Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey this time out experiencing a smoking evening with Welling that produces the best chips around.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
I’m struggling to find the words to adequately describe just how fucking frustrating it is crossing the river at around 16:30/17:00 on a weeknight. In fact I may well have started a blog just like this before, the last time we headed to the other side of the Thames. My hope was that with it being half term it meant it wouldn’t be the normal ordeal, I was wrong. The amount of time we spend edging closer to the Blackwall Tunnels entrance, staring at the number plate of the car in front feels like an eternity.
Due to the fact we’re late, there will be no talk of what I’m listening to on the radio, what Tom’s been up to on FIFA or his weather forecast for the evening. Instead we’ll start just around where I make my second driving indiscretion of the day, almost there, almost close enough to touch our destination, but again I take a wrong turn and we watch today’s ground whistle past us, all lit up, from our dual carriageway overpass vantage point.
The only thing getting me through this unmitigated disaster of a journey is knowing there is some Friday night football at the end of it.
My first impressions of Bayliss Avenue is that its modern, very modern. It looks like the Football Association headquarters of a small European once soviet satellite state. Lots of stainless steel and concrete. It is also hard to ignore the near constant hum of the already mentioned dual carriageway and that of the nearby airport. This is urban inner city football at its best.
Not out of the car long, Tom informs me he is “cold already” as we make our way across the gravel car park and heading towards the vivid green light emanating from beyond the large glass doors.
Bouncing down the stairs to greet us, in his white club polo shirt is, is Welling Town FC’s (WT) chairman, secretary and all round fixer, Kevin. Smiling and amiable he is quick to give us some insight into his team which is very much in its infancy, they were only founded in 2014, but have as he puts it had a “rapid rise” from “playing on a park pitch” into a “multi million pound stadium”. A ground that “matches” those at “Bostick league” level, at least four steps above them, although he admits it looks more like a “leisure centre” than a football club, but, “beggars can’t be choosers”.
A life long Welling United fan, he like so many can’t fail to see the substantial gulf that has grown between what he knew growing up going to Park View Road with his Dad and what football is today. The top flight as he puts it, simply isn’t “reality anymore”. It’s the simple things like being able to “stand where you want” and that you are able to “socialise with opposition fans”, that makes non league football for him.
Standing with your opposite number on the terraces and not being corralled into one particular section of a stadium, are not the only differences, between the top and the bottom of the football pyramid you might come across. Admittedly seeing a player slip off from the warm up, to have a cheeky fag is not something you are likely to see in the Essex Senior League, let alone the Champions League, regardless of how relaxed people tell you non league football can be.
However no-one here even bats an eyelid at him lighting up. He does his best to do it discreetly, but the great plumes of smoke somewhat give the game away. The Sporting Club Thamesmead (SCT) player has a look on his face that having a pre match smoke is as much a part of his warm up routine, as doing stretches are.
It’s a very short walk for the players from the changing rooms to the pitch. A small slope leads from the doors out onto the “billiard table” like surface, Kevin’s description of it when I asked if there had been any chance of a postponement, after all the recent rain. Either side of them, set back in to the base of the stand above are the almost brutalist in design dugouts. Just a single wooden bench and a small home and away sign hangs above the respective one. It looks more like a machine gun bunker than your traditional dugout.
Overlooking the ground a fair few people occupy the green and white seats of the two tier stand, most though with a pint in hand are getting their non league lean on, admittedly a bit higher up than I’m usually used to, as Kevin puts it the “draw of Friday night football” has worked.
The swelled numbers also I’m sure are down to it not being any old match, but the quarter final of the West Kent Challenge Shield which WT are the current holders of and its not any old opposition. WT the ‘lodgers’, are taking on SCT the ‘landlords’. WT come into the game in imperious form. Undefeated in “league and cup” Kevin told us, SCT aren’t doing too bad themselves, only one defeat so far this season, so tonight could be a hum dinger.
The spoils for the eventual winner of the competition, currently sits in the boot of Kevin’s car. He wanted to have it out on show, the players walking past it as they came out, but the manager suggested that might be interpreted as being a bit “arrogant”.
Post kickoff we get a taster for the kind of challenges we are to expect. It’s not so much the sight of one man clattering into another that makes the both of us feel a little queasy, but the sound. It’s the shin to shin contact that turns my stomach. Miraculously both players nine times out of ten get up without a scratch.
“Good challenge” says someone on the SCT bench, as the players untwist themselves from each other. I really am too soft and am dreading the thought of seeing a bad one.
Although it shouldn’t be a massive surprise, considering it just dawned on us that the pre match smoker is in fact the SCT captain, but the attitude towards fitness is a little more lax this far down the pyramid. With the seams of one SCT’s yellow kit being put through their paces by its sizable wearer, there is maybe a debate to be had for getting some larger sizes. I wouldn’t dare mock the bigger man, that would be a little bit stones and glass houses, if anything he is an inspiration.
A quarter of the game gone and it’s a chance a piece for the teams, WT shooting wide of the post and SCT’s keeper being forced into a canny save. Other than that, it’s been a little flat. There is plenty of noise coming from the stand, that mingles with the stacked up planes and the nearby HGV’s, but on the pitch is just a bit muted.
Tom points out the ketchup blob congealed on his camera from our last game, I’m only half listening mind. I’ve just spotted the reason we are here, Jon Main, in his grey sweatshirt and magenta bib, standing on the touchline, and I can confirm without a cigarette. The former AFC Wimbledon, Tonbridge Angels and Welling United player, according to Kevin, is still the National League’s youngest scorer, he was “16” when he set that record.
At the beginning of 2017/18 we decided to sponsor a player, with the intention of following his exploits throughout the season, and ultimately going along to a game and meeting him. The resounding winners of our vote was WT and Jon Main was the player we picked. A brief hello and handshake from him as he joined his team mates for the warm up, sent us both a bit One Direction fan. Seeing him now though in his natural habitat, dishing out advice to his fellow subs, we just hope we get to see him in action.
“Ref we ain’t here to watch you” shouts a person in the crowd, the man in charge having been a little bit inconsistent so far. Laissez-faire on some occasions letting the game ‘flow’ some might say, but then in the next breath he’s a little whistle happy and the game gets a bit stop start.
When one player WWE body checks another, no problem, when Tom thinks I’ve spent too long seeing if Jon Main is coming on, he tells me “I’m not allowed near” him and that if I’m not careful he will get a “restraining order” against me, it feels like a total miscarriage of justice.
Having not seen SCT’s number 4 run yet, the same man with the struggling kit, he has clearly been deployed as sweeper, not a roll you see much anymore. I wonder when he approaches a SCT free kick on the edge of the WT box, that this might be his moment. His lack of mobility, given up in exchange for his prowess on set pieces.
“He’s walking away” says a disappointed Tom. 4 having spoken briefly with a teammate decided this one wasn’t for him and leaves number 10 to do it. His attempt is poor and Tom is convinced even more now than ever, that like an NFL special kicker, “thats why’’ number 4 is “here”, I hope so, I really do.
Admittedly the quality of football is lacking at times, but there are brief and fleeting moments of real class. One SCT players excellent turn away from his marker in midfield is followed by a precise ball out wide, that kick starts an attack. The ball is eventually turned into the box, the player with his back to the goal also turns well, still in possession of the ball, he seems to have his legs taken out from under him, but his shout for a penalty is waved away.
WT not wasting any time, playing to the whistle, I’m sure much to the delight of their manager, quickly counter, but can’t quite capitalise on all the time and space SCT have allowed them.
“That’s why they got him” says Tom on the confirmation that SCT’s number 4 is a bit of secret weapon. Only his broad shoulders are able to cope with the pressure of a penalty. With half time only moments away, there was an considerable coming together of two players just inside the WT box, this time the man in charge saw something he didn’t like, I just saw something he had been saying was fine for the last forty five minutes.
The WT keepers attempts to psyche him out, pointing to one side of the goal, are futile, number 4 isn’t falling for that, he slots the ball home, 1 – 0 to the Landlords.
A goal that the game has desperately needed. Just before the break, it could not have come at a better time for SCT. I don’t think either team if I’m honest deserves to be ahead, neither side really shining, so WT might just feel a little aggrieved to find themselves behind, but they don’t stand about licking their wounds, they do something about it.
I don’t know for certain, but in less than two minutes, maybe two and half, the game is all square. “He was kicked in the face” says Tom about the WT player in green with black shorts currently face down in the area. It’s not though the referee who has given it, but his assistant. The referee having adopted his now familiar low swinging armed stance to signal he didn’t think it was a foul, but his assistant running the line had other ideas and has raised his flag.
It’s down to the WT players to bring this to his attention, he was all but back turned and making his way up the pitch, before he blew up. He has a quick conversation with his colleague, turns, points and reverses his previous decision.
Bizarrely I think it’s the same voice shouting “he’s gotta go” before both penalties from the technical areas, from which one I’m not sure. Was one manager or coach being overly honest or a bit loopy. “Ref you bottled that” says another person, again I’m not sure if its because he didn’t stick to his guns, he gave the penalty or because he didn’t send off the SCT player responsible for the face kicking. That being the same player who moments before was fouled for the SCT penalty and who was smoking before the game.
Excellent penalty, from the much more slender taker. Right into the top corner.
WT end the half on top, their number 15 going on the most superb of runs, the SCT defender trying to mark him is a mere inconvenience, he just pushes the ball into the space ahead and runs around him. “Love that” shouts a person in the crowd. Another sliver of skill in a game that has been all but devoid of it.
No PA, no programme, no gambling, no problem. The lack of our match day staples didn’t really occur to me until the break. As we have found however football and food are synonymous with each other, so that is certainly on offer. The players are already coming back out, “boys come on” shouts one fan, when my pocket buzzes and Tom tells me his is “just waiting for some chips”.
Surrounded by an overpowering smell of vinegar, Tom is barely in his seat, when WT take the lead. All the action so far, being condensed into ten minutes either side of the break. It’s a very tidy finish and an even better hurdle over the on rushing keeper, that puts them ahead. The scorer having avoided being wiped out well, celebrates with a jump and a punch in the air, before he is mobbed by his teammates.
“Get your fucking heads up” roars on SCT fan, one WT player at the other end of the spectrum claps his hands on his way to his half, happy with what he saw “better, better”.
Despite being behind, SCT are not out of the game by any means. A goalmouth scramble and a string of last ditch saves by the WT keeper, stops them equalising. With number 4 or “fat Xavi” as Tom has dubbed him, bit mean if you ask me, no need to bring his BMI into it, but as Tom points out, being compared to the diminutive Spaniard is a great honour, having been pushed up further into midfield, he can now show off his full range of passing
The guy has a genuine eye for a pinged ball forward. At one point he sends it over the WT defence with pinpoint accuracy, setting his teammate away and bearing down on goal, only for keeper to save preventing the goal. He is also not shy of a tackle, and not a late bone cruncher like some have been, but a well measured one where he inevitably ends up with the ball.
“Best chips I’ve ever had at football, might get some more” says Tom. He admits he would normally lean towards a “french fry” however the vinegar drenched fence post he has just polished off, each one about four inches long and two inches wide, has turned his head.
Big chips are not the only thing turning his head, “ïts like watching Arsenal play” he says, with SCT really finding their rhythm, playing some excellent stuff. Their manager emphasises that it’s “easy isn’t it” annoyed that they have not been showing their real potential so far, and its takes them being behind to turn it on.
Jon Main continues to warm up, just below us, “did your heart flutter?” asks Tom, when he is within touching distance.
The shared notion that we both thought it was mild when we first arrived, is well and truly out the window. It’s not Thurrock United cold, that will be tough to beat, but it’s certainly chilly and Tom is doing this thing he does when he tries to hide that he’s shivering, and ends up looking like someone from Alive.
“Oh calm down” says a voice in the stand, after SCT’s number 9 absolutely loses his shit about the ball being a bit flat. He is nigh on frothing at the mouth, as he shouts to the sidelines demanding a new one.
With roughly a quarter of the game left, SCT are looking a “bit one dimensional”. Is it a consequence of number 4 being taken off, I think so. They are getting more of the ball, but even with the constant reassurance from the bench that they have “time” the players take no notice, panic and lose possession.
What might be the brightest example of technique all evening, comes with the execution of WT’s third, having been behind, they now edge even further in front of the team from the league below them, it looking unlikely now that there ‘0’ is going to go.
The initial save from the SCT keeper right on the edge of his box stops one problem, but creates him another. When one door closes, another opens, as they say. This door is about 24 feet by 8 feet with a white net. Without a moment’s hesitation the WT players delicately swings his right foot at the ball and sends it sailing over the stranded keeper, past the player trying with all his might to stop it on the line and into the back of the net from about twenty five yards.
If ever a goal deserved a Street Fighter style tiger uppercut celebration, it was that one. So eager to celebrate with him, one teammate jumps on his back, putting him in a rear naked choke that BJ Penn would be proud of. So impressed was the keeper with his efforts he’s run half the length of the pitch to congratulate him and the whole bench are on their feet applauding .
“Well I was wrong” says a humble Tom. He was sure at 2 – 1 WT that was it for the goals.
Two goals behind now, but SCT still look like they have some fight left in them, their number 9 is causing all sorts of “problems” comments Tom, with his loan front man routine. An epic foot race sees the ball carried right across the pitch, the two players tussling and battling with each other all the way to the corner flag. It’s the one in yellow who prevails, bettering his marker. His ball across the six yard box sadly lacks any conviction, and its hoofed clear by someone in black and green.
He’s coming on “Main is here” says Tom in hushed tones, tapping me on the leg and bringing to my attention that he is stripped down, standing on the touch line blowing into his cupped hands to keep them warm, waiting for a break in play.
“Score!” demands the man in the stand to the SCT player one on one with the keeper, but he can’t, the toe poked effort is saved by the keepers feet. Quickly follows another SCT chance, one can’t say they haven’t had them, this time the goal bound header is cleared off the line.
There doesn’t seem to be one of the WT bench actually on the bench, it’s a busy little technical area. They watch on as they go close themselves, but don’t have long to wait to have another goal to celebrate. Their fourth is from much closer range than the last, hit high up into the roof of the net, well out of reach of the keeper.
Maybe it was passing the spiritual home of Arsenal on the way here, but I opt for the Woolwich Wonders SEGA yellow and blue number as my option for today’s, ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’. Tom likes the stylish faded numbers on the back of it, telling me its a “good look”, but also tells me its not blue, but black and I “need glasses”. WT’s dark green shirt and black shorts has Tom a little stumped, me too. I can’t think of anyone who plays in that colour combination, green the least used colour in the football kit pallet. In the end I suggest Borussia Mönchengladbach, but don’t think I’m even close.
So close, our Friday was almost complete, Jon Main nearly scored!.
The whole WT area lets out a collective “arghhh” in near perfect unison when they threaten to get their fifth, except for one player, who has his back to the match and is asking a friend in the stand, “where you going after?”.
“Fuck off ref” says the WT manager in the dying moments of the match, when the referee gives a late penalty to SCT. Well I say the referee gave it, again it was his linesman, the man in the middle once more having “waved it away” as the WT manager quite rightly pointed out, only to be won round by the vigorous waving of his assistants flag who “gave it”. “That proves just how shit he is” says the WT manager to someone in the crowd.
With no number 4, it’s no great shock the late penalty is not as clinical as the first, the big burly back of the big man not there to take the strain of the watching crowd and expectant teammates. The WT keeper almost saves it, diving the right way he looks to have got a hand to it, but can’t keep it out “Come back is on” shouts an optimistic SCT fan. It being the 91st minute I think any kind of heroics are doubtful, I put his wishful thinking down to the free flowing beer.
There is no time for a reply from the referees assistance when he is asked by the WT bench if he was “getting bored” hence why he awarded the penalty, because the whistle blows, and WT are through to the semi final. Just two games away from retaining their title.
“Wins, a wins, a win” says WT’s assistant manager, he reckons the team were a bit “nervous” the “pressure of defending” their title got to them a bit.
SCT are clapped off, “well done lads, chins up” says a man in the gallery. Their captain, isn’t on his way in yet, it’s a no smoking changing room.
Other than the joy of getting to watch football on a Friday, something we are big fans of, there are few better ways to end the working week, what was most satisfying about tonight was the lack of pretence. No paraphernalia, no distractions of a raffle or finding a programme, no badly made mouse mats with the clubs badge on, just football.
On the very odd occasion we visit clubs where their opinion of themselves isn’t quite in line with what level of football they are playing at.. Almost what you might call deluded, I’m all up for being professional, and striving for greatness, but sometimes a reality check is in order. A reality check that football is in need of from top to bottom, even more so in some places that in others.
Tonight there were no inflated egos, no one lording it up over anyone else, just people appreciating the game we all love. Where the chairman is also the secretary and he does the clubs Twitter too, where his wife cleans the kit in the week and an old pro laughs with you afterwards without hesitation “nearly got your goal for ya”. It’s certainly a few steps up from jumpers for goal posts, but a hell of a way away from the madness of the top flight, its just about football in its purest form.
Kevin said to me when we’d spoken previously, that we would be “pleasantly surprised” when we eventually paid them a visit. Thinking that we were somehow dropping down to their level, lower than we’re used too, that it might not be up to our standard. I can assure anyone who is interested in knowing, that our evening at Bayliss Avenue ticked every box going.
I’m not a smoker anymore, haven’t been for a while, horrible habit. Tom has his vape, and when he gets drunk has the odd puff of the real thing, then regrets it. The sight of seeing SCT’s captain puffing away got him thinking, “If he can smoke and still play so can I”, our people will be expecting a call from your people Welling Town FC. Tom will only be a free agent for so long.
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