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.


For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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