Wednesday 7 October 2020

Lets Go Football - Windsor FC Vs Burnham FC, Hellenic League Premier Division, Stag Meadow (26/09/20)

It’s strange because on the surface everything seems normal, Tom is still waiting for me in the same spot outside my flat to pick me up, he’s already nose down playing the latest game on his phone “I’m playing some pool” he tells me. The topics of conversation are still as varied and banal as before, WWE and of course Call Of Duty Warzone and our numerous visits to Verdansk, where we both spent the majority of lockdown.

However if you look just under the surface it’s clear that things are far from the same, in fact things couldn't be any more unnormal as the world is gripped by a pandemic that's still claiming lives on a daily basis, and as best as the country tries to limp back into some kind of normal rhythm again, after having just spent half of 2020 on the sofa, it’s all just a bit odd. The sign on the side of the M25, our favourite of all the major gyratories, illustrates the state of things perfectly, “don’t be a fool, use the 2m rule”.

When Tom asks me if I “have a mask”, I confirm I do, but neither of us are really sure of what the etiquette is, what the rules are.

Having been inside for the majority of the summer, there will be no sunny Saturdays in shorts at football, no barmy August evenings when it's still light at 21:00, and although the sun is out, my other half tells me not to “trust it” and Tom backs up her theory and is already moaning about it being “cold”. Today is the first time I’ve worn jeans in months, and Tom is shocked to see my legs covered, expecting me to be in shorts, which would then be followed by me “complaining about cold shins”.

Dominating its surroundings, we both marvel at the resplendent Windsor Castle as it comes into view. Soon we notice that every other car is a Range Rover, and the roundabouts have dancing Vegas style water features. This neck of the woods is hardly downmarket, I mean look who has their holiday home here, as Tom puts it, “welcome to Windsor”.

It’s a minute sign halfway up a lamppost that directs us towards Stag Meadow, home of Windsor FC (WFC), a tiny lane gets even narrower as we drive on, the smart looking houses on each side getting ever closer, at one point I’m not sure Tom’s big car will be able to go any further, and what look like the remains of a church, means this is certainly one of the more vestigial settings for a match we’ve ever been to.

The constant buzz of nearby Heathrow somewhat detracts from the sanctity of the place, Tom suggests the clubs Royal neighbour can hardly be chuffed with every ten minutes a jumbo jet off to Dubai is soaring over her bedroom, but I’m sure she will be fine, because when the din of the planes die down, it’s green and peaceful and very pleasant indeed.

“Lets go football” announces Tom, repeating again his newly coined catchphrase of the day as he hops out of his car and makes the short walk to the way in, past the countless dog walkers and pleasure ramblers heading off into the nearby Royal park. A Royal park that one of the two jolly men manning the gate points out is certainly “picturesque”.

Having slipped as I do so often into a place of naive complacency, when we are prompted to check into the NHS track and trace app, scanning the QR code pinned to the red iron gates, reality strikes. The opponents of WFC are spelt out on a number plate along with the date and kick off time, all back dropped by a welcome sign, the colours of the home sides unique home kit.

The clubhouse is the perfect place to shelter from the “breezy” conditions as Tom describes them, before being able to venture inside the low ceilinged room with a bar at one end, a TV on the wall at the other, with the obligatory dance floor in between, we are required to don our masks and stop at the hand sanitizing station.

Inside each table is spaced out to government regulations, each with its own bottle of sanitizer. Black and yellow tape with “please keep a safe social distance” written across it, cordons off the bar, preventing anyone from getting too close to the staff behind it. Discussion about what's OK and what's not is going on between the bar women and Malcolm WFC’s kit man, bar manager, webmaster, programme editor. The ever changing guidelines mean we are not the only ones not quite sure of what is appropriate, no one wanting to fall foul, everyone wanting to make sure they do their bit.

The opulent beige sofa in one corner almost completely consumes me as I take a seat, and it's at that point I’m allowed to remove my mask. Malcolm tells us they have sold “one hundred and thirty” tickets for today's game, so are expecting quite a turnout, which perhaps is adding to the pressure of making sure everyone knows the protocols before they all start to arrive.

“I've got no issue telling people to fuck off”, I overhear the bar lady tell Malcolm, as they discuss their strategy of how to deal with people who are unwilling to comply with the rules. The taped off bar means its table service, perhaps the most un non league thing ever. When tea arrives atop a black tray, Tom can relate to the struggle of the lady bringing us our drinks is having with her mask and glasses combo, she’s having “bloody murders”, as his spectacles steam up.

As nice as the clubhouse is, we decide to take our drinks outside, which allows us in turn to take in our surroundings in a bit more detail. “Mmmmmm, very pretty” summerises Tom, sitting back in one of the faded red seats in the main stand. Opposite us gnarled old trees stand tall, and the slanted corrugated roof above us, and black vertical girders holding up, offer up a kind of familiarity I’ve really missed. The narrow tunnel from the rear of the stand, to the front, does that thing I do love, of slowly presenting the pitch before you, like the aperture of a camera.

The arrival of the 13:31 to Melbourne somewhat shatters the tranquility, “oh that's annoying” grumbles Tom. Each side of the main stand is flanked by the brick dugouts outs, and the remainder of the ground is a mixture of long concrete uncovered terracing, and a long covered one down the far side of the pitch.

When the planes pass on, it's just the sound of the rattling nylon straps that hold the goal nets taught and the swirling ball of birds flitting around above us, it really is quite tranquil. Only for another plane to soon crash the party, much to Tom’s annoyance, who then takes a bit of a Bill Oddie turn, pointing out a large bird of prey circling.

We all had to find new things to occupy us during the long days of lockdown, rediscovering Championship Manager was what did it for me, for Tom it seems that plane spotting has become his new past time, “fucking hell that's a big one” he says, as what looks like a Airbus 8380 creaks up slowly into the sky in front of us, banking away towards sunnier climbs.

Soon it’s not only by the sound of planes and Tom cooing over them assaulting me, but now the crap music that we always hear leaking out from beyond the opening and closing doors of the respective home and away changing rooms, and I notice Tom with an upturned palm towards the sky, as the darkening clouds start to spit on us. 

Both WFC and Burham FC (BFC) take to the pitch for an en-masse team chat, each without a win this season so far, and even though it's relatively early days, it adds a little frisson to this local encounter.

In search of lunch, our return to the clubhouse finds it, despite all the precautions, a much more convivial scene than the one we found earlier. Most of the tables are now full, table service is in full flow and Tom has not beat around the bush in ordering, “burger and chips on the way”. When the lady in a WFC embroidered apron approaches, his eyes light up and I realise all these months that we’ve spoken fondly about getting back to football, his expressed desire to do so, had nothing to do with me or the match itself, but the food.

A newly arrived man at our neighbouring table, is far from impressed with the clubhouse entertainment on offer, the Taylor Swift playlist playing out is not his cup of tea and he turns barking towards the bar, asking for them to put “Football Focus” on. Unfortunately for him, that ended a while ago and the person with the remote has instead replaced Taylor with Escape To The Country. “Is he winding me up?” he asks his son, unable to fathom the change. A man behind us suggests he would have been “better off with Taylor Swift”.

Whipping back and forth the green, red and blue corner flags, as well as the ones on the half way line,

are tossed about in the ever shifting wind. More and more people steadily arrive, most heading straight for the clubhouse, where the numbers are limited, so some might be disappointed. The sun is trying it’s best to break through, one can only hope the threatening rain holds off.

Strung out on blue chairs beside the away dugout the BFC substitutes are lined up like people waiting in a dentists reception and there is no grand walk on, no side by side line of eleven arriving gladiators, no heart pounding music to get us all in the mood, just a drip drop of ambling players, the home subs with jackets on that read “we are one” on the rear. No referee leading them down the ramp, with the home team initials built into the brickwork. Just plodding, meandering at best. Both teams huddle, and for the first time today we see the WFC home kit in all its glory, well I say glory, for some it's the opposite of glory. A head to toe green, red and white Union Jack design.

WFC huddle ends with a raucous applause and Tom quips that “I bet you're glad you didn't wear shorts” as it’s feeling very autumnal all of a sudden. There are plenty of cries of “come on boys” and other such motivational slogans before the sharp high pitched blast of the referee's whistle gets things underway.

“Come on Windsor” shouts one of the fans standing on the terrace behind us, however early away pressure and a rushed clearance has the home side on the back foot from the off. Calls of “relax” from one player is a little concerning considering the game is only a couple of minutes old.

With the shirt WFC are wearing, it's hard to not fall into a prolonged spell of kit chat. Tom is far from convinced by the flag inspired get up, much more in favour of the more traditional BFC blue and white pinstripe number, “Brighton” esq as he puts it. He’s also much more in favour of the away goalkeepers kit too, which he describes as making its wearer look like a “bumble bee”, the man in goal for WFC in his lime green and pink shirt, looks like something from a pick and mix.

The sweetie resembling keeper is soon front and centre, when he spills a flicked header from a BFC player, “shaky hands” sighs a home supporter. A big crunching tackle by the visitors wins them the ball, and their number 9 is away again, but his run is too soon, and shouts of “offside” comes from all corners. Tall, strong and athletic, BFC number 9 is already causing the home defence a few issues, and looks like he will continue to do so for the remainder of the afternoon.

With just their heads sticking over the fence around the edge of the ground, two passers by treat themselves a view of WFC’s two quick fire chances, both against the run of play and both from long range. The first striking the foot of the post, then the keeper, then agonizingly bobbling along the line, before it cleared. “Too slow on the follow up” laments one home fan.

The second comes from a poor away clearance, the ball finds itself just outside the box at the foot of one WFC player whose dipping shot is bashed away by the forearm of the BFC keeper, who had been having a very relaxed time of it, until now. This flurry from the home team, who had been rather passive until now, draws the first bit of noise from the supporters.

A quarter of an hour in and WFC almost shot themselves in the foot with a loose pass at the back, but the BFC forward finds himself offside again, so they get a reprieve. After a bit of a nervy start, WFC are in once more, their fans growing louder and louder as their team gets into the swing of things, but the latest ball into the box is swerving high into the car park behind the goal, much to Tom's concern, “that's hit the car”. The resulting corner presents WFC with a free header on the edge of the six yard box, but it's wide.

Frustration is starting to show among the fans and players on both sides. When the home number 2 makes a forward pass, but no one makes a run, he has what Tom calls a “Fortnite tantrum”. When BFC’s number 9 receives the ball on the edge of the box, but tries one took many step overs and drops off the shoulder, one supporter asks, “how many twists and turns can you do?”.

Since the start WFC have looked like they've got more than one gaff at the back in them, and approaching the thirty minute mark, they gaff BFC the ball in front of goal once more, “what's he doing?” laments one home fan, but fortunately for his team BFC are somewhat shy in taking a shot, and the score remains 0-0. With BFC in again, the same fan is adamant that “someones got to shoot”, this time he gets his wish, but it's off target. 

A decent crowd scattered across the steps either side of the main stand, watch BFC sting the keepers hands with a long range effort and twenty six minutes gone, the somewhat inevitable happens, BFC take the lead. All thanks to the twinkle toes of the winger on the left who did all the hard work, giving the eventual scorer very little to do, other than to tap it in.

“We go again” insists one WFC player as the game gets back under way, and go again they do, because less than a minute after going behind, the score is level again. It very, very nearly wasn't, the scuffed shot could have very easily dribbled wide, “he almost miss kicked it in” says one home fan, there is no “almost” about it, it was a horrible connection, but this is of little concern to the leaping WFC supporters behind the goal.

The quickness in response from WFC means there's not been enough time for heads to drop “great reaction boys” rallies one player, although this does not mean they are any sturdier at the back, and after a horrible challenge on the BFC number 9 and more sloppy play, one player goes red in the face screaming, “liven up”.

A chink in the WFC defences, this time the perimeter fence and not their back four, means the people who were sneaking a peek, have now fully crept in, and they all get to enjoy the home players telling their teammate number 2 to “shut up” as he quickly starts to boil over, the referee calling him over for a chat, “yes please” with the steam almost bursting from his ears, at the injustice of his treatment.

There are many small things I’m very fond of when it comes to football, a pink goalkeepers shirt, an Oliver Bierhoff thumping header, a last ditch tackle, ala King vs Robben at White Hart Lane in 2005, and high up there is the scoring of a goal with an unorthodox part of the body, and when five minutes before halftime, when one WFC player chests it in for the home sides second, it’s a sight to behold. 

It’s the least they deserve since equalizing, they have been the far better team, they almost bag a third, the BFC number 3 clueless to the WFC player standing behind him, “he needed a call there” proffers Tom, is powerless stop the ball almost finds the floating forward, but the move breaks down.

Another sign of the ‘new normal’ come the half time whistle is that the players don't leave the pitch, restrictions on numbers in the dressing room, mean they stay out on the pitch and while WFC put on coats to stay warm, BFC are being shouted at. The two gents next to us, forgo a visit to the clubhouse and instead opt to sit on the steps of the terrace, one producing a couple of cans and a couple of cups from his bag, and they get their drink on, all while, some kids are tearing about, which is always the way.

Someone who is allowed inside is the referee and his reappearance prompts both teams into concluding their pitchside drills, BFC were a little late starting theirs, on account of being told off and the referee is soon at work, and all without even blowing his whistle yet. The BFC manager has seemingly said too much in their exchanges as they walked out, and despite being pulled away from the man in charge, the manager is given his marching orders. 

“Referee you're awful” castigates a person from the crowd, as the BFC manager trudges towards his seat in the main stand.

It’s clear that the delay in the restart is of some embarrassment to most of the visiting team, who by the looks of it, just want to get back under way. Although sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, because WFC are straight back on top, picking up where they left off. “Too easy” bemoans a BFC supporter.

Struggling with a high cross, with the ball “in the wind” as one home fan puts it, the bumble bee can't hold it, only able to pat it down to a WFC player whose attempt to poke it in from point blank range is blocked.

Not that the first half was dull by any stretch, but the start of the second is turning into an end to end affair. BFC have a corner, only for WFC to counter attack after winning the ball back. They cross into the box, and the player on the other end attempts a high stand up volley, but instead of hitting it goal wards, passes it right back to whence it came, “have it back” giggles one supporter.

WFC are dominant, a fine fingertip save stops them taking the lead, another corner, again the wind is causing havoc, and almost catches the man in goal out again. All this home pressure is not to say that BFC don’t fashion their own chances, and it's only a scramble in the box of epic proportions that stops the visitors from taking the lead. 

A home shout for a penalty is turned down by the shaking head of the referee and the claims it had to be by the fans fall on deaf ears. BFC then craft themselves an opening, but the forward player is chastised for being “lazy” by his own fans, when he wanders offside. Frantic is probably the best way to describe the ensuing, and the referee is losing a bit of a grip on things. After the latest foul on one of their players, the away bench asks “how many more, man?” before he produces a card. Although Tom is not sure it was even a foul in the first place, “looks like he fell over”.

It's far from cold really, however Tom is already planning ahead, “think I’ll get the puffer jacket out” he tells me, it might even be time to “dig out the snood”.

A home back post header goes wide, then it's BFC’s turn to claim a penalty, but that's dismissed too. WFC are in once more, but the shot is woeful, “ohh fucking hell” moans one supporter, Tom reckons the player needed to give the ball a “Ronaldo chop” to get it on his other foot, but such a piece of skill didn’t really look on the cards.

Tom continues to persist with jacket chat, regardless of me showing little to no interest in the topic whatsoever, “it might finally be the year I get an Arsene Wenger” and just when it felt like there hadn't been a chance for a minute or two, BFC fizz a low shot just wide, reminding WFC they are are still very much still in the game. 

Such has been our time away from football Tom is momentarily very alarmed “what's going on, everyone's stopped” he exclaims only to quickly realise there isn't anything to panic about, “oh its a substitution” and in those six months since our last game, its things like a boy doing laps of the pitch on a bike or the home number three barking and hissing at opposition players, to put them off in possession, I realise are what I've really missed.

I’d also forgotten quite how shouty non league football can be, as everyone chips in their two pence, even the WFC physio is getting into it with a BFC player as he trots on to the pitch to attend to a downed player.

“The balls up there, what we doing down here?” asks one of the running children of his friends. If I was them I'd keep bombing about, the game has got a little ugly, one of attrition and niggly fouls, and not the back and forth attack fest of earlier. “Who too?” wonders a home fan, as the ball is hoofed up field, neither side able to keep hold of the ball for very long.

It’s been awhile since the last real bit of quality, so when WFC link up in a rapid passing attack, it holds everyone's attention, but the eventual ball into the box is cut out. The threatening rain is finally here, but for now it’s just a few spots here and there, and this is doing little to deter the freeloaders as the freebie numbers have swelled even more. 

“Fucking pressure” encourages one BFC player, his call to arms inspires people from all sides of the ground to try and rally their respective team for the final five minutes. Edging ever closer to the end, and neither side having won in the league yet this season, nerves are starting to show. The child contingent of WFC fans now straddle the railings and have found their voice, given the hoardings a bit of a whack too.

WFC are losing their composure, they look like they are struggling to hold it together. When a BFC corner travels all the way through their box, hearts are in mouths and a late “raking” challenge as Tom describes it, is petulant to say the least.

Nerves are close to breaking point, the kids still on the railings beating out a tune “deh, deh, deh deh”, however no-one else seems anywhere near as relaxed as them. A BFC corner in the dying moments looks like it might be the source of some anguish, but it’s wasted by the visitors and the cheer from the crowd and jumping embrace between the manager and he’s staff, really emphasizes how crucial it was to secure the three points.

As he leaves the pitch the referee is in for some more stick, sharpening their pitchforks, a small contingent of the BFC supporters herangue him, “very poor”, one calling him a “liar”. This is all lost on the WFC players, “fucking finally” says one, who is then quickly told off “oi, watch your language” and the kids who are going a bit loopy. The bumble bee shakes the home fans hands and the kids now line the ramp up to the changing room, to high five the players. A few of the BFC supporters yet to leave, dissect the performance, “chalk and cheese again”.

A splendid ground, run by lovely people. WFC came highly recommended and it did not disappoint. I can't stop thinking though as we leave, will all their hard work be for nothing, will all the hard work of non league clubs up and down the country mean nothing if Covid 19 rears its head once more?

Tom’s ever so slightly sobering comment on the way here highlights a dark cloud hanging over us all, over the survival of so many clubs as the purse strings tighten and the coffers empty, me, him, you, have “no idea what the future holds”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

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