December has been a bit of a drought month for us, our last game being all the way back at the end of November, and our trip to Lisbon, but the stars have aligned to ensure we can at least squeeze one in at the eleventh hour. Having been unable to take advantage of the abundance of football, on the festive calendar, Tom being away, and I’ve been busy with my son, eating chocolate oranges and playing Monopoly, it's a relief, that I’m off to meet Tom in South London, for a 3 o'clock kick off, which are a bit of a rarity for us.
Having vowed recently to relent on my commentary about my no love loss for the Underground, for once there is nothing to mention, most people are so comatosed from their intake of gammon or are fastidiously reading the T&C’s on the receipt for an unwanted or ill fitting gift, it goes past without incident. I’m so engrossed anyway in the program I'm watching on my tablet about Victorian Bakers, learning about their plight, and watching a woman chop up tripe to put in a mince pie, that a troop of clowns could have walked through my carriage, and I wouldn't have even raised my head.
I am only temporarily distracted from educating myself about quite how much of an influence the Victorians had on the Christmas we know and love and the fact that if in doubt, the baker from the 1800’s will just add more currants, to make everything ok, by the fact my evening plans for New Year's eve, are slightly lacking.
Tom is off romantically glaring at his girlfriend across a Kentish Town restaurant table, then hiking up a hill to watch the fireworks, other friends are shacked up with their new baby, while the rest are attending various house parties, at the moment all I have is an invitation from my Mother to watch Star Trek, and eat spaghetti bolognese, with her, my brother and about five cats. Gone are my drug and booze fueled 31st’s, in black light lit rooms, staying up until sunrise.
I disembark my train, climb a small flight of stairs, exit the station, and wait patiently for Tom. I’m early and here before him, which is always a good start to the day. He is though close behind, his fuzzy shaven head an easy spot among the crowd. We exchange Christmas based niceties, and make our way to a nearby bus stop, for the very short and what feels like very wobbly ride to today's ground.
“All looks a bit Juve” says Tom, commenting on the abundance of black and white, visible even from the opposite side of the road of Imperial Fields or the KNK Stadium. The two name situation similar to that of Arsenals Emirates Stadium or Ashby Fields. As nice as the setup is, and the similarity in shirt design between our hosts and Juventus, which is my second favourite kind of football strip, after white with a blue trim of course, I’m pretty sure this is where Tom’s Turin based reference ends. I don’t think he is trying to suggest the ground before us, bears any resemblance to the Juventus Stadium, for many reasons, one being, although I might be wrong, is the fact it’s adjacent to a BP garage.
Today’s venue though has a much more inspiring name, not ‘KNK Stadium’ which is the name of the sponsors, a local building firm, whose blue and yellow vans fill the car park, but ‘Imperial Fields’, which sounds like somewhere gladiators go to die, and as we pass through the black iron gates, on one half TM the other FC, along with a welcome sign that has seen better days, we have arrived on the home patch of Tooting & Mitcham United FC (TM) otherwise known as ‘The Terrors’.
TM are a team we have seen before, at last season’s London Senior Cup Final, where we were very impressed by their support, as well as their nickname, which would strike the fear into the heart of any opponent. Nothing warm or welcoming about ‘The Terrors’, it sounds like something to do with the Spanish Inquisition. If you heard you were playing ‘The Robins’, what's the worst a small garden bird can do?, or ‘The Hatters’, what are you gonna do hit me with a boater?, you might think you were in with a chance, but ‘The Terrors’, that's a name to make you think twice.
Tom of course is not concerned with the imposing tone of a clubs nickname, or the decorative qualities of some gates, because his eyes are locked on to the mural covered hut in the distance, ‘The Shak’. It’s name, set among blue sea, yellow sand and palm trees, quite the oasis, in our current grey suburban reality.
“Caribbean takeaway”, shrieks Tom, much in the same way I imagine he did on Christmas Day, when he opened his beard oil, or new snood. He is though quick to ask himself out loud, with The Shak's shutters down, if it will be “open today?”.
What is very much open, a stream of TM players making their way in through the small door in the black and white striped wall, sport bags over their shoulders, which most have retrieved from the boot of their nearby cars, is the ‘Sports Bar’. Tom stops momentarily to read the sandwich board outside, suggesting we “stay here all the night” as it closes at “five in the morning”.
The Old Firm derby holds the attention of most people inside, despite no sound and it being played out to some boy band, they watch intently nonetheless, still "oohing" and "ahhing" at a close shot, or mistimed tackle.
At the bar, it’s tea for us, nothing stronger yet. As we order, a man in a TM polo shirt leans over the bar and discreetly tells one of the girls behind, that there is no loo roll in the “referee's toilet” and can they sort it out, he then hands them a handful of programmes, which results in her being quickly set upon, by me included, handing her £2, to secure my copy.
We take up a seat on a high table near the door, just behind a chap in an England shirt with ‘Stevo 69’ on the back, who's selling programmes to those too slow to have bought one of the few from behind the bar. Our table has a small lantern full of fairy lights in the middle, in keeping with the the rest of the room, which has the last few visible signs of Christmas, still hanging on the walls. We don’t have time to settle, as we have company, a tall man, in flat cap.
@HackbridgeHarry, as I’ve known him until now, despite a name like that, he’s not a member of the Krays gang, but as Steve puts it in his own words, “an aging punk”, who “loves football”. After the handshakes, he wants to clear something up, “who's Arsenal?” he asks, I give him my best ‘not me governor’ face, Tom having “already noticed the pin”, that's the Gooner one on the side of his hat, raises his hand, admits to his sin, and they both spend the next five minutes discussing the highs and lows of following them lot in red and white.
Steve’s love affair with the lot from Woolwich, is all but over from the way he is talking, “I fell out of love with the Prem” he tells us, that's why he started watching TM “10 years ago”. Post move from Highbury, it had changed for him, as I’m sure it did for a lot of Arsenal fans. Tom suggests that “we”, pointing at me, and we being Spurs, should take heed, with the impending stadium change not far away, but we will be ok, won’t we?
Our table is quickly surrounded, and again someone I’ve only ever spoken to via the internet comes over to introduce himself, David, TM ‘s programme editor, who was responsible for using our Cup Final blog in the clubs programme. He adds to the warm welcome, his silver white beard, big smile and spectacles, giving him the air of a character from ‘Wind in the Willows’ about him, as well as an undeniable resemblance to Richard Attenborough.
His jolly demeanor does slip for a moment, when Steve’s son tells him that there is a “mistake in the programme”, and he gives him a friendly tap on the head. Mistake or no mistake, it’s a programme they are clearly very proud of, and as Steve puts it, they consider it more of a “fanzine”, a light hearted and humorous window into the club and its fans, one where they are more than happy to “take the mickey out of themselves”, adding that they try to be a bit different from the “po faced” ones so many clubs create.
Before Steve takes us off for a tour, David kindly invites us to the boardroom at half time, where we can sample the soup and crusty roll, which he describes as “magic”.
First stop of the tour, the corridor connecting the two changing rooms with the tunnel, heavy with the smell of Deep Heat, the walls covered in club memories, as well as the ‘House Rules’, the last point being ‘say hello/goodbye’. We are introduced to the manager, tall, slight, with floppy hair, who has a handshake that could bend steel, I have to make sure I don't wince, as he momentarily turns my hand purple with his python grip. His assistant, shorter, with salt and pepper hair, and an accent from north of the Watford gap, has an equally Marvel superhero esq handshake, that I’m sure could stop a speeding bullet. I might need a moment with the physio.
From the home changing room, a loud roar goes up, stopping us all for a moment, as the music, which was well above 11, suddenly stops. Someone forget the charger? A power cut, or is someone meddling with the playlist? Whatever the issue may be, normality is quickly resumed, when it returns.
Down a slight slope, the pitch beyond perfectly framed by the end of the white plastic tunnel, we go from the relative gloom of inside, into the brightness of the day, and for the first time get a look at Imperial Fields from the inside, and there is much to be impressed by.
Formally “Chelsea and Crystal Palace’s training ground” Steve informs us, it is very smart. Much smarter than most teams at this level, Steve agrees, and suggests it’s easily good enough for a team at “National League level”.
Behind us, the main stand, TMFC spelt out in white seats, against the rest which are black, many of which are already occupied by people digging into their chips, Tom might be in luck, The Shak, might be open after all. To our left and right two identical large banks of terracing, both partially covered, both nameless. Steve tells us, that whatever end TM are attacking, its known as the “bog end”. Opposite is a long grey fence, with bare trees, a field and houses visible in the distance.
Steve has been a font of knowledge and an outstanding guide, but we feel we are keeping him from a warm drink, so tell him we can explore from here, and bid him farewell, until kick off at least. As he disappears back up the tunnel, the tannoy comes to life, blurting out what Tom always calls “Dad music”, and which I can only ever describe as the kind you get on CD’s advertised on TV around Father's Day or in a cardboard sleeve, free in the Sunday paper.
At the same time as TM, their opposition for the day Whyteleafe FC (WFC), are called in by their respective coaches, “in we come Whyteleafe”, shouts someone in a WFC tracksuit. “Yes please gents” says TM‘s manager, or ‘Bone Crusher’ as I have affectionately nicknamed him, although not to his face, I’m not mental. As both sets of players oblige, following their instructions, the groundsman starts the thankless task of prodding down the divots, created in the warm up, with his mighty trident.
The smell of Deep Heat is still prevalent, but it’s a lot quieter outside the changing rooms now, than it had been before. ‘Bone Crusher’ and his tag team partner, ‘Iron Fist’, pass me not long after calling the players in, they have done their talking, and have left the players to it, who quickly turn the music back on. When one of the referee's assistants appears, clearly finding the music choice agreeable, he’s carried along by it, approaches the TM dressing room with a swagger, knocking on the door, and wishing the person who answers a “Happy New Year”.
With the ends decided, WFC’s four flags are up sharpish, the largest of them, simply says “LEAFE” in green, but from the other end of the pitch it looks like it’s flanked by two Umpalumpas. TM‘s fans are a little slower to climb and fill the concrete steps, which Tom and I have scaled to the top of, allowing us a great view, but their flags, of all sorts of designs, a Jolly Roger and a black and white St George’s Cross, are soon up, and they are quickly singing, “come on Tooting, come on Tooting”.
One TM fan, who seems so far at least to be the origin of most songs, the Capo, if you will, with his jacket done up tight with a black and white scarf poking out, is not impressed by the numbers that make up the traveling contingent, “a flag for every supporter”, he says in an unmistakable, gravelly, South London drawl.
To be fair to those that have traveled from East Surrey, although there is not many of them, huddled together on the middle of the terrace, they do make a good noise when they sing, and their Willy Wonka themed banner has me intrigued.
“Time check please” I ask Tom, “ten past three” he tells me. It’s taken him a full ten minutes to tell me “he's hungry”. He is going to have to wait until half time, maybe we can go and get our hands on some of that soup.
The chanting from the home end is non stop, WFC are singing, but it’s hard to make them out, over the din around us. “Tooting” shouts the Capo, the rest responding, “Mitcham”. They also make sure to let anyone who's listening know, that they know what they are, and that's the “Champions of London” referencing their win over Hendon in last years London Senior Cup Final. When we can hear the away end, their repetitive shouts of “Leafe”, sound a lot like ‘Leeds’ which isn't lost on those around us.
“Lovely shirt keeper” shouts one fan to WFC’s pink clad man in goal, but I sense he may not be being genuine, perhaps even a bit sarcastic, so I refrain from striking up a conversation with him, about how I really do love a pink jersey, how it takes me back to my youth, and watching Italian football on a Sunday with my Dad, because he might look at me like I’m a tit.
WFC’s leafy home, Church Road, where we have in fact been, two seasons ago now, is very pleasant, just skirting the M25. This therefore to London centric types here, might as well be Somerset, because in between their own chants, “come on you stripes”, the home supporters are shouting at the opposition fans in West Country accents about “tractors” and things being “bad for the harvest”, although I’m not sure what things. They also suggest that they, know what they are, that being, “extras from Poldark”. Now I’m no expert on the BBC period drama, but isn't it basically Sunday evening softcore porn? Sounds like the perfect program to be involved in, to me.
As far as the game is concerned it’s been a bit of a non event so far. Steve suggested that WFC would
be a “tough nut to crack”, but I wouldn't say it’s any masterful display of the defensive arts from the visitors preventing a goal, in fact TM have the first meaningful chance, but the attempted finish sums up the home attack so far, a little lack luster, low in quality, the shot is easy for the keeper to palm up into the air, and then catch.
The lack of action, means a fierce debate has broken out on the terrace, “how good is the SPL?”. The most staunch advocate for it being a bit shit, is a young man in a brown jacket, who I think is a Fulham fan, who is forthright with his opinions. “It’s a stepping stone”, he says, talking to who I assume is a Celtic fan, about Dembele, and his continued meteoric rise, he suggests the Hoop’s fan is “deluded” if he thinks they will hold on to him for the next “6 years”.
When not talking about the state of football north of the border or farming equipment, the referee and his assistants are the main focal point. “Get the custard out your eyes” bellows one fan in front of us towards the assistant, Tom agrees, suggesting he is a little “flag happy”. Such is the amount of time the said flag is being raised and dropped, the same fan who made the custard clearing comment, suggests said lino, should get a “bell" for it, so he can use it "for his morris dancing”, signing off this particular tirade, mumbling, “one eyed git” into his scarf.
“Lovely little move” says one person, after TM go ahead, a little out of the blue, with thirty minutes of the first half gone. A tidy finish, is followed by the scorer, arms outstretched, running to the corner flag, looking up at the crowd behind the goal celebrating, “come on Tooting, come on Tooting”.
With the half slowly coming to an end, the sun dipping over the nearby houses and not much happening on the field, the two stewards next to us, having very little to actually steward, one of whom has written ‘steward’ on the back of his high viz coat with a black marker pen, conversation once again takes a Caledonian turn, but this time it’s about the New Years honours, and one Sir Andy Murray.
The previous SPL chat, had thankfully been devoid of any attempts at Scottish accents, but for some reason the ever so slightly squeezy, Bricktop from Snatch looking fella in front of us, offers up his own contender, late in the day I know, but it’s worth considering, for the single worst attempt at one ever made, I mean it makes Mel Gibson's in Braveheart, sound like he grew up in a Glasgow tenement his whole life.
All out of current affairs to discuss, the attention again falls on the officials, “you’re a waste of skin” shouts one person, “open your eyes you one eyed wanker” shouts another.
WFC finish the half, with their first meaningful chance, but put it wide. There is a collective, “ahhhh”, from the TM fans, but not for too long, because there is a player to remind of his miss, “how wide you want the goal?”.
On my way to meet Tom at our rendezvous, he went wandering as he does for the latter part of the first half, I pass Steve packing up the flags, whose opinion on the game is still a cautious one, “could still go either way”.
Have I been stood up? Where is he? I call him, and it takes a moment for him to answer, when he finally does he tells he’s in the queue at The Shak, thinking with his stomach, rather than sticking to the plan, I’m not hugely surprised, he then utters a sentence which is a first for me, “I’m getting the Bovril in”.
Still in the same position, just now at the other end of the pitch, and just after Tom confirmed the figure on the WFC banner is not an Umpalumpa, but in fact what looks like Beethoven drinking a pint, not sure of the relevance of the great composer to a non league football club, but it’s cool nonetheless, he hands me what he describes as “gravy in a cup” or “hot marmite”, and is amazed at the fact, that it’s the first time I’ve ever had this 60’s throwback of a beverage, “I can’t believe you've never had Bovril before”, alright mate, get over it.
Tentatively sipping from my white styrofoam cup, at the steaming murky liquid inside, Tom extracts a pattie from a paper bag, takes a big bite, and tells me it's, “nice”, but in the same breath suggests, he doesn't really want to think about what’s in it. He explains how he ended up with the West Indian snack, after first ordering a “sausage roll”. When he got the reply from the server, “a square sausage roll?”, thinking it was a mistake, and he had misheard, he reiterated, he wanted a “sausage roll”, but he was the one mistaken, the person serving him did say “square sausage roll”. From the expression on his face alone, a little baffled to say the least, the server went onto explain, that The Shak sells a square sausage, in a roll. Not familiar with such delicacies, and not feeling adventurous, he opted for the pattie.
“Should've just got a cup of tea” Toms says out loud to himself, buts it’s clearly aimed at me. Bovril has been one of those things I’ve never done at football, that I’ve always wanted to do, like holding a flare or spinning a wooden rattle, so I can at least tick it the list off now, but Tom wishes we had stuck to the norm, “you and your stupid ideas” he says in a bit of a Laurel and Hardy moment, and continues to grumble on about why we didn’t go and get some soup.
Steve rehangs the flags and not long after, early in the second half TM really should have doubled their lead, a free header from a corner is missed, the player motionless, head in hands, as the rest of his team run back up the field.
Once again the on field action can’t hold the attention of the fans for long, the WFC support seem equally subdued, and are very quiet, prompting the suggestion from one nearby fan that they only “sing where they’re ploughing”.
A Chelsea fan among the ranks on the terrace becomes the figure of playful ribbing, although I’m not sure he sees it that way, he looks ready to pop. The Premier League leaders are struggling against lowly Stoke, and the constant updates of the score are frankly starting to piss him off, kids are scurrying up to him, telling him they have gone behind, then scampering off. When someone suggests the team he supports, are just a “small club in Fulham”, he bites, marches up to those giving him stick, and gives them both barrels, his delivery a little bit panto with a touch of stroppy teenager, “Chelsea will still be top, so I don’t care”.
Worst thing he could have done, there is a brief moment of silence, then as one, a chorus of Vic and Bob “ohhhhhhhhhhh” rings out, just needing someone to pretend to lift their handbag to their chest, and it would have been totally authentic. When Chelsea eventually turn things around, he is quick to let everyone know, “2-1 to Chelsea, so up yours”, which again gets a “ohhhhhhhhh” and what I imagine is a rhetorical chant from one person, “have you been to Stamford Bridge?”.
WFC go about as close as they have all match, with twenty minutes of the game left, a fierce shot, that requires a smart save and a tip over from the man in goal. TM miss a near open goal, five minutes later, in defence of the attacker the combination of the bouncing ball, and the tight angle, means he perhaps can be forgiven.
An explanation for the lack of prowess in front of goal, comes from the custodian of all things football photography, and the owner of the excellent Chicken Balti Chronicles. Stephen, a local , informs me of the recent sale of the clubs top striker to Greenwich, which he says has had some part to play in TM ‘s recent slump.
Bovril 2 - 0 Blogger, as I admit defeat, Tom has already craftily secreted his cup down on the floor, further along the terrace from us, I have got closer to the bottom of my cup than him, the part of the drink Tom says his Dad always said was the “best bit”, the kind of “sludge” as Tom put it, being the pièce de résistance of the experience, but the fact it’s repeating on me already, means it’s won, horrible stuff.
Football fans can a lot of the time be accused of being crass and vulgar, and there is some truth in that, but they can also be poetic, intelligent and imaginative. No more so than the nickname of one Danny Basset, who on his marauding runs down the wing for TM, is encouraged loudly by the home fans, “come on allsorts”.
With seventy five minutes of the game gone, TM finally do the decent thing, score again, and in doing so put WFC out of their misery. This prompts one fan to get the, “trumpet out”, raising a traffic cone to his lips, and starting a song.
“Don’t let them back in!” screams a home fan on the side line, not far from the dugouts, after the final minutes of the five that have been added on, that no one can explain where they came from, WFC, with a huge chunk of help from TM, score. “They don’t deserve anything”, shouts the same fan, ‘Bone Crusher’ in his long black sleeping bag, Arsene Wenger special, wants more “energy” from his players in the dying moments, which he yells, with a heavy tone of frustration in his voice, from the edge of his area.
On the final whistle the referee's eyes are firmly fixed on the floor in front of him, with the ball under his arm, he briskly heads back to the protection the four walls of his changing room offers. He receives some of the standard reviews, I’m sure the kind of which one can expect in his position, “rubbish” and the fact one fan thinks he “stole the show”, but I’m not sure anyone has ever called him a “big bird heron”, which is what I’m sure I hear one man sneer in his direction.
Replies on a postcard please to BeautifulGame Towers, if you have ever heard such an insult, or any other bird related abuse, like you ‘twatty owl’ or ‘fat crow bastard’.
“I can’t feel my fingers” moans Tom, and all I can think is he should have finished his Bovril, that would have sorted him out. I can tell you one thing worth moaning about though, and that’s the fact that TM have a another game in “48 hours”. One coach we overhear, is less than impressed by the players slinking off, and not doing their post match necessities, “got to warm down better than that” he says to the players.
A quick visit to the boardroom, high at the back of the main stand is a quick one, a chance to thank those who have been such a fantastic help today, and not to tuck into the fish fingers on offer, I do however take advantage of the glass of lemonade I'm handed, anything to get this beefy, bottom of the Sunday lunch baking tray taste, out of my mouth.
Although the fans, and therefore the club by association, might be seen from the outside at least, as the tough talking, 'Sarf Londers', 'The Terrors', which I'm sure there is no denying some people probably quite like, simply scratch the black and white surface, just a millimeter, and you will find a club, and a set of supporters, who Steve rightly described as "terrific", whose welcome and warmth, will go down as the stuff of legend, in our annuls of non league football at least.