Sunday 29 October 2017

#StormBrian - Wimborne Town FC Vs Swindon Supermarine FC, Evo-Stik Southern League West, Cuthbury (21/10/17)

The name Brian is not one that instantly strikes fear into the hearts of men, I may be wrong, but I can't think of any great tyrant, villain or bastard who was called Brian. However, put the word ‘storm’ before it, add a ‘#’ into the mix, well you've got yourself a whole other kettle of fish. This is because the name usually reserved for the assistant regional manager of a local DIY chain or the shouty guy from Flash Gordon, now has the power to fell trees, rip off roofs and even kill.

“Here it comes” says Tom, flitting between the app on his phone that's forecasting “25 mile an hour” winds where we're heading today, and weather watch. Unable to make up her mind during most of our two hour drive to Dorset, Mother Nature just spends it on an ever changing wind, rain, blue sky cycle.

Pre leaving to collect Tom, I had also been somewhat glued to my phone, waiting for an update from todays club about an impending pitch inspection, an update that never came before I was due to leave, so decided to risk a wasted morning in the car and head off anyway, but remembered to pack a coat.

When Tom then informs me of an “amber weather warning” I feel like our chances of seeing a game are becoming less and less unlikely.

Normally quite the worry wart, Tom is extra fragile today, due to some “dodgy ham” he had from a less than clean eatery near his work, and without spelling it out like he did, let's just say he’s not been in the best shape the last twenty four hours, and as he keeps reminding me, he's not yet fully recovered.

I wonder if we’re being a bit soft, when we see a road side stall selling giant, fair ground sized teddy bears from a tarpaulin covered pitch next to quite a busy dual carriageway, as a considerable amount of rain falls. If they’re still open, then we don't have much to worry about, do we? However, climbing out of the car at the Cuthbury home of Wimborne Town FC (WT) I’m soon engulfed by my jacket caught in the wind like a large black sail, Tom for the first and certainly not for the last time today almost loses his hat, and I conclude that the teddy bear merchants were crazy and Tom’s app is not far off the mark.

The narrow, autumn leaf covered lane leading to Cuthbury is picturesque, and the stylised outline of a man kicking a football in our second black and white striped kit in as many games, lets us know we are in the right place, despite the instructions of my impertinent Sat Nav to keep on going.

At the end of the long thin car park, stands what looks like a small cottage, with a black and white gabled roof, hanging baskets, well stocked plant pots and a small black door with brass letterbox. Once I’ve slain my coat, the small house from Hobbiton seems like the ideal place to find some shelter from Brian and his almighty gusts.

It’s not long after arrival that our early start and long drive is vindicated. Confirmation from the WT Twitter account that the game is going ahead, the blackboard on the front of the clubhouse mentioning a meat raffle, and the generous handshake and reception from the man in the West Ham cap with a WT badge on it, “welcome to Wimborne”. He also confirms the game is “on” and we can start to enjoy ourselves.

Beyond its Middle Earth facade the clubhouse opens up into a decent sized space, its obligatory non league clubhouse dance floor is currently occupied by two girls playing pool on it, while the Celtic game plays on the TV. Behind the bar with the magpie soft toy, the WT shirts that features the aforementioned tea-leaf bird on its crest, a man makes us each a much needed hot drink.

Our cuppa is given to us in a standard cardboard cup, the sugar is delivered in an old Cornish ice cream tub, however how the milk arrives is on a different level. Each handed our own individual china jug, it's apparent they do things a little differently around here, very fancy. Taking a seat on one of the tables that encircle the dance floor, the kids still playing pool, people watching on like it's the Crucible, Tom is very impressed by what we've seen so far, “nice” he says nodding, between mouthfuls of cheese and onion crisps.

The clubhouse is filling up quickly, and that familiar non league feeling of it being a bit like in Cheers is almost instant. Every new arrival once they've managed to defeat the main door pinned closed by wind gets a “hello”, “alright” or a "hey". One player arrives and is swiftly offered a “pint” but declines, the same player is one who recently turned out for the England C team. A steward asks him if he got to “keep the top?” and before the player can respond, the steward rattles off the name of a well known auction website, “eBay, eBay, eBay, eBay”.

“Windy out there” says an ever so slightly dishevelled arrival, who's been bashed about a bit by Brian, this prompts Tom to ask if I think today will be our “windiest ever game?”.

I find you very rarely go to a non league match without hearing something a little different, but the question “got any rope?” is certainly challenging for top spot, in the ‘odd things heard at football’ table. Only half hearing the conversation that followed, I think it’s for securing a part of one of the grounds stands. Once pitchside the comfort of china milk jugs and crisps are a distant memory, Brian is in full flow, he has no intention of letting up, we might need a bit more than rope.

One corner flag has been fully displaced, lying horizontal on the pitch, a row of nearby trees look positively drunk, leaning at a very dubious angle. Talking to the club secretary Peter, clutching his clipboard, it’s clear he's had a stressful morning to say the least.

“It's been awful” he says, thankfully the pitch passed inspection, the referee having told him he's “never seen it so good”. I ask him if the wind gets taken into account when deciding if the game goes ahead or not, he says it’s now in the hands of the match day officials, but at least it's keeping the “rain
away”. I’m sure with one hundred and one other things to do, Peter adds that he's sure it going to be an “interesting game”.

Battling to be heard over the rain, wind and the already mind numbing noise of a loose rope on one of the nets behind the goal that prevents the ball going into someone's back garden, that's clanging against the metal upright, producing a constant chime, a voice comes over the PA “testing 1, 2, 3”.

Cuthbury is compact, at points walking around the pitch the path and grass merge, but it has all the charm of a well kept non league ground, with the added bonus of a super view of rolling Dorset hills behind one goal. A long terrace with Wimborne Town FC written along its back wall in large white letters, is decorated with an impressive collection of flags of different shapes and sizes. It’s a real mix, some big, some small, some look a bit more homemade than others. The only one that doesn't quite work, and I know it’s black and white, but the Ying Yang flag, is a little tenuous.

Between the dugouts and not something we’ve ever seen before, is a sizeable manual score board, “Wimborne Town 0 v Visitors 0” opposite the changing rooms are neatly contained in a small red brick bungalow, but due to the grounds dimensions, there is no place for a roll out tunnel or extendable one, just two small steps and you're on the pitch.

The recently arrived opponents of WT today, Swindon Supermarine FC (SS) are soon on the pitch. “Can you play football in this, and they said yes” asks one player to himself out loud, as he kicks the ball in the air, and watches Brian take control of it. Another does the same, and watches on as its blown backwards, ending up behind him, “that's windy”. Tom suggests that it “might be a case of trying to keep the ball on the ground” today.

“Testing, testing, testing” say a couple of different voices one after the other as the PA is put through its paces once more, anything to distract me from the clanking noise of the nets behind the goal, which is a constant.

The weather continues to be changeable, wind, rain, sun, wind, rain, sun, but at least Tom’s visit to the loo was memorable, not the loo bit, but more what he saw on his way back, a “pirate” apparently.

Except for his crisps, Tom is hesitant to eat anything else today. Not any kind of reflection on WT, more because of the after effects of the “dodgy ham” so when we see the smart outdoor grill and BBQ in its black and white striped hut, that doesn't look like there is much chance it's going to get fired up today, he is not totally distraught.

“Here we go” says Tom tentatively as we are treated to some music. Always a good test of what a club is made of, the music they play, so far Tom is happy “like it”. The next song causes a momentary, intense and almost violent flashback, when Insomnia by Faithless starts to play. We share a knowing glance and are teleported to hazy smoke filled days in Tom's room in our youth and then the summer of 2002 standing on the hill overlooking the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury.

As if it were a sign, the introduction of a bit of nostalgic 90’s dance music, sees the sun giving its best effort so far to break through the clouds, sending down thick shards of light over the surrounding countryside like something biblical is about to happen and out of the corner of my eye I see a man in chequered chef trousers, making his way into the BBQ hut to fire up the grill.

Not far from the BBQ and the busy chef is the club shop, a brown shed, that's yet to open. After inquiring when it will, it all depends if “the lady shows up”.

I don't think a single player from either side comes out for the warm up, and doesn't give the look of ‘bloody hell’ to at least one other person. A passing elderly SS fan making her way to her seat is worried she's about to get “blown to pieces”. A group of teenage WT fans don't have any such concerns, signed programmes in hand and fuelled by too much Fanta, they're tearing about, already in the mood “Wimborne, Wimborne”.

I thought the china milk jugs were swanky, the brushed aluminium BBQ pretty plush, but they are positively Poundland in comparison to the single most regal voice I’ve ever heard, other than the Queen herself, that comes over the PA. Clearly the voices before were just her lackeys doing her dirty work, royalty don't do such menial tasks. I cannot stress enough to you, I think we are in the presence of a bonafide member of the Royal Family. Sitting behind the mic in a small cupboard, I'm sure with crown and septa in hand, after reading out a bit of housekeeping, she informs us it’s time for “the line ups”. When she’s finished, I’m half expecting some fanfare or a twenty one gun salute.

Plenty of people are moving about in the moments leading up to kick off, filing along the slender pathways that surround the pitch. Two drums wait patiently with no apparent owner, not yet committing to an end until after the coin toss. With a drink in hand I think I spot Tom’s pirate, unless there is more than one person here today with a Tricorn hat, however I don't think he's a pirate at all but a town crier or maybe a British soldier from the American War of Independence in his crimson coat and gold braiding.

Many of the long wooden benches perched on top of stacks of breeze blocks are near to full in the main stand, one seat that isn't is the wicker chair that straddles one front bench reserved for a former player. Peters suggestion that he doesn't think there is “going to be much of a crowd” today, seems unfounded. Storm Brian will not win.

“Come on Marine” shouts one of the SS players, forced to mill about pitch side. With no tunnel, an untidy mass of men forms until the referee who Tom thinks looks like “Santi Cazorla” leads them out. Despite the best efforts of the White Stripes and their much overused Seven Nation Army, the many people who are here are muted to say the least.

I can confirm that kick off certainly happened, but I didn't see it, I’m focused on the distant cry of “50/50”. After many enquires of where to get my tickets, and many assurances that the guy will make himself known, I can finally hand over my £2 to the seller's assistant, who takes my money and puts it into what looks like the bucket for a squeegee mop.

Both drums are soon in action, not far from us in front of the wall of flags that is offering some protection from Brian, however the roof is definitely lifting on occasion, which is a little disconcerting. Hammering out the beat on his drum slung around his neck, in his grey beanie and WT scarf the ring leaders energy is not matched by the dull thud of his instrument, but this doesn't seem to deter him, “Wimborne, Wimborne”.

Between the 50/50 and watching the Wimborne Massive go through their repertoire of songs, “I’m Wimborne till I die”, “super Wimborne Town”, SS have a penalty appeal turned down, then go close with a chance that they put just wide.

“He’s coming for you, he’s coming for you, Toby Holmes, he’s coming for you” sing the fans behind
the goal, who've just watched with only eight minutes gone their number 9 put them ahead, who then takes full advantage of the slick surface and celebrates with a knee slide.

Nudging me Tom points out that the “boards changed already” the both of us having hoped we'd be able to watch it flick from 0 to 1, but whatever house elf they have to do it, did it as quick as a flash. However, we have bigger things to worry about, “that flood lights wobbling” points out a concerned Tom.

The stature of the referee has not been lost on the WT fans either who are now singing “hi, ho, hi, ho” but don't tease the man in charge for long and are soon taking inspiration from Poland via the Etihad, and are trying to get a “Poznan” going, but there aren't many takers. Not discouraged one iota, they just move on to the next song “sunny, sunny Wimborne” trust me it's not, and one person has decided to hoist a black and white flag on a home made flag pole that is almost bent double, before they change tack again and are singing about a magpie taking a “shit” on local rivals Poole Town FC.

On twenty minutes the WT keeper as Tom puts it is “caught out by the wind” he very, very nearly does a Mile Svilar, replicating the unfortunate goal from the recent Champions League tie between Benfica and Manchester United. Almost completely in his goal, he just about manages to keep the ball the right side of the line.

Seemingly everyone gets a go at leading the crowd at WT, this time it’s not the drummer but a small child banging a drum on the floor, that starts the next chant “Wimborne, Wimborne”. On the pitch and SS continue to insist on crossing the ball from out wide, but with Brian around it’s just not working, “what the fuck was that?” asks Tom on the thirty minute mark when an SS free kick almost ends up in the next town, no thanks to blooming you know who.

Thanks to “Trigger” in goal, WT five minutes later are still in the lead, after a truly excellent save, as SS register the first meaningful attempt on goal since their one in the opening minutes of the match. They are in fact offering very little going forward, their dedication to crossing the ball into the box is really stifling them.

“Sunny, sunny Wimborne” sing the fans once more, with the rain and wind at it’s worst, but in keeping with the well established pattern today it’s soon gone, and a big rainbow appears. “At least the sun's out now” says Tom, like it’s some kind of condolence at the end of what has been a relatively poor half of football.

Bringing up the rear, the rest of his group having left him to lug the percussion section alone to the other end of the pitch, we finally get to meet the reason we are here today, Luke or the “twat with the drum” as he calls himself. His enthusiasm and clear dedication is the kind that will never be dampened by a little bit of rain or wind, be it Brian or Beelzebub that prefixes that particular weather front affecting the area, Luke is there, according to one fan in the clubhouse he only missed one game home and away last season.

Tom is going to test his delicate insides, not from the black and white trouser wearing chef, but from the tea room, but not before he's got himself a pin from the club shop. Its hatch now open, the woman inside is dishing out enamel badges from old takeaway containers. As much as I like a bit of football tat, I can’t be tempted by the half black half white ‘football supporters wig’ or the WT thermos cup, that someone tells us are on “special offer” like a host on QVC and are only “£1”.

“Full fat, half fat?” asks the woman behind the gingham covered table, who has just handed Tom a sausage roll, and wants to know what strength Coke he wants. There is no sign of the 50/50 results on the chalkboard above the turnstiles, so we join the second half end switch and now with no shelter from Brian, we instantly feel his full force.

The sun now low on the horizon combined with the constant wind, means it’s genuinely hard to make out what's going on, on the pitch, we're required to stand almost side on, half squinting, so as to not be blinded. Tom's sausage roll goes down well, “flaky” he describes it, so flaky in fact standing downwind of him I’m showered in pastry. There is no apology, just sniggering.

In our new spot, we are treated again to the splendid view behind the opposite stand. We are also subjected to forty five minutes of the clang, clang, clang of the nets behind us.

I don't hear my Coke crash against the floor, or the pint of the person next to me, but we both have the same look on our faces. The spilt liquid swirling around our feet having been bitch slapped to the floor by Brian. Tom’s tea has survived, but he spends the rest of the match with his hand half cupped around it, to prevent it from meeting the same fate as my Coke.

“Why didn't he shoot?” asks Tom ten minutes into the new half, when instead of trying himself the WT attacker squares the ball across the six yard box, and its mopped up by the SS defence. Who are just about doing enough for now, to stop WT going any further ahead.

The wind is playing its part more and more as the minutes tick past, affecting the game and in particular how effective SS are able to be going forward. They still try the long ball, seemingly committed to a tactic that Brian is making completely ineffective. It’s as if they can't see the trees which continue to sway and bend, the corner flags which spend more time on their side then upright or the long grey beard of the town crier, which has been parted down the middle and blown over his shoulders like a hair stole.

I put it down to the adverse conditions, as to the reason why the first quarter of the second half was so dull. Quite out of the blue, there is a brief and sudden flurry of chances, not in keeping with the snooze fest of the previous fifteen. A WT shot is deflected just over, and then their keeper makes a crucial save which gets the biggest cheer of the day since the goal and a song from the fans led by the drum “we've got big Gerrard in our goal”.

SS almost equalise, this time the cross is a low fizzing one, instead of high and lofted, but the player coming in at the back post just can't meet it. WT have started to use the wind to their advantage, a goal kick flies from one box to the other and almost catches out the SS keeper “Jesus” says Tom, who reckons they should start taking more “long shots”, with an assist from Brian, you could probably score from anywhere.

The wind is not only effecting the match, but people's style, “love how the keepers developed a quiff, he didn't start with that” says Tom in his professional capacity as the official Beautiful Game barber, about the SS keeper whose unintentionally channelling a bit of Mark Lamarr.

I’m not sure who's more disappointed following WT’s second goal on 76 minutes. The SS player lying face down in the mud who scored the own goal, or us because no-one has changed the scoreboard that still reads 1 - 0. The ring of the town criers bell cuts through the deafening whoosh of the wind as does the sound of the once again animated main stand.

SS are in disarray since going further behind, WT curl a shot just over the bar, and then a volleyed attempt is just off target, not not long after.

The fans in the main stand and in particular one person with a very high pitched voice, who let's out a piercing “no, no, no, no” when SS have one of their increasingly infrequent attacks, are becoming increasingly lively as the game goes on. The Massive who've not been anything but energetic since kick off, are still loyal to the drum, letting out a long drawn out “Wimborne, Wimborne”. Some have climbed the small white wall behind the goal and are holding on to the stanchions, before a man in a high viz waistcoat turns up, and they scamper down.

The honour of ringing the bell is given to the small boy perched lawfully on the wall next to the pirate/town crier/person who participated in the Siege of Yorktown, to signal WT’s 87th minute third. The increased lead fails again to bring about a change to the scoreboard which is now two goals behind, but has confirmed to the home fans that “we’re gonna win the league”.

WT almost bag a fourth in the “three minutes of added time” her highness has informed us of, expectant faces pushed up against the window of the clubhouse and peering out of the club shop look on as it goes down as another near miss. On the final whistle the Empress of Wimborne thanks the fans for their “support” and says “ladies and gentleman” in such a way I don't think I will ever hear said quite like that ever again. It's was literally dripping with ermine.

“Wimborne Town, Wimborne Town” sing the fans, some players respond with that above the head clapping only footballers do. The manager gets plenty of the plaudits as the team walks off, from the small crowd at the mouth of non league's smallest ‘tunnel’, “well done Matty”. One supporter gets a high five from one of the departing players and is beyond chuffed, “I'll never wash my hand again”.

The sun's finally out for more than just a brief visit, the winds still up, and Peter doesn't look much happier than he did pre-match, despite the three points. With perhaps a more level head than the younger fans, his age and experience giving him a bit more perspective,  he gives us his opinion of the match, “to be quite honest they played better football at times” he says about SS, but adds that WT “took” their “chances”, he is also sure to heap praise on the keeper who as he rightly points out made “two good saves at the right time”.

Having heard nothing about the 50/50 or seen an update on the chalkboard, I ask Peter if it was claimed “I think so” he tells me. “Then you didn't win it” adds Tom brutally, fed up watching me week in week out punish myself.

With a definite spring in his step, walking around the pitch alone towards the wall of flags to take them down for another day, Luke is cheerily and loudly singing to himself, “we’re on our way”.

Much of the crowd that Peter didn't think was going to be in attendance now fill the bar. I briefly
pop into replace my downed Coke for the drive home and with a slight hint of deja vu get an equally generous "goodbye" from the man in the West Ham cap as I did a hello a few hours previously.

Having almost "nearly" lost his hat for the umpteenth time, Tom is eager to get in the car, but not before he points out the "party" happening in the nearby WT changing room. With music blaring some of the players are singing along, some just letting out the occasional "wooo".

Weather aside, watching a woman loose a fight with an umbrella and a man refusing an invitation to climb the gantry without a "safety chain" and kudos the the man who did, who was no spring chicken and a braver man than me, he had more things to worry about loosing his hat, our visit to WT was extremely enjoyable.

Excellent facilities, a wonderful welcome, a good sausage roll and a cheap wig if you want one, not to forget the thermos for only £1, get them while you can, but more importantly, Luke and his Massive and all the fans who defied Brian and his wicked ways.

We leave Dorset with the overwhelming feeling of community and that feeling that only non league football can produce coursing though our veins, and with thoughts of starting a Crowdfunder for a new drum for Luke, who for his efforts, deserves much better.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE



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Sunday 22 October 2017

Easy This Managing Lark - Tilbury FC Vs Cheshunt FC, Bostik League North, Chadfields (10/10/17)

My part time job as Tom’s personal chauffeur takes me to some of London's lesser known corners. On this occasion I pass a mural of Mark Noble that wouldn't look out of place on the side of a Belfast house and the bronze effigies of Hurst, Peters and Wilson holding Moore aloft, Jules Rimet and all on the same corner some might remember where the Manchester United bus got bottled on its arrival at the nearby Boleyn Ground, for its very last match.

Having arrived early, yes I do have the capability of turning up on time, I wait for my companion. The honk of my car horn fails to get his attention when I see him, he swivels his head so he certainly heard it, however it's not until I do it again, in combination with some manic hand waving of children's television presenter levels, does he realise it’s me, and not as he tells me once getting in, someone harassing the nearby woman and her baby.

There is a brief moment of silence following his suggestion that he mistook me for some kind of pest, but also because I think he still has a house to view, which in fact he’s already done. Both waiting for the other, there is a long pause before he tells me “we can go” and we're off, yes you guessed to …………………….. ESSEX

The ever so slightly out of place white windmill in the field next to the slip road pulling off the A13 might just be for the next few hours the most picturesque thing we see. The early evening sunset, with it’s many shades of orange, yellow and red is certainly helping, but the rest of Tilbury we have seen up until now is, well let's just say it's not quite picture postcard stuff.

If industrial landscapes are your thing, container ships and cranes are your idea of scenic then it’s well worth a visit. If you don't fall into that category though, then this particular part of Essex on the mouth of the Thames estuary, and still very much a thriving port, is maybe not for you.

The grey breeze block wall with TFC built into it with black breeze blocks, is the only giveaway we have arrived at Chadfields, home of Tilbury FC (TFC). The single barking dog behind the big black gates of the nearby travelers site, only adds to the slight feeling of desolation that has begun to creep over me, the further off the motorway we traveled.

With it’s all black shutters firmly locked, almost looking like it’s been abandoned, the clubhouse from the outside at least, I wouldn't say looks neglected, but maybe it's just seen better days.

When all of a sudden the shutters sputter to life, emitting an almighty screech then a slow rumble as they retract, they reveal windows, through which and past the net curtains we can see signs of life. Until now it had been Tom and I, the faint sound of Gangsters Paradise in the distance and next doors dog. The twinkle of the fruit machines, and the large face of some member of the Sky Sports news team being projected on to the wall, is comforting to say the least.

Inside, the mock tudor look intrigues me, but it’s black beams and white walls match the black and white kit of TFC so they work. Hanging on them, some a little skewiff, are the faded pictures of the clubs past teams. Above the bar pinned to the wall is club merchandise for sale, neon spiked notices inform you of the prices, but the lighting is very low, edging on the side of dingy, and I can't make out how much anything costs. Next to them the clubs trophies, cups and awards clutter a small wooden shelf.

“Game of pool” asks Tom, pointing to the table, next to the fruit machines. I’d much rather play foosball, but I’m too busy earwigging on the conversation being had by the small group sitting at the bar, talking about the recent departure of the TFC manager. “Did you apply?” asks one already sitting on a tall stool next to a new arrival. Another late comer asks them all “any news on the manager?” but doesn't get much of a reply.

John in his green military style jacket, collar turned up in preparation for what is going to be a breezy night, is pretty honest about TFC’s current run of form “dismal” he calls it. Inconsistency is their biggest weakness, in their case not from “game to game” but from “half to half”.

“Team selection baffled us all” he explains about some of the managers choices. An ex club captain who John tells us is “such a nice man” who despite the chairman's best efforts to “talk him out” of his decision following their defeat and exit from the FA Trophy in their previous match, that was it, he was done, he walked. However John does feel that he slightly “deserted” them. It was a young and inexperienced team he’d built, with no member of his defence older than 18 or 19, John felt he should've stuck with them a bit longer.

The Ultras of Italy might not be something you would associate with a non league football club in the South East of England, but when John tells us they had a “sit down with the players”, it all feels a little Curva Nord.

Although we didn't talk, we have been in John's presence before, in another clubhouse. Where he and his merry band had somewhat taken over, singing at half time, and getting a few less than impressed glances, and in some cases a little bit more, from the locals. TFC normally take “30 to 40” away he explains, but he thinks they'll be lucky to get “half a dozen” here tonight making any kind of “atmosphere”.

Only living a stone's throw from Chadfields it was in fact a team a little further afield that he has supported most of his life. Seduced like so many were at that time by the likes of Best, Charlton and Law, he was a Manchester United fan and season ticket holder at old Trafford for “40 years”

Now though it's about “brilliant” non league football, he says lighting up, “I love this now” he tells us. The freedom of not constantly being told “what to do and where to go” that stifles the Premier League appeals to him.

Before returning to the bar, John tells us to keep an eye out for one TFC fan who will be here tonight, Mavis, someone who is still traveling away at the grand old age of 84. Who made the trip up to Notts County, when TFC played them in the FA Cup in 1948. This dip into the clubs history sparks his own stream of nostalgia. He goes on to tell us about his own FA Cup adventure with the club at Stoke. A “football special from Tilbury” his reminiscences borrowing my rose tinted football glasses just for a moment, before handing them back, “those days are long gone” he adds, with a visible drop of his shoulders.

As John put it Chadfields is held together by the odd “four by two”, it's heyday a while ago now, but this doesn't mean there is any less pride in their little corner of the football world. A woman organises and polishes the outside of the Tea Bar, its hatch having just been thrown open for business, all to the sound of Chaka Khan.

No 50/50 tonight, but there is a raffle, tickets are secured from the big chap in the TFC hoody by the turnstile. “Bottle of wine” or a “box of chocolates” are the prizes, he tells me looking back over his shoulder at the brown laminated topped table under what looks like a perspex bike shelter

The grounds main feature is the two storey stand/changing room combo, set back from the the pitch,
which are joined by a caged tunnel, above which a sign reads “Home of the Dockers”. With the sun all but set, you can make out the twinkling red lights that top the cranes at the nearby dock, over the roof of the the single storey red brick stand opposite.

In one corner John and his crew have hung their flags, both quite sizable, one reads Tilbury FC with no great surprise a black and white back ground, the other an equally large St George's Cross with The Dockers on it, just in front of them the TFC team are going through their warm up.

Ain't No Stopping Us Now, by McFadden & Whitehead seems like the ideal song to motivate a team who are not on the best of runs, good subconscious inspiration for the match to come. Evelyn Champagne King then follows, having made her way down from the West Midlands, and she's still going on about someone making her “love come down”.

Standing pitch side, Tom receives a healthy boost to his ego, after he deftly stroked a loose pass back to the beckoning player, “you’re in” he said.

I’m not sure if it's John’s trip down memory lane, something triggered by watching the players of both teams going through their pre match drills or by Toms invite to play tonight, but he decides to share with me a fond memory from yesteryear, and his all too short career as our school's goal keeper. He recounts it with all the authority of one of the great story tellers of history, like a modern day Homer. “They called on me” he tells me, after the first team keeper was a no show, and his performance was so notable, he was asked to play again. Unfortunately for him when he did, he conceded eight and never played for them “again”.

“Come on boys” shouts one of the TFC players over Mr Brightside by the Killers playing over the PA. The arrival of TFC’s opponent's Cheshunt FC (CFC) means there are a few bits of kit porn on show. Not so much the shiny sky blue number of the away team or the pastel yellow TFC keeper’s kit, but the always fashionable, a total classic, every boy should have one for those nights when you just don't know what to wear, the black and white striped home kit. I love a black and white striped kit. There must also be a very honorable mention for the CFC checkered purple goalkeepers jersey, very stylish indeed.

“Tilbury let's get going” orders one player slightly prematurely pre coin toss, because before we get started the teams are required to swap ends. Watching all this from ground level, I have that unmistakable feeling of people being behind me. I turn to spot a pair of beady eyes, peering out across the pitch, having climbed the stairs to the first floor stand, for an elevated view of the first half.

The importance of the match and the situation that the team finds itself in is not lost on one TFC player, “big point to prove” he informs his teammates, as the game gets underway. “Come on boys, come on” shouts another “hunt it down” he demands.

People are still arriving after the whistle, and they will have to find somewhere else to stand, because we’re both very comfortable, “ohh I like this barrier” says Tom, about the one surrounding the pitch, that is at a very forgiving height for a good non league lean.

“Oh hello” coo’s Tom as a TFC cross is swiped at by a CFC defender in the six yard box, who misses it completely, but lucky for him the keeper with the terrifying voice, in his excellent purple kit is behind him to mop up, and prevent any more embarrassment. “Come on Tilbury” shouts one of John and the gang on the far side of the pitch, as the match swings from end to end, first CFC are attacking then TFC.

There are numerous requests from the TFC crowd to their players to “have a dig”, seemingly very eager to comply they do just that, but nine times out of ten the result is wild and well off target. “Like a shot” comments Tom as another one sails wide. They have a little more luck with a cut back into the box, but no one is there to finish and a ball over the top that the forward just can't latch on to.

Tom though has other concerns, not the fact that a Peter Kay'esq ‘Have It’ clearance has just cleared the stand and landed in someone's back garden and as he puts it they now have a “trophy” of the night, but the fact that he has not “seen anybody eat” and he's “hungry” because he didn't have any “lunch”, and yes people, he might have to eat “early”.

Much like one of the great detectives of the small screen Columbo, Jessica Fletcher or Bergerac he has been doing some discreet investigations, and the fact they've “got sauces out” on a table in front of the tea bar, leads him to have some hope.

According to Tom you can't “slip over then nearly pop it in the top corner” but that's exactly what one CFC player does, picking himself up, and nearly bagging an absolute stunner. “Fuck off” shouts Tom as the pastel yellow wearer is forced into a good save, receiving a round of applause from the fans and we see our first real solid chance of the night, after each team's hat full of almosts and off targets.

On the half hour mark all of the home side's early composure seems to have evaporated, and it all gets a bit headless chicken, CFC’s number 9 & 10 and their bulldozer or “pitbull” ways as Tom describes them are literally shoving people off the ball at will, winning it back and setting up the CFC attacks, as the tide starts to turn in the away team's favour.

“We’ve switched off” moans a TFC player as their keeper pushes another CFC effort wide.

The match descends somewhat into a who can shout the loudest competition, the play itself is scrappy and lacking in any real quality. “Switch the play” instructs the CFC keeper to the outfield players, his voice continuing to be of some concern, “fucking scary” says Tom, it really is, it's almost like a roar than a regular human voice.

TFC almost take the lead with a spectacular attempt of Van Basten proportions, it’s so good, the player attempting it hurts himself in the process, with his volley from a reasonably tight angle flying just over. The injury summons a sudden and deathly hush over the ground as the player is seen to. He is soon back up again and is fine, and just as if someone pressed play on the crowd, all the noise is back and the game is once again underway.

It’s then CFC’s turn to go close once more, “I thought that was bursting the net” says Tom as an almighty banger of a shot is once again just off the mark.

“Love that!” shouts an excited TFC fan as bang on half time they take the lead. The scorer looked to be totally crowded out, surrounded in the box, with his back to goal somehow he manages to turn like
a London taxi cab, and with little or no back lift, pokes in his top corner shot.

“Easy this managing lark” suggests a fan to the TFC staff leaving the pitch for the break.

There is no announcement of the winning raffle numbers, just a small chalkboard to check between the turnstile and the tea bar. Before I've even reached it I know I won't be walking away with a box of Roses tonight, Tom makes sure to rub it in just how close I was “off by one number”.

Tom disappears to see if his earlier findings were correct, and the sign of sauce is a TFC Bat Signal for a burger and chips. One TFC fan, an older man in a flat cap was certainly impressed by the effort that put his team ahead, “fucking good goal that”, he also reckons the scorer should be getting a considerable pay rise “give that man an extra £1”.

“You don't know how good this is” says Tom, joining me on the step of the terrace, to tuck into his food, which before he takes his second bite, he can’t stop himself, reiterating to me my raffle near miss once again “one number!”

CFC start the second half as they mean to go on, some wicked feet and the attacker has skipped past his defender, only for his ball into the box, to not be anywhere near as good as twinkle toes and the chance to equalise goes begging.

Back and forth the game goes, TFC go close, “ohhhh” go the crowd, as a free header goes tantalisingly close, “well done Dockers”. Tom gives me the honour of re-joining me, dinner complete. “That was amazing” he says in that glutinous, just finished too much Sunday lunch way that people do when they've gorged a little, next step would be to take your trousers off and sit on the sofa.

The away team are showing all the early signs of a team angered by conceding so late on in the first half, after having a few opportunities themselves to go ahead. They are certainly on top in the opening exchanges, stinging the TFC keeper's palms once more with a fierce shot. Standing now just in front of John, it’s hard to miss Mavis who is just as vocal as the rest, “come on you Dockers”

“Turn and face the ball” she shouts, being of about the same proportions as Yoda, but much, much louder. I’m pretty sure she joins in with every song, as the small group, become more and more animated. “Hard to believe it's not Scholes” they sing as the TFC number 9 spearheads a counter attack straight from a CFC corner. “Life ain't fair when you're born with ginger hair” they sing next about the same player, one of them post song ponders “fancy having a Scholes song and then that”.

Twenty minutes gone and one CFC player earns himself a yellow card after a BIG tackle from the Scottish referee, Tom telling me that “all referees should be Scottish”, CFC frustrations are quickly coming to the surface. Once again they test the home keeper, who's forced to concede a corner, that prompts another rendition of “come on you Dockers”.

TFC continue to drop deeper, and deeper, one fans tip that they “keep it tight”, is a sensible one, but inviting the CFC attacks on to them feels like a dangerous game to me. The Jedi reckons Tilbury were “let off”, as CFC go close for the umpteenth time.

“You don't get nothing for that” says John after a CFC player crashes an almighty long range shot off the crossbar, well out of reach of the keeper. “Come on you Ambers” sings a CFC supporter for the first time, the first and only sign so far tonight of the presence of any away fans.

The many missed chances, hitting the woodwork, the player being poleaxed by a ball straight in the nuts or from point blank range missing what looked like a simple tap in, might be a good clue, as Tom puts it, that it “might not be” CFC’s “day”.

“Don't fall for that” says the CFC number 9 to the referee, as he awards a foul against the visitors. Number 9 feeling that there is a spot of theatrics going on from the downed TFC player. “Why don't you fuck off” shouts a TFC fan to the number 9, who then says something back. “I'll wait for you outside” replies not one of the burly Essex types, but the smallest of them, and the oldest by a long way, who then goes a bit Harry Enfield after challenging the man maybe a quarter of her age, “you're a very rude young man”.

One CFC player insures his team mates a goal “will come” they must just “keep the ball”, and he’s not far off, as they go close once again, but they just can’t capitalize. “How much do we want this?” asks a TFC player to his teammates, after CFC again craft another chance they don’t take, I’m loosing count. The away bench are screaming at the player who had done all the hard work, but can't finish, they could be well out of sight even if they’d only taken half of their chances.

“How many opportunities?” ask the TFC keeper of his teammates, who must take a huge amount of credit for the score still being 1 - 0, to a team in front of him who seem willing to give CFC as many goes as possible to score. The fans watching on, as their team hang on by the skin of their teeth can only sing and hope “come on you Dockers, come on you Dockers”.

TFC almost score with their first foray into the other teams box in what feels like an age, buts it’s deflected just over. However, there is no time for the fans to dwell on their own near miss, as they now have to watch again as they almost concede. One on one with the keeper, the man in goal does well to keep them at bay, but in doing so there is an almighty coming together with the CFC forward. For the second and last time of the night, the few away fans that are actually present, remind us they are in attendance “come on you Ambers”.

Five minutes of extra time to play, five minutes for TFC to hold on, five minutes for CFC to score a goal their efforts thoroughly deserve. Wanting to help those five minutes pass as quickly as possible, the TFC keeper makes sure to ask the referee and his assistant if he is OK to take his goal kick, offering them both a thumbs up, then waiting patiently for an acknowledgment that he is OK to go ahead.

“Fight for it Tilbury” insists a fan, as the never ending CFC onslaught continues. “You’ve been conned there says a TFC player when CFC are awarded a free kick just outside the box, for the second time tonight the referees gullibility is brought into question. Lining up the ball, making sure the valve is pointing in the right way, checking the wind directions, consulting with team mates all seems a bit daft, when you just end up taking a limp shot straight at the keeper. Mavis is less than impressed “should've had a shot” she says sarcastically.

CFC’s last chance of the night just about sums up their evening, they are doing all the right things, but when it comes to crunch time, they just can't convert. “All fucking day” says a nearby TFC fan somewhat overly confidently as for the countless time tonight the keeper saves a goal bound shot, this time with his feet, and there simply isn't enough time left for CFC to try again.

“Hello, hello, we are the Tilbury boys” sing the fans on the final whistle, one TFC coach pumps his fist towards them, and lets out an uncontrollable “wehhey”, one CFC player lies prone on the pitch hands over his face, unable to believe they got nothing from tonight. Both fans and players applaud each other, a mix of relief they held on, and belief that this might be the start of the end of their current slump.

"Forgot how it feels to win" says TFC club secretary Stephen, having to speak up slightly as the team have just put on their victory song in the nearby changing room, some even singing along, "not heard this in a while" he adds with a rye smile. Johns assessment of the teams current inconsistencies couldn't have been more prophetic, very rarely have we seen a team put in two such differing displays, from one half to another.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say, and yes TFC is not the most eye catching of grounds, with the most cutting edge facilities, but they also say beauty is only skin deep, and if you look under the surface you will find a core of supporters and volunteers, who are just itching for their club to thrive again. At the moment it all just feels like its seen happier days, a bit of a hangover from better times and recent fortunes means there is a bit of grey cloud hanging over them at the moment, but they clearly have the people there to shoo that away, Mavis alone could do it on her own I'm sure. They just need that spark on the pitch, to get them going.

Talking of Mavis, I have my own run in with her on the way to the loo, when she tells me because I'm a "big bloke" she wouldn't want a fight with me, but bets she could "run faster than me".

I briefly deliberate with myself while washing my hands if I would in fact lose a foot race to an octogenarian, but I can't stop thinking about some food for thought Tom served me off the back of my most recent raffle failure, "how much have you spent on those?".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Sunday 15 October 2017

Dirty Santa's - Brentwood Town FC Vs South Park FC, FA Trophy Preliminary Round, The Arena (07/10/17)

“Should I bring an umbrella?” asks Tom, climbing into the car, with no obvious sign of rain. Not for the first time I explain that having a brolly anywhere within one mile of a football match, post 2007 will only conjure visions of Steve McClaren, whose decision that night at Wembley, effectively means no one will ever be able to stay dry at a match again.

Anyway we're late, well I’m late picking Tom up. I want to blame it on the baby, but FIFA 18 has to take some responsibility, as does the woman going down the Holloway Road at twelve miles an hour, who was then replaced by a huge yellow digger, that was going even slower.

I don't like to be rushed, I get all of a dither when I’m rushed, and time is ticking. The traffic heading east isn't improving my mood much, my eyes probably lingering that little too long on the clock and off the road.

The amount of time we spend on this particular stretch of motorway, heading away from the capital, yes you guessed into Essex, you would think I would be able to get around blind folded, but alas no, and as I deviate from the magenta path laid out on the Sat Nav, I add another fifteen minutes to our journey, SIGH.

“I did wonder why you turned her down” adds the back seat driver, telling me he can't understand why I have turned down the audible instructions of the digital lady perched on my dashboard. It’s because she’s so tedious, and do you know what, you're not helping with comments like that mate, so keep your opinions to yourself, I’m feeling fragile.

Entering the borough of Brentwood, I inform Tom that it's the home of a certain nightclub, which he expresses his desire to visit at least once in his life. I’m not sure why. I’m so beyond clubbing, I don't think they would even let me in the queue, let alone the front door.

The cherry on the top of the cake, vis-a-vis increasingly worsening mood, is our brush with death. My thirty three years flashing before my eyes, as what I think is a conker or perhaps an acorn, ricochets off the windscreen. It’s all a bit of a blur, we got through it, somehow, all I remember is screaming “I WANT TO GO HOME”.

It might be my confused state, having just stood shoulder to shoulder with the grim reaper, but I drive right past the entrance to today's ground. Again it's not completely my fault, the entrance to The Arena, home of Brentwood Town FC (BT) where we are spending Non League Day this year, is actually that of a leisure centre. The hand car wash is more obvious than the football club, but I shouldn't be surprised, have I learned nothing these last three years? A non league ground can be anywhere.

“Funny little place” says Tom once through the single turnstile, now able to see what's on the other side of the blue metal gate with “Welcome To Brentwood Town Football club” on it. He is particularity intrigued by the couple of armless yellow mannequins, mutilated silhouettes of people dotted around the pitch, the kind players bend free kicks round during their warm up.

The Arena, which I think sounds very Mad Max, somewhere Tina Turner would pitch wonders from the wastelands of a post apocalyptic universe against each other, which might explain the limbless chaps on the pitch, is far from post apocalyptic looking, just your usual hodge podge of non league fixtures and fitting.

Behind one goal is nothing, then behind the other you have the choice of a large covered terrace that Liam the clubs Twitter handler informs us is “affectionately known as the bell end”, because of the presence of a bell and not because of anything smutty. Next door to it is a small seated stand, that looks like something borrowed from Badminton Horse Trials.

The clubhouse, which has the look of a slightly aging Swiss holiday chalet, is all wood by the looks of it, with its bar set back from the pitch and seats out front. Some of which on closer inspection are more like red leather thrones, and are in fact from Highbury according to the faded stickers on the underside. Liam tells us one of the club staff works for Arsenal, so that would make sense. Gotta admire non leagues resourcefulness and ability to recycle.

Just like the sign outside, the one stenciled on the narrow corridor outside the changing rooms, that I spot through the extremely narrow tunnel, it’s about one Tom wide, or the one above the bar, Liam welcomes us to the club, in his flat cap and short sleeve shirt which shows off his extensive tattoos, which he tells us laughing, keep him out the boardroom at away games.

Non league day is quickly the topic of discussion, between handshakes and hello’s that he’s dishing out to the BT players heading off for their warm up. Although for us having Essex on our door step, with it’s never ending amount of clubs to visit is a benefit, for clubs like BT it means lots of competition for bums on seats. He tells us they do so much to try and “entice” people to come, handing out free tickets to local schools is one of them, but it's the “Dads” they want, because they are ultimately the ones who are going to spend some money.

Usually coinciding with the first round of the FA Trophy, Non League Day can be a bit of a mixed blessing, mainly because FA regulations mean you can't augment the price of admission, as lots of other clubs will do today to as he puts it to “entice” people to come.

They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don't by the sounds of it. One common non league initiative is to offer season ticket holders of League clubs not playing today because it's the international break, half price entry, but that can rub up the regulars who are paying full price the wrong way.

He is though ultimately positive, with the “size” of Brentwood, there is “potential” he tells us.

Where as some clubs will really see a lot more clicks of the turnstiles today than normal, Liam doesn't think that's going to be the case for BT. Also having checked their opponents attendance so far this season he tells us it's “unusual” for a club to have “less” than them, so he's not expecting many South Park FC (SP) fans today either.

Liam's story is a familiar one, local, but not a BT fan man and boy as they say, instead a disillusioned ex season ticket holder at West Ham, who as he puts it has “fallen out of love” going to see them, especially since the move to the London Stadium. Not only was he fed up of having to watch with “binoculars” but also the experience his young children was having was not a good one. When your daughter has come home crying, some things are bigger than your team, and you have to reevaluate.

Offer his kids the chance to go and see the Hammers “not interested”, offer them a Saturday at The Arena, they bite his hand off. Not as he explains do they actually watch the match, they’re much more interested having their own one behind one goal on a patch of grass, but win or lose, they'll always be waiting for the players at full time for a high five.

“Normally win, normally win” says Jessica, Liam's daughter confidently clutching her bag of pick and mix, which is about as big as her.

Lastly he tells us that the ground is going to be a little sparser than normal today, normally there are a few flags hanging around the pitch, unfortunately the “well refreshed” person responsible for them on a recent away day, has lost them and now they are doing a “whip round” to replace them.

Once more we are offered a “warm Brentwood welcome” this time by the slightly stern sounding person on the PA. If you could imagine the voice doing a public address warning, which is calm, but with a hint of urgency informing you of an impending natural disaster, he's your man. It’s not to say he’s not enthusiastic or cold, but his delivery is very authoritative. “Enjoy the game” is how he concludes, having read out the teams, I’m not sure if it’s a suggestion or an order.

The appearance of the teams from the blue PVC tunnel catches me out a little, our late arrival has not allowed me the usual time to settle, to get the lay of the land, so I’m caught somewhat on the hop.

As the teams prepare for kick off, the visitors will be be getting us underway, there is plenty of pre match encouragement, forceful clapping and inspirational two word statements blurted out by both sets of players. With the game only seconds old, one BT player demands of his team mates, “get me that ball back”. Another just shouts “up, up, up” I don't think in reference to the heart melting Pixar film, nonetheless, Non League Day is GO!

With the home team attacking towards the small pocket of fans behind the goal, it's not long until they are celebrating. "Great header" cackles one clapping supporter, it looked like an own goal to me, but they all count. The bulk of the plaudits are aimed not at the scorer, but at the BT number 2 whose well delivered cross resulted in the home team going ahead.

Tom informs me he’s “hungry”, having arrived late he was unable to grab anything prematch. He is though a little cautious, “what weird meat we enjoying this week, partridge?” he asks me churlishly after our dabble into faggots at Stourbridge. Today he is free to order whatever he wants. Which I’m sure he will, but he’ll have to wait until half time now.

SP or the “Christmas team” as Tom has christened them, on account of their all red with a hint of green kit, are pinned back, on the ropes and looking like they are going to ship a hat full today. “Liver” is how one player bizarrely abbreviates 'deliver' when he tells the full back who crossed for the first goal, to whip one in. BT go close to a second, a towering header flying just over. “Dangerous” says Tom about the constant BT attacks.

“Got to do a lot better than this” pleads one of the “Christmas team”. After it’s only thanks to the face of their keeper, that they have not gone further behind. “Unlucky blues”, “well played wood” shout the fans.

Just over quarter of an hour gone and it seems like a nailed on second, “Izzy” the zippy BT number 17, has just slotted the ball past the SP keeper from an angle. We all watch on in slow motion as it rolls goal wards, the keeper helpless, some fans already celebrating "yesssss" but instead of going into the back of the net, it hits the foot of the post, and rebounds perfectly into the arms of the man in goal, “unlucky Izzy”.

The BT captain who bares a resemblance to “Stephen Ireland” just a bit shorter, according to Tom, is marshaling the midfield. I reckon he is a bit more Cambiaso than the main protagonist of 'Granny-gate'. Stout and robust he tackles like another son of Cork, Roy Keane, he's not afraid to put himself about, and his distribution isn't half bad either. “Unlucky blue” shouts a fan, following a pass from the captain that results in another BT chance, that's just over. Which triggers one of the BT substitutes to scamper off to get the wayward shot, and you thought you were just chilling on the bench today, and for one fan to lift his arms up above his head, awarding the field goal, like an NFL referee

“What delights are on the menu?” ponders Tom, halftime getting ever closer. Ever since our trip to the West Midlans, he seems to have lost his confidence in the food on offer. Although he explains a “plus of going up north, outside the M25” is that “gravy” will be “involved” with whatever you order.  His keen nose has already detected the whiff of fried onions, which he informs me “smelt good”, and he is very excited when he sees someone pass with a “double trouble” a two patty burger.

Almost thirty minutes in, and SP are offered a lifeline back into the game, thanks to the “dodgy” BT keeper, as one nearby fan put it, after a bit of a flap at a cross results in a scramble and a deflected shot, that goes just wide of the post. “He did not look comfortable” says Tom, one fan can't bare to look, turning his back on the action, “ohhhh”. The man in goal redeems himself not long after, after his goal kick goes directly through one of the small windows of the SP dugout, “good shot!” says one supporters laughing, “hole in one”, adds Tom.

2 - 0, it's not a spectacular goal, BT's number 17 sliding in on his bum to prod home, and is soon back up on his feet he soaring off arms out by his side like an aeroplane. Much better is the celebration of one fan, who momentarily embodies the spirit of ‘The Nature Boy’ Ric Flair, “WOOOOO” he says just like the white haired WWE Hall of Famer.

Cruising with a two goal lead, some fans want “more”, and that might be a good idea. Despite looking pretty well out of it, SP have their moments and with ten minutes of the half to go, they counter following a BT attack. A single player goes on a “wonder run” as Tom puts it, almost single handedly pulling a goal back. Riding tackles he makes it almost the whole length of the pitch, before setting up a team mate, whose shot is saved.

Once again the keeper is applauded, not for his eagle eyed accuracy, but for the fine save that prevents the SP halving their deficit.

BT craft another chance to further their lead, but continue to be wasteful in front of goal, “power not placement” suggests Tom, as one player blasts wide, instead of showing a bit more finesse. However on the stroke of half time Ric Flair is back, as they add a third.

The glory almost goes to my favorite player of the game so far, the marauding BT full back number 2 with his half shaved head. The SP keeper does well to get a hand to his shot, but can't hang onto it, Johnny on the spot, BT's tall forward number 9, is on hand to scoop home, who then gets the first song of the day “Brentwood loves you more than you will know”.

“You guys don't want a season ticket do you?” asks a buoyant Liam, on his way to the clubhouse, our
presence he seems to think is like one of those saluting golden Chinese cats.

At the back of the cramped but lively clubhouse, Tom secures himself a burger from the kitchen not a lot bigger than my car, which is somewhat tardis like, as somehow it's got two people in it.

“Hot” he says, talking that way people do when they have taken a bite of something that is far too hot to eat, and are forced to juggle it around their mouth with their tongue, gob wide open, steam visibly coming out, desperately trying to avoid an injury. Once he’s recovered, he informs me it’s “cooked” and it’s “good” if not a little “charred” I tell him you call that “caramelized”.

“Welcome back onto the pitch our players, Brentwood Town” says Mr Serious on the microphone. Not sure if it’s a veiled jibe at the away team, or he's just forgotten, but there is a definite and considerable pause until he welcomes back the “opposition” onto the field.

Everyone is full of beans, Tom is full of a burger, in the small horse show stand, “three well taken goals, three well crafted goals” is one happy fans assessment of his teams first half, another thinks BT should be “six up”.

Jessica gets the half underway with a few rings of the bell that hangs from the roof of the covered terrace, a half of football with a conclusion, that let's say, we didn't see coming.

“Switch on Brentwood” screams Liam, agitated at the home team's sloppy start, SP are far more sprightly. BT’s number 17 gets his half off to a less than auspicious start, although to be fair to him it’s not his fault he got a “fucking karate kick” in the face, and gets no foul given in his favour. “You bent ref?” asks the fan next to me with the Marshal Mathers hair, who descends further and further into a dark place as the game plays out.

3 - 1, SP are rewarded for their energetic start. Awarded a penalty, after a player is hauled down in the box, the spot kick is dispatched, and there is not a moment of celebration, as the players rush back to their half. “Here we go” says one supporter, with that tone of ‘I've seen this all before’. “Get your heads up, we're winning this” calls out someone, reminding the players of their significant lead, who are playing like they're the ones three nil down, “come on, wake up”

Two minutes later! “Fucking hell”, it’s now 3 - 2, “we could be 7 - 0” says Eminem, who can't comprehend what is happening. “What is it with us and 3 - 0” mulls over one of the group behind the goal.

Less than two minutes later! “Their bench got him sent off” suggests a fan, as BT’s number two makes his way back to the changing room, up the narrow blue tunnel, no one really having any idea why he got the red.

In the space of about three or maybe four minutes BT have conceded two and had a man sent off. Someone has angered the football Gods, who were smiling on them so favourably in the first half.

“Come on referee” shrieks, the 8 Mile star next to me who can't believe the big lunge on their keeper, whose flat on his back for a moment, but soon recovered, has gone unpunished.

Unbelievably BT don't register their first meaningful attack until nearly twenty five minutes of the second half gone. It’s like a different eleven were welcomed onto the pitch after the break, than the one who had to all intense purposes, put this game out of sight in the first forty five. One fan reiterates this anomaly, “how can you play like that the first half, and like this the second”. It’s SP now doing all the tricks and flicks, who also look like a completely different side, however BT are going some way by handing this game to them on a plate.

“Come on Brentwood, these lot are dog shit”. The manager's reply to his team's dismal second half performance is the introduction of a unit, their number ten who in no uncertain terms has been sent on with one job to do, “hold up the ball” . With his arrival and with “twenty to go”, BT are still in it, just.

Tom is now fully committed to the home team's cause, letting out a considerable “ohhhh” as SP flash a header just wide. “Come on Brentwood, lift yourselves” demands one member of the ever increasingly disappointed group around us, who have seen near to no action this end.

The home supporters instructions to their players is for their team to run the clock down, at every opportunity. “Take your time lad” suggests one to a player being replaced, when they are awarded a free kick deep in their half, they emphasise there is no rush to take it, “time, time” repeats one.

SP’s manager rooted to the edge of this area, sleeves of his shirt rolled up, looking a bit like a exasperated deputy head master, watches his team go close again. Liam is getting increasingly hoarse, as his language gets increasingly blue.

Five to go, and the BT keeper is looking shaky, “I get nervous every time they get a corner” mutters a fan.

That was it, that was the chance to rescue what has truly been a game of two halves. The cut back is near perfect, a foot outside the six yard box, all he has to is get his shot on target, but he blazes over, “fucks sake”. I don't think there is a single person who doesn't have their head in their hands. “Only bit of football we’ve played second half” says my neighbour quite rightly. It was well worked, but the finish was wild.

3 - 3, one minute of the game remaining. Murmurs that the keeper should have done better, the ball did seem to go right through his hands, are quick to bubble to the surface. "Talk about frustrating" says one fan with what might be the understatement of the season, another thinks they've “given it to them!” one hopes that it’s SP’s turn to “fall apart, now they're back in the game” with five minutes of extra time to play, and judging by the previous ninety, anything is possible.

The game boils over in added time, and there's a brief outbreak of rutting, which the referee soon gets to grips with, dishing out a couple of yellow cards. “Ref you're a disgrace” howls one fan, who apparently does not agree with his handling of the situation. Another suggests his willingness to blow his whistle, is because he's "probably got a book coming out".

SP almost polish off BT, completing the perfect non league day for them, with three back to back chances in the dying minutes, “come on” shouts the increasingly sweaty deputy head, whose team have done him proud, but can't complete the ‘Miracle at The Arena”. Their final shot is inches over, “should've buried that” says a pragmatic and in equal measure relieved home fan.

It’s mixed emotions on the final whistle, “fuck off” says one fan to no one in particular, Liam offers some encouragement, “heads up lads, we ain’t lost”, one says the kind of thing a parent says to a child, “could of been worse”. There are also differing opinions on the SP fight back, who look dead on their feet, sprawled out on the pitch, I’m sure they're getting a more positive pep talk than the one they got at half time. “Fair play to them” says one supporter, someone else is less generous “we gave it to them, poor side”.

I don’t think it could ever be said BT don’t care, they might have just thrown away a three goal lead, but I don’t think that is down to not giving a shit. As they walk the line of fans behind the barrier, they are all visibly drained and dejected, they shake the hands of the supporters, who in turn wish them luck in the replay.

"Maddest three minutes ever" says Liam, still upbeat, but I reckon wishing he had never offered us those season tickets.

For what was only our second Non League Day, I leave asking myself is it always like this? Six goals, one red card, a warm welcome, Ric Flair, Eminem, Tom burning his mouth and calling SP "dirty Santa's" when they get a bit physical. However, thinking back over the last three years Tom always says odd things, he always burns his mouth, I don't think we've left somewhere thinking, 'God them lot were horrible', we normally see plenty of goals at least one celebrity look-a-like and its not uncommon to see the card of cards brandished on a regular basis, non league football is like this every day of the season.

Non league is for life, not just for non league day.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE




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Sunday 8 October 2017

I Wanna Watch Match Of The Day - Stourbridge FC Vs Alfreton Town FC, FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round, War Memorial Athletic Ground (30/09/17)

Tom looks me dead in the eyes, as I pull up to the tube station, on what is not too common an occurrence for us, a match on a Saturday. He pumps his right hand like the driver of a big rig pulling his horn. Climbing into the passenger seat he unleashes an ear piercing “road trip”

“Autumnal” is his appraisal of the weather, he is quite right, the trees that line the early sections of the M1 as we head to the West Midlands, breaking free from Essex, and heading a little further afield, are many shades of copper and brown. He has come to terms with the fact now that he won't be getting an “Indian summer” this year.

Despite the changing trees, the sky is blue, however this is not the case the more we head into the unknown territories they call Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. “Greying up” says Tom. It really isn't, it really is still quite pleasant, so much so, I’ve spread my still damp jumper across the back seat of the car to dry in the September sun.

I try to distract him from his sneering weather watch, with some honey roasted cashew nuts or pointing out a giant Jaffa Cake on the side of an HGV, but it's only momentary, and he’s soon glaring skywards once more, just willing it to turn nasty.

Between mouthfuls of sugar coated nuts, he recounts a recent workplace injury. Being a barber it would seem has it’s risks. He tells me of the fleshy “u” he cut into one finger with a new pair of scissors. Not missing a single gory detail, he tells me about each minute of continual bleeding, as he held said damaged digit under the tap, and when he pulled off the plaster, how it yanked open the bloody wound.

Cashews demolished, and sure that we would encounter some traffic or would make one stop in a service station for Tom to oggle at what's on offer at the Road Chef, we are neither held up or feel the need to pull over, instead we play ‘spot the football fan’, debating where the many passing coaches and cars are off to. Predominantly it seems to be Watford supporters, unmistakable in their yellow tops and scarves, heading we work out after a quick Google search, to the Hawthorns.

I must admit the the West Midlands, Birmingham, The Black Country, are not areas I know very well. I’ve been on a couple of occasions to watch Spurs at Aston Villa and Coventry, as well as a family day out to Match of the Day Live at the NEC circa 1999, but I can’t admit that it ever struck me as being overly pretty. I’m not saying it’s unattractive, let me be clear, just nothing to write home about.

Making our way ever closer, the promising sign of Stourbridge now on the Sat Nav, we both coo and ahhh, like idiots at a firework display, at some genuinely nice scenery, as we inch ever closer to the home of the Stourbridge FC (SFC) the ‘Glassboys’, the War Memorial Athletic Ground.

Known as the ‘Glassboys’ because of the area's affinity with exactly that, making world famous glass, my eyes are peeled but I see few signs of this once thriving industry. We do see a water slide, protruding from the side of a leisure centre, wobbling as people shoot down it, which if Tom got his way we'd stop and do, but if I didn't stop for Cadburys World, I’m not going to stop for that mate, we need to plough on.

What might go down as the finest of football club entrances, with its red brick arch, stone wreaths and wrought iron red and white gates, it was never going to be missed. Driving through the miniature Arc de Triomphe, I’m not sure whether to carry on into the car park, or to stop and lay some flowers at the foot of it, it’s almost sombre.

Just before making our way inside, it’s hard also to miss the garish neon orange posters that cover the outside, that are far from sombre, detailing today's and future fixtures, like something from a fairground. They also show off the clubs main sponsors a local dental practice.

“A thousand” is how many spectators the steward the other side of the turnstiles reckons will be here today, average gate is about “800” he tells us. It won't be the first time we've encountered the fans of SFC, having crossed paths with them at Whitehawk last season. Having been impressed then at what a racket a couple of hundred if that made, times that by three or four and we should be in for a cracking day.

Well early, of course, we’ve arrived long before kick-off, but are not the only ones. We join the others watching the Women's Premier League match on the TV, below it Tom waits at the bar, standing on a very fetching football inlaid lino. Waiting to see what he returns with, I admire the many mementos of SFC’s extraordinary FA Cup run last season. Pictures and signed shirts, fill every available inch of wall space.

“Like it up north” says Tom, still with change from a fiver, flabbergasted as he always is, by the price of everything compared to home. He also praises that general area beyond the confines of London Underground, “the north” once more, when someone tells him he can smoke his vape, where he sits.

If the bar from Cheers had red and white blinds, a small stage and women with non league football club branded aprons on, well you could be forgiven for thinking you were sitting in the aforementioned Boston watering hole. As more and more people arrive, each one is greeted with a “hello” a hug or a friendly pat on the back. We are treated no differently, a silver haired man in a club tie passes us, asking if we are “ready?” what for I’m not sure, but we smile. And players walking through carrying their kit bags, offer us a friendly “hello” too.

It’s table service for the match day officials, a lady emerges from the behind the bar, with a tray carrying three mugs of tea, there is though still no sign of Norm.

Talking to Nigel the clubs Press Officer, he thinks today's match against Alfreton Town FC (ALF) is an “interesting” fixture, a “good test” against a club from the league above, a league that as he puts it SFC are “aspiring" to be in.

Three quarters of the War Memorial Athletic Ground is your standard non league ground. A mixture of uncovered terracing, what the locals call the ‘The Shed’ which has SFC written across its back wall in large red letters, situated behind one goal, and running almost the whole length of one side of the pitch, the grandstand if you will, all seater flanked by two small terraces, all covered by a corrugated roof.

“Never seen that before” says a man in an ALF tie to two other boardroom looking types, standing on the steps of the clubhouse, looking out over the ground. What I think they have “never seen”, is in fact something we have already encountered this season. Nigel had described it as an “unusual ground” the ALF suits seem to agree.

They could be pointing to the dugouts, their curious position having already caught Tom's eye, “never seen a ground where the dugouts are so far apart”, and neither have I, they're nigh on next to the corner flags.

However, what I suspect they are commenting on is the proximity of the cricket club next door. One boundary and touchline are only really separated by a shoulder height green fence. The brown wooden score board is almost bigger than ‘The Shed’ and the splendour of the pavilion, with its gabled roof, almost makes you want to go and sit on its steps with a G&T, however with the weather as it currently is, no cricket is getting played today.

Opposite an actual shed which is the spot to pick up your programme and 50/50 tickets I’m told, however no one is there at the moment, so I'll be back, Tom is shifting his weight from side to side, nervously waiting for what I’ve just ordered us from the beaming young lady in the SFC apron. Acting as translator, I have nearly ten years under my belt living with a northerner, I’m able to explain to Tom what a “barm” is, but he’s not really listening, he can't stop thinking about what he is about to eat.

I say “us” intentionally, because the local delicacy that is being whipped up for us, as Tom grows increasingly anxious, has me intrigued, so much so I’m breaking my no eating at football rule.

“I love them” said the young lady when I asked her what we are about to eat is like. Tom overhearing someone else ordering what you might call a more traditional football snack, he scowls at me “that's what I should be having”.

Not Bovril, we’ve established that's horrible already, not a samosa, a first for us at a game, and sadly
not what we’ve ordered, I love a good samosa. For the princely sum of £3 we’ve gone for faggots. In fact not just faggots, but chips, peas and gravy too. Almost spilling out of the struggling yellow Styrofoam container, with two forks pointing out of it, lunch is plonked down in front of us. A mass of green, beige and brown. In fact it’s more brown than anything else, it’s all swimming in a thick glossy gravy.

Using the red roof of one dugout as our table, the rain getting heavier by the minute, we look out over the pitch, and tuck in.

Soft. Soft is the word that seems most appropriate to describe a faggot. It’s certainly not unpleasant tasting, but it is certainly soft, and not what I was expecting. Not that I necessarily thought it was going to be hard, however it's so far removed from the explanation of one that Tom gave, after having had them before, because his girlfriend bought them by mistake, and if she paid for them, he's eating them, it’s taken me aback a bit.

Not that Tom would know what it taste likes, he must think I’m a fool, if he doesn't realize how obvious it is he's only eating the chips and peas and is circumnavigating the star of the show.

Soft is also the only word Tom can muster, again it tastes nice, but the texture has thrown us. It looks like a meatball a bit, but doesn't feel like one when you eat it. I suggest it's a bit like a “kofta” but feel so shockingly middle class saying that, I shudder just recounting it.

Whatever it is, it can't be all that bad, the container is soon empty, only a few gravy smears remain, oh and what Tom calls the “sack” the pig membrane casing that binds a faggot.

“He eats his faggots” points out Tom as the players start to dribble out of their respective changing rooms and into the rain to warm up. “He” is the “stocky” ALF keeper with his jet black gloves, whose legs are as thick as railway sleepers.

The arrival of the players seems to coincide with the arrival of more and more fans. “It’s filling up” says Tom, pointing to the main stand, many of the seats or spots on it’s long benches have been occupied. One such fan, Stuart, is putting up a flag on a nearby fence, performing what he calls his “tradition” but not before offering us both a animated “welcome to Stourbridge” and a sturdy handshake. He tells us there will be a few more flags going up soon, when their owners are “out of the bar”.

“See you at Wembley” says Stuart, heading off, and out of the rain. I think he was only half joking, considering SFC’s extraordinary run last year, making it to round three, knocking out the likes of Northampton on the way, anything is possible.

The voices of Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael suddenly fill our ears, however it’s only for a moment. There seems to be a level of indecisiveness from the man in charge of the music, as he soon skips to the next song, not happy with that one, he skips again, in fact he does it a couple of times, before settling on a bit of Evelyn Champagne King, who is telling everyone about how her “baby” makes her “love come down”.

50/50 secured from the man in the club tie in what the voice over the PA informs us is the “programme shed”. The choice of music though is a little misleading, Lovely Day by Bill Withers, doesn't quite reflect reality, the rain has not stopped, but at least it’s the original version. As positive about non league football as I like to be, I can't abide a knockoff cover of a classic. The funk version of Stairway to Heaven, is just plain awful.

“FA Cup day, know what you’re doing” shouts an SFC coach as the team's return to the changing rooms. Hoping I’m sure that they are now focused on the task ahead, there is though a chance they could be a little distracted by the man in the red suit covered in white hearts, who is turning a few heads. One ALF players certainly doesn't have his head in the game, "chips smell lovely bruv" he says to a team mate.

“Come on Stour” shout the fans, who have rammed the main stand, and ‘The Shed’, which is certainly the loudest section of the ground. Governed by the drum which leads them, a chorus of “red army, red army” rings out, moments after kick off.

Squeezed on the end of the front row, having passed the many flags that have been put up joining Stuarts, their custodians having dragged themselves from the bar, we continue to get a little damp, however there is plenty to occupy us, allowing us to ignore the fact we are not totally out of the rain.

The ALF keeper does himself no favours, with a very dodgy goal kick just four minutes in, cementing his position as the focal point of SFC fans attention. “Jammy bastard” one fan brands him, as he just gets away with his iffy kick. Every subsequent one is accompanied by either a “ohhhhh” a blast of a hunter's duck call or both.

“We are Stourbridge, we are Stourbridge” sing the supporters, the drum which sounds like it has seen better days, does a good job in getting a chant from them. One fan though seems more interested in continuing to target the ALF keeper, when most others seem to have let him off the hook. “Kick it you tosser” he shouts, as the ball is rolled back to the man in goal. When he does it again it's joined by an “ohhhhh” but no duck call. “He on your list?” asks one man to the keepers tormentor, “might be” he replies, as he carves the man in goals name into his granite vendetta list.

The slick pitch allows for some dramatic sliding tackles, the kind that never look like they are ever going to end well. The wet weather has not though deterred the ALF fans who I can just about hear at the opposite end of the ground, “Alfreton, Alfreton”. One supporter in particular is unperturbed by the downpour, top off, arms outstretched, calling Mother Nature out.

In the space of six minutes the match goes from a relatively dull one, to one that is well and truly spun on it’s head. Two events so similar, that I’m sure the whole ground is overcome with a powerful sense of deja vu when it’s all over.

“Cherrooo, cherro, cherro” sing the fans around us, waving to the ALF number 6 who is making the long walk back to the changing room, only nineteen minutes into the match. Having hauled down the SFC attacker who was bearing down on goal, who had latched onto a lumped long ball over the top, he was quite rightly shown a red card.

There is much remonstrating with the referee from the ALF players in blue, whose shirts say “the reds” on the back, but it was about as stone wall a sending off as you're likely ever to see.

Six minutes later we all share the overriding feeling of, ‘hasn't this already happened today?’. The crowd singing their second rendition of “cheeroo, cherro” waving this time even more enthusiastically than before. The similarity in the foul that has resulted in the second red card of the match, another long ball over the top, another last ditch tackle that fells the forward, and the way the player, head down seems to take an age to walk off the pitch.

Whereas the set piece that followed the first red card was pretty unforgettable, the second just outside of the box, it’s fair to say, has an outcome which is a little more memorable.

As the scorer of the free kick that has just walloped the ball past the now not so stocky looking ALF
keeper, his own players berating him, many arms flapping and accusations of you should have had that covered, flying back and forth, he is running toward the main stand. Leaping up and into the crowd to celebrate, before he is mobbed by his teammates, and he quickly becomes the base of a team bundle.

The fans sing the name of the players who has just put the home side ahead, “Tommy, Tommy Tonks”.

Now with a two man advantage, you can imagine the traffic is only really going one way, and we look on as a red and white swarm surges towards the ever shrinking ALF keeper.

The away fans curiously, perhaps inspired by their thirty five minute off target shot, that gets a quack, which until now Tom had not noticed, asking me “what's that?” looking over each shoulder for the responsible mallard, they have started to sing again. Perhaps having recovered somewhat following their team's meltdown, I can just make out what the small sodden group are singing, “come on Alfreton”.

Despite the extra players SFC just can't make it count. It's almost like they have so much of the ball, such a huge proportion of possession, they don't know what to do with it. “Hows he not scored that?” asks Tom under his breath, the fans moaning at the missed opportunity. Their team outnumbering and overpowering the ALF defence. The ball is rolled across the box for what had to be a second, only for the ALF keeper to have regained a few inches, helped admittedly by the poor finish, he blocks the point blank shot.

Just before the announcement of “one minute of extra time” there is a shout of “shooooot” towards the player with the ball just outside the box, he does just that, but it’s just wide. However its hard to concentrate on the match, Tom has just informed me there is a person in a "wizard's hat” just along from us, next to the person in the red tinsel wig.

I’m not sure if it’s directed at the man in charge or the players that were fouled, but the ALF fans are at their loudest so far today, as they bellow “cheat, cheat, cheat” towards the leaving officials and players. This is soon drowned out though by another 80’s classic, which in turn is then replaced with an update of some other half time scores.

“I wanna watch Match of the Day” shouts a boy sitting on the railing behind us, disappointed his evening in front of the TV been ruined, when the score from “the Albion” match is read out. Most of the stands are still pretty full, no mass non league exodus, the weather making sure that most people are staying where they are. One fan braving the rain, tells another that he's a “bit disappointed with the crowd” I’m assuming he means the amount, they can't be faulted on the noise they’ve been making.

Someone else venturing into the drizzle is Tom, who throughout the first half was a little bit sulky, on the account of being a bit wet. He suddenly announces he wants some “tea and a Kit Kat”. He pops the hood up on his jacket like a Broadway diva, and struts off, past the smokers, who are forced to take one step out of the cover of the stand, and into the drizzle to hurriedly smoke their moist cigarettes.

Halftime entertainment is the local kids having a go on the drum. One’s thumped out beat gets a muted shout of “Stourbridge”. More impressively though is the person who attempts to play along with James Brown’s, Living in America, even singing along a bit. Got to give him an ‘A’ for effort, unfortunately his choice of song gets little reaction from anyone else.

The small group of ALF fans are fully embracing the change of ends, all now fully clothed, they take up position in ‘The Shed’, which is a little less well occupied than before, but has still enough home fans in it, that things quickly get a bit frosty between the two sets of fans.

Both groups try to out sing each other as the teams emerge, “come on Stourbridge”. The SFC fans coming out on top, purely because of the extra numbers, and not because of any less effort from the new arrivals.

“Oohhhh” cry the SFC fans as their team fizz over an early shot. The resounding feeling among the ALF fans is that they are not getting anything their way at all, “fall over you'll get a penalty” shouts one, another pleads with the man in charge “come on ref, bloody give us something”. There is a joint religious outpouring when in their eyes, they get a decision finally given in their favour “HALLELUJAH”. Unfortunately for them, the free kick they praised the almighty for, ends up on the roof of the stand, don't think it’s going to be their day.

Things continue to get a little fractious in ‘The Shed’. Nothing outrageous or untoward. One ALF supporter is accused of being “abusive”. He quickly counters the accusation put before him insisting he's “not fucking sworn”. Another ALF fan makes his own accusation, complaining that an SFC steward tried to “poke” him in the “eye” with an “umbrella”, but it all soon simmers down.

Tom returns, with a small bowl of chips balanced on top of his cup of tea. “Shall we sing a song for you” sing the ALF fans, towards what has become a relatively quiet home crowd, and not towards Tom, although I am always impressed at his ability to juggle his food.

“Who are ya, who are ya” sing the SFC fans still in ‘The Shed’, antagonising the ALF gatecrashers further, as their team finally double their lead. A close range hooked over the shoulder finish, sees the scorer running off one arm aloft Alan Shearer style. The home fans can finally see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, “que sera, sera, sera, whatever will be will be, we're going to Wembley”.

We’ve moved. Tom wanted to eat his Bounty in peace, and if he gets round to it he’ll finish his cuppa which he bought “twenty minutes ago”. I wondered why he was still nursing it, and there seems a very, very good reason, “fucking hottest tea ever” he explains. We have encountered this phenomenon before, non league tea does have a habit of being far hotter than any other tea.

As well as wanting a more convivial atmosphere to finish Tom’s confectionery, the bickering between the SFC and ALF fans was getting a little tiresome. Once again we use the dugout as a table, peering over it’s red roof, just as ALF take a limp shot on goal, that gets a sarcastic “wehhhhhh” from the fans.

I think we can all name a time in our lives when we have instinctively done something, fractions of a second before the rest of our body, more importantly before your brain catches up, normally resulting in a less than ideal outcome. The decision to inexplicably flick his hand at the ball in the penalty area, can be the SFC defenders example of just this brain/body disconnect for 2017. The referee was in no doubt, a blast of his whistle and a commanding point towards the spot, means ALF have a lifeline back into the game, remember they have nine men!!

“Alfreton, la, la, la”, 2 - 1, penalty duly dispatched, the AFC keeper going the wrong way. “How are they not spanking them?” asks Tom, “are they going to fuck this up?” he wonders.

Not sure what it is, a shift in the wind perhaps, but the momentum is definitely going ALF’s way now. An appeal for what looked like a definite free kick on the edge of the ALF box is turned down.
The fouled SFC player falling to his knees, arms outstretched, he looks like the front cover of “Platoon” as Tom puts it, he turns to appeal to the referee, but gets nothing.

The mood has most definitely changed, it’s tense, “pick it up Stour” shouts a single voice. All the party atmosphere of the first half has drained from everyone, the ALF fans the loudest now, Tom thinking that might have something to do with them being “wankered”. Their team look like the ones who are going to score next, despite their huge handicap. They go close with a whipped cross, that no one can get on the end of, and then have another shout for a penalty denied.

There is one fan though who is still flying the SFC flag high, still giving his all, a young man maybe no older than twelve .Who fidgets and squirms with every pass, has an opinion on every decision. “Come on” he shouts in his own high pitched way, “we need a goal for goodness sake, they've got nine, we've got eleven, come on Stour”. When his team do get a shot on goal, he offers them a bit of praise “well done lads” but is soon back hammering home the fact that they “need a goal”.

Time is running out for ALF, their bench seem to think SFC are playing for time, their keeper in particular, who they think is taking far too long to take his goal kicks, “speed them up ref, seen paint dry quicker” insists a member of the ALF staff on the bench in front of us.

With five minutes of the half remaining, SFC probably get the closest they have come to killing the game off, a riffled ball across the box, only has to be prodded in at the back post, but the two footed flying attempt to do so from the SFC player comes to nothing. One non inebriated ALF fan goes all 1930’s musical, suggesting that would have been “goodnight Vienna” had it gone in.

Much to the delight of the wizard, who is standing right behind the goal, he uses his powers to conjure SFC;s third. Having played now for well over an hour with two extra men, it finally feels like they have put this tie to bed. Pumping his fists, pointing both fingers towards the player who's just headed in the third goal, I’m not sure if he’s celebrating or performing another spell.

“Consolation lads, they do a cracking curry after the game” says a voice thought the red caged tunnel, towards the ALF players, watching on from the edge of the pitch, apparently showered and changed and waiting for the final whistle. They are let's say less than amused with that attempt to console them.

On the final whistle, the referee waits for his escort and for the players to leave the pitch, like it’s an Istanbul derby. One ALF player has said too much and is booked. The SFC players have bigger fish to fry and babies to hold, handed to them from the crowd. As they get closer to the tunnel, they take the time to high five the waiting fans, "red army, red army". One small group of particularly vocal children, beckon over individual players, who are more than happy to oblige with a handshake.

As we get closer to the tunnel, we notice the patched up door, the glass of which has been hurriedly covered with a flattened out cardboard box, which doesn't completely conceal the spiderweb of long cracks, caused I suspect by it being kicked or punched, maybe by one the dismissed players? "No call for that" says a miffed looking Nigel.

We just about find somewhere to sit in the clubhouse, which is now like Cheers on steroids. On the table next to us a large baby, what my girlfriend would affectionately call a "chuff", in his SFC shirt, does his best to evade his Grandmothers control, clasping at beer mats on the table. She tells us she thinks he's SFC "youngest fan". Behind us there is a very, very excited conversation about Harry Potter going on.

I have one last thing I must do before we leave, I've got to drive to Manchester, but not before I've dropped Tom off in Birmingham to get the train home to London, I need to find out if I've won the 50/50. I didn't hear the numbers called at half time, so still have a modicum of hope running through my veins I could break my duck.

It's been "claimed" says Steven who runs the SFC Twitter, he says it very casually, but has no idea how much his words hurt me. We say goodbye to him and Rich, his Twitter guru predecessor, who tells us he'll see us in the "fourth round".

Despite the ALF fans suggesting that the black county is "wank, wank, wank" from our experience today, that could not be further from the truth. Yes they play dodgy covers, yes there was a child in the crowd with a bow and arrow, but these cannot take away from the simple fact that everyone was just so nice.

I could eulogize for many more paragraphs, diving deep into my rose tinted, non league bag of superlatives to describe our day and SFC in particular, but for once less is more. I'll leave you with something that Tom read of the clubs code of conduct, that hangs on the wall of  'The Shed':
Remember entrance to the ground is a privilege not a right!

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE



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