Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game once again traverse the back-roads of non-league wonderment, this time out venturing to south-east London.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
The man walking along my road in the ushanka-hat is a good indicator of quite how much the temperature has dropped these last few days. Not that I really need the sight of a Soviet in Finchley to confirm that it’s cold, I can currently see my own breath in my car and the steering wheel is so chilled, it’s almost painful to hold.
It’s now a well worn path to Tom’s, down the god forsaken Holloway Road, and I’m just about at the end of my tether with all the Sunday drivers when I pull up outside his house, drop him a text to tell him I’m here and stare at his red door waiting for him to appear, as his reply of “1 minute” turns into two, three, four and then five.
Tom went out last night, which can sometimes be a little bit ominous, but he hasn’t canceled on me yet, which is always a good sign he’s not had a big one. His groan when I ask him how he is is minimal, so I can assume he had a relatively sober outing. Probing a little further, he didn’t get home particularly late, around 1 o’clock, however that’s when the real party started, as he and the Sparrow tucked into some homemade cocktails consisting of “passion fruit juice”, “gin” and “cherry brandy” and although I’m sure he’s brushed his teeth and had a shower, I did notice a fruity aroma when he first got in.
Heading to South East London today, although cold, it’s at least bright and each with a coat packed it should be fine. Not long after passing the remnants of a gas works we are soon greeted by two signs at the entrance to today’s ground, along with one for the local slimming club, both claiming it’s the ‘home’ of two different clubs.
Oakwood is actually the home of Bostik League North team VCD Athletic FC. The other team, and the one we are here to see today, the other team who call Oakwood ‘home’ for this season at least, are what you might call lodgers, Erith Town FC (ET).
From our experience and I’m sure that of many other people, when you intend on watching a lodger play in this not too unfamiliar non league ground share set up, there is a very high chance you might be watching them on the Sunday, if the landlords were at home on the Saturday. Hence while you’re all at home, wrapped up warm with the Sunday papers on the go, a roast in the oven, half dosing with the Formula 1 on the TV waiting for Countryfile or the Antiques Roadshow, we’re climbing out of the car, being blasted by a harsh cutting wind, with Tom muttering “it’s cold in Erith”.
It’s certainly cold, Tom wishing he’d brought his “snood”, assuring me it would be making an “appearance on Tuesday” when we go to our next match. Looking down over the Oakwood from our exposed spot above it, with a reasonable slope falling away before us down to the pitch, feeling a little weather beaten already and the wind only getting stronger, we’re not actually in Erith at all, but Crayford.
An unfortunate side effect of having to sleep in someone’s spare room, sofa surfing around other grounds in the general vicinity of your patch, is not being able to play where your name suggests you are from. This is not the first time we’ve seen ET and it’s not the first we’ve seen them bunked up in the second bedroom of someone else’s house.
The tall thin man in his long black ET jacket, with a poppy tightly fastened to it, welcomes us at the green and white turnstiles that crown the top of the hill. ET’s opposition today Windsor FC (WFC) are from the “same level” as ET he tells us, so he reckons they’ve “got a chance”, however a few “injuries” could be the deciding factor.
I can see the main stand, the dugouts that are sensibly spaced apart and the covered sections for spectators that flank either side of them, but neither of us can work out where the changing rooms are. When we ask our poppy wearing friend, he points far into the distance, at the end of a winding, garden fence lined tunnel, at the “pavilion”. Imagine a white plantation house with a veranda, very “deep south” says Tom, imagining the mint juleps he could get through on there, and it’s so far set back, it may hold the record for the longest walk to the pitch going, that doesn’t involve an escalator or lift.
Neither of us can agree more when our welcomer suggests we take shelter in the bar, the wind howling around our ears in conditions no sensible person would stay out in for long.
The twinkling lights of the fruit machine, the low hum of a nearby hoover being run over the carpet as someone does one last tidy before the crowds start to arrive, the bright sunshine flooding in the large bay windows, that gives the impression that it’s actually nice outside, the faint smell of Toms cheese and onion crisps, my blue velvet chair or the non league hot cup of sweet tea he’s just handed me, means it’s near nirvana in the bar compared to the wilds the other side of the narrow door.
I’m distracted from studying the VCD Athletic wine list on our table, which isn’t cheap may I add, no Calais booze cruise plonk here, which sits next to a small vase with some flowers in, by the near criminal replay of the penalty given against Northern Ireland in their recent World Cup playoff with Switzerland, that Tom hasn’t seen, and like most people baulks at the absurdity of it.
Tom’s head is turned by the woman with the heaving tray of sandwiches, and then by the arrival of WFC filing past the windows, one member of their staff at the rear, is carrying a Subbuteo box. We both clock it, turn to each other to share a baffled glance, before Tom ponders if it’s for “tactics?”
The arrival of WFC’s players, sees the arrival of some of their fans, some who are wearing knitted green, white and red striped scarfs that Tom thinks are “very Christmassy”. It also means we get a glimpse of WFC’s astonishing strip, which I told Tom about on the way here, and he sees for the first time when one of the fans takes off her large winter coat. He almost has to stop himself gawping, “there’s the kit” he says under his breath pointing.
I’m a definite sucker for a football shirt, anything from the weird to the wonderful. The garish patterns of the early 90’s to the classic simplicity of the 50’s and 60’s, only moments before I was raving to Tom about the Croatian national kit, and it’s glorious red and white cheques, but WFC’s might just be in a category all of its own.
Imagine a green Union Jack with red stripes and you’ve a good idea of what it’s all about, but without actually seeing it for yourself, it’s tough to grasp quite how striking it is with your mind’s eye alone. Tom can’t quite see it, “too much” he says, with a touch of Anna Wintour, he thinks its looks more like a “rugby kit” than a football one. I on the other hand can see the method in the madness the greatness in it’s totally over the top design. I’m not sure it’s one I’m in love with, but it certainly has its place in the annals of football kit porn.
Somehow Tom has finished his drink already and is ready to brave the outside, my tea is still barely drinkable. He explains that the fact he burnt his tongue with his first sip, means he was able to drink the rest before it had completely cooled down, because the damage had already been done.
Oakwood is not only a football ground, but a hodgepodge of tennis courts and a bowling green with a very unexpected sign on it which Tom thinks is worth pointing out, warning people off the playing surface due to the presence of “poison”. A mixture of trees and a sea of roof tops border the ground itself. Behind one goal, nets preventing any broken windows in the nearby houses, billow in the wind like large black sails and music plays to no-one other than Tom and I.
“Bit grey over there” says Tom pointing at the ever changing sky. In the next breath the sun is doing its best to emerge, but soon it disappears behind some low white clouds and we’re not sure what kind of a day we’re going to get. “Want that sun to come back out, horrible now” pleads Tom.
Returning from a bit of a wander about he does know that he “needs to get a woolly hat”, he cheerily confirms the presence of a “burger bar” and informs me that the 50/50 is not ready, “yet”.
I’m no fashionista, I’ll leave that to Tom and I only cement his position when I make the foolish mistake of thinking he had on his winter coat, and I couldn’t understand how he was so cold. “No” he snaps, the one he has on is his “spring and autumn” coat and his winter one has yet to be taken out of storage. Anyway he tells me, he won’t be cold in the future, because he’s getting “hand warmers” soon.
A reasonable crowd has amassed around the picnic tables at the top of the slope, as ET are the first out to warm up. WFC are nowhere to be seen, Tom is concerned by the lack of the required paraphernalia on their half of the pitch “got to have cones” he says and wonders if they “do know it’s a 3 o’clock kick off”. We ask a man in a green WFC coat who appears from the mouth of the tunnel, who tells us they are in “no hurry”.
The cherry brandy is catching up on Tom, “I’m hungry, need a fry up” he grumbles. With his concoctions from the previous night still swilling around inside him, I can only hope the appearance of ex Fulham, Millwall, Stevenage and Leicester player Barry Hayles at the ripe old age of 45, who saunters out with his WFC team mates, will be enough to cheer him up, but he is only interested in the player who remembered his “snood” and not the presence of a once Premier League striker.
Earlier we had a brief introduction to the ET manager Adam or “Woody” who bares no resemblance to the Toy Story cowboy with his Wildling beard and red and black woolly hat, and we cross paths again with him on the edge of the pitch, and ask him his thoughts on the match.
“Cup game, anything goes” he tells us frankly, “can’t do anything else to prepare” the team he adds. He of course recognises the “experience” WFC have up front in Barry Hayles, and hopes he’ll “bring the crowds with him” too. Before we are able to reply, he wanders off, not rudely or dismissively, but in a way that leaves you wanting more, hands firmly stuffed in the pockets of this long black coat, “likes doing that” says Tom.
If ET progress today, it will be the furthest they’ve gone in their history in the FA Vase in the battle of two teams who are relative babies in the football world, WFC being formed in 2011 and ET in comparison positively geriatric, they were formed in 1959. I overhear Woody expressing again his concerns that WFC have Hayles up front, but the reply from the ET fan is spot on, he’s “only one player”.
Talking to Mark, ET’s owner, also in a long club jacket, talking from underneath its hood, he only took over the club in “June”, however he already seems like a man with a solid plan. As he puts it, and we would agree it’s a “decent little set up” at VCD, he wishes it was “our home ground”, but the prices to lodge there are a little steep, and he intends to move them back to their old stomping grounds as of next season.
He is learning all too fast about the rigours of running a club, along with “the Mrs” and his 14 year old son, the club photographer. The “football side is great” he explains, but it’s tiring, “midweek games are a killer” he tells us. His story is an all too familiar one in non league football, that of a disenchanted supporter of a ‘bigger’ team if you like, in his case Charlton, who he supported “home and away” who has dropped down the pyramid because of the way his club, that he speaks about with such passion and dismay at the same time is being “completely fucked up” as he puts it.
Now, I’m going to get a little serious for a moment, we normally like to keep things light hearted, but I’m just going to have to take things down a notch or two. They’ve sold out of programmes. If you’re anything like me, someone who has a programme from every single match they’ve ever been to, in over twenty years, other than having numerous full storage boxes of them, and nowhere to put them, you will realise this is a big deal, that will have an adverse effect on the rest of my day. That and no sign of anyone selling the 50/50, I feel like curling up in a ball, life is not worth living.
ET’s captain leans down, touches the grass then crosses himself as he walks onto the pitch. With his other hand he holds that of a small boy in a green jacket, whose tightly grasping a pennant to commemorate todays match. He leaves it to the mascot to exchange it with the ET captain, who he then exchanges handshakes with.
Tom tries to rally me, he can sense my programme less despondency, “bet you love the WFC goalkeepers kit” he says, pointing to the pink, black and brown Union Jack design. In fact both keepers are sporting my favourite colour for a goalkeeper. ET’s is more traditional, a nice shade of Palermo pink, but without the pink boots, like the man in goal for the visitors has on.
Both sets of outfield players kits have their plus points and are worth a mention. WFC we’ve covered, I’ve officially put it in the ‘never going to see anything quite like it again’ unless we happened to go to CD Guijuelo and see their kit that looks like Iberico Ham. The home team in their black and red striped number, falls into the ‘little black dress’ category, a classic, handsome in it’s simplicity.
Tom gives his final verdict on WFC’s get up, after much deliberation, “don’t like it” he tells me, just as Oakwood falls silent, both teams arms linked, standing on opposite sides of the centre circle, heads bowed, as the referee blows his whistle to signal the start of a two minute silence to mark Remembrance Sunday, which is well observed. The players shirts rustle in the breeze, as a good portion of the crowd in the main stand opposite leave their green and white seats to stand.
I bizarrely quite enjoy that split second after a silence when the noise of people and players refills the ground, like someone has flipped a switch.
The “Christmas flags” of WFC are quickly up behind one goal, which are just as colorful as their kit and with the game underway, Woody is soon in full voice, along with a fellow member of his staff who has wandered on to the pitch barking out his orders, and has to be ushered back by the man running the line.
What’s the old expression, ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’, this could quite easily be applied to Barry Hayles whose current scoring record I’m not au fait with, but he’s rolling back the years in this part of South East London today, dropping his shoulder and spinning away from his marker with consummate ease, much to the annoyance of the ET bench, “don’t let him roll you” someone screams.
It’s been trying all day, and finally the sun wins it’s battle with the clouds to our right over the rooftops of the nearby houses, like something from a biblical suburban scene. It’s so dazzling and bright it’s near blinding, and for a short while small bits of our face thaw out, but alas not for long, we are treated to its warmth only momentarily before it’s gone again.
The first quarter of the game offers up very little as far as entertainment is concerned, Tom is again mulling over the WFC kit, and wonders if the presence of the Union Jack and that they come from Windsor means they are the “Queens team”.
Not so much saved by the bell, but by the feet of the ET keeper who is a flash of pink as he races off his line to save the first meaningful chance of the game, and entertains Tom long enough that we don’t need to talk about WFC potentially being our monarchs very own non league football team. He’s soon back to thinking about food regardless, as the gin rears its ugly head, “I’m starving, not sure I can wait until half time”.
The save rouses from the main stand a single female fan, who shouts “come on Erith”
The fact Woody is now sitting on a drinks cooler, only makes me think of Marcelo Bielsa sitting on his coffee. He might not manage at the same level as the Argentinian but he shares his choice of pitch side perch with one of the best, and the fact that other members of the team are sitting on brown plastic chairs from a secondary school, makes me think it’s time to get a bigger bench.
There is still a complete and utter lack of on field action of any note. A very brief and garbled chant is started by the WFC fans but it soon dissipates and Tom is now using him getting closer to a burger and chips as a new measurement of timekeeping “15 minutes to food”.
It’s fair to say neither side have really failed to fashion anything of merit other than the well saved WFC chance earlier on. Hayles shows off some of his top flight class surging forwards in midfield, he rides a couple of challenges before passing the ball out wide. It’s crossed into the box and the player at the far post has a go at an almost spectacular volley, but it goes over.
“Hope they do chips” wonders Tom, that craving for greasy food, the only remedy to a night on homemade cocktails is starting to consume him.
With ten to go, ET’s winger does a great job with some nifty footwork to get into the box on the far side of the pitch, but as Tom puts it, he does “too much” one step over too many and loses the ball in a fabulous position on the WFC by line, this is not lost on his manager “cross the fucking ball” he shouts, leaping up from his ice filled stool. Again any sign of ET doing well in defence or attack is followed by the single female voice in the stand “come on Erith”.
The home crowd finally have something to shout about and clap about, it’s not just the solo lady in the stand, applauding and cheering the most excellent of volleys from the edge of the box, that is equalled only by the fingertip save by the man in the pink boots, who gets an acrobatic hand to the ball, forcing a corner.
It won’t be for the first time today, when a melee of sorts halts play, involving most of the players from each team. Almost on half time, ET have a half chance, but the forward is stretching and is off balance and can’t prod the ball home, much to the relief of WFC’s keeper who lets his defence know that was a “let off”.
Looking longingly at the tea bar on the hill, the referee having just put his whistle to his lips, blowing for half time, Tom hopes they haven’t “run out of burgers”.
Among the earmuffs and and woolly hats and the people studying the lineups on the whiteboard and suitably wrapped up himself, is the man who broke it to me that they had sold out of programmes, the very same man who recommended we eat faggots in Stourbridge, Andy @APCAFC. He quickly reaffirms that we really know very little about football when I tell him Tom thinks the game has “0 – 0” written all over it, and he informs me that means “extra time” with it being the FA Vase. I might have to find a way of getting Tom the “duvet” he said he wished he had, I don’t think he’s going to take that news very well.
The game has already restarted when Tom appears with food, but not what he wanted, they had indeed “run out of burgers”. He also shares with me that the woman serving him was individually defrosting the buns in the microwave, hence why he might have taken a little longer than normal.
Sausage sandwich still in hand, Tom and I watch in the far distance, under the most stunning of sunsets, a mixture of oranges, purples and pinks, with just over five minutes of the second half gone, as WFC take the lead.
“Pick yourself up” shouts a ET player to his team mates.
Four minutes later, ET have done exactly that, and pull it level in double speed. A storming late run from the edge of the box, and a runner whose not picked up and heads in making it 1 – 1. Sausage sandwich now gone, Tom is able to utter his once prolific catchphrase, which hasn’t had an outing in awhile “game on”. Mark pumps his fist to the bench, “come on Erith keep going” he shouts as he is quickly becoming the home teams one man cheer squad. All while still the sky is like something from a Monet painting.
“All happening now” says Tom, as the first quarter of the second half, makes up for all three of them in the first. ET shoot just over “come on Erith” shouts the lady once again, she’s now growing louder and louder and the chances for her team become more frequent.
One player insists to the others that they “go again”, they are now much more fluid going forward, and go close thanks to their long throw, Rory Delap merchant number 2 who rocks back and forth on heels, sometimes going as far as to arch backwards over the barrier before flinging the ball into the box. “Too easy” screeches the WFC keeper.
With the sun fully gone, the mercury has plummeted, “could do without extra time” says Andy to Tom, who are soon talking football food, Andy telling Tom the best pie is to be found at “Kidderminster” and he’s to “put” them on his “list”.
Those who talk about football professionally, the types who sit high in the rafters of our nation’s grandest stadiums, normally accompanied by an ex pro, call it the ‘commentators curse’. Those of us in the normal world who are not paid to look after a bumbling Hoddle or hang out with a sudo relaxed Mcmanaman, would probably call it ‘tempting fate’.
So ET might have us to blame when seconds before they find themselves behind again, with twenty minutes left on the clock. I had just said how dominant they had been since equalizing, and post goal Tom quite rightly points out WFC’s second was “against the run of play”. Not that the players in red, green and white give a damn, they’re too busy celebrating with their cheering fans.
While WFC return from their player/fan bundle, the lady in the stand gives her encouragement “come on Erith”, Mark even more animated than before tells the players they’ve “gotta wake up”.
From where we’re standing it’s not quite clear if the WFC keeper has just made a game changing save at the foot of the post or in fact the ball hit the frame of the goal, but the referee gives a corner, so the plaudits have to go to the man between the sticks, who if the referee was correct, somehow managed to get a hand to the ball destined for the back of the net.
Again the match descends into an almighty scuffle, this time seemingly involving even more players than before. There has been an underlying tension all afternoon, which boils over into quite an unsavoury spat, that as Tom puts it “sours” what has been a greatly improved match since the restart. One WFC fan wants the man in charge to get a grip of things, “come on ref I wanna go home”, when the same fan doesn’t feel the correct punishments were dished out to the ET players involved in the initial incident that sparked off the quarrel, he implies some kind of cockle eating, pearly king, apples and pears conspiracy “cockneys all together”.
Not sure if it’s the excitement of the punch up or the pressure of a knock out cup game, but the Sunday malaise that had shrouded large sections of the crowd, has now all but disappeared going into the final five minutes, as Oakwood is the loudest it’s been all afternoon, as Tom puts it, the “game has woken right up”.
The home fans and players think they have pulled it off, a deserved reward for their second half efforts. They taste ecstasy for a brief moment only for it to be ripped away by the raising of the linesman’s flag, what they think is the equalising goal, is ruled offside. “Sit down shut up, sit down shut up” sing the unsympathetic WFC fans.
In extra time tensions between each team are tested once more, when a WFC player is shoved off the ball and on first impressions seems to hit his head on the fence around the pitch. Thankfully he is ok, but this it not clear until the physio confirms it, but this is delayed because shes currently picking herself up off the floor, after taking an almighty tumble sprinting up the touch, letting out a high pitched yelp before she hits the deck, with the crowd in the stand in near hysterics.
We’re now at that point in the match, where players are asking the referee how long is left to play. Some look appalled at quite how long they have to hold on for, while others find out just how little left they have to grab that vital goal. The ET keeper is once again a flash of pink as he dashes forward for a corner. “Come on Erith”, she screams one last time, “come on Windsor” replies one of the travelling fans.
“Erith it ain’t over” shouts a player, moments before the referee blows the final whistle, and unfortunately for the home team, this years FA Vase run is exactly that.
It’s quite the juxtaposition between both teams on the pitch. ET are strewn about, some sitting, some standing as they have a full and honest inquest, Woody is pulling no punches, “you let yourselves down”. The WFC team are in a tight huddle, their manager singing their praises, before they break to celebrate once more with the travelling few. One of whom while taking down one of their “Christmas flags” is singing to himself “Windsors on a cup run, Windsors on a cup run”.
Mark cuts a lonely figure, when we find him to say goodbye sitting in the dark alone outside the tea bar, slumped in a wood patio chair. The ups and downs of a football club owner clearly written across his face. However, he is gracious in defeat inviting us back, and even offering a us pint when we do.
I’m not sure what was the best bit about today? Getting into the car and putting the heaters on full blast, the windows steaming up like a scene from Titanic or Tom’s tender concern for Barry Hayles throughout the whole match. He certainly showed some of the reasons as to why hes played at the pinnacle of the pyramid, but also took a bit of a kicking at times, something Tom thought totally unacceptable for a man of his age. Every time he went down, clutching a shin, an ankle or calf, Tom without fail would say, “leave him alone!!”.
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