Monday, 22 May 2017

Follow The Blue - FC Halifax Town Vs Chorley FC, National League North Play-Off Final 2017, The Shay (13/05/17)

Spending most of my time with a man who thinks Cheetos are a viable breakfast food, and a fidget spinner is a suitable aid to help pass the time on a 200 mile car journey, make me seriously question my choice of companion. Before hitting the M1 for the next three and a half hours, we stop for petrol. Tom as he puts it has “learnt” his “lesson” and will not be getting a coffee from this particular garage, it might say Costa on the outside of the cup, but by all accounts it’s certainly not Costa on the inside.

“Everyone loves Cheetos” proclaims Tom, filling the air in my small car, with the intoxicating aroma of a cheese I can't quite put my finger on the name of, tucking into handfuls of what are basically American Wotsits, at 08:10 in the morning.

Passing coach loads of Southampton fans, making the trip to Middlesbrough, really puts into perspective our jaunt to West Yorkshire. Not finding the required amount of entertainment in the ball bearing based toy, Tom has instead decided to point out every shredded and discarded tire on the side of the road, which has made me a little jittery considering my lack of breakdown cover. He also insists on announcing any destination of interest we pass, when it’s large brown sign appears, “Space Centre”, “Sherwood Forest”, “Chatsworth House”.

Always normally able to find something to talk about after a couple of hours in we seem to have exhausted most topics, and it's time to crack out the single largest CD binder in Western Europe, the thing is like a briefcase. “Got some good stuff” says Tom, turning over compact disc filled page, after compact disc filled page of awesomeness.

After watching a horse trailer almost cause a major accident, it seems a good a time as any to pull off the motorway, in search of a drink and a chance to stretch my legs, although this is easier said than done. I have exacting generic conglomerate coffee chain requirements. Costa just won't cut it, and on every roadside rundown of what's available, all too many are mentioning the aforementioned brand, among the Greggs, M&S and Burger Kings.

At nondescript service station number 122234, which Tom thinks is “depressing” and “not pleasant”, it’s busy, West Ham, Swansea, Stoke and Sunderland fans, as well as coach loads of elderly people, are taking the chance on their small layover, to tuck into a hot cross bun in Starbucks.

As a child I have faint memories of stops on long car drives being about getting a chance to have a go on tatty arcades, while my Dad guzzled black coffee. Sadly this age old tradition has been lost, like so many other dying out and being erased from this great nations fabric, like shin kicking competitions, cheese rolling and blacking up in a totally un racist way, the 50p a turn goes on Time Crisis One, and Dakota racing are a thing of the past and they have been replaced by the blinking gaudy lights of the fruit machines.

Although I might not be able to play Punisher, I can however, after being informed by Tom on his return from the the toilet, have a “shower”, which he passed on his way back. With a very, very large coffee, the thing is like a 7/11 Double Gulp, and Tom with his much more modestly sized one, but without cream, because he doesn't want to, “chunder in my car” we hit the road again. On our way out, we see we needn't have got out of the car at all, as round the corner there is a drive through Starbucks, the likes of which I've never seen before.

Tom a keen meteorologist, he’s forgone his multiple weather apps, and is instead using Mother Nature to tell him what to expect today, “cows are sitting down”. Him and his bovine forecast is not half bad, we experience intermittent rain, but not enough to diminish the ever increasingly wonderful scenery, in particular the rolling sun coloured fields of rapeseed.

Our destination is finally on the Sat Nav, and the clouds have parted ever so slightly, “follow the blue” says Tom, like a really rubbish storm chaser, but his instruction is paying off for now, every mile closer, more and more grey is being replaced by more and more clear sky.

A short almost oval tunnel, opens up, and below at the bottom of a green valley, we get our first glimpse of Halifax. Winding down the tree lined road, we both agree on first appearances, it looks very nice indeed.

Occasionally you will see a story of a driver who ended up in a river or a truck that hits a bridge, because of the instructions of the Sat Nav. I feel that we may be featuring on the ‘also in the news’ segment of a local regional news program near you soon, when we are directed down a cobbled road, that shakes the car so violently, I fear the return of Tom’s mocha and Cheetos breakfast. Up and down, twisting left and right, past every northern cliche in under a mile, factory, chimneys, canals, I’m certain we are going the wrong way, however we emerge, sans vomit, right opposite today’s ground, The Shay.

Winding down my window to make an enquiry about the parking situation, I’m informed by the steward to go round the corner to the “multistory car park”, which he says with a thick Yorkshire twang. £4 lighter, not bad for a day's parking, we find our spot, but before stepping out, we both look at each other, Tom the quicker to comment, taking the words right out of my mouth, “that smells good” he says. He’s not wrong, the smell of cooked onions fills the car park, a smell which is welcome to accompany any situation in his book.

“What's the forecast?” asks a Chorley FC (CFC) fan to the parking attendant, “is it going to rain?” she adds, I can see Tom wanting to dish out his farm based updates but he refrains, and we leave her to her coat or not coat dilemma, deciding to head off for a walk among the sandstone buildings of the city centre, where Tom thinks he is the first person to point out that “there is a Halifax (building society) in Halifax”.

After a quick pit stop in a bowling alley, where there are plenty of arcades, but neither of us feel like dancing, we turn the corner, and find a pub whose railings are covered in flags and balloons, one giant St George's Cross almost covers one half of the front, and still with about two hours to kick off, the party is already in full swing.

Stupidly thinking that the music might stop as we push open the double doors, much like in American Werewolf in London, the good people of Halifax could not give a toss about two dopey Londoners, and carry on their preparations for the day ahead. Some are wearing souvenir FA Trophy shirts from last years final, where we saw FC Halifax Town (HT) win at Wembley on Non League Finals day. Among the drink and air horn covered tables, in one corner flags on long poles are propped up, waiting to be unfurled. 

Once Tom has got over the price of a beer outside of London, “your Coke was the same price as my pint”, we get talking to a local. ‘Confident?’ I ask him, his reply is not one from a person who is supremely hopeful, but of someone whose team has put them through the ringer so much, it’s perhaps difficult to ever be ‘confident’, “this is Halifax Town, I’ve been watching this shower for 30 years”. If not sure about his own team's prospects, he is totally clear on their oppositions approach to the match, “Chorley come to kick lumps out of Halifax, it will be that kind of game”.

Talk turns to how many from CFC will be here today, another fan in his blue strip tells us “ten coaches” worth are rumored to be making the hop over the Pennines. It's about this time that most people's attention is drawn to the two chaps on the table in front of us, who from their own shot glasses are doing shot after shot from a bottle of Jack Daniels. Transfixed on them, it’s not until another fan points out “here they are”. ‘They’ being the mounted officers of West Yorkshire police, who are holding up the traffic, making their way down the street, adding to their already considerable ranks, none of whom seem very popular among the locals.

Under advice we head off to the ground early, it’s not only CFC bringing big numbers, the home team are expecting a bumper turnout too. The chance to bounce straight back up to the National League, after last years relegation, too good to miss. As we leave what one fan told us is the “best football pub in the north” a small child is handed an air horn, and for the first time we hear a song, which by this evening, might be forever seared into my brain “we’re on our way…..”. It only seems to get louder, the further away we get, and Tom wishes we had time to stop in at another recommended pub, which has “pie and peas” on the lunch menu.

The ear drum bursting announcements as we arrive at The Shay, were not the welcome we expected.
Once the ear ringing has subsided, we are informed that the “turnstiles will open at 13:45”. Although not inconsiderable queues have already formed in front of the closed gates, we still have ten minutes to kill, so we drop in on the club shop. It has the feel of a Primark about it, as Tom picks up his customary pin, other people are not squabbling over a leopard print halter top, from a pile on floor, but are deciding which match worn shirt to buy, and only for £5 it’s a wicked little memento, just watch out for the flying elbows.

Ready with flags, scarves, blue and white wigs, face paint, some fans in old shirts some in new ones, one boy in a blue and white jester hat bells and all, the advice to get here early seems well founded, as not long after joining the queue for the South Stand which from the outside at least looks like a building site, it's now out of the car park and snaking up a hill.

Cheers go up as the thin blue doors are opened and pinned back. The line moves quickly, once on the other side people are handing out white clackers from a brown cardboard box, “I fucking hate them things” mumbles Oscar the Grouch. Those in the know, are bypassing us and are racing for the stand, past the smart or “fancy”, as Tom puts it, looking burger truck, and the small bar at its base, using either of the two small entrances, they are streaming in. As much as we want to get a good spot, I join another queue, the shortest of the day so far, the one for a programme and the half time draw.

Compact and basic is probably the best way to describe The Shay, however it's much bigger than I envisaged. The only thing of any real age by the looks of it, is the slanted roof stand to our left, half of its seats already covered in flags, “Shaymen keeping the faith” reads one. Opposite and much more modern in appearance, another single tier stand, behind each goal, tall covered terraces. Standing at the foot of ours we don’t take too long to decide where to stand, with talk of “record attendances” and hearing HT fans are a noisy bunch, with the stand quickly filling up, I mull over the possibilities of a very interesting day.

There is plenty of blue to be seen, not only in the shirts people are wearing, each one with "Shaymen Till I Die" on the back, but also in the railings and seats, however just not in the sky, which is still very grey.

First things first, we need to put down roots of our own, so we ascend, stopping just shy of the top, to the right of the goal. Tom quickly expresses some of his own concerns, “maybe I should eat before the match, it’s going to be busy”, and not long after settling, he disappears, “chips and gravy” are his last words to me.

Tom’s back with not a chip in sight, “fryers packed in” he was told, “got to see Dave if you want them”, not knowing who Dave is, he opts for a burger instead, which at one point causes him to let out a very high pitched “oooooooohh” because the onions start spilling out all over the place.

CFC are first out to warm up, and are roundly booed by pretty much everyone, “who are ya, who are ya” ask the fans. When their team arrive, it's all cheers and clackers, which have been so continuous since arriving, I’ve already tuned them out and it is no great surprise when I see they have already been weaponised, one boy repeatedly hitting his sister over the head with his.

The team get a song too, the first of so many, which is accompanied by banging on the stands back wall to add to the noise of the folded white paper fans, “Shaymen, Shaymen”.

Carrying a blue flag with the white rose of York emblazoned on it, like the standard bearer of some great army, and apt considering today's opponents being from Lancashire, some real old time beef in play today, the bearer joins in with the songs, which are now even more constant than the clackers, and far, far, far less annoying “Town are going up, Town are going up”.

We also hear for the second time in as many weeks a chant we had never heard before, that with a few tweeks is now being sung, just as it was by the Thurrock FC fans at the Ryman League North Play-Off Final, “come on you boys in blue, Yorkshires blue army”. It’s accompanied by a drum, which joins the air horns and clackers. It’s rattling quality evokes thoughts of the opening sequence of ‘Gangs of New York’ and The Battle Of Five Points or an Orange Order parade.

To be clear it’s still only the warm up, one of the players joins in clapping along to the latest song, “oh when the Town go marching in”. A large flag is passed over the heads of the crowd, an inflatable banana, everyone's favourite clown fish, Nemo and a monkey, join the beach ball and balloons, bobbing up over the heads of the people, whose numbers are swelling by the second. Culminating in an atmosphere, I have to reiterate the game has not even started yet, that is verging on overwhelming, it’s wonderful, “ally, ally, oo, ally, ally oo, FCHT, we are the blue army”.

Still with thirty minutes to kickoff, a balloon pops triggering a mild case of PTSD. There is also the faint whiff of a smoke bomb with people now standing on the back wall of the stand, it’s not only the home end filling up, but the away end too. More and more flags are going up, one the red rose of Lancashire, reinforcing those age old rivals, that gets a rise out of the home end, “Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire”.

HT are clapped off, sending the clackers into overdrive. Their departure is followed by the sprinklers that for the moment are only covering one half of the pitch. With a momentary lull, relatively speaking, they never really stop, behind us one fan shares the news that a member of the first eleven was injured in the warm up, “Seriously?” asks someone, it’s confirmed again, “fucking hell”.

Standing on the pitch in a grey suit, microphone in hand the announcer welcomes us all before, reading out the teams. More boos for the CFC players, in contrast every HT player gets a “yaa”, the other half of the pitches sprinklers eventually come on, one blasting a poorly positioned photographer.

Unfortunately the arrival of the announcer, does not signify the arrival of the players, and with the atmosphere so finely poised, everyone is going to have to hold their horses, after we’re informed there will be a “fifteen minute” delay to kick off. “Fuck off” shouts a fan behind us, one a little less sweary wonders, “why cant folk get in on time?”.

Forced to fill time, the man with the mic starts reeling off a long list of people to thank, local “plumbers” and “bathroom suppliers”, the fans entertain themselves, “we love you Shaymen we do”. The players are back out, rewarming up after the less than ideal delay, I hear the CFC fans for the first time, but they are about to be thoroughly out sung and out pyroed by the expectant HT supporters.

Blue and white smoke slowly starts to fill the stand, before it completely engulfs large sections of the crowd, the culprits responsible start to sing “no pyro, no party”. Their display soon goes up a notch, when for the first time ever we see an eye scorchingly bright red flare, being held up above the head of one fan. The smell, the lung bursting acrid smell fills my nose and mouth, you can almost taste it. It’s like the worst Yankee candle, ‘Guy Fawkes’ scent. “Your support is fucking shit” sing the smoke shrouded rabble. The arrival of the pyro, also see's the arrival of a large contingent of high viz jacket wearers, “the stewards are gathering” points out Tom.

Both sets of players head back in for a second time, “Shaymen, Shaymen”, the mascot's head back
out for the second time. This time a chant to the tune of a bit of Joy Division “tear you apart again”, fills the stand, and at the other end it's CFC’s turn to send a large flag over the heads of the crowd. Just as before when the teams are read out, it's boos for CFC, and cheers for HT. Another pyrotechnic goes off, it's not a smoke bomb or something off a life raft, you could maybe say it's a little more subtle, a blinking white light, strobing almost, like lots of camera flashes going off at once.

The blue PVC tunnel is extended, and the music from ‘Requiem for a Dream’ or “X Factor” as Tom recalls, starts to play. Chanting over the top of it the fans demand to see their team, “bring out the Shaymen, bring out the Shaymen”, it’s like the fucking Coliseum.

Handfuls of homemade confetti are chucked once more into the smoke filled air, fluttering down above the crowd. The sound system sounds like it's on its last legs, a large almost portly fox mascot has appeared, and he is not the only member of the animal kingdom in attendance, an inflatable crocodile joins the other extras from the Jungle Book being bounced around the stand.

The idea that music has to be constantly played at games, as if it’s required to prevent any awkward silences, has to be addressed. The choice of hardcore Dutch techno is really not nice or in fact required, the fans are making more than enough noise, there is no need to artificially pump in an atmosphere, when you have this lot, “I-O SHAYMEN, SHAYMEN I-O”.

With both ends bulging, the ever so slightly fat fox now standing down in front, people around us take a moment to exchange a hug, to exchange a moment of comradeship just before kick off, in a ‘whatever happens, we have each other’ kind of way.

CFC start us off, the crowd around us shout the loudest so far, “come on Shaymen”.

I thought our commitment to capture as much of the game as possible, was verging on excessive, however the man in front of us Facebook live streaming the game, has taken it to a whole new level, and is making me feel woefully inadequate.

He would have caught however the crunching CFC tackle that does not result in a booking, despite the feelings of the crowd “fuck off referee that’s at least a card”. More smoke and more shouts of “Yorkshire, Yorkshire” fill the stand once more, when CFC make a noise the South stand informs them, “we forgot that you were here”.

“That's our song” says Tom every time we hear someone other than Arsenal sing the “who to be a….” song, on this occasion it's a “Shaymen” of course.

Amazingly Mr Zuckerberg is still streaming the game, surely he must have a tired arm by now? Tom thinks the drummer needs a “better drum” it’s like a “snare drum without the snare”, he suggests. Despite the delayed kickoff people continue to arrive, they are forced to stand in the aisles, as there is now nowhere else to go. One such late arrival when quizzed about his smart attire, explains his reason for wearing a suit, “I’m not dressed like a cunt to come watch Halifax” he tells his cross examiner, he's off to the “boxing” after the game he explains.

As the HF fans keep saying, “it's the Shaymen boys making all the noise”, even if CFC were making any themselves, I wouldn't be able to tell you, it’s just far too noisy. One fan who is though it seems able to hear them breaking into a song on occasion, replies the same way, every time, singing the theme tune to Peter Kay's ‘Max and Paddy's Road to Nowhere’. Why I hear you ask, because they listen to Chorley FM of course.

Sadly what’s happening on field, is not matching the efforts of the fans off the field, who start to grow increasingly frustrated at how their team is playing. For many of the opening minutes the hoard of balloons, creeping along the sidelines, as if they are being led by a chief balloon at the front, is about the most interesting thing happening on the pitch at least.

HT get a free kick in a good position, the man behind me probably describes its outcome the best, “rubbish” adding “oh that was shit”. CFC get their own chance and another supporter feels the “pressure” is on, and it's getting a bit “squeaky bum time”.

“Get the beers in” demands one person to a friend, but gets a short shrift reply “no chance”. You would never get back, the stand is a sea of people, miraculously, the live streamer is still filming, perhaps he has a bionic arm.

With twenty five minutes gone its CFC who fashion the best chance of what has been a scrappy game, lacking in any real quality or “finesse” as one fan puts it. A good overlap and the resulting dangerous cross that follows, is headed away. I can hear the CFC fans this time, “la, la, la, Chorley”, and so can the Peter Kay fanatic behind me, “don't know where you're going, got no way of knowing”. HT have yet to really register anything of any great meaning, one fan calls for “calm” suggesting they should just keep it simple, “pass and move”, another has a little more panic in his voice “get a grip Town”.

“West Yorkshire, la, la, la” sing the fans, narrowing down their county based appreciation. HT are almost getting there, but then fall short just when it matters. On one such occasion a fan thinks it’s the fault of an early replacement for an injured player, “sub him back off, he's wank”.

It’s taken just over half an hour for HT to have their first real attempt. “Hit it, hit it, hit it,” demand the fans, he does, but it’s straight down the throat of the keeper, for a straightforward save. HT are playing the typical BIG man up front, number 14 encompasses all that comes to mind when you think of a ‘traditional’ centre forward. It almost seems cruel when the ball is pumped into space for him to chase down, “he’s like a gazelle, look at the pace on him” cues a fan, Tom just thinks he looks, “shattered”.

HT go close once more, a cross is put “in the mixer” causing a bit of panic in the CFC defense, much to the delight of the home fans, who don't need much excuse to sing “Shaymen, Shaymen, Shaymen”.

The home side then go and have a little bit of a wobble of their own, nearly scoring an own goal, “sort it out” bellows someone towards the bench.

When a pitchside photographer is clattered into by two sliding players, there is an en masse “wheeyy” when he gives the crowd a thumbs up, after picking himself up. This for a moment distracts the nearby protagonists, from their argument about the beer run, but not for long. The person doing the asking, explains that HT “don't look like scoring” so it's the perfect time to go, the one being asked to go explains that this is every reason not to go, “look how they score now”.

He may well have missed a goal, but it would have been scored by CFC, it’s only thanks to a well timed last ditch tackle, that CFC are prevented from completing their storming black and white counterattack. Seesawing now from end to end HT shoot just over, “I-O Sheyman, Sheyman I-O”. Much like the fans, some players are looking “frustrated”, especially one who leaves a little extra on a CFC player in the tackle. “That’s just silly”, adds a fan, shaking his head.

“Fucking rubbish” is ringing in my ears, the HT fans are becoming increasingly dismayed at their team's performance, with so much at stake, one fan describes it as being “ugly”, he is pretty spot on, one fan doesn't think the players are giving it their all, “come on town, play like you want to win”.

Driving nearly over 200 hundred miles today, will all be worth it if the “half time draw” pays off, with “£562” up for grabs. That would more than cover today's expenses, plus a few steiners of latte to boot. “Can't win up North either” says my smirking ‘friend’, he's right though, North, South, East or West, I’m just devoid of luck. Making sure I’m aware of how much money I just missed out on, Tom takes the time to paint a little picture for me, just to rub it in “these are the ones you want to win, that's a trip to Italy”

The ticket seller who failed to give me the winning tickets is “wished a happy birthday”, and although the man behind me is describing the match, “that was papsville Arizona” that's exactly how I feel about the draw.

Just to hammer home the disappointment, the announcer comes back on, “prize is big today” he emphasizes, before reading the numbers out, again and again. “Did you win Dad?”, asks a man to his returning father, “yeah I just spent it all”, he replies, “what, on beer?”.

The final last kick to finish me off, down but not quite out, is when the winning numbers are paraded around the pitch, written on a white board. Mercifully the tunnel is extended again, and the players re emerge, just as a big brother loses his patience with his little brother who has been tormenting him for the whole of the break, with a large yellow inflatable banana.

All the half time talk of first half disappointment quite literally goes up in smoke within one minute of the restart. A nutmeg finish sees the home side take the lead, which triggers an eruption of seismic proportions. More confetti, a player fan bundle at the front of the stand, a few leap onto the pitch to join in, “we're on our way, we’re on our way” rings out once more, but now sung with belief, not hope, grown men in the throes of ecstasy embrace each other. Once the smoke has cleared and the confetti settled, one man apologises to another for the impromptu intimacy, but he who was hugged was not bothered one jot, “you grab hold of me whenever you like”.

“You're not singing anymore”, another blue smoke bomb spirals over the heads of the stand onto the
pitch, the CFC keeper less than impressed picks it up and tosses it off, “Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire”. The announcement from the stadium announcer that the stadium is “non smoking” is perhaps delivered with very poor timing, the fans I’m sure not listening to a word of it, instead they just strike up another song “and now you better believe us, the Town are going up”.

Since HT took the lead, the CFC pressure has been building, one such probe at the HT goal, results in the dubious awarding of a foul, in the minds of the fans around us at least, and a free kick just to the right of centre, on the edge of the 18 yard box. “Fucking sky it you cunt” is the encouraging sentiment of one HT fan, the taker though does quite the opposite.

Racing off not towards the bulk of their fans behind the goal, which he has just side footed a low curling free kick in to, out of the reach of the tall all green HT keeper, he instead heads towards the small group off to the side, the over-spill if you like. Another blue smoke bomb makes an appearance, this time at the opposite end, landing on the pitch, one HT fan reminds the CFC fan who chucked it that his team “play in black and white”.

It’s CFC’s chance to turn the tables on the home fans, “you're not singing anymore” but their chance to gloat, doesn't last long “I O SHAYMEN, SHAYMEN I O” respond the South stand, which soon drowns out the CFC song.

“Good hands” says Tom after a ball cleared by the CFC keeper into the crowd, is plucked from the air, by a fan.

Despite a half chance, thanks to winning the ball back just outside the CFC box, the ball into the box is just about scrambled away, HT at the other end are looking shaky again, their keeper has a rare moment of madness. A ball out from the back goes straight to a CFC player, putting the pressure right back on them, “rubbish Town” screams a fan.

There is a lengthy stop in play with quarter of an hour to go, a CFC player is having his head “wrapped” after a collision, Tom again is on weatherman duty informing me the “sun” is now fully out, not just peeking out from behind clouds, like before.

“That was close” says a relieved HT fan, after CFC go near with another free kick. The mood is slowly changing for the worse, there has been a smattering of moaning that you would expect at any ground, but some fans are now full on, some talk of the team “imploding” some ask themselves, “what are we doing?”, one just pleads with the eleven players on the pitch, “come on town”.

You can’t really blame them, being fans of a team who have had their fair share of ups and down in recent years, you can understand why they might be quick to gripe. It’s not a case of them not being behind their team, you couldn't say that for a moment, more just of a case of their team having shredded their nerves so much in the past, that there is little left to be tested, as one fan puts it “1 - 0, in control, 1 - 1 collapse”.

Every time CFC approach the goal there is near panic, “start playing some football” requests a supporter. You have to love the marauding tank 14, who has not stopped, however  there is little he can do with the  balls being indiscriminately lumped up towards him. When he does hold it up or flick it on, his teammates are nowhere to be seen.

Five minutes to go, it's all CFC, “they seem to have more men on the pitch than us” says one fan. The high standards that the crowd have set themselves, has slipped just a fraction, they are uncharacteristically quiet. HT send hearts racing with a few late forays of their own, a well hit shot is pushed wide by the neon pink keeper, a good cross is headed wide also. “Cracking ball Jordan” applauds one fan, following a low fizzing ball right along the ‘corridor of uncertainty’, but no one is there to meet it.

With the game finely balanced, on a knife edge if you like, Tom has one of his rare, non food related poetic moments, “someone's heart is going to be broken”

“At least seven minutes injury time you would think”, that might be slightly wishful thinking, but not far off. The fans against the railings are eagerly waiting for a last minute winner and for the tension to be relieved. Another chance goes begging, the man you want on the end of a free header 10 yards out, number 14, puts it over, “wake up Town”.

The announcement that today's attendance is a new “record” for the league, gets one of the biggest cheers of the day. When the board goes up with a six on it, one fan matches Tom’s fine moment of prose and raises him, “come on Town, send this place into raptures”.

One CFC player tees up another for a shot, “can't end like this” says an uneasy fan, anticipating the shot turning into a goal, it doesn't, it's straight at the keeper, there is a collective ‘phew’.

“Halifax look knackered” says Tom, lucky for them they will have at least a few moments rest, before extra time. The final whistle goes, the announcer inform us we are in for another “thirty minutes” and another bright white flare is launched onto the pitch, the CFC keeper looks disdainfully at it, before he turns his back on the column of white smoke billowing up. CFC out of smoke bombs, or perhaps they are saving them, send up the biggest of their banners over the crowds heads once more.

Both sets of players huddle, with some serious dance music playing, Tom points out the “stewards conference” all those in hi viz are getting their instructions for what might be a busy next half hour. One in particular towers above the rest, “Lurch” as Tom calls him.

Tom whispers to me, although it’s hard to hear over the latest chant, “Shaymen, Shaymen, Shaymen” that he thinks CFC “will nick it”.

“South stand, East stand, we need you for another thirty minutes” roars the announcer, the CFC fans respond to his request for more support, but for their team of course “Chorley, Chorley”, never allowing the visitors to be heard for too long, the HT fans are quick to pipe up, “come on you boys in blue”.

When one HT forward lunges and catches the CFC keeper, a little after the event, CFC fans behind the goal demand a red card “off, off, off”, he is lucky not to get anything. “Stupid, stupid man” is how one fan brands him, when the referee decides to only give him a yellow, there is a huge sigh of relief.

HT continue to make things hard for themselves, their manager on the sideline asks for calm from his players. Despite trying to sabotage themselves on occasion, they still create chances, and go close with a well hit free kick of their own, which is palmed wide.

I guess you know you’re having a good time, when confectionery is flying? In the moments following HT taking the lead for a second time , a flashed near post header at the far end of the pitch, which sends coaches running onto the pitch and the players dashing for the bench, a crack in the levy finally appears, sending fans streaming onto the pitch, and I’m almost decapitated by a Mars Bar.

Some fans, who remained where they were are less than impressed by those who have decided to rush the pitch, and have a few choice words for them, as well as some pantomime boos. Although I’m pretty ambivalent about them encroaching onto it, I don't see it does any harm, I don't quite understand however the thought process of the man who decides to kung fu kick the corner flag out of place.

“Just fucking hold on now” is the appeal from one fan, others around him are more optimistic, “we’re
on our way” they sing. The two consecutive CFC corners rattle nerves a little, some feel that time should have been called long ago, and let the referee know “you’re allowed to blow, you fucking cabbage”.

The team's huddle again, I’m exhausted. A combination of the early start, long drive and roller coaster of a match, has taken it out of me, the same can't be said for the HT faithful, who are still in fine voice, “we love you Shaymen we do”.

HT are off to a quick start, creating a chance in the early moments of the final fifteen, only for a glaring miss, “at least get it on target” says Tom, it was a bit of a row Z job, from not far out at all. Some though are dealing with the strain of extra time differently, exercising their own vices, to help them through it. For example the man next to me has turned to food, and is dismantling a pie within an inch of my face, someone else has turned to drugs, there is the definite smell of a joint in the air.

Despite the blistering agility of number 14 who is still making the effort, Tom joining in with the locals poking fun at him, “use your pace” he shouts, HT are sat well back, only occasionally breaking out, leaving poor old number 14 with it all to do, almost completely on his own.

The police start to line the barricade in front of the CFC support, at the front of our terrace, numbers have continued to increase, people now straddle the fence. One fan anticipates the “mother of all pitch invasions”, I’m desperately trying to do my best Kenneth Wolstenholme, but just can't find the appropriate moment, because some people are on the pitch already, the stewards on occasion having to tell them to get back.

Promotion is very nearly delayed, in the most dramatic of ways, when the CFC keeper joins the rest of the team for a corner, and sends his midair scissor kick volley, just a fraction over. The home fans are forced to wait just a little longer, when the board goes up showing two minutes of extra time, at the end of extra time, some can’t believe it’s that much, “WHAT!?!”.

Signaling to his assistant on the far side, the referee gives him a head start, he is already on the pitch and running for the sanctuary of the tunnel, before the final whistle is blown. Seconds later when it is, the high viz dam holding back the fans, well and truly bursts, sending a wave of supporters spilling onto the field, many with arms outstretched to their side, flying onto the pitch.

We follow the surge, making our way down the bustling steps of the stand, and through the small gate in the fence, and onto the hallowed turf of The Shay.

Players, coaches and the clubs manager are mobbed, everyone wants to hug, shake hands with or have their picture taken with one of those who have just won promotion. There is no immediate rush to clear the field, the fans are allowed to release a year's worth of disappointment, that concluded with a fingernail gnawing last two hours or so, but now they able to revel in what they have just witnessed. A few kids take the opportunity to perfect their knee slide goal celebration. One small girl wanders among the scores of people with a flag over her shoulders, like an over sized cape “we’re going up!” it reads.

When it is cleared, with little or no resistance. The plinth for the trophy and the winners medals are put in place, and the players look on from the mouth of the tunnel, waiting to be reintroduced to the fans, now as National League players. Two at a time they are called forward, from the shade of the tunnel, and into the sun and the adoring glare of their fans. A few already have a bottle in hand, one has an opened one down the front of this shorts. After taking his curtain call, he pulls it from his waistband, and takes a mighty swig. The protracted introductions, means one man in a National League tie, fears they are close to “losing the moment”.

The manager and captain are last out, by this time the players who have already got their medals, and are waiting to lift the cup, which Tom thinks is the “spitting image” of the FA Cup, they are singing their own song, “we're fucking shit, we're fucking shit”.

Bubbles unleashed, the man who handed over the cup has never moved so fast, doing his best to avoid a soaking, the players disappear behind a veil of froth, one player instead of directing the champers in the air or at his teammates, mainlines it directly into this mouth.

The fans return to the pitch to dish out more appreciation to the players. Taking the chance for more photos, now with the added bonus of having today's silverware in your new Facebook profile picture. One lucky fan, has managed somehow to get his hands on the keeper's gloves, pacing around the pitch, wearing the oversized hand wear, looking like Mickey Mouse's Yorkshire cousin.

With a four hour drive ahead of us, sitting in the car of a now onion free car park, most of the other cars having left, tired and hungry, there is much to consider and cogitate from our day well far north of the Watford Gap.

Flares, smoke, Nemo, Jack Daniel shots, someone calling someone else a cabbage, the decent “drummer” as Tom called him, despite his shonky drum, the welcome, the marvelous welcome, more smoke, pitch invasions, non stop singing, what might be the best support we have seen in this country, Tom being called Jurgen Klopp, it’s the beard and the baseball cap.

The words of one fan we pass on the way to the car park, encapsulates the whole day perfectly, “why do we always leave it so late?”. Be it the first minute or deep in to injury, as long as ‘it’ has been achieved, that is all that matters. ‘It’ is getting back to the National League, one step closer to the Football League, ‘it’ is the least that the HT fans deserve, they were simply brilliant.

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Monday, 15 May 2017

What A Wednesday Night - Cray Valley Paper Mills FC Vs Metropolitan Police FC, London FA Senior Cup Final 2017, Champion Hill (03/05/17)

Traversing Hyde Park Corner at rush hour was a learning curve to say the least for a relatively new driver, I was relieved when I finally crossed the murky brown Thames, heading south, under a heavy grey sky. Twenty minutes late to meet Tom, I cause a small tailback among the Wednesday night commuters outside Denmark Hill station, double parking just long enough to allow my damp compatriot into the car.

Champion Hill is now a reasonably well trodden ground for us, this being our third visit, but having only actually seen Dulwich once. Even though we know where we're going, it’s location not a secret, I still love the fact it's secluded, hidden even, by a giant Sainsbury's and a car wash, the puddles made by the nearby valet service, form in the entrance to the turnstiles.

It’s stopped raining, for now at least, the normally vibrant ground is missing any of the colour and noise of the ‘The Rabble’, Dulwich fan group, only their stickers and that of many visiting teams and fans from all over the world, cover the empty scaffold, normally used to hang flags and banners from. Also missing is the “noodle bar” that was here for our last visit, Tom noticing this within seconds of arriving.

Normally quick to scorn Tom's food obsession, I have to admit the food, particularly the dumplings, the scrumptious juicy dumplings, were fantastic when we saw Dulwich Vs Hendon in the FA Cup, but they won't be available tonight. At the moment it’s hard even getting our hands on a hot drink, having been directed to the tea bar, by someone in the long gallery bar overlooking the pitch, it’s blue hatch is still closed.

The sound system crackling to life, finally brings some life to a slightly dour Champion Hill, the opening bars of a bit of 80’s electro, Kraftwerk's ‘The Model’ is much welcomed, one thing learned from our previous visits, that I can tell you for certain, is the music won’t disappoint.

After taking the opportunity to grab a snap with the gloriously ornate silver London FA Senior Cup, the spoils in tonight's final, the chairman of the “little step five club” Cray Valley Paper Mills FC (CVP), Frank May, fills us in on the many scalps his team have claimed in this years competition, on their run to the final. The likes of “Welling” and “AFC Wimbledon” have fallen before them, as did “Dulwich” in the semi-final, much he thinks to the annoyance of the London FA, as they were hoping for a “big crowd” this evening, he tells us, but they won't get that now. CVP by Frank’s own admission, are not well followed, the lure of the “twelve other clubs” within just a “few miles” of their South East London home, means competition for fans is high.

He gives us an example of just how tough that struggle is. In an attempt to drum up support, they sent out thousands of free tickets in a local monthly circular. Only two were used, one of them by someone who was already a season ticket holder. They were “happy as Larry” when the tie against AFC Wimbledon, boosted the gate to around 200, but normally they’re in the low 60’s.

On the few occasions we have seen (MT), who are themselves hardly a well followed team, we could be looking at a very low turn out indeed.
The opportunity though to take on another Ryman Premier League team in Metropolitan Police FC, seems to have Frank excited, despite as he puts it that MT have been “struggling”, relegation a serious concern for them this year, he acknowledges they have put out a “strong side” so will still be a test.

Still no tea, those perhaps in the know or who are better organised than us, sit in the stands with a homemade sandwich and a flask watching both teams warm up, under an ever increasingly gloomy sky. CVP are going through your bog standard drills, MT’s players on the other hand have each been handed a large blue rubber band, that is slipped around each ankle, and is used as part of their very energetic preparations.

Tom’s third attempt to get a drink is thwarted, but eventually the small hatch at the base of the main stand is opened, semi skimmed milk, a sugar pourer and a single teaspoon are laid out, we finally manage to lay our hands on a tea for Tom and a coffee for me, the request for which sends the server into a bit of a tailspin, but he gets there in the end. Tom also treats himself to a Crunchie, in my opinion one of the poorer relations of the confectionery world.

Standing in the tunnel with the faint sound of Kasabian in the background, one linesman jogs on the spot, then stretches, while waiting for the emergence of the teams, he knocks on the door to one changing room, “come on lads” but no one is very forth coming. The referee with the ball under his arm is given the run down of proceedings by someone from the London FA, “respect handshake, then the guest of honor is going to come out”.

Still no players, another blast of the buzzer, and another knock on the door “come on lads”. The MT keeper eventually appears, making his way down the long corridor between home and away changing rooms, but no one else is to be seen. One assistant mimes kicking the door down, the other tells him instead of going all Leonidas, to give the buzzer “a big ring”, hopefully third time’s a charm.

CVP are the ones being a bit tardy, eventually their pumped keeper arrives, gloves tucked into the waistband of his shorts, he is repeatedly slapping himself. It’s at this point my suspicions about the referees competence are raised, when he asks the all bright neon orange wearing keeper, if he was in fact the keeper, “no I’m the striker” he replies.

A few players from each team exchange hellos and the odd thumbs up, before the signal from the referee down front that all systems are go, prompting a few shouts from each team “come on then Cray”, “come on boys”.

Once the teams have been introduced to the guest of honour, who in turn is introduced to the players by the respective captains and the announcer struggles with the team names, due to having “no team sheet”, someone in a fleece is sent screaming down the stairs of the main stand, after noticing a slight oversight, some pop up advertising is still pegged down on the pitch, with the referee now ready to kick off. 

It’s hard to recount the first fifteen minutes clearly, down to them being so manic. MT straight away show the difference two levels make, however CVP still look dangerous, especially on the counterattack. It’s they who register the first clear cut chance, the ball looking to have gone through the MT keepers legs, but the CVP player is unable to capitalise.

Although MT think the game should've been stopped for a foul, the referee disagrees, allowing the play to continue, CVP storm the MT end, going close again, slamming a shot off the chest of the MT keeper. A member of the MT defence is concerned his team mates have “gone quiet” and tries to rally them, “come on”.

It feels already, with only a quarter of an hour gone, that MT have it all to lose, and the pressure is showing. CVP are playing with a lot more freedom, that despite all the MT possession and dominance, they look a lot more fluid in their play.

We’ve seen a fair few goals this season, non come immediately to mind that I could class as being
particularly special, a wonder strike from thirty five yards or a thirty six pass tika-taka masterclass, however on sixteen minutes, during one of our last games of the season, we witness a goal that shoots right to the top of the 2017/18 highlight reel, rubbing shoulders with the likes of meeting Chris Armstrong with dreadlocks, and Iker Casillas in a rainy Portuguese car park.

CVP are awarded a free kick in the centre circle, just inside the MT half. The left foot cross lofts it into the area, an MT defender in dark blue, reaches it first, his clearance hardly resounding, but it sends the ball away from the danger area, or so he thought. CM’s number 9, loitering just outside the box, runs onto the cleared ball, shapes up to hit it on the volley, with all the technique and poise of a Ballon d'Or winner, well to the left of the D.

Cutting across the ball, striking it at about waist height, he hits the shot so sweetly, so perfectly that the MT keeper in red can only look on, reduced to a spectator like the rest of us as the ball tears across the box, nestling in the opposite corner to where the number 9 is now momentarily frozen by the absolute screamer he has just scored, before jogging towards the bench, then changing his mind and heading off towards the corner flag, followed by a trail of teammates, going out of view obscured by the dugouts, where the MT coach just paces back to his seat, shaking his head.

When the announcer comes on, now furnished with the team sheet, he almost sounds as surprised as everyone else. Those in attendance, most of whom are sitting in the main stand, are reduced to sounding like the startled Victorians who just saw an ankle, all gasps and a ripple of applause, no raucous celebrations.

MT’s bench and players are not happy, the shouts and instructions from the dugout, are heavy with a sense of anger and annoyance. On the pitch the players are clearly rattled, diving into some hearty challenges. With the ball going out of play, a lost cause really, it being shepherded off the pitch by a CVP player, he is then assaulted from behind by the chasing MT player, who dives in totally unnecessarily, reducing the defender into a heap on the ground.

The downed player is eventually helped back up by the player who just felled him, who astonishingly doesn't receive a card, highlighting the let's say ‘laissez faire’ approach of the referee, who has let some shockers go unpunished. Some might say he is letting the game ‘flow’ some might say, the guy doesn't know what he's doing.

Whereas MT’s kit is a very pleasant shade of dark blue, what you might call a classic, a single block colour, delightful in it’s simplicity. CVP on the other hand are wearing a green and white check number, with a graduating fade from top to bottom, straight off a Vivienne Westwood catwalk. It wouldn't be out of place in one of those click bait articles you see on social media called ‘Premier League's Worst Ever Away Strips’, alongside a picture of Gary Neville in grey. CVP’s could easily feature being worn by a Mustapha Hadji of Coventry or Benito Carbone of Sheffield Wednesday circa 1997. It’s inclusion in the aforementioned article implies that we don't like it, but quite the opposite, it's absolutely stunning in its garishness.

With just shy of half an hour gone, equilibrium in the world is restored, MT get their equalizer, which is difficult to describe with much enthusiasm, because it just wasn't anywhere near as good as CVP’s, which has now made all goals, other than the sensational, just boring. You would think that this might lighten the mood on the MT bench, but no.

In a near relegation threatened season, a year's worth of stress, seems to be coming to the fore in the final game of the calender, against a team from two steps below, they should be beating. The shouts and instructions are getting increasingly angry and a bit foamy at the mouth. At one point, one coach instructs an MT player not to let a CVP player “get round him”, which he fails to do, less than impressed in the player's ability to stop him, the same coach calls the player an “asshole” under his breath.

Not wanting to be unkind, but ‘fluffed it’ might be the only way to describe the CVP players attempt a couple of feet out from the gaping goal, with the ball having been given to him on a plate, in trying be too precise perhaps, instead of going full Alan Shearer and as they say ‘putting your laces through it’, he side foots it wide, which brings more gasps from the crowd. Honestly, I’ve ko idea how he missed it.

The referee continues to be “lenient” as Tom puts it, I think the guy has lost the plot. Full bloodied, doesn't quite go far enough, to describe the nature of the many wince inducing tackles. Having watched this level of football for a couple of years now, you might think I would be used to it, but there are still a couple of times a game, every game, I turn away from a crunching coming together, expecting to turn back and see someone's foot pointing the wrong way.

Tom asks me if it's him “or is this game fast paced?”, fast paced implies there is some method to what is going on before us, frenzied perhaps would be more accurate. All I want to do is sit down and have a smoke, it's exhausting just watching. I’m not the only one who needs his fix, the CVP chairman has slinked down to pitchside, maybe in the pretence of taking some photos, with the large camera around his neck, but he's soon taking deep drags on his fag to help relieve the tension.

MT forge a chance to take the lead, thanks to a big ball over the top, the forwards touch lets him down a little, but he is able to recover, only for the linesman to lift his flag for offside, which triggers another outburst from the MT bench. “He's in line, you weren't in line”, snarls someone to the assistant, who in turn starts to bicker with an MT player who agrees with the bench.

A break in play brings an eerie hush over the ground, the downed CVP player is mortified, “looks like he's crying” says Tom, as the injured player limps off, his shirt pulled up to hide his face, he receives a sympathetic round of applause from the crowd, which maybe is a little premature, because after a hefty squeeze of the magic sponge, he is back on, but isn't moving freely.

The injury to the CVP player is the first in a small spate of them, the next is to an MT player, we
think. We didn't see it, down to the fact it happened between the dugouts, more we heard it, an almighty crash into the metal hoarding around the pitch, which brings the whole MT bench to it’s feet, rushing to his aid. A hush descends again, this time the crowd are quiet, and all we can hear are the distant groans of the player. It would seem no amount of orange segments or spray can help him, his replacement is already stripped off and is ready to come on.

Maybe it’s the disruption of the stoppages, or the fact neither team are super human, no one could surely keep up the pace of the first 15/20 minutes for a whole forty five, the game has now gone very flat. MT revert to their dominant early stance, but there are still plenty of MT fans grumbling, it's been a less than convincing half for the Ryman Premier League team. CVP’s only hope is on the break, especially down their left flank, where some great whipped in crosses with good accuracy seem to be the main and only outlet from the near constant MT pressure.

The CVP player succumbs to his injury, despite trying to run it off, he has to make way, he leaves the pitch and a team who Tom thinks have had the “better chances” despite being under the cosh a bit, but they just haven't taken advantage of them, could it come back to haunt them?

“No, no, no” repeats the referee like the lead singer from ‘2 Unlimited’, confirming to the amazed players, staff and crowd that he is not willing to award CVP a free kick after as Tom put it, the MT player had “kicked” the CVP player “about 3 seconds after the ball went”.

The goal, the tackles, the barmy referee, the lack of crowd but reasonable action, MT looking more likely to score, but CVP having the better chances, have all made for a very entertaining first half. As the players walk off, those who are here take a collective deep breath, and search their bags and pockets for a Marlboro Red and a lighter.

A reminder that the bar is open rings around the ground, just after Tom had said how “lonely” the girl attending it looked, she spent the whole of the first half looking at her phone, not having to serve a soul. As we switch ends I grab a Coke, just to prevent her falling asleep. The walk also helps Tom warm up a bit, he's feeling a little chilly, down to the fact he only has a “thin spring jumper on” sometimes I have no words.

Teams back out, MT gather in an instant huddle, I imagine a few choice words were exchanged, maybe even a tea cup or two were broken, going by a few of the sideline barrages in the first half. CVP who don't look like they have a care in the world, just do a few runs and a light warm up.

“Lets fucking go” shouts one CVP player, whose turn it is to kick off, the notion that they might be intimidated by their higher ranked opponent is blown clear out the water, by the audacious attempt at a shot straight from the restart, sadly thought it's a bit tame. Are they under mandate to only score extraordinary goals this evening?

Once again a big tackle stops the game, once again there is no card. After seeing the referee in action in the tunnel, I had a feeling he was going to be a ‘character’. He has been a point of interest all match, once the fouled player has recovered, and the game is back under way, he turns his attention to a CVP player, who he begins to reprimand because the colour of his long sleeved undershirt, doesn't match his kit. “Andreas, Andreas” says the nearby lino, who looks a bit like a wildling, “its green”, talking to him like you might an elderly relative, who just put their handbag in the fridge. Satisfied it’s the right colour, he jogs away smiling “sorry” he says to the player, who just looks baffled. ‘From another planet’ I say to Tom, the assistant/carer, turns to me grinning.

Toms appraisal of one CVP player is little scathing, “selfish” is how he brands him, after he latched onto a poor pass across the MT defence, which sends him off towards goal, unfortunately his run ends up down a blind alley, he had people open to receive the ball, and the chance is lost.

More moans and screams, another player rolling around in obvious pain, another tackle unpunished, has he forgotten his cards? “He kicked him” suggests a CVP player, but it's all over the head of the slightly mental Andreas.

Fifteen minutes on the clock and MT nearly, nearly score their own special goal, an edge of the box volley that is struck just as sweetly as the CVP effort, zipping just off the ground, it thunders off a defender, with an almighty boom. The ricochet almost goes in by the way of a defender's toe, but the loose ball is leapt upon. There is a collective “ohhh”, all are more than aware it could've been a beaut. They go close again not long after, but the shot is blazed over the crossbar, flying off into the nearby car park

My suggestion of CVP rueing their missed chances, could now be applied to MT, who with fifteen minutes of the half gone, find themselves behind once more. Not conceding as spectacularly as the first time, this time it’s more embarrassingly. The keeper a spectator once again, he rushes out to meet the ball, it’s headed over him, leaving him stranded, the attacker simply side steps him, with the goal at his mercy. Such is the power of the deft flick of his head, he doesn't need to touch the ball again, but he still follows it in though, to insure it goes over the line. He runs to meet his teammates on the edge of the box, either sucking his thumb or pretending to play it like a trumpet, I’m not sure, maybe it’s the new Griezmann.

The roaring fire that was lit under the first half of the first forty five minutes, that died out, has been reignited, some of the energy or “zip” as Tom put it, has returned, cigarettes at the ready.

Not long after going behind, MT have a huge shout for a penalty declined, Andreas just runs along with his arms firmly clasped behind his back. Tom, thinks there was a spot of simulation about it, and does the international sign for ‘he went over a bit easy’.

Again another shocking challenge goes unchecked, it really was a horror. I was sure after hearing the crunch, and the scream, and turning back to look to see the player writhing about holding the lower part of this leg, I was expecting the aftermath to be far from pretty. He is seen to, gets up in one piece, but again no retribution. “Not even a card for that?” asks an astonished Tom.

I once heard an announcement at a Spurs game over the tannoy, informing someone in the crowd that his daughter had gone into labour, and he was to contact a steward, then someone else in the crowd shouted in reply “she’s only 15”, but I’ve never heard a request for someone to move their car, because it's “blocking” the nearby supermarkets delivery “trucks”. The announcer goes onto explain if its not moved it might be “run over”.

“Are you done?” asks a CVP player to a teammate lying on his back, propped up on his elbows, this injury the result of a pulled muscle by the looks of it, not a double footed, shin snapper. The now familiar lull, brought on by a break in play caused by an injury, is this time broken not by a smattering of applause for the departing player, but by the screaming MT manger, whose let his displeasure known, and seems close to breaking point.

It looks like it’s all over for the still prone player, accompanied by the physio he makes the long, slow, limping walk back to the bench.

Now behind, every MT chance seems even more crucial, when they miss them the collective vein in the MT coaching staffs forehead grows a little bigger. When a “power header” as Tom put it, goes just over, sensing the ever increasing MT onslaught, a CVP player demands his teammates stay “solid”.

A fresh appeal for the car blocking the traffic goes out, the friendly request from before, has now been replaced with a warning, tantamount to a threat, if its not moved “something may happen to it, when they drive past it “warns the voice over the tannoy.

Ten minutes to go, CVP are pinned back, MT continue to have the lion's share of possession, but are really not showing any great threat going forward. “Urgency” screams someone from the bench, but it doesn't seem to be sinking into the players on the pitch, they almost draw level by fluke more than anything, a wayward cross, turns into a shot, which is tipped over the bar by the fingertips of the CVP keeper.

Behind the dugouts the non league standard at a final, of a fold out table from a carboot sale and the best table cloth has been set up, the winners and runners up medals are being laid out on top. One of those arranging them is a bit anxious about the decision to do it so close to the pitch, “if a ball hits this!”.

“Just over five to go” replies the fourth official to the CVP bench after the umptenth request, in the last couple of minutes, for how much of the game is left to play. He also has to remind them to stay in their area, the impending victory and second Ryman Premier League team feather in the cap, has got all involved fidgeting and pacing, no one able to sit down for more than a second.

As if all of a sudden, the board with the extra time already primed and programmed into it, the fact they are about to lose this final has dawned on one MT player, who goes a little Joe Hart, angrily demanding the ball back, when it goes out of play, the response of a cool calm Geordie fourth official does little to sooth him “calm down pal, it's not multi ball”.

When the board is lifted, the green ‘3’ telling CVP how long they have to hold on for, MT go close, and that again brings another “ohhh” from the crowd. Not that CVP needed telling how much extra time there was, they have asked 400 times in the last minute.

“Corner, corner, corner” shout the CVP bench on the few occasions they get the ball, the players oblige heading straight for the far side of the pitch, running that clock down, frustrating both MT players and bench even more, I fear for their health.

The over excited CVP keeper has thankfully stopped slapping himself, instead he is now rolling around on the floor, hugging a fellow teammate. Finally the well mannered crowd have thrown off the shackles of Victorian society and let out their biggest cheer of the night, and the voice over the tannoy is not talking about obstructions, but is now congratulating the victors.

Those on the bench embrace, before heading off to join up with the rest of the team on the pitch. One of the injured players, subbed off during the match, hobbles over as fast as he can, to join in with the small mosh pit of winners signing “ole, ole, ole”, impressively celebrating only on one foot that’s without a sock or a shoe. Maybe ever more impressively is the Herculean strength of the female physio, who is giving one player a piggyback back. Any thoughts of the CVP keeper perhaps calming down a little, are soon undone, he is offering up high fives to anyone who will accept one with the force of Anthony Joshua.

It's quiet for MT as they pick up their runners up medals, agonisingly having to walk past what is a
magnificent trophy, that they won't be getting their hands on. The good mood soon returns, when the announcer introduces the “winners, Cray Valley Paper Mills”. Each player picks up his little red box, and lines up behind the fold out table, ready to lift the cup.

“Ohhhhhhhh”, the players build the suspense before hoisting it skywards, and breaking into a rendition of “champione, champione.” It’s not until the group starts to break up, that it’s clear that the celebrations have not gone totally plan, one player stands looking dumb founded, the physio holding a gauze to his forehead, attending to a gash caused by the flying lid of the cup. “At least you'll always have something to remember today by” she says pragmatically, before telling him it might need to be “stitched or glued”.

I’m not sure if it was that goal, the elusive bookings, the age old story of David & Goliath or the fact it was a game between two of the more curiously named clubs in the UK, but today will certainly go down as memorable, I just can't put my finger on why. However, for the players and staff of CVP this gloomy night in South London I would think, will be one they will never forget, as one CVP player said to another leaving the pitch after all was said and done, “what a Wednesday night”.

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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Over The Moon - Maldon & Tiptree FC Vs Thurrock FC, Ryman League North Play-Off Final 2017, Wallace Binder Ground (30/04/17)

Usually our travels along the highways and byways of this fair country are uneventful, but between getting in the car and hearing the final bars to the theme tune of Band of Brothers, picking up Tom and arriving in the car park of a leisure centre where he is delighted to see they have “flumes”, via the single lane roads winding past leafy village greens, church spires and ponds of rural Essex, I thought the best thing I was going to see was a speaker with some cushions on top of it being passed off as a seat outside a East London cafe, but oh no! The man on the hard shoulder being sick, the car pulling a trailer, crossing four lanes of the motorway so it didn't miss its exit, fishtailing and being honked at by a braking tanker, were all vying for top spot, only to be trumped by a road we passed called Tom Tit Lane.

The monosyllabic response from the steward on the gate in reply to my question about parking, was gruff, but to the point, “football? he asked, before gesturing with his head towards a near bursting car park.

Locking up the car, the music coming from the nearby Wallace Binder Ground home of Maldon & Tiptree FC (MT) is pleasing Tom, “love this song” he says, moving with a little bit of swagger in his hips. Not familiar with the track, I ask him who it is, “Saday, Sadie, Sana” he replies, before aborting trying to remember the artist who sings the song he is so in “love” with.

The entrance to the ground is very smart, so smart and swanky that on first glance it seems to be £1000 to get in, I can only hope the ticket price is missing a decimal point. A black and white picture of a team huddle adorns the outside wall, the drab colourless background in stark contrast to the full colour image of the team in the middle.

Within less than a foot of the turnstile, thankfully only £10 lesser off, my note exchanged for a small yellow ticket with ‘ADULT’ on it, a man in a suit reclines in a brown wooden chair, before him a table covered in a plethora of goodies. Like the end of the Generation Game, no cuddly toy, instead a box of chocolates, a bottle of scotch, a six pack of Stella and a bottle of red wine. “Be lucky” says the seller to the man in the queue before me, who looks like he's just dropped a lot more than the £1 coin I have in my hand, I thought I had a problem!

I hand over my £1 for a single line of yellow tickets, and another £1 for my program, which I’m told to “help myself” to, they’re bound by a rubber band in an old biscuit tin, I grab myself one, while he tears my tickets from his book and tells me the “draw is at half time”.

I get no wishes of good fortune, maybe they’re only reserved for the high rollers, and the seller is soon back to pushing his product to those coming in behind me “programs and tickets all a pound”.

Even with over an hour yet to kick off, people have already secured their spot in the main stand on the far side of the pitch, the coloured seats that spell out MTFC becoming harder to read, as each minute ticks by. If they're not lying their towel on the sun lounger, they’re in the queue for food, which Tom quickly joins, where most people are talking about MT’s prospects today. After a 5-4 win in the semi-final win against Haringey Borough, the resounding theme of discussion is that today's visitors have a far “better defense” than their previous opponents.

Waiting for Tom, I strike up a conversation with one of the many familiar faces we cross paths with today. Tony Gay, a coach at Thurrock FC (TFC) the other side in this all Essex affair, who is another example of a man in non league with a crushing handshake, and cheery disposition. Between deep drags on his cigarette, he gives me his thoughts on TFC’s chances, but not before he’s pinched a few chips off the green and yellow scarf wearing TFC fans.

“Confident” is how he feels, when I ask him about today. Youth is their biggest strength, “eight players under 21” he explains, adding they have the “youngest average team” in the league, but he also stresses the camaraderie, the togetherness of the squad, “best changing room” he’s ever been in. By his own admission he’s been around a while, he goes as far as comparing it to his heady days with Grays “when we won everything”. He is also quick to praise the manager, who he describes as the “best” in the division.

The man in question is Mark Stimson, who Tony describes as having “done it”, ‘it’ includes playing in “the Prem”, appearances for the likes of Tottenham and Newcastle, four FA Trophy winners medals, one as a player, three as a manager, which came in consecutive years, two with Grays and one with Stevenage. With a CV like that, it’s hard to argue with Tony.

However it's not his bumper resume alone that has got him where he is, but as Tony puts it, and it's confirmed almost simultaneously by TFC's scout, it’s his “preparation”, Tony goes on to add it’s “unbelievable”. It’s also down to his temperament, they both explain, the way he deals with the players, what Tony says are his two sides, one “calm” the other “not so calm”.

Tom returns with “chips and tea” a curious combo, Tony finishes off one of his umpteenth cigs, crushes almost every bone in my hand once again, and makes his way off towards the changing rooms.

One catch up down, a second is hot on its tail, another face from the Essex non league scene, Wayne goalkeeping coach at Bowers & Pitsea, whose own push for promotion, was a close run thing, just missing out. He tells me he is of course “disappointed”, but if you had offered him fifth position, three points off a pop at the playoffs, he would've “bitten your arm off”. When I ask who he thinks will prevail today, he tells us his “heart goes with Maldon” down to the fact his friend is a coach for the home side, but he reckons it should be a good match, a tight one, a “good defending side” TFC, against a “good attacking side” MT.

With today's final, the penultimate game of the Ryman League season, he asks us “what do we do now?”.

With the wind picking up, the position of the cameraman on top of the scaffold tower next to the red brick dugouts, looks a little precarious. Already in position, it's a fine view of the pitch, but there isn't much else to look at. A line of conifers top a grass bank behind one goal, with no stand, at the opposite end a small covered stand, behind that the big brown brick block that is the nearby swimming pool. Spare seats in the main stand are now few and far between, with still twenty minutes to kick off, the initials of the club, are all but blotted out by expectant fans.

Both teams are warming up on the pitch, both sets of supporters lean against the fence around it that is an ideal height, not too low, not too high, perfect for a good lean, they watch their respective teams attentively. Also watching on discreetly is the MT manager, hovering around the mouth of the tunnel that separates the dugouts, in his best grey sweater and club tie.

Having finished his chips, Tom is already having thoughts of what’s next, in his “hungover” state, as he explains, the after effects of a friend's birthday, half time feels a very long way away. I attended the same soiree, but didn't drink, I was on driving duty, however I do question if I was spiked with something, because I’m sure in the short time we have been here, I have heard the song playing around the ground already, has the playlist restarted?

There is most definitely a nervousness in the air among the home fans, a feeling of apprehension of what is to come. Not so much though among the scores of children hareing about, most congregating behind one goal and it's blue and red striped nets, cheering the players doing shooting practice, and chanting the name of the players whose turn it is next.

What seems to be the done thing now, at least in the recent finals we've been to, a plinth is carried to the edge of the pitch, with the match ball balanced on top, awaiting the players return. Both have fled to the sanctuary of the changing room for a few final words. The MT chairman emerges from theirs, to a rousing applause, that goes on long after he left, I imagine those inside waiting for the first person to stop, in fear of a trip to the Gulag.

In the caged tunnel, with it’s vaulted wooden roof, one beam has a birds nest on, the mascots in full kit line up, I must admit much better behaved than those at Bowers. It might have something to do with the presence of a Mum, who is tucking in the shirt of one of them, and holding a tissue to his nose, telling him “and again”, when she leaves she reminds them all, “make loads of noise”.

The MT substitutes brave enough to have stopped clapping, make their way to the dugouts, high fiving the still immaculately behaved mascots, who are all looking over their shoulders expectantly, waiting for the players. When the referee appears, shortly followed by the ring of the bell and an eruption from behind the TFC changing room door, the mascots ask him, “what team do you support?”.

It’s almost a bit gladiatorial, the fans of each side, lining the outside of the tunnel cheering on their caged teams, in two neat rows, an arms length apart. The away fans already, and as they will be for most of the day, are the noisiest by far, “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet”.

“Here we go” signifies the referee at the front of the two columns, which only raises the noise level as he begins to lead the players out through the end of the tunnel, that looks like the porch of a detached house. Players from each side offer one last rally to their team mates, “come on boys”.

After the handshakes, the coin toss, a picture of the captains and a group huddle each, we are under way.

Replacing the kids behind the goal, are the flags and fans of TFC, who are soon into one of their many songs, “we all follow the Thurrock”. The home fans, are almost silent, except for a very small bunch, occasionally banging the hoardings, but doing little else. When I mention this to Tom, a local overhears me, saying they are never really noisy, “except when we score” she tells us.

I wouldn't say TFC have come out the traps all guns blazing, there seems to be an element of hesitation in the home side's game, an anxiousness. Like the feeling among their fans from before kick off, that the visitors are able to take advantage of early on. A good cross just skims the top of the head of the intended player, they go closer still, a corner hitting the crossbar directly from the kick, the rebound bouncing down into the middle of the box which is met by a player who anticipated well, connecting with ball mid baseball slide, a cloud of dust behind him, his shot is all but in, only for a courageous block on the line, that prevents TFC taking the lead.

I wish I could say that this was the first of many, the beginning of a deluge of chances, the start of an end to end, blood and thunder display, where the bragging rights of Essex are at stake, as well as promotion, but I can’t. Tom describes the atmosphere as “subdued” maybe it’s because it’s a Sunday, everyone is in roast dinner, papers on the sofa, naps with the F1 in the background mode, but I would've expected a bit more in such a crucial game.

“Hit it” shout the TFC fans, as one of their players bares down on goal with a quarter of an hour gone, he does, its just wide, sending the keeper into a full stretch dive.

TFC’s small contingent are tormenting the MT keeper on every goal kick “you’re shit, ahhhh” and chanting pretty much non stop, “it’s got to beeeee Purfleet”, “Thurrock, Thurrock, Thurrock”, however when the most interesting thing to happen in the first 30 minutes is a massive burp from one player, the circling mass of seagulls on the lookout for an unguarded tray of chips or the bizarre running commentary of the nearby linesman “take it easy” he keeps saying to the players, it doesn't bode well.

Toms one track mind, is in overdrive, “Chinese buffet” he explains is his perfect cure for too many the night before. When I manage to steer the talk away from crispy shredded beef, and onto the game, and MT’s apparent default setting of a big long ball to the forwards, he fills me in on a bit of matchday gossip, and the feeling among some quarters that the grass is a little bit long, and it might be intentional. The dark arts perhaps in practice, be in the Bernabeu or the Wallace Binder, they’re all at it.

“Nearly 600” says a man in an MT blazer doing the head count, with a clicker in his hand. The stands are full and the whole pitch almost completely surrounded, but it’s still lacking that big day atmosphere. Tony Gay gets his own chant from the TFC fans, the not so imaginative “Tony Gay, Tony Gay, Tony Gay”. Tom on the other hand, has become a little distressed at the “lots of birds” swirling above the pitch, in their beady eyed way.

Five minutes before half time, which couldn't really come fast enough, TFC have a big shout for a penalty waved away. The downed player still on his chest, appealing to the referee, with the ball now in his own half before he picks himself up and rejoins the game. “Have a word ref” asks a TFC supporter, applauding that it wasn't given. Nearby MT fans think they have got away with one there, not thinking it was a foul, “it wasn't” one says, but he was sure it was going to be awarded “I thought he'd give it”.

TFC continue to dictate, MT still look to be holding back. They go close again for the final time in the half, the MT keeper spilling the first shot, but gathering frantically at the feet of the player about to latch onto the loose ball. Tom is sure that this game has “1 - 0 written all over it” and at the moment it only looks like that is going to be scored by one side.

The biggest round of applause of the game so far, is from the TFC supporters as a fellow fan coming back from the bar, manages to carry the whole round in one go. Tom is yet to decide if he is going to do the same at half time, pondering one of life's great questions, in the most Shakespearean of ways “to eat or not to eat, it's a long wait till dinner”.

Going against the tide, we make our way to the other end of the pitch, TFC fans have taken down their flags, and by the looks of it, are heading to the bar, Tom will not be joining them. I guess he's happy to wait, although it might have something to do with the fact they don't sell a sausage roll, which he feels should be a statutory requirement at all grounds, like a defibrillator, or he is banking on me winning the chocolates in the half time draw. We pass another member of Essex non league royalty, Bowers and Pitsea manager Rob Small, who is deep in conversation on his phone, but still has time for a smile and a handshake.

Having grown tired of the small bank behind the goal, the swarms of children have set their sights on something a little bigger, the bank, nae I would go as far as calling it a hill, that runs the full length of one side of the pitch. Covered in tall grass, tall enough for some of the smaller ones to disappear completely from view. One parent half jokes that their child had fallen down a “rabbit hole” only for a fraction of a second later for the smile to disappear, as she wonders if in fact she has lost her little girl to the Mad Hatter.

No scotch, no wine, no beer, no chocolates for me or Tom, the half time draw leaving me with a well trodden feeling of emptiness and Tom regretting not going to get something to eat, no Milk Tray for you I’m afraid.

Joining the TFC fans in the small stand, when the teams come out along with the officials, the linesman who did not flag for the late TFC penalty claim, momentarily takes a bit of the heat off the MT keeper, as the supporters let him know what they made of him not giving it. Although their numbers are pretty much the same, now condensed like some kind of football homeopathy, contained under the corrugated metal roof and back wall, which allows for even more noise, most standing, despite the offer of a seat, their songs are really packing a punch, “come on Thurrock, come on Thurrock”.

Once again the raffle numbers are read out, like some cruel prod in the ribs, they remind me of my failure, and lack of scotch.

MT come out with a little more purpose, and go close to taking the lead, it’s only down to an acrobatic top corner save, following a looping half volley after the second of three quick fire corners, that it remains 0 - 0. The corner resulting from the save, also goes close, as a back post header is just over. The same four or five MT fans come to life, banging the hoardings as they did in the first half, but they are soon outdone by a chant with a Scottish lilt, that quickly kicks the burp off the top spot of best thing to happen so far today.

Football chants being the way they are, cannibalised by teams from all over the world, I’m sure someone will tell me that this particular one is not in fact Scottish, but has it’s origins in the Rhineland or Barrios of Latin America, if that is the case I’m sorry, but the only supporters I’ve heard sing it before, are those of Celtic.

“Thurrock” shouts the loudest of them, “Thurrock” reply the rest of his posse. He goes again, “Thurrock” and his fellow fans reply the same as they did before. “Come on you yellow and greens”, once more they reply in kind “come on you yellow and greens”, he changes tack again, “Stimos Fleet army” his dutiful band reply once more, before they all break out into a mass hum along of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Tom though might disagree that it was the highlight of the afternoon, instead he was particularly taken aback by the man who just passed us carrying three trays of burger and chips and three drinks, without dropping or spilling a thing.

MT continue to grow slowly into the game, creating far more chances than they had in the whole of the first half, but it still doesn't bring any more noise from their fans. One TFC player who realises his team have come out cold and started slowly, waves his arms at his teammates, demanding more from them, after an MT attack which were so few and far between, but are now causing a few nerves to those in yellow. One of the young fans behind us has his own suggestion, first yelling that an MT player should “be sent off”, for what I don’t know, before taking it up a notch, and saying someone should “kick” an MT player in the “nuts”.

Time is ticking, with only twenty minutes of the game to go, extra time is looking like a real possibility, MT revert to their “hit and hope” tactics as Tom puts it, and all that early home optimism is fading.

TFC’s number 5 has not stopped running, it's his dogged determination with a bit of help from the number 9, that brings the first real moment of note for the away side in the second half. A flicked ball sets number 5 off chasing it down towards the MT goal. Entitled to go for it, a 50/50 you would say, he lunges for the loose ball, as does the keeper in green, resulting in a coming together, but nothing untoward.

For a split second the goal is open the ball still in play and alone, the keeper down, the number 9 sees
his moment to shine, charging in for the glory, unfortunately he gets more of the MT defender making the last ditch clearance, spinning him like a top, and leaving a scene of mild devastation in his wake, with now a few downed players scattered around the six yard box.

“You’ve killed him” shrieks a small child, one grown up thinks the keeper is playacting a little, knowing full well his goal was untended so is feigning injury, to force the referee to blow up, which he did, “that’s disgusting” he shouts, one person feels like I did that the ball was “there to be won”, another feels the referee couldn't possibly be “watching properly”, one suggests his performance was so good, he fake awards him the highest of honours “and the Oscar goes to”.

When the keeper eventually retakes his feet, contrary to another child’s suggestion that he had been “killed” the TH fans show their lack of sympathy, with a song which irks Tom, “are you Sanchez in disguise?”

With the game rapidly coming to an end, I think over what Wayne had mentioned before about it being a good defence, against a good attack, have these teams own best qualities, just canceled each other, explaining this less than thrilling match?

MT flash a shot wide, and then think they are about to go in front only for it to be called offside, the TFC fans continue to sing “super Thurrock, super Thurrock FC” and Tom is regretting not getting something to eat, and tells me he doesn't think “anyone's ever going to score”,

The two man mountains in front of us are the two TFC fans I see first to ascend to a place of Nirvana in the seconds following the wonderfully struck goal, that’s just put them ahead, with about ten minutes of the game left.

A rifled shot hit on the run, that was moving at such a rate, with such accuracy, it beats the keeper on his near post, the ball finding the sweet spot between him and the woodwork. One in shorts with a portrait on his considerable calf, kicks the hoarding with such force in celebration, I fear he will kick a hole straight through it, the other in a tan coat and green and yellow striped scarf, punches the air repeatedly, shouting “yes, yes, yes” like a Essex Daniel Bryan, before uttering a phrase normally reserved for nursery rhymes, “over the moon” he proclaims to no one in particular.

The scorer followed by his teams mates, dash towards a group of fans on the side of the pitch, one player is still in the goal, wildly swinging his boot at the ball, grappling with the net, before heading to join the pile on. By the time he gets there, many pints have been lost, most hoicked into the air, but one finds it’s way into the mouth and face of one player who is channeling his inner Gazza, circa England Vs Scotland, Euro 96. Both players and fans are intertwined in a full on bundle, some behind the goal sprint to join in, some dance in the aisle of the stand, some whirl scarves above their heads, one boy in a half green, half yellow wig looks on as his Dad breaks into a jig, some just hug whoever is close by. The one thing they all do is spontaneously break into their loudest song of the day “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet, we are, we are, we are the Fleet”.

TFC are forced into a serious rearguard action in the final ten minutes, plenty of timely clearances, and well timed blocks are required, their moniker of a ‘good defensive’ team, is being put to the test, as they are pushed deeper and deeper. MT coming onto them time and time again, on one occasion TFC are saved by the offside flag, the referee's assistant who raised it, is now friend not foe, the fans relieved by his decision, serenade him accordingly, “lino, lino, lino”.

“Big effort” shouts a TFC coach, the subs behind him don't know what to do with themselves, stand up, sit down. There is a collective sigh of relief when one MT player goes on a tackle evading run, starting just inside the visitors half, reaching the edge of the box, only to be stopped by a last ditch block, before he can get a shot off. TFC’s only relief, is to get the ball into the corner, and hope that the time left will hurry up and end.

There seem to be an inordinate amount of WWE fans here today, when the final whistle is blown, for the second time today, this time the turn of the TFC bench, everyone goes a little Daniel Bryan, “yes, yes, yes” they shout, scream and holler, mixed in with a few “woohoos”. Much back slapping, and hugging follows, as does the constant sound of hands high fiving. They don’t spend long congratulating themselves, and are soon all making a beeline for the fans, some even on the backs of their teams mates, who as ever are in fine voice “we are going up, we are going up”.

A bit late to the party, the towering club captain, who missed the initial coming together of player and supporters, charges them, going full superman into the outstretched arms of the crowd.  Catching his eye, once they have let him go, he lets out a frightening “woooooo” looking me dead in the eye.

Tony Gay is a happy man “four years, four years” he says repeatedly, reflecting perhaps on the culmination of a lot of hard work, that has culminated in the best possible way. The appearance of the clubs owner in his long black, mid 90’s football managers jacket, a sleeping bag with arms, quickly sees him surrounded, and he becomes the focus of the players celebrations, standing at the center of them jumping, “we are going up, we are going up”, through a see of pumping yellow arms, I’m sure I see him flash a wad of £20 notes, which only excites the players more, tonight's going out fund?  

The MT players as you can imagine are the polar opposite, looking a sorry lot, most sit dejected watching on as the table for the trophy is set up, and the crowd of visiting fans gather, waiting for the pile of blue boxes to be handed out, and the glass trophy, which looks like something from a Middle Eastern tennis tournament, to be presented. The nearby crate of beer and bottles of bubbles, are already on standby, but I’m sure won't go untouched for long.

Front and centre the TFC captain lifts the ever so slightly underwhelming trophy aloft, handed to him by a man in a blazer and Ryman League tie. Ultimately it’s just a bauble, it’s what it represents that’s important, but I do like a bit of actual silverware, not something that's also used for a regional double glazing sales awards ceremony.

Now I suggested earlier that leaving through the tunnel pre kick off was ‘gladiatorial’, I would maybe need to revise that statement, now leaving the pitch in a yellow and green whirlwind, back towards the changing room. Before the fans were loud, yes, singing, yes, but they kept a respectful distance. Now their faces are pressed up against the chain link fence, the volume has gone through the roof, some rattle the fence, trying to get closer to the players, who are trying to soak up every last second, joining in with the chants, “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet”, sharing the moment with friends and loved ones through the metal barrier.

Outside the away dressing room, it’s already abundantly clear that the party is in full swing, the sight of flying clothes and foam are visible through the half open door, some people looking on, not sure if they should venture in, or stay outside and keep dry. One person's mind is made up to not go in, by the flying box of energy bars, that lands on the floor at my feet.

Standing at the back of the room, Tom perched on top of a toilet, peering over the cubicle, the clubs scout half sheltering in the showers, wanting to be part of the triumph, but anticipating a soaking, Mark Stimson has managed to quiet his raucous team, and gives them his final thoughts.

“Guys give me a minute, I ain't gonna bore you” starts the gaffa, his arms over the shoulders of his coaches who flank him. “This buzz will stay will you for a helluva long while” he tells them “and you'll want more and more of it, because it's the best buzz in the game” he adds, you can hear a pin drop, most are sitting, a few stand swinging from brown beer bottles. “You're all winners, you all deserve it, let's have a great night tonight” he goes a bit Tony The Tiger on the Greatttt, before he might as well of waved a red rag in front of bull, the closing of his speech, starts a series of events that I won't forget for a while, some I won't ever be able to ever unsee “if you want, let's go mental now”.

Beer, pants and all sorts fill the air, one overexcited player standing on the bench, takes a dive off it and ends up in a heap on the floor, “we are going up, we are going up”. Through the frosted glass of the windows the silhouettes of the hands and faces of the fans outside can be seen, the windows are flung open, allowing for what might be the most deafening song of the day “WE ARE GOING UP, WE ARE GOING UP”

Not sure how much more mental one can go, the bars and clubs of Essex might be able to testify to that, once these lot have finished in the wee hours, but the chant of “let's go fucking mental” has an air of lock up your daughters and batten down the hatches about it.

Sitting in the car, taking a moment to regather ourselves, reflecting on what we have just witnessed, the windows wound down to allow the smell of beer and cava to escape, we can still hear the players and fans now about 150/200 meters away.

Today there was a feeling after the match, not one I think I've felt so strongly before, one of the players having done it for the fans. Of course their own pride, ambitions and desire to win, has a large part to play in what they achieved, but the scenes afterwards, so much of it was shared between players and supporter, the songs, the effort made to open the dressing rooms windows, so that everyone could be involved. It highlighted the case of Thurrock being a community club, a family club, an all for one, and one for all club, where only a very fine line divides them on the pitch and them off it, an attitude and approach that is so prevalent in non league, but has become all too scarce, the higher up the pyramid you do.

As a player you want to win, as a player you want to be able to reflect on a career where you can say you gave it your all. Today's players at the start and end of their footballing life did a great thing, as the captain said "don't win much at 35", but what good is all that, if you have no one to share it with, as Jock Stein once said, "football without fans is nothing".

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