Sunday 26 January 2020

Three At The Back, Undertaker Up Front - Berkhamsted FC Vs Welwyn Garden City FC, Southern League Central, Broadwater (01/01/20)

Scrambled eggs, a side of jalapeno pretzels, James Bond with my half asleep mother and my son glued to his laptop, all topped off with a can of American Fanta and that's before we have got into the nitty gritty of the Hootenanny and the half cut guests pretending to celebrate the dawning of a new decade in and around the second week of October.

New Years Eve is a lot different now since having children. It all used to be ecstasy, too much booze and rejection and ultimately not having a nice time. Now there are no drugs or girls to fawn over, just crap music and bar snacks that give me heartburn.

Fireworks display consumed and having just about successfully ignored the fact I’m turning 36 in less than a week, for a few hours at least, January the 1st sees Grandma on babysitting duty, while I make myself scarce for a few hours.

I say babysitting, he’s 13 now and is about as big as a house, so in reality, he’s looking out for her. Making sure her cats don't overthrow her and start using her debit card. A few signs of our wild night in are still scattered about the living room when we arrive. The chocolate orange wrappers and Diet Coke cans, all the hard stuff. I don’t stick around for long having passed Tom lurking outside in his car like a pest, so ditch the kid, bidding him a fond farewell.

It’s a new year, it’s daytime, Tom is driving and we’ve not been to a game in a month. To quote the much misunderstood Charlie Sheen, one could maybe say I was “winning”, however I’ll make sure not to say it in earshot of my son, he would be mortally embarrassed.

A miniature Boba Fett now adorns Tom's dashboard, a Christmas present from his wife. The bobblehead nature of it means once we’ve set off, its jerking about so violently, I don't see how it's not both horribly distracting for Tom and surely it can't withstand that level of punishment for long, any minute now its little green helmet wearing head is going to pop right off.

“Love is in the air” plays softly over the radio and not long into our journey and although from the outside Tom looks relatively fresh, last night being his first ever New Years Eve where he has not gone out and got all kinds of fucked up, the apparent new mask of self control is slipping every so often. Struggling with the climate controls, the temperature in the car swings wildly between boiling hot and freezing cold. Showing that four G&T’s and a bottle of champagne be it on the sofa at home or the dancefloor of a Camden night club, are going to have some after effects.

Christmas chat and just how bad Tom’s in laws are at buying presents, followed by a smattering of football chat and just how badly Arsenal are doing, all to the backdrop of Alanis Morisette, amply fill our time on the short drive North, eventually arriving in the the very busy and charming Berkhamsted, where the people round here are very keen on a New Year's Day wander about.

Not far from the town centre alongside a canal and under some weeping willows, it's not firstly apparent that there is a football ground nearby, secluded fir trees, nestled between the nearby train line and the Grand Union. It’s one of those ones that if it wasn't for the sign on the side of a building with today's fixture spelt out across it, one could be forgiven for thinking they had taken a wrong turning.

Having parked up in the adjacent Pooh Corner Day Nursery two things are soon very apparent:

1. Just how bloody close the train line is, running directly behind one goal, you can see the platforms and the dot matrix information boards. When the first Pendalino rattles by on its way to Manchester it kind of scrambled my brain how loud it was.

2. That I’m not the only one who found Craig David on BBC One last night a bit repetitive, “they’re all the fucking same” critics one passer by about his back catalogue.

The presence of a couple of stags and a modicum of amber lets on that Watford’s women's team play at Broadwater too, home of Berkhamsted FC (BFC). That until the latest train passes by, is a very sedate setting. A whole lot of red brick has gone into building the main stand, with its low slung flat roof and red plastic seats. Behind each goal are a couple of suitably sized covered terraces, the canal end one much larger than the train end one, but both are more than adequate. The fourth option, a red gazebo looking thing to one side of the main stand, has a sit on, wooden train underneath, that we are both very much drawn towards.

“Cosy” is how Tom describes the clubhouse, where the tinsel is still up, but the Christmas tree has been undressed and looks in desperate need of a drink. One end of the room is dominated by a pool table and behind it a screen showing this afternoon's Premier League lunchtime kick off. The mainstay of any decent clubhouse other than a decent sized dancefloor of course, which it has, and a dart board, are two fruit machines twinkling away, having been freed from their sarcophagus.

The walls are covered in pictures of all sizes from seasons gone by and some shelves groan under the weight of a not inconsiderable amount of silverware. At the bar where there is a special offer on Prosecco and among the new arrivals wishing each other a “happy new year” the barman, who is in shorts by the way, is discussing with a small group the playing career of Bradley Walsh.

Brighton Vs Chelsea is hardly riveting and two kids pester their Mum to ask at the bar to see if the pool table is free, a game of eightball much more entertaining than watching Frank Lampard's blues labour against the seagulls.

Sporting a blue and and yellow scarf, one BFC fan greets a friend “hello matey” before joining him at his table, sitting down and letting out a shudder in response to it being just a tad chilly outside and in doing so confirming what all football fans already know, that football scarves, because of what they are made of, don't actually offer any protection from the cold whatsoever, you might as well not have it on.
Rousing from his faint New Years Eve induced malaise, like I said an entire bottle of champagne, and while snacking on a packet of crisps, Tom proves that life as an Arsenal fan has got pretty dire. “Thank you” he says, still smarting from Chelsea's victory over his lot recently, “payback for Boxing Day”. The fact Brighton have just scored a blinder, vicariously helps him get over giving up a one goal lead at home and eventually losing and he gets bizarrely energised, when the notion that Brighton might beat Chelsea crosses his mind, “imagine if they won”.

“50/50 draw?” asks the white haired man in specs, something I’ve not been asked for a while, mainly on account of where we’ve been lately did not offer one and I of course dutifully oblige. I have many New Year's resolutions, but stopping gambling at football isn't one of them. The man on the table next to us is confident, “must be a winner” he breathes while handing over his cash, and in the short time being here, the crowd in the bar has really swelled and although it’s still rather bit drab outside, the man nearby defacing his programme, is enough to drive us out.

“Maybe it does work” wonders Tom, miraculously the broken drum fastened to the railing behind one goal has come to life, the almighty hole in it, Tom reckoned made by a frustrated fan, more than over use, is being played. However such a marvel is not the case, we have not witnessed a non league miracle. On closer inspection a shiny new one has replaced the rather sad old one, a Christmas present perhaps and up behind it a yellow and blue Union Jack has been hung on the chain link fence,
that is all that separates the ground and the train station.

The PA’s speakers let out a gentle hum and warming up in front of the small mob of teen BFC fans huddled around the drum and flag, the players of Welwyn Garden City FC (WG) are sharing their thoughts on the home team, “they are so busy and compact, hard to break down” he says it with a slight air of defeatism, which the coach taking the warm up is quick to shoot down, “we can do that”.

With the effect of the crisps starting to wean, Tom’s inspection of the small hatch at one end of the main stand, has kicked up a few concerns. “I don't know if they do burgers” he tells me. It is apparent there are a few cold options, but they go down like a lead balloon, “who wants a cheese roll?”.

“Happy New Year everyone, welcome to Broadwater” says the jolly voice over the PA, before he lets us in on BFC’s socialist leanings when “on behalf of the Comrades” he extends the “welcome” to all the players and staff of WG. His little bit of chatter on the reverse fixture a “1 -1 draw” on a “hot August Bank holiday” has a few in the stand reminiscing, “feels like ages ago now” and whereas the family of the drummer splashed out on him for the 25th, the same can't be said for the loved ones of whoever does the announcements. “No one got him a new microphone for Christmas” laughs a man nearby, the PA’s transmission cutting in and out about every other word.
Proving that the promise of a cheese butty is more than appetising than Tom thinks, the crowd around the food hatch is at a decent size, although it's hard to make out who is queueing and who are WG fans waiting for the toss, to see where they will be spending the first half and when a train pulls up at the station, the ding ding ding to signal the opening doors is so loud it’s like I’m about to board, before it pulls off again, completely drowning out the sporadic whacks of the drum.

The tiny caged tunnel at the centre of the the main stand is hardly big enough to contain a small child, let alone multiple men, so the referee does not wait around long, before leading out the teams. The chants of “yellows, yellows” and the beat of the drum that until now had been muted, ramping up dramatically as the teams make the short walk on to the pitch, before lining up to shake hands.

Getting only louder the drum and the group of about twenty encircling it are soon fully up to speed, “yellow army”, by the time the PA is running through the starting elevens, the home side getting the New Year underway with a new man between the sticks, who is “making his home debut”.

Although he’s unable to finish his sentence, technical difficulties again, “enjoy the game and make some……..” most people get what the PA was getting at, and indulge him. “Since I was young” sing the BFC supporters, the WG ones now at the canal end, in the larger stand pipe up too, “come on Welwyn, come on Welwyn”.

The home fans behind the goal having set out their stall early, now have a lot to live up to and carry on in pretty much the same vein for the rest of the match. “No noise from the Welwyn boys” they sing, however if the away fans had responded it would have been impossible to hear, because another train just passed by. “You're shit ahhh” they shout after the first WG goal kick, committing themselves to swearing as much as is humanly possible. My favourite of their fairly x rated reparte is probably the call and response chant of “get in to them, fuck them up”.

All this bravado however soon dissipates, because within four minutes of the start the hosts are behind. The debutante in goal falling the wrong way, the WG penalty is hardly a sterling one, but it's in all the same. The scorer wheeling away with his index finger pressed up against his lips, shushing the crowd.

The “yeahhhh” from the WG fans is robust, the noise from the BFC supporters is the classic, lets totally overcompensate for the fact we just went behind at home, “your support is fucking shit” they shout, which is accompanied with a few hits of the drum.

Within a minute of the restart and having seen the spot kick awarded against them, the home team saw their own fair shout for one waved away, sending the BFC supporters under the shelter of the train end into meltdown. Going from about twenty five to a thousand in the blink of an eye. Many if not all of them in their early teens, all over using the word cunt.
Having got off to a rampant start with the early goal the game doesn't look like slowing any time soon, the physicality levels continue to creep upwards and the chances are starting to come. A half volley through a crowd straight at the WG keeper is spilled, but gathered in at the second time of asking, and having now heard the word cunt so many times in the last six minutes, I’m already completely desensitised to it.

“Look at my new purchase” says Tom, showing off his brand spanking new jumper, I half expect him to call me a cunt but he doesn't. I fail on first look to get why he is telling me about his new purchase, until his longing gaze at his own hands, draws my attention to the fact that the sleeves allow his thumbs to protrude through small holes. What I would have called at school ‘goth sleeves’, but he for some reason thinks they are better than his Fagin's. “So you can stop taking the piss out of my fingerless gloves” he bleats. He must still be drunk.

Tom then tries to distract me with a bit of kit chat, “It’s a nice burgundy” he points out about WG’s strip, but unlike him I’m not a fan of the fact from head to toe head it’s all the same colour. I like a slight bit of variation. The home sides blue and yellow get up is fetching, but ultimately I just find myself looking at his dodgy sartorial choice.

Although the BFC player hits the target from a tight angle, his teammates in the box are in a far better position and I feel it's safe to say think he should have passed it, giving him a right old bollocking. The home fans and the drum strike up another song, “ally, ally o, Berkhamsted FC” and Tom who is still doing his best to draw my stare away from his sleeves, points out the haggard cut of socks of one WG player, that wouldn’t look out of place in a bin, “seen better days”.

“Ohhhh '' gasps the BFC fans at the sight of one player bursting into the box, his pass across the six yard box is dangerous, before it's cleared, not reaching the player ready to tap it in. They are getting closer to drawing level, and the promise of such draws another song from the home crowd, “yellow, yellow, yellow”.

A head injury to a BFC player, prone on his back clutching his face, means a respectful hush descend as he is attended to. There is the odd rattle of the drum and the sound of one of the keepers clearing his studs on the post but little else.

After such an encouraging start, and all the signs of a goal fest, anything really clear cut has hardly been forthcoming. An “optimistic” back pass as Tom calls it nearly catches BFC out, “he hoofed it at
him” he laughs, the BFC keeper not impressed at all, giving the player responsible an earful.

Ohhhs from the BFC fans follow a curling edge of the box shot that clears the post by inches, however it's the Dominoes sign and offer of “buy one, get one free” that has Toms attention. The pitch side advertising makes him remember a time when I used to bomb about on a scooter in a helmet slinging Meat Feasts at stoned people, and the last time he once dined on such delicacies, “not had it for 10 years, since you left”.

I’m not sure what's more outrageous as I put it, repeating the same word over and over again as one BFC player on around twenty four minutes completes the maziest of mazy runs, it's akin to Ginola Vs Barnsley, he is unstoppable, evading almost the entire WG team before dinking it past the keeper or his strutting Cantona esq celebration. Turning, simply being, waiting to be mobbed by his teammates and I thought the group behind the goal had peaked when they didn't get that penalty, but that was nothing.

They reach all new highs in response to what was a quite spectacular goal. Scarves are being whirled above heads as they serenade the still bouncing players, “whooooo, oooooooo, and that is why we follow, we follow''.

Close to being undone in the same fashion for a second time, we very nearly have a carbon copy of the BFC goal, moments after the restart. The BFC player slaloms his way into the WG box, only for this time the keeper is on hand to block the shot. An “ohhhhh” emanates from the crowd and the goal has well and truly stirred the home side, who are now peppering the visitors box. It's all action, at one point the WG keeper is well and truly clattered, and the referee doesn't even bat an eyelid.

Back on level pegging and now in the ascendancy, if BF has one notable weakness, it's the new keeper, who Tom has said on more than one occasion, “looks a bit shaky”. Not that this is of any concern to the home fans who once again are in full voice, “ally, ally o” and “since I was young…….Berko FC the team for me” they sing.

Almost turning into a screech, the high pitched appeal of someone on the home bench for another penalty, “reffffff” goes unanswered. The player on his arse in the box is bemused at why it's not been given and as play is waved on, the chant of “VAR, VAR” bubbles out from the stand, rearing its head again soon after, when BFC have a goal chalked off, for offside.

Out of almost nowhere, WG hit the post with a leathered shot from a ridiculous angle, their first meaningful attack since conceding and BFC complete an unwanted hattrick of poor unawarded penalties, when their third of the half is declined and the sweary boys are back again, “you’re fucking blind” sneers one, “you’re just a bloke with a whistle” says another curiously, because that's exactly what he is.

One would have to say that it’s probably somewhat against the run of play when four minutes before the break, WG takes the lead. “Lets think now” says a philosophical member of the way bench, the towering, and I mean massive BFC number 5, is not quite so composed, “come on don’t go in your fucking shells”.

The final minutes of the half are scrappy, and as the teams leave for the break, peeking out from under his woolly hat, with his burgundy WG scarf almost covering his face, the very person who suggested we should come here today, ever so slightly smugly tells me “told you it would be a good one” and just like Tom said before leaving in search of food, the visiting supporter echos what he has to say too, that even though his team are ahead, he “can't call it”.

“Sandwiches” says Tom disappointingly, his worst fears having been confirmed, BFC is a burger free zone. Such are the sandwiches' popularity mind, they are “out of cheese”, the thought of “sausage and pickle” did not appeal, so he plumbed for ham and tomato and feeling a bit peckish myself, I asked him to get me one too. Fresh and well filled, and white roll the right side of chewy and crusty, Tom quickly comes round to the idea that a sandwich is not all that bad, going as far to say 2020 could be “the year of the sandwich”.

The appearance of the BFC players awakens the home fans, who have not moved ends for the new half. Breaking into a chant, “yellow, yellow”, they have to compete with the man on the PA running through the scores from around the division. My hopes that 2020 might be about more than just nobility named lunch snacks, but about winning too, are soon dashed, reading out the the results of the 50/50, there is a tantalising five second pause, before he announces that the prize has already been “claimed”.

It's a bright start by WG, off into the box, it's only a last ditch tackle that stops the early attack turning into anything more. The scream of one BFC player is slightly curdling, after a raking challenge that required the referee to call the physio on and another stoppage a few minutes later, means it's all rather stop start. The player felled this time can't carry on, and the age old signal is made to the bench that a replacement needs to be readied.

“Welwyn give us a song?” ask the BFC fans, who on receipt of no tune from the away fans, many of whom who did chance ends, and are now standing just along from them, reply as I would expect, “no noise from the Welwyn boys” and Tom casually drops our first WWE reference of the year, when the BFC number five cushion the ball out of the air effortlessly and plays it out from the back like a Guardiola wet dream, “nice touch from the Undertaker”.

It’s great for us, but I’m sure for the respective fans and managers, the game continuing to swing from one end to another, can sometimes be too much to bare. A tame WG shot is fallen on top of in seemingly slow motion and then the home fans curse their defence, “oh fuck off” after one visiting player tries to emulate the outrageous goal, but cant find a teammate in the box. The cheer from the away fans as they go close to extending their lead, triggers what is now the customary response anytime they make even a peep, “we forgot that you were here”, before telling them they’re “only here for the Berko” anyway.

With still over thirty minutes to play, it's clear already that the GW keeper is doing everything in his power to waste as much time as he can. “Watch him” shouts one home fan angrily, as he prepares to take what are now rather long winded goal kicks.

WG have well and truly got the bit between their teeth, an up and under almost outwits the home defence, plucked from the air, it looks like the only outcome is going to be a third WG goal, only for the “Undertaker” as Tom now increasingly calls him, to stop the cross into the box with a back heel no less, nullifying the attack. WG looks dangerous, BFC looks disjointed.

The home fans continue to jab away at the away ones, “shall we sing a song for you?”. The linesman
running the line in front of us is very partial to a snot rocket and in what maybe a first, the BFC supporters are now singing a song to the tune of the Addams Family theme, but are all soon screaming bloody murder after a WG foul. “Give him red” they demand, only for it to be yellow.

It looks like the resulting free kick will end with a tap in for the home side, only for it to be blocked and the “Undertaker” is booked for dissent after they are not awarded a free kick. How vital all these chances may have proved to be, because after twenty minutes WG go further ahead, sending the BFC keeper into despair.

“He was offside” he bellows, chasing the referee, he’s joined by a teammate to bolster his protests, but it all comes to nothing, eventually talking himself into the book, and getting very, very red in the face. The supporters behind him, who as this has all played out in front of, are now shouting “cunt” on loop”. The away bench continues it’s zen like approach to management, “heads on” shouts the club's guru.

One home player, there is always one, maybe it's just a way to fill the awkward silence suggests there “is still time”.

Not only are BFC looking a tad toothless, their keeper looks rattled, nervous even and his failed attempt to claim a cross, is hardly reassuring anyone. As Tom puts it GW are “cut throat” they've hardly had an abundance of chances, but they have taken them. BFC I would say probably shade it, as far as time in front of goal, a flying counter attack down the wing, ends with a ball into the box, but no one is on hand to finish, summing up their potency up front or lack of it perfectly.

Whenever WG venture up towards the railway line, there always looks like there might be a goal at the end of it. “Manage the game” insists someone on their bench.

Feeling the the side effect of barrelling into a whole hoard of people, the BFC keeper has to take a knee in his own area to recover, and he is soon called into action. Hold up play of the highest calibre, presents WG with a golden opportunity to kill the match off with a quarter of an hour left to play. With a whole host of options, the man with the ball finds a team mate, whose shot is right at the keeper, a fourth goal now feels like only a matter of time.

BFC just can't find each other when it counts, the game is starting to descend into a bit of a niggly affair, home heads are dropping and the WG bench reminds the team to not neglect their “shape” and to “manage the game”. Tom though is not so convinced his rhetoric has much meaning, “he’s just shouting words”.

Poleaxed by an elbow, the “Undertaker” is soon back up, and Tom is sure the home bench has had a jostle with the formation, “I think they've put the Undertaker up front, he's not running back”. The gin haze has started to clear and Tom’s Pep side is able to come to the fore, “three at the back, Undertaker up front” he confirms.

All home hopes seem to have been put in their newly substituted number 15, who has a neat touch, but is being bullied off the ball with ease. He’s seeing plenty of it, and looks to be their main channel, their sole outlet to get back into the game, but he is struggling against the WG defence. The match now one of attrition, WG happy to grind out the last fifteen, it's turning into a bit of an ugly encounter.

The drum is now less and less frequent, as are the songs. Tom thinks BFC have in their number 10, someone who has a bit of the “de Bruyne about him”, he has the odd flash of brilliance, spraying the ball about, at one point a drop of the shoulder, sells his two markers and he’s away. However all this potential is soon irrelevant, because you can have all the will in the world, a penchant for a diagonal pass, a tricky winger, or a commanding centre back, however if you take your eye of the ball for just a second, it will bite you in the bum.

It's a kind of debut that ranks along side Johnathan Woodgates for Real Madrid, that the BFC keeper has had today. Having just conceded a fourth, this one a long rage lob, after a quickly taken WG throw finds him off his line and no end of furious back peddling can help, he ends up in a heap in the back of the goal, while the GW players and staff join in congratulating the scorer.

"We want five" shouts a WG supporter and his team look to have every desire to go and get it, not a case of taking their foot of the gas whatsoever.  Rolling a shot just wide of the post, the home fans are silent. Two fans able to muster a few words, through gritted teeth discuss their sides performance, "second best", submitting to the fact that WG are "worthy winners".

WG almost crown the perfect start to 2020 with a fifth, but the linesman raises his flag, much to the displeasure of one member of the away bench, "never, never".

How to adequately describe the minutes after the final whistle. Home players dejected, away players happy. Home players trudging off, away ones all with a spring in their step, all fairly routine stuff.

People start to leave, the WG supporters hang back to clap their team off, like I said all very run of the mill. That's until I notice out the corner of my eye a blinding blue light and then I'm hit by the faint smell of cordite. The BFC fans have only gone and broken out the blue smoke and flares, our very own New Years Day pyro show and I'm frankly lost for words.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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