Saturday, 19 May 2018

It's Quite Hot You Know - King's Lynn Town FC Vs Slough Town FC, Evo-Stik Southern League Premier Play-Off Final 2018, The Walks (07/05/18)

I take it back, I take it all back. The day before at Chelmsford City was nothing, cold in comparison to today which is even hotter. It’s skin meltingly clinging to a chain link fence Terminator Two hot, I just can't cope.

Tom on the other hand is loving it, the heat wave has prompted him to discard his “winter cycle” of socks, and invest in some of those daft ankle high ones or “summer socks” as he calls them. It's a pack of them he has clutched in his hand when I pick him up from the car park of his local Sports Direct. Unlike me, his arms are uncovered, mine are all kinds of fucked up after the roasting they got in the Essex sun, they are throbbing, they hurt to use.

He is clearly not concerned with such problems, but has at least packed some sun cream as have I, I say packed my other half left some in the car for me, just before setting off. The colour of Toms neck though is looking a little suspect, a bit like beef jerky.

Allowing Tom full control of the radio, I’m reminded once again of his somewhat dubious taste in music. In his defence my radio is only able to tune into the most awful of stations, and Radio 4, but when he doesn’t think it's prudent to skip past Rod Stewart, Linkin Park and then Beyonce, I consider leaving him on the side of the road next to what we think was the inflated, rancid carcass of a “pig” that Tom is sure we just passed, to fend for himself.

Having relied solely on public transport in our early days to get around, I’m thankful more than ever for my motor, when we pass a National Express coach whose apparent big selling point is the fact it shows CNN on it. It also allows us the freedom to stop for necessary provisions, if and when they are required.

In the middle of a secluded coppice, next to a Burger King, I fill up with petrol, while Tom heads off on snack duty. Returning with a single small bottle of Lucozade and a family sized bag of salt and vinegar crisps, I again consider abandoning him.

It’s not that I’m not a fan of salt and vinegar, but a couple of handfuls in, and both our faces have started to pucker, Tom even admitting his mouth “hurts” a bit. It’s not exactly the refreshing flavour one desires on a day like today. At least he has a cold drink to wash it all down with, I have to make do with the lukewarm bottle of water that's been rolling around in the foot well of the passenger seat behind me for months.

The further we head into East Anglia the closer our final destination gets, our final destination that according to Tom is east of Manchester, which was a huge concern of his the evening before when we talked about set off times, and he thought it was going to be a really long one. King’s Lynn being east of Manchester, just like London is north west of Cape Town.

“Looks like Spain, very beige, like being on holiday” Tom declares. The dazzling sun already seemingly bleaching the countryside around us, giving everything that slightly oven baked Mediterranean look.

Quite suddenly though it's all change, horizon to horizon of luscious green. Navigating the narrow and empty elevated roads of The Fens, there is nothing to look at but never ending fields. What look like toy tractors manned by miniature farmers, stick out, tending to their crops.

It has been quite a drastic change in scenery, all of a sudden we’ve found ourselves on the great prairie lands of North America. Toms compassion to our surroundings looking like Spain, is now replaced with “Texas”. Winding our way through chocolate box villages, past moored boats, and little riverside pubs, it was definitely some of the more stunning scenery we’ve ever seen this season, beats Bromley any day.

“Norfolk Nelson's County” reads the small road side sign. Never confident at all that my Sat Nav is sending us the right way, and as nice as the backdrop to our drive had been, there was a definite sense that we were going to end up in the middle of nowhere, it is comforting to know we are in at least the right county, and one with such an illustrious son, I thought Stephen Fry was about as good as it got round here.

We are soon greeted by some ornate roundabout decor informing us we have finally arrived in King’s Lynn. Not far away and the signs of a football match are soon apparent, men in hi viz jackets, whispering into walkie talkies and people, lots of people.

The queue from the ticket office, the small windows under the big blue sign that reads, “Welcome To King’s Lynn Town FC” (KL), are doing frantic business. Each person turning away once their transaction is concluded, has their tickets in one hand and a broad if not ever so slightly nervous look on their face.

The railings used to demark the usual space to queue, are now defunct, the line of people still waiting, one with a club scarf hanging from his belt, now reaches far beyond them, off up the road along a long dark fence.

Sticking almost exclusively to the shade of the nearby trees, although sometimes venturing in to the glare and unforgiving heat of the sun, is the club's mascot “Lionel”, according to Tom. A six foot yellow bird wandering among the people waiting in the ever growing line, I don't know how Tom knows his name already, or if it’s even true, we've only been here for five minutes.

I’m no ornithological expert, but “Lionel” if that is even his real name, doesn't look much like a Common Linnet, of which he is impersonating. He is far too garish a yellow, admittedly just like the one on the KL badge, but nothing like the real thing, which is more of a dappled brown, than a gaudy yellow.

I thought The Linnets, which is also the clubs nickname, were a late 60’s all female soul trio, and not a football club, let alone a bird.

Once past Lionel, who had more the menacing air now I think about it of a bouncer, patrolling his patch, than a cheery club mascot, we are treated to our first glimpses of a ground, I had heard was a bit special, I had seen some pictures of online, but none of what I had been told or seen, does it justice.

Where to begin with The Walks. After the previous afternoon, straining our eyes from the other side of a running track, to the pitch in its middle, the home of KL could not be more different. It’s not small by any means, but it feels intimate. It is impossible to not stand and stare at the truly wonderful main stand, which is like something from the pages of a glossy book about football grounds of yesteryear. It would not be out of place among black and white pictures of the Baseball ground or Filbert Street.

With its mixture of blue and yellow seats, which keep on climbing up and up towards its flat back wall, it really is a relic, but I mean that in the nicest possible way. It’s like a classic car, its age and design bestowing a timeless class upon it, the kind of which you just don't get with modern stadiums. With it’s bare beams and corrugated roof and sheer size, I’m not sure we’ve ever really seen anything quite like it before.

That is not it though, although there is nothing else quite as stand out as the main stand. Opposite it running the whole length of the pitch is a sizable strip of covered terracing stretching from one corner flag to the other, and behind each goal a narrow section to stand.

One slightly broader that the other, it allows for a few more steps and a couple of ageing blue railings. At its back the same fence the fans were queueing along outside, inside the home fans flags have already been hung on it, looking almost regal with their vibrant blues and yellows glimmering in the sun.

Ground geek out over, it's time for some shade and a cold drink. On one corner of the main stand, a small UPVC door leads you to a cool little nook with a slanted ceiling because of the seats above. Decorated with framed home shirts, and furnished with a couple of faux leather sofas, we find the small club bar and and even smaller club shop.


The price of a drink is quite reasonable, the queue is yet to reach the astronomical proportions of later in the day, and I even manage to find a spot on one sofa, the youngest of my immediate neighbours by about fourty years. Some of whom have such impenetrable accents I can barely decipher what they are saying.

The shop though, well lets just say, is not quite as good value for money as the bar.

I admit I feel a little bad for the young lady manning it, when I make her repeat the price three times, and make sure we are talking about the same thing, ensuring its the scarf, the polyester scarf that she is asking £20 for. Tom thinks maybe she thinks I mean the slightly plush one that doesn't taper into tassells like your bog standard football scarf, but ends with the outline of the KL home kit, so I reiterate once more, that I only want the standard blue and yellow one, the kind of which that doesn't keep you warm, due to its synthetic nature and that you can pick up outside most Premier League grounds for £10, that she wants £20 for.

I feel like I’m cross examining her, so stop. I thought there was a slim chance of fainting today because of the heat, I never thought I would be feeling light headed because of the price of a souvenir. We back out slowly, Tom getting his pin, me trying to not avoid any further medical complications, when I see the price of a plastic water bottle.

With still ninety minutes to kick off, seats in the stand are clearly at a premium, as people have already like tourists on a package holiday, thrown down their metaphorical towels to secure a
spot. Space for flags in the away end, yes today is segregated, is less difficult to come by. A single Slough Town FC (ST) flag has been hung, it looks like a bit of a homemade jobbie, in black paint on a white sheet, “Rebels”.

Having seemingly softened his attitude Lionel with his piercing brown eyes, is doing a bit of a meet and greet with some young fans, who don't seem at all threatened by his stubby blue wings. On the pitch both sets of players, casually stroll about, taking in the sun.

The players departure is the cue for the man next to me, who by the looks of it is attempting to covertly turn on the sprinklers. My first thought is how much I would like to stick my head in its stream, my second thought is why is the man turning them on looking so guilty, like he's not supposed to be doing it.

More and more flags have been added in the home end, a real mixture, that only add to the sense of the big occasion. The occasional passing cars, continue to beep their horns in support.

There has been such an influx of people since our short pit stop for a Coke on the sticky sofas, next to the gold dust scarves. Many of whom are wearing a vast array of different age and style home kits, as well as ones in West Ham, Millwall, Luton and even a BVB strip. The local BBC reporters with their headphones on, are standing in front of the home dugout, talking loudly into their microphones.

Tom has caught the whiff of something, “smells like Shepherd's pie” however he thinks his chances already of getting something to eat are slim to none. The queue for the bar is now out the door, and is the main topic of many passing conversations.

It’s not food, but where we are going to stand today that is concerning me. With the heat steadily increasing, and thinking I may well have seen the first victim of the hot weather, a man wearing his walking stick around his neck, I had spotted earlier a nice little spot at one corner of the pitch, near the way in, fully in the shade of the large nearby trees, but that looks to have been taken.

I can't do another whole day in the sun like yesterday, I’ll turn into a pork scratching. The small contingent of ST fans, who have added to their flag collection have gathered under the roof of their small section of the covered terrace. The rest are fully exposed to the suns rays, but I don't think I want to stand in a metal roofed shed all day either, I imagine it's a little bit like something from the Deer Hunter under there.

There is some wonderful irony, most definitely not of the Alanis Morissette kind, when the KL players arrive for their warm up to Glenn Frey’s ‘The Heat Is On’. A single blue and yellow flag, and a smaller chequered one of the same colour, are being waved at the end of thin white plastic flag poles in the stand behind me. The players are greeted not only by the tune from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, but also plenty of clapping and shouts of encouragement, “come on lads”.

The amount of sunburn on show is staggering, men and women walkabout brazenly with large slabs of pink, red and scarlet flesh on show, with no attempt to protect themselves. Having come to terms with the fact they are already burnt, I can only assume that they are happy to just put some more burn on top, they will be in agony tonight.

“By far the greatest team, the world has ever seen” sing a small section of the home crowd, already packed tightly, as everyone is everywhere, I’m shoulder to shoulder with a paramedic eating a chocolate muffin, into the covered terrace opposite us.

The muffled voice of the PA, is far from clear, but the fans of both teams still give the customary cheer after each players name is read out from the lineups, even though I’m not sure they can really make out what is being said. When the ST players close to finishing off their warm up, they are serenaded with shouts of “rebels, rebels, rebels” all while David Bowie sings ‘Heroes’.

If only the person in charge of the music had had the foresight to play ‘Rebel, Rebel’ instead, it would have completed the musical irony circle completely.

When the KL players leave, back down the short blue caged tunnel at the base of the stand, the flags are going again just above it, and it's loud, really loud.

Both sets of fans are singing, both sets of fans are building towards the kick off, there are plenty of signs already that today could be a bit special. The atmosphere takes a bit of a dent when the announcement over the PA informs us that down to “police advice” the games start has been postponed by thirty minutes, because of the sheer amount of people still outside, waiting to get in.

The chanting dips ever so slightly, the fans straining to hear the quiet PA’s announcement, but they are soon back to singing at full force. The pocket of by far the most raucous of the home fans on the terrace are still bouncing, arms still in the air, repeating a particular chant, that on days like today can be prolific, and I’ll be humming for weeks, “we’re on our way”.

By far the most intelligent person I’ve seen today is the man with the small fan built into the brim of his blue baseball cap, blowing cool air directly at his face, the least intelligent person is the old man in a fleece and shirt who is wandering around, somehow oblivious to the fact that it is nearly 30c.

With the delay comes a significant amount of thumb twiddling, I can confirm that the paramedic has finished his muffin and KL have gone back to their changing rooms, having reappeared briefly to confirm the delay. ST though are still outside, a few hide in the shade of the dugout, a few stand around with hands on hips, one practises his kick ups.

The sprinklers are still going, they are manoeuvred about the pitch by their long hoses, sitting on top of what is clearly the bottom half of a shopping trolley, very Scrapheap Challenge or shit Robot Wars depending on your view. The crowd clamour once again, as the KL players reemerge to complete their warm up. Those going through their pre match routines nearest the singing section in the terrace are applauded, and they duly applaud back

“Come on boys lets go” is the instruction of one ST coach, no more time for sitting about, “Slough Town, Slough Town” respond their fans to seeing their players coming back to life. “Rebels, rebels, rebels” they chant again as the players get closer..

Someone very cruelly has made the long line of fidgeting mascots stay in place near the mouth of the tunnel, the time they have had to stand around doing nothing is starting to show, some frankly looking a bit fed up. The teams are read out again, and again its faint cheers from the away fans, much louder ones from the home ones, which is then followed by an apology for the “short run of programmes” apparently they have sold out.

The ST goalkeeping coach wets his gloves in the sprinklers, a novel way to aid with a bit of added traction. I used to have to spit in mine, which I never liked.

Like a never ending game of hokey cokey, the players leave the pitch once more.  A couple of home fans near us start to discuss their teams chances for the afternoon ahead. The fact that ST play on a 3G, means that one fans thinks that KL might have a slight advantage, “few nobbles on this pitch could cause them a few problems”.

The roar that eventually welcomes the teams after their in out in out shake it all about last thirty minutes is nothing short of marvellous. Much like at Chelmsford the previous day, it's a kind of atmosphere we are just not used to. With the wonderful main stand packed, as is every other square inch of the place, I’ll be able to tell you what the paramedic eats next if I wait long enough, it could be mistaken for a game much higher up the pyramid.

Again like our sweaty day in Essex, both sets of fans are giving it everything, “come on King’s Lynn, come on King’s Lynn” is the chant coming from the mass of bobbing heads in the covered terrace, along from them the other side of the makeshift partition, which is basically a bit of flimsy fencing off a building site, the ST fans have gone all 90’s Brit Pop and are singing a song to the tune of Blurs ‘Parklife’.

More and more shouts come from all quarters, “come on the Lynn”, as the referee prepares to kick off.

It's not from the best of angles we see KL crash a shot off the bar after just five minutes. There is not even the smallest gap to squeeze into, the brick wall that surrounds the pitch in places, is a perfect place to rest a beer and watch the game up against. The flag covered terrace is jammed too, we eventually find a place to stand, but for what might be the first time ever, our view is obscured by the sheer amount of people.

Most if not all home songs emanate from the covered terrace, where one fan, a young one, a really young one, is held in his father's arms wearing blue ear defenders, “come on King’s Lynn, come on King’s Lynn”.

Not long after hitting the woodwork, KL flash a ball at about head height across the box, the ST keeper in short sleeves, who has forgone wanting the ability to lift his arms tomorrow, for being a bit cooler now, gets a diving hand to it, just about flapping it away from the danger zone.

“We're gonna score in a minute” sing the home fans, and it feels just like they might. The ST keeper seems a tad rattled, every goal kick gets a "woahhhh you’re shit" he has without doubt been the busier of the two in the opening ten minutes. It might be the beer or the sun, but one nearby fan is feeling supremely confident, “we’ve got this in the bag easy, Slough already feeling the pressure”.

ST finally get a chance at goal, but its soft, the keeper still deciding to parry the shot through, not sure
why, hearts flutter for a minute, but he eventually gathers it easily. Their attempt on goal is followed by the single blast of a horn from somewhere in the away end, as well as more rowdy shouts of “rebels, rebels, rebels”.

Any movement in the KL area results in an almighty dust cloud being kicked up, and I wonder if it's that which the KL keeper will blame his air sliced, almost Paul Robinson Vs Croatia clearance, that lucky for him goes out for a corner. “If we concede from this” laments a home fan, and they almost do. The resulting header is on target, but also right into the arms of the man in goal.

“Come on King’s Lynn” sings the main stand, which quickly spreads throughout the ground. With just over twenty minutes gone, ST have a shot blocked, that wins them another corner. The away fans replicating the recent home song, but with a subtle difference, “come on Slough Town”.

Twenty five minutes on the clock, and KL take the lead. Our view of it is not great. We can see the floated in free kick to the back post well enough, and then the header back across goal, but it's only the actions of the fans down front that confirms the ball has been bundled in.

We eventually see a glimpse of the celebrating players who have rushed across the pitch towards the terrace. This view is then impeded further by a man, who I can only describe as going mental. He has scaled the low wall, his pint just about still in hand, but he’s lost at least half of it, as he violently punches the air.

“We are going up, we are going up” sing the already confident fans, who now a goal ahead, are even more cocksure.

As has been the case these first thirty minutes or so, KL’s chances come in bursts, and they almost pull two ahead straight away. The short sleeved keeper flaps again at a cross, the KL player with his back to goal, does an overhead kick to get the ball back into the six yard box, the header that follows is just wide. “Dodgy keeper” sing the fans before turning back to a more upbeat tune, “we’re on our way”.

I suspect it's not because of the oppressive heat that some in the covered terrace are now topless, I’m putting it down to hysteria. The group then suggests to all those that can hear that it's time to “have a disco”. The noise of the crowd is really something else, one nearby fan mimics another nearby, who is let's say slightly inebriated, “you say what we need to say” he explains, when the pissed fan realises he is being mocked.

The explanation of one supporter for having bare arms, the sun now pounding against my forehead, making me feel woozy, is not a justifiable excuse for third degree burns, “suns out, guns out”.

“Can you hear the Slough Town sing?” ask the home fans, but don't have to wait long for a response. ST, who have certainly grown into the game, after a bit of a slow start, then send a shot just wide, causing a collective intake of breath from the supporters around us.

There is a near constant stream of people on the beer run, like ants they head off in single file, coming back not with a bit of a leaf or dismembered wasp, but with armfuls of beer. Showing the same body weight to strength ratio as the insect, many carrying far more than they actually should be able to. The boy with the elephant bubble blower, walking along, not paying much attention to the match, doesn't have such concerns.

Their number still as healthy as at the start, the group in the terrace are not heading off for refreshments yet, “we all follow the King’s Lynn over land and sea” they sing, they are not going to miss a second of the match, belting out another song to the tune of the Addams Family, “we’re the King’s Lynn family”. They even pose a question to their fellow fans, fans they wonder may only be here because of the occasion, the sun and that its a bank holiday “where were you when we were shit?”.

There is still the odd beeping horn from passing cars, and one loud shout of “come on you Linnets” prompts Tom to look over his shoulder, towards the high wooden fence, asking “is someone outside?”.

The KL keepers kicking ability is soon brought into question again, with two very iffy kicks in a row. Seeing this rouses the horn in the away end, it giving up one of its infrequent blasts.

ST have looked threatening since the start from the few corners they have had, and its via a late set piece that they draw level, with only minutes left of the half to play. What some might call a towering header, sends the ball through the considerable dust cloud, passed the keeper and into the back of the net.

It’s the turn of a ST fan in a pork pie hat to mount the wall, from on high he waits for the charging players who celebrate below him, other fans embracing the scorer as does his teammates, for getting the crucial goal.

“Rebels, rebels, rebels” sing the away end, which gets a quick reply from the home end, “we forget that you were here. This jibe does not deter them from offering up a different tune, “oh when the Town got marching in”. A song for the home fans starts in response high up in the back of the stand, and soon spreads throughout the crowd once more, “come on King’s Lynn”.

The home fans who not long ago were asking if they should “sing a song” for the ST ones, can put that particular chant to the back of the song book, as they are more than happy singing their own ones now.

From the hushed groans and sighs around us and the near delirious scenes in the way end, it's fair to say it is the visitors who go inside the happier at the break. The voice over the PA is quick to confirm the score and the players seem just as quick to get inside and out of the sun, and so are we.

Even Tom who is positively reptilian when it comes to sun worshipping has had enough. For fourty five minutes straight we have stood with the sun beaming down us, we are done, it’s time to move.

As pulsating as it is, the covered terrace still doesn't look very appealing. The combination of the collective body heat and metal roof, still makes me think it would be very unpleasant under there. It would be wishful thinking on our part to think we have any chance of getting a spot in the stand among the flag wavers, so the only place for us, is at the other end of the pitch among the rebels.

While we manoeuvre ourselves through the dense crowd, reminiscent of a music festival, such is the amount of flesh on show and pints of lager, the ST fans are taking their turn to goad the home ones, whose lack of noise, they think is worth bringing up, “you’re supposed to be at home”.

Having finally been able to get anywhere near something to eat, Tom learns that the outdoor grill in the away end has “sold out of burgers”. As much as I feel for him, I’ve just spent nearly £10 on bottled water, doing my best to replenish some of the fluid lost in the first half.

The shade of the fence and the large trees behind it, is a welcome relief. I take the risk of sitting down on one of the gravelly steps, as I’m not 100% sure if I will be able to get back up again. Sipping slowly at my child water, trying to savour every drop, the response of one sitting ST fan next to us, to the chant of the seemingly Duracell powered ST fans in their corner of the terrace who ask “stand up if you’re here for the Slough” is perfect, “it's quite hot you know”.

Tom doesn't have long to dwell on missing out on a burger, the players are soon back out, both greeted with their own chorus from their respective fans, “rebels, rebel, rebels”, “oh when the Lynn go marching in”.

Sensing perhaps an increased chance of some kind of coming together, to suggest clashes would be a bit dramatic, but clearly feeling in their policy waters of growing tensions between the two sets of fans separated only by the wobbly fence and some very flushed looking stewards, the very small police presence from earlier in the day has grown considerably, and they add their authoritative weight to the party.

Slightly unorthodoxly, but it sounds like the halftime draw is being announced after the game has already restarted. I scramble around for the tickets I got from the Barbara Windsor look a like earlier, but even when I eventually find them, I can’t make out what the PA is saying.

I must admit we are a lot more comfortable now in the away end, there is a bit more room for starters, but also the shade is very welcome. It is though not any less entertaining. Fewer in number certainly, however the ST fans are without a doubt holding their own, the song to the tune Parklife “so many rebels” is on a near uninterrupted loop.

Also our new position means I can see who has been responsible for the single blasts of the horn from this end, the old chap in the blue and yellow jester hat, with bells, and scarf, has a large white horn slung around his neck.

There are a few tasty challenges flying in early on, one in particular from a KL player is followed by shouts of “off, off, off” from the ST supporters, but the player responsible for the far from clean tackle only gets a yellow.

“Keep them out rebels” pleads one fan in yellow nearby, after a KL shot on goal, that in the end was more than routine for the keeper to save, but highlights the fact that it's the home side who have come out on top in the opening ten minutes.

The visitors have a vast array of different chants, despite the opinion of the home fans that they’ve
“only got one song”. Many are being started by the young capo in the covered terrace.

“You're going home in a combine harvester” is what I think you might call bespoke, crafted to be relevant to the place they are in, for example I’m not sure that one would work so well in North West London. However there are plenty of others, plenty more each as loud and passionately sung as the one before “Slough Town, Slough Town” and after one particular fluent move in attack they suggest they are the “Brazil of the Southern League”.

Since the break, the game has certainly ebbed and flowed a lot more, instead of long periods of only going one way. ST have a shot deflected over, which gets a lines of “rebels, rebels”. They have a another attempt, this time its blocked and once again they respond with their now familiar war cry “rebels, rebels”. All the action in their area has quietened the home fans slightly, which is not lost on the traveling supporters, “you're supposed to be at home”.

A break in play, brought about by what looked like a clash of heads, allows the downed players to be treated and for the rest of the players to take on some much needed water. It also allows the ST fans to simmer a bit, after their seething shouts of “cheat, cheat, cheat” following what they thought was a KL player going down a bit too easily, just prior to the injury.

“Come on make some noise” demands one ST fan, who doesn't have to ask twice, “Slough, Slough, Slough”. A rather ruddy faced man with a can in his hand, takes it upon himself to goad the KL fans though the cordon, rather sloppily, and isn't paid much attention.

Nearly half and hour gone, and the game has shifted back KL’s way now, it is they applying plenty of pressure on the ST keepers goal, who is far too fair haired for short sleeves, and will be suffering tomorrow. “What game you watching?” screams one ST fan towards the referee, when he awards KL a free kick, a free kick that is whipped in excellently, but is eventually cleared.

“Wanker, wanker, wanker” they sing now towards the man in charge, oblivious it would seem to just how dangerous that ball into the box looked for a second. In fact there's plenty of loud fan commentary, when KL get a foul given against them, it's their supporters turn to let the referee know what they think, “you’re not fit to referee”.

“It's going to extra time isn't it” says Tom, upset I imagine because he had not long ago told me he was “hungry”, and now there will be even more of a gap before he can get something to eat.

One ST defender stretches on the centre circle, watching on as the rest of his teammates attack a corner. They have looked so threatening all afternoon from set pieces, and it looks as good away as any for them to get a winner, and more importantly will allow Tom to get some chicken nuggets sooner rather than later.

“Come on Linnets” shouts one fan from back of the stand. With under ten minutes to go, the game is getting tenser by the second, each team so conscious of not making a mistake. The away fans though don't seem to be displaying any such signs of stress, not the ones on the terrace at least, they are boisterously singing about drinking the “bar dry”.

The KL players are still arguing with the referee, as he waves play on, the ball still in play, moving now up the pitch. “That was a hand ball” says Tom, the ST defender lucky to get away with stopping the hooked over the shoulder shot from the KL player in the six yard box. The appeal of the home fans is huge, but falls on deaf ears, much like the players remonstrations.

“Cheat, cheat, cheat” chant the home supporters.

The lady next to me can barely bare to watch, she's going to groan or sigh herself some kind of injury, if she carries on how she is for the remaining five minutes. Her and those around her want to see the ball played on the ground, it's “all up in the air” she comments, “get it down boys” shouts another. Interestingly one points out, as the KL fans had earlier, that the natural pitch is maybe causing them some problems, “pitch is bobbly”.

“He dropped it, he dropped it” gasps one ST supporter, when at the far end the KL keeper drops what looks like a simple cross from a corner, right at his feet, only for the ball to be crashed away, before any ST player can capitalise. Despite what looks like a reasonably diddy front line, and the lack of threat the numerous highballs into them have been, they continue to look so menacing from corners.

With maybe a minute or two left to play, Tom is sure the ST keeper is now playing for extra time and spot kicks, “I think they want penalties, the keeper is slowing everything down” he points out.

What do you know, when you play to a players strengths, good things will happen. Pumping long balls up to a guy under 6 foot, is never likely to pay off. However play it to his feet, add a little bit of individual magic, a classy chop inside to avoid the defender, and a cool side footed finish, with one minute, yes one minute of normal time to play, ST have taken the lead.

“Oh Manny, Manny. Manny, Manny, Manny Williams” sing the fans, the scorer followed by his teammates meander to the corner of the pitch to celebrate, right in front of the home fans, this provokes someone into throwing something, but does not from where we are, seem to ruin the moment.

The woman who was only minutes ago, was and groaning and tutting is now screaming, having half mounted the wall herself, while one young fan, I’m not sure knows what to do with himself, charges up and down the crumbling steps, pumping his fist, mouth opened wide, simply shouting “yes, yes, yes, yes”.

There will be “four minutes of extra time” says the voice over the PA, who sounds like the wind has  been knocked right out of his sails. The same though cannot be said for the home fans, who give it one last “come on King’s Lynn, come on King’s Lynn”

As you can imagine in the away end, their sails are fully blown, the songs now even more frequent, somehow even louder, “la, la, la, la, la,Slough town” .

In the seconds and minutes following the final whistle, and for about the next half an hour, I think I would be right in saying it might be the most hectic, frantic and at times verging on the the unsavoury end to game in our three years.

"We are going up" is the song now being sung. It is by far the loudest of all the many songs they've not stopped singing all day. The players have joined their jubilant fans in their little corner of the ground, a few have entered the pitch, dancing, arms aloft, pumping the air. Its only for the shorts, that you are able to distinguish player from supporter. The stewards do their best to usher the fans off the pitch, but its slow going.

All this revelry is not going down well with a small section of the home fans, those who had been on the terrace for the game. Quite quickly it is clear that the cordon is not robust enough to hold them back the baying supporters, who are not taking kindly to having their defeat so brazenly rubbed in their faces.

Going full Maginot Line, instead of going through the defences, they just go around them, soon many are hopping over the low wall on to the pitch and are making their way towards the ST fans. This unfortunately means batons are quickly drawn and put into attack position, also from somewhere a very large, very angry looking dog black dog appears, straining at its leash.

Amongst all the joy is a shed load of heartbreak, many of the KL players are strewn across the floor around their dugout distraught in defeat. They are forced to watch on as a small table is brought out, and the winners medals and trophy are placed on top.

With the angry home fans still on the pitch, yelling from behind the police line, it was probably ill
advised to allow the awarding of the silverware to be done, with them still on the pitch. The chants of "we are going up" now from the players, who are spraying each other with fizz and posing for pictures, was perhaps a bit ill advised. It's at the point where we come the closest to any actual conflict, when the small group of idiots start surging towards the now medal wearing players, only to be forced back once again by the threat of being hit with a baton.

The stadium all but empty now, the KL manager finishes up with the considerable group of press that had surrounded him and the task of tidying up starts to begin, the ST fans have been held back. Now in the opposite corner to where they had spent the day, they don't seem bothered one bit about any delay to getting home, it just means more time to sing, sing, sing, "its the Slough Town boys making all the noise".

I heard two things today, I never thought I would ever hear Tom say, "that dog wanted blood" and "someone is hog tied on the pitch". To stress it was a very small minority, as it always is, that slightly marred the end of the match, but the actions of a few should not reflect badly on the majority of KL fans who where exemplary.

The ST keeper win his "lucky" Snow White towel, the second ST goal scorer in the fans pork pie hat, the supporter on the pitch conducting the fans in the stand, "la, la, la, la Slough Town", the stunning ground, the "inspired substitution" as one person put it, when describing the introduction late on of "Manny, Manny, Manny Williams" who grabbed the winner and even the plain clothes policemen, with hands pressed to their ears all contributed to a day the kind of which only happen at this time of year. The kind of game where so much is in the balance, where emotions are amplified and a single goal can be the difference between crowning glory to end of the perfect season, or absolute anguish.

'Love Will Tear Us Apart' was one of the pop classics the ST fans appropriated at one point today. If you're a KL fan, rubbing after sun into your obliterated arms and are nursing a hangover, its football that tore you apart this bank holiday weekend.

 

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Thursday, 10 May 2018

Don't Worry Love - Chelmsford City FC Vs Hampton & Richmond Borough FC, National League South Play-Off Semi-Final, Melbourne Community Stadium (06/05/18)

It was long after I got home tonight that I realised my forearms were somewhere on the colour chart between a cooked lobster and a Coke can, the damage really having already been done before we’d even reached today's ground, driving along with my right arm jutting halfway out of the open window of my car, topping up my white van man tan. Did it dawn on me, that despite all the agony of having After Sun put on them, and hardly being able to pick them up above my head, the morning after, that it was all totally worth it.

It's a glorious day, the thermostat supposedly going to edge over 25c, and I thank myself for ignoring that brief idea of wearing jeans.

Picking Tom up from home is not unusual, most of our days out start that way, but the fact I’m getting out of the car, walking up to his blue door, and ringing the bell, because I come bearing gifts, is not exactly the norm.

A bakewell tart, not any old bakewell tart mind, no Mr Kipling knock off, but one from Bakewell itself, from what I’m sure is one of the many bakeries in the small Derbyshire town, who claim to have been the first to make it.

He is either a very good actor, or he is genuinely happy I've just handed him a Teller mine sized, almond covered dessert and much to my surprise there is a present coming back my way too. When I remove the crimson, gold fringed pennant of AC Sorrento with a seahorse on, Tom having just returned from a holiday in southern Italy. I fear that my present is nowhere near as good, regardless of its authentic provenance.

Considering I went to Stockport and he went to Naples, there is only so much I want to hear about margaritas and day trips to the Amalfi Coast. I do my best to steer the conversation away from his holiday, but he just ends up talking about his upcoming loft conversion and the trials and tribulations of engagement ring shopping and I seriously start to wonder, if we have officially run out of anything interesting to say to each other today.

Yes, yes, I know, there are other places to watch football than Essex, but we are somewhat inexplicably drawn to the place, time after time. I myself don't see the Chelmsford Cathedral, it's impressive spire jutting up into the hazy blue sky, but it catches Tom’s eye above the sea of modern day places of worship. The houses of retail therapy, that litter the road sides, in their little prefab clusters.

I normally don't entertain Toms fanciful ideas, but when as he always does, points out in his unique high pitched way things we are passing, I seriously wonder if we have time for a quick round at the “pitch and putt”.

I’m sure I can see an ever so slight shimmer, a heat haze on the asphalt of the car park, approaching the turnstiles, the large sign welcoming us to “The home of the Clarets”. I already feel ill equipped for the heat, and have an instant feeling of sympathy for the hired security in their obligatory uniform of white buttoned up shirt and black trousers. If I’m already suffering, they must be sweating bullets.

Only inside the ground for maybe twenty five seconds, and Tom has already made two quickfire observations. Firstly that the main stand is a “long way from the pitch” he is not wrong, the Melbourne Community Stadium has an athletics track, and although a few modifications have been made for match day, two small stands erected behind each goal, are inside the perimeter of the red track, one covered, one not, a prime place to get an excellent sunburn, there is still a vast distance between where the bulk of people will be sitting, in the shade, and the game itself.

Secondly, and even though there is no love lost between Tom and running tracks at football, the fact that the food van, currently blasting out some Elvis, where surprisingly the three women manning the grill, look flawless, I would be in bits, has “pineapple in their burgers”.

Such tropical conditions and exotic food, one could be forgiven for thinking they were on holiday.

“Picked a good day for it” I hear twice in short succession, I’m not sure what is “good” at all about standing about in the blazing sun all day, the player going through a fitness test, clearly struggling with some small niggle, pulling up every so often, I’m sure doesn’t think the added high temperatures are anyway close to “good”.

A couple of CC flags flutter on their poles on the front of the club's supporters trust shed, alluding to some kind of breeze but I can’t feel it. I’m too fat, too white and too Irish for this kind of weather, I like to skulk around in the darkness, when the weather gets all “good”.

The only place for me is in the stand, the cool, shady stand, right next to a gargantuan CC flag. There are a few in fact already up, the other hangs from the side of the hammer cage, that sits conspicuously on one corner of the pitch, the green nets of which, the ones that ensure you don't get a 16lb lump of stone in the head, have been lowered, so as to not totally impede your view, but the large metal frame of the cage, kind of already does that.

An all too uncommon sight at non league grounds is a score board, moving up into the higher echelons of the non league world, and the National League, I guess they are more common, but it's nice to see one nonetheless. The red dot-matrix one, far off in the distance, on the side of a leisure centre type looking building, which Tom is convinced has a “swimming pool” inside, is a little bit on the small side, but has the added bonus of also being able to display the CC “starting XII”.

“Food looks good, I'm excited today” says Tom, joining me in the stand. He is very much a sun worshipper. With his jaunty baseball cap, shades and overly hairy extremities on show, he is like a pig in shit, loving nothing more than strolling around in the hideous heat. You would think I would be a little perturbed by the fact we are attending a play-off semi-final, today's two teams now only two games away from the National League, and he is getting hot under the collar about the dining options. However, I’m long desensitised to his skewed priorities.

It’s not like I haven't been totally forthcoming with my displeasure at the current conditions, so when he does join me, clutching a can of Coke, small beads of condensation running down the side just like in the adverts, and doesn't have one for me, well I'm appalled.

The very brief blast of music from the PA, mixes with the distant sounds of the programme seller and the constant sound of the spatula from the food truck working the hotplate. For once we are not the only ones early. Many like Tom are loving the weather, standing outside the very contemporary clubhouse, with the club's motto emblazoned below its crest on its side, “Many Minds One Heart”, enjoying a pint. While I look on sweating and thirsty. “Not a Coldplay fan” suggests Tom as only a couple of lines from one of their drippy songs escape the speakers, before being turned off again.

CC’s manger with his distinctive slicked back hair, is out to prod the pitch and looks happy. Tom has his own concerns, his stomach, he doesn't think he can make it to half time, “I might have to eat before kick off”. I know he didn't try and bribe me with food, maybe it was the promise of a cold drink of my own, but I decided to leave the safe haven of the stand, heading out into the pounding heat.

The people selling the vast array of sweets under their red gazebo, have the right idea, portable, take it where you want shade. The pear drops and flying saucers, remind Tom of “Highbury”, and the people there who used to sell them from under a red and white striped tarpaulin on match days. Funnily one of my abiding memories from my few visits there, is of just that too.

You can feel the heat from the grill, but the people behind it are clearly old hats, and seem unfazed. Tom thinks he may have found an explanation to the slightly underwhelming club shop, a man next to a table with a boot bag on and no pins, is because all the clubs money has been spent on the “condiments”.

To a football food aficionado, there is no finer sight than a vast array of sauces, relishes and even
pickles. Two large murky looking jars, are available, for you to apply some to taste, to your burger. Tom will have none of them or pineapple, but it does have “monterey jack cheese” very fancy.

The programme seller in his shed looks very happy and cool, inviting me to plunge my hand lucky dip style into a bowl to pick my two golden goal tickets, before I can even glance at the prize list pinned to the wall, he has fired it off at me word for word.

It's the call of the sweet seller who is the newest addition to the ever growing atmosphere. People are
already sitting on the steps of the sunburn trap terrace, I’m sure without the relevant factor cream on, many seats of the stand are quickly being occupied.

Adding their own unique noise to the maelstrom, are the newly arrived away fans, them of Hampton & Richmond Borough FC (HB) who we hear, long before we see, “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers”.

A home flag is put up behind one goal, will all the delicacy of hanging a priceless painting, once erected, all the edges straight, making sure it's looking its best, its patted with the kind of fondness that you don’t really expect to see at football, and which is normally reserved for an ageing family pet.

When overhearing a confused conversation between two passing CC fan's, I wonder if the heat has claimed its first victims. “Hope our manager gets sacked” says one to the other, “why?” replies the second man quizzically, who clearly doesn't understand his friends statement. “He’s useless” he replies, which just gets an even more confused face in response. “Look what he did at Southampton” says the first man, trying to back up his point. The face of the second man is now a picture of absolute bemusement. The first man now just about cottoning on to the fact there may be some crossed wires, tries to clarify, “who did you think I meant?”, “not here!”.

What is actually the club shop is now open, you can tell this by the two yellow silhouettes of men, usually used for free kick practise wearing the club's home shirt propped up outside. Right next to the tiny white and claret CC wheelbarrow that I nearly trip over. It makes me wonder who the man with the boot bag and the table was, a local fraudster?

It’s Tom Jones now spilling from the burger van, entertaining the ever growing crowds. “Next, next, next” shout the servers, trying their best to make some impact on the snaking line, pineapple must be popular.

Sweltering hot, face meltingly warm, but it does little to hamper the HB fans already in good voice. As the HB players head in from their warm up, each one it seems gets their own song, one about a “magic hat”. One returning CC player, is asked for his shirt by a small autograph hunter “can't give you my shirt” he explains, wouldn't go down well with the “kit man”, but he’s more than happy to scribble in the kids programme.

I bet it's quite warm in the creaking claret extendable tunnel, which is man handled into place. With the bright sun beaming through it, the players ready to emerge from inside it, are bathed in a pale crimson light. When they eventually step out of the dark, all hell breaks loose, and doesn't stop for the next hour and half.

The away fans have occupied the curiously placed steps to one side of the tunnel, a long way from the pitch and at totally the wrong angle. They are soon belting out a few lines of “we love you Hampton we do” as the players file past them, along the narrow strip of roll out fake grass, past the long jump pit, and right at the naked hammer cage. A single home fan, an older man, stands close by, holding up and waving a flag at the passing players.

There is a monumental change of ends, the CC fans flooding towards the covered terrace, the HB supporters leaving their awkward little spot and now occupying the sun burn trap, hurriedly putting up their own flags as the both teams huddle on the pitch, for a few last words before kick off.

“Up the city” says the man on the PA.

Although here in greater numbers, it had not been the home fans, but those of HB ‘making all the noise’ as they say, this dramatically changes once everyone has settled in their first half homes.

The din coming from the opposite end of the pitch is nothing short of staggering, something we have been very rarely treated to at a non league match. Everything that can be banged or hit to make a noise is being so. One man at the front, with both fists pounds the hoarding like an irate gorilla, “CCFC, CCFC, CCFC, CCFC”.

Lots of early home pressure, results in a shout for a penalty, so loud, that if I was the referee I would have given it, just to avoid being shouted at so deafeningly again. It was like something you would hear at a top flight game. You must excuse my slight shell shock, we are just simply not used to so many people at the games we go to, I’m slightly in awe.

Two minutes later and HB have their own shout for a spot kick, it's nowhere near as loud, or intimidating, and the ref doesn’t give it.

CC have come out the blocks flying, their fans and players, “City, City, City”. On the pitch and they have just crashed a header off the bar, not even ten minutes gone and they look rampant, the supporters doing a great job of whipping themselves into something just short of a frenzy, “we all follow the Chelmsford, over land and sea”.

Seconds after hitting the bar, HB’s towering keeper in his vivid yellow strip is almost lobbed, frantically back peddling, he manages to tip the ball over the bar. HB need to wake up sharpish, they are almost out of this and it's not even begun. “City, City, City” sing the home fans once more, who are thunderous.

Again the woodwork stops HB going behind, just to be clear about twelve minutes have elapsed, the home fans are so loud, “CCFC, CCFC, CCFC”. The corner that follows the most recent test of the goals paint job, sees the ball cleared off the HB line. “Come on Hampton, come on Hampton” plead the away fans.

HB's keeper has the tendency for a bit of a rush of blood to the head at times, he loves to charge off his line, causing a few hearts to flutter on occasions. CC’s keeper is quite the opposite he is a sturdy unit of a man, with a Samurai topknot, of “Jack Butland” proportions Tom suggests. Like a slow moving boulder, he doesn't spend too much time out of his six yard box.

Just over twenty minutes gone and HB are finally getting some modicum of possession, but their play is a bit sloppy, the players not quite up to speed yet, in tune with each other, each misplaced pass gets a small groan from their fans. “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers” they chant, which I stand by maybe being the nicest chant in football. The reply from the CC fans is not so demure, “it's nice to know you’re here, fuck off”.

In a brief lull, we have time to play our favourite game of pointing out what other kits the kits on show look a bit like, today its Burnley Vs Argentina. Tom asks “what number would you be?”. I’ve never really thought about it, I used to play in goal at school, but always fancied myself as a goal scoring centre back, so say 5. “You would be Steve Bold” he tells me, before divulging he “likes” the number “7”.

Although HB are very much on the back foot, they at least have started to grow into the game now, feeding off scraps you might say, relying on the home team to make a mistake and then counter attacking, rather than really creating anything of their own.

Another loose HB pass at the back is quickly pounced on, sending the CC attacker towards goal, but his final attempt is well wide. The game has certainly settled since the madness of the opening fifteen minutes. There is still the occasional barrage from the CC end, but they are certainly nowhere near as loud, their manic chanting and King Kong hoarding bashing has subsided. Replaced now with their own fair old bit of grumbling about their teams careless play.

With the home supporters much quiter, the HB fans now have a chance to show what they are all about, and are the loudest for the first time today, “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers”.

Ten minutes of the half left and CC break into the box, the attempt at goal is blocked, bringing an almighty “ohhhhhh”, then a “ahhhhh” from the main stand. I really can't impress on you enough just quite how hot it is, the sun beating down on my considerable forehead is quite unbearable. Tom reckons the “heat” is the reason for the games diminishing pace, “you imagine running around in this for forty five minutes”, “fuck knows how people play in Brazil”.

A CC goal is starting to look imminent, not if, but when, they have another shot blocked in the box, it’s all getting very last ditch in the HB defence. There are shouts of “off, off, off” when a swashbuckling and free flowing CC counter attack is halted by what Tom describes as a “dirty fucking tackle”. When the referee only produces a yellow, the fans clearly wanting, expecting more, they don’t hold back in letting him know their displeasure.

In the considerable build up to the resulting free kick, “take your fucking time” says Tom, as the taker and a teammate take an age lining it up, the CC fans seem to be anticipating things, “claret, claret, claret” they chant excitedly. Sadly for the expectant fans the set piece is well over, well well over, “after all that, at least get it close” tut's Tom.

Much like the opening exchanges, the closing ones are just as frantic. CC tickle the wood work again, then shoot just over, which gets another rousing “ohhhhhh” from the big crowd. Their number 7 then goes on a winding run down the right wing, cutting inside, then out, his eventual cross blocked by the HB defender who did well to keep up with him.

It is though the visitors, who finish the half with a late chance, but not before a bit of panto in response to a HB player who is, and call me a cynic, playing for time. Going down, then miraculously getting back up again when he doesn't get the free kick, much to the disapproval of the
home fans, “wanker, wanker, wanker”.

HB’s last gasp effort comes thanks to a bit of a flap from the CC keeper, who palms the ball into the area, but the HB player who gets on the other end of it, is only able to strike it with a bit of his thigh and a lot of his knee, and the ball goes wide.

“Come on Beavers, come on” shout the HB fans, as the players make their way off, grateful I’m sure for fifteen minutes out of the blistering sun.

“We will have extra time and penalties” confirms the voice over the PA, if the score stays the way it is. He then runs through the half time scores from the Premiership, National League, and most importantly the Bostick League North Play Off final where it's still “0-0” between Haringey Borough Vs Canvey Island.

Then he does something that has happened far too often for my liking this season, and I put it down to poor advertising, its not for a lack of trying to find it on my part, but he informs all interested parties that the “half time draw” will take place shortly. For the first time though, Tom is disappointed for me, looking at me like I'd just lost a loved one, instead of his usual ‘you’re a pathetic addict’ one, which is comforting.

There has been what might be a record breaking change of ends, the HB fans much like the players want to give their sizzling skin a rest and have soon filled the covered terrace, their flags up in a flash. Not content with listening to Katy Perry, they take to banging the stand, spending the remainder of the break signing to themselves.

CC’s manager is out long before his players, clutching two small bottles of water, his arrival is applauded, he raises his hand to acknowledge the crowd, and Tom comments something that is plainly clear to see, he is “well liked”.

It seems a much fairer fight between the two sets of fans when the players return. “Come on
City, come on City” sing the home fans who have now occupied the sunburn trap, the HB supporters who have had a miraculous injection of something, are now giving it a hearty “Hampton, Hampton, Hampton”.

The voice over the PA expresses the same sentiment as the fans, “come on City”, just after reading out the results of the half time draw. “Missed out on £220 pounds” says Tom in horror. I think if he knew how much was at stake, he might start buying himself a couple of tickets.

It is somewhat of a condolence that I at least still have the golden goal tickets securely placed in the breast pocket of my shirt, but not a lot.

HB open the second half with a half chance, that falls tamely into the keepers hands. CC respond with an equally tame attempt, and as the two teams get back into the flow of things, two CC ball boys in white caps, both perched on plastic stools share a jelly snake, which one went and got in the break from the sweet stand. They listen to the away fans who are now belting out their songs, unsure why they keep repeating the name of a certain river dwelling big tailed mammal, “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers”.

On the 53rd minute of the game, the whole dynamic of it changes, when one CC player goes full John Terry. The keepers attempt to claim the cross from the corner is woeful, now on the floor, having missed the ball completely, it hits a HB player, fortunately falling straight at his feet he takes an almighty swing at it, the ball now destined for the bottom corner.

Seeing his team are about to go behind, one CC player is under the impression it's rush goalie, he stops the shot from going in with two hands low down to his right. There is a huge shout for a penalty from the HB fans behind the goal, and for a split second the game continues, the players then make their own claim, but conscious the ball is still in play, the referee having not blown up yet, they scramble to poke home the rebound following the players save.

The short sharp bursts of the referee's whistle and his pointed hand, mean he has seen the glaring handball, penalty for HB, straight red card for the CC player.

It's a very long walk to the tunnel, a very very long walk, regardless of the added ignominy of having been sent off, giving away a penalty, and all the eyes of the fans upon you. He pulls his shirt half up to cover his face, but I’m sure is consoled in some small way by the soft ripple of applause he gets and the comments of encouragement from the crowd, “don't worry love”.

He doesn't make it all the way to the tunnel before the spot kick is taken, he stands watching on from the sidelines with his teammates warming up, as the HB player coolly tucks the ball into the bottom right hand corner.

His shirt off now, hanging from one hand, accompanied by a steward he makes the final few steps off down the tunnel, but not before a small boy offers him a high five, which he reluctantly gives back. The HB players in their Argentina esq shirts at the far end of the pitch dash for the corner flags to celebrate, and their fans behind the goal, ramp up the noise levels another couple of notches.

The home crowds confidence has clearly taken a knock, they try to rally, but its just nowhere near as loud, “come on City”.

Three minutes after going behind, CC have their own shout for a penalty, which is waved away, and I’ve only just about got round to opening my golden goal tickets with my sweaty hands to find to no great surprise, I was well out the running, 88th and 90th.

“Get me some sweets” asks Tom, I think the ball boys jelly snake has made him jealous and I think he might be a bit delirious, he keeps muttering “burny, burny” in my ear, and if I’m honest his neck is looking a bit medium rare.

Practically every member of the HB bench are on their feet, watching the loose ball ricochet around the CC box, before it is hooked clear, the CC manager angrily barks at his team from the sidelines, all while the HB supporters reel off song, after song, “We’re the red and blue army” and the tune that until our visit to HB a couple of years ago, Tom thought only Arsenal sung, “who to, who to be, who to be a Beaver”.

CC’s fans attempt a reply, but again it's just a bit flat.

Just over the half an hour mark, and cries of “dirty, dirty Essex” is coming from the covered terrace with the HB fans in. A cynical CC tackle, a swipe at the heels of the HB player who is almost away and free of the defence, sees him sent crashing to the floor. “Off, off, off” demand the HB supporters, but it's only a yellow.

The free kick that follows is headed wide, and I think it's fair to say, HB have not really capitalised yet on the man advantage.

All of the CC fans energy is being diverted away from their impressive signing from the first half, towards the referee, whose action or lack of it at times is causing them much consternation, “what's wrong with you ref?” one asks angrily when he doesn't give what they all seem to think is a clear foul on the edge of the HB box.

When they finally get a call their way, it gets one of the biggest cheers of the day, and a clash of heads brings about a much needed water break, but ends up giving the home fans just more time to
grow angrier and angrier, time to build more and more vitriol towards the man in charge.

With the game edging closer and closer to full time, HB try every way they can to slow and manage the last ten minutes or so. There is plenty of arm waving from the home bench and shouting from the stands at the amount of time they are taking to make their substitutes.

It doesn't feel like its getting any cooler, however much water I drink, or however many times I wipe my brow with my shirt, I’m still too hot, I’m still horribly sweaty. The ball boys are now pouring water into their hats to keep themselves cool.

The change in the two sets of fans from the first to second half is dramatic, the HB supporters have not stopped, “Beavers, Beavers”, every attempt by the home fans doesn't even have a quarter of the spirit that it did in the first half.

On the pitch, and you still wouldn't really know that CC are a man worse off, they have HB pegged back, “get it away” shouts one of the red and blue woolly scarf wearing fans, insane, as another ball is pumped into their box, and scrambled away.

Five minutes to go, plus what I would think might be a considerable amount of injury time, the down side of time wasting, which HB are now doing expertly, is that it gets added onto the end. A HB corner sees them only send three up, and just before its about to be taken, they decide to make another change. This does not go down well with the locals.

Who they bring on, gives a window into the thinking of the HB manager, a towering, braided hair, muscle bound predator looking mother fucker. A huge dude, who would have no issue hunting Arnie and his mates in the jungle. He has one job to do, hold the ball up. At one point he has two CC players trying their hardest to win the ball back off him, and it's like watching two ewoks trying to chop down a redwood.

“Come on ref, what's going on?” asks a CC fan from the stands, the general consensus is that the man in the charge has been anything but.

HB’s keeper almost lets the hosts back into the game with seconds of normal time left, a fumble in the box allows for a shot which is blocked and then the follow up, which is hit over. “Wehhhhhhh” shout the HB fans, doing a bad job at masking their relief.

The counter on the tiny scoreboard reads 90 when HB almost, almost put the game to bed, a shot across the keeper from a tight angle, can only be parried into the six yard box, but no one, because pretty much everyone else is camped just outside their box, is their to finish.

Four minutes of extra time to go, every CC mistake gets a cheer, a whistle, the jingling of fine West London jewelry from the HB fans, who somehow continue to get louder, “Beavers, Beavers”. CC players frantically clammer for the ball, trying to take throw ins as quickly as possible, trying to get the ball forward.

They sing again a song about a “magic hat”, perhaps it's the one covering the bald head of the HB manager, who now stands arms raised almost constantly, gesticulating towards his players, as they sink back, deeper and deeper into their half.

The whistle can only be moments away, the covered terrace is taking one hell of a kicking, the fans it contains and those spilling out either side of it, are close to exploding, “Hampton, Hampton, Hampton”.

There is a monumental outpouring of emotion on the final whistle, from vastly different ends of the spectrum. The HB players whoop and shout, hugging each other, the CC players stand frozen, the magnitude of whats just happened, visible flooding through them. The visiting players don't gloat for too long in front of their defeated foe, making sure to do the right thing, and shake hands and commiserate their stunned opponents.

Socks rolled down, the CC players gather at the feet of their manger, one lies shirt off on the pitch, just staring skywards, as the HB players approach their fans.

"Beavers, Beavers, Beavers" sing the visiting supporters for the last time, most having amassed on the railing awaiting for the players to arrive. A large blue and red flag is tossed towards one who duly catches it and starts to unfurl it. Numerous players are embraced almost consumed by the congratulatory outstretched hands of the fans who have been quite superb this second half.

For a moment the whole team, coaches and one player in a protective boot, unite in front of the supporters, holding the flag, both players and fans soaking it up.

The players, as the fans still serenade them, then form a small tight circle, some words are said, and they break. It had the air of a full stop, the job is only half done, they've enjoyed this moment, now on to the final.

CC's players and staff are still on the pitch, the HB ones long down the tunnel, their fans having dashed to clap them off one last time. Not all the home fans have left yet, a small group has stopped behind, waiting for their team to eventually leave.

We've been to finals, we've seen people win things, loose things and get promoted, but I wonder if a semi-final is that little bit more charged, that little bit more exciting because of the 'what if?' because if you win that one, then God only knows what might happen next. A final, well is final, its all over, a semi-final, still has an element of anticipation about it, of what the next game still to come will bring.

Not only was it a quite a battle on the pitch, but off it too. A ram packed stadium and two sets of fans giving it their all. I'm not a huge fan of the expression 'a good advert for non league football' it always seems a bit condescending. However today, today shows you just what is going on outside the gaze of Sky TV. That the football world has so much more to offer as far as big occasions and rousing atmospheres are concerned, than only what is happening in the 'top flight' and its glorious, a bit hot, but glorious.

 

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Thursday, 3 May 2018

It's Like Being In Kavos - Concord Rangers FC Vs Bognor Regis Town FC, National League South, Aspect Arena (17/04/18)

Toms done a few nice things I can think of, off the top of my head, over the past three years. He’s bought me a couple of football related knick knacks back from his holidays and as he always reminds me when I ask for petrol money, that the bottles of water and cups of coffee he gets are not free, but he’s never baked.

Before he’s even got in the car, he’s handed me over the passenger seat a small homemade cookie, I’m ever so slightly lost for words.

Considering it was just the one, it's not exactly around for long, the crumbs are already littering my jumper before we’ve turned out from the end of this road. It was good, he suggested it might be a bit “stale” being a day or so old, but it was actually very good. I know he didn't go full Paul Hollywood just for me, but the fact he thought of bringing me one “stale” or not, is very touching, he's such a swell guy.

Essex, the place we are always going, the place we are going tonight, the place not actually that far from Toms or my house, and if it weren't for the broken down HGV right in the centre lane of the A13, it would have been a pretty seamless journey. However old Mr Big Rigs choice of rest stop, the centre lane, means I’m very rarely out of second gear as we creep along, out of East London.

Edging past an allotment, Toms green fingers start to tingle. He spent his Sunday afternoon attending to his new small garden, and I wonder if his own little spot to grow some brassica's takes his fancy, where he could hoist an Arsenal flag or a Jolly Roger, just like the people who have them flying above their sheds below us, but he doesn't. I think a pot with some tomatoes in, is about as far as he wants to go, as he puts it he has no interest in entering Newham Council's “biggest pumpkin competition”.

When Tom starts talking about a “pheasant” I assume he is just pointing out another of the inordinate amount of dead ones, along with all the other roadkill, that has littered this particular A road. So far it's been like Saving Private Ryan for the Animals of Farthing Wood, the majority of whom are sprawled and splattered, in various undignified poses just the other side of the white line of the fast lane, but this lucky bird as he puts it is “alive” and “chilling out on the roundabout”.

The very roundabout, still a long way from our destination, where we see a sign for tonight's club. The yellow and blue board, in the colours of Concord Rangers FC (CR), with this evening's fixture on it, points the way to the ground. A sign that Tom is very impressed that someone has “changed”, the information on it correctly, considering its on the side of a fiercely busy roundabout, it can't be much of a fun job to do.

Not wanting to be distasteful or disrespectful, but it's not exactly clear what is being remembered along the Avenue of Remembrance. An almost never ending tree lined road that leads you over the estuary, over the mud flats on to Canvey Island. A “very green and well kept” island as Tom puts it.

I start to get a few faint whiffs of deja vu, from our previous visit to The Island, sounds very dramatic that way doesn't it. On that occasion if was to see the other team, who share their name with this small leafy outcrop, that somehow is able to support two football clubs. “Those are sweet” comments Tom about a long row of  white fronted bungalows, gleaming in the late evening sun.

Not yellow and blue, but our second sign of the night, leading us to where we are going, is much smaller than the first, about halfway up a lamp post. It shares its spots with its neighbour, a Gas Works, which is a definite first for us.

I have to say the car park of The Aspect Arena, is another example of a non league shocker, thankfully we are able to park not far from the turnstiles, so the chances of falling or tripping over later in the dark are reduced considerably.

The ground or arena, is not what first springs to mind when one imagines an ‘arena’, it's more of a, well I’m not sure what it is. I don’t think in all our time going to football at all kinds of levels, we’ve ever seen anything quite like it. There is just not a huge amount to it.

Behind one goal is a kind of lean to, a makeshift narrow terrace. Opposite what I’ll call the ‘main stand’, which is in fact three small covered stands plonked next to each other on the halfway line, each with different coloured seats, are the two totally perspex dugouts, either side of which are two stands, one taped off due to its multitude of smashed seats.

Hodge podge seating arrangements and a few frayed edges are not uncommon. It’s more what surrounds us that makes it unusual. Beyond the high mesh net that hangs shabbily from thin metal poles, are a sea of beige mobile homes and behind one goal is the well signposted local gas works, which is quite literally the other side of the fence. Numerous metal domes poke skywards, creaking every so often, and emitting a piercing metal screech, which all adds to the curiosity of the place.

I am also maybe slightly thankful for still having a bit of a bunged up nose, but certainly feel miles better than I did at the weekend, just in case anyone cared, because according to Tom it “stinks” a bit, the pungency of the gas works ever present.

Regardless of the scenery or the smell, there is one thing present that at least ensures Tom will be contented, that comes in the form of the rectangular open fronted Food Station, which from a brief glance already, Tom has decided looks “nice”. Outside it and the clubhouse, where the clubs name has been built into its frontage, are a mix of picnic tables one of which has been painted in the ever present club colours, yellow and blue.

“When you going on that?” asks Tom pointing at the punch bag in the corner of the almost barren bar, only for a couple of framed signed football shirts on the wall offering a little bit of character. The answer is I’m not, the fact there are about five people in here, I’m not risking making a complete tit of myself.

The other side of the room to us, we’re holed up in a brown leather dinner booth underneath a signed Messi shirt, a man who I can't see, but can certainly hear, holds court among the three or four away fans of Bognor Regis Town FC (BRT). When one can get a word in edgewise, he suggests “in all seriousness think this might be us”, he’s clearly not expecting many to be making the long journey up from West Sussex, exacerbated by BGT’s dismal showing this year, and the fact they are currently bottom of the league.

With opportunities for anyone else to talk limited, the man with a thick Yorkshire accent, casts his wide net of opinions across the whole of the football world. Sharing his thoughts on “Mourinho”, and the fact he needs to “pull a rabbit out of the hat” to ensure his time at Manchester United is not a busted flush. As he puts it, it's not like he is having that “magical second season” everyone always says he has.

He thinks United will “beat Spurs” in the upcoming FA Cup semi final, and then he turns his sights on England and this summer's World Cup. “We’re not going to take on the Germans, Brazilians” or “even the Spanish”, the way he says the name of the recent two time European champions and World Cup winners, like they are international small fry, is hysterical.

I tune out from my ear wigging right around the time he describes one person as a “club man, not a football man”. When he uses the immortal line, “football man” once again, I’m done, and we head outside, the punch bag unmolested.

Tom’s astute time keeping means he's a bit worried, because it's “ten past seven” and neither teams
coaches have “put any cones out yet”, he thinks something is afoot.

The silence of The Aspect Arena, that has only been threatened to be overcome by the odd crackle of the PA, is finally defeated by the one and only king of pop, Michael Jackson. His 1979 hit 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough' does wonders in elevating a ground that until now, might just be the quietest we’ve ever been to.

When the CR players eventually appear, from the long skinny tunnel that runs along one side of the clubhouse, passing through the blue gates with the club's nickname on them, The Beach Boys, well we frankly hardly notice them. It's not because of the plague of midges circling above us, but because of the music, coming from a speaker that Tom has pointed out are of a much, much higher standard than the ones at your average non league ground, the “disco madness” as Tom calls it, sounds great.

There are a long string of classics. I feel for Tom a bit when 'September' by Earth Wind and Fire starts, having only just got it out of his head after our recent visit to Haringey Borough, where the fans their sung their own version of it on a near constant loop.

Tom was right, the lack of cones was the sign of some disturbance in the force, BRT were late, kick off has been delayed until 19:55, why not till 20:00 we’ll never know, perhaps the referee is in a rush to get home. The extra time is used by the majority of people here, who are congregated around the same corner of the pitch as the Food Station, to get a bit of food in them. A couple of picnic tables are now occupied, and there is the occasional click of the nearby turnstiles.

As much as I’m enjoying the quite excellent music, I don't profess to being a huge fan of disco at all, but there is a comfort in the familiarity of the upbeat tunes which is quite uplifting, it doesn't distract me completely from the ever growing cloud of midges, circling about a foot above me. I assure myself it's not because I stink, but because they love the smell of my shampoo.

While the CR keeper warms up with a slightly unorthodox sidekick, not your old fashioned drop and hoof of days gone by, that Tom doesn't reckon he will do in the game anyway, it’s just dawned on my companion, that CR play in the “same colours” as their island rivals, which he says quietly, as to not rile any of the locals. Admittedly it is a bit odd, you would think each team's would be polar opposites.

It's not the words of Chic or any other such affiliated band or artist of that era that echoes around the ground next but the words of the announcer welcoming those in attendance, “good evening ladies and gentleman”. What follows not long after is another first, almost near silence as the teams finally walk out, having been milling around behind the beach boys gates for a while.

In a complete contrast from the genre that had preceded it, again the music saves the day in the sense it injects a bit of much needed life into the place. The apparent go to for a lot of non league clubs we’ve learnt this season, is 'Insomnia' by Faithless, the mid 90’s dance track does a fine job in lifting this corner of Essex out of the doldrums.

One thing I know plenty of people like about non league football is the intimacy, never has that been more apparent than tonight. With the crowd scattered to all four corners of the ground, Tom at one point asking “where did everybody go?” because what looked like quite a reasonable turnout at one point, are now dotted in ones and twos all round the pitch, you can hear the pre kick off shouts of the players with crystal clear clarity, “come on rocks lets go”.

Moments after the whistle it's one of the few away fans, not a home fan that lets out a loud rallying cry, “come on rocks”. The home fans though don’t have to wait long to have something a bit more exciting to shout about then simply the beginning of the match, well I say shout about.

“Fuck there goes my score prediction” grumbles Tom, CR having gone ahead after all of three minutes, Tom having predicted 0 - 0.

The constant presence of the eggy smell, not one I can attest to having smelt myself, due to my aforementioned blocked nose, has had a curious effect on Tom, “makes me want egg and chips”, what a fucking weirdo. He also after revelling in the fact the sun was out and what fine conditions we were going to be treated to for this evening's match is now moaning, “bit nippy now, should of brought a jumper”. He then makes a points I've been making for three years, like he’s just thought of it for the first time “I never get my attire right”.

Not long after going ahead the CR keeper all in orange, which Tom “loves” because he has clearly matched “his boots and his gloves” to go with his jersey, blocks a goal bound BRT shot. Two minutes after that they flash a flat corner across the box, but no one can get on the other end of it.

“No, no, no, no” says a BRT fan as CR attack. His hope that if he shouts loud enough what he doesn't want to to happen, it will somehow prevent them from getting a second, his theory works for now.

I’m not sure I would call the first twenty minutes or so ‘end to end’, but both teams have certainly had chances. BRT’s apparent “shooting from everywhere” policy certainly has Tom entertained, “fucking hell” he squeals as another one of their players crashes a speculative long range shot goal wards. Tom in fact suggests it is the visitors, and not the hosts, who have look the better side since the goal.

Some on the home bench think the team are being too “passive” and tell them so. This lack of urgency sees them concede another shot on goal following a corner, the whole of the home bench groaning in unison

Many things about tonight's experience have been a little odd, not unpleasant, just well, a bit odd. The manner of the referee is added to the list, when he declines BT’s shout for a penalty, after the all orange keeper had clattered into one of the away players. He simply repeats “no, no, no” in the most pompous of fashions.

The arrival of the “moody clouds” as Tom describes them, rolling towards us across what until now was a very big blue sky, seems to signify a bit of a change in the temper of the match. Perhaps the gravity of the occasion has finally dawned on the players, as the game starts to get as Tom calls it a bit “physical” and he is concerned for the well being of one BRT player who he describes as “dinky”.

“Gentlemen easy” says the referee as the game edges towards getting a little bit naughty.

BRT continue to show brief moments of attacking prowess, sadly for them though, nowhere
near as much as they did the last time we saw them, up the road at Park Lane, where they put five past the home team that day, with a monster of a forward up front on loan from Fulham getting a hattrick, as they charged towards promotion to the National League South. Now they find themselves at the very bottom of the same league, on the verge of dropping out of it, what a difference twelve months makes. A great ball down the right wing is cut into the box, waiting to be hammered home, but no one is there to finish.

Everyone on the pitch is very shouty, I’m not sure if they are trying to overcompensate for the lack of noise from the crowd, but all the players are very vocal. Ten minutes of the half to go and CR whip a ball across the box, and there isn't even as much as an ohhh or an ahhh.

The visitors go close again, the same ball inside in the CR left back is paying off dividends for them, the ball into the box this time is met by a player who attempts a Zola back heel, but its blocked by a combination of his marker and the keeper, although at least that is what he thought. Instead of getting the corner he thought he deserved, its a goal kick and he looks perplexed.

Perhaps the biggest shouter of them all, apart from the single BRT fan in his green hat, is someone on the CR bench, who every time he yells, “put some graft in” the latest of his offerings, Tom thinks he is going to give himself a “fucking heart attack”.

What might just be the highlight of the night so far, is the sight in the distance of the failed bicycle kick attempted by one CR player at a corner. This falls just in front of hearing the voice of the BRT manager for the first time who sounds like the villain from a Disney feature film.

Listening to the near constant mumbled commentary of the BRT fan in the green hat is how I spend the final moments of the first half. “Come on rocks get hold of it” he says watching on, leaning against the railing, which isn't really a railing at all, but looks like what you see on the edge of a race track.

“Come on ref blow up” he shouts, and the man in charge does just that.

Once again there is little to no crowd noise, the odd clap, once again the players are the loudest thing, talking in twos and trees as they leave the pitch, dissecting among themselves the first forty five minutes. It’s not until the music starts again, the use of Faithless as walk out music a little taster of what the next fifteen minutes has in store for us, as we violently veer away from disco and go headlong into 90’s dance anthems.

“Tune” says Tom as he prepares to head towards the gleaming beacon in the night that is the Food Station, much like everyone else. The “tune” in question is Gala’s ‘Freed From Desire’ which has put a definite spring in his step, as he heads off for food.

For what might be the first time, I’m eating too tonight. Something has come over me, maybe it's kind of being able to taste again, after ten days of eating with a cold and being neither able to smell or taste what was in front of me.

Black Box’s 1989 hit ‘Ride on Time’ means Tom is positively sashaying towards me with his hands filled with his picks from the Food Station. He is having a wicked time, “great music” he says as he sits down, bobbing his head. The musical choices reminding him of his ill fated lads holiday, I didn't go, I didn't know him them, to the Ionian Islands, “it's like being in Kavos”.

Tom is quite happy with his cheeseburger and chips, and as he puts it, “at least the chips are cooked”. I’m not sure he will ever forgive the half cooked ones at Walton Casuals. Although my burger is perfectly nice, it is very soft, there is little to distinguish as far as texture is concerned, between the bun, the filling, and then the bun on the other side. Tom explains it's simply a case of not being “used to it” and that they are always “generally” quite squishy.

“Another banger” as Tom puts it accompanies the players return, ‘What Is Love’ by Haddaway. The sound of the players studs on the concentrate, we hear long before we see them.

After what was a relatively mundane first half, CR have come out with a bit more purpose. They have an early powerful shot, that can only be palmed back into the area and is eventually cleared. Also after a first half devoid of almost no home fan interaction at all, we finally hear them, “come on yellows”, “come on concord”.

Both teams look like they've had a Lucozade. BRT continue to cause CR problems, and much like the home team, look to have a bit more intent. “Oh come on” shouts a home fan, a thing that is still slightly shocking to hear, when CR are pressured into giving the ball away in defence by the BRT forwards.

Despite the early promise from the stands and on the pitch, again it falls very quiet, “let me referee, you play” we hear the man in charge say to one player as clear as day. Full of cheese burgers, we take a seat in the main stand, just in front of a female supporter sitting alone, who has groaning down to a fine art. Simply from the tone and volume of her sighs, you can tell just how displeased she is, whenever her team make a wayward pass.

BRT certainly look like they have a goal in them, and still craft chances. Another ball cut back into the box is this time skied well over by the attackers left foot. With ten minutes gone, they almost equalise very dramatically with a delicate side footed lob over the stranded keeper, watches it bounce just the right side of his post, which brings a small ripple of applause from the BRT three behind his goal.

A quarter of an hour gone and the home side double their lead. The first attempted shot squirming under the keeper, allowing for a teammate to power home with the follow up.

The thoughts of the CR keeper with his team now two goals ahead is not to celebrate, but to threaten. Threaten his defence, not congratulate or encourage, but to talk to them in such a way that it sounds like he will hurt them, if they don't listen to what he has to say, “don't let them get near our box”.

CR nearly add a third, but the point blank shot somehow is blazed over, and I mean well over. Their keeper is also soon on the warpath when BGT hit is post, and he looks to be preparing the thumb screws. Much like in the first half after going behind, BRT seem that little bit more brighter of the two teams. CR seem content with sitting deep, probably the worst thing to do with such an intimidating keeper, BRT are most definitely are on the front foot.

CR’s keeper exuberantly thanks one player, retreating further and further towards their own goal means BGT are getting bigger and bigger sniffs of a goal of their own. “Well done boy” he shouts at the player who has just saved a certain goal with a last ditch block, the keeper flipping effortlessly between good cop and bad cop.

There is another goal like block by a CR player, but this time its at the other end of the pitch, as one teammate blocks another's goal bound effort following a corner. The loose ball is latched onto by a CR player with his back to goal, who turns sharply, but see his shots deflected wide. It's the BRT keeper this time who is thankful, the same keeper who might just win shoutiest goalie of the season competition.

“Where is the hunger?” asks the BGT captain in his plastic face mask. Even though they find themselves two behind, they are still very much in the match. This is not lost on the frankly scary CR keeper, who is back playing bad cop, as he scalds his defenders once again.

Into the final ten minutes, and CR start to employ a few unsavoury tactics lets say. One player is down injured, he scoots off the pitch and the game continues. Somehow, maybe because of the stiffening breeze, he finds himself back on the pitch, forcing the referee to stop the play, much to the annoyance of one BRT fan behind us, “poor referee”.

With roughly seven minutes left and BRT grab the goal they always looked capable of getting, thanks in some part to a bit of a deflection. I think there is little chance of seeing the good cop again tonight. What we would have called at school a daisy cutter of a shot, is fired goal wards, when the player with the ball frankly having gone down a bit of a dead end, has no other options other than to have a crack.

Off the calf of a CR defender the ball screws like a well played snooker shot, into the goal, via the the foot of the post.

“You fucking let them have a shot” froths the man in goal, he is beyond livid they have just conceded.

BT’s manager is back at it, a mixture of the Captain Hook and Jafar, he asks for one last push from his team “lets go again”.

My attempt to record the Brighton Vs Spurs match and watch it when I get home, without knowing the score is ruined, when I overhear some people discussing it, although they have conflicting reports from the Amex, neither are good though.

CR are back to trying to kill the game off, they are as Tom puts it “going for the corners”.
The visitors have one last effort, a response to the near uninterrupted barking of their furious sounding manager. A free kick not that far outside of the CR box. There is the definite air of throwing the kitchen sink at this, one last try to at least get a point, nigh on everyone is in the CR box, even the keeper has gone up, not something you see every day, another tick on the unusual game checklist.

Why oh why, the BRT player decided to shoot directly, with a box rammed full of players in front of him, only he will only ever know, but needless to say his low drive is blocked, possession is now back in the hands of the CR and their goal is gaping.

“Shoooooooot” shouts one CR fan, one of the smallish group now behind the goal. The player not far
over the halfway line obliges, and it looks good, but it's just a fraction, a millimetre too high and hits the crossbar, and out. Their collective "ahhhhhhh" as they watch the ball bounce out of play, is the noisiest they have been all night.

BRT now pepper the CR goal, “hold on to it” demands one fan, fed up at this crucial time in the match seeing his team constantly give the ball way. One supporter sums up how I’m sure everyone must be feeling, “I never thought this game would of ended with my heart in my mouth”.

At no point did the game ever feel like it was going to be enthralling. The same fan discussing the near wonder goal from well outside of the area, said how he was “willing it down all the way” the ball seemingly hanging in the air for an “eternity”.

CR are certainly making “hard work of it” as one supporter puts it, the crowd condensing ninety minutes of opinions and spirit into the final seconds. “Come on ref, blow the whistle” one demands, and for the second time tonight he does what the crowd asks, and does just that.

“Yesssssss” says someone, his elongated expression, testament to just how vital the three points were tonight, in avoiding the drop. However he is the about the only one, I expected a bit more fanfare following the final whistle, but the Arena is soon empty, most fans darting for the exit at double time.

It was not the most riveting of games, not one memorable for its abundance of atmosphere, the music was quite brilliant but the setting not one that is ever going to adorn the glossy pages of a coffee table book about non league football. However the words of Andy Wilkins CR's photographer, who I bumped into at half time, negate any bad smell, dodgy view or damaged stand, "it's not the greatest ground, but we take pride in what we do".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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