Thursday 7 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the rise of the machines begin at AFC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE




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