Thursday 25 October 2018

Somebody's Got To Clap Them Off - Slimbridge A.F.C. Vs Merthyr Town FC, Southern League Challenge Cup 1st Round 2018/19, Thornhill Park (10/10/18)

I would never really have considered myself an ambitious person until today. I’ve always adopted the Dude's from the Big Lebowski attitude to life, take it as it comes, one day at a time, just without the accompanying high lactose cocktails. That was until I convinced myself we could drive at rush hour, one hundred and forty six miles to Gloucestershire, in two hours.

If I’m honest I had slightly fudged my research to accommodate Toms ‘no further than two hours away midweek rule because he has work the next day’. Two hours fifteen is how long it would take at about two in the morning, leaving at 15:30 and the Google Map directions have turned various shades of red and orange, its way of indicating traffic, pushing the total travel time closer to three hours.

It doesn't take long for Tom to cotton on that I may have somewhat tried to pull the wool over his eyes and as you can imagine he is not best pleased. He’s not a shouter or a get red faced and sweaty, he’s a quiet, not a sulker, but an uncomfortable quieter. I try my best to strike up conversation, “juicy peach” he snaps, when I enquire about what Vape flavour he is enjoying today, and he only briefly softens when we start talking about FIFA 19 again, yes I know there is still more to talk about, but ultimately, he is pissed off.

What was perhaps most frustrating about our journey was the stop start nature of it. As soon as we seemed to be making some headway, reclaiming back some time from my Sat Navs ever increasing ETA, we would hit another patch of slow moving traffic. I try my best to lift the mood in the car, waxing lyrical about the stunning scenery that surrounds, it looks like a Countryfile calendar.

Tom though, between intakes of “juicy peach” which he admits is a bit old, so smells more like “mouldy peach” is instead pointing out all the places we could be going instead of tonight's final destination, still some miles ahead. “Crocodiles of the World”, a pub who's having a “jazz and cocktails” night, in fact he just spends the rest of our time in the car pouting and ohhing at the vast array of nice looking pubs we see, tutting at everyone we pass, the further away from London we get.

I do my best to not show the blind panic that is slowly consuming me, Tom heard the low petrol ding my car makes a while back and I have seen him glancing over, but we are fully in the red now and I’m not sure how much longer we have left. If he wasn't apoplectic enough already, breaking down in the middle of nowhere, because I’m playing petrol roulette, might just be the final test of our relationship.

My last hope, is that the novelty of seeing a motorbike with a sidecar, will keep him occupied long enough to get where we’re going, before he hits me. I force a laugh out when he says we should get one, according to him we would be like the football equivalent of the “hairy bikers”.

We arrive at Thornhill Park, home of Slimbridge A.F.C. (AFC) a full forty minutes later than we had planned. The sun is almost gone, and we are not the only ones arriving a little late, AFC’s opponents have arrived in their pink and purple coach that's far too big to get in the entrance to the car park, so pulls up on the road outside, causing a jam of one, as the players and staff of Merthyr Town FC (MT) start to disembark.

Standing by the door in his hi viz coat an AFC official welcomes each and every person who gets off and rumour has it, that MT of the division above AFC, have brought a strong team.

You couldn't really ask for more from the AFC clubhouse, a well stocked bar, old shirts on the walls and well used leather chairs, with well worn in arms, around small wooden tables. Outside on the sizable veranda, the kind of which is normally found attached to the outside of some great plantation house of the deep south, the smokers among the locals are camped out. At its far end, the bright strip light of the food and snack bar illuminates a woman busily working inside, all while someones ‘Hits of the 60’s’ free CD from the Mail on Sunday, plays over the PA.

The lady prowling around by the turnstiles clutching a book of raffle tickets, is quick to pounce on any new arrival, she does though let the small girl, with an even smaller dog, pass her unaccosted. I of course am more than happy to be preyed upon, happily handing over my change for a couple of blue tickets.

Our trifecta of non league football perfection, gambling, food and a programme, will go uncompleted tonight. It's just a matter of when, not if Tom will be eating something, despite his usual procrastinations, “shall I eat, I could eat”, he will, who’s he kidding. AFC are sadly one of the ever increasing list of clubs that no longer sell a programme. Now I completely understand why clubs don't, Rob AFC’s press officer told me that they lose something like “£1000” a year on them, which of course is just not viable at this level, regardless of how sad it makes a few silly twats, with OCD like me, feel.

I take a seat on one of the white wrought iron thrones in front of the clubhouse, fed up of waiting for Tom to decide what he is going to order from the curiously named “snack tariff”, stuck to one of the swung open doors of the snack bar. Another smaller sign, quite minuscule in fact, informs patrons that the food is to order, and there will be a short wait.

Food in hand, cheeseburger and chips, Tom particularly taken by the sight of the chips after our chip free outing last time, but still reeling from missing out on the foot long hotdog he overlooked, joins me on one of some of the oversized garden furniture, but before tucking in, he shares his feelings about the “shit music”, that’s gone a bit “80’s disco” that is not his “cup of tea”. I must admit the change in CD, to another ‘Best Of…..’ from the Mail on Sunday is not my bag either, who honestly wants to listen to Footloose while they’re eating.

The sound of what I think is the nearby M5, what Tom seems to think is a horse galloping about the other side of a hedge and the teams warming up, all mixed in with what sounds a bit like the theme tune from Baywatch, but isn't and there is a distinct lack of high cut swimming costumes to be seen, is a bit surreal.

“1, 2, 1, 2” says the voice over the PA, interrupting the music. Talking to Rob, he contradicts what we had heard earlier, “Merthyr not brought a strong side” he tells us, and he has no idea “what kind of a team they're going to put out”, but he is hopeful the match should at least be, “entertaining”, helped by as he puts it the “friendship” between the clubs, forged in the throws of an “epic FA Cup” tussle they had a few years back.

“Welcome to Thornhill Park” says the voice once more, offering a special welcome to “our friends from Wales”.

From out between the clubhouse and the turnstiles the players arrive, unfortunately the music has not
improved. There is little wrong with the reggae instrumental The Liquidator, except that for most people it just evokes visions of a certain West London football club, and no one wants that in their lives.

“The Swans line up quickly” says the announcer hurriedly, the players are on the centre circle, the referee has raised his whistle to his lips and got things underway, and the voice tries his best to rattle off the remaining names of the starting eleven, but can't do it quickly enough, he’s still talking, with the game now in full flow.

His final words are to let us know that if the game is “level after ninety minutes” the match will “go straight to penalty kicks”. Tom prodding me in the ribs tells me what he overheard an AFC official say, who shares his sentiment for hoping all is concluded with the regulation ninety, “fucking hope not”.

MT register the first attempt on goal by either team, within less than a minute. Bad news for the home team you would think, good for those travelling fans who have occupied the covered stand behind the goal their team is attacking. Their flags already draped over the railings, one massive one though, far too big for the stand, hangs with a bit of a sag, from the roof.

I’m afraid you are going to have to forgive me for the lack of on field action comment, for about the next ten to fifteen minutes of the match, because the late arrival of a certain Welshman and his girlfriend, means we were not really able to concentrate much on the on pitch activities. To say Kieran, an MT fan who we met on our trip to Penydarren Park, could talk the hind legs of a donkey, would be an understatement. His partner, Samantha is quite the opposite, I’m sure simply down to the fact, because there just simple isn't ever a chance for her to say anything.

He comes bearing gifts mind, a pale blue MT shirt for Tom, and his arrival bizarrely coincides with Toms stomach starting to rumble, “still hungry” he informs me. His original meal was a “bit small”, nice, just not copious and Kieran’s entrance has made his taste buds nostalgic, thinking of the food on offer from our trip to South Wales. “It's not a cob” he says to himself fondly, remembering the hollowed out loaf of bread stuffed with chips, that they famously sell.

Although constant, his stream of consciousness is at least helpful, “thought we were putting out a youth side, that's majority first team”, he says after having had a chance to survey the team. “He needs match fitness, he needs match fitness”, he explains pointing to various players on the pitch.

It's only clapping from the all seater stand to our left that finally breaks Kierans flow, “good save” says a home fan sitting within its gloom, the AFC keeper in his colour coordinated orange kit, boots and gloves, that Tom had earlier expressed he “quite liked”, has just done well to save with his feet, one on one with an MT attacker.

The outburst of one MT player has us in stitches when a flick on in midfield from an AFC player completely circumnavigates him, and he knows farewell he’s been had, “oh you cunt”. He maybe thinks he has got his own back, when MT have the ball in the back of the net, buts its ruled offside.

“We should be fresh for this, we had no game last week”, points out Kieran, and his team certainly look that way. They take a short corner, rolling it to the edge of the box, and the first time shot is well hit, but saved. The charging run by one defender, Ledley King style into midfield and beyond, nearly results in a goal, they are as you might put it, grabbing the bull, or in this case the swan, by the horns.

Although its comes from an MT error at the back, a bit of a gift after one player can't control a pass, and its latched onto by the AFC number 10, I thinks it's fair to say no one had expected going by the teams performances so far, that it would be AFC who took the lead.

AFC’s tirelessly working number 10, hits his shot which is blocked, the ricochet falls kindly for number 10, who passes to a teammate, whose surge into the box, allows him enough room to slot home, low to the keepers left.

“Come on lift it” shouts one MT player, as they prepare to reset for the restart, Tom like me wonders if the League Cup, of whatever league it may be, is treated with contempt, considered just a bit of a nuisance. “I don't think they care” says Tom, not about MT’s application so far in trying to get a goal, more about their response to going behind.

They have no difficulty crafting opportunities, a “cheeky” flick as Tom describes it by one player, that sends the ball over his head, who then strikes it on the volley, that is just over is made to look much easier than it was, and proves they have the wherewithal to do better. They blaze over not long after, as Tom puts it, “they still look deadly”.

I wouldn't go as far as to say Tom's food was insubstantial, it looked adequate enough to me. For him though, it doesn't seem to have really hit the spot, “I’m still hungry”. His next statement is a little bit out of left field, his current craving is not for more chips, a pie or burger, normal football fair, but “mint ice cream”.

“I’ve become addicted to mint Magnums” he explains and tries to persuade me to “go get him one” because he is sure there “must be a Tesco around here somewhere”.

In their number 10, AFC have a player who Tom has started simply referring to as, “The Tank”. A combative, strong, physical type, who also has an eye for a pass and a rocket of a shot. At one point he nearly kills a man with a long range effort. “Played Yash” shouts a nearby AFC fan, when he bullies an MT player off the ball, and makes an incisive pass forward.

Unfortunately though, and despite “The Tanks” best efforts, his tenacity alone cannot make the game come to life, the match so far really having the air of a bit of a training session about it. It’s got to the point, with about ten minutes of the half left, where Tom is showing me a selection of “sexy football kits”. Napoli and Lazio's offerings this season, are particular standouts.

“That was an early one” says Tom, the both of us somewhat caught out by the announcement of the raffle. Distracted away from the match once more, the voice reads out the ticket number for the “first prize”, nope nothing, then the ticket number for the “second prize”, nope nothing. Tom thinks he’s helping by parroting his little catchphrase, “you've gotta be in to win it”. It's going to be a hard old slog this season.

One would not go as far as calling the MT fans strung out behind the goal with their flags, who have travelled to Gloucestershire tonight, a hoard, but I’m surprised to have not have heard as much as a peep from them so far. In fact no one here, except for Keiran, is making much noise of any kind at all.

“Nice chocolate bar and cup of tea” says Tom, considering his halftime treat already. I disturb him from his reverie, when I point out just how hairy the lineman's legs are, yes it really has got to that point, and he replies all Crocodile Dundee, hiking up the the right leg of his trousers, “that's not hairy,
I’ll show you hairy”.

A couple of minutes before the break and Yash “The Tank”, gets a much deserved goal. He starts the move with his back to goal, but loses his man with ease, with a swivel and drop of the shoulder, smashing home AFC’s second. Not wanting to take anything at all away from the home team, but the fact that as Tom points out that MT just don't seem to “care”, and there is zero “anger” he adds, from any of the players, that they have gone further behind to a team from a division below them, makes it feel a bit hollow.

MT have had far more shots on goal, however it's just a case of AFC taking their chances I suppose, being far more efficient. They have had two shots on target, and have two goals to show for it and they very nearly make it three from three, the predicts Tom, only for the player to put it wide.

Kieran is back, so please excuse the lack of on pitch punditry for the next paragraph or so. He has returned having himself sampled the food, and is far from hungry. “He knows the inside track” says Tom impressed by the tale of his food at football hack. “Doubled up for three quid” he tells us, Kieran who maybe talks the fastest I’ve ever heard a person speak, all with a subtle Welsh twang. He got a “huge pile” he adds smugly, “fed three people, for three quid” he informs us, bristling with hubris.

Tom is clearly 50% impressed, 50% annoyed. One thing though he is a little sceptical about is the “trinity of sauces” that accompanied the meal, “mayo, brown sauce and ketchup” are not three things he wants anywhere near each other on his plate of food.

“Somebody's got to clap them off” says Kieran, moments after the half time whistle, as almost no noise greets the leaving players, except for his half hearted applause. There is a slight spike in the volume levels, when the AFC supporters do the same, but it's hardly seismic.

You could say Kierans opinion of the Southern League Challenge Cup, is reflective of his team's attitude. “Tried to pay to get out of it” he tells us, “but they rejected us”. With the prize money being the sum total of “£100” for winning it, they probably spent double that on coach hire to get here.

“I’ve got fucking burnt fingers” is Toms reply at the end of his slow carrying tea walk back from the snack bar. The tea in his words is “not non league hot” but the slight spillage that occurred, has still singed his fingers. Rustling in the pocket of his coat, he produces a Snickers and a Twix, and we sit down in the main stand for a bit of half time sustenance.

His Snickers was nice enough he tells me, but he is already contemplating “more chips”.

Tom partakes in a bit more football shirt perving, when the MT fans pass us, flags down and in hand, one of them wearing a very fetching bright yellow MT away kit. The music has also taken a bit of an upward turn, “like that song” says Tom, the first time he’s not screwed his face up in reaction to the latest tune, when the Jackson 5, come over the airways.

MT are out well, well early. Tom puts it down to either they have “received the biggest rollocking in the world” or they are so keen to “go home” they want to get the second half underway as soon as possible.

The MT flags are soon back up, but there is nowhere to hang the really big one. A horn, may be the big flags substitute, making its first appearance of the night, when someone gives it a single blast. Where was that in the first half?

It certainly looks like it may have been the “rollocking” Tom had eluded too, because MT have a lot more purpose now, and like the beginning of the first half, it is they who have the first shot of the second. Kieran thinks the “match is going to penalties” even though his side are two behind, he reckons the comeback is on when they are awarded a free kick right on the edge of the AFC box.

“2-1” he says confidently as the player lines up to hit the ball, but the effort is just wide of the mark.

Even though it looks like the MT's give a fuck meter has risen a few notches, they are still a bit sloppy with their passing, “keep the fucking ball” shouts one of their players, Kieran apologising for his team's “Tourettes”. They also have to contest with AFC’s number 10, whose pins have certainly impressed Toms, he's got “legs like tree trunks” he says, as he shows off his “beastness” again as Tom puts it. Troubling the MT defence no end, constantly backing into players.

If it was a “rollocking” the MT players got, the effects were very short lived, all of about a quarter of an hour, AFC have just bagged their “third goal of the evening”, says the voice over the PA with a slight hint of surprise, and what a goal it was, great feet from the full back, sees him side step one defender, side step another and coolly finish. He celebrates with few hand shakes and high fives, with the fans behind goal. Tom applauds the full backs skill, "very Nacho Monreal".

MT’s bench are demanding the players attempt to get some semblance of “control” and when they do they are more than capable of putting together a fast paced attack, which nine times out of ten results in an attempt at goal, “too easy” shouts the AFC keeper when one such shot goes just wide, but it’s in other parts of the pitch tonight, they've been well below par.

There are the odd attempts to rally the troops, various players try to whip their fellow teammates into some kind of shape, but as Tom puts it, it's not very “convincing”.

No horn, no chanting, the MT flags are fluttering and the sky is jet black. There is no game noise, two players, one from each team are being treated for injuries and all that I can hear is a slight murmur from the stand and the nearby motorway.

“Did he just have a shot?” asks a puzzled Tom, it certainly looks like the MT player taking a free kick has just tried a very, very ambitious long range shot, and the amount of teeth sucking from the fans, makes me think it wasn't very far off target at all.

I know just what we need to lift the game that on  the thirty minute mark, has descended into a bit of a dull affair, not the “optimistic” long range effort from one AFC player, that gets a very strong firework display type response from the crowd, “ohhhhhh”, but another goal.

“Tap in” shouts an AFC coach from the bench, following his team's quite excellent counter attack, one player standing almost alone in the middle of the six yard box, waits to see what the player with the ball bombing it down the left wing, whose exquisite shimmy sees him side step the MT defender, is about to do. MT’s keeper dives at this feet, but the ball squirms free and the bench get their wish of a “tap in”.

Four down now, to a team from the division below, regardless of who's playing, young ones, old ones, unfit ones, one MT player hits the nail on the head, it's time to have some “fucking pride”.

There is a Sven Goran Eriksson amount of AFC subs following their fourth goal and although we've seen the amount of goals we have, we can’t help but be a tad more interested in seeing what boots the hairy legged referees assistant has one, running the line in front of us, after seeing the shiny blue ones the lino at Sheffield FC had on. “They’re old, looks like he had them at school” adjudicates Tom.

One passing MT fan @therovingsheep tells us he thinks the “chance of a five, four win” as he makes the slow walk back towards the clubhouse is unlikely, but “it's nice to get away from the wife and cat” he adds, plus he can “tick the ground off”.

Kieran is back, doing what Kieran does, and I lose all semblance of what is going on. “Do you tell the groundhopper app that?” asks Tom as Kieran informs us he is about to leave, having arrived late, asking his partner if they can “put the seat heaters on”, all his bravado about us wearing jackets and long trousers, from before and how tough he was because he was in shorts, has vanished.

He is though around long enough, to let out an excited “hello” as MT grab a late goal, in the final five minutes of normal time. A goal that is a very, very strong “contender” as Tom puts it, for our goal of the season. A fine feathered lob from well outside the box, sails over the AFC keeper and finally gives the MT fans something to clap.

Although it's all far too late, their goal has certainly woken them up. Not long after getting their first, they nearly get a second, shooting just wide, but it's all too little to late.

The man walking around with the microphone, who I’m assuming is also the voice over the PA is having a moment of crisis with his equipment, tapping the top of it, hoping it comes back to life, not to continue his match day duties according to one AFC fan, but to ensure he can partake in an impromptu “rap battle”.

Yash is back at it again, it's all one way traffic, he holds the ball up, feeds his teammate who attempts the same swivel and shot as he did for his goal, but curls it wide. MT’s keeper who Tom has got into his head is “sixteen” saves well with his feet when AFC get forward again, doing his best to keep the score half respectable, “impressive” says a man in a blue AFC sweater.

AFC then hit the bottom of the post and get a reward for their late pressure with their fifth goal, “fucking five one” says the man in the sweater, shocked by the scoreline.

"Sorry about that, microphone problems, two goals to announce” says the voice after his absence. The crowd around me are singing the praises of Yash, “just gets better and better” and one member I
assume of the regular AFC team, MT are not the only ones who have shuffled the pack tonight, jokes that he will be “definitely be on the bench on Saturday”.

MT sting the palms of the AFC keeper one last time, but it’s all over, queue The Liquidator.

The first time we saw AFC way back in 2015, they caused a bit of an upset, that time in the FA Cup, against opposition from a higher league, and well, that's just what they have done tonight. Kieran and MT might not be all that into the Southern League Challenge Cup, but going by the faces of the supporters and players of AFC, they certainly seem to have a different opinion. That Chelsea music, is suitably drowned out by the fans, waiting to congratulate their team.

If it wasn’t for the League Cup Spurs play in, I wouldn't have my fondest memories as a Tottenham fan, so I say embrace all competitions, nothing better than a piece of silverware for the trophy cabinet, whatever it may be.

Good luck in the next round AFC, go get that “£100”.

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Thursday 18 October 2018

Oh The Tea Lady's Arrived - Beckenham Town FC Vs Erith Town FC, Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division, Eden Park Avenue (03/10/18)

There are some football fans, whose team reside south of the river Thames, who swear blind that “it is wonderful”. I can tell you from first hand experience, that it is far from wonderful, when trying to get there from North London at rush hour. Almost exactly two hours it took us to travel the seventeen miles from Toms to tonight's ground. Bloody Ken, no Boris, no Sadiq, oh whoever it is.

Almost certain we had completely exhausted the conversational topic of FIFA 19, amazingly there is still more to discuss about Tom’s current game of choice. I’m still unsure if I’m going to get this year's edition, as my twelve year old son keeps profoundly telling me, its just the same game Dad, with a different number on the front.

Our extended time in the car though, does allow Tom to fill me in on the Gentleman's Club, he saw situated right next to Whipsnade Zoo, on a recent family outing, and by sheer coincidence I’m sure, starts asking if I know about any non league football clubs in the Whipsnade area.

Having grown up in North London my whole life, there is an unmistakable change in aura, as soon as you emerge from the other side of the Blackwall Tunnel. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but it happens. The houses look the same, so do the people, they have all the same shops, and drive on the same side of the road, but it just feels different.

Perhaps it’s the sight of a decrepit speed boat in the front garden of one house, I say garden, I mean balancing on the doorstep, with Jaws painted along its side. Perhaps it's the trams, the fact we passed somewhere called Peter Pan's Park, or maybe it's just down to the fact that looming in the distance is the Crystal Palace, doing a shoddy impression of Alexandra Palace, that is frankly offensive.

Is he OK? Some of you may be asking yourself, he's going in on South London pretty hard, what's his problem, it's really not that bad. Well I’ll tell you what concerned reader, it is that bad and I'll tell you why. I hold it completely responsible as my final destination today, as to why I came, seconds, I mean seconds away from losing my brand new phone, because I had left it on the roof of my car, and only realised about five minutes later, and thankfully, and consider yourself lucky South London because I might have had to go medieval on you, that it was still there.

It is a relatively unassuming entrance to the delightfully named Eden Park Avenue, which is a welcome sight after being tormented by an overly long Dutch lorry for the last ten miles. The sheer amount of trees that hang over the potholed driveway are certainly in keeping with the grounds name.

Beyond the white turnstiles, manned by a gruff white haired man in a blue gilet, who is fond of a cigarette, I get the feeling he thinks his job is more to stand guard, than to welcome people in, is a quite outstanding fluorescent green pitch. It’s grass not 3G, and it looks like you could roll it up and lay it in your front room. “It's like the Emirates” says Tom, both of us in genuine awe of the playing surface.

Beckenham Town FC’s (BT) kit man explains its because “no one else plays on it” and who would dare, going by the size of the “please keep off the pitch” sign, and there is a chance the gilet man might snap you in half if you do.

BT or the Becks, their nickname written in red across the back of one of two small all seater stands, filled with black chairs that look straight out of a primary school, are really flying so far this season, undefeated in eight. The whole ground is really a very pleasant surprise. With a strict colour scheme of red and white, it is in remarkably good nick, surrounded by the back gardens or the nearby terraced houses, more trees, all sitting under a quite stunning clear sky, filled with flecks of pink and orange.

The serene, suburban peace, is only briefly shattered by the odd passing train, but they are soon gone again and tranquillity is restored.

A small speaker outside the entrance to the long single storey clubhouse, gently pumps out a few pop hits, but not too loudly as to become tedious, or intrusive as the music at so many grounds can become. We take a seat on one of the many picnics tables, surrounded by an inordinate amount of ‘no ball games’ signs, Tom's eyes firmly fixed on the refreshments hatch, which is securely closed, he like me probably trying to work out why it's outside has been covered in artificial grass.

“At least it's a nice evening” says Tom, contemplating already I think the fact he might not be getting fed tonight. “I’m hungry” he announces, like somebody might overhear him, and whip him something up. His frown though, is soon turned upside down, when he spots a lady with a carton of milk in one hand, and an orange mesh bag with three onions in the other, “oh the tea lady's arrived”.

BT’s opponents this evening, Erith Town FC (ET), have flagrantly ignored the message on the very visible sign they passed, newly arrived, they have congregated on the pristine pitch, and out the corner of my eye, I’m sure the gilet man is twitching, but says nothing.

The appeal in the programme for help with the clubhouse roof has Tom occupied, although he’s only half concentrating on the words, as he keeps looking up towards the fake grass covered doors, that are still closed, but his heightened food at football senses can detect some activity, “burgers are cooking, I can smell them”.

Behind Tom, in one of the lean tos, that stand behind the goal are a couple of quite sizable BT flags, not of the left on your seat at a friendly at Wembley, in a desperate attempt to get an atmosphere kind of flags, but swaying on the Yellow Wall kind of one. Part of me fantasises about some local Ultras group turning up, ten minutes before kick off, and that we are going to be treated to a smoke, pyro and Tifo show, but Tom quickly bursts my bubble, when he makes his second Arsenal reference of the night, which he attempts to justify after seeing my eyes roll, “the colour scheme works” he says, it is very red and white here, saying the flags are just like the ones that appear as the players walk out on match days, all we need now are the air hostesses.

It’s getting cold, not so long ago we were being caressed by mild early autumn sun, but now its gone, I’m wishing I had put my jumper on.

Tom is getting ever closer to his dinner, the tea lady has reappeared hands full of teaspoons, milk and sauces. Although it's not the first of my imaginary BT Ultras turning up though, at least it’s someone, it was getting close to a two men and his dog situation. “It’s hotting up” says Tom, as a slow but steady stream of people start to pass through the turnstile.

Not wanting to abandon his post for long, gilet man sprints to the newly opened hatch, gets his cup of tea and quite impressively sprints back, not spilling a drop. Tom of course is not far behind him, buoyed by being able to get his food on, and although I've secured programme number five of the season, that’s five out of five so far, I’m not however getting much of a 50/50 vibe.

When a big man bangs a book of raffle tickets on the same table a BT coach is doing the final tweeks to the starting eleven, he declares loudly, “just need the bucket now” my previous ill feeling start to melt away.

“No chips, only burgers and hot dogs” says Tom, just after very nearly falling over, following his visit to the hatch, a hatch that he said looked like it was a “persons kitchen” by which he means, it wasn't all stainless steel and catering equipment, but Formica worktops, mug trees and kids artwork stuck to the fridge.

I’m not sure what Tom is more impressed by, the burger, which he calls “good” between half full mouthfuls, the fact is was cooked on a “George Foreman” or by the footlong hot dog, he now feels he overlooked, and depending on how much room he has left after this burger, he is considering something I don't think he has ever done before, “eating twice”.

His food envy has rocked him hard, “think I made a mistake” he says, staring lovingly at someone and their thirty and a half centimetres of frankfurter. Like he said the burger was “good”, the “plastic mozzarella” on top a nice touch, but the limited “options” as far as the sauces were concerned, was a disappointment.

Another explanation for why the pitch looks so immaculate, is highlighted when both teams appear for their warm ups, jogging right on by it, heading instead to an unlit field next door. Both teams got through their routines very loudly, considering the lack of lights, maybe it's a way of working out where each other are.

A small group forms around the man sticking tonight's lineups to the top of a fence post, made up of those football types who see it fit to deface their programme, with lines, ticks and crosses, ensuring they have the correct information for posterity. Looking on is BT’s owner Mick who when I ask him, reckons they might get “80” here tonight “if we're lucky”.

Considering BT don’t ground share, I ask why do they play on a Wednesday, most clubs will play on Tuesday in the week, BT changed to “get more people”, less competition on a Wednesday, fewer places for Groundhoppers to go, although by the look on his face, he doesn't look totally convinced its paid off. He explains one reason for not getting bumper attendances, despite there being “lots of money in the area” is that it's just not “very football”.

Both teams appear from the far end of the clubhouse, sheltered for a moment by the veranda, and
once they've been checked over by the referees assistants, one of whom we heard earlier asking his girlfriend who he had dragged along, to go and get him a towel from Sainsburys because he had forgotten his and that he couldn’t hang around with her for long, because he and the other officials were “listening to music” and getting “in the zone”, they step out onto the long, garden fence lined approach to the edge of the pitch.

We’ve seen louder walk outs, there is no PA, no signature tune to greet the players. All I can hear are the eleven high fives the BT kitman gives the players as they pass him.

Mick may have got his wish by the time the teams are crossing the pitch to line up for the handshake. The ground I would go as far as saying has a gentle buzz about it. Both the stands are well occupied, and three chaps have picked their spot behind the goal, all on fold out chairs.

It’s dark now, Crystal Palace and its woeful impersonation obscured by the night, the lights are bright, and its cold, really cold, just about perfect conditions for an evening of football.

The first ten minutes of the game are very, very shouty, everyone is guilty of far too much  unnecessary shouting. Along with the trains, which have become far more frequent as the evening has gone on, occasionally giving a blast of its horn as it leaves the nearby station, and some local cats having a very loud punch up, Eden Park Avenue has got very rowdy.

It’s the visitors bench who just pip the home one to the loudest award, “relax” bellows one of their number, not the man though who has just gone full Bielsa, and is watching from the technical area sitting on a water cooler.

Resurrecting something we haven't played for a while, Tom is straight in there with his picks for  ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’, “Arsenal Vs Inter Milan” he says, and for once I can't disagree. “I like a black and blue shirt” he adds, ET’s striped shirt, most definitely has a bit of the Nerazzurri about it

“Get hold of it Beckenham”, demands one fan, ET have just had a goalbound shot blocked and the match so far has been very manic, still lots of shouting, but not much actual football being played. A distant sound of clattering scaffolding only adds to the din, “has the clubhouse fallen down?” wonders Tom, was the request for help in the programme too late.

I wish I knew how to snap Tom out of his bizarre Rainman like commentary on the different footballs that are in rotation, that he has started, but I don’t. “That's a nice ball that” he highlights when a new one is tossed on the pitch. The downside of having such close by neighbours, big hoofy clearances end up in their gardens, sending poor sods off in search of them in the grassy hinterland behind the fence. “They must go through so many balls” he adds sympathetically, and if it's not balls, it’s the nearby dog he is gassing about. It is a very nice dog, a very “docile” dog as he puts it, but it's a dog.

After a very chaotic first fifteen, BT all of a sudden and quite noticeably change it up a gear, the undefeated BT remember. “Well played Beckenham, good football” says the man next to us, the opposite side to the dog, almost under his breath, as he will do for the entirety of the night, his only little commentary, after BT get a shot of at goal, following some neat passing.

A minute later and they are ahead, “well done Beckenham” says our neighbour. “Ref, ref, that came from your fuck up” shouts someone on the ET bench, not best pleased he gave the free kick in the first place, the referee who will end up being quite a prominent character by the end of the night.

The ET keeper in pink a bit of a spectator, as the header flies passed him, despite his best diving efforts to get close to it.

“1-0, we go again” insists one of the BT coaches, making sure the players don't think the job is done. There really was quite the shift in their momentum in the minutes preceding the goal, “they just look a league above” says Tom. Who doesn't have very high hopes for ET now, “I think they are going to thrash them”.

Someone I did not expect to be adding to the cacophony of noise, both the benches and the players are still at it, and the latest train makes me jump a bit, just like the others have, when it thunders by, blasting its horn, is the now not so “placid” dog, who at the sight of a nearby ball, one just saved from no man's land, has changed into a whole other animal.

Tom has a dilemma, I can see he has been wanting to say something for a couple of minutes, but has been hesitating, and then all of a sudden blurts it out, “would you laugh if I wore a gilet?”. If I’m honest, I would have normally, the gilet is reserved in my eyes for the likes of Tim Sherwood, and not for any friend of mine. Except my Mum just got my daughter one, which she looks great in, effortlessly channeling the spirit of Marty McFly, pulling off a kind of 80’s retro chic with ease, so in fact I’m OK with it.

Tom slips it on, its garish yellow liner looking quite inviting actually, wishing I had brought my jumper once again, it really is quite chilly.

“Ohhhhhh” gasp the crowd, BT have just gone close again, a low powerful shot, just wide of the far post. “Well done Beckenham” applauds one supporter, “unlucky son” mumbles our co commentator.

Maybe it the sight of their meaningful first attack, with twenty odd minutes gone, but one of the ET bench has just shouted, “fuck me in the ass”. However his unconventional praise, I think its praise is short lived. As the game grows increasingly robust, his team are starting to look more and more “overwhelmed” as Tom puts it. It's all BT, a great ball over the top, nearly finds it’s man, but is cut out in the nick of time, it is a simple case of when, not if BT will score again.

The lights of the passing trains through the trees, continues to be a bizarre source of entertainment, as to the ever changing footballs seem to be to Tom, he has without fail, made a comment about every new one he has seen.

ET are given a ray of hope, when BT give the ball away in midfield, one of their first real lapses in concentration, and ET pounce, the eventual shot, blocked in the the box. “Lets up the tempo” shouts one BT player in response, they have been a tad lackadaisical since going ahead, but saying that it doesn't take much for them to craft a chance. “Good football Becks” says you know who, as they put another attempt, a header this time, just wide of the target.

Tom thinks ET “have given up a bit” shoulders certainly seem to have sagged. With ten minutes of the half remaining, their number 4 as Tom put it, is “trying to sort it out”, but isn't having much joy. Edging close to the break, and Tom still a bit cold, his gilet not sufficient, maybe he should have got one with some with arms, is considering a hot drink, “might have to get a tea or a hot chocolate”. I on the other hand, having seen no sight of the big man with his bucket, am contemplating a raffle free half time.

Despite all their dominance, Tom isn’t sure BT have “have had a chance” since they went ahead, “lots of almosts” and the “odd moment” but nothing clear cut. Their final pass a little lacking, they are getting forward with ease, but that killer final ball is missing.

“Are you fucking joking?” asks ET’s keeper resplendent in his pink top, to the referee when he waves away the appeal from the ET player for what looked like a stonewall penalty, the bench are also adamant, no mention of anything to do with his “ass” this time, the same foulmouthed coach as before, just shows his disgust, with a good old fashioned “fuck off”.

The tackling continues to be hard, but mostly within the letter of the law. A man is wandering around in shorts, and Tom is convinced he must be “Scottish or Northern”. The sight of the man's chilly calfs has confirmed he is now one hundred percent getting a “hot drink and a Kit Kat”.

“Last ten minutes we've been shit” says one BT player loudly to his teammates, if it wasn't for ET’s
complete inability to pass the ball into the box properly, they might be level. For the first time today ET are on top, and they finish the half on top. It’s BT who have the final attempt of the half, a long range shot that is easily held, but ET can surely walk in, with a modicum of confidence, after looking like they were going to get brushed aside after going behind.

Thanks to the strange array of available seating, I plonk myself down on one of the three metal seats not far from us and I quickly work out it is probably a bit too cold to be sitting about, Tom is off double speed, leaving me to listen to the trains and watching one ET sub get very, very angry because no one will pass to him.

“Pat makes a good cup of tea” says Tom, returning with a suitably scalding hot cup of non league tea in a white Styrofoam cup. Who’s Pat I ask, the “tea lady” he explains, however he cuts me off when I start to compliment him on how nice it was he found out her name, only for him to inform me that after visiting Pat’s Pantry at Whitstable Town, from now on, all tea lady's are called Pat.

One item of clothing I can assure you my daughter certainly doesn't own, and never will, is a snood, so I assure Tom I would have guffawed heartily had he been able to find his, after rummaging around in his bag for it, “can't find my snood” he says dejectedly.

I’m sure it's become even colder in the short amount of time the players have been away, it also seems to be even darker, the floodlights having to work even harder. The noise of chatter fills the stands, peoples breath is visible, winter is getting ever closer. The sound of a dog barking, makes the ears of our once again “placid” K9, ears prick, but he doesn't seem to feel it's necessary to get up.

The hot tea is doing a great job in keeping my vital signs up, the single finger of Kit Kat Tom gives me was a bit of a struggle to get, “I don't want to take my gloves off” he says, before relenting and snapping me one off, not wanting to get chocolate on his newly acquired hardware.

ET win an early free kick, which has to be retaken because of an encroaching BT player, who gets a few choice words slung his way, and a yellow card. He does well to pretend he is the innocent party, arms out by his side, a look of shock on his face, I was just running past and jumped in the air and flicked out my boot guvnor, what I done wrong?, but he surely knows it was a bit of an arsehole move.

It's been a quick start from both teams, but the game has descended into a bit of a win the ball lose the ball session in midfield, the BT keeper is not impressed, “not a good enough start”.

“I got the ball, I got the ball” says the lanky stunned looking BT defender, who towers over the referee, who has just put him in the book, “loves a yellow” says Tom, and I have to agree, the man in change does seem a little officious, and the case of did he get the ball or not, will be relevant in the not so far in the future, however we have another goal to enjoy first.

ET will be well annoyed at how sloppy the second goal they conceded was, they were nowhere near fast enough to react to the corner, which is eventually bundled clear, and are guilty again of the same mistake, when BT regain possession and are able with ease to slide the ball in to the path of the player, no one has followed. He meets it, but because it's been slightly over hit, all he can do is give it a delicate flick, with the heel of his foot, sending the ball into the six yard box, where it is met by his sliding teammate who finishes the move.

The back heeler and the scorer peel away towards the corner flag, the scorer jumping into the open arms of the quick thinker, who holds him aloft. The ET players just trudge back towards the centre circle, some with their heads down, some livid, the feeling made worse I’m sure by their promising start to the new half.

“That changes everything” sung Billy Currington apparently, but also said by an almost gleeful Tom, who stops just shy of rubbing his hands together like Fagin. The long thin BT defender who was booked earlier, despite his claims of innocence, has just received a second. This one for me, was a lot more definitive, and he has barely stood back up, and the referee is brandishing the yellow card, then his red, inches from his face.

“Back to back reds” points out Tom as he makes the long walk off, the second sending off we've seen in as many games. I can't make out what is being said, but there is much angry manly shouting coming from the other end of the pitch, towards the referee.

ET’s resulting free kick takes a nick off the top of the wall and goes over, Tom looks at me with a glint in his eye, “if they score next, we’re in for a thriller”. “Heads on boys” shouts an ET fan from the sidelines, who like Tom knows full well, that whoever scores the next goal is crucial.

The referee and his assistants are getting it hard from the crowd. “What you watching ref?” asks one angry spectator, when a BT player is left poleaxed, writhing in agony, not rolling around theatrically, he is properly hurt. “Think he might of chundered” whispers Tom about the injured player on the far side of the pitch, “he’s holding his throat”.

They may well find themselves a man down, but at times you would be troubled to know that. BT move the ball around well, have cool heads and are still very much in the game. In the away teams dugout, that is illuminated like a school disco, by the substitutes board being prepared, they are about to try and affect the ease in which BT are still dictating the pace of the game, even with their disadvantage, it's time to roll the dice.

“Going all out attack” says Tom as the double change is made, “Erith playing four up front”, he’s gone “4-2-4” ads Pep, sorry Tom, who has obviously been listening very astutely to FIFA 19 and decided today was as good a time as any, to regurgitate all his newly learnt lingo.

Twenty minutes to go, “liven up” shouts the BT keeper, an ET fan offers his own encouragement in response, “come on blues it’s not over”. ET are certainly showing more and more the difference in the numbers, a sharp turn on the edge of the BT box, allows the player to make a short pass that finds his teammate, only for the keeper to smother the ball at his feet.

A newly arrived ET attacker is frighteningly quick, “he's like having Aaron Lennon” says Tom, surprised he didn't say Walcott, but maybe he didn't want to be rude. His pace allows him to get into the box with ease down the right wing, but his first of many forays for the remainder of the match, ends with a a shot straight at the keeper.

“Oh to be a ref” sighs Tom, the man in charge this time surrounded by both teams players, one BT player down, having let out a sickening scream, he lays prone, clutching his ankle. “Don't listen to the scream, he got the ball” is someones round about way in saying the ET player who made the tackle, didn't deserve the yellow he was about to be given.

The referee is close to losing control, it's all got a bit like the wild west, and not of the unrealistic Will Smith kind. Players are taking optimistic long range lobbed attempts from free kicks, there is again lots more yelling, lots of shouting and claims for things that just aren't things, but among the chaos, BT are still very comfortable, maybe they thrive on the lawlessness, holed up in their own half, untroubled as Tom puts it by ET “throwing the kitchen sink at them”.

“Unlucky” roars the ET board member in his club tie just along from us, the other side of the “placid” dog, who joined our little section after swapping ends at half time, to the player who just hit a volley so sweetly from the edge of the box, it's frankly a shame to see it go right into the arms of the keeper, it deserved more. Behind them, there is a definite crunch caused by a far too big a man, attempting to fence hop, to reclaim a lost ball.

ET go close again not long after, a goal bound header is cleared and the referee is soon in for more grief, “get the cards out then tosser” shouts a BT fan, when a player is fouled, but not looking like he is going to produce one, the BT players tell each other to “keep going, keep going”, and maybe now at their lowest ebb, the ET players have begun squabbling.

The game has fizzled out quite considerably, both benches are very quiet for the first time, maybe a case of them both thinking the result is a forgone conclusion. There is plenty of late ET pressure, particularly in wide areas, with some brilliant overlapping runs, but they inevitably come to nothing. BT do their best to clear their lines and are reduced to straight up counter attacking football. More than once they outnumber ET at the back, only for some last ditch heroics or sloppy passes to just about keep the visitors in the game.

ET hold on for as long as they can, but in the end succumb to the homes teams attacks, grabbing themselves a late third. It really is too easy for BT, carrying the ball from deep, the scorer has an option in the box, but doesn't use him, and slides the ball under the keeper and into the far corner of the net. Arms out by his side, he struts towards the celebrating fans, “get in” he shouts before high fiving one of them. One player, a little late to the party, slides along the pitch on his knees, arriving at the still celebrating scorers feet.

There is some very muted applause and lots of bickering among the BT players when ET get themselves a conciliation goal. An expression I’ve never really understood, I don't think much is going to console any team who have just lost. Anyway I'm reeling from the fact the Spurs game I’ve been recording at home, just got ruined by the person next to me, updating someone else like an annoying talking vidiprinter.

On the final whistle, both teams exchange the customary handshakes, the ET players and staff are
quick to get into dissecting the previous ninety minutes, the BT players are quick to try their best to rid themselves of the previous ninety minutes exertions. Some lie on their backs, legs propped up above them on the hoarding, stretching their legs. When they eventually walk off, their supporters have stuck around to cheer them in, "well played boys".

A bit of a diamond in the rough is how I would describe BT, I say rough, the houses around here are massive, and some of the cars parked in their driveways cost more than some countries GDP. I'll be honest they were not a club really on our radar, only because of Tom's recent change of job, and no longer having Tuesday off, did we come.

The ground is great, the food was good, if you come and try the footlong, let us know what its like, Tom is still upset he didn't have it. I'm sure Mr Gilet is nice once you get to know him, they do a programme and if the big man finds a bucket, they might have a raffle too.

Let me put it like this, I would happily spend two hours in traffic again to come here, without hesitation.

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Thursday 11 October 2018

The Home Of Football - Sheffield FC Vs Prescot Cables FC, FA Trophy Extra Preliminary Round, Coach & Horses (29/09/18)

It shouldn't make me as uncomfortable as it is, but the sight of Tom loitering about outside the front door of my block of flats, is really a bit unnerving, and it reminds me I must get in touch with the landlord about upping security. For the first time this season he has come to me, parking his behemoth of a car somewhere on my street, as we are heading north today. Not east to Essex or south to Kent or Sussex, but north or as he always calls it, the “proper North” and by that he means further than Potters Bar.

Most of our time in the car heading two and a half hours straight up, is consumed with more FIFA chat. Tom explaining the gratification he gets from winning online due to making people “rage quit”, all while he sips from a ceramic Marvel universe travel mug, containing the cup of tea I made for him. I know, I know, I’m awesome.

The nuances of FIFA 19 are not all that we talk about, we are not totally one dimensional. I can honestly say though I never thought I would hear Tom utter the sentence, “she has good piping skills”, when the topic of the Great British Bake Off crops up, and we both discuss the genuis that was the Christmas scene Kim-Joy managed to do in miniature with icing, on the side of a biscuit.

Tom is a kean vaper, his current device akin to something you might have seen in the early episodes of Star Trek or one of Kryton’s attachments, is omitting a very odd smell. Normally I don't mind the faint odour of grape or candy floss or whatever he has happened to fill it with that day, but this morning, it's horrible. I wonder if what I can sense is in fact some countryside smell from the outside world, but its not, and he informs me its the “strawberry cheesecake” liquid, he’s currently vaporising to my left.

I haven't been a smoker for six years and therefore missed the whole vape thing. I had no idea the possibilities and vast array of flavours available. When he informs me I could be sucking in anything from beef, bacon or pizza flavoured smoke, I’m astounded.

Oh, and I forget to make my obligatory attempt at a poetic comment about the sky or the autumn tones of the trees, that my other half/proof reader finds so amusing, so just for her I’ll keep it simple, today its blue.

Other than our trips north of Watford, Tom doesn't venture outside the M25 all that much, “like being abroad” he says as we approach Chesterfield. A large piece of roundabout sculpture has him mesmerised and the sight of the twisted wonky spire of Chesterfields church of St Mary and All Saints, well you would think we were passing one of the seven wonders of the world. His head is on a swivel, his eyes dart about like he is seeing things, he has never seen before.

At one point he is even convinced we are being followed by an “angry biker” a “Sons of Anarchy” type he calls him. This is Derbyshire for fuck sake, not Charming.

Although my demented Sat Nav looks like it is trying to direct me to a petrol station, it is thankfully spot on with its route planning, steering us pretty much to the front door of the Coach & Horses pub, from which the adjacent ground, takes its name. A squat sandstone building, with a slate roof. It's sign swaying gently, below it some benches and hanging baskets, makes it near picture perfect.

My car struggles up the short but steep slope up into the car park, teetering on what feels like the edge of a cliff, I check, then double check the handbrake is on hard, so we don’t come back and my car has rolled into the road. The main door of the pub is narrow, built for the malnourished hobbits of yesteryear, not 21st century brutes like me. Inside the beer taps are glistening and the sound of Led Zeppelin fills the room, both are very good signs

Having not even seen a blade of grass or a floodlight yet, and even if I didn't know where I was, I would still be able to tell you we are in a place of football significance, because of the sheer amount of football/ultra stickers that are plastered on the cistern in the loo and anywhere else you could put one. The importance of where we are is only reinforced by the vast array of different countries that they have come from.

I don’t think I'm exaggerating when I say, that today's ground and club, is tantamount to a football El Dorado, a shire, a mecca. Somewhere, that someone has a keen eye for a funny, because scribbled on the sign over one urinal that reads “out of order” someone has added in biro “you're”.

We had convinced ourselves the entrance to the ground would be through the pub, like it was some great stone turnstile, where you can get a pint of local IPA with your ticket. It is though only a short walk to the entrance to the “Home Of Football” that the sign on one fence proclaims this particular corner of the football universe is.

I’m not sure, but I bet there are a few football clubs who attest to being the ‘first’, just like I imagine there are a few barns in Bethlehem who claim to be where Jesus was born and a few dingy Soho clubs who claim to be the first place the Stones played, but none of them have been recognised as being so, not only by the FA, but also the all seeing eye, the Big Brother of soccer, FIFA, like Sheffield FC (SFC) have been.

Formed in 1857, they can unequivocally say they are the world's very first football club and they are not shy in letting you know about it. Although we are here to watch SFC, named after one of Yorkshire's major cities, we are not actually in Sheffield or even in Yorkshire, but Derbyshire. Yorkshire is one mile up the road.

“A tough one” explains the SFC physio, who claims to be the “busiest in the league”. Their opponents today Prescot Cables FC (PC) have “not lost” since the start of the season, and as the physio points out, Liverpool have a knack of “producing good teams”.

Bathed in bright autumn sun, the trees that stand at one end of the Coach & Horses are on the turn and Tom is impressed by the “nice pitch” and the fact that its “straight” unlike so many of the wonky, tilted ones we encounter.

Three quarters of the ground are quite charming, with a small seated stand behind one goal, and a small terrace along one side, with “home of football” brandished across it. In one corner is the back of the pub and opposite it a large, manual scoreboard, with stacks of numbers on white boards piled up at its base, ready to be applied whenever a goal is scored, it's a bit like something from a cricket oval.

One whole side of the ground though, the same as the dugouts, is not so scenic. A long blue tarp covers the bare earth bank underneath, a long blue tarp endorsed by FIFA no less, its large badge stamped on one end. Next to the seated stand is a formation of black and red portacabins, that contain the boardroom, club shop, changing rooms and where Toms eyes have fixated, the refreshments.

“Hope they do gravy” he says, running his eyes over the menu, I think that’s the only reason he agrees to these trips further afield is because of his love of all things hot, brown and beefy. “Just says chips and pies” he adds not long after, a tad disappointed. He still orders though, and sits down on of the few benches set out.

In Richard Tims, SFC have a chairman who is not backward in coming forward. In his green tweed jacket, with a vice like grip, he along with his son, the acting mini chairman in his colourful woolly hat, join the already long list of warm welcomers. “You never know in non league football” he explains, when I ask him how many people through the already ticking turnstile they would expect today. “Wednesday and United are not at home today” he adds, so that's in their favour, and not so long ago “two hundred and fifty Cologne fans” turned up, “mental” he says, his face lighting up, so he can never be sure.

With an average gate being around two hundred and eighty, he would hope for close to that, but it being a cup game means “no season tickets” are valid and he probably sums up the life of a chairman and the anxiety of how many people are going to turn up, week in, week out, perfectly in one sentence, “If it's chucking down on a Tuesday night and Barcelona are on the telly, it will wipe out half your gate”.

It being a Saturday, the sun is unseasonably glorious and as far as I know Barcelona are not on the TV, he should be OK.

One thing I certainly wasn't expecting today was an assignment. “Loud and clear” shouts someone on the pitch to the person testing the PA, high up on the second floor of the portacabin heap. The first piece of music to come over the recently tested speakers sounds like the opening of a 1960’s TV show and it is my enquiry with Richard, as to what is it from, that triggers him setting me my homework.

“Shazam it” he tells me when I ask him again what the music is from. Not only was I not aware that was a thing anymore, I think the last time someone used it was around the same time someone asked Jeeves something, it would just be a lot simpler if he would tell me. However he has a mischievous glint in his eye, he’s not giving up the answer easily and he tells us he hopes Shazam is still a thing, because if it isn’t, it’s going to seriously damage his street cred with his kids, “don't want them thinking I’m any less cool”.

The recently arrived PC players like Tom, are more than happy with the state of the pitch, as they do their customary wander about on it before getting ready for their warm up. “That's alright” says one, “like a carpet”, says another. One of their coaches points out that, “if you can't play football here, you can’t play anywhere”, all while You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate. Which of course was on the Full Monty soundtrack, which yes you remember correctly was based in Sheffield.

In the opposite corner of the ground to the man sitting on a low wall listening attentively to his transistor radio, is the members and supporters wall. Long, shiny and black, what it lacks in names on it, the majority of the gold spaces on it are empty, it makes up for in the calibre of the people who are, Ian Rush, Sir Bobby Charlton, Alan Mullery and Gordon Banks.

I can't stress enough quite how lovely the weather is, us southerners do have some daft
preconceptions about how it can be in the North, but I’m delighted to say its a beauty of a day, and although I’m not that a huge Heather Small fan, her warbling is pleasant enough accompaniment and I’m sure she was also on the 1997 miners doing a bit of stripping film soundtrack too.

Tom having finished his pie, a very nice pie at that, served upside down to allow for quick access to the bountiful filling, he is though not as upbeat as I thought he would be, as he puts it, he is feeling “duped”.

“He had mushy peas and gravy, I didn't know that was on offer” he says sullenly, pointing to one of the bigger boys, whose pie is smothered in the thick brown gravy he loves so much, as well as a healthy serving of vivid crushed peas.

Pulp follow the Arctic Monkeys on the speakers, but Richard tells me I've only worked out “half” of his conundrum, but that I’m “on the right track”, when I march up to him, sure I’ve cracked his test, telling him the answer must be that all the music is Sheffield themed.

Of the three games we’ve seen so far this season, we’ve only seen one win, and one goal, “I really wanna see some goals today” hopes Tom, not only for the entertainment value of them, but because he wants to see the “scoreboard in action”.

The chance of a raffle today seems iffy, “depends if someone turns up”, I’m told. Tom is indulging in some retail therapy, his stomach suitably full. Buying himself a one hundred and sixty years commemorative SFC shirt, a red and black harlequin number, with a string tie collar, a kit worthy of gracing any collection. He pays the man at the pop up club shop, a small table set up near the tunnel, the man after him shells out a few pennies for a team sheet and tells the vendor that he “hopes” today is “better than Tuesday”, “can't get any worse than that” he replies. SFC lost 6 - 0 away.

“Cables, Cables” sing the visiting fans, distinguishable by their bright yellow scarves, gathered around the end of the red tunnel, that has just been extended a fair way to the edge of the pitch. “Welcome to the home of football” says the voice over the PA, while the PC supporters sing a song that includes their nickname, one that instantly joins the likes of the Beavers of Hampton & Richmond, The Angels of Tonbridge, as being just a bit too nice for football, a little bit Disney, or in their case Scooby Doo, “pesky bulls”.

Kick off brings more chanting from the moderately sized contingent from Merseyside, it also for the first time makes us aware that the referees assistant running the line in front of us, bares a striking resemblance to a less bulky Chris Hemsworth.

Such is the height of the barrier around the pitch, it allows us to perch on the nearby breeze block wall with a perfect view, which is only spoilt occasionally by the shuffling flag bearing Thor. One man next to us, has taken it to the next level and is on a padded fold out chair, chuffing profusely on a cigarette. The PC fans have changed song, their latest offering to the tune of Anarchy In The UK.

On five minutes SFC have a goal bound shot blocked and I’m not sure the PC fans have stopped singing yet. One of their number, away from the main company has hung his small yellow flag, featuring the red rose of Lancaster, his pint resting perfectly next to it.

A minute later PC attack, the first of a succession of attacks by the away team. Their first sees the home keeper do a big floppy punch to the cross into his box, where he gets more of his team mate than the ball. The second is a jet heeled counterattack, with a curling shot at its end that's just over, and the third, interrupts their fans singing about asking their mothers “what will I be”, and inspires a new one about playing like “Brazil”, bolstered by the fact they are wearing yellow tops and blue shorts.

“I don't think they’re going to stop singing” says Tom, even when they look to be taking a breather, one keeps it up, “I’ll sing on my own” he announces.

SFC’s physios concerns seem to be founded, it’s all one way traffic. PC have what seems a quite legitimate shout for a penalty turned down, “handball” cry the players, but the referee gives a corner instead. “What happened there, he went flying” asks Tom, the one PC player going airborne due to a hefty shove from a PC defender, there is another appeal for a penalty, but again nothing is given. All this action right in front of them, only encourages the PC fans further, “Cables, Cables”.

The PC onslaught is only briefly adjourned by a half chance from a SFC corner, but PC are soon back at it. Attacking down the right, the winger is spoilt for choice as to who to pass to in the box. Chopping the ball one way, then the other, he sends his marker inside out, he chips the ball delicately into the box, only for the SFC keeper to pluck it from the air.

All this, and it's only a quarter of an hour gone.

I understand football has moved on a lot since a time of cigarettes at half time, keepers wearing no gloves, players owning tie shops to earn a little bit of extra money and two points for a win. We are about pink boots, Snapchatting on the bench during games, over elaborate goal celebrations now, which is fine, but I think that the Thor looking lino, with his sparkling blue boots, is a step too far, #AgainstModernFootball.

Tom just thinks I need to get over it, pointing out that that is the “norm” now.

PC are attacking at will, “come on Cables” chant their fans and Tom is fleetingly confused by the mixture of unfamiliar accents, thinking someone is shouting “shooo, shooo”  like the old lady would in a Tom & Jerry cartoon to that troublesome mouse beneath her stockinged leg, when the ball enters the SFC box, a new version of clear it, only for it to be PC fans telling their player to “shoot”.

“Where's he played the ball then dickhead?” asks a PC fan in a thick Liverpudlian accent, when they have their third appeal for a penalty turned down. “Not touched him” confirms the referee to the appealing players. Looked a pretty bang on penalty to me.

SFC incursions into the PC half are few and far between, they are nearly handed the chance at an undeserved advantage, when the all neon green PC keeper, who looks like “Fabianski” according to Tom, charges out of his box and appears to handle the ball, but it goes unpunished.

Not for the first time in the game, the speed of the match ball returning to the pitch is brought into question, “can we get these balls sorted, it’s getting a bit embarrassing” complains a home player. On one occasion when one is hoofed on to the pitch by the SFC bench, it ends up hitting one of their own players plumb on the top of the head. The players demeanour, cowering with his arms above his head, made me think he might have had a premonition it was going to happen, “of all the people to hit” chuckled Tom.

The visiting fans are the far more vocal, Tom doesn't get the “pesky bulls” nickname though, but the shouts from those away supporters around us, like they have been all match are loud and reassuring, “keep going Cables it will come”. One fan though is not quite as positive, “get a grip Cables”, he yells, it’s as if he could sense some kind of imminent danger. An SFC player also has a slight moment of clairvoyancy of his own, “standards” he shouts, and that's just what they do, upping them considerably.

“Started brightly, but not a lot happening now”, says Tom with about twenty seven and a half minutes gone, when the clock hits about twenty eight and a half, he tells me he takes his previous comment “back”, SFC have just scored. A knock down at the far post into the box is latched on to by the sprightly number 8 who crashes it home.

“What's going on here?”, asks one PC fan baffled, unable to get his head around how they have just spent the previous twenty seven minutes hammering on the SFC door, only to find themselves behind. They do not though have long to wait long before they are back battering away at it again.

The scoreboard changed, the man rifled around for his big number one, reached up high, removed the nought and replaced it, and neither of us bloody saw it happen. “Keep going lads, it will come” suggests a still confident PC fan, as they continue their siege of the home goal, seemingly not too dejected by the SFC goal. Great feet sees one of their players graft some enough room to shape up to shoot, only for his shot again to get deflected just wide. It's back to the walls stuff for SFC.

A temporary match of midfield pinball breaks out with about ten minutes left to play, neither team it seems wanting to keep the ball longer for long, give it away, only to win it back again just as quick, it's all shins, knees and loose touches. The sight of which gets the away fans all animated “Cables, Cables, Cables”.

Tom is really relishing the sun, his mood is improved tenfold by what he thinks is the Top Gun esq call for a player called “Ace” coming from the home bench. I personally would rather be standing with the home fans on the black and red striped terrace opposite, I’m really not much of a sun worshipper.

SFC’s number 3 is young, maybe no more than seventeen and until now he'd been having a reasonably solid game, it is however him that Tom is “feeling sorry for” when his poor header, ultimately leads to PC getting back into the match. To be fair to him, there is a lot more that happens after it, but it was the catalyst that starts the attack.

“Get in there, come on” howls one of PC fan. Like I said a lot happened after number 3’s header, the home goalie is in for some stick too, “good save keeper lad” declares a PC supporter, he couldn't hold on to the low angled shot, pushing it right back into the six yard box, allowing for a simple tap in. “you're fucking shit” adds the same sympathetic fan.

What I call dancing, my interpretation of a PC players close control to get past his marker, Tom calls “fumbling”, he didn't think he knew much about it, but however the PC player got into the box for the late chance, he got there nonetheless. “These lot will shit themselves now”, shouts one PC fan, who I suspect is the same one who was trolling the SFC keeper earlier.

Unfortunately for PC a spot of sideline shenanigans breaks up their momentum, when the two dugouts start going at it. From where we are we can't really make out what's going on, I think I see some water being squirted and a hell of a lot of posturing, the players on the pitch from either side just look embarrassed, and the away fans are loving it, “Cables, Cables, Cables”. The referee in his attempt to regain control, goes a little bit substitute teacher, “behave”.

Although there are calls from the home bench to “calm it down” the game is at points close to boiling over. PC have the last chance of the half, a close range attempt is blocked by the keeper who deflects it out for a corner, which comes to nothing. There is no extra time, the tunnel is out, ready and waiting for the departing players.

“Come on lads” shouts on of the PC fans who have stayed put to clap their team off. The music is soon back on, ABC’s Poison Arrow is followed by a long string of Arctic Monkeys numbers, by the sounds of it, someone has just opened up their Spotify page and left it playing. Pulp are next, Tom confesses to not being much of a fan of theirs, so does his best to drown them out, first by explaining to me what a “flat white” coffee is in much detail, then secondly what a “flat mocha” is, cheers dude.

The opposing managers emerge from the tunnel deep in conversation, some kind of peace accord has been brokered, following the pre break spat. The referee is out way after the players, Tom with his vulgar schoolboy hat firmly on, mutters “nice shit ref?” then snigger's to himself. Jarvis Cocker is still blaring over the speaker only seconds before the ball is kicked to restart the match.

PC are first to craft a chance, the half only about three minutes old, however its way, way over. When they win a free kick a couple of minutes later, there is something about the manic, me, me, me, me waving of the PC number 5 that gives an inkling that he might like to take it. He does and it's not half bad, the player at the back post doesn't do it justice, putting his free header wide. Most if not all the players have their head in their hands, astounded.

“They look warm” says Tom passive aggressively, the PC fans have of course swapped ends, along with their flag, more to do with the fact that they want to be closer to the goal their team are now attacking, more than they are chasing the last vestiges of the sun's warmth.

After what was a rather rampant first half the opening quarter of the new one, feels a bit flat. Tom seems to the think that the “longer it goes on” 1 - 1, the more he reckons “Sheffield will win”, but then says in the next breath if PC “score next, they could run away with it” I think that's called having all the bases covered or in gambling circles, hedging your bets.

On about the fifteen minute mark, the course of the match, is inexplicably affected, we’re talking buying the Grays Sports Almanac, taking you Mum to the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance kind of affect, by a very controversial call by the referee and his spangly boot wearing assistant. The looping SFC header is well out of reach of the PC keeper and is destined for the top corner of the goal. Perhaps not so sure that is the case, one SFC player attempts to make sure and in doing so, having supposedly come from an offside position, rules the goal void.

Just for the record the ball was going in and didn't need his extra touch, regardless and as the SFC players attest, “he never touched it” he really didn't, but the linesman has raised his flag, giving it for interfering with play perhaps or obstruction, whatever it is, it isn't a goal, much to the delight of the PC fans who I’m sure were a little on edge for a second, who let out a sarcastic, “weyyyyyyyyy”. A very red faced Richard speaking on behalf of all SFC supporters, is giving the linesman both barrels from the sidelines.

SFC look like a different team, since the restart, far more assured, they themselves however, despite their new found tenacity are not immune to the odd wobble. When PC look to have scored, you can almost see all the swagger draining out of them, only for the goal to be ruled off, for offside, so in response they go up the other end and all but decimate the crossbar with a long range rasping shot. The distant shouts of “Cables, Cables” doesn't sound as confident as before.

It is a bit of nifty wing play and a cynical challenge, with just over twenty minutes gone, that leads to the next major talking point. The SFC wideman leaves his marker for dead, zipping on by him, leaving him no other option but to stick a leg out to trip him up, instead of allowing free reign in to the box.

The PC defender is booked, the free kick is lofted in and the keepers method to clear is a hoaky overhand right punch, that only gets the ball as far as the edge of the box, where his teammate momentarily gains possession, only to lose it again. Once more the ball is sent goalwards, this time it's a bit more up and over, one SFC player breaks free of the defensive line, attempting to latch onto the high ball.

His progress is quite unceremoniously halted by a combination of upper thigh and bum of the leaping PC keeper, who gets nowhere near the ball, and totally wipes out the SFC number 10, which results in a penalty, much to the dismay of one nearby PC fans, “fuck off”.

It is not the most convincing of spot kicks from the number 10, maybe he is still a bit rattled after being attacked by the PC’s keepers arse, but he scores, bobbling it along the ground into the bottom left hand corner.

I think it's for about the sum total of three minutes that the home side look a good bet to see this one out, onto the next round boosted by a win over a tough opponent, until as one PC fan put it, an SFC defender “UFC’ed” a PC forward on the edge of the box and gets a second yellow.

The red card takes the referee a while to administer, because it all gets a little heated once again, there
is plenty of rutting and chest thumping and as Tom notices too, one SFC player is lucky to still be on the pitch once it is, because he clearly stamped more than once on one PC players foot.

As you can imagine the PC fans who had a grandstand view of the melee are delighted, “fucking move” shouts one as the dismissed player takes the long walk of shame off the pitch at a snail's pace.

When the set piece is eventually taken, it is very almost a double whammy for the home side, testing each and every one of the home fans resolve to the enth degree, when the free kick, which never looks like it got off the ground, hit the foot of the post, “Cables, Cables, Cables”.

Into the final fifteen of the match and I honestly have no idea which way this game is going. “If they can cling on to this, it’s a great result” says Tom, but clinging on is just what they are doing, its fingernail stuff. It’s all PC, the home side look for the same ball over the top when they get the ball that is, but its not paying off, and the visitors look certain to be the ones to score next.

“Don't forget we’re one down” might just be the the least helpful instruction from a team's bench we will hear all season. I’m not sure stating the bleeding obvious is going to help anyone, I’m pretty sure no one had forgotten.

“Nice, nice” says Tom when a purposeful run and powerful shot by the SFC number 7 is saved well. As a former goalkeeper himself, I imagined his appreciation was for the skill of the stop, when it is actually because at the moment his score prediction is correct and even though we don't as of yet have anything riding on our wager, the simple case of being able to get one over me, has him delirious. He must have said “final whistle please ref” about five times already, he has no desire to see any more goals.

“Speed it up ref” insists one PC supporter, banging the hoarding, the SFC keeper for some unexplained reason is now taking an age to do anything. 

Not far from the second person I’ve spotted today with a transistor radio, its long silver antennae picking up Radio 5 Live no doubt, updating its owner on all the up to date scores or he’s listening to Heart FM, Richard sits on the low wall, his son next to him, looking on forlorn, “can we hang on with ten men” he ponders as I pass him.

It looks like if SFC have any chance of scoring again, and putting this game out of PC's reach, it's going to be down to their number 10, whose movement, hold up play and positioning, means he is able to single handedly torment the PC defence. He is by no way one of the biggest players on the pitch, we’re talking brain over brawn. With only a few minutes to go, he nearly puts the game out of sight, but his shot is saved.

Edging ever closer to full time, there are plenty of nervous home fans around us, “come on guys” pleads one, as a PC half chance nearly results in a goal. Nerves quickly turn to anger, when SFC don't help themselves, giving the ball away cheaply in midfield, “what ya messing at”.

There can literally be only about a minute left to play, and the familiar cry of the PC fans at the far end of the pitch, rings out again, “Cables, Cables, Cables”, they've only gone and equalized. The voice of the man over the PA is one of absolute dejection, when he reads the name of the scorer and time of the goal aloud.

Deep into injury time and PC clearly want this tie sewn up today, however it is the home team, a man down remember, still reeling from the late sucker punch of an equaliser, who go close to winning it not once, but twice.

Audacious, ambitious, outright ballsy, whatever it was, the attempt at a long range lob, I mean really long range, would have been the perfect end to what has been a engrossing match. Having joined the SFC fans behind the goal, we all watch as it sails just over, no way I say to myself, in anticipation of witnessing something insane, as it soars towards us.

I can't believe what I have just seen, how, oh how are SFC not ahead. The run down the right wing, the ball across the box all perfect, all perfectly timed, and what looked like a simple back post tap in for the picked out player, is not so. How has he conspired to put it wide? It was an open net, lying face down in the goal mouth, I doubt the number 17 wants to get up again, and the sight of such a blatant miss, makes me make an involuntary noise akin to that a long dead human body, being turned over, might make.

“If I was a neutral I'd say that was a fare result, but I'm not” says a SFC fan, the red tunnel extended for the last time today, the players slow to leave the pitch, the rigours of what for the whole was pretty blood and thunder stuff, visible across their faces.

A visit to the Coach & Horses, is tantamount to a visit to a living football museum, but without any out of work aspiring young actors having to pretend for eight hours a day they are a chimney sweep. One can not be anything but a little bit awe struck by the fact that SFC are where it all begun, they are the very first, the first of what must be millions of teams that have come after them.

“Can’t say that wasn't entertaining?” says Richard, as we make our way to leave, asking if we are heading to the pub first, a pub he tells us he has failed to find a “better one” in all of non league. Richard who I now see in a different light, he is more the head curator than the chairman. Custodian of what I imagine can be quite a heavy burden at time. Responsible for the direction of such an entity, with so much history and significance.

If you ever get the chance to see the SFC boardroom you will see they are not short on shiny things, cups, awards and accolades from all around the world, and if we may, we would like to add to the already heaving shelves and sparse wall space. It’s very small award, very understated, but its one from the heart. I think the biggest thumbs up we can give any club we visit, is when Tom says its one he could see himself supporting.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE


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