Tuesday, 25 August 2015

On The Scaffold - Clapton FC Vs Stanway Rovers FC, FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round, The Old Spotted Dog (15/08/15)

"Wembley, Wembley we're the famous Tottenham Hotspur, and we're going to Wembley" is hard to shift out of my head as I sit on the Tube to Stratford, but it's August, and I, like a lot of people don't really pay the FA Cup any attention or spare it a thought until about December or January, when all the clich├ęs, black and white film of someone beating someone appears, the saying "giant killing" is used and not in reference to Game Of Thrones, and managers start complaining about "fixture congestion".

Tom and I meet up at Stratford station, and it's a short bus ride to a nondescript suburban street, in East London. The previous days wind, rain and general miserableness has departed, and it’s a fine warm August afternoon. You would have no idea that a football club was around here, the only thing that stops us checking the maps on our phones, are the two men with kit bags walking in front of us. 50% the kit bags and 50% their haircuts which make us think we might be going the right way. There is something about a footballer’s haircut, which when even not in the clubs strip, says "I'm a footballer", so we take it as a sign, and like the two kings following a star, keep going.

We are not disappointed, and see today's footballing Bethlehem through a black metal gate, at the end of a long cul-de-sac, Disraeli Road, E7.

Today is one of firsts. The first time either of us have seen an FA Cup game before the 3rd round, in fact today is the first round of the whole competition, the Extra Preliminary Round, as the long road to Wembley in the world’s oldest footballing competition begins. It is also our first visit to The Old Spotted Dog, the home of Clapton FC (CFC)

Down a barbed wire lined path behind one end of the ground, overgrown and in the shadow of tall trees, we are greeted by a large white sign, with red writing "CLAPTON FOOTBALL CLUB" strung up between two buildings. A red wooden partition leads your eye to the other end where it culminates in the turnstiles. The partitions separate the entrance in to two sections, "spectator’s entrance" and "players only".

It's long before kick-off and the turnstiles are yet to be manned, so we enter the ground through a rickety wooden gate, and a scene of pre match preparation unfolds.

A man at the far end of the pitch pushes a sort of wheel barrow around, dispensing white paint to mark out the boundaries of the pitch. Various tools litter the floor, as a handy man in a straw cowboy hat, goes about doing the last bits of spring cleaning, and a few CFC players casually kick a ball about between themselves on the pitch.

Not long after we arrive, today's opponents pull up in a minibus under the large white sign, and pile out, make the walk through the same rickety fence and make their way straight to the changing room. Stanway Rovers FC (SR) are no strangers to playing CFC having played each other twice recently in the same fixture

The CFC Manager in his red tracksuit leans up against a wall, surrounded by a few of his players. In one hand he has a small notepad, in the other a black marker pen. The players listen attentively, as he goes over his master plan for the game ahead, using the black marker pen to point out positions on the field in front of them.

"OK boys, let’s go in" calls the manager to the players on the pitch, some glued to their phones, leaning against the railing around the pitch. The team go in followed by the gaffer, leaving the SR squad inspecting the pitch.

We are quickly learning that the "non-league" world is a relatively small one, and are starting to see some familiar faces, when we go to games. Someone we first met at the Hackney derby, Hackney Wick FC Vs Sporting Hackney FC, is Dan, formally on the staff at the very successful Sporting, but who is now on to pastures new as part of the management at CFC.

Due to work commitments, and holidays, Dan is a PE teacher and he and a colleague who has joined him at CFC from Sporting have been unable to get a "session" under their belt with the squad, so he says he is "really looking forward to today".

“The grounds got everything you want, it's all just a bit wanting, needs a lick of paint", says Dan, and he is not wrong, The Old Spotted Dog has seen better days, it's a hotchpotch of porta cabins, one containing the toilets, one containing the board room, a breeze block building which holds the "Tons Bar” and changing room. There is one main seated stand opposite the dugouts behind each goal is a bank of earth, with a minute terrace with enough room for about two, behind one of them. Large trees and houses ring the ground, so close are peoples back gardens you can almost see in their houses.

Dan also says he has never experienced the noise of the Clapton Ultras, we explain that's what brings us here today, "well it's not for the pitch" jokes Dan. As well as it being an FA Cup game, it’s also a great chance to kill two birds with one stone, after crossing paths with the Ultras at the Essex Senior League Final 2015, we have wanted to see them on their own patch ever since.

The smell of the petrol driven strimmer the cowboy handy man is wielding, and the arrival of a man holding a drum in a Celtic FC shirt, inspires us to make our way around to inspect the Scaffold. Situated between the dugouts, underneath what looks like a mobile phone mast, is the Oust Curve of the Essex Senior League. Just like at Hertha BSC Olympic Stadium, it's where the fanatical fans congregate on match day, the only difference the scale, but not the passion.

By the time we make it round, it's a left at the two cars that look ready to be scrapped, straight past a pile of bricks, and once you see the shipping container with "CLAPTON" spray painted on the side of it, you have arrived. The drummer boy, has secured his position, and drum on the raised section of the scaffold. People call him "Jinky" because of Jimmy Johnstone, his favourite player for his beloved Celtic FC.

"Your heart is a muscle the size of a fist, keep loving, keep fighting", "Football without fans is nothing" are messages painted along the back wall of the Ultras section, along with a multitude of football stickers, from visiting teams and supporters, which sends my obsession for them into overdrive. The Scaffold is exactly what it says it is a single storey creation of plywood and scaffolding poles, all painted red and black, with a step up to a raised section at the back, with one corner a collection of flags and banners from the Ultras well known Tifo.

Jinky is perhaps the most enthusiastic person I have ever met, like a Celtic supporting children's TV presenter on drugs, he is clearly itching for things to get underway, if he grips his drumsticks any harder I think they might break, he is so proud to point out "unique" things about the ground, and shares with us his favourite name for the Scaffold "The Love Shack".

Outside the ground, the opposite way we came in is the Spotted Dog Inn. In a previous life a hunting lodge, once visited by Henry VIII no less, then a pub, and now just an out of place, boarded up curiosity. The only hint of its past is a white entrance arch with "The Spotted Dog Inn" in gold above it. In homage to this old drinking spot, Tom and I sit on a concrete block, used to prevent people driving on to the land, drinking beer out of a brown paper bag, only to be slightly spooked by two police officers kicking around in the undergrowth behind us, "looking for something".

Back in the ground after our pre match paper bag refreshments, the players are finishing warming up, and a few away supporters, talk to the team behind the goals.

With about 15 minutes to kick off, the Scaffold is strangely quiet, just Jinky padding around, drumsticks in hand, when all of a sudden a tidal wave of beards, beer cans and banners descend.

"EAST LONDON, LA, LA, LA"

It is a hive of activity, as the ground is prepared for the imminent match. Banners of all shapes and sizes, including our own, cover every inch of the small Scaffold, and the fence in front of it "Refugees Welcome", "Clapton Ultras – Alerta! – Anti Facista!" and my personal favourite a simple blue circle with "Walter Tull 1888 - 1918 Footballer played here 1908 - 1909" in the style of a blue plaque you normally see on the side of a building a person of note has lived in. The name Walter Tull also adorns many of the scarves of the CFC supporters, and so it should.

Walter Tull was the first professional black outfield player in English football, the first to win a medal in English senior football, after winning the FA Amateur Cup & London Senior Cup in the 1908-09 season. It was his part in this winning team that got him a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, and only a miraculous 12 after joining CFC from his orphanage team in Bethnal Green. His story does not stop with playing football, during The Great War he served with the Footballers' Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment he was commissioned an officer and became the first mixed-race combat officer in the British Army, despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluding "Mulattos" from exercising actual command as officers. He died in the trenches of France in 1918.

A person and player CFC have every right to be proud of.

Like a game of Ultras sardines, more and more people squeeze onto the raised section of the Scaffold, and are soon spilling onto the area in front, to the sides, anywhere they can fit. I find myself standing in front of the drum which I instantly regret.

"WE ARE NEVER, NEVER, GOING TO FUCKING BARKING"

 Everyone knows everyone, most people exchange hugs and shake hands, the hiss of beers opening and the smell of weed wafts, it's like a football Woodstock.

 All the sights and smells, make me completely oblivious to the match, that is about to start, it's not until the teams are about halfway across the pitch, and are lining up, that I notice kick off is moments away. As much as I'm enjoying being in the thick of it, the drum, so close to my head, is tough to handle, so I bale, moving far enough, so not to lose my hearing completely, but still close enough to be immersed in the atmosphere.

Just as the players stand on the centre spot, ready for kick off a small child, waves her red and white chequered flag, she is barely tall enough to see over the railing around the pitch, on the whistle the Ultras break out into song, all to the rhythm of Jinky's drum.

 "WEMBLEY, WEMBLEY, WE'RE THE FAMOUS CLAPTON FC, AND WE'RE GOING TO WEMBLEY"

It's packed, and from the low position, it is almost impossible to actually see what's going on in the game, my obscured view is added to by the huge Clapton flag, swaying back and forth at the front, and it's very hard to concentrate on anything other than the orchestrated mayhem around me, as the Ultras start their lengthy repertoire of chants.

"YOU ARE MY CLAPTON"

What I can see though, is that the rest of The Old Spotted dog is empty, expect for a few SR fans sitting in the shade of the main stand opposite. Every bit of support is crammed in to every inch around us.

SR have started the game the much better side, and hit the bar early on. The Ultras do what they can to put them off "Stanway play in a shitty yellow kit", but it is to no avail, and 20 minutes in they take the lead from the penalty spot. It's given for a handball the people around us think the decision is "harsh" how they could possibly tell is beyond me, I can barely see what's going on two feet away.

The penalty is slammed down the middle, keeper goes the wrong way. Do the Ultras sulk? Do they bemoan the decision? Nope, they take their own advice spray painted on the side of the shipping container "support the team".

"WE'RE GOING TO WIN 2 - 1, WE'RE GOING TO WIN 2 - 1"

There are almost 30 minutes on the clock before CFC get a chance, but no goal, but you would not know, goal or no goal the ultras sing, and the choices of tunes to sing them to, is what makes me smile, no Sloop John B or Hey Jude here, they are much more inventive than that, how about the theme tune to Super Mario Brothers or a dig at the clubs Chief Executive Vince McBean, perceived lack of spending any money to the tune of Gay Bar, by Electric Six.

"I want to take you to the old dog, old dog. Vince, why don't you spend any money?"

My on pitch highlight of the first half is when the SR goalkeeper gets an absolute bollocking from his team mate, after a feeble attempt to claim a cross from a free kick. "Why don't you fucking punch it?!?" The keeper looks crest fallen, one of the fans near me shouts "don't cry!" And for a split second, he looked like he might.

"Stanway give us a song, Stanway, Stanway give us a song. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" The Ultras goad the few SR fans opposite them, and probably for the first time fall quiet, waiting for a response.

The SR Manager, who looks like a cast member from Made In Essex stands confidently on the edge of his technical area, occasionally being harangued by the Ultras behind him for straying outside of it. I notice a couple of policemen near the clubhouse, perhaps after the recent attack by a far right group, at a CFC pre-season match, and this marks the first time I have seen any police presence at a non-league game.

As the half comes to an end CFC have started to brighten up, and for the first time in the match look like offering SR some competition, "score in a minute, score in a minute", sing the Ultras, but the half finishes 1 - 0 to the away team.

Pitch side looks like a bike park outside a major railway station, as East London's choice of transport are propped up all around. A man holds unofficial match day programmes above his head one is all yours for the princely sum of a 25p donation. A child sits asleep in a pram, how it has stayed that way, considering the noise is remarkable. One woman must of been in such a rush to get to the match today, she is brushing her teeth, yes you read that right brushing her teeth, and Tom splashes out on one of the Walter Tull scarves £8 if employed, £5 unemployed, which encapsulates the ethos of the Clapton Ultras, and ties it around his wrist like a Bay City Rollers fan, I'm left gutted that the bearded man has none left in the rucksack at his feet.

It's all SR as the second half gets underway, the man next to me eats takeaway pizza from a box, and the away side have two chances in short succession, only a save from the CFC keeper keeps it at 1 - 0 "Senegal number 1".

The inevitable second goal goes in for SR, it's a good finish from close range, and once again the Ultras support does not waver "We're going to win 4-2".  The FA Cup is slipping away from CFC, but someone next to us is not bothered "It's all about the Gorden Brasted, that's a proper cup"

On or around the Scaffold its noisy, but it's not until you move away from it, looking at it from the other side of the pitch, that you realise quite what a site it is, quite how loud it is, it really is something else, it's like it's alive all moving and singing as one.

Finally CFC claw one back and it’s a bit of a surprise considering how they have been playing today. A run from the winger, cuts into the box and scores. It's once again hard to tell from the Scaffolds reaction if they have scored or conceded, because they are so consistent, but they do break into a rendition of Twist & Shout.

Although the CFC number 11 is creating a few options with his pace and good first touch, the FA Cup is almost over for this season, and at this point with the game almost over a few casualties of the Scaffold start to emerge from the scrum. A few people stagger from side to side, as perhaps the strong Polish lager, a favourite of these parts has taken its toll, along with the standing in the sun, one guy walks out with his head tilted back, a tissue plugging his bloody nose, perhaps he caught an elbow from an over enthusiastic supporter, and one guy who has pulled a full "whitey" the result of a bit too much weed, escapes the Scaffold the shade of porcelain, in search of some shade and a glass of water.

"Well played Stanway", coincides with the final whistle as SR finish the victors, and receive the recognition of the home fans. What happens next is something I first saw in Germany at Tennis Borussia Berlin, and it put the hairs up on the back of my neck then, and it happens again today. Even though the CFC players are dejected, it takes the keeper a while to get up, after sitting on the floor, contemplating the defeat, the whole team walks along the front of the Scaffold, and the fans and players exchange high fives, handshakes and commiserations. The connection between team and support shows a club united.

Just like anti-fascist Wombles the Ultras make sure the Scaffold is left as it was found, and encourage everyone to help out "we clean up our mess" as bin liners are feverishly filled with an unknown amount of beer cans, all ready for recycling I'm sure.

We walk across the pitch, and both comment how it is more like a ploughed field than a surface to play football on. It is uncomfortable walking on it in trainers, so only God knows how the players must feel after a full 90 minutes.

Following an invitation to join the Ultras for a drink in the local Irish Catholic Community Centre, a stone’s throw from the ground, we enter the masonic lodge, make a right past the grand sweeping staircase, like something from a BBC costume drama, and in to the gloomy bar, "these could be our new drinking buddy's" says one local, as his normally quiet bar is over taken by heavily tattooed men and women, in search of a pint.

Except for forgetting my notebook, only realising I had lost it half way home, and having to make a manic, panic filled journey back to the Irish Centre, only to be saved by a slightly sozzled CFC fan who produced it from his backpack, our first taste of the first round of the FA Cup and our first visit to the Old Spotted Dog, was a success.

The quality of football from the home side will have to go down in the, not some of the best we have seen column, but the support, well what else can I say, it is simply fantastic. I said it when we first met

the Ultras, that I don't think there is a wrong or a right way to support your team, you do it how you like, but for Tom and I, the way they do it, embodies everything that is good about football for us.

I know that the club is in a state of turmoil, which is a blog in itself, but simply based on a day watching football, singing and supporting the team, regardless of the result, I'm not sure they can be matched.

 

 

 

 

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE



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Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Let 'Em Come - Millwall FC Vs Barnet FC, League Cup 1st Round, The Den (11/08/15)

Millwall FC is a team in the footballing world that conjures up all sorts of images, myths and folklore, some of which I'm sure are justified, some of which I'm sure are total bullshit. Tom and I wanted to find out for ourselves, so when Millwall drew Barnet FC in the first round of the League Cup, the chance to tick The Den off the "to do list" presented itself, nice and early in the season, in fact its Millwall's first home game of the 2015/16 season. I have seen Millwall play before, at Stockport County FC Edgeley park, that's a whole other story, but a visit to The Den, was one of the first places we had both wanted to visit since starting our quest. 

The P12 from Canada Water, took me a hop, skip and a jump from the ground, depositing me firmly South of the river, on a grey, humid, drizzly night, on the famous Zampa Road. Once off the bus, South East London presented me with a fox with a rat in its mouth, standing on the pavement opposite me, under a railway arch, like a vision of a dystopian future, swap the rat with an arm, and it was reminiscent of a scene from the 'Walking Dead'.
 

I was distracted from the search for my samurai sword, after spotting what could only be described as Jack Sparrows Dad walking past me, and broke away from the Mexican stand off I was having with the local wildlife. This was not an extra from a Disney film franchise, even though he had a bandana and a large bushy beard, but it was perhaps Barnet FC's biggest and well known fan, Village. We share a mutual friend, and I recognised him after they both appeared along side each other on Soccer AM, after the Barnet fans did a stint in the Luther Blissett stand. You could not ask to meet a nicer, more welcoming bloke, who was more than happy to pose for a picture, and we ended up chatting as we walked to the ground together, along the same pavement the fox had earlier occupied, but who had since "done one".
 

A coach passed us as it squeezed down the very narrow Zampa Road, Village seemed to know instinctively that it was the Barnet FC (BFC) coach, even though there were no obvious markings on the outside, but he waved his hand knowingly, to the people sitting on the other side of the blacked out glass, as it turned in to the car park. All of a sudden Village was off, striding up to Kevin Lisbie, the ex-Jamaican international, who was walking through the car park.

"You're Jamaican, aren't you?" asked Village, to a slightly confused looking Lisbie "hope so", Lisbie replied. Village went on to request a picture of Lisbie in front of the Jamaican flag, one of many he had arranged to hang outside the BFC home ground The Hive, to represent the players and fans of the club.

The bowels of the coach were opened, and various boxes, a white board, speaker and a broom, amongst other things were removed and taken inside, by men in bright orange t-shirts, through the players entrance the coach had pulled up alongside. Then it just sat there, the engine ticking over, figures could just be made out through the glass but no one was moving, Village joked "they are just finishing their card game".

Martin "Mad Dog" Allen, the BFC manager got off, Village said hello, Mad Dog reciprocated, and then got back on again. The two Millwall FC (MFC) mascots, both lions, like the one on the club badge, even started to look bored, as they waited for a chance to take a picture with the BFC players.
 

Tom who by this point had done a bit of a tour of the local area, after making his own way to The Den, arrived just in time to get a picture of the BFC players finally disembarking, posing with the lions, and then disappearing into the ground. That meant it was time for us to get our tickets, and find somewhere to get a pint.
 

Considering MFC's position, the new season finds them in League One, after relegation's from the Championship, I can imagine that tonight's game is only a distraction, from what can only be a promotion at all costs focused club at the moment. This is reflected in the cut price tickets, £15 for adults, £1 for kids, the fact that only 3 sides of The Den are open, and one of them for the away side. The club assuming that their fans also see the game, against a lower league opposition, as far from important.
 

On our way to the shop, for Tom to acquire a badge for his slowly growing collection from each club we visit, we see some high level "banter" from a local "youth" really sticking the knife in where it hurts to a group of 3 elderly BFC fans. "Conference" he shouts, peering over his shoulder as he walked away, and then celebrated like all his Christmases had come at once, after the slightest of slight reaction from one of them, "she looked, she looked".

A badge is all that can tempt Tom in the shop, its a bit of a novelty to see a club shop, its a rare sight at most of the non-league games we go to, but a MFC golf badge, signed shirt or onesie, can't make us part with our cash.

Past "Arrys Bar" a members only joint, and opposite the "Millwall Memorial Garden" a well kept, grassy area, outside the ground, adorned with flowers and wreaths in the clubs colours, left in memory of recent fans who have died, is a white marquee, the S17 bar. The cover it offers is much welcome, as the drizzle has turned to rain, but its still warm, and semi justifies my agonised decision to wear shorts. We sit contemplating the price of a plastic bottle of Carlsberg, with our view being comprised of a load of skips, and our soundtrack the constant rattle of the nearby railway line.
 

Conveniently for us, but quite by mistake, the turnstile for our seats in the Barry Kitchener upper stand, named after their longest serving player, is right next to the bar. We climb the concrete steps, to be presented with that familiar sight, from so many grounds of blank grey concrete floors and walls, the odd TV up high showing Sky Sports, and the large faded picture of previous triumphs, all accompanied by the wafting smell of the concession stands.
 

Keen to see what our seats are like, having left it in the hands of the girl at the ticket office, asking for the best place to sit, she has put us three rows from the front, almost bang on the half way line, the edge of the extendable blue players tunnel just visible, and the technical areas just below us. Today also allowed us for the first time to hang our newly acquired flag, so I hurriedly try and remember my knots from Scouts, hoping a steward does not ask me what I'm doing.
 

We sit briefly, and talk about that feeling you get walking into a "big" ground, the anticipation before the game. As you walk up the stairs of your block, for a few moments you can't see much, but then it slowly appears before you, at the top of the stairs you take a second to drink it in, the flood lights dazzling, highlighting the intense green of the pitch.
 

We love the non-league grounds we visit, so many of them have more character in their little finger than any modern, flat pack stadium, but their sheer size makes them imposing, impressive, you just can't wait for the game to get underway.

The Den has a interesting history, it was the the first all seater ground completed after the Taylor Report, following the Hillsborough disaster, and is MFC's sixth ground since they were formed on the Isle of Dogs in 1885. There are also lots of nods to the clubs community and area. The stand opposite us the "Dockers Stand", highlights the clubs position close to the river Thames, and its early fan base that once worked it. "Cold Blow Lane" in large blue letters adorns the roof of the stand to our right, named after the road that used to lead to their previous ground The Old Den, below spelt out in yellow seats is "THE DEN". As far as its construction, it's nothing fancy, each stand comprised of two tiers, with a gap at each corner.
 

Back on the concourse its impossible, to miss the the black plaques, with gold writing dotted around, with heart felt messages, once again like the memorial garden, a way to honour lost supporters. This just screams to me of a club being in touch with its community, that has a real connection with its loyal fans.
 

After swapping my warm bottle of Coke for a warm bottle of water, and Tom finishing another ice cool plastic bottle of beer and molten hot sausage roll, as he again insists on sampling some of the stadium cuisine, did he learn nothing from the aftermath of the Craven Cottage pie?

A handful of BFC occupy the middle block of the upper tier of the stand to our left, at the moment the flags stretched out across the empty blue seats, almost out number the fans.
 

As both teams go though the final warm up, the two lion mascots, kick about with one human mascot in the centre circle. The floodlights highlight the rain and the stadium announcer, someone you might describe as a bit of a "character" informs the crowd, which seems to be predominantly families, about the upcoming home game "On Saturday we welcome the might of Mowbrays men, Coventry"
 

"Let 'em come, Let 'em come, Let 'em come" the first few bars of Roy Green's song of the same name, brings the whole ground to its feet, clapping in time, and singing along;
 

"It's Saturday on Cold Blow Lane
We've all come down to cheer
We've had our jellied eels
And our glass of beer
Come rain or shine all the time
Our families we'll bring
And as the Lions run on the pitch
                                                                                    Everyone will sing"

As the last chorus plays out, the volume rises culminating in a rousing sing song aimed at the away end, the MFC fan next to us stands arms outstretched, singing at the top of his voice "Let 'em all come down to The Den, Let 'em all...... come down......... TO THE DEEEENNNNNNN".
 

Both teams appear from below us, MFC in blue shirts, BFC in orange and black stripes, a man with a microphone is milling about on the pitch, reading out the teams, in the case of BFC he seems to be welcoming back every other player, who at some point seem to have played at MFC. Once the teams shake hands the voice on the tannoy congratulates the mascot "Smashing bit of mascoting!"

MFC's fan anthem "No one likes us, we don't care" reverberates from the few fans in the Cold Blow Lane end, with a large chimney from a local factory poking up from behind it.
 

"Come on 'Wall"
 

The main topic around us, as the game gets underway, is not the team or tactics, but Joey Bartons rumoured move to West Ham FC "Scum player, going to a scum club". With the game only minutes old, Mad Dog is already barking at his team, from his almost permanent position on the edge of his box, and it's his team who get the first shot away . The Bee Armys numbers have swelled considerably since we arrived, they have added more flags, and now take up about two blocks, a lot of them on their feet, and making a decent amount of noise, "come on Barnet".
 

MFC are quick to reply with a chance, a low fizzing free kick, is flicked on by the head of a player on the edge of the box, and it requires a smart, stretching save from the BFC keeper tipping it wide for a corner, but that's about it for MFC, they are second best. BFC from a league below are out working the home team, especially the speed and strength of the BFC number 9, and the towering centre back winning every ball lumped his way. It's totally in keeping with the way the game is going, when BFC take the lead from the penalty spot.
 

A powerful and direct run from the BFC forward, takes him into the area, the MFC defence melting away in his wake, as he charges at goal, he goes down. The referee has no hesitation in pointing to the spot, Tom and I are not convinced, looked like he tripped himself, the BFC fans are far from sympathetic "off, off, off, off", the quiet suited man next to us was sure it was the correct decision, his opinion is however not shared with the majority of fans who are for a few seconds lost for words, looking at each other appalled at the decision. The MFC player escapes a the red card, the same BFC player who won the penalty coolly rolls the ball in, the keeper going the wrong way, 0 - 1.
 

"1 - 0 TO THE BARNET BOYS"
 

"CAN YOU HEAR THE MILLWALL SING!?!"

The MFC fans around us try to rouse the troops "Come on you lions" but can't drown out the noisy away fans.
 

Mad Dog is a curious fellow, we had a slight run in with him at The Hive, on the last day of last season, nothing remotely severe, more funny than anything, but I cant pretend I'm his biggest fan. His passion cannot be questioned, and after seeing him recently on the new Channel 5 League show, his reaction to the home made production values of the programme and its presenters, has pushed him up in my estimations. Watching him on the sidelines, living out every pass and tackle, even on various occasions miming the exact movement or body position required from the player he was talking to, it's in vast contrast to Neil Harris the MFC manager, who just stands, arms crossed, and considering his teams performance, he might want to rev up his enthusiasm.
 

"They're just walking though you!" cries the most animated fan near us, a chap in a grey flat cap, and he is bang on, MFC look like conceding every time BFC get at them, they are not doing anything intricate or clever, but are simply being direct, running at the heart of the defence, and its causing so many problems.
 

"COME ON BARNET!!"

One corner of the ground is almost purple, as the sun sets, and it illuminates the gap between the stands, another is filled every few minutes by a train passing by the ground.
 

About 20 mins into the game the home fans finally have something to get off their feet about, when the ball almost trickles in to the BFC goal after the resulting save from a one on one, ricochets off the keeper and almost draws things level. Such is the home teams performance that after almost pulling a goal back, they almost go two down, after the debut keeper, tries to be tricky in the box, trying to out fox the onrushing BFC player, who he can't get the best of, and his hurried clearance, luckily for him, goes out for a goal kick. NAME has had enough, and his arms are quickly unfolded, and he gives his players hell for messing about, and the fans appreciate it, "sort them out!"

The end finishes with BFC ahead, "boos" ring out, people are happy to share their opinion "that was dire", "that was shit", and in some cruel twisted irony 'Itchycoo Park' by the Small Faces is playing as the teams head in, the line "it's all to beautiful" could not be further from the truth for MFC.
 

As if to make sure MFC's moral is at rock bottom as they come out for the second half, the most drippy saccharine guitar ballad is playing. They have come out a little early and go through a few quick sprints, around some cones set up during the break. BFC come out applauded by one end, and booed by the rest.
 

Tom as ever is woefully unprepared, and proclaims "I should of brought more sweets!"
 

Each team have a chance in the first few minutes, the BFC fans in a much better mood, "come on the bees, come on the bees", compared to MFC's "Harris do something different".
 

The home fans might of been buoyed by their teams early efforts, like the ball bouncing around the the BFC box only needing the slightest touches to put it in, but it's quickly fading, attempts by the fans to get things going "Millwall, Millwall" peter out, and they are getting increasingly angry, even the kids are happy to offer their high pitched judgement on a very poor performance.

Finally for MFC, there is a ray of hope, a gift, a chance to draw level. After only ever looking like they were going to loose, they get an opportunity in the form of the second penalty of the game. In front of the Cold Blow Lane stand, the MFC penalty taker steps up, shoots, and crashes it off the top side of the cross bar, its really not their day.
 

Jubilation floods out from the away stand "WHO ARE YA, WHO ARE YA" BFC fans are singing there hearts out, but the quiet suited man still has faith "we're going to win this Millwall". Can MFC repay some of his faith?
 

Having looked so solid, with about 10 minutes until full time, BFC are finaly breached, a header from a free kick. Roy Green's song plays, and once again arms outstretched, the man next to us directs his singing towards the away end "Let 'em all...... come down......... TO THE DEEEENNNNNNN".

"NO ONE LIKES US, BUT WE DON'T CARE!"
 

I'm really not convinced they deserved it, most people were not even sure it went in, the celebration was a delayed one, people around us looking at the person next to them, to confirm the goal.
 

However, they are back in the game, and spend the final 10 minutes, pinning BFC back, its like a different team have turned up, compared to the arduous, first 80 minutes. As they go in hunt of the winner, MFC have more chances than you can shake a stick at, but as 4 mins goes up on the 4th officials board, its still 1 - 1 and the quiet suited man does not fancy extra time, "come on I want to go home".
 

His wish is almost granted, but not in a way in which he would go home happy, BFC almost grab a winner at the death, after a deep in-swinging corner causes all sorts of problems, but to no avail, extra time here we come.

"Dreaded penalty shootout" is the possible conclusion to this evening the man on the tannoy announces, while both teams take the field. Players are in various states of exhaustion, some lie, some sit, some are helped by others to stretch, some just stand around taking a drink. The home fans once again try and gee on the team "Come on you lions",
 

All the attacking promise MFC had shown in the last 10 minutes of the second half have gone, in the few moments it took to have a drink, and its BFC who go ahead again. Not through tic - a - taca, or some Mad Dog tactical master plan, but simply by being direct, and MFC can't cope. The goal is  something you would see in Fifa: run down the wing, beat your man, cut along the by line, pass across the box, tap in, GOAL, 1 - 2 BFC.
 

"2 - 1 TO THE BARNET BOYS"
 

The away end explodes, as do all the suits in the directors box next to us, jumping to their feet punching the air in orange club ties. All Tom can say under his breath is "oh dear, oh dear".
 

Half time of extra time and its more water and stretching even more tired legs.
 

BFC are happy to sit back on their lead, MFC look at an all time low as far as ideas are concerned, and are running out of steam. One BFC player does his best Terry Butcher impression, and has blood pissing from his head, his surname is Gash and his injury inspires an impromptu chant of "la la la la Gash has got a gash" When he does come back on to the pitch, he looks wobbly and drunk.
 

The MFC fans start to leave, and BFC supporters taunt them "cheerio, cheerio, cheerio.
 

Five minutes of extra time is up, and MFC are out of the cup at the first hurdle, but I'm not convinced they could really care less. BFC on the other hand look delighted, the players approaching the fans, and applauding them for their fantastic support.
 

As we leave we can still hear them singing to the tune of Hey Jude "la la la, la la la Barnet".
 

Tonight all the ghouls and ghosts of Millwall folklore were not apparent, perhaps they are not bothered about the League Cup, or they are still on their holidays. I understand that a first round League Cup game against Barnet, might not be the fixture to forge your opinion on, but you would also be amiss to judge a whole club on the actions of a few or because of a fan culture that was relevant over 30 years ago.

The few people we spoke to were very nice, the staff very helpful and the fan base is clearly a passionate one, if the people around us were anything to go by, which in this day and age can only be a good thing. I loved the memorial garden, and the plaques, I think this is such a wonderful touch, it proves how important some people's club is to them, and it's great to see Millwall respecting this. I'm aware it's something that happens at other clubs, but I have never seen it to this level.

I'm sure if you rocked up on a Saturday afternoon in a claret shirt, f'ing and blinding, someone might take exception, but the same would happen if you turned up to White Hart Lane in a red shirt, being an arsehole.


So as long as you go to The Den, or any football club, with the right intentions,  9 times out of 10, you can only have a good time, except perhaps for the result or the quality of the football on show.

Unfortunately though Roy Green is a little off the mark, because on this performance they are not even close to being "the best team in London".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE



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Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Welcome To The Ryman League - Haringey Borough FC Vs Dereham Town FC, Ryman League Division One North, Coles Park Stadium (08/08/15)

“Welcome to Haringey Borough FC. Members of the Ryman Football League” is the new sign that greets you when you arrive at Coles Park, White Hart Lane N17. The ground has gone from somewhere I used to pass on the W3 to see Spurs play, to a bit of a second footballing home, as this is our 3rd visit. The last time we were here was the last day of the 2014/15 season, when a dramatic goal from the half way line, against Bowers & Pitsea FC, secured the Essex Senior League title and promotion to the Ryman League Division One North.

The first day of the new season, and we could think of nowhere better to be than watching Haringey Borough FC (HB) play their first game ever at this level, and returning to the Isthmian League for the first time since the 1988/89 season.

Once past the stragglers from the morning car boot sale, still held in the clubs car park, George, one of the clubs board members, greets us with the same smile he greeted us with at the first game we attended. Still on the gate, selling tickets, but this time with the turnstile open, unlike on the previous visits, so we click through it, housed within what looks like a converted shed.

I ask him how he is, and how he is feeling, and with his normal cheery response he tells us “I’m really looking forward to it”.

Coles Park looks like it’s had a lick of paint, no dramatic changes, they have not whipped up a two tier stand in the off season, but everything just looks like it’s had a bit of sprucing up, and this goes for the chairman too, who is busily moving between the clubhouse and the changing room, when we arrive. The last time we saw Aki he was drenched in champagne, celebrating winning the league, today he is in a shirt and Isthmian League tie, he says he is only dressed up “because the league chairman is coming!”

Despite the big day, he still has time to say hello, just like the first time we came, when he was quick to introduce himself, and make us feel welcome, and nothing has changed.

One thing that does stand out is the large coach parked next to the main stand that today’s opposition have come from Norfolk, Dereham Town FC (DT) “The Magpies”. A new league means the net is cast a little wider now, and instead of Essex descending on Coles Park like last season, the away teams will be coming from a little further afield, DT in fact making one of the longest journeys any team will have to make.

Inside the club house, a few DT fans sit around a table, and even though it’s a really warm summer’s day, one sits with his club scarf around his neck.

Aki comes into the club house clutching a small brown box, and apologising that through the craziness of the day, he had forgotten the programmes, and it’s not only the ground that has had a revamp, the match day programme has gone from a photo copied affair from last season, to an all colour glossy number. All this for just an extra 50p, I don’t even bat an eyelid, to handing over my £1 and getting my hands on one.

The clubhouse cannot contain us for long, so we make our way pitch side, and into the beaming sun, to watch HB go through their pre match drills. We edge across the pitch, the team are engaged in a high tempo possession game, the players all seem in high spirits. One of the team’s coaches counts down the minutes left, and calls time, “have a stretch” “drinks, drinks, drinks”.

Players jostle for the water bottles, some taking shelter from the heat in the shade of the dugout. As soon as they are down, they are up again, the same possession warm up, but the intensity seems to have been ramped up a bit, “train like you play”.

Tom Loizou the first team Manager, now entering his 7th season in charge, stands in the doorway of the main stand, the changing rooms at its base, and the seats on the first level. He casts his eye over the squad, and disappears back inside.

Kick-off is not long off now, and the session ends at a frantic pace, the coach once again encourages the players to “drink, drink, drink”, various players now offer their own words of wisdom, “100% concentration” “no easy games”. DT came 7th in the league last season, and will be a good bench mark for what HB will be coming up against. As the players, much quieter now and in a contemplative mood, a vast contrast to the jokes and laughter a few moments previous, make their way inside, the coach leaves them with one thing to consider “no what if’s”.

The music playing in both changing rooms is off now, as we hover outside, with about 10 minutes left until 15:00, all we can hear are the muffled instructions of the managers. The air of calmness is about to be shattered by the match officials, “give it 30 seconds more, and we are off” says the referee to his assistant’s.

“Let’s enjoy it”

The bells goes, the muffled talking turns into shouting, and the noise of the players studs can be heard as they all jump to attention. Both assistants stand outside each changing room, their ears almost pressed against the door, waiting to see if the team’s arrival is imminent, they look at their watches,  listen again, nothing.
 
BANG, BANG, BANG “come on guys” they both prompt each team to get a move on, and the
volume from each room goes up again, DT are the first out, in their black and white stripes, followed by the choking smell of Deep Heat, that hits you like a ton of bricks. Each player is inspected, first his boots, and then in turn they pull down the collar of their shirt, to show he is not wearing any jewellery.

John Bacon, the club Secretary, stands in one corner, his mouth close to the microphone of the grounds tannoy, welcoming the visitors, and reading out the starting line ups.

HB are a little slow out the blocks, DT are lined up, and once the HB changing room door is opened, one DT player who peers in shrugs his shoulders and announces “they are not even ready”. The area for the teams to line up is not big, and we have now been pushed right to the back, one of the last HB players out is the keeper Ashley Harris who is happy to give me a big smile as I try and take a picture, and gives me a fist pump.

Before kick-off and the excitement of the occasion can be released, a minutes silence is to be observed, in memory of Junior Dian, a player who lost his life during a pre-season match, who had previously played for HB. Both teams line up, and the silence is impeccably observed, some players bow their heads in respect, at what is a truly tragic event.

A round of applause rings around the ground, as the referee signals the end of the silence, both teams shake hands, the captains choose a side of the coin, HB win, “all the best lads” says the ref as they make their way to their side of the pitch, HB join in a huddle, and break on a loud shout of “WIN”.

“Come on Dereham” shout the traveling fans, who have taken up position behind the goal their team is attacking in the first half.

George is standing just a few feet from us and nervously shouts “we’ve got to step up now”. No one at the club is under any illusion that 2015/16 will potentially be the most testing in the clubs recent history. It’s a big step up from the Essex Senior League, and the team will have to hit the ground running. This could not be further from Georges mind when a wild shot from a DT player sends the ball over the surrounding fence “oh no the allotments” more concerned about getting the ball back I think, than someone’s prize marrow or greenhouse.

The early part of the match is punctuated by a game ending injury to a HB player. The fans near me seem to think it’s a malicious attempt to stop the player, and he goes down clutching his ankle. He looks genuinely hurt, no rolling around or theatrics, just lying motionless, as the physio rushes over to help.  He gets up, and limps off. The resulting free kick comes to nothing, even when the DT keeper has butter fingers, and drops the ball. The DT player involved in the incident, which resulted in the injury attempts to reconcile, the HB player perhaps has the same opinion as the fans next to me, and is in no mood to listen, the referee has to intervene “enough guys, enough”.

Sadly for him, the game is over, and he limps off around the pitch, forlorn. The electronic sub board goes up, and on comes the veteran Leroy “The Finger” Griffiths.

The pitch is green and lush and HB are starting to get a grip on the game and are looking increasingly dangerous.

Aki who always starts the game at the back of the stand, but inevitably isn’t their long, and roams the pitch, is now pitch side and giving encouragement “well played Boro” “better Boro”.

“We are competing now” says the ever vocal fan next to us. There are clear signs that the early nerves are gone, HB are getting into their stride. The Finger holds up the ball expertly “you ain’t moving him!” says one fan, but the biggest threat of the half, and the whole game is from the number 11, Anthony Macdonald “Macca”. His pace and touch is catching out DT over and over again, and it’s just this that creates the first clear cut chance.

Ashley Harris pumps a clearance down field that Macca controls with one touch, turns and leaves his marker for dead, and is flying into the box. His ball into the six yard box can’t be controlled by the first player, who finally gets it out from his feet and is able to roll it into the path of his team mate, whose side foot shot clips the post and goes out, “ARGHHHHHH” the team and fans, can’t believe it’s not gone in, both Harris and Macca get the recognition from their team mates, for creating a great opportunity.

A second chance comes shortly after and it’s all HB on the half hour mark, “it’s coming Boro, you got them nervous” DT just can’t get out of their half.

Out of the corner of my eye a multi-coloured apron wearing food delivery service appears and Aki is brought something to eat pitch side, all the perks of being the chairman.

Just before half time Macca is back at it again, beats two, ball across the box, but no goal.
“IT’S COMING!!!”

It’s been a great first half, HB have more than held their own, but have squandered good chances, something that will turn into a running theme. The HB keeper is baffled as he walks off “how’s it 0 – 0, how many chances do we need?”

The injured player, who went off early in the first half, is carried off by his team mates and looks gutted. In the treatment room he lies with his hands on his head, and I over hear the physio say “let’s not jump to those conclusions” another player tells me, he is only recently back from injury.

DT are back out for the second half first, and kick off is held up after the referees assistant finds a hole in the net, and a patch up job is required, courtesy of some tape from the HB dug out.

“Let’s go Haringey, let’s go”

The visitors also come out much brighter than the first, and their main threat in the first half, the winger number 7, is starting to have a bit more joy down the right wing.

I manage a quick word with one of the HB coaches, and the diagnosis for the injured player is not a good one “we think it’s his ligaments”.

DT’s early energy is quickly put to the sword, by HB’s brightest player, as Macca continues from where he left off in the first half. Once again his quick feet, take him past and away from his two markers, cutting inside the box and now baring down on the keeper, but instead of squaring it to the HB player free and unmarked, for an easy tap in, he tamely scuffs a shot into the chest of the neon orange goalie.

HOW? No one can believe it, how are HB not in front?

After HB’s multiple chances, but no goal, frustration starts to show in their game, and the match starts to descend into a niggly affair, with the referee seemingly blowing his whistle for one thing or a another more than before. One HB player is lucky to stay on the pitch, after he seems to kick out at a DT player, after coming together and both falling to the ground. The referee can’t have seen it as if he had it would have been a red for sure. He calls the captains together, and instructs the other players to “get water, get water” .

“Come on yellow”

In the last moments of the game DT nearly perform the picture perfect smash and grab, but to no avail, the player stands in the box aghast, it would have been a total robbery, and I’m sure he knew that.

“Unless you’re a fucking magician, you ain’t going to score that” is the response from one HB fan, after a DT clearance drops the ball just outside of the box, and instead of the HB player passing  out wide, or retaining possession, he attempts the spectacular, and sends the ball high, and off into the allotments.

The last chance of the game, the chance to grab all 3 points, and the glory on the first day of the season, falls to Macca, after a ball over the top releases him, and one last burst of energy leaves the DT player in his dust, with only the keeper to beat.

“I would of put my house on Macca, but he is knackered” was the response from the chairman, after the match, a match that finished all equal, after a clearly exhausted Macca was unable to score, and fired once again at the day glo goalie.

The HB players are clearly frustrated after the final whistle, the goals were there to be had and DT offered little in the way of threat, but I’m sure there is also a tinge of relief, relief that the first game is over, the first point is on the board, and they can now start looking forward to the next.

It’s only the first game of a long season, and therefore very hard to draw any concrete conclusions, or make any predictions. HB have a strong team spirit, one that let them dominate the Essex Senior League last year, one that will surely help them in the time ahead, which I’m more than sure they all know, might be tough. They have a good mix of youth and experience, solidity at the back, and pace at the front, as well as a couple of new signings, who will be joining up with the squad soon, from outside at least it seems like a good club, with a strong structure, which must give the players confidence.

There will be highs and lows to come, as the first season in any new league is a hard one. We hope HB can tough it out, its more than they deserve, if only just for being so nice, more than any footballing reason, which I will add though is some of the best, most exciting we have seen at this level, they love to do things in the final minutes, a real love of the dramatic!

We urge people to go and support them, we will be, and you might even hear us shouting “COME ON BORO”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE


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Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A Tough Night In Essex - Thurrock FC Vs Hackney Wick FC, Ship Lane (28/07/15)


A commuter filled train, overflowing with suits pulls up at West Ham station, making its way East of London to Essex. I meet Tom on the platform the previous night’s deluge of rain has inspired Tom to wear something from the SAS Spring/Summer collection, a knee length green jacket with a hood, perhaps a bit more suitable for the Mekong Delta, than Thurrock FC, our destination this evening.

Twenty minutes or so later the train pulls up at Chafford Hundred station, with considerably less people on it, then when we got on. Instead of making our way to the sprawling mecca for shopping, that is Lake Side, as most people do when they disembark at this one platform station, we make our way outside to the Taxi rank, for the short trip to Ship Lane, the home of Thurrock FC (TFC)

A cavernous black cab pulls up, I slide open the door, and we clamber in. I cannot emphasise quite how ginormous this thing was, you would expect the Rolling Stones to pull up at an arena gig, rather than two bloggers reclining in it, their voices echoing in the void between us and the driver.

As we turn into Ship Lane a sign says “Thurrock Hotel” which is perched up on a hill overlooking the ground, try and imagine the house overlooking Bates Motel, dominating the landscape. Opposite the hotel strung out across the countryside are tall grey electricity pylons, disappearing into the ominous night’s sky like something from the film Twister, churning clouds, mixed with blues, purples and reds, as the sun starts to set.

This evening is our last preseason game before the all important 8th of August. Once again we are on the trail of Hackney Wick FC (HWFC), as their whirlwind adventure pitches them against a Ryman League North side, who will be without doubt the toughest test in this clubs very short history.

Some HWFC players have arrived, and are taking turns getting their kit bags out the boot of the car, as we disembark the taxi, needing a map to get from the seats to the door. They disappear into an open green door with the sign “Players only entrance” hung above it. One of the turnstile doors are open, a contrast of bright yellow against the black background.

Once in, you can’t help but look up at the Hotel looming above you. The rest of the ground is all green and yellow to match the home sides colours. The players make their way the full length of the pitch, in front of the main stand, to the changing room at the opposite end of the ground to where you come in, in a single story brick building. A few players who have already arrived and dropped off their bags, are making their way out on the pitch, like the walk about on the Wembley pitch before a Cup Final.

We join them, the players probably looking the smartest we have ever seen them, and who are taking the occasion very seriously, this will be regardless of the amount of people here to watch the game, the biggest stage they have ever or may ever play on, and compared to the pitch at Mabley Green, by far the nicest, no need to flick dog shit off it here!

Kenny the HWFC coach, tall and imposing, who arrived suited and booted, is now in his tracksuit, he stands at the edge of the pitch, and ushers the players back inside to the changing room. The players take a seat in their civvies with the yellow and black kits hung on the pegs behind them. “Phones off, phones away!” is Kenny’s instruction as the last player in closes the door. With the timing of a comedy great, a phone starts to ring, Kenny casts a glare around the room, only to realise it’s his, and is quick to delve into his coat hanging up and turning it off, a smirk falls across a few player’s faces.
 
“A really hard job for me to pick a side tonight” says Kenny to the squad, clutching a piece of paper, as the team look on anxiously.

“This is a semi-professional team, 4 tiers above us”, “They have cut the grass which is good for us. The fact he has done that, says to me he wants to play today”

Kenny is still yet to give out the starting line-up, and bums are on the edge of seats, some players looking attentively up as he speaks, some stare at the ground, just waiting for the news.

“No more excuses, if you are serious about playing, start playing out there” He jabs one of his considerable former semi pro goal keeper fingers towards the pitch outside.

“Time to start thinking professionally” as he compares one player to another, one who he thinks has done enough, made an effort, looks presentable, with one he doesn’t “we're not the rag ass rovers, down the Dog & Duck”.

Kenny scribbles on the paper in his hands, giving the impression he is making the final decisions on a few positions here and now “Number 9 the hardest decision for me today”. He emphasises “ you are all going to get on”.

The players reposition themselves, to sit in front of their numbered shirt for the day, and start to get changed.

Next to the changing rooms is a grey porta cabin, at one end a snack bar at the other end a First Aid station. The ground is neat, compact, and another fine example from the wonderful world of non-league. Three sides of the pitch have corrugated roofed standing terraces, one corner has a few red fold down chairs, which I overhear someone refer to as the “£1 seats”. Other than the hotel, the grounds focal point is the main stand, sitting proudly on the half way line. The detailing on the roof, giving it the feel of an old railway station, but curiously at the back in one corner somewhat out of place, is what I can only describe as a conservatory.

TFC are already warming up, under the ever angrier looking sky, as HWFC come out on to the pitch. Kenny follows the team out, clutching cones and kicking a yellow ball, he is off to take the team though the warm up.

Rana Brightman the HWFC chairwoman has zeroed in on the snack bar, and starts her attack on a hot dog, as spots of rain start to fall she makes her way to the main stand for cover.

Richard the TFC scout is kind enough to show me around the home changing room. The white shirts are all neatly hung up, waiting for the team. At one end of the room a large sign that takes up one whole wall reads “Our Way – Together, Everyone, Achieves, More” the first letter of each statement spelling out TEAM. As I leave I notice above the door, “Target Play Offs”.

Spots of rain have turned into heavy drops, and I scurry for protection.  One person taking shelter at the snack bar says “I bet they would like a bit of rain, soften it up” perhaps slightly unfairly assuming HWFC would prefer a heavy pitch, rather than a surface that means they can get it down and play.
Out of the rain and under the main stand all you can hear is the tune as it falls on the metal roof. Tom standing pitch side, photographing the warm up, is of course fine in his GI jacket.

As the players finish their warm up, and start to take the short walk back to the changing room, Kenny leans on the railing around the pitch, talking to Rana under a blue umbrella. Tom’s biggest concern at the moment is not the weather but food, he is beyond annoyed at himself for once again coming unprepared, only a pack of Skittles in his camera bag today, and the smell and sizzle of the snack bars bacon roll is getting hard to resist.

Inside, the white warm up shirts are flung to one side, and the yellow and black ones, once hanging up are now going on, and the room is suddenly full of an overpowering smell of Deep Heat.

“It’s mental, if you are spraying it on, you’re injured and you shouldn’t be playing” shouts Kenny in reference to the cloud of muscle relaxant hanging in the air like a fog.

The team settles, the fog subsides, and the coach begins his pre match talk;

“I’m 48 years old, and for me football is a passion".

“I could be watching my son train this evening, that should show you how committed I am".


“Why are your boots dirty?” the player has no reply.

“These are the tools of your trade!” “You would not expect a mechanic and his tools to be a mess, and you’re just the same, it’s time to starting thinking professionally!”

BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ, the bell goes in the changing room. It almost instantly brings the players to their feet, and the hairs on the back of my neck to attention, Bobby the clubs founder and captain on the night is broken from his Zen glare, and shouts of “come on boys” fill the room. The door is opened, and out the team goes. Kenny has the last word;

“We have plans to go somewhere!”

TFC are all in white, a voice comes over the tannoy “Welcome Hackney Wick FC, and good luck for the rest of the season”.

Kenny shakes hands with the referee, and I follow the officials onto the pitch, hoping to get a picture of the captains shaking hands. Standing on the centre circle, I’m momentarily deafened by a short sharp blast by the referee as he calls them together.

“The whistle will go 4 times today, the rest is up to you, nothing silly”
 
The coin is tossed, the captains shake hands, and the game is under way.

The next forty five minutes are extremely hard to watch, as a team I have started to get to know over the last few months, are given the absolute run a round. The gulf between the sides is clear from the get go, and the test is perhaps harder than anyone could of anticipated.

Four chances come thick and fast for TFC and it’s only for the HWFC keeper pulling off some fine saves, including a smart double save, smothering the second attempt smartly, that HWFC are not behind almost instantly.

“Bobby, get it together!!” yells Kenny from the side-line.

Having started sitting in the dugout, he is quickly standing in his customary position arms crossed on the side-line, bellowing at the team.

Lucky to not be behind and just when there seem to be signs of settling, HWFC concede, and I’m afraid to say the flood gates are open, and it’s one of many more to come.

“Let’s go again whites, let’s go again whites” says the TFC keeper clapping his hands on the edge of his box, and they really did, go again, and again, and again.

The TFC number 10 is absolutely running the show, pulling players out of position, moving the ball around the edge of the box, and not allowing the HWFC defence a moment to think. HWFC are trying, that has to be said, it can been seen in the faces of the two players who come off just after the 3rd goal to TFC, they are shiny with sweat, and have a look of ‘I have nothing else left’ on their faces.

Spectators in ones and twos lean on the rail around the pitch, it’s what you might call a very “preseason” turn out.

The TFC keeper and the linesman in the TFC half, have had almost nothing to do, just lots of standing around. The dark clouds seem to have disappeared for the time being. The 4th goal for TFC, is a second bite of the cherry after a curling shot from the edge of the box, hits the base of the post and bounces out.

Bobby clearly frustrated, expresses his dismay to his team mates “They just went straight through us”.

Ship Lane’s flood lights flick on just before halftime, highlighting the rain which is back again, as the halftime whistle goes, and both teams head in, the score now standing at 5 – 0. A small group of kids playing under shelter behind the TFC goal offer their support “Come on Thurrock”.

“I can see you’re working” is the first thing Kenny says to the team, as they take advantage of every minute of rest, that halftime allows.

A clear plastic jug full of juice with “away” written on it, is almost empty, as the players fill white polystyrene cups, and guzzle down the contents.

Kenny also wants to take advantage of the halftime break, and is quick to address the team, and it’s the captain he talks to first “need a bit more from you fella”. He also reiterates how crucial the TFC number 10 has been to the score line, “he is the clever one!”.

Some eyes study the floor, some look at the coach but are almost a little vacant, not because they are disinterested, but more I think because of the shock and exhaustion of the first half.

A coaches job is to lift his team, as well as motivate, and Kenny does his best “better to get destroyed today and to learn from it”, “You all realize now how much hard work is needed”.

The opposition changing room is clearly in a different mood, as the music playing can be heard through both doors.

“Enjoy the next 45 minutes, this is what preseason is all about” as soon as he stops, the players are back to their feet and huddling around the last cups of juice, trying their best to refresh themselves, before another gruelling half.

Our first half position was between the two dugouts, but considering my lack of army surplus and the fact now it’s raining as hard as ever, we take up the club secretary’s earlier invitation to come and sit in the directors section and boardroom. It’s at this point I work out what the conservatory at the back of the main stand is, and think why not see what the prawn sandwich brigade is all about.

I pull open the door with the sign stating “NO ADMITTANCE, DIRECTORS & OFFICIALS ONLY”. Rana looks quite at home in the warm, well lit, carpeted little room with a small bar at one end. I’m offered a drink, and take the lady serving us up on her offer, and ask for two teas, which are served up in two cups and saucers, I take a spoon for sugar from a bowl designed like an old fashioned black and white check football. After some help through the door, Tom and I take up position on the front row of the carpeted outside directors section, offering a great view of the pitch, as the second half gets under way.

Things only go from bad to worse, for the visitors from East London, as goals number 6 and 7 are scored in quick succession. One goal in particular is an absolute thunderbolt from the corner of the box, that flies across and over the keeper, then under the bar in the far corner of the goal, hands down the goal of the night, and there have been a few to choose from.

8th, 9th, 10th go in, the goals don’t stop, TFC are starting to get adventurous, one player trying a
Rabona finish that only goes slightly wide. Once again the rain falls in a sharp short burst, and has gone as quick as it arrived, the dusk and clouds offering a wonderful scene, like something from a Turner painting.

HWFC are well and truly trapped in their half, and it is wave after wave of attack, the TFC board and fans are willing them to attack, but they just can’t break out.

Goal 11 is a penalty which sends the keeper the wrong way. Goal 12 is averted for now at least, when the HWFC keeper despite the goals conceded is their man of the match, goes the right way and saves a penalty he gets a cheer from the crowd and a pat on the back from his team mates.

The visitors best chance of a goal is only prevented by a last ditch tackle, but the TFC counter attack from the resulting corner gets number 12. My attention is only momentarily distracted as a man carrying a cling filmed mountains of sandwiches climbs the steps of the stand and leaves them in the boardroom.

Goal 13 and 14 go in, at this point only the final whistle will stop the goals, HWFC heads are down,
the defence are ineffectual, legs are tired as players stretch and start to show the effects of the game, even the keeper can’t stop everything, Bobby tries but to no avail to raise the team “Come on try hard”.

Simon a previous man of the match from an earlier HWFC preseason is clear on goal, one on one, only for the TFC keeper to catch the same bug the HWFC has, and pull off a super save. The chance once again, brings a big cheer from everyone, their good intentions are well received, but just can’t force the ball in.

15 – 0, is how the game ends, and it could have been more, if it had not been for that man in goal again, “Well saved keeper” shouts one of the TFC fans near us, perhaps the best accolade in football is one from the oppositions fans.

The tannoy once again wishes HWFC good luck, as the players drag themselves back into the changing room.

Deep Heat fills the room again, one player from the first half, who has not been out for the second has changed, but has his leg outstretched on the massage table, Kenny does not say much, but what he does should hit home with everyone, and show them all how committed he is to getting things right,

“My boy is playing West Ham next week, but I will be at training. If you don’t come, then don’t bother coming back again”

We leave the quiet changing room, with everyone in a contemplative mood, and return to the boardroom for some post match hospitality, as the trays of sandwiches from before looked too good to turn down.

The lady serving tea at half time, now offers us a beer, and we find out she is in fact the owner’s wife, “we might not be top of the league in football, but we are top of the league in hospitality”.

Tommy South in his wife’s own words “is an East London boy done good”, he bought a derelict school 30 years ago, which is now the hotel and 12 acres of land, and created what was first called Purfleet FC, and what is now Thurrock FC. Year by year, sculpting the landscape, and improving the ground, he told us there was a 14 foot slope he had to level out, where the pitch is today. He asks after Declan Perkins the HWFC vice chairman, who arranged the friendly, as he was previously a player, but he was unable to be here today.

The flood lights are switched off and plunge Ship Lane into darkness, players from both teams are changed and are making their way back to the clubhouse. From high up in the stands it’s easy to tell which players play for which team, simply from their demeanour.

Each team takes up position on each side of the club house, decorated as all good clubhouses should be, with mementos of the clubs past. The players sandwiches have been demolished, and HWFC players all sit around, trying to fathom the defeat, suggesting lots of “what if’s” and “if onlys”.

Bobby is presented with a club pennant by the club owner, and he jokes that they can give him one when they come back and play again.

TFC have truly been fantastic hosts, inviting Tom and I back for a league game in the coming season, and being very gracious in their resounding victory. Ship Lane is a ground we will more than happily visit again.

For the players and staff of HWFC it will be a long trip back home. I just hope they see this as a bench mark in their development, a point of reference to help them go forward, get fitter, and improve as a team, because there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind, it has been a tough night in Essex.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE



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