Friday 30 November 2018

Nanny Can I Have A Scarf? - Farnborough FC Vs Gosport Borough FC, Evo-Stik Southern League Premier South, Cherrywood Road (21/11/18)

“Provisions, just in case” says Rachel, handing me half the contents of a Greggs in a blue and white carrier bag, as well as a packet of German Christmas biscuits, Lebkuchen. I decline the Mexican baguette, chicken with jalapenos and the doughnuts, tightly packed in their cellophane wrapper, opting for a bottle of water, the cinnamon biscuits, thinking surely lighting can't strike twice.

There is no time for flowery words about sunsets, skyscrapers or clouds, there is not even time to try and catch a glimpse of how White Hart Lane is coming on, by the time I arrive at Tom’s, my eyes are ready to pop out of my skull, there is a pain in my forehead akin to a train trying to smash out of it, so much so I have to get out the car and dive head first into Tom’s bathroom cabinet, resurfacing having necked two Nurofen.

The stress of the rush hour traffic, has done a right number on me. Stop, start, stop start, and a near coming together between me and a blue convertible Mercedes, means I am in a bad mood to say the least.

I’m not the only one to come prepared though, not long into our journey, and Tom produces a single banana from his bag and a small pre used bottle of water, that has clearly been filled up from the tap.

I think it must be the anxiety of what is potentially around the next corner, that means it's probably the quietest drive we’ve ever made. No music, no radio, no Red Dead Redemption chat, just the crackle of Toms vape, the rustling of me taking another biscuit, I’ve had far too many already, the inside of my mouth feels like a Yankee Candle. Toms banana skin sits folded up on my dashboard, and despite my glares, he has not got the hint, that I would like him to close the window, because it's fucking cold.

Considering it was only moments ago he reeled off a long list of the articles of clothing that he has with him tonight to combat the chill and considering he just said “I’m dreading the cold” I can't understand why he is insisting on having the window open, that is allowing all the warm air out and all the arctic wind in. Talk of investing in “military grade” winter clothing, “Everest” type gear to get him through the months ahead, sounds like a sensible investment. Talk though of him making his own “fingerless gloves”, that won't reveal all of his fingers, just two of them, so he can use his camera, is not so sensible.

“Cobham services” says Tom, with all the dread of a veteran returning to the scene of some great battle. The very palatial motorway service station, was the very place our two hour stay on the M25 last week culminated, after a mixture of emergency resurfacing and a one wheeled caravan, put the kibosh on us getting to our intended game.

Sweaty palms and nervous ticks start to lessen as we fly by, the chance of a repeat of all the sitting, sitting, sitting with no movement at all, constant checking on our ETA, before realising we weren't going to make it, very, very unlikely. The appearance of some red sections on Tom’s Google maps fastens ones heartbeat a bit, but they prove to be false alarms.

I’ve never been to Farnborough before, as with many of our trips, it takes us to places neither of us have been to or were likely to go to, had it not been for football. I’m aware of the famous airshow, but I’m sure the locals would attest to there being a lot more to their town, then a few days a year, where a Spitfire does a fly pass..

One thing I can certainly tell you, and this may be worth adding to the 2019 Farnborough edition of the Lonely Planet, in fact I’ll quote Tom, because he put it best, there are “sooooo many roundabouts”. Motion sickness has near enough set in, by the time we arrive at the well lit sign at the entrance to Cherrywood Road home of Farnborough FC (FB).

“Oh I can feel it”, shudders Tom climbing out of the car, the cold making its presence known instantly. Getting my coat and bag out of the boot, it is difficult to not be somewhat dumbstruck by the sheer size of Cherrywood Road. Part of me has to almost pinch myself, double checking that we’re in the right place. Its huge,I feel like we’ve pulled up outside a League One or Two teams ground, and in a minute someone is going to tell me we are supposed to be around the corner.

Your town your team, it reads either side of the turnstiles, the other side of which the ground is still only half lit, not quite revealing its full splendour quite yet. Standing pitchside, Kevin FB’s Vice Chairman, who I’m sure is able to tell from our gawping faces, that we are both quite taken aback by the ground around us, I need to emphasise this is far from your average non league ground by any stretch of the imagination, he tells us it can “hold 6,500” but they would “expect 200 tonight”.

Except for a few stewards, I’m pretty sure we are the first in tonight, the home players are here, we can hear their music coming from the dressing room, but to give you an idea of just how early we are, when Tom notices the woman rolling up the shutter of the fast food kiosk with a fag in hand and asks her when she will start serving, he catches her a bit by surprise, however her reply is fast and overwhelming friendly in equal measure, “anytime, I can cook something for you now if you want?”.

Half of the wiry towering floodlights flicker into life, slowly but surely a bit of life starts to course through the spacious grounds veins. Maybe down to just how cold it is, the whole place feels like it's moving at half speed. Tom opts for a cup of tea for now, I do too, and although it's not your customary non league hot, i.e. you can take a sip of it without needing a skin graft, at least its warm.

A man standing under the shelter of the supporters trust stand, sets up a small blue and yellow tombola in preparation I hope of a 50/50. The whiteboard behind him, the results of the last one having been only half wiped away, means I’m hopeful of being able to have a flutter.

I can assure you it's not the array of shocking coughs that seem to be plaguing most people
here that drives us towards the club shop, but more the curiosity of wanting to look at the panels either side of the blue door, dedicated to FB’s history. One denotes FB’s previous incarnation, Farnborough Town FC’s, time in the FA Cup. The other explains why FB are not called Farnborough Town anymore, after going into administration and reforming in 2007.

Much like the ground, the shop is a lot grander than those we are used to. Most shops, if there is one at all and it's not just a case of selling scarves and hats from behind the bar, or from a shed like at Cray Wanderers or a cupboard like at WIT, normally there is not enough room to swing a cat, and the shelves are quite bare. Although the racks are hardly bursting, there are a nice array of shirts for sale. The counter is covered in all your usual football tat and some a bit more unusual, a Bertie Bassett statue and a red and black scarf covered in enamel pins from football clubs all across Europe.

“Nanny can I have a scarf” asks one young fan of her grandmother as she enters the shop, the debate between her grandparents is, she may well want one, but “will she wear it?”.

Its piece de resistance is the “treasure corner” as Tom calls it, a storage box mountain of old programs, that one man is almost waist deep in, that according to the woman behind the till, took her and her husband “fifty hours” to sort through and categorise.

The first of our football essentials trifecta is soon completed, when I purchase a much more up to date
programme then the fading, sepia tinged ones behind me. A programme that not only covers tonight's game, but FB’s next home game too, ‘double issue’ it says, splashed across its bright yellow cover.

Tom tests my programme nerdiness, when he poses me a scenario: if I was an FB fan, and I attended both games, would I still “buy two?” to ensure my OCD in these matters was satisfied. I tell him even my football programme collection obsession doesn't stretch that far, but I don't think he believes me.

Cherywood Road is all go when we emerge from the club shop, steam from the fast food kiosk grills, hangs below its low ceiling, before billowing out, rolling over the shutter and into the nights sky. Box number two of our football essentials checklist is soon fulfilled, the second half of the floodlights allows Tom to assess the menu, “sausage roll and Bovril, 2 quid, dinner sorted” he suggests to me, after saying I was a bit hungry, and he has very kindly worked out what I should get.

“Do you want onions?” asks the lady serving, to which she gets a very enthusiastic “yes please” from Tom.

Burger sauce applied, which Tom then tells me he “always regrets” because it’s “too sickly” and a copious amount on his chips, Tom insists for the next ten minutes we go and find a seat in the club bar, not only to allow for some some respite from the cold, but also because he has got all precious all of a sudden about needing a table to eat off. I’ve seen him inhale a currywurst on the packed terraces of the Yellow Wall, so I don’t know what's changed all of a sudden.

I relent, but before we head inside, I slip the elderly man in a black hat behind the tombola £2, and he tears four yellow tickets from his book, handing me two, and folding the other two in half, before opening the small door on the side of the octagonal drum and popping them inside.

Tom grabs one of the faux green leather diner style booths in the bar, maybe because they look like the most comfortable place to sit or because they give him the best view of the TV. “Like being at Mums, Emmerdale and crinkle cut chips” he says, momentarily overcome with nostalgia, the theme tune of the ITV soap playing and the irregular shaped potato soggy from vinegar, poking out from underneath his “good burger”.

“Happy boy” he says to himself, one eye on his food, the other on the very odd conversation happening over my shoulder on the TV about erotic fiction.

As with everything else here, the bar is much larger than most places we've ever been to. Two fruit machines instead of one, two dart boards, the plush booths, not just second hand pub furniture, the stage, which every good clubhouse or bar should have, looks big enough for a slightly scaled down production of Cats. Even the size of the club badge hanging behind the bar, seems that little bit more opulent.

“I don't think anyone is coming", whispers Tom, “should be here by now” he adds, with just over half and hour to kick off, one may of expected to have seen a few more fans than are here currently. At the moment the bar staff almost outnumber the home supporters. We do though catch a glimpse of our first way fans, both in matching Gosport Borough FC (GB) woolly hats, having a pint at a table not far from us.

Tom has something in his beard, but considering how ungenerous he is being when it comes to sharing his chips, I break the normally cast iron bearded brother code, and don't tell him. Tossing the last small crust of his burger bun into its box, he hoovers up the final few chips, saying to himself as does “very nice, very nice”, as he prepares to put his hat on, the sign he is ready to go back outside.

Our second look at Cherrywood Road, now bathed completely in the stark glow of the floodlights, it allows us both to fully appreciate it in all its glory. Along one side of the pitch, the same side as the dugouts and from where the players will appear, is what one might call the main stand. All seater with its intriguingly named Platinum Bar hospitality suite at its top, that Tom is very keen to investigate.

Opposite the main stand, and the full length of the pitch is a half standing, half seated stand, and behind one goal is a half covered bank of concrete terracing with white railings. There is not a lean to, repurposed bus shelter, piece of scaffolding or a broken seat in sight, Cherrywood Road is not very non league at all.

You may well have noticed, I’ve only described three sides of the ground and this is not because of an Oxford United type set up, with their three sided Kassam Stadium, but because the fourth stand, the one behind the other goal, is so large, so imposing, one could be forgiven for thinking it had once been part of Maine Road, saying that, and keeping to the North West theme, it does bare a striking resemblance to the Cheadle End at Edgeley Park. It’s hundreds of blue seats more than capable of managing the expected attendance tonight, with some to spare.

I’m convinced that some if not most of the ground will be out of bounds, why would you bother to have it all open if you were only expecting two hundred? Why bother having the necessary stewarding and such when no one will be here to use it, however the patrolling men in hi viz and the lack of red and white tape, leads me to believe this will not be the case.

So intrigued by the Platinum Lounge, Tom has disappeared. Pressing his nose up against the glass like a Dickens character at Christmas, he couldn't stop himself peering through the window, to see how the other half live. Reporting back, we recounts fanciful tales of “silver service” a “programme at your seat” and a “three course meal”, but this can't be true, this is the seventh tier of the football pyramid, not Stamford Bridge.

I think the idea of a sit down meal and someone serving you broccoli with tongs, appeals to Tom. The sight of the finer things, reignite in him a fire that has always been there. Putting to the sword his salt of the earth, man of the people persona he likes to portray. Hospitality and prawn sandwiches is right up his street, no great surprise mind, considering his stint in club level whilst a season ticket holder at the Emirates.

A young FB fan in matching club shirt and hat waits at the mouth of the dark brick tunnel at the base of the main stand for the arrival of the players. She is on mascot duty and is more than eager to thrust her gloved hand into that of the FB’s captain, confidently strides out across the pitch. Leading from the front she shakes first the hands of the referee and his assistants, before them of the GB players.

So used to hearing a bit of music pre kick off, essential on some occasions because it gives something for Tom and I to talk about, it is a bit strange when we don't hear anything at all. I’m not saying everyone has to go to the extent of creating a bespoke mix, like they used at Newhaven as the players walk out, but a little music goes a long way to building the atmosphere. I’d be happy with a bit of Radio 4, but I’m probably the only one.

Other than the sizzle of the hotplates and the players warming up, Cherrywood Road had been relatively quiet, until the booming, stern voice, of the stadium announcer thunders from the speakers. His “welcome” a little frosty, and his sudden introduction, makes me think of the first time Dorothy met the Wizard of Oz.

Let’s be honest, we were never going to sit anywhere else but in the “ridiculous” stand as Tom calls it. As nice as the main stand looks, “ohh mood lighting” says Tom as its lights go out, in preparation of kick off, we opt to climb the few steps into the grandstand, that is near enough empty, looks so out of place, but as Tom crucially points out, it is certainly “comfy”.

“Come on boro” and “come on yellows” are the shouts from the scattered crowd. Any of those FB supporters who have opted to sit in what we are now referring to as the ‘Mega Stand’, who offer up their own shouts, it almost echoes in the cavernous empty space that surrounds us.

There is barely no time for us to have our brief and always ill informed discussions about who is going to win, because with merely two minutes on the clock, the GB players are screaming at the referee, who in turn is glaring at his assistant for guidance, because they have just had a header cleared from what they think is from behind the line. All the players look at the referee for a decision, whose eyes are still locked onto his assistant, who shakes his head.

The promising start by the visitors I think somewhat colours Tom decision making process when trying to work out who will be victorious tonight. Not long after seeing GB nearly go ahead, he tells me it is them who he thinks will win. Normally such decisions are based on current form or past head to heads, however Tom informs me he thinks GB will leave with all three points, in a significant departure from his normally Pep like analysis, because they looked the “more energetic” in the warm up.

I also feel GB will be the winners, but must admit this is based on equally ridiculous reasons. I have failed completely to do the slightest bit of research on either team, so opt for the one whose kit I like the most. GB’s shirt and shorts are a shade of green more familiar in a glade than on a football kit. With the black detailing around the shoulders, it makes it one of the more curious designs we are likely to see this season.

I’m doing my best to concentrate on the game, but it's hard, I just can't get my head around this stand.
I don't know why I’m so transfixed on it. We’re watching a football match in the Southern League, but it feels and looks like Sheffield Wednesday will be playing here next Saturday.

Proving that how fast you run in the warm up or what colour your shirt is, have little impact on anything at all, FB take the lead on nine minutes. A dinked ball into the box, is latched onto by one forward who takes a few touches before finishing well from a tight angle. Wheeling away the scorer is met by a teammate, who puts him in a headlock and ruffles his hair, much like an overly enthusiastic aunt, you haven't seen for ages, might do.

A single gruff voice from in front of us, dishes out loud advice to FB. The shouts from the technical areas are equally as loud, if not a bit more angry, but both benches are at such close quarters, I’m not sure if its the home or away manager, who is pissed off.

It may well be the home one, a quarter of the half gone and GB go close again, despite being ahead FB are hardly in control. A superb flick on the edge of the box, sees the player away and heading towards the goal, he shoots high towards the top corner, from an acute angle. Too powerful for the keeper to hold, he is forced to pad it away for a corner.

“Fastest yellow card flash I've ever seen” says Tom, the referee dishing out a booking to a FB player, as Tom puts it, without even raising the card “above his head”. The croaky voiced FB fan is bemused. “Whats wrong with you?” he asks his keeper, who Tom confirms, “that's the second time he’s done that”, the FB stopper having sent his second consecutive goal kick straight into touch.

Another FB booking, allows GB the chance to swing in a free kick, which results in moment of panic, the visitors claim for a penalty, but its waved away. FB regain possession and counterattack. Their eventual shot is pushed wide and receives the muted gloved applause of the fans. FB go close with a header from the resulting corner and more shouts of “come on boro” echo around the Mega Stand.

I finally succumb to the cold, always keen to portray Tom as a bit of a softy and me a hardy mountain man, that isn't bothered by the silly cold, I cave. Rummaging around in my bag for my black and white shemagh or what Tom calls my “tablecloth”, I wrap it around my neck. He tells me I should get a snood, a shemagh is basically a middle eastern one, just not anywhere near as douchie. Sounding like someone who has shares in Snood Inc, he suggests “everyone should have one” they “make all the difference”.

Tom who rapidly taps his feet as he does his best to bring them back to life, as well as on occasion slapping his thighs, to do the same he points to the man in front of us in a mobility scooter, “he’s got the right idea” he says. The man's legs and lower torso concealed within a blue sleeping bag.

To suggest the game was dead, would imply it had been alive in the first place, the first thirty minutes, except for the goal and the oh so brief moments where GB forge a half chance, it’s never really got off the ground. Just after the half an hour mark, and a dangerous GB ball across the FB box, hits the heels of the intended forward, who can’t meet the pass in his stride.

Tom is longing for his half time snack, “I want a chocolate bar”. I’m trying my best to not write even more about the Mega Stand, because the game is not giving me anything. There are the odd flashes of excitement, like when one FB winger flies down the wing, into the box, makes his way along the byline and lets fly a close range shot and for a fraction of a second, I and all the FB fans thinks they have doubled their lead, but the all seeing eye that is Tom, brings me crashing down to earth, “side netting”.

The shot that ended up hitting the side of the goal must have taken a deflection, FB are awarded a corner. GB’s keepers attempt to clear it through a sea of people, sees him make a right meal of it, flapping he doesn't quite make the intended contact, but is saved by the referee who gives a foul.

Such was the velocity the man in GB's goal hurtling into the other players, he has come off worse for wear and is down in his yard box. What's wrong with the keeper I ask Tom, sometimes the lens on his camera can give us a bit of an insight into what's happening at the other end of the pitch, but he doesn't look, “the cold” he replies.

Other than their very sweetly taken and well worked goal, FB whenever in position are either bobbling the ball around in midfield or are hitting hopeful looking passes up the channels, to exacerbated forwards and wide players who without fail, give the same shrug of the shoulders, each with a ‘what am I supposed to do with that’ look on their face.

As cold as it is, I would still rather be shivering, than inside watching Emmerdale and as the half heads into its final five minutes. GB who much like FB have been very little more than simply present, seem determined to drag this game up by the bootstraps and almost score. Crashing a shot off the foot of the post, they have no intention of giving up on their rare moment of forward momentum easily. Retrieving the rebound, the player who just saw his shoot hit the woodwork, turns and heads back towards the goal, leaving the towering defender whose marking him for dead. The skyscraper knows full well he's been beaten, and can only hold up his hands, and watch the much smaller man race towards the six yard box, where instead of shooting, he cuts the ball back to a better positioned teammate.

Prompted by a shout to leave it the second of the GB players lined up on the edge of the box to drive the ball goalwards, does just that, letting the ball roll to the man behind him, whose side footed effort goes well over.

“Totally whipped him out” laughs Tom, a FB player is down having been accidental forearm smashed by the referee in the centre circle. However such is the strength of the call from the food kiosk, that Tom can’t keep his eyes off, and instead of watching to see if the man in black is about to perform the People's Elbow. He’s waffling on instead about how “stuffed” he is, how he only wants a hot drink, and he “couldn't eat another thing”, even if he wanted to, after his “banana, lots of biscuits, and burger and chips”.

On the stroke of forty five minutes the steely voiced announces their will be “two minutes of added time” and what looked like a “good tackle” to both Tom and I, is awarded as a foul in FB’s favour, giving them one last chance to get the ball into the GB box.

Once again the GB keeper does his best to reach the cross, once again he can't quite make it and flaps once more. This time though he remains unscathed. With what must be only seconds left to play, it is a “lively” finish as Tom puts is as GB have not one, but two pops at the FB goal. The first is blocked by a GB player, just about summing up this game, the second by the poked out leg of a FB defender.

A lacklustre blast of the referee's whistle brings the half to an end. The PA confirms the score, then the fact I have not won “£66” on the 50/50 or as it transpires the “golden goal” either, which I didn't even know was an option. Music for the first time fills the ground and I can't work out if the people bobbing up and down are dancing to Katy Perry or are trying to keep warm.

In a blue and yellow FB scarf and with a pint in hand, Luke, FB’s programme editor joins me. “Came after they went under” he explains, my first question of course about the origins of the Mega Stand, which much to my surprise it came post 2007 thanks to a previous owner, which there have been few. It has been a far from easy revival since the clubs return from the ashes.

Talking to Luke, he quickly joins the long list of committed volunteers, who make non league football tick. Living no more than twenty minutes away from me in North London, he follows FB home and away, he explains his rather convoluted journey here for midweek games, that relies on a lot of moving parts being in sync, to ensure he gets here on time. As well as being the programme editor, he also has a rather large camera round his neck, so I would not be shocked if he told me he moonlights as the clubs photographer too.

Tom spends nigh on the whole of the break in the shuffling queue of woolly hat wearers for a cup of tea, returning slowly, having the steps of the stand to contend with, as he makes the return leg with a cup of tea in each hand.

A combination of nattering with Luke and trying desperately to eat my rock hard Kit Kat, without cracking a molar, the first fifteen minutes of the second half are a little hazy. I can tell you that GB go
close twice, picking up where they left off, and Luke is growing increasingly anxious, “getting closer”. He then utters the immortal words every football fan will say at some point during a match when their team is holding on to a one goal lead, “we need a second”.

“Come on” he barks, right in my ear, half out of his seat, as an FB forward races towards the GB goal, one on one, but his shot is saved.

The GB player who was a hairs breadth from getting on the end of a cross in the FB six yard box, lies on the pitch head in hands, mulling over just how close to it he was. As nice as the “great tea” as Tom puts it is, and as welcome as the mild sugar rush the Kit Kat brings is, the game still has failed to catch light.

“Come on boro” shouts an animated Luke when a FB free kick travels all the way through the GB box and out the other side unmolested, resulting in much disgruntled groaning from the home fans. They look to go close again, but sadly the cross into the box, can’t match the quality of run and delicate touch, that would have been the perfect end to an inspired solo move. The groans this time are not of disapproval but concern, as the wide player at full pelt careered heavily into the hoarding, and most in attendance take a sharp intake of breath.

“He got up quick” says Tom, relieved as I’m sure everyone is, that the player whose run came to an abrupt and what sounded like a very painful end, is back up on his feet.

Luke fills me in on more about the ground, as I badger him for more information, he tells me it is “league standard” and was recently used by a top flight “Russian club” to train in. Then my cross examination is put on hold, when with less than a quarter of an hour left, GB have been reduced to ten men, after a player is shown his second yellow, and as he makes the long slow walk off, he is serenaded with chants of  “cheerio, cheerio, cheerio”.

“Shit” shouts Luke, FB have just conceded. The joy of being a goal up and having a man extra, lasted all of about six minutes. The two GB fans from the bar, have been joined by at least four others behind the goal and they watch the scorer, who just dispatched the ball high into the roof of the net, come to a stop in front of them, after an impressive knee side.

The PA shows for the first time, the faintest hint of emotion, clearly annoyed as he has to confirm the time of the goal and name of the scorer. “It's been coming since about the sixtieth minute” says Luke astutely. There are the odd shouts of “come on you yellows” but they are few and far between, with the ten men of GB now well on top.

A deep GB cross looks like it might be heading for the top right hand corner only for it to be plucked from the air by the FB keeper. “Come on boro” shout the fans, without an ounce of optimism One member of the home bench almost quotes Journey, but gets it wrong, “keep believing”.

“Happy with a 1 - 1” says Tom, the GB keeper, not surprisingly now taking an eternity to do the simplest of tasks. “Get on with it” shouts one FB supporter, his shenanigans have not gone unnoticed by them either. There is much debate between two GB players who should take the latest free kick, when they eventually decided it should be the keeper, he ends up kicking it right out of play, much to the delight of the home fans.

Into the final five minutes and GB are trying to waste every possible second they can, “you've been mugged off”, shouts a member of the ever increasingly vocal home fans to the referee, a GB player has gone down, apparently injured and the physio is called for. Sarcastic applause rings out as to no one's great surprise, the injured player is back on his feet and is as right as rain.

The late appearance of the much coveted number 12, Michael Fernandes, who Luke tells me has been scouted by a swathe of “Premier League clubs” and who I don’t think is the person of the same name I went to primary school with, will in Luke's opinion, “make the difference”. Fernandes is “very fast” and “very skillful” adds Luke, only his “decision making” can let him down, but he’s young and his early touches are very promising.

“Win the game for us Michael” implores a voice from the crowd.

Fernandes introduction has roused the fans, their shouts are a bit more hopeful now, “come on boro”. Luke is now permanently perched on the edge of his seat, “come on” he shouts once more, almost directly into my ear and on the other side of me I’ve got Tom hammering his thighs again, trying now his best to thaw out his hand.

“For a team with ten men, they're playing alright” says Luke begrudgingly, no end of enthusiastic clapping from the home bench, is really inspiring the home team. “Get on with it” booms one voice from behind us, the GB keeper is back at it, and his antics are starting to wear a bit thin.

Like an excited school boy, Luke is a bundle of energy every time Fernandes gets near the ball, “come on Michael” he screams. The crowd are growing increasingly desperate for their team to get something out of the game, it is now simply a case of giving the ball to the number 12 and hoping he can do some magic.

“Make it count boys” pleads one home fan, FB having been awarded a free kick with perhaps no more than two minutes on the clock. It’s hooked in, but it is far from threatening, but they at least get a corner from it. The team form up, jostling with each other for space in the GB penalty area.

“Fucking get it” shouts a relieved Luke, who just leapt from his chair, punching the air, his team in the eighty ninth minute, with a back post header, from the player he tells me, a bit quieter than most of his deafening cries, is making his “debut” tonight, having just signed from Wingate & Finchley.

Seconds after the restart, and the PA, without even the slightest hit that he might have enjoyed the potential winner, informs us all of the “five minutes” of added time there is to play. Which has pretty much everyone scratching their heads, unable to work out how the officials have come to that total.

However considering the marked improvement in the home fans sprites, in particular that of the two standing gentleman, about halfway up the main stand, with hands firmly shoved in pockets, who have not been shy of sharing their opinions, “we like you now lino” says one, to the nearby assistant who before then had been the main focus of their wrath, I don't think they are going to start splitting hairs.

One of the two men, overcome by the sight of seeing his team take the lead, is reprimanded by his daughter, “Dad don’t say that”, she says, when he gets a bit ahead of himself, with still four minutes of the match to play, “it's in the bag, it's in the bag”, he says on repeat.

Luke now even more buoyant before, but falling short of giving a blow by blow commentary, he leaves that to the two men in the stand, is still giddy at the sight of Fernandes getting the ball, “look at the pace on him” he says, like a proud father at Sports day.

“Take it in the corners” instructs one fan, the pain of previous ninety minutes noticeable in his voice, they’re in front now, and that how he wants it to stay. When the player gets there, the shout from the manager echos, that of the supporters, “stay there!”.

There is a brief moment when time almost stands still, the ball has escaped the corner, and are we about to have a Ginola for France against Bulgaria moment? The ball now back in GB’s possession they are allowed the space to take shot at goal, it's on target, but also straight at the keeper, who grasps the ball with two hands and sinks to the floor, and everyone can exhale.

“You can't go early, you don't know what will happen” says one of the two standing FB supporters to a group leaving, “need to beat the rush” replies one of the departing trio.

This is it, GB’s last chance to salvage what wouldn't be a completely undeserved point. “Oh God here we go” says a nearby FB fan nervously, almost unable to watch, “we can't concede now” he says as the visiting team shape up to take their corner. “Well in” he cheers as an FB defender gives it the full Peter Kay, and wallops the ball well clear.

“Blow that whistle” demands of one home fan to the ref.

It’s all handshakes and pleasantries from both teams following the final whistle. Emerging from the tunnel, the dismissed GB player, changed and apparently holding a pair of pink trousers, is looking for trouble. It's only thanks to the quick thinking of one steward, who prevents him from getting much further than the edge of the pitch, that disaster is averted.

In Luke today we met another person who without the need of financial reward, has devoted a large chunk of his life, most of it to travelling, to support and help run his football team, simply as he put it, because of his "love of the club”.

In FB we encountered a club, that our brief time with posed more questions than it answered. Was the person doing the PA a man in a green suit with a curly moustache in a tiny cupboard? Was Tom the happiest he’s ever been in almost four years, when he got to be ball boy, tossing the ball back to a player? Will either of us ever get the feeling back in our hands? Are FB the only club at this level, offering a matchday hospitality experience?

Most importantly though, and to justify the efforts of Luke and his fellow fans and volunteers, will they ever fill Cherrywood Road again?

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

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Thursday 22 November 2018

Thats Put The Mockers On Us - Cray Wanderers FC Vs Hastings United FC, Bostik League South East, Hayes Lane (11/11/18)

It's not the cheeriest of drives to pick up Tom this morning, Nimrod by Elgar is shortly followed by a single bugler playing the Last Post. The scenes from The Cenotaph that occupied me at home, now fill my car, the solemn voice of Jonathan Dimbleby echos from the speakers. What sun there is, is warm, but the slightest crack in my window lets the ice cold wind come rushing in.

A quote from a Wilfred Owen poem, the enamel poppy my brother gave me pinned to my shirt, which he sells without fail every year, picking them up from our local Royal British Legion and thoughts of my grandfather too traumatised by World War Two to even acknowledge the 11th hour of the 11th month, on the 11th day, run through my mind.

I do my best to try and steal a glimpse of the newly erected cockerel on top of the new Spurs stadium, but the sun is just too bright. The mood though is soon lifted by the arrival of Tom and his gilet based one liners, “I hope that cloud fucks off, I’ve got no sleeves”.

Today's weather is a marked improvement on yesterdays, and the monsoon rain that plagued most of my drive back from the North West after a visit to see the soon to be in-laws. There is the odd grey cloud in the sky, that Tom has his eye keenly locked on, but as of yet they are posing no threat.

It is a reasonably well trodden path for us to the particular corner of South East London we are heading to. Last season in the midst of The Beat from the East, Hayes Lane and it’s 4G surface saved us from a busted flush and this season with Tom’s new rota, and for the time being Saturdays being out of the question, it comes to the rescue once again.

Snow and ice covered the cars and pavements last time, the significant potholes in the car park were frozen over, and the horses, yes horses, were tucked up inside. Today the horses, yes horses live in a field next to a football ground in the middle of suburban London, graze peacefully, there is no snow, but the potholes remain and are just as hazardous.

We arrive as the local kids are finishing up their morning training session, their parents doing their best to guide them away from the craters that litter the car park floor, in fear of losing them.

“Too much advertising” says Tom, which I’m pretty sure is what he said last time we were here, in fairness Hayes Lane does look a bit like a F1 drivers jumpsuit, there is no spot that isn't advertising a local solicitors or double glazing showroom. There is though one glaring change to the place, and that is to the old stand behind one goal, that is no more. The very place we watched Cray Wanderers FC (CW) who three years later are still Bromley FC’s lodgers, survive relegation, has been demolished.

Such is our promptness, a mini game is still playing out. The goals on rollers having been moved to halve the pitch in size. Tom watching on, has one of his Pep moments, albeit a chilly Pep today, “ohh it's cold” he says half shuddering, should have brought a complete jacket then, he gives up one of his pearls of wisdom, sharing his thoughts on the exercises being gone through, “two runners, teaching them how to go forward”.

The upstairs bar, on the second floor of the main stand is already well inhabited, the early kick off on a what I’m sure is going to be a truly stunning Super Sunday, Liverpool Vs Fulham is being shown via a projector. The seated programme seller perched on top of a stool is surrounded so I join the queue and Tom heads straight for the tea bar.

“Ohhh, a cheeky sausage roll” he says, peering into the tin foil lined glass fronted, heater cabinet. There are also some pretty sizable pasties in there too, but he’s “not hungry” he tells me, so it’s just a cup of tea for now and with nowhere to sit in the bar, we head back downstairs, “away from the warm and the big TV” Tom points out, in his best passive aggressive voice.

Any Sunday cobwebs that may still have remained, I’m not one for doing much on the 7th day, for me it's a home on the sofa kind of day, football being just about the only exception that will get me out, are soon blown away by the rowdy kids in the back of the stand talking Fortnite.

One could feel the cold, before even getting outside, I sit, sipping at my tea, Tom stands fidgeting, doing his best to keep warm. Having both been caught out by the rate at which the sugar shaker dispensed its contents, we both grimace with every gulp, it's like drinking a cup of melted Brighton rock.

Talking to a member of the CW board in his tweed jacket, club tie and poppy pin, who Tom says looked “very swish” as he walked away, he is beaming about CW’s current form. They have had quite the turn around since we last saw them. From fighting relegation to challenging for promotion, they are as he puts it, on an “incredible curve”.

The upturn in fortunes are not only reserved to the first team, their youth team is going great guns in the FA Youth Cup, an encounter against Portsmouth is up next, but although he says it's not the case, all eyes are on who and where they will play in the next round if they beat the Hampshire club, “to think of Cray Wanderers playing against Liverpool”.

Thoughts soon return to today though, it's a “massive game”, he emphasises, first vs second.

It’s got a lot quieter now in the stand, the roller goals having been put back in place, which was the cue for the kids behind us, to have a kick about on the pitch.

A man with a much grander poppy then me, climbs the few steps into the main stand to find a seat, not long behind him a man in a long dark jacket, sits just along from us, and leaning on a leather folder, fills in the team sheet.

Wispy white clouds float along in a sea of blue, and although cold and coming down from my sugar high, I’m happy to have dragged myself away from the confines of my house. Tom on the other hand, wracked with some real first world problems, laments his indecisive food purchasing, “should have had a sausage roll” he says to himself, annoyed now he’ll have to “wait until half time”, he somehow has turned it on me, making the fact he is not currently covered in flaky pastry my fault, “you should have forced me”.

“Cheer up, we're gonna win today” says a man sporting a Hastings United FC (HU) scarf, CW’s opponents, to the man completing the team sheet, who is less than impressed with having to be out on a Sunday, unlike me it seems, even football is not an exception.

Tom finally reaches the end of his tea, “oh the bottom” he says contorting his face, having just got a mouthful of undissolved sugar sludge. Both agreeing we have been sitting around for too long, it's time to get a bit of life back in our feet, so we go for a wander. Tom thinks he’s seen something that will get me excited, but I think he’s just winding me up.

Oh what a sight that is, pinned to a corkboard on the door of a changing of the guard sized shed, are the meticulously folded and stapled, orange golden goal tickets. “Everyone a winner until kick off”, says the man selling them, when he can see I’m struggling which one to pick.

‘I am’ says the same man with a shrug of his shoulders, when I ask if there is a club shop, hung behind him a single CW shirt. I eventually pick one of the orange tickets and overcome with an unfamiliar feeling of generosity, ask Tom to pick the second. He opts for one secured with a red pin of course, and as he hands it to me, informs me that it’s his, any winnings that might result because of his choice, are his too.

Considering both tickets are indistinguishable from the outside, I give them a quick shuffle, and his ambitions of getting his hands on my winnings quickly fade.

“Be a good game” says Mark, CW’s Club Secretary, but it will be “close” he adds cautiously, “Hastings are in great form” and CW he explains don't do themselves “justice” in “big one off games”.

Talking to Mark, I hope he doesn't think I’m rude, I hope he hasn't noticed my eye wandering towards
one corner of the pitch, and to the enormous orange and black CW flag, that has just been hung from the back of one section of the terrace behind the goal.

The one flag would be impressive enough, however on closer inspection, and by the time I’ve got over to the man putting them up, more have been raised, each as large and as orange and black as the first. I can see at his feet three overflowing supermarket bags for life, bungee cords, lengths of rope and crocodile clips, scattered across the floor.

I don't think in all my time watching non league football I’ve ever seen quite the display, certainly not all by one person. I admit the James Bearwell show was impressive, but the bottomless Mary Poppins Sports Direct bag in front me and just how many flags and banners it contains, makes James offering, just look like a few hankies on a washing line. Flag after flag and a few scarves continue to appear. His wife by his side helping, his two kids watching on, a bit like, ‘really Dad, it's a bit cold for all this’.

So in awe of his collection, I forget to ask his name, but he tells me he’s been a CW fan for “twelve years” and is originally from Portsmouth, and a Pompey fan. I can see on closer inspection one of his bags has the Portsmouth badge on and not Tesco, he explains he is a little torn about CW’s FA Youth Cup match against his home town club, “don't know who I wanna win”.

I have to ask, all while he ties and clamps, his wife ready with the next one, that surely he doesn't change ends at a half time with all this. He laughs, so does his wife, exasperatedly, they don't he informs me. The “Cray Massive” spectacle, as one flag identifies them stays as it is until it's time to pack them all away again.

Before the 1980’s overtake the airwaves, the PA is tested, and the music that follows is all clearly off a single Spotify playlist. Tainted Love by Soft Cell is first, and the rest follows suit, there is a brief chant of “come on Hastings” from the travelling fans, and wehhhhhh’s of delight, when they get a reply from the flag mans son.

The man having the very loud, shouty and sometimes aggressive mobile phone call, might want to consider taking it outside, he is bringing down the tone a bit. Duran Duran are next up and a good sized turnout, many of them devouring chips, from white paper bags, bob their heads to the lyrics of Simon Le Bon.

A vociferous whistle interrupts Adam & the Ants, a signal from one CW coach that it's time for the team to head in after their warm up. The Fortnite kids, still on the edge of the pitch, high five the departing players, one child whose touch momentarily loses him, nearly boots a ball right in to the face of one of the starting eleven.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Hayes Lane” announces the man with the mike in the pin covered CW hat from the stand. He shares with us the itinerary for the rest of the day, there will be a few presentations before kick off and “of course a minutes silence”. He battles with some of the names as he reads out the teams, and as he does so the long shiny black tunnel is extended like the Alien Queens mandibles, from the stand to the edge of pitch.

The music takes a distinctive 1960’s turn when Dion DiMucci’s song The Wanderer, starts to play in anticipation of the players arrival. One stewards asks another what the presentations are in aid of, CW’s gaffa has won the manager of the month award, “thats put the mockers on us”, he replies.

The bang of upturning seats follows the sharp blast of the referees whistle at the start of the silence, the Fortnite boys are impeccably behaved, standing on the touchline, arms behind their backs, heads bowed. Both teams stand shoulder to shoulder on opposite sides of the centre circle, the CW players hold a white flag, with a large red poppy on it.

The second and equally piercing blast of the referee's whistle, is the signal for the HU fans who are here in good numbers with drinks in hand, to get back at it, “come on Hastings, super Hastings, from the south”. With the ends decided, the HU supporters head for the large covered terrace, and are soon banging its back wall as they continue to sing. The Cray Massive end will remain unoccupied for the first half.

An early dangerous CW cross that is only just cleared, a half hearted appeal for a penalty from the home team, then a HU’s shot that goes just wide, plus plenty of singing from the HU fans, “super, super Hastings”, all within the first four minutes, sets the tone for a high tempo, action packed top of the table clash, that doesn't disappoint, that hopefully will even appease the grumpy HU official.

“He didn't touch it” shouts one of the CW fans at the back of the well packed stand towards the referee, who has just ruled off CW’s sixth minute goal for offside, the player who hopped over the ball as it fizzed goalwards, was deemed I guess to have been interfered with play.

Two minutes later, and such is the nature of the wide open game, HU go close with a stabbed attempt at a finish, that is kept out by the CW keepers feet. Less than thirty seconds later, CW are flying down the wing, the wide player making his way unabated all the way into the HU box, where he shoots low, forcing a save from the keeper. His second attempt, the ricochet falling having fallen kindly to him, is saved also.

The back row of the stand, still on their feet, are much happier now, than they had been.

Impressed by the HU fans, “Hastings travel well” says Tom as they belt our their latest song, “oh when the U’s go marching in”, his praise for them and their near non stop chanting is not for long though, “I’m hungry”.

CW are relentless, in the HU box once again, this time their attempt at a cross is blocked, “come on Wands”. What looks like might be the most stunning of openers, an edge of the box volley, falls into the arms of the grateful HU keeper, a CW goal feels imminent.

“He dived” declares one CW fan in the stand, at the sight of an HU player going down. It wasn't a dive by any means. The Fortnite kids, seemingly never far away, are far more interested in getting the attention of what I can only assume is of one of their teaches, who is playing for CW, “Mr Pritchard, Mr Pritchard”.

“Come on Hastings, come on Hastings” sing the HU fans at the sight of their team breaking into attack. The Fortnite kids, no longer harassing their English teacher, at the sight of the same attack, suggest their team “break” the “legs” of the HU player sprinting towards their goal. People really are a lot tougher South of the river.

HU attack again, the keeper gets his hands on the shot, but he spills it, the ball is hurriedly cleared by a CW player. “Come on you U’s” sing the HU supporters behind the goal, whose banging of the back of the stand, has become even more frequent.

End to end, I don't think we've seen this many chances in one match, heck even the whole season, then we’ve seen in the first fifteen minutes today. Many gruff football comments are coming a plenty from the back of the main stand and the CW keeper demands his team mates in front of him “talk” after allowing one HU player far too much time with the ball, and his eventual shot only going narrowly over.

As previously mentioned the HU fans have had no issue finding the bar, and Tom thinks this is starting to affect their performance, “don’t understand what they are saying” he says, as he attempts to decipher their current tune, “all sounds the same”, tilting this head towards the singing fans.

CW’s number 4’s boots have caught Tom’s eye, “very nice”. Black Nike’s with a hint of the Louboutin about them, with their red soles. Back and forth the game continues to swing, “come on you U’s” continue to sing the away fans. In their number 9, they have a player so fast he’s forced Tom to blaspheme, “Jesus!”.

With just over twenty minutes on the clock and HU go close, a near post corner is hooked just wide by the player with his back to goal. Chips by the bag full continue to be polished off, maybe also acting as hand warmers, people using the hot fried potatoes to keep their digits from freezing.

“He's like a centre back in midfield” says Tom, with his Pep hat securely back on, about CW’s number 6. ‘Mr Flick On’ as I have dubbed him, is the main focal point for all the long balls out from the back, winning nigh on everyone. His ability to set attacks up with the deftest of flicks of his head, is impressive. He is also pretty adept in receiving the ball to his feet, holding up play, then initiating a move that way instead.

Sadly for all involved, HU’s number 9, the speed demon who made Tom take the lord's name in vain is limping. “That hit your car” chuckles Tom as a mega clearance, clears the stand towards the car park, however I’m less concerned with the state of my windscreen, and more with the condition of HU’s number 9, simply because I want to see just how fast he can go, because he is down and signalling to the physio.

The injury allows a few CW players to take on some water and have a bit of a conference about the game, “we gotta try someone else” says one. “Oh that’s a shame” says Tom, as HU’s number 9, limps
off. Maybe not a sight the CW defenders want to see, but it is a definite relief when he appears on the touchline, ready to come back on.

Half an hour gone and Tom is convinced that HU are going to win, despite him just saying both teams were guilty of plenty of “almosts”, his decision may have been somewhat influenced by the defence splitting pass by the away team, that the CW defender did well to shield the forward away from and allowing the keeper to claim.

Tom is also at that point in the day when he is trying to work out his ‘when do I go and get my food’ equation. This afternoon has the added parameter of the Arsenal likely to be on when he goes, and the fact he might not return.

For now, he forgets the draw of the top flight and is suitably impressed by a “great ball” from CW’s midfield out to the wing. “Cut it back” demands a fan in the stand, and the player does just that, teeing the ball up for a teammate who hits it first time, his shot is blocked. “Should have taken a touch” bemoans the back seat coach.

An elderly shuffling steward dressed almost head to toe in yellow hi viz, arrives in front of the main stand, having spent most of the half behind the HU goal bearing news, “should have been a penalty” he announces. From his better vantage point he is able to confirm to us all, that the early shout for a CW penalty, should have been given as one.

Tom doesn't think the HU number 9 is “going to make it”, he hasn't got out of second gear since picking up a knock. The HU fans are still dishing out the occasional low rumbling chant, “la, la, la, la, Hastings” and good CW pressure sees them win the ball back on the edge of the HU box, only to be fouled and awarded a free kick.

“Sausage, roll, pasty, got a roast at home, you know I can't turn down a burger, might not have any sausage rolls, always in high demand” is the nonsensical sentence that just tumbled out of Toms mouth, who is now in full snack mode. “Off for food” he tells me, at the same time the HU fans declare they are off “to victory”

Two CW goal line clearances, sandwich a HU free kick right on the edge of CW box that clips the top of the wall and goes over, cementing this game, without any goals and still forty five minutes left to play, as the best one we’ve seen so far this season. The first goal line clearances the pick of the two, the defender, takes up position between the posts and heads the certain goal away to safety. “Hastings, Hastings” sing the HU fans quite clearly, no way Tom wouldn't be able to understand them now.

“Let him die” are the callus shouts from the HU fans towards the CW player who just yelped as he was hacked from behind, and sent crashing to the ground. “You are joking?” asks one less than impressed home fan, when no booking is forthcoming from the referee.

I have seen few funnier sights in almost four years watching non league football, then that of two players, whose intertwined legs, mean neither can get up properly, their mangled limbs making them look like a human pretzel, having somehow come together in the HU penalty area, and neither one wanting to let the other get up first, causing a minor scuffle to break out.

More angry shouts from the home fans towards the man in charge, this time not because of a foul against them that didn't get a yellow, but because one committed by them that did. Even the kids are chiming in, “you're rubbish ref, you don't know what you're doing.

“Justice” cries a person in the crowd dramatically, as if they were auditioning for a courtroom drama. CW having just scored and neither the referee or his linesman this time deem that any of the games laws had been contravened. “We forgot that you were here” sing the HU fans, the only song that any respecting supporter can sing, after going behind

Tom arrives back claiming to have seen the goal, I bet he was in the stairwell, however he has bigger worries than having missed seeing CW go in front, “told you, sausage rolls are like diamonds, all gone”.

“Mr Pritchard, Mr Pritchard” call out the Fortnite kids to the exiting players, as the 80’s playlist starts up again and “Mr Pritchard” hears his students this time, greeting them with a smile, before disappearing up the tunnel. I thought the pretzel leg players, who looked like mating snakes, was going to be the best thing we saw today, but the sight of the two small children doing laps of the ground in a black convertible remote car, is giving it a run for its money.

The chips are “great” Tom informs me, but he is clearly not in a sharing mood. The Cray Massive are in place for the second half, the son of the flag man now in an orange and black jester's hat and the thumping music coming from the Kids Zone, a long white tent on one corner of the ground, as Tom points out would have been “something for Lily” (my daughter) to do, had I brought her along.

Dipping down, the final hurrahs of the sun, turn the sky the most exquisite shade of yellow. Having completely forgotten about them and with Tom reiterating his claim to my prize, because I left my money in the car and he lent me the £2 to buy them, we open my golden goal tickets, and once again we will or should I say I, will not be going home any richer.

Not content with the jingle of the bells on his jesters hat alone, the Cray Massive now have a horn and it’s given it’s first blast of the day as the players appear to the final hit from the best of the 80’s playlist, To Shy by Kajagoogoo

As one of the linesman checks the net, the Cray Massive bring out the latest piece of their second half orchestra, another bell, a much larger one then those on the jesters hat, imagine more town crier. “Your support is fucking shit” chant the HU fans, who have taken up their new position, and I have to disagree with them. The flags and the noise the Massive are making, eclipses that of many groups of supporters we've seen, and there are only two of them.

The CW coaches look effortlessly cool in their bobble hats, clearly the kind of guys that will turn a chair around to straddle it backwards, they decline the bench as somewhere to sit, instead opting for water coolers. “Pads in, be ready to play” barks one of them, to the substitutes sheltered under the curved roof of the dugout.

It is a battle of the fans in the first few minutes of the new half, its all bell, bell, bell from the Massive. The HU fans respond with a few more whacks of the hoarding and a song about how “super” they are, and that “no one likes them”.

For the second time today CW have a goal disallowed, the home bench explodes, the substitutes rushing out of cover, but on the realisation the linesman's flag is up they quickly and ever so slightly awkwardly, have to back track out of sight. “Come on Wands” shouts the Massives youngest member, giving his horn another blast. Clearly not wanting to be outdone, and having held back until now, both sets of fans respecting the ‘no horns in the first half armistice’ the HU supporters let rip their much larger and far louder air horn, like they’re trying to start a local marathon.

The sky continues to turn all kind of shades of wonderful as the sun sinks lower and lower behind the Kids Zone, where the music is blaring and the disco lights are whirling. It’s all CW on the pitch, they crash a shot off the post that then hits the bar. The bell and horn of the Massive a constant and I think it’s safe to say the CW bench is a happy one.

“Get your fucking head up” shouts a far from happy HU player to a teammate and I start to wonder if the Cray Massive who were all but absent in the first half, now surrounded by their plethora of flags, feed off their power, “come on you Wands”.

There are different aspects to a goal that can make it good or even a great one. The finish, the build up, the setting or it’s significance. CW’s second on fifty six minutes, that sends the bench in to near meltdown with much hugging and giddy jumping, might just be the most well rounded goal we will see all season. The build up and then the eventual strike from the edge of the box, by Mr Flick On no less is an absolute peach.

“Come on you Wands” screams someone in celebration, “saw it coming” says one all seeing supporter to himself. The HU fans try a song, but they have recoiled into their shell somewhat, the air horn nowhere to be seen, their confidence dented.

However their shell shock is short lived, CW’s two goal lead lasts all of sixty seconds. An own goal from a corner, sees them right back in the game, and the fans are soon back on point, singing and given the hoarding a kicking and they nearly pull level a minute after getting one back. Quick feet in the box, allows the HU player to create the space for a shot, but the CW keeper is all over it.

The HU goal has brought about a shift in the dynamic, the visitors find themselves on top, their fans
are confident once again, “we're gonna score in a minute” and for maybe the first time today CW heads have dropped and the bench is not such a happy place any more.

One place moral has certainly never dipped is in the Cray Massive corner, from the same bottomless bag of flags, more instruments appear, this time a plastic rattle. Even as their team go close to conceding again. A flick on performed by someone other that CW’s number 6, sees HU away, the shot from the edge of the box looks to be creeping in, but is held.

“Popular” comments Tom, as an HU sub is serenaded and gets one of the biggest cheers of the day, “take your Cruttwell with you”. The sky now a mix of purples and blues, the sun all but gone and high above the HU fans a tiny slither of the moon is visible.

I’m not the only who has noticed the child sized rave in full flow in the Kids Zone, the music now even louder, the lights from the inside lighting up the canvas, “its going off in that tent” says one of the CW coaches. The only things slightly louder is the HU airhorn and it’s attempts to put off the CW keeper.

“Take your booking and hurry it up” instructs the HU bench to the player who has just cut short a CW attack, and is rightly reprimanded. With only a quarter of an hour left, the HU coach recognises there is no time for dicent, so take it on the chin and move on.

On the other side of the coin, CW are doing everything they can to kill time, “slow down” shouts one fan to the CW player coming off, who does just that, not very subtly stopping to take out his shin pads, moving at a near crawl as he leaves the pitch.

HU are rapidly losing their heads, “he’s not got it in him” are the textbook words from the HU bench after a particularly robust challenge. A debate between the dugouts break outs, the CW opinion being that he might not have “it in him” but he clearly committed the foul and its their player lying flat out on the deck

“Diving scum” is the shout one HU fan, when a CW player goes down. The HU supporters who are all but silent now. The HU bench is demanding “discipline” the stop start nature of the game “suits” the team with the lead.

With just over ten to go CW flash a shot goalwards that is just tipped wide, “come on you Wands”, shout the Massive, who follow it up with a ring of the bell and a hoot of their horn. There is a muted rendition of “oh when the U’s go marching in” but its not even half as loud as it had been earlier in the day and from his technical area the HU manager is willing his team higher up the pitch.

“Finish our fucking chances” deplores one CW coach, when the opportunity to effectively kill the game off goes begging. HU’s keeper in his eagerness to reach the ball on the edge of his own box, clatters into his own man, leaving his goal gaping and the ball in CW’s position. The sky blue HU keeper makes up for his earlier mistake and is soon back on his feet and able to smother the ball, his teammate is not so fortunate, and is lying face down still on the pitch.

CW’s number 6 is starting to the feel the fierce pace which has rarely dropped all game and is going through some stretches with the aid of one of his coaches. The HU player who was wiped out by his own keeper has played all he is going to play and is being subbed off.

Except for the odd song, fuelled by more drink, “HUFC, HUFC”, Hayes Lane has fallen quiet and feels a bit on edge. The HU horn being exclusively used to annoy the CW keeper at his goal kicks.

Four to go and HU have gone to pieces, a filthy challenge from their number 3, sees him scythe down Mr Flick On. “What a cunt he is” says a CW substitute, the HU number 3 daft enough to commit his foul right in front of the home bench. The comments from the HU dugout are not as X rated, but just as damming, “so naive”.

Every call against HU gets an increasingly angry response from their fans, every call going CW’s way gets more of the bell and the rattle and shouts of encouragement “come on Wands”.

There is a brief hearts in mouth moment of those of a CW persuasion, when their keeper spills a shot, but it's cleared and parity is restored. The shouts of support, have changed to plees of ‘let's just get over the line’. “Finish” cries one CW coach when on the far side of the pitch the wide player cuts into the box, the goal at his mercy, but his rifled shot flies just wide, and hands are clasped to the tops of heads.

One last push from the HU fans sees them back at their best, if only briefly. The hoardings are taking a battering, and I think I saw a scarf swinging above one of theirs heads and I now, like Tom, have no idea what they are saying, as bell in the Massive end continues its jangling chorus.

“No discipline” laughs one CW fan as HU once more giveaway a needless foul. “Discipline without persession” is the fans suggestion to the HU bench for training on “Monday”.

Today's game likely will be remembered for the CW second goal, but it would have every right to be remembered for the tackle by one CW defender on the edge of his box, that stops a threatening HU attack in its tracks.

“There will be a minimum of four minutes added time”

The Massive give one last father and son “come on you Wands” as we head into added time. The away fans have hit peak angry. Another foul by one of their number, a clear one at that, but they feel hard done by. Mr Flick On is on his arse, the free kick goes CW way and the HU supporters are ready to burst, “he got the foul now, he can stand up”

It is the opening bars of the saxophone intro to Madness's One Step Beyond that accompanies the post final whistle celebrations. The CW manager ensures he applauds the Massive, the bell still going, as it did nigh on the whole of the second half. The HU fans give up one last song as they leave, "we love you Hastings we do", their devotion never in doubt, their support magnificent today.

The final song of the afternoon, is not an 80's one but a 70's disco classic, the very apt Ain't No Stopping Us Now, considering CW have just opened up a gap at the top of the table on their closest rivals. The whole team and all the staff convene in a mass huddle, for a few choice words of wisdom from the boss.

Hayes Lane is once again Bromleys, the only sign that its also CW's home, all be it their temporary one, is a bright yellow plaque with their badge on, that hangs near the mouth of the tunnel, that is taken down and put away. The players under the instruction of their pizza eating physio, are lying on their backs, legs up on the railings around the pitch, going through their warm down, before they head inside past a not insignificant party of well wishes, high fivers and back slappers.

Every football club deserves a home, every football club and its fans deserve their own little corner of the world they can hang their memorabilia on the walls of, paint the clubhouse whatever colour they want and install that garish yellow carpet they like, without getting worried what the landlord will think.

As we are leaving, flag man and his family are in the process of packing away their attempt to make their rented accommodation, as homely as possible for another day and I can't forget one thing he said from our brief chat about CW's impending application decision for their own new digs, the wonderfully named Flamingo Park, that they are waiting on the mayor of London's final word on, "Shame Sadiq isn't here, to see what a community club we are".

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Thursday 15 November 2018

Can You Smell The Bovril? - Witham Town FC Vs Heybridge Swifts FC, Bostik League North, Spa Road (02/11/18)

I wouldn't go as far as calling myself a football traditionalist, a football romantic yes, but I’m not adverse to changes or modifications to most elements of the game, as long as they are not just gimmicks, the MLS halfway line penalty shoot out for example and most crucially, that they benefit all involved, the clubs, players and fans.

One thing I am definitely in favour of, and as much as I love a 15:00 kick off on a Saturday, is football on a Friday. Once the exotic folly enjoyed by our European neighbours, it seems more and more that it is being adopted in the UK, and I love it.

You'll be glad to hear that the car is now a FIFA free zone, I won’t bore you with too much with what has replaced it, the amazing Red Dead Redemption Two and the best way to shoot a squirrel to ensure the pelt is perfect or the ideal way to kill a man at thirty paces with a tomahawk, but I was a little peeved to say the least, when describing my character's appearance to Tom that he said he sounded like “Jeremy Clarkson”.

More traffic, the only downside of an evening game, is the inevitable grind of rush hour. “Long way from Lincoln” says Tom, the car in front of us is sporting one of those minute scarves in its rear window. Creeping into Essex no faster than at maybe ten miles an hour, at this rate the Imps fan is going to take days to get to Sincil Bank.

The only break away from discussing our western adventures is when Tom fills me in on his midweek visit to the Emirates and £10 touch base with his beloved Gooners with his visiting nephew. A half empty stadium, a far from riveting match and a curious altercation where the person behind him, hit the person in front of him with a rolled up newspaper, who turned out to be a young woman and not a young man, and all hell broke loose.

Add into the mix Tom being mistaken as his nephews agent, when the already signed future catwalk star was spotted, “you've got Gucci all over your face” said the talent scout about Tom's nephew and not Tom, it was an eventful evening, even if the football was a bit drab.

“Gonna be a cold one” says Tom, looking forlornly out the window. I fear he’s not wrong, it's a definite big coat evening and it is now that time of year, that however early we might get to where we are going, it's inevitably going to be dark when we get there.

Trains seem to be a theme as of late, not travelling on them, but their proximity to the grounds we visits. Admittedly the one running along behind Spa Road, home of Witham Town FC (WT) is not North Ferriby close, however it's still quite intrusive as it rattles past.

The sight of the flat roofed clubhouse, with its illuminated frontage, a guiding light in the gloomy car park is a welcome sight, not long out of the car and away from the caress of the heaters, it’s certainly fresh. Through the front doors and the welcome, well the welcome is not the friendliest, “I’m sorry no Giants fans allowed” says a man to a startled looking Tom, who is wearing a San Fransisco Giants cap.

Baseball is clearly thriving in this part of Essex and so are the rivalries. When the man starts to talk to Tom about some such MLB related news, I know full well that Tom’s confident head nodding and affirmative grunting is a ruse, but don't blow apart his illusion.

Music in so many of our outings, seems to play such a significant part. The girl asking her Dad curiously why the home dressing room is “listening to Whitney Houston?” it’s a valid point. It is not the usual high tempo, get your blood pumping music we normally hear. Saying that Michael Jackson is coming from the away one, as a huge MJ fan myself I’m always in favour of hearing him, but again it's a bit school disco.

A quick wander pitchside, before promptly returning back to the clubhouse, it really is cold, we witness one of the clubs youth teams being put through their paces, being shown their positions as tonight's guard of honour.

Perhaps not au fait with the subtle art of clapping and cheering, their instructor requests a dry run, and informs the young guns not to “boo” any of the away players, when they appear for the warm up. Another train slips by and the young men only in flimsy tracksuits, genuinely look a bit concerned with well over an hour to kick off, when one of their coaches jokes “they've gotta stay there all night”.

“We'll have to chisel them out of their ice cubes” jokes another.

Time for tea, time for some scalding non league tea to help banish Jack Frost. Standing at the long dark wood bar, behind which the shelves are littered with all manner of the clubs silverware, Tom’s choice of accompaniment to his cuppa, is a packet of Wotsits.

The clubhouse is busy, no great surprise considering. A big TV, something else that Tom and I spoke about on the way here, the purchasing of a new one, because my daughter took a wooden block to mine and has broken it, draws most people's attention. No one is using the darts board, but what was covered when we arrived, the snooker table has just had its faded emerald base revealed by some kids, their cues taller than them.

“I could eat now” says Tom not even halfway through his crisps, “they're doing burgers” he reliably informs me. He laughs at my hasty attempt to drink my tea, which is still face melting hot, and I forgo any sensation in the tip of my tongue, just to have a sip of something warming.

Tom gestures with his head, towards the “box of tricks” as he calls it, the blue storage container full of WT club tat, and I use the word tat in the nicest possible way. I'm a big advocate of football tat, who doesn't need a nylon scarf that won't keep you warm or a club branded mouse mat. There is also a big box of programs, but my attempt to get one is thwarted, I’ll have to wait and get one on the “turnstiles” I’m informed.

As ever it is I who has the last laugh, “oh it is hot” splutters Tom, having just had his first taste of his tea, and he also loses the use of his taste buds, however will he enjoy his food now? Cutlery wrapped in napkins is being laid out on the table next to us, someone a bit more decisive than Tom has ordered. Enviously looking at a child's burger, he still procrastinates, “shall I eat now?”. Even the cry from behind the bar, “cheeseburgers”, someone else's order is ready, can’t make his mind up for him.

The single black and white striped scarf wearing Heybridge Swifts FC (HS) fan at the bar enjoys a pint. The thunderous rumble from behind me is not another train, but the kids on the pool table releasing the balls and starting to rack them up. Even the arrival of next doors food, which brings a sizable grin to Tom's face, still can’t twist his arm to order, and having finally been able to finish my tea, I’m ready to head back outside.

Before leaving though, I would quickly like to address a comment I overheard someone make on the way out, and I’m sorry but you're wrong, “jeans and a jumper” categorically don't “always keep you warm”.

I’ve a good feeling about the 50/50 tickets the woman in the WT woolly hat the other side of the turnstiles sells me, next to the club shop, which is little more than a cupboard with the door open and the contents of the blue storage box from earlier pinned to the door. She tells me I can collect my winnings from the “boardroom at half time”, I could tell her about my track record, but she would only get depressed and like I said I’ve got a good feeling about tonight.

I must stay positive, I must stay positive, PMA, PMA.

A man doing a spot of gardening outside the boardroom, freshening up the stone planters, doesn't
flinch at the sound of some fireworks crackling away in the distance. A HS fan clutching a small white drum, plays the customary non league game of hovering around the halfway line, not wanting to make the error of committing to one end or the other, before its been decided, as to avoid making any unnecessary journeys.

The PA sounds like it's seen better days, the mix of the person testing it, all while some music plays, makes a terrible din.

Both teams emerge from the long tunnel, lit by a single flickering security light, one player bangs the high crenellated metal sides, in an attempt to bestir his team, to quite a rapturous reception. The youth players rehearsal has clearly payed off and they expertly welcome both teams, with not a hint of jeering. The little white drum is already going and there are an equal amount of shouts for both the home, “come on Witham” and the away team, “come on swifts”.

The teams shake hands, the PA now on better form reads the starting elevens out. Each team forms a quick huddle, before performing one last warm up. WT run in a circle, all looking inwards before suddenly running away from each other. HB just kind of bobble about a bit on the spot, and then like the home team, all run away from each other.

Post the coin toss, the ends decided, a minutes silence for those killed in the recent tragedy at Leicester City is well observed. Many of the youth players, still in position, bow their heads. The players are linked arms over shoulders on opposite sides of the centre circle, with the referee and his assistants in the middle. The only noise to interrupt the silence at Spa road, was a HS fan, a boy dressed as a tyrannosaurus rex making his way to the right end of the pitch. He wasn't talking, he certainly wasn't being disrespectful, it was simply the swooshing sound his polyester green costume made as he walked.

“That's your warning, don't get caught out like that again” are the stern words of the WT manager, following an early chance to the visitors. A shot is flashed just over, right in front of the dinosaur, who has joined the drummer, and the HS flag in the covered stand behind the goal.

Tom is already feeling the affects, “oh it's cold isn't it”. His brand new maroon, Arsenal branded snood, an “upgrade” on his old one, that he very clandestinely put on when he didn't think I was watching, is not quite having the effect he had desired, in what he calls very dramatically, “sub zero” conditions. Considering how much the HS fans are leaping about to the beat of their half decent drummer, I’m sure they want to cool down rather than warm up.

The young man has emerged from inside the dinosaur, the experience of watching the match out of two tiny holes, from within a neon green straight jacket was short lived. Tom has a vaping rival, because on the opposite corner of the pitch, someone is outdoing him quite monumentally, some older WT fans, not up to date with the world of vaping, have to have what is drifting across the pitch explained to them, and reassured it is not because of a fire.

It is quite an impressive early showing from the HS fans, their songs are frequent if not a little crude, “we hate Maldon, we hate Maldon”. One is sung to the tune of the Sunday evening TV staple of the mid 90’s, Heartbeat, has me thinking that none of them are probably old enough, to remember it being on the box, unless they are keen viewers of ITV4.

They are also quick to pick up on one glaring absence, that of James Beardwell, AKA The Witham Town Super Fan, AKA The Witham Ultra, “where's your famous atmosphere?”. WT’s frankly dismal current record, has even tested James's unwavering support, such is his unrelenting devotion, so many defeats have started to take their toll. It was such a joy watching his one man assault on the ears of the people of Hertford Town, when we saw him last season, so it is a shame not to see him on his home patch, however we wish him well, and I’m sure we'll see him on the road soon.

“That is what I told you about” barks the WT manager, towards the same players as before, who has just made the same mistake.

Although there's a fine home turnout, I might be wrong, one that is much bigger than had today been a Tuesday, the away fans are not impressed, “what's it like to see a crowd?”. Except for the odd shout of “come on Witham”, which is almost exclusively coming from the same lady just along from us, it’s the visitors picking up the mantle of the missing James, the one man crowd, who the WT fans blame the team for not being here, “James Beardwell left because you're shit”.

“Was that a shot or a cross” wonders Tom, whatever it was, it was the first meaningful piece of action we have had, with just over a quarter of an hour gone. The home fans at the sight of it, the HS keeper forced to stretch every muscle to reach the high ball, but in the end the high is fleeting, the lineman's had his flag up.

The opinion of one home fan is that WT look “more like scoring” than HS. As much as I’m sure he would like to see his team take the lead, he is somewhat driven by ulterior motives, the goal might go some way to “shut them lot up”, he says motioning towards the away fans. The latest rendition of “can you hear the Witham sing?” is starting to grate.

When a WT header from a corner is followed by a sizable “ohhhh” from the crowd, the WT fans scoff, not sure what they were getting all excited about. One small child's efforts of putting off the HS keeper with her high pitched scream, gets an A for effort, but isn't really making any difference, however the until now very raucous HS supporters, are somewhat stunned into silence, momentarily at least.

“Told you we would score” says the the nearby WT fan smugly whose prediction was correct, it also grants his second wish of “shutting up” the WT fans, but its not for long. The home fans are able to enjoy the goal and the far better celebration, a perfectly executed knee slide by the scorer in relative peace, however the HS fans are soon back singing, “and you fucked it up one nil”.

The man announcing the goal over the PA is ecstatic, it's been tough going round here of late and to go ahead against a WT side flying since the arrival of their new manager, West Ham United royalty Julian Dicks, you can hear how much it means to him. I can't be sure, I didn't see, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did a little knee slide of his own.

What a way to get back in the game that would have been, near enough from the restart, a fine cross field ball is almost volleyed in from outside of the box, however the dream, the fantasy of those watching HS fans doesn't quite come to fruition, the complete air shot by the forward, doesn't do the
quality of the pass justice, and the ball ends up rolling out of play. The attempt at the shot gets an “ohhhh” from the home fans, but its more one of awkwardness, then of admiration.

A threatening WT cross is cleared over the bar by a HS player, the sight of which is greeted with an “ahhhh” from the home crowd. “We forgot that you were here” reply the HS fans, before bestowing upon the WT supporters the ultimate football insult, ‘’you only sing when you're winning”, before proving just how committed they are, “we only sing when we're losing”.

The resulting corner sees Tom excited at the return of “the love train”, but the set piece routine coined by Glenn Hoddle at this summers World Cup in Russia, can't bring about another goal. “Witham, Witham” chant a few supporters, their first real noise since kick off, that the lady in the woolly hat wasn't responsible for. Tom doesn't think that WT are going to able to “cling onto” their slim lead, the WT fans are sure their “gonna score in a minute", both are right.

Tom and I are big proponents of the headed goal, few things in life are more satisfying than when a player puts one in the back of the net with his bounce. You can have power ones, looping ones, glancing ones and deft ones, HS’s equaliser is most definitely the latter. Ghosting in between two much larger men, the scorer gets his head on the end of the wicked cross and finishes from close range, past the all blue WT keeper who Tom thinks looks, “very young”.

WT held on to the lead, for a full six minutes.

The crowd behind the goal erupts into a mass of bodies and flailing arms, people leaping, bouncing and ricocheting of each other. The drummer is at his station at double time, beating away. The players don't celebrate nearly as wildly, a quick congratulations to the goal scorer, and then back towards their half.

There are sigh’s of resignation from the home fans, “told ya” says Tom. You can hear it once again in
the voice of the man over the PA and even the ever positive lady in the woolly hats, shouts of “come on Witham”, sounds a fraction less optimistic. For WT the signs are not great, HS look dangerous, very slick. I might be doing Julian Dicks a disservice, I never saw him, play, but I understand he was hard hitting, a no nonsense kind of a player, his team are not quite built in his image.

Somewhat out of nowhere a sudden injection of adrenaline sees the game reach a very strange state of frenzy. The still lingering vape smoke in the distance, that’s making one corner of Spa Road look like Bodmin Moor, is still causing much alarm among a small section of the home supporters. There is an attempt at a song from the group of WT fans behind the goal and a brief whack of the stand for some added percussion, but it fades away. The efforts form the away fans have dipped too, the drumming less coherent now, more primitive, the loudest thing here now are the passing trains.

The presence of a young Spanish player in the HS side gives the home fans something to talk about, other than the vape smoke, the game having dried right up with ten to go, the promise it showed after the two quick fire goals a distant memory. It also gives them something else to do than badger the referee, who they don't feel is giving them the rub of the green.

“Pick it up, pick it up” demands one WT payer of his team mates, the woolly hat lady joins him in his attempt to rally the team, “Come on Witham”. The HS drummer has all but given up, there is a brief revert back to form “whoo, whoo, Heybridge”, but he's soon back to just random hitting.

Next to us the tension is building between one home and one away fan, a disagreement about a referee's decision, is bubbling to the surface. “You sure mate, I’ve got eyes” says the HS supporter to the WT one, pointing to his actual eyes in case he wasn't sure what the two holes in his face above his nose were. “Thrown to the ground” adds the eye highlighter, building his case.

The sight of their team nearly and quite fortunately going ahead, after HS almost scored an own goal, raises the temperature of those around us, it might not though be enough for the WT substitute warming up in front of us, who looks frozen to the core.

A late WT charge sees form restored, the visitors really have been the much better side since drawing level, their late flourish and that of their fans, pumps a bit of life back in to what has been a very bleak match. I’m not sure if he is a HS, WT or Julian Dicks fan, on account of his West Ham scarf, which tonight he has paired with salopettes and a small dog, but the man in the curious get up passes Tom and I moments before he informs me there is “two to go”, and that’s his cue to head off for food, navigating through the crowd well, towards the smell of frying chips.

The garden gate that lets the players on and off the pitch has been opened, and I don't think I’m wrong when I say that the HS players are not so quietly arguing with each other, as they depart.

No 50/50 win for me, I was well out of the running, the cheeky comment made by one steward, who unknowingly pinched Tom’s tedious catchphrase, “you've got to be in it to win it”, is clattering around my skull. I wouldn't have had far to go either to collect my “£50”, but alas I am not the “lucky winner” and I won’t be the one heading for the frosted glass door to the portacabin boardroom, less than ten feet away.

Not the best of songs in the first place, but the deafening and frankly awful rendition of Mr Brighteyes blaring out of the distorted speakers, is enough to make you want to go home. It accompanies the HS fans who have swapped ends and are now attempting to hang their large black and white flag from the back for their second half home, but after a few tries they give up and just flop it over the railings. The WT supporter putting his up, has no such problems, it’s much smaller for one, much smaller, but I can just about read what it says across the front of the Union Jack, “WTFC No Surrender”.

The Coke Tom hands me, after his rapid excursion for dinner, must be about the only thing that isn't cold here. He is very thankful for his hot food, “it helps” he says shovelling it in, his upgraded snood, not quite fending off the cold as he had wanted. “Already had this one” he comments between mouthfuls of cheese burger, the playlist has gone full circle, but all I’m listening to is the conversation between the young stewards next to me about the WT fans, “if they pitch invade, they will slip over”.
It was a “proper football burger” Tom tells me once he’s finished, and he was very satisfied with the chip to burger ratio. Sometime he explains he feels “duped”, because the tray will only be half filled half with chips, the rest the burger, but not at WT. They do it, the “right way” he adds, filling the tray completely with chips, then balancing the burger on top.

“That's decent” says one home supporter to himself following the announcement of the attendance, the virtues of Friday night football, rearing its head. “Come on boys” shouts another as the players return, the drum is back at it and the stewards have stopped talking about possible crowd trouble and are now passing around hand warmers, the same ones that Tom had, that did not work, on a similar freezing cold night in Essex last season.

An early injury to a WT player means an eerie hush descends, “looks serious” comments one fan. Another passing train shatters the silence and a player rescues one girls drink, that she dropped on the pitch. “Stop talking, get warm” shouts the home manager to the gossipping players, who spring into action, and start running some drills.

The random whacking of the drum is back and so is the dinosaur, the HS fans alternate between singing about how much they “hate Maldon”, and simply repeating their name “Heybridge, Heybridge”. Po going at the front of the stand, they mix it up with a chant that Tom used to be quite fond of, after a night out, “lets go fucking mental”.

After being down for a while and as of yet not showing any signs of getting up, the downed player is eventually back on his feet, but is moving gingerly. Proving how fickle football fans can be, the attention of those around us has quickly shifted from their injured number, to the fact that someone has a particularly powerful hand warmer, “this ones well good”.

It is because of the hideous racket being made by the angriest sounding of trains, grinding its way along the tracks that I only half hear the most random of questions Tom has ever been asked, “can you smell the Bovril?”, so have to nudge him in the side and confirm if what I just heard was right. The dinosaur has gone, and maybe because of the long injury, but the first fifteen minutes of the second half, might go down as the least memorable in  living history.

A small crowd has gathered behind the goal WT are attacking, “come on Witham”. The reply from the HS fans is a bit crass, “fuck off Witham, you're fucking shit”. Their chants admittedly could do with a bit of work, but at least the drummer is back to his best, beating out the rhythm to a much more pre watershed song, “we love you Heybridge we do”.

“That's going to sting for the next year and a half” says the ever vocal steward next to us manning the garden gate, a monster of a HS clearance has just walloped into a WT player, who didn't even flinch. The same can't be said for any WT players who a minute later, are unable to put their bodies on the line and get in the way of an HS shot that sails just over the crossbar. “We've not started” shouts one WT player, annoyed at his team's slow slow tempo.

The new snood having been insufficient at half time, is now far too efficient, “too hot” says Tom peeling it off, his glasses having steamed up.

Twenty minutes gone and WT go the closest to scoring they have since going ahead, a close range shot at the near post is beaten out by the HS keepers, who is applauded by the home and away fans,
“well saved” says a WT supporter begrudgingly. Our friendly local steward is starting to feel the icy conditions too, my feet feel like they are frozen, “so cold” he says to Tom, someone get this man a hand warmer.

Memories of the incoherent thumping of the drum are all but forgotten, when the HS fans start my all
time favourite chant, the one I always call the ‘Celtic chant’, but I’ve heard more in Essex, than I ever have in Glasgow, “come on you boys in red”.

HS go close now, a free header from a corner is put wide and the single female WT fans lets out a resounding, “come on Witham” while the HS fans dinosaur or no dinosaur start to give their stand one hell of a beating, the noise of the drum no longer sufficient.

Another WT injury stops play, causing this half to feel quite disjointed, “let him die” are the sympathetic shouts from the HS fans towards the stricken player who is making a sign towards his bench, that he needs to come off. As the physio makes his way to him, he brings to the attention of the referee the culprit responsible for this current situation, with a thrusting jab of his finger. The break allows for some much needed instructions from the home bench, but the manager is frustrated, he clearly doesn't feel like he is being listened to.

With just over a quarter of an hour left, the home fans are in a near state of mania at the sight of their player one on one with the HS keeper, is this the moment they take the lead and stop the rot, nope, the MT keeper blocks the goal bound shot out with his feet and the home fans come crashing back down to earth. The away end explodes into a cacophony of random noises, more Maldon hate, more “Heybridge till I die” and then shouts of “who are ya, who are ya” to a WT substitute.

“Why did he stop it?” is the exacerbated question on one WT supporter lips, when the referee halts play, following a HS foul, when he should have perhaps played the advantage. “Should have been a red” says one WT player to the man in change, its only a yellow.

Thank the lord for small mercies, the HS supporters have really been somewhat of a saving grace, yes they are a little bit gobby, but their boundless energy is getting me through the most turgid of games. Both teams are so “hit and hope” as Tom puts it, it's really not been much of a spectacle.

Ten minutes ish to go, there will be a fair chunk of injury time, unless the referee fancies doing us all a favour. One HS player another Spaniard I think, is less than impressed with what he perceives as time wasting by the home bench, the speed in which he ball is returned to him, does not best please him, “idiota” he says, that means idiot in English, but the home manager asks the player for clarification, “Spanish?”.

“Keep fucking going” shouts an away player, he like many here I’m sure, on and off the pitch, know that the three points are there for the taking. “Come on Witham” shouts the same fan once more as the away supporters break out into their second rendition of “come on you boys in red”, and despite the best efforts of his crowd, WT’s number 9 is cutting a sorry figure. It really has not been the best night. His shoulders drop that little bit further after a failed one two, and a fan offers up some encouragement, “chin up”.

Into about the final five minutes and I let out a screaming internal HOW? When the chance for WT to surely secure the win, putting an end to their dreadful run goes begging, a free header, no more than five yards out, goes over. The WT manger agasp, turns his back on the pitch and falls just short of throwing himself to the ground.

An injury this time to a HS player stops the game, he pounds the floor and rolls across the pitch, his breath, just like everyone else's visible as it clings to the cold night air.

Mindless shouting from all corners hits a new high, when HS have a shout for a penalty turned down, players and fans lose their heads a bit. They shout again, another claim of a foul in the box, two in less than thirty seconds, this is waved away, just like the first. I’m almost certain HS fans are simply just shouting for the sake of shouting, maybe in the hope they can convince the referee into making a decision.

Late HS pressure and WT are well and truly on the back foot, “can't be much left now” says the steward hopefully. “Come on you swift's” yells someone from the crowd, “come on Witham” shouts the single female home fan, who deserves some kind of plaque or medal, she has single handedly held the home fort tonight.

There has been no sign of how much injury time is to be played, Julian Dicks as he has done for the whole game, stands steadfast on the edge of his technical area, his team looking like the most likely to nick the win, however, and against the run of play, its WT who once again are offered the chance to score on a platter and instead of scoring from no more than five or six yards out, their manager once more dismayed, they knock the platter to the deck and spit and stamp all over the three point pie.

Delirious in their local rivals misfortune, the away fans let out a spirited “Heybridge, Heybridge”

The referees is getting dogs abuse, the away end continue to call for everything, the mearest contact a foul in their eyes, and they grow increasingly annoyed when its not given.

WT hearts are in mouths when HS look like they've done it, but much like the home side, they can't put away the simplest of chances, and the header goes wide. One WT player does his best to buy his team some time, going down with a bad case of bullshit, but no one is buying it and he is almost embarrassed into getting back up

“Come on Witham” shouts you know who, and having shown five minutes of extra time, what feels like ten minutes ago, one home fan is sure, “that's your five ref”.

More Killers and substitutes wrapped in blankets invade the pitch following the full time whistle. There is no sign of any HS fans “slipping over” and they are rightly applauded by their team for their support.

The home players are not so quick to leave the pitch, they take the time to thank those fans who have stayed behind to cheer them off, walking along the line of them, they dish out high fives and handshakes, the hugs though are reserved for the lady in the woolly hat.

I thought I had the ending of this blog all sewn up before we had even arrived. Tom had blurted out one of his profound little sentences, as he has the habit of doing so from time to time, in the car on the way here. Comparing going to see Arsenal and non league football, and that you know what you're going to get with a visit to the Emirates, but the non league lottery is so much more interesting,
it's the “surprise” of where we are going next and what we will find, that keeps him engrossed.

However when I saw the sign on the outside of the clubhouse as we made our way back to the car, Tom’s vape juice frozen, the big Union Jack that fly's above the ground high on top of its flag post still, it blew his little comparison out the water and maybe summed up non league football in a nutshell and is a sentiment we could all maybe carry with us, into the outside world:

Before you've complained, have you volunteered.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

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