Wednesday 28 March 2018

Two Pairs Of Socks Today - Dulwich Hamlet FC Vs Worthing FC, Bostik League Premier, Imperial Fields (18/03/18)

The closing bars of the Desert Island Discs theme tune lulls me somewhat into a false state of security. I’m sure I can feel the sun on my face, the rustle of the palm fronds above me and the feel of sand between my toes. My mind is clearly playing tricks on me though, because outside my car it's like a scene from a well known Rebel Alliance bolt hole, which is only reinforced by the sight of Tom almost waddling towards the car, like a toddler with too many layers on.

“Two pairs of socks today” he explains.

I’m not a religious man, so I don’t feel like I’m being disrespectful to some higher power, by doing stuff on a Sunday. However I have my own strict views, neh philosophy on what one should be doing on this holy of days and the very core of this mantra is centred around not leaving the house.

Unless it's for a croissant or some other such baked morning pastry, its mandatory to watch at least one black and white World War Two movie, watch at least one if not two mediocre televised football matches, European or domestic, and never, I repeat never move from the sofa, unless absolutely necessary.

Just about the only thing that will get me dressed and out, among the park walkers and day time drinkers is football. Sadly non league football on a Sunday is an all too rare occurrence. Yes there are a few teams, mainly loggers who don't have their own ground who play on the sabbath, but other than that, you might have more luck finding someone who doesn't shout on Arsenal Fan TV.

So as delighted as I am that I’m driving over a selfie taking covered Tower Bridge, heading to a game, it’s just unfortunate that the circumstances around the club we are visiting, meant it wasn't played the day before.

Unless you have been living under a rock these last few weeks, living in some self imposed football news blackout, you cannot not be aware of the plight of one particular pink and blue wearing non league club, whose badge looks like the lesser known house at Hogwarts, Dulwich Hamlet FC (DH).

Crikey their circumstances has been brought up in the House of Commons, has the backing of the likes of Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand and ex Dulwich player Peter Crouch. Their unscrupulous to say the least landlord has locked the gates on their home of eighty seven years, evicted them, and has thrown the club into turmoil.

However the fans of DH are not the kind to sit idly by, sitting on their hands to see what happens, they are far too proud of their clubs heritage, what they have achieved on the pitch and the work they do in the greater community, to let one arsehole ruin that.

Suddenly homeless at a crucial part of the season, very much in the running for winning the league, some might have said that the off field distractions may well derail their seasons, only for a knight in black and white striped armour, to offer a helping hand, and save the day.

I certainly don't know of any other examples of two traditional foes, shacking up, to assist in the preservation of one of the main topics of your fans songs. I know Spurs and Arsenal shared White Hart Lane during World War Two, however that was for slightly different reasons, but at least it shows its possible.

So when DH were approached by Tooting & Mitcham United FC, who forgot old rivalries and offered up their stadium as a temporary home, for the remainder of the season, I imagine no one was more surprised, than DH themselves.

Despite how hideous outside it is, Tom is surprisingly upbeat. “It will be worth it” he tells me, he reckons we will be treated to an “8-6” score line, in return for our commitment to braving the elements. His positivity takes a little dent when I tell him it's unlikely that the dumpling stall from our previous visit to watch DH at Champion Hill, that were so good, I named the blog after them, are unlikely to be there. He does though explain he is even more determined to have a “Cup-a-soup” today, after failing to get one at Basingstoke yesterday, where he was unable to satisfy his craving.

The pitch of the regally named Imperial Field is almost completely covered in snow when we arrive, as are the steps of the large covered terraces at each end of the pitch that really makes this ground quite unlike any of the others we have visited. One hardy soul though has already cleared the lines, today is very much an orange ball day.

Tom the DH media officer, not the moany one I spend too much time with, hopes that they will get around one thousand through the gate today. Yesterday there was a superbly attended march in support of DH’s predicament, and he would hope for just as good a turnout today, despite the awful weather.

DH are a well supported club, sometimes getting bigger head counts then league teams, so an eight mile detour across South East London for their fans, is unlikely to put them off. If anything, people will want to be here in even greater numbers to prove they won't be bullied by the main protagonist in their current struggle.

Almost under his breath, but not going as far as covering his mouth, like an over sensitive Premier League player leaving the pitch after a match, he admits he “fucking" hates "Tooting” but “loves” their ground.

A few of the Thermos and sandwich brigade have already taken up position in the main stand, fully stocked and well prepared for what ever Mother Nature throws their way, the same cannot be said for the man wandering around in shorts. Just like at Basingstoke yesterday, where the weather was just as atrocious, someone here also seems impervious to the sub zero temperatures.

Although disappointed at the absence of the dumplings, the smell of the Caribbean BBQ has Tom intrigued. We head in the general direction of the wafting smell of burning charcoal, where I hear the call of the programme seller “programmes £2” he shouts. Not only is he ensuring I can add the vivid pink matchday magazine to my collection, but also that there is the promise of a prize if the one you purchase has one of two “pink stars” you will win yourself a “lucky bottle of prosecco”.

A matchday programme, 50/50 tickets, and the potential of a free bottle of bubbles too. I have all my matchday essentials wrapped up in record time.

“Testing 1 - 2” says the voice over the PA, who is then cut off by the most monstrous feedback, that sounded like a “spaceship” according to Tom, someone getting to grips with a new system perhaps. Once he has stopped the awful noise, he is quick to offer a “thank you” on behalf of DH to their “hosts”, and apologies to the visiting team Worthing FC (WFC) for “inconveniencing” their “Sunday”.

The normal colour scheme in these parts is very monochrome, quite the opposite from the vibrant
pink and blue DH wear. It is well documented that I’m a big fan of pink in the football sphere, particularly when a keeper wears it, but I’m also far from adverse to it on an outfield player either, Palermo and Juventus 2015/16 away kit, gorgeous.

It is therefore pleasing to see, that even though this is a long way from home, well not that long, but you know what I mean, that slowly but surely as the fans start to arrive, so does that one colour synonymous with the club. Hats, scarfs, flags, and banners, even a dog has got in on the action.
Before kick off a brief presentation takes place on the sidelines, a crystal decanter is presented to the DH management duo, the Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans of South East London, but far more successful. “500 competitive matches” in charge, the “longest serving managers” in the clubs history, according to the voice over the PA.

With the half's decided, and each set of fans knowing where they will be spending the next forty five minutes, there is a sudden and almost instant increase in activity. Not just from the home fans but also the visitors. Both with a distinct colour scheme, the pink and blue of DH is soon plastered all over the ever so slightly treacherous ice covered steps of the terraces, no grit or salt on there, they are braver people than us. Most striking of all is the giant striped scarf hanging from the front. There is only one real deviation from the pre agreed, a Saltire someone has erected.

In the away end, red and white is the order of the day. WFC's fans have their own selection of flags that are soon up, as well as a sizable drum, and it’s the visitors who have the first chance of the match, even before all the flags can be unfurled. Not long after, they have another attempt on goal, however the shot is wild, the player responsible sending it sailing high over the goal and the stand behind it, “sign him up” shout his own supporters.

From our spot in the front row of the stand, whose own steps were no picnic, I’m too big to fall over, so adopt a shuffling, OAP's gate to get to my seat. I try to remember the recent advice of Caerphilly County Council to walk like a penguin. Beyond the confines of the ground, a large field, and all the surroundings houses are covered in a thick layer of snow.

“Hello, hello we are the Worthing boys” sing the WFC supporters, who make up for their lack of numbers, by for the moment at least being much louder than the DH fans, who almost fill the whole of their terrace, outnumbering them considerably. DH flash a ball right across the box, which gets a sizable gasp and a “ohhhh” from the supporters around us.

Such is each set of fans devotion to their respective clubs colours, there is a brief exchange between them started off by WFC’s “we’re the red and white army”, which gets an almost instant response from the other end, but with the obvious relevant changes, “we’re the pink and blue army”.

It's a lively start on the pitch, and the noise from the fans, are all justifying the extreme temperatures. I’m sure it’s mostly down to sitting and not moving about, but I’m already totally frozen and maybe after spending the previous day standing around outside, explains why I really feel like shit.

WT's fanatics according to one of their flags, continue to grow in volume, their drummer in his white baseball cap and red and white striped scarf, is genuinely a very good one. A big step up from aimless passing, that we so often see, he his showing some bona fide skill. Neither of us are sure though if it's a coincidence or as Tom queries are the DH fans “copying” all the WFC's supporters “songs”, but there is more than one occasion when WFC’s finish a chant, and DH’s reply with the same one.

I’m sure in a sign of solidarity, rather than some aggressive non league ultras curva takeover, a DH banner is raised in the away end.

I am pretty sure I’m watching the fans more than the match, but I don't think I've missed much. It's been a relatively equal first fifteen, after WFC's lively start. On the terrace their fans also continue to impress, finding a few more decibels here and there as they only seem to get louder. The pick of their songs so far is a simple one, to the tune of ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash, and only has three words, “we hate Bognor”.

“I’m hungry” says Tom, looking at me with puppy dog eyes, like I’m going to do something about it. I feel awful, but I’m not going anywhere, the steps are far too slippery, plus I’m trying to work out what the most recent DH song is in reference too, “we’re the famous Dulwich Hamlet and we look like Tuscany”.

I really struggle to connect the dots between a non league club in London, and a popular and picturesque Italian holiday destination. Something about the pink and blue hews of a summers sunset?

Tom returns from the tea bar behind us with sustenance, much needed sustenance contained within a  paper cup, with a white plastic lid. Managing to scale the slush covered steps, that make my heart go in my mouth every time someone uses them, I wouldn't go up or down them without crampons, like East London's very own Paul Daniels he produces a quite large and warm Pukka sausage roll from his coat pocket.

“Moreish” is how he describes it, looked a bit soggy to me, not even finished yet he tells me he “could do another one”. I just settle for my tea, but he's already wishing he had got himself a “Mars bar”.

“Here for the Worthing, you're just here for the Worthing” sing the fans to our left. The man waving the pink and blue checkered flag in reply makes his position on who he is here for quite clear.

DH play for a significant stretch of the half with ten men due to a blood injury, the poor player is forced to stand on the touchline topless, while he is seen to. In the end what Tom crudely says looks like a “tampon” is shoved up his nose to stem the bleeding and he is eventually let back on.

Five minutes before the break and the deadlock is broken. An always rising shot from the edge of the box puts them ahead, the scorer heads for the corner flag, beckoning his team mates to join him. A single pumped fist from one of the DH managers in recognition of the goal, has the air of 'that's more like it' about it. The quality of the strike though is eclipsed by the quality of the scorers name, Sanchez Ming.

Until now the home end had been a little sober, the whole place had except for the WFC’s fans, all felt a bit Sunday, in combination with the cold, it was verging on the sleepy. The goal was just what we needed, just what the home fans needed, who really make a sizable din for the first time. The joy can be heard in the voice of the announcer when he fills us in on who bagged the goal “for the Hamlet”.

Tom wonders if the reserved manner of the the crowd is because Imperial Fields is still a bit “new”, they haven't quite found their feet here yet. It’’s home for now, but its not home, you could never feel totally at ease here, you couldn't walk around in you tatty jogging bottoms and old shirt and feel completely at ease.

DH very nearly double their lead not long after going ahead, only for a good block from the WFC keeper, stopping them. The ground is officially alive, that vibrancy that DH games are so well known for is slowly growing.

Although DH are well on top in the dying moments of the half, again they go close, but again meet a keeper in fine form, the WFC fans still sing. Tom though not watching the game, is doing his bit for the local neighbourhood watch. “Look at the freebies” he says scathingly, twitching his metaphorical
curtains, pointing to the two people in wellies, standing on the bank overlooking the ground.

After all the excitement of the final five minutes, when the whistle blows for the break, it feels like a bit of a damp squib. Quickly the fans responsible for their respective flags are taking them down, the person in charge of the extra long DH scarf, has a tougher job then most.

A single man walks the pitch, with a tiny fork, prodding in the divots, while a group of kids have an impromptu kick about around him, who are then scalded by the booming voice on the PA for playing in the goalmouths.

“They set up quick” says Tom, surprised at just how fast WFC’s fans swapped ends and got their flags back up, they have clearly got it down to a fine art. With still some of the break left, they occupy their time making snowballs.

The DH supporter responsible for the mega scarf, having just passed us, struggling with it stuffed in a large Tesco bag for life. He has his work cut out to ensure he can get it up single handedly, before the restart. Seeing maybe he is having difficulties tieing it up, it must be over fifteen feet long, easily, some fellow fans step in and help.

'Waterfall' by the Stone Roses is cut short by the return of the players. I also learn my fate regarding the 50/50, having already learnt I won't be taking home a bottle of prosecco. It won't be me going home with the “£203” prize fund. “Shame you didn't win that one” says Tom, stating the fucking obvious. That's a serious bit of cash, that would have come in well handy.

“Bury it” shouts a DH fan as a player shapes up to shoot, but all he can do is sting the palms of the keeper. DH are flying, Tom reckons that WFC are “falling apart a bit” they don't look half as good as the side who were troubling DH early on.

The sun, I think I can see the sun, trying to break though the clouds, doing its best to fend off everyones collective case of SAD.

Just under ten minutes gone, and DH go further ahead. The slide rule pass from midfield is inch perfect, dissecting the all red WFC defence. So well hit, that the player running onto it barely has to break his stride. Quickly joined alongside by a teammate, the player with the ball gets well into the area, well within shooting distance, but instead chooses to roll it across the six yard box to his teammate to tap in. The WT keeper can only scrabble, slipping on the soft turf, hapless to do anything.

As with the first goal, in the minutes following the restart after the second, DH go close again, they are totally in control. So relaxed are their fans, that they start tossing their own snowballs around, those not frolicking in the snow are singing a song to the tune of Chaka Khan & Rufus - ‘Ain't Nobody’.

Some Mo Saleh against Watford esq feet get the crowd excited. “Sexy football, sexy football” chant the DH fans in appreciation of the twinkle toed player. The grandstanding comes at the perfect time, with the snow starting to fall again and the thermometer plummeting.

WFC have their own crack at some “sexy football” Tom coos, when a slick move gets the ball to the wing. A succession of great saves from the sky blue wearing DH keeper, are the type of which to get you just as excited as some wonder goal, and prevent the flurry of activity in the DH box coming to nothing.

Tom has a theory that there is a reason the keepers kit is the same colour as his parent club Coventry. He summarises that his contract negotiations may have included that he was only prepared to join, if they agreed to one crucial point, “I’m wearing sky blue”. Every subsequent save there on, results in Toms own cheer of “Coventry, Coventry” for the remainder of the match.

The visitors get as close to scoring as hitting the bar, the shot even out of the reach of the towering DH stopper. So livid is one of the DH managers he somewhat forgets himself, marching a good ten feet onto the pitch to remonstrate with his players for letting the chance happen. “Get off the pitch” grumbles one less than impressed WFC fan behind us.

With almost half an hour still to play, the points are all but confirmed for DH when they get their third. Wheeling away the scorer crosses his arms Wakanda style. The DH fans once again are given reason to release some of that pent up frustration.

When a DH player is cut down, flying down the wing, there are calls from the now energetic home fans nearby “off, off, off” when its only a yellow it all gets a little bit pantomime “boooooooo”.

DH continue to dominate, another big save from the WFC keeper, this time with his feet prevents the fourth. They go close not long after from a corner, the player dashing in almost scoring with his knee, puts it inches over, he punches the pitch repeatedly in frustration.

WFC bring on a sub, in an attempt to shore things up, DH look close to scoring on every attack, the guy is a mountain, more of a “rugby player” than a football player, according to Tom. The home fans now in almost constant song, are referencing that certain part of Italy again, “Tuscany, Tuscany, Tuscany”, but I still can't work out what its about. Are they just showing off about where they are going on this years holiday?

DH introduce their own fresh legs, the arrival of said legs, causing a group of about three women to outright to break out into fits of screaming and hollering of a One Direction fan's proportions. Waiting to come on the player half turns his head, half grinning, half looking a bit embarrassed at his slightly over the top reception. The three women fan club, are nearly the loudest thing here for the next twenty minutes or so. The slightest hint of him getting the ball, getting near the ball, or getting close to goal they scream.

“Always been a prick lino” shouts one WFC fan when they think they have scored, but the man running the line had other ideas. The supporters to the beat of the now less active drum, start an impromptu song about him being the “worst lino in the league”.

With the game close to its end, DH make a late substitute. The return of a long term injured player, who gets one of the biggest cheers of the day.

DH once more go close to a fourth and there are new shouts of “sexy football” after a nifty flick into the box, almost results in a goal. The snow now falling at its heaviest, it does not hamper one player for doing his own bit of “showboating” as Tom calls it, a quite unnecessary, but quite “scorpion kick”. Not quite Rene Higuita, he only uses one leg high up behind his head, instead of the two, and doesn't have a tragic black perm.

Tom’s man crush for the DH keeper only continues to strengthen when he pulls off a quite miraculous save from a late WFC freekick, “Coventry, Coventry” he chants to himself.

"Yessssss" says one DH fan on the final whistle, the checkered flag is now going at double speed and those brave enough to do so have removed their scarves and are whirling them above their heads, "we love you Dulwich we do". The team, like all teams should do, but all to few do so, applaud the supporters.

In the main stand, few people have moved, they are waiting for the departing players and have some news to share. "We are top of the league, say we are top of the league". At the front a small group of autograph hunters has formed, leaning over railings, programme in one hand a pen in the other, they wait patiently for their favourite player to pass, before thrusting their biro his way in hope of a scribble.

"That's a snood" says Tom, impressed at one DH's coach's get up who is wearing an almost full upper torso covering knitted cold keeper outer, just his eyes are about visible through the many rolls of wool.

Plucking every string of my football romantics heart, is the young girl also in a fine bit of knitwear, a bright pink hat with a blue bobble. Standing alone, with a single hand stretched out, she also waits, not for an autograph, but for a high five. When one player obliges, she turns to who I think must be her parents, beaming.

The tea was good, the DH kit is always good, the weather was bad, WFC's nickname 'The Mackerel Men' is a new favourite, the sausage roll looked questionable, but Tom enjoyed it, and I still don't have an answer to Toms question "is that allowed?" when we saw a woman wearing two scarves.

It would also be remiss of me not to mention just one last time the WFC fans who were quite excellent throughout, as one DH fan put it "imagine travelling up from Worthing on a day like this",
but they did, and they didn't stop. Those twenty or so supporters are not fair weather fans.

I'm not sure there is anything I can add to the well documented problems DH are going through, I will leave that to the Al Jazeera and Sky News cameras who were here today, I only hope that they tell the story the way it should be told and not as some puff piece at the end of a broadcast, some silly story about a non league club and its 'hipster' fans.

For eighty seven years DH have played at Champion hill, except for one season where they in fact slept on Tootings sofa while their home was being refurbished , so they love each other really, like a mate you have known for so long, that drives you up the wall, but you wouldn't think twice about offering them somewhere to sleep if they needed

For the time being though, there will be an eight mile diversion on matchdays in place, but as their fans put it "we all follow the Dulwich, over land and sea, and Tooting".


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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Wonder If They've Got A Sausage Roll For Me? - Basingstoke Town FC Vs Hereford FC, Evo-Stik Southern League Premier, The Camrose (17/03/18)

St Patrick's Day, St Paddy's Day, the annual excuse to get pissed and make culturally insensitive stereotypes is here again. Instead of staying in, supping down a couple pints of the black stuff, enjoying the craic and gorging on the Irish themed takeover of one particular music channel my fiancee keeps flicking past, I'm getting ready to go out.

Enya, U2 and Samantha Mumba fill my living room, but I can't ignore what's going on just over my shoulder, the other side of the blind covered window, the ‘Beast From The East 2’.

Other than rain, snow is the much colder arch enemy of non league football. With the return of this particular villain games are dropping like flies and the club we intend on visiting today has just tweeted those two words no one wants to hear on match day, “pitch inspection”.

It's been nearly three and half weeks since our last match, a combination of Tom having a housewarming party where he served an insufficient amount of sausage rolls, him going to the theatre and the ‘Beast From The East 1’, means I’m itching to get to a game, so I push the tweet to the back of my mind, bid my daughter and fiancee a fond farewell, and like Han Solo heading off in search of Luke Skywalker, venture out into the tundra.

“Where do you live? Iceland?” asks Tom, the snow in my neck of the woods apparently a lot more plentiful than his. Instead of making our way as we usually would, after of course he has filled me in on his own personal weather proofing, “brought my long johns” he tells me. I pull over by the side of the road, cradle my phone in my hands, constantly refreshing my Twitter timeline.

Five minutes later and our spirits are lifted, Tom has settled, the heaters have started to kick in and the update from today's club is a good one, “The pitch is perfectly playable at this time!”

It doesn't take long for Tom to comment on my new haircut. I’m always a little anxious when I see him post trim, as I’m not sure what he will make of it, and I always feel a bit bad that I haven't asked him to do it. He says I look a bit “Spiderman 3”, not sure what he means by that he elaborates, “a bit goth Spiderman”. I still do know what he is going on about, maybe it's some kind of technical jargon.

Talk of my overly long fringe, and apparent vague resemblance to Toby Maguire, I think I preferred when people were saying I looked a bit like Rag & Bone Man like someone did on Twitter this week, doesn't last for long. Between puffs on his oversized vape, Tom explains his action plan for today, “Cuppa Soups”.

It’s certainly a warm drink day, a multiple warm drink day, and Tom is clearly feeling adventurous. He “always” sees them he tells me. If he does have one mind, when he gets to the end of it, he’ll realise why in the three years we've been going to matches, he's never had one before, when he gets to that undissolved sludge at the bottom of his cup.

It’s almost impossible to miss The Camrose, home of Basingstoke Town FC (BT), the back of it’s main stand is nigh on the pavement running along the road behind it. Sandwiched between that and the Toys ‘r us the other side of the road, this is not a ground where you have to be overly reliant on your Sat Nav.

I take it back, I take back everything I’ve said in the past about the previous non league clubs slightly dilapidated car parks we’ve had to endure, the one at BT takes things to a whole other level. These aren't potholes, small inconveniences on the high street one might have to suffer, these are creators, these are the result of a World War One artillery barrage, these are the kinds of things Apollo 8 went up to investigate.

The incredibly cold looking older man on the way in, points us in the direction we should be heading, past the car wash and the “three speed bumps”. The sleeping policemen are the least of our worries as we make our way along, Tom acting as spotter, advising me which way to go, as to avoid disaster.

Finally coming to a stop in front of a bank of Amazon lockers, the other side of the cavity covered car park, to a Coral bookies, we each take a deep breath, before opening the door. Safe and warm in our little bubble, neither of us are looking forward to getting out. I'm usually ever so mocking of Tom’s feeble nature, he’s always whining about the cold, for once I’m in agreeance.

The single storey flat roofed, glass fronted clubhouse, sits opposite a long high red brick wall with the wording BTFC built into it. Behind that is the pitch, and the front of the stand we had passed just before. It’s quite the distance between the bar and the ground, you might just be that bit closer to being able to place a bet, than watch a match of football.

I’m hesitant to go in into the warm inviting shelter the clubhouse offers. Not in fear of a music off, head turning 'who the hell are you' kind of welcome, but the fact I can see they are showing Spurs’s FA Cup quarter final, which I’m desperately trying to avoid, as I’m recording it, and hoping to watch when I get home.

Somehow I manage to convince Tom that a walkabout is what we need after our hour and a half in the car, not a comfy chair, food and a drink. However nothing is going to happen before he's gone to the loo, where he is gone for an overly long time. It’s not until he gets back he tells me was adding another layer to his winter ensemble.

Waiting for him, back turned to the large glass windows, not wanting to catch a glimpse of the goings on in Swansea, a woman passes me carrying a large tray of sandwiches, slightly hunched over in that way people do when they are cold and don't have a jacket on, she tells me “you don't have to stand out here” as she goes at double speed to get out of the elements.

As we head in, a convoy of two coaches arrive carrying the fans of today's opposition and league leaders Hereford FC (HFC).

Tom is soon not completely preoccupied with the bitter cold, “them onions smell good” he says, the half opened hatch of the pitch side burger van, is allowing whatever is being prepared inside to leak out. He asks himself out loud, one of life's important question, “wonder if they've got a sausage roll for me?”.

The few people already here, busily moving around, whenever they catch the eye of someone else, inevitably mutter one of the following, “bit cold”, “it's freezing”, “it's awful”, without fail. One BT club official tries to lighten the mood, talking to the newly arrived HFC manager, in the most excellent black, red and white bobble hat, who is about to assess the pitch himself, by joking that the conditions are like the “northern hemisphere Bahamas”.

I can't be 100% sure, I think it's HFC’s, but coming from one changing room is a Blue song. Generally the music coming from football changing rooms is bad, normally something fast paced, something to get the blood rushing and the adrenaline pumping, but Blue, they don't do anything other than make you fall asleep or do a little bit of sick.

The constant hum of the nearby road is what I tune in to, away from the cheesy ballad. One HFC player emerges from the double doors at the base of the stand and down the imposing fully enclosed yellow caged tunnel, like something from the Continent, and onto what he is clearly surprised to find is a decent surface, “nice and soft” he comments as a new dusting of snow starts to come down, adding to the few patches that have settled across the pitch.

Tom has had enough, he doesn't have a football match to avoid, so heads back to the clubhouse. I try to sit it out, but I fold not long after. On my way to join him I pass two policemen, in black jumpsuits, semi kitted up and its reminds me of something I had read online, that today is segregated.

I don't think it will ever not be odd, seeing the police and a segregated ground at a non league game.

All cosy in the corner, cupping his tea from its china mug, nice touch, Tom is the vision of Saturday afternoon coolness. His choice of seat away from the TV for my benefit was a nice gesture, but I saw the score coming in, Spurs 3 - 0 up, with the fans on the TV singing, “Spurs are on their way to Wembley”.

With his pack of crisps already demolished, he is sat not far away from what looks like the aftermath of a child's birthday party. A long table with a red crepe paper table cloth, big jugs of juice and cups full of straws, for the “ball boys” he''s deduced.

As comforting as the low rumble of someone starting a game on the small pool table is and how tempting it is to stay and watch the final minutes of the ruined Spurs game, I finish my quite excellent cup of coffee, and we both make the short walk back to the ground.

“Snows coming” says Tom pointing outside as we get ready, to the new and much heavier flurry coming down. He also thinks it's important to highlight the fact that “Poch has a snood on” which I shrug off, but internally it makes me question my opinion on that certain garment, because if it's good enough for the Argentinian then it’s good enough for anyone right?

Huddled in the only covered part of their section of the ground, some of the HFC fans do their best to keep out of the frigid wind. Watching on as we do, the players from each team appear for what Tom calls a “lethargic” warm up. Each player as they step outside without fail, swears at least once in reaction to the cold. One BT player looks positively Victor Meldrew, glum beyond belief, he is having to do what he's doing.

BT’s drummer, is already standing to attention with still half an hour to kick off. Stood at the back of the stand behind the goal, sticks in hand, he is ready to go. The yellow and blue flag I had seen one boy wearing as a cape at one point, now hangs over the hoardings, and is soon joined by a couple more.

“Really?!?” gasps a shocked Tom at the sight of a photographer in shorts. However the sight of the man's pale legs, being exposed to the bad weather, soon pales into insignificance, on the realisation that the fact the ground is segregated, means the burger van is out of reach. I point to the other one on the opposite corner, but he's not impressed, the one next to the blue and yellow striped club shop, which is also out of bounds due to the grounds division, is “bigger”.

“Welcome to a warm Camrose” says the voice over the PA, the referee leading out the teams fails to see the funny side of the witty quip. “Oh wow” he says, taking a sharp intake of breath as his sleeveless arms and uncovered legs get a taste of the sub-zero conditions.

The sight of the players means the decent sized group of BT fans behind the goal, stop taunting the HFC players taking shots at goal, and instead start chanting to the rhythm of the drum, with the added noise from some hefty whacks of the back wall of the stand too.

There are a few shouts of “up the bulls” and “come on you whites” from the HFC fans who are also here in good numbers and their drum also sparks to life, but at the moment they are coming in second behind the home fans, as the players get ready for kick off and the snow continues to fall.

“Can you hear the Hereford sing?” ask the home fans. When kick off happens the away fans let out a cheer, which gets a near instant reply “we forgot that you were here”.

With only one hundred and twenty seconds on the clock, BTFC take the lead. A rising shot from just inside the box, clips the underside of the post and in. The scorer heads straight for the fans, who rush the railing to meet him. Although I’m glad the game has got off to the best possible start, lots of goals and an exciting game, justify frost nip in my book, I can’t get the words of BT’s media man Nick out of my head, from a quick chat we had earlier.

“Hope we give them a game this time” he told me after I’d asked him how he thought they would get on. The corresponding fixture earlier in the season ended up 4 - 1 to HFC, like today BT had taken an early lead, “one nil up after three minutes” that day. Today they have gone ahead even quicker, but will history repeat itself?

“Good thing you didn't get golden goal” says Tom, thinking such an early goal would have made for a wasted pound. My hunt for the lady doing it pre match was almost unsuccessful, until thanks to the help of one BT fan I hurriedly managed to get myself one of the sewn closed envelopes as the players walked out.

I produce the little paper purse from my notebook and struggle to open it. When I eventually do I’m greeted with a number 9, out by six minutes.

Clearly not as affected by missing out on the golden goal as I am, the BT fans are pounding the back of the stand, as they continue in fine voice, “ally-o, ally-o BTFC”. Their racket reducing the HFC drum to a faint murmur in the distance. Such is the lack of noise coming from their end, according to a few home fans the away support is falling well short of  the “famous atmosphere” they are known for making, and they ask them if they should “sing a song” for them. They get no reply, and the few HFC flags tied to the railing of the uncovered terrace continue to flutter in the breeze.

“How are your toes?” asks Tom, they’re not great if I’m honest. I can sense them, I know they are still there in my shoes, but I can’t feel them

After the dramatic start to the game, with a quarter of the first half gone, it has now settled. Tom of course is hungry, asking if it's “time to eat?. The proximity of the nearby McDonald's has made up for the small burger van, and he is wondering if he can fit through the hole in the fence for a half time quarter pounder.

The local kids in the main stand are offering out the travelling supporters, “who are ya, who are ya” they shout in their high pitched prepubescent way. A HFC breakaway doesn't resolve in a goal, only thanks to a fabulous tackle from a BT defender. A really classy effort, in a dangerous position, it makes me uncontrollably shout out “challenge”, and the home fans crack on with another song, “oh when the stoke, go steaming in”.

HFC think they have scored, the players are adamant, a downward header they think has crossed the line, but the referee does not think so, Tom reckons some “goal line technology” is required. One nearby child is totally unfazed by all the drama, far more interested in the tray of chips they are eating from, sitting on the cold step of the terrace.

Sadly that's it as far as the gripping entertainment goes, the game since the goal, and the slight spike of excitement brought about by the, was it a goal, wasn't it moment, it’s not really taken off. Tom is bemoaning his “cheap snood” and the fact it's not “long enough” which means its leaves a “little gap” around his Adam's apple, which is getting cold. He tells me the next one he gets will be a “mean one” like an eastern European ultra, with “skull teeth” on it.

“We all live in a yellow submarine” sing the nearby home fans, the HFC supporters have certainly stirred somewhat, but they don't have any fab four inspired chants. When their team go close, as Tom puts it HFC have “grown into the game” after a slow start, a last ditch block stops the shot continuing goal wards, they go up a few decibels “come on Hereford, come on Hereford”.

Not to be out done though, the BT fans reply once again, this time with a little tune about their manager on a near constant loop “Terry Browns barmy army, Terry Browns barmy army”.

With the half almost over, we are passed by one BT player who for him the whole match is already over. He hobbles past us along the edge of the pitch, one boot half off, his sock rolled down with blood coming from a wound on his ankle, Tom turns to me with a bit of a grimace, “studs”.

I’m not sure who moved faster, the substitutes running for the sanctuary of the changing rooms or Tom for the burger van. The BT drums come to life sporadically and are joined by a couple of people, “la, la, la BTFC”, most noticeably the fan with his BT shirt over his hoody and blue and yellow scarf up over his face, who has not stopped since the first whistle. Most though are conserving their energy, doing their best to make sure no skin is exposed, and all their remaining stamina is reserved for the second half.

The snow is falling at its hardest now, when I catch up with Tom he is shivering at the back of the long terrace with the alternating blue and yellow walls, that is some way back from the pitch. Chowing down on his burger, he just motions his head towards my cup of coffee sitting on the back wall. We both stand in almost silence, half frozen, listening to the hum of the burger vans generator and the transistor radio of the man next to us drinking from a thermos.

HFC are first out, my coffee is scalding hot and although Tom has finished his burger, and his hot chocolate, there was no soup, he is contemplating going back for more. “Not enough hands” to carry my drink and some chips.

Not overly fussed about the lack of soup, c'est la vie, the same though cant be said for one person who also fancied come cream of tomato. When told just as Tom was that they didn't have any, but had "Bovril" instead, he appeared quite put out by the suggestion and flounced off.

There is a muted roar, a roar’ish if you like when BT appear. We don't hang around long by the terrace, the wind is fully blowing the snow in our faces, so we head back to where we spent the first half. Our slow walk back is halted by a big collision between the HFC keeper and an outfield player, which leaves the goal gaping. The home fans scream for someone to shoot, but the referee blows up to allow both parties to be attended to.

For the first time today, about ten minutes into the new half, the away fans are louder than the home ones, it's only fleeting mind, we are treated to some of the skills of the HFC drummer, but the BTC fans soon find their voice again, “please don't take my Basingstoke away”.

On the pitch and its all HFC in the opening exchanges, the BT fans nervously jeer ball after ball going into their box, pretending it's not bothering them how close the team in white are getting to equalising, “top of the league you’re having a laugh”.

The early HFC dominance has turned into somewhat of a siege. Their drummer is going good guns just like the players. BT have a sudden breakout and look, quite against the run of play, like they are going to double their lead. One on one with the keeper, the player puts it wide, its a bit of a tame attempt or “weak” as Tom puts it.

Breakthrough for HFC on the sixty fourth minute, a looping header beyond the backpedalling keeper sees them pull things level, the anxious ''ohhhs" of the home fans as HFC continued to threaten were
warranted. The large man with the Guinness hat and the HFC drummer are particularly animated, the drummer running up and down with what is not an inconsiderable sized drum above his head. The players are not so joyous, collecting the ball and heading back to their half showing little emotion.

“Come on Hereford, come on Hereford” sing the away fans. HFC are now fully on top on and off the pitch. It's all gone a bit quiet from the group behind the goal. The big Fellaini looking number 5 for BT is trying his best to put out fires, but HFC are looking a bit rampant.

BT give a big shout for a penalty, but the referee is having none of it. It looked more like the forward made contact with the defender rather than the other way round. Tom is not pulling any punches, he’s not having any of it, “absolute dive”.

Every single one of the HFC coaches on their feet in their technical area, are sporting the same exquisite bobble hats. They must be very happy at their team's performance since the restart, their players are really hustling BT’s, applying good pressure, winning the ball back in good positions. They have reduced BT to the odd counter attack. Once again it's completely against the run of play when a “good save” from the HFC keeper prevents their second.

Having rode their luck somewhat, it is a bit of a surprise even a shock, when BT take the lead again. It's under slightly controversial circumstances, another case of is it in or not over the line. There is a brief moment on the pitch where every player in blue is staring at the referee, willing him to give it, he seems unsure, the HFC players are certain that it didn't, but the linesman on the far side is sure that it did. You can tell by the manic waving of his flag above his head.

The BT players celebrate in front of the HFC fans, the pink top wearing keeper pumps his fist towards the home fans behind him, yes I've got this far without swooning over the delightful kit he has on. Tom is not convinced it was a goal, not that we have the greatest vantage point mind, but he still gives an iffy hand movement to signal his uncertainty.

HFC’s keeper has a bit of a propensity to rush off his line, causing his team a few unnecessary headaches at times. BT’s keeper is getting instructions from the fans to “take” his “time”. Don't be in such a rush to take the goal kicks, there is still nearly a quarter of an hour to play and they are currently ahead again against the the lead leaders.

Tom is not the only one who thought the BT second goal was questionable, “unbelievable” says one fan “no idea if that crossed the line” says another.

The snow is getting heavier and heavier by the minute, and the HFC squeeze on the match is tightening just as quickly, “come on Hereford”. They themselves have a shout for a penalty declined, it is construed by the BT fans that the player who went down was looking for it, trying to manufacture something, and let him know what they make of that, “dirty northern bastard”.

HFC are presented with a gilt edged chance to equalise. A free header after a quite excellent cross is powered over. “You’re fucking shit” sing the home fans, unsympathetically towards the player who just missed a sitter and has a look on his face that shows just that. “Was that it?” asks Tom, was that the visitor's last chance of snatching a point.

Four minutes of extra time to go, nearly there the BT supporters gode the HFC fans, “it's all gone quiet over there”. Every miss placed HFC pass or cross gets a sarcastic cheer. One fan near us is living out every tackle, his body almost jerking in reaction to what's going on on the pitch, “come on blues, keep going”

“Yesssssss”” shouts the engrossed fan, wheeling away from the pitch in celebration following BT’s late third. You can see the relief overcome him, tension that contorted his face is gone, and is replaced with a huge grin.

With the end of the game now only seconds away, a few HFC fans start to make their way down from their seats in the stand, getting a rousing rendition of “cheerio, cheerio, cheerio” as they do. After the final whistle their are some choice words from one HFC fan towards the players and staff, "not fit to wear the shirt" is one of the accusations he throws their way, which is quickly batted away by one HFC coach, "shut up".

In what I understand could be the final season for BT at The Camrose, moving on to new pastures away from the spindly ageing floodlights and crumbling terraces, will there be a better result all season? A nice memory to have of the old place for those fans here today, if and when they close the turnstiles for the last time. Like the BT drummer whose voice has all but gone, but he still has a song for the last few players making their way inside, after applauding the fans behind the goal.

My hopes that our bitterly cold evening at Cheshunt three and a half weeks ago would be our last cold one of the season, thinking spring was almost here, were quashed today. Never have I been so cold, never has Tom ever looked so miserable, never taking into account both those last statements however, have we had such a good time.


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Thursday 8 March 2018

Outmuscled - Cheshunt FC Vs Waltham Abbey FC, Bostik League North, Theobalds Lane (20/02/18)

The distraction of seeing an open KFC considering the current great chicken drought of 2018, is a welcome one. I was really late picking up Tom from Waltham Cross station, almost half an hour. He was “cold” and it was “windy” while he waited. Such was his displeasure at my bad time keeping, blame the M25, he greeted me with a curtain moving side to side clenched fist hand gesture, that was a little bit rude.

Tom is quite right to be “suspicious” about what is in KFC’s popcorn chicken, considering they have been telling everyone they can't get any of the main ingredient, but are still able to sell this one product, hmmmmmmm.

Finding the entrance to Theobalds Lane is not a straightforward one, a hard left off a hectic dual carriageway if you happen to be coming at it from the right direction. If like us, you're coming at it from the wrong way, you watch where you want to be, go flying by. Meaning you have to drive up the road, turn around, and drive back the way you just came, but now on the right side of the road.

It certainly seems to be a running theme, maybe it's a money thing, but the non league car parks we've visited as of late, have been treacherous. Dark and foreboding, they take a brave Indiana Jones type like me to conquer and find somewhere to park.

Cheshunt FC’s (CFC) home which is also the home of the Tottenham Ladies team, you know I love to get in at least one Spurs reference, simply to spite Tom, at least once an outing, currently only has half the lights on, and there is little to no signs of life. One of the small covered terraces behind one goal is ratting in the wind. On the far side of the pitch there looks to be a disused and almost derelict looking stand. Covered in cones and red tape, with a few of its seats seemingly ripped out, the brutalist, yes my second reference to the modernist architectural movement of the early 20th century in as many weeks, all reinforced concrete and angular, is out of action.

There is some noise, coming from the small building, set a fair way back from the pitch, next to it a long black wall, with "We Are Cheshunt. One Community. One Club" written across it sandwiched between two of the clubs crests. One light is on in what I assume is the changing room, seeping out from behind the frosted glass is a bit of The Temptations, then some Edwin Star “war what is good for?’’. I can just about make out the glasses wearing, whisker adorned sight of the ever so slightly walrus/Charles Bronson looking figure of CFC’s manager.

A man we last saw in the final days of Billericay Town normalcy, in the last few days before the Tamplin revolution. Standing outside what was then a lion free home changing room, giving off no sign he was about to be overthrown in a non league revolution, by the fake tanned one.

The very, very tall referee and his assistants arrive not long after us. I watch them do their quick walk of the pitch, “all is well” he says to one of the ground staff. I realise towards the end of his inspection that it's not the 3G surface I was sure it was, but grass. Our intended match today had been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, and having convinced myself the pitch here was artificial, thought I’d found a banker. However, the synthetic surface is part of the greater complex and is not what CFC play on.

That would've been embarrassing.
“Glad we ain't got a game next week” explains a dour CFC official. With the wind even stronger here than it had been at the station, and almost nothing on all four sides of the ground to stop it, its almost non stop and biting. He carries on, adding that its only going to get colder, baltic air from “bloody Russia” means it's going to get to “minus temperatures” next week. Such is the near constant breeze, I'm getting a bit of headache as it whips across my sizable forehead. So I plunge in my bag for my olive green hat, putting it on regardless of how daft it makes me look.

Both sets of players heading out for the warm up look desperately unimpressed that they are having to do so. Not that the pitch is any kind of state at all, but wanting to make sure it's in the best possible nick for the match, both teams have been asked to warm up elsewhere, behind the long black wall, through a door no one seems to know is there. With no visible handle, it's like a non league priest hole.

Tom has vanished, he's not photographing the players, they've all just trapped back from the muddy back and beyond, to do their star jumps on the main pitch and he wasn't behind them complaining about mud on his trainers. When I call him he tells me he is in the clubhouse, a very generic one at that he explains, nothing to distinguish it from being one particular clubs or another. Nothing on the walls, no faded old team photos or tatty memorabilia, there is though a man selling signed Spurs pics 45 a pop.

There has been a fair old bit of coming and going in recent weeks at CFC, sitting just one spot off the bottom of the table, the new manager has been seen to quickly rejuvenate the squad. “Only recognise four of the faces” explains one of the stewards, there have been lots of “big changes”. They beat table topping Bowers & Pitsea in their previous game, but the key thing is “can they be consistent?”.

Among the reshuffle, CFC’s have had a bit of coup for a club at this level, they according to the same steward they have signed a “Champions League winner” an “ex Mali international” who won the much coveted European prize with “Real Madrid”. I don't think he's pulling my leg, I might be wrong, perhaps the fella fancies having a joke at my expense, but I probe a little further.

Annoyingly he can't remember the player in questions name. I’m desperate to know but he tells me “he's not even seen his name of the back of a shirt” yet the decorated new arrival has already “played one game” then “shot his knees poor lad” so I don't think we’ll be seeing him tonight.

With CFC’s visitors Waltham Abbey FC (WA) being from a mere three miles up the road, tonight is
one of those occasions. WA are hovering around mid table, but league position and who you beat in your last match count for little, when local pride is at stake.

“They will battle” explains the steward, it's a “derby” after all. I’m not wholly convinced by his laughter that follows. It's more nervous than confident.

It’s not so much a walk out onto the pitch for the players, who appear from two separate doors, one at each end of the compact changing rooms. There is no tunnel, it's more of a general space to mingle, the black tarmac making it look like a car park without the markings, more than anything else. In the dimly lit area the teams both form makeshift lines, before being led out by the referee.

A single CFC fan sings “amber army, amber army” louder than the whisper quiet PA. Someone has
turned him up a little when it comes to explaining the relevance of the pitch side presentation. Two CFC players have recently notched up one hundred appearances for the club, and are being given a keepsake by the all time record appearance holder. Following a quick handshake and a picture, they are soon jogging back to their half to start.

“Enjoy the game” says the voice over the PA, who is now at his loudest, this time he is not being muffled by the few fans making some noise as the match gets underway, “come on Cheshunt”.

The most sensible of people here are out of the wind and in the comfort of the main stand on the halfway line, there are a few people dotted about pitch side, but it's those in the stand, who get the best view, well better than us, it's right down the opposite end of the pitch, of the opening CFC goal on five minutes.

CFC are rampant, “robbed him” says Tom, when a home player hustles the WA player off the ball, dispossessing him, and initiating the attack. His shot unfortunately is straight at the keeper, but it shows CFC's intent, they are taking no prisoners.

“He's gotta go ref” screams a CFC fan following the appeal of the players and the crowd. There is no red card, but the man in charge has awarded a penalty. Two ahead after seventeen minutes, WA look a little shell shocked and Tom thinks they're lucky to have all their players still on the pitch, “thought he would send him off”.

With the referee taking centre stage for a moment, it has not bypassed Tom that he is a “big ref”. Not big in girth, but height, “reminds me of the headmaster from the Inbetweeners”.

One person not in need of any volume increase, he could do all the pre and post match announcements without the aid of a microphone, in fact a bit of volume control would not got a miss, is the all purple CFC keeper, who has not stopped barking orders since the start. One of those very vocal and communicative keepers, the kind of which give an almost constant commentary at the top of their voices for the full hour and a half. “4, 4, 4” he shouts, no idea what it means, I guess someone does. “He's gonna have no voice left” says Tom, concerned for the man's welfare.

Twenty two minutes gone and the home team have officially done a number on WA. The third of their quick fire goals, is the best of the bunch, an impertinent back heel, sees the player in the box slide the ball past the keeper.

Although they find themselves three behind, WA still have a bit of belief, despite so many of their heads noticeably dropping as they prepare to restart for the third time. They certainly have plenty of pace and a “great save” as someone in the stand describes it, from the CFC keeper, prevents them getting back in the match. CFC have another shout for a penalty, for a handball, but the referee in a very head masterly way shouts “no way”.

After the initial CFC onslaught, the game is a little more balanced now, ebbing from end to end, rather than the early one way traffic. The match is really turning into an engrossing one. Played at a high tempo, we bare witness to plenty of strong tackles, real blood and thunder stuff, real derby day stuff.

It could even be said WA are the better side since CFC’S third, the home team reduced to the occasional counterattack. Relying a lot on their number 9 to do all the running. Sturdy, maybe even bulky, he is in fact “a lot faster than he looks like he should be” says Tom.

“Come on the ambers” shouts one fan, his team having notably taken their foot off the gas. The incident of the hand ball, that was at least five minutes ago now, is still playing on the minds of a couple of players, who at any opportunity start nagging the linesman about it, whose rhythmic clicking heels as he runs the line in front of us is hypnotic.

Ten to go, WA send a ball right across the CFC box, but there are no takers. Tom has a playing football at school flashback when the stinging echo of a player stopping a shot at close range rings out, faux leather on bare cold flesh, “oh I bet that hurt”.

It's a WA siege as the half creeps towards the end, their forward looks a dead cert to score, but somehow puts it wide “how did he miss that?” gasps Tom. A late corner for WA sees them go close again, with the chances they have had, they could have easily dragged the game back to 3 - 3 had they just been a bit more clinical. A back post attempt with a knee, almost creeps in under the bar, but not quite. “Cheeky, cheeky” says Tom going a bit ‘Carry On’.

Other than the dilapidated concrete stand, as I’ve mentioned there is little to feast ones eyes on here, it's not even totally apparent there is a clubhouse. It is I’m told by Tom one of the nondescript white buildings scattered about, but you wouldn't know from the outside.

Tom has a special power, finding food at football. This great gift is tested to the max tonight, I can't see where he can possibly be getting his food from, and hes "really hungry" he only had a "small lunch", until he pipes up. “I see a burger van”, he reports. Pointing off in the distance, “you see those two white lights?”, he has noticed the faintest of glimmers coming from its side and he’s right you know, God knows how he saw that, but he's right.

CFC’s number 20 is unit, a tank, a beast. Not in a fat way either, but in a six chicken breast for dinner,
hand crushing kind of way. When he encounters a WA player running for the same ball as him, who is inconveniently in his way, he gives the much smaller player what he thinks is a gentle shove, but multiply that by his great mass, and the WA defender is sent flying, quite literally flying and a foul is given against him.

He looks distraught, the gentle giant meant no harm, Tom is appalled at his treatment, “punished for being strong” he shrieks. “He’s just a big boy” his defence of the forward continues. It’s not the first time CFC have “outmuscled” WA as Tom puts it, in his eyes they just “want it more” which is reflected in the score.

WA have a late flurry of chances, all but confining the home side to their own half. Three cracks at making a dent in the scoreline. After some quick feet on the edge of the box a goal bound shot is blocked. Two players get in each others way jumping for a header but it still “nearly goes in” states Tom, the keeper having to get down low sharpish to stop it, and then another header is just wide, but no joy for the team in blue and white.

“Brilliant first half” says a jovial CFC supporter. The PA is now overly loud, someones been fiddling with their levels during the game. He cheerfully confirms how it stands at the break, leaving an awkward pause between the home and away score, like he feels he's somehow gloating, eventually letting out a short sharp “0”.

Tom returns from beyond the picnic tables, adjacent to the caged child's size five a side pitch, while some very, very quiet Stereophonics play. He had asked me if I wanted anything, when I said no, he double checks, “you sure?” knowing full well I’ll end up pinching a chip, I decline again, so he asks the same question again, “you sure?”. Just like I do with my son, when he tells me he doesn't need the loo, and I know fair well he does.

The presence of the Welsh four piece is a pleasant change to the usual “pop shit” as Tom puts it. A bit of Oasis follows, but what's next is hands down the single greatest ever football song of all time, World in Motion.

What else does one need than John Barnes rapping while you enjoy your “nice” if not overly salty chips, Tom admits he “struggled with the shaker”.

Now in the main stand, Tom with one hand full of chips, the other with a burger, all balanced on his knees, around us an appraisal of the first forty five takes place, “since we got the third we've not really done anything” says one man, those around him all nod and agree. I’m not sure why, but one of the men the opposite side of me to Tom, has just produced a Nokia phone, from the era of when smaller was better, from his pocket, set it to stop watch and pressed GO on the whistle of the referee.

“Our turn now” says the WA fan forcefully in a large Tom Baker style green and white striped scarf. Three minutes into the new half and the visitors have been awarded a penalty. “Get the ball, get the ball” says a teammate of the scorer, no celebration, no time to waste, they run back to the centre circle. I think it's fair to say it's the least WA deserve.

There are some peculiar noises emanating from Tom, his last belch was of near Mr Creosote proportions. “I ate that well too quick” he says, he does have the habit of somewhat inhaling his food. Opening up a can of Dr Pepper to add to whatever is going on inside him, is not going to help.

There is a momentary flare up, both teams squaring up, following what Tom thought was a “studs up” challenge, but “judging by the punishment” the referee can’t have thought it was that bad.

“Fucking liven up” says the man in goal for CFC who has just pulled off the most remarkable of saves, this was Pele Vs Banks sort of stuff. A point blank range toe poke that somehow, only he knows how he got down to it, and was able to turn wide. Tom reckons that some “goal line technology” is in order, he says it “looked over the line to me”, but I reckon he has just pulled off an absolute game changer of a save.

With CFC now well and truly on the ropes, different players plead for teammates to “settle down” and while another points out quite rightly that they've “not started this half yet” it was a save that may well have prevented a full blown comeback.

I know for some it's quite an unpleasant smell, my Dad wasn't a fan, as it seeped from under the bottom of my door, stinking up the whole house, but the sickly, sweet smell of skunk is one I adore. Not that I touch that kind of stuff anymore, I’m a respectable adult with two kids, but someone close by most definitely does, and its intoxicating.

“Come on Cheshunt” murmurs a very softly spoken voice. If he had maybe spoken up a bit, his team might have heard him, but I don't think they have, and that little extra bit of conviction it may have brought is missing when they defend a WA free kick on sixty five minutes. The team in the glorious blue and white hoops, that is on the arms and body, not very common I think, Tom saying they look like a blue “zebra” have just pulled back a second with a “bullet header” as my learned friend puts it.

“Get the ball. Come on”. Once again no WA celebration, the CFC keeper is still picking himself up, nothing he could have done about that one, as the WA players have already scooped up the ball and are heading back to their half. They just look so dangerous every time they attack.

What a burp from Tom, but I think he feels a lot better now at least, he's been very quiet since the restart, “needed to do that for the last ten minutes”.

“Come on let's liven up” pleads a CFC player, and for a moment it looks like one player at least has taken inspiration from his words and goes on the most spellbinding solo run, that looks like it's going to go on forever, only for his attempt on goal to get blocked. I almost wish the defender had let it in, recognising for the greater good it would have been the perfect end to an excellent effort. Their attacks are few and far between, but at least they are starting to look a lot less composed and a little less rattled then they have.

Just shy of ten minutes to go, and CFC grab the goal they have so desperately needed. It might just be enough to settle the nerves of the players, who have been very wobbly and owe a lot to their keeper.

“Well played ambers” shouts a fan, as the tide shifts one last time, the remainder of the match, its all the home side. There is a slight moment of madness when they almost scored a comical own goal, worthy of a hummed rendition of the circus tune, common on occasions like this, but other than that the ball is only going one way. At one point the WA keeper is forced into a very fine save with his nuts.

I had had my suspicions, but being so close, it all happened so quickly, I wasn't sure, however one nearby home fan confirms when talking to a friend that WA’s second was an “own goal”. Into extra time, the wind now blowing its hardest, some home supporters have seen enough and start to head home, not walking at full pace though, slow enough so they can still half watch the match so as to not miss anything.

“Thought this would be interesting” says one to another, “four goals in a game what's going on?”, he replies. The same steward from earlier is a bit bemused people are going, but is satisfied that they at least go their “money's worth” tonight.

A late CFC attack sees one player bearing down on goal, he strikes the ball and as he does a fan cries out “boom” hoping he has timed his outburst perfectly with the fifth goal, but the shot is speculative at best and is frankly woeful.

 The "blue zebra" looking players according to Tom, are a bit of a sorry sight as they go through a lacklustre warm down, before trudging off. The CFC team stand in a loose huddle, their coaches I'm sure highlighting plenty of positives to be taken from tonight as well as plenty of negatives, until that
fourth goal, it really did look like they were going to throw their lead away.

When they eventually walk off, a few take the time to high five and chat with the fans who have waited to clap them off, the players making sure to recognise their supporters, walking the sporadic line of them on their way into the warm.

With February almost at an end I can only hope that this may be one of the last cold ones, I'm fed up of
having to spend ten minutes in the car warming my hands up and watching Tom hop around putting on thermal socks, as the same steward who I talked earlier said, "roll on summer".

Its unlikely, but there is a small chance that one of the CFC fans here tonight, happens to know or even work with a WA supporter, and I hope for their sake they do, because half the fun of a derby day win is having someone to bombard with crowing txt's or whose desk to loiter around, waiting for a chance encounter. Whatever level it may be, a win over your rivals, is a win. The derby day glory is all CFC's tonight, but just, the score line not quite reflecting how close they where to blowing it.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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Thursday 1 March 2018

Better Than Stamford Bridge - Thurrock FC Vs Hendon FC, Bostik League Premier, Ship Lane (17/02/18)

The Sun, what a sight for sore eyes you are and there's almost not a cloud in sight to block you out, what a treat. The appearance of the sun is not the only nice surprise today, the second being a much welcomed stowaway taking up a seat in the back of the car.

Tall, so tall Tom has to move his seat forward a few notches, young, he makes me feel very old when we asks me if I’m aware of a certain “grime artist” who is currently “blowing up” and dashing, chiseled features and floppy blond hair. Toms nephew Obe, is doing a fine job in reducing the average age in the car by about ten years, and is upping the cool quota too.

It’s another short hop from East London to Essex again, to a place probably most well known for its nearby shopping centre, than football club. The brick lined entrance and board with this afternoon's fixture on, customary shocking non league car park, with potholes you could lose cars in, gives Ship Lane a near instant feel of being a proper ground. No hint of a leisure centre, running track or any brushed steel, its football through and through.

One though can't avoid the hotel doing its best house from Psycho impression, overlooking us from its lofty position, perched on top of an adjacent hill, but this does nothing to detract from the charm of the place.

Inside and the fine weather is really showing off Ship Lane in the best possible light, the whole ground is positively iridescent. The centrepiece it’s main stand, with its high corrugated roof, flat black and intermittent green and yellow seats. The colours of the home team Thurrock FC (TFC).

It is the sort of stand that are few and far between on our travels, this thing didn't come out of a flat pack with instructions, this was built by hand from the ground up. I’m told by the very hands of the clubs long time owner and his father. The South family synonymous with this neck of the woods and once proprietors of the hotel.

Green and yellow is absolutely everywhere, the striped goal nets, fence around the pitch and the railings on the covered terracing behind each goal. Beyond the confines of the ground it's hardly scenic, long strings of criss crossing electricity pylons and a very nearby motorway, but none of this can diminish from the fact that its the kind of non league ground that gets people like me, who are excited by places like this, excited.

There is no sign of any players here yet, neither of the home side or away, Hendon FC (HFC). On the pitch one TFC coach, Tony, who if I said was larger than life, might not quite describe him properly, is taking some local children through a training session, while their parents look on from the sidelines.

Such is the involvement of the South family, when the owner Tommy pops his silver haired bed head out the top window of the red brick cottage clubhouse, still in his robe, asking the group below him, which includes Tom “alright lads?”, Tom is the only one bemused, “think that's his bedroom?”. It becomes instantly clear just how integral he is to the club and the club to him.

Our ties with TFC certainly don't stretch as far back as Tommy's, but we certainly feel a strong connection to them, after sharing the drama of the Ryman League North Playoff final last season. We’ve seen them play since, not that long ago at Margate, but a visit here has been long overdue.

The recently arrived HFC players doing their pre match walkabout still in their black tracksuits, are not doing much walking about, instead they are captivated by Tony's session which is coming to an end. When he pretends to call Lionel Messi for a chat, breaking into some at least A level grade Spanish, few people can resist the grin forming on their face, least of all the kids.

Not here long, and Tom is already a happy boy, not only is the sun out, but the sizable hatch to the Thurrock Snack Bar has pinged open, releasing an almost overwhelming smell of food cooking on the hotplate, which hits you like one of the trucks bombing along the nearby A282. A quick glance at the specials board, leaves Tom salivating.

Securing my programme, the vendor telling me “its not as much as that” when I produce a £10 to pay for it from the small opening next to door to the clubhouse, I’m 50% on the way to match day happiness. On hearing though that the golden goal seller is “unwell” for a split second feel like a really shitty person, I find myself more worried about not getting my fix, than the health of the person who normally sells them. I’m not a good person.

Obe has been nowhere to be seen since arriving, the draw of the clubhouse, some football on the TV and cheap beer, means he would rather sit roasting in there, it is unbearably warm, on the edge of the parquet dance floor, then wander around musing about the architecture of a stand, with us old fogies.

I’m kind of glad when he shows me that he has managed to get himself a golden goal ticket, it means there is someone here selling them, his is for the 41st minute, “just before half time” he's happy with that, but it puts us in direct competition. I eventually acquire mine, “oh 12 is good” my rival says, there is a slight gasp when I reveal my ticket. The stand in seller is someone who insists on calling us “lucky omens” for TFC, our lucky rabbit foot status bestowed upon us after the play off win, but after watching them lose at Margate, I feel our powers might be waning a little.

As bizarrely interesting as Obe’s tales of his time at the top of the playing Fifa online tree is, again he very easily makes us both feel ancient. Telling us about “trials” and “strict” kick off times it’s like he's talking about things from a different world. It’s also just far too hot to sit in here anymore to listen, the nearby radiators must be close to eleven, time for some fresh air.

“Testing 1, 2, testing 1, 2” says according to Tom the “delightful” sounding man on the PA, whose evaluation of the equipment is followed by some music. The tunes though play second fiddle to Tony who is taking the grown ups through their drills now and is just as enthusiastic with them as he was with the kids.

One player warming up away from the main group, has what looks like a very large black rubber band around his waist, with another coach holding onto the ends like reins. Tom reckons it must be some kind of "fitness test", Tony just thinks it's the ideal time to “neighhhhhhhh”.

Mike is a relieved man, “2:30 all done, very efficient” he tells us, taking a breather after completing all his match day toing and froing. Relatively new to the role of media titan and general all rounder, but a long time TFC supporter he tells us that he's like a swan “all graceful on top” and then mimes with his hands the manic feet paddling away underneath.

“Welcome to Ship Lane” says the voice over the PA, who does a quick run through of the teams. When its TFC’s turn he is super hyped, and gives it lots of vigour. The mascots, the same boys who had been treated to Tony's Lionel Messi call earlier are lined up outside the red brick cottage at the other end of the ground to the clubhouse. It’s very similar in appearance, although where the players are currently is single storey, so it's unlikely there is enough room for an elderly man to sleep in it. Hanging above the door, the yellow and green sign reads, Welcome To Thurrock FC.

Impatient, the youths are close to revolting, “why are we waiting?” they sing. They don't have to wait much longer to accompany the players on the very, very short walk onto the pitch and then the much longer one to in front of the main stand for the handshake.

“Come on Thurrock” shout the mascots making their way to their seats, behind them a ragtag group of adults try to keep up. The match is underway.

One thing we’ve learnt from our brief time in the presence of TFC fans, is that they are a lively lot. Their flags at the back of the squat terrace are already up and the group of no more than ten
are quick to get going, “come on Thurrock, come on Thurrock”. Their team do likewise, the game only minutes old and they've just cut a ball from out wide into the box, that was promising but comes to nothing.

“I've started a timer” says Obe, it takes me a second to work out what he's going on about, until he explains because of the lack of scoreboard and clock, he won't know if he's won the golden goal or not. Tom and I both explain it will be announced, but this does not placate him.

Part of me admires this ingenuity, his rivalry adding to the thrill, part of me is annoyed I didn't think of it.

Those singing in the stand along from us, “super Thurrock FC” do so with one arm raised and a hand shielding their eyes from the dazzling sun. I myself have adopted a one eye closed squint kind of look. Tom the perennial sun seeker tells me its "nice to see some sun”. Some of the home fans however reckon it's “toastie” in fact it's “too hot” and the game should be “called off”.

One supporter has got his outfit choice all wrong and is being made well aware of it. “What a terrible jacket” one person says laughing to themselves. The jacket in question is a bright blue puffy one with a fur hood, the likes of which are more commonly seen where Ranulph Fiennes is, not in Purfleet. The suggestion that he must be “sweating his bollocks off” does not look far from the truth as he peels it off, half exacerbated.

Despite the chants of “its like watching Brazil” from the TFC fans, following a passage of slick play and the comparison with the Samba Boys is made even easier by the fact they play in yellow, but the first twenty minutes from both sides has been a little tame.

There seem to have been more lost footballs than shots on goal, I've lost count of the amount of times a clearance has gone well past row Z, forcing a small child to rush off behind a stand to recover it.

Those who are maybe new to our blog, will not necessarily be aware of the fact I have a small obsession with pink kits, specifically pink goalkeeper kits. I’m therefore in seventh heaven at the sight of not one but two of them today. There is though some derision from Tom and Obe, who think I must be “colour blind” because HFC’s kit according to them is “orange” and not pink. It’s certainly not as neon Buffon as TFC’s but it's definitely pink, a coral pushing a salmon.

A “flambouyont” dive as Tom describes it, by one HFC player wins them a free kick, but after all the deliberation its a “weak” attempt says an unimpressed Tom. TFC are certainly edging the encounter so far, they are certainly more direct than HFC who pass the ball around a bit more, but as far as clear cut chances are concerned, there has been nul.

Obe is convinced the HFC player responsible for the big challenge, one where the sound of it sends a shudder through you, has “gotta go”. In fact two TFC players are down at the same time, but for unconnected reasons. The physio heads straight for the player involved in the punishing tackle. “Priorities” says Tom, like the man with the magic sponge picked him because they are BFF's.

“Can’t believe that” says Obe, stunned that the referee has not booked the player responsible for the less than textbook challenge.

One TFC fans powers of prophecy are a bit off, he is sure that the score is about to change, when they get a free kick out wide “1-0” he says as the ball is crossed in, but it ends up missing everyone in the box.

With five minutes to go, it's the visitors who fashion the best chance of the game, putting a shot just wide. Obe though has bigger things on his mind, I knew I liked this kid. Another injury, around the fortieth minute, the TFC physio is greeted with chants of “super hands, super hands” as he enters the pitch, means one of his golden goal tickets is about to become obsolete. “That's ruined” he says, looking at his timer. No concern for the player, just the prize, he will fit in around here.

A late offside call sees a TFC attack halted, wrongly in the eyes of the fans, “what a load of cobblers” says one, another suggests the linesman should “stick his flag up” his “ass”. Like most football fans, fickle, in the next breath they are praising the officials, when a foul is given their way, “well done ref” much to the annoyance of the HFC bench “what the fuck you doing?” they ask.

All square at the break, the TFC flags are down and have been packed away into a sports bag, for the short journey to the other end. Tom has made his way to join the queue at the snack bar, not for one burger, but two, as I am in the presence of two football eaters today, it must be a family thing.

Obe like his uncle has headed off early “to beat the queue at the bar”. I sit alone with a speaker two foot away from my ear blasting out overly loud Ed Sheeran, who is miraculously being drowned out by the mascots in full 'too much sugar' mode. Screaming, shouting while one kicks a drinks can about its a cacophony, rattling around under the metal roof of the stand. A couple of times the odd child takes a considerable tumble, and I expect tears, but they just pick themselves up and get back to tearing around like mad men.

Their indestructible nature might be down to one of them being the "terminator".

The sun has started to dip now bathing Ship Lane in the most gorgeous shades of pale orange and yellow, if the place didn't look picture perfect before, its gallery worthy now. A few white and green scarf wearing HFC fans have appeared where their TFC counterparts were before.

“Better than Stamford Bridge” declares Obe, finishing his burger, the same burger he had to ring Tom to remind him to put ketchup on.

TFC’s flags have reappeared from the sports bag, and hang from the back of the terrace once more. Their fans continue to sing as they did for most of the first half, but it's HFC who have come out much the brighter, and it is they who break the deadlock in the most impressive of style.

“Waste” says someone behind me, when HFC take their corner short. On first appearances it certainly seems that the set piece has not been taken well. Number 7 who receives the ball, looks to have nowhere to go, confronted by two TFC defenders, no amount of step overs or shoulder drops look like they are going to get him anywhere.

Still with the ball, he starts to move towards the halfway line, losing one of his markers, he sees his window of opportunity, quickly changing direction, he sets off back towards the box. His shirt being almost constantly pulled, the referee plays advantage, and thank god he did. Now in the the area, his hapless marker behind him.

Confronted in the box by a TFC player in yellow, there is still plenty to do, just over the line and from an acute angle, he bends the ball around the defender, well out of reach of the all pink keeper who is reduced to being an observer. One TFC player looks on as the ball nestles in the back of the net, he can only lift his hands, grasping his own head in dismay.

The celebration of the scorer is coolness personified, no choreographed handshake or shirt over his head, just a slow walk back up the pitch, he leaves it to his teammates to go crazy, leaping all over him. His bench are pretty happy to, “have that you cunt” one member of it shouts, another thanks the referee, I’m assuming for letting the play continue.

“Just what the game needed” says the same voice who suggested the short corner was a “waste”. The
match was screaming for a goal, but couldn't you have done your magic six minutes later number 7? I would have won the golden goal if you had. Instead one of the parents of the mascots looks like all his Christmases have come at once

HFC go close again, straight away, no idea how it wasn't a goal. The ball is slid across the six yard box, a foot from the goal line, the player sliding in, conspires to hit it over the bar, instead of into the back of the net. Tony is growing increasingly annoyed, “step it up” he shouts to the players.

I’m not quite sure what sparks it, but there is an near all team royal rumble at one point. It starts with both number 7’s rutting, before all twenty other players are involved. HFC’s manager sensing the possibility of things getting out of hand, directs two of his coaches to “get on the pitch” and to get their players “away” from the feud. The TFC fans behind the goal seem to be enjoying the exchange, breaking into song, “we are the fleet, we are the fleet”.

No-one is remotely concerned with my well being, when I’m forced to make an emergency manoeuvre to get out of the way of a flying ball, much more interested in the leftovers from the mass quarrel, one TFC player not very subtly barging one HFC player running for the ball right into the home dugout. For a moment the HFC player looks like he's going to retaliate, except for a shout from his own bench of “keep it together” stopping him.

The TFC fans are loving all the controversy, humming the Entrance of the Gladiators as things continue to heat up.

All be it a different member of the Sparks/Jones family, but the shout of  “ he's gotta go” is the same. This time a HFC through ball has caught out the TFC defence, sending the away player off towards goal, only for him to be unceremoniously clattered into, looks like the last man to me, but nothing is given once again. Tom can't believe it was anything other than a red.

“Get me a fucking goal” demands Tony under his breath to a nearby player. They almost do just that, firstly when a player on the far side wriggles free of plenty of attention and fires a low shot against the legs of the HFC keeper. “That's what he can do, that's what he can do” says Tony after the players effort. In contrast the HFC bench are not as full of praise, quite the opposite, enraged that the player was allowed to do that.

Tony’s wish is almost granted, in the most spectacular of ways. Pushing on, the number 3 heads towards the box, with no-one showing themselves for a pass, he decided to let rip a curling right foot shot, that from the moment he hit it look destined for the top corner. Not only looking a bit like Buffon in his stunning pink kit, the HFC keeper pulls off a save worthy of the sexy Italian, somehow getting a hand to it and tipping it over.

Another flare up, this time in the box, there are a few shouts of “embarrassing” from both sets of fans. Even the benches are going at it, “sort your fucking hair out” says someone on the home bench towards a coach on the away one. A TFC fan chips in, a big fella is calling a slightly smaller fella a “maggot”, it's getting a little bit unsavoury and we’re stuck right in the middle of it.

“I can’t hear you” screams Tony to the players, it might have something to do with the most excellent rendition of “come on you yellow and greens”. A chant before the end of last season I’d only ever heard sung by Celtic fans, but it has been adapted by the TFC supporters, who we saw belting it out at the playoff final.

“You don't see them given very often” says Tom, having just watched a HFC player go right over the top of the TFC forward in an attempt to clear the ball away. It looks like hes trying to climb on his shoulders for a piggyback. Regardless of the frequency in those kind of fouls being given, the referee didn't like it, and it's a penalty to TFC. “I believe in you” squeals one of the onlooking children.

“Fucking beautiful” shouts the HFC manager, as his keeper has just pulled off his second game changing save of the match. “It's just not their day” says Tom. TFC have had the chances but have found a man in goal having one of those afternoons.

They almost, almost score from the resulting corner, the keeper flaps at the cross, but the ricochet is kind and he gets another bite at the cherry and is able to gather the loose ball.

The sun has all but gone now, casting long spindly shadows of the nearby pylons across the pitch. The TFC supporters haven't stopped, despite the ups and downs “super Thurrock FC” and neither has Tony, non stop pacing up and down on the sidelines. At one point he explodes in a fit of swearing, only to remember he has his own audience of small people and apologises profusely to their stunned faces, explaining that sometimes he gets a bit caught up in moment.

“Last ten let's have it” shouts the ever energetic coach.

HFC introduce some fresh legs for the closing minutes, the voice over the PA’s attempt to read out his
name gets a few giggles. “He bottled that” says Obe, the voice aborting the name halfway, ending up just making a noise, he would have been better off if he'd committed to it, given it more of a go.

TFC fans are sure that the HFC keeper is taking a little too long with his kicks, counting out loud every time he has the ball, “1, 2, 3, 4 , 5”. HFC go close from a corner, the game on a bit of a knife edge, “come on boys” shouts a fan, as the voice over the PA has a little less of an issue informing us all there will be a “minimum of five minutes of additional time”, then he did with the recent substitute.

The expectations of a rip roaring final five don't materialise. TFC have a snap shot that gets a collective “ohhh” but for the crowd, that's about it. HFC spend anytime they have with the ball, running it into the corners.

While a few TFC players applaud their supporters, the voice for the last time today "thanks" us for our "attendance". The smattering of HFC fans, clap their players off, while their manager lets say has a bit of a heated chat with the referee and his assistants.

Ship Lane soon falls quiet, its almost dusk, and most people have left. Sadly there is a good chance that Ship Lane won't be filled with the sounds of football for much longer, its tenure as a ground coming to an end after thirty three years.

A little bird had told me recently  that 2017/18s may well be the final season for TFC and I don't just mean at Ship Lane, I mean full stop. It was just a bit of a rumour then, with no official word from the club, but that's all changed now.

Their demise is not due to some crooked landlord, debt or poor management, but due to ill health Tommy South, who has decided after thirty odd years hes got to step down, and has put the club up for sale.

TFC are not the most well followed club, they are not blessed with hundreds and hundreds of supporters, but that small group who are here week in and week out, and the volunteers like Mike, who help things tick along, are just as important to the fabric of the game as those fans of a club with thousands, and thousands of them.

Having always been so kind and accommodating to us, in the few times we have crossed paths with them, we can not speak highly enough of TFC.

A genuine jewel in the crown not only of the Essex non league scene, UK non league scene, but of all football. I can''t even start to imagine what it would be like as a fan, to know that time is almost up. That the next home game, you are one game closer to not being able to stand in your favourite spot, buy that half time cup of tea or speak to that person whose name you don't know, but you always have a chat with on match day, because that's the power football has.

It's heartbreaking if I'm honest, I can only tell you that all our fingers and toes are crossed, and all our prayers are heading the to the football Gods way, hoping for a positive outcome.

Ultimately if you don't have a team to go and support, what else is there to do on a Saturday afternoon?

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE


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