Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful game enjoy a Ryman League North play-off promotion party.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.

Usually our travels along the highways and byways of this fair country are uneventful, but between getting in the car and hearing the final bars to the theme tune of Band of Brothers, picking up Tom and arriving in the car park of a leisure centre where he is delighted to see they have “flumes”, via the single lane roads winding past leafy village greens, church spires and ponds of rural Essex, I thought the best thing I was going to see was a speaker with some cushions on top of it being passed off as a seat outside a East London cafe, but oh no! The man on the hard shoulder being sick, the car pulling a trailer, crossing four lanes of the motorway so it didn’t miss its exit, fishtailing and being honked at by a braking tanker, were all vying for top spot, only to be trumped by a road we passed called Tom Tit Lane.

The monosyllabic response from the steward on the gate in reply to my question about parking, was gruff, but to the point, “football? he asked, before gesturing with his head towards a near bursting car park.

Locking up the car, the music coming from the nearby Wallace Binder Ground home of Maldon & Tiptree FC (MT) is pleasing Tom, “love this song” he says, moving with a little bit of swagger in his hips. Not familiar with the track, I ask him who it is, “Saday, Sadie, Sana” he replies, before aborting trying to remember the artist who sings the song he is so in “love” with.

The entrance to the ground is very smart, so smart and swanky that on first glance it seems to be £1000 to get in, I can only hope the ticket price is missing a decimal point. A black and white picture of a team huddle adorns the outside wall, the drab colourless background in stark contrast to the full colour image of the team in the middle.

Within less than a foot of the turnstile, thankfully only £10 lesser off, my note exchanged for a small yellow ticket with ‘ADULT’ on it, a man in a suit reclines in a brown wooden chair, before him a table covered in a plethora of goodies. Like the end of the Generation Game, no cuddly toy, instead a box of chocolates, a bottle of scotch, a six pack of Stella and a bottle of red wine. “Be lucky” says the seller to the man in the queue before me, who looks like he’s just dropped a lot more than the £1 coin I have in my hand, I thought I had a problem!

I hand over my £1 for a single line of yellow tickets, and another £1 for my program, which I’m told to “help myself” to, they’re bound by a rubber band in an old biscuit tin, I grab myself one, while he tears my tickets from his book and tells me the “draw is at half time”.

I get no wishes of good fortune, maybe they’re only reserved for the high rollers, and the seller is soon back to pushing his product to those coming in behind me “programs and tickets all a pound”.

Even with over an hour yet to kick off, people have already secured their spot in the main stand on the far side of the pitch, the coloured seats that spell out MTFC becoming harder to read, as each minute ticks by. If they’re not lying their towel on the sun lounger, they’re in the queue for food, which Tom quickly joins, where most people are talking about MT’s prospects today. After a 5-4 win in the semi-final win against Haringey Borough, the resounding theme of discussion is that today’s visitors have a far “better defense” than their previous opponents.

Waiting for Tom, I strike up a conversation with one of the many familiar faces we cross paths with today. Tony Gay, a coach at Thurrock FC (TFC) the other side in this all Essex affair, who is another example of a man in non league with a crushing handshake, and cheery disposition. Between deep drags on his cigarette, he gives me his thoughts on TFC’s chances, but not before he’s pinched a few chips off the green and yellow scarf wearing TFC fans.

DSC_0128“Confident” is how he feels, when I ask him about today. Youth is their biggest strength, “eight players under 21” he explains, adding they have the “youngest average team” in the league, but he also stresses the camaraderie, the togetherness of the squad, “best changing room” he’s ever been in. By his own admission he’s been around a while, he goes as far as comparing it to his heady days with Grays “when we won everything”. He is also quick to praise the manager, who he describes as the “best” in the division.

The man in question is Mark Stimson, who Tony describes as having “done it”, ‘it’ includes playing in “the Prem”, appearances for the likes of Tottenham and Newcastle, four FA Trophy winners medals, one as a player, three as a manager, which came in consecutive years, two with Grays and one with Stevenage. With a CV like that, it’s hard to argue with Tony.

However it’s not his bumper resume alone that has got him where he is, but as Tony puts it, and it’s confirmed almost simultaneously by TFC’s scout, it’s his “preparation”, Tony goes on to add it’s “unbelievable”. It’s also down to his temperament, they both explain, the way he deals with the players, what Tony says are his two sides, one “calm” the other “not so calm”.

Tom returns with “chips and tea” a curious combo, Tony finishes off one of his umpteenth cigs, crushes almost every bone in my hand once again, and makes his way off towards the changing rooms.

One catch up down, a second is hot on its tail, another face from the Essex non league scene, Wayne goalkeeping coach at Bowers & Pitsea, whose own push for promotion, was a close run thing, just missing out. He tells me he is of course “disappointed”, but if you had offered him fifth position, three points off a pop at the playoffs, he would’ve “bitten your arm off”. When I ask who he thinks will prevail today, he tells us his “heart goes with Maldon” down to the fact his friend is a coach for the home side, but he reckons it should be a good match, a tight one, a “good defending side” TFC, against a “good attacking side” MT.

With today’s final, the penultimate game of the Ryman League season, he asks us “what do we do now?”.

With the wind picking up, the position of the cameraman on top of the scaffold tower next to the red brick dugouts, looks a little precarious. Already in position, it’s a fine view of the pitch, but there isn’t much else to look at. A line of conifers top a grass bank behind one goal, with no stand, at the opposite end a small covered stand, behind that the big brown brick block that is the nearby swimming pool. Spare seats in the main stand are now few and far between, with still twenty minutes to kick off, the initials of the club, are all but blotted out by expectant fans.

Both teams are warming up on the pitch, both sets of supporters lean against the fence around it that is an ideal height, not too low, not too high, perfect for a good lean, they watch their respective teams attentively. Also watching on discreetly is the MT manager, hovering around the mouth of the tunnel that separates the dugouts, in his best grey sweater and club tie.

Having finished his chips, Tom is already having thoughts of what’s next, in his “hungover” state, as he explains, the after effects of a friend’s birthday, half time feels a very long way away. I attended the same soiree, but didn’t drink, I was on driving duty, however I do question if I was spiked with something, because I’m sure in the short time we have been here, I have heard the song playing around the ground already, has the playlist restarted?

There is most definitely a nervousness in the air among the home fans, a feeling of apprehension of what is to come. Not so much though among the scores of children hareing about, most congregating behind one goal and it’s blue and red striped nets, cheering the players doing shooting practice, and chanting the name of the players whose turn it is next.

IMG_20170430_145518What seems to be the done thing now, at least in the recent finals we’ve been to, a plinth is carried to the edge of the pitch, with the match ball balanced on top, awaiting the players return. Both have fled to the sanctuary of the changing room for a few final words. The MT chairman emerges from theirs, to a rousing applause, that goes on long after he left, I imagine those inside waiting for the first person to stop, in fear of a trip to the Gulag.

In the caged tunnel, with it’s vaulted wooden roof, one beam has a birds nest on, the mascots in full kit line up, I must admit much better behaved than those at Bowers. It might have something to do with the presence of a Mum, who is tucking in the shirt of one of them, and holding a tissue to his nose, telling him “and again”, when she leaves she reminds them all, “make loads of noise”.

The MT substitutes brave enough to have stopped clapping, make their way to the dugouts, high fiving the still immaculately behaved mascots, who are all looking over their shoulders expectantly, waiting for the players. When the referee appears, shortly followed by the ring of the bell and an eruption from behind the TFC changing room door, the mascots ask him, “what team do you support?”.

It’s almost a bit gladiatorial, the fans of each side, lining the outside of the tunnel cheering on their caged teams, in two neat rows, an arms length apart. The away fans already, and as they will be for most of the day, are the noisiest by far, “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet”.

“Here we go” signifies the referee at the front of the two columns, which only raises the noise level as he begins to lead the players out through the end of the tunnel, that looks like the porch of a detached house. Players from each side offer one last rally to their team mates, “come on boys”.

After the handshakes, the coin toss, a picture of the captains and a group huddle each, we are under way.

Replacing the kids behind the goal, are the flags and fans of TFC, who are soon into one of their many songs, “we all follow the Thurrock”. The home fans, are almost silent, except for a very small bunch, occasionally banging the hoardings, but doing little else. When I mention this to Tom, a local overhears me, saying they are never really noisy, “except when we score” she tells us.

I wouldn’t say TFC have come out the traps all guns blazing, there seems to be an element of hesitation in the home side’s game, an anxiousness. Like the feeling among their fans from before kick off, that the visitors are able to take advantage of early on. A good cross just skims the top of the head of the intended player, they go closer still, a corner hitting the crossbar directly from the kick, the rebound bouncing down into the middle of the box which is met by a player who anticipated well, connecting with ball mid baseball slide, a cloud of dust behind him, his shot is all but in, only for a courageous block on the line, that prevents TFC taking the lead.

I wish I could say that this was the first of many, the beginning of a deluge of chances, the start of an end to end, blood and thunder display, where the bragging rights of Essex are at stake, as well as promotion, but I can’t. Tom describes the atmosphere as “subdued” maybe it’s because it’s a Sunday, everyone is in roast dinner, papers on the sofa, naps with the F1 in the background mode, but I would’ve expected a bit more in such a crucial game.

“Hit it” shout the TFC fans, as one of their players bares down on goal with a quarter of an hour gone, he does, its just wide, sending the keeper into a full stretch dive.

TFC’s small contingent are tormenting the MT keeper on every goal kick “you’re shit, ahhhh” and chanting pretty much non stop, “it’s got to beeeee Purfleet”, “Thurrock, Thurrock, Thurrock”, however when the most interesting thing to happen in the first 30 minutes is a massive burp from one player, the circling mass of seagulls on the lookout for an unguarded tray of chips or the bizarre running commentary of the nearby linesman “take it easy” he keeps saying to the players, it doesn’t bode well.

Toms one track mind, is in overdrive, “Chinese buffet” he explains is his perfect cure for too many the night before. When I manage to steer the talk away from crispy shredded beef, and onto the game, and MT’s apparent default setting of a big long ball to the forwards, he fills me in on a bit of matchday gossip, and the feeling among some quarters that the grass is a little bit long, and it might be intentional. The dark arts perhaps in practice, be in the Bernabeu or the Wallace Binder, they’re all at it.

DSC_0246“Nearly 600” says a man in an MT blazer doing the head count, with a clicker in his hand. The stands are full and the whole pitch almost completely surrounded, but it’s still lacking that big day atmosphere. Tony Gay gets his own chant from the TFC fans, the not so imaginative “Tony Gay, Tony Gay, Tony Gay”. Tom on the other hand, has become a little distressed at the “lots of birds” swirling above the pitch, in their beady eyed way.

Five minutes before half time, which couldn’t really come fast enough, TFC have a big shout for a penalty waved away. The downed player still on his chest, appealing to the referee, with the ball now in his own half before he picks himself up and rejoins the game. “Have a word ref” asks a TFC supporter, applauding that it wasn’t given. Nearby MT fans think they have got away with one there, not thinking it was a foul, “it wasn’t” one says, but he was sure it was going to be awarded “I thought he’d give it”.

TFC continue to dictate, MT still look to be holding back. They go close again for the final time in the half, the MT keeper spilling the first shot, but gathering frantically at the feet of the player about to latch onto the loose ball. Tom is sure that this game has “1 – 0 written all over it” and at the moment it only looks like that is going to be scored by one side.

The biggest round of applause of the game so far, is from the TFC supporters as a fellow fan coming back from the bar, manages to carry the whole round in one go. Tom is yet to decide if he is going to do the same at half time, pondering one of life’s great questions, in the most Shakespearean of ways “to eat or not to eat, it’s a long wait till dinner”.

Going against the tide, we make our way to the other end of the pitch, TFC fans have taken down their flags, and by the looks of it, are heading to the bar, Tom will not be joining them. I guess he’s happy to wait, although it might have something to do with the fact they don’t sell a sausage roll, which he feels should be a statutory requirement at all grounds, like a defibrillator, or he is banking on me winning the chocolates in the half time draw. We pass another member of Essex non league royalty, Bowers and Pitsea manager Rob Small, who is deep in conversation on his phone, but still has time for a smile and a handshake.

Having grown tired of the small bank behind the goal, the swarms of children have set their sights on something a little bigger, the bank, nae I would go as far as calling it a hill, that runs the full length of one side of the pitch. Covered in tall grass, tall enough for some of the smaller ones to disappear completely from view. One parent half jokes that their child had fallen down a “rabbit hole” only for a fraction of a second later for the smile to disappear, as she wonders if in fact she has lost her little girl to the Mad Hatter.

No scotch, no wine, no beer, no chocolates for me or Tom, the half time draw leaving me with a well trodden feeling of emptiness and Tom regretting not going to get something to eat, no Milk Tray for you I’m afraid.

Joining the TFC fans in the small stand, when the teams come out along with the officials, the linesman who did not flag for the late TFC penalty claim, momentarily takes a bit of the heat off the MT keeper, as the supporters let him know what they made of him not giving it. Although their numbers are pretty much the same, now condensed like some kind of football homeopathy, contained under the corrugated metal roof and back wall, which allows for even more noise, most standing, despite the offer of a seat, their songs are really packing a punch, “come on Thurrock, come on Thurrock”.

Once again the raffle numbers are read out, like some cruel prod in the ribs, they remind me of my failure, and lack of scotch.

DSC_0315MT come out with a little more purpose, and go close to taking the lead, it’s only down to an acrobatic top corner save, following a looping half volley after the second of three quick fire corners, that it remains 0 – 0. The corner resulting from the save, also goes close, as a back post header is just over. The same four or five MT fans come to life, banging the hoardings as they did in the first half, but they are soon outdone by a chant with a Scottish lilt, that quickly kicks the burp off the top spot of best thing to happen so far today.

Football chants being the way they are, cannibalised by teams from all over the world, I’m sure someone will tell me that this particular one is not in fact Scottish, but has it’s origins in the Rhineland or Barrios of Latin America, if that is the case I’m sorry, but the only supporters I’ve heard sing it before, are those of Celtic.

“Thurrock” shouts the loudest of them, “Thurrock” reply the rest of his posse. He goes again, “Thurrock” and his fellow fans reply the same as they did before. “Come on you yellow and greens”, once more they reply in kind “come on you yellow and greens”, he changes tack again, “Stimos Fleet army” his dutiful band reply once more, before they all break out into a mass hum along of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Tom though might disagree that it was the highlight of the afternoon, instead he was particularly taken aback by the man who just passed us carrying three trays of burger and chips and three drinks, without dropping or spilling a thing.

MT continue to grow slowly into the game, creating far more chances than they had in the whole of the first half, but it still doesn’t bring any more noise from their fans. One TFC player who realises his team have come out cold and started slowly, waves his arms at his teammates, demanding more from them, after an MT attack which were so few and far between, but are now causing a few nerves to those in yellow. One of the young fans behind us has his own suggestion, first yelling that an MT player should “be sent off”, for what I don’t know, before taking it up a notch, and saying someone should “kick” an MT player in the “nuts”.

Time is ticking, with only twenty minutes of the game to go, extra time is looking like a real possibility, MT revert to their “hit and hope” tactics as Tom puts it, and all that early home optimism is fading.

TFC’s number 5 has not stopped running, it’s his dogged determination with a bit of help from the number 9, that brings the first real moment of note for the away side in the second half. A flicked ball sets number 5 off chasing it down towards the MT goal. Entitled to go for it, a 50/50 you would say, he lunges for the loose ball, as does the keeper in green, resulting in a coming together, but nothing untoward.

For a split second the goal is open the ball still in play and alone, the keeper down, the number 9 sees
his moment to shine, charging in for the glory, unfortunately he gets more of the MT defender making the last ditch clearance, spinning him like a top, and leaving a scene of mild devastation in his wake, with now a few downed players scattered around the six yard box.

“You’ve killed him” shrieks a small child, one grown up thinks the keeper is playacting a little, knowing full well his goal was untended so is feigning injury, to force the referee to blow up, which he did, “that’s disgusting” he shouts, one person feels like I did that the ball was “there to be won”, another feels the referee couldn’t possibly be “watching properly”, one suggests his performance was so good, he fake awards him the highest of honours “and the Oscar goes to”.

IMG_20170430_165516When the keeper eventually retakes his feet, contrary to another child’s suggestion that he had been “killed” the TH fans show their lack of sympathy, with a song which irks Tom, “are you Sanchez in disguise?”

With the game rapidly coming to an end, I think over what Wayne had mentioned before about it being a good defence, against a good attack, have these teams own best qualities, just canceled each other, explaining this less than thrilling match?

MT flash a shot wide, and then think they are about to go in front only for it to be called offside, the TFC fans continue to sing “super Thurrock, super Thurrock FC” and Tom is regretting not getting something to eat, and tells me he doesn’t think “anyone’s ever going to score”,

The two man mountains in front of us are the two TFC fans I see first to ascend to a place of Nirvana in the seconds following the wonderfully struck goal, that’s just put them ahead, with about ten minutes of the game left.

A rifled shot hit on the run, that was moving at such a rate, with such accuracy, it beats the keeper on his near post, the ball finding the sweet spot between him and the woodwork. One in shorts with a portrait on his considerable calf, kicks the hoarding with such force in celebration, I fear he will kick a hole straight through it, the other in a tan coat and green and yellow striped scarf, punches the air repeatedly, shouting “yes, yes, yes” like a Essex Daniel Bryan, before uttering a phrase normally reserved for nursery rhymes, “over the moon” he proclaims to no one in particular.

The scorer followed by his teams mates, dash towards a group of fans on the side of the pitch, one player is still in the goal, wildly swinging his boot at the ball, grappling with the net, before heading to join the pile on. By the time he gets there, many pints have been lost, most hoicked into the air, but one finds it’s way into the mouth and face of one player who is channeling his inner Gazza, circa England Vs Scotland, Euro 96. Both players and fans are intertwined in a full on bundle, some behind the goal sprint to join in, some dance in the aisle of the stand, some whirl scarves above their heads, one boy in a half green, half yellow wig looks on as his Dad breaks into a jig, some just hug whoever is close by. The one thing they all do is spontaneously break into their loudest song of the day “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet, we are, we are, we are the Fleet”.

TFC are forced into a serious rearguard action in the final ten minutes, plenty of timely clearances, and well timed blocks are required, their moniker of a ‘good defensive’ team, is being put to the test, as they are pushed deeper and deeper. MT coming onto them time and time again, on one occasion TFC are saved by the offside flag, the referee’s assistant who raised it, is now friend not foe, the fans relieved by his decision, serenade him accordingly, “lino, lino, lino”.

“Big effort” shouts a TFC coach, the subs behind him don’t know what to do with themselves, stand up, sit down. There is a collective sigh of relief when one MT player goes on a tackle evading run, starting just inside the visitors half, reaching the edge of the box, only to be stopped by a last ditch block, before he can get a shot off. TFC’s only relief, is to get the ball into the corner, and hope that the time left will hurry up and end.

There seem to be an inordinate amount of WWE fans here today, when the final whistle is blown, for the second time today, this time the turn of the TFC bench, everyone goes a little Daniel Bryan, “yes, yes, yes” they shout, scream and holler, mixed in with a few “woohoos”. Much back slapping, and hugging follows, as does the constant sound of hands high fiving. They don’t spend long congratulating themselves, and are soon all making a beeline for the fans, some even on the backs of their teams mates, who as ever are in fine voice “we are going up, we are going up”.

IMG_20170430_165509A bit late to the party, the towering club captain, who missed the initial coming together of player and supporters, charges them, going full superman into the outstretched arms of the crowd.  Catching his eye, once they have let him go, he lets out a frightening “woooooo” looking me dead in the eye.

Tony Gay is a happy man “four years, four years” he says repeatedly, reflecting perhaps on the culmination of a lot of hard work, that has culminated in the best possible way. The appearance of the clubs owner in his long black, mid 90’s football managers jacket, a sleeping bag with arms, quickly sees him surrounded, and he becomes the focus of the players celebrations, standing at the center of them jumping, “we are going up, we are going up”, through a see of pumping yellow arms, I’m sure I see him flash a wad of £20 notes, which only excites the players more, tonight’s going out fund?

The MT players as you can imagine are the polar opposite, looking a sorry lot, most sit dejected watching on as the table for the trophy is set up, and the crowd of visiting fans gather, waiting for the pile of blue boxes to be handed out, and the glass trophy, which looks like something from a Middle Eastern tennis tournament, to be presented. The nearby crate of beer and bottles of bubbles, are already on standby, but I’m sure won’t go untouched for long.

Front and centre the TFC captain lifts the ever so slightly underwhelming trophy aloft, handed to him by a man in a blazer and Ryman League tie. Ultimately it’s just a bauble, it’s what it represents that’s important, but I do like a bit of actual silverware, not something that’s also used for a regional double glazing sales awards ceremony.

Now I suggested earlier that leaving through the tunnel pre kick off was ‘gladiatorial’, I would maybe need to revise that statement, now leaving the pitch in a yellow and green whirlwind, back towards the changing room. Before the fans were loud, yes, singing, yes, but they kept a respectful distance. Now their faces are pressed up against the chain link fence, the volume has gone through the roof, some rattle the fence, trying to get closer to the players, who are trying to soak up every last second, joining in with the chants, “we are the Fleet, we are the Fleet”, sharing the moment with friends and loved ones through the metal barrier.

Outside the away dressing room, it’s already abundantly clear that the party is in full swing, the sight of flying clothes and foam are visible through the half open door, some people looking on, not sure if they should venture in, or stay outside and keep dry. One person’s mind is made up to not go in, by the flying box of energy bars, that lands on the floor at my feet.

Standing at the back of the room, Tom perched on top of a toilet, peering over the cubicle, the clubs scout half sheltering in the showers, wanting to be part of the triumph, but anticipating a soaking, Mark Stimson has managed to quiet his raucous team, and gives them his final thoughts.

“Guys give me a minute, I ain’t gonna bore you” starts the gaffa, his arms over the shoulders of his coaches who flank him. “This buzz will stay will you for a helluva long while” he tells them “and you’ll want more and more of it, because it’s the best buzz in the game” he adds, you can hear a pin drop, most are sitting, a few stand swinging from brown beer bottles. “You’re all winners, you all deserve it, let’s have a great night tonight” he goes a bit Tony The Tiger on the Greatttt, before he might as well of waved a red rag in front of bull, the closing of his speech, starts a series of events that I won’t forget for a while, some I won’t ever be able to ever unsee “if you want, let’s go mental now”.

Beer, pants and all sorts fill the air, one overexcited player standing on the bench, takes a dive off it and ends up in a heap on the floor, “we are going up, we are going up”. Through the frosted glass of the windows the silhouettes of the hands and faces of the fans outside can be seen, the windows are flung open, allowing for what might be the most deafening song of the day “WE ARE GOING UP, WE ARE GOING UP”

DSC_0711Not sure how much more mental one can go, the bars and clubs of Essex might be able to testify to that, once these lot have finished in the wee hours, but the chant of “let’s go fucking mental” has an air of lock up your daughters and batten down the hatches about it.

Sitting in the car, taking a moment to regather ourselves, reflecting on what we have just witnessed, the windows wound down to allow the smell of beer and cava to escape, we can still hear the players and fans now about 150/200 meters away.

Today there was a feeling after the match, not one I think I’ve felt so strongly before, one of the players having done it for the fans. Of course their own pride, ambitions and desire to win, has a large part to play in what they achieved, but the scenes afterwards, so much of it was shared between players and supporter, the songs, the effort made to open the dressing rooms windows, so that everyone could be involved. It highlighted the case of Thurrock being a community club, a family club, an all for one, and one for all club, where only a very fine line divides them on the pitch and them off it, an attitude and approach that is so prevalent in non league, but has become all too scarce, the higher up the pyramid you do.

As a player you want to win, as a player you want to be able to reflect on a career where you can say you gave it your all. Today’s players at the start and end of their footballing life did a great thing, as the captain said “don’t win much at 35”, but what good is all that, if you have no one to share it with, as Jock Stein once said, “football without fans is nothing”.

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