Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league adventures, this time visiting a club in temporary accommodation who boast good chips and a cool nickname.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
I’m not sure if my postman doing his round is unhinged or I’m just the big southern softie my Mancunian fiancee always says I am, but I just sat in my car in a jumper and jacket, my breath visible like Aslan’s in the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe, while the ice melted on my windscreen and he’s bowling about in shorts no less without a care in the world.
I barely notice Tom getting in the car, I’m too transfixed by the two local characters at the station who are far too engrossing. One stands in a shabby grey pimps jacket, while another squats attempting I think to roll a cigarette, who then falls on his arse. They stand out somewhat among the well dressed locals on their way to do a bit of Christmas shopping. The one who took a tumble takes a while to pick himself up, and thanks to Tom’s keen eye, appears to be wearing a thong, which is quite obviously protruding from the top of his loose fitting jeans.
Our mini road trip to Cambridgeshire is under a bright and crisp sky. The heaters are on full and Tom every so often undoes all their hard work, cracking his window to allow the plumes of smoke from his vape device to escape. Today there is none of the nonsensical chatter as normal, Tom instead is antisocially tapping away on his phone. Knowing he is neither a fan of George Michael, who currently resides in my CD player or of Classic FM the channel my radio is tuned into, I therefore sit in silence.
His girlfriend the Sparrow, is not happy, he eventually tells me having sensed my displeasure, she’s “moaning” apparently. Not in an Alf Garnett, bloody missus, bloody women, get back in the kitchen kind of way, but totally justifiably, and it’s all his fault.
Before you get ahead of yourselves, I know some of you have mucky minds, so when I say he kept her up all night, it’s nothing smutty, we haven’t gone all Loaded Magazine all of a sudden, it was because of Tom’s propensity for talking in his sleep. “Fuck I’m 40” he shouted around three or four o’clock this morning, waking up the light sleeping partner, he having no memory of it at all, she was unable to get back to sleep.
Despite all the signs for Cambridge and the fact we are off to see Cambridge City FC (CC) my unreliable Sat Navs magenta course does not follow them, instead it has us continuing up the M11. The signs for “Everton” and then “St Ives” have Tom a little confused, both have him scratching his head. He has a slight moment of panic when he notices it’s “fuck raining” however the field of windmills, the thatched roof houses that are just like his “Mums” and the llamas have him suitably placated.
A school, what looks like a relatively upmarket school is where my genius of a Sat Nav has taken us. Tom’s more reliable one on his phone, sends us off somewhere completely different, but it’s so obnoxious, it’s curt loud instructions just rude, I have to ask him to turn it down.
Another leisure centre, another house share. CC are currently the lodgers at Westwood Road, the home of St Ives Town FC, the landlords crest abundant on the potholed drive up to the ground, the four bull covered badge everywhere. Vastly outnumbering CC’s single long narrow sign on a fence as you make your way in, the only inkling that CC play here too.
The hour and a half in the car with the heaters on five and the radiant sun has fooled us both into thinking it’s habitable outside, but it’s not. The man on the gate of Westwood Road has the right idea, a black woolly hat with Lilywhites across its front. Not only is he well prepared with the appropriate headgear, but the fact he is showing off the clubs nickname, a nickname they share with a certain North London club, I may or may not be a fan off, I feel an instant affinity with CC already.
We are early, crazy early, silly early. The man in the hat is confused at why we are as early as we are, so early that the bar isn’t even open yet, and he says we’ll “freeze” if we sit around waiting for it to do so.
“Stop reading my mind” says one club official to another who interrupts him suggesting we go to the nearby leisure centre cafe for half an hour or so, but not before Rick a CC director emphasises that today’s game, against table toppers Moneyfields FC (MF) who are four points ahead of second placed CC, might just be the “biggest game of the season”, “it’s games like these in the middle of the season, that make the difference at the end” he adds.
Walking into the Zest cafe, Tom suggests that what we see before us is a snapshot of my life now I have two children. Parents sitting with either soggy haired kids after swimming or waiting for a birthday party at the ten pin bowling lanes and he asks if I “fancy a game” as a way to kill some time.
A cup of tea will suffice, we won’t be here for long, and my knees don’t allow for me to execute my preferred bowling technique anymore. Tom returns with a bit more than just a cuppa in a polystyrene cup, but “tea for two”, served in white china, with a tea pot and an almighty slab of flapjack, which is “homemade” he tells me and “cheap” too.
Surrounded by the faint smell of “flaming Monster Munch” that Tom has detected, and the sound of rowdy children and struggling adults, we enjoy our drinks. With his last sip Tom lets out a knowing sigh, it’s time to head back outside, “this is the warmest we’ll be all day”.
Thankfully the bar is now open, but any thoughts of Tom being able to satisfy his already grumbling stomach, “getting hungry” he tells me, is going to have to wait a little longer, they’re not serving yet.
It’s distinctly black and white in the bar, from the material draped from the ceiling, to the chequered table cloth with striped tombola on top, but it’s all distinctly St Ives, it’s very much their bar. By coincidence their colour scheme is the same as CC’s, but it’s not their players that fill the many picture frames, or newspaper clippings celebrating their achievements covering the walls. CC are reduced to a small notice board, with a scarf pinned to it and the clubs crest above.
“It’s even cold in here” says one of the newly arrived MF squad, sauntering through the empty bar in their very “snazzy outfits” that catch Tom’s eye. Suitably refreshed, with no instant desire for a pint, we head back outside, having seen all there is to see in the monochrome clubhouse.
Conveniently the programme seller and the 50/50 seller are standing side by side, both with their blue money belts over their shoulders, and the chance to quash any chance of no programme disappointment today, as well as having a flutter, are quickly sorted out.
The reason we are here today, is thanks to the suggestion of @dwb790 on Twitter or Dave in the real world, who we bump into, in what was until recently a completely empty ground, that is finally getting a bit of a match day clamour.
Dave confirms we are not in Cambridge, St Ives is about seventeen miles away, but we are still in “Cambridgeshire”, CC at least staying in their county, if not their city. It’s a “sorry state of affairs” the situation CC find themselves in regards to their home. The clubs header on their Twitter account is testament to what was supposed to be their brand spanking new ground, the detailed artist impression looking very swanky indeed, but in reality they have been sofa surfing for five years now, after a “judicial review” was raised, following an objection lodged against their planning application.
It’s not the happiest chapter in CC’s one hundred and nine year history, having been relegated last season. Rubbing salt in the wounds, they went down due to “goal difference” of all things, and Dave’s friend John explains, it was made ten times worse by the fact that “local rivals up the road St Neots” survived instead of them.
Dave and John aren’t native to this part of the world, work having brought both of them to Cambridge, they met seventeen years or so ago, their kids both going to the same school. Their budding bromance started when John a “Brentford fan” invited Dave to a match, and they’ve been coming ever since. Dave, like so many people doesn’t really “like league football” anymore, all the “yellow lines telling you where to go” is not for him.
MF appear in their less than understated neon green hats, ready for the warm up. By the turnstiles a small crowd has formed around the programme seller, “programmes” he now shouts like a barrow boy, next to him the 50/50 seller is giving someone a “guaranteed” winning ticket, gutted, and is also
selling some CC Christmas cards, with a choice of “two designs”.
The crowd is making a reasonable din, as people welcome new arrivals though the single turnstile, before catching up with each other. One man asks how anothers “allotment” is, and before he can update him on his sweet peas and marrows, the older man who doesn’t look the type, but who knows, I saw Christopher Biggins getting wasted with Bobby George on TV the other day, asks if he is “growing that marijuana?”.
Tom has gone full SAS, hat on, snood pulled up, only his nose and glasses visible. As he puts it, it’s “nice when you’re in the sun, but it’s just fucking freezing when you’re not”.
It’s certainly a warm and cheery welcome from the man with the mic on the sidelines “welcome back ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” he says with a certain panache. He is quick to plug the 50/50 and programmes, as well as the “festive cards” on sale, he also alludes to a second form of gambling, that until now I was not aware of.
“Raffle with prizes” is the reply from the man in the Lilywhites hat to my enquiry about the other way for me to waste a couple of pounds. He describes the person I need to find, who he tells me “doesn’t miss many games” in fact I’m sure I’ve seen him, with his ticket book in hand.
As the teams arrive, and the starting elevens are read out, firstly MF, every name is followed with a shrill “boo” from a small boy, when the home team is read out and we all find out who’s starting “for the Lilywhites” they get a much better reception.
“Come on you Lilywhites” shouts one of the fans standing in front of the two CC flags which have gone up, hanging from the bars over the windows of the clubhouse. The ground is a mishmash of three small seated stands opposite the main bulk of people who are either on the few graduating steps outside the bar or with little chance of rain are leaning on the barrier around the pitch.
It’s not an ideal start to the game for the home side, catching out almost everyone in the ground, with only three minutes gone, they find themselves behind. “City” shouts someone nearby disapprovingly, “awful defending” shouts another. One of the CC staff on the bench shouts at the defence, telling them that they need to “tighten up”.
Standing next to the man with the mic, whose early jolly and positive demeanor has slipped a bit, I’m subjected to a sometime mumbling, and sometime explosively loud tirade of nervous football related pessimism, I almost feel inclined to give the bloke a hug.
“Here we go again” he says as MF pin CC back, each attack he is sure is going to result in another goal. When it doesn’t, and the defence by luck or by chance stop them scoring he bellows things like “wake up” and “come on now”.
It’s all the away team, CC’s players and fans seem a little shell shocked by the early goal. You could almost hear a pin drop in here, it’s very subdued. When CT do get the ball, they give it away just as quickly, much to the displeasure of the man next to me, who singlehandedly breaks the silence, “come on get hold of it”.
His ability to go from 0 to 100 is frightening. “It’s a corner” he roars at an MF player who disagrees with the referee’s decision. A little quieter, but just as ferocious, the boo’er tells the MF player to stop his “whining”.
The first of many crunching teeth sucking tackles today, happens around twenty minutes in, “make sure it’s the right colour” demands a a CC supporter, as the MF player responsible for the wincing lunge is marched off and only given a yellow. Appalled and incensed the same fan can’t believe it, so enraged he can barely get his words out to make a cohesive sentence, “nice to know what you can do for a yellow” he eventually gets out garbled and flustered.
As the sun drops lower, the CC keeper has to hold up his hand to shield his eyes from it’s rays, so does the temperature and things just go from bad to worse for the home team and my neighbour. “For crying out loud” he cries, when for the countless time his team give the ball away again, putting themselves under undue pressure.
An almighty clearance in the general direction of Tom, gets him thinking. Turning to me, a little pale, he was sure “that was going in my face”, he posses me a question. With one of the few downsides of non league football being the heightened chance of catching a ball straight in the boat race. His brush with injury makes him wonder what would I do, if he was hit and it “broke” his nose.
I consider his scenario, but not for long, and give him my answer. I would “plug it” I tell him, with something at hand, a tissue or a cold chip and assure him that there are plenty of “medical staff at hand” who would be able to help. We’re not leaving just because you’ve got a nosebleed and now look a bit like Owen Wilson.
His face is a picture of disgust, but I think I can also see that he acknowledges the fact that I did say I would help him in his hour of need. Lucky for me, he has the attention span of Homer Simpson, and is soon distracted by a man passing him “ohhh sausage rolls” he murmurs, and he’s already forgotten how upset with me he is. He is also upset, neigh dismayed in the manner in which said passing man was “churning up” a large tray of ketchup and mayo, making his own on the hoof marie rose sauce, to dip his snack in.
Twenty five minutes gone and CC are given a lifeline, thanks to a mix up in defence with the MF keeper, whose rotund physique is getting some attention. One fan suggesting they felt an “earthquake” when he dived, is not very nice. In the middle of the melee, a CC player it seems is dragged down, their shout for a penalty declined. Play continues and the ball is whipped across the box, but no CC player can capitalise, and its cleared.
“Gonna be one of those games” says the CC manager, turning away from the pitch towards the bench behind him.
CC show their first bit of class and composure, just shy of thirty minutes in. A great run on the wing on the opposite side, sees the player break free and unopposed he makes it to the byline. The requests of his teammates to cut back into the box are seen and he does just that. The ball in is a good one, one of his well placed team mates meets it, but his shot is a little under powered and straight into the hands of the MF keeper.
“Come on city” shouts one of the group near the flags, as the first quality home attack, is followed by the first bit of real noise the crowd has made so far today.
Someone’s mood has changed, funny what a goal can do, “equalising goal for the Lilywhites” says the man with the mic. All his bon viveur has come flooding back, following CC’s close range header. Which some nearby soothsayer moments before it went in, muttered “surely that’s it” as the ball was chipped into the box.
“Game on” says the woman next to Tom, pinching his catchphrase.
The home goal has put a rocket up players and fans alike, there is finally a buzz about Westwood Road now. The players visibly fired up almost take the lead in excellent fashion, starting their move following an MF corner. Swarming forward, CC’s counter attack culminates in a well hit shot that is saved, but not held, sending it spinning up in the air allowing for a second bite at the cherry. This time the attacker tries with a header, but it’s just over.
It’s like a different ground now “come on City”, there is so much more coming from the fans, “keep that tempo” demands the CC bench.
Tom is now, just like so many others are doing, the cold feet dance. Shifting back and forth from one foot to another, he tries to get some life back in their feet, telling me he’ll be “digging out his long johns” for our next game and asks me if today “can we eat inside?”, wanting just a bit of respite from Jack Frost.
On the pitch it’s getting what a character from an East End B movie might call a bit ‘lively’ or ‘tasty’ and very shouty. Players shouting at players, players shouting at the linesman, both teams shouting at the same linesman and the fans chucking their two pence in towards both sets of players and the linesman and everyone is shouting at the referee.
“Should be 2 – 1 up” says a young steward to the mic man, who agrees, adding quite rightly that CC have “grown into the game”. The steward joins the deafening chorus, when an MF player knees a CC player in the back, as they both jumped for the ball, “he poleaxed him”. A third fan joins the conversation, thankfully for the moment just talking in a normal indoor voice and not shouting, and it’s hard to disagree with his assessment of the game “we’re the only team in it”.
With the tunnel extended, a baying mob, minus the pitchforks pack the small space either side of it, letting the MF players know just what they think of them “filthy bastards” shouts one. The referee and his assistants are not immune either, and all get an earful too, before disappearing underneath the protection of the white vinyl.
The players and officials now safe, the tunnel retracted, Tom is off, “I’m getting in the food queue”.
I was unable to find the “match day draw” ticket seller, so pretend I’m not bothered when the draw is made as I’m not in it, what do I care that someone else has just won a box of Roses or a voucher for a local dog grooming salon or whatever it may be. Raffle over, the voice over the PA tells us the “50/50 is next”.
As the winning tickets number is read out, Tom is signalling at me from the queue at the refreshments hatch, firstly the score of Spurs Vs West Brom, the baggies currently leading by one goal, then with his thumb he goes from thumbs up, to thumbs down, thumbs up, thumbs down, until I confirm it’s a thumbs down.
The “good chips” Tom returns with are a real treat, and I don’t think “good” realy does them justice, how about great or outstanding, these are some Heston Blumenthal triple cooked shit. The “brioche bun” of his cheese burger is a nice touch too, however the “no onions” are a bit of a let down.
CC are out first, one fan suggesting that MF being a bit tardy is because they are “practising their boxing”. We hear from the man with the mic one last time when he confirms the 50/50 has been “claimed”, and I stare off into what is turning out to be the most stunning blue and pink sky, wondering if I’m destined to forever be a loser.
“Ohhhh” crow the CC fans early into the new half, having just watched their team fire the ball down the corridor of uncertainty, but no player is there to meet it to have surely put them ahead.
MF have set their stall out pretty firmly, Tom is convinced only five or ten minutes since the restart that they are “happy with a point” and are taking every opportunity to “slow the game down”. This what you might call negative approach, the keeper really making the most of every kick, insuring that he kicks the upright of his goal at every opportunity to clear his studs, is resulting in mucho, mucho grumbling from the home fans and a smatter of sarcastic applause when he eventually takes it.
With a quarter of an hour gone, MF have their first genuine attempt at goal since the CC equaliser. Their own counter attack, results in a squared ball into the box for a tap in, but it’s cleared at the last. Not long after the CC keeper almost gifts MF a goal, his “fluffed” punch as Tom puts it, presents the visitors with the ball just outside the box, but the resulting diving header is put wide.
The two quick fire chances prompt one travelling fan to shout “come on the moneys” for the first time, or certainly the first time I’ve heard it today. Again Westwood Road has fallen a little quiet, no singing or chanting of any kind just the odd sporadic shout, “Come on city”.
Twenty five minutes in and Tom is disappointed considering the half started “so brightly” and it’s a bit “dull” now. “Lots of back and forth, but not a lot happening” he adds. One thing I can certainly tell you that is happening is the near constant blowing of the referees whistle, and the awarding of free kicks in the home team’s favour, one such set piece is fired just wide, the “knuckleball” attempt as Tom describes it, by the player he is convinced is modelling himself on CR7 from his hair cut to his boots to his technique, is just off target.
The sheer amount of fouls being given away by MF, makes Tom start to wonder if in fact they are “being treated unfairly or are they just dirty”.
I’m pretty sure I know what side of the fence the home fans are sitting, “whingey bastard” shouts one, as a WF player argues with the referee about another decision given against them. One fan, and not Tom this time, might have named the blog without even realising it, when they remind the WF players that they are called “moneyfields, not moany-fields” Tom does chip in following the recently pun, but it’s a little bit short of what I have come to expect from him, “dirtyfields.”
“Come on city” shouts a single fan, hitting the fence as he does. For a brief moment a song breaks out among the home supporters, but it’s fleeting. People are soon wincing and laughing in equal measure when with about ten minutes left an MF player blocks a point blank shot with his anus. Combined with the plummeting temperature, Tom now doing the cold dance almost continually, many are sympathetic with the player writhing about and no one can begrudge the referee blowing up, so the downed player can get some help. I won’t tell you what Tom said about the use of magic spray, you can work that one out.
It’s MF keepers chance to almost hand the opposition a goal, when he dawdles on a back pass, and he’s quickly put under pressure and is hurried into kicking it out of play. “Money we keep fucking going” shouts one of their players, a CC player responds in kind, “come on city fight”.
Five minutes of extra time, “come on City get at em” yells a fan, at almost the precise time MF win the ball back and play it into the corner. I can’t quite believe my eyes, and have to ask Tom to confirm what I just saw, “yep” he says aghast at what he calls “anti football”.
“Have a safe journey home” says the man on the mic, points all shared, league positions and deficits unaffected. The result having the feeling of a Sky Sports Super Sunday, battle of the top two, that didn’t quite live up to it’s potential. A decent game, but I think it could have been a real humdinger, if only the visitors foot had been a little less on the break and a bit more on the gas.
MF are straight up the tunnel, CC remain on the pitch, for a debrief with the manager. We say our goodbyes, just as we had done our hellos, to the man in the Lilywhite hat, who agrees that WF were certainly “robust” and as Tom puts it they came with “a plan”, but he also gives them credit where credits due, “they’re hard to beat, we played some football”, and “that’s why they are top of the league”.
Getting into the car and Tom is already talking about “calling in sick”, for our next outing in a couple of days time. For all his woolly hats, gloves with textured smart phone finger pads and the famous snood, he is almost frozen to the core.
It’s going to be extremely hard not to adopt CC as my own, considering their quite wonderful nickname, the very thing I’ve shouted at kick off I think just about every Spurs game I’ve ever been to, just as hard as it was to go the whole day without making one Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, Harry Enfield ‘loads of money’ or opening titles of the USA Apprentice ‘money, money, money’ reference, which the name of CC’s opponents was just screaming for. A weaker man would have gladly stepped up to the plate and knocked it out the park, but I resisted.
It’s always sad when a team can’t play at home, let alone their own city, I can only hope that CC are able to return to where they belong soon, its the least that their supporters deserve. There was only one thing sadder today, one thing that almost brought a tear to my eye, which was when I told Tom I was going to my Mums for Sheppard’s pie after dropping him off, and him telling me he’d put his feet in it, to “warm them up”.
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