Sunday, 21 August 2016

Making Hard Work Of It - QPR FC Vs Swindon Town FC, League Cup Round One, Loftus Road, 10/08/16.

It’s no longer called the Capital One, Worthington, Coca Cola or Carling Cup, this year it’s been decided to give it a snappy, abbreviated, social media friendly name, the ‘EFL Cup’, or the League Cup to you and me, and although for the first time in my lifetime it’s not named after some two bit sponsor, it’s still the one that starts early, finishes early, and no clubs really want to be in.

I must admit it’s a competition quite close to my heart, in the twenty years I have been a Spurs fan, it’s the only thing I have seen us win, the memory of the last minute Allan Nielsen diving header winner against Leicester, is one no one can take away from me. It’s effectively the middle child between the FA Cup and the EFL Trophy (Johnstone's Paint Trophy), that gets you a day at Wembley, and nine times out of ten will derail your season if you win, because everyone is like ‘banked a bit of silverware there, season over’, but your thinking, 'come on it’s mid March, we've just lost four on the bounce'.

Perhaps trying to remember all League cups previous incarnations, is the reason I’m sitting on the bus with a skull crackingly bad headache, on my way to West London. It was the same round of the competition last year, that we made the trip to South East London, and the New Den, to watch Millwall take on Barnet in what turned out to be a minor upset. So when the chance arose to tick QPR off the list, all for £15, plus a £3 booking fee for ordering on the phone and collecting from the ground, can someone please explain what that is for?, it was an easy decision, also there is maybe, a very, very remote chance of bumping into Les Ferdinand.

I’ve been to Loftus road a couple of times, most recently to see Spurs in a completely unmemorable 0 - 0 draw, when the most interesting thing that happened was Sandro ruining his knee, or the colossal panic attack I had. Other than that, I took little away from my visit, other than it is tight, snug and compact ground.

Having only visited as an away fan, I enquired on Twitter as to the best place to sit. After sifting through the expected responses of “a seat”, “the directors box”, “3.2 miles up the road” which included a map showing the way to Leyton Orient, someone sensible suggested the “upper Loft”, but wherever I go, there will be no “leg room”.

‘Come on you R’s’ high up on one side of the ground is the first thing I see once the soft female robotic voice of my bus informs me I have arrived. The superstore below already has a healthy amount of people outside, and there's still over an hour and half to kick off, not that there is expected to be bumper crowd by any stretch of the imagination, one whole side of the ground is closed, but there are a fair few Swindon Town FC (ST) fans already milling about in their red shirts, who instantly make me think about Glenn Hoddle and the 1993 documentary ‘That’s Football!’.

Damn it, Tom is here before me, so I’m unable to gloat about being early two games in a row. Such was his promptness he has already been in the club shop to get his pin, I pop my head in, but quickly scarper like a soon to be victim in a Wes Anderson film, at the sight of foam fingers and a ‘Retro Section’.

ST’s coach passes us, and with no underground, multi story car park bat cave entrance, the likes of which you get at most modern stadiums, they just pull up on the main road, which separates the ground from a very large nearby housing estate, hop off and make their way in.

There is something wonderfully romantic, about these still standing suburban grounds, which were built in the early 1900’s, and over time a community has grown around them, intertwining with them, so much so it has become part of the landscape, in some places it’s hard to differentiate between house and ground. As we take in a lap it’s only the occasional gaps in the terraced houses, and the appearance of a blue gate that makes you realise what’s just behind, oh that and the flood lights.

Less than convinced by the food on offer at the local chippy or the burger van on the pavement behind a four by four, Tom asks himself out loud “does that look like a good place to eat? the answer must be a no, because we make our way in, food-less.

“A Kick Up The R's, brand new edition” shouts the fanzine seller standing in the middle of South Africa Road in the famous QPR hooped shirt, the black and red away version mind, not the blue and white home one. With a faded green money belt around his waist, he holds the publication high above his head, calling out like a throwback from an East End market.

In my early days going to White Hart Lane, I could put my house on the fact the same guy would be standing in the same doorway selling a Spurs fanzine. On one hand it has nothing to do with the club, completely unofficial, but on the other could not be any less important, than the ground or the badge. The humble fanzine is an integral part of football culture a counter voice to the party line, necessary satire of the club and a platform for the fans to speak their mind, all hopefully safe in the knowledge that you won't be getting a letter asking you to arrange a meeting to collect your season ticket.

One home fan is being turned away as we make our way towards our turnstile, a bit too much pre match loading I think, which is more than apparent by his crab like getaway.

“That’s a nice conservatory” says Tom as we climb the exterior stairs of the stand, such is the proximity to the nearby houses, I can make out the latest edition of Horse & Hound on someone's coffee table.

I wish I had been told to bring my glow sticks, because the music playing as we walk down the long narrow concourse to our block, is frankly a bit trippy, a little bit Whirligig, imagine black lights and neon trousers.

Most already here are standing heads tilted towards the TV screens showing Sky Sports news. Tom thinks he sees a rolling yellow banner alluding to an Arsenal transfer, and is as excited as someone who thinks they has just seen a Unicorn, but he isn't certain.

We find our seats, which isn't hard, its not a big stadium, but it’s perfectly formed, with it’s four closed corners. I wouldn't say we are high up, even though we are on the upper tier, it feels like I could reach down and touch the players warming up below. A few flags hang over the balcony of the stand to our right, the one to our left is closed, no-one will be occupying any of the white seats that spell out ‘QPR’.

“Welcome to Loftus Road” announces the voice over the speakers. The same voice shares with us the starting 11's, first up the visitors, who he reels off with all the enthusiasm of someone reading out a shopping list, even when he “welcomes back” an old player, his voice doesn't peak much above monotone. With ST done, it’s now QPR’s turn, which is preceded by what I can only imagine was a nose bag of amphetamines, because his change in tone and excitement level is remarkable, it could only be drug induced, it was so quick. All to its own pumping backing track, he reads out the home team players like it's the beginning of the super bowl, which is then finished off with a blast of ‘London’s Calling’ by the Clash.

Post audio assault, and thinking it can't be healthy for a person to be that up and down in a matter of thirty seconds, and with the sun slowly disappearing picturesquely over the roof of the far stand, it really is an agreeable scene, and I am quickly falling for this ground, but we are in pain, my knees and shins have been cut to ribbons by the chair in front, and we need to stretch our legs. Tom is sitting side saddle like a Victorian lady, and I think their is more of me in the aisle than in my seat, so we, or I should say Tom, with me following, go in search of food.

“£4.20 for Mums hot dog” considers Tom, not sure who's Mum’s it is, but I’m sure it’s some kind grey haired lady who before each match passionately hand crafts the frankfurters, and It’s not a cynical marketing trick to make it sound all cozy and homely and help you forget that it’s the pulverised eyelids and hooves that it is. When Tom spots one of ‘Mum’s’ in the flesh, he is quick to flash me an ‘ABORT, ABORT, ABORT’ look, instead going for the beer in a plastic bottle and pie.

I opt for an Oasis, which tastes like a bottle of a thousand melted ice poles, and refrained from food, even one gram of fat, might mean I won’t be able to get into any of my seat.

Tom as ever, is eager, pulling the pie from it’s hot plastic wrapper, he delves in with his wooden spoon. The next couple of minutes are similar to an episode of Alan Partridge, with a meat pie instead of an apple one and a football ground instead of a petrol station. Tom is forced to contort his face in such a way as to allow him to move the brown scalding mush around his mouth to prevent further burns, all with his mouth fully open, to allow for the escape of the meaty steam. He is appalled at the way he is behaving, the combination of the imminent kick off and the heat has reduced him, in his own words to eating it like a “dog”.

Bringing your own food, that’s the way to do it, we say it every time Tom finishes something he wished he hadn't and is overcome with self loathing. The woman sitting behind us who is surreptitiously prying open bread rolls and stuffing a bit of ham in it, before handing it out to her family, should be an inspiration to us all.

The big screen at the opposite end of the ground counts down to kick off, an army of fully kitted mascots and flag bearers mill about at the mouth of the tunnel. Despite the blaring Libertines song, the ST fans can be heard over the music, and are in good voice, “we’re the red and white army”.

“Welcome to the hallowed turf” says the alleged recreational drug user announcer, as the players arrive, amongst a blur of waving flags. The choice of music is akin to a montage from Top Gear, instrumental, guitar riff heavy, and the big screen repeats ‘we are QPR’ and ‘this is Loftus Road’ like something from Clockwork Orange.

“Get behind them from the first minute to the last” he shouts, as QPR prepare for kick off, the fans around us dish out their own customary call “come on you Hoops”, “come on you R’s”. ST’s fans are less than impressed, “your support is fucking shit”.

Along with hoping to bump into Sir Les Ferdinand, he just hangs around here right? The other former Premier League striker, we are guaranteed to maybe not bump into, but at least see, is Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, “there's Jimmy” points out Tom. It’s hard to miss him, standing on the touch line in a brilliant white shirt, just itching to twat a ball at one hundred miles an hour into the top right hand corner. I bet he could, I bet he could still almost break the crossbar.

Some football fans are reluctant to praise a player who plays for other clubs, taking the ‘he don't play for us, so he's shit’ approach, short of getting a tattoo and a shirt with his name on, I will happily give credit where credit's due, and with Hasselbaink I’ll dish it out in buckets, he’s one of my all time favourites!

“Hello, hello we are the Swindon boys” sing the ST supporters who have not stopped, and it’s their team that get the first shot on target, albeit a little tame, but they certainly look the more sprightly of the two teams.

Although the fans around us offer up the occasional shout, the noisiest are the mostly standing group to our far left, who have pushed themselves against the fence separating them from the closed stand, “everywhere we go”.

The home fans eventually have something to get excited about, but I’m not sure anyone could see it properly because the setting sun is now at such a level, most people are having to shield their eyes with their hands. It was a brilliant diagonal ball that found the player perfectly flying down the wing, and his half volleyed cross causes all sorts of furor, but no goal.

QPR are growing into the game, and are slowly starting to control it, creating plenty of chances. The cross field ball from left to right is working well, and they have good pace on the wings, but look determined at times to be the “authors of their own pain” to steal a Blofeld line. When they give the ball away, one fans timing near us is impeccable, “fuck off” he shouts, as ST shot on goal, which again resulted from QPR’s sloppy play, but thankfully it’s a bit limp once again.

Midgame a mobile number appears on the screen, inviting text’s from fans who have witnessed ‘unacceptable behaviour’, Tom suggests I “get my phone out” and prepares to dictate a message, convinced the seating arrangements could well be considered unacceptable, “I can’t feel my shins right now” is his proposed memo, “it’s the most uncomfortable I have ever been”.

The sun finally disappears over the roof of the School End, and although it's a bit chilly, people are reaching for cardigans and jackets, it's still a gorgeous evening for watching football.

ST are getting opportunities, normally with an assist from the home team, only the legs of the QPR keeper can stop their latest attempt, which is finally hit with some venom. QPR are hardly blessed with a decent cup record, in any competition. The grim look on many of the fans faces around us represents that, they seem resigned to the ultimate disappointment of defeat.

Tom’s analysis on the thirty minute mark is that QPR are good at “blocking”, insightful, I guess, if not a little brief. Not long after his Paul Merson’esq observations, this skill of theirs is required again, as ST look destined to grab a goal.

With the break approaching Tom wants me to get him a “Snickers”, but he will not consider another bottle of Carlsberg because it was “horrible”. Not only is Tom a fine barber, photographer, football pundit, but he also it seems has one finger pressed firmly against the beating pulse of the world of marketing, and has noticed a glaring hole in QPR’s branding: the signs around the pitch are advertising Ginsters, but they sell Pukka pies! This is akin to when Messi was seen drinking a Coke, heads will surely roll, I can only imagine he will be firing off an email to Tony Fernandes in the morning, offering his services like Mary Portas.

The half finishes with QPR once again being caught out inside the left back. The keeper is forced to charge off his line, is easily rounded only for a player to block the certain goal on the line. The man along from us has his head in his hands, two children in front of us, have had a enough, and have fallen asleep.

On the half time whistle sandwich making behind us recommences, and I think I spot a few coconut chunks being handed out.

QPR’s mascot a large black cat does the rounds, at one point he points to a person in the stand and gestures outside, maybe they have a bit of previous, but it seems very unsavoury from a club representative, tut, tut. The half time entertainment round here, which gets you a goody bag, is the challenge of chipping a football into what I can only describe as one of those things they use to wrap your Christmas tree.

One fan coming back to their seat is optimistic, “ 3 - 1 QPR” he says. Tom returns without his desired Snickers, but impressed that they have a smoking area, if he had known before hand, he wouldn’t have had to chug on his vape cig in the loo like a crackhead.

“Welcome back your Queens Park Rangers” says Bez on the mic, still super hyped and backed by more 90’s dance music.

A big shout for a home penalty plays out right below us, it was clearly shoulder to shoulder,  and when it’s not given, all the “fucking hell ref” and hard done by noises you would expect follow, Tom quite rightly says it would have been a bit “harsh” if it had been given. Much to the relief of the tense home crowd, not long after they go ahead, the players trot off down the goal line in front of us celebrating, close enough, you could join in.

The fans are now a lot louder, “we’re the pride of West London” they decree, the cage crew are now hitting their chain link partition with extra vigour, and stick it to their neighbours “stand up if you hate Chelsea”.

Tom’s legs have completely gone to sleep, I wish Sir Les was here with his helicopter, he could airlift him to hospital, he starts to scribble a will on the back of his ticket, he is not sure if he is going to make it, his agony is not helped by the referee's insistence of continuously blowing his whistle, he seems determined not to let the game flow, “it's getting boring” he says in his array of contoured pretzel like positions.

QPR’s lead lasts all but of about fifteen minutes, although not because they had slammed their fist on the big red self destruction button, it’s a fluke, a ricochet that sends the ST attacker unopposed and bearing down on goal, he waits for the ball to bounce and then hits it on the half volley. Whereas our end is engulfed in a large sigh, the ST end has erupted “we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” they claim, “if you love Swindon, stand up” they sing, I would definitely be standing love or no love, it would be far more comfortable.

It’s all ST now, the QPR fans seem again resigned to their fate, and are getting angry, one is even looking for divine intervention when the keeper almost blows it. Trying to be tricky in the box, with a drag back or three he almost gets caught out “JESUS” he screams, from my own experience deities don’t meddle in the world of football, except if your Maradona.

Jimmy does his best from his technical area, with his ear splitting whistle, but to no avail. There is a small outbreak of fistycuffs, a full team on team jostle, but nothing major, we are going to extra time.

More jumpers go on, preparing for another thirty minutes, the sky is now jet black. People seem a little deflated, ST are a division below, and really should be on the way home, when one shouts “come on Rangers” it’s a little lackluster.

“Deh, Deh, Deh Hoops” how the mood can change in the blink of an eye, another ball across the box a shout of “hit it” from someone behind us, and the player obliges, 2 -1. It’s QPR’s turn to "ollay" the team passing the ball about, the likelihood of another goal seems certain, but the win still feels less than secure.

Quick drink, quick word from the boss, change of ends, second half of extra time, “come on Rangers” someone shouts, which sounds like more of a plea, than anything else.

The metaphorical blue and white fist of QPR has lifted itself above its head and has firmly smashed the self destruct button, in fact it's lifting it up and down, repeatedly hitting away just to make sure, 2 - 2. Eyes roll to the heavens, I told you already they can't help you up there and many cheeks are puffed in disappointment, one fan says it best “poor”.

“We’ve only got ten men, we’ve only got ten men” sing the ST fans, have you? A couple of head counts later, they are right. ST have used all their subs, and a player has gone off injured, it's just extra salt in the wound. The woman with the sleeping children, who are now awake, is upset, but has to moderate her displeasure, “that's toilet”.

In the final moments of extra time, QPR chuck the kitchen sink at ST, whose fans are now the quietest they have been all night, the home fans have one more rally “COME ON YOU R’S”, someone is banging the back of the stand, and the players respond. A shot goes just wide “ooooo” and another is flashed across the goal.

ST’s keeper in a pink jersey, a rather garish shade, not an effortlessly cool Buffon one, tries halfheartedly to waste some time, claiming an imaginary head injury, but can't live with the shame of his public display of bullshit, and gives up, but it doesn't matter, shootout here we come.

The captains are led away by the referee for the coin toss. Much to the delight of the traveling fans, the players are making their way up towards them. Both teams line up arms around each other on the halfway line, as the first taker, a ST player, makes his way for the first penalty.

QPR’s keeper is the hero, with two saves, much to the audible relief and delight of the now departing home fans, after a mixed one hundred and twenty minutes for their team, one supporter is so over joyed he breaks free of the agreed restraints of the stand and dashes across the pitch, playing his own game of 'catch' with the lumbering high viz wearing stewards, side stepping and weaving away from their attempts to catch him.

“Talk about making hard work of it”, is the sentiment of one fan as we make our way home, one of the many children who are here, are far from sympathetic for their defeated foe, “Swindon are rubbish, Swindon are out” they sing with much glee.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE

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Sunday, 14 August 2016

Don't Follow Me, Follow The Seasiders - FC Clacton Vs Eton Manor FC, FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round 2016/17, Rush Green Bowl, 06/08/15.

With the blinds of my bedroom doing a piss poor job of keeping out the bright shards of sunlight, it is that, and not my alarm that wakes me this morning. Usually this would get my day off to a less than ideal start, consuming most of my commute with vengeance directed at Mother Nature, today though is different, today is special, today football is back!

Saying that, it's not like it’s been gone for long. With the month long European Championship offering a pleasant interlude, or two weeks for an England fan, sigh, football in fact doesn't feel like it’s even stopped. When Ronaldo had finished posing, and Buffon cemented his credentials as world's coolest footballer, my summer, much like millions of others has been taken over by Pokemon GO. I did briefly watch some of the Chinese Super League, but decided wandering around a park hoping to catch a floating plant with teeth or firefly cat/wolf thing, was better for my soul.

Post bath, my first big decision of the new season is ‘shorts or no shorts?’. I opt for bare legs, even though they make me look a bit like a member of Alien Ant Farm. As I pack my rucksack, with all the attention and precision of Ray Mears, It crosses my mind that it has only been a couple of months since Alan Pardew was ruining the FA Cup a little bit, and Jesse Lingard made sure we all weren't subjected to any more fucking dancing, and it really is remarkable that the road to Wembley has started again so soon.

On our personal mission last season to do every round, we managed eleven. It was those early rounds specifically, those rounds where you could tell it was a big deal to progress, that were some of the highlights of 2015/16. Both of us were fully submerged in the romance of the competition, it really didn't bother us that we didn't make it to Wembley, because as we got closer, the passion and excitement got further away, nowhere was this more clear than at Arsenal Vs Hull in the fifth round.

Outside the sky is a brilliant blue, there’s not a cloud in sight, and my outfit choice is instantly vindicated. My local tube station is out of action for the weekend, so I’m forced into taking a combination of buses to meet Tom at Liverpool Street. Not that I’m actually that bothered, you're not going to catch a Snorlax on the Underground, are you?

Oh my bus is on a diversion, oh no one thought to inform me of that at any point during my journey, oh you have now dropped me off in the wrong place. For the second time in less than a couple of hours, an event which would usually send me into a downward spiral of under my breath swearing, is like water off a duck's back, I’m just not bothered, football is back.

Where I have been dumped, works out OK in the end, and I’m soon on my way. I’m sure it’s just living in a large city, but when using public transport, it seems unavoidable not to notice or overhear something interesting or have some kind of interaction with someone of one kind or another. While I feverishly swipe my phone, trying to get those all important PokeStops, I’m caught up not so much in the conversation of the two actors behind me, “I’m just trying to get paid” says one, but more their hearty, Kenneth Branagh, thespian laughs, that are always in unison, and never independent of each other.

The world again tries to test me, my bus announces that it’s changing destination, but once again I’m unfazed, I would say I’m as cool as a cucumber, but it's stiflingly hot, thankfully the small lady asking people if they are “a Christian” is also handing out leaflets which come in handy as a fan. I’m again distracted from my jogging blue haired avatar, as the small lady decides to inquire about the driver’s religious beliefs, “I will say a pray for you” she tells him, I just want her to let the guy drive.

A new season, means new ways, for one of us at least, I’m on time. I’m chuffed as I look up at the big electronic clock on the departures board at Liverpool St station, that I am a whole two minutes early.

All in black, wearing jeans and a jacket, Tom descends the stairs, sporting a nifty pair of Ray-Bans, looking effortlessly cool, only he, even in his totally overdressed state, with the thermometer hitting over 25 degrees, can pull it off. I stare at him slack jawed, half Irish and overweight, wondering how does he do it? I almost brought a towel to mop my brow, he just shrugs “ you know I never get it right”.

Something else that hasn't changed, is his somewhat consistent bleary eyed’ness. Queuing to get our train tickets he tells me of last nights escapades that involved a DJ on the back of a flatbed truck. I must admit I was up a little later than usual, taking in the cultural event of the Rio Olympic opening ceremony, but I was not eating vodka filled scotch eggs or snorting deep fried absinthe cheese straws.

“No Thomas” shouts a Grandmother to her grandson in an Arsenal shirt, causing Tom to turn in his seat, look at the little boy, and wonders for a second if he has just fallen into a time rift, all in the time it takes to pull out of the station.

Our train is far from modern, it’s verging on the antique, it’s deafening, when other trains pass, it feels like we are being shot out of a gun. It is however not loud enough to drown out the slurping noise the man sitting next to us is making, as he eats a ginormous heritage tomato, this is no supermarket tiddler, it’s like an apple, he only stops occasionally to eat a hunk of bread, like an extra from Wolf Hall.

“I’m getting quite hungry” says Tom “should of got a sandwich” he adds. Where as I have tried to turn over a new leaf, my time keeping, Tom is just the same, always thinking about food. As we get closer to our stop, continuing through the freshly cut rolling fields of Essex countryside, our final destination inspires the conversation: fish and chips, pickled onions and Tom’s Dad's addiction to saveloys. Tom has to get something off his chest, I can see from his face it’s just trying to burst out, “I love a battered sausage” he admits, after saying it his eyes dart around the carriage like he has just admitted to a heinous crime, hopping no one heard.

“Clacton only” says the train, we are next.

On arrival the carriage is filled with the high pitched squeals of children. The train quickly empties and instantly the air is filled with the signature sound of the seaside, squawking gulls. It is though quickly relegated to second place, and replaced by the tedious rumble of pulled luggage, as families landing with bags and buckets and spades, race off to start their summer holidays.

As we get closer to the seafront the telltale signs of a British coastal resort become apparent, old ladies eating ice creams on benches, kids tearing about because of too many sweets, annoyed looking parents trying to catch the aforementioned children, the clicking of the rides, men with their shirts off, when it's really not that hot, and the flashing lights of the amusements.

“Arcades, 10p machines” says Tom, as we pass Magic City and I have a job on my hands keeping him out. On the promenade, he is again mesmerized, “oh hello” he says like Terry Thomas as he spots one of the many fish and chip stalls near the pier, and he decides for the both of us, what we are having for lunch.

Although it was one of the better deep fried sausages I have ever had, it was fresh atleast, not a bendy meat torpedo, which has been in it’s hot glass prison for eternity, it doesn't sit quite right with either of us.

Have you heard the one, “there was a Spurs fan, an Arsenal fan and a West Ham fan in a taxi……” you probably haven't, but it is the situation we find ourselves in. Our driver, a forward thinking Hammer, talks about understanding the “bigger picture” when it comes to West Ham leaving their “home” the Boleyn, but nonetheless is not ecstatic about the move.

When we tell him where we are off to, he is quick to sing the praises of FC Clacton (FCF). It’s always nice to hear when a club are active in the local community, he tells us about the many kids teams, for boys and girls they have, as well as ‘Fun Days’ at the ground. Once we’ve paid him and as we both getting out, he fills us in on one of the fans chants “sea, sea, sea, siders”.

A long white wall outside the Rush Green Bowl has the club's name emblazoned on it, in tall blue letters, along with the club's crest, which includes all the things you would expect from a club on the coast, clam shells and boats.

It’s a lot quieter out here than by the front, the only thing interrupting the sound of the gulls is the whir of an air conditioning unit and ‘Bye, Bye Baby’, by the Bay City Rollers. The entrance is little more than a door in a brick wall, there is a turnstile, but such is the size of the gap, you can easily sidestep it, and avoid the customary click.

Once in, a small band of the nicest CFC blue cap wearing hustlers get to work, the first one Chris, is behind an old round dining table with a few copies of today's programme fanned out, next to a pile of change. With that sorted, next down the line is an older chap in charge of a table jam packed with club merchandise, front and centre a bumper sticker that looks like it has seen better days reads “don't follow me, follow the seasiders”.

“Start as you mean to go on” he says to me, clutching the all too familiar half time draw scratch card, and it's not long until I have handed over £2 and he is telling me to be in the clubhouse at half time, to find out if I have won.

Not content with our money for my programme and Tom getting a pin, the Apprentice contestant in him steps forward, “want something for the winter?” he asks, holding up a blue club fleece in front of me to see if it fits, like when your Mum took you shopping. I declined because I can buy my own clothes now thanks Mum, oh and it’s a bit small, and it’s too fucking hot!

Running a non-league football club requires you to be inventive, resourceful, and smart. Nowhere is this more apparent, than the pink Wendy House being used to balance the PA system on top of, blasting out a solid mix of what you might call ‘Dad music’, in no way is that a criticism, I only have praise for a club that plays ‘Back in the USSR’ by the Beatles, I just don't think you are ever going to hear ‘Hotline Bling’ here.

Both teams are warming up, CFC are doing one particular drill Tom thinks is a bit “mean”, drop the ball and you have to go and play on your own.

Always keen to tick off a few boxes in my ‘I Spy book of non-league football’ I dust it off after its summer hiatus, and tick off, ‘man on grass bank playing an acoustic guitar’ but can't find one for ‘child’s toy used as part of sound system’ so add that to the notes section. When the “guitar man” as Tom describes him, strides past us with it slung on his back like the member of a Mariachi band, this prompts Tom to take a walk of his own to take some pictures, and leaves me sitting on one of the blue benches of the ‘Mars Drury Stand’ one of three in the ground. Opposite, and much in need of exploring is the curiously named ‘Bus Shelter’ with flags hanging on it’s back wall.

With the blue sky filled with only a few fluffy white clouds, you could not ask for a more picture perfect scene, all with a little bit of Chesney Hawkes playing. People are scattered out around the ground, one man in a scarf, why?, leans on the blue and white railing around the pitch, flicking through his programme. It’s not long until I’m joined by a couple more people, “can I get round you young man” one man asks me as he climbs up the benches to the back of the stand, his friend, looking very smart in a green cardigan, IS HE NOT BOILING?, wipes down his intended spot with a tissue before placing down his own personal cushion.

Tom returns, telling me he has been told to talk to one particular fan who he refers to as “Mr Clacton” the go to guy for questions about the club’s history, but he has been warned, “we might miss the match though, he likes to talk”.

Requiring a much needed drink we head to the clubhouse, where it’s cool, and the majority of the people are hiding. These are the same people, who clearly love a CFC baseball cap, be it blue or white, old or new, almost everyone to a man is sporting one, of one design, or another. While I’m waiting for my change, I overhear a group discussing cobbling together their money to sponsor a player this season, their main choice, ticks all the right boxes it seems “he's good” confirms one of them to the rest of the group, who all agree.

Pitchside, with the ice in my glass rapidly melting, we join the others congregated around the thin green path leading from the changing room to the pitch. It’s about now I start to panic ever so slightly, while everyone around me doesn't seem to have noticed, am I the only one who has seen in the distance a plane, yes a plane, not one of the model variety, a real life size light aircraft is baring down on us all, like the scene from a Bond film.

Thankfully there is no spectacular explosion, no union jack parachute, but as it comes in to land mere feet away for the pitch, it is close enough to see the flying goggles and fur lined jacket of the pilot.

“We've come all this way for one thing” shouts one of CFC’s opponents, Eton Manor FC (EMFC), as they are led by the referee on to the pitch, all to the rhythmic clapping of ‘We will Rock You’ by Queen. Tom asks if EMFC’s kit is the same as the old QPR red and white number, and admittedly it does look very similar. For a brief moment the two teams line up, and shake hands. As they make their way to their half a couple of players from each side shout “come on Eton”, “come on Clacton”.

“Good to be back” says Tom to me, moments after kick-off.

Spirits are high, and communication has clearly been the buzzword of pre season training, lots of players are shouting all sorts of things, but mainly one word, very loudly, “heads”, “seconds”. EMFC’s keeper falls into the ‘motor mouth' category, and is non stop.

Tackles are already flying in, Tom makes the same prediction that he normally does about this time, ten minutes into most games we watch, after wincing for about the fourth time after a ’50/50’ “someone is getting sent off”.

“Well done keeper” shouts someone ironically from the stands, as a fumble from the man in goal for EMFC results in CFC going ahead. Tom recalls him moaning about his gloves during the warm up, trying on different pairs, perhaps that was a factor in his butter fingers, but really he should've done better with the low cross.

One EMFC player demands “calm” from his teammates, since going behind the away team have been at 6’s and 7’s. The “beast”, the now generic name for a big unit centre forward, and how Tom describes EMFC's number 9, is causing problems for the defense, but his marker who is almost half his size, is for the time being keeping him under wraps.

I’m not sure if I have mentioned it yet, but it is warm, so when Tom points to the man in front of us wearing the jumper, “I was going to buy”, I’m first impressed, well done for flogging that in August, but then I’m flabbergasted, is everyone cold blooded in these parts, or do I need to just get a grip?

To our left, a group of four home fans, watch on from the sidelines, their own flag draped over the fence in front of them. One stands out from the rest, the guy rocking a double denim, Eagles concert, jeans and jeans jacket combo, paired with a cap covered in football pins, and a club scarf and shirt. With a thin lit rollie constantly in his mouth, he occasionally pulls a quarter bottle of vodka from the inside pocket of his jacket, takes a glug then puts it back, now that’s a way to enjoy your Saturday.

We love non-league football, we love the stripped back, no nonsense feel of it, but one thing I think would be worth adopting form their multi million, spending pre season playing a Boutan best 11, to boost shirts sales cousins on their lofty perch, is a jumbotron or two.

Ok, perhaps jumbotron is wishful thinking, just a moderately sized screen for replays, because when EMFC equalise, I happened to be writing in my notebook, looking up at the point the ball is sailing over the CFC keeper, Tom has a ‘that was a wicked goal’ look on his face, and the scorer has strolled to the sidelines, very nonchalantly, waiting for his team mates to mob him, knowing full well he has done something great.

Things quickly go from bad to worse for CFC, when in the matter of of about five minutes, the match has done a full 180, and EMFC go ahead. “How have you let that happen?!?” shouts Mr Smirnoff from the sidelines, the home bench is just as livid “do you want anything from this game?”.

With an almost carbon copy attack that resulted in the first goal, CFC seem destined to score again, but can’t, this time the keeper doesn't have any issues with his gloves. The end finishes with CFC having plenty of the ball, but they are just unable to make the right pass when it matters, Tom’s mind is wandering to thoughts of half time snacks “can you smell those onions?” he asks me, which are wafting on the breeze from the burger van behind one goal. When I ask him if he is getting something, he reacts with real disdain, “no, it's a healthy season” he snaps.

The ground is a little muted on the half time whistle, most pick themselves up and head to the bar. Those who don’t, like us, stay in the shade of the stand, and start the analysis of the first half, many gesturing to now empty parts of the pitch, claiming players should have been “here” or “there”. Two people passing us, chatting among themselves, are a little less tactically minded. “Game started alright” says one of the other shrugging, the reply from the other is someone who could never be called a fair weather fan “we will watch them, we ain't going anywhere, they are trying their best”.

For a moment a pleasant hush falls over the ground, only the occasional sound of gulls and shooting practise interrupts, soon this changes when the music starts again, unfortunately now with a more contemporary vibe, boooooo, bring back the music made before 1984.

Tom has insisted we move, and as the new half gets under way, we are standing behind the goal in front of the burger van, the same burger van whose side window is being propped open with a broom, so the person inside can watch the match.

Going by the first half's, ‘open style’, more goals seemed inevitable, and the Gods don’t disappoint, with CFC pulling things equal early, “quick start” says Tom, he’s not wrong, I think some people might still be getting a drink.

Although we could see the group to our left in the first half had a flag up, we could not see what it was. They have also moved, so we can now read what’s on it ‘Vic Dave Les 3 Old Gits FC Clacton Forever’.

The bad habit of not being able to hold on to a lead is shared by both teams. When the diminutive home number 5, who has been doing such a good job marshaling the EMFC number 9, is culpable of a foul in the box, the referee points to the spot. It’s more scuffed than well hit, one EMFC player can’t bare to look and turns his back, one CFC fan near us reckons “it's going over, he'll miss”, but no such luck, it’s 3 - 2 to EMFC.

I’m struggling to keep up, as soon as CFC almost equalize again, this time a lobbed ball over the out rushing keeper, misses the goal, instead hitting the broom holding up the burger van window sending it flying, I once again miss a goal, and by the sounds of it, it makes the first one I missed sound like a pea roller.

This time all I hear is the ping of the ball off the woodwork, look up to see the CFC keeper stranded in no man's land, and the scorer, the EMFC number 9 now has his second, flying off. People are saying things like “35 yarder” and the ref is manically signalling towards the hysterical away bench for the players to get off the pitch and stay in their area.

Really, a big screen for replays can't be that expensive, can it?

CFC are in disarray, the 4th goal it would seem has pulled the rug from under them, and another comeback looks unlikely. If it is going to happen, it will have something to do with the tall thin, striding number 11, who has carte blanche on the right wing, his long legs allowing him to continuously leave his marker for dead.

“Sea, sea, sea, siders” for the first time in the match the Bus Shelter comes to life, banging on the back of the stand, they offer their support “come on Clacton”, and they along with the rest of the fans are full of praise when one player performs a goal line clearance and prevents a 5th for EMFC.

I think the sun has got to Tom, “that's a very pretty pigeon” he says pointing his camera at some nearby wildlife, as the players take a much deserved water break. He is though quite right, it’s much nicer than the one legged, mange covered ones we get at home, but I do wonder if he should have brought a hat.

There is no celebration from the player, the fans it's a different matter, the Bus Shelter sings once again “come on you whites, come on whites”. CFC’s number 11 has just scored a very classy goal, the EMFC keeper is quick off his line again, gets nowhere near the ball, again, and number 11, takes the ball round him with a deft touch and has an empty net all to himself. Before the keeper can compute what's happened, he has the ball in his hands and he is running back towards the centre circle.

“Get your fucking heads up” shouts someone from the EMFC bench, again they have let CFC back in the match, when it should be out of sight.

“Sea, sea, seasiders”, it's now all CFC, they are firmly on the front foot, the EMFC players are asking the ref “how long is left?” and are desperately trying to see this one out.

Football chants have a habit of being a bit generic, swap team A’s name with teams B’s, or swap team C’s colours with teams D’s and you have your average football song. So it’s refreshing when you hear a new one, something a little different, no more so than the rendition of “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” coming from the Bus Shelter, love it.

“Looks bad” says someone, “he’s hurt” says someone else after an EMFC player clashes with a teammate. No theatrics, just a long pause in play as the player in question who came off worst is checked over.

With the break in the match, one of the ‘Gits’ is on the phone, giving an update to someone “not going very well I’m afraid” he tells the person on the other end, such is his pessimism he adds that he “has his boots on” and does a little jog on the spot as he tells them.

Thankfully the downed player is up, he is walking off, albeit assisted, and the restart brings a cry from a home fan “come on you Whites”.

A back post header for the EMFC number 9, gets him his hattrick, and sends him running up the pitch with his ear cupped to the crowd and surely he has put the game to bed, once and for all. The away bench, which unlike the home one is a crowded bustling one, more people than I can count are pacing around, offering their twopence, one tells the team that there is “5 minutes left”. The players know the score and are in no rush to get the ball going out of play “leave it” says one to another, the referee is quick to cotton on and tells them “let's go gents”.
So that's the FA Cup over for CFC for this season at least, but with the speed it goes around, it won't be long until they're back at it again. EMFC on the other hand are through, and God only knows how far they might get, what I do know though is I felt pretty bad when the hattrick man asked me “tell me you got that goal on video?” and I have to break it to him I don't, he looks distraught.

Having not checked out the Bus Shelter, before we leave I have a quick nose about, the rest of the ground is pretty empty, a solitary CFC players cleans up the bench and we hear a loud cheer from the away team dressing room. The flags are down now, and it reveals, some graffiti, nothing of the cock and ball kind, but kind words from passing football fans, and an actual bus time table.

Tom could not have put it any better, it’s good to be back.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE

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Monday, 11 July 2016

No Winter Break: 2015/16 Season Review

Well, well, well, where do I start? Now the distraction of the Euros has passed, it allows us some time to reflect on our first full season, and there is a lot to take in. We dived head first into the non-league FA Cup, ventured to the Ruhr to gorge on sausages and German football culture, finally won something in a raffle and made our furthest UK ‘Away Day'. I think I can say for the both of us that the last eleven months have been astonishing, and I guess there is no better place to begin our review of 2015/16, than with the very first match.

The new black and red sign outside Haringey Borough FC’s ground, was proudly on show and said it all after last seasons promotion, “Member of the Ryman Football League”. Having been there on the last day of 2014/15, getting soaked in champagne and enjoying the raucous changing room celebration after winning the Essex Senior League, it seemed a no brainer being at Coles Park for the first game, of the new season. Despite a reasonably uneventful draw, it did nothing to dampen my love affair with my most local of local clubs - Welcome To The Ryman League - Haringey Borough FC Vs Dereham Town FC

When one thinks of ‘The New Den’ and Millwall FC, all sorts of stereotypes and tall tales from football folklore are conjured up. For Tom, a visit to that particular part of Southeast London, and Zampa Road, has always been very high on his list of places for us to go, so when they drew Barnet in the first round of the League Cup, we popped along. Not only did we witness a bit of a South East London sing song “Let 'Em Come” and met Barnet FC’s most famous fan, but we also watched a bit of a cup upset as League Two beat League One much to the delight of the travelling fans from our side of the river - Let 'Em Come - Millwall FC Vs Barnet FC

The August Saturday afternoon in East London, where we killed two birds with one stone, feels like a lifetime ago now. Not only did we both for the first time watch a game in the very first round of the FA Cup, but we also got to tick off ‘The Old Spotted Dog Ground’, home of Clapton FC.

The match was a relatively straightforward away win for Stanway Rovers FC, the ground is far from being in the best of nick, and has no outstanding features, except perhaps the giant mobile phone masts, but the atmosphere, it’s worth the visit just for the atmosphere and support that could rival any team, at any level of the vast football pyramid, joining the Clapton Ultras on their home patch, was a sight to behold - On The Scaffold - Clapton FC Vs Stanway Rovers FC

The following weeks were dominated by the oldest cup competition in the world, as we continued our self imposed challenge to attend every round of the FA Cup. Round after round was coming thick and fast, and it wasn't long into the season that we had clocked up visits to Erith Town FC, Greenwich Borough FC, Hanwell Town FC, where we saw them progress the furthest in the competition in their history, Enfield Town FC, where we spent our first ‘Non League Day’ and Grays Athletic FC, another team we have a close affinity for, who almost pulled off our first giant killing when they took on, and very nearly beat Welling United FC.

As much as we were loving and enjoying what you might call the ‘real FA Cup’, the real nitty gritty of the competition and not the 3rd round reserve ladened affairs we have been used to following Premier League clubs, we are sluts, harlots, football junkies if you like, always looking for our next fix, keen to take in as much as we can, and unfortunately on the odd occasion, we strayed from the path.

Like a cheating lover, we would creep off on a weekday, telling loved ones we were ‘meeting the guys for a pint’ only to be rubbing shoulders with Sky Sports presenters at Walton Casuals FC, have a fleeting rendezvous with an old flame, and the first non-league team we watched when we popped by Wingate & Finchley FC and slinked down an unlit, unmarked road next door to a crematorium to watch AFC Croydon Athletic, where Tom went chipless.

Getting brazen, I even managed to shoehorn a game into a family holiday, such was my ever growing addiction to all things non-league, ‘Two Men…..’, briefly became ‘One Man, His Son and His Fiancee’, when on a close summer evening just outside Poole I visited Hamworthy United FC a club with a badge that has an uncanny resemblance to West Ham’s, as well as sense of humour when the players walked out to Bon Jovi's ‘Livin' On A Prayer’ - Tommy Used To Work On The Docks - Hamworthy United FC Vs Sholing FC

No trip, holiday, weekend away or visit to the soon to be In-Laws from this point on was now safe, and when I made one of my obligatory trips to the North West, to be lavished with omellete sandwiches and constant reminders of how much better Manchester is than London, the opportunity to watch FC United of Manchester was too good to miss. Our Friday evening at the flag adorned fan owned shrine Broadhurst Park did not disappoint, and was undoubtedly one of my highlights of the year, in fact of ever watching football. It will take a long time to forget the low rumbling of ‘Dirty Old Town’, rolling across the red barriered terrace. “BRING ON UNITED, BRING ON UNITED” - Who Gives A F**k, I Own This Club - FC United of Manchester Vs Worcester City FC

Not content with one game, and feeling a little delicate, after being the last two out of the bar at FCUM, the quiet and leafy surroundings of Chorlton-cum-Hardy was the perfect place to conclude our North West double header, where we saw a staggering 16 goals, in an FA Vase 2nd Qualifying Round match. Unfortunately for Dinninginton Town FC they only scored one, the rest were bagged by the home side West Didsbury & Chorlton A.F.C. Great beer and an even better welcome, made my trip to Manchester a very satisfactory one - Come For The Beer & Stay For The Football - West Didsbury & Chorlton A.F.C. Vs Dinnington Town FC,

The final months of 2015 brought a hotchpotch of competitions, leagues, and even a taste of European football, as well as our first two games in the FA Cup ‘proper’, where non-league pitched themselves against league opposition.

Nowhere more than at Brisbane Road was it clear that a deep lying love for the FA Cup was still alive and more apparent, not in the near deserted home end mind, but in the bugle tooting, ice cream named away end, when we joined Staines Town FC’s fans, cheering, singing and chanting their team through a difficult 6 - 1 loss, but not at one point did they stop, not at one point did that passion waver in the face of defeat - Your Dad Is A Legend - Leyton Orient FC Vs Staines Town FC

Nights were now cold, and football in darkness was the order of the day as Christmas got ever closer. Thankfully half time in the director's lounge at Champion Hill, where the warm tea and mini samosas, went a long way to alleviate the chance of losing any extremities one November evening, as we watched fan owned Fisher FC get knocked out of the London Senior Cup.

Possible frostbite, this time at Wadham Lodge FC, was only avoided by our second run in with the Clapton Ultras and one of the friendliest welcomes we have ever received from the fine people who run the club, whose devotion to the cause is inspiring.

An officious steward, a clubhouse that looked like a strippers and our first taste of non-league crowd segregation, got things off to a funny start a stones throw from Elstree studios when we watched Boreham Wood FC take on the Imps of Lincoln, and what was possibly going to go down as our first ‘bad’ non-league experience was only saved by perhaps the finest styrofoam cup of chips we have ever had.

I won, I won, I won, my addiction to 50/50's and raffles finally paid off, after I scooped second prize at Welling United FC, in their FA Cup 2nd round match against Carlisle United FC.

The last two games of what had been a football filled 2015, could not have been more poles apart.

For the penultimate match, I was forced to arrange an emergency transfer and draft in my Fiancee once again, Tom for some reason was reluctant to join me for the match at White Hart Lane. On this occasion Spurs took on old money bags Monaco in the Europa League, and even though it was a deviation from our non-league focus, we revelled in it. The evening was punctuated by an Eric Lamela hat-trick and a Dad drinking neat vodka out of a coke bottle, and getting a bit handsy with the women around him. It was also maybe my last visit to that part of N17, in its current guise at least, before the bulldozers roll in - The Oxfam Cup - Tottenham Hotspur FC Vs AS Monaco FC

Bloated with stuffing and with Terry's chocolate orange stained faces, in that weird limbo week
between Christmas and New Year, we made our way to Wheatsheaf Park to see Staines Town FC, and said goodbye to 2015, as the home team got back to the mundanity of league football after their FA Cup foray had come to an end a few weeks before - It’s Like Barbados Here - Staines Town FC Vs Farnborough FC

Hello 2016, hello to the tail end of Tom’s two day New Year's hangover, hello torrential rain, hello burnt out car, hello old man singing Elvis, hello Silver Jubilee Park, hello Edgware Town FC vs Ampthill Town FC. Winning had almost become a bit old hat in these parts considering the season Edgware were having, and what better way to get the new year underway than another victory, one of many that would ultimately help them win the Spartan South Midlands League - Listen To Geoffrey - Edgware Town FC Vs Ampthill Town FC

Although there were many rounds of the FA Cup left, our non-league cup adventure, ended at sodden Silverlake Stadium when Eastleigh FC welcomed once Premier League Bolton in the 3rd Round. A match that was touch and go, with both of us constantly on the lookout for the dreaded ‘GAME OFF’, as we travelled to the south coast. Eastleigh were so close, so close to knocking out Mr Hesky and Mr Lennon, the same Mr Lennon who a year before was beating Barcelona in the Champions League, so close to joining that list of true FA Cup giant killers, but the football romance Gods weren't smiling on us that day - By Royal Appointment - Eastleigh FC Vs Bolton Wanderers FC

400 appearances, yes 400 appearances for one club was the almighty achievement we saw recognised at Sutton United as “Dundo’s gonna to get ya” rang out around Gander Green Lane, and the man of the moment led from the front as his team picked up a further 3 points, and a pattern of teams doing well after we visited started to develop - 400 - Sutton United FC Vs Dartford FC

Before March took on a distinctly Germanic feel, the end of February saw a non-league trip to Essex sandwiched by our final games in the FA Cup, as we drew our challenge to an end, on a very poignant note. The filling in this FA Cup sandwich was an evening where our good juju had deserted us, and we watched Redbridge FC rack up another loss, a loss that contributed to their eventual relegation.

The bread in my poor lunchtime snack analogy were two thick cut slices of FA Cup action. First up was a trip to the three sided Kassam Stadium, to watch the yellow and blue of Oxford United FC. After their previous rounds masterclass against Swansea, there seemed no better place to try and keep our FA Cup dream alive, but silly us for thinking lightning would strike twice, silly us for thinking we could tempt fate, and although we bore witness to the awesome support, Tifo and singing, from the home fans, the FA Cup was slowly losing some of the charm we had experienced in the previous rounds - Forza United - Oxford United FC Vs Blackburn Rovers FC

Saturday the 20th of February for most was a normal day, an inconveniently rearranged TV centric lunchtime kick off of a day in Islington, as Arsenal took on Hull for what most people thought would be a straightforward win for the Champions League regulars. For Tom the football somewhat faded into insignificance, as not only was it the first time he had been back to the Emirates since his Dad passed away, but it was also a year to the very day, that Steve left this mortal realm for the big Arsenal pub in the sky - Why Fly When You Can Walk On Water - Arsenal FC Vs Hull City A.F.C.

Having dipped my toe into the remarkable world of German football on a trip to Berlin in early 2015, it was time for Tom and I to pack our bags, mentally adjust ourselves for a diet of chips, beer and currywurst and head to the Ruhr for 3 games in 4 days, across 3 levels of the German game.

Jumping out of a cab near a railway crossing, we were greeted by the local Ultras marching down the road, you could say our introduction was immediate. Armed with only some simple directions thanks to someone I met on a Facebook group, we eventually arrived at the doors of the Rot-Weiss Essen fan-pub, to collect our tickets. Thick with smoke, decorated with scarves from teams all across Europe, we were dazzled by a man's knitted beer bottle holder, and continuously pinched ourselves, as only a few hours previously we were eating a Pret A Manger on a train - Westkurve - Rot-Weiss Essen Vs SG Wattenscheid 09

Why can I still taste bratwurst, were my thoughts moments after waking up on the morning of game two. Not really able to face any food, and only really wanting to down litre bottles of water, once arriving at VfL Bochum’s modernist and angular beauty of a stadium, chips with mayo and a pint of the local brew seemed like the best way to start the day, a breakfast of champions if you will. Mesmerized by the singing, beer chucking, and more knitted drinks holders and a cooler than a cucumber shade wearing Capo, we stood in the shadow of the Ostkurve, all for the price of a child’s ticket at your local cinema - Ostkurve‬ - VfL Bochum Vs SV Sandhausen

Our final day in Dortmund, started with a little bit of culture, and a visit to the German Fussball museum, spitting distance from our city centre hotel. After watching a film where Thomas Muller tried to act, we boarded a train from our second home, Dortmund Bahnhoff for the short trip to the holy grail, the one place we both had said over and over that we wanted to visit, the Westfalenstadion and the ‘Yellow Wall’.

Beer where you stand, pretzels you can wear, singing, flags, more singing but with a little touch of Merseyside, it was perhaps the best Sunday afternoon either of us have ever had - Südtribüne - Borussia Dortmund Vs TSG 1899 Hoffenheim

With the smell of sausages finally flushed from our nostrils, the culminating months of the season, meant only one thing, crunch time, and the calendar was awash with ‘relegation six pointers’, playoff securing games, and cup finals galore.

By far our furthest trip of the year was to the wilds of Northumberland, for Bower & Pitsea FC’s FA Vase semi final second leg match. Having followed their exploits in the competition closely, it was unthinkable that the chance to see them potentially secure themselves a day at Wembley, was too good to miss, however far it was.

Tom slept, we struggled with the accent, men were burly and imposing but ultimately friendly, we stopped in Yorkshire and had platters of tiny sandwiches and pickled onions, then endured the agony of a last minute winner for the home team, and it was tears from the boys from Essex - Are We There Yet? - Morpeth Town A.F.C. Vs Bowers & Pitsea FC

By chance, and only because of storm Katie did we end up at Beveree Stadium to watch Hampton & Richmond Borough FC get ever closer to promotion. Getting rained on was not the only thing that happened that day, we think we met Prince Vultan from Flash Gordon, we definitely met Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler and I came to the realization that Tom has a very juvenile sense of humour, yes Tom their nickname is the ‘Beavers’ - Who To Be A Beaver - Hampton & Richmond Borough FC v Leatherhead FC

Because of family and work, 15:00 Saturday kick-offs were a bit of a rarity for us, so when the stars aligned we grabbed the chance, to go to a match. Many had been called off again because of rain, but the pitches of Essex are made of sterner stuff, and we watched A.F.C. Hornchurch secure a playoff place, but not before some heart flutters and the appearance of an air horn - Rockabillies, Owls & Urchins - A.F.C. Hornchurch Vs Heybridge Swifts FC

Five of our last seven games were finals, one was a semi final where we made the journey to the end of the Piccadilly Line, for the ‘piccadilly line derby’, no one has ever called it that, Rayners Lane FC Vs Cockfosters, and we made two trips to Wembley in a week.

The first final was a routine victory for Kingstonian FC in the Ryman League Cup final at the overly patriotic War Memorial Sports Ground, kicking off at the slightly unorthodox 19:30. Confetti was the order of the day, and we were all treated to an impromptu appearance from the Ryman League Chairman - It's Like Watching Brazil - Faversham Town FC Vs Kingstonian FC

Next up was a match just screaming out for a Game of Thrones blog title, when the ‘Terrors’ Tooting & Mitcham United FC took on Hendon at the old bill FC’s Imber Court, which is hidden behind a swimming pool and a penguin bin, in a replay of the 2015 London FA Senior Cup Final. On a balmy cake filled, cigar scented evening, South London overcame North London - The Night Is Dark & Full Of Terrors - Tooting & Mitcham United FC Vs Hendon FC

“Wembley, Wembley, we’re Two Men in search of a Beautiful Game, and we are off to Wembley” is a song that is far too long winded to sing, but we might get made into shirts, as just like Elton John or Celine Dion at a Las Vegas Casino, we took up residency in HA9, saw the same team twice, got cabin fever after being locked in Wembley Stadium for over 6 hours, with only pick and mix and bad hip hop to entertain us.

“FISH, FISH, FISH” will be permanently seared into my psyche, after we watched the ‘Mariners’, Grimsby Town FC beat Forest Green Rovers in the National League promotion final, and not only did they reinstate themselves as a ‘league’ team, in doing so they became ‘non-league no more’, but their fans joined the top of the list of some of the noisiest and passionate we have ever come across - Non-League No More - Grimsby Town FC Vs Forest Green Rovers FC

Last but not least, we took in the inaugural ‘Non League Finals Day’ as the FA Vase & FA Trophy were played out on the same day.

Victory over Bowers & Pitsea in the semi final meant Morpeth Town were pitched against phoenix club Hereford, who were the strong favourites, and who brought an inordinate amount of fans. Lesser in number, but equal in voice those from the North East watched their team pull off a bit of a shock, beating the favourites resoundingly with a 4 - 1 win - Non-League Finals Day: Part One - Hereford FC vs Morpeth Town A.F.C.

The cries of “FISH” were a little muted in the FA Trophy final, as Grimsby couldn't make it two wins in a week under the Wembley arch, falling to a 1 - 0 defeat to FC Halifax Town. A subdued performance was met by a subdued atmosphere, and there was very little of the energy, noise or pyro we had seen from the Grimsby fans seven days earlier. Once free of Wembley, neither of us were sure if the ram packed non league extravaganza had actually worked -Non-League Finals Day: Part Two - FC Halifax Town Vs Grimsby Town FC

It would be easy to go on for another few pages, to thank all of the people who have made 2015/16 so enjoyable, those who have given us the most wonderfull feedback, those who have helped us with tickets and advice, those who have taken the time to help us share our blogs, photographs and videos and those who have given us the platforms, be it in print or online to reach out to people about a subject which we are both incredibly passionate about.

There are though a few people who are worthy of a mention in dispatches, only because their help has exceeded anything either of us could have thought possible: @ldnfootyguide, @TheDaisyCutter1, @MarkNLDaily, @TheNonLeagueMag, @Phil_Football, @TheFootballPink, @NonLeagueNews, @Copa90, @FanVoxCo.

We both hope that 2016/17 will be more of the same and then some, as we will do our damnedest to bring to those that are interested the very best we can. One of our biggest aims for the new season and beyond is more interaction with those who follow us be it on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram, we are greedy for you comments, your stories, your feelings about what we do, be it good or bad, we want your help to improve.

From the bottom of both our hearts, thank you to each and everyone of you. D&T.

For a full photographic review of 2015/16, click HERE

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Monday, 6 June 2016

Non-League Finals Day: Part Two - FC Halifax Town Vs Grimsby Town FC, FA Trophy Final 2016, Wembley Stadium, 22/05/16.

You can read, Non-League Finals Day: Part One - HERE

Thankfully Tom is not watching Vikings, so we both find ourselves at a little bit of a loose end, with just shy of two hours until the second kick-off of the day and I’m not left watching him, watching some medieval melodrama. If we wanted to we could eat our own body weight in pick and mix, from a bank of perspex containers, which must contain nigh on the whole stock of the now dissolved Woolworth's, but I give it a miss, pint + hangover + pasty + fizzy cola bottles = bad idea. There is some music on offer, well kind of music, three guys beat-boxing. They have managed to pull quite a crowd, but I think it's more down to the fact that we are all currently inmates at Wembley Maximum security prison and not because of their overwhelming unsigned talent.

I don't think either of us envisaged that we would be spending any part of today sitting on the floor a few paces from a men's toilet, but at least it's cool and in the shade, but I don't think you could call it comfortable. Our spot is also right next to the turnstile, and finally a little bit of life is starting to get breathed into our section, which until now, while the first game was playing, has been quite low key, it’s in need of resuscitation. We are hoping for some of that Lincolnshire enthusiasm that we were only able to marvel at from above at the National League Promotion final, as today we are sitting with Grimsby Town FC (GT) fans.

Tom’s analogy of the first game, that it was like watching other people on a “roller coaster, just waiting for your turn to have some fun” summed up our first half of ‘Non League Finals Day’ perfectly. Not that the match wasn't exciting, it was quite the opposite, but we are greedy for singing, chants and drums, our section was lacking any of that so far today, so bring on the Mariners.

“No hitting!” shouts one Dad to his warring kids, who have taken being given clappers, as a call to arms, picking a fight with their nearest brother or sister. Tom is starting to twitch every time he hears one now, another reason for our move inside, because the random hitting from one GT fan next to us had reached epic proportions.

Watching streams of people arrive through the turnstiles, people whose recent visit here means they know the procedure, emerging through the metal bars and instantly raising their arms to be searched, like a Pavlovian dog. We are able to bare witness to a wild array of headgear, such as a captain's hat, with a nice embellishment of gold braid and what I can only describe as a stovepipe hat, not that dissimilar to Abraham Lincoln’s, but it’s black and white striped, each with Grimsby written all over it, as well as all sorts of other appropriate get up. My favourite is a toss up between two t-shirts, the first says ‘Grimsby is not in Yorkshire’, but if I had a gun to my head, the absolute best is a simple one, ‘clap, clap, Fish’.

I’m starting to worry about Tom, the tell tale signs of cabin fever are starting to show, being locked up in Wembley is starting to take its toll, his emotions are all over the place. One second he is astonished and impressed by the amount of food people are bringing in, telling me he has seen a “pack of ham” and some “tomatoes" so far, the next minute he hits a bit of a low, the clappers are starting to break him “I just don't wanna hear that noise for two minutes”.

I think a change of scenery would do him good, we say goodbye to our toilet side seats, and pass more fighting children. We must stop arming them, the weapon of choice last week, fish, this week clappers, although someones parents didn't get the right memo because two kids are charging about with an orca and a dolphin. There are plenty of kids here, if they were smart enough, we could have full blown mutiny. Our attempt at a wander is only to be met by closed doors and stewards saying Gandalf style “you shall not pass”. By the time we return to our seats we bare witness to a UN, Lincolnshire division aid drop, one young GT fans drops off a “pork pie and Marmite crisps” to a relieved and grateful recipient.

We are not the only ones twiddling our thumbs, most people seem unsure on how to pass the time, Tom at least is finding the inflatable ball cannoning off the back of unsuspecting people's heads, and those straining every sinew in their body to be the next one to hit it into the air “entertaining”. When the referee emerges, along with his assistant to warm up, they become the focus of the boredom, I think GT might have a little bit of previous with him, “tosser”, shouts one fan, “make sure you know what you are doing” shouts another, “make sure it's a game not a spectacle” shouts a woman behind us.

GT’s opposition FC Halifax Town (FCH) are the first out to warm up, “booooooooo”, when GT arrive they are greeted with the now familiar war cry “Mariners, Mariners, Mariners”, for the first time we get to soak up some of that energy we were only able to watch seven days before.

Maybe still feeling the effects of the week long ‘going up’ party, one GT fan is looking a little worse for wear. Bent over double in his seat, head in his hands, a natural exclusion zone has formed around him, he looks like he is going to blow. If only I had a small paper cup to offer him, I could reenact a bit of Wayne's World, ‘if you’re gonna spew, spew into this’.

The GT team leave just as they arrived “Mariners, Marines, Marines” and as they do the recycled roll of red carpet is back out again, and so is the “alien cup” which is how Tom describes the FA Trophy, as he thinks it has a bit of an extraterrestrial vibe about it.

As the teams arrive the fans are on their feet, singing about the previous weeks achievements played out on the same pitch, “we are going up, we are going up” as the banner hanging amongst the GT fans behind the goal states “Operation Double” is on. Just like a few hours earlier, men in suits shake hands with men in shorts, a woman on a temporary stage sings ‘God Save the Queen’, and kick-off is now only moments away.

Before we can get down to the match at hand, we get a visit from the fun police, a female steward in a blue jacket, who walks away smugly with two inflatable balls under her arms. I’m completely on my own, as I give her my best pantomime “boooo”. I’m not sure what came over me, I think it was the look on her face.

It is clear from the get go that there are far fewer GT fans than at our recent encounter, which in part is totally understandable, it's a long way, it's expensive, and I’m sure it was not an easy decision for
some having to pick one over the other. Those who are in attendance, just like the soon to be public puker, are recovering from the high of promotion, and the following open top buses and days in the pub, it means energy reserves are ever so depleted and today feels a little ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’. I’m judging this by three things, let's call it the ‘less inflatable fish, no drummers, less noise’ trifecta of atmosphere.

FCH could not have had a more polar opposite season to GT if they tried, relegation was how 2015/2016 ended for them, so there is a bit of pride at stake, what better way to stave off the fans summertime depression, than with a Cup Final win. The importance of this is quite clear by the fact I don't think there is an empty seat in their end, and they are so far out singing GT.

Also in for the long haul, the blind and partially sighted groundhopper duo behind us are still here, one still offering his full and complete service to the other, covering all topics such as the weather, crowd numbers and what is going on, on and off the pitch. One GT fan is also offering a similar service, but I’m not sure who for, excitingly repeating whatever call the referee makes in GT’s favour “corner, corner, corner”.

Other than telling the FCH fans to “sit down shut up”, after they celebrate a goal, that never was, and I have no idea why, it was not even close, our black and white neighbours are very quiet, not that the team's on field performance is giving them much inspiration.

“It's like a training match” says Tom, it feels like it's being played at half speed, his mind is
wandering to half time already “I want some chips”. GT’s fans on the other hand are getting increasingly frustrated as the half comes to an end, “nooooo” one screams, they are fed up of the lack of ambition, the constant sideways passing.

When an FCH player performs the most hideous dive, people let their anger out on him ”who do you think you are Tom Daley?” bellows one, another demands some kind of punishment “book him for simulating a footballer”.

There is one last push to get the crowd going, “stand up for the Mariners” but it falls a little flat, when the fourth official holds up his board, one GT fan says what everyone else is thinking “too many minutes of extra time”, it's not a case of the officials finding stoppages from nowhere, it’s not an Italy Vs England World Cup ‘98 Qualifying scenario, it's the case that no-one wants to be subjected to anymore of this than they have to be, it's been dull.

“What a terrible first half”, “abandon the game” these are not my words, or Toms, but those of the GT fans who have filled the concourse at half time, all in search of something to numb the pain of the first 45. It’s maybe a good thing that some look “three day festival wasted” as Tom puts it, as they won’t remember anything anyway, along with their names, or where they are.

Regular readers might have figured out by now, Tom is sometimes more interested in the food on
offer, than the football, so it's no great surprise when he points out a guy tucking into a hot dog, it’s not even a particularly miraculous hot dog, he's probably showing me only out of jealousy, he probably wants it, but he is so persistent, I’m forced to pay attention to him, instead of tuning out as I usually do when he starts going on about fried onions and burger sauce. Your regular hot dog bun is brown, dry and always slightly stale, but on closer inspection, this one is white, a special Wembley non-league bun perhaps? Curious now and looking even more closely, it seems the person it belongs to has nibbled off all the brown bit of the bun, all the way over, and is now holding an almost foot long, gnawed monstrosity. I’m not sure who needs more help the nibbler, or the noticer.

Tom and I have moved seats, we had perfectly good ones before, but we thought a change might re-energise us, and there are plenty to choose from the big pockets of empty red seats behind the goal. Much like the first half the beginning of the second has failed to take off, rain seems imminent, and Tom is so bored he is wondering how long it would take, if it could do, to close the roof of the stadium, and at least that snail paced spectacle would give us something to look at.

When GT have their first attempt, it is received in hushed tones, like a person on a safari seeing their first one of the ‘big five’, not wanting to shout too loud as to scare them away, “it’s shoot”.

“Oh, oh my God” mutters Tom, as the opposite end of the ground becomes a blur of blue and white, the FCH fans finally have something to celebrate, perhaps the first good thing to happen to them this season, they have just taken the lead in quite exquisite fashion.

Some lacklustre GT defending, which just about sums up their day, is punished by a curling, side footed, outside of the box, lob. The scorer, runs towards the fans, first with his arms outstretched by his side, then cupping his ears. Followed by his teammates, they rush the barriers, to celebrate in front of their supporters.

“Come on Town” says someone close by, a little limply. Two kids returning with food have the right attitude, “at least we didn’t see it”, quite right, that's my philosophy: didn't see it, didn't happen. Perhaps the problem has been too many people, the players included are still dining out on last week, and they have taken their eye off the ball today, when someone starts to sing “we are going up” not many join him. I start to get the faintest of feelings that most people thought today was going to be a bit of a walk over, but it's proving anything but.

Tom, who I never would've taken as a Statto, tells me that the teams have shared “13 goals across two games” this season, on today's performance from either of them, I would be amazed if this was true, we now have one goal, so fingers crossed there will be more to follow.

It’s now deathly quiet, one GT fan on his feet demands his fellow supporters to “sing!”. Tom tells me to “stop staring” as the aforementioned man starts to almost threaten the people around him to get up, instead of making a friendly request. He looks a little wired to say the least.

The rain has come, and the FCH end feels a very long way away, like it has nothing to do with what's going on at our end at all, such was the desire for tickets we notice since moving a small colony in blue and white, high in the gods up to our right, completely detached from the masses. If it's raining this end, I imagine it's all Hawaiian shirts and pina coladas at the other, they look like they are having a wicked time.

In a less threatening way at least, one GT supporter on the front row in a flat cap, is standing on his chair, back to the game, and is desperately trying to get a song going “fish, fish, fish”, but to little avail. Frustration is turning into outright anger, no more than the kid a few rows behind us “what the bloody hell are you doing!?!”.

Many are urging one player, at the end of probably their first meaningful attack around seventy minutes in, to “hit it, hit it, hit it, hit, hit it, hit”, but he doesn't take their advice, instead he takes a few touches too many, after doing all the hard work and getting in a great position, he puts it wide.

When the very impressive attendance for the whole day is announced, “46,781”, one person has to be reminded it's for both games, doh.

Anger is now turning into outright dismay, the kid behind us sounds like he is going to have an aneurysm “for crying out loud”, one group close by are already starting to look for scapegoats “you're a bad omen you are, every time you come we play shit”, GT’s final ball has been woeful, when they do get close to goal, their shooting is not much better. One announces “if they go 2 - 0 up we’re off”.

A large sign appears in the aisle, carried over the heads of people walking towards the front wearing GT shirts with ‘Dad 1’ and ‘Jeff Smith 1’ on the back. Once unfurled, it's clear that whoever Jeff Smith was, he is no longer with us, having passed away recently, and we log our second heart melting event of the day.

The horns of the FCH fans are non stop as the board goes up, four minutes to go, GT muster a couple of chances from corners, but nothing comes from them. On one occasion the keeper gets the nod to come up, jostles about in the box, only moments later having to leg it back to his goal when they lose possession.

“Mariners, Mariners, Mariners” rings out one last time, but in commiseration, not jubilation, the players applaud the fans, many who are leaving are still singing about “going up”. Once again for the second year running it’s a team from Yorkshire that can boast about winning the FA Trophy, but no tears from me this time.

GT are up first up to collect their runners up medals, once back down they watch on as FCH lift the Close Encounters silverware, all while ‘We Are The Champions’ is blasted out again and a few more quid drops into the Queen royalties piggy bank. In contrast pitch side, the ‘Jeff Smith’ banner has appeared and is being signed by the GT players, one of whom hands one of his boots to a delighted looking fan who has a smile like the Cheshire Cat, but why he decides to give it an almighty sniff will only be known to him and his maker.

In front of their fans, FCH lift the cup again and Tom notices a woman “pre shaking the bubbly” before handing it to the players, assuring maximum effect, and this time it's Tina Turner's turn to earn a few quid as ‘Simply The Best’ is played for the second and last time today. Many players from each side take the opportunity to speak to friends and family, some are handed children to hug, the FCH keeper poses for a picture with a small boy who he hands his giant gloves too. Clutching the trophy the FCH manager is mobbed by people, including his daughter “Dad, Dad, Dad” who with selfie sticks in hand, snap away capturing the moment.

The floor outside is damp, and our six plus hours in football solitary has come to an end, and we both feel a bit like Andy Dufresne emerging from that shit filled waste pipe, after crawling how ever far it was to his freedom.

Before parting ways, Tom and I bump into the Bowers & Pitsea FC kit man, who's a friendly soul, and we inadvertently block quite a major stairway to inevitably discuss what a day it would have been if Bowers had won their semi-final. For a brief moment and to reference the same 90’s film in the same blog, the edge of my vision almost does that wibbly wobbly thing to signify the beginning of a dream sequence.

It makes perfect sense that today didn't feel like the finished article, it felt an experiment, and there were certainly things that did and didn't work. For us the time one is expected to stay in the ground for, is far too long, this is only compounded by the fact you are unable to stretch your legs anywhere else but in your little quarter of the stadium. My vision of a non-league love in, where one would have the chance to mingle with the fans of the other teams, was far from reality.

Be it for security or crowd control reasons, if it's going to remain necessary to contain people in this manner, then what is on offer to help pass the time has to be better, not everyone is as well prepared as Tom, (me included) and has hours of the latest HBO series on their phone or tablet.  Neither of us were expecting elephants, but surely something more than sweets and amateur hip-hop is achievable? I don't think feeling relieved to get out, is the overriding emotion the FA were going for, and it's not one I have experienced before leaving a match, and we have been to some diabolical games.

Assuming that the powers that be listen to the feedback from the people who went, it is bound to improve, and to change. I’m almost certain ‘Non-League Finals Day’ is here to stay, but I just can’t figure out how I feel about it.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

You can read, Non-League Finals Day: Part One - HERE

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