Friday 28 June 2019

Let's All Have A Disco - Bromsgrove Sporting FC Vs Corby Town FC, Evo-Stik Southern League Central Play-Off Final, Victoria Ground (06/05/19)

Within seconds of stepping out of bed, I’ve already trod on an upturned plug, which we all know is only second to an eight point Lego brick as the most painful thing a person can tread on, but inches away from my sleeping daughter, I have to bite down hard on my bottom lip, to stop me waking her with my agonised screams.

I’m awash with all kinds of deja vu, picking Tom up from the same place, him giving me the same wave, with the same dopey look on his face, that he was wearing only twenty four hours earlier. “Hello again” he says in his own special monotone way, “we’ve got to stop meeting like this”.

Retracing our steps from yesterday almost completely, the overpowering feeling of I’ve done this before continues. Tom has “forgotten the CD’s” which is probably no bad thing, considering his recent offerings and admitting to being “more of a greatest hits man”, which is very accidental Partridge.

Expecting only the sound of Tom’s gargantuan VAPE and the odd grunt bringing to my attention a passing amusement or place of interest for company, I’m a tad surprised when Tom, quite unprompted I might add, comes over all William G. Stewart, deciding to test my football general knowledge, asking me to name Ballon d'Or winners and the teams and players who hold various European Cup/Champions League records, and not to blow my own trumpet too loud, I did pretty well.

Having spent the previous afternoon at a Semi-Final, where the game really failed to take off, only turning into any kind of a spectacle with the final kick of the match, the winning spot kick sending the hoards of travelling away fans flooding onto the pitch, one can only hope that today's Final will have a bit more incident and points of interest.

Stepping into the Victoria Ground, home of Bromsgrove Sporting FC (BS), and without even having seen a ball kicked yet, the day is already one step ahead of yesterday, simply because of the venue.

Don’t get me wrong, St. James Park home of Brackley Town is pleasant enough, but it's not got a patch on what surrounds us now. Compact and imposing in the same breath, its a real cracker of a ground, from its old wooden main stand, climbing up a reasonable way from the edge of the pitch on the near vertical, to the club's name spelt out in tall red letters on a white wall behind one goal. However, the pièce de résistance is the shed, which I mean in the most agricultural of ways, straight out of some grainy nostalgic footage of football days gone by. Green, big and simple, it’s sheer size, and therefore the amount of people it can hold, is a sign of exciting things to come.

Overflowing with nervous energy, BS’s Secretary Dave, I think wishes that today had fallen on any other than his birthday, “I just want it to be over,” he tells us, not necessarily because I think he’s super keen to open his presents, but because the stress of such a huge occasion, is already proving too much to bare. Along with everything else a person in his position has to deal with on a day like this, it's only magnified by the fact they are “expecting three thousand” today.

Through the window of the club shop, Tom having just nabbed himself a pin, a tiny enamel version of the clubs badge, featuring not what we first thought was a dragon, having noticed it on our way in, but a Rousler or “devil dog” as Dave put it, that if local myth and legend is to believed, used to roam local yonder hills, eating livestock and the odd baby.

Already in their high viz jackets, a troop of 50/50 sellers have formed an impregnable cordon by the still closed turnstiles, awaiting the supporters and giving them no other option but to buy a ticket, before being allowed to pass. On the steps of the uncovered terrace in front of the clubs giant painted name, stewards are being quite literally put in position one by one and setting up behind a wooden market stall, complete with red and white awning, a man in a red club hat is manning the Supporters Trust table, ready to shift a few programmes.

The clunk of a sliding bolt means that the turnstiles are now open, which is then quickly followed by the tick, tick, tick of the metal rotating barrier. “We’re in” says one, him and many other taking heed of the notices to get here in plenty of time, “let’s go straight in the shed” says another new arrival, having managed to avoid the grasping tentacles of the 50/50 sellers like a wiley clown fish, and is not willing to take any chances of missing out on a spot which I imagine will be the main focal point of the home support.

Sounding I’m sure like a right old git, but the average age of those passing through the two narrow openings to the outside world don’t look much older than my twelve year old son. The man behind the market stall, now offering up his wares with a cry of “programmes” is getting short shift from the young'uns, only those of a certain vintage like myself are interested in such trinkets.

It’s not hard spotting the away fans, those of Corby Town FC (CT) a side we rubbed shoulders with only a few days ago, in their Semi-Final, who stand out somewhat in their distinctive black and white shirts and scarves.

Out on the pitch the CT players and staff get their first feel for the surface, with over ninety minutes still until kick off the place is already buzzing and the queue for the snack bar is so long it's put Tom right off. I might be jumping the gun a little, however there is plenty of potential for today to be our most electric match of the season. “It’s going to be heaving” says Tom.

Having only played six weeks ago, BS running out winners on that occasion, it is maybe an ominous sign for the visitors, but having seen them somewhat blow Bedford Town away in their Semi-Final at Steel Park, we know from firsthand experience they are a team who know how to score, it is though probably worth mentioning they have been a bit porous at the back, on the two times we've seen them, conceding eight. “Come on the Steel Men”, shouts one of their supporters as they depart from the pitch and into the shed, the paraphernalia has started going up.

Although BS play in red, the flags being hoisted each pay homage to the clubs former incarnation Bromsgrove Rovers FC, who played in green and white. Hence why one of them reads “green army” and the other with a snorting boars head on, nods its head to Bromsgrove Rovers badge, which had a very disgruntled looking toothy pig on it.

It's a near constant stream of people coming through the turnstiles, the BS fans heading one way, those here to follow CT going the other, because although there is no formal segregation in place, it’s quite clear which is the home and which is the away end. CT’s fans slowly turning the very red and white open terrace black and white, their monochrome Union Jack already hanging over the railings around the pitch.

Fat Boy Slim is playing over the PA, but Norman might as well save his breath, you can’t hear his late 90’s dance anthems over the sound of all the people. The steps of the shed are currently occupied
by swathes of sitting teens and somewhere on the other side of the pitch, from my vantage point high at the very back of the almost all wooden main stand, with tiny Edwardian sized drop down chairs, and floors with the kind of give one might expect when stepping into a boxing ring, I can make out Tom in the snaking line for food.

“This is boring” he messages me, he has been gone for some time and although I have a seat, and am reasonably comfortable, watching people wracked with indecisiveness trying to work out where to sit, “here, here” they say, sitting for a second, not liking the view and moving on again, is hardly riveting.

Tom is not the only one complaining about the queues, “I tried to get a pint” says one exasperated and drinkless man, his attempt to get his drink on in the bar, where apparently the CT fans are not allowed, a fool's errand. The presence of the selective door staff sparks a new conversation about how shocked him and his friends are the game is not segregated, and here's hoping the latest offering from the PA, The Kaiser Chiefs, I Predict A Riot, is not a premonition.

I’ve almost given up on Tom now he’s been gone so long, maybe he’ll remember where the car is and he will have the common sense to meet me there after the match. Standing pitch side in a crisp looking suit, the BS manager flanked by this son looks on as his team starts to jog out. First the keeper who is greeted with rousing applause from all corners, not far behind him the rest of the team, which sends the noise levels soaring, and the first rendition of “green army” emanates from the shed.

“Jesus Christ” says Tom, wearily plonking himself down beside me, and between mouthfuls of half cooked ships, recounts tales of a “drunk” person at the helm of a “mobility scooter” and having spent a reasonable amount of time in the front lines, he's not sure BS are “ready for this”.

While his burger in it’s somewhat over sized “big bun” is filling the required hole, the dulcet tones of Sweet Caroline feels a little premature. A few people join in, “hands touching hands” but it doesn't really take hold, “so good, so good”.

Even more BS flags now hang from the railings around the pitch and as the BS players approach the shed mid warm up, they get a very warm reception, one player even going as far as to wave his arms asking for more, which he dutifully gets. Stretching out their hands, kids line the perimeter asking for a high five, and are not disappointed. The appearance of CT gets a few pantomime boos, and for the first time the CT’s supporters drum strikes up, and so do their supporters, “come on Corby, come on Corby”.

Not something you see much outside the football league, a mascot, otherwise known as a poor sod sweating in a costume, who can't see where they are going is quite unique in non league. Doing laps and posing for pictures the man sized Rousler, is far friendlier looking than the sneering version on the clubs badge. Maybe not a bad idea toning down the attitude just a little, you want kids running towards it, not away from it.

With still three quarters of an hour to kick off, and even more flags now hanging from its back wall, there is now no doubt in my mind the shed is going to be absolutely rocking. Every so often, low rumbling songs waft out, “everywhere we go”, washing over the heads of those already in position, hands raised above their heads clapping. An announcement over the PA informs anyone hoping to sit in the main stand to get a move on, because it’s almost “full”.

Those having already secured their spot long before any chance of missing out was a possibility are well prepared for the wait, a few around us are nose deep in a book, one man is even flicking through the latest edition of the Spectator.

The bang of the CT drum jogs Tom into saying he thought “there would be a lot more” travelling fans. They are not here in inconsiderable numbers by any means, but in comparison to the home fans, it's like a drop in the ocean. The shed now almost totally full, Tom reckons it's going to get pretty snug in the main stand too, there won't be any room to read a broadsheet for much longer, “it’s going to be like sardines in here”.

Hoicked up by a fellow fan, one does his best to secure the latest addition to the away end, but the flag is quite large and the wall just that bit too tall, things are only made somewhat easier when a nearby bin is drafted in to help. Much like at the other end the CT players respond to the claps and songs of their supporters as they finish up their warm up, “that is why we love you” and while the fans continue to struggle with the flag, a sex doll is now flying around the tops of the heads of the BS fans in the shed.

I think I've seen it all now.

Massed around the home dugout, which sits on one side of the tunnel, a group of sugar fuelled kids are heckling the walking devil dog. “Is he a Teletubby?” asks one, referencing something that at their tender age, I’m surprised they even know what that is.

Flossing and then dabbing, the mascot knows all the latest trends, “fresh moves” laughs one of the rowdy junior onlookers, even I know Pogba’s signature move is a bit blase now. Asking or should I say demanding “high fives” the smiling red dog looks almost hesitant to approach, not really wanting to put it’s hand though the bars in fear of not getting it back. “Up to capacity” announces the PA, the shed is full, and the CT players get it both barrels from the home end as they jog off, “who are ya, who are ya”.

Now armed with balloons the gaggle of children, who have just about left the mascot in one piece are letting loose their very own high pitched screams in anticipation of kick off, “come on Sporting”. The tension is building by the second, after each name of the starting eleven is read out, there is a substantial “weyyyyy”, and now a whole variety of items have joined the sex doll, including a far less risque beach ball.

Ten minutes to kick off and please don't think I’m over egging the pudding here, but the place is rocking. A healthy mix of nerves and excitement are bubbling to the surface, the shed has found its voice and is belting them out, “oh Bromsgrove we love you”. The chipper PA welcomes all those in attendance, “good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” before thanking them for “getting here nice and early” which means “no delay to kick off”.

The balloons of the kids do not stay intact for long. The shed is heaving and is loud, very loud, “come on Sporting”. The CT fans are jumping and both ends are telling their opposite numbers how shit their support is, “shall we sing a song for you”.

It’s not the most spacious of tunnels at the base of the main stand, the players are quite literally rubbing shoulders with each other waiting for the referee to lead them out. The few remaining balloons rain down on the players, as they take their first steps onto the pitch. The noise levels now at jet engine proportions, the crowd like one from a top flight match, not a non league one, roaring as the teams line up to shake hands, the shed completely in unison, “whoa, whoa, whoa Sporting”.

It doesn't take long for the action to start, less than five minutes after the whistle and the home fans in the stand are on their feet, “go on son” encourages one man, like he’s on the final furlong at Kempton. A BS breakaway, sees the forward with only the keeper to beat, but his shot is wide, “ohhhh” exhales the whole ground in unified disappointment.

An elongated period of head tennis, “try it on the ground lads” barks one nearby fan, is frustrating for
BS, but I’m sure is of some relief to CT who are almost caught out again, outnumbered at the back, the final pass just short, which is received with a chorus of groans. The visitors look shaky, their fans dish out their unique staccato chant, “come on Corby, come on corby”.

The far more child friendly sight of bubbles in the shed take the classification rating in there down to a respectable PG, but the decibel level takes it straight back up to an 18, “come on Bromsgrove”. The odd pop of a balloon, is causing some, me included to jump every time it happens and after what was a less than convincing start, CT are slowly growing into the game.

“Must have lead in her legs” snigger's Tom, as a young girl who was previously perched on the wall around the pitch, who then dropped down onto it, despite the attention of various different burly men, can't be lifted back off it again.

There are bubbles in the main stand now as the carnival feel amplifies, and twenty minutes in, CT register their first effort on goal. I say on goal, the side footed attempt, the player was unmarked may I add, so he was under no pressure, after the ball had been rolled perfectly into his path, is so over, it spanks the facade of the shed a good thirty feet up, much to the amusement of the home fans, “what the hell was that?”.

No chances in twenty then three in about as many minutes. “Come on Corby, come on Corby” sing the fans as CT break, the attack culminating in a low curling shot from outside the box, that takes the BS keeper two attempts to claim. Their third comes at the end of another counter attack, after a home move broke down, which gets more groans, which turn to gasps as the CT player attempts a lob, and with the keeper stranded he can only watch it sail over.

Having clearly not been listening during our brief history lesson with Dave, I can only tut when Tom asks me, “why green army, when they play in red? I don’t understand.'' It's been quite the role reversal after BS's blistering start, and CT’s wobbly one. All the chances are coming via the front line of the visitors. Breaking to the edge of the box, the latest CT shot is a scuffed one, and straight at the man in goal.

“Come on Sporting” shouts one home fan, tinged with apprehension, its only a last ditch lunging block that denies the CT player baring down on goal and when the home side don’t get a free kick they feel they deserved, “fuck off referee” the grumble-ometer start to climb, reaching near breaking point when a not too dissimilar BS tackle, earns their players a booking, “you soft bastard” shouts one supporter.

As will be the way for most of the afternoon, the game will ebb and flow, one team having their time on top, before being well and truly under the cosh. A BS free kick is headed goalwards, the floaty header is left by every CT defender in the box, for a moment looking like it is going to creep in, only for the keeper to grab it at the last and we then hear for the first time CT’s Scottish manager letting his players know in his distinctive way, what he thinks of their defending when a BS cross is allowed to make it almost right across their box.

The home fans continue to demand their team “get it down and play”, the consensus being that they are not playing to their strengths. A relativity tame home shot gets a bit of an “ohhhh” from the main stand and the shed is blasting out its latest offering “la, la, la, la, la Sporting”.

I’m not sure the BS keeper knows much about the save he just made, more of a muscle memory twitch than a conscious decision, swatting his hand at the ball he gets just about enough on it to turn it on to the bar, allowing a teammate to make a swinging hoofed clearance as it drops into play. He can though do very little about the low shot, that evades his outstretched boot, nestling in the corner of his goal. The CT number 9 playing on the shoulder of the defender perfectly, meets the reverse pass into the box and gives CT the lead.

Those visiting fans who have snuck into the main stand don’t hold back, most if not all are quickly on their feet celebrating, and the CT keeper races towards the CT supporters behind him, manically punching the air with both fists.

The response from the home fans is instantaneous, “everywhere we go” but for the first time it's not the shed but the CT end which is quite literally bouncing, “whoooo, whoooo, whoooo” The drum and the claps as loud as they have been all day.

Two minutes after going ahead CT are in again, around the keeper the forward goes, only for the ball to run away from him and the chance to double their lead goes begging.

CT are ahead for all of about five minutes, BS drawing level in some huge part thanks to their much coveted number 9, Jason Cowley, who absolutely skins two CT players on the right wing, sending in a deft chipped cross, that is met with a low stooping header, 1 - 1. The scorer cupping his ear towards the away fans all while the shed erupts.

From up against it to flying high and now back down the other side, CT are on the ropes once more, BS nearly complete the turnaround, only for the player on the edge of the six yard box to curl his shot against the face of the bar, the shed already mid celebration before it’s in, has to cut them short, one young nearby BS fan is utterly perplexed, “how has he missed that”.

“La, la, la, la Sporting” sings the shed in full flow, before taking the opportunity to poke fun at the dormant CT fans, “can you hear the Corby sing?”.

It’s the visitors who finish the half marginally on top, a poked effort from close range is well saved and an edge of the box shot is just off target. One BS supporter a few rows down from us wants his team to shut up shop for the remainder of the half, “keep it tight at the back”, but I’m not sure either team have got that in their repertoire.

With the seagulls circling, ready to pick off the dropped chips and the birthday boy Dave padding about with a stopwatch around his neck, both teams only have “one minute added time” left to play in what has been the most exhilarating half.

“My hands are shaking” says the boy to his Dad next to me, not because of the decision to play George Ezra, but because, as he admits, “I’m so nervous”. The bang of upturning chairs mingles with the shouts from each set of fans as the players head in. One man is straight back to solitaire on his phone, with no sign of the first half having any adverse effects on him like my neighbour. Another person offers out mints to those in his immediate vicinity and nigh on everyone reaches for their pockets when the winning 50/50 ticket is read out, and by the sounds of it, no one near me came close to winning either. 

As if to rub it in, a man then appears holding a black chalk paddle, with the winning number scribbled on, parading up and down, it's quite the sickener, over 600 could have been mine. Tom’s attempt to get a drink is short lived, “no chance” he tells me. Even the most committed of football food getter's like him, is not prepared to wait that long for a can of Irn Bru. His attempt to go to the loo is equally thwarted, “hope you don't need the toilet, it's just as bad”.

Dave is wished a “happy birthday” over the PA and I’m pretty sure the last time I caught sight of him,
he was now sporting a badge pinned to his shirt, straight off the front of a child's birthday card.

With the game all level and each team showing their ability to advance forward, but also give up chances at the back, in equal measure, it's hard to separate them. “I can't call it” says Tom, all while some pumping dance music blasts out over the PA and when the players reemerge, the main stand breaks into impromptu applause, more bubbles appear from down below us, the obligatory football match air horn lets off a few toots, the CT drum beats out their go to chant, “come on Corby, come on Corby” and the shed stirs, “green army, green army”.

BS get things underway with a wild shot, well off target. Preparing to take the resulting goal kick, the CT keeper stands fast in the face of a deafening barrage of “you fat bastard ahhhhh” from the entire shed. Which then goes all summer 2018, as pints start being atomised as they are chucked into the air, and the whole place bounces to the sound of “let's all have a disco”.

The home side look like a team who have had a rocket put well and truly up them, they are straight on the front foot, shooting at every opportunity, a fierce snap shot from outside the box inches wide. There is a steady stream of late comers, those who have no shame in asking those who have got back to their seat in time to stand up so they can shuffle by, clearly with more patience than Tom, and are far better hydrated.

Not even five minutes gone and the game hits a new level of excitement, skipping through the CT box a BS player is felled, and the referee has no hesitation in pointing to the spot. The shed demands the CT player is dismissed, “off, off, off” and the commotion that follows what is only a yellow card is almost as loud.

There is a significant delay between the penalty being given and being taken, one CT player hurt somehow in the build up to the foul, is knelt on the pitch, flinching as the physio pokes what look like large wads of cotton wool up his bleeding nose.

Perhaps it was the stoppage for the injury, the CT drum, the keeper bouncing on his line, smacking his crossbar causing it to shake violently or was it just down to the fact it was a less than impressive penalty. Straight down the middle the taker went, with not much power and even though he chose to dive, the keeper was still able to get a sizable piece of this left boot on it.

The lights of the recording phones in the shed, hoping to capture the moment the team takes the lead, soon go out, like someone has taken an almighty blow at a birthday cake. The CT end not unsurprisingly is going berserk and one steward is having an absolute hissy fit. Having been asked to move so one spectator could have a better view of the impending penalty, he has flounced off, slamming the door of the tiny security cupboard at the back of the stand, with a right face on him.

Tom’s head is on a swivel as a passing man clutching four mugs of tea, walks by. The shed is still suggesting everyone gets a bit early 1970's, “let's all have a disco” and from the sidelines, bellowing the CT manger is demanding his team “squeeze”. They have been close to being run ragged since the restart, much like the start of the first half, slow to get going you might say, and it’s only a case of BS not taking their chances they don’t find themselves well behind, but that's all about to change.

It is only the slightest of touches from BS’s number 9, connecting with a low driven cross from the wing, that sends the ball over the keeper at his near post, and into the roof of the net, finally after all their attempts, putting the home side ahead. The scorer doesn't stick around for long, dashing towards the corner flag, soon finding himself at the bottom of a pile of bodies.

The smoke bomb that follows in the shed, is a little lacklustre, I can definitely smell its distinct odour, but what is emanating from the back of the stand is little more than Tom blows out when using his VAPE. The singing however quickly makes up for the cut price pyro, “la, la, la, la Sporting” and now ahead, BS are in the mood of putting this match to bed.

What seemed like neither a cross or a shot is reached by the CT keeper, it having been fired across his area. An attempt by one BS player to make something out of the cross field pass, that looked like a lost cause. Not able to clear it or catch it, he only manages to stop it, dropping it right onto the foot of the BS player in the box, who only has to volley it into the empty net. It’s gone from 1 - 1, to 3 - 1 in about the space of three minutes.

A wooden rattle from somewhere in the ensuing madness adds to the bedlam, Tom is thinking probably just what all those solemn looking CT fans must be thinking, “what happened to Corby”, they have collapsed. BS look absolutely rampant, and the shed is quick to add salt to the wound, “and you fucked it up 1 - 0” they sing, one man doing so with a green and white Bromsgrove Rovers scarf stretched out in front of him.

Close to running out of suitable boxing analogies, CT having looked dead and buried, wave it off ref and send in the man with the stool and the oxygen, they start to somewhat miraculously show some signs of life. Causing I'm sure what were until now some very confident home hearts a flutter, they go and grab their second, which breathes life not only back into their fans, but also their players, many of whom I’m sure were feeling that all was lost. BS’s keeper not exactly showering himself in glory, his parry of the first CT shot, falls right to the original tackler, who doesn't need a third try, sending it home at the second time of asking.

In the space of only twenty minutes we’ve had a saved penalty, and two goals, and now the home crowd appeal again for a spot kick, but this time its waved away, which does not go down well, “the referees a wanker”. Briefly crowd surfing, I wonder if the person shimmering across the heads of the people in the shed, is aware of just how much CT’s tails are up. Having recovered from the initial shell shock, they look every bit a part of this contest.

“That's a booking” insists one BS fan. His description of what the player in question should be going into the book for is pretty accurate. The CT forwards attempt to beat his marker to get on the other end of a cross is little more than a “forearm in the back of the head” and the move right out of the square circle rightly gets the CT player a yellow. The young home fan next to me in his green scarf, which is still causing Tom much confusion as were the latest chants of “green army” thought it “should have been a red”.

So did the BS manager, he is livid.

CT’s second goal has not dented BS’s swagger too much, and they carry on in the spirit of the day looking to score again. “Nice, nice, nice” says one home fan on the edge of their seat, with his back to goal, a player turns on a dime, curling this shot just the wrong side of the post. Such is their desire to extend their lead, one players attempt at a bicycle kick, goes the full Paul Scholes Vs Tunisia, nearly kicking one CT players head clean off his shoulders.

As I said earlier, back and forth the game continues to swing. CT are finding space, getting their shots
off, trying to work themselves into that game levelling position. The shed resumes goading the CT fans, “it’s all gone quiet over there” but that feeling of superiority many of those around us were exuding, has melted away, they are getting jittery and it’s a real teeth sucker of a moment when CT whip a ball right through the BS six yard box.

Football fans, much like children can be so cruel. When the CT keeper falls over taking a goal kick, the laughter is close to ear bleedingly loud, but I think it’s a cover up, a way for them to take their minds off the clear fact that CT look the far likelier of the two sides to score again. Another chance for the visitors, a header, back from where it came from as they say is only just shy of the target.

When the home fans are complementing what an away player does, you know it's not half bad. “Good ball” says one as CT switch the play from one side of the pitch to the other, “great cross” says another, and it looks like only a matter of time before its poked in, but somehow it’s saved. The feeling of relief is unmistakable and again the shed masks its concern this time with a song, “everywhere we go”.

It’s been coming, I can’t say I'm surprised they have equalised, more shocked that after looking so imperious BS have let their hold on the match slip. “Bromsgrove just switched off” points out Tom, CT are able to bundle the ball over the line from close range, their manager applauds their grit then asks for more of the same. Some players leap into the crowd, one man has hold of the goal net and is shaking it so forcefully, he looks close to pulling it down and the away end is signing once more, “whoooo, whoooo, whoooo”.

The shed has been silenced, both managers repeatedly check their watches, and the CT fans give as good as they've got all day, “you're not singing any more”. Giving more and more instructions from his technical area, the CT manger is prolific, however all Tom can hear every time he speaks, is a single word, “pish”.

No longer shaking, just outright dejected, the shouts of the young man next to me, are dripping with misery, “come on Sporting”, in fact the mood of the whole place has taken a bit of a nose dive, every misplaced pass or “shit cross” is met with more vehement groans. “A minimum of three minutes added time” says the PA, whose own cheery disposition has slipped a bit.

“Do or die” says Tom, forgetting he’s not in a Jason Statham film and montages of explosions don't come after saying things like that.

What you might call polite, if not a tad miffed applause ripples around the stand after the final whistle. Almost every BS player is sprawled out on the pitch, maybe it’s a telling sign, but CT are all on their feet, except one who is  clearly in agony having his calves massaged. Spectator man is still reading when the game restarts, and the odd shout of “come on boys” trickle from the crowd.

Having seemingly had their sugar levels topped up, the kids around the dugout are chomping at the bit, however their energy is a little misdirected, shouting “who are ya” at anyone or anything that moves, including their own players.

“Big save” says an impressed Tom, big probably not giving it the due it deserves. It’s quite possibly a game-changing save by BS’s keeper from point blank range, the shed behind him holding its breath as the CT player shapes up to shoot. The dad next to me, has no intention of keeping it together for the sake of his son, he’s in bits, “I think they're going to nick it” he says.

Right on the edge of the BS box, CT are awarded a free kick. Taking his time to line it up, there is plenty of prevaricating before the player eventually takes it, and as always seems the case, it’s woeful, well, well over, much to the delight of the home fans, “wanker, wanker”. Tom asking me, “who did he think he was, Messi?”

The man next to me, might just have been right, CT look like they are going to “nick it”. They send another dangerous ball into the BS box, but no one is there, people just aren't making the runs that they were, both sides are starting to tire and fast.

A stinging BS shot, inspires a chant from the shed, “la, la, la Sporting” and a brief spot of handbags between two players only riles them up more. It’s the home sides turn to send a decent ball into the box, but again, no one is there to make anything of it, “it’s like they don't want it” says a baffled Tom.

Both ends have fallen quiet and Tom with his Pep hat on for the first time in a while, reckons CT are “playing the long game” they won’t be rushed, they have taken a leaf out the Ali play book, “rope a dope” and then in the second half it will be “attack, attack, attack”.

His theory is more than plausible, but it's not like they are not probing all, it's not like they are sitting right back. There is so much curl on one of their corners it looks like it's going straight in, and BS’s keeper is required to pull another save right out the top draw to prevent them taking the lead, but as CT have proven before they have a bit of a soft underbelly, and falling short of drawing the crocodile for you, if you let a player advance without stopping him, and we’re talking a fare old distance here, and allow him all the time in the world to shoot, nine times out of ten, it's only going to end in tears.

“What they got discount smoke bombs? I could do more with my pipe” shouts Tom over the din of the home fans celebrating their forth, which might just be the pick of the bunch. A driving run with a powerful shot at the end of it. The pyro show once again is a little disappointing, I can smell it, but instead of billowing smoke coming from Worcestershire's very own Curva Nord, it's just a bit foggy at the back of the shed.

The break between halves goes by in the blink of an eye, the shed has reached peak awesomeness, “green army, green army”. Can CT do it again, can they come back after another blow, they have previous, so its not outside the realm of possibilities, but they've played a lot of football today, do they have anything left in their tanks?

“Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio” sings the most sarcastic choir ever, it's a straight red for the recovering CT defender, doing his best to keep pace with CT’s number 9 closing in on goal, he clips his heels, and is sent from the field.

Could this be the turning point, the CT keepers second penalty save of the day, Tom again blurts out the only goalkeeper related cliche he has in his arsenal “big save”, but it could be so much more than that, “they can't get it past him” says Tom, it could be huge, especially with CT’s power of revival.

Close to an absolute breakdown the man next to me can barely get his words out, “hoping to wrap it all up there”. Home fans then turn on fellow home fans, when an attempt to waste time, by not giving the ball back, is recognised as futile, it is only going to give CT more time to equalise again.

I’d be amazed if the referees assistant can hear the requests of one home player on the bench of “how long” is left over the sheds uproariousness “green army, green army” and the local kids barracking of the CT manager.

The BS bench starts to play it's only little game, one coach agonising over which ball to kick on to the pitch, trying to buy his team a few precious seconds. BS have more than enough opportunities to score a fifth in the dying moments, but want to do it the most painful way possible, missing gilt edge chance after gilt edge chance. Even once the board showing the “one minute added time” goes up, one players in the final sixty seconds, one on one with only the keeper to beat misses.

One of, if not the single largest outpouring of joy we've ever seen develops at breakneck speed in the seconds then minutes following the final whistle. It's not the easiest of walls around the pitch to clear, probably for good reason, but it's not high enough to hold most back and soon they come flooding on to the pitch. The players like magnets, some who have collapsed to the floor, some who are embracing others, are the focus of the fans celebrations and are soon swapped. Once quite distinct in their bright red kits, they are soon indistinguishable.

First stretched out in front of the main stand, one of the largest of the BS flags is soon draped over the front of the single small balcony halfway up the main stand in preparation of the cup being lifted, a mere token the real prize promotion. More smoke bombs are let off, giving who ever brought them even more reason to ask for their money back, they are a bit measly. Much more effective  are the handheld confetti canons that fill the air with hundreds of pieces of coloured paper.

The lifting of the cup doesn't go off with out one small hiccup, a slight delay caused by the dropping
of its lid, falling about a storey, elongating the "whoooooooo" until its recovered, put back in place, and lifted into the air, followed by a player led chant of "we are going up".

From the back of the main stand the gaffer now with the mic, lets say is a better football manager then he is a singer. Having thanked the fans and his team "I couldn't be prouder of the lads", we get our second airing of Sweet Caroline, which is of the kind of standard to make dogs cry.

The appearance of an ambulance on the pitch takes the edge off things for the moment, until we find out its because one mans attempt to vault the wall, has resulted in him dislocating his knee. With the players now long gone, one walking off telling his manger with a wry grin the result was "never in doubt" many fans, those who have now headed straight for the bar, are still milling about on the pitch, some taking the chance to score their very own goal in front of the shed.

What a day, what a match, what agony for Corby, what jubilation for Bromsgove. The sight of the packed shed, the bobbing sex doll and the crap smoke bombs is one that will stay with me for a long time, the "magnificent 2,983" in attendance as the voice over the PA declared, a sight to behold.

Devil dog or no devil dog, it's worth running the gauntlet, the Victoria Ground is not one to be missed.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Friday 21 June 2019

I've lost my Shazam - Brackley Town FC Vs Spennymoor Town FC, National League North Play-Off Semi-Final, St. James Park (05/05/19)

A snapshot of my life with Tom, via our exchange this morning on WhatsApp:

[08:49] Tom: Where are we going?
[08:49] Tom: Want to check the weather
[08:50] Tom: Have a wardrobe crisis

“Two secs” he says to me an hour or so later after his enquiry about our destination. I can barely see him underneath the abundance of stuff he is carrying in his arms. If anything he is now over prepared, somewhat overcompensating for last times lack of snacks and wet weather gear and has nigh on brought a hamper, including his ginormous water bottle, and needs a second trip back to his car to retrieve even more.

Even though he has brought his entire wardrobe, he is still in somewhat of a pickle, “I still don't know what clothes to bring” he says agonisingly, “I don't know what jacket to wear” he wrestles with, as we embark on our polar expedition via Northamptonshire. “I need spring attire” he mutters to himself, taking the list of painfully middle class things he has said to me, without a hint of irony, in the last four years onto the nineteenth page.

Once we’ve pulled away, his dilemma continues, “I just don't own a spring jacket” he says on repeat three or four times, before adding further fuel to the fire, with the sky a dazzling shade of blue and with not a cloud in sight, when he asks himself if he needs “sunglasses”. Trying on my daughters sun hat, “do I need this?” I'm not sure if it's an East London fashion statement or he has lost it.

The obligatory Game Of Thrones recap chat is fleeting, because Tom finds himself in a state of discomfort, “gastric problems” he tells me, with a slightly pained look across his face. The combination of a few pints the night before and some “spicy Spanish sausage” means he is not feeling his best self today, and during a spare second between picking out snoods this morning he has decided he’s going to “eat healthy today”.

A somewhat concealed Brackley Town FC (BT) sign half in a hedge, ensures we are heading in the right direction and the large painted white BRACK on the road before us, only bolsters my confidence that out Sunday afternoon drive is on the right track.

The picturesque market town of Brackley is pretty, if not a little lifeless. The high street shut up tighter than a frontier town, that's got wind of the arrival of Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen. Navigating a sea of cones on our approach to St James Park, the steward instructs us to “park up the top”. Coming to a stop somewhat nervously teetering on the edge of a grassy precipice, Tom ensures I’ve put the “handbrake on” or we “will end up in the five a side pitches” below.

The distinctive sound of the kind of applause that only accompanies a good cricket shot, wafted our way from the pavilion beyond the far end of the ground. I would like to have informed you by now of our entrance into BT’s home, but we are still in the car park, and not because the car has taken a nosedive down the hill, but because Tom is insisting on trying on every combination of clothes, at one point putting on every item at once, ending up looking like Michelin Man if he shopped in Top Shop.

His full blown fashion show, is not going as smoothly as he would like, because apparently my car windows are too “dirty” and therefore he can't get a good look as his ensemble. “You know I’m a delicate flower” he reminds me, in a moment of clarity. It’s true, it's vital he gets his outfit right or I’ll hear no end of moaning about how cold or hot he is. He’s like a modern day Goldilocks.

Finally standing pitch side, Mick, BT’s gruff sounding Stadium Director, reckons there will be at least a “thousand” here today. Regularly they get about “seven hundred”, but as is normally the case with a big occasion like a Play-Off Semi-Final, those whom might be called not regular attendees, dust off their scarves and try desperately to remember the last time they came and watched a match here.

With the sun positively beaming, and Tom regretting all his layers, but not willing to admit it, one BT fan, suitably decked out in shorts, unfurls a long red and white banner and starts to attach it to the railings on one of the two banks of terracing, that flank the seated stand behind one goal. “South Bank Saints” it reads, with a crest at one end of it, similar to that of Amstel’s has two frothing glasses of beer on each side, and the motto “against sober football” below.

Not content with what is not an paltry offering by any means, more than most fans can muster, he is soon clambering on the seats of the neighbouring stand, attaching more flags to its back wall. “Spennymoor bringing five coaches” he tells me as he finishes hoisting a large Jolly Roger, BT’s opponents Spennymoor Town FC (ST) who we encountered last season in the FA Trophy, we know travel well, so it's no great surprise.

 “Job done” he says clearly happy with his work, “I’m off to the pub” he adds with a grin, the stand and terrace well adorned for the game ahead.

Nothing says The National League, more than a pale blue knee length jacket, and along with the slow drip, drip of BT players, the must have step three accessory can be soon seen everywhere. “One, two, three, four” says the man testing the PA, who then proceeds to sing. “Join in when you're ready,” he says, and in keeping with the best held tradition of the further up the pyramid you go, the more showy the stadium announcing gets, he has that aura of local radio, maybe he even has a spot on the county's BBC channel, exuding from every pore.

Today's match up is too close to call for one of the ST staff. The visitors having lost here in the league, but having won at home. “They are a canny team” he tells us in his thick North East accent, “they will be favourites” he adds with a hint of anxiety in his voice.

I’m parked up on a small picnic table, when Tom returns from the tea run, overflowing with delight from his time at the nearby sizzling refreshments hatch, with his eyes near enough out on stalks, “Burgers. Look. Really good”, he tells me delivering every word with the required drama to emphasise just how impressed he was by what has seen, “hand made, double up for two pounds. That’s a lot of pattie” the notion of healthy eating having lasted all of about four minutes.

From the highs of discovering the offer of two slabs of beef for just an extra quid, to the lows that have brought about the current sour look on his face, Tom doesn't half lead a roller coaster of a life. I have to turn around to see what is making him pull such a pained expression. “HP sauce on a burger” he scoffs under his breath, the culprit of the culinary crime only feet away, “sausages yes, but not a burger”.

Like white on rice the woman selling the 50/50 tickets in her vibrant red jacket, is all over me, taking my money before I’ve even had the chance to stand up and one half of my match day essentials is complete without even having to break a sweat. “Wish they had the same service for the burgers” tut’s Tom, who then tracks one passing man's meal so diligently, “the burgers are massive” so big in fact, he is considering the unthinkable, “not sure I'll have chips”.

He really is taking this healthy eating thing much more seriously than I first thought.

With time edging towards kick off, all the sights and sounds of match day start to bubble to the surface from the call of the man selling the “50/50 draw tickets”, the top of a bin is as good a place as any to rest his Jacobs cracker tin waiting for your change. The steam from the tiny tea hut billowing out from it’s open hatch, the offer of a “programme” from the man behind his white wooden rostrum and the constant tick of the turnstiles as more and more people arrive.

Clearly still preoccupied with thoughts of food, however unsure when to get his, “too early,” he told me before, but conscious not to leave it too late with the expected crowd making the chance of grabbing it at half time and not missing most of the second half a major possibility, he doesn't know if
he is coming or going.

This conundrum means other parts of his brain are only functioning at half speed, specifically his ability to recognise music. “I love this song” he gushes, “The Crash Test Dummies. It’s a classic, so bleak. '' It is not the Crash Test Dummies, and when I tell him this his second guess is off the mark too. He tries to remedy his mistake with the use of an app, that I didn't even know was still a thing, uttering a sentence I don't think anyone has said for at least ten years, “I've lost my Shazam”.

Our first glimpse of the ST team is them walking out onto the pitch. Their fans, many of them in the clubs colours of black and white, one in a pin covered baseball cap, carrying a flag, gives up a shout of support for the newly arrived players, “come on lads”.

It is reasonably uncommon in this country for a team to have a named fan group, like they do all across Europe, South America and even the US, but there are the odd few. At this level it’s even more rare, so the fact that BT seemingly have two, must make them pretty unique. Away from the flags and banners of the South Bank Saints, whose stickers cover vast swathes of the ground, the Brackley Massive, who have their very own roped off section with its own signage and everything, have transformed their little corner of St James Park, with a deluge of flags and scarves hanging from every available bit of space.

Poking up above the top of the turnstiles, a fleet of newly arrived coaches can hold back the torrent of ST within no longer. Flooding through the turnstiles they enter a ground that is a real mixture of the old and new. A long freshly poured slab of concrete along one side of the pitch is relatively desolate, with somewhat of a waste land surrounding it, but other parts of the ground make up for it with a reasonable dose of character.

The music is decent, with a definite indie vibe, and Tom having finally struck out to get his food, returns with a drink in a cup straight out of your local Cineworld and a real slab of a burger, barely contained within it’s white paper napkin. Sticking to his word, either because of his dicky tummy or new outlook on healthy living, he did not get chips.

With ketchup in his beard, his burger gone in record time, he lets out a satisfied burp, then tells me with a huge amount of hubris, “oh I could eat that again”. However by the way he’s looking at one man's passing chips absolutely dripping with sauce, I’m not sure he’s satisfied and he might help himself, but in fact he’s admiring his Rupert the bear style tweed jacket, “he’ll ruin it if that sauce goes down the front”, before he starts chastising himself about another food related faux pas, “I should have gotten some sweets”

As more and more black and white starts to fill the place, and I’m not saying the two are related, but some slightly bizarre pantomime booing has started to emanate from one part of the ground, Tom momentarily moves off the topic food, onto his other favourite subject the weather, “oh I hope it doesn't rain” , before flipping back, telling me about the fried potato sized hole currently within him, “I feel cheated without the chips”.

“Good afternoon and welcome to St James Park” says the voice over the PA, with all the pizazz of someone not unfamiliar with the drive time slot. Informing all of where they can pick up a “matchday magazine”, Tom agrees with me it's a programme, not a “magazine”, that he says like he’s a funny taste in his mouth, and having just visited to get his pin, Tom takes umbrage with the description of the club shop “can you really call it a mega store? A windowless room”.

Readying himself to climb the ladder towards his elevated vantage point for filming, ST’s cameraman Chris, is “nervy” with it being “such a big game” and much like everyone else we’ve spoken to, he “can't call it” either. With his pragmatic head on, he tells us “whatever happens it's been a good season” but in the next breath the romantic in him, likes the sound of playing “Notts County” next season. “How the mighty have fallen,” he says, when he realises a win today could get his team one step closer to that becoming a reality,

Both teams emerge for their warm ups, it’s fairly low key affair, with little response from the crowd. I barely noticed if I’m honest, too busy listening to Tom bleating on about how its “cold now” and cursing the county we live in for its unpredictable weather, “fucking England”.

Tom needs answers, and he needs them now, “why are they like that?” he asks me again, pushing me Paxton style, “give me an answer” he demands, why are one BT players shorts so bloody tight? The latest announcement over the PA, “line ups when I get them” is followed by a song which will always have for me very West London connotations, The Liquidator.

Having almost filled the much smaller section behind one goal, the BT flags at the opposite end giving them little option of where else to stand, the ST fans have started to make it feel like a home from home.

One flag is already up, another is draped over the shoulders of one supporter and more soon start to appear over the railings around the pitch. No away day would be complete without one person in a jester's hat with bells on, a black and white one of course, nor would it be the same without a song or two, which are soon flowing. Setting their stall out early, they are here to make some noise and are already in fine voice, “Spennymoor town is wonderful”, “we’re the black and white army” and my favourite so far, one about their towering red headed defender warming up, who they affectionately call “the ginger van Dijk”.

In front of us the BT players go through the motions, one of them also sporting a very uncomfortable looking tight pair of shorts, has the most stunningly intricately tattooed calves.

Organised into a line by the mouth of the vinyl red tunnel the mascots await the players, one wondering quite rightly why the sprinklers are on, because surely they'll “get the players wet”. The ST fans have not stopped since they arrived and with the BT fans now packed in behind the long banner we saw being put up what feels like an age ago, it's quite the reception for the teams when they appear.

Even though the now exceptionally excited man over the PA is shouting, he pales into insignificance compared to the din of the ST supporters, “Moors, Moors, Moors” they chant in a low rumbling tone. Falling some way short of the away fans, the home crowd offer up their own chant, “BT. BTF. BTFC”, which in combination with applause from around the ground, all adds to the growing early atmosphere.

If only the next forty five minutes, in fact the whole ninety could live up to the energy of the teams entrance, where the ST fans are a constant, and the BT ones certainly play their part, however the efforts on the pitch, never quite hits the same level.

Two minutes gone and a low driven BT shot is touched just wide, prompting the fans behind the goal into a song, “oh when the Saints go marching in” and quite early on it turns into one of those occasions where one is concentrating on the crowd, rather than the game. The rowdy ST supporters are not lets say impressed much by the offerings of their BT counterparts so far, “you’re support is fucking shit”.

When the ST fans aren't singing, which is very infrequently, St James Park falls quiet. The songs from the big open terrace slowly become more and more regular, but when they do come, don't last for long, “come on you Saints”. Stopping only to take a breath, the ST end is soon bouncing and bubbling again, “black and white army”. There are few places left along the entirety behind the goal, where a flag of one sort or another isn't fluttering, and the nucleus of the support, hammering the back of the stand, always ready to start a new song “something tells me I'm into something good” is packed in under the corrugated roof of the stand, and is in constant motion.

Not only contained to their respective end, the ST fans have infiltrated the BT one two, their own shouts and songs, are soon drowned out by the much larger contingent of home supporters, “whoo, whooo, whoo Brackley”.

A home injury just after ten minutes brings about a lengthy stoppage, with the sun out for the first time in a while, the downed player, who looks in some agony, his hand clamped over his mouth, gets short shift from a nearby ST fan, “get up man”. The two passing policeman, something I will never get used to seeing at a non league game, get a hummed rendition of the Laurel & Hardy theme sent their way, but take it in good humour, and Tom puts the very slow opening quarter of an hour down to the day of the week, “major Sunday vibes”.

Chances are few and far between, BT send a diving header off target and the fourth official has a job on his hands calming ST’s manager, who was certain there was a foul on one of his players in the build up to the chance.

A single big voice somewhere on the BT terrace, is the epicentre of most home chants, so resonant is it, that Tom questions if the noise being created is in fact just one person, “is that one man singing?”. His latest attempt to get the well packed home end going falls on deaf ears, “we all follow the Brackley”, when he tries again, “altogether now”, it’s stony silence. The same can not be said for the ST end, which is rocking, banging out the rhythm on the back of the stand, the fans respond with more thunderous shouts of “Moors, Moors”.

Beating his man, BT’s archetypal tricky winger, fond of a step over, or five, is encouraged to probe further by one man on the sidelines, “go on”, eventually dinking the ball into the box, his team mates attempted bicycle kick gets a sceptical “optimistic” from Tom, and a “what the fucking hell was that” from a ST fan as it flies, well, well over.

The sun has disappeared once again, and it's cold. This does little to quell the ST fans, “Spennymoor Town FC are the team for me”. Half an hour gone and the action is at an absolute minimum, when the BT captain telling off the referee, in his best serious Dad voice, “that’s two decisions you've got wrong” is about the most interesting thing that's happened, it's a concern. With a less than complimentary look on his face, Tom’s summary of the game so far is pretty damning, “snoozefest”.

Into the final ten of the half and at the forefront of their attack, BT have a bulldozer of a man, a number 9 with thighs like tree trees trunks, who is more than willing to use his considerable bulk to his advantage. Bamboozling a couple of ST defenders on the edge of their box with a drop of the shoulder, he cuts the ball across the area, only for it to be cut out, the potential of the move exiting the home crowd, “ohhhhhh”.

Livid maybe doesn't quite go far enough to describe the current mood of the ST manager, it was all his teams fault, that they were under the pressure they were, poor passing in midfield leading to the ball being fizzed across their six yard box. It almost seems contagious, as soon both sets of supporters are soon groaning at their own teams inability to complete a simple pass.

With the game really having failed to catch light, Tom is already asking me what happens if its a draw, extra time I tell him, “it's going that way so far”.

Unaffected by the on field performance, the ST fans are single handedly stopping me from getting out a broadsheet newspaper, plonking myself on the sofa and officially calling this one a sleepy Sunday, “we are Spennymoor, we are Spennymoor”.

Their teams best attack of the half comes right before its conclusion, a flowing move, they have heard their managers bellowing cries for more “quality” and a back heel and a slide rule pass down the wing later, the ball is whipped into the box, but the final pass lets the move down, and the eventual shot after a bit of hot potato is ballooned over. One ST player can only hold his head in his hands in response to the missed chance and the BT fans let out a sarcastic “weyyyyy”.

“Where did he get that from?” asks one BT supporter, the announcement of “two minutes added time” has just rung around the ground. Two chances follow, one for each team, that might leave a slightly false residing memory that it’s been quite a lively half, but it hasn't. A dipping ST shot, which forces the BT keeper to frantically back peddle, was always going over, but still gets a “ohhhhh” anyway and the instruction of “hit it” from one BT fan is acknowledged, but the player never gets hold of it, and it's easy for the keeper to gather.

“You’ve got no chance” sneers Tom, as I pluck my 50/50 tickets from my breast pocket in anticipation of the draw for the “record” pot of “£360” that is about to take place. I’ve seen it done by a referee, but never an away fan, the ST supporter being of no fucking help whatsoever, “out by two hundred” points out the smug one. Cock.

Sprouting out of the pitch like an unwanted gofer, the sprinkler gives the pitch a drink, and perhaps the slick surface might somehow improve the match? Wishful thinking on my part perhaps. “There is a breathless man in front of me” is not a quote from a Carry On film, but the latest from the PA, “the 50/50 has been claimed” he adds, and then spouts a colossal amount of waffle.

For what felt like a near biblical amount of people moving about in the break, neither set of fans have swapped ends, word must have just got around about the food, because its as you were for the start of the new half. BT are out first to a smattering of applause, ST are close behind, who go through a quick drill and one ST fan lets out an impassioned shout of, “come on the boys”.

With BT attacking our end now, it gives us a chance to get our first real up close glimpse of their blunt instrument of a number 9. “His thighs are stupid” gasps Tom, each one like the haunch of a large game animal, “does he need them that big?” he wonders, doing his best to conceal his little pigeon legs underneath his long jacket.

ST’s fans pick up right where they left off, the stand still taking a kicking and I notice one of their flags is from their London supporters branch. Noisy, but in a very different kind of way, a BT supporter who has joined the ranks of those around us, is certainly loud, but his output is boorish. He’s not singing or chanting, he’s just obnoxious. Fuelled by the snigger's of those in his immediate vicinity, he keeps up his shtick for almost the entirety of the rest of the game, “what a load of fucking bollocks”.

A foul on the edge of the BT box leaves both benches apoplectic, but for different reasons. The angry shouty fan tells one of the ST defenders arguing his case to “shut up” and is playing up to the crowd more and more. The ST players are claiming the BT one “fell over” and by coincidence I’m sure, and it’s what happens when I drink tequila, the ST fans have broken into a bit of The Champs. The home ends attempt to reply is an attempt at the Dam Buster theme, but it's a little lacklustre to say the least.

The team are on top, the fans are on top, “we love, we love, that is why we follow”, it’s near ST dominance. A black and white flag is being flown above the heads of the crowd and the visitors are getting closer and closer to taking the lead, just shy of a quarter of an hour gone, and they head wide, inspiring a roaring version, of “we’re the black and white army”.

A jibe from the ST fans, about the lack of noise coming from them “you’re supposed to be at home” as you can imagine does not go down well with the angry fan, who is close to bursting a blood vessel, and when they hit them with another lyrical jab, “is this a library?” he nearly pops. The most the BT fans have to offer is the mandatory “you’re shit ahhh” at every ST goal kick, but that’s it. The lingering “ahhhhhh” is very good, but the lack of songs is a surprise.

The ST supporters appeal en mass for a penalty, “handball”, but the referee waves it away. Moments later they watch on as their keeper pulls off the most remarkable save, after a swiping volley from a BT player requires a stop right out the top drawer, and the ST fans noise level only keeps on climbing, “ola, ola, Moors, Moors”.

After much movement and numerous overlaps, the BT cross at the end of all of it is “poor” says Tom. The home fans belt out another round of “oh when the Saints go marching in” their team in the throngs of a rare moment on top, a chest trap, a swift turn, and a shot wide, gets a “ohhhh” from the South Bank Saints, but Tom doesn't see all these half chances as promising, that a goal is imminent, but quite the opposite, “no one is ever going to score, we’ll be stuck here forever”.

This notion, that I have just spent five minutes trying to dispel is only compounded when the bulldozer number 9, barrelling down the right wing, cuts the ball into the box, but the player on the edge of the six yard box can’t connect, and while the home fans squeal and the chance goes begging, Tom is resigned, “it’s never going in”.

The loudest the home fans have been all game, “we love you, we love you” follows thirty seconds of sheer madness, the scramble to end all scrambles, where the ST goal is bombarded with chance after chance, rebound and ricochet, woodwork tested and last ditch saves, the ball eventually being prodded over by “the ginger van Dijk” and everyone to a man asking the person next to them, “how did they keep that out?”.

“It's never going to happen” mutters Tom, however a goal has never felt so likely, and when ST hit the woodwork directly from a corner, “did that hit the bar?” he asks, needing confirmation, ensuring
his eyes had not deceived him, a breakthrough seems looming.

The ST fans continue to be confident, do they know any other way, “we are going up” they sing. They test BT’s resolve with another corner, this time the BT keeper through the crowd, does just about enough to punch it clear. “He did well there”says a relieved home supporter.

Out singing and now out “you're shit ahhh” ing the home fans the ST supporters are monopolising, “Spennymoor, Spennymoor”, they will have the local noise pollution team here soon. Even when for the countless time a ball from the right wing sails through their box, they fail to be shushed. A shout from the home crowd for the players to “gamble” are ignored, and BT are getting into, ‘we are going to rue all these missed opportunities’ territory.

Into the final ten minutes of the ninety and BT are starting to look a little ragged. The ST players attempt to keep their energy up, necking tubes of sporty gel from the bench or are they apricot Frubes, I can't tell. On their feet, the ST technical area is full of stunned men with their hands on their heads, after battling into the box, the shot come cross looks to have rolled right along the goal line. “We’re the black and white army” howl the ST fans who now resemble the crowd from a heavy metal concert, it's almost a mosh pit.

A single BT fan does his best to rally the players, “come on you Saints” but gets little backing from those around him.

Flabbergasted, dumbfounded, lost for words, the ST bench once again are all on their feet, a superb ball down the right, finds the wide player, but no one can get on the end of his ball into the box.

BT mixing up, attack instead down the left and not the right this time, which ends up with a shot hitting the post, “ohhhhhh” go the fans, the sense that one goal is going to be enough, is clear to every person here. All day they've looked threatening from wide, great cross after great cross has made its way into the ST box, but maybe a certain amount of hesitation means “they're just not committing” says Tom, the keenest of anyone here to see a goal.

When the people stopped laughing, that should have been the sign for the angry shouty fan to give it up, but he’s still plugging away, and it's getting a bit cringey. As Tom puts it, “there's always one”.

For the first time today, into the dying moments the BT fans match the noise of the ST ones, “come on Brackley, come on Brackley”. A second half sub their number 12 toys with the ST defence, sending a defender one way, then another, his quick feet get him into a fine position, but his shot come cross is right at the keeper, they just can't make anything stick.

One last dig from the ST supporter, “shit fans, shit fans” can't stir even angry fan. ST have another shout for a penalty waved away and at the sight of the board going up, three minutes of extra time, Tom lets out a languid yawn, before saying mid stretch, “now or never”.

“Both teams playing like they don't want to lose” is a perfect summary of a game that's had chances, but has lacked any kind of real blood and thunder, a “very tense kind of game” as one person put it. Seemingly sure that extra time was a forgone conclusion, the BT physio returns from the changing room with a brand new box of revitalising gel, to help reinvigorate tired limbs.

“Bloody hell what happens now” asks an exasperated Tom, the final whistle has been blown, the whole place quiet, except of course those from the North East, “we’re the black and white army” and a couple of local kids, “come on Brackley”. Both teams huddle, two players clearly sprint for the loo, some have a rub down, one BT player, does what I’m sure is totally normal at times like these, he has his nails cut, “he’s having a pedicure” points out a amazed Tom.

Half over the hoardings, straddling them, the ST fans can’t have been anything but a positive force behind their team. Now it's the turn for the home fans to show the same level of fanaticism, as the voice over the PA tells them, its time “to be the twelfth man”.

The home crowd are little more than subdued now, at the start of the first half of extra time, even the sight of “ginger van Dijk” blocking a dangerous ball into the box can’t inspire them and just about summing up their time in front of goal, backing into his man, until he can turn, the bulldozer does all the hard work, but then shoots so off target, his shot in in danger of hitting a wicket keeper.

At a snail's pace the game gets closer and closer to a shootout, if Tom had his way, they would have skipped extra time altogether. ST still for me look the likelier to score, a back post volley is blocked, and they look like, thanks to the Frubes, that they have plenty of steam left in them

“Hit it, hit it, hit it” urges one BT fan, the BT player on the edge of the box delaying his attempt, moving the ball further and further forward, until a gap just big enough opens up, and he sends a shot spanking against the bar and after a near hiatus from making any noise, the BT fans wake up, “Brackley, Brackley”.

We’re so bored we’re talking about Roberto Carlos thighs, and angry fan is back, complete with chips. The whistle for half time momentarily wakes the BT fans, “come on Brackley, come on Brackley”. You’ve probably got bored of me telling you what the ST fans are doing, they’re still doing it if you were wondering, they probably won't stop until they are home in bed, and that is still up for debate.

The second half of extra time, is somewhat ruined by the constant bleating of the BT fan along from us, whose commentary is as voracious as ever before, “walk it off big man” he says, when the “ginger van Dijk” is injured and then he’s telling the ST manager to “get off” his knees, he’s gone the full Platoon on the edge of his technical area. One on one, he’s just watched a player send a low skimming shot, just the wrong side of the post. Almost starting to celebrate, his assistant turns away from the pitch, coiled like a spring, but having stopped himself just in time.

There are plenty of groans and near misses as a goal threatens, then seems unlikely, threatens once more and then seems completely unlikely again. BT are on top, but I’m not sure they could score if their lives depended on it. Missing the ball, and clattering in to his teammate, one ST player is down, the goal is empty the keeper stranded and all the BT number 9 has to do is roll it into an empty net, people have already started celebrating but you probably know what is going to happen, before I even finish this sentence, he misses. How God only knows, but lying face down on the pitch, I’m not sure I would have been unable to look up, I would have just stayed put until it got dark.

The gambit of emotions in the BT end is vast, up and down they bob, some are unable to look, some recoil at missed chances and poor passes, some stand quiet, some scream and shout. “A minimum of four minutes added time” announces the voice over the PA. The ST end off in their own little world, are doing what they do, the balls not been anywhere near them for awhile and BT are presented with even more chances to put the game to bed in added time, the bulldozer causing plenty of problems. From the wings again they get the ball into the box, but the shot from just outside the area goes screaming over.

“Got to get everybody up there” insists one BT fan, a free kick gives them the perfect opportunity to pack the box. In goes the ball, and out it goes again, once more its lumped back in, meeting a home head, only for the header to be soft and right at the keeper. More groans, and no time left for anymore
chances, penalties it is.

We all know how shootouts pan out, hero's and villains, heartbreak and happiness, and when the “ginger van Dijk” pointed towards the ST fans, having won the toss, one had an inkling they already had the upper hand. The body language of the two teams was worth noting too, ST tightly interlinked, arms over shoulders, BT scattered, some standing some sitting.

It's all even stevens until ST miss, and its not until the last round, that the visitors are handed a life line, BT's number 9 missing by a mile. ST score and then another BT player is overcome with the pressure of it all, his shot way off target too, he drops to his haunches, if ST score next, they are off to the Final.

They may have been singing about being the "black and white army" today, but its a flash of sunshine yellow that charges towards the final ST penalty taker and scorer. The garish colour of the players shirts can be seen at the centre of the maelstrom, the absolute scenes of pandemonium playing out on the pitch, the railings not able to hold back the ST fans any longer, on to the pitch they go for more songs, hugs and celebrations.

Far from a memorable match by any means, but one that will be remembered for the performance of the ST fans, and the people who climbed the near by trees to watch for free. Travelling all that way and being able to keep it up for as long as they did, is commendable to say the least. Tom and I were only an hour up the road, and I'm sure I saw him nodding off at one point.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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