“Suns out, guns out” he says to me, one arm flexed up by his face, as he notices I’m scandalously only wearing a t-shirt to drive in. Flinging his heavy winter coat on the back seat, he explains that he “wasn't expecting this”. My choice of music, has him a little amused and confused in good measure, mistaking a bit of Brahms for the “Archers”. It’s not only Tom waiting for a lift at the station, one of today's players from Tonbridge Angels FC (TB) in his sky blue tracksuit, is standing patiently on the pavement.
The War Memorial Sports Ground, home of Carshalton Athletic FC is the venue, as it was last year, for the Ryman League Cup Final or Alan Turvey trophy, tonight we complete our hat trick of finals going back to 2015. We are early, we are always early, but we're not the first here, some players of tonight's other finalists Billericay Town FC (BT) are already here, as are the robin crested, red shirt wearing staff, who are flitting about, completing the finishing touches, before they are descended upon by more players, fans and old men in blazers, in about an hour's time.
Before then, we join the early birds in the clubhouse, where the rearranged Borussia Dortmund Vs Monaco game is about to kick off on the big TV and Tom unable to get his hands on a Red Bull, so has to settle for a lesser known imitation, Red Alert, to wash down his pickled onion Monster Munch.
“Everyone wants to beat us” says one of the BT players to the others around his table. Since their meteoric rise to fame and many column inches, after some big money signings, two of whom have a Premier League pedigree, they have become quite the focus of the non league world. The player only hopes “next year, it will die down”. When pressed on tonight, he seems confident, explaining how BT “should be beating” TB, especially after their recent “2-1” victory in the league.
Soon some fans of each team arrive, many sporting a club scarf hanging from a hand bag strap or belt. Once each group has found a table they head to the bar, “beer” grunts one when asked what he wants, and the solo bar woman is set to work.
Outside the warm sun of earlier, has all but gone, and has been replaced by grey clouds, “gonna rain” says Tom. More players have arrived, mostly TB’s, who are either on the pitch or on one of the commandeered crop of nearby picnic tables. A few perhaps agreeing with Tom’s weather prediction, have decided to take shelter in one of the dug outs, which sit in front of the grounds most notable feature, an immense pitch length terrace, with its long concrete steps, deep back wall, and roof topped with St George's crosses, flying from white flag poles.
More busy Carshalton staff weave among the relaxing players, a woman with an arm full of biscuits and milk, is heading for the boardroom, which is basically a large wooden shed, where someone has just asked very loudly, “where are the biscuits?”.
“Someone just arrived” points out Tom, who though, we're not sure. All we can see is the top of the reversing beeping coach over the stand behind the goal in the car park. BT are running a little late, something to do with a snarl up on the motorway, I overhear one player telling another of the “nightmare” that is the Dartford Crossing. One BT fan mistaking Tom for a fellow supporter, which happens quite a lot, wonders why the “boys” are “not here yet?”. Not being a fan of the Essex club or being aware of their current travel predicaments, he does his sigh and eye roll, which miraculously seems to satisfy, and always manages to get him out of tricky situations.
Those TB players who are here, look a little lost for what to do, BT’s delay, leaving them with some time to kill. They entertain themselves by pulling the leg of one club official, who is wearing his finest, for the big occasion. “Hello Charlie, got dressed up?” one asks, “Hugo Boss?” asks another.
The arrival of BT is soon the talk of the ground, sending many people with cameras scattering for a shot of Paul Konchesky once of Liverpool and West Ham and Jamie O’Hara, wearing the customary big headphones, who most recently was of the diary room in Big Brother, but also of Fulham, Wolves and of course Spurs.
Music is already coming from behind the TB dressing room door, the names of the ‘home’ and ‘away’ teams, stuck to the outside. By the looks of it, it won't be long before the music is playing in BT’s either, as at the back of the long line of people carrying bags and water bottles, one man struggles with a huge white sound system. Although BT have been designated the ‘home’ team for tonight, one of their entourage queries why are they playing in their “away kit”.
A TB player heading to the pitch for the warm up, is stopped momentarily by an old fella offering up his own support “come on boys”, another supporter is wearing a floor length Tom Baker style blue and white scarf, which I complement him on, and he tells me his "sister" knitted it for him. One of BT’s fans are far from impressed by the venue “stupid fucking place to have a final” he announces, looking over the pitch, arms crossed, with a very sour look on his face.
My attention is quickly diverted from Mr Cheery Chops, by a small commotion behind him, a bit of rutting between a member of the BT board and the Carshalton Athletic secretary, who is not best pleased about being challenged on the lack of bar staff, the single lady by all accounts has become a little overcome, and the BT inquisitor is given short shrift by the spectacle wearing man, whose scarlet face now matches his top, “bugger back off to Essex”.
The noise of the players warming up, is for once rivaled by the noise of the ever increasing crowd, most of whom seem to be standing in the snaking queue for the burger bar, which has thoroughly upset Tom. Some though instead of waiting an age for something to eat, have already secured a dark red seat in the small main stand where according to one sign "children are prohibited from playing" or a step on the mega terrace. BT are the first in, after what doesn't feel like very long warming up, TB are a while behind them, but eventually leave the immaculate pitch empty. Immaculate may I add because it’s a 4G and not because of an unprecedented level of groundsmanship, which is what Tom thought, until his personal eureka moment.
There are plenty of “come ons” and other such encouragement coming from the changing rooms, along with the obligatory loud music now blaring from them both, until the shouting players are replaced by what sounds like an amateur dramatics chorus line.
I head towards the mass sing song, coming from BT's dressing room. The door ever so slightly ajar, propped open by a man in a hi viz waistcoat, holding a very big camera that’s recording what’s going on inside, there is just about enough room for me to position myself, and bare witness to something I imagine will go down in football folklore, something I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren “I was there”.
All on their feet, dazzling in their neon orange stripe, arms linked and led by the clubs owner/manager Glen Tamplin, they are belting out a rendition of R Kellys 'The Worlds Greatest". “Close your eyes” demands the manager to the group of compliant but ever so slightly skeptical looking players, “think about today” he tells them. Outside, a few TB staff look on baffled by what is taking place a few feet away, the BT R’n’B war cry is in full flow.
However that is not all, sadly they don’t move on to a version of the theme tune from everyone's favourite basketball real life cartoon cross over film, instead Glenn Tamplin is now standing before his now seated squad, reading from a script, engaging in a bit more audience participation. “I’m honored to be taking you on to the field of battle” he tells them, as he starts his own version of the Any Given Sunday speech, each declaration “right now we fight, right now we believe” concludes in the same way, “who are we?”, he stops and waits for the reply from the players, “the greatest”.
Each delivery from the gaffa, goes up a notch, the veins in his considerable neck and enormous arms, grow a little bigger, he is definitely in Tom’s “suns out guns out” camp. He expects an equally raucous response from the players, most are happy to oblige, some though have their eyes firmly fixed on their laces, “fucking rip out the heart of my enemies”.
The ring of the bell, almost cuts him a bit short, but he just shouts over it, “every fucking inch today, we fight and we win, who are we, who are we, WHO ARE WE?”, snarling, shaking his fist, towards the player's, “THE GREATEST”. All his hard work pumping his team up, is nearly undone when a green and black league tie wearing man, informs him of the building crowds outside, late arriving fans, who are yet to get let in. He is asked if he is happy for them to delay kick off, but he’s not “I wanna kick off”, it’s emphasized that its “your people” who are waiting to get in, but he is fully in the zone, he has fluffed the players to near climax.
It’s not until the teams have left the tunnel, followed by various coaches and physios, do I become aware of the size of the crowd, that continued to swell as I loitered around the changing room, like a Cat’s fan at the stage door of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I also hear for the first time, what might just be the nicest chant in all of football “come on Angels”. Both group of fans, keenly watch the toss, not fussed one bit about what way their team will be playing, but simply wanting to know which goal they need to set up camp behind for the first half.
Both fans and players alike are off to a lightning start, flags are quickly up at both ends, the songs soon start, “Tonbridge, Tonbridge” sing the fans from Kent led by a drum. The fans from Essex are without a drum but the hoarding seems a suitable replacement, and is getting a bit of a ‘Ketsbaia’.
BT have two chances in a matter of thirty seconds, one is blazed over from close range, and it looks like the team in orange are going to get off to the perfect start, however it’s not their end that is engulfed in thick blue smoke, blotting their fans from view, it’s not their fans singing “no pyro, no party”, it’s not the team who came out the blocks flying, but the team who have been very much on the back foot for the frantic opening five minutes of the encounter that have taken the lead, 1 - 0 TB.
“Tonbridge is wonderful” sing the foggy fans, the smoke still rolling out from under the roof of the small metal stand, ‘Fred’s End’ which looks like it might be close to falling down, the celebrating fans are using it to accompany the drum, “everywhere we go, everywhere we go”.
Already close to a football induced meltdown, pyro, drumming, flags, two sets of singing fans, but if the blue and white beach ball that has entered the pitch, had been someway responsible for the BT equaliser, well you would have had to call the St Johns Ambulance, however it’s at the opposite end of the ground from the beach accessory, that the scorer has just slotted in and run towards the crowd to be embraced by the fans.
This time it’s the BT fans celebrating, adding to the pandemonium of the first fifteen minutes. “Singing i - i - ippy, we come from Billericay!”. TB’s fans reply, but it’s ever so slightly muted, “come on Tonbridge”, the garbled voice after the bizarre post goal music they play here, confirms it's the “equalizer”, the BT fans continue in full voice “follow the ‘Ricay, over land and sea” and as if someone actually wanted to see me require medical attention, a second beach ball is tossed on the pitch.
The TB fans are not tongue-tied for long, asking the BT supporters, “where were you when you were shit?”.
Tom is “getting hungry” the pre match queue has thrown him a bit out of whack, but he is far more concerned for the welfare of ‘Fred’s End’, “it’s getting a bit rowdy in there” and he just doesn't know how the simple structure is going to “cope”.
Not unsurprisingly both teams are unable to keep up the frantic tempo, but the TB fans don't feel they are getting the rub of the green. “Studs up!” says Tom after a partially robust tackle or “dirty foul” as he puts it, although the referee reprimands the guilty player, it’s not as harsh as the TB followers thought it should be, “behave yourself” one suggests towards the man in charge. “We’re the Angels, We’re the Angels” they sing, continuing the ecclesiastical theme when they finally get a call their way “hallelujah”. This though has the opposite effect on the BT fans, who think it's a case of “same old Tonbridge always cheating”.
“Not a bad drummer” comments Tom, a little rudimentary “we’re the blue and white army” is about his speed, he's no Charlton, but whether be he John Bonham or Ringo Starr, it’s just great to have one.
After the abundance of early chances, the game has descended into a messy, scrappy midfield squabble, starved of any real quality. A BT player puts it wide one on one, then O’Hara takes a long range pot shot, that sails over, “what a waste of money” sing the TB fans. One fan pointing out he is not a Tottenham, Wolverhampton or Portsmouth cast off, but a team a little closer to home “Gillingham reject”.
All change, on thirty minutes this long range attempt finds the target, with a little help from the keeper, the ball looked to go right through him and BT have gone from one behind to two ahead.
Chances for BT and big tackles, one forcing Tom to gasp and flinch, are the order of the day, the early TB lead, feels like a distant memory, as BT go close again. The TB fans find ways to distract themselves from the onslaught, as Tom points out, one is doing “chin ups” from the roof of the stand.
It’s getting close to half time, and of course Tom is thinking of food. I warn him of the big queue, he doesn't care, people sporadically passing us holding something cooked in a napkin, have grown stubble in the time they have been waiting.
TB look close to drawing things level, but one player inadvertently denies a team mate, heading the ball, instead of leaving it for the player behind him, who was better placed, and was shaping up for a volley. It feels like a bit of a ‘what if’ moment, as not long after BT further their lead. “Second time he's done that” says Tom, as the same player doubles his tally, with an almost carbon copy of his first.
“Heads up boys” is the solemn single shout of one TB fan, towards his dejected team. Further shouts of “come on Angels” sound just as sad, the fans have lost all that energy and enthusiasm, that made the smoke filled rocking little stand such an awesome spectacle. The loudest by far of them all, is a woman among them, whose completely inaudible, but her volume is quite the opposite to the stunned and silenced crowd around her.
BT supporters on the other hand are right at the other end of the spectrum.
“Can they survive to half time” Tom wonders, two goals down is not insurmountable, but they are well and truly on the ropes and BT are looking for the knockout blow.
More of a low blow not seen by the referee, then a well slipped counter, or spectacular uppercut, BT grab a fourth, and as Tom does, in moments like these, he utters his familiar two word catchphrase “game over”. First half hat trick complete, with a lot of help from a deflection off a TB defender, the post goal Euro pop is now getting tedious, I hope for no more goals, only so we’re not subjected to it again.
The BT fans now poking fun at their once noise equaling rivals, “it’s all gone quiet over there” before they remind us all where they are from “Essex, Essex, Essex”. Some TB fans have seen enough, “going off to the pub”. One of them, whose curious limp makes me think that someone else should be carrying the large decorated drum, is in fact not injured, but suffering from a bad case of ‘flare down the trousers’itus’’, a single smoke grenade falls from the bottom of his jeans like a moment from the Great Escape, explaining his curious gait.
Flags are soon down at each end, and it’s easy to pick out among the groups of fans criss-crossing in
front of me, who supports who. Once again the music is a point of interest, track two from ‘Banging Ibiza ‘98’ has been replaced by something with a Caribbean vibe, imagine a Lilt or Malibu advert. Through the mixed crowd of dejected and jubilant fans, I pick out a face that is sadder than those of the team who have just conceded four first half goals in a cup final, it’s Tom, empty handed, “about 100 people” in the queue for food he tells me, not totally downbeat, he has a plan, he'll try again in the “second half”.
Tom could maybe try his luck in the boardroom shed for something to eat, however by the sounds of it, two ladies talking next to us are not overly impressed by the spread “one cup of tea and a biscuit” is all one got her hands on, gosh life is hard in the jewelry jangling seats.
“Welcome back Tonbridge Angels and Billericay Town” says the voice over the tannoy accompanied by a piece of music from a mid 90’s Top Gear montage, that just makes me want to shout POWER, and I think we may have already found a ground where the music can rival that played at Bowers & Pitsea.
BT’s fans take up from where the TB fans left off, ‘Fred’s End’ is in for one hell of a forty-five minutes, “whoooo oooo BILLERICAY”. The team also pick up right from where they left off, grabbing their fifth of the night, killing off the early TB songs “we’re the Angels”, confirming, like I didn't know already, that any notion of the “comeback” that Tom and I mulled over at half time, has gone right out the window, I’m always hopeful for a bit of romance, but this is beyond even realms of fantasy and the BT fans are greedy for more, “we want six”. It also dawns on us just how shocking the queue for food is, as one BT fans passes by telling a fellow supporter that he finally got something “3 days later” which answers Tom’s earlier query of “what do you think the queues doing now?”.
TB’s fans are only ever briefly speechless and are always quick to gather themselves and go again, the drumming a constant. They finally get something to cheer since the fifth minute, when a bit of fortune finally goes their way, a towering salmon like leap from a BT player, results in a quite spectacular own goal, “he scores when he wants” declare his own fans, following their players mistake. The voice on the tannoy, after the bloody music, again, doesn't give the name of the offender (it was Paul Konchesky) but just blurts out “was an own goal” before flicking off the mic.
Tom’s reattempt to get food means he is somewhere in the never depleting line, when the own goal was scored. Before he made off on his second attempt to conquer it, he hoped that BT didn’t score “too many goals” while he was away, I can’t promise him anything, they are rampant, and look like they will score at every opportunity.
“We’re going to win 6 - 5” sing those in the TB end, bolstered by the slight denting of the BT lead, who are still making a good racquet, despite the deficit. However their patience might be tested when four minutes after getting one back, they might have to change the chant to we’re going to win 7 - 6 as BT sweep down the other end, finishing off a swift counter attack getting their sixth of the night.
Any concerns of a lack of action from Tom “think there will be goals?” he asked pre kick off, has been totally and 100% put to the sword. Also any notion of this going to extra time and penalties, which we weren't sure if they did both or just a shoot out, but then neither was the Ryman League press secretary when we asked him, and he was too "embarrassed" to ask for clarification from a colleague, won't be a concern either. The BT fans are now reminding TB that at one point today, they were actually in front “1 - 0 and you fucked it up” all that joy and blue smoke, a lifetime ago.
I can’t emphasize enough how excellent the TB fans have been in the face of the most resounding hiding, you are ever likely to see. Yes that bloke may well have gone off to the pub at half time to drink away his sorrow, but those who have stayed, are still singing, and the drum is still going. The quick footwork of their keeper prevents them conceding a seventh goal, but they still continue their support.
One though has gone a little rogue, slumped across a couple of seats in the main stand, like Scarface in his big chair, he shouts for anything and everything. “Hand ball”, it wasn't even close, “we’ll appeal anything” he says, before announcing he “can't be arsed”. I’m sure instead of watching anymore of the game, he just wants to bury his face in a pile of coke and pet a tiger cub right about now.
“Easy, easy, easy” sing the BT fans, who by now have surpassed all earlier levels of hysteria and are heading for another stratosphere. Not in all their wildest dreams, except that one joker who was asked before kick off for a prediction and said they would score “7” who is now smugger than a Cheshire cat and is a demi god among his peers, could they have imagined they would see their team score seven tonight. They now have a blood lust, like a wild village hoard they demand, “we want 8”, but have replaced pitchforks and farming implements, with the humming of the Rocky theme tune. All while the TB drummer still drums, he won't capitulate, even if his team have.
In the short time since our first encounter with BT, back in February for the semi final, there have been plenty of comings and goings. There has been an influx of signings, their manager then, has been replaced by the owner, who the fans now serenade “Glenn Tamplin’s blue and white army”, he acknowledges their song with an above the head clap back at them.
BT’s keeper finally has something to do, his save with his feet looking all the more dramatic, considering he has been standing still for the last hour, however most dramatic of all, the drum has finally fallen quiet, but at least they still have the woman, and her deafening screams. At the opposite end, I think it’s going to be a long time until any BT fans are quiet again, given up on film theme tunes, they are now considering a pitch invasion “on the pitch, on the pitch”.
I am happy to report the drum is still alive, its final swan song, is prompted by a nice TB move and curling shot that just goes over, which the BT fans also applaud, but with sarcasm, not love. Not only is the drum having a last hurrah, with BT having fully taken their foot off the gas, TB are able to rack up a few chances, and have a big shout for a penalty waved away.
The lack of pressure is not bothering the BT fans, who continue to sing “oh what a night, watching ‘Ricay on a Wednesday night”, and even though their team have won this, they get to witness a staggering 8th goal. TB’s keeper nearly stopped it, but it squirmed under him.
“We can see you sneaking out” sing the BT fans, as a few more TB fans head for the pub, those leaving and those staying are reminded once again, that they were actually ahead at one point, not that you would believe it, looking at the score, “1 - 0 and you fucked it up”. One player following the celebration motions to the fans for more noise, which might inadvertently result in the complete destruction of ‘Fred's End’, which amazingly is still somehow standing.
TB hit the post and then add to the score making it 8 - 3. The board goes up with three minutes on, and O’Hara tries his luck from range with a cheeky lob, which misses but pleases the fans “same old ‘Ricay, taking the piss”. Toying with TB like a cat with its prey, they pass the ball around nonchalantly, almost, almost getting a ninth!
Plenty happens following the final whistle, most of the time its to the chant of "what a waste of money" BT I assume feeling that the win tonight, justifying the expenditure of the owner, who is enjoying every moment of the victory. As the plinth that held the ball before kickoff is brought back onto the pitch, now with the blue and orange adorned trophy on it, along with a foldout table covered with a table cloth and medals and the sponsored backdrop for all the pictures, BT approach their excitable fans to celebrate, one so thrilled his attempt to climb the railing to join them, is miss judged, he ends up landing on his head, but the adrenaline means he is able to pick himself up and dust himself off without injury.
Players, staff and management walk the railing, shaking and high fiving the many outstretched hands, hugging those who require a bit more intimacy, some are handed flags, scarves and even a woolly hat that Jamie O'Hara pops on.
The depressed blue line of TB players, almost as sad as Tom after his failed food attempts are up first to get their medals, Tamplin quick to ensure his team applaude their defeated foe. As captain it's O'Hara's duty to do the honours, but he seems resistant to hog the limelight, instead insisting the rest of the team join him to lift the cup.
A multitude of selfies and pictures later, chants of "champione" and talk of money subsides, some generic football final victory jingle playing instead, Tamplin goes full Mourinho tossing his medal into the crowd, before blowing kisses like a true lovey to the adoring crowd, who sing his name once more. Him and his team eventually head for the dressing room, and there is talk of "champagne".
Our night ends not as well as the staggering well dressed couple looking for the way out, but in an unintentionally intense and very close quarters chat with Tamplin himself. Up close we realise as Tom puts it what a "unit" he is and how every digit of his hands are decorated with some giant ring of some sort. Maybe a little curious of two no marks asking for his opinion on the evening, its not until we explain who are are and what we are doing, that the tension is lessened, when he tells us he "agrees" with our thoughts on non league football.
I'm sure there will much talk about the methods and practices of Tamplin, for all those who turn their nose up at his prematch exploits, there could be a case of saying it did some good, you can't argue with a five goal winning margin. It's been proven that simply chucking money at clubs can be a slippery slope, there are sadly many examples of ones where its not worked, if BT will become another statistic, only time will tell.
Tonight you might say was Essex Vs Kent, fan owned club Vs a bank rolled club, tonight for me at least, will go down as the first time Tom never had something to eat.