Monday 25 February 2019

Better Luck This Time - Baldock Town FC Vs Biggleswade FC, Spartan South Midlands Football League Premier Division, Hitchin Road (13/02/19)

Stag chat takes up almost all our of our time in the car this evening, as we retrace our steps, following the same route we did less then three weeks before, that turned out to be a wasted journey, thanks to a frozen pitch, that was the start of a short hiatus for us, that involved snow and a general anaesthetic.

Tom’s wedding of course also comes up, as it inevitably does, whenever we are together. He fills me in on more of the details of his big day, such as will it be Carcass with a ‘K’ or Carcass with a ‘C’ playing, that pie and mash in potentially 30c heat in August, is just what people want to eat, and that the dress code will be “British summer time”. Yeah me neither.

Talk of what he wants to do, just how many units of alcohol he wants to consume per hour and other topics of an 18 certificate, not suitable for this publication only stops at the sight of a dead partridge that got Tom very excited, “that’s fresh” he says half out of his seat to getter a better look, his seat belt the only thing stopping him from leaping out the window to scoop it up, pluck it and prepare it for dinner.

Word for word Tom repeats the same comments he did back in January, “this is nice” he says as we wind through a particularly picturesque part of Hertfordshire countryside, pointing out the chocolate box “church hall” just as he did before, and we turn down a road with the same name, as an area close to where we grew up, he gets very animated “Turnpike Lane”.

Just like before our arrival at Hitchin Road is shrouded in darkness, however this time its with a heavy tinge of deja vu. The entrance to the ground is far from apparent, thanks to the lack of any kind of lighting at all. The sign as we pull in gives nothing away regarding who is playing tonight, the fixture on it, one of Arlesey Town FC whose home this is, tonight we are here to see the lodgers.

I’m almost sure we park in the same space as we did last time and just like then there are few signs of life other than the light coming through the small stained glass window of the players and officials entrance and that coming from the boot of a mans car, who looks to be unpacking bags of football kit.

“Not much point us going out” says the newly arrived referee, peering down the cage tunnel at a ground completely hidden in darkness. The lack of light is the perfect excuse for Tom to slink off in search of a comfy seat and no doubt something to eat. He toyed with the idea of eating before kick off on the way, such can be the distraction of his hunger on most match days, he wants to appease the growling monster within sooner rather than later, so he can concentrate on the game.

Passing me in the corridor, on his way to the changing room, one of Baldock Town FC’s (BT) players, jokes “better luck this time”.

Just as I thought, I find Tom not long after he left me, lounging at a table, in the dark wooden bar. The projector screen has been rolled down and BT Sport is on. Next to it a white metal shutter, the likes of which you usually see protecting the front of your local paper shop has been raised revealing two blinking slot machines, the staple of any good club house or bar, along with a stag of course, that is behind us. “Lights on this time” chuckles Tom, the time of our aborted visit was spent sitting in the almost pitch black, because someone had forgot their keys.

With the Lite Bite food hatch not yet open, Tom has resorted to some crisps and a Lucozade, but they are simply a stop gap, “when it's ready, I’m eating” he tells me, in the mood for something a bit more substantial. Interrupting a man in a green Biggleswade FC (BFC) scarf, tonight's visitors to Hitchin Lane, minding his own business at one of the two slot machines, I gently probe him for some information on the current league leaders, in the back of my mind though, making sure not to get BFC mixed up with one of the two other teams the small town has, Biggleswade United and Biggleswade Town.

Not only is the man more than happy to chat to two strangers, who are keeping him from his potential jackpot, he’s got an interesting fact in him or two, telling us that Arlesey, where we are currently located is according to him the “longest village” in England, at “two miles long”. When the conversation turns to football, he also echoes the thoughts of the BFC coach we bumped into on the edge of the unlit pitch, trying to get an idea of the state of the surface with the aid of the torch on his phone, and also that of the BT manager too, that tonight is a “big one” and a “local derby” of sorts. Biggleswade being only “fifteen” miles up the road.

Both teams find themselves in the throws of notable unbeaten runs “we're eleven”, “they're fourteen” says the man itching to get back to the flashing one armed bandit, but he’s kind enough to entertain our questions for a little longer, Tom just about at the end of his crisps, he turns every so often towards the sound of sizzling coming from behind the closed shutter of the food kiosk, the smells from within getting stronger by the second.

Despite the proximity of the two teams, he doesn't expect much more than “fifteen” to make the trip. Even with the attraction of what he thinks is the “attractive football” they play, it might have something to do with the fact BFC are the youngest of the Biggleswade trinity, the BFC coach telling us, they are only “three years old”.

The more our new gambling friend tells us, the more intriguing tonight's match up becomes. BFC have the “best defencive record in the league” and have “only lost one game all season” so it's either going to be one of those turgid 0-0, Super Sunday snooze fests that Sky Sports spend all week hyping up with graphics of men morphing into lions or it's going to be a barnstormer, that only about twenty people will be able to say they were there to witness.

Little more than a few railings pinched from a building site, have been bolted together to form the tunnel, but they do the required job of containing the two teams before they head out onto the pitch. A man in a BT coat who has a beard a Wildling would be proud of, gives each of the waiting players a handshake, before they're led out by the referee and his assistants, who squeeze through the half opened gate, the second in less than a week that looks like it's straight off a farm.

“Come on Biggleswade”, “Come on Greens” shout the travelling fans from the the sidelines, that at first glance, look to number more than fifteen. “Where have they all come from?” ponders Tom. Going by what Pinky, the pink haired BT “Club Secretary” or as she referred to herself the “Executive Gopher”, had said, we weren't expecting much of a turn out at all, so it's a pleasant surprise to see the amount of people that we do, dotted about what is quite an eclectic ground.

The main stand looks like a miniature Champion Hill, complete with broken clock on its facade. Behind one goal is non leagues version of an all standing uncovered Kop, a steep concrete terrace, next to which is much smaller terrace, with a white roof the same shape as an exotic sea shell. Most people are either standing on the steps of the flat roofed terrace behind the bomb shelter dugouts or have filled one of the blue seats in the Dulwich Hamlet impersonator.

Those here, whose breath is now visible, the temperature having taken a bit of a nose dive since we arrived, although it's nowhere near as cold as our last visit, where a player joked he needed “ice skates”, I’m sure would be very jealous of my gift from Tom last time out, of some fingerless gloves.

Over the last four years we have become quite accustomed to just how noisy non league football players can be. We may well be doing them all an injustice, maybe all footballers are, but because of the size of arenas Tom and I had previously watched football in, you just couldn't hear them, but tonight hits an all time high.

With next to no noise coming from the stands, the players are left to create an almighty din, with shouting of epic proportions, until about seven minutes in, the shouting turns to whooping and hollering from the home bench and players, as BT thrash home their first of the night. The players a red blur, as they hurtle towards the far corner, in pursuit of the scorer, before coming to a stop in a mass bundle

BT are rampant, they are charging all over the place, and not in a headless chicken kind of way, but a hyper focused non league football assassin kind of way. A hand ball by a BFC player brings the game to a halt, keen I think for an even longer moment of respite, the guilty player hoofs the ball into touch, and gets a yellow for his troubles, but he’s bought his team some valuable breathing space.

“He was right, it is a physical game” says Tom, thinking back to the BFC managers words pre kickoff and at the moment his team are second to everything and when they do get on the ball, one of those marauding red BT players are soon on the scene to shove them off it. Aggressive and loud, both teams continue to be incredibly vocal, and it makes me wonder if people need their hearing tested.

Clinging onto the top of the vertigo inducing terrace behind the goal, the two loan fingers are just about hanging in there, looking like climbers on the side of the Matterhorn, I bet they are freezing. The temperature has continued to plummet, Tom has his fingerless gloves on, but is still moaning, “god, my tips are cold”.

In what must have been the most frenzied first fifteen, we’ve seen so far this season, the referee has done well to just about keep it together. He is bombarded from all corners, players, fans and managers are constantly in his ear. BT look dangerous from every set piece, those “ big centerhalfs” our gambling friend had said his team like coming up against, because of their lack of mobility, are causing all sorts of problems. BFC are looking a little lightweight, BT are snappier in the challenges, and Tom reckons it's an ominous sign, “I think they're gonna get battered”.

“We must be sharper” asks one BFC player, however at the moment I’m not sure if sharper is what they need to be, how about a foot taller and a few stone heavier.

The home players warming up in “mind your language" bibs might want to remind the rest of their teammates and management of this, as a tidal wave of four letter words continues to flood towards the man in charge.

“Nice finish” says an impressed Tom, when for the first time BFC show just what Mr Fruitmachine alluded to what they are capable of. A slick interchange of passing and the forward in green is in on goal, neatly dinking the ball over the onrushing keeper, but sadly the man running the line has his flag above his head.

BFC go close once more, not long after their disallowed goal, much to the displeasure of the home bench, “boys that's why we can't give the ball away” shouts the managers assistant. The shot was well held well by our second highlighter pen in a week, BT’s keeper pulling off the office equipment look well, all in neon yellow. The away teams chance brings about the first bit of genuine noise from the crowd, since the BT goal, from those sporting green and white in the seats along to our left.

Just over twenty minutes gone and BFC have fully recovered from what looked like early on, was a severe case of nerves. Firing a ball across the BT box, it’s another warning shot, which takes the shouting up another level. Pinky, fidgets in the stand, she would be on the bench, if the referee had not told her she couldn't be, much to her irritation.

“He’s good that number 10” purrs Tom, BT’s play makers deft flick starts a move that almost results in BT’s second, only the ball just won't sit right for the player in the box and he skews his shot wide. “Come on boys” pleads a BFC fan behind us, watching his team almost fall further behind, after their brightest spell in the match, failed to yield an equaliser.

“Referee” cry the BFC players with the combined force of ten Bravehearts, the kind of which any normal person would run away from and hide, but the referee stands fast in the face of such anger. Half falling the BFC player somehow still manages to get a shot away, it looked like he slipped to me, but the BFC players and bench are adamant he was fouled. BT’s bench suggests there was a suggestion of him going over a bit easily. The lineman in front of us, with his socks pulled up so high, they look like leggings, Henry style, makes no sign it was a foul and the game carries on.

“Go on, go on” urges one BFC fan to the players, whose surges towards the home penalty area are becoming all the more frequent. One such attack results in a free kick that is driven in, cleared, then headed back into the box by a BFC player. Challenging for it, two players momentarily intertwine like romantic eels, a mess of mangled legs, both ending up in a heap and all hell breaks loose. “Fuckling hell” screams the BT manager. Those in green are sure their man was fouled, and the same goes for those in red.

High, almost leaping it looked very reckless to me. With both players looking equally sheepish, it’s hard to determine who was victim. “Lino, lino, help him out” asks the BT manager, but Henry socks is not very forthcoming. The referee surrounded, he awards the foul the home teams way, much to the astonishment of the visiting players, some who stand with their hands on their heads.

Thankfully neither player is hurt, and they are soon both back up on their feet. The BT player gives a wry thumbs up to the man in charge as he jogs away, yeah you got that bang on he implies, but his face tells a different story, his face says, blimey I got away with that.

BT’s keeper saves well once again, getting down quickly to a long range shot, he though is unable to hold it and presents BFC with another chance, but the player as Tom so delicately put it, “should have at least put it in the fucking net”. He will tell his team mates after the game he knew he was offside, but that will be bullshit. With his hands clamped to the top of his head, he could see his life flashing before his eyes, knowing full well, there is a very high chance he might end up on a 2018/19 season review DVD, in the misses of the season section.

“It’s like watching Arsenal defend” tuts Tom, his Pep hat making a brief appearance, at the sight of some less than convincing BT defending, “if you're gonna split the defence and bring in the number 4, you've gotta be so quick or you get boxed in”.

Ten to go in the half and BFC spurn another good chance, when they put a free header from a corner wide. The missed opportunity ends up being pivotal in what happens next, the goal kick the first of three touches of the ball, that end up with what might be our goal of the season.

“Bit naughty that” laughs Tom, in the purest Danny Dyer sense, you could maybe go as far as calling it filthy or if you're of a certain age, bad. Tom says, a bit like a man in his fifties wearing white trainers, it is what the “young kids” would call, “a worldie”.

The scorer, who is currently under a pile of delirious team mates, who we can’t quite see, because of the ecstatic scenes in the home technical area, every substitute having lept from the bench, some going very high pitched in their celebrations, only took a single touch in the three touch move, before hitting the most sublime dipping half volley from way outside the box, sailing over the backpedalling
BFC keeper and into the goal. VIDEO.

One might be able to go as far as saying its a little unkind on BT to have gone further behind, the
scenes in front of their bench, quite the juxtaposition, two men stand forlorn in long black coats, motionless. They really had started to come into their own after looking early on, like they were going to get blown away, however there is no great shame in conceding a goal of the quality of BT’s second and they don't seem too dejected. Two minutes after go behind they are back at it. “Fucking hell” growls one player, when the referee again denies them what looked like a credible for a penalty, “looked like one to me” said Tom.

BT’s heads have far from dropped, and it is them on the front foot, forcing the home players further and further back. Stooping to almost ground level the BT defender is unable to get much on the cross into the box, a toe poke for the sprawling BT keeper, clears the danger, before anyone in green can pounce.

Such is the tempo of the match, I’m struggling to keep up. The referee once more waves his arms across his body, in his view the BT header was not over the line, the BFC keeper making a right hash of an attempt to punch it, and it’s only because of the man on the post it does not result in BT’s third, although they are sure it was in, the game carries on.

Minutes from the break and BFC slam a close range shot into the midriff of the BT keeper, who does well to spring back up to his feet, I think I’d be rolling around on the floor winded, asking for my Mum.

“Why would I want to run into him?” asks the BFC player who just went down in the BFC box, the referee saying it was a fair coming together. There's no spot quick, but they are awarded a corner, which presents them with another opportunity to claim for a penalty. The shout for it is loud, but it falls on deaf ears. The home bench this time make it abundantly clear what they make of the player rolling across the floor, “shut up” shouts the manager, and while the BFC player remonstrate with the referee, he asks, “whose referring this, them or you?”.

It’s at quite a pace that BT leave the pitch, somewhere between a jog and sprint up the tunnel and inside, but they've got nothing on Tom, who has already covered two quarters of the pitch to join what is already a sizable queue at the cage covered Lite Bite, there to prevent anyone's Bovril going flying, that is now in full swing. BFC are a little more leisurely, but you would expect that from a team two goals to the good, I wouldn't go as far as saying they are cruising, however they must be feeling confident.

“Shall we get in the warm” asks one of the BT fans behind us, to the another, and doing the sensible thing, they join the throng making their way to the bar. I take a seat on one of the cold concrete steps, waiting for Tom to return and without any of the comforts the BT fans in the blue seats along from us are enjoying. One lady prepares her blanket, as if she was about to embark on a Victorian carriage ride. She has taken the support of her team to almost fanatical levels of colour coding, sporting a green hat with white pom pom and vivid green socks with her jeans tucked in.

With no programme, online only, and no raffle or 50/50, it's a case of me twiddling my thumbs as I wait. I do overhear an unfortunate case of the BT fans turning on each other, one is being blamed and singled out as the reason they are losing, “he’s got the wrong hat on”.

Tom is beaming, he practically skipped back to me, “we are gonna eat like kings” he says with his arms full. Handing me my soup, I think I might have got the thin edge of the wedge. His burger and chips are bountiful and he soon tucks in.

BFC are out really early and there is much discussion amongst the players, “let's show them what we can do”. It's the visitors who kick off, one of their supporters back on the terrace lets out a thunderous shout of, “come on Biggleswade” and whatever was said behind the away changing room door during the break, looks to have had the desired effect.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times BFC have appealed for a penalty, once more the referee declines to give them one, despite their calls. From right to left across the front of the box, the players snaking run evades every attempt to dispose of him, when he eventually gets into the box, it looks like we might be about to see something special, but down he goes. “Do something ref” demand the home bench, about what in their eyes is blatant diving.

Although BFC have come out clearly invigorated by the words of their manager, BT are far from resting on their laurels, and in a matter of about five minutes, must have created five or six solid chances, that could have easily seen seen them go seven goals ahead. “You've done him” says someone from their bench, the BT forward has done just that, leaving his marker floundering, but he can't finish. An edge of the box scissor kick or what would have been a close contender for our second goal of the season in the same match, a slick move, a back heel and a shot just saved by the BFC keeper and a close range shot blazed over, come one after another.

BT’s tails are well and truly up, they are rampant once again.

Tom continues to shower me with tales of the “very good tuck shop”, he’s still eating, but seems to be slowing. He was very impressed by the “full array” of sweets on offer and that by the fact they sold “onion rings” not something you see at many grounds, but was sad to learn they had “sold out”. Waving the final mouthful of his cheeseburger and handing me a tray still with chips in, he says something, I say say, he mumbles something and I have to ask him to say it again, VIDEO QUOTE.

“You're in, you're in” confirms the BT manager, to his player to the left of goal, the ball falling to his feet after a fortunate deflection, his low shot looks like it might just sneak under the sky blue wearing BFC keeper, but it takes a faint touch off him and goes out for a corner.

I think you call that leathering it. From just outside the six yard box, BT’s number 9, after a failed attempt at a clearance drops the ball right in front of him, hits a solid half volley that drives past everyone in its way, almost bursting the net, BT going even further ahead. If it had been in a cartoon, one of of the BFC players would still be hanging on to it, as it tore through the back of the net, crashed through the fence and off over the horizon.

3 - 0 to the hosts, a bit of a sickener for BFC who have had their moments for sure, but BT have just been far more ruthless. Pinky lets out a thrilled “yessss” from behind the dugout, the BFC bench look a bit shell shocked and Tom thinks it’s the right time to tell me I “really smell of soup”.

With it now probably safe to say BT are cruising, they don’t though get long to be able to enjoy their comfortable lead, as the game takes a turn, that ensures we are in for a thrilling final twenty five minutes. Thrilling for BFC players and fans, more nerve wracking for BT’s.

“He’s been booked already” gasps one BFC fan at the realisation that the BT player who just committed quite the crunching tackle, might be in trouble. “He’s got his hand on his pocket” says Tom, the placement of the referees digits in relation to his cards, means Tom is sure the home player is going to get his marching orders. The BT manager does his best to plead his players case, “ref use your brain, it wasn't that bad”, but he disagrees.

Walking off at snail's pace, a lady comes down from the main stand to open the pitch side gate and up the tunnel the dismissed player goes, taking out his anger on the changing room door.

The final mouthful of my soup is that gloopy sludge you inevitably get at the bottom of the cup, not if you adopt the Potton United technique mind. The two men are still perched on the top of the sheer terrace and Pinky has gone from spectator, to holding up the numbers for the latest BT change,
however they are upside down, and require a bit of juggling. “You look like a ring girl” says someone from the crowd, followed by a wolf whistle.

The tide has begun to turn, the man extra is starting to show, the BT keepers bravery is appreciated by the home fans, who applaud his no nonsense save, rushing off his goal line he gets all of the ball and all of the man too. He is back at it again at the resulting corner, the ball ricocheting all over the place, BT getting a shot away from  somewhere within the scramble, but he’s able to clutch it to his chest and halts the latest green attack.

“I should have got some sweets” says the man who only moments ago was concerned he was going to have a coronary. BFC are awarded a free kick much to the annoyance of the BT bench, “are you joking ref?”. The shot is fumbled by the BT keeper, but he gathers it at the second attempt. Its all getting a bit frantic.

Curling in from the edge from the box, no end of fearlessness and with no chance of a second go at stopping it, BFC grab one back, we really have been treated to some expertly taken goals today and it's going to be a nervous last fifteen for BT. Pinky is livid and the big beard on the home bench asks for “calm”.

The BT keeper currently is the only thing between his team getting something out of this game and throwing away a three goal lead. Making not one, but two saves in quick succession, there is anything but “calm” and things go from bad for worse for BT, after the ball is chipped into the box and the deftest of glancing headers sees BT reduce the deficit to one. The two men on the terrace leap in celebration, proving they are alive. There is no such excitement among the BFC players, one collects the ball from the back of the net, marching towards the centre circle, with a determined look on his emotionless face.

“Oh dear” whispers Tom.

BT have a chance to quickly reassert themselves, to form a much needed buffer, but the header from a corner is flashed wide, and then with less than ten to go, BFC almost draw it level, the shot going just wide of the post and the BT bench instructs one players he’s “gotta wake up”.

BFC test the home teams nerve again with a shot across goal, that misses the target by inches. Instead of rolling out for a goal kick it inadvertently sets up a player at the back post for a tap in, only for a BT defender to block it on the line, causing one BFC fan to squeal in agony. “We’ve got to up it” says the BT manager. BFC chances are coming thick and fast, and the BT manager is growing increasingly frustrated, “too easy” he snarls, “get up we’ve switched off”. You can feel the anxiety building around the ground, its palpable.

Their second dinked finish looks like it’s the goal BFC’s second half display deserves, but the linesman once again has his flag up and the BFC’s players celebrations are cut short. “We fucking go again” insists one BFC player and that's just what they do. It's well and truly a rear guard action in the final minutes for the home side who are pinned back almost onto their own goal line.

The lady nearly all in green is packing away her blanket as if to leave, but there is still one last attempt at goal by her side, but it teases the BFC fans like so many of them before, going just the wrong side of the post. “Big fucking five minutes” shouts one home player, “be disciplined” instructs the bench. My hands are so cold that they hurt and a jittery Pinky admits that her “nerves are shot to bits”.

Kicking every ball, she takes a sharp intake of breath every time BFC look to attack. When the BT keeper picks up the ball, she mutters under the breath, “slow it down, slow it down”. One BFC player tries one last rallying cry, “come one” and one clearly heard Pinky, and is booked for time wasting while taking a throw in, which one BFC players brands “embarrassing”.

Lenient beyond belief, but also pernickety verging on the excruciating, the “funny ref” as Tom has come to call him, elongates the match even further with another blast of his whistle, for seemingly something so minor, no one can work out why he did it. When the final whistle does comes the mix of emotions is striking. Pinky jumps up and down, shouting “yes, yes, yes”, one BT player punches the air overcome with relief, as if some gruelling battle has come to end, and he survived, many of the BFC players drop to their haunches, bitterly disappointed.

The awarding of the man of the match award to the BT keeper, he is presented with a bottle of fizz on the edge of the pitch, doesn't go down too well with one of his teammates, "he was responsible for the goals". Somewhat in hiding during the ninety minutes, but well and truly out of their shells now, a few BT fans offer up a few shouts of "red army" and "come on Baldock". The players clearly high on adrenaline do the same, as they disappear up the tunnel.

"We got there in the end" says Pinky, visibly just as buzzing as the players. BFC are still on the pitch, not for a dressing down, but probably a conversation about having a bit more self belief. If they had just been a bit more present in those first fifteen minutes, where they looked far from the league leaders, I'm sure it would have been a completely different match. Their fans wait patiently for them, those who travelled in green and white applauded the players, "they showed a lot of character" says one.

I'm not sure what the BT fans and players were happier about, claiming the scalp of the table toppers, holding on after it looked things were going south after the red card or continuing that now twelve game unbeaten run.

I loose sight of Pinky among the high spirited players, I'm sure what is a never ending list of things to do, needed to be attended to, I bet she never gets long to revel in a win, before she is required to be somewhere else. Another selfless volunteer, who I'm sure puts the wants and needs of the club, before her own, more than once a season. She like so many people in non league football, are the absolute bed rock, that it sits on. Without her and those just like her, we and so many others would have to find something else to do on a Saturday afternoon.

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Sunday 17 February 2019

Bad Day At The Office - Clevedon Town AFC Vs Chipping Sodbury Town FC, Toolstation Western League Premier, Everyone Active Stadium (09/02/19)

Lying on the sofa last night, I do my best to concentrate on Christian Bale's gravelly voiced portrayal of Bat Man, but my head is all over the place. At any other time, Tom Hardy's muscle bound, mask wearing performance as Bane, would have me captivated, but I’ve just read the Weston Super Mare AFC’s latest tweet: INSPECTION: There will be a pitch inspection tomorrow morning at 9:30.

This is not good, Storm Erik who has been battering the bath mat on the clothes line outside my bedroom window for the last twenty four hours, has really thrown a spanner in the works, and It just about caps off my current run of bad of luck. Frozen pitches, snow, illness and a stint in hospital last week, means that all too rare treat for us, football in daylight and on a Saturday, is going to be scuppered by some daft named weather system.

Like a distress flare, I fire off my own tweet, asking for help and Twitter dutifully responds. There is by all accounts no shortage of football clubs in the general vicinity of the seaside town, but surely if Weston Super Mares pitch is in need of an inspection, those nearby must be destined for the same fate.

I wrestle with not telling Tom that the game is in jeopardy, he has already bought his train tickets, having spent the last week food tasting and visiting florists in Devon in preparation for his wedding in August. Our plan was to meet roughly in the middle, to take in a game, taking advantage of him not being at work.

Hurriedly finishing my cornflakes, my phone buzzes and I almost don't want to look, it's the news we didn't want, “GAME OFF”. Shit.

I walk to my car wracked with anxiety, the skies are blue in London, Erik’s huffing and puffing has certainly lessened, and someone is clearing up after his night time exertions, retrieving their wheelie bin he skidded across the forecourt outside my flat. However the fact it's all calm here, means nothing, one hundred and fifty miles west, it may be a whole other story. Fuelled only by blind hope, I pray to the football gods that my three hour drive won't be a wasted one, I’m due a little bit of good luck.

The roads are clear, and I’m making good time, but the car is somewhat devoid of the usual atmosphere. Tom is absent, so it means I have to rely on Radio 4 for company, which is no bad thing, however it would have been handy to have him there if not for the riveting conversation, but simply to turn off my daughters chirping blue elephant, that is somewhere behind me, out of reach, that comes to life at the slightest vibration.

A pit stop for coffee and the sight of an exploding pheasant striking the front of a HGV later, and the shimmering sea of parked cars on the outskirts of Bristol signifies I’m nearly there. The wind has constantly buffeted my car, but as of yet there has been no rain, although the sky is constantly threatening some kind of deluge.

Tom is certainly well prepared, his new waterproof jacket, practical, but a departure from his normal look. It’s more twitcher, then Shoreditch man about town. He recounts four days of non stop rain while he has been deliberating if pie and mash is suitable for a summer wedding. He his though supremely confident that our new game will go ahead, somewhat overly and suspiciously so. For someone who is normally quite easily diverted onto a pessimistic track, it's a tad out of character.

The sky grows increasingly angry as I double back on myself, towards today's ground. Tom does his best to elevate my woes with tales of a “trio of desserts” and a list of “canapes” which includes a miniature “toad in the hole”. The sight of the matchstick thin floodlights soaring up into the dreary sky are a welcome sight, and it's not long before we are winding down a narrow lane and pulling into the curiously named Everyone Active Stadium.

Passing by a long white wall, with silhouettes of people in different states of exercise, it is not enough to divert my attention away from the spots of rain starting to settle on my windscreen. Tom is verging on the fanatical in his attempts to cheer me up, handing me a present, a pair of fingerless gloves, that will be useless today, but at least he has finally got himself some, and I’m grateful he thought to get me some and they go some way to lift my spirits.

Brian, Clevedon Town AFC’s (CT) chairman is the first to greet us, opening the thin metal gate for, he is quick to fill us in on the “good drainage” they have. He is also the first to utter the aforementioned catchphrase, that will be bandied about more than once, in the lead up to kick off. Wandering around the pitch a grey haired man with a fork in hand, delicately prods and pokes at the turf, which certainly to my uneducated eye, looks in great nick. “This morning it was perfect” he explains, but the recent unforecast downpour, is pushing the boundaries of what it can take.

Standing under the full pitch length terrace to shelter from the rain, the sound of it pounding against the sheet metal roof above us, almost making it hard to think, it quickly destroys all Toms good work of the gift and talk of “prawn tempura”. His chat with the man with the fork, is not exactly constructive, “not hopeful” he says half whispering, in an attempt to break the news to me gently. “At least it's not heavy” he adds, trying his best to keep up his one man pep rally.

It's the man with the forks turn to repeat “this morning it was perfect” when the CT assistant manager asks him, “how's it holding up?”. Tom continues with his positively drive, “I'm optimistic” he says, “you've driven a long way”. The arrival of the referee and his assistants, suited and booted, all doing that hunched shoulder thing people do when it's raining and they don't have a brolly, like it's going to somehow protect them, feels a little ominous. They head straight for the Tuck Shop, the open hatch at the base of the pale brick main stand opposite us.

One of the assistants as Tom puts it looks “mortified” his eyes fixated on the sky, I almost get the sense he is willing for the match to be called off.

The presence of the officials as CT’s Club Secretary Eric puts it from underneath his badge peppered flat cap, takes the decisions re the pitch “out of our hands” it's “up to the ref now”. Having ended up here all a bit last minute, I’m thankful for Eric in his blue and white striped club scarf, who happily gives us a little background on CT’s season so far.

“We’re sixth” he explains, we being a ridiculously young team with an average age of “twenty two”. The recent success of their “under eighteen” squad, saw most of them promoted to the senior team. Their youth though as Eric tells us doesn't mean they aren't coping, quite the contrary, “we’re holding our own”, but each game is about “getting experience” the lack of it can rear its head on occasion he tells us, and physically they can find it difficult at times.

The impertinence of youth can also rub some teams up the wrong way, because when a seventeen year old skips away from you at ease, older opponents can feel somewhat affronted, and things Eric tells us can get a bit “nasty” he says chuckling to himself, likes he’s recounting a specific occasion.

“Looks its stopping” announces Tom, pointing to the newly emerging sun, that is doing its best to shed its dark shroud. In the blink of an eye it goes from miserable to wishing I had left my coat in the car because its getting warm. It’s appearance sparks the stadium into life, two people have started to take down the goal nets and Mary J Blige is blaring from the physios portacabin clinic.

Despite the now beaming sun and the rain a distant memory, the arriving away team players of Chipping Sodbury Town FC (CST) seem sceptical as they assess the pitch, not convinced that it's going to pass muster, “is it on?” ask one to Eric, whose reply is a resounding “yeah, whats wrong with you!”

“Never heard people moan as much as footballers” he says to himself as the CST players, fresh off their mini bus, file past him, “rugby players would love it”. While the 90’s R&B classics continue, along with the smell of deep heat, to flood from the physios room, its TLC’s Scrubs now, Eric continues to be a fine font of local knowledge. I’m listening so keenly to him telling us about the fact that next door to the ground “they train police dogs and horses” that I forget the golden rule that all non league tea is dangerously hot, and nearly melt my lips.

“No trouble here” jokes Eric, their neighbours ensuring it's probably the safest non league ground
going and any lost balls are “put in reception” as it's probably a good idea no one goes “looking for them”. He also recounts with much pride the recent visit of Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup. It would seem that the thing that stuck with him the most was not the amount of people in attendance, the calibre of the youngsters playing for the Premier League sides under 18’s team, but the fact post match they ordered “twenty eight pizzas” from the local Domino's, before heading back to the North West.

Fork man has put down his garden tool and now clutches a red sweet tin in the crook of his arm instead, turning him into 50/50 man. He carefully tears two orange tickets from the book and takes my £2, before turning away and trying to hawk some more,“50/50 tickets”. Less than two steps away from him the programme seller in his hi viz waistcoat and flat cap, which apparently is the obligatory head gear in these parts, he is introduced to us by Eric as a “personal friend of Stanley Matthews”.

Such an accolade is too good to simply ignore, so I enquire how this came to be and he tells us of their chance meeting in Nairobi during his time in the army and some years later, he and the ‘The Wizard of the Dribble’ crossed paths again at the opening of the very ground we are at today.

In a another repurposed portacabin, adjacent to the turnstiles where a man sits in his pale yellow booth, watched over by a curious hand drawn picture of Ronaldinho, a home printed sign goes up in the window declaring its the Club Shop. Inside we interrupt the man setting up on the long table down its centre, covered in boxes filled with old programmes and the choice of not one, by two pins for Tom.

I would not go as far as calling it a steady stream of people paying the man with his Brazilian companion to come in, more a trickle. Eric said that the “bad weather” will always put off a few, but it's a healthy’ish crowd forming almost exclusively around the Tuck Shop as well as inside the white beach hut looking clubhouse, with its impressive collection of club memorabilia on the walls and a hall any pirate would be proud of, of silverware behind the bar.

A few people have taken up one of the blue seats in the main stand, a couple in front of one of the two flags that hang on its back wall. Actually flags might not quite do them justice, they’re more like banners, one alludes to CT’s nickname the Seasiders, but I don’t remember seeing the sea anywhere.

It’s such a softly spoken “hello and welcome” from the person manning the PA that I can barely hear him. The sun has gone, however the rain has yet to return which is something. From one corner of the ground, at the foot of one of the wirey floodlights the teams congregate, and not from the centre of the main stand as one would expect, because as Eric had told us, that's now the local gym.

The CT manager, former Bristol Rovers player Mikey Bell, offers his players a handshake, before they head out onto the pitch, though a very agricultural looking yellow gate Eric is holding open, each doing their best to avoid the muddy swamp that has formed on the edge of the pitch.

CST number 10 at the back of the line, hurriedly finishes half a banana, before dousing himself in water from a small bottle and with some help from Eric he ensure it ends up in one of the nearby wheelie bins, and not on the floor. It’s what you might call a subdued walkout, no rousing music, not much of a welcome from either set of the fans, a couple look on stony faced, one sips from a plastic pint glass, another seems more interested in his chips than the players. The referee leads them out maybe a quarter of the way, before stopping to perform the handshake.

The shirts of the players, the corner flags and those of the linesman's ripple in what is a stiff breeze,
the one linesman who looked “mortified” now in shorts and shorts sleeves looks doubly so now. Clearly energised by his pre match snack, CST’s number 10 bounds up and down on the centre spot in preparation of kick off. A single shout goes up from the main stand in support of the visitors, “come on Sodbury” and one home player demands a “big start” from this team mates.

Although he’s yet to put on his fingerless gloves, I think Tom wishes he had brought some sunglasses too, “fucking bright kit” he says half squinting, the towering yet incredibly youthful looking CT keeper is an all neon ensemble, which makes him look like a highlighter pen, and not long after kick off as Tom put it, he’s soon “in the wars”.

A bit of miscommunication sees him collide in mid air with another player, which sends the human sharpie crashing to the ground and for a moment he doesn't look like he is going to be getting back up anytime soon. Thankfully his time on the horizontal is short lived, although he still looks a little dazed as the CST corner is taken and he knows very little about the header he keeps out, the ball striking him and bouncing back into play, where in the melee he takes another knock to add to his growing collection.

The ball ricochets around the box, falling to a CST player who lashes over from close range. It must have taken a touch, because a second corner is awarded, which results in a second case of the ball pinging off every bum, thigh and midriff, before falling once again to a CST player who just like the one before, fires over from almost exactly the same spot. The keeper, who by the looks of it is still seeing stars, flings his arms up in the air in an attempt to save it and watches the ball clear the top of his goal and the wall behind him.

“That's two balls gone, good thing you parked around the corner” says Tom, showing concern for my windscreen, but all I can think about is that the Alsatians will have a couple of new playthings.

Scratching his head Tom points out that there is “no one in the away dugout”. Two men in dark tracksuits are patrolling the technical area, but there is a large player shaped gap on the bench behind them and if they carry on committing fouls like “blatantly” kicking CT players, tuts Tom, an example of what Eric said earlier, of opponents turning “nasty”, they might need some back up.

“Should be a card” concludes Tom, but it's not forthcoming, “ref are you joking?” asks a CT player in a thick west country accent, but no yellow is produced.

I’m not sure from where, but the void behind the CST coaches in the squat little white dugout has been filled by four slightly cold and bored looking substitutes. Just shy of ten minutes gone and it's the home sides turn to go close with their first effort on target, a nice flick on the edge of the box and a bit of an up and under, allows the forward the time for a shot, but it’s saved well by the feet of the sprawling CST keeper. A keeper who wins the battle of the goalkeeper kits unanimously.

His black shorts and British racing green top, evoking visions of Pat Jennings. In fact the visitors win the battle of the kits too, as nice as the blue and white vertical striped CT top is with hooped socks, CST’s black and white stripes, win by default. It’s also made by Kappa, which inevitably gets Tom excited, and triggers flashbacks to football of the mid 90’s. He won't admit it, but he also likes it because of the the faint outline of the women's breasts, sitting back to back to form the manufacturers logo.

The brief noise of rain on the roof above us, does little to dampen my mood, which since kick off has seen a remarkable turnabout. Tom is revelling in the purchase of his own fingerless gloves, about bloody time, but he’s still not 100% satisfied. “Cold tips” he says while showing me his ever so slightly blue fingertips.

“Fucking sort it out” cries one home player after his team allow CST a free shot on goal, luckily for them it wasn't hit with much conviction and was straight down the keepers throat, who in an attempt to get the ball up field attempts a quick kick, but it's blocked, so he goes for something a little “unorthodox” as Tom puts it, rolling it out instead like a small child ten pin bowling.

What has been a hectic start, and the reason for my improved mood, is crowned by a quite sublime CST goal, one that had looked like it had been coming since the start. A cross from the left is knocked into the path of their number 7, who takes two touches to circumnavigate his marker on the edge of the box, another to set himself and then lets rip a hooked left foot shot that nestles right in the corner of the net, the CT keeper at full stretch not getting even close.

CST’s number 7’s celebration had promise, you can’t beat a knee slide, but the soft turf, doesn't really allow him to slide, and instead he digs in, just avoiding going the full Andrew Johnson.

“Let's build on it” shouts one of the away coaches, the feelings of one of home player is that they haven't really been in it since kick off, “we’ve been shit from the first second”. They very nearly respond with an almost instant reply to going behind, a curled effort from the edge of the box, buts its right at the keeper.

Things though go from bad to worse for CT, four minutes after going one behind, they concede again. Another edge of the box curler, another case of the CST players being allowed far too much time on the edge of the box to shoot. The second goal, even further out of the reaches of the CT keeper, than the second. This time he doesn't even move, rooted to the spot as it sails in. The scorer of the seconds celebration is unaffected by the conditions, he lets out a guttural roar, before raising his index finger to his lips, who he is shhing, I’m not quite sure.

Just like when they conceded the first time round, CT almost pull one back straight away, only this time the ball zips across the the goal mouth, inches wide of the far post.

“Is that a rule?” asks Tom. The referee doesn't seem sure, he looks to his assistant for a bit of guidance, but gets nothing. The CST players are adamant that it is, in fact they are livid that CT haven't been punished for their defender collecting the goal kick from inside the box, but the referee just waves on play.

In a sign of just how high confidence is among the CST players, their keeper starts to showboat. He could have quite easily caught the ball, but instead controls it on his chest and waits to the very last moment, the onrushing CT forward practically on top of him, before scooping it up.

Would non league football, really be the same without the presence of at least one dog? The answer you're looking for is no and although it's not the kind that is going to take down a rampaging rioter, like the ones over the brick wall, he is just as tenacious in his pursuit of his very own deflated football. Charging up and down the length of the terrace, effectively dribbling with it, he shows some nifty touches.

To be clear in no way am I comparing the CT players to the black border collie, but they also have some flashes of real skill, but it's all too infrequent and they are muscled off the ball with ease. In their captain they have someone who I don't think has ever been shoved off the ball in his life, “whos that player who plays for Celtic?” asks Tom in reference to the home number 4, and I know just who he is talking about, Scott Brown. Stout, solid, rugged with a shaved head, he does his best to marshal his younger teammates from the centre of midfield, but it's proving a struggle.

“Too easy” bellows the home keeper, after watching another shot fly over his cross bar. A ball that splits the CT defence, finds the rapid CST number 9, who is really proving to be quite the handful and
his first touch sets him up perfectly, but he’s off target. Big claps echo from the main stand in reply to his effort and Tom is not very hopeful for the home team, “they're not going to win”. By the sounds of it, Eric feels the same way. “For fucks sake, come on” he shouts, still manning the little yellow gate.

Five minutes until half time and the pitch is “holding up” well comments Tom. At the moment it doesn't look like the man with the fork is going to have to have much to do come full time. One CT player demands his teammates “fucking up it” but as the half edges towards the break, CST’s number 9 is becoming increasingly rampant. Falling short of hitting him with a anvil, they don't have an answer for his raw pace. Again he’s away, but this time his touch lets it down, and the CT keeper is able to claim the ball just in the nick of the time, which frustrates the CST forward no end, resulting in him going full Ketsbaia, on a nearby hoarding.

The half concludes with a mighty 50/50 challenge on the edge of the CT box, CST’s number 9 racing away from the home defence yet again, but he’s unable to make anything of his time in the CT area and one home fan asking Eric quietly to “hobble” the CST forward when the players “come off”.

Having opened the gate to allow the players to depart, Eric says in no uncertain terms as the home players with heads bowed trudge past him, that they are “going to get a bollocking”. He almost seems in a mild state of shock, “dismal, the worst they've played all season”.

The quiet voice over the PA returns, Tom is long gone, joining the back of the queue at the Tuck Shop. Although I’m interested to see what he comes back with. All his menu testing over the past week, means I think he is actually full. He has not spoken about food once since we got here. The whisperer thanks those who were “kind enough to support” the “50/50”, I strain to hear the number of the winning ticket, but he confirms that I won't be the one going home with the winnings. A second non league dog, makes me think I’m in for some half time entertainment, but this one is scared off the ball, running away from it, instead of controlling it on it’s thigh and nutmegging its owner.

“Last burger” says a clearly relieved Tom, who couldn't wait to make it back to our little spot on the terrace to eat, so picked away at his chips like a crow on some fresh roadkill. The click, click, click of the players studs on concrete means we hear them, before we see them. Tom bobs up and down as he eats, trying to warm up, “bit nippy” he says with a mouth full of burger.

To say it's clear that CT have well and truly had a rocket put up them at the break, might be an understatement, they have come out flying, straight on the front foot, wanting to make up for a very poor first half, and although an early ambitious long range shot is well over, its shows their intentions, as the second half gets underway in the same vein of the first, manic and very physical.

“Wakey, wakey” insists someone from the away bench, as the CT chances come thick and fast. A “good tackle” says Tom, right in the middle of the CST box, is the difference between the home side pulling back an early goal and not. Another curling shot goes over not long after and CT look like a different side.

A monumental burp to my left is followed by the immortal words, “I ate that far too quickly”. I don't allow my friends Temple of Doom worthy table manners to distract me from what has been a dominant first ten minutes from CT, who are showing more and more of that skill that Eric alluded to pre kick off. A drag back is too quick for one CST player, he catches the man instead of the ball, awarding the home side a free kick in a dangerous position.

Lofted in, it finds a CT player who is able to nod it back towards the edge of the six yard box, where a teammate is ready and waiting to stroke it in. Completely unmarked he has all the time in the world to hit the target, which he does, low down to the CST keepers left. What looks like will be a certain goal, a goal CT more than deserve on their second half performance is somehow kept out.

Inspired by those who have worn the same green jersey before him, he pulls off a a save worthy of the greats of old, like Banks and Wilson. Somehow, god only knows how, he claws it out, and such is my shock, I’m reduced to letting out a high pitched “oh shit” as he gets back to his feet and is justifiably high fived by one of his defence, his teammate all over the pitch applauding his remarkable save.

“Too fucking easy” bemoans one CT player, sixty two minutes on the clock, and after such a rousing start to the second half they find themselves further behind. A slide rule pass inside the left full back, cuts him out of the game completely, a ball across the box and a simple toe poke into the back of the net.

Only seconds before we were both waxing lyrical about how well CT were doing, and then reality comes and slaps them around the face. One home fan has had enough, saying farewell to his friend before he leaves, one CST fan is on his feet in the main stand, making his approval of his teams industry known, “well done Sodbury”.

CT heads are down and CST only look like they are going to add to the home players misery. The visitors have a strong shout for a penalty waved away, after what looked like a hand ball from a CT defender, stooping to almost ankle level, John Terry style to head the ball clear. I’m convinced CT are going to bag themselves a consolation goal, what kind of consolation a single goal brings I’m not sure, but I just have a feeling they are going to do it, Tom on the other hand is not so sure.

I admit I’m not remotely tactically inclined at all, I’m still coming to terms with what a false 9 is, but I’m pretty sure your number 10 should be a bit further up field to initiate the attacks and not be basically playing as a second left back. CT’s play maker is so deep, he does his best with long raking passes out from the back, but he’s having little effect.

Just as CT chins start to lift, CST go close again, but in the words of an always straight talking Tom, their number 9 who has continued to shine, “fluffed it”. Leaving his marker for dead, someone in the stands tells him to “go all the way”, but he conspires to put his shot wide, when he really should have bagged their fourth, almost every single player in black and white stands motionless with their head in their hands, many of their fans let out a sizable groan.

A full body block against a fierce shot on the edge of the CST box leaves one away player poleaxed, the grimace on his face giving away the fact he felt every bit of the drive at goal. When the referee stops play to see if he needs attention, he has to explain to one of CT’s players that the ball hit his hand and not the other way round.

It seems like whenever CT go close, this time a free kick skids off the turf, almost catching out the CST keeper, who is forced into an uncomfortable looking palm away, it inspires CST to try and score again. Minutes after the away bench instructed the team to “organise”, with CT threatening, they power up the other end and number 9 crashes home from close range.

Just as before there is an almost instant reply from CT, but the shot is scuffed and goes wide. As the gloom starts to set in, the Meccano floodlights start to come into their own and CT are on the hunt for a little bit of pride. “Nothing silly” says the referee, moments before the home side whip in a free kick, a deflection kindly delivering it to a player unmarked who is able to head back towards the empty net, only for a CST player to be on hand to clear his lines.

The group of home fans behind the goal seem more absorbed in the football playing dog, then what is going on the pitch and that's perhaps not a bad thing, as CST almost score a quite magnificent fifth. A quick exchange on the edge of the box is almost finished in style, but the back heel can't find the number 9. The newly started spitting rain is maybe enough to distract those home fans not in the main stand, from their team going close again to conceding. This time a jinking run, almost ends with a goal, only for the CT keeper to paw the ball around the post.

“Bad day at the office” mutters Eric, the game into its final throes, the pace having finally slowed, the players going somewhat through the motions, after what might have been the most high octane match we’ve seen so far this season. CST finish the match as the rain grows heavier, with one last chance to complete the rout, but it's one touch to many and the chance goes begging.

I barely have a chance to think in the minutes proceeding the final whistle, Tom has a train to catch and we've got about fifteen minuets to do a twenty minute drive. It's a bit tense as we hare through the surrounding countryside, the rain getting heavier and heavier, I'm contemplating three hours in the car in a monsoon, Tom that he might be twiddling his thumbs at Weston Super Mare station for ninety minutes, until the next train.

Springing from the passengers side door, with one quick look back over his shoulder to see if he has forgotten anything, Tom sprints for the barriers, catching his train his Whatsapp message later told me, with a minute to spare.

Without even knowing it, he has the annoying knack of doing that, Tom summed up today about quarter of an hour into the first half. His way with words is sometimes a little crude, but unlike me he cuts straight to the point, with as few words as possible.

"Feels like a proper non league day" he said, his reasons for saying so I'm sure everyone can relate to. "Shit weather. Shit pitch. Very physical. The dregs from other called off games".

I couldn't agree with him more, all of the above contribute to why we both love non league football so much, its the predictable, unpredictably of it that makes it so intriguing. Personally I will struggle to forget today for two reasons, the sound of the ball constantly slapping against cold meat, and the thoughts of PE in January it elicited and just how close the white haired linesman was to a bloody nose at half time, when he lunged for Toms chips.

"Shove off" he said smiling, but definitely not joking.

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Sunday 3 February 2019

Even With Three - Merstham FC Vs Bishop's Stortford FC, Isthmian League Cup Quarter-Final, Moatside (16/01/19)

As I punch RH1 3QB into my Sat Nav, I come over in a cold sweat, the palms of my hands turn clammy, and I think surely lightning can’t strike twice. The sky is ominous, I try not to take it as a bad sign, I cross the car park outside my block of flats at double time because its just started to rain. By the time I reach Tom at our usual rendezvous, the end of my road, he’s cowering under the open boot of his car, performing some kind of costume change. He waves an umbrella in my general direction, asking me if I think he should bring it.

Tom’s busy day meant he “missed lunch” which results in no end of belly aching, about two and a half hours of it to be precise. He rummages around in his bag only to find some out of date Polo’s, which despite being a good six months past their use by date, he necks a handful of, to stave off the hunger pains. Such is his starvation, at one point I’m sure I catch him peering in the windows of passing cars, trying to get a glimpse of what our fellow users of the M25 are eating.

“I’m feeling weak” he murmurs, having now not eaten for a whole four hours. When he asks me if there is a chance my daughter may have dropped anything down the side of her car seat that he could have, I think he is only half joking.

Its slow going, a combination of the rain, which is at least easing and the time of night, means we are all but creeping along, but at least we are moving. It was at about this time, the last time we tried to pay Merstham FC (MFC) a visit, that the traffic came to a stand still and it quickly became apparent that we weren't going to make it.

So far there is no sign of a caravan that's lost its wheel or the need for any emergency resurfacing, which I still don't know what that is, but the speed at which we are plodding along, rarely out of second gear, means it's likely we are going to be late, but at least we are going to get there.

A hush falls over the car as we near the service station where we eventually aborted our last attempt, turning round there and heading home after nearly five hours of sitting in gridlock. Thinking back to 2015, and our first time at Moatside, when Walton Casuals were the lodgers, that journey wasn't exactly straightforward either. A healthy mixture of naivety and stupidity, meant our Oystercards were not valid, so on arrival at the local train station, we were effectively locked in. Crawling on our knees under the barrier, it was only thanks to continued cost cutting, that no staff were present and we got away with it, without being collared.

Having made it, late, but delighted to have got here all the same, my mouth filled with the very odd residual taste of out of date Polos, the last thing I was expecting to hear was Axl Rose, whaling over the rooftops, in this quiet corner of Surrey. “That must piss the neighbours off” says Tom, with his neighbourhood watch hat on. I deduce the music is not coming from the Baptist Church we have just parked outside of, but from somewhere beyond, somewhere masked by tall trees, and illuminated by dazzling floodlights.

Standing at the end of a long, narrow alleyway, it doesn't exactly give away where the music is coming from. Above a chain link gate in the shadow of a towering pine tree the sign reads Welcome To The Specsavers Stadium (Moatside). A few steps later and Axl now at his loudest, we are standing pitchside.

Greeted at the door of the boardroom by the tall, club tie wearing, grey goatee sporting MFC Media Officer, Chris, it is hard to decline his invitation to come in, mainly because of the offer of a cup of tea, and the numerous plates of biscuits scattered about the place. A cracking cuppa in a china mug is the perfect accompaniment to a custard cream, that Tom is doing his best to eat as many of as he can, but as discreetly as possible.

On the large table behind us, the other side of the MFC player engrossed by something on his phone, proper boardroom types, not obvious interlopers like us, sit around chatting, before they are joined by the referee, with the important business of the team sheets to be sorted.

The Surrey Senior Cup glistens centre stage, black and yellow ribbons hanging from it’s handles, Chris saying they’ve almost “adopted” it, considering how many times they have won it. The walls around us groan under the weight of signed shirts and framed mementos from the clubs past. In one corner the tea lady in her grey apron is churning out hot drink, after hot drink.

An encounter with the MFC manger, tightly done up in his blue duffle coat is short but sweet, “you two are very hairy”, he says with a grin. Back outside the music has taken a great turn, Ozzy has replaced Axl and things only keep improving, when the southern tones of Lynyrd Skynyrd come over the airwaves. Tom is perhaps not such a champion of what he calls “Dad Rock” as me. To be clear I won't touch The Quo, Genesis or Nonce-Sense Collins, but I’ll happily listen to a bit of Queen on a long car drive.

What was before a bare trestle table by the turnstiles, now has a bright yellow sign in front of it, with three of my favourite things written across it in black, programmes, golden goal, 50/50 draw. Behind it in a yellow and black hat, yellow and black being the MFC colours, a man is selling tonight's programme from a cardboard box. He reaches down inside, retrieving one and handing it to me, part one of the ultimate football trifecta is complete.

Next up the golden goal, and I take a moment to agonise over which of the folded tickets at the bottom of the rusted sweet tin it is I should pick, but with a fair few sets of eyes on me, wondering why is he taking so long, I snatch at a couple and put them in my pocket. Part two now complete and I think it's important to point out that both transactions were completed almost solely using sign language. Standing directly under a speaker, “down down, deeper and down” sing Status Quo, yuk, I’m struggling to hear myself think, let alone conduct a conversation.

Despite the suggestion of the sign, that the programme, and both forms of gambling could be purchased in one place, the man in the black and yellow hat, points me towards man with short silver hair, who is standing in what I can only describe as a century box, for my 50/50 tickets.

“Three for two” he says like music to my ears, having covered the short distance between the programme seller and him in the blink of an eye. The sound of more classic rock, which has to be said in a Jeremy Clarkson voice over kind of way, mingles with the sound of the players warming up. The man selling the 50/50 tickets says it really depends on “which Merstham turns up” tonight, as far as the game is concerned, it was “1 - 1 in the league” so it's a tough one to call.

The sky is jet black, its mild and still, the scrapping sound of a man dragging faux grass covered steps, shatters the strange mixture of the shooting practise and Deep Purple. Along one side of the changing rooms might just be non leagues largest whiteboard, although it's not technically white, its yellow, but you get what I mean, that is about to have the team's scrawled out across it. With a marker in one hand, and the team sheet in the other, the man ascends the green steps and begins to write.

The players finished, they head inside, a few of the visiting team stop to except hand shakes and words of encouragement, from their fans on the edge of the pitch.

I can just make out the barrow boy cries of the programme seller as the man who just painstakingly wrote out the teams, welcomes us all to the “Specsavers Stadium”, then starts to read them out, and considering he is reading his own handwriting, it’s curious that he struggles with a few of the players names. As is tradition the away teams names are read out in a very droll and monotone fashion, turning it on, when it’s time for the “mighty Moatsiders”. His voice changes completely, plenty of penance, and such is his professionalism, the major reverb from the microphone doesn't throw him.

Now mingling in the doorway leading to the changing room, the man on the mic just has enough time to wish the visitors, Bishop’s Stortford FC (BS) a “safe trip home” before asking all in attendance to “welcome out the two sides”. It is at this point that the music takes a complete one eighty from the kind you would find on a Father's Day CD, to that which you would find in the collection of my dance music loving fiancee.

There is no tunnel to speak of it's literally a single step down from the white double doors and onto the pitch, but not before you’ve passed through the black wrought iron gate, that someone has pinched from a B&Q. “Come on Merstham” shouts the programme seller, still behind his station.

BS for no apparent reason, other than to fill the time between walking out and kick off, run around in circles and as I make my way around the pitch to catch up with Tom, I notice a late arrival, the current Leyton Orient and once Spurs left back, who nearly ruined the 1999 League Cup final by getting sent off, Justin Edinburgh, with his slicked back hair.

A few more shouts of “come on Moatsiders” reverberate from the opposite side of the pitch, from one of the small groups dotted about. The majority of the crowd line the barrier in front of the boardroom and the main stand with its, yes you’ve guessed it, yellow and black seats.

“We ain't started yet, we’re second to everything” bemoans one BS player, MT are well on top straight away. When they zip a shot across the greasy surface after six minutes the BS keeper who's stature has not been lost on Tom, “he’s tiny”, the ball kicks up into his face, forcing him at the second attempt to smother it, before a player in yellow can pounce. MFC spray the ball around confidently, their number 2 in front of us, a regular outlet.

Although he admits that the “biscuits” kept him “going” the power of the bourbons have started to wean and Tom confesses that recent noise was his “stomach rumbling” and not that of a low flying police helicopter. The game has slowed after a very energetic start, Tom thinks it's going to be “really close” in this match up between “Wolves” and “Derby”. His ability to find suitable league teams, that tonight's shirts look a bit like, has clearly been affected by his hunger pains. MFC’s yellow shirt is the completely wrong shade and BS has light grey hoops across theirs, the man is clearly delirious.

If it's not food or the lack of it, Tom will be going on about the weather, “I really need some fingerless gloves” he says for the fiftieth time this winter. It was not that long ago he was talking about doing a DIY job on a pair he had already, but that was all hot air.

Patrolling his area, yet to sit down the BS manager who in a departure from what your usual man in charge would wear, he’s in neither a suit or has gone full Tony Pulis, boots and jogging bottoms, he is
instead in a jeans and trainers, the kind your Dad does the decorating in on dress down Saturday. He does his best to organises his team who are looking very susceptible to MFC’s use of the “long ball” as Tom points out.

Many attempts at pinged ones over the back line have been attempted, and there have been a couple of close calls, but so far his defence have held fast.

“Come on you Moatsiders” shouts the same man as before, the only person attempting to inject any kind of verve in to proceedings. Tom thinks “if nobody scores this half its 0 - 0”, shortly after and BS probably go the closest they have in the first twenty minutes to scoring, when one player cuts in off the right and sends a shot over.

Tom distracts himself from his growing famine, by putting on his Pep hat and getting all technical on me, suggesting MFC should consider playing “two up front”, and “bringing in the 11” whatever that means, and “spreading the midfield” which just sounds rude.

A clear foul on a BS player, “he’s a lenient one” says Tom, sees nothing given much to the annoyance of the BS bench. “Poor lino” says one coach, to the assistant in front of us, who in Toms professional opinion has a very dodgy haircut. Not the sort to simply take his judgement being called in to account on the chin, he is more than happy to give as good as he gets and a terse exchange plays out between the two.

What looks like a audacious attempt at a lob from one BS player, takes their attempts on goal tally to two. “Get hold of it” demands one home fan, the match having descended into a middle of the pitch scramble, the fault of a very “congested middlefield” claims out Tom, who flits between tactical analysis and thinking what he is going to eat at half time, “I could do a hotdog”.

Highlighting the lack of action, the clapping that follows the awarding of a home corner from one fan, is so enthusiastic that you would think they had scored, and his enthusiasm only subsides when the BS keeper is fouled and a free kick is awarded to the visitors. The linesman in front of us is not the only official whose hair is worthy of comment. The referee looks like he’s had a platinum dye job done, referee by day, Manumission podium dancer by night.

The abundance of trees that surrounded the ground, almost but not completely filter out the sound of a nearby busy road. The home number 2 who is always free and unmarked, stands with his arms constantly in the air, wanting the ball. “Come on Merstham” shouts the fan who is clearly a huge fan of a corner, as he manically claps his hands together at the sight of his team getting another one.

Whipped in with real danger, it's just about cleared, only for MFC to regain possession and to cross again. The home team look a real threat from every set piece, “better” says Tom as the needle on the action’o’meter twitches.

“Its coming” urges one MFC player, the BS keeper having just spilled another shot, but recovered well to block the rebounded second attempt. The resulting corner sees a very “cheeky” as Tom puts it in this best Carry On voice, attempt at a near post Zola back healed finish.

“Thirty six minutes, thirty six minutes” confirms the voice over the PA, confirming the time of the MFC goal, and that neither of my golden goal tickets are winners. Another corner, a flick on and stab home from close range, and the home side find themselves deservedly in front.

What the hell is he doing, I wonder as I find myself edging way from Tom, who is taking turns at standing on alternate legs, and kicking out his foot. “I’m trying a new tactic” he says, like I’m the crazy one, “my feet always get cold, too much standing around” so he reckons a bit of calisthenics will sort him out, that's his “theory” anyway. Never short of a theory or two, he thinks his recent holiday excesses are to blame for why he is so hungry, “I ate so much over Christmas I've stretched my stomach”.

A half short of thrills might be the best way to describe the first forty five minutes. MFC’s number 11 has impressed Tom, although as he put it he is a little “greedy”. BS have the final effort of the half, a shot from outside the box which is about “ten foot wide” chuckles Tom and soon the familiar feeling of abandonment washes over me, Tom is off in search of food, but at least I have Freddie, Brian, Roger and John for company, although I think it's fair to say that everyone will hope that one side or the other will “rock” us the second half.

I spend the break scouring the horizon for Justin Edinburgh, but can't see his overly slicked hair self anywhere. The “Dad Rock” classics are coming thick and fast, Summer Of 69, You Give Love a Bad Name are all belted out while someone fiddles with the volume, but they have their levels sorted just in time for what is probably the zenith of too much guitar, and not enough substance, Layla.

“Even with three” sniggers Tom, when I inform him that even with my copious amount of tickets, I still cant bag the 50/50. He returns just before the players do, BS are out first, and not long behind them those of the home team, with a “Big MFC Burger”. He breaks down its grandiose name for me, explaining it’s “basically a double cheeseburger”.

The final words over the PA are just what Tom wanted to hear, Tom who is far from a fan of extra time after a midweek cup match, when he tells us the game tonight will go “straight to penalties” should it be a draw after ninety minutes.

An early BS shot, that is pushed around the post for a corner, does little to raise the volume here, its library quiet. Tom like an animal on the Serengeti, who wants solitude to devour its prey, has removed himself from me slightly to destroy his burger in peace.

A burst of pace sees one MFC attacker into the box, tackled he claims for a penalty almost mid air, but it’s declined, and so as to not waste the chance at a shot he still manages to get one off, which is good enough to win a corner. A corner which they don’t hang around to take and it results in their second shot on target, in as many minutes, which creeps just over the bar.

BS’s equaliser is a tad unexpected, they have threatened rarely, but it gives us something to talk about. The goal itself is a close range finish into the roof of the net, the kind that leaves the keeper at full stretch, hands above his head, but such is the velocity of the shot, he is completely hapless.

The goal does little to knock MFC out of their dominant stride and only a couple of minutes after BS drew things level, they almost restore parity with a daisy cutter of a free kick, which the referee said went wide of the foot of the post, awarding BS a goal kick, when it was clearly “saved”. Tom confirming what I was sure I saw, but the referee missed.

People clutching their mugs, grimace at the sound of a big challenge, that leaves one BS players on his back poleaxed, the MFC player responsible looking nervous and his teammates do their best to plead his case, “ref it's a 50/50”.

The nearby arrival of one MFC fan with a blue bag of beers at his feet is a welcome injection of interest. He’s not exactly forthcoming with songs and imaginative chants, it’s more like he is quoting the very basic of inspirational Instagram posts, things like “let’s go” and “keep it together”, but it's something at least.

MFC’s most creative and inventive player suffers from a dose of not knowing when to give it up once again, “11 needs to learn how to pass” tuts Tom. He does all the good work of getting into a great position, just on the edge of the box, and with a teammate screaming for it in the box, but instead of passing, he takes it that bit too far, the move breaks down and it pretty much sums up MFC’s night.

“It's coming, its comings” cries MFC’s number 12, after a chance from the edge of the six yard box is
poked over. Number 2 alone and still almost always unmarked was found well, his cross was just as good, but the finish was well, it was lacking.

The PA wrestles with the pronunciation of the latest comings and goings, “he didn't have much of a clue” laughs Tom as he mangles the name of the BS substitute. MFC are now exclusively attacking down their right wing. The exploits of the marauding number 2 wins another corner, which leaves one BS defender winded, his hard fall to the pitch is followed by a loud thud, his teammate is less than sympathetic, “get up, get up”.

MFC’s number 11 attacks again, MFC’s number 11 gets in to the box, over egged the pudding and loses the ball again. The gaggle of black and yellow scarf and hat wearing fans behind the goal, including the programme and 50/50 seller, mutter to each other as the ball rolls out of play.

Just short of thirty minutes gone and the home crowd let out a collective “arghhhhh”. Their team have just spurred golden chance number eight or nine. The big haired attacker, a man from the Kid & Play school of hairdos, rushes his shot, dragging it right across the front of goal. Inadvertently his effort, turns into an excellent cross straight down the ‘corridor of uncertainty’, but no one is there to get on the end of it.

A new home change, and the introduction of their ever so sprightly number 15, who only seconds after getting on the pitch, wriggles away from three defenders with ease, joins the all out attack, as Tom puts it, “no one wants pens”. A thought echoed by the shouts of the home fans, “come on I’m getting cold”.

I wouldn't go as far as saying the MFC supporters are getting frustrated, but considering their control on the game, there is a feeling that it should have been put well of out of sight, long ago. One fan thinks some players are just not giving it their all, “come on Merstham don't stand still”. I’m not sure I agree, players are darting from left to right all over the place, it's like a display by the Red Arrows, there is though just a distinct lack of final product. They are doing all the figurative barrel rolls and loop, the loops, but there is just no smoke at the end of it.

Beer in a bag man continues to dish out plenty of slurred advice, and lets out an angry “come on” when BS almost steal the show, with a back post header that drops neatly to a forward in the box whose snap shot is well blocked by the MFC keeper who has had next to nothing to do all match and as of yet is to be distracted by the strange noises coming over the PA, because someone has failed to turn the microphone off.

BS’s keeper does his best Ederson impression with a charging sliding clearance well outside his box, reaching the ball just before the MFC number 11. “Not long to go” shouts one BS player, less than five minutes in fact for them to hold out. MFC flood forward at every opportunity, another shot takes a deflection and nearly creeps in. The visitors have a very late and very short moment of pressure with a quick break, but can't though find the intended target in the box.

“Come on Merstham” pleads a supporter with what must be only seconds of the half left to play and they very nearly secure the win their second half efforts deserve, but again the BS keeper is equal to the task, he is becoming quite the immovable object. The low drive is stopped in its tracks, the rebound falls into the six yard box, but no one is on hand to finish. The final MFC attempt, the last of so many this half, is a thunderous one from the industrious number 2, but not to be crude it's straight up the arse of a BS defender who should be applauded for his bravery.

“Hold it, hold it” demands the home number 8, but his teammate does the opposite, losing possession and allowing BS to break. Luckily for the player who number 8 is currently burning a hole in the back of his head with his death stare, the BS shot was wild and it disappears into the trees behind the goal.

The final whistles sounds, people are on their toes, waiting for the toss of the coin, and the end for the shoot out to be decided. One MFC fan lets out a reluctant sigh, “here we go”.

Still in her apron the tea lady announces, "I'm going back in, you know I don't watch them". Another fan in a mobility scooter moving ends, is accused of cutting and running before the tie is concluded, "you can't bugger off" says someone as he weaves through the crowd, but he has an excuse already prepared, "I'm scared".

Strung out across the half way line, the takers having been agreed, separated by a linesman in the middle, the two teams await their turn. Each bench stands arms interlocked, Brazil at USA 94 style in the mouth of their dugout, watching on nervously.

It's just about the most ideal start for a keeper in a shootout, saving the first kick he comes up against, and that's just what BS's does, a keeper who I later learned only joined the club the day before, "well played" shouts a fan from the crowd. He is not the only man between the sticks capable of a spot kick save though, MFC's pulls off one too as things grow tenser.

MFC's manager breaks free from the confines of his technical area and asks his team for more noise, more encouragement for the players making the long walk to the twelve yard spot, but when the big haired MFC forward hits the wood work, returning to the half way line and tossing his shin pads away, BS score next and a mighty groan goes up.

The final penalty is left to the still fresh legged second half substitute MFC's number 15, who had the demeanour of someone never totally confident. His penalty was hit cleanly enough, but too close to the new boy in goal for BS, who gets down low and with one hand, wins the match for the visitors winning 3 - 2.

I can't say that anyone in yellow and black seemed overly distraught, the man on the PA certainly didn't, the disposition of the announcer, is normally a good litmus test of the mood of the crowd. He is quick to congratulate BS, and wishes them luck in the next round against Enfield, whose name by mistake stood instead of BS's on tonight programme. Chris made it clear the League Cup, as it is at every level, in every league, is very low down the priority list, in fact its the lowest, "fourth out of four" he told me.

The man with beers in a bag has a few choice words for the BS players as they celebrate, the single MFC flag on the green fence stays put and Justin Edinburgh is nowhere to be seen, Chris telling me his son was playing for BS this evening, so they've just shot up our list of teams to go see.

Reasons to want to watch a league cup game ever again, except for the final, are minimal, its just so apparent that fans and players just don't give a toss. Reasons to come back to Moatside are plentiful, the main being that according to Chris, is that the chairman is a "butcher" and his "sausages are rather good".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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