Friday, 5 January 2018

The Future - Aveley FC Vs A.F.C. Sudbury, Bostik League North, Parkside (30/12/17)

My body groans in response to the alarm on my phone, as I drag my carcass from my bed, doing my best not to wake the baby, lumbering past her on the way to the bathroom to turn on the bath. The added tonnage of countless pigs in blankets and cream filled scallop shells my Mum forced upon me, are weighing me down, as is the notion of now having to cajole my eleven year old son from his bed, get him ready, and then drive him home.

All of that to be done before I can even contemplate picking up Tom.

Four hours, one hundred and twenty five miles, one service station mocha and a near argument with the manager of a well known chain of coffee dispensers later, I’m informing Tom of my arrival. Waiting as I always seem to be doing outside of his flat.

The normally delightfully smelling Tom, today smells more like a liquorice allsort than one of those shirtless men from an indecipherable cologne advert, as he climbs in. I must admit on occasion his scent is a little overpowering, I question sometimes if he bathes in the stuff, instead of just applying the odd dab behind the ears. I would much rather he smelt like the perfume section of a major department store than Bertie Bassett. However, it’s not a new eau de toilette he is sporting, but his toothpaste I can smell, trouble with “sensitive teeth” he informs me, too many Quality Streets while visiting his Mum methinks.

No long trip to some distant county today, no hours spent on one motorway or another this afternoon. Today's game is a bit of a bonus, one I squeezed out of Tom, as he only got back from Devon yesterday, and we’ve a big dinner with friends tonight, so under the condition I could find something local, he was up for it.

There are few more local places to find football than Essex, especially to Toms East London residence, so it's a short hop in the car towards a new ground, for our final match of the year.

It’s been a very quiet festive period for us, sadly it always is. Tom is off at his Mums and I’m playing countless rounds of Cluedo, which it turns out I’m very good at and trying to find the perfect Pokemon themed case for a Nintendo 2DS XL, so it's good to be able to enjoy the tailend of the seemingly endless amount of football on at the moment.

“Feels like we’re heading to nowhere” says Tom, the other side of the A13 looking increasingly desolate. The bare litter filled trees, with their spindly branches like fingers catching all the roadside refuse, somewhat obscure today's venue. Finally a break in them allows us to get our first glimpse of the royal blue stand of Parkside, and the shimmering silver Aveley FC (AFC), written across it.

It’s a mild day, much milder than one would expect for late December. For now the sky is clear and blue, a light blue, a blue that's not quite as perfectly dulux colour chart blue as the main stand of AFC’s brand new home.

Our admiring of the ground is somewhat interrupted by the most brutal of speed bumps in the car park, the yellow and black striped bastard nearly snapping my car in two.

“Welcome to Parkside” it says above the crest covered double doors, however it's not just the words over the entrance that greets us, but also Craig, AFC’s JOB.

Before heading in, I think it necessary to pass comment on one observation I've already made. As nice as our surroundings are so far, those speed bumps nearly dislodged my fillings, they’re like something you might find outside an embassy to stop a runaway HGV, but Craig is nonplussed, “they do the job” he says smirking, with the look in his eyes, that I’m not the first person to have been caught out by them.

Through the doors and into the heart of Parkside, it's hard not to be overcome with an immediate sense of dejavu. The feeling of ‘we’ve been here before’ funnily enough is related to AFC’s opponents today A.F.C. Sudbury (SUD). The glass fronted two tiered clubhouse is a near replica of SUD’s very own home the King’s Marsh Stadium.

“I like the newness” says Tom, “feels like it was opened today” he adds. Not quite today, but not that long ago, August 2017, so it still has that newly decorated smell, and there is the definite air of an Ikea showroom about the place. Not awash with much colour, the single Santa Claus on one wall between two wreaths, and a sparsely decorated Christmas tree in one corner, therefore stand out a bit.

Craig who has gone from door man to bar man, polishes the long bar, as well as doing the last bit of mopping, upholding the non league tradition of the hands on board member.

He lets out an almighty sigh when I ask him how he thinks today will go. “Two sides struggling for confidence” he explains, two teams with indifferent form at the moment makes it hard for him to put his finger on how it will pan out.

When the conversation turns towards Parkside, Craig bristles with pride, reeling off a list of National League sides who train here, a “testament” to the high standard of the “facilities”. In his role not only as Chief Executive of AFC but also as Vice Chairman of the Bostik League (Isthmian League) he has visited a fair few grounds in his time, creating a vast mood board in his brain, keeping note of “little bits and pieces” from which he drew upon when it came to drawing up the plans.

The viewing gallery above us, just like the one at the King’s Marsh Stadium, that Craig freely admits was his inspiration, is his favourite feature. Not wanting to boast, but clearly doing so by telling us, he reckons it's one of the best views going, but doesn't want us to just take his word for it, “let me show you”.

Marching off in front of us, he guides us to our now elevated position and its unparalleled view of  Parkside’s main 3G playing surface. He also points the various grass pitches that surround the ground, which are for the use of any number of the twenty plus youth teams AFC currently have.

We visited AFC’s old digs, Mill Field and although it was bursting with character and non league charm, with its old wooden stand and long crumbling concrete terraces, Craig is adamant the change was required, and he tells us that it has already been proven warranted with the big jump in attendances. More a leap than a jump if I’m honest, from an average of seventy five to two hundred and fifty he says is solely down to the “facilities”.

As with any relocation, some fans couldn't understand “why” they were moving he tells us, and I understand that. A club's ground is so sacrosanct, filled with so many memories for the clubs fans, as Craig puts it Mill Field was “unique” and they “don't build them like that anymore”, so it can be hard for supporters to contemplate playing anywhere else. However Craig is sure that the “rundown, 50’s ground” was keeping people away. There are now more women and more families attending games for example, because he thinks due to the “facilities” they have become a lot more of a “family club”.

Tour over, Tom and I take up a place on one of the large round functions tables in the bar, looking up at one of the two TV’s on the wall. Although it's well before kick off, a few people are already here, escaping the reheated turkey curry and shocking Christmas TV schedule. Those not interested in the final minutes of the televised game, flick though their programme, one of which I have of course already secured, one man nigh on studies it, with his glasses perched on the top of his head.

Tom studies his phone, “you're above me!” he says surprised, having realized I have overtaken him in the Fantasy Football. He is not best pleased.

Our modern backdrop has made Tom come over all nostalgic, although Parkside is pristine, it is lacking any real personality, its similarity to the King’s Marsh Stadium does make it all feel a little bit flat pack. Although crumbling and cramped, Tom uses his visits to Highbury as an example, where there was a good chance a pillar would be in your way, of a ground that felt “like football”, a feeling for now at least Parkside, and any new developments are lacking.

As an Arsenal fan, he is probably best placed to understand the conflict between old and new, the pros and cons. He admits that places like Parkside are “the future”, but I’m not sure if he thinks that's a good thing.

My final flutter of 2017 sees me hand over £2 for two strips of yellow raffle tickets, the seller informing me its “cash prize” that will be “called at half time”. Tom is impressed that I ”didn't have to leave” my seat, people are now I’m sure able to sense my desperation, and now seek me out in search of an easy sell.

The second big sigh of the day comes from Gerry, an AFC fan since “1963” who for his first game saw them win “11-1”. Much like Craig he tells us it's “hard to say” how AFC will fare today, “depends what team turns up” he tells us, AFC “can't string two results together” at the moment, consistently inconsistent.

Gerry who is familiar with our ramblings, before leaving us asks, “you’re always early to games, can't just be for the programmes?”. I let out a nervous laugh, hoping that will placate, not wanting to admit that’s exactly why. I can't go through Erith again.

“Think we’ll win 11-0” says the always immaculately turned out Mark, SUD’s manager, who claims to be “even smarter today”, than the last time we saw him a few weeks ago, where we were bowled over by his far from typical non league get up. Everything from his Rupert the Bear esq waistcoat to club pin is gleaming. His firm handshake and big smile, that show off his Hollywood teeth are just as friendly as the last time we met, although my last memory of him, was the scowl on his face, as he marched off the pitch following SUD’s defeat.

Although the score might not be as emphatic as “11-0”, “I say that before every match” Mark tells me
laughing, he does think his team will “win” today. He admits SUD are a work in progress, most of his team were playing “under 18’s football” last season, so as he explains he has been given a free pass if you like this year, to build the team in his vision, playing a style of football not common in this league which he says shows the kind of “foresight” SUD as a club have. However the age of his side, does mean that some struggle with the “aggression” and “blood and thunder” defending of other teams, a reason for his teams own up and down form.

Slowly but surely both teams start to come out in ones and twos. One AFC player attempts to finish 2017 on a high, attempting a bottle flip with a large Evian bottle, but can't pull it off. With the arrival of more and more from each team, Tom notices a definite theme, “very clean” boots, wondering “how many got new ones for Christmas?”

Perhaps it's his recent large intake of refined sugar, but Tom’s mind seems particularly all over the place, flitting from subject to subject at a record pace. First it's a slightly barbed and sarcastic comment when I’m handed a team sheet “didn't have to pay for it” (I did at Bromley), then he goes all ornithological when his attention turns to the wildlife, “lots of birds here”, and then of course the food.

He may have eaten a family's worth of Celebrations while at his Mums in the past week, but he still has a healthy appetite, “Oh burger and chips” he says lecherously, noticing a few AFC scarf wearing fans tucking in, in the stand.

Perhaps not realising quite how creepy he sounded, I shoot him a glance, keep yourself together I think, “just checking out the goods” he explains.

The first time we heard the voice over the PA, he was ever so slightly monotone almost robotic, with no huge amount of emotion in his voice. However it’s all change when the concertina grey tunnel is extended and the players are welcomed onto the pitch.

Just before the players arrived I overheard the final instruction to the gaggle of excited ball boys, lined up, and awaiting their player. “Remember you’re ball boys so no just watching” they're told, one young man informs another that their role today is a “big responsibility”, looking anxious enough already, I’m not sure he needed the added pressure.

Sadly there is a moments silence for an AFC committee member who recently died, that is impeccably observed. The players stand still on the centre circle either side of the referee and his assistants all with heads bowed. The man in charge takes the pause to discreetly check his pockets to make sure he's got everything, before blowing his whistle, and inviting the atmosphere back to Parkside.

“Give it up for Aveley FC” says the PA who has done a full 180 and now sounds very chipper. So eager are the ball boys, the already noticeably freezing cold ball boys, I don't think they quite understood how much standing about they had to do, they are told to take a few steps back from the very edge of the pitch.

“More like Birmingham than Spurs” says Tom when I suggest our game of ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ is perfectly poised, AFC in white and blue, Tottenham, SUD all in red Arsenal, but he doesn't see it like that, eventually we agree on Porto Vs Leyton Orient, somehow the Portuguese super club getting a mention again. Regardless, the SUD keeper is in a delicious pink jersey and is the clear winner of the battle of the kits, beating everyone all by himself.

Early on, about six minutes into the game, and a pattern is quickly established, that continues for the full ninety. Whenever AFC go close, on this occasion its a side footed attempt that goes wide, it is always followed by a gasp from the main stand and then a very mild mannered ripple of applause.

It's hardly a “lightning start” by either side as Tom puts it, inserts joke about too many chocolate oranges here. if anything its all a bit “sloppy” Tom adds. The home side are probably shading the opening exchanges, again they put a chance wide, “that was a good shot” says one of the shivering ball boys, the crowd following protocol, gasping, then applauding.

“I’m hungry” says Tom, I must admit I am too, my early start means I’m full of coffee and very little else, however Tom is a little stumped, unable to quite see where the people with food are getting it “I don't know where its coming from” he says scanning every conceivable place.

There are most definitely two styles of play on show today, and Mark’s suggestion that his team struggle with the physical nature of the league, means as Tom points out SUD are sometimes “bullied” off the ball quite easily. The home side are direct, with a ‘big man up front’. SUD are more inclined to play it on the ground as we saw when we visited them, and play some attractive football at times.

SUD switch the ball excellently from one side of the pitch to the other, “great ball” shouts Tom as it catches out the AFC defence, allowing the all red attacker to surge into the box, who then goes down, no penalty, looked like one. The AFC players suggest to the referee that if it's not a foul “it's a dive” and he should punish the SUD player accordingly, but he does nothing.

“Shut up and play” says the man with the gruff and scary voice behind the goal, I think he's an AFC coach, he’s certainly dishing out plenty of instructions to the defence and whoever he is the players listen, and give up arguing with the officials sharpish.

Tom is hardly decisive when I press him for a score prediction, 1-0, 1-1, OK 1-0 Aveley”. They have certainly had the lion's share of the chances and when with eighteen minutes gone they take the lead thanks to a towering header from a corner, Tom’s prediction just a moment before is both spooky and accurate, for now. “I’ll go with that one” he says sticking to the third of his three suggestions, just after it became correct.

The voice over the PA is full of joy once more, having fully shaken off the early cobwebs. When he reads the name of the scorer out, there is the expected clapping, and then a little more, a few woops and cheers from what it would seem is the players very own fan club.

One ball boy sings quietly to himself, “1-0, 1-0, 1-0” , one SUD player asks his teammates loudly, “guys are we gonna switch on?”.

SUD have moments of real class, you could even say pizzazz. “Cheeky, cheeky” says Tom as a forward uses the flight of the ball and his good movement to turn his marker and get away. They are not shy of using the odd back heel, which is fun to watch. “They’ve definitely woken up since the goal” says Tom, only for them to contradict his praise and my appreciation of their smart play, when they have a throw in in a promising position and go and throw it straight to AFC, “what do I know” says a bemused Tom.

Another “ohhhh” another ripple of applause from the crowd, half had gone as far as starting to celebrate what they all thought was a certain goal, when the ball was fizzed across the box and looks destined to be poked in, but the chance goes begging. AFC are going close, but just can't finish.

The game has become “congested” and somewhat “stuck in the middle” of the pitch suggests Tom. AFC look most likely to score, despite SUDs “youthful, nippiness” as Tom puts it. Other than at “set pieces” where AFC have looked dangerous, “they've not created much” and SUD certainly pass the ball around a lot, but with nothing at the “end” of it, he adds.

“Sounded like something out of Star Wars” says Tom, I having just done my best X-Wing impression apparently. My sharp intake of breath sounding like the Rebel Alliance craft, having just watched what was shaping up to be the most wonderfully executed volley from outside of the box by an AFC player, only for an SUD defender to get the slightest touch on it , and deflect it over..

“Save!” says Tom, the very tips of the outstretched fingers of the AFC keeper having just stopped the SUD equaliser. When they do click they show so much promise, but its few and far between.

At the other end the visitors continue to just about keep AFC at bay. Their direct or “long ball” approach as Tom calls it, is being foiled time and again, normally by the very last defender. However
it only takes one slip in concentration and they'll be bearing down on goal. It certainly seems the home sides main tactic, as Tom puts it “if you try ten times, one will go in”.

The single SUD fan in his blue and yellow scarf and flat cap, standing behind the goal, is getting increasingly annoyed. First he questions if they know what colour strip they are playing in today, their profligacy with the ball is starting to wear thin, “we’re playing in red you know”. Then almost at the end of his tether he insists loudly that his team “pick it up a bit”.

Close to the half time whistle, wandering past us on his way to the bar, he watches on as SUD have one of their rare forays into the box. Firing it along the edge of the six yard box, but no-one is at the other end, “oh fucking hell” he mumbles to himself.

Tunnel out, matchday sponsor wished a happy birthday, score confirmed, players make their way inside.

A hidi high dingdong over the PA catches me unawares just outside the toilet scrabbling for my tickets for the draw, only to find out I’m not even close. As Tom reminds me before disappearing for food, “you've had your winnings”. Is he right, will my win at Taunton be the only one?

The clubhouse is busy, seems silly calling it a clubhouse, there is not a spot of mould or dodgy carpet in sight, it's more like the executive lounge at an airport.

Half listening to a couple of AFC fans discussing the first half, they both agree “it's all about getting that second goal”, I lose track of time. The voice over the PA asks everyone to “please welcome” the teams back on to the pitch, which triggers a mini rush for the doors, and I realise Tom is nowhere to be seen.

SUD’s chances of getting back into the match take a dent very early on at the beginning of the second half, their number 9, one of the “super signings” he is brandished, who one person suggests he's not “done anything anyway”, so he won't be missed, is shown a straight red. “Must be something he said” suggests a nearby fan, as there was certainly no foul. He was the one appealing for a foul on him, but he didn't get it and I’m guessing let the referee know what he thought of that.

As he makes the long slow walk off, the PA announces his transgression, the likes of which, I’ve never seen done before. Do we really live in a world now where red card shaming is acceptable?

The fact a disgruntled Tom returns ten minutes into the new half chipless, they were “sold out” he tells me, his dream of us “eating together” scuppered, might have something to do with the two hundred and seventy one people the voice over the PA has just confirmed are here.

“Some onions would of been nice” replies Tom between hurried mouthfuls, as I conduct my assessment of his burger, taking place on the hoof as we take up a new position for the second half. Prodding him like Jeremy Paxman would a Tory minister, I want to know how it is, half trying not to choke, I finally get an “OK” out of him, which he revises to “nice” once he's able to breathe properly.

The tackle that gives away the penalty at the far end of the pitch was so loud, that it sounded like it was right in front of us. "There goes my prediction", says Tom. With the chance to double their lead, the AFC player steps up, and after a bit of a pause, crashes it off the crossbar, bouncing back down, but it's not over the line. “What, no!” says a ball boy, unable to comprehend that he’s missed. It was a bit of a “thunderbolt” comments Tom, more Shearer than Pirlo.

With the sun now dipping down, it's all snoods and hands in gloves in the small stand opposite it's bigger showier brother. Plenty of people are taking advantage of the soft furnishings of the viewing gallery and are watching from inside, but many are braving the ever lowering temperature and are still doing things the old fashioned way, watching pitchside.

You wouldn't know AFC had the man advantage at times, they are still fashioning chances, with twenty minutes gone another ball travels right across the box and out the other side unimpeded. “Bust a gut” shouts one of the AFC bench to the players, but not one can get on the end of what was a cracking ball.

It feels like the home team are slowly, slowly turning the screw on the depleted visitors, again the ball is in the box, this time the keeper in pink punches it clear, along with a bit of one unfortunate AFC player and I can't work out if AFC are just not being clinical enough, ruthless if you like or are SUD showing a high level of maturity and an ability to soak up the pressure, and deal with being a man less.

AFC think they have doubled their lead, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside. What started off as an SUD corner, quickly turned into a rapid AFC counter, the keeper parrying the first shot, but the player who thought he'd got that “important second goal” had strayed offside.
Ten to go and this time it's a “big save” from the AFC keeper, who stops SUD scoring. The loudest of applause from the crowd since the goal, signals just what a good job the man in goal had done and the closer we get towards full time, the home side still only one ahead, despite all their time around the visitors goal, the more SUD look like they are going to nick a point.

Five to go, “we ain't gotta force it, keep the ball” pleads a member of the AFC bench. AFC are getting to the edge of SUD’s box time and time again, each attack almost a carbon copy of the last, but the crucial pass or cross is always a little panicked. Each time their attack falls apart, it feels like one step closer to SUD going up the other end and biting them in the arse.

Finally they look to have made done it, a well worked attack, with the smart final pass, but the ball is blocked just in the nick of time for SUD at least. Another ball into the box follows, again no-one is there to meet it, the bench are quite literally pulling their hair out.

“Told ya” says Tom smugly, SUD have done it, on the eighty ninth minute.

The mood of the PA has taken a very sudden, severe and noticeable nose dive “five minutes of injury time” to play he tells us. The bench close to losing their shit want to know “where the fucking desire?” is, there is still time to get the win I think they ultimately deserve.

Wave after wave of AFC attacks are close but no cigar, they win a free kick in a promising position, but its poor and comes to nothing. Then it happens, the match defining moment, more than the red card or the penalty miss, but a penalty that wasn't given. The right wing and in particular the AFC number 15 have been the main if not sole outlet in the second half, he bursts into the box, right in front of us and seems to be bundled over..

Despite the appeals from nearly everyone the referee is having none of it and waves it away. “Fuck off” shouts one AFC player on the final whistle, hoofing the ball in the air.

Most of the black silhouettes in the main stand, caused by the blinding floodlights have disappeared, as have SUD. AFC’s players on the other hand are still strewn across the pitch some flat out on their backs, looking skywards. There are offers of help up from teams mates to get up, but some can't quiet drag themselves to their feet yet, much rather staying put to contemplate the lost points.

The loudest voice coming from the on pitch debrief is that of the AFC goalkeeper, beyond livid it's fair to say, that they conceded so late in the day.

Craig is behind the bar once again, clearly and understandably glum, “got to kill teams off” he says. Also in the bar is Mark, who is at the other end of the happiness spectrum, “love to hear what you made of that” he says to me cheerily, ordering a drink, much needed after his sides last minute smash and grab.

On the subject of the last minute penalty shout Craig said it “definitely” was but admits the referee was “never going to give it in the 95th minute”.

New won't be new for ever, Parkside will loose some of that out the box feel over time, a few marks here, a few scuffs there and it will start to feel like 'home' in no time.

On our way home, I always seem to find myself mulling over one particular thing from the past few hours. Very rarely is it a pass, a tackle or a goal, but normally a person and something that they had said or done. Ultimately its the people who are a clubs DNA. It's the volunteers and fans, who define a club not bricks and mortor. Yes it would be great if every ground looked like an Archibald Leitch creation, but variety is the spice of life, and if such temples of the 'Beautiful Game' a full of populated by unbearable sorts, who cares what they looks like anyway?

As Tom checks to see if he's overtaken me in the fantasy football, I try and understand the actions of one man, standing in the smaller of the two stands, who we both noticed during our prematch amble, pulling on quite inexplicably a pair of waterproof trousers. Tom looking at me wondering, "maybe he knows something we don't know?"

 

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Thursday, 21 December 2017

No Room For Numbers - Bromley FC Vs Margate FC, Kent FA Senior Cup Quarter-Final, Hayes Lane (12/12/17)

Heading south of the river for a match on a weeknight can prove to be such a pain in the arse, that if I’m honest it can be a little off putting, and hence why our map of clubs visited is a little lopsided, however tonight we have little choice, quite literally.

The recent snow, that in any semi prepared nation would not be a remote issue, a spot of salt here, a snowplow there and we can all get on as normal, but oh no, not in good old Blighty, has brought some places to a very melodramatic standstill. Its snowdays all round, news pieces about people slipping over outside major railway stations and memes of cars trying to go up hills or coming down them sideways.

Whereas the rest of the country really needs to get a tight grip of itself and just fucking get on with it, non league football must be given some amount of slack. Most clubs if not all, don't have the finances for undersoil heating or a fancy tractor to sort things out, not to mention how it affects the local infrastructure to that particular club, like the roads, railways etc and of course the players and volunteers that might not able to get there, so they are exempt from my unpatriotic bashing.

Our original game, which was a breezy forty minute drive north of my house, was finally called off earlier today. Going on the various pictures of the pitch at said game appearing on social media, I’m not sure why they went through the rigmarole of someone walking over it for thirty seconds to confirm what everyone thought, that it was unplayable, but rules are rules and they did and its was no great surprise that it was colder and harder than a show giants abs, and I as Beautiful Game fixture secretary, was left at the 11th hour, looking for a new match.

With Tom away for the holidays soon and my next few weeks about to become all about family and eating, finding a day or days where we can both do a match has been difficult, so just giving up, capitulating to Mother Nature was too hard to take, andI wasn't going to allow us to fall at the first hurdle.

So when in the distance I saw a 3G pitch shaped star, with three groundhoppers on camels heading its way, it was a sign.

The state of the car park outside my block of flats almost meant I didn't even make it as far as the end of my road, let alone south east London. I was moments away from a full pirouette and a fractured shin, before I managed to fall into the driver's seat, and prepare the de-icer.

High on the fumes of the contents of the snowflake covered can that has been in my boot untouched for months, I inched along my slush covered street, emerging at the end unscathed and hallucinating but grateful to see the roads before me are in a better state, however the pavements still glisten and glimmer like tinsel in the evening sun, and I’m grateful I’m not a pedestrian.

The further I head east, the more and more apparent it is that the council's I pass through have their acts together much more than mine, and by the time I end up outside Tom’s there is not an icicely in sight, and I make a mental note that I will be writing a strongly worded email to Barnet town hall when I get home.

I’m sure it goes without saying that Tom looks like he's ready for the second battle of Hoth as he climbs in the car, just minus his Tauntaun, but he’s clearly ready for whatever the night has in store for us.

The main issue with going from north to south or vice versa is the Blackwall Tunnel, which I’m sure when it was built in 1987 for the three or four Ford Escorts or Honda Accord’s making the trip through it was more than suitable, however in 2017 with the hundreds of thousands of people using it each day, its near gridlock, like a scene from a Beijing nightmare, rows and rows of red and white lights stretching off into the distance as far as the eye can see.

Once under and out the other side, it’s ever so slightly improved, but not hugely. The only thing getting us though it is critiquing the Christmas lights on show on the front of the houses of the good people of Bromley and Greenwich.

Some are “half arsed” as Tom puts it, the string of red lights draped over the top on the garage does not constitute a display. Some are positively Vegas, Tom’s frugal mind unable to quantify how much the electricity bills must be, and how glad he is that he doesn't live next door to some of them, as he doesn't reckon he would ever be able to get to sleep.

The final house we see, moments before turning down the narrow lane to tonight's ground, Hayes Lane, a turn we've made once before, many moons ago, and if I remember rightly there were horses, is a sight quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Imagine Las Vegas and Regents Street had a baby, which was dressed by Liberace. A massive garish twinkling baby with its very own miniature big wheel and giant inflatable snowman, and you'll have and some idea of what kind of display I’m talking about.

For the second time this season I’ve managed to park in such a place that means Tom is moments away from getting wet feet, only this time the large puddle in the pothole ridden car park, some that are so sizeable you could lose my car in them, round the back of Hayes Lane is frozen, and he's more likely to go arse over tit, than get his thermal socks soggy.

“No room for numbers” says Tom about the kit of one of the youth teams taking advantage of the hallowed synthetic turf of Hayes Lane, their match coming to a conclusion under the floodlights as we pass through the turnstiles.

The sponsored covered shirts make the overalls of an F1 driver look understated. Smothered from front to back with adverts for God knows what they are quite in keeping with the rest of the ground, where no inch seems to be untouched by advertising of some sort, including the main stand with its black seats. Black maybe because of the local sponsor written across its back wall, that of a local funeral directors.

A brief chat with Bromley FC’s (BFC) General Manager Jeff is a little disheartening, despite tonight being a cup quarter-final, admittedly in one of the lesser competitions the club will play in this season, but still only two games from a final and a shot at a bauble, it's not it seems one that is taken very “seriously” he explains. With it also being a “freezing cold night” plus a full program of “premiership” games on the TV too, Jeff doesn't think there will be much of a turn out at all, in his words it's a fixture they would be “happy” to be drawn “away”.

Perhaps what's on offer in the portacabin club shop can lift my mood, after schlepping all this way, it's not exactly what you want to hear that the game is all but considered a bit of a dud. The confined space of the shop throws up a few points of interest like the scale model of Hayes Lane with a very large “do not touch” sign on it, the black and white wig perched on top of the limbless mannequin displaying a scarf and the tiny rosette pinned to a black, white and red flag on the wall.

The rest is pretty standard, manned by a busy and quiet man, who looks a little shocked that there is in fact anyone to serve at all. He shuffles around attending to the various rails and piles of club merchandise, trying not to crash into the many perspex boxes of old programmes that litter the floor.

Unfortunately, they're going to be the only programmes I’m going see tonight. No its not Erith FC all over again, I haven't left it too late, they just simply aren't doing one. I think I need a sit down, the attempt to comfort me with the fact there will be a team sheet available soon, is of little condolence.

To someone not in a near state of utter depression, the sight of what one person describes as a “fussy”
ginger cat roaming around, jumping up on the counter of the turnstile, while someone prepares something to eat for it would warm the cockles of anyone's heart, but not me, I’m feeling very White Walker right now.

For the second time in a week, the ingenious use of signposts lets us know where we can potentially at least get something to eat or drink, following the arrow to the ever so slightly copyright infringing named Pizza Hatch, it's a relief to see its shutter is up, but there is not much going on, on the other side. Tom doesn't think anything has been “turned on yet”.

Returning with a little more than he thought was available, having seen someone with a hot dog, it was a good sign, its a cup of tea only for me, while he showers himself with the “flaky” pastry of his sausage roll. We sit in the macabre stand as the PA is turned on, which is followed by some almighty distortion, then the deafening sound of someone blowing into the microphone, before the music starts to play, to absolutely nobody. Hayes Lane is currently as dead as the customers of the aforementioned undertakers.

The tea is of course boiling, but nice, Tom letting me in on his secret of allowing it to “brew” for a while. For Tom his has a bit “too much sugar”, caught out by the dispenser that he tells me he wasn't sure how much was coming out. Mines perfect and I finish it rather promptly, with no sausage roll to stuff in my face, Tom can't quite believe it, inquiring if I have an “asbestos mouth”.

BFC’s opponents tonight Margate FC (MFC) are the first out to warm up, and it’s snood central, Tom should feel very at home. When the home side appear in their unmistakable National League blue jackets, it reminds me of the league difference between the two clubs, which improves my mood somewhat, that and the guzzled tea, as the chance of a little bit of an upset could at least make tonight interesting.

“You've had your winnings for this year” says Tom, when I spot a man carrying a tombola in to the club bar, assuming, hoping, praying that there might be some chance of a flutter, to make up for the lack of programme, I pursue him. Ducking my head into the very swanky Ravens Bar, more wine bar, than non league clubhouse, he's nowhere to been seen, lost among the people watching the football on the big screen.

The voice over the PA offers its welcome, before informing us that one end of the ground is closed due to the “thickness of the ice”. Those that have braved the cold and don't fancy watching whoever Sky are showing, occupy a few seats in the main stand or loiter on the long concrete terracing behind one goal, everyone seemingly in different states of malaise.

It seems to have taken a reasonable amount of effort for the man, draping what almost look like reins over his shoulder to drag out the extendable black tunnel into its final position. No Seven Nation Army here, no syndicated song you might hear at Stamford Bridge or the Etihad to greet the players as they walk out, they do things differently here at BFC, they have their very own song composed just for them “there's just one team for me and that's the town that I come from, in Bromley, in Bromley, in Bromley” sing the Darknesse’ssq sounding band, one steward so well indoctrinated, he joins in mouthing the words, but with no life in his eyes.

Two early chances fall the way of the home side, and quite early on the difference in league positions is apparent.

Stood on the somewhat lonely uncovered and windswept terrace behind the dugouts, that I’m happy to inform you are a sensible space apart, after the silliness at Taunton Town, we are joined only by a couple, one half of which looks like they have little to no interest in being here. We watch on, and it soon becomes clear that the two benches directly in front of us, constantly barking out instructions, might just be the loudest thing we hear all night.

“That's your responsibility” shouts one of the MFC coaches, when BFC are allowed the time to take a shot at goal that just goes wide. By far the most vocal of the busy bench and just out of sight, is the person with the thick Scottish accent “keep going boys”.

BFC look by far the more dangerous, with twenty five minutes gone, they curl a shot goal wards, which in the end is easy for the keeper to pluck out the air. This is not to say by any means that MFC are just going through the motions, they are getting plenty of the ball, and when they do they move it about well, but they just don't look to have the same cutting edge as the home team.

The near constant directions from both benches are verging on the distracting as well as the intriguing, quite how much they are walking the players though their positions is fascinating. Because of the competition that it is, I suspect who we are watching are a mixture of the second string and youth players, who need that guidance, mixed in with a couple of the older heads to help steady the ship.

“Come on Margate” shouts the single voice of one of the few traveling fans in their blue and white striped scarves, and it is a welcome change to the never ending chatter from the technical areas, and it goes some way to affirm that we are not in fact at a training match.

On the half hour mark, the fleshy figures in the stand and terrace finally prove they not only here for the sausages rolls and are here to actually get behind their team, when they let out a collective “ohh” one of them going as far as to shout “come on Brom” the only notable noise from the home fans so far, when a goal bound shot is stopped by the “face” as Tom points out of one MFC player. Thirty minutes gone, and the game has far from got going in fact it's verging on dull.

There is the occasional flicker of hope, the odd moment when I feel like I’m about to see something that Tom and I will talk about on the drive home, like when one BFC player tries an audacious little attempt at a back heel, latching on to a high looping ball into the box, he gets there before the MFC keeper. His faint touch catching out the man in goal, sending the ball goal wards, there is a sharp intake of breath from those here as it looks to be going in, but sadly there is a player in blue at hand to shepherd the ball until the keeper can get back into position and scoop it up.

A good indicator of what kind of a time Tom is having, is how soon he begins inventing and then playing his own little games, to keep himself entertained. The fact we spend the final quarter of the half playing the ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ game, says it all.

“Fulham Vs Chelsea” is who we are watching tonight according to Tom's own algorithm, who after a moment to reconsider, swaps Chelsea for Porto. “Definitely Porto” he insists, before second guessing himself again, suggesting now that BFC, could in fact be “Derby. Derby vs Porto”.

Now I’ll give him the Fulham and Derby comparisons, BFC playing in white shirts with black shorts it’s easy enough to make and I could just about give him the Chelsea, MFC comparison, they are both in blue, plus it’s too cold to argue, but Porto, I’m sorry, but that's just wrong.

So adamant am I, and so adamant is he, that instead of watching the game, I’m going to assume nothing happened, I’m instead watching him scroll though the results of a Porto Google search on his
phone, but he doesn't stop, just keeps on scrolling, unable to find the example to prove me wrong and him right.

Around the forty five minute mark there is a sudden and quite uncharacteristic flurry of chances. BFC first go close from a corner, and a big sigh from the crowd lets us know that again we are not alone, “That's a let off” says someone on the MFC bench. By far the best moment of the game so far is saved for last, that's if you don't count just after the ref taking the ball in the “nuts” as Tom so eloquently puts it, when one BFC player shows some extraordinary feet, wringing out of the tightest of spots right on the byline, leaving two MFC defenders in his wake, and off he goes into the box.

“I’m quite warm” announces Tom, without prompting, just his “feet” need a bit more attention apparently, maybe he will wear “three pairs of socks” next time he tells me. Before reverting to his near silent and statuesque pose, the only occasional movement is when he brings his vape to his lips and the only noise he makes is the woosh that follows, he gives me an insight of how his mind works. A full ten minutes after our Derby Vs Porto debate, his mind has not stopped “maybe Schalke” he offers up, I’m afraid he is now just saying teams who play in blue.

On the half time whistle, my wish that despite no one caring about today's game, and no one being here, and those that are here are near comatose, we might still witness the game of games, one that will go down in the annals of time, a gift from the football gods for being committed is quickly fading, Tom as ever more the realistic than romantic, thinks BFC are “gonna win 1 - 0”.

The sound of someone doing doughnuts in a nearby car park soon fills the air, once the voice over the PA reminds us of the score, and that the Raven Bar and Pizza Hatch are still open, which sees Tom off again, leaving me alone sat on the cold concrete, a tiny, tiny bit of me wishing I had stayed at home.

If you are going to have signposts, one to where to play the raffle or half time draw might not go a miss. Depressed enough as it is, the voice over the PA running through the prizes that have been won, which I would have happily shelled £2 out for to be in the mix for, just feels like being kicked when you're already down.

Tom returning for the second time tonight ladened with gifts, he once again does a good job lifting my mood. This time not in the shape of a cuppa but a bag of chips, quite excellent chips may I add, near Cambridge FC quality. The reason for them being in bag we’re not sure about, as Tom’s burger and chips are in a tray, Tom thinks the bag maybe in honour of the visitors being from the seaside.

A squeal from Tom signifies the wind has nearly robbed him of his dinner, almost toppling it, having caught the lid of his tray like a polystyrene sail, balanced on top of the thick white metal barrier. It’s an altogether more attractive noise that signifies the return of the teams, the now confirmed official dance track to non league football, Insomnia by Faithless which is seemingly following us around wherever we go.

Early BFC pressure sees one player attempt a back to goal flick, spin and volley of near Bergkamp esq proportions, only for the side of the MFC defender blocking what up until then was going to be a splendid effort. They then head wide, and are showing all their skills once again, they go close not long after with another header, which gets the biggest “ahhhh” of the night.

Just under twenty minutes of the second half gone and BFC eventually break the deadlock. The ball is cut back to just inside the box and with a drilled low finish the “super sub” as Tom calls him has put the home side ahead. The celebrations of fans and players alike are muted, but at least we’ve seen a goal.

Finally some energy, some spirit. The goal has breathed some much needed life into what was turning into a turgid affair. MFC who have always looked capable of scoring send a shot agonisingly wide, and not long after going close they equalise, the home side only ahead for roughly eight minutes. Thanks to as the non shiverer of the couple behind us says a “good ball” from out wide on the right that is headed home at the far post, MFC are on level terms.

At least the MFC players look vaguely delighted they have scored, same goes for the four of five of their supporters behind the goal who are enthusiastically applauding the goal with gloved hands. BFC are far from impressed at conceding so soon and try to score with a shot directly from the restart, but it's a bit of a limp effort.

Sadly from MFC it only takes BFC two minutes to take the lead again, you're never more vulnerable than just after scoring, someone on the MFC bench will more than likely have muttered to themselves.

The celebrations on and off the pitch are far more animated for the second goal, that has finally shaken the crowd from their slumber and much like the game they seem to have warmed up. “Come on Bromley” one fan shouts, but they are no competition for the lone MFC supporter who despite seeing her team go behind so quickly, is still backing them “come on Margate”.

Tom is now maybe the happiest he's been all night, even happier than when first tucking into the excellent chips, as extra time seems quite unlikely, in fact BFC look close to pulling away from their Bostick League opponents, close to putting more distance between them, when they flash a header wide.

Although the game has been less than enthralling, a few BFC players have certainly done their prospects no harm, a couple showing an effortless ability to move at pace with the ball seemingly glued to their feet. One such run, sees the player charge towards the box, skipping and slaloming past the MFC defenders before being well and truly taken out in what on first impression looks like the area, but the ref has other ideas, pointing to a fraction outside of it for a free kick.

Unfortunately the set piece, has none of the elegance of the run that won it, and its fired over.

Ten to go and one MFC player is certain they still have a chance “come on boys we can get back in this”. To score though you need the ball, and one clearance from a BFC defender is so astronomical it easily clears the stand and is off into the stratosphere, “didn't want that in the ground” chuckles Tom as the ball sails over us and out of sight.

Where did this come from I ask myself, as the game swings back and forth from end to end in the dying minutes, where was all this activity in the first eighty five? MFC counter quickly, out numbering BFC at the back but the final shot is wild, and the single voice, whose tone and volume has not changed at all lets out her final cry “come on blues”.

There is the faintest whiff of a twist, a second comeback from MFC, some late pressure, a last ditch block after a corner and a free kick in shooting range, “come on Margate, come on lads” shouts a fan in the stands, but it comes to nothing.

When the fact that the ball going flat, the chips we were served in a bag, the Laurel and Hardy moment on the way to match when the snow covering my roof, shot down and over my windscreen as we stopped at traffic lights and the ongoing argument about what other teams kit the ones being played in look like, are the most memorable things you can take away from the ninety minutes, you know you've not been treated to a ‘great’.

However that is just the nature of football, no guarantees, no certainties, that's what makes it exciting,
and more power to those fans who did show up tonight. The diehards, what some might call the real fans, not the ones who cherry pick the best fixtures, turning up with their scarf and rattle, like they're there every week, but the ones who turn up for every match, for every regional cup quarter final, whatever the weather, whoever is on TV.

One note though, some kind of indication that clubs are not doing a programme for what reason may be would be much appreciated, just so I can prepare myself, because tonight is going to take hours of counseling to resolve.


For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Thursday, 14 December 2017

Whatever Will You Write About Now - Taunton Town FC Vs Salisbury FC, Evo-Stik Southern League West, Viridor Stadium (09/12/17)

You would think the sight of the precariously balanced sandstone slabs of Stonehenge would be the absolute highlight of today's drive. Set quite wonderfully in a green field with a clear winter sky backdrop, you can’t imagine that anything could surpass it in the previous two hours we've been heading west in the car, but you would be wrong.

Dietary advice from the woman in Costa at Solstice Services, chicken satays, paprika crisps that evoked memories of foreign holidays and Tom deciding on where he is going to get married, at Sparkford Hall no less, they all knock the prehistoric monument quite far down the pecking order.

Only a full pint of coffee in a John Smith’s glass was ever going to be enough to both warm me up and wake me up this icy morning. The frost that covers my car will need some attention, I will have to set off a little earlier than planned to pick up Tom, however the near frozen water coming out the taps in the bathroom does more to rouse me, than one hundred espressos ever could.

Despite having to thaw out my car, not quite having to assist my squeaking windscreen wipers
with my debit card, but almost, I’m still on time to meet Tom, but he is nowhere to be seen.

About as good as getting up early as Kevin or Perry, it’s a relief when I finally see him, better late than never. My thoughts of a quick getaway, we've one hundred and fifty six miles to drive today, and that's only one way, are soon put on hold as he strips down two or three layers, before emptying a PC Worlds worth of electrical equipment from his bag.

His reasoning for having everything short of his “Playstation” is the “long journey” ahead of us, his reasoning for being half reclined already in the passenger seat with a coat over his legs like an old lady on Clacton sea front is because it's “too early for this shit” and its a “bit chilly”.

“Wake me up when we get there” he says, snuggling into the fur trim on his coat. I want to be angry with him, but when he notices my “new jumper” it's hard not to be flattered and I don't hold a grudge for long.

The need for more caffeine and breakfast is strong and for at least an hour we play the game of ‘wait till the next one’ until I cave in, and we pull of the motorway, to be greeted by a large sculptured kneeling man praying.

Tom’s decision not to have cream on his mocha, because as I explain over the tannoy to the server at the drive thru is because he is on a “diet”, is the catalyst for the lengthy explanation from the multitasking headset wearer, that a regular black coffee is only “one colour” so that would be a better choice for him.

Not afraid to make a mess in someone else's car, Tom’s flaky choice of a croissant rankles me a little, but the fact that its “dry” makes me think that karma has played its part, and he ensures me all the crumbs are going back in the bag, but they’re not.

The aforementioned chicken satay with chilli dip are not my usual breakfast food, but what did I expect I was going to get sending the guy who thinks Cheetos are an appropriate way to start the day. The paprika crisps not only make me think of being on a Greek island and washing them down with a lemon Fanta, but they also make one of my hands stink for the rest of the day, regardless of how many times I wash it, they also repeat on me like a bitch.

Some hard braking is required, when even though my Sat Nav has plotted our course, I’m a little caught out by the hard right hand turn, that creeps up on us a bit, as we barrel down the dual carriageway. The single file blind corner a plenty lanes beyond are a little tricky to navigate, but clearly not for the white van behind us though, who I’m guessing is a local, well versed in the numerous hairpin corners, which might explain why he is up my arse, annoyed I’m sure at my sedentary twenty five miles an hour.

The claret sign of the Viridor Stadium is a welcome sight after nearly four hours behind the wheel. Directed precisely to spot in the carpark by the man in hi viz, I take a moment to compose myself, stretching my ever so slightly hunched spine, before stepping out into the fresh afternoon air.

“Home of the Peacocks in the Heart of Somerset” reads the sign on the gate adjacent to the turnstiles where we are greeted by Taunton Town FC’s (TT) Chairman Kevin, in his black baseball cap and club scarf tightly stuffed into his jacket.

Softly spoken and friendly Kevin welcomes us, but has the air of a distracted man or at the very least someone who is so hands on and with only two hours to kick off, in what might be the clubs biggest game so far this season, it's first vs fourth, TT top of the table, he has a lot on his mind and a lot to do.

Considering the amount of postponements that littered my Twitter timeline, it’s certainly a relief to see the pitch and ground looking immaculate and most definitely playable. As I said Kevin is not one to sit back and watch everyone else do the hard graft, for him its not as he implies it might be for other Chairman's and owners about his “ego”, it's about mucking in, he suggests every Chairman should “pick up” a pitchfork and get on the “pitch”.

Manning the hefty white gate to the ground, there is quite the fanfare every time Kevin swings it open for a single car or a couple in procession containing the first team players. There is plenty of shouting and horn beeping as they pass into the ground.

There is much to take in at the Viridor Stadium, almost every inch of which is painted in the clubs colours of claret and blue. Thankfully though there is a signpost, pointing you in the direction of all the relative points of interest you might require.

Ever so slightly concealed by large conifers that surrounded it on three sides, the sizable claret and blue building in one corner of the ground, does not have any obvious purpose. On closer inspection and helped by the coming and going of some of the newly arrived players, it is in fact the changing rooms, with no tunnel to speak of, just a stretch of car park to cross before entering the pitch.

“Fucking cold mate” says one of the shivering players of Salisbury FC (SFC), TT’s opponents today and fellow promotion hopefuls. Someone who certainly looks far from cold is the lady behind the closed glass window of the Pies & Pasties hut, the prices of her wares scrawled on the window in white marker. Studying what looks like the paper, I don't think she is open for business quite yet, but Tom has been unable to keep his eye off her since we arrived.

“Pumped for today” says an already excited TT fan to a fellow supporter coming out of the clubhouse.

Warm, comfortable and welcoming is about everything you could ask from a clubhouse, the claret blinds a welcome hint of colour in an otherwise neutral space. The patrons already here watch Ronnie O'Sullivan on the TV, as the snooker displays its awesome power of making anywhere it's occurring very sedate, the powers that be should investigate in using it as some kind of weapon against civil unrest, because the gentle sound of resin on baise and the low timbre of the commentary is so calming it sends all that witness it into a coma.

Tom ums and ahhs about what he’ll have, it's a very boring lemonade for me, but he is feeling adventurous, “fuck it I’m having a pint”.

Sipping from his glass of nondescript european larger, he studies his purchase from the neat little club shop, which the sign post does not accurately point to, Tom almost walking into the physios room by mistake. His pin and newest addition to his ever growing collection, was retrieved from an illuminated glass fronted cabinet, the likes of which you might more commonly see at a jewelers, but its contents of badges and key things just as pretty.

The stand in bar man is struggling, plagued by a batch of “frozen Guinness” cans, he lets out an almighty sigh as he pours what is effectively an Irish slush puppy and tells the person he's serving that he “only came to watch the football”.

As more and more people arrive, the spell of the snooker is broken by people talking about Chelsea losing at West Ham. A boy with elves ears on is watching it on his phone, while another fan at the bar asks Google what's the score. When she confirms they are losing, which goes down very well, Tom leans over, “even over here they’re hated”.
Joining one of his helpers in the bar, Santa Claus arrives, his outfit with a local twist. The traditional red and white of the Coca Cola company has been replaced with, well I’m sure you can guess.

“Going down well this” says Tom, having sunk half his pint and he's already talking about “road beers” for the drive home.

Saint Nick, beard and all, which is a little tatty, I’m sure Tom can lend him some beard oil, is an unexpected but welcome visitor to our table, he’s on football card duty. You know the score, pick a team, £1 in the plastic cup, if the one you pick is under the silver panel once it’s been scratched off, you get half the takings.

Tom of course goes for Arsenal, however the distinct lack of Spurs is a little perturbing. Tom reckons it's because and I quote they are “that shit” they don't feature, but I let his juvenile comment wash over me and opt for Wolves, having once upon a time owned a Wolverhampton shirt, it seemed an obvious pick.

“Top of the league” points out Kris Kringle, as good a reason as any to pick the midlands club, who has crushed the illusion a little having half removed his beard, “too hot in here to wear it” he tells us. Before he leaves us, he has his rounds to do, he confirms this is just the first of two opportunities to get a bit of action today, there is also a “half time draw”, the guy doing it will be around “shortly” but he's currently “late”.

Tom returns to his seat having popped out for a vape, informing me there is a “steward in shorts” and there is “good Dad music” being playing outside, bursting into the chorus of the Starship hit, “we built this city”.

Another caller, another warm reception as one half of the reason we are here today, complete with a
box of cheesy chips in hand, Callum joins us. He’s quietly confident that TT will get a “2-1” win today, he tells us between mouthfuls of cheddar smothered fries. He also reckons there could be over “six hundred” here this afternoon, with at least “ten to fifteen” of them singing behind the goal, all
led by him and his drum.

“I never win, but don't mind giving people my money” says the bar man to Santa Claus, dropping his money into the cup, picking his team, somehow already knowing he won’t be victorious.

Outside the drum has already started, its competing with The Proclaimers playing over the tannoy. In the small group of fans surrounding the supporters percussion is the other reason we are here today, the awesomely named Daniel, who unlike Callum is far from sure that today is a sure thing for TT.

“Everyone thinks it will go Tauntons way, I’m not convinced” he tells me nervously. His reasoning being that SFC “can throw the kitchen sink” at TT, as they have “nothing to lose”.

In the short time we took our pitstop in the clubhouse, a fair few people have turned up, already looking like the crowd might be edging towards what I thought was an ambitious guesstimate by Callum. Also a bake sale has commenced, across a couple of trestle tables there are all manner of  icing covered delights spread out, all in aid of a local charity.

I battle past the frosting covered faces of the cake eaters and the group of kids who start chanting TT’s nickname to the beat of the drum “peacocks, peacocks, peacocks”, to make my way to the programme seller and the man with the "don't forget to buy your jackpot tickets" sign at his feet.

“Three for two pounds” he tells me, tearing the tickets along their perforated line, as people jostle past, through the bottleneck being created by the lady wielding her rattling bucket in search of donations, programme purchases and fellow gambling addicts.

Appearing out of the crowd, much like he will be appearing out of the sky in a few weeks time bearing gifts, TT’s very own Father Christmas, asks us “who had Wolves?”.

Clutching the football card and a £20 note, I think I know what he is about to say, I think I’ve just actually won something, but I don't want to jump the gun, so tentatively reply “me”.

“Thought it was you” he says, handing over the money, wishing me a “Merry Christmas” letting me keep the card as evidence. Unable to grasp the significance of what has just happened, from behind his homemade beard, he looks a little perplexed, why is this big bloke in front of me so delighted. Because and I’ll tell you why, you have just restored a piece of my soul, that had all but been obliterated these last three years, chipped away by the constant losing.


Well people I’m no longer a loser, I WON!!!!!

“Come to Taunton, make money” says a smiling Trevor, after I tell him of my victory. Tom wonders if I can “make it two out of two”. With ‘fairytale of New York’ playing, my favourite festive pop song, it genuinely feels like Christmas has come early.

I’m in a slight daze but the drum soon breaks me out of it, one stacked on top of the other, the top one wrapped in a claret and blue union jack. The terrace behind the goal where they currently reside is getting busier by the minute, but not as busy as the Pie & Pasties hut, whose window has now been opened and plenty of people are tucking in to its meaty delights being dished out in white paper bags.

Chatting with Tim the clubs photographer, doctor and director, he tells us the manager will be receiving a presentation to celebrate his three hundred games in charge, “not many managers get three hundred appearances in non league” he says. He like Callum thinks the crowd will be a big one today, “disappointed if not 600”. When we ask him how he thinks TT will fare, he gives us what will turns out to be a scarily accurate prediction.

“Whorever scores early could run away with it”.

One thing he is certain of is “there will be goals”, It’s first Vs second in the league as far as goals scored. His “top tip” for Tom is to get a pastie, they are “very good” he tells us, and going by the amount of people stuffing their faces with slices of coffee and walnut cake passing us, he shouldn't have any problems getting one.

The traveling fans arrive, around the same time the voice over the PA tells us we’re “ten minutes away from kick off”. The SFC supporters make their presence known not long after getting in, “who are ya, who are ya” they sing, the TT drum responds, seemingly getting louder.

TT’s fans have put three flags up, but they are hanging at the opposite end of those who have congregated around the drums waiting for the toss of the coin to find out what direction they’ll be attacking and where they will be spending the first half.

“For the claret blue army” roars the super animated voice over the PA, reading out the team sheet. Doing that thing every decent stadium announcer does, reading the away teams names out first, each one leaving a bad taste in his mouth, but when it comes to the home players, he delivers each of their names with the energy of someone who has just taken a Pulp Fiction sized dose of adrenaline straight to the heart.

I have to ask Callum, standing steadfast behind his drum about the relevance of the betting slip paper airplanes many of the fans are holding, “to throw at Steve Claridge” he explains. A dig I think at SFC’s well documented money issues, which has seen them go bust more than once, but it's too noisy to really question him about it, it took about three goes at him shouting for me to hear his first answer.

Other than the jaunt over the car park, the teams entrance is a relatively standard one. There is a moment before kick off, when Trevor presents the manager with a bottle of bubbles and an eerie portrait of the gaffa, his face made up of lots of different words. He seems less than enthusiastic to walk down the guard of hour made up of his players, doing it in double time, more out of being humble and a tad embarrassed than anything else.

“Only here for the Taunton” sing the TT fans around me, Callum beating out the rhythm on the drum. The SFC supporters are giving them a run for their money, but with no instruments, they were always going to be fighting a losing battle.

The coin toss completed, the exodus to the other end of the pitch is a sudden surge, “every time” huffs one supporter, who can't understand why they don't just stand down the other end of the pitch to start with, with the flags, as they always seem to end up there anyway. Both sets of fans cross paths halfway, “stick your drumsticks up your arse” sing the SFC fans, at the moment the back and forth seems good natured, unfortunately by the end of the day that will not still be the case.

Settled and comfortable, Steve Claridge suitably showered in mini paper aeroplanes, that were chucked over the dugout roof at him by the Bash Street Kids with much guffawing and sniggering, they start to sing, and sing, and sing, “we’re the claret blue army”.

Having replaced us in the stand we just left, the SFC fans are quick to get back to singing too, “mighty, mighty, Salisbury”, however they are soon drowned out by the home fans quickfire reply, “we love you Taunton we do”, “oh when the town go marching in” and one we've not heard since The Shay last season “we’re on our way, we're on our way, to the National League we’re on our way”.

The kids having a kick about on the nearby patch of grass, who seem to have lost their ball over the fence, don't know what they're missing. Although they might be better off where they are for now, because the TT lot are currently offering up their spouses as some kind of prize to one player who they have very kindly told he can “shag”.

Although SFC are the first to go close with about ten minutes gone, it’s TT who open the scoring on eleven minutes and the first part of Tim’s Gray’s Sports Almanac prediction has come to fruition. Arms out by his side, the scorer runs down the front of the stand, high fiving the outstretched hands of the fans, before a teammate jumps on his back and he lets out a mighty “come on”.

The elated voice over the PA reads out the name of the scorer while The Dave Clark Five plays in the background. In the lead, and very much on the front foot, the home fans are lightening quick to rub it in to their adversaries “it's gone quiet over there”.

Any attempt to goad an already depressed and thoroughly dejected looking Claridge doesn't work, he
stands firmly on the edge of his box looking steely eyed. “Stevy what's the score?” the fans ask, their request of a “wave” is also declined, but what can you expect if you are all suggesting he is going to get “sacked in the morning”.

When news of my win filters back to my fiancee, I say filtered back, I sent her a picture of me holding my winnings, her response is not as congratulatory as I had wanted and frankly is just a bit sarcastic and rude, “OMG...whatever will you write about now xxx”.

SFC’s fans are now very quiet and Tom is playing ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ and suggests today is like watching “Burnley Vs AFC Wimbledon”.

Tom’s game is soon put on hold, when TT double their lead, its been looking like its been coming, and it does, only seven minutes after the first. Assisted by the scorer of the first, the scorer of the seconds deft flick of his foot sends the ball past the keeper.

“We are going up” sing the now even more overjoyed fans, they then ask SFC cheekily “can we play you every week?”.

First he’s pelted with paper aeroplanes, secondly his employability is questioned, thirdly and the hat trick of Steve Claridge slurs is when he is asked “what are you teaching them?” following a poor tackle that earns the perpetrator a booking. “Dirty” decries one supporter.

The foul is the first sign of SFC looking rattled, Tom being quite plain, he's made up his mind, they’re just “not very good”. As bad as they have been, TT have been clinical and quite excellent so far, their number 10, the first goal scorer, is like the Mousa Dembele of Somerset, not tall and rangy, but small and robust, but just as immovable off the ball as the Belgian. He holds it up masterfully, and at times seems to want to take on the whole SFC defence by himself and on occasions he looks like he might just be able to.

When SFC win a corner in front of their fans, it stir them into making some noise, “we forgot that you were here” sing the near ecstatic TT fans. Tom though has bigger concerns, “food or toilet queue?” he asks himself fidgeting like a toddler trying not to wet himself. Will his desire to beat the half time rush for a pastie override the possibility of an embarrassing and very public accident.

Claridge always seemed like quite a nice guy on Final Score, having never seen him in his playing days, I can't really comment on what kind of a player he was, but I saw a dark side of him when a foul is given against his team. “He’s laughing at you ref” as the smirking TT player walks away from the scene of the crime, as the SFC manager his eyes full of rage bellows at the top of his voice, “look at his face”.

The home fans are quite the opposite, happy, smiling and non stop singing and in the words of D:ream “things can only gonna get better”. They get very energetic when one suggests they “all bounce if you’re going up” and the whole terrace is a sea of bobbing heads.

“Easy, easy, easy” they sing, as the third goes in. We get a front row seat to the players celebration, a few fans rush the fence, one man pumping both fists shouts “you beauty”. The final reserves of paper aeroplanes are sent into the Saturday afternoon sky and Dave and his chums get their third airing of the day.

SFC have a header cleared off the line with five of the half to play, this stirs their fans “ohhh” and encourages the TT supporters to ask if they should “sing a song” for their quiet visitors.

Since becoming a Dad for the second time in June, I think I have become hypersensitive to people being unkind to others, some might say I’ve gone a bit soft, but I don't like people being horrible to each other. I therefore give the TT fans my best disapproving Dad face when they start singing at the SFC keeper about his Mum, like her not being able to keep “her legs closed” just like him, because of the manner in which he conceded the third. Tom can sense my displeasure, bit “mean” he asks me, and I give him a stern and silent fatherly nod of the head.

TT’s players are relishing the fact that SFC seem to be falling apart, allowing them to chuck a few flicks, tricks and back heels into the mix, a little bit of samba football in the Southern League, and their fans appreciate it “it's like watching Brazil”.

Three goals to the good, you can imagine the supporters are thrilled to say the least on the half time whistle, some as going as far as to say the three points are “in the bag” and it's hard to disagree. While the flags are taken down and neatly folded, the rest of the group from behind the goal make a beeline for the clubhouse and the other end of the pitch, one passing child gives his own version of ‘you're getting sacked in the morning’ to a downbeat Claridge drudging off to talk to his beleaguered players, “say goodbye to your team”.

Replacing the adults on the pitch, the hoard of mascots appear, and start to have a small match of their own. One players skills and subsequent goal catches the eye of a few of the people watching on, “great goal, sign him on”.

Tom’s wait for the loo and food, was far less arduous than he thought, so much so, that by the time we find each other, I having learnt I haven’t won the halftime draw, which is fine, as he said “don't be greedy”, he has already as he put it “demolished” his cheesy chips, but still has one of the recommended pasties to go, which he tells me is “warm” and asks me “if I want to hold it” to heat up my hands.

“TAUNTON TOWN” booms the voice over the PA welcoming the teams back as they reappear, going toe to toe with a 90’s dance classic, a song we’ve come across already this season, a favourite on the non league scene, Insomnia by Faithless. Kevin leaves the pitch with trusty fork in hand and the numbers behind the goal seem to have swelled, the sloped roof of the terrace unable to contain them all, and they pick up, where they left off, “oh when the town go marching in”.

It’s going to take a while to get the tune of Glad All Over out of my head, considering I’ve now heard
a fourth snippet of its catchy chorus. Three minutes into the new half TT continue their rampant ways, scoring from a corner. The players run off towards the corner flag, before stopping and acting out some kind of pre arranged celebration, that kind of looks like someone trying to learn to surf.

TT cruising, their fans in good voice and Tom sipping away at his Cherry Tango that tastes like bathroom cleaner, I’m not sure we could ask for a more perfect scene, until all of a sudden a disturbance in the good time rift, takes the edge of it a little. Perhaps it was the sight of seeing their team going further behind or something was said, we'll never know, but all of a sudden a scuffle breaks out to our left, punches are thrown and by the looks of it an SFC fan is being carted off briskly by a couple of strapping TT supporters.

“Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio” sing the onlookers as the away fan is strong armed out, flanked by two chaps who I think I would do what they told me. For the remainder of the game, it's the activity on the terrace and the drama that ensues that occupies most people's attention.

Still bubbling away, it's hard not to rubber neck a little, the nosy side of us both, wondering what happened, and what is still going on. One supporters makes his opinion clear, “get out of Taunton” he shouts fiercely, the rest of the fans also share their thoughts on the visitors “we hate Salisbury”.

There is though a nice distraction from the nonsense, a boxer dog, paws up on the fence, with his head through it, straining at his leash and close to bolting on a couple occasions. “Seen the ball” says Tom, the dog's owner doing his best to hold on tight.

Although TT are creating chances at will, they have a shot well saved preventing their fifth, its SFC who score next, from the spot, with fifty eight minutes gone. A lifeline perhaps, “game on” says Tom, I doubt it, anyway I’m not sure many home fans are particularly bothered by the slight dent in their lead, the few SFC fans dancing and celebrating are, but they are soon muffled by the TT fans, who don't let them be heard for long.

Both Callum and Tim were right, in excess of six hundred here today and one of them is still yet to claim the half time draw prize, the man I bought the tickets from, is now doing a lap of the ground, with a blackboard with the winning numbers on, trying to find the victor.

SFC’s fans are again silent, buts its positively rocking in the home end, “claret blue army” they repeat over and over in a state of near hypnosis snapping out of it only to tease the away end “it's all gone quiet over there”, while Tom stomps his feet, despite having about five pairs of socks on, his toes are still going “a bit numb”.

TT have all but sat back, foot well and truly off the gas, I think they might have even taken the keys out and pulled over for a picnic and aren't showing any of that swashbuckling endeavour they had before, meaning SFC get the odd sniff at a chance. With seventy five minutes gone they almost pull another back, but it doesn't seem to worry anyone, they’re all having far too much of a good time and whenever SFC do seem to threaten, TT respond by just wandering up the other end and almost scoring themselves.

Being someone who knows a far old bit about this particular chant, I can't understand why it's never
sung properly, slowly, painfully and tediously slowly “oh when (insert team here) go marching in” is at its best when it starts at a snail's pace, building to a hair raising crescendo, with a few wiggling fingers at the end of arms held aloft tossed in for good measure.

With full time fast approaching and now in the presence of a few coppers, the distinctive blue lights of their cars flashing above over the wall behind us, there is a mild sense of tension as the ground slips into a state of shutdown. There is a lot of pointing, the hiss of radios and the shutting of gates, by the looks of it to keep both sets of supporters apart.

“Not seen much of the game” says one member of TT staff to another, I must admit the second half does feel somewhat like a blur. One TT fan suggests that the kind of behaviour we’ve seen today, which let me be clear was fleeting, and not involving any great numbers, is the first of its kind we've ever seen, and as the home fan puts it you “don't expect that kind of thing at non league football”.

A fully stocked riot van rolls up and may be required, not to contain the SFC fans, but the home fans, as the floodlights start to flicker, like the one in the downstairs loo, just before it blows. “Last thing we need” says a steward, the match being called off, TT 4 -1 up, with maybe only a couple of minutes to play. However Trevor is calm, watching on from the corner of the pitch, “don't panic, they blow at home”.

It's a rapturous send off for the players, either side of the way off the pitch is packed with cheering and clapping fans, Kevin looks on proud as punch, offering his own congratulations to the odd player and coach as they pass. Once back inside the shelter of the big shed, the sound system is quickly on, and the noise of the TT players singing Sweet Caroline soon fills the night.

As the supporters finally stream out, the sight outside the ground is similar to that of a Premier League game, not a Southern League one. Half of Somerset's police are seemingly here, their lights still going good guns, but it all seems a bit OTT and the fans make their way home, without incident.

I'll be honest when I accepted Callum and Daniels invite to their corner of the non league world, I don't think I really understood quite how far away they where, but I can say with my hand on heart that it was worth every one of the three hundred plus miles we travelled.

Time spent in the car or the time you have to get up is immaterial when you are treated to five goals, an excellent atmosphere, seeing what might be the world record for how far apart a club can put the dugouts and the sight of a once top flight footballer being bombarded with paper aeroplanes.

Of course the Viridor Stadium will always be a special place, it will live long in the memory as the venue of my very first win, the blue plaque is in the post - 'Daniel Magner Won £20 Here' it will read.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE



 

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