Monday, 10 April 2017

China Mugs & Onion Rings - Bowers & Pitsea FC Vs Dereham Town FC, Ryman League North, Len Salmon Stadium (01/04/17)

The sun is doing it’s absolute best to break through, however the signs of rain make me a little nervous, we've not had the best of luck one way or another seeing the team we’re visiting today. Admittedly it’s not always been Mother Nature's fault, train strikes and illness can bare some of the brunt, but anything other than near perfect conditions, make me a little jittery.

Thankfully it gets sunnier the further East I go, so by the time I pull over on a nondescript suburban East London street, where the only thing of note is the blue suit, brown shoe wearing estate agent, who sticks out like a thousand thumbs, with ‘I’m a thumb’ placards, it’s positively Summery. I call Tom who confirms I’m in the right place, “yes, that’s the cock”, he tells me, the quiffed thumb has just finished showing him around his third flat viewing of the morning.

“It’s a lot warmer than I thought” says Tom, who instantly strips off his jumper. By the sounds of it, his property prospecting has been less than perfect. One he described as “fucking horrible”, one was full of a bunch of stoner students, who refused to move, rooted to the sofa due to the influence, Tom and his girlfriend having to tiptoe round them and their bong collection, to inspect a myriad of damp patches, one which he could only describe as having the smell of “stewed meat”, but the best of all, was the one where the current tenants were required to show him around, and were not best pleased that they had to, where he couldn't look in one of the bedrooms, because the Mum of the house was still in bed after her “night shift”.

The A406 and A13 are two particularly unremarkable dual carriageways, so really not much to report, the only single thing of any interest we saw, was the owl covered Oldham FC'mobile, bombing down the middle lane, a long way from home.

Hoping to catch a glimpse of the “zombie” car we saw on our failed visit in January, we are sorely disappointed not to see the fake blood covered motor, but that might have something to do with the roads all looking the same, and us being a little lost. We perform a fair few three point turns, before we finally spot the floodlights, that draw us in like a B Movie tractor beam, and down the gravelly drive of The Len Salmon Stadium, home of Bowers & Pitsea FC (BP)

What might be our most frequented non league car park, this time though there is no coach and a glaring squad of players all thinking ‘who are these clowns’ or a fine layer of frost and not a car in sight, in fact it's quite the opposite. The “sun is shining” which Tom must have said one hundred times already, cars with club scarves on the back seats and mini kits in the back window fill it's spaces and the bright spring sun is casting shadows of the nearby trees across the white wall with “The Bowers” painted across it.

Since the first time we were here, back in 2015 and after the gawking had subsided, we have been embraced and treated like one of their own by the small Essex club. Darren club fixer, media mogul and groundsman is running behind schedule, “I may be a bit late today, got to negotiate a kids party beforehand”. However there are still lots of other familiar faces, and when we bump into Wayne the goalkeeping coach, whose welcome, is as friendly and familiar as the faces we see, he is more than happy to stop and chat.

It’s been two consecutive losses for BP in the last couple of weeks, a “blip” as Wayne puts it, in what so far has been a super season for the newly promoted club, sitting just outside the play off spots, it's not been too bad going at all. They are a club with very “high expectations” of themselves, and he’s modest when he says “playoffs would be nice” but they are in a prime position as things lie to take one of the two places. He almost purrs in delight when he tells us how “dangerous going forward” they are, and when I ask him how he thinks they should fare against today's visitors, Dereham Town FC (DT), he tells us “on paper” they “should” get the points. 

Having not hung about after our previous aborted visit, instead hitting the motorway and flying down the coast to Canvey Island, he tells us the reason the game was called off due to a frozen pitch was “a good call”, he tells us they “trained on it” that day, his face grimacing as he recounts the session.

In a nice change to fanatically going on about the weather, Tom makes an excellent suggestion, “cup of tea?”. Through the doors of the clubhouse under the low ceiling, where people are trying their best to watch the Merseyside derby, but the Sky dish might need looking at, because the reception is woeful, I take a seat. To my right the BP players already here are huddled around the pool table, to my left BP manager Rob and his assistant, are talking quietly among themselves, occasionally looking up to shake the hand of an arriving player. Tom stands under the flickering fairy lights above the dark wooden bar, waiting to place our order.

Wayne joins the players for a game, but they know what he's up to, “it's like darts, you pretend you’re shit, but you’re well good”. When he realises he's short of change, he asks his challenger if he's “got a quid?”, the player's reply is quick “yeah I'll pay coach”, his eagerness to help, gets a few laughs from the other players, I think the polished apple might come after the match.

With a packet of crisps in his mouth, Tom crosses the room holding a white mug in each hand. Dropping the crisps he announces, “china mugs and onion rings”, before placing what turns out to be the hottest cup of tea ever in front of me, that scalds the back of my hand when it brushes it. Tom insisting it was made using a "regular kettle".

Both Tom and I agree although we've only ever been here for a fleeting moment before, it all feels “very familiar”, like the local at the end of your road. I bet Tom wished his swanky East London quail and heritage pork scotch egg serving watering hole was as “fucking cheap” as it is here, “£2 a pint” he tells me, and not for any old swill, but “Heineken”.

“You think we can drink this by halftime?” wonders Tom, both of us just staring at the steam rising from our molten tea, too scared to touch them, the onion rings now long gone. The sign about unsupervised children is put to the test, when a deafening alarm is set off by a boy leaving through a
fire exit. From behind us all I hear is the angry shout of a parent, “Charlie” in front of us a sheepish looking twelve year old and his laughing sister. When the lady from behind the bar comes and turns it off, she’s sure he “won't do that again, will he”.

Time for pool is nearly over, Rob looks over to the captain, “1:45 please mate, don’t be late”. One player cutting things a bit fine, first apologises to the manager for not having his “tracksuit on” then walks over to the players and is greeted like a character from ‘Cheers’, “Guesty”. Leaving a few minutes early the pool table is now free, and it's not long before the clubhouse is a little quieter with all the players gone.

In the short time we have been inside, eventually able to finish our tea, without suffering any major injuries, the weather has held out. Music is now playing around the near empty ground, only the suited referees are being entertained, as they inspect the immaculate looking pitch.

Rob once again with his assistant look deep in conversation, they potter about on the pitch briefly before disappearing up the white vinyl tunnel, that looks like it’s seen better days. Although it's hardly hot, the sun is certainly bright, and the shade of the red brick and corrugated roofed stand comes in handy. I pick one of the faded maroon fold down chairs, Tom for some reason decides to perch on a wall, striking a pose like a catalogue model.

The ‘Sweet Lady’ arrives, Julia, who was dishing out the snacks from a massive bag for life on the coach to Newcastle, when we joined BP last season for their FA Vase semi final. Tom knows her by her other name, the “drum lady” as it was her at the same match, who was banging on the huge Southend FC drum from the sidelines, that I imagine she had in the same bag as all the custard creams. I ask where it is, it’s strange not seeing her with it, and she tells me she’s got a “smaller one in the car”.

A white mini bus, sporting a large magpie pulls up in the car park, a bit like the Tardis, more people than can surely fit in it, pile out. Each of them making straight for the away dressing room, which is going to have to be like the Doctor's ship, because it’s tiny. They all drop off their bags and head for the pitch.

We’ve certainly been aware of the music playing, that started not long after we arrived, although I’m not sure if it was in our honour, however it's not till we take five minutes, watching the BP keeper going through his warm up among some luminous poles and cones, are we able to really give it much consideration, but when we do, we both come to the same conclusion, it’s questionable to say the least.

Tom is trying to figure out how a woman can have a “body shaped like a rock guitar” as one songs puts it, and although I can't be sure, DT don’t hang around on the pitch for long, perhaps driven in by the dodgy DJ? Each new song gets a sigh and an “oh God” from Tom sitting behind me, suggesting it's “like we’re at a rave”. Imagine foam, groups of men in offensive t-shirts, paint, bad drunken tattoos, and a drink in a bucket called the ‘Head Fucker’ and you will know the kind of music I mean.

“How was the journey down?” asks a BP official to one from DT, “yeah ok, new fixture of course, not played here before”.

The BP players arrive, but soon disappear behind a metal fence in the far corner, “where are they going?” asks Tom, but don't fear, they are soon back, and the ground is filled with the noise of, players warming up, some play a tiny game of foot tennis over a low net, which does a good job of offsetting the iffy playlist.

Darren with ever so slightly puffed cheeks, wearing a red baseball cap, looks a little worn out, “roller
skating” is all he says, but his two words speak volumes, it’s clear what kind of a morning he’s had. Darren is complimented on the pitch, but is humble as ever “bit bobbly in the middle from training”, he explains. He tells me it’s like “concrete” and is probably as “hard as it was when it was frozen”.

The old chap struggling to roll his cigarette, better not try and get in my way, cause I know he's also spotted the man with the pint glass and yellow raffle tickets, and if he thinks he’s going to get there before me, he has got another thing coming. Darren’s already got his, I can see him putting his tickets away, he can see me eyeing them up, telling the seller, “he'll have the lot”.

Rattling the pound coins in the cup, sauntering up to me, with a look of ‘you know you're gonna’ written all over his face, the ticket seller is approaching, I have the feeling he knew I was coming. You know the drill, the money is handed over, tickets go in my notebook, in about forty five minutes to an hour I'll be disappointed.

At least he is kind enough to “make sure” mine are the “winning ones”. Also you get three strips for your £2 here, so it's good value too.

There is a steady queue for the burger bar now, the sounds of sizzling and frying must be like music to Tom’s ears. Between it and the world’s smallest boardroom with its pennant covered walls, the teams are going up on the whiteboard. “There's the microphone” says Tom impishly, doing everything in his powers, to stop himself from grabbing it and saying something, probably something about the weather again, “can’t work out if it’s going to stay nice”. The weather it would seem is not far from most peoples thought's, "lovely day" comments someone in the queue, "hope it stays like it" responds their friend.

A major disaster is only narrowly avoided when for some reason one of the referee's assistants wallops a loose ball, not back across the pitch from where it had come from, but straight into the crowd, he properly nailed it. Tom turns to me, a little shocked and horrified, telling me he was “worried about women and children”.

“Come on” barks a DT coach towards the players, who follow orders and go in.

The scene immediately outside the door to the changing rooms, above which hangs a motivational quote, “fire in the belly head in the freezer” is of one man trying to wrangle nine small children all in BP kits. Trying hard to keep them in order, the ring of the bell from the referee, does him a favour, scaring them into settling down and getting ready for the teams.

DT are out first, and there are some low level "boo"'s from the mascots, who are now in a line, but are arguing among themselves, about which player they are supposed to be with.

It’s not Tom on the mic introducing the players, thank God, its Julia, but there is about as much echo on it as a U2 song, and I can barely hear what she is saying.

Emerging from the stands, from the sea of children eating chips, another face we know, the BP keeper, who we saw warming up, but he isn't on the pitch. “Thumb round here” he tells me, describing the injury that’s keeping him out of the team, his own attempt to realign his dislocated digit causing a bone to break.

Darren asks the club photographer for “Nash's prediction” before moving off and cutting a lonely figure on the small pitch side terrace. A steward manning the tunnel is already a little irked “two minutes into the game, and I’m getting balls already”.

“Big start reds” shouts the BP keeper, who do exactly that, taking the lead after only five minutes. The tall number 7, jumps with the DT keeper who tries to collect an incoming cross, only he beats him to it, and nods it in.

Once again it gets a bit Joshua Tree, as Julia is back on the mic, her effect pedal making it hard to hear the name of the scorer, who Darren tells me “can’t buy a goal at the moment” only for him with five minutes gone, does “he fucking head it in”.

“Come on reds” shouts a single voice from the wooden floored stand behind the goal, he is accompanied by some of the mascots banging the stand adding to the early atmosphere. The drum from Julia’s boot has made it out, the “one man band” as Tom puts it, is leading the kids in a song, “come on Bowers”.

Occasionally one player will really stick out from the rest, for better or for worse, when we go to a game. Today is one of those occasions, and it's in the shape of BP’s electric number 11 the one they call “Nyanja”, which when I first heard it, sounded like 'ninja'. He brings himself to the forefront of our attention, when he assists himself. Kicking the ball up the touchline, speeding past and around his marker, then meeting his own pass further up the pitch, we are talking a Bale Maicon situation, just on a field in Essex, not a 36,000 seater stadium in the Champions League. 

“Nyanja different class son”, “Nyanja superb” are just a few of the accolades going his way from team mates and the crowd. When he bursts down the wing again, cutting the ball back into the box, it looks like we are on for a second, only for it to be shanked over, “ohhh” say the expectant crowd. Tom reckons the fans might “love" him, yeah just a little bit, why wouldn't they, he’s fantastic.

The four thoroughly depressed looking DT fans, slumped up against the railing behind the goal, have had almost zero to get excited about, and it only gets worse with twenty minutes of the game gone.

“Controversy” says Tom, a bit like Richard O'Brien on the Crystal Maze, after there is some debate surrounding BP’s second goal, which is eventually given, but not before a bit of a conflab between the referee and his assistant, at one point the DT players are convinced he’s not given it, but he has, he even gets a “thank you” which is delivered with an heavy dose of sarcasm from a member of the crowd.

Quiet until now, and for good reason, his team I'm sure have executed his instructions almost to the word, two goals ahead, dominant, Rob can be heard for the first time, just after DT kickoff again. “Don’t sit back” he insists, “keep up the pressure”. Tom thinks the strain of the constant BP attacks, is going to result in DT “imploding”, meaning they might just disappear into a non league wormhole.

A rare DT chance is thwarted by a “great block” as one BP fan puts it, but the attention is not away from Nyanja for too long, as he is back at it again. “Excellent Nyanja", well played son”. Him and BP's towering centre forward are combining particularly well, his hold up play is second to none, DT just can't get the ball off him.

It’s not only their on pitch combination that works, but their names “Nyanja and Manor” when said together, has a certain ring to it. Is it just me, or does it sound like a 70’s cop drama? One a young rookie, new to the force, the other, hard, no nonsense, who does what it takes to get results, you know the drill.

“Broken leg” blurts out Tom after a late tackle by a BP player, which one DT player refers to as “naughty”. Thankfully no limbs were broken, the BP players receives his booking graciously, but the DT player had a point, it was it a bit tasty.

It’s as if Tom is intentionally trying to anger the football Gods, who by now I’m sure have noticed how one sided this game is, when he asks me “DT haven't had a shot have they?” with over thirty minutes gone. Showing their displeasure in Tom’s doubting of their powers, firstly with some ominous looking clouds rolling in, DT almost out of nowhere are nearly given the gift of a goal.

BP’s keeper makes contact with the shot, but the ball skids off him, and heads towards the goal. Perhaps in a mischievous mood, the Gods allow the BP keeper to recover just in time before it goes in, but leave it in limbo long enough to give DT some hope, which is then snatched away.

Never in one spot for more than a few moments, one of the tiny BP mascots passes us holding a ginormous hotdog, which is really a monster, or just looks big because it’s being held by a small person. Tom doesn't care either way, “I want a hot dog” he tells me, the added bonus of “onions” has him drooling. I’m not sure if he was intentionally making a ironic Chico reference, but when he asks me “what's the time?” and before I can reply he answers his own question “got to be hotdog time”, I question my own existence.

“Manor” definitely the bad cop of the duo, with a troubled past, who bends the rules, almost gets his second and BP’s third, but the ball kicking almost child killer linesman, raises his flag for offside. A stunned looking Darren looks over at me, mouthing “how?”.

Nyanja is continuing to cause absolute havoc, the young rookie new to the job and keen to impress, is running DT ragged, making them as Tom puts it look “awful”. The ease in which he is able to get down the wing, and cut the ball into the box at will, is a frightening asset.

Someone is back on the drum, every DT goal kick, it’s given a whack, trying to put him off. Manor almost scores an audacious backwards header, but it goes just over. He also has the run of the DT defense who are now squabbling among themselves, “got him all day son” shouts someone from behind the goal, “he's scared of you” shouts another. If he was a Premier League player, someone by now would have undoubtedly made a meme of him with a picture of the DT back four in his pocket, and tweeted it from an account called @SportJoeBants.

DT again almost grab a goal out of thin air and to be fair to them the pass and control that led to it, deserved it. An exquisite diagonal crossed field ball, is plucked from the sky by the attacker to the right of the goal, and almost in the same motion, he lets off a shot that is just over, very classy stuff, that so far today has been infrequently on show.

“Well done Bowers” shout the fans in the stand behind the goal, who are quick to leave it, probably off to join Tom in the queue for something to eat. The referee is escorted off the pitch by two BP stewards, with DT players flanking him on each side, trying to get their point about something over to him.

One passing BP fan, is surprised Darren is still here “you staying to the end this time? he asks. Darren has not been able to stomach the recent defeats, and by the sounds of it has been doing a runner, however his explanation would seem to contradict that, telling the person he “stayed” , however the passing fan is skeptical, “we thought you left”.

Hearing it read out over the tannoy, watching the results scroll across the bottom of the scoreboard, trying to make it out on the illuminated board being carried above the head of the woman doing a lap of the pitch, confronted by a man with a clipboard like a holiday rep, are all ways I’ve learned of my loss in the raffle, 50/50 or golden goal, but overhearing someone on the phone next to me, who's just been rung to be congratulated, is an all time painful low. “Sorry Dan” says Darren after learning he just won a bottle of wine.

With an arm full of crisps, but still managing to carry a pint and not spill a drop, the mascot rancher is returning to the game, just after kick off, with some Walkers calming aids for the manic kids. He better hurry though, because one of them just brained himself on something metal, that sounded like something from a Vic & Bob routine.

“You're in” shouts a BP player to the forward bearing down on goal, who wins a good battle with his marker, rounds the keeper, but goes a little wide, his shot ending up in the side netting, “great stuff Knighty” says a team mate, to the player obviously frustrated not to have got on the score sheet.

Although its only £9 to get in, some people are still trying to sneak a peek of the action for free, peering over the wall behind us, instead of coming in. Spotted by one paying customer they are jokingly branded “cheapskates”. Not splashing the cash might have something to do with the faint whiff of smoke, “can you smell BBQ?” asks Tom, maybe they are too busy tending to the sausages. Whether you are inside or on top of a step ladder getting a freebie, all you will see is wave after wave of red and white attack, BP are non stop.

“Love that” comments Tom, who shares my affection of a fine cross and a good headed goal, although the header is not a goal, but a knock down to a well positioned player right on the edge of the six yard box, who BP think was impeded and they appeal for a penalty, but it's waved away. “You don't know what you're doing” chant the kids, the crisps must be finished, because the drum is back out.

When for the umpteenth time BP get the ball out wide, the player tries a first time cross which goes a little wayward to say the least, a teammate reminding him “you've got 100’s of time”, you what?

“I told you they would implode” says the oracle, as BP rack up their third. “Finish it, finish it” demands a team mate to the player one on one with the keeper, and there was little doubt he would do just that, Tom commenting what a “composed” finish it was, as the ball rolls into the net.

A physical team certainly, but BP are a football playing one too, their well worked throw in routine, nearly bags them a forth. The ball hurled to the man on the near post, who flicks it towards the center of the box. With his back to the goal, the player hooks a shot over his shoulder, and gets a pantomime “ohhhh” from the fans, and a few bangs on the drum from the mini ultras “Bowers, Bowers”, with it just going over.

Manor will no doubt be slamming the scotch in his John McClane Die Hard vest to help him get over missing a golden opportunity. Crossed in from out wide again, he watches his free header, that he knows full well he should've tucked away, tamely drop into the keepers arms. After remonstrating with himself, he thanks the crosser for his pinpoint accuracy.

Tom is starting to feel the strain of all this standing up, fidgeting on the spot he tells me of his “stiff back” as he tries his best to stretch it out. He is though not suffering as much as one fan just along from us appears to be, who is near enough horizontal, feet way back behind him on a step, his hands and chest on the railing around the pitch, he is mid yoga session.

BP continue to get in good positions, working the ball well to the forwards, but can’t get the fourth to crown their fine performance.

DT momentarily silence the crowd, for what must be the first time today, after a succession of attempts batter the BP woodwork. First a fine free kick is over the wall, but it cannons off the upright sending the ball back in to the box, the rebound is latched onto quickly by a visitor in green who unleashes a second attempt, that hits the bar, rebounds down, looks to hit the foot of the other post, sending the ball back up in the air, allowing the keeper, who until now has been a spectator, to claim it, all while the original free kick taker, with his head in his hands, still cant believe his shot did not go in.

If that wasn't proof enough that it’s just not going to be DT's day, that notion is compounded when one of their players running for a ball, doesn't reach it, but is going at such a rate, he can’t stop himself, and his momentum takes him over the hoarding. The referee dashes towards where the accidental gymnastics took place, only for the player to appear, unhurt, vault back over and onto the pitch like nothing had happened, before he can even get there.

“Oh I felt a drop” says Tom, as not long after his predicted time of four o’clock rain, do the grey clouds produce, and although we are about to get wet, he is too busy being smug that his obsessive checking of his weather app, paid off. The fact it’s raining has not been lost on the mascots either, who are now tearing around like something from a Peter Kay sketch, each one screaming “it’s raining” as they dash for the cover of the stand.

Things don't get any better for DT, along with the rain, it’s their turn to miss a free header, then they have a free kick, which Tom is only able to describe as “dog shit”. BP then get a fourth, another header this time from a free kick, which puts the rubber stamp on the near perfect home team display. One of the kids behind the goal, gives making up his own chant ago, he's not going to win any prizes for creativity, but it's to the point, "we are Bowers, we are good".

“Come on you reds” shouts someone for the last time, as the light rain, turns into proper rain, so much so it's now sending the adults scattering for cover, us included. DT have the last effort of the match, a wild and high shot that the BP keeper, suggests to the player responsible, that he can do that “all day” if he likes.

“Not too shabby” says a chuffed looking Wayne walking across the pitch towards us and despite the rain and the waiting crowd, wanting to clap their team off, Rob holds the team back for a post match debrief.

After a massive hot dog, a bag of crisps and a go on a drum, surely the obvious way for a 12 year old to finish the day, is with a drink in the bar. The mascots can't get past us quick enough, a couple of them screaming, “let’s get drunk”.

Just like the players did before the game, the kids now surround the pool table, the draw of pinging the cue ball off the cushions, is to hard resist. With the players changed into their tracksuits, ready to have some of the chilli con carne, which Wayne kindly offered us some of, many of the little ones congratulate their older and much taller heroes, “played Manor”.

I sometimes wonder if we are too positive, too glowing about the teams and grounds we go to, for once should I take off my rose tinted glasses, that I endlessly go on about and look at what we are doing in the stark cold light of  modern Brexit Britain?

I could and even if I did, I don't think it would change my opinion of a genuinely very special club, who all the way from the top to the bottom, from the volunteers like Darren and Julia who make things tick, to the staff and players, they've always have had time for us. A club that has never hesitated in giving two amateurs with a shared passion, some amazing opportunity's and experiences, and has never once asked for anything in return.

We have received some remarkable welcomes over the last couple of years, met some wonderful people and been bowled over by some unselfish generosity, but few if any can rival a Bowers welcome, just don't ask them for any music recommendations!

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE

'LIKE' us on Facebook

 Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our YouTube channel

Follow us on Instagram - @beautifulgame15 - @beautifulgame15_ultra_stickers - @tomsparks3 #beautifulgame15

Monday, 3 April 2017

Minute By Minute - Tottenham Hotspur FC Vs Southampton FC, Premier League, White Hart Lane (19/03/17)

It’s an early start this morning, which on a Sunday is against everything I stand for. However, the combination of a Skype call to China, finishing the previous games blog and the anticipation of today's match, means I’m sitting at my desk with the sun barely up, talking at a baby in Bejing with a mug in my hands with COYS written across it, counting down the minutes to kick off.

I retrace my footsteps of a journey I’ve done a hundred times before, that I could probably do blindfolded. Seats on the bus are quickly filled with hat and scarf wearing fans, each stop closer we get, the fuller it gets with blue and white wearing supporters, one old fella, with a scarf on that looks older than me.

The short bus ride to Wood Green, the W3 passing by Haringey Borough FC where the weekly car boot sale is in full swing, where I once got a very nice Spurs egg cup, passing the sea cadets with its curious artillery piece outside, and before I can recount almost being killed this morning by a wanker in a BMW for the millionth time, I am under the bridge serving White Hart Lane station.

I can't see White Hart Lane yet, I'm not quite there all I can see are cranes, a multitude of blue Spurs branded cranes, that must be visible for miles.

It was a brisk January afternoon twenty years ago when I first came here, to watch Spurs take on Sheffield Wednesday. Right behind the goal, with a view of mostly net and a whole lot of Kevin Pressman, it was a 1 - 1 draw, punctuated with sausage and chips, pie based insults towards the portly keeper, all capped off with the friend I went with being run over. It was a strange, and exciting day that drew me into a lifelong obsession.

I round the corner, the grubby White Hart Lane road sign, the tarpaulin roofed stalls selling the same old gear, just different players, the chicken shop and touts “spare tickets, got any spare tickets” they say in their ‘I’m saying this, but not saying this’ kind of voice, are all familiar, standard parts of the match day jigsaw, except it’s all distorted by the backdrop, which suddenly makes everything that is before me, totally unrecognisable.

A long fence separates the pavement from the developments on the other side, perhaps an attempt to distract from the demolishing of our one hundred and eighteen year old ground, it's covered in memorable moments: the double winning side, that performance against Inter Milan in the Champions League, reference to being the first British side to win a European trophy. They do their job well, buts its hard not to imagine, what's going on just the width of some plywood away.

I’m not the only one who thinks things are different, although one passing fan is talking about slightly more recent changes. “Less helicopters than last week” he says, the scuffling with police and the bottle throwing between idiots of both Spurs and Millwall, has been replaced with red and white striped wearing fans of Southampton FC (SFC).

“Match day programme £3.50” says the young lady from behind her portable stall, set up in the vaulted cement ceilings of the soon to be new ground, “enjoy the match” she says once I’ve handed over my money. Tom, yes Tom is here, yes the same Tom who is an Arsenal fan, he got here very early, and is leading me along with a ‘you've gotta see this’ look in his eye.

“It’s a monster” is how one of the many people standing, head tilted backwards, gawping up at the skeleton of the catchily named ‘Northumberland Development Project’, describes it. He’s not wrong, even thought its just the shell, that one day will be a 61,000 seater stadium, it's clear it’s going to be colossal.

“Never been in a stadium that's not finished” says Tom, from our unique position of looking at it from the inside out. I’m guessing not many people have, unless you wear a hardhat for a living or you happen to be Abou Diaby, circa 2016. Standing “technically on the pitch now” as Tom puts it, for a person who is very, very rarely lost for words, I find it difficult to articulate my feelings about what I’m looking at, I’m stumped.

Climbing the many stairs to the upper tier of the West Stand, Tom whose only visit to White Hart Lane, was an away day, when Rafael van der Vaart ruined his visit or as he remembers it “the day we broke Sagna’s leg” he cottons on pretty quickly to the kind of clientele that frequent this part of the ground, “bit wifty round here”. Not renowned for its atmosphere, and not my first choice of somewhere to sit, I’m just grateful to be here, on what is likely to be my last ever match at White Hart Lane.

Lets just say the last minute Chelsea winner from the previous day playing on many TV’s dotted around the concourse, is not exactly well received. Tom Huddlestone's straight red card gets a short sharp intake of breath though the teeth, from those who moments ago were cursing the image of a swinging Italian manger of them lot from West London.

My eagerness to soak up as much of today as possible means we are well early for the Sky dictated Super Sunday, bizarre kick-off of 14:15, which means Tom is torn “I might go and get some food, I’m hungry and can't wait until half time”. Not that I’m really listening to his food based dilemma, I’m studying the huge scar gouged out of the stand opposite, giving all who can see it, a glimpse of the future.

“We have team news” says the voice of the stadium announcer who has been ever present in my time coming here, as much of a fixture at White Hart Lane as the golden cockerel that tops the east stand opposite.

Tom returns, and he's not best pleased, “probably the worst thing I've ever bought” says the person who once ate what you might describe as an onion sandwich. He shows me what looks like a hotdog, kind of smells like a hotdog, but by all accounts, doesn't taste like a hot dog, however in the next breath, he tells me it “don’t taste too bad”.

SFC players are first out onto the hallowed turf, their considerable pocket of red and white fans, to our left come to life, their players applaud their noisy welcome, Spurs are not long behind them. Tom is currently in a state of confusion, but I’m not sure if it’s not knowing where to put his drink, “they stole my lid” he explains, because anywhere he does put it, he fears it will get knocked over or the fact that Deli Alli has come out for the warm up, “wearing gloves”.

Following the home players, is the home mascot and a band of flag waving children or “Chirpys parade” as the ever present voice calls it. The Spurs mascot, someone I met once, sans outfit, who was a proper thespian, with a hint of Van Helsing about him, is not an incongruous t-shirt firing dinosaur, but a large cockerel or “pigeon” as my compadre describes him. Personally I would rather have a ‘pigeon’ any day, than something a marketing guru came up with, because it was the only way they could get ‘Gunner’ into the name, without having a walking AK47. Unless I’m wrong, but I don't think there is a diplodocus hiding behind that poxy cannon, is there?

Tom can't help but slip in a sly dig at every opportunity, even after the line of the song playing “it's gonna be the best day of my life” he can't help but ask, “is it?”. When we spot what looks like a scout, notebook out, both teams line ups on what looks like Barcelona headed paper, Tom assumes he must be here to, “scout Southampton”. At least that was a bit funny, “you liked that one?” he asks me. I put the rest of his bullshit quips about ornithology and the quality of our players, down to being a bit out of his comfort zone, his fight or flight mechanism.

He might be a Gooner, but he is a sensitive one, I’m convinced that him asking me on numerous occasions if I’m going to “cry” or if I’m “welling up” are coming from a sensitive and heart felt place and his kind and considerate mood knows no bounds today, when he sees as I do a man securing his programme in a ziplock bag, a gentleman who clearly shares my ethos of anally making sure it gets home pristine, he tells me “that's what you need”.

“Good afternoon gentleman” says someone arriving behind us, one of which has an unmistakable whiff of tuna, that persisted throughout the whole day, as with every passing minute the stadium steadily fills up. The large yellow premier League logo on the centre circle is folded away, the temporary goals are dismantled and both teams have left back down the tunnel below us, leaving only the substitutes on the pitch, having a kick about.

I’m not sure there is much more I can write about the intro played before games here, I have gushed about it so much already, I don't think there is an aspect of it I have not eulogised about in previous blogs. Today it is the words of the black and white Jimmy Greaves “well they're the finest team in Great Britain, and one of the best in the world”, that gets me, I tell Tom if anything is going to make me cry, it is likely to be that.

Just like Wembley a few weeks before, the montage gives way to a ticking cockerel and the music Spurs play as the teams arrive, Tom more used to seeing a line of grinning air stewardesses, says it's all “very dramatic”.

Even as the teams shake hands, going through the pre match necessities, people continue to stream in. Spurs line up for a team photo, the many mascots in front of them. Once it's been taken, each player removes his jacket, places it on the shoulder of their allocated youngster, and sends them on their way, “nice touch” says Tom, something Spurs penetrating his thick Arsenal hide just a fraction.

As I have done many times before, the game started, kick off complete, half of the pitch in shadow, half in bathed in sunlight, I let out a loud, ‘come on you Lillywhites’.

Spurs get off to a blistering start, “what a ball that was” says someone nearby, impressed by the quality of the pass, that is hastily cleared for a corner, the promising opening moments kicking the crowd up a gear “COME ON YOU SPURS”.

Even though we look threatening early on, without the focal point of he who is one of our own, Spurs are just not looking as deadly as they could be.

The drum in the opposite corner beats out the rhythm that dictates the chant, “Yids, Yids, Yids”. A change of song, “Arsene Wenger we want you to stay” prompts one person to pose an interesting, Newsnight'esq question among the group behind us, “who do you think will last longer, Corbin or Wenger?”. The SFC fans not impressed with the level of singing ask “is this the Emirates?”, which is quickly drowned out with,“Spurs are on their way to Wembley”.

Who needs Kane when you've got the Dane, Eriksen, who crowns off the mounting Spurs pressure with a fine goal from outside of the box with just fourteen minutes on the clock. “Oh when the Spurs” rings out for the first time, but it's too fast, a chant best done low, slow. The SFC fans soon reply “Oh when the Saints”, they sing, when they finish with their version, they remind the home crowd “we are Southampton, we sing our own songs”.

The visitors first chance is also from long range, that has a bit more umph than Eriksen's effort, “I thought that was on” comments someone behind us, “so did Hugo, that’s why he dived” replies someone else.

Tom is just about coping, he's not had a breakdown yet, he’s just about keeping his Arsenal’ness under wraps, but just hopes he doesn't have to witness some grandstand performance, “as long as it's not 5-0” he’ll be OK. I was here when we put seven past SFC once, in the Hoddle era, so I can only hope we can really mark his visit with a masterclass and the way Dembele is gliding around in his unstoppable manner, it looks like we could be in for a barn burner.

SFC’s fans are still far from impressed by the lack of singing, asking this time if White Hart Lane is a “library?”. Puzzled by the fact it's so quiet, even though we are ahead, “1 - 0 and you still don't sing”.

The two young guys next to Tom, who look far too similar not to be brothers, are their very own commentary double act, dishing out advice, praise and disapproval in equal measure from our lofty position. When Lloris busts a gut to prevent a back pass going for a corner, sliding along, leaving the pitch, but still managing in his mercurial French way to keep the ball in play, making sure it never leaves, they seem to share some kind of collective football orgasm, to be fair to them though, it was kind of awesome.

Older, but equally vocal, more of a think tank than excitable Latin American commentators, the group behind us are collectively sensing that “Christian (Eriksen) is going to get another”.

It’s not the Scandinavian whose hair suggests he is over seventy, but in fact he’s only twenty five who nearly scores the second, but it’s another player denied only by the robust pillar sized shins of SFC's keeper, that stops Spurs doubling their lead. The prospect of another goal starts a call and response chant between two neighbouring parts of the stadium, “we’re the park lane” sing one side, “we’re the shelf side” reply the other. Will such singing be possible in a couple of seasons time? “We’re the lower VIP circle two” doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

SFC’s players are growing increasingly frustrated, one picks up a yellow card for his petulant reaction to the awarding of a foul, one close by steward suggesting its “just because you're losing, neh, neh, neh, neh” regressing momentarily into a large 1950’s school boy in a high viz jacket.

I know it's not a trait unique to Spurs supporters, but they do seem quicker than the average fan, not to necessarily turn on the team, but be quick to start grumbling. SFC go close twice in quick succession, I know how dare they, the second follows a good cross, and a knock down that finds the player a few yards out unmarked in front of goal, who manages somehow to blaze over.

It looked to be a certain goal, the reaction of those around us, me included is of reprieve. One comment from behind us is a little bizarre, taking the slight swing in Spurs fortune a little too far, “it's like an end of season game, they just don’t care” it’s not like they have gone full St James Park, it was only two chances.

The away team's new danger man Gabbiadini is down injured, “he's done his groin” announces one of the old boys behind us, a little baffled at how he could possibly know that from all the way up here, one asks him “how do you know that Geoff?”.

What were they all worrying about, because on the half hour mark, Spurs double their lead from the penalty spot. Deli Alli’s pirouette in the box that preceded the goal, was judged by the referee to have been assisted by a SFC player, so he pointed to the spot, however Tom was skeptical, “really?”.

“We've got Alli, Deli Alli” sing the crowd, as SFC kick off again. A big long ball forward from the away side, prompts the bizarrest remark from one of the men behind us, who continue to come out with some gold, on this occasion some slightly casually racist gold, “he's Irish, he'll run for everything”.

Looking dapper in his dark suit, Pochettino deserves every rendition of the songs that proclaims “he's magic”. Delighted I’m sure of what we think of him, he like everyone else understands the importance of the next goal, “we must get a third”. All too many times, not so much recently, but recently enough to still make one shudder, a two goal lead did not always mean a certain win, a little bit of a buffer is never a bad thing.

“Hello, hello we are the Tottenham boys, and if you are an Arsenal fan, surrender or you’ll die”, I turn to Tom, not a peep.

Dembele's back at it again, his leggy, elegant, wonderfulness is really a sight to behold, his latest tackle is appreciated by the fans, “oh Moussa Dembele”. His ability to shield the ball, and move it forwards, without ever seeming likely to loose it, is a joy to watch. He shrugs off the opposition, swatting away those who get too close to him, the child steward now fully grown again, regresses once more, this time into an aging mythical wizard, “you shall not pass”. I on the other hand am unable to channel the Tolkien creation or Sir Ian McKellan, so just shout ‘he’s a God’ in Tom’s face.

Into the final five of the half, some aren't sticking around, one man is off, telling his friends “want to get in the front of the queue for a cup of tea”, Tom who is also normally hot footing it by now, is so troubled by the hot dog, he’s staying put.

“What class” heralds one fan after the deftly dinked ball behind the SFC defense, that is almost latched onto for a third. Just as classy, and beautiful in its own way is the Alderweireld block with his face, that prevents the ball getting into the box.

Tom had every reason to want to leave, the duo next to him are in overdrive, “forward”, “Alli, “long”, they have been reduced to one word statements, unable to form complete sentences, Tom has christened them “minute by minute”.

SFC finish the half ever so slightly on top, their woeful free kick, just outside of the box, fortunately ricochets back to them, presenting them with a second chance. This time the shot is a lot fiercer and on target, Lloris is forced into a smart save, palming it back out. In the scramble to win back the ball or clear it, depending on your shirt colour, one SFC players goes down as one person puts it “like he's broken both his legs”. With the player apparently ‘injured’, and being the good sports that we are, Spurs in possession, knock it into touch, to a chorus of less than sympathetic “boooos”.

Not unsurprisingly he is soon back up on his feet. One person nearby had gone as far as starting to plan his funeral, such was the way he went down, “I was already arranging the Shiva”. Running around like nothing had happened, acting like all his yelping and screaming, was quite legitimate, with not an ounce of visible shame about his theatrics, one fans suggests “you think he would limp a bit for the first two minutes”.

Players off, sprinklers on, no 50/50 draw to occupy me through the break, instead a grey haired wander down memory lane, with the introduction of some the members of the 1967 FA Cup winning side. Black and white footage of the victory over Chelsea plays out on the big screen, as one by one the blue blazer wearing Tottenham greats are introduced to the crowd.

“Mullery”, “Mike England”, “Cliff Jones” the original ‘Welsh Wizard’ “Joe Kinnear” who I just want to shout Ameobi at, “Jennings” who has the largest pair of hands I’ve ever seen, shaking them made mine look like that of a newborn baby, Tom in his professional capacity, comments on his unshakable silver mane, “best haircut I’ve ever seen”.

When Alan Gilzean is asked how Spurs will fair against Chelsea at Wembley for the FA Cup semi final he gives a short to the point reply, “the team will do what we did”. Kinnear sends the nostalgic’ometer into meltdown, not a regular visitor to the Lane, like a lot of the old boys who are club ambassadors, he seems genuinely chuffed to be here, which is clear from his reply, first when he’s asked what it's like to be back, “magnificent” he says, and then and most touching when he is asked how he reflects on his time playing for Spurs, “the only team I wanted to play for”.

Mike England gets the biggest cheer, as the interviews are brought to an end, when he’s asked what it was like beating our London rivals in the final, “beating Chelsea is a pleasure anytime”.

Although he didn't go to get food, Tom did pop off at half time to the loo. Returning with a tale about an adult using the box for that children use, so they can reach urinal.

SFC are back out, led by their absolute unit of a keeper, “he’s a beast of a man” says Tom. When
Spurs reappear it's to the cheery Irish tune of Macnamara's band.

Spurs start the new half with a bit more purpose than they ended the first, Deli Alli is impressing, his “second nutmeg” in short succession, has the crowd purring. Eriksen is again in a good position and he’s urged to “shoot, shoot, shoot” by the crowd, but when he does, he misses, they are straight on his back “oh rubbish”, “he saw too much glory before hitting it”. Son playing in the centre of the front three, is not anywhere near as physical as Kane, but I find it difficult to take from an Arsenal fan, whose players are made of angel hair pasta, when Tom suggests he’s “fragile”.

SFC’s fans are getting a bit desperate, calling for “handball” at every ball that leaves the ground, this soon leads to the home fans joining in, “handball, handball, handball” they shout in reply to the ball merely being kicked.

“Sleeping again!” says someone as SFC get back in the game just before the hour. Annoyed shouts of “come on Spurs” are drowned out by the visitors celebrating, “oh when the Saints. We nearly reinstate our two goal lead, straight away, the cries of “come on Tottenham” a lot more positive than the dissatisfied ones of before.

Since the goal, almost all fluidity has drained from Spurs’s game, passes are going astray and for once I agree with “minute by minute” when they demand the players move the ball “quicker”. Instead of trying to push forward, Spurs default into their passing it back to Lloris routine, “stop messing around at the back” shouts someone. It certainly keeps possession, but can seem a little negative, “we’re doing this now?” asks someone rhetorically in full huff mode.

Buoyed on by the foothold in the game, the visiting fans are in good voice, “Southampton, Southampton” they sing followed again by “oh when the Saints”, but no way are you coming here and singing that one louder than us, plagiarism or no plagiarism. Once again they are soon hushed “COME ON YOU SPURS”.

There is almost a riot among his friends when one man utters “bring on Janssen”. I’m in the ‘give him time’ camp, but those nearby are clearly not. His advocate makes a good point “he can hold the ball up”, however unless its about the 85th minute, I just don’t see Pochettino rolling that dice quite yet.

The bloke we think is a scout, seems to know his onions, doing that kind of arm movement that only managers do, when without words they try to explain the notion that firstly, Spurs have no width, and that they are too narrow. Expansive bombing down the wings, is such a huge part of our game and the lack of it, is turning the moaners into mentalists, “come on Spurs get hold of this”. ‘Minute by minute’ are now giving exact, minute positional directions to the players, and are driving Tom up the wall. When a free kick is given against Spurs, both are on their feet, arms flailing “what was that!”
Some Spurs are positively psychopathic, in one breath they are praising the team, “that's the football” someone says after a slick move, but in the next breath they are back to running them down, the buildup is “too slow” or in fact “it's not slow its laboured”. One person suggests the team are just reflecting the mood of the supporters “crowd is hungover, the team in hungover”.

Lloris the most unflappable of players, at one point looks to his teammates, with not one of them showing for the ball, with his arms out, waiting for someone to make a move. “Its got too easy for them”, Spurs have dropped right off the pace, one fan takes to his feet and barks a request at the manager, “come on Poch make a change”.

The manager does just that, but it’s not the introduction of the Dutchman Janssen. Lloris is called over to the sideline in a break in play, Dier is down, the fans remind him that they “love” him, to give him some instructions. Tom who has eased off the wisecrack's looks a bit bored, one of the four grumbleateer's behind me then uses a phrase, that along with the constant smell of tuna, is enough to make you wretch, “a very Spursy performance”.

Still with quarter of an hour left, people are starting to leave, not a chance in hell you would catch me doing that. I might have a Gooner in tow, but I’m not going to leave early, because I want to avoid the queue at the station.

Looking at Tom again, I wonder if it’s not in fact boredom, it’s been an OK match, he’s seen some goals, but instead perhaps he has gone into a zen like state. ‘Minute by Minute’ have gone nuclear, yapping away non stop, someone could do them a huge favour and explain the advantage rule to them, Tom just rolling his eyes at their slightly baffling interpretation.

“Yids, Yids, Yids” rumbles around the ground, a last rallying cry to help the team get over the line. The fans continue to descend into a morose place, with more shouts of “wake up Tottenham”, the passing has become increasingly sloppy and as one person puts it we're “not doing the simple things” correctly.

Harry Winks a second half substitute, the latest player to be dubbed “one of our own” gets in a spat on the far side of the pitch, “he's got a bit of a temper”. The SFC supporters are under the impression though that the referee Andre Marriner is also, “one of your own”, they are feeling a little bit hard done by. With the game coming to an end, and their team looking more and more likely to snatch a point, if it just wasn't for that pesky referee.

Despite supposedly having the man in charge on our side, one fan puts it best, with what earlier looked like a guaranteed three points, but is now on a knife edge, “why are we making it so hard for ourselves?”

He gets his wish, always fashionably late, coming on with about four minutes to play, Janssen is on for Eriksen, a player who scored a super goal and has been one of our better players today, but one fan states that “nothing was going right” for him. Maybe with the introduction of an out and out striker, that focal point we have been missing, and the kind of player Tom doesn't think “we have” any of, he might just snatch the all important third.

People still continue to take off, even with the game in such a fine balance, the win is no way secured, Tom whispers in my ear ”is there a fire drill”. One leaving fan who's seen enough says that today's performance has been, “so bloody Tottenham”.

Janssen as ever looks committed to the cause, if not a little bit of a headless chicken, he fires off a great shot, that is just kept out, it was heading straight to the top left hand corner.

The SFC fans finally get a decision their way, and erupt into sarcastic applause. With five minutes of extra time to be played, tensions and emotions are going through the roof, every little mistake by the players in white are jumped upon, people are livid. A massive cry of “come on you Spurs” goes up, which is matched for the first time by the away fans, “come on you Saints”.

I wonder again, as I have all day, if the things that I'm seeing and doing, all the little parts of my Spurs routine, are in fact going to be the last time I do and see them, in this great old place? Among shouts of “blow the whistle ref” there is finally a rendition of “oh when the Spurs” that is just about slow enough.

Showing their schizophrenic tendencies again, when “glory glory, Tottenham Hotspurs” is played on the final whistle, it can mean only one thing, we won. Most people, triggered by the music, are leaving in a good mood, but there are of course the odd few who are right to question why did it turn into such "hard work”, after what was such a gung ho start to the first half, one person asks a friend “why did we throw it away?” in the second.

We hang back, trying our best to ignore the less than polite nudges of the stewards to get out. I just want to see the empty blue seats and tall white columns of the east stand one last time. On leaving, the whole day is almost completely ruined by the BT Sports poster with a certain Gareth Bale staring back at me, in the wrong teams white kit, not cool.

Outside more stewards make it clear they don't want anyone hanging about, however I spot across the
car park a familiar face, from many moons ago, a parting gift from from the Tottenham Gods, and the perfect way to end the day.

Stumbling over my words like a prepubescent One Direction fan, the chance encounter with David Howells, has turned me into a gibbering wreck. Asking him for a picture, I scrabble around for one of our stickers, hoping that he will hold it. In a not to dissimilar encounter than between Indiana Jones and Adolph Hitler in The Last Crusade (I’M NOT SUGGESTING DAVID HOWELLS IS LIKE HITLER) Mr Howells interprets me presenting my sticker, like Indy with his father's journal, that I wanted it to be signed. Before I can finish my tragic story of telling him how one of the most embarrassing moments of my life was at his testimonial, when I fell over some seats in the ground, he has whipped out a sharpie from the inside pocket of his golden embroidered Tottenham blazer and has signed the sticker.

Part of me, the rose tinted, believer in many divine football deities part, feel's a great monument of the game I love so much has been desecrated, the great Archibald Leitch would be turning in his grave. However when I think on it more, I'm sure when we turned up in 1898 with all these 'crazy' ideas, people then probably said "hang on Archi, we'll have none of that" in horrified, but reserved Victorian voices, traditionalists then who didn't want to welcome change.

Sadly though in the great modern era, 36,000 tiny blue seats and obstructed views, are not going to win you the baubles, chalices and trophies we all covert so much. I understand that, I don't have rose tinted cataracts, just a swanky pair of rosey RayBan's. I get that the new Sainburys Dome is required, so we can get bums on seats, which means more revenue, better players, but at what cost? Do we just become as bad as those South London nomads or the ones in the Olympic stadium, have we sold our soul, hoping that things are better on the other side, only time will tell.

I will miss White Hart Lane desperately, even though I'm too fat to be comfy there, it's been a very special place to me the last twenty years, a place that's given me memories that will stay with me for a lifetime, that can't be taken away, however many cranes or bulldozers you have.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE


'LIKE' us on Facebook

 Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our YouTube channel

Follow us on Instagram - @beautifulgame15 - @beautifulgame15_ultra_stickers - @tomsparks3 #beautifulgame15