Thursday, 22 September 2016

Bless - Tottenham Hotspur FC Vs AS Monaco FC, Champions League, Wembley Stadium, 14/09/16.

“There it is” says a boy with socks almost pulled up to his knees. ‘It’ is Wembley, and instantly all eyes are transfixed on the windows of the tube carriage, as he, me, and almost everybody else waits to get their first glimpse of the arch. Seeing it every morning before I walk into work, has perhaps made me a bit blase about it, but I quickly snap out of that way of thinking, when it appears on the horizon.

Except for the odd commuter, my train, much like the ones that passed me on the platform at Willesden Green station, are full of men, women and children, all making their way to the newly erected big top on the edge of town, where our midweek service will be conducted, while the holiest of holy places is being remodeled. Much like the members of a cult or a Maoist regime, they have been instructed in what to wear, and have dutifully obliged, white is the order of the day, and white it will be, tinged though in most cases, with a little bit of blue.

Although I don’t attend nearly as much as I should, nor as much as I did, when I had a season long pew ticket, I still worship from afar, getting there when I can, usually on a Thursday night, for the visit of a missionary from some distant land, or on a Wednesday, when some much smaller congregation pops along, and most of the regular flock, can’t be bothered to trek down after work midweek, so then people like me can go, but I’ve never seen it like this.

No amount of moaning, whinging or passive aggressive emails from customers today, or in fact any day since I booked my tickets have been unable to knock me down from the ethereal cloud I have been floating on. Even the gouging and extortionate, £9 booking charge, was unable to dislodge me. Sleep has been at a minimum, time on social media has been at a maximum, desperate to see a hashtag heavy post, full of pictures of the changing room, or updates on how they have decided to decorate the toilets.

The scale of everything around me as I descend the stairs of Wembley Park station, once I've negotiated the countless people taking advantage of the photo opportunity, is so vast compared to the last game we went to, Sporting Bengal Utd Vs London Bari FC, in the Essex Senior League, that it’s like it’s not even the same thing. I’m here well ahead of kick off, but already many worshippers have beat me to it, their pilgrimage complete, they are now just waiting for it to begin.

“Tickets, tickets” say the touts in their own special way, loud enough so you can hear, but not too loud that the nearby coppers have to acknowledge them.

The occasional “Come on you Spurs” and “Yid Army” ring out, but most people seem interested in tucking into a burger, walking along in that eating on the go, slightly hunched over kind of way people do, trying to avoid it all going down their front. Where I’m standing, still in a mild state of shock, I witness a grown man announce like a toddler that he wants to get his "face painted" and someone actually purchase a 50/50 scarf. Having only ever seen this happen, via slyly taken pictures on Twitter, much like a wildlife photographer capturing a rare species of some kind, it can only add to my disbelief, however the man in the “The Moose is Loose” t-shirt both cheers me up, and gives me a hankering for a wine gum.

Some effort has been made to personalise the surroundings, a comfort blanket in this unfamiliar postcode, banners hang from the lamp posts lining Wembley Way, depicting the cockerel standing proudly on his old leather ball, however much about this, still feels surreal.

Yes I've been to Wembley, but never this early in the season, and never to so see Spurs, except in the Wembley Cup against Barcelona, but that hardly counts. Every occasion I’ve seen them play here, it’s been from the comfort of my own home, and except for Allan Nielsen and Jonathan Woodgate, it’s not been a very fruitful hunting ground, in my lifetime at least. Normally I’m here for the FA Trophy Final or like last season, Non League Day, but never on a Wednesday night in September. One man asks his daughter, who looks young enough for it perhaps to be her first visit, “nice, isn't it?”, she just continues to gawp, and gives no reply.

I have however, and should probably say this quietly, been here to watch a match in the Champions League before, nearly two decades ago, during Arsenals ill fated attempt at using the nation's stadium as their ‘home ground’. The narrow Gooner win was not what I remembered, but instead the nonstop rhythmic clapping of the Panathinaikos fans.

I’m flying solo, for now, Tom has ducked out of this one, even though he still owes me one, after the Arsenal snooze fest against Hull in last seasons road to Wembley attempt. Rachel is stepping into his shoes, and will be here shortly, so I have some time to kill, but refrain from getting one of the ice creams so many people are walking along and enjoying, however I can at least be thankful that I wore shorts, it’s unseasonably warm, and the last time I saw this many bare legs, was on a beach in Margate.

The moustachioed one from Sky Sports news, stalks the fans with a cameraman in tow, desperate for a suitable sound bite for the 7pm headlines, but so far most are intelligent enough to ignore him, instead taking a selfie or six and continuing on up the slope to the stadium bathed in evening sunshine, on the front “Glory, glory night at Wembley” flashes, drawing everyone in like a tractor beam. One woman is so excited she produces an old blue and white rattle from her handbag, and gives it a few turns in celebration.

Surely not, I think it is, but surely not, that can’t be him. A few feet away from me, someone is talking to, then hugging a Rastafarian in a Spurs shirts, to be clear this is not some cock in a comedy hat, with dreadlocks, this is a full blown, rasta. Nothing too miraculous about that, football fans come in all shapes and sizes, but this follower of all things Haile Selassie is ringing a bell, and for the life of me I don’t know why.

I stand, trying not to stare, flicking through my marijuana singed memory, trying to recall, why he is so familiar to me, and then it hits me, a true eureka moment, a picture of the same person on a tube platform flashes up from some folder in my mind, marked football miscellaneous, and I have to stop myself from shouting “yes” I'm so delighted I’ve worked it out. It’s only former Millwall, Crystal Palace and of course Tottenham Hotspur, might have played up front once or twice with Steffen Iversen, forward of the late 90’s early 00’s when I had my season ticket, Chris Armstrong.

Not usually one to badger a ‘celebrity’ or someone in the public eye, I can't stop myself, from at least saying "hello" and telling him he was playing for Spurs in my formative years, and he is more than happy to accommodate the large sweaty man who asks him to pose for a pic, and replies to most of my garbled sentences with one word, a quiet, but friendly “bless”. Underneath his wooden beaded necklace, beard and Tam, he is wearing a Spurs shirt, and I ask him “how does he think tonight will go?” he replies in his softly spoken voice, “for my sons, I hope it is ok”. I thank him once again, he shakes my hand, and hits me with one more “bless”.

Numbers continue to swell, Wembley Way is a sea of Spurs. The occasional AS Monaco FC (ASM) fan potters about, clearly dumbfounded by the extent of the turnout, and probably amazed that this many people actually go to watch football, considering they get about an average attendance of four at the Stade Louis II. A couple in their red and white shirts, are just watching it all go by, each drinking cider from a glass bottle, the odd Spurs fan stops to wish them luck, and there is not an ounce of animosity or tribal rivalry. When one of the ASM fans sees a Spurs fan struggling to push a man in a wheelchair, he pitches in and helps, and the football Gods can go to bed happy.

“Mental”, “look at that”, “I’m buzzing” are quickly turning into the catchphrases of the night, as people look back down from where they have just come from, as more and more people continue to flood forward, like a replica shirted hoard from the Dawn of the Dead. In the distance I can hear the rumbling of a chant “in that number” and the sporadic shouts go up of “Yid Army” which ripples through the crowd, quickly being emulated by others as it goes.

The repeated loop of welcomes on the big screen high up on the front of the stadium, change to the large heads of the Spurs starting 11. When a certain number 20 appears, his song fills the air “we’ve got Alli, Delli Alli”. One fan demands “plenty of singing boys” from those around him, and like a choir in a grand cathedral from the balcony above, just in front of the Bobby Moore statue, they serenade those below “come on you Spurs, come on you Spurs”, which is accompanied by the blast of an air horn, and what I think in the distance is the distinctive sound of steel pans.

Rachel has now joined me, and keen to see if the inside is as mesmerising as the outside, we set off for our entrance via Club Wembley, under a sign that reads “Welcome To Tottenham Hotspur” and past what she quite rightly describes as “big plant pots” in fact I’m not sure “big” does them justice, they are BFG size and line the way to the glass doors, where men and women in suits greet us.

The escalator ride is a bit of a blur, as we ascend to our level from the inside. One young boy points out the “old World Cup” which is part of an exhibition of the 60th anniversary of 1966, and one wall is covered in decapitated mannequins wearing Spurs shirts. It’s not until I receive another “welcome sir” from the most well dressed stewards I’ve ever seen, and Rachel comments that “everyone” has got their “best retro shirt” on, and we play name that year, and both simultaneously say ”gutted” when a guy drops face down what I’m sure was a very expensive pizza, do I start to acclimatise. We head straight for our block, do not pass go, do not buy a £5 pound pint, I want to see what our seats are like.

The glass double doors to our section muffle what is beyond, and I’m not sure I’m quite prepared for what I’ll find once I open them. When I venture through, I’m instantly bowled over, and have to compose myself. An overly romantic football type at the best of times, but chuck in the added fact that this is Spurs, I’m close to making a tit of myself.

“This is interesting” says the man sitting next to Rachel, who is in an equal state of awe. Two large flags appear above the heads of the supporters below us and shimmer across the crowd, their arrival triggers the first mass rendition of “glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur” and I genuinely have to pull myself together.

An army of children appear, in two neat rows they cross the pitch, surround the Champions League logo that is covering the centre circle, and lift it. With expert timing the faces of the Spurs team appear on both of the giant screens, screens that put Alan Sugar's jumbotrons to shame, and the place goes up a notch “COME ON YOU SPURS!!”.

The point that gets me, not long after the teams arrive, standing in two steady rows of granite like manliness, with the camera slowly panning along them and broadcasting their square jaws to the world, is the Champions League anthem. It's not the Gazprom theme tune that moves me, it's what it represents. I didn't get to see Spurs at White Hart Lane the last time it played, I’ve only ever heard it on the TV, and who knew if anyone would hear again as far as Tottenham is concerned, we like to do things the hard way, it feels very special indeed.

Post wiggling, the children make their way off with the logo, and kick-off is moments away. The big top is then filled with what I think is our finest hymn “oh when the Spurs” a chant that at the best of times will stand the hairs up on the back of my neck, but combine this with the sheer amount of my fellow fans, I’m unable to join in, my voice cracking on every attempt, I’m on the edge.

Spurs get the first chance, and most people are on their feet, each one letting out an “ohhhhh” as it's blocked, close to the line. It would seem for now that everything is falling into place, fresh in the memory is the 4 - 1 win in the Europa League in December, so everything is crossed that tonight will be just as straightforward, although I have read a few ‘watch out Spurs, this is not the same Monaco’ articles online, and they beat PSG in their last domestic match, the Parisians first defeat in Ligue 1 in God knows how long, so I’m wary not to count my chickens and all that.

There are about the same amount of flags dotted around, as there are ASM fans in the small pocket, low to our right, who are drowned out again when Spurs fashion another chance, which prompts another 80,000 thousand people “COME ON YOU SPURS”.

Fuck, is all I can muster, without any of the comedic delivery of Hugh Grant, when those from the Riviera go a goal ahead. The tiny bunch below us are all standing, obviously overjoyed and for the first time I can hear them sing. Their team have somewhat ruined this party, and for the first time a momentary hush descends, until most realise there is still seventy five minutes to play, and do what they can to lift the atmosphere.

Rachel's reflection on the goal is that “it must have been good, if Hugo didn't save it” she is a card carrying member of the Lloris fan club, so of course will never find fault in the Frenchman's goalkeeping.

Our neighbour is a fidgeting mess of man, a few years older than us both, I can see the torment of being a long suffering Spurs fan written across him. This affliction causes him to squirm in his chair, every poor pass and miss timed shot, has a physical affect on him, he shifts from the edge of his padded seat to the back and forward again as the minutes tick by. “That's better Tottenham” he says, but he looks like their on field performance is hurting him, his very own kryptonite.

I think it's safe to say the finesse of football is a little lost on Rachel sometimes, an advocate of two up front, and a staunch opponent of 4 - 2 - 3 - 1, she demands that Spurs just “smash it” their attempts to equalize are over intricate at times, and are failing to break ASM down. A Spurs fan through osmosis, after nearly ten years together, she has got one thing straight “we always go 1 - 0  down” which our neighbour agrees with “yes, we do” so she knows as well as the rest of us, we have got ourselves out of plenty of sticky situations before.

“Arsenal will be laughing” says our neighbour, slunk back in his chair, as ASM continue to ignore the pre agreed narrative, and are shitting all over our big day out, they were supposed to just roll over like they did in December, weren't they? Their small turn out once again are celebrating, scarves whirling above their head and our neighbour could not be more right when he says “need one before half time”, but that is going to be hard, Spurs are “second to every ball” as he puts it, are narrow, flat and perhaps showing signs of being overwhelmed by the big occasion.

The fans do their bit, and try once again to lift the place “COME ON YOU SPURS”, the players need to respond, and Rachel is now resigned to the fact “we are not having pizza” as I said I would get us takeout, on the proviso we get the win. What is it with the people I go to football with and food?

Regular football goers will know what I mean when I say, there are times at games when you strike up a connection with someone, I don't mean a first dates kind of connection, I mean, the kind when you catch the person's eye sitting or standing near you, and without having to say anything, you know exactly what each other are thinking. Within less than 45 minutes the chap to Rachel’s left and I have transcended the need for words, and are communicating with our third eye, no longer needing to verbally express what we are feeling, but simply exchanging a quick glance, that speaks a thousand words. His way of communicating with Rachel though is a physical one, again without the need for words, his twitching hand tapping her on the leg, once again, not in a first dates sense, but in the same sense why we no longer sit next to each other at home when we watch a game, because she was fed up of me leaping on her, or elbowing her in the ribs.

A late comer behind us is a little shocked to say the least when he takes his seat “2 - 0, shit!”, but doesn't hang around for long “better get something to eat” he says to himself out loud, he takes an order from those he’s sitting with, and is off again, he is however around long enough to describe Spurs issues, like an Edwardian “need a bit more gumption”.

It suddenly dawns on me that the current state of affairs, might be my fault. Before nigh on every Spurs game I've ever been to, without fail, I always shout “come on you Lilywhites” at kick off, however today I didn't, so consumed with trying not to cry at Wembley, again, I forgot to say it. Like Hercules, I have angered the Gods, and this is their punishment.

“Attack the ball” shouts him next door, half out of his seat, his hands gripped to the metal railing in front, as Erik Lamela sends in a corner, late in the half. Toby Alderweireld, or Toby to most spurs fans, as it's easier to avoid using his tongue twister of a surname, but certainly not ‘Toby’ in a Danny Dyer, cockney rhyming slang kind of way, but because it's his name, was listening, and rifles a header into the back of the net.

His hands peeled from the railing, having left the faintest of impressions such was his pent up tension, he sits back cheeks puffed out, eyes to the heavens. He has though seen enough, scooting past us, half bent over, as to not get in anyone's way, he makes his way to get a drink, “want a tea or a coffee?” he kindly offers, we decline, but I imagine his will be a double scotch.

The goal has lifted spirits, both on and off the pitch, and only for the same margin as Gazza’s boot against Germany in 1996 do Spurs fail to equalize in added on time “Tottenham, Tottenham” sing those in white, and on the whistle let out a mighty ‘we are not out of this yet’ roar.

A familiar voice comes over the tannoy, who is so loud, he makes Rachel jump and he has to wait a moment while he is turned down. Continuing the theme of the White Hart Lane comfort blanket, his excitable tone tells us all we are “part of Spurs history” as a new attendance record has been set tonight, one that had stood since 1936. He finishes his address, after introducing a couple of Spurs fan Olympians who are in attendance, with his signature sign off, “up the Spurs”.

Highlights from the rest of Europe play out on the big screen, and Rachel feels with them watched, we won't have to bother when we get home. I explain that I can’t hear them, but she can't quite get her head around it, I’ve seen them, surely that's enough, “what? you can’t hear a goal?” she asks.

‘It’s Not Over Yet’ by the Klaxons feels an appropriate halftime song choice, and along with the announcers positive, “game on”, the stadium is prepared for the second half. With the departure of the half time fork men, and the appearance of Spurs who are out first, the crowd respond “come on you Spurs”, our neighbour wonders if there will be “any changes” and right on cue the appearance pitch side of a certain Belgian, gets everyone out of their seats “oh Moussa Dembele”.

The introduction of the rangy, striding central midfielder has certainly shored Spurs up, and it is they who get the first chance. A group behind us are in good spirits, “think they might have been drinking?” suggests our neighbour, as they attempt a slightly slurred version of “oh when the Spurs” and when people don't join them, they request their fellow fans “sing up”.

Such is the size of Wembley, when a player in white goes down in the box following a corner at the opposite end, we are not sure if the blow of the whistle is to signify the awarding of a penalty by the referee, many turning to those beside them asking, “has he, has he?”. We are only able to gauge what has happened by the reaction of the fans behind the goal, who first cheer, as it looks like the referee is consulting with the fella with the stick to confirm the foul, and everyone is thinking this is our chance, until a chorus of “boos” confirms he hasn't.

Considering Wembley is one of the biggest pitches if not the biggest pitch in the country, it was a little bizarre that Spurs decided in the first half to play in a bunched narrow huddle down centre, ignoring the wide areas, like they were allergic to them. When they finally start to venture into what seemed before as a no go area, it's still not anywhere near frequent enough, and is causing the neighbour to lose it again “out wide” he shouts, Rachel is right when she replies “there is no wide”, which has been true in most parts, but when there has been, they have at least looked a little dangerous.

“Come on Spurs, it's getting important now” says one of the drinkers behind us, whose voice is getting more and more horse, as the game goes on. The neighbour has descended again into a leg twitching, nail biting, jumper fiddler, the cumulative power of his half time refreshment and the goal has worn off, and he is out of his seat, arms outstretched towards the pitch wanting someone to tell him “where’s the width??”

He is getting desperate, his next suggestion means either he has harnessed time travel, or he has lost his mind, “you know who would love this match” he asks me, on one of the few occasions he doesn't look like he is about to rip his shirt off in frustration, not wanting to wait around for my reply, he answers his own question, “Aaron Lennon”. Considering his mood, and doubting he has a DeLorean in the car park, I dare not break it to him that he left last year, so keep shtum.

Of all the people you would want standing on the penalty spot, to receive a cross from the wing, with only the keeper to beat, would be Harry Kane, ‘The Hurrikane’, he who is “one of our own” so the whole place is distraught when he fails to convert, what looks like a simple chance.

Time is almost up, the three man party behind us, are running out of songs “we’re Club Wembley, Tottenham”, one pleads with the players “Tottenham if you lose this, you’re shit, and I know you’re not shit”. People are starting to leave, the chance to avoid getting stuck queuing for the tube with 85,000 other people, is more compelling than seeing a 91st minute equalizer, so off they go, which is frankly mental. I’ve never left the cinema early, because I think I’ve got the gist of what the ending is going to be, nor have I not finished a book for the same reason, you stay to the end people, you see it out until it is done, tut, tut.

Perhaps vindicated on this occasion, although still daft to leave before the final whistle, those who did leave don’t witness any last minute glory, and Spurs's big night back in the Champions League finishes, in defeat.

The ASM players approach their standing, singing fans, thanking them for their support, who I think might well be the last to leave. What were white seats, are now empty and red, except for a few stragglers like us, who are either letting the initial rush die down or are already dissecting the performance.

“Can you imagine them lot against Barcelona?” says one of the knee jerk brigade, as we make our way out. Adele, celebrity Spurs fan number 1006 sings in her melancholic style, fitting perfectly with the mood of many, who contemplate what could have been, under the full moon tonight, but unlike Mr Doom and Gloom, who made the Catalan reference, most are clever enough to know there is a long way to go, and all is far from lost.

“£5 a match day scarf” says the man wearing about three or four like a polyester Mr T, hawking his remaining 50/50’s out of a JB Sports bag, I can’t think about that though, and truly how heinous they are, all I can think about is how unhappy Chris Armstrong's kids must be.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE

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Thursday, 15 September 2016

Let Him Dance - Sporting Bengal United FC Vs London Bari FC, Essex Senior League, Mile End Stadium, 07/09/16.

Normally hidden behind a row of terraced houses, in a leafy suburb somewhere, secluded from the outside world by a line of trees, scruffy hedge or a crumbling wall, your average non league football ground is not always completely obvious. Yes the floodlights are a good giveaway, but it's not like they are usually dominating the local landscape, only once you have traversed a gravel drive, or slipped between two terraced houses, does the small turnstile and seen better days sign tell you, that you have arrived. Very rarely are they a stones throw from the financial heart of a nation, under the flight path of a major airport, or have one of London's busiest train lines, just over the fence.

Once I have made the short journey from east to west, not on a ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ hot train, but still a warm one, cheek to jowl with some Italian tourists and a tutting woman in a pencil skirt, overwhelmed with envy towards the woman with an electric hand fan. I am however thankful that I don't have to tackle the human obstacle course, that is one commuter fast asleep, almost horizontal in his seat, with his legs in the aisle.

The Mile End Stadium, tonight's destination, is not perhaps a ground for those looking for character, you will be hard pressed to flood your Instagram account, with pretty pictures of paint flaking from a wooden stand, or the backdrop of a ruined castle overlooking the pitch, but nonetheless it has its own unique qualities.

From our experience, although I’m sure someone more learned may well be able to offer some other examples, but from the grounds we have been to, which is not inconsiderable, I’m not sure you could go to one, where you feel quite so slap bang in the middle of things. The planes thundering overhead to City airport, the frequent rattling of trains on the nearby viaduct or the imposing monolith that is Canary Wharf, hogging the skyline, all let you know you are in the thick of it.

Tom of course being the trendy East Londonite that he is, we are on his patch tonight, doesn't have to concern himself with public transport, he can hop on board his pea green Vespa, sans Quadrophenia add ons, and nip from home to the ground in no time at all.

When I call him, on the short walk from the station, he is “on the canal”, enjoying an artisan crispbread and bulgerwheat shot no doubt, and tells me he will meet me in “the stand”. I first though have to conquer a maze of five a side pitches, lucky for me, it’s a maze I have the map to, because we have been here before, so I’m not distracted by the shouts of “bibs on” and “nice effort” or when one man asks me to play because they are a “man down”. I’m flattered he asked, knowing full well, I was the last of last resorts, so I don't let it go to my head.

We are mega early, we are so early, there are so few signs of life, except for the odd person doing laps of the athletics track, that I do wonder if I have got the days wrong.

That’s right I said athletics track, and you are also right that’s two now already this season. For all you stat heads out there, that’s 50% of the games we have been to, but it’s no surprise this time like it was at Croydon, like I said, we have been here before, keep up. In fact it’s so familiar, there is a heavy accent of deja vous, as we take a seat, or I should say, we take a wooden bench in the one and only stand, in the same place that we did, over a year before.

March 2015 to be precise, was when we spent a chilly evening here, this evening is quite the opposite, late summer with clear skies. It was the fourth game of our venture, and the first since Tom had lost his Dad, and it feels like a lot of water has passed under the bridge since. Although we had decided to try and see at least every team once, before starting to repeat ourselves, the fact is today we are going to see two completely different teams and enough time has passed, so we both agreed to a second visit to E3.

Tower Hamlets FC were the ‘home’ team that time. Although it’s still an Essex Senior League match tonight, the ‘home’ team is Sporting Bengal United FC (SBU), who are taking on the equally exotic sounding London Bari FC (LB), in an East London derby. I think you would be hard pressed to find another example of a match up in the UK, that could boast two clubs, with quite the same international flavour as this one. Do you think in the German 5th tier, you can watch, Hati Academical Vs Bayern Norwich FC?

“Hope there are a few fans” says Tom, as it's still just us and the runners and very little else. He also reminds himself that last time, “they didn't have a food stand” here, and he left “starving”, so fingers crossed he has something in his camera bag, to get him through, or I’m not going to hear the end of it.

We are however both in luck, first I spot a man in a red SBU training top, signifying I hope that there is a game on, and even if Tom can't get a burger, I do see someone carrying a small storage box full of what looks like tea and mugs and a white kettle, so he might at least be able to get a cuppa.

It’s the away team out first to warm up, their coach isn't wasting any time, “lets go, lets go, lets go”, he barks at his sluggish players. SBU appear what feels a lot later, but are quickly into their drills, as is the referee and his assistants, who take to the track, for a leisurely jog to prepare themselves.

In the small area between the changing rooms, at the base of the single stand, the two referee assistants are doing their best to get the teams moving, but are not having much joy, and we have already missed the kick off time, “19:46” says the referee in a curt loud voice. A couple more bangs, followed by “ready lads” and a “let's go fellas” does little to draw either team from the comfort of the dressing room. A “come on lads PLEASE” and a loud blast of his whistle, is followed by a muffled din from behind the door of each changing room, and the players start to appear.

Once through the metal barriers, the kind of which you might see on the road side at the marathon, that we watched a man 45 minutes earlier put in to place, they are a little rudimentary, but do the job that's required, guiding the players across the red track, on to the pitch, and each into a huddle. Both teams break from the pre match conflab, almost at the same time, one shouting “come on Sporting”, the other, “Bari”. Tom has had his hopes answered, “not a bad turn out” he says, as we take up our positions in the stand, amongst a not too shabby attendance.

“That's a request number” says Tom after he notices a SBU player is wearing number 55. Non league normally keeps to the age old tradition of one to eleven, but it looks like we might have a 'Zamorano' situation on our hands and there is a plus sign between each 5, because the 10 shirt was taken.

You are hard pushed to make out the dugouts on the far side of the pitch, the substitutes and staff reduced to mere specs. The elevated seats in the stand, do their best to make good of a bad situation, and give us a reasonable vantage point of what is a pretty hectic, end to end game.

Both teams are getting chances, SBU adopting the cultured tactic of a ‘big hoof up field’, and almost catch out LB at the back, however the forward can’t control the ball, and the calls for a “first time” shot from the supporters behind us, fall on deaf ears, when he does eventually get the ball out from his feet, and take a shot, it’s saved, impressing those around us, “good reactions”.

It’s not all long ball, LB go through neatly, only for the SBU keeper smothering the ball and getting a big cheer from the whole stand. Not long after his opposite number is back at it, a nice build up from SBU is kept out once again, and the supporters are appreciative of the manner in which they fashioned their chance, “nice play”. One SBU fans feels a goal for his side is imminent, as long as they keep plugging away, “they’re knocking, they’re knocking”, he says.

Where both teams are keen to go forward, pacy and with a tricky player or two each, defending on the other hand seems a bit of an afterthought. LB’s keeper on more than more occasion is forced to releasing a banshee like scream, barracking his team mates.

It's not a huge shock when SBU go ahead, 1 - 0, it's a bit unfortunate on the high pitched keeper, a deflection off his own player, sends the ball the opposite way, to what he was expecting, leaving him a little stranded. This concludes a spell for the LB keeper, who Tom delicately suggests “is a bit all over the place”. His attempt at a Neuer ‘sweeper keeper’ impression fails a little, and almost results in a goal, he is also maybe a little hasty off his line again, and can only watch the ball sail over his head, after an audacious chip, which one person thinks is going in, “he’s done it” only for it to crash off the crossbar, and go wide.

SBU are all out attack, and each attempt on goal is preceded with a comment from the guy behind us, a bit like when I watch Spurs and every time the opposition get near our box I say “goal”, a kind of defence mechanism, to protect myself against the distress of conceding. “It’s a goal” he says, but it’s not this time, it's wide.

Such was the on field action, I had not noticed we were sitting in darkness, until someone turned the lights on in the stand. Conveniently for a struggling blogger, a ‘lights on’ metaphor nicely segways into the fact that LB, have found a late surge, its like someone has turned their lights on too, do you see that I did there? and they get a few late chances. They flash a shot across the goalmouth, but their luck is summed up, when one attempt hits his own teammate in the face, instead of the back of net.

“They’re coming mate” says an SBU fan up against the railing, as the players make their way off. A hush falls over the ground, which is only disturbed by a shout from the 5 a side pitches or the passing of a police car. When the players re-emerge after their orange segments, SBU seem out “really early” to Tom, LB are a way behind them, but no-one seems in rush, there is a definite laid back ethos here tonight, quite the opposite from the inner city bustle that surrounds us.

Maybe a lack of energy, maybe a flying boot or crashing tea cup from the manger, but the start of the new half doesn't have any of the buccaneer, gung ho, Ossie Ardiles school of management about it, and takes a while to get going, but when it does, it might go down as one of the most entertaining we will see all season.

When LB are saved by the thickness of the cross bar from going further behind, after a sweetly hit free kick bounces off it, the match seems back on script, and a second goal for the home side seems only moments away, until, well, I think Tom put it the best, “I did not see that coming”.

He’s quite right, because one LB player has just dinked the ball over the SBU keeper and the LB keeper is sprinting towards the halfway line, a blur of neon orange, screaming his shrill war cry, “same again, same again”.

There is quite the contrast between the home and away benches. SBU have quite the “entourage” as Tom puts it, their dugout is surrounded, and at anyone time there are at least three people in the technical area. The main man for them in his bright white baseball cap, is demanding, like a character from Mortal Combat, that his team “finish them”. They should be out of sight by now, and when his keeper almost fumbled the ball into the back of his own goal, he let’s out a relieved, “fuck sake”.

LB on the other hand have two relatively calm guys, dishing out the advice, the advice which if you are a Fifa player would be, triangle + L1, for those not initiated in the world of computerised football, that’s a ball over the top, and your fastest player running from deep, but they can't quite get the timing right, and are racking up the off sides.

“Its coming” shouts the LB keeper, and I sense it too, I think everyone can sense it, a bit of a back against the wall smash and grab, seems to be on the cards. The SBU bench can definitely sense it, but their instructions might be giving the players a bit of a mixed message. “Relax, you're panicking” says one coach, doing the hands out flat in front of him, palms down, up and down ‘chill the fuck out’ motion managers and coaches do, I can't though make out if he is also doing the overly exaggerated, mouthed, but totally silent "calm down", which normally accompanies it, this is however somewhat contradicted by the man next to him demanding the players are “quicker”.

It’s fair to say one is subjected to hearing all sorts of things at football, at any level, some funny, some nasty, some just outright weird, but one thing one of the LB coaches says, in what I think is a French or maybe Italian accent, or maybe he’s from Dalston, and I’m an idiot, is so wonderful. His defender has come up against a player who likes a step over or six, and from the edge of the pitch he guides him, “stand him up” he shouts, nothing that poetic about that, bog standard terminology, however what he says next is worthy of a t-shirt, mural or the title of a bad 00's movie, “let him dance”. When the attacker has been suitably stopped, he adds one last thing, “good defending”.

Always keen to try and keep impartial it can sometimes be hard not to get wrapped up in one team's efforts, and LB’s fighting spirit, means I have ever so slightly started to lean towards them. It is though under my breath, I'm not lighting any flares or chanting their name, that I say “shame” when SPU go 2 - 1 ahead, and I get the feeling the football Gods might have given us all the romance they feel fit.

The home team's orders are simple “4 minutes, keep it compact”.

Maybe the distance from the small perspex bench to the pitch was the problem, maybe the players just weren't listening, maybe they were still reveling in going ahead, but I’m not sure the message got across.

Once again the contrast between both technical areas is vast, “come on” screams the SPU coach as his team have conspired to ruin his evening, conceding once again to make it 2 - 2. On his knees, head down, he pounds the turf, he is not far off going full ‘Platoon’. The LB bench is a whole other story, both of them are not far off dancing themselves, and it's their turn to tell their team to be “relaxed” and “compact”.

The games end is as frantic as you might expect, LB have a big shout for a penalty waved away, SBU have one last shot, but it comes to nothing, Tom is concerned for the SBU coach in the baseball cap who he thinks is about to “blow a fuse”. The referee saves him, calling things to an end with a blow of his whistle just before the LB keepers wayward, shanked goal kick, reaches terra firma, and Tom is understated as ever in his appraisal of tonight's entertainment, “good game, what an end”.

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Thursday, 8 September 2016

Nowhere To Hide - Ramsgate FC Vs Hythe Town FC, Ryman League Division One South, Southwood Stadium, 29/08/16.

I’m very lucky to have an understanding family, a fiancee and young son who love me, because I have an addiction, that not only affects my personal and professional life, but my home life too. It’s not bass, drink or drugs, I’m addicted to football.

I have been very open in the past about my issues, this blog is a cathartic way to air my feelings, I’ve never held back, I’ve always been honest and gone into great depth about my unquenchable thirst for a 50/50 or half time raffle, so feel more than comfortable in discussing my newest breakthrough, as admitting you have a problem, is the first step to recovery.

Along with my aforementioned fiancee and son, I’m currently on our week away from the mundane at the seaside, searching out the perfect Slush Puppie, constantly reassuring my partner that she isn't terribly sunburnt, “no hun, you look great”. Tom is visiting his mum in Cornwall, so it should be a time to kick back, and relax, but a part of me is unable to switch off, and forget the blog.

The bank holiday fixtures were however an all too powerful force, so I’ve managed to shoehorn a game into my trip. “It’s Dad’s holiday as well”, is how I just about sell it to my 9 year old son, who if it isn't Minecraft or Marvel, just isn’t bothered.

I think I’m fooling Rachel when I tell her that it was an impromptu decision, off the cuff, an afterthought, but she knows it’s bullshit, just as I do. I sent out a tweet over a week ago, asking for recommendations about teams in or around Margate, and some not inconsiderable research went into today's decision.

Ramsgate, a ten minute train ride from where we are staying, is warm and breezy, with blue skies. On our way to the promenade, I join my son in a bit of Pokemon Go, but all the time I'm very conscious of my internal, Jack Bauer, ‘24’ style clock ticking down towards kick off.

The walk to the front takes a little longer than expected, but was at least pleasant. As I sit and wait for an oaf in a hi viz waistcoat to finish his ice cream before he starts the fairground ride that my son is sitting on, from the shade of his control booth, all whilst a man does bad covers of Simply Red songs on a pop up stage with an acoustic guitar. I have to pretend that all this sitting around is not affecting me, I have to pretend I’m more than happy to watch this bloke eat his Cornetto, counting the seconds before he turns on the blasted ride, so we can get going again, we are wasting valuable minutes.

More walking, more aimless walking looking for somewhere to eat, I’m sweating not because of the heat, but because Google's suggestions keep ending up closed. Doesn't it know its the August bank holiday? We pass a pet shop with a basket outside full of the skeletal remains of some kind of animal, a sign hangs above it “postman’s legs” can't we all just have a bit of that, that will tide us over, surely.

Where we do eventually end up is quite the oasis, from the public holiday, Mick Hucknall, blazing sun madness. A record shop come cafe, that has turntables playing Neil Young next to the polenta cake, and has just about enough cheese left over after the morning rush to feed my son, so I don't have to explain to his Mum that I gave him bones to chew on for lunch.

This is all well and good, but time is not on my side, I’m used to arriving with plenty to spare with Tom, which allows us to get comfy, take some pictures, ease into our surroundings. All this ambling, all this cooing from Rachel over the houses we pass, means I’m close to losing my shit.

Thankfully the brown sign pointing to “Football Ground” alleviates my withdrawal, we are close, close enough that the president won't die or a nuclear bomb won't go off, we are going to arrive in time, we won’t miss the start, not that I’m bothered or anything.

Once we are all paid up, and on the other side of the red and white turnstile, inside Southwood Stadium the home of Ramsgate FC (RFC), the jovial man dead ahead knows a sucker when he sees one, and is straight on me, and doesn't have to ask me twice, “jackpot tickets, 5 for a pound, best jackpot ticket you will buy all day”, he might as well have said “give me your money” and I would have.

Although I love Rachel very much, I make my payment to him low key, it’s not far off a folded banknote in the palm of my hand, she has helped me through some tough times, and I would hate her to think I have relapsed, but the chance to win a hamper of homemade cakes, a bottle of wine I’ll never drink or £23.46 in change, is just sometimes more compelling than love.

A no nonsense Stockportonian, Rachel can sometimes be a little too frank, so when our attempt to enter the club shop, a raised white portacabin next to where we just walked in, is halted because as she puts it, “it's full of old men shaking hands”, we have to bide our time, until admittedly a large group of ‘old men’ in club ties does pile out, and we can have a quick nose about.

The pleasing musk of old old football programmes, and a display of club merchandise, greets us, and there is not much room to swing a cat, so it's probably not a bad thing that the ‘old man’ quota has reduced a little. Josh and I pick a pin for Tom, and he is very amused by the use of farmyard animals as props among the scarves, mugs and pair a of signed goalkeepers gloves, think Selfridges at Christmas, but with a very distinct ovine feel. One miniature has Josh particularly entranced, because it’s managed to get it’s head stuck in a tiny fence, such is his curiosity the man running the shop has to tell him that the “sheep are not for sale”.

Match day is in full swing once we emerge, sadly for Josh minus a sheep, but with a few bits to keep Tom sweet, considering he’s missing out. As Josh reminded me on the way here, “it’s not Two Men In Search Of….” today. A few people, wisely if you ask me have taken to sitting on one of the concrete steps behind the goal with a pint, flicking through the programme or as it’s called here, the ‘matchday magazine’ soaking up some vitamin D.

“Hello good afternoon, welcome to Southwood” says the voice over the tannoy, not long after what I’m sure was the theme tune to Channel 4 news. Rachel and Josh have made a beeline for the shade of the main stand, which stretches along one side of the pitch. It’s curved, humped roof, has an almost art deco feel to it.

I stick around the mouth of what might be the longest players tunnel in all of football. A red floored pathway, boarded with wooden fencing, is very narrow and must stretch back a good 50-60 metres to the changing rooms far off in the distance. When a man in a straw hat, great choice, tells the man in a woolly hat, crazy choice, on the gate that the players are “coming”, there is much peering and watch checking, when they don't appear. Maybe they set off thirty minutes ago and all stopped off for a Little Chef, it’s that long.

When they do finally appear, all to the tune of 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' by Strauss more commonly associated with the moon landing, after their pre match hike, they seem at double time. Kick off is imminent, and time is pressing, but every player to a man still has the time to shake hands with the woolly hat wearing gate keeper who wishes them all good luck.

“Come on you Rams” shouts someone in the big red migration once the teams have chosen ends, and Josh and I join them on their way to the John Reeves stand, a covered terrace, which is red and white of course, keeping in check with the rest of the ground. Underneath it, long concrete steps stretch out beyond it’s cover, most, including ourselves, lean against the red brick wall at its back, well in the shade.

One fan brave enough to stick in the sun, going by the scorched sections of the pitch, they might be better off out of it, has a brief exchange with the referee's assistant “have a good game” he says, the man with the flags reply is brief and to the point “I will”.

RFC get off to a flying start, get a couple of early chances and their number 11 looks exciting. This gives the group along from us every reason to be noisy, one, has a bit of the ‘late 1970’s punk band front man’ about him and I can’t quite work out what he is saying. It’s either a ‘Martha and The Vandellas’ reference, very niche, but very cool “nowhere to hide baby” he’s yelling or it's a play on words, considering RFC’s opposition is Hythe Town FC (HT), “nowhere to Hythe baby”, whatever it is, it has a certain ‘I quite like a ciggie or three’ gravelly tone, so I can't be certain.

“How they getting that back?” asks Josh when the ball sails over the wall behind us into no man's land. The person next to us talking to his grandson, suggests he “goes down to JD sports and gets a new one” all is not lost though, when someone simply shifts a loose fence panel and disappears, returning not long after with the ball, much to Josh’s relief, “the ball is back” he tells me.

Both men in goal have been reasonably busy, when HT have a couple of half chances the RFC keeper does well, and the fans show their appreciation. HT’s keeper in front of us, has probably kept out the best chance of the match so far, what should have been a certain goal, was smothered well, the attacker just dawdled that little bit too long, less than six yards from goal. As fine as his reflexes in goal have been however, it is his perceived time wasting that is getting the most attention, the noisy lot along from us, are making the referee aware of this at every opportunity.

The odd squawk of a gull, reminds me we are only a stone’s throw from the coast, and that we are fulfilling our ‘matches by the sea’ quota quite nicely, after our visit to Clacton. A stop in the match for an injury, one that Josh isn't quite convinced is for real “someone got shoved over or they’re acting” he suggests, means that Sid Vicious is back again “nowhere to hide baby” he screams and Josh says to me a bit too loudly “that man is mental”, I have to tell him to be quiet because “he might hear you”.

When play is back underway, Josh brings up a few points with me from the game so far. Firstly he “can't believe how much they swear”, that's the players, not the fans, and wonders, with all the shoving and fowling “if they actually like each other?”.

“Come on you Rams” chant the supporters low and slow, after they go ahead, and it's the least that RFC deserve. The same player who didn't take the chance not long before, the dawdler, puts the home side in front from the penalty spot. “You've got it Rambo, this is it” shouts someone as he takes a short run up and scores, he continues his run, jumps in the air, pumping his fist at the same time.

When the tannoy comes on to confirm the time of the goal and the name of he scorer he sounds like the announcer at a train station. I’m straining my ear, like someone waiting for the announcement of their platform or an impending cancellation, he is completely inaudible.

“So far so good” says one fan to another not long after the halftime whistle, as the players start their long walk back to the changing rooms. The main topic of conversation around us, is the penalty, most people’s opinion being that, it wasn't one. “It was a goal, but it wasn't a penalty, I know that for sure” says one fan, “never a penalty” says another, “it was never a sniff of one” says a third.

When the winning jackpot numbers are being read out, its done at such a pace, I can’t keep up. I’m
still fumbling around to find my tickets, by the time he's finished, it's like he doesn't want anyone to know who has won so he can keep the hamper of fudge for himself, or whatever the prize may be. One ‘Rain Man’ has managed to keep up with his machine gun number reading, and is swinging his arm with a ‘darn it’ motion, not a winning ticket there then. Apparently the “prizes will be available in the club shop” but I will have to find out if I’ve won yet.

We have mentioned before that we enjoy the mix of music you get at non league football grounds, I’m sure there is a Tom Hanks, Oscar winning, chocolate based analogy I could give to encapsulate what I’m trying to say, but I can't think of it off the top of my head, nonetheless the Southwood Stadium has not failed to disappoint, and has admirably kept up the tradition. Before kick off the Channel 4 news theme tune, as the players arrived a bit of Strauss and now the cherry on the top, the theme tune to Police Academy, everyone's favourite 80’s cop movie franchise.

Josh is quickly learning that the recovery of footballs is a crucial task at every club in the ‘lower leagues’. We are both however caught by surprise by one man’s efforts, as we make our way to join Rachel in her red plastic chair in the Colin Hill Stand with the rest of the prawn sandwich brigade, normally one for roughing it on the terrace, today she opted for comfort. All of a sudden perched high on the wall at the back of the stand, showing all of the dexterity of a leaping mountain sheep, a man appears grinning down at us both, Josh both stunned and amused asks quite rightly, “how did he get up there?”.

Rachel is quick to share her thoughts on the first half, and we have some differences of opinion, we can though both agree on the “dazzling array of top knots” on show “ from “both teams”. Although we agree on the abundance of trendy haircuts, and that RFC’s 11 is looking great and she add’s that HT’s number 9 is doing well also, with the only downside being that he thinks everything is a hand ball, we differ on the match itself, she thinks it's been quite an even game so far, I think it’s been all RFC.

Tom would have loved these seats, not so much for the view, it’s not all that, but for the smell, the nostril busting smell of the onions wafting over from the beige mega shed tea bar, right next to where we are sitting.

Forty five minutes is how long I got out of Josh today, which might be a record for how long a football match has held his attention, but for the start of the new half his nose is buried in my tablet and he misses HT’s early chance.

Its RFC though who should have gone further ahead, only for a miss of “Ronny Rosenthal” proportions, which is how one fan puts it so eloquently. Somehow what should have been a tap in, after the player had the ball laid back to him on a plate, he somehow conspired to miss, from less than six yards out. In his defense it must have taken a nick or the slightest of deflections, because it results in a corner, which lets him save face a fraction, but he had to score..

A good barometer for how well, or how badly RFC are doing, is reflected in how many people are on the sidelines shouting and gesticulating. One person is a constant, “Del Monte” as Rachel has christened him, the manager in a straw fedora, not a pearly white one like the pineapple hunter I must admit, he is playing out every kick and pass. If things start to take a downwards spiral then he is joined by another chap in a white polo shirt, who standing less than a foot away mimics the gaffas poses. If things hit rock bottom then a third man appears, who clearly has not got the memo about what to wear, he is in black shorts and t-shirt, and all three go hell for leather, dishing out instructions to the players, and give the linesman on the near side an ear full.

They have every right to be unhappy, RFC are being sloppy and if it wasn't for the raised flag of the assistant, HT would be on a level pegging and really would have had no right to be, with the game now descending into a scrappy, slightly heated one. The HT number 3 seems to kick out following a challenge, the assistant who is on top of it, gets it both barrels from the bench, Rachel is sympathetic, “poor lino”, the rest of the supporters are not, “warn that number 3” demands one fan, ‘Del Monte’ looks to be on the edge of a complete melt down and another fan a few rows in front of us is appalled, and accuses him of skullduggery “I don't think he wanted to see it”.

He’s back again, “nowhere to hide” he bellows following a goal, RFC’s second, a close range header following a cross from the left, the resulting celebration almost goes a bit ‘Steve Morrow’ with the man whose lifted up the scorer just about holds on to him, and avoids dropping him on his head. Hopefully now the nearside assistant will get a bit of respite, as there is a palpable drop in the RFC management's collective blood pressure.

Before number 11 gets the third of the game, a goal he has richly deserved, there is a five minute spell of absolute pandemonium, as RFC condense a game's amount of chances into 300 seconds. A cross come shot, almost catches out the HT keeper, but he tips it over well, there's a curling shot from just inside the box and an overhead goal line clearance. Someone is quite right when they say that little spell was, “worth the entrance fee”.

‘Del Monte’ jogs up the touchline punching the air following his team’s third and final goal. When the man on the tannoy comes on, in an obvious state of frenzy, he has turned himself up a bit too loud, as it's verging on the deafening, but he sounds like he is having fun wherever he is.

The final moments of the match following the goal and the maelstrom, is a bit of a come down, as the game peters out, to be fair no one could keep that pace up and it's probably a good thing for the RFC double act, not sure they could've handled much more. One HT player is lucky to stay on the pitch, after he cannons the ball off a downed RFC player, imagine Ashley Williams on Van Persie, but without quite as much theatrics.

When the away team get a shot on goal, which has been a scarce thing in the second half it's well off target and one fans asks “how wide do you want the goal?”

When RFC’s number 11 is subbed off, he gets the biggest round of the applause of the day. Slight, small, with good touch, and a taste for the tricky, he was my man of the match.

“Where did that come from” asks a confused fan when the board goes up with the added on time, one fan though sees it as a positive “4 mins, 2 more goals”.

Those leaving around us can agree that RFC “needed the 2nd goal” that’s what effectively did away with HT, or as one person put it “killed them off”. HT are off and down the tunnel pretty sharpish, but not before a couple of home fans and players have done the sporting thing, “well played Hythe”. Some HT players except the acknowledgment, “cheers mate” some not being surly or rude, say nothing, with heads down, they leave the pitch.

RFC on the other hand are bright eyed and bushy tailed, and applaud the fans waiting at the fence for their support. ‘Del Monte’ wants to ensure there is a proper warm down, and catches a couple of subs trying to slink off, but they are back soon enough. On our way to the clubhouse, for a much needed drink, we hear the RFC players in high spirits, cheering and hollering.

More chances to gamble, really, I thought I was the one with the problem. The opportunity presents itself when one of the bar staff approaches me clutching a white board, saying for only £3, I can enter the draw, but I decline. I need instant gratification, I cant wait three weeks for the results, I’m not about the long game.

Perhaps Josh’s highlight of the day once we’ve found a seat at the edge of the obligatory non league clubhouse dance floor, just left of the small stage, with a cold drink, is when he discovers the ground is a Pokestop. While he gets those all important Ultra Balls, Rachel and I reflect on our singed ears and blushed cheeks, and realise the only one sensible enough to bring a hat was the 9 year old, not that I could pull off a Batman baseball cap, if I’m honest.

Curious I should think about the person who asked the team to pose with a flag after the match, the chairman of the supporters association and club committee member, in his pristine tie with tiny golden rams leaping all over it, comes over and introduces himself. “Makes a change” is his reply after I congratulate him on the good result. Today was also a good result for the coffers, a decent increase on the head count thanks in some part to the good weather and bank holiday. With the combination of non league day and the FA Cup for their next home game, not that he will see it, he is off on holiday and will miss the next “3 games” which he looks miffed about, they are hoping for another big crowd, “keep the momentum” he explains “keep the income coming in”.

Josh did a good job at filling in for Tom today, more ‘One and a Half Men..” than two. He took a couple of nice pictures, didn’t manage to watch the whole match mind, but at least he didn’t go on about food so much.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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Wednesday, 31 August 2016

A Hurdle Too Far - Croydon FC Vs V.C.D. Athletic FC, FA Cup Preliminary Round Replay, Croydon Sports Arena, 24/08/16.

In the 1957, Bank Holiday Monday essential viewing, Word War Two epic ‘The Bridge On The River Kwai’ the POW’s of the Japanese prison camp are punished in a particular way. Placed inside a small iron box, they are forced to endure the hot Burmese sun for hours on end.

Fast forward fifty nine years, and although in no way am I comparing my plight to that of those fictional or non fictional, who had to suffer such horrors, but a very, very, minute part of me wonders if I have just had a taste, a flavour, a homeopathic sized portion of what those men had to go through, as I board the carriage of the Jubilee line.

It’s overwhelming, all consuming, stifling and frankly fucking hideous. Within moments the flask of water suspended from my rucksack and the reams of tissue I stole from work to mop my brow, seem woefully insufficient, it’s roasting. My aim for the next forty five minutes is to move as little as possible, the less I move, the less potential there is for creating any unnecessary heat.

There is an occasional breeze, the faintest hint of coolness, but it's all too fleeting, and is just a bit mean. “They got the heating on?” asks one man to another as they get on at a station two down the line, from where I did. Each new commuter makes the same face, a ‘wow, fucking hell’ face, it’s an all body reaction to the oppressive temperature. Many reach for anything they can, a newspaper, a magazine, to fan themselves.

Standing among the dripping suit wearing souls at Canada Water waiting for Tom, once again I’m early, that’s three times in a row, but he’s even earlier, darn it! Not only is he punctual, he is effortlessly slaloming between people, making his way towards me along the platform in his denim shorts and white polo top. Not only is he here before me, no gloating for me this week, he is suitably dressed for once, and is pulling it off with aplomb.

“Hot” is his first and only word to me. After affirming the blooming obvious, he has the cheek to moan that I’m not early enough, on the train he arrived on he “had a seat” and “it was empty”. The scene now, is similar to the platform at a Japanese train station, and we wait anxiously for the men with shovers to cram us all on.

Tom tries to comfort me, reassuring me that “at least it’s got aircon”, but it's still cosy, and I find myself wedged between another large fellow and a bright orange pole, like a reluctant and overweight stripper. Thankfully the journey isn't long, and for everyone's sake the man behind me doesn't have a handful of $1 bills.

Now south of the river, the blue sky of the north, has been replaced with a grey and overcast one, but guess what, it’s still hot.

I’m not going to pretend I can remember much about the the next fifteen minutes or so of my life, as the hunt for the bus stop, turns into a hunt for the ground, and I have to drag myself, one step at a time, towards the football. What I can recall aren't what I would class as memories per se, I think my brain is too sweaty to create and store basic things like memories, but they’re more of a hazy waft, like a few hours after waking up, and you half remember a bit of a dream from the night before. I think we passed a Crystal Palace pub claiming to be the ‘Home of the Eagles’ with a red and blue facade and same coloured flags hanging under window boxes, a restaurant called Full Belly’s, and I’m sure Tom reminded me that the following day was a religious holiday for him, ‘National Burger Day’, which he observes like you and I do Christmas.

Tom is of course chipper, asking himself out loud “what will tonight's dinner be?” and like a bloodhound sniffs the air when he thinks he can smell fish and chips, but his senses are failing him tonight, he “doesn't know where it’s coming from”. It’s coming from ‘Tony's SUP”A”FRY’, Tony’s fish and chips, why are you concerned with such things? I can barely stand.

Looking to the general public like someone who could benefit from a carer, I stumble along the pavement, stopping at every lamp post to take pictures of the abundant Holmesdale Fanatics stickers, drawing out our journey. When we do though eventually, somehow, arrive at the entrance to the Croydon Sports Arena, it looks remarkably like a building site.

An older green sign, with missing letters points towards a much newer one which at least spells out in full our destination, and confirms that we are in the right place despite the scaffolding alluding to otherwise.

It would be difficult to miss the neon pink entrance, with the name of the venue in large metallic letters adjacent to it. As we get closer it becomes apparent, that this isn't just a football ground, it’s an athletics stadium, which Tom confirms, when Tom blurts out “running track”, two words no football fan really ever wants to hear, ask a West Ham supporter.

A blue single storey building is doing an understated impression of Norman Bates’s home on a small hill, overlooking the pitch. On closer inspection and once we have traversed the zigzagging pathway with it's blue balustrade, a small sign on the front reads “Welcome To Croydon FC” flanked by two images of the clubs crest. Although the sign has ‘welcomed’ us, and the double doors have been pinned open, what is beyond is not exactly unwelcoming, but it’s not perhaps what you would expect.

I call out, “hello”, like someone entering a suspicious looking house in a 90’s slasher movie, I wait for the wind to pick up, slamming the door behind me, and prepare myself for my untimely demise, which may well involve my guts ending up on the floor. Tom stays in the doorway, quivering like Shaggy, “I think it's the wrong place” he says, as I venture forward. The large sports hall is empty, only the mats for an upcoming Yoga session litter the floor, all but one door and the far end is locked.

Tom is now inside, tentatively following me, a few steps behind. As we get closer to the open door I can hear the faint hum of a large TV, which I can see through the doorway hanging on the wall, a fan whirls away and a couple on a large blue sofa look up, and then turn back to the TV.

The club bar, or ‘Blue Room’ is what the mysterious place at the back of the hall turns out to be, and not the haunt of a Scooby Doo villain. It’s floor to ceiling Croydon FC (CFC), a veritable shrine, it’s as if it's been decorated by a football obsessed twelve year old. Every inch is covered with flags, scarves, pictures and pennants, it's wonderful, what every clubhouse or bar should be like, along with the customary fruit machines, it’s got everything you could want. A large all blue Union Jack hangs proudly with ‘Croydon FC’ written across it.

Tom was however half right, we are not in the right place, for the way in that is, a pint yes, but football no. So under instruction we are told to head back down the slope to the flash entrance we had passed.

“Who fancies a go at the golden goal?” asks a man clutching a sandwich bag filled with folded white pieces of paper, within about a nano second of getting in. You don't have to ask me twice, I pay, make my choices and get told not to “lose it”.

There is clearly a model, a standard blueprint for athletics stadiums, the Croydon Sports Arena, is indiscernible, except for a few differences, like the ping pong table trackside, to the few we have been to before, the same model stretching from Tower Hamlets to TeBe.

One large covered stand dominates, elevated so people can get a view of the far side of the track, and then there's a lot of space, especially between where you are expected to watch from, and the action in the middle. Although there are three covered standing terraces on the other side, there is also a hammer cage behind one goal, and a shot put circle behind the other, athletics first, football second, which is confirmed by Suniel a club official, who tells us that the club are only able to play on Saturday, Mondays and Wednesdays, so not to clash with the Croydon Harriers meets.

Suniel also breaks it to us that the “tea bar, is currently closed” no one it seems was “expecting a replay”, so the woman who runs it, is running late, due a prior engagement. This is not what Tom wanted to hear, what will he eat, this is also not what another supporter was expecting, turning the corner to see it closed, looking horrified, then checking his watch on his wrist, with a ‘surely it should be open by now’ expression on his face.

The ground is particularly quiet, other than CFC’s opposition, V.C.D. Athletic FC (VCD) warming up, and the occasional screech of the passing trams which appear, and then disappear again behind the fence on the opposite side, which explains CFC’s nickname ‘The Trams’ and is about the only thing I knew about Croydon as a place, is that they have them, it's very calm, very still.

When Tom mentions that there is “no music” playing, which he thinks might be a “first”, and we have come to love the eclectic mix of non league tunes we hear, so it's a shame not to be able to sing along with a bit of Golden Earring, except for the faint murmur of the dressing room hip hop, which seems to be the music of choice for most changing rooms, you could hear a pin drop.

It has become more than apparent to us, that the ‘non league world’ is a small one. We have definitely
started to recognize the same faces, some we exchange a smile or a handshake with. Tonight is no different, and we have a catch up with someone we met last season at the beginning of our ‘road to Wembley’, Billy from Erith Town FC. He however is here with ulterior motives, I’m sure he would rather be stuck at home in front of the open fridge, like the rest of us, but he is here on a clandestine mission. Erith are CFC’s next opponents and he is under instruction from his chairman to “take a notepad”, as he wants to know about every area of the team.

Tom is praying the tea bar opens soon, his small ration of Haribo is dwindling, and when it finally does, he is not the only one eager for a cuppa or something in a bread roll. His spider senses are quickly tingling at the sound emanating from the front of the queue, “does that sound like hotdogs?” he ask me, I give up.

“Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3” splutters the tannoy, broadcasting Suniel's gentle voice around the ground. Once he confirms that it works, he offers out a “good evening everybody” and gets on with reading out the team sheet, the same team sheet that has been pinned to a nearby door, and has caused a bit of a scrum among those who wish to amend their programs. To avoid getting a whack in the face, every so often a bang comes from the opposite side, alerting those outside that someone inside is trying to come out, and wants to avoid an accident. He struggles with the pronunciation of a few names, but finishes off like a pro, in his methodical voice, none of the razzmatazz of QPR, but different strokes and all that.

“Yes please gents” shouts the referee's assistant, after giving one of the changing room doors a good thump. His prompt results in a mighty roar from one team, who are just about to appear from the base of the main stand, walk up the short makeshift tunnel, and meet the referee who is waiting, fiddling with a ball.

Suniel’s subtle tones once again hopes that everyone will “enjoy the game”. From the stand fans of each team give a shout of support, “come on Vickers”, “come on you Blues”, “come on you Trams”.

Curiously from behind us, a man rings a small hand held bell, moments after the referee has blown his whistle. I join what is not a half bad turnout in the stand, climbing the few steps and picking the nearest empty yellow seat to plonk myself in, there is already a good murmur and the sound of chatting among fans fills the air.

Those like Tom who are not sitting are watching the women at the back of the tea bar feverishly chop onions, as quite the crowd has now formed in anticipation of the food to come.

The step difference, VCD are one above CFC, is apparent quite quickly, with not even fifteen minutes of the game gone the visitors have hit the post and have gone ahead, via the penalty spot. As nice an evening it is, it looks as though it might be a long and hard one for the home team.

“First time!” demands a fan from the stands, as CFC are presented with an opportunity to get back into the game, with just the keeper to beat, and a couple of VCD defenders in hot pursuit, the attacker takes the advice of the fan, but the VCD keeper, in my favourite shade of Buffon pink, saves well.

An outside of the boot flick finish sees VCD extend their lead, and compounds CFC’s challenge. “No not another one” says a CFC supporter next to us, sadly it is. The scorer does the kind of celebration which must send a shudder down his managers spine, a very acrobatic, 8.6 scoring front flip, which I’m sure if not pulled off correctly could result in a funny landing, a tweaked knee, and a month on the sidelines.

The VCD bench wants the players to play on as if it's “0 - 0” and for them not to “settle on this” but unless for a monumental meltdown, I have the feeling that this is wrapped up well before half time.

Tom finally returns, having watched both goals on the half turn in the queue for the tea bar, peering over the cover of the pole vault mat, which ever so slightly obscured his view. Although he almost didn't make it back to his seat with the food he just bought, “I almost dropped it” he tells me, he is very impressed, and thinks his burger might even have “mozzarella on it”, very fancy.

A combination of the weather and the running track, does make us both feel as if we are in fact in some corner of the Mediterranean, some Greek island, but that is all brought crashing back to earth when another tram passes, and lets off its ear piercing whine.

VCD think they have scored a third, but it’s ruled offside. One CFC fan wants good value from his night out, “come on Trams, get in the game, I want at least two hours for my money”. This is the same fan, who has been dishing out a booming running commentary from the back of the stand, for most of the match so far, his own voice louder than the tannoy, they should have got him to read out the teams.

CFC are not in this, are second to everything, and are probably a bit pleased to hear the halftime whistle. A whistle that doesn't follow any added on time, which is noticed by one fastidious timekeeper nearby “he didn't play any” he says, perhaps an act of kindness from the man in charge.

Not all is lost though for CFC if they can just get their number 11 more involved, he is rapid, scary fast, he should be on the track not the pitch, a Tokyo 2020 Olympian in our midst. When chasing the ball into the corner towards the end of the half, what seems a bit of lost cause, one VCD defender has a considerable head start on him, he quickly eats up the ground, overtakes him and pinches the ball, definitely an asset they should try and exploit in the second half.

The players douse themselves with water as they leave the pitch, even though the sun has all but gone, it's still bloody warm. A much welcomed breeze kicks up, Tom’s appreciation of it, that its “nice”, is grossly under playing it, it’s magical.

Whilst on the move to the opposite side on the running track for the second half, Suniel is back, once again sounding very far away, and is the bearer of bad news, “12 minutes” he confirms as the golden goal winning time, so we won't be pocketing the “£40”. Someone asks why the attendance has not been announced, “we're still counting” says a man in what looks like a CFC tie, must be a bumper crowd.

We’re still wandering along the inside bend of our first 200 when the game gets back underway. Tom plonks himself on the steeplechase hurdle, the perfect seat, but only after I have convinced him that trying to clear the water jump would be an error.

CFC seem a different team after the break, and get an early chance to stake a claim in the match, after a fizzing ball from the wing should have resulted in a goal, but it looks like the man in the box just didn't think it was going to reach him, “make a fist of is Croydon” demands someone loudly from the stand, that we can hear.

“Eight drops then it stopped” says Tom after some big dollop, monster rain falls briefly, we even hear a rumble in the distance but are not sure if it’s thunder or the imminent arrival of a tram, that are now only a few feet behind us.

Another boom, but this is neither Mother Nature or the local public transport, but a heavy duty block in the CFC six yard box, that prevents the VCD third, and lucky for them it did, because not long after CFC score, 2 - 1.

It’s just about the most simple of goals anyone can score, a mighty hoof from the keeper, who we both commented during the warm up, that he had an atomic weapon of a kick. The attacker gambles on the defender letting it bounce, which he does, the VCD keeper is lost in no man's land, and the attacker pokes it in.

While VCD berate their man in goal, the scorer has picked up the ball out the back of the net, and is running towards the centre circle, placing the ball on the spot.

VCD now look shaky at the back, CFC number 9 is throwing his weight around and number 11 is starting to make inroads. The home bench demands they are not to “switch off”, the away bench can see that they are under the cosh, and they shore up the defenses, “keep digging in” says someone, who perhaps has watched one too many episodes of Band of Brothers.

The advice from Captain Winters on the sidelines has clearly paid off for VCD, because not only do they think they have got a third, again, which is chalked off, again, with five minutes left, the precise moment that CFC should be plugging away with everything they can, they are now back on top.

One CFC player demands “one last push”, is there a special offer on World War Two films no one has told me about?

As it inevitably always does in the dying moments of most matches, a last and golden chance, will come, one side of the post or bar and its glory, the other, defeat. Such an opportunity falls at the back post, a free header, but it’s wide. Some players have their heads in hands, everyone's attention is on the player who failed to score, a ‘how did you miss that’ look in their eyes.

One VCD player asks the referee how long is left and is told “2 minutes”, when the whistle is blown for full time, another VCD player lets out a mighty “yesss”, many CFC players sink to their knees, or down onto their haunches then onto their backs. Many on the victorious side, show good sportsman ship, wishing those they have conquered, “all the best for the rest of the season”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE

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