Thursday, 15 February 2018

Got To Be In It To Win It - East Thurrock United FC Vs Spennymoor Town FC, FA Trophy 3rd Round Replay, Rookery Hill (06/02/18)

Small flakes of snow fall as I ready myself and step outside into the world, from the warmth of my flat. It’s still light, but its already bitterly cold and with light fading it's only going to get colder.

I’m starting to think it's some kind of a wind up, but once again the offering from Radio 4 is the bloody Kitchen Cabinet again, that's the third game in a row that I've had to listen to these twits go on about food related lunacy. Today it's about the best kind of dish to bake your cheese in. I’m so thankful that the few sentences from the “resident cheese head” are some of the last of the show and I don't have to suffer them prattling along for long.

Some of you may be thinking why don't you just change channel, well I will tell you why I don’t. The radio in my car picks up three channels, four on a good day LGR (London Greek Radio), Heart, Radio 1, sometimes Classic FM and of course Radio 4.

So when push comes to shove choosing between programmes in another language, shit music or shit music, my options are limited, and not wanting to sit in silence, I’m left with little choice and the very high probability of having to suffer someone going on about the best way to cook a pigs cheeks.

Anyway they're gone now and I’m only half listening to the next programme, but the quote from Charles Dickens about the ravages of winter, “the desolation of a winter night sat brooding on the earth, and in the sky”, seems quite apt.

It’s Toms turn to come bearing gifts today. Last time out I brought him a fresh and lovingly made cup of tea. Today he is offering, an apple Chupa Chup lolly, it's the thought that counts I guess.

We’re not long under way when he starts talking about the elements. He's yet to take his massive jacket off and when he tells me that it's going to be the “coldest night of the year” tonight, for once I don't think hes being his usual overly dramatic self. Normally a hefty pinch of salt is required when he inevitably shares his weather forecast, but there might be some semblance of accuracy in what he’s going on about today.

Regardless, there are much more important and frankly hysterical things to talk about. Having lent him FIFA 18 at the weekend, he has started his Arsenal Career mode, a career at his beloved Gooners which was short lived.

A new feature of the latest game is the more involved contract negotiations. Keen to tie down his creative German number 11 he goes head to head with the play maker and his agent, thrashing out the finer points of his new contract. Thinking he's come out on top, inserting a sizable buyout clause of £1,500,000 he reckons hes secured the services of the former Real Madrid player for the next four years, except.

Except that, two days later, two days after thinking his Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang front three were going to win that all important 4th place trophy, PSG swoop in, triggering his release clause and Mesut is on the first private jet to Paris.

I’m pretty sure I laughed the whole way to Essex, yes we're off there again. I’m not sure what was funnier, Tom thinking he'd got a good deal after some considerable back and forth or the fact he just turned it off and started again.

It’s dark now as we meander along the A1014 in search of today's ground. Tom thinks he sees the floodlights off in the distance, but I think he's confusing them with the nearby docks. This particular nearby stretch of the Thames estuary is positively glowing with the lights of ships and cranes.

I’m almost forced into a Fast and the Furious: Essex Drift type manoeuvre when our turn off, catches me out, despite the instructions on my Sat Nav. It's so dark, I’m dubious if there is even a road there to turn into, but try my luck.

The dimly lit entrance to the car park at Rookery Hill, home of East Thurrock United FC (ETU) is hardy visible. “Time to get cold” says Tom climbing out of the car onto the uneven surface under foot. We both head towards the nearest source of light coming from the small square windows of the clubhouse.

Pints & fruit machines and plenty of brown leather, fill the low ceilinged room. The pool table has been covered, and pushed up against the back wall, next to those machines which in exchange for 20p, dish out some Minstrels that look like they’ve been there too long. Tom’s first choice of where to sit he tells me is intentionally uncomfortable. I couldn't understand his thinking considering all the plush armchairs, he was just worried that he “wouldn't get up again”.

The high arms and soft back are like a warm leathery hug, I can understand his misgivings in choosing them, but they were too hard to resist. He isn't sitting for long mind, the call of the food menu coming from the bar is too loud.

“No chips” he tells me, but they did have turkey and stuffing flavoured crisps that he has quickly made a dent in, before offering me one. Looking out of the window, it looks cold, it's stopped snowing, there are no obvious signs of the “yellow weather warning” that Tom must have mentioned fifty times already, but I’m glad I’ve brought a hat, scarf and some Fagin gloves.

As ever Tom has taken his quest to stay warm to the next level, not just satisfied with a snood and his creepy gloves that allow him to use his phone, he has hand warmers. The same ones that made the four hundred mile round trip to Mossley, and he was too embarrassed to get out. A little closer to home, and well travelled, they are originally from Italy from when his other half went skiing, he finally plucks up the courage to reveal them.

They are out of date and not working, regardless of how vigorously he shakes them. The fact his “pocket is warm” I’m not sure quite justifies having them. The fact they are defunct means his back up, a pair of thermal socks, “might make an appearance”.

Although it’s predominantly black and yellow in the clubhouse, many of the home fans here are wearing their much needed striped scarves, except the dog at one person's table, he's just eyeing the crisps tantalisingly out of reach in front of him. In dribs and drabs there is the introduction of some black and white, and the unmistakable north east accent of the fans of ETU’s opponent tonight, Spennymoor Town FC (ST).

Locals and visitors are soon mingling, a couple of away fans are keen to get the lay of the land, finding out all the important things like where the loos are and if they can get food in the ground.

“Can I interest you in a 50/50?” asks the man in the ETU hat and Hi Viz waistcoat, yes you bloody can, I’ll take two. I hand over my money, he puts it in his Tupperware box and heads off to the next table, “got to be in it to win it” he says to the ST supporters, as he wraps us his latest sale.

Before heading off to flog some more, I overhear him confirm to them that there will be “no chips” or “pies” available tonight. Two hundred and fifty miles and no pies, they must think it a wasted journey.

Toms snood is out well early and for once I can't blame him. Peering in the window of the container that's been converted in to the snack bar, Tom looks a little like Oliver. He is trying to suss out if the lady unfurling great reams of tin foil sells her sausage rolls that currently sit under a plastic cloche hot or cold. “Think they're served cold” he says after some investigation, a little disappointed.

As what Tom calls “dandruff snow” starts to fall, his way of describing the lightest of light smattering of the cold stuff, he remonstrates with himself, “should of brought long johns”. People take all sorts of things to football, various “accessories” as Tom calls them. The horn one small person is blowing is not one Tom is particularly enamoured with, tonight the “ultimate accessory” would be a “hot water bottle” according to my chilly companion, whose “warm pocket” is doing very little to heat the rest of him.

While he finishes his sausage roll, he of course succumbed. I leave one person eating, only to interrupt someone else doing just that. The woman on the turnstile is mid snack, when I disturb her for a programme. Next to her a man stands next to a small wooden table, on top of it an even smaller tombola and in front of that a Quality Street box. Thinking I’ve stumbled across another opportunity for a flutter, he tells me its the “50/50”, gutted.

The club shop isn't open yet, I say shop, it is in fact a miniature conservatory. The large windows means the goodies inside are close, but oh so far, we will have to revisit it later.

Preceded by a crackle and then a hum, the speakers bring some life to a relatively somber ground, filling it with music I don't know. Tom couldn't care less about the music, the cold is the only thing on his mind, the socks have appeared much sooner than I thought they might. One passing steward is very impressed, “I see you've come prepared”.

There is not a lot to please the eye at Rookery Hill, a nice church is brightly lit behind one goal, and its quite intriguing to see what can be done with a shipping container, but other than that there is no real standout feature, saying that though the all glass dugouts are a first. It’s perfectly nice and in great nick, but it's just not abundant with character. Tom is not a huge fan of it, only because the colour scheme of green and yellow, is the same as our secondary schools PE kit was.

Behind one goal though, the same as the church is a large flag, we like a flag, we’re big fans of flags. It’s a yellow and black St George's cross with “We Are The Rocks” written across it. In the middle, is the club's crest, “why they got a grim reaper on their badge” asks Tom? Investigating closer he is quite right and I’m not sure. I’m not sure it is in fact the harbinger of death, but it's not far off, and I’m not sure why that would be your choice of badge. A frightening looking chap all in black, with a hood, beady black eyes and a sizable scythe.

To add to his deathly persona, it's not totally clear what he's “standing over” points out Tom. Lying at his feet is it the vanquished remains of other teams or rude groundhoppers?

The signature blue jackets of the National League, being worn by a few players as they materialise for their warm up, reminds me we are watching two teams from their respective north and south divisions going head to head. When Tom gets a glimpse of ETU’s keeper, stocky, bearded and bald, he’s sure he is the spitting image of a WWE wrestler, but can't remember his name. This bout of early 00’s nostalgia is halted when the CD player starts to skip and is allowed to do so for overly long

While the officials run their laps, the main man with his Britney mic already taped to his face, both teams go through the final throes of their pre match drills, and there is quite the stark contrast between the two.

The home team are quiet, lethargic and “lack enthusiasm” says Tom. The visitors, well they couldn't be more poles apart. It's like a scene from 300, loud and raucous. The pitch is “heavy” one of their coaches points out, some teams would baulk at this, but the men from the north east are unperturbed, “perfect from us” the same coach adds.

It really is cold, lost finger cold, Toms hand warmers are officially useless. It’s the toes though, that are starting to screaming the loudest. Things have got so bad for one home fan, that he's been forced to take desperate measures. He is nigh on forced to beg the custodian of the shop to open up. He tells her he wants a hat, pointing to his near bald head he tells her “its cold” and she relents.

Someone has finally found another CD, not that it's really needed. A decent sized group of fans from each team have set up shop behind each goal, and the ST fans have strung up their own flag. Its them who start to sing first, but I can’t quite make out what they are saying

Behind me a fierce debate has broken out between a fan of each team, a little bit of one-upmanship, about the playing surface “We love a flat pitch” says the ST fan thinking he's trumped the ETU one, however he has an ace up his sleeve, “we love a flat pitch” he says in reply aping his counter part. There is a brief pause, each thinking they have the better of the other, thankfully they don't come to blows.

“Hello good evening everybody” says the voice over the PA, who definitely sounds like he could be an East End villain in a Guy Ritchie film, cheeky, charming but with the distinct possibility of owning pigs. The away fans reply to the welcome with shouts of “Moors, Moors”. The considerable home turnout, most of whom are pushed up against the railing around the tunnel, offer up their support “come on your rocks, come on lads”.

There is a quick swap of ends for the fans, the MT supporters crack out a black and white chequered flag on the end of a thin spindly flag pole and the game kicks off, and what a game it proves to be, and we don't have to wait long for the action to start.

“A goal for the Rocks on 4 minutes” says Bricktop and is was not your everyday run of the mill goal. Tom is not sure he “meant it”, he reckons it was a “cross’’ that ended making it all the way in, catching out the scrambling man in the ST goal. I think it's a work of genius a thirty yard free kick that finds the top corner of the goal with deadly accuracy.

Quarter of an hour gone and its cautious. The away fans are certainly the most vocal, “Moors,
Moors, Moors” they shout and their team are most definitely still in the game, despite conceding early. One of their players embarks on a remarkable solo run, weaving in and out of the ETU players only for a last ditch tackle stopping his shot, “lucky bastard” mutters an ST fan.

Chances are coming thick and fast, ETU fire a ball right across the ST box, have a freekick which is not far off, then curl a shot just over. ST go close themselves with a shot that is spilt by the ETU keeper, but no one can get close, and he gathers up the loose ball.

Still the loudest of the two sets of the fans, the ST supporters stick to their reliable cry of “Moors, Moors”, occasionally brandishing their flag and mixing up the chants by singing “everywhere we go”.

Tom reckons in tonight's round of ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ that its “Leyton Orient Vs Barnet” which is so wrong on so many levels, that I kind of don't want to play this game anymore.

Half an hour gone and the temperature on the pitch is rising, in the stand and on the terraces it is only spiralling downwards. The ST bench are livid at one foul which has left their players head “pissing with blood” as Tom puts it. The player a little aghast, does his best Terry Butcher impression, standing on the sideline while a bright white bandage is wrapped around his head. Such is their anger they have encroached a fair way onto the pitch, “get a grip of the game” shouts one of the bench to the man in charge. “Back on again and you're off” he says in reply, waving his hand at them, as they edge back closer towards their fish tank dugout.

This time the crowd are joined by the bench “Moors, Moors” they cheer, with just over ten
minutes of the half left. A slightly stooped close range ST header, means the game is all square. There is a brief celebration, the scorer dashing behind the goal among the flags which are in the air once more. He doesn't though revel in his glory for long and is soon making his way back to his half, along with his teammates.

“Have a grope around in your trousers” suggests the voice over the PA, his way of advising people to check if they have won the 50/50. The draw having been done, with the game still playing.

Alone now and sitting in one of the small stands,Tom has gone for food, I'm surrounded by people with blankets over their knees and Thermos by their sides. I find my tickets, not in my trousers but my notebook and suffer the ignominy of only being three numbers off the prize. The people at the next table along from us in the clubhouse I should think the winners.

Both teams are playing some “great football” as one fan puts it. When ETU have a shout for a penalty, one ST fan lets him know of in no uncertain terms what he thinks of his attempt to win a spot kick, “get up man” he says in his thick Durham accent.

“Come on rocks” barks a home fan, with the game flowing from end to end at quite a pace. The ST bench are close to peaking, I'm not quite sure what's wound them up so much, admittedly the referee has been a little dire, but they are near to erupting.

Tom returns clutching the most gargantuan burger “back on the double” that's a double pattie he tells me, the thing is dripping with cheese, the thin cheap paper serviette wrapped around it has almost disintegrated, unable to cope with its oniony greasiness.

In to added time and it's all change. The quite magnificent volley from well outside the box from the ST player all in red is destined for the top right hand corner of the ETU goal, is matched by an equally magnificent athletic save worthy of any top flight WWE wrestler, by the man who according to Tom looks just like one. At full stretch he tips the ball over for a corner.

2 - 1 ST, the “goal scorer to be confirmed” says the now hurting voice over the PA, this close to halftime I wonder if he has tidied away his team sheet, in preparation of his own “double” waiting for him in the wings.

There is a sizable evacuation after the half time whistle, most people making a beeline for the shelter of the clubhouse. Those fans not heading inside silently brush past each other right in front of us, the narrow pathway causing everyone to get very intimate. The ST fans going one way are led by the young man wearing a St Georges cross like a cape, rubbing shoulders with the ETU supporters most in yellow and black scarves going the other way.

Still not having confirmed the scorer, the voice does though remind everyone of the “FA regulation that everyone likes” that is in play today, that alcohol can’t be brought “back into the ground”.

Tom having finished his behemoth of a burger, realises the genius of the fans around us, “they've got the right idea” he says to himself, “where is my blanket?” he asks, like I forgot it.

The relocated ST supporters are quick to get back into the swing of things at the start of the second half, “Moors, Moors, Moors”. On the pitch it's got off to a bristling start. ST’s bench are in constant dialogue with the referee. “I appreciate the clarification” he says at one point, following one coaches observation on his latest decision.

Having been treated to one spectacular free kick tonight, I feel almost greedy, when we are offered up a second helping of set piece deliciousness. This one just as astonishing as the first. The ping of hitting the woodwork before heading in, the keeper caught out from the most ridiculous angle, it’s almost from the corner spot, is deafening. It’s replaced by the now familiar chant of the travelling fans “Moor, Moors, Moors” and a mighty shout of “get in” from the away bench.

Such is the enthusiasm of one ST player, there is a slight coming together between him and the referee. Tom suggest its a “barge”, I’ll stick with coming together.

Having been a goal behind, ST now find themselves two ahead, 3 - 1. One would think we’ve already had our allocation of allowed drama for one game. The remaining forty minutes of the match destined to be a dull affair. Anymore theatrics would just be gluttonous.

With the third ST goal feeling like it’s put this tie to bed, ETU have other ideas. Still with a little bit of fight left in them, they rally quickly and almost get one foot back in the game straight away. However they don’t have to wait long for an ST player to present them with another opportunity back into the match.

Through a body of players I can't quite make out what's happened, there is an almighty claim for a “hand ball” from both ETU’s players and fans. The referee has clearly seen something, blowing his whistle he reaches for his pocket. Not only is it a second yellow for the player responsible for the offence, but has also pointed to the spot too.

“Goal for the rocks” says a now much more animated announcer. Tom is also roused by ETU’s second, “interesting, interesting” he says to himself.

It’s a black and yellow siege in the moments following their goal, ETU taking advantage of being a man up, “come on you Rocks” pleads a fan in the stand.

I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing, let me get this straight, the team with the fewer players have just furthered their lead. Its a player in red, not yellow and black who is wheeling away from goal in celebration. Its a member of the away bench not the home bench punching in the air in response to a
goal.

The lady behind us sitting next to her young son in not best pleased with the language used by one let's say unhappy ETU player returning to his half head down. “Cunt” he shouts, the cunt in question being the referee, who in Tom's opinion has been “awful” all game. The unhappy player irked somewhat that he didn't give a foul in favour of ETU, allowing the game to play on, which ultimately led to the fourth.

Not that any of this is of any concern to the ST fans, “Moors, Moors, Moors”. They then give up on words all together and just go into a cycle of “ally, ally, oh, ally, ally, oh”. They have the best metaphorical seats in the house now, as despite having ten men, all the action is down the ETU end. Another fine fingertip save prevents a fifth, yes fifth goal, “Moors, Moors” they sing once more.

Unbelievable, might be one of the best games we’ve ever seen, I suggest to Tom, he reckons that's “bold”, but let me recap, oh and by the way the games not over, this is not the most abrupt ending to one of ours blogs ever, come on there are far too few superlatives. It's just ST have scored a FIFTH, and I’m struggling to think of a game which has had more than this one, my head is a mess.

One ETU fan thinks his team have “given up” one player certainly still seems to believe, “fucking loads of time left” he shouts, he's not wrong, thirty minutes to score three goals is not outside the realms of possibility, frankly I think anything is possible today, but the heads of the payers are low, very low.

Now in dreamland having just watched their team pull ahead by three, no pies, but they have all but secured the win and a place in the quarterfinals, they sing the loudest they have all night “we are Spennymoor”. To add to one fans good mood, Tom tells me it was one of them that won the 50/50. Having walked past the victor as he announced his wife was going to get “something nice” with the winnings.

The rest of the crowd is in shock, its gone very quiet. It’s just the very “merry” ST fans as Tom describes them, who are no longer singing just “ally ally o‘ing”. One in particular is beyond “merry” and is simply “very drunk” according to Tom. I’m not sure if it's him who is the ringleader of the six man conga, I imagine he is no position to start moving around, I imagine the only thing he wants to do is stand very still.

ST’s number 9 has been a menace all night. He is denied an absolute peach of a goal thanks to the quick thinking of the ETU keeper. The “touch” that one fan celebrates by simply blurting out the aforementioned word very loudly, on the run, is a thing of artistry and worthy of a goal.

Another conga and jibes of “you’re supposed to be at home” are usurped by a new song “black and white army”. A home supporter, fed up with watching, strikes up a conversation with a fan in the stand behind us, assuming he is from the north east, until he tells him he's from “Bracknell”.

It’s desperate measures for the home team, Tom noticing that they've put their “speedy full back up front”.

There has been an underlying current of tension all match, which has almost boiled over, but not quite. With about “2 mins to go” according to the ST bench, things get a bit out of hand, a spot of “handbags” as Tom calls it. The overriding consensus from most people, as the referee dishes out “another card” says an astonished Tom, and as one player puts it directly to the man in black “you've lost it”.

Toms theory that “you know when a ref is shit” because he is “dishing out all the cards” is a fair summing up of the man in charge. It’s never felt like he's had a tight grip on things.

On the pitch the players are flagging, the fans are just getting started, “we’re all going to Bromley” they sing, their opponents in the next round and another trip down south. No pies if I remember correctly at Hayes Lane but they do have a Pizza Hatch.

“Come on ref blow that whistle” implores an ETU player. When the boards lifted with five minutes of extra time on it, Tom can't work out where he “got that from”. As one fan in the stand states, “most” of the players are “going to work tomorrow” so lets get this game sewn up.

There is a slight spike in excitement when ST once again threaten to get a sixth on not one but two occasions. With his back to goal the player turns on a sixpence and shoots just wide. Again surrounded, this time next to the corner flag, the slippery player somehow manages to get the ball free and into the box, but the resulting shot is straight down the keepers throat.

The liquid in Toms vape is frozen, “enough is enough" he says, time to go home, the players feel the same, again an ETU player demanding  "ref fucking blow up”.

Clearly dejected its a nice touch of the voice over the PA to wish the ST fans a "safe journey" home, and what a journey that is on a Tuesday night. The ETU keeper also shakes the hands of those who have stood behind him for the second half, I hope in appreciation of their unwavering support all night. Their ever so slightly slurred version of what I've always known as the 'The Greasy Chip Butty Song' a highlight of mine, much better than any goal.

Although I'm sure in a rush to get off the pitch, changed and on the coach, the ST players have plenty of time to converse with their fans waiting by the tunnel. One replying to the thanks of one player for being there, tells him it was a "priviledge''.

A fellow Essex non league football enthusiast we bumped into during the match, David, was never put off coming tonight, despite the cold, the terrible crippling cold or the fact he'd had a long day at work. If he had been he would have missed the most thrilling cup tie, a 'proper cup' tie as people call them. Seven goals, one red card, and a comeback and victory with ten men of theological proportions, completely justifies sitting in the car, desperately waiting for the heating to kick in, hands and feet tingling with pain.

He much like us doesn't want to be "sat inside" because everything that has happened since 19:45, including the weather, "is what its all about".

P.S. To the person who forgot to order the pizza for the ST team coach home, did they let you on, or did you have to make your own way home?

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE 

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Thursday, 8 February 2018

We Love You Iceland We Do - Merthyr Town FC Vs Weymouth FC, Evo-Stik Southern League Premier, Penydarren Park (03/02/18)

It’s 08:45, I’ve been up since 07:00 and I’m sitting in the car park of a desolate retail park, waiting for Tom to arrive. For once I have someone else to blame other than myself, for not being in bed still or being at home having breakfast with my family like the Walton's, instead of being half awake and eating some pineapple out of a carrier bag. 

I will normally happily hold my hands up and take full responsibility for why I’m up so early and why I’m heading off to another corner of the non league world, but today is a little different. I can firmly place the blame at the door of two very persistent Welshmen, as to why I’m waiting for Tom contemplating the three hundred and fifty two mile round drive ahead of me.

When Tom eventually turns up, he doesn't look totally sure he’s opened the door of the right car. It’s raining and he couldn't make out if it was me inside, so decided on a bit of car door Russian Roulette, which in this particular corner of North London could have had a regrettable outcome. He is relieved to say the least, that it is me smiling back at him, all chirpy and raring to go. Handing him a cup of tea in one of those Thermos’s you see organised people on the tube with in the morning.

West, west, west, we just keep going west. Tom enjoys his tea, not talking much, only to ensure that I brought my copy of FIFA 18 for him to borrow, Tom is not a morning person. His to the point four word message to me first thing about it, came before any hellos or how are yous.

I’m not sure how long we’ve been on the road when I turn to Radio 4 for company. It's not that the conversation has dried up, but that Tom is easing into the day in his own special way, occasionally tinkering on his phone, messaging his beloved or at one point I think playing some kind of golf game, but still not talking much.

It’s only recently that I became a regular listener to what is perhaps the most highfalutin of all the radio channels. Frequent long drives up to Manchester around Christmas meant I had to expand my entertainment options, the same CD’s I have getting pretty old, pretty quickly.

Bizarrely it was the Archers, something my Dad listened to, that hooked me. I don't know why an inner city boy from West London had any interest in the goings on in Ambridge, but the theme tune is one I remember growing up, listening to it on long journeys with him, so it feels kind of familiar and nostalgic, so I got quite into it, but I digress.

There are no arguments about Tumble Tussocks cider on this morning, but a show we listened to on our recent trip to Margate, The Kitchen Cabinet. The premise being a panel set in front of an audience, discussing food. However it’s not what you might call normal food, everyday sensible people food, but Radio 4 food.

Ever heard of a Bath Oliver or a Bath Chap? No me neither, not before today anyway. The first I now understand is a kind of cracker, the second a braised pig cheek. You see what I mean, not the kind of thing anyone is having after a day at work, unless your day at work consists of being one of the landed gentry.

The last straw is the woman in the audience, a teacher no less, asking if Jammy Dodgers are the scariest of biscuits. It’s at this point I hurriedly turn off the radio and decide I’d rather sit in silence. All the talk of food mind, has roused Tom and sparks a very apt conversation.

“I love Welsh Rarebit” he proclaims. Welsh Rarebit by all accounts is a lot more than just a bit of mild cheddar on a slice of bread, it includes mustard and all sorts. I admit I don't really even like cheese on toast, despite his Mum always giving it to us when I used to crash on his spare bed, in our more hedonistic days.

“Don't think we can be friends” he says, when I admit to what you would think was some awful crime. It’s just all too salty and rank. Give me a baked Camembert, four different cheeses on a pizza, soft and runny. But thick wedges of cheddar on toast, I’ll pass thanks.

Time for a pit stop, Tom needs the loo and I need a tissue stop for my runny nose. Tom takes the opportunity to “get some snacks”, returning with two bags of Hula Hoops, “I wasn't sure about beef” he tells me, and a pack of any road trips staple, Peanut M and M’s. The presence of a drive through Starbucks means I don't even have to get out of the car to top up my caffeine levels, and we continue along the road like a right couple of Jack Kerouac's.

For maybe the first time ever, the weather is improving, instead of worsening as we head close to our final destination. The whopping great Severn Bridge is our gateway to our first ever international non league match. The large red dragon perched on the roadside sign, officially declares “Croeso I Gymru”.

Other than the edition of another language on every sign, it doesn't feel like we're in another country. We’re still driving on the same side of the road. There is a definite improvement in the scenery, but I guess it won't really feel like we’ve ‘gone abroad’, until we see what kind of crazy flavoured crisps they sell.

The slight bit of traffic around Cardiff, people making their way to the rugby, means that by the time we are climbing the narrow winding street leading to today's ground, catching our first glimpse of Merthyr Town FC’s (MT) home Penydarren Park, which on first impressions is a lot more modern than I had anticipated, pay our £2 and find a space to park, we’ve been in the car dead on four hours.

Arriving just after us, the coach carrying Weymouth FC (WFC) must have struggled along the single file road here. Hopefully with the handbrake fully on, its quite the incline, we are effectively perched on top of a hill overlooking the town. The away teams kit is unpacked from the coach, along with the drum of one of the travelling fans.

It’s normally pretty clear not long after arrival, what kind of club the one we are visiting is going to be like. A friendly club, a not too friendly club, a music off all turn round and stare when we walk in the clubhouse kind of club. MT quite quickly earns the rarest and highest accolade we can bestow upon one that only a very few of the clubs we have visited have earn.

In a black t-shirt and ageing MT scarf around his neck, Phil, one of MT’s board members, who came to his first game in “1958”, is soon showing us around the most modern part of his teams home. One bar is closed today, rented out for a function, a wedding reception for one of their own players.

Beyond the glass, stainless steel and beige fire doors, there are little hints as to what a special club MT is, and what a rich history it has. One wall is covered in white ceramic bricks, each with a name of one of the clubs owners. Since their rebirth in 2010, their original incarnation going bust after over 100 years, MT have been fan owned.

Next to the new is the old and an insight into the depth of MT’s illustrious past, a few mementos from their foray into European football. A framed Atalanta shirt, programme and poster hang on the wall, from MT’s game against them in the the Cup Winners Cup, which they celebrated the “30 year anniversary” last year Phil tells us.

Carrying on past various offices, among all the fixtures and fittings which make it look a bit more like a new office block than a football club, is a Lego model of the ground and opposite and grandest of all, is the clubs award from UEFA no less, winner in the Best Club category in the 2015 UEFA Grassroots Awards.

“A draw would suit me” says Phil, when I ask him how he thinks MT will get on today. With the recent financial issues that reared their head in November, that have hit the club hard, causing a sizable exodus of players, it means the team is in a state of flux to say the least and results have been hard to come by as of late.

Talking to another member of staff, he tells us the Wales game in Cardiff, will affect the gate today, by at least “50/60” this despite him telling us “Merthyr is a football town. Football through and through”. With money needed even more than ever at the moment, the fact that MT are playing at home for “three” of Wales “five” Six Nations games, is really something they could do without.

Phil is spending the day in a corporate box, a treat from a friend, so he heads off to eat some prawn sandwiches, leaving us to it. We’re not alone for long however, its like some kind of relay, us being the baton, which is soon picked up by someone else equally welcoming. Mark and Mike the creator and editor of MT's fanzine Dial M For Merthyr.

Mark who must be pushing 6’4. His imposing stature and a wildlings red beard, making him a
fine example of someone who should not be judged by his cover, is warm and loquacious. He's more than happy to dive straight into a chat about the goings on at the club he has supported since “1974”, when his Dad dragged him along for a game, who he was “fucking pissed off with” because it was so “fucking cold”. Reminiscing about the weather, he tells us today, overcast but fine, “is a good day” in these parts.

Mike with his black hat pulled down almost over his eyes, a fan for “40 years” calculating that makes him stop for a second to process the fact it’s been so long. “Fucking hell” he says to himself, puffing out his cheeks. He talks at about million miles an hour, and like Mark is overflowing with passion.

Penydarren Park is a bit of a dichotomy. The contemporary frontage and functions rooms, sit side by side with uncovered concrete terraces and along the whole side of one side of the pitch an almost agricultural looking shed with a steep bank of wide long steps.

The pitch a 3G one only adds to that conflict, but it's been a Godsend according to Mark and Mike. One thing MT certainly can't afford at the moment is games being postponed, a “thousands pounds down the drain easy” says Mike when that happens. So at least the 3G gives them the security of knowing that games are going to go ahead.

What is abundantly clear, is both of them are not going to go down quietly, some might have seen what happened in November as the beginning of the end, these two I think just see it as a hurdle, one that can occur when the focus of the people in charge is off. As Mike puts it, it's not going to be the “ten of twelve” in the boardroom that are going to fix their problems. It's going to be the “four hundred’ people he says pointing to the terrace, the fans who can turn things around.

They've had bucket collections at “Cardiff and Swansea” on match days, they had a “Burns night” recently where they “toasted” the “haggis”, there's a Motown night booked in the bar coming up, anything they can do to bring that money in, as Mike points out, it’s about “reinventing” themselves, to make sure they can stay afloat. Most damning of all perhaps is the fact that the people in charge have “lost the support of the people” and that needs to change fast.

Although we’ve never met, only spoken via Twitter, and his selfie of a Twitter avatar is not the clearest. I having a feeling I know exactly who the person walking towards me is, with a broad smile, his MT shirt poking out from beneath his jumper and his arms full of folded flags. Kieran is 50% of the reason we’re here. “Most random place, up on the hill”, he says, his way of confirming we got here OK. However he’s not around for long, he's an arm full of flags to hang.

It's Scottish football on BT playing in the bar, not Sky Sports early afternoon offering, they had to ditch the Sky package, cost cutting. Kieran has finished with the flags and joins us at our table. He as most have been so far is forthcoming and matter-of-fact about MT’s chances “2/3 Weymouth” he thinks. Certainly a defeat whatever the score, he’s “resigned to that” he tells me, admitting in almost hushed tones, ‘’it's getting depressing”.

In the space of about five minutes the level on the nice'o'meter is nearly through the roof, in fact we might need a whole new way of how to measure just how nice people are, as the old way is just not sufficient. Tom is offered as am I but decline only because I’m driving some local whisky, the bottle plonked in front of him and he's told he can help himself. Not sure how much to take Mark tells him if it touches the “rim of the glass” there might be problems, other than that pour away.

Tom’s necking neat whisky, I’ve just had a football scratchcard thrust into my hand, I’ve handed over my £2 to the lady in the woolly hat and Hi Viz jacket as I scribble my name next to Tottenham, Tom tells me I should have gone for “Wolves”, the team who won me the cash at Taunton, but they’re not on there, don't you think I would have if they were. I put his name next to Ajax because of the lack of Arsenal.

It’s as if they knew we were coming. I’ve almost dropped £7 now, taking into account the two 50/50 tickets I got with my program, but how could I resist the two young ladies selling the raffle tickets. I’m not even sure what the prize is, one of the duo is holding up a home made poster with the details on, but I don’t read it, I just tell myself it's all going towards a good cause and hand over my cash.

Kieran knew full well one of the ways to get us here, was to tell us about the food, knowing Tom is happy to travel when what's on offer to eat is good. “Please try the cob and chips” he implores, Tom I’m not sure aware of what a cob is and I having lived with a Northerner for ten years translate for him, a cob being a bread roll. Kieran goes on to explain that they hollow it out and fill it with chips and cover it in curry sauce, it's a good thing Tom is sitting down.

“What else you do?” enquires Tom. “Ice cream” replies Kieran, “bit cold for that” says Tom half laughing, “not in Wales” replies a deadpan Kieran.

Being the exemplary host he is, and wanting to make sure I’ve covered all the betting bases today, Kieran asks if I’ve got my 50/50 tickets yet, I tell him I have. He takes a sharp intake of breath. “Don't buy them first thing” he explains, bit late now, “wait until 2-2:30pm” to get them he explained. He reckons you have a better chance of winning, if you get them then, FUCK.

Seemingly out of the running with the 50/50, and I think in an attempt to lift my spirits, he does the scratchcard in front of us, it's neither Tottenham or Ajax, but bloody “Manchester United” he announces.

I need to clear my head, and by the looks of it so does Tom. “Fucking whisky” he blurts out, once free of the free pouring clubhouse, the straight shot on an empty stomach may have been an error.

Having spotted a few people in the very stylish grey MT bobble hat, with the club's badge on it, a demure looking lady with a cowl on, pulling a bit of a Princes Diana Taj Mahal face, Tom is disappointed to find out the small club shop has sold out.

After filling us in on the mascot situation here at MT. That it used to be “shaggy the sheep” who the FA told them to get rid of and now its a very common animal in the Brecon Beacons a “zebra” after a competition in the local schools, “at least its black and white” comments a confused Tom. Kieran on finding out on Toms bad luck in the shop, offers to send Tom one he has at home. Does his generosity know no bounds, we only met him an hour ago.

Tom is not downhearted for long, how could he be with the distraction of the most incredible smell of food wafting around. It’s been there since we arrived, both of us like bloodhounds trying to work out where it’s coming from. Some people whose disappointment cannot be quelled by the mouthwatering aroma, are the couple looking for a seat in the main stand, who can't believe the rugby is being played over the PA. Having just missed a rousing rendition of the Welsh national anthem, they are gutted to hear the commentary begin, “oh no we’re recording it”.

“Think they’re going to play that during the whole game?” asks Tom, as the roar of the kick off from the Principality Stadium stadium reverberates around the ground. The egg chasing though is soon replaced by some grade A Dad music, which hopefully will mean the couples programming of their Sky+ box was not in vain.

Black Knight by Deep Purple, is followed by Sweet Child In Time by the same band. When all nine
minutes of that has played out and with the players ready to walkout, it's left to Thin Lizzy to welcome the teams onto the pitch.

On the opposite side to the black tunnel the players walk along, the decent turn out of WFC fans are stringing up their flags, whilst a silver dish is presented to one MT player for having recently scored his one hundred and fiftieth goal for the club. Instead of joining in with Phil Lynott and the Dublin six piece in their wisdom they have started belting out a rendition of God Save The Queen, and not the Sex Pistols version.

There is a minutes silence that’s well observed, people pay their respects to an old MT physio who had recently died. The silence is broken by the whistle of the ref and then the shouts of the home fans around me in the main stand, “come on Merthyr”.

One young MT supporter in his wellies and red Stone Island coats day doesn't get off to the ideal start, when he trips following his Dad, spilling his tray of chips. The two St Johns ambulance women he fell in front of are not exactly forthcoming offering their help, they are too busy chowing down on their sausage rolls.

With the game underway, the WFC fans are the first to start chanting, spelling out their name to the rhythm of the drum that we saw being unloaded from the coach. The home fans, just along from the visitors in the large covered terrace, reply with an airhorn. Starting the precedent of a near constant back and forth between both sets of fans for the whole afternoon, their off field antics almost render the match inconsequential. Which is no bad thing if you’re an MT fan, because its very obvious, from very early on, it's going to be a tough day for them.

The WFC supporters are certainly the noisier in the opening quarter of an hour, which is cagey, with little to no action. “We’re from sunny, sunny Weymouth” they sing, one fan is so happy that this is the case he is whirling his scarf above his head and doesn't stop, such is his ardour, when the song changes “claret and blue army”.

As I said anything of interest is going on in the stands, to our right the MT fans stand behind their own flags, their drum fastened to the railing, “come on Merthyr, come on Merthyr”. The visitors reply, telling us all they are “on their way” not to the National League or the Football League, but very modestly and sensibly, not wanting to get their hopes up, to the “play offs”.

The young girls selling the raffle tickets, are still doing so, but are struggling to get the attention of the MT fans singing along to the drum, so stand looking on patiently, waiting for a break to see if anyone else will by a ticket.

There are seemingly two custodians of the drum, Kieran and Wesley in his dark blue baseball cap, the other reason we are here today. When he gives me a knowing nod of acknowledgement, it's like the one people at my school used to give each other in the hallway, far to cool to trouble himself with a hello.

We’re all about constant singing, constant support regardless of what's going on on the pitch, and today both sets of fans are exemplary examples of this. With half an hour gone, the closest we've come to a chance is MT flashing a header wide. In the stands though, it's quite the opposite. WFC fans although loud are showing perhaps they don't have the most diverse of song books, nothing as eclectic as the Spice Girls or Mario theme song like at Clapton here, but just “we’re on our way” over and over.

We had been warned they only have “one song”, the same song they have been singing non stop for about about the last fifteen minutes.

MT’s fans are a little more diverse with their song choices, “I just can't get enough” and they have the horn too which mixes it up a bit. Watching on as two goal bound WFC shots are blocked nigh on on the line, the fans heads don't drop, if anything it motivates them to sing louder, “come on Merthyr, come on Merthyr”.

Edging closer to half time, the smell of curry sauce is verging on overwhelming, which I’m thankful
for, Tom stinks of booze. He ponders if he can “have a sausage in his cob?” because a hollowed out bread roll filled with chips isn't enough. On the pitch, the home team are growing into the game, but just don't look like they’re going at the same speed of the much snappier looking WFC side.

It was coming, it always felt like it was coming, so it's no great shock when WFC take the lead, with just over ten minutes of the half left.

“Fuck off” shouts one MT fan towards the now bouncing WFC ones, who are understandably cheerful. Once they’ve told their team that they love them “we do”, they decide that post goal is as good a time as any to let us all know their thoughts on the town of Dorchester, “wank, wank, wank”.

The response from the home fans towards their players is not to boo, tut or gripe. They don't turn on them or all become little Mark Lawrenson's, sour and miserable, it’s quite the antithesis of that. It’s all very new age, in the best possible sense, positivity is the key and is the only way they are going to overcome the slump. Conceding the goal just prompts them to sing louder, not shrivel up and moan, “come on Merthyr, come on Merthyr”

There does though seem to be a few definite cases of comfort eating among the MT fans, I know it when I see it. There isn't one of them that isn't tucking into something, all this gluttony makes Tom’s mind up for him, no cob, its “sausage chips and gravy” for him.

A goal up, and watching a shot from one of their players almost decapitate an MT fan in the stand behind the goal, the WFC supporters declare it's time to go “fucking mental”, but their arranged mental-ness is not for long, and they are soon singing about “how they do love to be beside the seaside.

I suppose it had to happen at some point, I kind of wish they'd just kept with repeating “we’re on our way”, but I was sure we were going to hear one ovine related chant before we left. “Sheep shagging bastards”, sing the WFC fans, which is neither very imaginative or particularly shocking. Quite tame in the vast gambit of football chants, it's just a bit passe. The response though from one MT fan is priceless, “jealous” he shouts back. Before the whole group do a half turn, raising their arms above their heads they all sing back, "we know what we are”.

I’m happy to report that MT have a shot on target with five minutes left to play.

Just before the whistle, one WFC fan gets very animated, verging on the hysterical, berating one MT player for a poor cross or something equally inconsequential, “you should be ashamed” he yells with a strained high pitch voice. One MT supporter next to us, sums up the feet firmly on the ground, and level headed attitude of the home fans we’ve met so far, “ohhhhh calm down, its only football”.

The voice over the PA confirms the score, and the fact I haven't won the 50/50, when he reads out the result. Kieran, who knows just how invested I am in such things, thinks he’s helping when with a grin, he lets out a playful ‘booo’, but really I would rather suffer in silence and work through this on my own thanks, some sensitivity would be appreciated.

Tom returns with his grub, no cob, they had “sold out”. Not wanting to offend our hosts, Tom thinks he has been the victim of discrimination, “racism” even, he was sure everyone else in the line before him got two sausages, but he only got one down to the fact of being English. Not wanting to cause an international incident. I tell him to keep quiet and concentrate on not spilling what looks like about a pint and a half of gravy his food is swimming in, all over himself.

I’m interested to know what Kieran and Wesley make of all the Margaret Thatcher, national anthem, sheep shagger stuff, does any of it cross that fine line between banter and just being inflammatory, I guess some might even say racist, and proper racism, not sausage racism like Tom thinks he encountered.

They both just laugh it off, each with a look of ‘you don't have to be offended for us’ on their faces. “We’re a Welsh club in the English pyramid” explains Kieran “what do you expect”.

‘’Let's make some noise” says the announcer like an operator on the waltzers as the team's return. He also makes sure the salt is fully rubbed in the wound when he confirms my hattrick of failure, when he reads out the raffle ticket numbers.

For the homeside the second half is much like the first, a struggle. They do have an early freekick in a good position but its a limp attempt, on target but limp. They also send a header wide once more, which gets an “ohh” from the fans. However unlike the start of the first half, there is none of the noise and fervour, its very “subdued” as Tom puts it, and I think I know why.

Carbs or carbohydrates, are to blame I’m sure. If you fill everyone up with half a loaf of bread each or a mountain of chips, then you can't be surprised that everyone is a little sluggish. It’s therefore at least a full ten minutes in, when the away fans break the silence, “oh Weymouth” they sing. One of them bleats in our general direction, but has forgotten that the MT supporters are going to give as good as they get, and get a wall of “we know what we are”, once more.

2 - 0, sixty five minuets gone, game effectively over. The visiting fans have fully woken up now, “Weymouth” they reply to the der, der, der of the drum and again they sing of being “on their way”.

The mood around us certainly doesn't dip, in fact if anything its lifted by watching their team almost grab a goal back straight away, “ohhh” they all cry as one, before singing the loudest they maybe have all day, “Merthyr, Merthyr, Merthyr”.

They also make sure the WFC fans don't get a big head, pointing out they are “nothing special” because they “lose every week” and showing off some of that trademark never say die philosophy, their response to the latest WFC goal is simple, “we're gonna win 3 - 2”.

Their next song I can't quite make out, but there is a line about “finding a rat” after “looking in a bin for something to eat” and the person who found it thinking its a “treat”. We’ve been to a lot of football, and I've never heard that before, it must be a Welsh thing.

With just over seven minutes of the game left, I’m happy to report MT did something, they had a shot that forced the WU keeper into a save.

Into the final five minutes of normal time and age old rivalries boil over as the back and forth intensifies. The MT fans bluntly explain that “they always shit on the English side of the bridge” which is lovely and referencing the troubles at the recent Euros, start singing about “England running from Russia”. This gets a chorus of “England, England” back at them, which in turn gets a few lines of “we love you Iceland we do”. This final dig at our frankly embarrassing national team calls for only one thing, the second rendition of the the day of God Save The Queen, and again not the Sex Pistols version.

3 - 0, eighty five minutes gone. “Can we play you every week?” ask the WFC fans. Who certainly have committed fully to going “fucking mental” this time, as a small mosh pit has broken out in their
corner of the ground.

In extra time MT go the closest they have all day, when a free kick is hit low and straight, and comes back off the post, what you might call a daisy cutter. The shout of “second ball boys” just before it was taken really should have been taken notice of, because the rebound was primed for a tap in, but no one gambled, much to the annoyance of one fan, “second ball and no one there!”

“Weymouth till I die” sing the ever increasing rowdy away fans. As loud as they are being, they fail to drown out the fact that the announcer has confirmed that the 50/50 has been “claimed” and any hope that a mistake was made, that I had in fact won and mine were the winning tickets is kiboshed.

“It's just too easy” grumbles an MT fan, as WFC look to add to their lead in the dying seconds, one player skipping past the statuesque MT defenders and almost finishing his excellent run with a toe poke finish, but it goes just wide.

The voice over the PA wishes the travelling WFC fans a “safe trip” home, just after the final whistle. The WFC players and staff make sure to applaud the fans, who although some of their topics to sing about were slightly questionable, they really have been quite the force today. One coach, so delighted by the three points, does a small jig in celebration, punching the sky as he does so.

“Told you it would be 3 - 0” says a still smiling Kieran. He’s a rare breed among football fans, one who is still able to be chipper, when he's just watched his team lose by three. Although I’m not as bad as I used to be, I’m generally a bit of a grump in the hours following a Spurs loss. As he reminds me again, there is a certain amount of being prepared for the defeat, it's the “usual thing now”, but he doesn't let that get him down, “we go again”.

Mark also makes sure we had a “good day” when we see him in the the bar afterwards, “apart from the score” of course. He sings the praises of both the home fans who “kept the noise up” and that of the WFC fans, who he is very complimentary about.

As we prepare to leave, a montage of Arsenals recent fuck ups play out on the big screen, and Kieran is counting today's donations made in support of a small group of MT’s fans who are climbing the Pen-Y-Fan the highest peak in south Wales, one of their many fundraising activities. With a hefty amount of cash in his hands, I ask him when they are doing it, Wesley one of the climbers is standing just being him with a pint his hand, “tomorrow” he tells me, fucking hell.

Mark is the penultimate well wisher, making sure we enjoyed ourselves, he's minus his hat now and is wearing a very fetching Juventus shirt, few better things in football than black and white stripes.

It seems fitting Phil is the last person we see, as he was the first. Down in the bar from his corporate experience, he echoes the sentiments of everyone else. A “shit result”  of course but first and foremost making sure we know that we are “always welcome”.

I'm not sure I have any words left to describe just how friendly everyone was today, we didn't meet a single person who didn't smile back or didn't want to ensure we were having a good time. I can only hope that the fine efforts of Mike, Mark, Wesley, Phil and Kieran, and everyone else is enough to to keep MT afloat.

If the football Gods are listening, I haven't been to confession recently, so I might not be the best person to ask, but please, please, please let MT be OK, the world would be a poorer place without them. We don't want Mike or anyone else to have to "bankrupt" themselves to make sure they are, he admits as many others would, they're "stupid enough" to do so, and that's the beauty of the place.

 

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Friday, 2 February 2018

Temporary Coffin Stand - Margate FC Vs Thurrock FC, Bostik League Premier, Hartsdown Park (23/01/18)

It is a very different car ride today than normal, and it's a long one, we are certainly getting some miles under our belt in recent weeks, treating ourselves to some new scenery. If subjects for a potential Channel Five documentary called something like 'Mega Structures' are your thing, The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge is a doozy. However there is non of the usual chatting, it’s quiet, so quiet I turn the radio on and subject myself to a bit of Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, where Radio 4 people, talk about food in a way only Radio 4 people can.

Tom is in the car, I’ve picked him up from his new house, even further east, in the next place to become the place to live apparently, but he's editing the footage from our previous game and not wanting to disturb him, I sit and listen to people talking about the perfect gin and tonic.

Margate, our final destination, feels a lot further away than the last time I visited. That might have something to do with it being a dreary Tuesday in January and not the height of summer. My car then rammed with shorts and sun cream, not with big jackets and de-icer. The sun is setting when we finally see the sea.

All the lights and bustle of the summer holidays are nowhere to be seen. The promenade is sad, grey and unpopulated. It being our third birthday tomorrow, in my head I'd planned a fun day out at the seaside full of candy floss and donkey rides, arcades and fish and chips. However the neon lights of Dreamland are off, the shops full of postcards and things made of shells are closed and boarded up. Looking a bit like an abandoned frontier town, I’m trying to work out what we’re going to do for the next few hours.

A place to park on the front was a mere pipe dream seven months ago, now no problem. Beyond the doors of Showboat the amusement arcade, the multitude of flashing lights that adorn the 2p machines, make it look super inviting. Especially to someone who has a bit, OK a massive soft spot for UK beach resorts. I'll happily spend a sweltering summers day surrounded by the continuous beeps and dings, with a plastic pot of pound coins, trying to complete Big Buck Hunter.

Through the doors and despite all the apparent life and energy, its empty, much like outside. A couple of employees tinker with the machines, every so often pouring great buckets of coins into another making an almighty din.

Tom is taking a moment to get in the swing of things, he has a look on his face of 'what am I doing here'. I hand him a pound and he feeds it into one of the change machines, waiting for it to spit out his coppers. His first mistake is that he doesn't use one of the small pots covered in symbols from a one armed bandit to catch them, amateur.

After he's tricked a few handful of coins into his machine of choice, he starts to come around, and when it dishes out five paper tickets, he's fully on board. Next up is bit of Jurassic Park and the sticky handle of my gun, that almost makes me want to gag when I first grasp it, the aftermath no doubt of some young persons recent visit.

I drop out quite quickly, I’ve used up all my change, but Tom is still going strong. Shooting Pterodactyls and Velociraptors with aplomb. When it starts to get a bit hairy and he's almost overcome, he utters a sentence that will live with me forever, “Oh God I need you”.

It’s time to go, but not before Tom cashes in his tickets for a prize. At the back of the room waiting for him sits a booth displaying all sorts of junk. What does five tickets get you, a pencil sharpener, bouncy ball or Styrofoam Spitfire, no, five Black Jacks is what. Not even Fruit Salads, Black Jacks, the meanest of all the sweets.

Dinner time and there is nothing one should eat when on the coast other than fish and chips, but not before we take a quick detour via the local Wetherspoons, that is very Wetherspoons and we don't hang around for long.

Driving up the front just a tad we pass the chiming clock tower on our way to our alfresco dining spot for the evening, a bit of patio furniture opposite Peters Fish Factory.

One benefit of being here in the off season, is the lack of a queue. It’s dark, cold and the wind is whipping off the sea, but its ace, "a pint and fish and chips on a Tuesday night, spoilt" says a smiling Tom. The food is great, the fish divine. My gherkin is about as big as a Coke can and sends a torrent of juice down my face and sleeve and into my beard.

Like every good birthday party, we’ve done some games, Tom failed to win a unicorn stuffed toy for his beloved, despite his brilliant accuracy, we’ve eaten too much, so now it's time for the main event, football.

My Sat Nav takes us to a very nondescript, slightly gloomy suburban road. If it wasn't for the dimly lit Margate Football Club (MFC) sign above a tall brick wall, you would have no inkling that a football club was the other side of it.

The shutter covering the bar has yet to be lifted, in the fairy light lined clubhouse at Hartsdown Road. With no chance of a drink, we scale the few steps leading outside, right into the thick of it, straight onto the covered terrace behind one goal. On its back wall reads #InThisTogether.

Thanks to Charlotte, MFC’s Head of Marketing and Communications, the relevance of the # is soon made clear.

It’s been uncertain times for MFC as of late. Relegation last year from the National League South and some let's say less than ideal people running the club means it's just not been the happiest of places.

However things are on the up, Charlotte's enthusiasm alone might be enough to get them promoted or at least “nick” a play-off place this year. As she very kindly shows us whats what, the way she talks about the club and their intentions to make it more “family focused’’ is quite something.

It’s not just changes to the way that the club is run, a new board and owner having taken control in the summer, but changes to the ground as well. One change they've already made, perhaps the biggest change a club can make, other than changing the badge or the colour of the home kit, is going from grass to 3G. A surface that means today's MFC game against Thurrock FC (TFC) is not one falling by the wayside due to a waterlogged pitch, or other such reasons associated with this time of year, like so many others are.

The new owners wanted to make a “statement” they wanted to show their “intent” is how Charlotte puts it. They wanted to prove they are in it for the long term and what bigger way to show your “commitment” then spending over £500,000 on a brand new playing surface.

She also points out other projects, other parts of the ground due an overhaul. The changing rooms for
example, well the portacabins next to the pitch, literally, two feet from the touchline are high up the list. No tunnel or walk out here, its doors open, step down, game time.

Another job on the to do list is to replace the “temporary coffin stand” that Charlotte points to at the other end of the ground. The small blue covered terrace is admittedly a bit pokey and isolated, but without closer inspection I couldn't possibly say if it warrants its name.

I do like the Arctic Monkeys, so when the PA comes to life with the sound of the Sheffield band, it’s a nice change to pop music I’ve never heard of. They are occasionally interrupted by a jolly, if not ever so slightly nasally sounding announcer, wandering around pitchside with his microphone and clipboard.

Sitting in the clubhouse, not quite sure how I got there, half looking at Tom, half looking at the TV, I’m feeling all of a sudden a little sluggish, I think our massive dinner has come back to haunt me. I’m overcome with that feeling of wanting to snooze on the sofa, watching the Antiques Roadshow though half open eyes while dosing, that post Sunday lunch feeling.

Fed up with looking at my sorry face, a pro at this eating and doing things malarkey, Tom's just as sprightly as ever, and heads off for a vape. The only thing that stops me curling up and having a nap, is the TFC club official offering me his hand for a handshake, and telling me we're a “lucky omen” for them after being there when they got promoted at the playoff final last season, no pressure then.

“There's a drum’’ says Tom on his return, my brief chat with the visitor from Essex has stirred me a little and what better way to shake off the too much food blues, understanding for the first time why people go for a walk after Christmas dinner, Tom convinces me to stand and we go for a walk.

Such is my malaise, I’ve yet to even get a programme. The sight of the beach hut that houses the supporters club and the gentle call of “50/50 only a pound” fully wakes me from my stupor. Weighed down by £18 worth of change, all coins, thankfully it's only a short walk to the other hut for a programme, next to the slumped man sized crocodile wearing goalkeepers glove and crocs.

I know that no-one won it at the front, nothing was open, so I reckon that it must always be here. It’s not the case that someone got lucky on the coconut shy and has left him there to pick him up on the way home.

Tom seemingly isn't the only one obsessed with food, as recommendations of what to eat and drink are coming from all quarters, but I’ve only just been able to start moving properly.

Charlotte going at a million miles an hour, stops for a moment to “highly recommend” the burgers, also pointing out the “baked potato” trailer too. A chance encounter with the clubs softly spoken chairman, he tells me the “Bovril is excellent”. The idea of a beefy hot drink on top of that gherkin makes me feel a little queasy, so I smile politely and decline.

I try to guide the coversation back to the reason we are here, not for a culinary tour of the Thanet area, but for football, so I ask MFC’s chairman his thoughts on tonight's encounter. He thinks it will be a “tough one” the visitors as he puts it having found a bit of “form” in recent weeks.

Between mouthfuls of a ginormous hot dog, a familiar TFC fan gives us his view on the game. With his yellow scarf hanging from his belt, we manage our quick chat all without him trying to get me to eat or drink anything, which is nice. Although he seems to be enjoying his snack, he doesn't have much hope for the game “don't think we'll get much out of today” he tells me, the lack of squad depth or as he puts it “no squad” at all means there are a few new faces and people playing out of position this evening.

The lack of a tunnel, means there is little or no sense of anticipation in the moments before kickoff. That feeling of waiting to see the players arrive, signalling the game is about to start is non existent. Once the plywood doors open, the players are checked by the officials for jewelry and the right coloured under shorts, the players just kind of mill about, like they’re waiting for a bus.

With both teams just about ready to walk out, I say walk out, step on to the pitch, there is a moment of mild panic, what will the players be walking out to? It was “Big Shaq's” last home game according to Charlotte, but no-one has decided for today. When eventually Insomnia by Faithless starts to play, the players are greeted with shouts of “come on Margate”, and we all get an insight into the mind of the person who picked the song, and what he or she was getting up to on their Saturday nights circa 1995.

The corner flags are going hell for leather, confirming what someone nearby says that “it’s always windy” here. The gusts coming off the channel do little to drown out the good murmur coming from behind the goal, which every so often is puntuated by the shouts of “come on gate”.

Within the crowd dotted about on the steps of the terrace, front and centre from what I can make out from our spot next to the Spend A Penny portable toilet trailer, which I don't think is in use, is one person, whose voice I definitely recognise. She was there the first time we saw MFC and the last, and I’m sure she'll be there any other time we see them, in fact I reckon she might be there until the end of time. “Come on blues” she cries in her signature way.

It’s a “physical” game, “fast and physical” says Tom. The 3G surface giving the ball that slightly unnatural bounce and zip that is does and the presence of the emergency services, “is there always an ambulance at games?” asks Tom, is perhaps there to patch up anyone caught up in the vigorous opening quarter of an hour.

With the wind picking up, it starts to play its part. At one point a big hoof up field, starts to curl back towards the TFC keeper, almost catching him out. It's joined not long after kick off by a fine rain, the kind of which means you don't realise quite how wet you’re getting, its fair to say the man in the Meccano gantry filming the match is “brave” and Tom really can’t think of anywhere less he would want to spend “ninety minutes”.

So far the on field action has been a little uninspiring, I’m not sure either team has had a shot on target yet, and our minds have started to wander. Mine ends up gazing at the dazzling all pink strip of the TFC keeper. Tom and I both members of the goalkeepers fraternity, but for different reasons. He was good and I was the fat guy at school who ended up in goal. We discuss the fact the MFC keeper has trousers on, and I tell Tom that I once too had a pair of padded goalkeeper trousers, very Massimo Taibi. However Tom is more Burt Troutman, than accident prone Italian. More of a flat cap, no gloves, kid of guy, showing me just how tough he is when he tells me how he “always admired a keeper in short sleeves”.

It seems like panicked passes are the order of the day as far as MFC are concerned. They are certainly dominating possession, but when they end up in or around the box, the move ultimately ends with frustrated hand gestures and missed opportunities. On the odd occasion TFC do attack, the voice from the stands shouts so loudly in displeasure, sometimes not always using words, a lot of the time just noises, I’m sure she's putting them off.

MFC whip in two dangerous crosses one after another quite how good a cross they are can be measured by the reaction of the crowd, “fucking hell” shouts you know who, when the first looks like its going to end up in a goal. The second only inches from the attackers head, is touched away at the last moment, “come on boys get at it”.

I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious thing or I’m doing it intentionally, but my ability to shoe horn at least one tenuous Spurs connection with where we end up is getting a bit scary. Last match we visited the Lilywhites of Mossley A.F.C., today the spearhead of the MFC attack is the rapid number 9, Jordan Chiedozie son of one time Spurs player John Chiedozie.

Admittedly Chiedozie Snr was playing for the one true north London club a little bit before my time, but nonetheless its awesome to see his son doing his thing. A very hard “working” player is how Charlotte described him, singling him out as one to watch, and at the moment he looks the most likely to score. He is though easily angered when he doesn't get things his way, and dare I say there is a streak of the stroppy in him.

Thirty minutes gone and it’s been fast paced, but a bit dull. The early noise of the home fans has subsided slightly, reverting back to a healthy murmur. This is not for long though, as the voice introduces another weapon in her assault on everyones eardrums, a black drum slung over her shoulder. Beating out the rhythm, she leads every chant, in combination with the percussion she is verging on a health and safety risk, she might have to carry a warning sign, ‘may damage hearing’.

Whenever MFC get the ball in the box her voice climbs a couple of octaves and increases by a couple of decibels. Number 9 makes one of his customary surges goalwards, jinking his way into the box, but there is no shot and no pass, despite the request to do one or the other from his teammates, and the attack breaks down, "selfish" mutters Tom. An all too familiar outcome to most if not all of MFC’s promising probes into the visitors box so far.

Warming up in front of us, the TFC subs look on, doing their stretches, one in a full face snood, which Tom is quick to comment on. Mumbling under his breath, that it's “not that cold” is rich coming from the guy who brought chemically activated hand warmers to our last match.

Considering we’re in the presence of the original “Porto”, regular readers will be aware of the ongoing saga that is Tom suggesting MFC’s kit looks like the Portuguese clubs one, when it clearly doesn't. I’m a little shocked when he starts playing ‘match the clubs kits with a team from the football league’, that he doesn't go for them again, instead he plays it safe, saying TFC’’s gold and green number is “definitely Norwich”.

Best chance of the match so far, with twenty five minutes gone, falls to the home side, which is no great surprise. A well cushioned back post header, is delicately placed onto the edge of the six yard box, but its a fraction behind its intended target, who can't convert the assist.

TFC have their first meaningful attempt around the same time, however it's a lazy long range shoot, that never really threatens the man in the trousers.

A day before our birthday we’re treated to a present, a perfectly formed, angled screamer of a present, from who else but Chiedozie Jnr, who has just thumped the ball into the top corner, sending it screaming past the fully outstretched all pink keeper, who can't even get close. The player is mobbed by his teammates in recognition of what a fine goal it was and the drum is given a few whacks.

TFC try one last “pot shot” as Tom calls it, a long range and audacious attempt, but it’s speculative at best and they finish the half a goal behind.

The chipper voice over the PA is back again, confirming the score “Margate 1, Thurrock 0 at the break”. He is quickly on to the pitch, followed by a gaggle of children like Kents very own Pied Piper. There is the small matter of a penalty shoot out to take place, and the prize “is a big one” according to the man in charge “a signed Margate programme”.

Its a two and a half year old by the name of Archie, who claims the prize. His first penalty having a hint of handball about it, the power in his shot not enough to carry it over the line, so he ran up to the ball and pushed it in, but a blind eye is turned and he gets one of the loudest cheers of the night.

His victory might have had a little to do with the organiser “losing count” of whose scored, frankly he seems to be losing the will to live, admitting that the “cold weather” is “affecting” him. Any of the other participants have a case for some kind of FA review if they wished to pursue it.

Sans hotdog, but with his scarf still hanging from his belt, the TFC fan I spoke to before is no less pessimistic, “can't see us scoring” he tells me.

The MFC fans already fill the “coffin stand", in preparation of kick-off. So Tom can finish his tea, which was “good” and “not too hot” and Mars bar, all he can manage after dinner, yes Tom is not eating at a game and its National Pie Day of all days. We take a seat in the small covered stand, opposite the dugouts, where lets say the more mature fans hang out.

Archie the penalty shootout kid, high on his win is bombing about pushing a buggy, while I wait for the 50/50 numbers to be disclosed. Going by the sighs and tuts from those around us, I’m not the only one to be disappointed. That’s 2 - 0 2018!

“All set for the second half” announces the voice over the PA, who has managed to compose himself after his taxing half time activities. As the players emerge, I’m not sure I can get used to watching them just sauntering out and onto the pitch. Being one who loves all the theatrics associated with football, I need a tunnel, I need that feeling you get when you see that first peak of the teams coming back out.

It’s relatively sedate where we are compared to the “coffin stand” where they are banging on the hoardings in front of it, as well as the stand itself to get their noise on. Tom has almost finished up, and although it’s perfectly pleasant and nice to sit down, one fan behind us, an older gentleman has repeated  “come on Margate” ever since kick-off, never once changing the tone of his voice, the delivery exactly the same time after time, so we decide to move on.


Making our way to join the more animated and less monotonous fans, still led by the drum, they are I’m sure much louder than the first half, “come on Margate, come on Margate” they sing. A ball boy is handed some food, a burger and chips if I remember correctly that is almost as big as him, confirming that it’s not just Tom who seemingly only comes to football to eat.

The rain has stopped and there is not a cloud in the jet black sky. On the pitch MFC are going through the routine of giving the ball away, winning it back just as quickly and then giving it away again, they are just about as repetitive as the old fella we just left.

When most of the crowd think they've doubled their lead, many fail to see the linesman with his flag up, so have to do that embarrassing thing of having to sit down, when you're already halfway up, cutting short their celebrations. “Come on” shouts one fan unable to believe its been ruled off, another supporter thinks there are darker forces at play and suggests a “fix”.

Those behind the goal don’t dwell on it for too long and are soon singing once again “oh when the gate go marching in”, Tom though has his own worries, something he had for dinner is troubling him. His battered sausage as he puts it so delicately, is “repeating on him”.

Unfortunately for TFC they have rarely been in the game today, MFC’s second goal seems imminent. It almost comes from a header following a weak punch from the keeper. Lucky for him the attempt is straight into his hands, anywhere else and he would have been a certain goal. Going close again, number 9 is keen to add to his tally, and he gets his very own song, "Oh Jordan Chiedozie".

The fans can can smell blood, “la, la, la Margate” they chant, getting increasingly raucous. When their sprightly forward goes on one of his runs again, only to be stopped at the very last, by a well timed tackle, the “coffin stand” roof nearly comes off, “come on Margate, come on Margate”. The drum is almost surplus to requirements considering the drummer is louder than the drum..

“We are the gate, we are the gate” chant the fans, the “coffin stand” the happiest coffin I’ve ever seen, as the resilient and sometimes charmed TFC defence finally succumbs to MFC’s number 9 once more. His second far less spectacular than his first. An almost carbon copy of the earlier chance, this time the keeper comes for the ball, but gets nowhere near it. Ricocheting off one TFC player then another on the line, the ball falls kindly to Chiedozie who this times nods it into the net, the man in goal stuck in no mans land.

3 - 0? No, offside again and the locals are getting restless. There are accusations from the fans of dirty goings on, “cheat, cheat. cheat”. One person even asks the man in goal for his opinion, “keeper was it offside?”, but doesn't get a reply.

When the two goal man is substituted, he should have been the hat trick man, but for the flag happy lino, he is suitably serenaded. In case he wasn't sure that his industry was appreciated, the voice, without the use of a microphone, but it sounds like she has one from a Who concert, lets him know, “well played Jordan”.

There is always one fan, at every ground who gives the officials above and beyond attention, Hartsdown Road is no different. Standing alone, he berates the linesman in front of him, “you're an embarrassment” he says to him over and over. The man with the flag can only turn and smirk, biting his tongue I’m sure.

Very much still leading the line, the voice treats up us all to a rendition of the tune from the Great Escape. TFC flash a shot wide, the visiting bench all have their head in their hands, it was close. The home fans are only momentarily concerned, before belting out their next song “Super Margate FC”

With a voice as emphatic as hers, the one with the red hair tumbling out the back of a blue MFC hat, she was bound to have the last word on matters this evening. Once again another MFC attack is halted, because of another suspicious offside, “Lino I’m gonna make you eat that fucking flag” she exclaims in no uncertain terms, and I’m sure I saw him flinch.

"We love you Margate we do" sing the fans on the final whistle and I doubt I need to point out who was singing the loudest. At the end of the fifth of five home games this month, where the supporters could maybe be excused for a bit of fatigue and despite the claims of one person that there "won't be many here tonight" because of the weather, they were here in good numbers and never stopped.

It can't have been much fun supporting Margate this last year or so, relegation and iffy owners could make one think they had angered the football Gods, but you wouldn't know that from the fans. By all
accounts attendances are steadily increasing, and if this the turn out on a Tuesday night, a Saturday afternoon must be heaving. It's when a club goes through hard times, that you see what it's made of and by what we saw tonight MFC are made of solid stuff.

One image that has stuck in my mind from these past three years, is that of the hoard of MFC supporters who near enough took over Hendons Earlsmead Stadium for the 2014/15 Ryman League Premier Play-Off Final. Many with blue painted faces, I compared them to the wood daubed ancient Britain's of Boudicas army.

Every good army needs a good leader, and from today's performance its clear who that is. With the same fiery hair as the fearless Celt, from this day forth the voice will be known as, Boudica of Thanet.

Impressive grounds and fancy football are all well and good, but its the passion of the people who go, that really gets me excited. Boudica of Thanet is one such person, that embodies just that, the kind of person that we don't come across all that often, who affirm why I like doing what we do so much. Its seeing that kind of devotion and non stop support, whatever the weather or the circumstances on or of the pitch, which drives our search.

However do us a favour though Boudica of Thanet if you're reading this, have a word with the club and get a tunnel, I don't need to see a player hanging out the dressing room door only in a towel again, you're loud enough, they'll listen to you.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

 

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