We know we are in the right place, another ground share in fact, the name of the landlord is across the top of the gates “DARTFORD FC”, but this doesn't look like a football ground, not like any we have ever seen, the concrete and steel has been replaced by trees and grass, like the welcome centre at a nature reserve, we walk and gasp at quite how pretty, and quiet it all is.
Admittedly we are here well before kick-off, but the usual noisy urban setting of your typical football club, has been replaced by an air of tranquility, and on a barmy Sunday afternoon, it’s very pleasant indeed.
“Are you lost?” asks an old chap in a blazer, at what must look like two numptys walking around with their mouths open. Another man appears from the same double glass doors, his older counterpart had,
“Yep” we both reply.
The second man smiling, walks towards us, holding out his hand asking “Now who is the Tottenham fan?” I smile and Tom points his finger at me, our reply sends the outstretched hand in Tom's direction first. I can only assume he is a sympathiser of the nomadic South London football club Tom supports.
Once again social media, matched by people's incredible generosity and passion for football, means we have been given the opportunity by Greenwich Borough FC (GBFC) to observe their preparations for todays FA Cup, 1st Qualifying Round match against Slimbridge A.F.C. (AFCS).
The smiling hand shaker is in fact Geoff, the club's Webmaster and the man sporting the blazer is his father-in-law Norman, who is the club Secretary, somewhere in the ground is his wife who is the treasurer and turnstile operator, a real family affair. All four of us stand in the sunshine, and quickly start to chat about the day ahead, and the first topic of conversation is the remarkable venue.
“It’s a little above our station” says Geoff, GBFC play in the Southern Counties East Football League but Princes Park, is the home of National League South side Dartford FC, a fair few steps higher, he is quick to point out though, “we pay enough to squat here”. In 2013 GBFC started the ground share, after leaving their home of over 70 years at the end of the 2008/09 season, and have been sofa surfing ever since.
There has been some local press about the game today, so they are hopeful for a good turnout, a regular league game would have anywhere between 50 - 100 spectators, but a combination of the FA Cup, being a Sunday and a special price deal for Dartford fans, should mean numbers are higher than normal. Norman is banking on the ultimate fact, that “people just want to see a game” and quite right he is.
“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” the famous words of French Nobel prize winner and philosopher Albert Camus, are written above the door of the tunnel, as we
make our way into the bowels of the ground. Geoff has left us to our own devices, giving us the chance to explore.
We are the first people in the ground, and stand pitchside taking it in, Princes Park continues to surprise us, and the more we see, the more I wonder that it must be a one of a kind. “Never seen a wooden stadium before” says Tom, marvelling at the beams holding up the roof. Home to Dartford FC since late 2006, it has been described as “one of the most ecologically sound ever built”. Some of it’s features are quite unique, like the fact the pitch has been sunk below ground level to prevent noise and light pollution, the grass we saw outside, growing on the roof, is not bad house keeping, but what is called a “living roof” to help with air purification, along with solar panels, it really is a marvel!
Considering no-one else is here, it would seem rude not to have a quick sit on the home bench, and get the players perspective, and as Tom wanders off, perhaps to get a close up picture of the roof tall wooden sculpture of a man, like an Ent from Lord Of The Rings, who is totally out of place, but then also completely in keeping with the apparent eco ethos of the club.
I take up a seat just to the side of the home dugout, and from my pitchside location, start to take some notes, only to be interrupted by someone walking across the pitch, occasionally treading down divots. A comment Tom made when we first walked in rattles around my head “something quite eerie about an empty stadium“, I can’t work out if eerie is the right word, but whatever it is, it feels very special sitting here in near silence, before all the mayhem of the game.
Walking back down the tunnel, past the medics trolley, covered in all sorts of gadgets, we hear what sounds like a cult in ritual, instead it’s the home dressing room going a through a pre match exercise which involves a lot of clapping. With so few people about it’s hard not to take the chance to pose for a picture in front of the backdrop you see the managers being interviewed in front of on ‘Match Of The Day’, covered in the league and club sponsors.
We bump into Geoff, who is kind enough to offer us a drink, and leads us to the bar, which he says will also be the “make shift boardroom for the day” the distinction between bar and board room is made by two folding screens, which look like they have been borrowed from someone’s house, stretched out across the room, dividing it in two. The referee and his team sit around a small table, still in their suits, quietly talking amongst themselves.
Considering what a nice afternoon it is, we break free of the corporate shackles of the top table, and sit outside, mulling over our plan of attack for the rest of the day. Once again Geoff appears bearing gifts, a match day programme, “they will be like gold dust now the coach (AFCS) has arrived, they have brought a good amount”.
The quiet of our pre match drink, has now been shattered by the music coming from the home dressing room, but no one is in there to be deafened by it, the teams are now warming up.
“Everything we did on Tuesday night was for fucking today, don’t spunk it up the wall”, are the instructions of one of the two almost identical, stocky short wearing, every other word is a swear word coaches taking the GBFC squad through a high tempo possession game.
AFCS on the other hand amble out the tunnel in dribs and drabs, not quite showing the same energy as GBFC, who are tearing around their small section of the pitch, trying to win the ball off each other, accompanied by the drill sergeant encouragement on offer from their coaches “hunt in packs”, “work your fucking tits off”.
“Starting 11 with with me” shouts one of the coaches, quick to do what he says, they make their way over to him, leaving the remaining players to chat and kick a few balls around amongst themselves. While this is all going on AFCS on the other hand take a very relaxed warm up, a little more sedate if you like.
To the side of one of the goals the GBFC keeper is put through his paces. He stands sideways, only turning face on when instructed by one of the two men taking shots at him. These are no normal shots, these are shots the immortal words of Alan Partridge could be attributed, “he has a foot like a traction engine”. The spectators standing just behind him, have their lives in their own hands, because when a stray shot flies into the stand, it pings off anything in its way, occasionally drawing a raised hand of apology from the keeper. One shot is so colossal, it destroys one of the the advertising boards, sending small bits of white plastic like shrapnel into the air.
Tom’s hangover from a friend's previous nights Birthday Party, means his need for football ground food is even more heightened than usual, “time for a pie”. His choice of flavour is Balti, he also has a present for me, a small piece of shrapnel, a keepsake from the day.
Geoff who has been non stop since we arrived, fills us in on a little bit of news about today's opponents, explaining that they have only brought 3 subs, even though the FA Cup allows 5, “low on numbers or did they not fancy the journey?”, and what a journey it is, over a 300 mile round trip.
AFCS are clapped off the pitch by their fans “come on boys” and we follow them down the tunnel, with about 10 minutes to kick-off, waiting for both teams to re-emerge.
The home dressing room is a lot louder, music is playing, and we can hear through the door the occasional shout over the music “HELP EACH OTHER BOYS!”. Every so often the door is opened, and we see players hugging each other, geeing each other up. AFCS’s on the other hand is whisper quiet in.
When we have been in similar situations at other games, the linesman have near had to kick the door down to get the teams out, as the players savour every second of the protection the changing room offers, before the game starts, but no battering ram needed here to get their attention. Just one assistant tamely knocking on the away dressing room door, and both teams appear almost simultaneously.
GBFC look relaxed, as they are checked for jewellery, some of them even singing along with the music, still playing behind them, only their keeper who is a little slow, needs a nudge to hurry up.
“THIS IS PRINCES PARK” is written above where both teams line up in the tunnel. Its relatively dimly
lit, and there is a small slope leading upwards, it is very much a light at the end of the tunnel. The referee takes the lead, his assistants at the rear, and I’m a few steps behind. I feel we are very lucky to be given the chance to do the things we have done, I know its not walking out at Old Trafford or the Nou Camp, but it really is a great feeling following the players out, your eyes having to quickly adjust to the bright sun, and before you know it you are pitchside, and the players are lining up and shaking hands.
The voice over the tannoy reverberates around the stand, in fact he shouts so loud, the speakers slightly distort, COME ON THE BORO!” A small group of travelling fans reply, “come on the swans” but the man with the microphone has the upper hand.
There is a step difference the two teams, so when GBFC get off to a flyer, the chance of a bit of an upset seems on the cards. First when they hit the post 3 minutes in, and then the same player grabs the first goal of the match. Fists are pumped heartily on the home bench, and the away manager has to get to work on his team, “let’s wake up boys!”
Standing in the mouth of the tunnel I get to see some of the dark arts of football at play. When a clearance goes over the stand, the GBFC manager looks around the dugout for a ball, and kicks one on the pitch. “They can’t play with that”, says one of his assistants. “I know, it’s a bit of time wasting” replies the Gaffa.
AFCS manager in no uncertain terms let's his team know what’s what, their performance so far is very poor, they are just not in the game, “we need to get going”.
25 minutes in and totally against the run of play AFCS get back in the game, after an own goal. They had not had a sniff up to that point, and understandably the home manager is annoyed his team have let the opposition back in the match.
The own goal has transformed AFCS, they are like a team reborn, and grab two goals in quick succession, taking them from one goal behind to three ahead in what seems like a heartbeat. AFCS’s manager offers the same advice almost every time the team get the ball anywhere near the box, without fail he says a single word “deliver”, and until now they had failed to do so, but this time a sweet cross is met flush on the head, and it sails past the GBFC keeper, lovely goal.
GBFC’s coaches hands are now permanently glued to his head, the place is in shock, after the perfect start, it’s quickly gone south, heads are dropping “let’s regroup lads”. His opposite number must be relieved beyond belief, and wants his team to keep this up “more workman now”.
Between AFCS 2nd and 3rd goals GBFC are given a golden chance to grab a second, the freest of free headers, is put wide at the back post, the bench are astonished, but try and keep positive, “next one”.
The first half collapse of GBFC and the resurrection of AFCS is complete when a daft tackle in the box, results in a penalty, the home manager is rubbing the bridge of his nose, as the referee points to the spot.
Despite a late rally from the home team, they can’t grab a goal, and their coach is not happy, “it’s just hit and hope”, “IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”
I get myself back down the tunnel as both teams make their way back in for a orange segment, they are soon followed by a couple of away supporters, who I think speak for almost everyone in attendance “the way that started, I didn’t see that happening”
Geoff remains chipper, and hits the nail on the head “first 20 minutes you didn't know what step each team was from, but the own goal changed the whole thing”.
GBFC’s manager and coaches are out early, he must have done his talking, and left them to think about it, they are followed out by AFCS players. One of the linesman, walks at normal pace to the edge of the pitch, and all of sudden goes into full T1000 mode, running at full pelt to the other side.
Once again the man with the microphone tries his best to lift what has been quite a muted crowd. There are a fair few people here, scattered around, but never really making much of a noise “let’s get behind the boro this second half, COME ON THE BORO” he shouts so loud, it brings the previous night into focus for Tom, “my headaches back”.
Up front for GBFC they have what you might call a “unit” not quite a “beast”, but almost. He is strong,
not very mobile, what some might call an “old fashioned English centre forward”, but holds up the ball expertly, wins every ball in the air pumped in his direction, and has a mean, hard shot. His name is Gary Alexander, who once played for Millwall, West Ham and AFC Wimbledon to name a few , and not long after the break scores a wonderful free kick to get GBFC back in the game, after starting the half much like the first, on the front foot and in control.
The free kick is not a curler, as Tom puts it “it’s a great angle” for a hammered shot that bypasses the wall, and leaves the AFCS keeper at 6’s and 7’s unable to deal with the sheer ferociousness of it. He had tipped a similar effort around the post before, but this one was unstoppable.
“Get the fucking ball” screams someone from the bench, no time for celebrating.
For the next 30 mins or so the underdogs go hammer and tongs at AFCS, trying to get the equalizer, and this wakes the crowd up “COME ON BORO”. The coach perhaps asking a bit of his team, suggests a “back heel would of scored”, when a player with his back to goal can’t turn to shoot.
“Unlucky boys, we go again”.
And that they do, a curling shot is just saved and another free header from 2 yards out can’t be converted.
The early steam since the goal has started to disappear, and with 10 minutes to go, there are a few tired legs out there, and the pace has slowed down considerably.
In Alexander they have a player who is perhaps in the twilight of his career, but clearly still cares. This was displayed perfectly in the last few moments of the game, when he has a chance almost identical to the free kick he has already scored. He places the ball on the ground, turns, says a few words to himself, looking to the heavens, grabbing at the club badge on his shirt.
It’s another fine effort, but no glory for him today, no story for the grandkids, the AFCS keeper gets his fingers to a real rocket of a shot, and tips it over.
“Everything boys!” is the the request of the GBFC coach, like an officer in the final throws of a battle.
There are a few half chances, and what seems like a considerable amount of extra time, AFCS are doing a good job of running into the corners. The two home coaches stand side by side, hands locked and resting on the top of their heads, and despite all the will in the world from the sidelines “come on lads, big winner” it’s not meant to be this year, and the away team will progress to the next round.
The small band of travelling fans, make the most noise of the day, hugging each other, then hugging and applauding the players who come over to celebrate with them, their long trip here was not in vain.
In the boardroom its sandwiches and sausage rolls galore, someone even produces a bottle of champagne. Speaking to the AFCS President, as he tucks into a few things on a paper plate, he is clear the FA Cup is all about the adventure and hard graft “we know we will never win, but you get to see new places, set ups like this”, “we are about the battle, and that’s what we did today”.
GBFC Chairman, Perry, is gracious in defeat, but I can tell he thinks it's an opportunity missed today “that 15 minutes in the first half was suicidal”, but his sentiment is the same as the other clubs we have visited in the competition so far “pick up the money and see how far we can go”. In fact the previous season's cup run turned into something he called their “nemesis” after the fixture congestion put them 7 or 8 games behind.
Sitting on the train home, well I was sitting, Tom was lying, his exploits of the birthday party, had finally won, and after a person flashed me the top of his cock and pubes. I mulled over the day.
It must be awful being forced to play away from the area your club is associated with, the place its history is formed. In the hands of Perry, it sounds like there is a long term plan in place, a world away from the “right here, right now” attitude of so many clubs and owners. He spoke of “no pressure” on the management, which must be music to the ears of the fans, as stability is key, instead of playing manager musical chairs. “5 year plan to be in the conference, to be independant. The facilities are great here, but we should be back in the borough soon”.
Congratulations to the Swans who march on to the next round, commiserations to our fantastic hosts, you put up a great fight. If you get a chance to to visit Princes Park to see GBFC or Dartford I would highly recommend it, I’m not sure you would not have seen anything quite like it before.