Monday, 9 January 2017

Come On Allsorts - Tooting & Mitcham United FC Vs Whyteleafe FC, Ryman League South, Imperial Fields (31/12/16)

A dense mist hangs over my road as I leave the house, on the last Saturday of the month, in fact the last Saturday of the year, on the very last day of 2016. Although it obscures my view of the end of the road, hampering my ability to spot the arrival of my bus, it is in no way of the Arthur Conan Doyle proportions that have shrouded most of London in the past weeks, not so much a White Christmas, but a foggy one.

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.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE




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Monday, 5 December 2016

We are from England - Os Belenenses Vs FC Porto, Primeira Liga, Estádio do Restelo (26/11/16)

Having not opted for Clapton or Dulwich Hamlet as the destination for an old school friends Stag Do, even though I hear they are quite the up and coming venues, move over Prague and Talin, instead the best man chose Lisbon. That is why Tom and I, plus a handful of old friends, who have more dirt on me then I care to remember, are sitting in the Stansted Airport Wetherspoons, drinking long before the sun is over the yardarm, and I'm regretting I chose Guinness for my first drink of the day.

The Stag is already on drink three or four by the time I arrive, and as I tuck into a bacon sandwich, my attempt at preparation for the day ahead, he is slamming some clear nondescript alcohol, shuddering as he swallows it, giving the guy who got it for him a look of, ‘cheers mate’ and ‘go fuck yourself’ at the same time.

We are not alone, the strangely decorated, brick laden pub is full of other groups of men jetting off to affordable European cities, to drink too much, shout too much, and bring more shame upon our already much shamed land of ours. Each stag is distinguishable from the rest of the group, mine has been instructed to wear a suit all weekend, and someone has bought him a Donald Trump wig, another in the Spoons has a full Arsenal kit on, with “Number 1 Spurs Fan” written on the back. There are also a couple of serious looking bikers, both with their top and bottom rockers, who are clearly not playing dress up.

As one friend finishes his Kir Royale and orders a glass of Laphroaig, another friend is presented with a vegetarian fry up, to go along with his bottle of craft beer, and I realise there are 24 hours and some to pass, with God only knows what having been arranged in between, before we get to watch some football.

When Éder scored his extra time winner against France, at the Stade de France, he all but confirmed the next country we would visit, after stating pre Euro’s that the country that won, would be the next one we go to. Not knowing much about Portuguese football, other than Eusébio, Figo and Cristiano, and occasionally catching a glimpse of one of their teams competing in one European competition or another, when he did score, I’ll be honest we were left a little stumped. I think that both of us were desperate for Italy to win. The football, the food, the history, but Zaza put a stop to that!

Tom wanted to renege on our social media promise, I on the other hand was keen to stick to it. Thankfully a few weeks post french heartbreak, a Facebook invitation to a November stag weekend in Lisbon, answered our prayers.

Think of Lisbon and football, and most will name Benfica and Sporting, few may even have heard of the cities third top flight club, who once were winning titles, but in recent memory have fallen way down the pecking order, no better highlighted by the Benfica and Sporting scarves hanging side by side in the airport Metro station gift shop, with no mention of their city mates, Os Belenenses (OSB).

Before the football though, many things will happen, and before we even get to the match, I curse Éder’s goal a thousand times, it’s his fault I was subjected to watching someone be sick on the floor of a restaurant.

24 hours later, 24 hours under our belts in the city of ‘Seven Hills’, which has had its ups and downs, nice beer, good food, but neither of us can work out why our bathroom has a blind that opens into the bedroom, like some perverse holiday fish bowl. He wake from our siesta, required after a day of activities, still feeling awful thanks to the night before, still half asleep, standing at the taxi rank outside of our hotel, in the dark, waiting for our lift to the match.

At an average speed of 110 km/h we weave through cars, our driver indicating at the very last moment, before changing lanes, I’m clutching onto the headrest in front of me, Tom is staring out the window, the spacing of the motorways lights illuminating his face for a second, then plunging it into darkness, all while Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ softly plays on the radio, and I’m descending into a dystopian nightmare.

“Think we have arrived in Highgate” says Tom, breaking the silence and interrupting Thom Yorke. I don’t think his dehydration has brought on hallucinations, but instead he is commenting on the  similarity of the upmarket, gated houses we are now passing, to those of the north London suburb, thankfully now at under 100 km/h.

The floodlights of the Estádio do Restelo were visible from the motorway, but as we get closer, bizarrely they seem to be getting further away, further up a steep hill, like a football citadel, overlooking the city below. Our driver, probably keen to get rid of the grey, silent Englishmen in the back of his car, drops us off in a car park in the stadiums shadow, pointing to a kiosk, after asking the parking attendant where we can get a ticket.

“Members only” is the response from the man, through a tiny caged window, who directs us up the hill, past a petrol station, to where we can get our tickets. On our way, the steep climb only adding to quite how bad I feel, we pass the kind of merchandise stall, familiar to every football fan, the ones selling polyester scarves, flags, pins, and even a t-shirt with WWE wrestler Batista on, but where you expect them to be OSB, the majority, the vast majority of the tut for sale is that of their opposition tonight, FC Porto (FCP).

A few busy vans line one side of the road, selling beer, food and the pastry that this particular district of Lisbon is famous for the, pastéis de nata. So synonymous with this area, that OSB are known as the ‘Pastéis’, Pastries. The aforementioned pastry which was so high up my list of things to try while I was here, has become the last thing I want to eat, I’m not really in the mood for custard right now.

Along with the vans, the local petrol station seems a popular haunt for a drink, nothing like the heady smell of gasoline with your pint, and as Tom puts it, “gotta love a petrol station beer”.

Finally reaching the summit, another caged man peers from beyond some bars, takes 30 Euros from us both, and the tickets are secured. Tom now thinks it's time to test ourselves, it's time to get a drink, and see how we react.

Amongst the abundance of FCP fans, we do spot one OSB supporter, swaying much like the flag he is carrying, which he uses like a hiking pole, to ascend the hill, singing his garbled song, Tom rightly pointing out he “looks a little worse for wear”. As the small sips of beer hit my stomach, I’m instantly aware of my error, my misery is compounded by the increasing rain, “oh dear” says Tom as the heavens open, and he guides us from under a tree, to the opposite side of the road, to a large red umbrella outside a restaurant attached to the ground.

I need to sit down, I didn't even drink that much last night, and unlike others in our party, have been sticking to the peach ice tea today, but still feel dreadful, Tom thinks there is nothing else for it, it's time for a “posh beer”.

Directed to our table by a mixture of hand gestures and broken English, nearby a coach load of Japanese tourists, enjoying their pre match meal, and a lot of scarf wearing, FCP of course, supporters, also sheltering from the rain. When the waiter, in his crisp white shirt and black trousers, asks Tom what size beer he would like, he replies with his own hand waving, and a single word “big”.

It’s a coke for me, sitting opposite each other, we try desperately get in the zone, trying to pull ourselves together, we are being truly pathetic. Tom is convinced for some reason that his beer is non alcoholic, but soon gives up on that idea, instead returning to, like me, watching the world pass by outside. Coaches arrive and unload their passengers, one from a local water park, whose scene of fun in the sun painted on the outside, is the complete opposite to our current reality.

Tom’s head is turned numerous times by the passing plates of cake, which he contemplates getting every time one does, but doesn't. After scanning the menu, the sandwiches and salads on offer, debunk his notion, I think because of the smartly dressed staff, that this is not a “posh” restaurant after all, but more of a cafe. Confused, and a little dishevelled, he shakes his head, mumbling to himself, “funny place”.

After paying, we join the queue to get into the ground, cowering under our hoods, the air filled with a mixture of rain and the smoke from what I think are stalls roasting chestnuts, behind us opportunist entrepreneurial locals are selling raincoats to the ill prepared. It’s about now that our night takes a nose dive of such biblical proportions, putting us both into a tailspin to a very dark place, that I’m not sure we can recover from, we are denied entry.

“Not allowed” says the steward come bouncer, come Bond baddie henchman, all in black with heavy, military esq boots. Whilst searching Tom’s bag, he finds his camera, and tells us we can’t come in with it, regardless of the amount of times we say we have come all the way from England. He is now looking beyond us, checking the tickets of those behind us, FUCK!

What do we do, gobsmacked and totally bowled over, we run over our options, which end up being nonexistent. We are too far from the hotel, kick off is in about fifteen minutes, so we can't get there and back in time, we come to the conclusion that we can try and blag it with another steward.

We queue again, both fidgeting nervously, like the opening credits of Midnight Express, we reach the front and another one of Blofeld’s employees asks us to open our bags. Tom’s first, and before he even gets to the camera at the bottom of his bag, he finds another item that gets us denied entry for a second time, his mobile battery packs. We plead again, ask if there is somewhere we can leave them, “I don't speak English” says the steward in perfect English, and once again we are turned away.

Through a nearby fence I see a potential lifeline, someone who might be able to help, someone who looks a little more approachable than the previous two, his official looking lanyard a beacon in the dark. João, who in his own words is “Mr Belenenses” is more than happy to take the battery pack, as he can put that in his pocket, and we can meet him later, telling us to ask anyone for him, using his unique title. However, when we show him the camera, he shrugs, understandably he is not a cart horse, and it's just too much for him. Seeing the last bit of colour drain from our faces, he sends us to the bottom of the hill, to see if anyone can help us at the players entrance.

Fiercely guarded, we explain our situation again, doing as I say to Tom “our best Hugh Grant impressions”, hoping they will take pity on these two foreign idiots. Another lanyard wearing, walkie talkie type appears, who is happy thank God to take the bag, which we fill with everything but our wallets and phones, especially Tom's vape cig, or “r2d2 dick” as one friend calls it, that our new best friend almost faints at the sight of, when Tom asks him if he can take it in.

Bagless, cameraless, battery packless, vape cig less, we climb the hill, wet and gasping for air, we try again, with minutes to kick off. Frisked, searched and finally allowed in, the same man who denied us the first time, has a bit of a grin on his face as he steps to one side, letting us pass, he asks me in a deep voice, “you the one with the camera?”.

Scurrying along the bare concourse, past the bank of portaloos, which Tom needs badly, but can't face right now, and stalls reminiscent of ones from a school fair selling bags of popcorn, and the Portuguese equivalent of Panda Pops, we find our block, descend the gloss white stairs, right to the front. Squeezing past a few people already in their bolted down faded blue plastic seats, we find our spot, just out of reach of the ever increasing rain, with moments to spare.

Before the teams arrive from their subterranean dressing rooms, situated at the open end of the horseshoe shaped stadium, there is just about enough time to get my bearings. Single tiered all the way round, there are perhaps more empty seats then there are full ones, with the vast majority of people supporting the away team, whose end, or side of the ground we have somehow ended up in, with only a smattering of home fans occupying the half opposite.

The largest congregation of people is on the curve of the horseshoe to our right, hanging in front of them is a long banner “Super Dragões (Dragons) 1986”, with flags, drums and a loud hailer the FCP ultras are here in very good numbers, and are making quite a racket.

As the puddles on the blue running track surrounding the pitch get bigger, the weather is now truly hideous, I’m sure the less than impressed players emerge, not to some blaring pop song, or piece of music pinched from Star Wars, but a traditional club anthem, which if I could hear them over the Dragons, I’m sure the home fans are dutifully singing along with. The kind of anthem which has a familiar, ye olde, European lilt, the like of which you hear at so many clubs when you watch European football on the TV, no doubt including some lines about vanquishing those who challenge them.

FCP in yellow, approach their supporters and applaud them, and could be forgiven for thinking it's a home game. If Tom and I weren’t on edge enough as it is, slowly starting to relax, but still a bit tense after everything outside, the flash bang that goes off in front of the ultras, makes us both jump, like shell shock victims. Tom then just about sums up this evening, before it's even got going, in one sentence, “you can't bring in a camera, but you can bring in a flash bang”.

Whenever we are in the presence of ultras, be that at home or abroad, and although I know it's rude to stare, it is inevitable that the football takes a back seat, and Tom and I spend the game gawping, heads turned to one side, engrossed by the constant movement and noise they are making. OSB have their own ultras section, all on their feet and relative to the amount of their fans in total, who are mostly huddled at the back of the stand to avoid the rain, it's a reasonable sized group, and although we can see them moving, with a couple of big flags swaying at the front, there is little chance of ever hearing them.

Having shelled out for the 30 Euro tickets, instead of the 25 Euro ones, it's soon apparent I think what the extra five gets you. In front of us the wall is topped by hood wearing people, drenched and cold, the roof unable to protect them, I bet they wish they had stumped up the extra cash.

The first chance of the match goes to the home side, which gets a “ohhhhh”. OSB are very much the underdogs, compared to their powerhouse visitors, perhaps it’s the chance, but someone has got very excited, chucking another flash bang, which once again makes us both jump, and forces Tom to make a dash for the portaloo.

“Smelt of peaches” says Tom as he returns, each hand grasping a beer, clearly up for testing ourselves again, as well as singing the praises of the toilet facilities, “not bad for a portaloo” he informs me. Clearly in a much better mood now, like me the fuzz of the previous night and the pre match trauma is starting to clear, and the beer slips down very well, with no adverse reaction.

Twenty two minutes in, and all FCP have to do is pass square across the box for a simple tap in to take the lead, but someone fluffs it, much to the displeasure of many around us, who are quick to their feet, using some unsavoury language, “puta”. This glaring miss, for the first time brings a lull to the Dragons, and much delight to the now pogoing OSB fans who we can now hear for the first time.

The sight of a big man with a notebook, seems to make people very inquisitive, and I’m quite used to getting a tap on the shoulder, and being asked what I’m doing. Tonight is no different, as my immediate neighbour, smart and well dressed with an air of the AVB about him, who he tells me he is a big fan of, does, close to the end of the half. I was asked in Germany if I was writing a cookbook, a well crafted fat joke I was happy to accept, but this time I’m asked if I'm a “football scout” or if I’m working for “football manager”, alas, if only this were true, but it's a good ice breaker, and we get nattering, the game is pretty dire, so we won’t miss much.

Considering the Spurs and Porto connection, it doesn't take long for the conversation to take a Villas Boas course, the ex manager that many FCP fans would like back at the club, however after recently telling the world he wanted some time away from football, then two months later taking a job in the Chinese Super League, he is perhaps not in their good books, and as my neighbour points out, “money talks loud”.

Along with his silver haired, chain smoking father in law, who when informed of the name of our blog, asked if there are any “women involved”, despite both being from Lisbon, both follow FCP. He tells me what a famous club OSB used to be, but it's only the “old” who remember now, so many people he tells me choosing to support one of the big three, Sporting, Benfica or Porto, and how “sad” it is that a once big team, league champions once upon a time, are getting such low attendances.

The end of the first half, a half of very average football, turns into a bit of a pantomime. A “dirty game” is how Tom describes it, with both sides taking turns in one upping each others theatrics following tackles, at one point the referee is surrounded by both teams, with much gesticulating, but nothing comes of it.

It takes quite the effort to drag the sodden advertising back onto the pitch for the half time break, my suggestion of a beer run to Tom is maybe ill timed, “there's one dude selling them from a table” he tells me, so he might be somewhat over run. We stay in our seats, which gives us a good view of both the flashes of lightning in the distance, framed by the open end of the ground, and the Dragons fighting among themselves, those not up for a punch up dashing to the back of their section, leaping over chairs, those very much up for it, getting into each other, “if they are fighting each other, they would of killed us” says Tom.

A man bounding over seats selling popcorn, springs by us about the same time the players appear, all while the stadium announcer tries to whip up the crowd, “Belém” he says, “PORTO” reply the away fans, he repeats himself, “Belém”, but again the away fans are much louder “PORTO”.

The rain is now at its heaviest, and the pitch is showing the effects of it, big brown scars appearing all over it. When an FCP chance is cleared off the line, the first genuine thing of note to have happened all match, the fans continue to grow increasingly frustrated at their team's inability to score, and out right sloppy play. Even though I have no idea what they are saying, the international language of eye rolling, tutting, turning away in disgust, is loud and clear.

Deh, deh, deh, deh “Porto”, bangs the drum, as the match turns into a bit of a dirge, and Tom and I find ourselves people watching, in particular, the salt and pepper haired man, with the FCP scarf standing just below us. “He's not watching the game at all”, says Tom, taking the words right out of my mouth, he is far too busy giving a running commentary to those around him, who more often than not just nod along with what he is saying, only occasionally replying. Every time there is an errant pass or they lose the ball, he is jabbing his finger in the direction of the player at fault, then turning around again to unload on his friends.

Into the last quarter of the game, OSB manage to break free of their half, down the right wing the player wriggles free of his marker, runs down the byline, he is in on goal. He shoots from a tight angle, the keeper going full starfish, but his shot hits the side netting. The chance is one of the few times we hear the hardy OSB supporters, who are now sopping wet, but are steadfast front and centre.

It’s an OSB substitute, who is taking the piss, leaving the pitch at a snail's pace, that gets our neighbours father in law to his feet, for the first time, shouting at the exiting player, which is joined by shrieking whistles and catcalls from the other fans. He is walking so slowly, both the referee and FCP players walk along beside him, telling him I’m sure to hurry up, OSB are close to getting a much needed point, so every opportunity to steal some time, is taken.

FCP miss another chance, and it’s maybe one of the reasons, that, as I’m informed by him next door, they have not won anything for “3 years”. He asks me other than “Casillas” do I know any of the players. Once I probably could have given it a good go at naming a big chunk of the team, Hulk, Deco, Falcao, but now, I’m not sure I could tell you any. There is the big lumbering 22 or “the tree” as Tom and I call him, who is dead on his feet and is simply banging into people in midfield, or the slightly Sunday League looking right back number 2, who they keep passing the ball to on the overlap, but I think I could run faster, but no one I have seen today, who is going to be a household name anytime soon.

The wafting smoke from down the row, has broken Tom, and he bums a fag off the father in law, and tells me “he's always wanted to smoke at a football match” we all have our goals in life. I wonder though as he drags on the Marlborough Red, the absinthe of the cigarette world, slowly turning a shade of green, that this goal might have been better left to another day.

FCP have the last chance, it’s not a great shock when it doesn't go in, and those around have hit breaking point. Bent over, backs turned, eyes to the heavens, eyes to the floor, puffed out cheeks, swearing or silent, they know their team have dropped a bit of a clanger tonight, against a relative minnow, who have not won in something like five games. Casillas shows his own frustrations when two balls end up on the pitch, which are only helping OSB wind down the clock. He runs over scooping up one, and hoofing the other clear out the ground, which gets a chorus of ironic cheers.

The “Boos” from the away end are in stark contrast to rapturous cheers from the opposite side, the home fans clearly overjoyed with their point. Another flash bang from the Dragons has the same result on us as before, the OSB fans deploy their own bit of a pyro, not as obnoxious as the visitors offering, a blinking white light, like something from a Christmas Tree, except its emitting plumes of grey smoke.

Game over, we bid a fond farewell to our neighbours, but not before he takes a very unflattering picture of us both, retrieving Toms bag is now of the utmost importance. In fact I think it’s been playing on his mind most of the game, so we rush back down the hill, but not before Tom is very nearly run over by a old man making his way into the petrol station. I could see the whites of the driver's eyes, who didn't even flinch, at the sight of me pounding his bonnet, alerting him of our presence, and stopping him from mowing us down, could today get any worse?

Outside the players entrance our bag saviour is still milling about, still glued to his walkie talkie, cajoling the press, a camera crew, as well as a high concentration of screaming, high pitched girls, on the hunt for an autograph, as well as a small group of teen boys, who are taking overly posed pics with the players as they exit, who are happy to oblige when asked, but who are also not wanting to get wet.

Everything is wet, the cameraman's cables are running through a large puddle, it’s a health and safety nightmare, and the girls are less than impressed when a hoard of stewards arrive, creating a perimeter and forcing them to stand in an ankle deep puddle

What look like club officials, perhaps old players or members of the board, are escorted out, by burly minders, who hold an umbrella with one hand, swatting away any unwelcome attention, with the other. Numerous players appear, are quickly swamped, then disappear into one of the flashy cars in the car park, or if they are FCP onto the big club coach. Considering we only know one player, why not stick around a little while, see if we can grab a second of his time, and Tom has a plan on how to achieve this.

The mistake everyone else is making, according to Tom, is crowding the front, getting in the mix, which is being broken up by Lisbon’s finest high viz wearers, we play it cool, hanging at the back, the aim to intercept him, just before he gets on the coach.

There are a few false alarms, we try to decide if the selfie mode on my camera is best or the normal one, I have a bad track record with taking pics in high pressure situations, and feel there is a lot riding on this. Suddenly the crowd surge, and the girls screech “Casillas”, the target is in sight. He makes his way through them, stopping to pose and sign, thinking he is home free, we pounce on him, he is moving at quite a pace, we only have one shot at this.

“We are from England” I say, to a bemused looking Spaniard, who is a lot shorter than I thought he would be, but he is still moving, my announcement of what country I’m from has not stopped him. When I finally say “picture” making it clear why I would like him to stop, I'm a moron, he does so without hesitation. Nudging Tom to hold up our sticker, brand awareness, the World Cup, European Cup, Champions League winner smiles with us from under his sweatshirt hood.

There is a moment of frantic checking, as I'm not sure if the pic has taken, but it better have, because he is gone, and is now behind the tough looking man in a suit, guarding the bus door.

We check my phone, and it’s there, us two idiots and a World Cup winner, RESULT! We are just the same as the screaming girls and the posing boys, and it feels brilliant.

Still raining, the Gods are finally smiling on us, a taxi arriving the moment we step from the car park, on to the pavement. Such is my high pitched excitement, when recounting our meeting with the three times Champions League winner, the elderly female taxi driver turns around, half scared and shocked, thinking something terrible has happened.

So what did we learn from out trip to Lisbon? Don't trust your friends with the complementary wine, beware the over zealous drivers, never touch the window blind because you'll be in for a shock, and never, I repeat never take a camera bigger than a disposable one, or anything else they might consider, as Tom put it "throwable" because they wont let you in, except of course if its a flash bang, because they're alright.


For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE





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Thursday, 17 November 2016

That's Football - Cockfosters FC Vs Enfield Borough FC, Spartan South Midlands League Challenge Trophy 2nd Round, Chalk Lane (08/11/16)

“Oh North London, is wonderful” I hum to myself as I cherish every moment that is the rare occurrence of being on my patch for once. Normally it's Tom a stop or two from his front door, and me having to make the late and long journey home, tonight I can see the warm glow of my house, just over yonder.

I enter the art deco 7th wonder of the world that is Cockfosters underground station, a temple of concrete and dark wooden benches, in what might come as a surprise to many, a serene mood. Regular readers may or may not be aware, it's not like I mention it much, I’m not a huge fan of the tube. Post getting off normally requires a five or ten minute cool down, a chance to decompress after being in such close proximity to other members of the human race, in a cramped metal pipe, however I have found a way to combat this. The sound of falling rain, a mountain brook or the sea lapping at a sandy beach, are just a few of the options, my new app offers me. Drifting along in a near zen state, it’s the perfect way to block out the big wide world, until I reach my destination.

Once again the lack of a jacket is an issue, I at least brought a shirt to wear underneath my jumper, but it's not going to be sufficient. Tom on the other hand looks like he just got off a transporter ship from Hoth, and looks completely unperturbed, by the plummeting temperature.

Leaf covered pavements, and an illuminated church, punctuate our walk through suburban London. The directions from a passing woman, Google maps was offering little help, gets us to the pitch black, hedge lined entrance to Chalk Lane, home of Cockfosters FC (CFC). We could see the floodlights from the main road, but the way in was not as clear.

A hand painted sign on a red gate “Cockfosters Football Club” along with another high up opposite looks just as DIY, “NEXT MATCH” tells us we have arrived. A third, smaller than the other two, propped up at the foot of the gate reads “CFC visitors avoid parking in the paddocks”.

Weaving through the parked cars, that fill the way in, not too far in the distance shrouded in a long black coat, is Dean, CFC’s manager, who is talking to a fellow coach, both sporting the most wonderful CFC woolly hats.

Our paths have crossed before, at the end of last season, when they played Rayners Lane FC, in the Middlesex Senior Charity Cup Semi-Final, so it's a familiar warm welcome, accompanied with his broad smile. I comment on quite how nice his, ‘Where’s Wally’, apre ski hat is, which he insists, he's only got on to cover up a “dodgy haircut”.

“Been here before?” asks the coach standing with Dean, “no” we reply, “funny old ground” he tells us, Dean chips in, “old school”. Funny we can live with, but old school on the other hand, is one of those phrases that can be used, like vintage or retro, a flashy way to mask something, that is perhaps a bit tatty, old and shit, like when an estate agent tells you a flat is “cosy”, which actually means, your sink is also your toilet, and your bed is your dining table.

Intrigued, and in no way put off, we pass between the the small wooden shed, and the table with a sign propped up with the ticket prices on top, and through an opening with “Cockfosters FC welcome you to the Lindel Stand” written above, with the inviting green glow of the pitch just beyond.

The gap from the entrance to the pitch, is about the width of a smart car, and beyond the railings the white line is easily within touching distance. As you walk in, you are straight away under the cover of a semi opaque white plastic roof, which turns the light of the flood lights into what Tom best describes, as like being in a “greenhouse”. We take a seat on the first of two rows of white fold down chairs, a chance to take in where we are for a moment, and maybe its an omen, fate or just coincidence, Toms sits in the seat displaying his lucky number “3”.

“Not sure we’ve ever had a main road running along one side” says Tom, pointing out the not hard to miss A111, opposite us, only slightly shielded by bushes and trees. Other than the ‘Lindel Stand’, there isn't much else. Two small dugouts on the main road side are separated by a small covered area, and behind one goal, a small corrugated roofed lean to sits under a large oak tree, which is moodily lit by the floodlights, looking quite magnificent.

Always it would seem the first to arrive, this time someone has beaten us to it, and with few other people to talk to, comes over and says hello. As it happens, we follow each other on Instagram, and that strange real world, social media crossover happens. He introduces himself as “Ugly Away Days”, which Tom very sharply, while still shaking his hand, suggests “Cold Away Days” would be a more appropriate name, considering the conditions.

Once we have all recovered from Tom’s quip, Chris, as his friends and family know him, hits the nail on the head when he says “nice set up for this level”, and having had a chance to survey Chalk Lane, we could not agree more. Minimalist perhaps, the noise of the nearby main road, a mere detail, but it's clean, tidy and green, which makes a change from the the norm of concrete and steel and it's in better nick than some grounds we have been to, further up the pyramid.

Only half the flood lights are shining on the cones and poles set out on the pitch ready for the players to warm up, Dean tells us the “other half, will be on in half an hour”, no point wasting any moola. Before anyone can make their way from the changing rooms along the “narrow tunnel” as Tom puts it, which I think might be a bit of an understatement, I might have to go down it sideways, a steward has to clear out the thick mound of fallen leaves from the numerous nearby trees.

The clubhouse, has the whiff of fresh paint, and takes its cue from the rest of the ground, there are some chairs and large round function tables and a TV on the wall, but little else. There is a bit more going on in the small picture lined board room, that leads off the main room behind some double doors, one wall dominated by the clubs dark wooden honours board. One home player reclines on a sofa eating his pre match meal, a pasta pot from a supermarket, and as I find a seat, Tom grabs us a cup of tea from the hatch at one end of the room.

Such is the proximity of everything, the music from the nearby changing rooms is rattling the fixtures. It is a bit of a relief when it's turned off, the pasta eater and a few other stragglers are summoned through the door in the corner, for what I imagine are some wise words from Dean and his staff before the warm up.

As quick as it’s off, the music is back on again, and it sounds a little bit like an air raid siren, its return means it’s time to finish the last few sips of a very good cup of tea, and venture outside back into the night.

Contemplating tonight's fixture, it dawns on me it’s a local derby of sorts, although not one that's been played before. CFC have been going since 1921, their ground donated by a local lady who insisted that “sport must always be played here”, and they cannot “redevelop” I’m told by one CFC coach, who I reckon might like a bit of Time Team on a Sunday evening. Their opponents, Enfield Borough FC (EB) are the new kid on the block, having only been formed this season, so it might be a while until this fixture reaches Old Firm proportions.

That blasted snood is back out again, and Tom can see me glaring at it, hoping he isn't going to put it on. He snaps, asking me if I “want him to get ill?”.

There is a full complement of flood lights on now, and both sets of players have taken to the field, along with one extra player, a new signing perhaps, a small white dog, who is very keen to join in, and has no obvious owner. One CFC coach suggests the dog is in fact here to watch, “your only here for the fosters”. The CFC goalkeeping coach runs through a few drills, in the shadow of the marvelous oak tree, firing off some shots, and complementing the player on one save, “that was solid, cement!”

Dean is keenly studying his phone, waiting to see what the EB line up is. He explains that they are effectively Ryman Premier League outfit Enfield Town's, reserve side, so he wants to see if any of the Enfield Town first teams players are starting, but won't be sure “until I get to see the team sheet” he tells me. I ask how he feels about potentially putting his players up against players from a few steps up, ultimately is it fair? He is pragmatic “it is what it is” he says, it also depends on what day of the week you play them, “Saturday you can be fortunate”, the first team players more likely to be playing for Town, but midweek “you just don't know”.

If I thought the passage to the pitch was tight, the area outside the the changing rooms is of Hobbit proportions, and are clearly not intended for lumps like me. I do my best to keep out the way, as officials, and players get ready. EB’s door is firmly closed, CFC’s is wide open, with the music blaring, Dean tells me “they have done all the talking” so he lets the music play. The room quickly becomes a free-for-all of changing players, all revolving around the physio doing treatment, on her table, in the middle of the room.

“Come on first teamers” shouts the grey haired linesman, waiting to check their boots, on their way out they pass a framed picture of Bobby Moore, a list of club fines, "missed pen 50p", "own goal £1", an instructional poster about the correct way to wear your socks, “Don’t make a SOCK UP”, a small motivational sign next to the mirror, "Good Luck to the REDS", and a white board with the line up on, that has a message in the bottom right hand corner, “win and we are in the quarter-finals”.

Once free of the passage leading to the pitch, such are the dimensions of the ground, the teams are unable to line up shoulder to shoulder, but instead stand in two queues opposite each other, like people waiting for the next cashier at the bank.

With just about enough room for a player from each side to squeeze through the gate and onto the pitch, the players file on, perform all the pre game necessities, with CFC joining in a huddle.

There is almost an early shock for CFC, when the underdog EB, nearly score in the opening moments. A lack of communication between the defender and keeper, results in the ball getting nudged past the man in goal, by the outnumbered attacker, teammates thinking the other had it covered. What looks to be a certain goal, is cleared just in the nick of time with a mighty hoof, high over the trees.

Giving a good clue to what will be an end to end game, CFC very nearly go ahead themselves, the player bursting free of the EB defense, putting him in on goal, but he blazes over from a tight angle, all this before I’ve even made it round to meet Tom on the other side of the pitch.

The low roofed stand, between the benches, quite rightly described by Tom as being like somewhere a “bird watcher” would peek out from, looking for a guillemot or lesser spotted woodpecker, gives you a unique view of the coaches and managers at work. We’re close enough that we can hear what they are saying, but one must not think being almost in the technical area, one is to offer their advice on the benefits of the gegen press or the now very fashionable 3 - 5 - 2.

“That's in the road” says Tom after a clearance sails over us and he is convinced he hears it hit a car. When another player unceremoniously wallops the ball, Tom adds it to his personal tally of road bound footballs, “that’s another one”.

What I first think is a penalty, the referee blowing up and pointing to what I think is the spot, is in fact an indirect free kick for a passback, not a sight we are treated to often. As the referee organises nigh on the whole EB starting eleven on the goal line, the box is a mass of red and blue, players jostling for position, the away team forming their very own Maginot Line, the CFC players standing over the ball, working out how to take it, just inside the six yard box.

Dean's got an idea, “Becky smash it” he says to one of the CFC players not in the EB box, Becky perhaps has got a Frank Leboeuf of a shot on him, and his manager tries to get him to go forward, but he does not. Eventually, the players are corralled, the referee gives a blast on his whistle, and the resulting shot in neither blasted nor elegantly curled into the top corner and is high, but not enough to added to Toms tally and does not require the steward, with silver tash and specs to race off and retrieve it. Dean is less than impressed, “fucks sake”

The game continues to keep up its early promise of being end to end, but neither team are able to make anything of their half chances. The CFC number 11, a bit of a speedster, leaves the EB players around him in his wake, but his shot is easily saved, Dean appreciates his endeavour, “good effort”. Maybe it's because of all the running he is being forced to do, or maybe the near side linesman has a cold, but whenever play stops, he is quick to pull a hanky from his sock, and sort himself out.

“Good football” says Dean from the sidelines following a slick move that sees CFC work the ball well up the pitch, which even included what I think was a cheeky no look pass, but again, as with so many attacks from each side, it breaks down when it matters.

With the half coming to an end, Tom's thoughts have moved onto “tea and Kit Kats”, and the match offers its standout moment of the first 45. It’s not hugely dramatic, not a goal, or a horror tackle, but a piece of skill from the CFC number 7, who has a bit of the Andros Townsend about him in looks and technique. Tightly marked, by two players, close to the touch line, he leaves them looking like cartoon baddies, after the hero has scarpered. A quick drop of the shoulder, and a burst of pace, he leaves them wondering where he has gone, Tom commenting, “he done ya”.

“That's a good question” replied the steward when I asked what happens if the game finished a draw. With the teams making their way off for an orange segment, the shivering CFC subs emerge from the dugout, jumpers rolled over hands to keep warm, having a kick about among themselves, doing their best to thaw out

When the teams reappear, Tom is nowhere to be seen, the subs get back on the bench, only partly defrosted I imagine, and it's started to rain. If this wasn't enough, the rain I mean, not the fact Tom is taking an age, tut, tut, but CFC almost conceded again early on. “Please, please, please” say the EB staff, as a ball out wide looks to be going into touch, but is kept in impressively by an EB player flying along the wing, who now has cut inside, and is making his way towards the CFC goal. The EB staff let out a collective arghhhhhhh, as the early opportunity does not result in a goal.

Dean once again, is not impressed, “shit start” he barks, “come on” he demands.

“I’ve got burnt fingers” says Tom, eventually returning from the tea run. “How?” I ask him, “because it's hot and a long way” fair enough. “For dinner” he tells me, I wait with baited breath, “we have one of everything”, from the cavernous pockets of his green jacket, he produces a Twix, Snickers and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, dropping them on the seat next to me.

Sneaking up on me like a ninja, the steward appears to my right, as silent as a Prius, with an answer to my question, “straight to penalties”. Not only do I almost choke on my tea, but he's lucky I was tackling a near frozen solid Snickers or I would have done my best Roger Moore karate chop on him.

It’s been all CFC since the break, their two level difference more apparent than ever, a long range shot is palmed away, and one home coach shuffles the pack a bit, in search of a goal, “go more direct, two up front” he says, and perhaps having seen enough no look passes tonight, he tells the players that they “don't have to be so pretty”.

I think I can be confident, in fact 100% sure, there is no doubt in my mind, when I say that it's completely against the run of play, when EB go ahead. The header, which follows the cross from a corner, is not hit with much force, it bounces on its way in, and still manages to avoid all the CFC players, a last gasp goal line scissor kick attempted clearance is fruitless. “Love that” shouts one of the EB subs, punching the air, who along with the coaches are all on the their feet celebrating.

“Now let’s see what you're made of” says Dean. He doesn't shout though, scream or lose his temper, but talks in that quiet tone your parents do, when you have really fucked up.

EB’s bench are upbeat, as you would expect, but someone is keeping a level head, “if we don't concentrate, they will score”. Moments later they do exactly that, when no-one picks up the CFC runner on a free kick, the slide rule pass from the taker, sends the wide player unchallenged down the side of the box, but his shot hits the side netting.

Ten minutes later, I hear Tom’s two word catchphrase that I’ve not heard in awhile, “game on”. Another corner, another goal, this time for CFC, not the prettiest, a shot through a hoard of people, squirms in. The EB bench are furious, “he’s on his back ref!”, they think one of their players have been impeded, but the man in charge, doesn't think so, the goal stands.

Deans instruction following the equaliser are to the point, “now fucking defend”.

You wouldn’t think the higher ranked team, would need a bit of a helping hand, some good fortune, the rub of the green when playing lesser oppositions, but when an EB player is sent off for a second yellow, it feels like the lifeline CFC need to get them out of what until now, feels like potentially a sticky situation.

The away bench are livid, “any more favours you wanna do them?” one shouts, after the injured player caught in the tackle, that resulted in the booking is allowed back on, for the free kick, even though he received treatment. Someone more in the know than me says that it’s ok, some recent rule change, but I don't have time to ask Howard Webb in his cupboard.

Dean is quick to tell his players to take advantage of the extra player, “down to 10 men, up the tempo”, he emphasizes to the players he needs a performance from them all, to get the win “big 20 minutes”.

This match might well be remembered for it’s many missed chances, and Dean is at the end of his tether, it had to be 2 -1, “put it in the fucking net” he says, the first time he has raised his voice all match, “put your foot through it, instead of fucking about with it”.

A man down, EB need to make some changes, and try to, but the white haired linesman, or as one EB coach calls him “Alf Garnet” is a little fastidious to say the least, insisting the teams use the boards with numbers, to show who's come off and who's going on. It does however seem his insisting on things be done by the book, is coming from a good place, he just wants to make sure they don't get “fined”.

Two things can happen when a team goes down to ten men, they can crumble, capitulate or like EB they can be galvanized by the disadvantage, with the odds now even further stacked against them, it has a rousing effect, they are now fighting even more. They almost pull ahead, another header at the back post, created by a super cross, but its wide. Again the EB bench, the more animated of the two let out an “argghhhhhh”.

It’s all got a bit tense, a hush falls over Chalk Lane, when an injury to a CFC player halts play, there is going to be a fair bit of added on time, which only adds to the potential for drama. EB have a late penalty shout turned down, and Dean tries to hurry his keeper along, “quicker, quicker” he shouts.

EB almost do the unimaginable in the final moments, and the bench at least think they have, celebrating, whooping and hollering, what in fact isn't a goal, the angle playing tricks on them. “Sit down” says Dean, as the overzealous EB staff, slink off the pitch a little sheepish, with a ‘nothing to see here’ look on their faces. However, that’s not it for chances and I imagine it’s hearts in CFC’s mouths when EB go close, not once, but twice.

“That’s your birthday present right there, two yards out” says a baffled EB coach after they miss a bit of a sitter, you can only admire the poetic way he expressed his dismay, could have just as easily said fuck and shit a lot. Maybe a sign that lady luck is not shining on them today, their final attempt, a goal bound shot is blocked by his own teammate.

Penalties it is.

The tension of the final moments of the game is only racked up a few notches, as apparently the referee doesn't have a home to go to, and takes an age taking note of who will be taking a spot kick. Once its eventually decided, the end is chosen, the tree and church off in the distance provide the backdrop for the shoot out.

Both teams line up linked, each arm around the man next to them, on the halfway line, and its EB up first. Both takers score, the only difference being the few CFC supporters trying to put off the EB player, and that the EB keeper got his hands on CFC’s penalty, but he was unable to keep it out.

The second takers for each team dispatch their kicks with little problem, and as of yet no one is showing any nerves, on the outside at least.

It’s the third round of takers where the cracks start to show, EB’s player keeps his head, scoring his, but CFC’s was not so lucky, putting his wide. Shouts of “knew it” come from one Mystic Meg EB player on the halfway line, who foresaw this happening before it did.

Having until now looked like a bunch of cool cucumbers, it’s EB’s turn to wobble, their fourth taker going wide, much to the relief of CFC, who all let out a relieved cheer, which is then bolstered by their taker scoring, drawing it level, 3 - 3.

Some people call it a lottery, some people think it's the cruelest way to decide a match, the American’s even tried to reinvent it, getting players to run from the halfway line, having to beat the clock as well as the keeper, but for the moment it’s all we’ve got, and you can’t deny it offers much melodrama, turning players into Shakespearean, heroes and villains, by the mere kick of a ball.

EB's keeper in yellow, makes himself big, and having got his hands to one before, might just have that knack of reading a player. Diving to his right he gets both hands firmly on the ball, but this time pushing it wide. He gets to his feet, pumping his fist at his teams mates, advantage EB, advantage underdog's, score next and it's quiet the scalp for the new boys.

Pressure and nerves can be a funny thing, affecting people in different ways, some can feed on it, some it overcomes, having nearly had a full blown meltdown myself before my recent driving test, and never before thinking I was someone affected by nerves, it can sometimes come out of nowhere, completely consuming you, like a virus.

Not crying, shaking or calling his girlfriend to help him chill the fuck out, the EB player whose turn it is, looks more than up to the task to take the winning penalty. Some players thrive from the spot, finishing their careers with excellent records from twelve yards, some well, some should just not bother, which will he be? Of course what you are displaying on the outside, can be different to what's going on internally, maybe he would love to be able to call a loved one, for a comforting chat.

He picks up the ball, clears some debris from the spot, takes a moment to arrange himself, adjusting his shin pads and socks, checks his studs are clear, takes about seven steps back, and waits for the whistle. Someone from the sidelines, tells him to “relax, relax”, but he looks all good to me.

The blast of the whistle sends him off on his run up and cool as you like, he side foots it along the ground, no Michael Owen, World Cup ‘98 hit and hope against Argentina here, he practically passed it in, EB have won, it’s EB who are into the quarter-finals. Smiling at his teammates, arms in the air, he runs to the edge of the box, falls to the ground, waiting for the other players, to form a big pile of arms and legs, with him buried at the bottom. EB’s keeper exchanges a hug with his opposite number, before joining the bundle, getting his much deserved plaudits too, after his save.

Dean is sitting alone, looking at his phone again, and we almost don't want to disturb him, I’m sure the last thing he wants to do is to talk to us.

“Frustrated is the word” says the ninja steward as he passes, agreeing with Deans opinion on the match. Frustrated for losing to a lower opposition, but also because he gave a few players the “chance to show (him) what they got, and they didn’t”. It’s clear he is seething, but he masks it well with a smile.

To be fair to him, he gives credit, where credits due, and thinks, like us that, EB got “better with ten men”, but ultimately it’s a “disappointing night”. He wonders if his team took EB lightly, perhaps they were “too laid back” or even there was a bit of “complacency”. Not that me being upset when Spurs get beaten, is comparable to losing a game as a manager, after a week of hard work, I'm not trying to pull a Richard Madeley, thinking being accused of shoplifting, in tantamount to being impeached as the President to the USA, like he did with Clinton, but football has an emotional effect on us all, whatever our involvement.

“Won't talk to her until Thursday” he says, her being his wife, who knows full well, when he’s lost. The club have a team meal arranged in a couple of days, however in his current mood, I think he would rather cancel, and get them doing laps, but he says he might, reconsider once he’s, “calmed down”.

I do my best to lighten the mood, raving again about his woolly hat, which Tom cant understand why I like it so much, “it’s the wrong colours” he says, and yes he is right, it's red and white, not my favorite combination, but it has a cockerel on it, and the mighty cockerel will always prevail.

It’s a cliche, but sometimes they are hard to avoid, football is overflowing with them, ‘sick as a parrot’, ‘good touch for a big man’, and Deans final words are perhaps one of the most well used, it's probably even the name of Nick Hancock's narrated, mid 90’s compilation video of gaffs and own goals, but even though it doesn't really make any sense, when it's said a certain way, perhaps accompanied with an eye roll, or shoulder shrug, it makes perfect sense to those in the know, “that’s football!”.

 

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE




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Thursday, 10 November 2016

Football For All - Whitehawk FC Vs Stourbridge FC, FA Cup 1st Round, Enclosed Ground (05/11/16)

Oh Brighton, I’m not sure there is anywhere else that can make me go quite as gooey, make me quite so nostalgic, when simply hearing it’s name. There is no other place I hold such a fondness for, like I do for the once booming Victorian holiday destination, the place the IRA tried to kill Thatcher and the only place I know of where you can go on an electric railway, when you could probably walk faster, but that's not the point, “next stop Peter Pan's Playground”.

As a child and into my teens Brighton was the go to destination. It’s where my Mum lived, as well as where my best friend from school moved, whilst I lived in London with my Dad. It wouldn't take much arm twisting to make the hour long train journey from Victoria, so I could go mackerel fishing on the marina or wander the lanes buying Star Wars toys.

Having not been there in a while, Mum having sold up, and moved back to London, a few years ago, and not being able to crash on her sofa bed at the drop of your hat, it’s perhaps lost some of the draw it once had, until recently. That reason being a football team, with a special kind of following.

I must though for a moment remove my heavily rose tinted specs, because reality has hit hard, it's cold, it's super cold, the spits of rain as I wait for my train, are turning to snow, and I’m only wearing a jumper, it’s time to invest in a jacket.

Tom on the other hand, waiting for me at London Bridge, looks equipped for arctic warfare, like he is about to dive into an ice hole, drag himself out with his ski poles and reel off his name and number. Despite all his kit, despite telling me moments after saying “hello”, that he has “got his snood”, oh the shame, he is still “freezing”.

A familiar sight at most stations on a Saturday morning, are football fans on their way to different corners of the country. A small group of Sutton United fans, in their distinctive yellow and brown, have congregated, and roaming around solo is a Leeds fan, Tom pointing out he's “a long way from home”.

Although I understand Southern Rail to be the devil incarcerate to many people, for us, today at least, we can't grumble. Our train is on time, warm and not too busy, despite the industrial action going on, so we can't complain. We find a table, and settle down for the short trip south, only occasionally disturbed by our fellow travelers, such as the the woman next to us slurping her coffee like a baby with a beaker, or the couple, old enough to know such public displays of affection are not acceptable, who are snogging like teenagers.

There are plenty of woolly hats on board, the choice of headgear completely justified. Tom our resident weatherman, is peering out the window grimacing, “it's not clearing up”. The people underneath the sheep's wool to a man are all tucking into some giant warm pastry of some kind, making Tom and I very jealous. We pass the time, having our own little flashback session, sparked by talk of the amusements on the pier. Tom tells me how he lost his front tooth on the dodgems once, and I explain my hatred/fear of the unwieldy electric powered cars, because of a traumatic experience as a child, when my Mum insisted going on with me and my brother, whilst holding the fish in a bag we had just won, very distressing.

Whizzing through Preston Park station means we are nearly there, Tom still on weather watch is a little more upbeat, “it's a bit brighter” he tells me, now being able to point out a “bit of blue” which doesn't look much bigger than a picnic blanket, buts its cheered him up, so I let him have that one.

Our first stop of the day, a stone's throw from the Pavilion, following our short but steep walk from the station, through the lanes, where Tom is amazed by the amount of tattoo parlours, is a bit of a ruse, a smoke screen if you like. My purchase of a pint of orange juice and lemonade, is not because I'm particularly thirsty, but because Tom urgently needs the loo.

This mind you is not your average pub, and while Tom searches out the water closet, I survey my surroundings, my Richard III portrait, shield and sigil covered surroundings, in what I can only describe as some kind of medieval reenactment, acid trip of a pub. Once relieved, Tom joins me for our mead, I mean Pepsi, I’m sorry, it's just so fucking mental in here, and was far from impressed by the stable door on the toilet cubicles, he found it a “a little unnerving” at quite how open to the world they made you feel.

At each end of the great hall, two knights of the game they call football cover the walls, modern day tapestries if you will, Trevor Sinclair and Ian Holloway ten feet tall, comment on their respective matches, on competing TV channels.

We don't spend long at the knights round table, in fact it was two brown leather sofas, with a Pacman machine in between, and soon we have a stiff gust rolling off the English Channel hitting us in the face, “oh it’s getting a bit breezy” says Tom, with a hint of Frank Spencer, as we finally see the sea and the twinkling lights of Brighton Pier.

Giant seagulls circle, perhaps scoping out the woman walking around dressed as a lobster or maybe they, like us, would like to dive bomb the “Brighton Palace pier DJ” who is singing along with Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, adding in his own improvised, but unimaginative lyrics “you go girl” he says over and over again, occasionally mixing it with up a “one time, one time” and at one point let out a hideously out of tune “oooooooo, the kid is not my son”.

“Dolphin derby” says Tom excitably, only put off from having a go, because he doesn't want to spend the day lumbered with a giant Garfield if he wins.

The pier itself is a bit of microcosm, a world within a world, where you can get your fortune read by a ‘gypsy’ in an ornate caravan, eat only 100% sugar based food, knowingly play games that are rigged, spend hours in a room full of flashing lights, 2p machines and arcades and not go insane, and if the young slightly blue, shivering lady dressed up like a Victorian, with a sign around her pointing to ‘ye olde photographs’, who I say “she looks depressed”, but Tom puts it better “she looks cold”, is correct, you can also dress up like a turn of the century factory owner and pay for the privilege.

Before we go, remembering through a mist of our donkey filled nightmare, we are here to watch football, I treat Tom to a ride on the carousel, as he says he doesn't think he has ever been on one before, criminal. Climbing on top of a giant cockerel, I opt for a more luxurious red seated carriage, we pick up speed, and must look quite the picture I’m sure, spinning around, having a thoroughly good time.

Our cab driver, we could have got the bus very easily, but spent too much time prating about on the pier, is doing everything in his power, to make sure he doesn't get a tip. When he asks who we support, he spends the next ten minutes, first laying into Spurs, “something not right there” he explains, and then Arsenal, “they will fade”, it's not until he moves his damming sights onto West Ham, do we get a bit of respite.

A narrow hedge lined lane comes to an abrupt end, and our driver insists on dropping us off, if he goes any further he tells us it's just too much hassle. Adjacent to a Caravan Club camp site, a sign next to a farm style wooden gate welcomes us to Whitehawk FC (WFC).


“Funny little place” says Tom as we leave the sign, and the caravan site behind us, continuing onward, eventually coming to a small grey block of turnstiles. Once in you can't but stop and marvel at the wall side mural, more akin to something from the NFL than non league football, a towering menacing red hawk, talons showing. In front, a stack of drums, ultra sticker covered drums, of all shapes and sizes, means only one thing, we are going to be in for a good day.

“I like that scarf” comments Tom, as he peruses what's on offer at the small, pitch covered flat roofed club shop, having to consider a different purchase, after being told they don't have any pins, “shame they don't have any” he says like a kid, whose last in the queue for a Tamagotchi, fighting off the lip wobble.

Even though we have arrived well before kick off, there is already a noticeable, if not ever so slightly frantic buzz around the Enclosed Ground, which not only is one of the bizarrest names for a football ground, but it's already giving me the chance to tick a few boxes in my I-Spy book of non league football: dog in a jumper of the clubs colours, tick. There will also be some new editions, such as the fact that only three sides of the ground are in use, one whole side of the pitch is a grass bank, and beyond are the rolling South Downs covered in sheep.

It’s curious name, is matched by the curious hodgepodge of stands, seats and scaffolding. The main stand, all seater, with a one man wide tunnel at its centre is the most permanent of structures, along with the red brick clubhouse next door. A stranded little stand, nothing hugely remarkable about it, except for the steps, yes that's right the steps. On the front of each one someone has painted, what you might call the clubs mantra, “Love, Peace, No Racism, No Sexism, No Violence, No Homophobia” an idea I believe adopted from Millerntor stadium, home to grandads of the left wing ultras movement, St Pauli.

Behind one goal a corrugated topped, fragile looking green seated stand, is plastered in ultra stickers, and some health and safety conscious bod has covered the bolts and fixtures that make it up, with reams of silver duct tape, to ensure no one snags their best Ben Sherman shirt on it. Opposite the same green seats make up an uncovered bank, dwarfing everything else, and only adding to the patchwork nature of the place.

Not that there wasn’t plenty of life already around the ground, camera crews setting up, players and fans arriving and club officials bombing about, but when The Clash start playing over the speakers, it’s taken to another level.

The bar is warm, the bar is busy, the bar is the place of choice for most seeking shelter from the cold. Only distinguishable by accent, because as Tom puts it both teams play red and white, it's only when the Stourbridge FC (SFC) supporters comment on the Wolves match on the big screen, does their midlands twang give them away, and its clear who is supporting who.

We rest our pints in front of a newspaper cutting covered wall, one man checks out all the club news that's appeared in the local press, and I quickly tick off ‘man in top hat’ and ‘man with drum slung over his shoulder decorated in a rainbow flag’ in my I-Spy book, and hope that whoever keeps treading on the tiny jumper wearing dog, by accident I’m sure, would stop, because the noise is horrible.

Our single pint has got Tom all full of beans, I think he is about one sambuca away from sacking off the match, and hitting the pier with a “pot of 10p’s”, but I talk him down, and remind him why we are here.

“Four and a half hours” is how long it took a couple of SFC fans to get here today, and they are not the only ones, SFC support is here in good numbers. Along with the majority of WH fans, they are waiting outside the clubhouse, for the teams to appear, the ends to be decided, so they can make the move towards where they will spend the first half. When I ask him if he fancies his team's chances today, he is unsure, choosing instead to reply with one of the better football cliches out there “you never know, it’s the cup”.

The crowd continues to swell, those following SFC are the first to offer a song “we are Stourbridge”, a group of WH ultras, that currently have the air of a marching band on a fag break about them, the floor littered with their instruments, reply with the bang of a drum. A nearby little girl, is very interested and is told by her Mum that “Father Christmas will get her one”.

“Let's keep together, lets keep in time” instructs one drummer to the rest of the Ringos, who are all ages, shapes and sizes.

The path from the changing room to the pitch is lined by so many children, I don't see how there is enough room for any players. The team's arrival passes me by a little, I’m only really aware they have when the visiting fans start to sing and clap, “we are Stourbridge”, this time the reply from WH fans is not one drum, but four or five “hawks, hawks, hawks”, and it's not only drums but for the second time at a non league FA Cup match, a man sounds his bugle, although the Staines fan didn't have a latex hawk/eagle mask balanced on top of his head.

When the SFC supporters try and reply again, it's with the same song, “we are Stourbridge” this repetition is quickly pounced upon by the WH fans, “you've only got one song” and “you are Stourbridge” they sing back.

A bottleneck caused by drums, is not something you are likely to see many times in your life, but that's what happens, as I, I’m not sure where Tom is if I’m honest, join the exodus of the WH fans on the way to the scaffolding, with the SFC fans going the other way, both groups making a good racket.

Flags are quickly up at each end, and not too long after finding a spot a row from the front, people are jostling for space, trying to find somewhere to watch from, and quickly the stand is groaning under the weight of the crowd. Those who are spilling out into the aisle, or down in front, are pleasantly corralled by a steward in a straw hat, with feathers in. Perhaps the most un stewardly, stewards behaviour, no screaming or shouting, just gentle gestures with his hands, asking people to move back.

It could perhaps be perceived as a bit naff of me to describe the stand behind the goal as ‘rocking’, as the game gets under way, sounding like some aging ZZ Top fan, but I mean it in the most literal of senses, as the fans led by a cowbell, maraca, whistle, bugle, someone who is hitting the scaffolding with what sounds like a bit of scrap metal, producing the most piercing of rings and countless drums, they start their deafening roar of support for their team, “super hawk party army” they sing, they being men and women, young and old. The first row is predominantly kids, passed to the front to avoid the swell like it's the 1960’s, some have mounted the stand, pumping their firsts, it's breathtaking. When they say “we’re Whitehawk FC, where football is for all” they mean every word of it.

Considering what's going on around me, the skinhead with the ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) patch on the back of his jacket, the old couple next to me singing their hearts out, the kid in a Halloween mask hanging from a pole, it takes a quite marvelous goal, to focus my attention on the game on twelve minutes, which until now has been something going on in the background.

“1-0 to the super hawks” they sing, following the pandemonium caused by the outside of the box, top right hand corner goal. The players rush the barrier, the fans rush it too, meeting in the middle for a joyous football bundle. “Quality goal” I just about hear someone say, over the continued signing, “we win when we’re singing”,  keeping up their promise that they will “sing for 90 minutes”.

Staunchly political, there is someone with an RMT placard in the crowd, and left wing in their standing, they do not hold back in making their views clear on certain key matters. “Homophobia we say no, racism we say no” and some matters not quite as important, but still worth a mention “FA drinking rules we say no, Wealdstone Raider we say no”.

SFC supporters may well have been singing just as loud, but I would never know, it's just far too loud. The ultras do offer them the stage, trying to goad a song out of them, “Stourbridge give us a song”, asks the collective, “shhhhhhhh” they then say, making sure they can hear them. “Red army, red army” they reply, which gets an instant reply “we’re more red than you”

Again apologies for the lack of onfield reporting, frankly whats going on in the stands is a lot more interesting, however SFC go very close with about twenty five minutes gone, “dangerous” says a man behind me, as the shot just skims over the bar, and into the crowd behind.

I think the moniker of a good fan base, is a good selection of chants and songs. The Clapton Ultras showed us anything is possible, signing to the tune of the Spice Girls, and even the Super Mario theme, WH Ultras are just as imaginative, with clearly a vast back catalogue to pick from, “meat pie sausage roll, come on Whitehawk, give us a goal”, one is a nod to the traveling fans “you've got more flags than us” and one to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’, “you've got the power you know, Hawks”.

When the fans ask the manager for a wave “Richard give us a wave” he obliges, but he could have been forgiven for ignoring them, as on the pitch, SFC are finishing the half the stronger. One weapon they have brought from the midlands is a player with a “massive throw” who hurls the ball into the box at every possible opportunity. They almost draw things level after a mazy, solo run, which comes to nothing, just inside the box, and they almost scored from a free kick, which is well saved and gets a loud “ohhhhhhh” from the WH fans.

The half ends with a WH penalty shout being turned down. “He caught it!” claims one supporter, but the referee is having none of it, and waves it away, this in turn gets the man in charge his very own song, which he takes in good humour, smirking back at the fans in front of him, “the referee is a referee”.

The halftime move is a bit more free flowing compared to pre kickoff. Thinking I might find Tom in the bar, I soon abandon that notion, after seeing the state of the queue for a drink. I therefore head towards the green seated mountain, now bathed in a fair bit of sun, which has been an all to infrequent visitor today, and won't be around for long, as it's already dipping down behind some trees.

Although intrigued by the SFC fan carrying what looks like a sex doll in a club shirt, with a paper mask covering lets say, its receptive orifices, I continue on my mission up the green seated stand soon to be joined by my Passepartout, for our new, but extremely chilly view of the ground.

The drums and flags of both sets of fans are soon in place, and as if like a conductor, on the blow of his whistle, all the elements that make up this wonderful rag tag orchestra commence, followed with a mighty “come on you Hawks!”

One advantage of our new lofty position is undoubtedly a better view, no metal pole or child hanging from the rafter to obstruct you now, plus one can quite clearly see a slope on the pitch “I thought it was a funny angle” commented Tom, the WH Ultras feel it gives them the upper hand “we’re so much better uphill”, in terms of noise, it does have its disadvantages. Where as before we were cheek to jowl, all under one metal roof, now we are all much more spread out, and the lid of the stand is not there to contain and channel that tremendous energy, in fact it’s now the SFC fans turn to sound the loudest.

This isn't to say they have stopped, not by any stretch of the imagination, the singing continues, and a few more chants are pulled out of the song book, “she'll be singing with the ultras when she comes, she'll be drinking Smirnoff Ice with the ultras when she comes”.

With almost fifteen minutes of the second half gone, SFC draw it level, despite some fans around us hoping that WH will “kill off the game”. A flash of white, and the SFC players are joined by their followers in a not too dissimilar pile as that which played out in the first half when WH scored.

For the first time, the WH fans mood drops, but only for a fraction of a second, “we're gonna win 2 -1” they sing optimistically, I say optimistically, because post goal SFC are dominant, WH only breaking out occasionally, they are firmly on the back foot. When their keeper pulls off a smart save from a free kick, its puffed cheeks, and sweaty brows, all round, WH are clinging on.

Growing up in middle class North London, some of you may have incorrectly assumed, that seeing someone ask around for his bugle, was a regular occurrence around my house, but I can assure you that when the WH fan in front starts asking about for his, it’s a first for me, at football or at home.

“We’re the southern Whitehawk fans” sing a small group of the crowd, which then gets a reply from, another equally small group “we’re the northern Whitehawk fans”. Whatever hemisphere or compass point you come from, one could be mistaken in feeling that perhaps this geography based singing, is to distract from the continued SFC pressure, it’s only the fingertips of the WH keeper, who tips a powerful snapshot wide, preventing it from going in.

“What's your intellectual opinion on the game” ask one fan to another, whose musings are completely correct, “you might snatch it, but don't deserve it, they have had their chances”. One man in the group, which the bugle hunter is a part of, points to the near by hill and the “stampeding” sheep, to be honest they are kind of shuffling along, and takes a more primal stance on things, suggesting the animals movements, are some kind of pagan “omen”, a sign from Mother Nature of a WH win.

Maybe it's the introduction of the hand held bubble gun, which one WH fan is firing off it's non lethal rounds, maybe it’s the rampaging sheep, but WH are giving this everything they've got, I'm sure hoping to prove the intellectual ones analysis correct.

A succession of corners stirs the crowd, “come on Whitehawk, come one Whitehawk”, they shout, when the keys come out again, marking a key moment in the match, like 100 school caretakers, they try and suck the ball in, one player even trying to score with a back heel, but it comes to nothing

It’s so cold, the sun has all but gone, my feet feel like lumps of something you find in the deep freeze at Iceland and the imminent end, has forced people to consider the idea of going to “Stourbridge on a Monday night”. There is some joy, when someone announces that local rivals Eastbourne Borough are “losing 7 - 0” but it's fleeting.

“Attack, attack, attack, attack,” demand the fans, but not before reminding the players they are “proud” of them, regardless of the outcome.

As if the positive vibes from the stands, are hardwired directly into the players, they comply,  throwing men forward, wave after wave of attack. It is then a little shocking, when their somewhat talismanic number 9, doesn't score, from a mere couple of feet out. The ball across the box, at the death, needs the simplest of finishes, however he takes a touch, and puts it over, how?!?!  And as if to rub salt in the wounds, SFC then go up the other end and nearly nick it themselves, but fail, just.

One last rally, one last call to the troops, the bugle sounds off, charge.

We have seen and experienced some remarkable things doing this blog, we have stood on the yellow wall at Dortmund, seen a woman push a dog around in a pram and watched a man carry a pint around in a woolen necklace, they though now have all been eclipsed by the final two or three minutes at the Enclosed Ground.

There can be but a few ticks of the referee's watch remaining, when WH are awarded a corner, it's quickly whipped in, and via a few headers and a blocked shot it falls to one WH player on the edge of the box, who is shaping up for a volley. His perfect body position means he is able to hit it as sweet as a nut, but hang on, what's that sound, the referee has placed his whistle to his lips, at the precise time, polyester boot, meets polyester ball.

Sending it like a rocket, flat and with little movement in the air, it flies past the keeper and bulges the back of the net, the player has scored a fabulous goal, he is surely the hero of the day, and will go down in WH folklore, or will he?

Mid celebrations, the player and fans eyes turn to the man in charge, whose whistle is surely still moist, from having only moments ago been in his mouth, no goal. Sorry what, that's right, no goal, whistle blown, game over, romance is dead, football is ruined, everyone is off to the midlands on a Monday night.

Quickly the referee is enveloped by a swarm of players, no idea what was said, but the WH keeper, perhaps didn't chose his words wisely, and is shown a red card.

Going to football you will inevitably see contentious decisions, you will see some level of controversy at every game you go to, at any level, but there was something so cruel, so visceral, that made it quite unlike the ending of any football match I have ever been to.

“2-1 to Whitehawk, 2-1 to Whitehawk” sing a shocked, bemused and gobsmacked home crowd. One man leaving calls it a “disgraceful decision”, others are already thinking about the replay, as the voice over the tannoy confirms its date, “they will do them” says a confident supporter. Whatever the opinion of the fans might be, the record books will always show it finished 1 - 1, however as one leaving fan puts it , “they will be talking about it for years”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE




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