, Tom's favourite part of what we do. His summer diet is quickly put to the sword inside the Hot Food Bar, which feels a bit like a conservatory. He dissects the menu, places his order, and we head outside. Moments later someone is tapping him on the shoulder and informing him “young man, your food is ready”.

Concealed in a white paper napkin, Tom’s burger in his professional opinion has a “good bun to burger ratio”. We take a momentary pit stop in one of the blue seats of the main stand that runs behind one goal, Tom doing a good job on his burger, finishing it in what seems like only a few bites. The final one forcing a large solitary blob of ketchup to splat on his leg, much to my amusement, but not to his. 

The “sauce on trouser” dilemma as Tom puts it with a snarl and a half full mouth, doesn't distract me from noticing the increasing noise being made by more and more people arriving, but does distract my counterpart long enough so I can pinch a chip. Alicia Keys is doing her best to destroy the speakers of the PA singing about New York and for the first time we hear the distant rattle of a snare drum, coming from the small uncovered steps at the far end of the ground.

Another cheery face, and beaming smile, another introduction, this time to a man described as a “stalwart of the club”, who goes on to explain, just like many of the other people we've met already, he has a long association with ETFC. “40 years”. An ex manager, who for an older gent, has a vice like handshake.

He tells us he is very “philosophical”, his time as a “manager” means he has had to learn to think that way. When it comes to answering my question of how he thinks ETFC, will get on today, his reply is vague but delightful, “could be a lovely game of football” he tells us.

With the addition of some banners, and streamers, the area behind the goal, is slowly transforming, as a couple of people battle the wind to erect the yellow, blue and white flags. As much as I want to investigate, something else has caught my eye, on the opposite side of the ground, something has distracted me from taking pictures of the numerous Pier Pressure stickers covering the perspex dugouts, which also seems to be covered in bits of tin foil.

As Tom has been on a football food free diet this summer, I’ve been on a 50/50, golden goal one. No summer fair tombolas to fill the void for me, I’ve been clean. I track the seller with all the guile of Muldoon from Jurassic Park, but without any of the slightly strange misogyny.

I hand over £2, he offers me the sparkling wrapping paper covered box, as I plunge in my hand he instructs me quite rightly to, “close" my "eyes”. I’m a bit out of practice. In my haste I take three instead of the intended two, I panic. I can't put it back, what if it’s the winning ticket, I hastily rustle in my bag for another £1, handing it over, and glossing over my faux pas.

First inevitable waste of money of the season over, I make my way to the space behind the goal, which is now awash with banners, some in support of the club and the Ultras “Forza Town!”, some political “The NHS Is Not 4 Sale” and one that should be obligatory everywhere “Burn The S*n”.

The railing directly behind the goal has been turned into the percussion section of a medium sized
orchestra. Secured to it are variously sized blue and yellow drums, the biggest, too large to be tied on is half in a green bin, leaning against the fence. Behind them, a blue sticker covered Ultras dressing up box. Cow bells, a school bell, different masks, of different descriptions litter the floor. One pinched off the woman from Flashdance, one pinched off Jason. I overhear one person explain that the welding mask doesn't get many outings, because it’s just so “hard” to see out of.

In his badge covered bucket hat and yellow and blue ETFC scarf, I get chatting to Paul who in his North East accent and impeccable timing talks about today being the “start of the FA Cup” and the beginning of the long “road to Wembley” just as I notice the players emerging from a small door way at the far end of the ground, led by the referee.

He tells me about the Pier Pressure saxophone, which he explains does not normally appear until the second half, because its player gets “tired lips”.

With the players now making their way onto the pitch, a tune strikes up over the PA, the sort you might have heard on the promenade a 100 years ago, “Sussex By The Sea”. Strangely among all the paraphernalia of modern football, the surroundings mean it doesn't feel out of place, it feels again, like a nod to the clubs long history, and it’s connection to the area, and feels more than fitting as an accompaniment to the players exchanging handshakes.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentleman”, says a small voice over the PA. The greeting for the BFC keeper all in grey jogging towards us, from the fan in the hockey mask with a loudhailer, next to the man with the smirking V For Vendetta mask half pulled over his face, is a little more sinister than that from the club, and has a tinge of Galatasaray about it, “welcome to Hell”.

The comments from the ETFC fans following an early flap by the BFC keeper, who by all accounts is called “Scott”, set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Scott, who by a quarter to five, I must admit I felt a little bit sorry for. I thought the non stop “who ate all the pie” songs directed at Kevin Pressman in 1996 at Spurs was relentless. If I was Scott, I think I might have run away or feigned an injury, as he becomes the non stop focal point for the fans behind him, every goal kick they attempt to distract him with the bang of the snare drum or a blood curdling scream from one fan.

All the early ETFC pressure seems to be sending the match down the path everyone involved half expected, however BFC do their best to halt this, somewhat out of the blue, they fashion two chances in close succession, the second a goal bound shot is blocked on the line, there is a momentary intake of breath from the fans around us, before one breaks the tension by telling a another to, “have a bell” handing him a large school dinner bell.

“Old Eastbourne Town is wonderful, it's full of old people and seagulls” sing the fans as any inkling of an upset are brushed aside with eleven minutes on the clock, as ETFC take the lead. The chant is driven may I add not by the random banging of one of the many drums, but by a unified bank of sound, with the togetherness of a well rehearsed marching band.

As the song dies down, Scott obviously already glum enough after conceding, gets a little extra misery heaped on him by the hockey mask wearer, whose maniacal screechy delivery, reminds me of the cartoon version of Christopher Lloyd at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, “typical Scott!”.

I want to be fair to Scott, no need to rub salt in the wounds, but when three or four minutes later ETFC double their lead, it’s down to the aforementioned goal keeper once again being a little bit flappy. Palming a relatively tame shot, right back out into the six yard box, to be poked in on the second attempt.

The tirade towards the man in goal now goes from the odd one liner, I think my favourite so far was when he was asked when he plays Fifa, is he “always the keeper”, to a hockey masked monologue, “you're a let down” he tells him, “you’re a terrible goal keeper”, the man with the baby in a sling on his front, seems to cover her young ears to save her from the abuse.

Children or no children though he continues, chanting “keeper sub, keeper sub, keeper sub” towards the BFC dugout, then loudly asking them “its your first year in the FA Cup and you choose him?”.

Scott gets a slight respite when after about twenty minutes, BFC go close with a header, however my attention today is very rarely drawn away from the end ETFC are attacking and the fans behind it.

We’ve seen many interesting things at the football we've been to, a man with a dog in a pram or a man with a crochet pint holder round his neck, however when the fan produces the fabled gleaming saxophone from its battered case, he turns the quartet of excellent drummers from a high school marching band, into one about to lead the procession at a New Orleans funeral.

Thirty minutes into the new season, and we get the first tick in our I Spy book of Non league. Only having seen what turns out to have been half of it, poking out the top of a large cardboard box being carried above someone's head before kick off, the immense tinfoil FA Cup is revealed in full, with blue and yellow ribbons hanging from its handles. Unfortunately instead of being a shining beacon of hope and greatness, as all homemade tinfoil cups are, this one is used for evil, the ETFC fans have weaponised the unweaponisable!

Thrust towards Scott, the large silver effigy is used to remind him, that as the score stands, he won't be winning it this season. A sad day for football!

The remaining quarter of the half flits between scrappy and ever so slightly bad tempered. BFC's players perhaps getting a little frustrated, start to fly in with some big big tackles, as ETFC continue to create more and more chances at ease. BFC do have one themselves, the ETFC keeper saving well, but the visitors are very susceptible to the counterattack. On one occasion it goes from a BFC corner to a near ETFC goal in the blink of an eye, with a big shout for a penalty in the middle waved away.

When the cries for a spot kick aren't given, the downed player is quickly back to his feet, managing still to shoot, even with a BFC player all in white, hanging off him. The attempt almost falls kindly for a teammate to tap in, but Scott saves at his feet to prevent the third. However not long after he is almost once again the cause of ETFC’s scoring, instead of the cure, when he half flaps, half punches at a free kick, forcing the ball back into the six yard box, when it maybe looked easier to catch it.

This error of course does not go unnoticed, “you're making me nervous Scott!”

Hark what is that, a sound that is from neither cowbell or drum, it’s the cheer of the BFC fans, as their team quite against the run of play, have pulled one back. The noise from the handful of traveling fans in attendance is fleeting, as the band are quick to drown them out, with perhaps the cleanest version of this particular chant, I’ve ever heard, “Eastbourne town is wonderful”.

Their goal comes late in the half, and inspires a surge, they finish the first forty five on the front foot, the helpful bell tower telling all time is up, it's only whats been added on to be played. One chance is so close, that it draws an “ohhhhh” from the supporters, and as one fans puts it, the “ball is down that end a lot now”.

Not that any of this seems to be bothering the child in the sling, she is now sitting under a tree behind me, on a lush patch of green grass, tucking into her lunch, taking it all in her stride, she knows there is nothing to worry about.

“Make sure you do better next half Scott” suggests the megaphone wielder, adding just in case he
didn't hear as he walks off, “number one, you must do better”.

The Pier Pressure caravan is soon packed up, the blue box is re-stocked, the flags and banners though are left to fly solo in the second half and one conscious fan hangs back to pick up any rubbish that might have been left, and ensures its put in the bin.

As a well documented enthusiast for all things Ultra Sticker, it takes me a while to make my way to the other end of the pitch, having to stop and take a picture of every new example of Pier Pressures handy work that covers every available space, as well as those left by visiting clubs. By the time I make it there, the drums, saxophone and tiny accordion, have already taken their seat in the stand, but their owners are nowhere to be seen.

Some may find it a bit annoying, I imagine the regulars are used to it, but I find the regular chimes of the town hall bell, very handy. Just before it strikes for four o’clock both teams return, taking up position, and moments after it informs us of the time, the referee blows for the start of the new half.

“More beer drinking, than football watching” is Tom’s suggestion for the lack of noise or
fanfare for the beginning of the second half, as there was for the the first. There is no Native American inspired drum beat, despite the array of instruments strewn about. Scott’s probably delighted, maybe he put his card behind the bar, and opened a tab, because for the first time, no one is screaming his name or asking him about his Fifa preferences.

“Why you sitting down?” asks someone returning from the bar. “We’re the non drinking contingent, waiting for the musicians” replies one of those arms crossed and seated in the stand. Another who's just finished their drink is applauded, “very civilised in here today” he says almost sneering.

With the stand slowly filling up, there is a moment of disharmony between someone already sitting down, watching the match, with those late comers who are now insisting on standing, Their argument that this is where the club have told them to stand, doesn't quite wash with the ever so sour looking man.

“Can we have some noise?” says someone, dismayed perhaps with that the fact the cricket and the clock are once again the noisiest. Someone agrees, picking up the accordion, and bringing it to life. One drummer multitasks, drinking from a bottle of Bourbon with one hand, while playing with the other, “Jack Daniels is out” points out Tom. With fifteen minutes or so gone of the new half, the atmosphere slowly starts to build up towards its first half levels, it’s made to seem a lot louder by the overhanging corrugated roof of the stand, containing the sound.

The game though has gone the opposite way, petering out somewhat, going a little flat. An ETFC tackle brings the whole BFC bench to their feet, the referee is on the scene of the crime in a flash, talking over the tackle with the players involved, but makes nothing of it and play continues. You might be able to say BFC are slightly edging it at the moment, but it's negligible. They do though have the clearest chance of the half so far, when they have a go from a freekick, forcing the ETFC keeper into a fine flying save.

Twenty five minutes gone, and ETFC should have put the game out of sight, a glaring miss from right in front of goal. Regardless of what is going on the pitch, the fans are now in full swing, the person with the megaphone, starts a low, slow and snarling “old Eastbourne Town…..” and one passing person is caught out when a drum is given an almighty whack, inches from her head, scaring the life out of her.

Multi talented, be it with the drum, cowbell or megaphone, most recently hammering out the beat on the largest of the drums, leading the chant by himself with a ear splitting scream, “TOWN” at the top of his lungs. Mr Hockey Mask now turns his hand to a hunting horn. I’m not sure I can say he is strictly ‘playing’ it, he is just blowing down it, however he stops for a moment, as most of the fans do, to applaud and praise their keeper for another excellent save, “Fred!”

Once more, like in the first half, there are long spells of ETFC pressure, with thirty minutes gone, there is a spell where they have three of four consecutive corners, each one causing a problem for BFC. One even hitting the bar directly from the kick and catching out Scott. That really would have been the final nail in the coffin for him, if it had gone in.

When the ball is eventually cleared up field, Scott, who maybe thought he was being given a second half reprieve, who perhaps thought, I’ve had my turn, time for someone else now guys, gets nothing of the sort, “who let the goals in, Scott did, Scott did, who lets goals in” to the tune of the Baha Men classic.

Again a glaring miss, with ten minutes left to play, and only a goal between them, are ETFC going to regret this profligacy in front of goal? One dangerous ball, is swiftly cleared, high and into the nearby bowling green.

I don’t think I’m an easily distracted person, however when you have what is tantamount to a live band, with the odd bit of audience participation thrown in, “keys out for the town” demands one drummer, with the people obliging, adding their own bit of percussion, it’s hard to concentrate on the match. Instead I find myself transfixed on the motion of the drumsticks, one particular chant with its hypnotic chorus “we'll always be yellow and blue” or by the malevolence of the hockey mask wearer.

Another miss, this time just before the chimes signify that we’ve had the ninety minutes. The fans are now spelling out the name of the team, which as far as team names goes, is quite a long one, it might take a while, “give me an E”, “give me an A”.

BFC send home hearts all of a quiver going close from a corner, a brief outbreak of argy bargy breaks out not long after, tempers flare, the referee marching the two main protagonists off for a word, one fan thinks they should quite literally kiss and make up, shouting “kiss, kiss” towards the players.

Home heart rates are almost restored to normal when they are awarded a dubious penalty in the dying moments. Dubious because it was given for handball, but looked more like ball to hand to me, the player whose limb was to blame, didn't really look like he could've done much about it. Sadly for the home fans, the heart rate spikes one last time, when Scott gets a little bit of payback, saving the spot kick.

I might suggest its slightly over confident of the fans to assume that the result is now a foregone conclusion, as they start singing of “Wembley, Wembley” and a wooden rattle is produced from somewhere, a local sign perhaps that they think this is all wrapped up.

What started off as spots of rain, as both sets of player leave the pitch, ETFC into the next round, BFC falling at the first hurdle, however giving a very good account of themselves, quickly turns into a monsoon level downpour. Tom's dream of a post match drink is dashed, “there goes my pint in the sun”.

Sheltering from the rain, I say sheltering, there are various places not safe to sit or stand, as not insignificant drips make certain seats a no go, the roof above having been breached. The home fans show the ethos of always showing your support, whatever the result, whatever the weather, the band striking up once more, “let's all have a party” shouts one fan, “at least until the rain ends” he adds.

“It’s easing” says Tom, so we make a run for it, admittedly a short run to the clubhouse next door, where we enjoy a drink in big blue armchairs, while glum looking BFC players eat pizza and cricket types all in white, mix with the Ultras, while the test match plays out on the big screen.

I think when the fact that there is a very, very, very slight chance of being hit by a cricket ball, as Peter Heritage had put it, "hope they don't hit a six" or that a club has decided to sell its drinks and food, at two separate locations, that are about ten feet a part, and really its no great inconvenience, are the most negative things one can think of when summarising their visit to The Saffrons, then they must be doing something right.

So captivating and engrossing were the fans, so agreeable are their politics, the "refugees welcome" flag flies the highest, so intriguing were their choice of songs and outstanding is their musicality, that I completely forget to find out if I'd won the Golden Goal, until Tom reminded me right at the end. I hadn't of course, missing out on the prize money by two minutes, but the sight of a man in a full head horse mask, somehow softened the blow.

A club run by loyal local people, sounds a bit League Of Gentlemen, but perfectly sums up what we saw. A club which is faithful to the people who have helped build it and mold it into what it is today. A club that embraces and recognizes its long history and the people who have contributed to it, the people who make up the fabric of Eastbourne Town FC.

It wasn't just ETFC and its fans that were responsible for today being the best possible start to the new season. BFC's kit with their team name across its back, evoking feelings of European football, and a badge that now takes top spot as the best non league badge going, all played it's part. Sorry Hemel Hempstead Town FC, I'm a BIG fan of Henry VIII, however a bear rearing up onto a football just pips you in the awesomeness stakes.

Yawning, exhausted, hoping the sugar from the second pack of M&M's will keep me going for the drive home, sitting in the car thinking maybe we should have done a bit of preseason training ourselves, because we are both knackered. I cant stop thinking about something Paul, the fan in the bucket hat had said to me about some railings behind the goal. He told me, "they're not to keep you out, but to keep us all together".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE


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