Sunday 22 December 2019

Felt Like I Was Sucking On A Cow - Hampton & Richmond Borough FC Vs Wealdstone FC, National League South, Beveree Stadium (16/11/19)

There are certainly some grounds and therefore some clubs who for one reason or another we have passed through the turnstiles of and spent more time in the company of, then others. Be it because of a personal obsession with a certain non league club in N17, the fact it’s the team of your other half or that particular club just happens to play on Wednesdays, which for the last couple of years has been our go to midweek match day.

The fact that Hampton & Richmond Borough FC (HRB) are neither local, play on a Wednesday or as far as I know are not supported by any known loved one, I'm not quite sure why our visit today to their tidy West London home, The Beveree, tucked away at the end of cul-de-sac a stone's throw from the banks of the Thames, is our third, having seen them play a total of five times at home and away.

No end of nice cars, parked outside nice houses surround their little corner of the football world, and when I finally find a place to park with what in comparison to some of the motors, is a complete shit show of a car with it’s broken rear window windscreen wiper, drooping down like a gun dog's tail, it is a more than an agreeable walk to the ground.

The blue wrought iron gates, and similarly coloured turnstile at the end of Beaver Close, no really it is called that, are all very familiar, so are a few of the faces as we walk on in. The lady selling the golden goal tickets from the bespoke white wooden box with a hinged lid and the person managing the table outside the club's supporters trust office, which is a re-purposed shed, all ring a bell.

One thing I naively didn't expect to see, in such an affluent part of the capital was a table set up to accept donations for a local food bank. The lady behind the heaving table makes it clear in no uncertain terms that my assumption that such a thing can’t surely be necessary in an area where a river side dwelling costs probably the same as some small nations defence budget. In fact the necessity for such things is so great, they have just opened the “fifth” one in the borough recently.

With The Beveree you just about get the perfect mixture of charm, dilapidation and proper football. A tuck shop hidden away down the side of the slightly incongruent and extremely deep covered terracing on one corner of the pitch. A ramshackle all seater stand alongside it’s older neighbour in marginally better condition, are just a few of the options as to where to watch the match. If that’s not for you, you can always shelter underneath the mixture of scaffolding poles and marine ply behind one goal or if you’re feeling revering, you can take a seat in the stand named after the man who wrote such comedy classics as Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour, who until his death in 2017 was the clubs Honorary President.

Trees starting to lose their leaves surround almost the entirety of the ground, poking up into the murky Saturday afternoon sky, and they are all that separate the nearby houses from the match day goings on. Such is the proximity of the clubs next-door neighbours that if I remember correctly from a previous visit, they are not allowed to play music, but it does little to hamper the building atmosphere.

One thing any half decent non league ground wouldn't dare be without, is of course the humble portacabin, be it for a clubhouse, club shop or changing room, the building site staple that is front runner of affordable accommodation, is ever present today adopting a role rarely seen, and in a slight twist to the norm, is where we will be spending the afternoon.

An unexpected email was a welcome surprise among all the usual spam about penis enlargement pills and compensation claims. An invitation to join the guys of Fotmob, for a day of prawn sandwiches, that was only my assumption, any potential food that might be available was not outlined in the initial email, in surroundings somewhat far removed from what we usually do at a match, plus the chance to go to a game in daylight at a ground we’ve always enjoyed visiting, was too hard to turn down.

The second of the blue double stacked portacabins behind one goal, with the clubs crest adorning one end is where you will find the Chairman's Lounge, accessed along a narrow passage and winding blue metal staircase, that feels almost intertwined with the adjacent tree. Once inside the it’s not quite what I imagined, less VIP, more annex at the end of the garden built for an elderly relative so they can have some semblance of independence, but are close enough at hand for when they take a tumble that you can help, just minus the cats and the floral covered armchair.

The small tablecloth covered table with a kettle and selection of tea and coffee only strengthens this feeling, however I’m not sure Grandma has a small fridge containing completely beer. A small TV secured to the wall is not showing rolling Sky Sports News as I’m sure happens in such surroundings higher up the pyramid, but some random European rugby, that happens to be on channel four.

We are not alone however, and because of this, neither of us are brave enough to peel back the see through plastic that covers, if I'm not mistaken and I know my shop bought sandwiches, so I doubt I am, two platters of M&S’s finest.

Being the two salt of the earth kind of guys we are, somewhere to lean and a hot cup of Bovril is normally all we require, but with high life though does come the odd perk other than free coffee. The view the Chairman's Lounge allows is one of them. Ask me this again when someone has finally peeled open the delicacies and I might have a different answer for you, but for now the sliding patio doors allowing us exclusive access to the balcony and the obscured vista, is just about defeating the internal turmoil I’m experiencing, that we might have sold out.

Below us those having to struggle with only standard admission tickets seem happy enough, but really they don't know what they are missing.

“For the Beavers” says a well spoken voice over the PA as it crackles to life, the kind of voice from a person one might imagine wears a monocle and a freshly cut carnations in their buttonhole pocket, as he proceeds to read out the homes starting eleven.

With their allegiances not clear until now, the ever growing crowd, something that has been lacking somewhat on our recent outings, soon make which side they are rooting for abundantly clear. Catching me out somewhat the followers of Wealdstone FC (WFC) most if not all have congregated under the roof of the sloping covered corner terrace, break into song, “we are the Stone”. The home fans are quick to reply, with what I still stand by is the nicest football nickname in the world, a nickname that from as far as I can work out no one knows why they are called it, that could not be more diametrically opposed to something hard and coarse like stone, “come on Beavers”.

Combined both sets of fans make a fair old din when the players emerge from almost directly below us. For a moment it goes all very GTA circa 1997, our birds eye view of the top of the players heads filling out from our lofty position on the now almost full to capacity balcony, no one has taken up one of the single line of fold down chairs, is a new experience for us.

If I’m honest the thought hadn't even crossed my mind standing up here, but the WFC fans seem to
be goading us to “shit on the bastards below” or is their latest song about someone else? Whoever it may be, I feel for the unsuspecting people below in direct firing line of any potential dirty protest, should a certain section of the crowd get their way.

The home fans now down the opposite end of the pitch, sound faint compared to the rowdy gaggle of travelling supporters standing around the base of our ivory tower, who reply quickly not with songs about pooing, but something far more PG, “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers”.

Tom impervious to the vulgar exchanges and animal based chanting, mutters in my ear that he is quite fond of the blue and red faded shirt being worn by the WFC players, which is paired  with neon orange shorts, but I have to admit it looks like the kit man has packed the wrong kit. A kit clash, all in one strip.

We don’t have to wait long until the first chance of the match, a lashed HRB shot from close range skims over the bar, prompting a “ohhhh” from the home fans and a nervous “weyyy” from the away ones. There also isn't long between songs from the sizable WFC support, “oh when the Stones go marching in” they sing, the home fans respond as any good home fans should, by rattling the hoardings.

The flood lights flicker on and one person on the busy balcony comments “I didn't expect to watch a game under the lights”. Sounding like someone doing a Friends impersonation, one home defender does his best to emphasise to the referee that he is sure the ball has gone out of play “hello, hello” he repeats, only for the throw in not to be given, and the WFC attack is allowed to continue, culminating in a slightly panicked clearance, nudging the WFC supporters to belt out their next chant.

Another shout from the home players goes up that the ball has gone out, but it’s not given and again the table topping visitors are able to fashion another chance, much to the dismay of the angry HRB players. All the calling for the ball being out, means some are out of position when the ball is eventually cut into the box. This time the chance is over, however the away fans know full well they have had a stroke of luck, so thank the referees assistant accordingly, “nice one lino”.

Not one, but two quickfire saves from the man between the sticks for HRB keep the score level. Two saves one after another, which proves that the speed I’m able to get up off the floor after playing with my daughter is of concern, because he was up in a flash. “Well done keeper” applauds one home fan close by. WFC showing every inch of their league leading credentials, crafting the chance with some excellent football, turning it on all of a sudden like the manager had flicked a switch in the dugout.

Seemingly not needing much of an excuse to sing, the WFC supporters crack out another, “we play in white, we’re fucking dynamite”. One of their flags hangs over the railings and their singing does a cracking job in drowning out the constant call of the still covered sandwiches. Everyone is either too polite to be the first or they are just not quite as obsessed with free food as us too, so are yet to tuck in. By being the person to break the seal, I only reinforce age old stereotypes I’ve spent thirty five years trying to quash, ‘oh look at the fat bloke tucking in, typical, no wonder our NHS is struggling’.

A home fan spins their old wooden rattle and WFC chalk up another effort on goal, this time a wild volley, the player in question watches the ball dropping from way on high, but his connection is poor.

Having admitted to not really feeling very well, and having looked all sorts of sad when we met earlier, Tom is feeling the side effects of allowing someone to pump him full of rubella and typhoid, the inoculations for his honeymoon taking their toll. He does look a little grey and pasty, but the draw of football on a Saturday was too good to miss out on, so he’s resorted to the age old remedy of Coke a Cola and Ibuprofen, to keep him going. “Feeling rough” he says, as he necks his umpteenth white pill.

“They're threatening” Tom ponders between sips of coke. HRB in a matter of about five minutes go close to taking the lead on more than one occasion. “Ohhhh” gasp the home fans at the sight of a header going wide from a corner. A quiet cry from the far end of the of the pitch for a penalty is waved away, with the rest of the place stony silent and then on the stroke of twenty five minutes their best chance of the match. An up and under pass is plucked from the air by the forward, who has just enough time to bring it down and shoot, however the WFC stopper is out quickly to meet him, deflecting the ball out for a corner.

The acrid smell of a nearby bonfire is soon masked by the sweet smell of one tropical fruit or another as Tom takes a large hit on his vape. The wooden rattle goes up another gear and lets off its loudest salutation so far and the visiting fans in ever growing voice inform us all they “care about is Wealdstone”.

One conundrum I didn't expect to encounter during our VIP experience was Tom fretting about wanting a burger, but not wanting to bring it in to our luxury surroundings. He could just sit on one of the steps below us and have it, where one man passing does a fine job carrying a tray with three pints on and a Kit Kat, watching the match with one eye and the path ahead with the other, without spilling a drop.

Spelling out the name of their beloved team, “e…….a……..l” the WFC supporters deviate from their en masse spelling bee, to berate the free after their forward was clattered from behind as he shaped up to shoot on the edge of the HRB box at the end of a breakaway. “He's gotta go” insists one man about the guilty looking home defender.

The resulting free kick right on the very limit of the HRB penalty areas sees them bombard the home goal with not one, not two, but three shots, each one blocked in turn, until one WFC player mixes it up with a floated cross to the back post which has to be headed out for a corner. The defencive masterclass, the likes of which Tom could only dream of seeing from his beloved Arsenal pull off, inspires his one word review, “solid”.

I’m weak, I could not even hold out until half time, I got a sandwich. The break is only minutes away, but the lure of an egg mayo was too great.

A groan from the home fans follows a poor cross and Tom is starting to wonder if we have been “cursed” this season. We’ve not exactly been blessed with thrillers this year, the two we were supposed to go to, but missed because life as is its habit of doing so, got in the way, were both 4 - 3 barnstormers. Today's match although it's been OK, has hardly really got going.

“The referee has indicated two added minutes” says the voice over the PA. “No rush keeper” jokes
one WFC fan, the HRB stopper is not exactly hurrying to take his goal kick and come the double blast of the referee's whistle, it's a bit of a slow trudge off by the players. “Come on lads” urge the WFC supporters gathered around what is not an extending tunnel as has been the case on previous visits, but temporary fencing right off a building site and someone loudly reports in the lounge that “they got sweets downstairs, we’re missing out”.

Another potential stumbling block I didn't think we would encounter was what I call the Goldilocks Effect, it being a bit too chilly on the balcony but far too warm inside, so I’ve no idea where to put myself. The fans who don't have such dilemmas, swap ends and with the WFC ones departing it’s a lot quieter now. The whole of the covered terrace opposite us is now packed out, with their expectant faces peering out waiting for the restart.

I must admit not having to watch Tom eat a cheeseburger is quite a pleasant reprieve, I spend my half time for once chowing down. Scoffing coronation chicken and discussing parenting tips and stories of soft play. On tea duty, Tom is unhappy with my overuse of the milk, “felt like I was sucking on a cow” he tells me, but I’m not really listing, someone has just opened some spring rolls.

It’s the turn of the HRB supporters to serenade us now. Lower in number, they are are though no less passionate, “come on Hampton, come on on Hampton”. With ten minutes gone WFC appeal for a penalty, however nothing is given and the home fans are let's say far from impressed with how easy one visiting player goes down, claiming a foul. “Get up you inbred” shouts one, “thats unkind on inbreds” adds another.

Tom’s fears for another dull match are soon out to the sword. When a roar goes up for another home penalty, the referee is having none of it and then WFC race right up the other end and go close themselves. However with fifty six minutes gone and I think somewhat against the run of play, although Tom disagrees, HRB take the lead.

The quality of the finish and the subsequent celebration with the fans following the goal where the scorer effectively waited for the WFC keeper to sit down having gone one way, then another before poking it in, just about make up for being three minutes out on the golden goal, three minutes. Actually what am I saying, I’m gutted.

Seconds after the restart and WFC hit the target with a bobbling shot, the tension around the ground is palpable and for the first time both ends are quiet. On twenty three minutes HRB almost double their lead with a rising shot from a very tight angle that ripples the wrong side of the net, chatting a few home fans out, who have to cut short their celebrations.

“I get no pleasure watching” says the chain smoking HRB chairman, who I think spends as much time on the steps lighting up, than he does watching the match. He squirms and contemplates his next gig, at the sight of an edge of the box shot by WFC being touched over the bar.

WFC are starting to pile on the pressure, with a quarter of an hour to go. The smooth voice of the announcer giving the attendance goes unnoticed. The HRB keeper is forced into a rash punch to clear the ball and then pulls off another smart save low to his left to keep the visitors out. “Hampton fucking stick in there” pleads one fan. The feeling of impending doom only lifting for a moment when laughter breaks out among the fans, because of a bit of a shonky kick from WFC keeper.

It feels a bit like tempting fate, but the latest HRB song “you're top the league, you're having a laugh” could maybe considered a tad ill advised when they're only one goal to the good. Firing the ball back and forth across the HRB six yard box, not one of the WFC players are able to hit the target, instead they thrash the ball across the home penalty area, causing hearts to reside in home mouths. “Come on Beavers” chant the loudest section of the home fans, the home team now forced right back up against their own goal, the WFC hitting against them time and time again.

HRB’s one and only outlet when they have possession is a loan forward found with a big lump up field. A tactic probably sneered at in some circles, but it's working for them. With less than ten minutes left, they close one and one with only the keeper to beat, the forwards side foot finish is wide. “Ohhhhhh” go the home fans, who knew full well that was the cushion they so desperately need.

What better way to distract yourself from the anxiety of just about holding onto a one goal lead, then giving the opposition goalkeeper some grief, “you're going bald in the morning”. They then resort to some more traditional prose, with a less personal song, “aly o aly o red and blue army”, before all hell breaks loose, and all that tension dissipates in a heartbeat.

A well measured pass across the WFC box, a well timed run at the back post and side footed finish via the face of the away keeper and again against the run of play, although Tom still disagrees, HRB double their lead. The crowd below us erupt, pints are spilt not quite summer 2018 style but close and more than one person takes a tumble down the steps.

“Is there a fire drill?” they ask as some of the away fans who have seen enough, start to make their way home, “we can see you sneaking out”.

Two goals up against the league leaders and with less than five minutes to go, what better way to celebrate than slagging off your rivals, “we hate Staines Town”, as well as rubbing salt into the wounds of your opponents, “2-0 to the Hampton boys, 2-0”. The small group underneath us have hit
peak loudness, the hoarding is getting a kicking and they are struggling to comprehend how the team they look very close to beating, are so much higher than them in the table, “top of the league you're having a laugh”.

The final throes of the match all belong to the away side, the nerves at new levels, but you wouldn't know that judging by the fans below us, “cheerio, cheerio” they sing waving to the departing WFC supporters. The name of their manager is now stuck on loop “Gary McCann’s red and blue army” and one person hopes the WFC faithful have enjoyed their “stay in the good part of Middlesex”.

“4 minutes of added time” enunciates the PA, dripping with such regal magnificence , I feel like a have to curtsy in his presence. Every WFC error is greeted with a relieved “weeyyyy”, each one eating into their time to potentially score and make the last few minutes unbearable.

A third for HRB might have been a bit flattering, but with nigh on every WFC player in the home half, they were always going to be vulnerable to the counterattack might and bearing in on goal, one on one with the keeper, they miss the chance to once and for all put everyone's mind at ease. Which for some reason prompts one person to ask “are you Tottenham in disguise?” bit rude.

There is a collective "yeahhhh" from almost every HRB fan come the final whistle, separated by only the recently erected semi permanent tunnel, both sets of fans go at it. "We are top of the league" sing the WFC ones putting on a brave face, after I would imagine was somewhat of an unexpected defeat. The reply from the home ones is loud, with plenty of banging, every flat hard surface close at hand is whacked with a clenched fist.

With the ground all but empty, the last few fans who stuck around following both teams elongated tunnels have left, I take in my surroundings one last time and deliberate with myself if I've room for just one last sandwich. I also mull over the pros and cons of watching football this way, and I'm scared to admit that I quite liked it, which I'm not sure why makes me feel a bit annoyed with myself.

Who doesn't want a great view, plenty of room and the odd few nibbles too? I used to turn my nose up at those in the corporate seats, fat cats killing the game we all love, that don't care about the match, they're just there for the hospitality. Am I turning into everything I once loathed, is this a slippery slope, I've tasted it once, so now chasing the high? Sniffing around boardroom doors for a biscuit or the chance of a coffee in an un-chipped china mug?

I'll tell you one thing I understand why they call them fat cats, it's the sandwiches, all the bloody sandwiches. If I am going to take this up as my new way of watching football, I might have to get a gastric band or something, otherwise I'm going to become a very fucking fat cat indeed.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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