Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey this time out venturing to deepest, coldest Essex.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
Small flakes of snow fall as I ready myself and step outside into the world, from the warmth of my flat. It’s still light, but its already bitterly cold and with light fading it’s only going to get colder.
I’m starting to think it’s some kind of a wind up, but once again the offering from Radio 4 is the bloody Kitchen Cabinet again, that’s the third game in a row that I’ve had to listen to these twits go on about food related lunacy. Today it’s about the best kind of dish to bake your cheese in. I’m so thankful that the few sentences from the “resident cheese head” are some of the last of the show and I don’t have to suffer them prattling along for long.
Some of you may be thinking why don’t you just change channel, well I will tell you why I don’t. The radio in my car picks up three channels, four on a good day LGR (London Greek Radio), Heart, Radio 1, sometimes Classic FM and of course Radio 4.
So when push comes to shove choosing between programmes in another language, shit music or shit music, my options are limited, and not wanting to sit in silence, I’m left with little choice and the very high probability of having to suffer someone going on about the best way to cook a pigs cheeks.
Anyway they’re gone now and I’m only half listening to the next programme, but the quote from Charles Dickens about the ravages of winter, “the desolation of a winter night sat brooding on the earth, and in the sky”, seems quite apt.
It’s Toms turn to come bearing gifts today. Last time out I brought him a fresh and lovingly made cup of tea. Today he is offering, an apple Chupa Chup lolly, it’s the thought that counts I guess.
We’re not long under way when he starts talking about the elements. He’s yet to take his massive jacket off and when he tells me that it’s going to be the “coldest night of the year” tonight, for once I don’t think hes being his usual overly dramatic self. Normally a hefty pinch of salt is required when he inevitably shares his weather forecast, but there might be some semblance of accuracy in what he’s going on about today.
Regardless, there are much more important and frankly hysterical things to talk about. Having lent him FIFA 18 at the weekend, he has started his Arsenal Career mode, a career at his beloved Gooners which was short lived.
A new feature of the latest game is the more involved contract negotiations. Keen to tie down his creative German number 11 he goes head to head with the play maker and his agent, thrashing out the finer points of his new contract. Thinking he’s come out on top, inserting a sizable buyout clause of £1,500,000 he reckons hes secured the services of the former Real Madrid player for the next four years, except.
Except that, two days later, two days after thinking his Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang front three were going to win that all important 4th place trophy, PSG swoop in, triggering his release clause and Mesut is on the first private jet to Paris.
I’m pretty sure I laughed the whole way to Essex, yes we’re off there again. I’m not sure what was funnier, Tom thinking he’d got a good deal after some considerable back and forth or the fact he just turned it off and started again.
It’s dark now as we meander along the A1014 in search of today’s ground. Tom thinks he sees the floodlights off in the distance, but I think he’s confusing them with the nearby docks. This particular nearby stretch of the Thames estuary is positively glowing with the lights of ships and cranes.
I’m almost forced into a Fast and the Furious: Essex Drift type manoeuvre when our turn off, catches me out, despite the instructions on my Sat Nav. It’s so dark, I’m dubious if there is even a road there to turn into, but try my luck.
The dimly lit entrance to the car park at Rookery Hill, home of East Thurrock United FC (ETU) is hardy visible. “Time to get cold” says Tom climbing out of the car onto the uneven surface under foot. We both head towards the nearest source of light coming from the small square windows of the clubhouse.
Pints & fruit machines and plenty of brown leather, fill the low ceilinged room. The pool table has been covered, and pushed up against the back wall, next to those machines which in exchange for 20p, dish out some Minstrels that look like they’ve been there too long. Tom’s first choice of where to sit he tells me is intentionally uncomfortable. I couldn’t understand his thinking considering all the plush armchairs, he was just worried that he “wouldn’t get up again”.
The high arms and soft back are like a warm leathery hug, I can understand his misgivings in choosing them, but they were too hard to resist. He isn’t sitting for long mind, the call of the food menu coming from the bar is too loud.
“No chips” he tells me, but they did have turkey and stuffing flavoured crisps that he has quickly made a dent in, before offering me one. Looking out of the window, it looks cold, it’s stopped snowing, there are no obvious signs of the “yellow weather warning” that Tom must have mentioned fifty times already, but I’m glad I’ve brought a hat, scarf and some Fagin gloves.
As ever Tom has taken his quest to stay warm to the next level, not just satisfied with a snood and his creepy gloves that allow him to use his phone, he has hand warmers. The same ones that made the four hundred mile round trip to Mossley, and he was too embarrassed to get out. A little closer to home, and well travelled, they are originally from Italy from when his other half went skiing, he finally plucks up the courage to reveal them.
They are out of date and not working, regardless of how vigorously he shakes them. The fact his “pocket is warm” I’m not sure quite justifies having them. The fact they are defunct means his back up, a pair of thermal socks, “might make an appearance”.
Although it’s predominantly black and yellow in the clubhouse, many of the home fans here are wearing their much needed striped scarves, except the dog at one person’s table, he’s just eyeing the crisps tantalisingly out of reach in front of him. In dribs and drabs there is the introduction of some black and white, and the unmistakable north east accent of the fans of ETU’s opponent tonight, Spennymoor Town FC (ST).
Locals and visitors are soon mingling, a couple of away fans are keen to get the lay of the land, finding out all the important things like where the loos are and if they can get food in the ground.
“Can I interest you in a 50/50?” asks the man in the ETU hat and Hi Viz waistcoat, yes you bloody can, I’ll take two. I hand over my money, he puts it in his Tupperware box and heads off to the next table, “got to be in it to win it” he says to the ST supporters, as he wraps us his latest sale.
Before heading off to flog some more, I overhear him confirm to them that there will be “no chips” or “pies” available tonight. Two hundred and fifty miles and no pies, they must think it a wasted journey.
Toms snood is out well early and for once I can’t blame him. Peering in the window of the container that’s been converted in to the snack bar, Tom looks a little like Oliver. He is trying to suss out if the lady unfurling great reams of tin foil sells her sausage rolls that currently sit under a plastic cloche hot or cold. “Think they’re served cold” he says after some investigation, a little disappointed.
As what Tom calls “dandruff snow” starts to fall, his way of describing the lightest of light smattering of the cold stuff, he remonstrates with himself, “should of brought long johns”. People take all sorts of things to football, various “accessories” as Tom calls them. The horn one small person is blowing is not one Tom is particularly enamoured with, tonight the “ultimate accessory” would be a “hot water bottle” according to my chilly companion, whose “warm pocket” is doing very little to heat the rest of him.
While he finishes his sausage roll, he of course succumbed. I leave one person eating, only to interrupt someone else doing just that. The woman on the turnstile is mid snack, when I disturb her for a programme. Next to her a man stands next to a small wooden table, on top of it an even smaller tombola and in front of that a Quality Street box. Thinking I’ve stumbled across another opportunity for a flutter, he tells me its the “50/50”, gutted.
The club shop isn’t open yet, I say shop, it is in fact a miniature conservatory. The large windows means the goodies inside are close, but oh so far, we will have to revisit it later.
Preceded by a crackle and then a hum, the speakers bring some life to a relatively somber ground, filling it with music I don’t know. Tom couldn’t care less about the music, the cold is the only thing on his mind, the socks have appeared much sooner than I thought they might. One passing steward is very impressed, “I see you’ve come prepared”.
There is not a lot to please the eye at Rookery Hill, a nice church is brightly lit behind one goal, and its quite intriguing to see what can be done with a shipping container, but other than that there is no real standout feature, saying that though the all glass dugouts are a first. It’s perfectly nice and in great nick, but it’s just not abundant with character. Tom is not a huge fan of it, only because the colour scheme of green and yellow, is the same as our secondary schools PE kit was.
Behind one goal though, the same as the church is a large flag, we like a flag, we’re big fans of flags. It’s a yellow and black St George’s cross with “We Are The Rocks” written across it. In the middle, is the club’s crest, “why they got a grim reaper on their badge” asks Tom? Investigating closer he is quite right and I’m not sure. I’m not sure it is in fact the harbinger of death, but it’s not far off, and I’m not sure why that would be your choice of badge. A frightening looking chap all in black, with a hood, beady black eyes and a sizable scythe.
To add to his deathly persona, it’s not totally clear what he’s “standing over” points out Tom. Lying at his feet is it the vanquished remains of other teams or rude groundhoppers?
The signature blue jackets of the National League, being worn by a few players as they materialise for their warm up, reminds me we are watching two teams from their respective north and south divisions going head to head. When Tom gets a glimpse of ETU’s keeper, stocky, bearded and bald, he’s sure he is the spitting image of a WWE wrestler, but can’t remember his name. This bout of early 00’s nostalgia is halted when the CD player starts to skip and is allowed to do so for overly long
While the officials run their laps, the main man with his Britney mic already taped to his face, both teams go through the final throes of their pre match drills, and there is quite the stark contrast between the two.
The home team are quiet, lethargic and “lack enthusiasm” says Tom. The visitors, well they couldn’t be more poles apart. It’s like a scene from 300, loud and raucous. The pitch is “heavy” one of their coaches points out, some teams would baulk at this, but the men from the north east are unperturbed, “perfect from us” the same coach adds.
It really is cold, lost finger cold, Toms hand warmers are officially useless. It’s the toes though, that are starting to screaming the loudest. Things have got so bad for one home fan, that he’s been forced to take desperate measures. He is nigh on forced to beg the custodian of the shop to open up. He tells her he wants a hat, pointing to his near bald head he tells her “its cold” and she relents.
Someone has finally found another CD, not that it’s really needed. A decent sized group of fans from each team have set up shop behind each goal, and the ST fans have strung up their own flag. Its them who start to sing first, but I can’t quite make out what they are saying
Behind me a fierce debate has broken out between a fan of each team, a little bit of one-upmanship, about the playing surface “We love a flat pitch” says the ST fan thinking he’s trumped the ETU one, however he has an ace up his sleeve, “we love a flat pitch” he says in reply aping his counter part. There is a brief pause, each thinking they have the better of the other, thankfully they don’t come to blows.
“Hello good evening everybody” says the voice over the PA, who definitely sounds like he could be an East End villain in a Guy Ritchie film, cheeky, charming but with the distinct possibility of owning pigs. The away fans reply to the welcome with shouts of “Moors, Moors”. The considerable home turnout, most of whom are pushed up against the railing around the tunnel, offer up their support “come on your rocks, come on lads”.
There is a quick swap of ends for the fans, the MT supporters crack out a black and white chequered flag on the end of a thin spindly flag pole and the game kicks off, and what a game it proves to be, and we don’t have to wait long for the action to start.
“A goal for the Rocks on 4 minutes” says Bricktop and is was not your everyday run of the mill goal. Tom is not sure he “meant it”, he reckons it was a “cross’’ that ended making it all the way in, catching out the scrambling man in the ST goal. I think it’s a work of genius a thirty yard free kick that finds the top corner of the goal with deadly accuracy.
Quarter of an hour gone and its cautious. The away fans are certainly the most vocal, “Moors, Moors, Moors” they shout and their team are most definitely still in the game, despite conceding early. One of their players embarks on a remarkable solo run, weaving in and out of the ETU players only for a last ditch tackle stopping his shot, “lucky bastard” mutters an ST fan.
Chances are coming thick and fast, ETU fire a ball right across the ST box, have a freekick which is not far off, then curl a shot just over. ST go close themselves with a shot that is spilt by the ETU keeper, but no one can get close, and he gathers up the loose ball.
Still the loudest of the two sets of the fans, the ST supporters stick to their reliable cry of “Moors, Moors”, occasionally brandishing their flag and mixing up the chants by singing “everywhere we go”.
Tom reckons in tonight’s round of ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ that its “Leyton Orient Vs Barnet” which is so wrong on so many levels, that I kind of don’t want to play this game anymore.
Half an hour gone and the temperature on the pitch is rising, in the stand and on the terraces it is only spiralling downwards. The ST bench are livid at one foul which has left their players head “pissing with blood” as Tom puts it. The player a little aghast, does his best Terry Butcher impression, standing on the sideline while a bright white bandage is wrapped around his head. Such is their anger they have encroached a fair way onto the pitch, “get a grip of the game” shouts one of the bench to the man in charge. “Back on again and you’re off” he says in reply, waving his hand at them, as they edge back closer towards their fish tank dugout.
This time the crowd are joined by the bench “Moors, Moors” they cheer, with just over ten minutes of the half left. A slightly stooped close range ST header, means the game is all square. There is a brief celebration, the scorer dashing behind the goal among the flags which are in the air once more. He doesn’t though revel in his glory for long and is soon making his way back to his half, along with his teammates.
“Have a grope around in your trousers” suggests the voice over the PA, his way of advising people to check if they have won the 50/50. The draw having been done, with the game still playing.
Alone now and sitting in one of the small stands,Tom has gone for food, I’m surrounded by people with blankets over their knees and Thermos by their sides. I find my tickets, not in my trousers but my notebook and suffer the ignominy of only being three numbers off the prize. The people at the next table along from us in the clubhouse I should think the winners.
Both teams are playing some “great football” as one fan puts it. When ETU have a shout for a penalty, one ST fan lets him know of in no uncertain terms what he thinks of his attempt to win a spot kick, “get up man” he says in his thick Durham accent.
“Come on rocks” barks a home fan, with the game flowing from end to end at quite a pace. The ST bench are close to peaking, I’m not quite sure what’s wound them up so much, admittedly the referee has been a little dire, but they are near to erupting.
Tom returns clutching the most gargantuan burger “back on the double” that’s a double pattie he tells me, the thing is dripping with cheese, the thin cheap paper serviette wrapped around it has almost disintegrated, unable to cope with its oniony greasiness.
In to added time and it’s all change. The quite magnificent volley from well outside the box from the ST player all in red is destined for the top right hand corner of the ETU goal, is matched by an equally magnificent athletic save worthy of any top flight WWE wrestler, by the man who according to Tom looks just like one. At full stretch he tips the ball over for a corner.
2 – 1 ST, the “goal scorer to be confirmed” says the now hurting voice over the PA, this close to halftime I wonder if he has tidied away his team sheet, in preparation of his own “double” waiting for him in the wings.
There is a sizable evacuation after the half time whistle, most people making a beeline for the shelter of the clubhouse. Those fans not heading inside silently brush past each other right in front of us, the narrow pathway causing everyone to get very intimate. The ST fans going one way are led by the young man wearing a St Georges cross like a cape, rubbing shoulders with the ETU supporters most in yellow and black scarves going the other way.
Still not having confirmed the scorer, the voice does though remind everyone of the “FA regulation that everyone likes” that is in play today, that alcohol can’t be brought “back into the ground”.
Tom having finished his behemoth of a burger, realises the genius of the fans around us, “they’ve got the right idea” he says to himself, “where is my blanket?” he asks, like I forgot it.
The relocated ST supporters are quick to get back into the swing of things at the start of the second half, “Moors, Moors, Moors”. On the pitch it’s got off to a bristling start. ST’s bench are in constant dialogue with the referee. “I appreciate the clarification” he says at one point, following one coaches observation on his latest decision.
Having been treated to one spectacular free kick tonight, I feel almost greedy, when we are offered up a second helping of set piece deliciousness. This one just as astonishing as the first. The ping of hitting the woodwork before heading in, the keeper caught out from the most ridiculous angle, it’s almost from the corner spot, is deafening. It’s replaced by the now familiar chant of the travelling fans “Moor, Moors, Moors” and a mighty shout of “get in” from the away bench.
Such is the enthusiasm of one ST player, there is a slight coming together between him and the referee. Tom suggest its a “barge”, I’ll stick with coming together.
Having been a goal behind, ST now find themselves two ahead, 3 – 1. One would think we’ve already had our allocation of allowed drama for one game. The remaining forty minutes of the match destined to be a dull affair. Anymore theatrics would just be gluttonous.
With the third ST goal feeling like it’s put this tie to bed, ETU have other ideas. Still with a little bit of fight left in them, they rally quickly and almost get one foot back in the game straight away. However they don’t have to wait long for an ST player to present them with another opportunity back into the match.
Through a body of players I can’t quite make out what’s happened, there is an almighty claim for a “hand ball” from both ETU’s players and fans. The referee has clearly seen something, blowing his whistle he reaches for his pocket. Not only is it a second yellow for the player responsible for the offence, but has also pointed to the spot too.
“Goal for the rocks” says a now much more animated announcer. Tom is also roused by ETU’s second, “interesting, interesting” he says to himself.
It’s a black and yellow siege in the moments following their goal, ETU taking advantage of being a man up, “come on you Rocks” pleads a fan in the stand.
I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing, let me get this straight, the team with the fewer players have just furthered their lead. Its a player in red, not yellow and black who is wheeling away from goal in celebration. Its a member of the away bench not the home bench punching in the air in response to a
The lady behind us sitting next to her young son in not best pleased with the language used by one let’s say unhappy ETU player returning to his half head down. “Cunt” he shouts, the cunt in question being the referee, who in Tom’s opinion has been “awful” all game. The unhappy player irked somewhat that he didn’t give a foul in favour of ETU, allowing the game to play on, which ultimately led to the fourth.
Not that any of this is of any concern to the ST fans, “Moors, Moors, Moors”. They then give up on words all together and just go into a cycle of “ally, ally, oh, ally, ally, oh”. They have the best metaphorical seats in the house now, as despite having ten men, all the action is down the ETU end. Another fine fingertip save prevents a fifth, yes fifth goal, “Moors, Moors” they sing once more.
Unbelievable, might be one of the best games we’ve ever seen, I suggest to Tom, he reckons that’s “bold”, but let me recap, oh and by the way the games not over, this is not the most abrupt ending to one of ours blogs ever, come on there are far too few superlatives. It’s just ST have scored a FIFTH, and I’m struggling to think of a game which has had more than this one, my head is a mess.
One ETU fan thinks his team have “given up” one player certainly still seems to believe, “fucking loads of time left” he shouts, he’s not wrong, thirty minutes to score three goals is not outside the realms of possibility, frankly I think anything is possible today, but the heads of the payers are low, very low.
Now in dreamland having just watched their team pull ahead by three, no pies, but they have all but secured the win and a place in the quarterfinals, they sing the loudest they have all night “we are Spennymoor”. To add to one fans good mood, Tom tells me it was one of them that won the 50/50. Having walked past the victor as he announced his wife was going to get “something nice” with the winnings.
The rest of the crowd is in shock, its gone very quiet. It’s just the very “merry” ST fans as Tom describes them, who are no longer singing just “ally ally o‘ing”. One in particular is beyond “merry” and is simply “very drunk” according to Tom. I’m not sure if it’s him who is the ringleader of the six man conga, I imagine he is no position to start moving around, I imagine the only thing he wants to do is stand very still.
ST’s number 9 has been a menace all night. He is denied an absolute peach of a goal thanks to the quick thinking of the ETU keeper. The “touch” that one fan celebrates by simply blurting out the aforementioned word very loudly, on the run, is a thing of artistry and worthy of a goal.
Another conga and jibes of “you’re supposed to be at home” are usurped by a new song “black and white army”. A home supporter, fed up with watching, strikes up a conversation with a fan in the stand behind us, assuming he is from the north east, until he tells him he’s from “Bracknell”.
It’s desperate measures for the home team, Tom noticing that they’ve put their “speedy full back up front”.
There has been an underlying current of tension all match, which has almost boiled over, but not quite. With about “2 mins to go” according to the ST bench, things get a bit out of hand, a spot of “handbags” as Tom calls it. The overriding consensus from most people, as the referee dishes out “another card” says an astonished Tom, and as one player puts it directly to the man in black “you’ve lost it”.
Toms theory that “you know when a ref is shit” because he is “dishing out all the cards” is a fair summing up of the man in charge. It’s never felt like he’s had a tight grip on things.
On the pitch the players are flagging, the fans are just getting started, “we’re all going to Bromley” they sing, their opponents in the next round and another trip down south. No pies if I remember correctly at Hayes Lane but they do have a Pizza Hatch.
“Come on ref blow that whistle” implores an ETU player. When the boards lifted with five minutes of extra time on it, Tom can’t work out where he “got that from”. As one fan in the stand states, “most” of the players are “going to work tomorrow” so lets get this game sewn up.
There is a slight spike in excitement when ST once again threaten to get a sixth on not one but two occasions. With his back to goal the player turns on a sixpence and shoots just wide. Again surrounded, this time next to the corner flag, the slippery player somehow manages to get the ball free and into the box, but the resulting shot is straight down the keepers throat.
Clearly dejected its a nice touch of the voice over the PA to wish the ST fans a “safe journey” home, and what a journey that is on a Tuesday night. The ETU keeper also shakes the hands of those who have stood behind him for the second half, I hope in appreciation of their unwavering support all night. Their ever so slightly slurred version of what I’ve always known as the ‘The Greasy Chip Butty Song’ a highlight of mine, much better than any goal.
Although I’m sure in a rush to get off the pitch, changed and on the coach, the ST players have plenty of time to converse with their fans waiting by the tunnel. One replying to the thanks of one player for being there, tells him it was a “priviledge”.
A fellow Essex non league football enthusiast we bumped into during the match, David, was never put off coming tonight, despite the cold, the terrible crippling cold or the fact he’d had a long day at work. If he had been he would have missed the most thrilling cup tie, a ‘proper cup’ tie as people call them. Seven goals, one red card, and a comeback and victory with ten men of theological proportions, completely justifies sitting in the car, desperately waiting for the heating to kick in, hands and feet tingling with pain.
He much like us doesn’t want to be “sat inside” because everything that has happened since 19:45, including the weather, “is what its all about”.
P.S. To the person who forgot to order the pizza for the ST team coach home, did they let you on, or did you have to make your own way home?
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