Friday 5 January 2018

The Future - Aveley FC Vs A.F.C. Sudbury, Bostik League North, Parkside (30/12/17)

My body groans in response to the alarm on my phone, as I drag my carcass from my bed, doing my best not to wake the baby, lumbering past her on the way to the bathroom to turn on the bath. The added tonnage of countless pigs in blankets and cream filled scallop shells my Mum forced upon me, are weighing me down, as is the notion of now having to cajole my eleven year old son from his bed, get him ready, and then drive him home.

All of that to be done before I can even contemplate picking up Tom.

Four hours, one hundred and twenty five miles, one service station mocha and a near argument with the manager of a well known chain of coffee dispensers later, I’m informing Tom of my arrival. Waiting as I always seem to be doing outside of his flat.

The normally delightfully smelling Tom, today smells more like a liquorice allsort than one of those shirtless men from an indecipherable cologne advert, as he climbs in. I must admit on occasion his scent is a little overpowering, I question sometimes if he bathes in the stuff, instead of just applying the odd dab behind the ears. I would much rather he smelt like the perfume section of a major department store than Bertie Bassett. However, it’s not a new eau de toilette he is sporting, but his toothpaste I can smell, trouble with “sensitive teeth” he informs me, too many Quality Streets while visiting his Mum methinks.

No long trip to some distant county today, no hours spent on one motorway or another this afternoon. Today's game is a bit of a bonus, one I squeezed out of Tom, as he only got back from Devon yesterday, and we’ve a big dinner with friends tonight, so under the condition I could find something local, he was up for it.

There are few more local places to find football than Essex, especially to Toms East London residence, so it's a short hop in the car towards a new ground, for our final match of the year.

It’s been a very quiet festive period for us, sadly it always is. Tom is off at his Mums and I’m playing countless rounds of Cluedo, which it turns out I’m very good at and trying to find the perfect Pokemon themed case for a Nintendo 2DS XL, so it's good to be able to enjoy the tailend of the seemingly endless amount of football on at the moment.

“Feels like we’re heading to nowhere” says Tom, the other side of the A13 looking increasingly desolate. The bare litter filled trees, with their spindly branches like fingers catching all the roadside refuse, somewhat obscure today's venue. Finally a break in them allows us to get our first glimpse of the royal blue stand of Parkside, and the shimmering silver Aveley FC (AFC), written across it.

It’s a mild day, much milder than one would expect for late December. For now the sky is clear and blue, a light blue, a blue that's not quite as perfectly dulux colour chart blue as the main stand of AFC’s brand new home.

Our admiring of the ground is somewhat interrupted by the most brutal of speed bumps in the car park, the yellow and black striped bastard nearly snapping my car in two.

“Welcome to Parkside” it says above the crest covered double doors, however it's not just the words over the entrance that greets us, but also Craig, AFC’s JOB.

Before heading in, I think it necessary to pass comment on one observation I've already made. As nice as our surroundings are so far, those speed bumps nearly dislodged my fillings, they’re like something you might find outside an embassy to stop a runaway HGV, but Craig is nonplussed, “they do the job” he says smirking, with the look in his eyes, that I’m not the first person to have been caught out by them.

Through the doors and into the heart of Parkside, it's hard not to be overcome with an immediate sense of dejavu. The feeling of ‘we’ve been here before’ funnily enough is related to AFC’s opponents today A.F.C. Sudbury (SUD). The glass fronted two tiered clubhouse is a near replica of SUD’s very own home the King’s Marsh Stadium.

“I like the newness” says Tom, “feels like it was opened today” he adds. Not quite today, but not that long ago, August 2017, so it still has that newly decorated smell, and there is the definite air of an Ikea showroom about the place. Not awash with much colour, the single Santa Claus on one wall between two wreaths, and a sparsely decorated Christmas tree in one corner, therefore stand out a bit.

Craig who has gone from door man to bar man, polishes the long bar, as well as doing the last bit of mopping, upholding the non league tradition of the hands on board member.

He lets out an almighty sigh when I ask him how he thinks today will go. “Two sides struggling for confidence” he explains, two teams with indifferent form at the moment makes it hard for him to put his finger on how it will pan out.

When the conversation turns towards Parkside, Craig bristles with pride, reeling off a list of National League sides who train here, a “testament” to the high standard of the “facilities”. In his role not only as Chief Executive of AFC but also as Vice Chairman of the Bostik League (Isthmian League) he has visited a fair few grounds in his time, creating a vast mood board in his brain, keeping note of “little bits and pieces” from which he drew upon when it came to drawing up the plans.

The viewing gallery above us, just like the one at the King’s Marsh Stadium, that Craig freely admits was his inspiration, is his favourite feature. Not wanting to boast, but clearly doing so by telling us, he reckons it's one of the best views going, but doesn't want us to just take his word for it, “let me show you”.

Marching off in front of us, he guides us to our now elevated position and its unparalleled view of  Parkside’s main 3G playing surface. He also points the various grass pitches that surround the ground, which are for the use of any number of the twenty plus youth teams AFC currently have.

We visited AFC’s old digs, Mill Field and although it was bursting with character and non league charm, with its old wooden stand and long crumbling concrete terraces, Craig is adamant the change was required, and he tells us that it has already been proven warranted with the big jump in attendances. More a leap than a jump if I’m honest, from an average of seventy five to two hundred and fifty he says is solely down to the “facilities”.

As with any relocation, some fans couldn't understand “why” they were moving he tells us, and I understand that. A club's ground is so sacrosanct, filled with so many memories for the clubs fans, as Craig puts it Mill Field was “unique” and they “don't build them like that anymore”, so it can be hard for supporters to contemplate playing anywhere else. However Craig is sure that the “rundown, 50’s ground” was keeping people away. There are now more women and more families attending games for example, because he thinks due to the “facilities” they have become a lot more of a “family club”.

Tour over, Tom and I take up a place on one of the large round functions tables in the bar, looking up at one of the two TV’s on the wall. Although it's well before kick off, a few people are already here, escaping the reheated turkey curry and shocking Christmas TV schedule. Those not interested in the final minutes of the televised game, flick though their programme, one of which I have of course already secured, one man nigh on studies it, with his glasses perched on the top of his head.

Tom studies his phone, “you're above me!” he says surprised, having realized I have overtaken him in the Fantasy Football. He is not best pleased.

Our modern backdrop has made Tom come over all nostalgic, although Parkside is pristine, it is lacking any real personality, its similarity to the King’s Marsh Stadium does make it all feel a little bit flat pack. Although crumbling and cramped, Tom uses his visits to Highbury as an example, where there was a good chance a pillar would be in your way, of a ground that felt “like football”, a feeling for now at least Parkside, and any new developments are lacking.

As an Arsenal fan, he is probably best placed to understand the conflict between old and new, the pros and cons. He admits that places like Parkside are “the future”, but I’m not sure if he thinks that's a good thing.

My final flutter of 2017 sees me hand over £2 for two strips of yellow raffle tickets, the seller informing me its “cash prize” that will be “called at half time”. Tom is impressed that I ”didn't have to leave” my seat, people are now I’m sure able to sense my desperation, and now seek me out in search of an easy sell.

The second big sigh of the day comes from Gerry, an AFC fan since “1963” who for his first game saw them win “11-1”. Much like Craig he tells us it's “hard to say” how AFC will fare today, “depends what team turns up” he tells us, AFC “can't string two results together” at the moment, consistently inconsistent.

Gerry who is familiar with our ramblings, before leaving us asks, “you’re always early to games, can't just be for the programmes?”. I let out a nervous laugh, hoping that will placate, not wanting to admit that’s exactly why. I can't go through Erith again.

“Think we’ll win 11-0” says the always immaculately turned out Mark, SUD’s manager, who claims to be “even smarter today”, than the last time we saw him a few weeks ago, where we were bowled over by his far from typical non league get up. Everything from his Rupert the Bear esq waistcoat to club pin is gleaming. His firm handshake and big smile, that show off his Hollywood teeth are just as friendly as the last time we met, although my last memory of him, was the scowl on his face, as he marched off the pitch following SUD’s defeat.

Although the score might not be as emphatic as “11-0”, “I say that before every match” Mark tells me
laughing, he does think his team will “win” today. He admits SUD are a work in progress, most of his team were playing “under 18’s football” last season, so as he explains he has been given a free pass if you like this year, to build the team in his vision, playing a style of football not common in this league which he says shows the kind of “foresight” SUD as a club have. However the age of his side, does mean that some struggle with the “aggression” and “blood and thunder” defending of other teams, a reason for his teams own up and down form.

Slowly but surely both teams start to come out in ones and twos. One AFC player attempts to finish 2017 on a high, attempting a bottle flip with a large Evian bottle, but can't pull it off. With the arrival of more and more from each team, Tom notices a definite theme, “very clean” boots, wondering “how many got new ones for Christmas?”

Perhaps it's his recent large intake of refined sugar, but Tom’s mind seems particularly all over the place, flitting from subject to subject at a record pace. First it's a slightly barbed and sarcastic comment when I’m handed a team sheet “didn't have to pay for it” (I did at Bromley), then he goes all ornithological when his attention turns to the wildlife, “lots of birds here”, and then of course the food.

He may have eaten a family's worth of Celebrations while at his Mums in the past week, but he still has a healthy appetite, “Oh burger and chips” he says lecherously, noticing a few AFC scarf wearing fans tucking in, in the stand.

Perhaps not realising quite how creepy he sounded, I shoot him a glance, keep yourself together I think, “just checking out the goods” he explains.

The first time we heard the voice over the PA, he was ever so slightly monotone almost robotic, with no huge amount of emotion in his voice. However it’s all change when the concertina grey tunnel is extended and the players are welcomed onto the pitch.

Just before the players arrived I overheard the final instruction to the gaggle of excited ball boys, lined up, and awaiting their player. “Remember you’re ball boys so no just watching” they're told, one young man informs another that their role today is a “big responsibility”, looking anxious enough already, I’m not sure he needed the added pressure.

Sadly there is a moments silence for an AFC committee member who recently died, that is impeccably observed. The players stand still on the centre circle either side of the referee and his assistants all with heads bowed. The man in charge takes the pause to discreetly check his pockets to make sure he's got everything, before blowing his whistle, and inviting the atmosphere back to Parkside.

“Give it up for Aveley FC” says the PA who has done a full 180 and now sounds very chipper. So eager are the ball boys, the already noticeably freezing cold ball boys, I don't think they quite understood how much standing about they had to do, they are told to take a few steps back from the very edge of the pitch.

“More like Birmingham than Spurs” says Tom when I suggest our game of ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ is perfectly poised, AFC in white and blue, Tottenham, SUD all in red Arsenal, but he doesn't see it like that, eventually we agree on Porto Vs Leyton Orient, somehow the Portuguese super club getting a mention again. Regardless, the SUD keeper is in a delicious pink jersey and is the clear winner of the battle of the kits, beating everyone all by himself.

Early on, about six minutes into the game, and a pattern is quickly established, that continues for the full ninety. Whenever AFC go close, on this occasion its a side footed attempt that goes wide, it is always followed by a gasp from the main stand and then a very mild mannered ripple of applause.

It's hardly a “lightning start” by either side as Tom puts it, inserts joke about too many chocolate oranges here. if anything its all a bit “sloppy” Tom adds. The home side are probably shading the opening exchanges, again they put a chance wide, “that was a good shot” says one of the shivering ball boys, the crowd following protocol, gasping, then applauding.

“I’m hungry” says Tom, I must admit I am too, my early start means I’m full of coffee and very little else, however Tom is a little stumped, unable to quite see where the people with food are getting it “I don't know where its coming from” he says scanning every conceivable place.

There are most definitely two styles of play on show today, and Mark’s suggestion that his team struggle with the physical nature of the league, means as Tom points out SUD are sometimes “bullied” off the ball quite easily. The home side are direct, with a ‘big man up front’. SUD are more inclined to play it on the ground as we saw when we visited them, and play some attractive football at times.

SUD switch the ball excellently from one side of the pitch to the other, “great ball” shouts Tom as it catches out the AFC defence, allowing the all red attacker to surge into the box, who then goes down, no penalty, looked like one. The AFC players suggest to the referee that if it's not a foul “it's a dive” and he should punish the SUD player accordingly, but he does nothing.

“Shut up and play” says the man with the gruff and scary voice behind the goal, I think he's an AFC coach, he’s certainly dishing out plenty of instructions to the defence and whoever he is the players listen, and give up arguing with the officials sharpish.

Tom is hardly decisive when I press him for a score prediction, 1-0, 1-1, OK 1-0 Aveley”. They have certainly had the lion's share of the chances and when with eighteen minutes gone they take the lead thanks to a towering header from a corner, Tom’s prediction just a moment before is both spooky and accurate, for now. “I’ll go with that one” he says sticking to the third of his three suggestions, just after it became correct.

The voice over the PA is full of joy once more, having fully shaken off the early cobwebs. When he reads the name of the scorer out, there is the expected clapping, and then a little more, a few woops and cheers from what it would seem is the players very own fan club.

One ball boy sings quietly to himself, “1-0, 1-0, 1-0” , one SUD player asks his teammates loudly, “guys are we gonna switch on?”.

SUD have moments of real class, you could even say pizzazz. “Cheeky, cheeky” says Tom as a forward uses the flight of the ball and his good movement to turn his marker and get away. They are not shy of using the odd back heel, which is fun to watch. “They’ve definitely woken up since the goal” says Tom, only for them to contradict his praise and my appreciation of their smart play, when they have a throw in in a promising position and go and throw it straight to AFC, “what do I know” says a bemused Tom.

Another “ohhhh” another ripple of applause from the crowd, half had gone as far as starting to celebrate what they all thought was a certain goal, when the ball was fizzed across the box and looks destined to be poked in, but the chance goes begging. AFC are going close, but just can't finish.

The game has become “congested” and somewhat “stuck in the middle” of the pitch suggests Tom. AFC look most likely to score, despite SUDs “youthful, nippiness” as Tom puts it. Other than at “set pieces” where AFC have looked dangerous, “they've not created much” and SUD certainly pass the ball around a lot, but with nothing at the “end” of it, he adds.

“Sounded like something out of Star Wars” says Tom, I having just done my best X-Wing impression apparently. My sharp intake of breath sounding like the Rebel Alliance craft, having just watched what was shaping up to be the most wonderfully executed volley from outside of the box by an AFC player, only for an SUD defender to get the slightest touch on it , and deflect it over..

“Save!” says Tom, the very tips of the outstretched fingers of the AFC keeper having just stopped the SUD equaliser. When they do click they show so much promise, but its few and far between.

At the other end the visitors continue to just about keep AFC at bay. Their direct or “long ball” approach as Tom calls it, is being foiled time and again, normally by the very last defender. However
it only takes one slip in concentration and they'll be bearing down on goal. It certainly seems the home sides main tactic, as Tom puts it “if you try ten times, one will go in”.

The single SUD fan in his blue and yellow scarf and flat cap, standing behind the goal, is getting increasingly annoyed. First he questions if they know what colour strip they are playing in today, their profligacy with the ball is starting to wear thin, “we’re playing in red you know”. Then almost at the end of his tether he insists loudly that his team “pick it up a bit”.

Close to the half time whistle, wandering past us on his way to the bar, he watches on as SUD have one of their rare forays into the box. Firing it along the edge of the six yard box, but no-one is at the other end, “oh fucking hell” he mumbles to himself.

Tunnel out, matchday sponsor wished a happy birthday, score confirmed, players make their way inside.

A hidi high dingdong over the PA catches me unawares just outside the toilet scrabbling for my tickets for the draw, only to find out I’m not even close. As Tom reminds me before disappearing for food, “you've had your winnings”. Is he right, will my win at Taunton be the only one?

The clubhouse is busy, seems silly calling it a clubhouse, there is not a spot of mould or dodgy carpet in sight, it's more like the executive lounge at an airport.

Half listening to a couple of AFC fans discussing the first half, they both agree “it's all about getting that second goal”, I lose track of time. The voice over the PA asks everyone to “please welcome” the teams back on to the pitch, which triggers a mini rush for the doors, and I realise Tom is nowhere to be seen.

SUD’s chances of getting back into the match take a dent very early on at the beginning of the second half, their number 9, one of the “super signings” he is brandished, who one person suggests he's not “done anything anyway”, so he won't be missed, is shown a straight red. “Must be something he said” suggests a nearby fan, as there was certainly no foul. He was the one appealing for a foul on him, but he didn't get it and I’m guessing let the referee know what he thought of that.

As he makes the long slow walk off, the PA announces his transgression, the likes of which, I’ve never seen done before. Do we really live in a world now where red card shaming is acceptable?

The fact a disgruntled Tom returns ten minutes into the new half chipless, they were “sold out” he tells me, his dream of us “eating together” scuppered, might have something to do with the two hundred and seventy one people the voice over the PA has just confirmed are here.

“Some onions would of been nice” replies Tom between hurried mouthfuls, as I conduct my assessment of his burger, taking place on the hoof as we take up a new position for the second half. Prodding him like Jeremy Paxman would a Tory minister, I want to know how it is, half trying not to choke, I finally get an “OK” out of him, which he revises to “nice” once he's able to breathe properly.

The tackle that gives away the penalty at the far end of the pitch was so loud, that it sounded like it was right in front of us. "There goes my prediction", says Tom. With the chance to double their lead, the AFC player steps up, and after a bit of a pause, crashes it off the crossbar, bouncing back down, but it's not over the line. “What, no!” says a ball boy, unable to comprehend that he’s missed. It was a bit of a “thunderbolt” comments Tom, more Shearer than Pirlo.

With the sun now dipping down, it's all snoods and hands in gloves in the small stand opposite it's bigger showier brother. Plenty of people are taking advantage of the soft furnishings of the viewing gallery and are watching from inside, but many are braving the ever lowering temperature and are still doing things the old fashioned way, watching pitchside.

You wouldn't know AFC had the man advantage at times, they are still fashioning chances, with twenty minutes gone another ball travels right across the box and out the other side unimpeded. “Bust a gut” shouts one of the AFC bench to the players, but not one can get on the end of what was a cracking ball.

It feels like the home team are slowly, slowly turning the screw on the depleted visitors, again the ball is in the box, this time the keeper in pink punches it clear, along with a bit of one unfortunate AFC player and I can't work out if AFC are just not being clinical enough, ruthless if you like or are SUD showing a high level of maturity and an ability to soak up the pressure, and deal with being a man less.

AFC think they have doubled their lead, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside. What started off as an SUD corner, quickly turned into a rapid AFC counter, the keeper parrying the first shot, but the player who thought he'd got that “important second goal” had strayed offside.
Ten to go and this time it's a “big save” from the AFC keeper, who stops SUD scoring. The loudest of applause from the crowd since the goal, signals just what a good job the man in goal had done and the closer we get towards full time, the home side still only one ahead, despite all their time around the visitors goal, the more SUD look like they are going to nick a point.

Five to go, “we ain't gotta force it, keep the ball” pleads a member of the AFC bench. AFC are getting to the edge of SUD’s box time and time again, each attack almost a carbon copy of the last, but the crucial pass or cross is always a little panicked. Each time their attack falls apart, it feels like one step closer to SUD going up the other end and biting them in the arse.

Finally they look to have made done it, a well worked attack, with the smart final pass, but the ball is blocked just in the nick of time for SUD at least. Another ball into the box follows, again no-one is there to meet it, the bench are quite literally pulling their hair out.

“Told ya” says Tom smugly, SUD have done it, on the eighty ninth minute.

The mood of the PA has taken a very sudden, severe and noticeable nose dive “five minutes of injury time” to play he tells us. The bench close to losing their shit want to know “where the fucking desire?” is, there is still time to get the win I think they ultimately deserve.

Wave after wave of AFC attacks are close but no cigar, they win a free kick in a promising position, but its poor and comes to nothing. Then it happens, the match defining moment, more than the red card or the penalty miss, but a penalty that wasn't given. The right wing and in particular the AFC number 15 have been the main if not sole outlet in the second half, he bursts into the box, right in front of us and seems to be bundled over..

Despite the appeals from nearly everyone the referee is having none of it and waves it away. “Fuck off” shouts one AFC player on the final whistle, hoofing the ball in the air.

Most of the black silhouettes in the main stand, caused by the blinding floodlights have disappeared, as have SUD. AFC’s players on the other hand are still strewn across the pitch some flat out on their backs, looking skywards. There are offers of help up from teams mates to get up, but some can't quiet drag themselves to their feet yet, much rather staying put to contemplate the lost points.

The loudest voice coming from the on pitch debrief is that of the AFC goalkeeper, beyond livid it's fair to say, that they conceded so late in the day.

Craig is behind the bar once again, clearly and understandably glum, “got to kill teams off” he says. Also in the bar is Mark, who is at the other end of the happiness spectrum, “love to hear what you made of that” he says to me cheerily, ordering a drink, much needed after his sides last minute smash and grab.

On the subject of the last minute penalty shout Craig said it “definitely” was but admits the referee was “never going to give it in the 95th minute”.

New won't be new for ever, Parkside will loose some of that out the box feel over time, a few marks here, a few scuffs there and it will start to feel like 'home' in no time.

On our way home, I always seem to find myself mulling over one particular thing from the past few hours. Very rarely is it a pass, a tackle or a goal, but normally a person and something that they had said or done. Ultimately its the people who are a clubs DNA. It's the volunteers and fans, who define a club not bricks and mortor. Yes it would be great if every ground looked like an Archibald Leitch creation, but variety is the spice of life, and if such temples of the 'Beautiful Game' a full of populated by unbearable sorts, who cares what they looks like anyway?

As Tom checks to see if he's overtaken me in the fantasy football, I try and understand the actions of one man, standing in the smaller of the two stands, who we both noticed during our prematch amble, pulling on quite inexplicably a pair of waterproof trousers. Tom looking at me wondering, "maybe he knows something we don't know?"


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