Thursday, 23 May 2019

Did I Miss A Memo? - Leyton Orient WFC Vs Ashford Town (Middlesex) LFC, Isthmian Women's Cup Final, Parkside (17/04/19)

A walk in the park, a spot of lunch in the sun and a siesta was how I spent my day and you are quite right, it does sound idyllic and it was.

Sunning myself in a pub garden enjoying a cracking little chicken and avocado salad, forty winks in a freshly made bed, the linen crisp and cool, I’ve come over all continental and I can think of worse ways to spend a Wednesday, but instead of rolling out onto the terrace, to a freshly made Caipirinha, slipping on my espadrilles and plonking myself next to the pool. I’ve instead got to climb inside my hot, cramped little car and endure the North Circular at rush hour again, for the second week running.

What an error it was ever leaving the house.

There is one small saving grace, the Easter holidays mean the traffic is nowhere near as bad as seven days ago, so that's something and I’m not a complete sweaty gibbering wreck by the time I arrive to meet Tom in the car park of Parkside for our second final in a row.

“Massive pitch” says one of the Ashford Town (Middlesex) LFC (ATL) players, getting their first glimpse of the playing surface. Talking to the Aveley Chairman, his uber modern facility now the go to place for cup finals these days, doesn't “think there will be many” spectators “tonight”, maybe “fifty” he says optimistically.

The lack of an expected turnout, is maybe summed up by the fact that the turnstiles are not even open, it's just a propped open gate with a young boy manning a trestle table. Selling programmes out of a cardboard box and giving change to those wandering in, from the draw of a cash register.

Tom’s priority of course is his stomach, “I hope there's food” he says apprehensively. Considering I had quite a big lunch, and I’m not really one for football eating anyway, I couldn't care less, I’m much more intrigued by the Leyton Orient WFC (LO) coach who every time he passes through the door to the changing rooms, removes his boots. At first I think he might just be being polite, well drilled from his childhood. His house one of those that you are instructed to remove all footwear on arrival, but then again Parkside is artificial, so it's not like he’s going to be traipsing mud in and out, so then I wonder if it's some kind of a tradition?

Sitting on a blue plinth in front of the few concrete steps that lead down to the pitch, tonight's prize is on show, the Isthmian Women's Cup tantalisingly glistening in the late spring sunshine. LO are first out to warm up, trotting on by the silverware, in their pristine scarlet jackets, staying well way, some not even daring to look at it. It’s all very Raiders of the Lost Ark, “don’t look Marion!”
.
ATL and maybe to their detriment are a little less standoffish than the LO players, a lot more inquisitive as they come out on mass. Depending on which side of the superstition fence you sit on, the actions of one of their players will either send shivers down your spine or not faze you one bit, when jogging by she appears to touch it. If you are one of those who sees significance in such things, you'll be thinking she’s made a fatal error, those of you who don't entertain such hoodoo, will think nothing of it. Only time will tell.

“You made the journey” says the ATL coach appreciatively to some of those already occupying some of the blue seats in the main stand. “You’ve got our loyal support” responds one, “four hours” claims another of the party, who says it with the air of someone who's been stuck in a car for far to long.

Beaming, one young girl does as she's told, when she's positioned in front of the cup for a photo, by her dad. “Smile Isabella” he says, and she does just that. Next up is a young LO fan, in a red and white hat and scarf, who stretches it out in front of him in preparation of a quick snap, Brisbane Road Leyton Orient, it reads in woven red lettering.

Not only do both kids delight in having the chance to get so close to the cup, but it also highlights what a bad parent I am. I only ever get my kids to pose with the most ridiculous and in some cases most awful of things, purely for my own amusement. Like a portrait of Saddam Hussein.

“Did I miss a memo?” asks the referee standing in the mouth of the extended tunnel, flanked by his two assistants. Before him the players of both sides are warming up, “they're still out” he says somewhat baffled to one of his equally bemused flag bearing colleagues.

The tunnel is rapidly concertinaed and a messenger promptly sent to both camps to get a move on.

Replaced by the yellow match ball, balanced on top of the very sophisticated Isthmian League roll of gaffer tape, the cup is now well out of reach of anyone tempted to touch and the referee is not quite losing his patience, but is certainly agitated, all while his assistants are put through their paces of how to operate the electronic scoreboard, blinking red and green LEDs are lighting up the tunnel making it look like a school disco.

The applause for the teams eventual arrival is a tad muted, but picks up as the players cross the pitch only a short way, before lining up in preparation for the appointed dignitary's. “Come on the O’s” shouts one LO fan in the stand, one player all in red responds by gesturing to the back of her shirt with two thumbs over her shoulders.

Aveleys Chairman leads the line, being guided by each captain respectively, accompanied by a second man all suited and booted. The ATL players, when it’s LO’s captains turn to do the introductions, link arms, each in the most gaudy and yet stunning orange and white striped kit, reminiscent of some Blackpool Rock.

Two close knit huddles are formed by both teams in their respective halves of the pitch, that seem to go on for ever. When they break, each team does so with their own war cry. Harsh is maybe too kind a word to describe the sound of the referee's whistle as he calls forth the “captains”, who both perform their required duties moments before kick off. The blast of his whistle that sees LO get things underway is followed by another subdued shout from the main stand, “come on you O’s”.

Early signs are it might be a long night for ATL, because within the first five minutes LO go close to scoring not once, but twice. A scramble following a corner is poked just wide, and then a minute or so later the ball almost bounces over the ATL keeper, following a corner from the opposite side. Not that you would know the game had got off to such a frantic start from the deathly silence in the main stand, where even though he can probably touch the pitch from his seat, and maybe it’s to gaze at the full moon above, but one man in watching the game via binoculars.

Considering the vast gap between the the two sides on the pyramid, one perhaps might think that tonight could maybe be considered somewhat of a formality. ATL having been on quite the meteoric run to get to the final, where they find themselves up against one of the big guns, however after their shaky start, ATL start to show off some what has got them here and Tom quite rightly whispers in my ear, after we both suggested quiet one sided score lines in our post kick off predictions, that we might have “underestimated” them.

A smart drag back from one ATL player leaves two LO defenders heading one way, and ATL’s number 16 going the other, turning her back on them, showing off her number contained within a shield, Newcastle United 1997-99 style. She makes a short pass to teammate whose audacious curling long range shot, leaves the trouser wearing LO keeper grasping at air, as the ball pings off the crossbar and back into play, where the blue haired number 7, she who touched the cup, is unable to turn in the rebound.

The football Gods making themselves heard after her indiscretion or was she just unlucky?

Tom is far from impressed having just noticed the LO’s keepers outfit, that I too used to wear trousers when performing every overweight school boys duty of playing in goal, “big softie” he says laughing, as I describe my padded Decathlon trousers, the full Massimo Taibi, that I picked up on a family holiday in France.

Chances are coming thick and fast now for the team who looked almost dead and buried with less than ten minutes gone. Stinging the palms of the keeper the ATL number 16 watches her near post shot pushed wide and from the resulting corner, the LO keeper is back at it again, “what a save” declares one person in the stand, instinctively shooting out a hand to tip the goal bound header over the bar.

For the second corner the LO keeper is unable to replicate her recent heroics, missing the ball completely, but ATL are unable to capitalise. The Tangerines looking the far more dangerous of the two teams, after their early wobble, their growth in confidence has been tremendous. Just after the quarter of an hour mark and one LO player makes it to the edge of the ATL box, but her shot is tame to say the least, but more interestingly it's probably their first meaningful attack, after their rampaging start.

Napping in the day time and eating too much for lunch were not the only mistakes I made today, listening the advice of my other half about if I needed my coat or not can be added to the list. Standing next to Tom in his fingerless gloves, hood up in his big jacket, I look like somewhat of a tit shivering away in my blue cotton shirt. It's so cold.

Noticing my chattering lips, Tom sticks in the knife, “I’ve got gloves” he says offering me his skin tight, fingertip, smartphone user gloves, pure murderer, but worse of all is the offer of his “Arsenal snood”. I’d rather die.

Playing in the bar behind the large glass windows behind us, Spurs are taking on Manchester City in the Champions League quarter final. Peering through the window Tom gives me an update on the score, “seven minutes 1 - 1” he tells me and I’m sure he must be joking.

The matches momentum shifts once more, LO sending two attempts on goal fractions wide in less than a minute. An arrow straight shot misses the top right hand corner by a whisker and then a flashed header goes the same way. The flurry of action stirs the crowd a little, “ohhhhh”, before a LO supporters lets out a muted cry, “come on Orient”.

“Shoot, shoot, shoot” shouts the LO keeper as her teammate pops up between two ATL defenders, having timed her textbook bending run to perfection, but her slotted shot must have been saved by one of the outstretched feet of the ATL keeper performing the splits in front of her as she bore down on goal, and she hadn't missed as I first thought, because the referee has pointed to the corner.

LO think they have taken the lead, direct from a corner no less, but the celebrations are cut short when the referee awards ATL a foul. For all their recent forays forward, Tom still reckons LO are vulnerable “at the back”. As he puts it, they have certainly looked “shaky” on occasions.

As if like a slumbering giant, LO have been awoken, they're angry and looking for blood. The traffic is only going one way now, headlong towards the ATL goal, as they get ever closer to their opener. ATL are not quite completely overrun, not yet anyway but are coping relatively well and are still plugging away as best they can whenever they get the ball, their sprightly number 7 sending a looping shot just over from close range.

Surprisingly it’s Tom and not I paying more attention to the goings on at the Etihad. “2 - 2 now” he informs me, “at least you've got two away goals” and as I descend closer and closer towards hypothermia, the topic of the gloves he gave me rears its head again, “I can't believe you don't wear them” he says, genuinely upset and then asks if the reason I don't is because I’m “embarrassed”. Me being the guy in the turn up Jacamo jeans and Primark trainers, fashion is not my strong point. If it fits is my motto, I just don't know where they bloody are.

Despite LO looking like they might score with every attack, the majority of the crowd are transfixed on what's going on two hundred miles away in the North West, “that could be eighteen all” says one person. One man very much focused on the game, is pacing around the main stand, sounding like an overbearing Dad at sports day, very loud and very vocal, his comments aggressive and totally unnecessary. “That's to no one” he barks after a loose ATL pass.

Tom is quite fond of a tactical observation, most of the time it’s nonsense, repeating stuff he’s heard on Match Of The Day, but today with his Pep hat is firmly on, he’s actually making sense and as if he knew it was coming, just as he’s pointing out the “huge gap between” the LO “defence and midfield” and how susceptible to a “ball over the top” they would be, ATL almost score exploiting the very same void Tom had just waved his metaphorical big book of Pep at.

3 - 2 to Man City, fuck, and not long after finding that out, ATL’s rear guard action is finally overcome, and the keeper, who doesn't deal with what looked like a straight forward shot, it almost seemed to go right through her hands, I’m sure is using some equally colourful language, as the scorer wheels away to collect a double high five from a team mate, and one of the few people not talking about Spurs, let’s out a “come on you O’s”

Not for the first time today, the LO celebrations come to an end prematurely, this time not because of a blast of the referee's whistle, but because of an injury to an the ATL player, one chasing back, who pulled up, falling to the ground clutching her knee. The hand signals to the bench mean that help is required, “oh the stretchers out” says a concerned Tom, as a hush descends over the ground.

A hush out of respect to the player, until it's clear she is OK, but also because more and more people now are glaring through the glass watching the game being shown inside.

The ATL players mill around their bench, the LO ones form a huddle, all doing their best to keep warm. With the help of staff from both teams, and one of the stewards, the ATL player is carried off, her left knee elevated and a mild ripple of applause breaks out, in recognition of her by the looks of it, being in one piece

“I can smell food” says a relieved Tom, the half almost at end, but not before ATL’s number 7 puts on the afterburners and leaves the LO defence for dead, testing the LO keeper once more, they are getting in to all the right places, but just can’t make it count.

LO very, very nearly double their lead in the dying moments, hitting the post, one ATL fan shouting “get it out of the box” as the ball bobbles and ricochets around it, just begging to be tapped in and then for what must be surely the last time, momentum swings up the other end, with ATL showcasing some of their blistering pace once more, but the ball into the box is blocked and then in a case of good fortune are almost handed an equalizer on a plate thanks to a poor kick from the LO keeper, but old blue hair is unable to hit the target with her first time shot.

On the whistle, the players make their way inside and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of people clambering to get into the bar quicker, as the stand empties and Tom is off, following his nose in search of dinner, “I'm hungry, I'm hungry”.

The wind has picked up, it's almost frosty and I’m frozen. The smarmy little jumper GIF my other half just sent me, is an absolute piss take, and as much as I want to watch the game inside, I feel committed to the cause to stay put like some stubborn old hairy faced donkey.

“Welcome to football food” says Tom, handing me an ambulance sick bowl full of the most anaemic looking chips, smothered in vinegar and cheep ketchup, that I soon realise are close to raw. No wonder he spends most of his time in my car farting, eating shit like this. I’ve joined him today only in the hope that they might have warmed me up a bit, but I wish I hadn't bothered.

Tom is at least happy with his purchase, “good burgers here” he announces, before uttering a sentence that makes less sense than a chocolate fireguard, “you waffed them off”, I think in reference to the speed in which I ate my chips, but honestly, I’ve no idea what he''s going on about.

Each team gets a muffled shout from the crowd, the number of which has taken a bit of hit, the draw of the Champions League too strong. ATL performing the same huddle and war cry routine as they did before the start of the match, and angry sports day Dad seems to be having a barney with someone or is it just the voices in his head.

LO are looking all the bit the higher ranked team from the off, an early warning shot of a half volley goes over and brings an “ohhhhh” and a “come on Orient” from the crowd, but it's hard to make out what those with one eye on the TV and one on the pitch are saying, through the two inch thick slab of glass they're standing behind. However the early promise of more goals soon dissipates, as a Hound of the Baskervilles mist starts to descend and the first quarter of an hour passes by with little action of note at a bit of a half pace.

It is the most deft of long range chips from around twenty five yards that sails over the ATL keeper that finally doubles LO’s lead, and ultimately puts the game out of reach of a tiring ATL. A filthy finish right out of the top drawer after a mix up in the ATL defence, and to be honest it’s the least that they deserve. “Blimey oh riley” gasps one man in the crowd, either an LO fan blown away by the goal or a ATL one dismayed at them somewhat shooting themselves in the foot.

The second goal somewhat opens up the floodgates, as the chance for LO start coming at a rate of knots. Jinking solo runs, a driven rising shot pushed round the post and a “wonder save” as Tom put it from the ATL keeper, who looking already beaten, somehow claws the ball out from behind her. The LO players never for too long, don't have their hands clasped to the top of their heads, in a case of ‘what is it going to take for us to score again?”.

Angry sports day Dad is hitting some new levels of vitriol, “laziest fucking player” he mumbles to himself before screaming at the pitch, “you can get that”. Tom in his full winter get up in April even agrees that it’s “cold now”, doing his cold feet dance, but I don't sense any amount of sympathy towards my plight, in my summer holiday get up, my night ruined by some duff information.

Into the final quarter of an hour and the game has well and truly fizzled out, a case of job done by LO and ATL have nothing left. LO well and truly took it up a gear at the start of the second half and have very rarely faltered, a halftime rocket perhaps from the manger shaking them from their first half complacency, with the ATL resolve starting to fade. “They look unfit” says my burger eating, vape smoking, gin swilling partner, about the ATL players. Glass houses dude.

ATL have the odd surge forward, but are not in the LO half anywhere near as much as they are in their own. All but the odd eye is on the City Tottenham match, its 4 - 3 to Spurs now, what a remarkable match and ATL now look to be completely depleted, LO almost toying with them.

Just inside the mouth of the retracted tunnel the medals are being laid on on a tablecloth covered table and the trophy with not some prestigious names etched on its base, will have to have LO’s added to it now. Sports day Dad, needs a talking to, what a performance and the injured ATL player, still in her kit is sitting in the stand and such is her injury has to be carried off to the loo, unable to make it under her own steam, “a stewards work is never done”.

It's doesn't take long for all the necessary apparatus to be put in place, in anticipation of the presentation. Without the aid of a microphone, one of the suited types with a booming voice, comperes. First calling up the referees and then the players of the match, to collect their awards. ATL or as the MC puts it, "our gallant losers" are deep into a huddle, and have to be beckoned over, nudged a few times, before breaking out of it to collect their medals, the injured player, sitting in the stand is not forced to hobble along to get hers, so instead its taken to her.

ATL link arms for the final time, as victors approach the table to collect the spoils. The noise level has certainly risen a few decibels, the shouts now much more enthusiastic, then they had been before, "well done Orient".

LO's captain is handed the trophy and from behind a placard that reads "we've won the cup" presents it to her excited teammates, "woooooooooooo" they go before she hoicks it up in the air, and is soon doused with the fizz that had been handed out.

Why it's taken us four years to watch a women's match, I'm not sure, but I feel a little ashamed its taken us that long. I think we were both at least once tonight guilty of using the phrase, "I didn't know what to expect" which on reflection is moronic. It's football, that happens to being played by women, not clowns, seagulls or a troop of chimps, so we were always going to get a game of football, regardless of the gender of the people playing it. Why we, why anyone would think it would be anything other than that, I guess is the issue that needs addressing.


On reflection I think ATL can consider themselves unlucky, they had the chances, but couldn't make them count and LO will probably looking back on it, agree they made a harder job of it then they should have.

Sports day Dad was odd, I certainly heard a few unsavoury comments, and don't know why we were both as astonished as we were to hear the players use the the term "man on", silly aren't we. I think we should all take a leaf out of the book of the people at Copa 90, it's not men's football and women's football, its football, that's all, football.

 

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Thursday, 16 May 2019

You Went To The Old Ground? - A.F.C. Hornchurch Vs Enfield Town FC, Isthmian League Cup Final 2019, Parkside (10/04/19)

The sun is glorious and warm, it feels like Springs slow turn into Summer has finally begun, and I have to roll down my window to allow some cool air to fill my car. However it's not cool air that hits my face, it’s exhaust fumes, as I’m not zipping along country roads in my convertible with a pair of aviators on, I’m inching along the North Circular, in my air con devoid two door, surrounded by other irate looking drivers, as what at first felt like a momentary impeding of getting home after work, or to a football match in my case, has turned into full gridlock and if it didn't mean dying of the heat, I’d keep my window closed, but that’s not an option so it’s black lung for me then.

My apparently constant mocking radio, it normally is only able to pick up London Greek Radio and nothing else, today at it’s whim is tuning into a new station, that is playing 'Keep On Movin’ by Soul II Soul, that’s just taking the piss. I quickly compile a message to Tom between lurching forward three feet, I’m going to be late, I tell him. He’s already arrived, he’s surprised to hear that there are such issues on the road. It having taken him all of seventeen minutes to get from his house to tonight's venue.

I do my best to keep cool, Kate Bush comes on and goes some way to transporting me to a higher plane of tranquil oddness, but she can only drag me so far away from this nightmare.

The bright blue facade of Parkside, home to Aveley FC and tonight's venue for the Isthmian League Cup Final, looks at one with the cloudless sky behind it, it’s hard to tell where it finishes and Mother Nature begins, the silver letters that spell out the name of the hosts club, look positively interstellar.

On finding Tom, we are at polar opposites of the coolness spectrum, I’m a flustered sweaty mess, it's just taken me three times as long as it should have to get here and he is dripping with serenity. His large winter coat is buttoned shut and his hoods up. Wait hang on, does he know something I don't, he seems a little overdressed, its bloody boiling outside, and he looks ready for a polar exploration.

On closer inspection I realise first appearances can be deceptive and he is far from composed, in fact he is even less so than I am, “I warn you I’m very fleghmy” he tells me in a slightly pinched nose voice.

A brief encounter with the self described “non league Mysterons” Jake and Chris, in their matching beige jackets, which I think have a bit of the Muldoon from Jurassic Park or some such colonel big game hunter about them, sets the tone for the rest of the evening, where we bump into a veritable who's, who of Isthmian League world. It's like the non league equivalent of the Met Gala.

The sun is still bright, but in the considerable shadow cast by the large curved roof main stand at Parkside, it's getting chilly and Tom’s costume choice doesn't seem all that daft now. A good cure for the cold could be, if you're that way inclined, a cup of Bovril. Chris of the mic carrying two piece explains he is a recent “convert” to the gravy in a cup concoction, but I would rather get hypothermia.

“Nicest stadium we've played in a long time” says one of the first Enfield Town FC fans (ET) I see squeezing through the turnstiles at one corner of the pitch. The vibe has been perfectly set by the DJ, who is playing a selection of 60’s surf rock classics. The Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin seems a little incongruous just off the A13, and the lyrics don't quite sit right with the current conditions, “all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey”, that was more like last week.

It doesn't take long for the ground to start filling up, the odd shout of support starts to ring out around the place, “come on blues” and one of those recent arrivals I’m sure is Brick Top from the Guy Ritchie East End laugh a minute, Snatch, doing his best to look incognito in a Leyton Orient sweatshirt, tucking into a bacon roll and chips. Looking far from understated, in fact looking quite marvellous is a woman in a bright neon pink ET scarf, and if it wouldn't be considered completely uncouth, I’d go and unwrap it from around her neck and put it on myself, it’s stunning.

The plinth with a bright yellow ball perched on top just over the touch line, between two slightly looking limp flags sporting the name of the competitions sponsors, are waiting for the referee and the players fidgeting behind him. The black vinyl tunnel having been wheeled into position as we edge closer and closer to kick off.

Some may call it cutting it fine, some may say they were fashionably late or wanting to make a grand entrance, but the arrival of the bulk of the always noisy ET fans, is perfectly timed with the teams walking out, the referee plucking the match ball from what I can tell you was its gaffa taped pedestal. The cry of “Hornchurch” from the fans of ET’s opponents AFC Hornchurch (AFC), are soon drowned out by the air horn and drum of the ET Ultras. “ETFC, ETFC, ETFC” they quickly start to chant, as a flag is secured to the railing around the pitch.

Much to the nuisance of the ET fan who has already put up his flag, the toss of the coin requires a swapping of ends, but the ET supporters don't let that get in the way of a good sing song, and like a troop of polyester scarf wearing Troubadours, do so while on the move.

The AFC supporters also late arrivals, both sets of fans I’m assuming getting caught up in the same rush hour nonsense, are soon in place, however my attention is sharply focused on the ET mob who have broken into a chant to the tune of a well known children's song, somewhat of an internet sensation and scourge of the planets parents, Baby Shark. This is not the first time we’ve heard this abomination used as the base of a song, and in my opinion it needs to stop and be stamped out now, I’ll happily help, before this terrible virus consumes us all.

“Come on reds” shouts an AFC player angrily clapping his hands, “come on whites” says an ET player, who is an almost mirror image of his counterpart the other side of the centre circle to him, as the referee lifts his whistle to his lips and we are underway.

Once both set of fans have settled, it allows for the battle of the big flags to commence. Each group struggles to find the room behind their goal to fully erect their mega flags, that are about the size of the BFG’s hanky, you could probably hide your average semi detached house under the respective challengers. AFC’s is a gargantuan St Georges cross, ET’s is also our nation's banner, but with a twist, in the blue and white of their club colours, rather than the red and white which so perfectly matches AFC’s.

Ends decorated and tiny metal terraces occupied, the songs are free flowing, “come on Town” from those fans to our right, those to our left are stuck in a constant loop of “red army”. On the pitch the action is equally as frenetic. Five minutes gone and AFC have already flashed a shot wide, and ET have sent a half volley looping just over, that interrupts the ET supporters latest song, “since I was young” to exhale an ample “ohhhhh”.

“It’s fucking freezing” bemoans
Tom, his recent bout of man flu, means he is particularly susceptible to the elements tonight. The ET fans are battling the dropping mercury with song after song. First poking fun at the lack of noise coming from the opposite end, “can you hear the Hornchurch sing?” and then at the amount of them that have travelled here, “did you come in a Smart car?”
 
Keeping up the 60’s music theme that has bizarrely permeated tonight's fixture, they break into a rendition of the 1963 Beatles hit, 'Twist & Shout'. Holding his son over the railings, one very energetic young ET fan punches the air giving up one of the loudest shouts of the night, “come on the Town” and then it gets all very early round of the Europa League away day in the confines of the tiny terrace. Scarves are whirling above their heads, “ola, ola, ola, ola” they chant. Just waiting for the pyro show or a lambs head. It is too cold though for tops to be off I’m happy to report.

“Get it away” grimaces one ET fan, when just short of the quarter of an hour mark, an almighty scramble in the ET box almost sees AFC take the lead. It’s a case of their keeper, who I’m not exaggerating is Hulk like, which is only emphasised by his all green outfit, misses the ball, which
initiates a succession of ricochets before it's finally swiped clear.

From where we are, it looks like most of the seats in front of the main stand are full, but they are somewhat shrouded in darkness, so it's hard to be certain. The ET fans very much out in the open can probably be heard for miles, “sha, la, la, la, la oh Enfield Town”.

Tom is not well, “it's all coming out of me” he sniffles, gesturing to his nose with a gushing motion. He looks like my daughter when she has a cold, I would have bought some wet wipes if I had known. Alternating between banging the back of the stand, and their rattly snare drum, I must admit the stand makes for a better instrument than their actual one, which sounds like it's seen better days, the ET fans are relentless.

“Go on” encourages one ET supporter, when his team get a cross into the AFC box, far too easily, the flicked header on the other end of it, strikes a defender as its headed goal wards. A minute later and another ET attempt is blocked, this time a shot as it screams towards the target. The back line of the terrace is bouncing, “wooooo, woooooo” they sing, before having another dig at their counterparts, “shall we sing a song for you?”

Quick to bring the AFC fans up on what they perceive as a lack of effort you might say, the ET supporters don't miss a beat, when the AFC followers pipe up with a “ohhhhh” of their own after a smart save from the Hulk keeps out a driven shot, “we forgot that you were here” is soon ringing out. In the end the forward who took the pot shot was offside, but as Tom put it, it was a “nice save” all the same. 

“No end product” tuts Tom as another curling ET cross into the box is not converted, the latest is cleared via the thigh of one AFC player. Tom thinks that AFC are edging it, I’m not sure, I think it’s ET. Off the pitch it's all the fans from North London “come on Towners”. To be fair to those from Essex, they may well be as loud as ET, but I just can't bloody hear them.

ET are getting the ball into the box at will, however the ET fans air horn has taken a funny turn, going all high pitched, like when you try to shout and your voice goes all squeaky, which gets a few laughs. Straddling the fence, a young boy in a yellow jacket is giving it as good as any of the much older fans behind, “Towners, Towner” he shouts, sounding a bit like the falsetto air horn. He almost goes the full dog whistle when an ET corner is cleared off the line.

“Right side give us a song” sings the much fuller of the two terraces behind the goal, separated by a large bulge to accommodate it, the terrace the other side is filled with the overflow, who sharply reply.

A less than fierce shot by AFC is on target, but their attacks are few and far between. The ET fans are in full flow, “lo, lo, lo, lo, lo” sings one fan, who gets a near instant reply, “lo, lo, lo, lo, lo”. ET have their own attempt not long after, a lay up on the edge of the box, that sails just over. What then follows is a head on collision between the old and the new, the AFC fans are humming the Dambusters theme, the ET are rattling off the Baby Shark song again. Somewhere in the world, one of the football Gods is shedding a tear.

There's time wasting to try and gain an advantage and there's your own team getting angry with you because you're taking an age to take a goal kick. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh” go the ET fans behind AFC’s keeper all in purple, which I imagine only adds to the anxiety, the defender in front of him not helping by losing his shit, the indecisiveness clear all over his face. He eventually takes it, it’s rushed, and hardly pinpoint.

The last time we went to the final of this competition two years ago, we’d had something like eight goals by now, but with nearly thirty minutes gone, we don't look like we are going to be getting one any time soon. It’s still light, even though it's well past 20:00 and a tiny silvery slither of the moon hangs in the sky above us.

It's the ET fans turn to get stuck in a loop, “ETFC, ETFC, ETFC” they finally break out of it to yes you guessed it, to mock the AFC fans once more, “can you hear the Hornchurch sing?”.

If the AFC keeper looked a little shaky before, he looks like an outright basket case now. A poor kick out, leads directly to an ET chance, it's only because of “great tackle” as Tom emphatically puts it, from a recovering AFC defender, that stops a nailed on goal. The keeper playing catch up, the ET number 10 is almost on the line for a tap in, when somehow the defender reaches the ball and pokes it clear.

“It's coming” says Tom with an air of the clairvoyant about him, he is sure a goal is imminent. ET have a penalty appeal waved away, “how you miss that lino” barks one of their fans, so its not coming that way. Into the final quarter and AFC have their first meaningful attack in what feels like eons, the final shot blocked by a diving defender, so its not coming that way either.

From predicting goals, to ordering me to “go and get” him some food, just shows you how Toms little gin soaked mind works. I put his flitting interests not down to mothers ruin this time, but his recent illness. “Take me half an hour to walk round there” he explains, doing his best poorly little soldier impression, but I'm not buying any of it.

Another ET claim for a penalty, the ball seemingly bouncing up onto the hand of an AFC defender, but it’s waved away once more. Again the ET fans question the officials integrity, “you don't know what you're doing”.

“You went to the old ground?” ask a man to some late comers, who have taken the whole fashionably late thing to the next level. Aveley used to play a few miles up the road at the excellent Mill Field, but moved to their uber modern new home two years ago. The man standing to my left, who looks like he doesn't know to laugh or cry, went to their old digs by mistake, “it's a building site” he says agonisingly.

It's all ET into the final ten minutes, I’m not sure AFC get much further than the edge of their penalty area until the half time whistle. However the lack of “end product”, comes up time and time again. A howitzer of a long throw looks like it might bring about a chance, the player standing almost on my toes, he arches his back in preparation. “Yes, yes, yes” chant the Daniel Bryan leaning ET fans, as he hurls it into the box, it's flicked on, but nothing comes of it.

When I ask Tom to get me a tea, he says he will, but only “if there's a lid” he makes it clear he will not be “walking all that way” without one, and off he goes, sad puppy dog eyes turned up to the max.

“Go on” rallies one supporter, as the ET onslaught continues. This time a chipped ball is tantalisingly close to the outstretched boot of the ET forward, but he can't make contact, and the AFC keeper is on hand to gratefully catch it. The chance riles up the ET fans for one last push before the break, “we're the blue and white army”. The AFC fans reply, but its faint and even though it’s not, feels really far away, “come on Hornchurch”.

God, if you believe in him/her/it/that, can work in mysterious ways I am told. “It's a miracle” exclaim the ET fans, when an AFC player supposedly close to death, raises to his feet, when he realises it won't be him winning the free kick and it's been award to ET instead. The ball is lumped in, cleared, and then lumped in for a second time, this time an ET player is able to get on the end of it, but he sends his shot over.

The sunset in the distance is really something else as the quiet voice over the PA informs us all that the referee has “indicated two minutes of added on time”, which are uneventful to say the least. When the whistle goes the ET players get a rapid fire “ETFC, ETFC, ETFC” as they plod off.

Scanning the ground, it looks like most people have sensibly departed for the cavernous bar inside the main stand, it is officially Baltic now and Parkside is very quiet, I only have the noise of the nearby main road for company. The flags are down and then up again in next to no time, the huge ET one that was half on the floor before now takes centre stage for the new half.

Tom’s ability to carry a lot, and cover great distance never fails to impress me. Like some kind of burger ferrying Bactrian camel, he has just traversed three quarters of the pitch carrying an open container with his burger and chips in, plus two cups of tea, one balanced on top of the other. “The queue is crazy” he tells me, puffing out his cheeks, “you can see the back of it” he shows me pointing off into the distance. However he didn't have to wait for long, the “army” of people cooking, are making short shrift of the orders coming their way.

“Quite nice actually” he says with his mouth full, managing unlike last week not to drop his dinner.

AFC are out, “let's fucking have it” shouts one of their players, jumping up and down on the spot. ET
join them not long after, they have their own way to get warm, a routine we've seen plenty of times before, where they all in unison run away from a man standing in and Tom does wonder quite rightly, “who invented those things?”.

The red and white flags of AFC are soon up too, their fans filling only one of the two small terraces. Each person inside almost to the man is holding a beer, and they are soon making their own fair bit of noise too as the new half gets underway, “mighty, mighty Hornchurch”.

It’s quite a sprightly start by both teams in the opening fifteen minutes, each having a few half chances but nothing clear cut. The AFC fans have turned their attention to the flowing locks of the ET keeper, which are contained by what looks like a white Alice band, “does your mother cut your hair”. The slightest bit of noise from the supporters from Essex, gets a near INSTANT response from the ET fans, “we forgot that you were here”.

Chris of the “non league Mysterons” thinks AFC are going to go on and win, they “look fitter” according to him. I still think ET are maybe shading it, but to be honest it's pretty even Stevens. The AFC supporters inform anyone who's listening, that if it comes to it, they're more than happy to “drink on” their “own”.

Its like ET just don't want to score, “how did he miss that” gasps Tom, less than four foot out the ET player has blasted over the bar. AFC give it a go soon after, a “great ball” as one person puts it, finding the wide man out on the left, whose cross is whipped in, but Hulk is there to claim it. 

Just shy of twenty minutes on the clock, moments after AFC looked like they might take the lead themselves, we have a breakthrough, a much needed goal, but not at the end AFC are attacking, where its looked like one was coming, but down the other end, 1 - 0 North London.

The air horn has found its voice again ,the drum is going flat out and almost every scarf available is being whirled above the heads of the bounding crowd, regardless of how bloody cold it is. Unlike the AFC players, who look somewhat dejected by conceding, the fans don't seem as affected, “la, la, la Hornchurch”.

I’m sure he had his reasons, but why the referee just decided to rule out AFC’s much deserved equaliser, I’ll never know. “What was wrong with that?” snarls one AFC fan, the header that flew under the crossbar at a rate of knots, too quick for even the Hulk to stop, at the end of a slick move, was for whatever reason deemed by the man in charge unable to stand. Much as you can imagine to the displeasure of one half of the crowd, “the referee’s a wanker”.

Things go from bad to worse for AFC, who despite going behind and the players looking a tad crestfallen after doing so, have been the far better team since the goal. “Fucking hell” screams one AFC supporter, when it's his teams go to miss an absolute sitter. The ball perfectly placed down the corridor of uncertainty is put on a plate for a tap in, but the player can't sort his feet out quick enough and the chance goes begging. Falling to the ground, half in the goal, half out of it, the player responsible can't believe it, burying his face in his hands.

“Come on Hornchurch, come on Hornchurch” chants a loan voice, as the ET end erupts, their team having now doubled their lead. Nigh on every player rushes to congratulate the scorer up against the railing around the pitch, and some of the fans sprint to join them. “We want three, we want three” sing the ET supporters after the initial bedlam has died down, all the noise is coming from their end now.

Two goals down and AFC still look capable of scoring, but so do ET. Every time they get close to the AFC box, it feels like a third is only moments away. AFC put a side footed shot just wide, and then ET have a half volley tipped over. The AFC fans sound certain they're “gonna score in a minute” I think that might be wishful thinking. Tom is sure there will be more goals, he’s just not sure at what end.

“Come on Towners, come on Towners” chants the ET end, getting a song going now in the AFC one
takes a little bit more persuasion, one person tries, but there aren't many takers. When they go close with a hooked shot they find their voice, “oohhhhh” and then it all gets Latin-tinged among them, when they starting humming on mass The Champs 1958 hit 'Tequila'.

The contrast between the two sets of fans is quite striking, the ET end is like a bikini and featherless carnival, flags and scarves are in constant motion, not one person it standing still, it's pulsating. What's going on, on the pitch, seems of little concern to them. AFC go close after a “well worked” free kick, as Tom put it, the header inches wide, but it has little effect on the dancing fans.

It’s not exactly a memorable end to the game, scrappy you might say, lots of hoofing, ET just happy to play out the final moments, AFC's resolve has finally broken. The ET fans find their caring side and serenade the AFC keeper with a sincere song, “It's not your fault”.

ET rack up a few more chances before the final whistle, but much like the previous eighty five minutes, fail to convert. “He hit that”snorts one person, when a sledgehammer of a free kick nearly snaps the ET wall in half. Billy Bricknell ET’s number 9, who has scored two hat tricks in the two previous finals is egged on by one ET fan, “go on Billy”, but his low shot hits the post.

“They deserve a goal” says one person sympathetically, after AFC’s final attack. Although never in doubt, from what I know of the AFC fans they are not what you would call a fair weather bunch, they declare their unrequited love for their team one last time, “I'm Hornchurch till I die”. The ET end is now counting the seconds until the final whistle, some of those among the jumping crowd look fit to burst with excitement, the games end can’t come soon enough.

Once again there is a vast difference in the mood of the two sets of fans come the final whistle, however the songs they both sing share a similar and heartfelt sentiment, "we love you Hornchurch we do" sing the AFC supporters, as the solemn players approach applauding them for their support. The ET's choice of song is just as genuine, "we're proud of you, we're proud" they sing as reams of toilet paper are sent skywards in celebration and the players before reaching them, embrace loved ones waiting for them on the side of the pitch.

One AFC fan is not quite in line with everyone else, bellowing from the main stand in his red scarf, he has a few choice words for the referee, "fucking nonce".

The table is out, the trophy now with its ribbons on sits atop a blue plinth, and we are all forced to watch the saddest thing in sport, the "loosing finalists", as the PA introduces them to collect their medals.

Filling every available bit of space in the main stand, the ET hoard has migrated from behind the goal to watch their team lift the cup. One holds a small flag out about his head, as they rattle though their whole song book in double time , "Towners, Towners,", "championes, championes", "ETFC, ETFC, ETFC" as each of the players pick up their winners medal and then hover behind a placard before the final presentation.

It won't go down as a classic, the game was hardly electric. Both sets of fans certainly made it worth coming and the battle of the macron kits was an interesting one. Although I am predisposed to despise all that is red in football, the AFC kit with its two tone bars of crimson, pipped ET's classic white number with blue trim to the finishing post. Tom and I's highlight of the evening probably the one liner from one AFC fan, "ET phone home" which made Tom smile, "quite funny" he said grinning.

Speaking to two ET fans at half time, its not exactly been a scintillating season for them, "boring football" they told me, the "philosophy" of the manager all "wrong". They reckoned he'd been given an "ultimatum", win tonight or get the chop. Redundancy postponed for another week at least, its amazing the power a bit of silverware has in football.

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Thursday, 9 May 2019

We Ain't Got A Goalkeeper - Punjab United FC Vs Cray Valley Paper Mills FC, Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division, Elite Venue (09/04/19)

I have to admit I’m not exactly overflowing with the joys of spring, my previous nights sleep was somewhat fractious to say the least, a one year old with a leaking face, is not my idea of an ideal roommate.

The weather these last few days has been not far off completely shit, stepping out of my Mum’s it’s at least dry and the sky is a hazy mix of blue and grey, she’s been lumbered with my two dependents while I make my way to pick up Tom. I say stepping out, it’s more like dragging myself out. At some point there is a very good chance I might need some toothpicks to prop my eyes open Hanna-Barbera style.

I’m still somewhat struggling with the notion of daylight after 16:30, but I’m sure I’ll get over it. Listening to a programme on Radio 4 about the reintroduction of Wolves back to Western Europe, and that Holland is now a country where you can find them, I feel altruistic by passing this information on to you via this blog, and would completely understand that right now you may well be overflowing with a feeling of gratitude. To quote a WWE Superstar voiced Polynesian God, “you're welcome”.

The more switched on members of our readership, will have noticed from the date that it's not a Wednesday, but a Tuesday, which is novel. The fact we are going to Kent, is far from the case. Waiting for Tom to get home from work, sitting outside his house, I’m subjected to a programme about Aphex Twin, which is bizarre to say the least and I’m hoping for a quick turn around, once his Lordship has arrived.

Such is my level of exhaustion, oh yes I forgot to add it's the Easter Holidays, so in combination with my leaking face daughter, I have my twelve year old son to contend with too, which may explain my headache, and although I love both of them dearly, it’s nice to be escaping their snot covered hands and endless questioning about what are we doing today.

With no help from the sound of instrumental cheese graters coming from the radio, they broke the mould when they made Aphex Twin, he really is a funny fellow, and the with sun on my face, I think I could quite happily fall asleep, until I’m startled by a dark and shadowy figure approaching me, dressed all in black, my eyes half open, I think I’m about to be carjacked, until the shadow speaks, and their attempt to sound tough, is a massive giveaway to who it is, and any feeling of concern is soon replaced with relief.

“Can you stop loitering about please” says Tom through my half rolled down window, his large can headphones fashionably resting on his shoulder, I bet if you followed the cord, they are not even plugged in, it’s all part of his look.

Having spent a fair bit of the season in this particular neck of the woods, our journey is well trodden and not particularly long. Over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, we are soon passing through some of the charming scenery that this part of the world offers up. “Quaint village” comments Tom, as we zip through one, however neither of us can work out the significance of why it has a “red road” which has us both a bit baffled, another on the string of picture postcard locations like a necklace of pearls, has a shop, called the “small shop” which is about the size of a postage stamp.

“Fucking freezing” says Tom, his teeth almost chattering. The wind is upon us like a rash as soon as we step out of the car. “Maybe it’s because we are high up” wonders Tom, it did feel like we had just ascended quite the peak and are now perched on top, and it’s certainly a little windswept.

The temporary scaffolding stand that backs on to the car park is rattling, sounding like it’s not long before it will take off. At each corner of the ground is a red flag, bearing the crest of today's home team, Punjab United FC (PU). Flag though is probably not the right thing to call them, as they are long and slender, and extend down about halfway along the flag pole, they are more like a sigil that a that a medieval army might carry. Whatever they are, they are flapping and twisting so violently, it's almost impossible to read what's written on them, and much like the DIY stand, they might be off soon too.

While a man who like Tom apparently thinks a snood is an appropriate thing for an adult to wear fiddles with one of the goals, another with a cigarette half hanging out of his mouth in a yellow high viz jacket applies the finishing touches to the white lines, and a third struggles to complete stencilling the clubs badge on the side of what I guess you could call the main stand, a car is doing doughnuts in a nearby field and no one seems remotely fazed, even the gulls pecking at the grass take the sound of squealing tires in their stride.

One could not say The Elite Venue is bustling, yes I agree it’s not the most traditional of names for a ground, but it’s always nice to see some signs of life, instead of the desolation that sometimes greets us.

“Get the heating on. Bloody freezing” says the goalkeeping coach of PU’s opponents tonight, a team who are going to think we are stalking them, considering we only saw them a few weeks ago, Cray Valley Paper Mills FC (CVP). This request from the silver haired keeper, prompts Tom to ask me if I brought my “gloves”, which I haven't, and I’m almost certain I have lost them.

One thing that can be said for non league football, is that it forces people be resourceful. The lack of money knocking about, means its vital to be able to create other streams of income, to help keep the football club afloat. Renting your clubhouse out for functions is a pretty standard way, however I’ve never heard one referred to as a “banquet room” like they have here and I very much doubt I will ever see again, a sign on a door, albeit a hand written one on a piece of A4 paper, pointing to the Hindu funeral service.

It’s a case of make your own coffee from the Station Kiosk, the milk and sugar is lined up on the chest high shelf, the lady within the Tardis like kitchen within hands you a cup and the rest is up to you. From underneath a plastic cloche a samosa is giving me the eye and not normally tempted by football eating, normally down to the lack of diversity and not wanting to feature in a documentary where I have to be removed from my house through a wall with the help of the local fire service, I normally stick to a coffee and maybe if I’m feeling outlandish a bottle of water, however they look as good a reason as any to treat myself.

The lady serving us can sense my interest, it’s probably the staring and drooling and testifies to them being good. “I've just had one” she tells us. Thanks to the power of social media, I already had an inkling that the food was good here, having seen on Twitter a person raving on about a kebab roll they had here recently.

The chain smoking chairman of CVP, today with a camera slung over his shoulder describes today's game as one “they need to win” in their search for the league title, to go along with their day at Wembley Stadium for the FA Vase final. The corresponding fixture was “4 - 4 at our place” he tells us with an air of annoyance, which he confirms seconds later, when he refers to PU as “buggers”, much like a baddie from a Scooby Do episode. However the form of both teams has deviated somewhat in recent months, PU are very much in a relegation battle, CVP are rampant at the top of the table.

Not one person we’ve crossed paths with so far today has failed to mention the wind, the temperature it is April after all or lack of a classic clubhouse. In some cases I’m close to shouting house, when they cover all three topics in the same sentence. For all the suggestion of opulent rooms for grand dinners here, the clubhouse, “for what it's worth” as someone refers to it, is a re purposed shipping container, with bars over the windows, but we’ve seen worse, so I’m not sure what people are getting so exercised about.

Under a sky that wouldn't look out of place in Blade Runner, the PU players are not exactly riveted about the rumoured increased crowd tonight, because of the chance of seeing the title chasers and not to support the team in their hunt for survival.

The loud music coming from one of the many function rooms, of an eastern European folk persuasion, gives the impression that quite the party is in full swing. Tom admits to me that the name of the ground, just “reminds” him of “Call Of Duty”, he is such a odd fish. “Elite car package open” he says in his best manly voice.

What may go down as the most minimalist programme I buy all season, is available from the young man manning the single turnstile, which instead of having at an actual turnstile has a spring loaded gate. It might only be a single folded over piece of paper, but its full colour, on nice glossy paper, and regardless of its size, it is far, far better than an electronic version.

The car park is absolutely chocka, I’m not sure if that's because of the party or those here to watch the match. I’m inclined to think its the former, even with CVP playing some pretty neat football at the moment and the chance of seeing an actual ex international among their ranks. Some kids are playing HORSE against the wall and the CVP manager is heading out for the warm up, who is maybe the sternest looking bloke in non league football, he pulls the whole beard, bald head thing off effortlessly. Soon out of sight, the visitors are warming up on a field I’m happy to report a 4x4 is not haring about on, which would explain why the pitch is looking so pristine. With all the recent rain I was sure tonight was going to get called off, but it looks like a billiards table.

Pre match drills complete CVP keeper is explaining to a teammate how there is hardly any wind at one end of the ground, but at the other its whipping around all over the place. There are lots of shouts of encouragement from both sets of players as they amble in, lots of “come on boys” and one of the kids having the kick about, gives up a very generic, non committal cry of “win the match”.

From somewhere among the hodge podge of event rooms and the undertakers, it's somewhat of a
less than orthodox walk out for the players. Appearing at the top of a flight of stairs on to a small landing on the side of a slightly crumbly building next to the pitch. They are forced to weave through a couple of transit vans, led by the referee and his magnificent beard, and then forced to loiter around half in the car park, half on one corner of the pitch.

Being slightly more specific this time, the kids who have given up with their own game and are now attempting to nutmeg all the waiting players, have narrowed down who they are backing, “blue team, blue team” they chant towards the CVP players.

All the milling about around the back of someones work van, as the kids get even more precocious, is explained when the referees latest stern look gets the response, “we ain't got a goalkeeper” by one of the increasingly cold looking PU players. “He can catch us up” says the referee, whose lower face must be very toastie, protected by his facial hair that would make Brian Blessed, but whose head, is completely bald, and must be getting a bit frosty.

Standing on the edge of the pitch the CVP manager shakes the hand of every player as they pass him and the kids are close to a whack around the head, and even as the players are walking on to the pitch, they are trying to sneak their ball through the legs of the players, one last time.

The comments of the CVP keeper about the variation in conditions are proved as the teams swap ends, by the flags at one end going absolutely nuts, compared to those at the other, which are practically motionless. It could make for an interesting half for the PU stopper.

“Come on Punjab” shouts the young man who was operating the gate as the game gets underway, having shifted his stool from the protection of his tiny booth out into the elements, he conceals himself within his hoodie, transforming his seat into the ideal pitchside seat.

It’s an incredibly shouty opening ten minutes, with no real chances for either team. A looping CVP shot that is just over, and then a free kick which is lumped into the box and is Balrog double punched clear.

Just shy of the twenty minute mark and the first real bit of quality brings about the opener, “first shot, first goal” says Tom. A stunning curling effort from a CVP player is just a fraction too high and instead of nestling in the top right hand corner of the PU goal, pings off the woodwork, making the most melodic tone, sending it back into play where its tapped in.

To say CVP have been asserting themselves since taking the lead, might a bit a of an understatement, complete domination, might not quite go far enough either. “Leathered that” gasps Tom, when the latest CVP attempt, an arrow straight shot, sails just over the crossbar.

Their relentless forward momentum, is brought to an untimely halt, not by a PU resurgence, they are looking every bit the bottom of the table team at the moment, but by a child on the pitch. Who has ducked under the railings and has encroached onto the playing surface. Earning himself either a stadium ban or a ticking off from his Mum, depending which the authorities deem most appropriate.

“Never seen that before” says a shocked Tom, sounding every inch the person who does not have kids. That’s nothing my friend, one day you'll be hoping that's the least your little one does.

A heavy home back pass, almost ends up punishing PU, when it's almost latched onto by one of the much more sprightly looking CVP players. With a major cup final already secured and the league title looking almost like a formality, it will give a person a certain spring in their step. Tom as ever, easily distracted, is pointing out a child whizzing around the correct side of the railings on a bike, “think that’s the kid” he says, the one who not long ago was a one man pitch invasion.

PU are getting desperate, trying to get a foothold in the game by any means necessary. “Lino” one player barks, claiming the ball had gone out of play, when I’m afraid to say it clearly hadn't. CVP hit the target again, this time their shot neither hits the frame of the goal or the back of the net and is kept out. When PU are awarded a free kick, there is a pleading shout from the small stand almost on the halfway line, “come on Punjab”, but the set piece comes to nothing, and with not even thirty minutes gone, it feels like it's going to be a long night for the home side.

The CVP keeper since the first whistle has been giving a near constant running commentary on the game unfolding before him, perhaps he’s practising for life after football. The visitors send a bullet header just over, which get a reasonable panto “ohhh” from the crowd, which is then eclipsed by the “woooooo” in response to the referee's assistant slipping over.

Half an hour gone, and I can't remember a home shot on goal. The people standing at the back of the main stand with its red and white seats behind us, don't exactly look enthralled. Considering the weather, and the situation PU find themselves in, it's not a bad turn out, and I certainly don't think, despite what the PU player was intimating earlier, they are all here for CVP. Someone said not long after arriving that they generally get better turnouts for midweek games, than those at the weekend, which is unusual.

Ten to go and CVP are moments away from doubling their lead not on once, but twice in less than a minute, but their eye is just ever so slightly out and each attempt is just a fraction off target. Their performance so far you might call solid, professional, but not quite clinical enough as I’m sure their slightly Bond villain looking manager would like.

Something I’m sure the CVP gaffa has never said in his life, and I’m sure will never say, even if he was cast adrift on an iceberg and his life was at stake, such is the persona he emits of being a bit of a tough sod, is “time to put the snood on, chilly”. Tom on the other hand has no qualms in uttering such nonsense.

“What a ball” says a person behind us, as PU register their first meaningful attack of the night, a chipped cross into the CVP box is met first time on the penalty spot by a player in red and white whose first time volley looks quite against the run of the play to be drawing the game level. Only for the CVP keeper to get himself from standing to the horizontal so quickly, he is somehow able to get something on the ball pushing it on to the post. The sweetness of the strike, matched only by the strength of the save.

In their eagerness to get to the rebound, the PU players in the box are a tad heavy handed and the referee saves CVP bacon, by awarding the away side a free kick.

“Wish you had the gloves I bought you” says Tom smugly, having noticed me vigorously rubbing my hands together, trying to get some life back into them. I still haven't found the right time to tell him I’ve no idea where they are, I’m scared he’ll be crushed, so go on with the pretence of silly old me, I forgot them again, for a another week.

Looking longingly at a women's tea, the PU keeper barking at his defence, “no cross, no cross” I’m trying to do everything in my powers to avoid looking at Tom doing his cold legs dance, or giving anyone looking in our general direction the idea that we are together. Every couple of minutes, ensuring to give an overly exaggerated eye roll at him hopping from foot to foot, as if to say to the other spectators, jeez I got stuck with the loon tonight.

PU look a fraction more composed since their chance, a chance that although I’m not sure, might just sum up their season, and their game so far tonight, plenty of energy, just no cutting edge. CVP on the other hand are coasting, they don't even look like they have moved out of first gear.

“He’s won the ball ref” insist the PU bench, a player shares the same sentiment, reinforcing what the manger just said about the PU tackle that has left one CVP player poleaxed on the floor. The PU player responsible does his best to plead his case with the referee, but the yellow card is forthcoming regardless, as is always the way.

The referee until now having been rather relaxed, “needs to get a grip of this” suggests Tom as the tackles start flying in.

“Weyyyyyy” go those CVP fans here, “oh dear” says Tom, as PU keep their efforts on target tally to just one, when they send the most woeful shot, way, way over the crossbar, which on its current trajectory is on course to reach the doughnut field two hundred metres away.

Lit up like a Christmas tree, the home bench is bathed in crimson light when the board is prepared to signal how much time is to be added on. What the statutory amount for a foul is, will be added to that after a PU player is left flat out on his back. “You didn't give anything until he started crying” shouts the CVP keeper, who in turn is told to “shut up” by a person in the crowd.

It takes less than a second for almost complete silence to descend, following the referees whistle. The peace is shattered by Toms announcement, “food time” as he marches off.

Passing the clubhouse it is absolutely rammed. I’m not sure I would fit through the door, let alone inside. Arriving at the kiosk it's soon apparent that there are only two samosas left and with someone in front of us in the line, there is a chance we are going to miss out.

Tom won't be persuaded to take a break from his footballing norms and try a kebab roll, opting of course for his usual staple. I tell him he wants to try and be a bit more adventurous, so for a second he
considers a “Pot Noodle”, the man ahead of us turns and quite rightly points out one can be “too adventurous”.

As Tom has to wait for his burger to be cooked and I’ve put my order in for the remaining samosas, much to the distress of the man behind me, who wanted them too, I have taken up a seat in the small all seater stand, not the one which we were told is “new today” with its long red benches, that the man was stencilling the clubs logo on to the back wall of when we arrived, where I’m treated to perhaps the most non league conversation of all time, while the kids now off their bikes are having a kick about on the pitch, “not seen any good signs recently, all real boring”.

Managing well to carry my food and his, plus our drinks, he has previous, so I’m not that surprised, he hands me a yellow polystyrene container, the samosas in one half, a pool of what I think is raita in the other, which is more than necessary, having taken my first bite, it’s required to cool my scalded mouth. These babies are spicy. Tom is left with a bit of a quandary, having been given his chips in one container and his burger in another, and with nowhere obvious to rest them, he doesn't know what to do.

I warned him, I told him it was precarious, using the flipped down white seat as a table. With both his chips and burger on it, in a bit of an Indiana Jones bobby trap kid of way the seat remained in position, but disaster struck when he started to eat, lifting his chips it was only a matter of time before……………..

“You were right, it catapulted right off”, he says. Looking down underneath now the upturned seat, his burger is lying face down in the dirt, the look on his face one of pure agony. I want to gloat, I want to ridicule him, but I would be too cruel. I try and get him to three second rule it, but he’s having none of it, and trudges off to buy another.

Tom is nowhere to be seen when the players start to walk out, each sides fans offer a shout as they do, “come on Cray”, “come on Punjab”. Whizzing behind me, the path around the track has turned into an impromptu speedway track, as a girl on a pink bike thunders by.

From the devastation of Tom dropping his burger, RIP, to the joy on the young boys face tossing the ball back to the PU player, it just proves football as the one and only Jimmy Greaves put it, is a funny old game. It is far from funny for the home side though, who are somewhat under the cosh, CVP have come out meaning business. If their manager AKA Ming the Merciless had told me to step it up I would do just that, for fear of being melted by his ray gun, if I didn't.

A smart back heel sets up one player who fires over. Not long after a short corner routine catches PU napping and the CVP player smashes his shot inches over. “No cross, no cross” demands the PU keeper, but his fullback can't prevent it and the ball is curled in, which is met by a CVP player who sends his header spanking off the post. it's all CVP and it’s looking ominous for PU.

Despite what the PU player says, it was far from a “great challenge” that his team mate just dished out on the screaming CVP player rolling around on the touchline. The PU player is quick to leave the scene of the crime, sauntering away with a slightly guilty look on his face, doing his best to pretend nothing had happened.

It has all got a bit blood and thunder since the restart, lots of clattering into one another, “refs lost it” suggests one member of the crowd. When a CVP player is all but bundled over, the referee just waves play on, “very lenient” admonishes Tom.

When a CVP flying counter attack is brought to an unceremonious end, thanks to another PU foul, the players prepare for the set piece on the far side of the pitch. Up until now CVP although clearly having taken things up a notch, it felt like they were forcing it, rushing the final ball and the frustrations had started to show.

The well worked free kick, with the sum total of three touches, ends in them doubling their lead, was anything but forced, a very slick move indeed. One pass to the man on the edge of the box, a second to set up the player hovering and asking for the ball, the third a low drive from him, right past the keeper.

“Going to be hard to come back from that” exclaims Tom.

It’s not the case of PU having rolled over by any means, they have plenty of “energy” as Tom puts it, they just don't have much quality when in matters. “Unlucky” shouts their keeper, when a teammate flashes a shot just wide. Except for the volley in the first half, I can't remember them hitting the target.

The whole PU bench are on their feet claiming for a penalty but its waved away and although I really enjoyed my samosa, they are repeating on me like a Mother. Every so often my mouth gives up a reminder of my half time snack. That in combination with the kids on bikes who are getting closer and closer to my heels, it's hard to concentrate on the game.

“Ohhhhh, unlucky” gasps a CVP supporter, as the visitors go close once again, I've lost count. The Elite Venue has become very quiet indeed, the game well and truly petering out. “Ref they are taking the fucking piss” snarls a coach from home bench technical area, when a CVP player is booked for time wasting and there is another brief spike in the noise levels, when one of the kids not
doing wheelies, lets out a few “come on, come on”.

CVP have well and truly taken their foot off the gas, which allows PU a bit more of the ball, but even so they don't really seem to make it count.

Is it just me or is the sound of one grown man, saying to another grown man, "good boy" a bit odd? Someone on the CVP bench is very fond of it. "Concentrate" bellows the CVP keeper, his team stroking the ball about now, playing out the final minutes of the match, "keep it, keep it" he instructs his team mates.

In the end it all felt like a formality, PU offering very little resistance to the CVP machine marching on. Not the most memorable game, but a ground that won't be forgotten for a long time, for lots of very non league reasons. Don't get used to me eating, unless they have triangular snacks as good as those wherever we end up, but please have some kind of notice about just how hot they are, blimey.

Tonight though for all the freezing cold appendages, tasty nibbles, one page programmes, and the underlying tension between the manger and referee about who was pulling off good beard no hair the best, will forever be known as the night of two burgers.

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Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Just The Six Goals Then - Clapton CFC Vs NW London FC, Middlesex County League Division 1, Wadham Lodge Stadium (03/04/19)

Excuse me for getting so excited about such a seemingly minor thing, but the fact my radio is picking up more than two stations is a miracle. I fully expect a visit from the Vatican in the coming weeks, to designate my VW Polo as a place of religious significance.The only downside mind, of it not just picking up Radio 4 and London Greek Radio anymore, is that what it is receiving is a mixture of Irish folk music, the kind of tunes you hear in a Taverna on holiday, and bloody Lewis Capaldi.

It’s like some kind of sick and twisted joke, giving me the impression that I had my pick of the commercial radio stations in the land at my fingertips, but then delivering absolute garbage.

Having made the eternal error of having a big lunch and now feeling sluggish, my body only working at half speed, I thankfully don’t have far to go. Just a hop skip and a jump around the north circular, past what is now Spurs new home, so that’s the last you'll hear from me about it, I promise, as they will be christening it tonight with their first competitive match.

Not far from home at all for me and even closer for Tom, he could probably walk if he fancies it, today's ground really shouldn't be proving to be as difficult to find, as it is. Cursing loudly at my Sat Nav, the absence of Tom means I’m really able go to town on her, as the course she has set just came to an end halfway down the narrow road of a sunburnt East London street, I really don't know quite what to do, and when I notice one of those daft, overly large cars in my rear view mirror, I panic, do I throw myself to the floor and cry or speed off home and tell Tom I got a flat tire.

When the aggressive beeping from the car behind me is not forthcoming, I am blocking the road after all, on closer inspection, I realise that the person driving with the face like a woodland creature, is your friend and mine, Mr Tommy Sparkles. I’d never realised until now, with them side by side just how huge his car is, and being the man about the town type that he is, he seems to have an answer to our joint dilemma. Taking the lead, he heads off, car number one in this two car convoy

I have to admit it very much feels like we are going around in circles, I do my best to keep up with his six litres behemoth, navigating around lumbering London buses and maniacs on scooters. When one clips my wing mirror, I’m ready to give up, but the determination in Tom’s eyes, reflecting in his rear view mirror, drives me on.

Finally arriving through the gates of the Wadham Lodge Stadium, the sights and sounds of those either about to start playing some five a side football or those who are panting and glistening with sweat having just finished on one of the enclosed pitches fills the air, and it dawns on me, quite how long it has been since we were last here, quite how much water has gone under the bridge. A few deaths, babies and impending marriages and in the case of the team who call it their semi permanent home, a complete rebirth.

As is normally the case with Tom, it's not hello, how are the kids, what you been up to, that are the first words to pass his lips, but an up to date weather forecast for our current location for the next few hours. “Double black” he says, in reference to the graphic on his met office app.

There's early, really early, us early and then are we sure we have turned up on the right day, because it's absolutely dead, early. The sound of the five a side games in full swing help mask the awkwardness between Tom and I, as I know he is hexing me under his breath that I’ve put all my trust in Google Maps again and we’ve got here long before we needed to

Like a shining ray of hope through the gloom of Tom’s bad mood, and the grey clouds which are getting more imposing, a man in a grey woolly hat and a red and white scarf, not only saves Tom and I from a tiff, but gives us a much needed insight into a club, who on one hand are very very familiar to us both. Their fans, ethos and level of support is something we’ve been fascinated by since early on in our adventure, but on the other hand, might just be the youngest football team we’ve ever encountered, having only been formed in 2018, Clapton CFC (CFC).

Formed by the fans of Clapton FC, who were playing here the last time we visited, who after an ongoing battle with the clubs owner, a battle too complex to explain in full, but in short the guy is a dick, decided enough was enough, and have set up on their own club in the image of how their beloved Clapton FC should be run, but at the moment that couldn't be further from the truth.

“Could be two hundred or five hundred” says the man with the CFC badge, a simple round design made up of the club colours of red and white, front and centre on the front of his hat. CFC “normally” he explains “play at the Stray Dog”, Clapton's famous old home being the Old Spotted Dog, he turns to point to the “other side of the five a sides” but that pitch doesn't have floodlights, and for their first ever league night match, a change of venue was required, which means they are playing on the slightly soggy surface before us, not that he seems all too bothered about that.

“We play better on grass” he tells us, “as fans we like a sliding tackle” he adds excitingly. He like many of us, appreciates a bit of blood and thunder on occasion, something that 4G doesn't quite cater for.

The weather is only getting worse, the clouds are getting more threatening by the minute and Tom informs me that its “snowing in Canary Wharf”. Rifling through his bag, he looks up at me with eyes full of dread, “it's gonna be cold isn't it, I'll put my gloves on”. All is not lost though, he is somewhat lifted by the sight of the man setting up his stall, who I am reliably informed is quite a well thought of local food vendor, “looking forward to my hot dog” says Tom, with a glint of happiness restored, his gloves now securely on.

It’s still taking some getting used to it not being dark after 18:30, and a new arrival is straight on the pitch, “it’s soft”. Tom’s assessment of it is that it's “dogged” but as he points out so was the pitch at the Old Spotted Dog, a certain ankle breaker of a surface if you had ever seen one, so there are even more similarities between old and the new.

Like as if someone had flicked a switch on, the ground around us has quickly gone from being graveyard quiet, only Tom and I and the bloke preparing his onions to a bustling hive of activity. All the paraphernalia required to transform the ground into their home, for tonight at least, is being erected and prepared. A multitude of banners are strung out across the three sided cage of a tunnel, it's like something from a hillbilly backyard MMA competition, that stretches from the changing rooms to the edge of the pitch. The best of the bunch has to be the Walter Tull one, if that is a name you’ve never heard before, please please please, endeavour to learn his story. Looking magnificent in his candy cane striped shirt, the former Clapton FC & Spurs player, is almost marshaling proceedings as the ground is frantically transformed.

The clubs very own scoreboard, something that most teams far higher up the pyramid don't even have, which is red and white of course, is humped into place. A white gazebo is being unfolded, and a man down on his haunches battles with the now falling sleet, to amend the chalkboard to tonight's fixture. A second chalkboard, a much smaller one, has also been put in place, this one needs no such attention, the message on it loud and clear, “no dickheads”.

One of the newly arrived players of CFC opponents, NW London FC (NWL) is being scolded by his manager for not having any studs, and if he thinks he is going to have any joy on that pitch without any, then he is very much mistaken. Kneeling in the half closed red door of the changing rooms, our welcome from earlier still in his hat and scarf is scribbling down the starting eleven on a scrap of paper, an unlit rollie hanging from his mouth, copying it off the smallest whiteboard I’ve ever seen.

“Stealing your gazebo, if that's OK?” asks Tom and not waiting to find out if it is, we scurry for cover, the rain slapping against its opaque roof and someone is talking about “hailstones” being reported at Spurs game just up the road. I do my best not to trip over the sticker covered drum at my feet, and with my health and safety glasses on, the pile of red and white flags lying on the floor, look like a potential tripping hazard to me, for any of those coming and going, arms full with boxes. “It's hard work doing this mid week” says one of those flying all over the place, I’m sure having just arrived from a full day at work, “sorry boss, I can’t work late tonight, I’ve got a football club to run”.

Humming the tune to the Weather Girls 1982 hit, 'It’s Raining Men', seems apt, one CFC player is doing just that as he tentatively steps outside for the warm up. The underneath of the gazebo, where an Italian man with a rather impressive beard is sorting out the petty cash for a club shop, where the standard of merchandise, that is so much more than mouse mats and key fobs, but the kind of thing you might see it on the shelves of a Shoreditch boutique.

NWL are out what feels like very late, maybe a few more of them had forgotten they were playing on
grass tonight. The CFC goalkeeping coach, taking the home stopper through his passes in front of a stand littered with ultra stickers, which includes of course a St Pauli one, is in booming “good hands".

The floodlights are on, the rain has gone and the weather for now is the best it has been since we arrived. When the goalkeeping coach is not yelling at the number one, it's actually quite serene here, with the gentle sound of bird song and only the odd yell from the five a sides. For a brief moment, just when I thought that things were on the up, the heavens open, but they close again just as quickly as they had opened and I’m sure it’s not actually that cold, but Tom’s still got his gloves on like a bit or a prima donna.

Although the club ‘shop’ is ace, the bar, well the bar could do with some work, a shed with a table outside selling cans is hardly Harry's, but it's got Tyskie, so I doubt anyone is that bothered.

What might be the quickest outfit change in the history of football, NWL are in their dressing room for just a matter of seconds, before they are back out again, to the odd shout from some of their fans, “come on North West”. Their time in the tunnel though is short lived, and forced back perhaps by the rain rearing its soggy head again, they retreat to the safety of the inside.

Once both teams emerge, the rain still falling, the home fans offer up a few shouts of their own, “come on you Tons” and while the referee leads them through their handshake the first song of the night breaks out, “we love, we love, and that is why we follow, we follow”.

Drums occupy not just one, but both ends behind each goal. One group of fans are singing in what I think is Italian, as they wave large red and white check flags from the front of the covered terrace. The hoardings at both ends are taking a kicking, the bulk of the supporters are awaiting the coin toss, before making their move. Those singing in Italian, look to have very much set out their stall early, having not stopped since the players walked out, they stand fast behind their antifa flags and set scene for what is to come for the rest of the match.

With the ends decided, the teams both gather in a huddle as the migration commences, and like some kind of Ultra T-1000, all the pieces combine to form a multi drum, multi flag, multi banner monster, that despite one of the most insane games we will see all season, hold my attention for the entirety of the night.

Kick off, a late kick off at that and NWL are awarded an early free kick, but their attempt is well over, but who cares. Now united the person leading what I think is the Italian portion of the fans, is still going and already sounds a little hoarse, how could anyone care less about the football with what's going on off the pitch and its not taken long for the songs to start about the reason the Clapton fans have had to start this breakaway club in the first place, “nobody's gonna take this away from me”.

It’s sounds like a full percussion section is under the corrugated iron roof of the terrace, more and more banners are stretched out over the railing around the pitch, one late comer has just sauntered by us coolly, with a red brolly in one and a red and white flag in the other, draped over his left shoulder and quite rightly he is looking very pleased with himself. He arrives in the throng just about in time to see CFC take the lead, in or around the tenth minute ish, but don’t hold me to that. We started late and if I'm honest I'm struggling to keep up with the game.

A close range finishing ignites ecstatic scenes from the fans behind the goal, the flag bearers go into overdrive, and for the first time they show their might as a united force, with a few lines of “oh east London is wonderful”. It might be far fetched to suggest this, but the ill fitting metal sheeting that makes up the stand, makes the perfect noise when whacked, I honestly think that might have been considered when deciding to play here.

The only other thing I can hear other than the fans, only intermittently mind, is the sizzle of the nearby hot dog stand, which I know for sure has caught Tom’s attention, the steam from the hot plate visibly rising up through the single white light behind the grill. “Hot dogs look good” says Tom, having caught a glimpse of someones passing, however his attention is soon back on the game, when a cry of “ohhhh” rings out from the home fans, having just watched NWL go close to equalising.

“I bet the neighbours love this” laughs Tom as anyone wanting a quiet night in, in this particular corner of E17 will be in for a shock, “ola, ola, ola orza Clapton”. Chances are coming thick and fast, and not even a quarter of an hour in, I’m suffering from a severe case of football exhaustion. First CFC send an effort well, well over and then NWL go much closer, a swerving long range fizzer of a shot is only just touched over by the CFC keeper in a very agreeable shade of yellow.

Straddling the hoardings now, the CFC fan in the tan coat and baseball cap, pounds the shaft of his flag against the railings, as he conducts the latest song, “when the working day is done, ohhhh Tons
just wanna have fun”. More home chances as they flood forward, an attempt at a dink over the NWL keeper almost comes off, sending him back peddling he watches it just go over, the sight of which just sends the flags behind him into fits of even more frenzied motion.

A break in play, because of an injury to a CFC player is welcomed, it lets me catch my breath and allows the fans to belt out another song, and they sound brilliant, “looo, looooo, looooo Clapton”. Plenty of cans from the shed bar are being downed and one thing that I’ve always admired about the the Ultras, is their eclectic use of contemporary music to work a song too. I remember they used to do one to a Spice Girls number and even the Tetris theme I think, today's re imagining is to the theme of Cheers, “down the dog is where I’ll always be. Maybe tomorrow we'll own that fucking ground”.

Twenty minutes or so gone, and the quagmire that is the NWL six yard box, stops CFC doubling their lead. Out to meet the forward, the NWL keeper misses the ball, the CFC attacker skipping past him shoots but is thwarted by the heavy ground, It’s like a clip from a Danny Baker video and it's cleared. “Dodgy keeper, dodgy keeper” chant the home fans, but don't harangue him for long, they're a fair bunch, and are soon on to the next song, “whooooooooo, whoooooooo CCFC”

The home side are not having it all their own way and it’s only an absolute beast of a challenge deep into their box that stops a certain goal, which goes down well with the home supporters, “whoooooooo, whoooooo CCFC”.

I'm not sure why I bothered asking Tom if he is getting a hot dog, I know full well he will be, and his reply only confirms what I already knew. “Yeahhhhh” he says emphatically, like a Ninja Turtle. The question is "which one” he points out having put down his nun chucks, “there are many hot dogs” he adds, turning from Michelangelo to Yoda in less than ten pounds.

Still front and centre, the man in the tan coat wheels his arm towards the crowd, rarely looking at the match, whipping them up into near mania as he starts the the next song, “I just can't get enough”. He is backed by quite the drummer, and sometimes it feels such is his eagerness to never let them fall quiet, he is ready for the next chant going, before the the one they are currently singing is yet to finish, “sha la la la”.

Just short of the half hour mark and CFC take a further lead, just after NWL had sent a dipping half volley over the bar, its chances galore. Tucking it under the keeper, the scorer heads straight for the crowd and is embraced by a Ganesh amount of arms and is soon joined by nigh on the whole team. The fans pound the hoardings once again and the drummer is now showing off, with all sorts of flourishes, “la, la, la, Clapton”.

If it wasn't for the faint shout of the celebrating players, if you were not paying attention, guilty, you could be forgiven for not realising that NWL almost straight from restart have gone and scored. You wouldn't know it from the Ultras, they didn't even flinch, but just as it looked like CFC were going to run away with it, NWL have I guess you could say, made things interesting.

Echoing the words of the CFC fan we meet on arrival, the home side like to throw their weight around a bit, “they're a physical team” says Tom, as they give away a free kick on the edge of their box. The strike from the set piece is hardly venomous, but for whatever reasons is too hot to handle for the man in goal, and he can only parry it out into his six yard box, where a NWL player is on hand to tap home the equaliser. From two behind to all square in the matter of five minutes.

For the first time the home fans fall silent, but are quickly stirred by a shout of one supporter, “come on you Tons”. The home keeper is consoled by a team mate, and the fans are soon singing once more, “you are my Clapton, oh, ah, my only Clapton”.

Much of Tom’s time at matches is not spent appreciating the football or drinking in the fans, but assessing and cross checking the state of the queue for the refreshments. “There's a queue for the hot dogs now” he gripes and such is his concern for the demand for the dogs, he is “worried they are going to run out”.

When NWL rifle one into the top corner, it looks like the unimaginable has happened and they have taken the lead, only for the flag of the assistant on the far side to be raised, but none of the celebrating visiting players have seen it yet, and the home fans take much glee in pointing it out. One person even breaks into the Entry Of The Gladiators, aimed more at the officials I think than the NWL players, a personal favourite of mine the large gamut of the football jibes. One supporter though, is less than impressed with his teams lets say porous defence, “pull your fucking finger out Clapton”.

Even the fans in the queue for the Walthamstow Dogs, are paying more attention to the game then Tom, who is looking over longingly at the increasing line, “no way he was offside” barks one, when the latest CFC attacks is brought back, but they don't have to wait long until they are all dancing once again. NWL’s parity is fleeting, as the home side go in front once again.

The toe poked effort is well saved by the NWL keeper, which is met with a sizable groan, he can though only palm it back into the box, where a CFC player is able to get his leg gymnast high in the air and volley home. Absolute madness, the crowd explodes, Mr tan coat punches the air, and one passing person, points out, “you picked a lively one”.

I’m not sure how much more of this I can take, “there is no defence” bemoans one home fan. CFC’s
new lead has lasted all of a couple of minutes. “Recently we have been tight in defence” adds the angry supporter, but not tonight, tonight it's looked non existent.

“He pushed him” shouts the near spitting CFC fan, half over the hoarding, hitting it with the palm of his hand, trying to get the referees attention, but it falls on deaf ears, and he waves away the claim for a penalty. The man in charges unwillingness to award the spot kick is received with accusations that he is a “lizard”.

There are few more pleasurable things in football then a well performed song or chant, yes a bicycle kick is nice, a pin point cross field pass is pleasing to the eye, but a call and response chant, where one fan leads, and everyone else sits silent until it’s their time to respond, is the kind of thing to make this bearded mans knees go funny, “come on you red and white”.

CFC could consider themselves lucky if they manage to make it to the break level pegging, their defence is well and truly on the ropes in the last few minutes of the half, and they are close to conceding on multiple occasions, they are being pummelled, goal bound shots are coming from every angle, the feet of the CFC keeper as well as various parts of his body as well as those of his defender are all that are keeping NWL out. This all going on while the CFC fans flex their sociopolitical muscles, “say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here”.

Another long delay because of an injury to a CFC player, this time lets the referee catch his breath, I’ve just about pulled myself together. “The ref needs a break” laughs Tom, “he so unfit its ridiculous” he is certainly carrying a little bit of extra timber around the middle.

Summing up the half perfectly, and after being bombarded by NWL's attempts on their goal, CFC should really take the lead in the dying moments, but instead of squaring the ball to his team mate calling for it, unmarked in the box, the player in possession chooses to shoot instead, straight at the keeper.

“Just the six goals then” says the CFC fan we spoke to on arrival, who really has a knack of popping up at the right time saying the right thing. Those passing as the crowd behind the goal starts to thin, are not exactly singing the praises of the referee, “he’s on the halfway line, can't wait to get out this pub league” says one. Not everyone has started the move to the other half quite as yet, many are still drinking, chatting, as it turns into a bit of a social. One who is making his way to get some food, Tom now in the queue as an even larger plume of steam spirals off the grill, is sporting the stunning CFC away kit, modelled on the flags of the International Brigades.

Always fond of a tidy, the bin bags are out and one CFC supporter is ensuring that the stand is left just how they found it, “rubbish, rubbish”. Womble impression complete the stream of passing fans gets steadier, “definitely a good game” says one, not maybe the opinion of either manger, each teams back lines look holier than a holey thing.

Tom is still patiently waiting for his food, it feels like he left ages ago. A couple of the CFC substitutes warming up are in very high spirits, one letting out a scream my two year old daughter would be proud of.

By the look on his face, the wait was worth it, Tom is back and he is positively drooling.

The change of ends is all but complete as the players emerge for the second half, “sort it lino” bellows one fan to the startled looking official. Its a genuine roar that greets the players, “come on you Tons”. The fans who had set their stall out early doors behind one goal, have not moved on, instead deciding to stay put, their flags and banners still in place, and they continue to be in good voice, “come on red and white”.

“Mega hot dog” are Tom’s first words after a gargantuan bite of his “classic hot dog”. It’s “so big” he mumbles, his forearms straining under the weight of what is basically a loaf of bread with a Pringles tube of processed pork on top of it. If the sheer scale of it was not enough to keep Tom happy, the fact there were “unlimited condiments” on offer, as well as a “side of pickles” well I’m sorry to be crude, but he is like a pig in shit.

It's all NWL early in the new half, its looks like they have missed a good opportunity when the player in the box takes a swing and a miss at the ball, but it still trickles through the six yard box causing some to hold their breath. Lesser in numbers now, but still singing the smaller group of CFC are sharing their opinion on the top flight of the English game, “fuck the Premier League”.

Clutching what looks like a concession stands worth of tissues, Tom is a mess, “I’m gonna need a wash” he tells me, his face smothered with mustard, the curse of the bearded man eating playing out right in front of me, he does his best to wipe himself down, but he looks a bit of a state.

It's CFC's turn to send the ball right though the box and not make anything of it. Just like the first half, it’s hard to really concentrate on the match, with the amount of songs and activity off the pitch, “love CFC , fucking hate McBean” sing the supporters, the Clapton owner back in the firing line. Flags are now flying at both ends, I’m caught not knowing where to look. “Better drummer that end” reckons Tom, pointing to the lone Italian singers, four maybe five making up their number, maybe close to one hundred fill the opposite stand, who though are not as percussionally gifted, are singing with everything they've got, “ally o, ally o”.

Noticing the large sticker covered drum is still under the gazebo, one has to ask how many do they bloody have? Tom in neighbourhood watch mode, is not sure the locals are going to be as appreciative of the atmosphere as we are, rumours have it that the Wadham Lodge Stadium will be their permanent home as of next season, and as they belt out a song to the tune of the Shanks & Bigfoot's hit, 'Sweet Like Chocolate', Tom thinks “the neighbours are going to fucking hate them”.

A red and white flag is gently swaying in front of the pop up shop, and the drum has now joined the one already behind the goal, taking the toll to three, some football grounds won’t even let one in, let alone three and as much as I’m enjoying the evening, at the moment all I can smell is mustard, Tom reeks of it and I’m glad he’s driving himself home tonight.

Back to the football for a moment and NWL have a free kick, but it's not hit with much purpose, dribbling through to the man in goal, the game having slowed quite significantly in comparison to the rampant first forty five. The home fans shift their musical inspiration away from garage to something a bit more Country, and Take Me Home, Country Roads, they sing about their spiritual home to the tune of the John Denver classic, “take me home, to the Spotted Dog, where I belong”.

Tom is sure that “we’re not going to have any goals this half” and that both teams have shot their bolt. “Maggy , Maggy, dead, dead, dead” is the latest song from the crowd, any Tory voting locals, already miffed about the noise, are going to be right onto the local council after that one. As far as I know the small section of fans at the other end are not singing about a dead prime minister, but are still singing all the same.

Chances so far this half have been few and far between, CFC float a free kick in, but the man at the back post can't sort his feet out. They should have at least got a corner, but its not given, sending the beardy one from the shop apoplectic, almost on the pitch, he screams over the hoarding, “murder, murder”.

I’ve no idea how long has been played, my hands are absolutely frozen and for the first time NWL have taken the lead, rounding the keeper for their fourth of the night. “Their defence is shocking” mumbles Tom, he thinks the floodgates are about to open, and CFC are going to get “ripped apart”.

“Come on you Tons” pleads someone from the crowd, the first song after the NWL goal is the first one that sounds like heads have dropped, just a bit, among the normally unwavering and fanatical supporters. Their song sounding ever so slightly muted compared to before, “come on you red and white”.

CFC flash a shot wide, and the fans are doing their best to will it in with a deluge of chanting, “singing at the Stray Dog” but they are unable to affect the laws of physics. Another chance, a header, but it's right into the grateful arms of the NWL keeper. Who falls to the ground clutching the ball, in no rush at all to get the game back under way.

I’m not sure what is more remarkable that we have only now seen our first yellow of the match, a robust CFC challenge earns the home player the distinction of being the first in the book or that much
to Toms admiration, that one of the “linesman is wearing a jacket”.

I don't think the smaller group of fans have stopped once, but I’ll be honest they do seem rather sozzled now. NWL are looking very slick, every attack looks like it might culminate in a goal. The game is brought to a stop, when the ball is hoofed clear, disappearing behind the toilet block, and the whole ground glares in its general direction, until from somewhere the ball is found and the game can continue.

Tom didn't think we were going to see any more goals this half, well that's already been proven wrong and I'm sure there is at least one more left in this roller coaster of a match. Two CFC players end up getting in each others way on the edge of the six yard box, one leaves it for the other, but he left it for him too, and the chance goes begging and then almost straight up the other end NWL with their shimmering gold numbers on their backs and a badge that looks remarkably similar to that of the Colombian national side, miss a back post header and the chance to score their fifth, that would have surely put this game to bed.

It was only a matter of time before a NWL player retaliated after one of the many heavy CFC challenges. One could maybe call it a melee, a fracas, a brief flash point, before it soon dissipates. I'm not sure if it's relevant to the foul, maybe the CFC fans know something about one of their team that I don't, one of them is not a man to be messed with, but when they start humming the tune to the Godfather, it is mildly sinister. One person taking it even further, going the full Michael Corleone, "just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in".

How NWL have not just scored their fifth, I'll never know. The smaller group of home fans, now standing atop the railing around the pitch, it's getting an absolute battering, their flags going at hyperspeed, have a front row seat as their keeper pulls off a solid save and then not one, but two blocks on the follow up. "Away, away, away" pleads one nearby supporter nervously.

That's it I'm done, here are my keys, bring my car around, I've seen all I need to see. There is not a hair on my considerable body that hasn't shot to attention as the ground fell silent and a single gruff voice leads the rest of the fans, in the most impassioned chant of the night. Reverberating off the backs of the neighbouring flats, it is so loud. The dramatic pauses between the call and then the response is perfectly timed, "because we all love the Clapton............................" and the acoustics make for a “good echo” as Tom puts it, which only adds to the theatre.

The person playing the big sticker covered drum, that he's resting on the top of the hoardings, is only marginally bigger than it. The referee is coming in for more stick, "your tired ref" and another delay, this time not because of a lost ball or an injury, but because Tom thinks "they've run out" of them. The larger of the groups descends into general chit chat, it sounds almost like a busy pub, the small group are still going just as devotedly as they were from the first minute.

"What's go on?" wonders Tom, there is no obvious reason why the game is not going ahead, Tom was only half joking about them not having any balls left, but now I'm thinking there might have been something in it, until all of a sudden the trouser wearing NWL keeper has one in his hands, and we are back under way.

"Relief" says one CFC supporter puffing out his cheeks, CFC have done it, I've no idea whatsoever how long is left, but they've only gone and equalised, the scorer of the goal, sprinting head down towards the bench. One player quickly recovers the ball and makes his way to the centre circle, looking like a man possessed the scorer is ushered back on to the pitch, everyone, me included surely feels this is a game that is there to be won.

As you can imagine, CFC's fourth was quite well received, the sound of about a thousand kettle drums washed over the ground and then back again. The CFC supporters are all about leaving the place as they found it, but the way some are hitting whatever they can get their hands on, there might not be a ground left to tidy up if they carry on this way.

The calls for the scoreboard to be changed are not heard, until the man in charge is given a nudge, and replaces the three with a four.

If this game couldn't get any more intense, it very nearly does, when CFC by only a hairs breadth, miss out on their fifth, in the most dramatic of circumstances. Flying out of goal the NWL keeper doesn't make the intended contact with the big CFC ball over the top, his goal empty, he has set the home team up with an opening for a very dramatic conclusion indeed. Falling kindly to a CFC player he doesn't even take a touch before taking a swing like a golfer with his wedge, he sends the ball goalwards and it looks like he has hit the perfect shot.

Almost like skittles, the CFC fans behind the goal seem to fall away, as the ball sails just the wrong side of the post. When a second chance is presented to them to win it, it's another case of  the player with the ball not passing to an unmarked team mate, shooting instead, straight at the keeper

"Fucking advantage ref", snarls one seething CFC, the railing in front of him stopping him from toppling on to the pitch. A CFC breakaway has just been brought to a sudden stop by a NWL player
who is now very much in the crowds sights, "fuck off top knot". The smaller group of fans are still going of course, driven by a hearty mixture of beer and plutonium, but have started to slow just a fraction and when the referee brings what I'm sure will go down as our best game of the season to an end, it feels a little bit out of the blue.

It's a ripple of polite applause that follows the final whistle and then a song not for their own players, but those of the opposition, "well played North West". The NWL team leaving the pitch applaud the CFC fans for their acknowledgement, one bends down to pluck some grass from the pitch, before kissing it and crossing himself. We could all do with some guidance from a higher power after that madness.

The CFC players first approach the smaller of the two groups of fans, one CFC supporter in a mild state of shock, tells another, "if that lob went I wouldn't be going to work tomorrow". As the CFC players get closer, the noise level raises, beating out what sounds like a war dance on whatever they can, they await the players, "Tons, Tons, Tons, Tons, Tons".

Having first seen it in Germany, I still think it's something more teams should adopt here, the CFC players walk the line of outstretched hands, where both fans and team can show their mutual admiration for each other, in victory or defeat, it's important to reinforce how one is nothing without the other.

"That was fucking emotional wasn't it" says one person exasperated, still coming round to what we have all just witnessed. The small group of supporters have of course not stopped yet, why would they have and as the players finally make their way in, they are serenaded one last time, "come on you Tons".

I'll keep it short, I've gone on long enough. I learnt today that Tom is not a fan of the sha, la, la, chant. CFC fans are most definitely pro remain, "you can stick your fucking Brexit up your arse", however that's not a huge surprise. We certainly did get our "value for money" as one person put it to us, but most importantly I learnt that something many people hold dear, is not a myth, it is the fans who hold all the power in football, CFC are a living example of that. Don't like the cards you've been dealt. Start your own fucking game.

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