Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.
With not even a month of 2017 gone, the world has already witnessed a major historical event, one that might join that list of such monumental happenings, that it will forever punctuate people’s lives, “I remember where I was when…….”,
Now don’t go and get ahead of yourself, I’m not talking about that micro handed buffoon, who unnecessarily mouthed “thank you” a lot, and quoted whether deliberately or not, a baddie from a Batman movie, no I’m talking about something much more seismic, I got a car.
I’m sure some of you might think, ‘but hang on Dan, you’re inadvertently sabotaging yourself, how will you now fill a large portion of the opening of your blog, with petty tales, of your hatred of public transport?’, and alas that has dawned on me, but do not fear concerned reader, I have not set fire to my Oyster card quite yet, and we will still be traveling on the train or bus, like the rest of you, again soon. However, having our own wheels means our horizons are now a little broader, and what better way to mark the arrival of our silver steed, than popping down to Essex, for the afternoon.
Before I am able to break free of the M25, I must navigate the Holloway Road, alone, with only the sound of my beating heart for company, as I do everything in my power, not to kill or be killed, on the way to pick up Tom.
Having only taken one wrong turn, ended up down one dead end, and been glared at by one cyclist, I feel it was a successful journey, on my arrival at Tom’s swanky converted shipping container, grass roofed, flat, in London’s fashionable Dalston.
No longer having to rely on scribbled directions on a piece of paper on the passenger seat, Tom turns out to be quite a proficient navigator, with a little help from the lady on his phone, he relays her instructions well, and an hour later, we are making our way through an Essex housing estate, but not before we pass a woman in the road clearing up after a crash, “why’s she got a broom?” asks Tom, and a zombie apocalypse car, covered in fake blood, and with a severed hand, decorating the front grill.
The car park of the Len Salmon Stadium, home of Bowers & Pitsea FC, is one we have been in before, although it was summer then, today it’s crisp and frosty, but it’s a ground we’ve never watched a game in. Our last visit, was not for our other blog, ‘Non League Carparks’, but because it was the staging post for the coach, which took us, and the team to the Essex Senior League Cup Final in 2015.
Bowers are a team, who in the short time we have been doing what we do, we have shared some big highs, as well as some big lows with, and today was our chance to finally see them at home, after watching them three times, all away. For one reason or another, whenever we try to come, something occurs, an inevitable spanner in the works, illness, train strike, family emergency, and today is no different, in fact I would be suspicious, if it was all plain sailing. Today the culprit, a frozen pitch.
We arrive to a scene of much mulling, the players and staff of Bowers, in a group on the pitch, as a frankly over dressed referee in a blue suit and pointy brown shoes, walks the side of the pitch, which lies the shadow of the main stand, that is currently rock hard, conducting his inspection.
Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Robbie Williams explodes over the sound system, serenading a near empty ground. When the away team arrives, bolstering Robbie’s audience a little, they quickly dump their kit bags, and are soon on the pitch, looking it over, themselves. Some producing keys from their pockets, and giving the surface a prod, some just doing the age old, ‘smash your heel into it’ routine.
“There’s a couple of faces I recognise” says the ever smiling, Rob Small, Bowers manager. His prognosis is less than positive, “not hopeful” he tells us. They are waiting on the arrival of the club groundsman, Darren, to see if he can work his magic. “Brush it”, “water it” are all things Rob tells us might work, or they have tried, I’m sure I even saw on Twitter, a picture of a pitch with running cars on it, to thaw out the ground, anything to make sure the game can go ahead. The rest of it is “perfect”, adds Rob, it’s just the thin strip, holding us all to ransom.
Darren soon arrives, and unless he can “move the sun a bit”, he doesn’t think there is much chance of the referee letting things go ahead, he tells us the man in change is going to “put his boots on” and give it one last check, but not until he’s “had his coffee”. One arriving fan has his own drastic suggestion, “just cut this off, then we’re on”, he says, pointing to the roof of the stand, that is currently blocking out the sun.
Now with more appropriate footwear on than before, his winkle pickers back in the changing room, the referee and his assistants run the line, but it’s soon clear that we are not going to be breaking our Bowers hoodoo today, “destined not to see a game here” says Darren, today at least he is right, but much like the Terminator, we will be back, hopefully in a cool, second movie kind of way, and not an old, and kind of embarrassing third and fourth movie kind of way.
The away team, notified of the cancellation, quickly shift their focus from the game. On our way to the car, we hear a very loud suggestion from one player, of going “down the pub”. We on the other hand, will not be heading to the nearest ‘Dog & Duck’, but must see if we can rescue today, and find another game.
Deeper into Essex, towards the coast, via a multitude of roundabouts, that I traverse with varying levels of success. The pot holed, gravelly car park of Canvey Island FC (CI), is already reasonably full, manned by what I think is a father and son team, both in matching orange high viz, the boy a smaller carbon copy of his Dad.
The entrance to Park Lane is a contrast of old and new, what looks like a brand spanking new clubhouse and turnstile, sit just in front of the Danny Green Community Stand, an uncovered concrete terrace, with yellow railings. On the side, it’s easy to miss a mark showing the “sea level”, which is about four foot off the ground, and is I’m sure, making today our first ‘subaquatic’ match.
Like lizards on a rock, most people are spread out on the pale grey steps of the terrace, a natural sun trap, because despite the clear blue sky, with not a cloud in sight, it iss bitterly cold, and they are a small haven for those wanting to keep their core body temperature above ‘0’.
“They got Bovril”, says Tom as we pass the ‘Food Bar’, outside it among the familiar local Essex twang, we hear a few not so common broad Lancashire one’s, a few Bolton fans whose game at Southend, was also scuppered, have made their way here.
There are a mixture of children hovering around the entrance of the pitch, moments before kick off below a faded sign, “Welcome to Park Lane” , imagine like at the top of the steps at Anfield, just more seagully. There are those appropriately dressed for the weather, done up to the nines in winter coats, waiting for autographs, and there are the rest, today’s mascots. A mixture of the clubs and Benfleet FC’s, under sevens, all in shorts and shirts, who are jogging on the spot, trying their best to keep warm.
“Welcome the teams out”, says a voice not dissimilar to Deputy Dog, over the tannoy, a little melancholic, and it’s greeted with the distant high pitched hoot of an air horn, which in turn is followed by a mention of today’s sponsors, “T.I.T., Trotters, Independent, Traders”.
Both teams huddle, a column of steam rises from them both, “it’s warm up here” says a relieved fan behind us, the terrace most definitely the place to be, until the flip of the coin that is, and the teams change halves. “Other end we go” says a miffed Bognor Regis Town FC (BR) fan, who I imagine quite fancied at least one half in the sun, but now has to go and stand in the shade.
“Still 0 – 0 a minute after kick off” are the fateful words of one CI supporter, delighted that his team are yet to concede, though this is short lived, and not long after a chorus of “come on Canvey” from a group at the back of the terrace, banging on its wall, CI go a goal behind, and the mood quickly changes. “Gonna be 8 – 0” says one particularly pessimistic fan, “two minutes in!” says another exasperatedly.
CI currently lie twenty third in the Ryman Premier League, BR first, “could be a long afternoon”, suggests one supporter. Another seems to think the writing is already on the wall, telling a friend, that they will at least have the “best clubhouse in the Ryman North”, that’s the league below the one they’re currently in.
Despite their early setback, CI slowly but surely, get back into the game, and find no difficulty in creating numerous half chances. A hooked shot from inside the box clips the face of the crossbar, “most excitement we’ve had in about a year and a half”, announces one fan. The current score though doesn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the small group behind us, who continue to bang the wall, and cheer on their team, “Canvey, Canvey”. I must admit this is far more agreeable, than the BR air horns, or tortured woodland creatures they are manipulating to create a quite ghastly noise, which is already wearing a little thin. It’s ear piercing squeal, is normally preceded by a shout of, “green army”.
“Want one of the world’s hardest sweets” offers my companion, on his return from the tuck shop, where we watched the first goal go in, whilst queuing for his tea, and pre made sandwich bag of pick and mix. The mood of those also in the line was far from optimistic, with one small child not pulling any punches, “we’re gonna get battered”.
BR think they have scored again, but it’s chalked off, for offside, quite to the relief of the home fans, whose team almost score themselves, only for the chance to be missed, a “fucking free header”, quoting I think, the Harry Redknapp manual of coaching, CI continue to create chances, and are getting in good positions, but just can’t capitalise.
A clearance from the BR keeper, cannons off the rear end of a CI player, sending the ball looping towards the goal, all eyes are fixed on it, willing it in, but it’s just over, landing on the roof of the net, “ohhhhhh”. “Come on Canvey, it’s gonna come”, shouts the flat cap wearing man next to me, encouragingly, who has continued since the start, with his positive vibes.
It’s CI that are playing the better football, they are more than able to string a few quick passes together, but as Tom quite rightly puts it “they need someone who can shoot”. The slick play, has caught one fan off guard, “whats going on?” he asks out loud, one is so delirious, a madness brought on, by his team’s efforts, he goes as far as to suggest, “it’s like watching Brazil”.
“Yellows, yellows” sing the fans, buoyed by the team, who are also fed up with the BR supporters choice of instrument, “stick your air horn up your arse, from the first min to the last”, I wouldn’t dream of being so crass, but it really is annoying.
CI have a big shout for a penalty turned down, the referee waving away any claims of foul play, one fan suggesting the pull in the box, was so blatant, it was more like a, “fucking hug”.
Shortly before the half is over, the opinion of the home fans is that the BR keeper is already trying to buy his team a little time, “1 – 0 up, and you’re playing like this?”, “it’s embarrassing!” one bellows half over the railing, at the keeper who is making extra specially sure, that the ball is in the right place, for every goal kick.
“This the same team I’ve been watching?” asks one fan to another, who is so confused by the performance, of the team he supports, they have become unrecognisable. Again they get the ball in the right place, but again, can’t get it over the line, this time two players go for the same ball, just outside the six yard box, both missing, the ball eventually bouncing tamely into the keeper’s arms.
Regardless of where you are, there are a few almost certain things taking place, rituals if you like, at every football ground, around a quarter to four: the extra time is being worked out, the tea urn is getting a top up, a fresh batch of onions are going on the grill, and if it’s a game we are at, without fail, Tom is thinking about eating, “how’s the food here?” he ponders.
One person, already making his way to the bar, asks a fellow fan, “how are we not winning?”, the reply again, is like a cattle prod in the side of fate, much like the comment of the fan in the opening minutes of the game, “you’ve gotta take your chances”.
“Two shots, two goals” mutters someone, when BR score again with the half all but over, “fucking useless” mutters another. The man next to us, tries to see the best, of what has been a difficult half for the home team, “best we’ve played” he says quizzically, not sure after all those chances, how they are now two behind, which is nearly added to, BR though unable to make it three, from three.
Tom is off like a flash, abandoning me for the already snaking queue for food, which by the amount of people already returning getting their food on, is doing a roaring trade. I take a seat on a cold step, and watch a tanker, pootle up the Thames estuary, which lies just beyond the opposite goal. We have enjoyed our view from the peak of the terrace so much, as well as Tom insisting on taking advantage, of every last ray of sunshine, we ignore, normal non league protocol of swapping ends for the second half, and decide to stay put.
‘Morning Glory’ by Oasis, is momentarily interrupted by the stadium announcer, informing all of the imminent draw of the 50/50. I remove the bright yellow tickets from my notebook, and cross my fingers that I can get my hands on the “£86” on offer. Yeah right, new year, same old shit.
The Stone Roses replace there fellow Mancunians, still on my own, I pass the time, taking a series of Instagram worthy shots of the sun dipping over the roofs of the nearby houses that surround us on three sides, and finally disappearing down behind the yellow and blue stand, that runs along the side of the pitch.
Shouts of “Canvey”, have been replaced with shouts of, “come on you rocks” and the abundance of yellow and blue, has now been replaced by green and white, which is of course accompanied by the horns, which on closer inspection, are not air horns, as you would know it, but what looks like a bicycle pump, used very much in the same way you would to re-inflate a tire, but instead producing its signature sound.
There is a familiar symmetry between the start of the second half, to the start of first, except that the pale blue sky, has now turned many hues of orange, pink and purple, one might even say Turner esq, get me, very high brow. CI craft a chance, don’t take it, then BR score early again.
When I use the word ‘lanky’, don’t think I’m trying to be offensive, or demeaning, but it’s really the best way to describe the scorer of BR’s third, their number 9. Tall, athletic, rangy, raw, would also be suitable adjectives to sum up the forward, who gets a bit of luck with a deflection, to grab his goal. He is the point at the tip of the BR attack, and by the end of the day, will have done a thoroughly good job of single handedly terrorizing the CI defence.
Slowly descending into a pit of self loathing, the stadium announcer, who had admittedly sounded a little dispirited before, I’m sure he would just like to read out a CI goal scorer, once in a while, now sounds distraught. Confirming the name of the most recent scorer, and the time of his goal, with a noticeable deflated tone, he sounds like he is all but ready to go home.
Once again a shout of “green army” goes up, one BR fan is spot on when he says almost apologetically after his team have furthered their lead, that CI “played well in the first half”, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce, as he put it, they just, “didn’t take their chances”. There is a single cry of “come on Canvey” from the estuary end, but as one BR fan puts it, it’s a “bit late for that”.
It’s hard not to be hypnotized by the slow moving boats, floating past silently, combined with the ever plummeting temperature, I find myself slumping into a kind of glazed state. Thankfully the continuous noise of the BR horns, stop me going fully catatonic and Tom noticing my hands are turning a shade of blue, he offers me a tiny pair of what I imagine are child’s gloves, that are so tight, it’s more comfortable not to wear them, and to expose my extremities to Mother Nature.
There is suddenly a moment of controversy off the pitch, a flashback to a bygone era of football hooliganism, when the local hard nuts, a couple of kids maybe no older than fourteen, infiltrate the BR end, decry that they “hate Bognor”, and then quickly revert to type, running away, like children playing knock down ginger.
“Save” says almost everyone, me included, when BR’s keeper gets a hand down low, to a close range snapshot, that prevents CI clawing back some kind of dignity. The resulting corner and clearance, which quickly becomes a counter attack, just about sums up the home team’s day.
A big hoof up field, and in the blink of an eye, it’s gone from a CI set piece, to an instant break away, BR outnumbering those CI players not in the box, two to one. It’s no huge surprise when the towering number 9 coolly slots it past the keeper, making it four for the visitors. The late tackle from the recovering CI defender catches him, but he effortlessly rolls out of it like a commando, springing to his feet and punching the air.
As ever, football fans fail to show an ounce of sympathy to the plight of their opposite numbers, I’m especially worried about the announcer, when everyone in the BR end start to sing, “you’re going down”.
Every BR attack feels like it’s going to result in a goal, “few holes in that defence”, says Tom as CI are carved open again, as we make our way from the terrace to pitch side, he’s not wrong, you could sail a couple of those tankers, right thought it.
Over my shoulder, I’m conscious of not getting in the way of those stood up against the glass of the clubhouse, pint in hand, enjoying the central heating, with a look on their faces of, ‘I know I should be outside, but I need to self medicate with alcohol’. It’s the marauding, Aquascutum wearing children, who are still singing, only their high pitched shouts, are all that now can be heard from behind the the goal their team is attacking.
It’s of course a different situation if you’re winning, the BR ranks still fill the concrete monolith, it could be snowing, and they could all be in t-shirts, and they wouldn’t give a damn. One person, has taken one small precaution against the cold, having draped his green and white flag, “BRTFC GREEN ARMY” over his shoulders like a cape. The majority though keep warm, by singing to the leaving CI fans, I wonder if the announcer is one of them, “we can see you sneaking out”.
“Should of just cleared it, it’s embarrassing” snarls one CI fan, his yellow scarf around his neck, he stands side on to the pitch, turning away, unable to watch anymore, after a CI player dawdles on the ball in the box, has it pinched off him, allowing the the mountain BR number 9, to gets his hat trick, and BR’s fifth. He rocks a bit of a John Cena celebration, before jogging towards the fans, many who are now lining the fence, “who are we, green army”. I’m relieved when a familiar voice comes over the tannoy, and although he’s clearly not in a good place, he is at least ok, and hasn’t walked off into the sea, like Reginald Perrin.
In the dying moments, CI almost get a consolation, an expression I have never understood, when an outside of the box screamer is just helped over the bar, by the fingertips of the keeper.
There is a touching moment, an expression of real die hard support, when a young boy, stands by the tunnel, his hand outstretched, high fiving the sullen CI players, as they leave the pitch. No words are exchanged, every player good enough to respond to his offer of support, except one, who not only hits his hand, but asks him, how his recent “holiday” was.
On the pitch, the mood is quite the opposite, walking towards their supporters, clapping, the BR players acknowledge the traveling fans, whose horns have finally broken Tom’s last nerve, “that fucking horn”, but what do they care, “we are top of the league”.
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