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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