I enter the art deco 7th wonder of the world that is Cockfosters underground station, a temple of concrete and dark wooden benches, in what might come as a surprise to many, a serene mood. Regular readers may or may not be aware, it's not like I mention it much, I’m not a huge fan of the tube. Post getting off normally requires a five or ten minute cool down, a chance to decompress after being in such close proximity to other members of the human race, in a cramped metal pipe, however I have found a way to combat this. The sound of falling rain, a mountain brook or the sea lapping at a sandy beach, are just a few of the options, my new app offers me. Drifting along in a near zen state, it’s the perfect way to block out the big wide world, until I reach my destination.
Once again the lack of a jacket is an issue, I at least brought a shirt to wear underneath my jumper, but it's not going to be sufficient. Tom on the other hand looks like he just got off a transporter ship from Hoth, and looks completely unperturbed, by the plummeting temperature.
Leaf covered pavements, and an illuminated church, punctuate our walk through suburban London. The directions from a passing woman, Google maps was offering little help, gets us to the pitch black, hedge lined entrance to Chalk Lane, home of Cockfosters FC (CFC). We could see the floodlights from the main road, but the way in was not as clear.
A hand painted sign on a red gate “Cockfosters Football Club” along with another high up opposite looks just as DIY, “NEXT MATCH” tells us we have arrived. A third, smaller than the other two, propped up at the foot of the gate reads “CFC visitors avoid parking in the paddocks”.
Weaving through the parked cars, that fill the way in, not too far in the distance shrouded in a long black coat, is Dean, CFC’s manager, who is talking to a fellow coach, both sporting the most wonderful CFC woolly hats.
Our paths have crossed before, at the end of last season, when they played Rayners Lane FC, in the Middlesex Senior Charity Cup Semi-Final, so it's a familiar warm welcome, accompanied with his broad smile. I comment on quite how nice his, ‘Where’s Wally’, apre ski hat is, which he insists, he's only got on to cover up a “dodgy haircut”.
“Been here before?” asks the coach standing with Dean, “no” we reply, “funny old ground” he tells us, Dean chips in, “old school”. Funny we can live with, but old school on the other hand, is one of those phrases that can be used, like vintage or retro, a flashy way to mask something, that is perhaps a bit tatty, old and shit, like when an estate agent tells you a flat is “cosy”, which actually means, your sink is also your toilet, and your bed is your dining table.
Intrigued, and in no way put off, we pass between the the small wooden shed, and the table with a sign propped up with the ticket prices on top, and through an opening with “Cockfosters FC welcome you to the Lindel Stand” written above, with the inviting green glow of the pitch just beyond.
The gap from the entrance to the pitch, is about the width of a smart car, and beyond the railings the white line is easily within touching distance. As you walk in, you are straight away under the cover of a semi opaque white plastic roof, which turns the light of the flood lights into what Tom best describes, as like being in a “greenhouse”. We take a seat on the first of two rows of white fold down chairs, a chance to take in where we are for a moment, and maybe its an omen, fate or just coincidence, Toms sits in the seat displaying his lucky number “3”.
“Not sure we’ve ever had a main road running along one side” says Tom, pointing out the not hard to miss A111, opposite us, only slightly shielded by bushes and trees. Other than the ‘Lindel Stand’, there isn't much else. Two small dugouts on the main road side are separated by a small covered area, and behind one goal, a small corrugated roofed lean to sits under a large oak tree, which is moodily lit by the floodlights, looking quite magnificent.
Always it would seem the first to arrive, this time someone has beaten us to it, and with few other people to talk to, comes over and says hello. As it happens, we follow each other on Instagram, and that strange real world, social media crossover happens. He introduces himself as “Ugly Away Days”, which Tom very sharply, while still shaking his hand, suggests “Cold Away Days” would be a more appropriate name, considering the conditions.
Once we have all recovered from Tom’s quip, Chris, as his friends and family know him, hits the nail on the head when he says “nice set up for this level”, and having had a chance to survey Chalk Lane, we could not agree more. Minimalist perhaps, the noise of the nearby main road, a mere detail, but it's clean, tidy and green, which makes a change from the the norm of concrete and steel and it's in better nick than some grounds we have been to, further up the pyramid.
The clubhouse, has the whiff of fresh paint, and takes its cue from the rest of the ground, there are some chairs and large round function tables and a TV on the wall, but little else. There is a bit more going on in the small picture lined board room, that leads off the main room behind some double doors, one wall dominated by the clubs dark wooden honours board. One home player reclines on a sofa eating his pre match meal, a pasta pot from a supermarket, and as I find a seat, Tom grabs us a cup of tea from the hatch at one end of the room.
Such is the proximity of everything, the music from the nearby changing rooms is rattling the fixtures. It is a bit of a relief when it's turned off, the pasta eater and a few other stragglers are summoned through the door in the corner, for what I imagine are some wise words from Dean and his staff before the warm up.
As quick as it’s off, the music is back on again, and it sounds a little bit like an air raid siren, its return means it’s time to finish the last few sips of a very good cup of tea, and venture outside back into the night.
Contemplating tonight's fixture, it dawns on me it’s a local derby of sorts, although not one that's been played before. CFC have been going since 1921, their ground donated by a local lady who insisted that “sport must always be played here”, and they cannot “redevelop” I’m told by one CFC coach, who I reckon might like a bit of Time Team on a Sunday evening. Their opponents, Enfield Borough FC (EB) are the new kid on the block, having only been formed this season, so it might be a while until this fixture reaches Old Firm proportions.
That blasted snood is back out again, and Tom can see me glaring at it, hoping he isn't going to put it on. He snaps, asking me if I “want him to get ill?”.
There is a full complement of flood lights on now, and both sets of players have taken to the field, along with one extra player, a new signing perhaps, a small white dog, who is very keen to join in, and has no obvious owner. One CFC coach suggests the dog is in fact here to watch, “your only here for the fosters”. The CFC goalkeeping coach runs through a few drills, in the shadow of the marvelous oak tree, firing off some shots, and complementing the player on one save, “that was solid, cement!”
Dean is keenly studying his phone, waiting to see what the EB line up is. He explains that they are effectively Ryman Premier League outfit Enfield Town's, reserve side, so he wants to see if any of the Enfield Town first teams players are starting, but won't be sure “until I get to see the team sheet” he tells me. I ask how he feels about potentially putting his players up against players from a few steps up, ultimately is it fair? He is pragmatic “it is what it is” he says, it also depends on what day of the week you play them, “Saturday you can be fortunate”, the first team players more likely to be playing for Town, but midweek “you just don't know”.
If I thought the passage to the pitch was tight, the area outside the the changing rooms is of Hobbit proportions, and are clearly not intended for lumps like me. I do my best to keep out the way, as officials, and players get ready. EB’s door is firmly closed, CFC’s is wide open, with the music blaring, Dean tells me “they have done all the talking” so he lets the music play. The room quickly becomes a free-for-all of changing players, all revolving around the physio doing treatment, on her table, in the middle of the room.
“Come on first teamers” shouts the grey haired linesman, waiting to check their boots, on their way out they pass a framed picture of Bobby Moore, a list of club fines, "missed pen 50p", "own goal £1", an instructional poster about the correct way to wear your socks, “Don’t make a SOCK UP”, a small motivational sign next to the mirror, "Good Luck to the REDS", and a white board with the line up on, that has a message in the bottom right hand corner, “win and we are in the quarter-finals”.
Once free of the passage leading to the pitch, such are the dimensions of the ground, the teams are unable to line up shoulder to shoulder, but instead stand in two queues opposite each other, like people waiting for the next cashier at the bank.
With just about enough room for a player from each side to squeeze through the gate and onto the pitch, the players file on, perform all the pre game necessities, with CFC joining in a huddle.
There is almost an early shock for CFC, when the underdog EB, nearly score in the opening moments. A lack of communication between the defender and keeper, results in the ball getting nudged past the man in goal, by the outnumbered attacker, teammates thinking the other had it covered. What looks to be a certain goal, is cleared just in the nick of time with a mighty hoof, high over the trees.
Giving a good clue to what will be an end to end game, CFC very nearly go ahead themselves, the player bursting free of the EB defense, putting him in on goal, but he blazes over from a tight angle, all this before I’ve even made it round to meet Tom on the other side of the pitch.
The low roofed stand, between the benches, quite rightly described by Tom as being like somewhere a “bird watcher” would peek out from, looking for a guillemot or lesser spotted woodpecker, gives you a unique view of the coaches and managers at work. We’re close enough that we can hear what they are saying, but one must not think being almost in the technical area, one is to offer their advice on the benefits of the gegen press or the now very fashionable 3 - 5 - 2.
“That's in the road” says Tom after a clearance sails over us and he is convinced he hears it hit a car. When another player unceremoniously wallops the ball, Tom adds it to his personal tally of road bound footballs, “that’s another one”.
What I first think is a penalty, the referee blowing up and pointing to what I think is the spot, is in fact an indirect free kick for a passback, not a sight we are treated to often. As the referee organises nigh on the whole EB starting eleven on the goal line, the box is a mass of red and blue, players jostling for position, the away team forming their very own Maginot Line, the CFC players standing over the ball, working out how to take it, just inside the six yard box.
Dean's got an idea, “Becky smash it” he says to one of the CFC players not in the EB box, Becky perhaps has got a Frank Leboeuf of a shot on him, and his manager tries to get him to go forward, but he does not. Eventually, the players are corralled, the referee gives a blast on his whistle, and the resulting shot in neither blasted nor elegantly curled into the top corner and is high, but not enough to added to Toms tally and does not require the steward, with silver tash and specs to race off and retrieve it. Dean is less than impressed, “fucks sake”
The game continues to keep up its early promise of being end to end, but neither team are able to make anything of their half chances. The CFC number 11, a bit of a speedster, leaves the EB players around him in his wake, but his shot is easily saved, Dean appreciates his endeavour, “good effort”. Maybe it's because of all the running he is being forced to do, or maybe the near side linesman has a cold, but whenever play stops, he is quick to pull a hanky from his sock, and sort himself out.
“Good football” says Dean from the sidelines following a slick move that sees CFC work the ball well up the pitch, which even included what I think was a cheeky no look pass, but again, as with so many attacks from each side, it breaks down when it matters.
With the half coming to an end, Tom's thoughts have moved onto “tea and Kit Kats”, and the match offers its standout moment of the first 45. It’s not hugely dramatic, not a goal, or a horror tackle, but a piece of skill from the CFC number 7, who has a bit of the Andros Townsend about him in looks and technique. Tightly marked, by two players, close to the touch line, he leaves them looking like cartoon baddies, after the hero has scarpered. A quick drop of the shoulder, and a burst of pace, he leaves them wondering where he has gone, Tom commenting, “he done ya”.
“That's a good question” replied the steward when I asked what happens if the game finished a draw. With the teams making their way off for an orange segment, the shivering CFC subs emerge from the dugout, jumpers rolled over hands to keep warm, having a kick about among themselves, doing their best to thaw out
Dean once again, is not impressed, “shit start” he barks, “come on” he demands.
“I’ve got burnt fingers” says Tom, eventually returning from the tea run. “How?” I ask him, “because it's hot and a long way” fair enough. “For dinner” he tells me, I wait with baited breath, “we have one of everything”, from the cavernous pockets of his green jacket, he produces a Twix, Snickers and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, dropping them on the seat next to me.
Sneaking up on me like a ninja, the steward appears to my right, as silent as a Prius, with an answer to my question, “straight to penalties”. Not only do I almost choke on my tea, but he's lucky I was tackling a near frozen solid Snickers or I would have done my best Roger Moore karate chop on him.
It’s been all CFC since the break, their two level difference more apparent than ever, a long range shot is palmed away, and one home coach shuffles the pack a bit, in search of a goal, “go more direct, two up front” he says, and perhaps having seen enough no look passes tonight, he tells the players that they “don't have to be so pretty”.
I think I can be confident, in fact 100% sure, there is no doubt in my mind, when I say that it's completely against the run of play, when EB go ahead. The header, which follows the cross from a corner, is not hit with much force, it bounces on its way in, and still manages to avoid all the CFC players, a last gasp goal line scissor kick attempted clearance is fruitless. “Love that” shouts one of the EB subs, punching the air, who along with the coaches are all on the their feet celebrating.
“Now let’s see what you're made of” says Dean. He doesn't shout though, scream or lose his temper, but talks in that quiet tone your parents do, when you have really fucked up.
EB’s bench are upbeat, as you would expect, but someone is keeping a level head, “if we don't concentrate, they will score”. Moments later they do exactly that, when no-one picks up the CFC runner on a free kick, the slide rule pass from the taker, sends the wide player unchallenged down the side of the box, but his shot hits the side netting.
Ten minutes later, I hear Tom’s two word catchphrase that I’ve not heard in awhile, “game on”. Another corner, another goal, this time for CFC, not the prettiest, a shot through a hoard of people, squirms in. The EB bench are furious, “he’s on his back ref!”, they think one of their players have been impeded, but the man in charge, doesn't think so, the goal stands.
Deans instruction following the equaliser are to the point, “now fucking defend”.
You wouldn’t think the higher ranked team, would need a bit of a helping hand, some good fortune, the rub of the green when playing lesser oppositions, but when an EB player is sent off for a second yellow, it feels like the lifeline CFC need to get them out of what until now, feels like potentially a sticky situation.
The away bench are livid, “any more favours you wanna do them?” one shouts, after the injured player caught in the tackle, that resulted in the booking is allowed back on, for the free kick, even though he received treatment. Someone more in the know than me says that it’s ok, some recent rule change, but I don't have time to ask Howard Webb in his cupboard.
Dean is quick to tell his players to take advantage of the extra player, “down to 10 men, up the tempo”, he emphasizes to the players he needs a performance from them all, to get the win “big 20 minutes”.
This match might well be remembered for it’s many missed chances, and Dean is at the end of his tether, it had to be 2 -1, “put it in the fucking net” he says, the first time he has raised his voice all match, “put your foot through it, instead of fucking about with it”.
A man down, EB need to make some changes, and try to, but the white haired linesman, or as one EB coach calls him “Alf Garnet” is a little fastidious to say the least, insisting the teams use the boards with numbers, to show who's come off and who's going on. It does however seem his insisting on things be done by the book, is coming from a good place, he just wants to make sure they don't get “fined”.
Two things can happen when a team goes down to ten men, they can crumble, capitulate or like EB they can be galvanized by the disadvantage, with the odds now even further stacked against them, it has a rousing effect, they are now fighting even more. They almost pull ahead, another header at the back post, created by a super cross, but its wide. Again the EB bench, the more animated of the two let out an “argghhhhhh”.
It’s all got a bit tense, a hush falls over Chalk Lane, when an injury to a CFC player halts play, there is going to be a fair bit of added on time, which only adds to the potential for drama. EB have a late penalty shout turned down, and Dean tries to hurry his keeper along, “quicker, quicker” he shouts.
EB almost do the unimaginable in the final moments, and the bench at least think they have, celebrating, whooping and hollering, what in fact isn't a goal, the angle playing tricks on them. “Sit down” says Dean, as the overzealous EB staff, slink off the pitch a little sheepish, with a ‘nothing to see here’ look on their faces. However, that’s not it for chances and I imagine it’s hearts in CFC’s mouths when EB go close, not once, but twice.
“That’s your birthday present right there, two yards out” says a baffled EB coach after they miss a bit of a sitter, you can only admire the poetic way he expressed his dismay, could have just as easily said fuck and shit a lot. Maybe a sign that lady luck is not shining on them today, their final attempt, a goal bound shot is blocked by his own teammate.
Penalties it is.
The tension of the final moments of the game is only racked up a few notches, as apparently the referee doesn't have a home to go to, and takes an age taking note of who will be taking a spot kick. Once its eventually decided, the end is chosen, the tree and church off in the distance provide the backdrop for the shoot out.
Both teams line up linked, each arm around the man next to them, on the halfway line, and its EB up first. Both takers score, the only difference being the few CFC supporters trying to put off the EB player, and that the EB keeper got his hands on CFC’s penalty, but he was unable to keep it out.
The second takers for each team dispatch their kicks with little problem, and as of yet no one is showing any nerves, on the outside at least.
It’s the third round of takers where the cracks start to show, EB’s player keeps his head, scoring his, but CFC’s was not so lucky, putting his wide. Shouts of “knew it” come from one Mystic Meg EB player on the halfway line, who foresaw this happening before it did.
Having until now looked like a bunch of cool cucumbers, it’s EB’s turn to wobble, their fourth taker going wide, much to the relief of CFC, who all let out a relieved cheer, which is then bolstered by their taker scoring, drawing it level, 3 - 3.
Some people call it a lottery, some people think it's the cruelest way to decide a match, the American’s even tried to reinvent it, getting players to run from the halfway line, having to beat the clock as well as the keeper, but for the moment it’s all we’ve got, and you can’t deny it offers much melodrama, turning players into Shakespearean, heroes and villains, by the mere kick of a ball.
EB's keeper in yellow, makes himself big, and having got his hands to one before, might just have that knack of reading a player. Diving to his right he gets both hands firmly on the ball, but this time pushing it wide. He gets to his feet, pumping his fist at his teams mates, advantage EB, advantage underdog's, score next and it's quiet the scalp for the new boys.
Pressure and nerves can be a funny thing, affecting people in different ways, some can feed on it, some it overcomes, having nearly had a full blown meltdown myself before my recent driving test, and never before thinking I was someone affected by nerves, it can sometimes come out of nowhere, completely consuming you, like a virus.
Not crying, shaking or calling his girlfriend to help him chill the fuck out, the EB player whose turn it is, looks more than up to the task to take the winning penalty. Some players thrive from the spot, finishing their careers with excellent records from twelve yards, some well, some should just not bother, which will he be? Of course what you are displaying on the outside, can be different to what's going on internally, maybe he would love to be able to call a loved one, for a comforting chat.
He picks up the ball, clears some debris from the spot, takes a moment to arrange himself, adjusting his shin pads and socks, checks his studs are clear, takes about seven steps back, and waits for the whistle. Someone from the sidelines, tells him to “relax, relax”, but he looks all good to me.
The blast of the whistle sends him off on his run up and cool as you like, he side foots it along the ground, no Michael Owen, World Cup ‘98 hit and hope against Argentina here, he practically passed it in, EB have won, it’s EB who are into the quarter-finals. Smiling at his teammates, arms in the air, he runs to the edge of the box, falls to the ground, waiting for the other players, to form a big pile of arms and legs, with him buried at the bottom. EB’s keeper exchanges a hug with his opposite number, before joining the bundle, getting his much deserved plaudits too, after his save.
Dean is sitting alone, looking at his phone again, and we almost don't want to disturb him, I’m sure the last thing he wants to do is to talk to us.
“Frustrated is the word” says the ninja steward as he passes, agreeing with Deans opinion on the match. Frustrated for losing to a lower opposition, but also because he gave a few players the “chance to show (him) what they got, and they didn’t”. It’s clear he is seething, but he masks it well with a smile.
To be fair to him, he gives credit, where credits due, and thinks, like us that, EB got “better with ten men”, but ultimately it’s a “disappointing night”. He wonders if his team took EB lightly, perhaps they were “too laid back” or even there was a bit of “complacency”. Not that me being upset when Spurs get beaten, is comparable to losing a game as a manager, after a week of hard work, I'm not trying to pull a Richard Madeley, thinking being accused of shoplifting, in tantamount to being impeached as the President to the USA, like he did with Clinton, but football has an emotional effect on us all, whatever our involvement.
“Won't talk to her until Thursday” he says, her being his wife, who knows full well, when he’s lost. The club have a team meal arranged in a couple of days, however in his current mood, I think he would rather cancel, and get them doing laps, but he says he might, reconsider once he’s, “calmed down”.
I do my best to lighten the mood, raving again about his woolly hat, which Tom cant understand why I like it so much, “it’s the wrong colours” he says, and yes he is right, it's red and white, not my favorite combination, but it has a cockerel on it, and the mighty cockerel will always prevail.
It’s a cliche, but sometimes they are hard to avoid, football is overflowing with them, ‘sick as a parrot’, ‘good touch for a big man’, and Deans final words are perhaps one of the most well used, it's probably even the name of Nick Hancock's narrated, mid 90’s compilation video of gaffs and own goals, but even though it doesn't really make any sense, when it's said a certain way, perhaps accompanied with an eye roll, or shoulder shrug, it makes perfect sense to those in the know, “that’s football!”.