Thursday 16 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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