Sunday 23 February 2020

Bloody Flags - Cambridge City FC Vs Soham Town Rangers FC, Isthmian League North, Bridge Road (05/02/20)

Necking a handful of Ibuprofen, I bid my daughter farewell, but it's tinged with a modicum of disdain. It is after all because of her and all her snotty little friends at playgroup that I feel like shit. Her kinds propensity for bad hygiene, sneezing and drooling on everything, means it's only a matter of time before I’m struck down with whatever lurgy she has brought home, along with her latest collage of painted pasta shells and glitter.

I’m sans Tom once again, a sentence I seem to be writing more than not this season. Instead I have Trevor Francis for company, the “million pound man” proves to be a worthy replacement, his self-deprecating tales of making his debut for Forest in the European Cup final, where he scored the winner, all said in his slightly monotone West Country way is very endearing and helps the time pass satisfactorily.

We're both early, both because we made the mistake of believing Google Maps tells the truth, so it means we have some time to kill, and I find Tom hunkered down his car, with the heater blaring. There is some time of course for a brief bit of Fifa chat, Tom is back at it after a short hiatus, but more interestingly he tells me after effectively retiring, he is playing Pokemon Go again, yeah I didn't think anyone played it anymore either. Like many millions of people I was too caught up in its initial fanfare, but had stopped long ago. Much to his delight tonight's ground, Bridge Road, is a Pokestop. So while I talk at him, getting very little back in reply, he is catching a whole host of Snorlax and Rattata.

Although Bridge Road is only the temporary home of Cambridge City FC (CFC), uniquely, and certainly not something we have seen before in similar circumstances, they have their very own turnstile, with their very own sign above it, the landlord's entrance a little further along. Beyond it a black roofed gazebo, the kind of which you crack out for a family BBQ, but on account of it being black it would be a family of goths, the semi permanent garden furniture, is in all intents and purposes a pop up shop. A table underneath it is laden with a fine array of branded gear from hats to pins and near by an immaculately turned out lady is selling 50/50 tickets, using a chair from a function room to prop up her kitty.

“Pitch is a bit dog eared” sneers Tom, the playing surface not up to his high standards. On it one team's physio is taking a player through their paces, before by the looks of it is determined if he is fit enough or not to play. Tom then embraces his inner Titmarsh when he notices pitchside some considerable mounds of sand and mud, “mole issue?”, but leaves his final cutting comment for the state of the sorry looking six yard box, “ohhh that is an awful goal mouth”.

The fact that in his eyes the pitch is in a far from ideal condition, is somewhat of a “surprise” to him, “for such a nice place”. Bridge Road is the home of a team who not so long ago plied their trade a bit further up the pyramid and you can tell. It’s got a bit more to it than your average ground at this level, like stands on all sides, more seats than not, and at a push, and maybe with a slightly squinted eye, it could maybe pass off as a League two ground, just.

Football fans commitment to the cause, never ceases to amaze me, and in Chris CFC’s media man, who has traveled all the way from Lincoln to Cambridgeshire tonight, is a gleaming example of this. His side's “results” this season so far “do not reflect the performances” and he ensures me that’s with an impartial hat on “I'm not just saying that”. He expects a “couple of hundred” here tonight, considering its a bit of a local derby, and he becomes the second person to flag the food as being a bit special here, someone already telling me the burger is an 11 out of 10, he tells me the “fish fingers are ace”.

George Ezra is not what first comes to mind when getting in the right headspace for a sporting event, but the players now warming up I’m sure don't have much of a say about such matters, so like me will just have to endure him and one is never quite sure with a ground share what kind of a turnout there will be, however the steady flow of arriving supporters, who have not baulked at the sound of Mr Ezra and run away, means quite a crowd is forming. Life is slowly being breathed into the place and I should never have doubted Chris, because if it keeps up like this, it will be bang on this predicted attendance. Which if I'm honest I never imagined would be the case, I had pictured Tom and I and our fish fingers rattling around this big old place.

The man on the PA is a professional to the hilt, reading what I’m sure are copious notes from his clipboard, he’s plugging all the options available to the arriving fans, a programme of course or the 50/50. The duo in high vis coats by the turnstiles are doing a roaring trade.

It’s from the centre of the older of the two main stands, that sit side by side, the newer of the two with a blue Meccano roof, that the rolling tunnel is extended from, deep wide and long, all surrounded by quite a formidable looking cage, right out of a Copa 90 video about South American football. The Scissor Sisters strike up as the referee patrols it’s mouth, already looking cold, he bounces the match ball to keep himself busy, while the players shelter inside the cavernous depths, who I can just about hear though the red vinyl, over the sound of the New York disco revival.

There is a healthy mix of the black and white of CFC and the green and white of their opponents Soham Town Rangers FC (STR), milling about behind the dugouts waiting for the teams and then the toss. Which side each person is rooting for, is made clear by the colour of the their bobble hat and I must admit I’m starting to fade a little, my malady is starting to take hold, but the infectious voice over the PA rouses me a little, “time now to welcome our two teams” he says, while people continue to arrive. The man with the mic showing the first bit of personality, with his final run through of the CFC starting eleven “and for Cambridge City”.

The burger bar is rammed and the food is flying out, as are the teas, one of which someone has rested on top of one of the fishtank dugouts, the back of the players heads lined up next to one another like a mixture of a low budget Big Brother and a Jermaine Jenas quote. “Enjoy the game” says the voice and once again he lets us know it's not all business with him. Two bits of revelry in two minutes, maybe someone spiked his tea.

“Bloody flags” angrily says one lady, fastening one to the back of the stand behind one goal, she like me having missed what Tom later tells is a goal of the season contender scored by the home side after about a minute. The ball flying in over my right shoulder. The early goal has the home fans now hurriedly hanging their flags encouraged, “should be a good one” they tell me, “no love lost” between the two sides they explain.

It’s probably worth mentioning now, that today's vantage point to watch the match from, is a little bit of a departure from the norm, where we are not trying to get comfortable lent up against the railing around the pitch or are sat in a brittle faded plastic chair in a stand. With a big grand ground like this, come certain luxuries, and twenty feet up in the air, Bridge Road has a TV tower or gantry I guess you might call it, worthy of Match Of The Day.

By the time I’ve climbed the scaffolding and plank stairs, squeezed through the tiny swing gate, to find Tom has drunk my tea, more home flags have gone up, and I've just about caught my breath when a back post header sails inches over the STR bar.

Having had a chance to settle, Tom has been chilling at top of what we’ve dubbed the ‘Tower of Power’ for a while, while I’m still panting, so struggle to reply, Tom shares with me his thoughts on STR’s orange top and socks, paired with white shorts, “I like the Holland kit” and CFC are showing none of the signs of their poor run, in fact it's quite the opposite, they are positively strutting. At the quarter of an hour mark, they almost scored a “replica” of their first says Tom, but this time the curling shot is right at the keeper.

Unfortunately the gloss is somewhat taken off the fine home sides start, because moments later it’s all square, thanks to “big chunky number 20” as Tom has christened him, who trundled up from the back for a STR free kick and with a delicate backwards flick of his head, draws the game level. Much to the delight of the STR fans behind the goal who let out a hearty “wehhhhhhhhh”.

The lack of love loss mentioned by the CFC supporter soon becomes apparent. Not long after the equalizer a frustrated crunching home tackle has the STR players up in arms, “fucking hell ref”, but the man in charge is happy for things to continue, signaling play on with his arms out in front of him, STR almost benefit from his relaxed approach. In on goal, the debut CFC keeper, after the regular stopper was sent off last match, rushes off his goal to scoop up the dangerous ball.

“Big chunky” then almost gives STR the lead, getting his loaf on the end of another free kick, his large head proving to be quite a formidable weapon, all while the robust challenges are coming thick
and fast. “How is that not even a booking?” wonders Tom, the CFC forward scything down an STR defender, a real strikers tackle, only results in a talking to. “Feisty” says Tom, but not like Yoda, which is very disappointing.

Home confidence has notably dipped and another unpunished cruncher leaves the STR number 8 limping. An almighty clearance from one STR defender is in danger of “hitting my car” worries Tom, a booming hoof is sent into the stratosphere and if CFC are going to prosper at all, it will be with the ball at the feet of their number 9. Their sole outlet, prowling on the right wing, fast and unchecked, to make a second Star Wars reference in as many paragraphs, he is their ‘only hope’.

“Ref, I got the ball” is the inevitable line that follows every bad challenge, that and motioning the shape of the ball with your hands, but that's absent on this occasion. There is a scream a terrible straight out of Saw scream from the halted STR player, “Ginola” the terrier like home number 4 responsible, who because of his quite luscious mane Tom thinks resembles the Frenchman, is destined to get himself “sent off”.

STR are awarded a free kick, which sees number 20 up from the back, and the away fans assist the referee with the placement of the CFC wall, and how many feet it should be from the ball, “it's not seven, it's supposed to be ten ref”. The fouls are mounting, and the game is getting a little stop start. The latest set piece is CFC’s, however it just travels through the STR box and out the other side.

Tom, a spectacle wearer himself, is impressed by the home side’s sponsor “Specsavers” which he considers “big” for a “little team” and it’s thanks to his competitively priced lenses, that he is able to see and then laugh at the most laughable of fouls. This one is without malice or pain caused, the STR player simply “flopped” on top of the CFC one, as Tom adds he “lay down on top of him”.

It’s turning into quite the debut for the stand in keeper, who has looked solid so far and because of his defence, has had a fair bit to do. What almost turns into a most spectacular own goal, is prevented only by his quick feet, he’s able to scramble away the header from a teammate after a cross, that went towards the goal and not away from it, almost creeping in under the bar.

Stop start, stop start, the game is really now failing to get going for more than a couple of minutes before another foul, grinds it to a halt. CFC have their strengths in attack, as do STR have there's, winning almost everything lumped into the home box, another header this time bobbles wide and the referee is close to losing all control, after another foul this time a CFC players is hauled down. One fan asks quite rightly, “why don't you get your card out?”. The offence right on the edge of the STR box, looked like a yellow card in anyone's book, but not him and it's only another free kick, which like many of the ones that have preceded tonight, is not very good.

“Handball” shout the home fans, but nothing is given, and then a CFC mistake in midfield hands STR the ball, who are on to it in a flash, but the cross is poor and is greeted with a roar of disappointment.

Minutes from the break and we’ll be lucky to make it without a red card or the need of the air ambulance. “I’m alright, I’m alright” says a shaken CFC player, face down, talking to a teammate after coming off second best in a fifty fifty challenge. The remainder of the half is a cacophony of shouting from players and fans. “Dear, oh dear, oh dear” says one of the small group of cantankerous old chaps below us, their elegance not clear, each one of whom is one of the two men from the theater balcony in the muppets.

“Ginola” though is unable to finish the half without a booking. What’s more surprising, that the referee has actually made one out or it's taken this long I’m not sure. A barrage of verbal follows his yellow, and he’s lucky not to get a second. “I hope you're not being assessed” is about the only thing he says without a swear word.

The half ends, just like it began, with a goal, but not for CFC. Football fans powers of the clairvoyant does scare me on occasions. “Here it comes” says a STR fan behind the goal, as his team prepares for the corner, and comes it does. Missed by the defender at the front post, it makes its way all the way to the back post, where a player in tangerine, who is being grappled somewhat, is still able to execute an impressive flying volley, giving STR the lead.

There is little of the half left, what minutes are played are full of scrappy mistakes and misjudgments, the home crowd and players are baying for blood, after such a strong start, it's all taken a major turn for the worst.

“Useless” barks one home fan “have a word” shouts another, before the furore dies down and the substitutes start their half time warm up. The PA pipes up and the “£54” prize won't be mine today, but unbeknownst to me, clutched in Tom’s right hand, scaling the steps behind me, he has my prize already, in the form of the fish finger sandwich, off all fish finger sandwiches.

“For the first time I think I'm jealous” mumbles Tom, his gourmet looking burger looks and by all accounts tastes as good as we had been foretold, but my dinner, what is effectively two slabs of crumb covered cod in a baguette, is a thing of beauty, and I have no hesitation tucking in, feed a cold and all that. As we both chow down on our ‘Tower of Power’, he regales me with tales of the extensive menu of the burger bar opposite, “they had everything, pizza, chicken nuggets”.

You could hear a pin drop in our lofty hideout, the 50/50 has yet to be “claimed”, neither has the “match day draw” another form of gambling I was not aware of, and along with the £54 I won’t be winning a box of chocolates or a bottle of Baileys either, that the PA rightly points out are both “worth having”.

Burger completed, but not quite satisfied, “should have got a chocolate bar”, Tom tells me his reason for not getting one was on account of him “trying to eat healthily”, all while he mops the juice of his cheese smothered patty and chips from his beard. The home flags have swapped ends and Tom fills me in on a momentary flare up around the burger bar, an over zealous away fan and her enthusiastic “clapping” for the second goal, riling up the the home fans, it all getting a bit “spicy”. One man attempting to silence her, by reminding her, “alright love, you've not won yet”.

With the new half only minutes old, “Ginola” is back at it, asking the referee, “is this your first game?” after he awards CFC a free kick, but there is no booking. The home crowd is growing increasingly disgruntled, I think I even saw one person sharpening their pitchfork. A low STR cross is then easily dealt with and cleared out from the CFC box, a few minutes later and the game grinds to a halt once more, this time it’s an STR foul. CFC floats in the free kick in, it's met by a home player whose header strikes a STR defender and a half hearted appeal for “handball” goes up, but nothing is given.

We like to consider ourselves rather highbrow, lots of culinary chat, culture and architectural observations, but sometimes we drop below our own high standards, to explore topics we wouldn't normally, and today is one of those days, because I’ve just asked Tom, ‘why do footballers always tug on their cocks?’. To be honest Tom is a bit quicker to engage in the conversation than I thought he would be. We can both agree that “you wouldn't in normal life” so why would you on a football pitch, and then he suggests something I'd never even considered, “does it get trapped?”

At the quarter of an hour mark, CFC showing a little bit of that early tenacity with a quick pass, turn and shot in the STR box, but the shot is right at the keeper. CFC’s number 4 might have “Ginola” esq locks, but unfortunately he can't pass like him, Tom describing his attempt at a cross pitch diagonal as “horrible” and the game is descending, getting “dirty” as Tom puts it. No one even bats an eyelid when an STR player lunges at the CFC keeper on the floor, everyone having become so desensitized to the horror. Tom’s reaction to what is in all intent and purposes a tackle from the NFL by one CFC player, makes him unwittingly channel his inner John McEnroe,  “are you serious?” when the referee simply taps his own shoulder, to imply it was fair.

One foul after another, means again the game is never going for more than a few minutes, before the referee blows his whistle. The referee who Tom brands a “funny one” because he is both “lenient” , but does not stop awarding fouls.

CFC are looking the stronger of the two teams, the fans numbers behind the goal have swelled since the change of ends and the winning of a corner sees them pound the metal stand for the first time. The downing of “Ginola” results in a bit of afters on the pitch, but even though it was him who ended up poleaxed, the referee awards the foul the other way, which you can imagine doesn't go down well on or off the pitch, “what are you doing man?” asks one player. The game is getting angrier by the second, a bit filthy even, some home fans look ready to vault the railings and set upon the referee. Other than the whistle all you can hear are the two words “fuck” and “off” and the constant rattle of clattering boots and shinpads.

It takes STR over twenty minutes to fashion their first chance of the half, another header, but the
flicked effort is straightforward for the keeper to claim and such are the levels of aggression, Tom thinks is pertinent to ask me if I’ve ever seen “Mean Machine”. STR’s number six is snarling and their number 20 then does an atomic bomb of a header in midfield to clear his teams lines, all it’s missing is a mushroom cloud.

STR starts to probe as we head towards the final fifteen. Slowly building, they bide their time, however the slide rule pass has just a bit too much on it, but the intention is well received, “different class mate”.

The pace of Ginola's departure, and it’s definitely him being replaced and not the referee as a couple of the home fans joke “off you go ref, well played, off you go”, has Tom a bit perplexed, “why is he walking, does he know they are losing?”. There is zero urgency in his demeanour and the lazy toss of the armband to the new captain, is not exactly encouraging.

CFC almost equalized with a quite marvelous goal, one that inevitably someone would have said, ‘if Barcelona would have scored that…...’. Slick interchanges, quick feet and good movement almost brings about the perfect goal, only for a last minute block.

“That was it” states Tom, after what might just have been CFC’s best chance of the game, let alone the half. A header from point blank range, is somehow put the wrong side of the post. “It's coming” shouts one CFC fan optimistically, but I’m just not sure that is the case. With the home side desperately in search of a goal, they are leaving some major gaps at the back, and it's only a save right out of the top drawer, that stops STR bagging their third. Somehow, and by the looks of it having seen it late, CFC’s keeper was able to get enough of a hand to the powerful shot after a nifty chest tap and turn by the STR forward, to push it wide.

It’s getting to a point where it feels like CFC don’t want a point, if it’s not all three, then who the fuck wants just one. “Just meh” responds Tom, after a spooned shot clears both the goal and stand, after the player responsible was so well set up on the edge of the STR area, only to balloon it over and another big shout for a penalty is ignored, but if I'm honest it was more the fans than the players who claimed for it.

“Come on boys” pleads a CFC supporter, they have been knocking at the door for so long, surely they can convert something. A home corner is whipped in, cleared, possession is won back and the ball is tossed back in a second time, but just about summing up their evening and touching on what Chris had said earlier, results not reflective of performances, somehow STR are able to stop the goal bound header with a frantic goal line clearance, almost certainly confirming another tick in the loss column for the hosts, but with a fixed asterix for, ‘but we deserved much more’.

When CFC are awarded a late free kick, but no one seems to know why, it gives a good example of the caliber of refereeing tonight. “Up, up” urges the crowd, but the towering header on the end of the cross is cleared, initiating an STR counter attack, but a bad touch, bearing down on the CFC goal, allows just enough time for the keeper to get a block in, “unlucky” shouts a visiting fan to the frustrated forward.

CFC have officially gone ‘all up front’ and STR are poised to hit them on the counter. One fan suggests “corners” when they are presented with the ball, but no chance, they want to stick the knife
in they want a third. Their manager though is clearly a keen student of the art of game management, time wasting to you and me, deciding now is the ideal time for a double substitution, “well played lads” praise the supporters behind the goal, neither of the two players seemingly in a rush to get off.

The chance of some last minute drama seems high. A foul on the edge of the STR box, sees no booking, much to the dismay of the travelling fans, "come on referee, that's two bad ones". What must be the final kick of the game is up and over. and gets a sarcastic jeer from the home crowd.

"Referee you're rubbish" screams one STR fan, after a yellow card is awarded to one of their players, sending those being the goal into a mini melt down. "Work hard Soham" insists one, they are not exactly on the ropes, but it's that time in the match when the slightest slip in concentration could end in disaster. The CFC keeper makes one last attempt to rally his team mates, "keep going, keep going" and both the STR players "how much longer?" and the fans, "come on referee" are badgering the man in charge to bring this match to its conclusion.

The cheer from the away fans is a considerable one come the final whistle, "big chunky number 20" pumps his fist towards the applauding supporters, "fucking get in" he cries. The STR players congratulate each other and are greeted with more vigorous clapping as they walk off. The CFC players on the other hand, are deep in consultation huddled on the pitch, long after the ground has emptied.

I could conclude with a few paragraphs about how crap it is CFC don't have their own home, and how they have to sofa surf, but I'm sure that's how I ended things when we saw them before and as far as temporary digs go, Bridge Road is pretty smart. Although I'm sure each and every one of CFC's supporters would rather their own residence, they could do a lot worse then their current abode.

I could go on perhaps about how smashing the CFC keeper looked in footballs most under utilized colour, purple or how from the 'Tower Of Power' the illuminated five a side pitches in the distance were quite a sight, but I won't.

Come to Bridge Road for the football, sure, come for the ground, it really is a nice one, come for the warm welcome, everyone we encountered was delightful, but what should be your motivation is the food. From the succulent burger to a fish finger sandwich, made from a fish with fingers the width of Roberto Carlos' thighs, that's why you need to get there.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

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