My kitchen is full with thick vape smoke as Tom gathers himself slurping at a cup of tea. I potter about deliberating if I need gloves or not, “you are going to the North East, North of the wall” says my half awake fiancee from beneath the covers of our bed, and she is of course correct, so in go the Fagin's.
Our collective vision for the coach we will be making the long trip on to just outside Newcastle, we hope is something similar to that of the plush German team bus we had seen at the German Football Museum a week or so before, and Tom can't work out if its going to be beers and pyro or nice and genteel so he can get some shut eye. His biggest concern though is if “someone is going to be sick”, and that there “is nothing worse than being on a coach with sick!”
While waiting and shivering, we reminisce about the last time we saw Bowers & Pitsea FC (BP) play, it was their resounding victory in the Essex Senior League Cup last season. Tom’s fondest memory unsurprisingly was the woman dishing out the biscuits and treats on the journey to the match.
Our rendezvous with the BP fan coach is outside a truck stop in Waltham Abbey, it very much has the feel of a 70’s football transfer about it, but once on board a brown envelope secured deal for Martin Chivers is sadly not agreed. We take our seats and receive a warm welcome as ever from Darren the BP social media guru, helper and fixer, who is just as relaxed and friendly as the last time we met, and quickly asks Tom if he is suitably prepared for the trip “got plenty of food Tom?”
Keen to get Darren’s thoughts on the day ahead, and the dramatic events of the first leg of the semi-final, where BP were two goals down against opponents Morpeth Town A.F.C. (MT) only for a last minute equaliser. It seems this perfectly captures BP’s astonishing progression in the competition “we have been out of this Cup so many times”. Although the coach is not even half full, he is expecting a good turnout from the home team, bolstered by the fact that Sunderland and Newcastle are not playing until the following day. Despite the previous weeks initial scare, Darren feels “if we are still in it with 15 minuets to go” they have a good chance, he describes MT as an “old team” who tired in the final moments of the first leg, hence their remarkable comeback.
As we settle down for the many hours ahead, “it would have been quicker to travel to Germany” Darren jokes, I fret about whether the six hours plus of downloaded films are enough to get me through, Tom on the other hand is purring like a kitten, fast asleep, and we have not even been on the road an hour.
Before I get to grips with a documentary about mountain climbing, conversation on the coach is about the players preparations. They had gone up the previous night, and Darren assures all that “the whole team were in bed by 10”, one person perhaps a bit more au fait with some of the players reputations asks “whose bed?”
Such is the amount of time to kill, Paul a Southend fan, and BP committee member, who has arranged the transport, as he does the “rebel coach” for the The Shrimpers fans, has produced a copy of the FA report from the first leg, and proceeds to read it out. It’s received with all the derision and enthusiasm a piece of writing from the aforementioned organisation can expect, and goes as far as to document the compass positioning of the club's toilets, “he is pretty anal”.
Paul reminds one supporter as to the scale of our journey today “Paris is closer”.
With Tom snoozing, Darren and I catch up, “90 minutes from Wembley, wow!” he says, his face absolutely lighting up. “The league is still our focus” he tells me, the FA Vase a unexpected, but most enjoyable side show. I wonder however if the fixture backlog it has created means the Vase could end up being a hinderance, but he insists “it's still in our own hands”. He emphasises the one core value this team possess, the reason they have got this far is “we don't know when we're beaten”.
Darren makes one last point, and it's something I had not even considered “we must be the first team you've seen twice and not been to our home ground”. In fact after today it will the third, and I remind myself that we must get down to the The Len Salmon Stadium.
The same lady who Tom so fondly remembered dishing out the snacks on the coach last time, is Pauls wife, and appears to offer me a cup of tea. On delivering it, she also hands over a couple of bourbons, that go down a treat.
Paul comes over the coaches speakers, in a voice that has a tinge of the air stewardess about it, announcing our first stop at Blyth services “its delightful”, one person at the back is already a little impatient “are we nearly there yet?”
We are not in Blyth long, enough time for Tom to wake up, disappear then reappear with a sausage roll. Daren seems unable to stand still, fidgeting with a nervous anticipation, repeating what he had said earlier “90 minuets to Wembley”. While we stretch our legs, Daren Tom and I, discuss amongst things the BP manager Rob Small’s predicament, the final is the day after his wedding, in Cyprus.
Darren doesn't believe he would miss it, but reckons he is “saying all the right things” to appease his wife to be who I’m sure wished this Vase run would finish already. It would not just be Rob who would be potentially missing, but some of the players as well. For Darren his partners birthday is on the day of the final, and he didn't dare break it to her until she was “in a good mood”, her reply when he did was not overflowing with care, love and devotion, “I hope you lose”.
To pass the time on the coach, someone has cobbled together an accumulator, and for £2 you can pitt yourself against everyone else. Partial to a bit of non-league gambling, I’m in, Tom is awake and not eating his sausage roll, so he is as well. There was no doubt in Tom’s mind that I was never going to do it, “he loves a 50/50” he tells Darren, happy to air my dirty laundry in public.
Having previously been told there was a “buffet waiting for us in Thirsk” which according to Paul is “a lovely market town” in “proper Yorkshire” not long after our first stop, our coach is squeezing round corners pulling up just past a sign pointing to ‘The World Of James Herriot”. The coach empties, and we all head to a local pub owned by a friend of Paul, who is a card carrying member of the “Yorkshire Blues” a Southend supporters group. The Crossed Keys is a regular pit stop on away games in this neck of the woods.
My head barely clears the ceiling of what you might call a ‘proper pub’, no wasabi peas here, just a table of tin foil covered cheese cubes and sandwiches and men drinking pints of John Smihs, Yorkshiremen talking about Yorkshire things. “It's 11.30 on a Saturday and I'm on the wine” says one of the players Mum’s who has taken the day off from cutting hair, to make the trip for her son’s big day.
A pickled onion and corned beef sandwich later, Tom and I go in search of a cash point. Thirsk is pretty enough, sadly we don't have time to explore the museum, but we do notice that for a town this size there seems to be a disproportionate amount of tattoo parlours and a pub on every corner, which can’t be a good combination.
During our search for money we have the pleasure of watching a man eat a yogurt without a spoon, tongue only, and Tom overhears one local’s conversation in the supermarket when he requests some help reading his wife's shopping list. When the worker suggests the scribbled writing might say “pinot” the old man snaps back at her “no I've banned her”.
The combination of the beer, the time of day and the fact our stop was a relatively short one, means that everyone’s good spirits have gone up a notch or two. Paul is keen to emphasise the importance of the occasion and is shouting “history, history” as he finds his seat, another has modified a Southend chant to work for BP “Yorkshire reds, Yorkshire reds”. As we make our way through rolling countryside the occasional shout goes up at the back of the coach “Bowers, Bowers”.
“Two and a half miles” says someone after the umpteenth person asks “are we there yet?”.
A snaking country lane, not much wider than the coach, weaves along the edge of a nearby golf course. We make the tight turn into the car park of a ground that someone quite rightly observes as being “in the middle of nowhere” someone also notices a sign “no fly tipping, don't they know we’re from Essex?”
“You've come a long way” says a local in a thick Northumberland accent. One weary traveler though is not interested in pleasantries, and has his priorities clear in his own mind “bog, beer”.
A small shed at the end of a narrow passage along one side of the club house, is selling tickets. Such are its dimensions the burly men inside are almost bent over double. Not having been in Craik Park for more than a minute I’m quickly feeding my habit, firstly the chance of winning the first goal draw, is to tempting to resist, and secondly the raffle. The seller in his black and yellow striped scarf pounces on me like a creature off the Serengeti “well while you've got your money out”.
‘Happy’ by Pharrell is playing as we wander down towards the pitch, and the first thing we notice is quite what a state it's in, has half of Blackpool beach been dumped on it? Also it’s clearly been widened, perhaps some non-league shenanigans afoot, as Darren says “they clearly think they can get around us”. Nonetheless he is animated, his spidey senses are tingling and he can feel “a little buzz” about the place and it's now just a case of waiting until kick off.
Kids are tearing around kicking footballs, kids who are sporting some of the most quiffed, gelled and slicked haircuts I have ever seen, and it feels like just a matter of the time before I catch a ball in the back of the head. As I make my way around the pitch, past the main stand on the halfway line, people in their black and yellow hats are already picking their a spot. Other than that there are few other permanent fixtures, in what is quite a bare, tall conifer ringed ground. I assume only because of the occasion, a couple of temporary red seated stands have been erected.
Standing next to a St George's cross with the Northumberland colours in one corner and Morpeth Town A.F.C. written across it, Tom returns from taking pictures, and confirms I think what most people are thinking about the pitch, “ it’s very squidgy”.
“Alright chaps” says one of the BP players who are first out to warm up. “Good trip up?” I ask, his face contorts like he is eating a lemon “it was ok, wouldn't say it was good”. One player jogging out comments that the pitch is “like a home, from home” which I hope Darren didn't hear, because other than his much loved girlfriend, I’m not sure there is anything else he is as devoted to than the BP home pitch, which he attends and cares for meticulously.
Watching the BP keeper going through his drills, he stops for a moment, notices us, and takes a quick break to say hello, “I'll even take my gloves off” he says smiling, removing them to reveal his shovel sized mits, that make Tom’s and mine look like those of a child in the hand of the BFG. He is in good spirits, even though he had to work all Thursday night before traveling up, so could be excused for admitting to feeling a little knackered. “You having a beer later?” he asks pointing to the clubhouse, “I'll
see you in there”.
“Come on boys let's focus” shouts one BP player as all the laughs and jokes of piggy in the middle is over, and the serious pre-match gets underway.
“Busy” says Tom, which is a massive understatement, as we try and get in the clubhouse, which has a mirror ball hanging from the ceiling. With just under an hour to kick off, we can barely get in the door, and people are still arriving in droves.
“I’d love it” we hear a MT fan say about potentially getting to Wembley, in a manner I can only describe as that of Kevin Keegan talking about beating Manchester United to the league title, minus the ridiculous headphones.
If Tom could get near it he might have one “ the hot dog smells nice” but admits defeat “it’s crazy busy” he doesn't even make an attempt and we make our way outside. As the MT players leave the pitch, each one shakes the hand of an old chap in a flap cap, “alreet”.
“Six minutes to kick off” says the voice over the tannoy, like someone at mission control before a rocket launch. Almost every seat is taken in the stands, and its three people deep in some places around the pitch, some have even taken to clambering up a large mound of earth, just so they can see.
Rob Small look’s pensive, he’s done his talking and makes his way to the dugout with the substitutes, leaving the first team in the changing room.
“Five minutes to kick off, get your spot on there” says the voice again. People take his advice and start to pour out the bar.
Shouts can be heard from each changing room, the referee’s assistant in their “Britney mics” as Tom describes them, knock on the doors, and there is not a long of wait, both teams appear swiftly. The referee flanked by his colleagues, leads them down the slope on to the pitch. People line the barrier on
each side, offering encouragement to players, one BP player has a message for his team mates “leave nothing”.
“Enjoy the match” says the voice one last time, and we have blast off.
The early stages of this rocket takeoff analogy I'm running with until it burns up, is less than perfect for BP as they go a goal behind after two minutes. “Come on Bowers” shouts one of the few travelling fans behind the MT goal, all led by the blue and white Southend drum we had heard people talking about on the coach. It's a less than ideal start, but the fans do their best, offering their support “come on lads”, “get into them”.
At the opposite end of the ground, the stand seems one half black and yellow, one half red and white. The most noise not unexpectedly is coming from the home fans, in particular a herd of tiny children whose on mass squealing is akin to a superpower for a Marvel character.
The first twenty or so minutes it seems like chance after chance for MT. BP are ponderous and are getting caught out time and time again by the pace and trickery of the number 9, who is making the most of the few extra inches the wider pitch is giving him, and every attack is coming from his side, “good football here” as one home supporter puts it and he is correct, they are really moving the ball around well, especially the diagonal ball from midfield that keeps finding the winger.
BP’s players are getting a little frustrated, MT are swarming all over them, when an attempt to win the ball back is deemed a foul, the MT fan next to me hits the nail on the head “they are getting a little aggy”.
Rob Small is what you might call a quiet manager, unlike one of the MT coaches whose booming voice is constantly dishing out praise or instructions “good football lads”. Rob on the other hand looks to be always thinking, analyzing, considering his next move, waiting for the correct time to talk to his players. When he does, with ten minutes of the half left there is an almost instant impact, coincidence or good management?
Two kids peering over the fence to our right, getting a freebie, have appeared just in time to see B&P equalise. A free kick is launched into the box, the ball is by one of the MT defenders changeling for the ball and is pounced upon and poked in from close range. “Thank fuck for that” says a relieved Darren “we are not in this”. We are both then almost deafened by Paul's wife who has taken over drum duty “well done Bowers”. One of the traveling fans bemoans his poor timing “I go to the bog and they score”.
Darren's assessment is sadly true, and MT almost score again before the half is done, only for the ball to nestle on the roof of the net.
“I love a swap of ends” says Tom as what seems like as many dogs as people are making their way from the opposite end, with us going the other way. Our new spot, just next to the completely see through almost fish tank’esq BP dug out gives us the perfect view of the pitch which resembles a moonscape “they’re like fucking craters”, comments a ever so slightly shocked Tom.
MT are out long before BP, enough so that one of the young ball boys in his orange vest asks a player “where ya been?”. One of his fellow ball boys could be asked the same question, returning to his post a little late. He sprints up the touch line with a hot dog in his hand, “I'm jealous” says Tom.
“Bowers come on!” Shouts one player, it's boom or bust time.
It looks like things are going from bad to worse, after what was a good start by the away team, they have been on the front foot since the kick off, when MT have a penalty shout waved away. Tom reckoned it “looked like a tangle of legs” I’m not sure, the MT players and fans at that end seemed pretty sure, it was really a heart in your mouth moment.
One BP weapon causing problems is the long throw, the thrower uses every available inch of run up, at one point his back is up against the fence, he arches in preparation, and I have to take a step back so as not to get in the way.
Their pressure is slowly paying off, “we have lost our way second half” says an MT supporter, another has a slightly more mystical reason for MT’s fortunes “I think it's the negativity of all the Newcastle fans”. MT have been nowhere near as threatening, perhaps Darren's suggestion of them tiring is coming to fruition, as BP are creating more and more half chances. The best so far is a “rocket shot” as Tom puts it from the edge of the box, that is beaten back into area, but doesn't find a BP player to score from the rebound.
“Come on Bowers, believe!” says Rob Small to the players.
A pacing B&P coach signals to the still beating drum and the supporters, asking for more. Paul is nowhere to be seen, his wife is still in charge, and she is happy to oblige “Rob Small's barmy army”, “Wembley, we're the famous Bowers FC and we’re going to Wembley”.
In the final quarter of an hour MT with some regularity start to find their number 9, who has started to sparkle once more, after being almost absent for the last thirty minutes, ominously for BP “chances are starting to come” for MT, as one fan puts it.
Tom’s Southerness is starting to show “it’s cold up North”, but despite the chill the Southend drum continues, with questionable timing on some occasions, admittedly though not since Paul's wife took over, “Essex, Essex, Essex” you can’t deny the effort.
“It's getting feisty” says Tom after another MT penalty is waved away with five minutes of the game to go, I thought it look dead on. One players over enthusiasm five minutes later turns the game on his head, when he receives a second yellow on the far side of the pitch and gets his marching orders, much to the delight of the home fans, Rob Small though, hands in his pockets, simply shakes his head.
Not surprisingly the MT fans have woken up “la, la, la, la Morpeth” and so have the team, as they nearly steal it in added time after a corner results in a point black chance, which somehow is shot wide from practically under the crossbar, by this point my heart has left my chest via my mouth and is now laying on the grass in front of us.
With MT pouring forward BP get one last chance, a break is on and all of sudden one player is bearing down on goal, unsupported he will have to go at it alone. Now in the box, the MT keeper has charged him, clipped him, but he stays on his feet. The goal is empty, but his momentum has carried him on too far, the angle is impossible, but there is no one to cross to, so from the by line he tries it, he shoots, and hits the post, and it goes wide. His face, his mortified face says it all, that was the chance.
“Keep switched on all of you” are the fateful words of the BP coach, moments before MT stamp on my heart and that of every BP player and supporter when they go down the other end and get what turns out to be the winner, DOUBLE FUCK!
Tom, me and rollie smoking old bloke in a red and white scarf all share a look, it's over. MT are not known as the Highwayman for nothing, it feels like daylight robbery, as they saddle up Black Bess for the ride down Wembley way.
The child choir is back squealing away, most fans are blowing their imaginary whistle for full time. When is comes, a tidal wave of yellow and black floods the pitch as the MT players a caught up in a swirling ball of people, a football mosh pit on the centre of the pitch.
BP’s players sink, sink to the ground I’m sure they wished would swallow them up, many lie prone, facing the grey sky, hands covering tear filled eyes. Sportingly the MT staff come over and shake the downed players hands, the industry and commitment of BP can't be brought into question, they gave everything they had, they showed fantastic spirit.
Rob Small like any good leader picks his men up, clearly distraught himself, he and the players make the slow walk off the pitch, and are clapped off by the home fans. Darren is not far behind, with an arm full of water bottles “ain't sunk in yet”.
MT’s celebrations continue in the changing rooms, kids now bomb around with outstretched arms shouting “WEMBLEY”. The temporary stands are quickly being dismantled, the BBC Radio Newcastle outside broadcast van is folding away its satellite dishes, and to compound my misery, I've not won the first goal or raffle, TRIPLE FUCK!
Red eyed and beer in hand Rob Small is honest “I tried to talk, but I just cried. I’m not ashamed to say it” but he knows what a great thing his team have done, regardless of falling at the final hurdle, and is already looking forward “once we pick ourselves up we will celebrate”. One BP coach is straight back to business, no time to wallow in defeat “we roll our sleeves up and get on with the league”.
Once the players are showered, most with a drink, they stand talking, dissecting what has just happened, some still clearly more affected than others. BP’s keeper sticks to his word and meets us for a pint, and is even nice enough to get us one, he insists in fact, he reckons it’s the least he can do, “I fucked it up” he says, trying to take the blame for the goal. Such is the adrenaline still coursing around him he tell us he's “had a couple of Brady’s already, my heart is going, I need to calm down”.
It’s got to a point in the day now where everyone is ready to go home, Darren looks almost lost, clearly gutted, as are we. A few people's immediate concern is “where is Paul?” he seems to have got in the spirit of an ‘Away Day’ a little too much, and there is word he might be wondering around nearby woodland.
Our coach arrives first, the players stand in the car park around a pile of kit bags, waiting for theirs, one player has aptly started playing ‘Fog on the Tyne’ on his phone, and a few start to sing along. As we pull away, the whole coach, Paul included, breaks into one last chant “Bowers, Bowers, Bowers”
Before I plug back into my tablet, Tom almost asleep no doubt, I overhear one BP supporter “we didn't get to Wembley, but we got to Morpeth”