Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out venturing to Essex to take in the delights – and tuneage – of Concord Rangers.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
Tom’s done a few nice things I can think of, off the top of my head, over the past three years. He’s bought me a couple of football related knick knacks back from his holidays and as he always reminds me when I ask for petrol money, that the bottles of water and cups of coffee he gets are not free, but he’s never baked.
Considering it was just the one, it’s not exactly around for long, the crumbs are already littering my jumper before we’ve turned out from the end of this road. It was good, he suggested it might be a bit “stale” being a day or so old, but it was actually very good. I know he didn’t go full Paul Hollywood just for me, but the fact he thought of bringing me one “stale” or not, is very touching, he’s such a swell guy.
Essex, the place we are always going, the place we are going tonight, the place not actually that far from Toms or my house, and if it weren’t for the broken down HGV right in the centre lane of the A13, it would have been a pretty seamless journey. However old Mr Big Rigs choice of rest stop, the centre lane, means I’m very rarely out of second gear as we creep along, out of East London.
Edging past an allotment, Toms green fingers start to tingle. He spent his Sunday afternoon attending to his new small garden, and I wonder if his own little spot to grow some brassica’s takes his fancy, where he could hoist an Arsenal flag or a Jolly Roger, just like the people who have them flying above their sheds below us, but he doesn’t. I think a pot with some tomatoes in, is about as far as he wants to go, as he puts it he has no interest in entering Newham Council’s “biggest pumpkin competition”.
When Tom starts talking about a “pheasant” I assume he is just pointing out another of the inordinate amount of dead ones, along with all the other roadkill, that has littered this particular A road. So far it’s been like Saving Private Ryan for the Animals of Farthing Wood, the majority of whom are sprawled and splattered, in various undignified poses just the other side of the white line of the fast lane, but this lucky bird as he puts it is “alive” and “chilling out on the roundabout”.
The very roundabout, still a long way from our destination, where we see a sign for tonight’s club. The yellow and blue board, in the colours of Concord Rangers FC (CR), with this evening’s fixture on it, points the way to the ground. A sign that Tom is very impressed that someone has “changed”, the information on it correctly, considering its on the side of a fiercely busy roundabout, it can’t be much of a fun job to do.
Not wanting to be distasteful or disrespectful, but it’s not exactly clear what is being remembered along the Avenue of Remembrance. An almost never ending tree lined road that leads you over the estuary, over the mud flats on to Canvey Island. A “very green and well kept” island as Tom puts it.
I start to get a few faint whiffs of deja vu, from our previous visit to The Island, sounds very dramatic that way doesn’t it. On that occasion if was to see the other team, who share their name with this small leafy outcrop, that somehow is able to support two football clubs. “Those are sweet” comments Tom about a long row of white fronted bungalows, gleaming in the late evening sun.
Not yellow and blue, but our second sign of the night, leading us to where we are going, is much smaller than the first, about halfway up a lamp post. It shares its spots with its neighbour, a Gas Works, which is a definite first for us.
I have to say the car park of The Aspect Arena, is another example of a non league shocker, thankfully we are able to park not far from the turnstiles, so the chances of falling or tripping over later in the dark are reduced considerably.
The ground or arena, is not what first springs to mind when one imagines an ‘arena’, it’s more of a, well I’m not sure what it is. I don’t think in all our time going to football at all kinds of levels, we’ve ever seen anything quite like it. There is just not a huge amount to it.
Behind one goal is a kind of lean to, a makeshift narrow terrace. Opposite what I’ll call the ‘main stand’, which is in fact three small covered stands plonked next to each other on the halfway line, each with different coloured seats, are the two totally perspex dugouts, either side of which are two stands, one taped off due to its multitude of smashed seats.
Hodge podge seating arrangements and a few frayed edges are not uncommon. It’s more what surrounds us that makes it unusual. Beyond the high mesh net that hangs shabbily from thin metal poles, are a sea of beige mobile homes and behind one goal is the well signposted local gas works, which is quite literally the other side of the fence. Numerous metal domes poke skywards, creaking every so often, and emitting a piercing metal screech, which all adds to the curiosity of the place.
I am also maybe slightly thankful for still having a bit of a bunged up nose, but certainly feel miles better than I did at the weekend, just in case anyone cared, because according to Tom it “stinks” a bit, the pungency of the gas works ever present.
Regardless of the scenery or the smell, there is one thing present that at least ensures Tom will be contented, that comes in the form of the rectangular open fronted Food Station, which from a brief glance already, Tom has decided looks “nice”. Outside it and the clubhouse, where the clubs name has been built into its frontage, are a mix of picnic tables one of which has been painted in the ever present club colours, yellow and blue.
“When you going on that?” asks Tom pointing at the punch bag in the corner of the almost barren bar, only for a couple of framed signed football shirts on the wall offering a little bit of character. The answer is I’m not, the fact there are about five people in here, I’m not risking making a complete tit of myself.
The other side of the room to us, we’re holed up in a brown leather dinner booth underneath a signed Messi shirt, a man who I can’t see, but can certainly hear, holds court among the three or four away fans of Bognor Regis Town FC (BRT). When one can get a word in edgewise, he suggests “in all seriousness think this might be us”, he’s clearly not expecting many to be making the long journey up from West Sussex, exacerbated by BGT’s dismal showing this year, and the fact they are currently bottom of the league.
With opportunities for anyone else to talk limited, the man with a thick Yorkshire accent, casts his wide net of opinions across the whole of the football world. Sharing his thoughts on “Mourinho”, and the fact he needs to “pull a rabbit out of the hat” to ensure his time at Manchester United is not a busted flush. As he puts it, it’s not like he is having that “magical second season” everyone always says he has.
He thinks United will “beat Spurs” in the upcoming FA Cup semi final, and then he turns his sights on England and this summer’s World Cup. “We’re not going to take on the Germans, Brazilians” or “even the Spanish”, the way he says the name of the recent two time European champions and World Cup winners, like they are international small fry, is hysterical.
I tune out from my ear wigging right around the time he describes one person as a “club man, not a football man”. When he uses the immortal line, “football man” once again, I’m done, and we head outside, the punch bag unmolested.
Tom’s astute time keeping means he’s a bit worried, because it’s “ten past seven” and neither teams coaches have “put any cones out yet”, he thinks something is afoot.
The silence of The Aspect Arena, that has only been threatened to be overcome by the odd crackle of the PA, is finally defeated by the one and only king of pop, Michael Jackson. His 1979 hit ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ does wonders in elevating a ground that until now, might just be the quietest we’ve ever been to.
When the CR players eventually appear, from the long skinny tunnel that runs along one side of the clubhouse, passing through the blue gates with the club’s nickname on them, The Beach Boys, well we frankly hardly notice them. It’s not because of the plague of midges circling above us, but because of the music, coming from a speaker that Tom has pointed out are of a much, much higher standard than the ones at your average non league ground, the “disco madness” as Tom calls it, sounds great.
There are a long string of classics. I feel for Tom a bit when ‘September’ by Earth Wind and Fire starts, having only just got it out of his head after our recent visit to Haringey Borough, where the fans their sung their own version of it on a near constant loop.
Tom was right, the lack of cones was the sign of some disturbance in the force, BRT were late, kick off has been delayed until 19:55, why not till 20:00 we’ll never know, perhaps the referee is in a rush to get home. The extra time is used by the majority of people here, who are congregated around the same corner of the pitch as the Food Station, to get a bit of food in them. A couple of picnic tables are now occupied, and there is the occasional click of the nearby turnstiles.
As much as I’m enjoying the quite excellent music, I don’t profess to being a huge fan of disco at all, but there is a comfort in the familiarity of the upbeat tunes which is quite uplifting, it doesn’t distract me completely from the ever growing cloud of midges, circling about a foot above me. I assure myself it’s not because I stink, but because they love the smell of my shampoo.
While the CR keeper warms up with a slightly unorthodox sidekick, not your old fashioned drop and hoof of days gone by, that Tom doesn’t reckon he will do in the game anyway, it’s just dawned on my companion, that CR play in the “same colours” as their island rivals, which he says quietly, as to not rile any of the locals. Admittedly it is a bit odd, you would think each team’s would be polar opposites.
It’s not the words of Chic or any other such affiliated band or artist of that era that echoes around the ground next but the words of the announcer welcoming those in attendance, “good evening ladies and gentleman”. What follows not long after is another first, almost near silence as the teams finally walk out, having been milling around behind the beach boys gates for a while.
In a complete contrast from the genre that had preceded it, again the music saves the day in the sense it injects a bit of much needed life into the place. The apparent go to for a lot of non league clubs we’ve learnt this season, is ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless, the mid 90’s dance track does a fine job in lifting this corner of Essex out of the doldrums.
One thing I know plenty of people like about non league football is the intimacy, never has that been more apparent than tonight. With the crowd scattered to all four corners of the ground, Tom at one point asking “where did everybody go?” because what looked like quite a reasonable turnout at one point, are now dotted in ones and twos all round the pitch, you can hear the pre kick off shouts of the players with crystal clear clarity, “come on rocks lets go”.
Moments after the whistle it’s one of the few away fans, not a home fan that lets out a loud rallying cry, “come on rocks”. The home fans though don’t have to wait long to have something a bit more exciting to shout about then simply the beginning of the match, well I say shout about.
“Fuck there goes my score prediction” grumbles Tom, CR having gone ahead after all of three minutes, Tom having predicted 0 – 0.
The constant presence of the eggy smell, not one I can attest to having smelt myself, due to my aforementioned blocked nose, has had a curious effect on Tom, “makes me want egg and chips”, what a fucking weirdo. He also after revelling in the fact the sun was out and what fine conditions we were going to be treated to for this evening’s match is now moaning, “bit nippy now, should of brought a jumper”. He then makes a points I’ve been making for three years, like he’s just thought of it for the first time “I never get my attire right”.
Not long after going ahead the CR keeper all in orange, which Tom “loves” because he has clearly matched “his boots and his gloves” to go with his jersey, blocks a goal bound BRT shot. Two minutes after that they flash a flat corner across the box, but no one can get on the other end of it.
“No, no, no, no” says a BRT fan as CR attack. His hope that if he shouts loud enough what he doesn’t want to to happen, it will somehow prevent them from getting a second, his theory works for now.
I’m not sure I would call the first twenty minutes or so ‘end to end’, but both teams have certainly had chances. BRT’s apparent “shooting from everywhere” policy certainly has Tom entertained, “fucking hell” he squeals as another one of their players crashes a speculative long range shot goal wards. Tom in fact suggests it is the visitors, and not the hosts, who have look the better side since the goal.
Some on the home bench think the team are being too “passive” and tell them so. This lack of urgency sees them concede another shot on goal following a corner, the whole of the home bench groaning in unison
Many things about tonight’s experience have been a little odd, not unpleasant, just well, a bit odd. The manner of the referee is added to the list, when he declines BT’s shout for a penalty, after the all orange keeper had clattered into one of the away players. He simply repeats “no, no, no” in the most pompous of fashions.
The arrival of the “moody clouds” as Tom describes them, rolling towards us across what until now was a very big blue sky, seems to signify a bit of a change in the temper of the match. Perhaps the gravity of the occasion has finally dawned on the players, as the game starts to get as Tom calls it a bit “physical” and he is concerned for the well being of one BRT player who he describes as “dinky”.
“Gentlemen easy” says the referee as the game edges towards getting a little bit naughty.
BRT continue to show brief moments of attacking prowess, sadly for them though, nowhere
near as much as they did the last time we saw them, up the road at Park Lane, where they put five past the home team that day, with a monster of a forward up front on loan from Fulham getting a hattrick, as they charged towards promotion to the National League South. Now they find themselves at the very bottom of the same league, on the verge of dropping out of it, what a difference twelve months makes. A great ball down the right wing is cut into the box, waiting to be hammered home, but no one is there to finish.
Everyone on the pitch is very shouty, I’m not sure if they are trying to overcompensate for the lack of noise from the crowd, but all the players are very vocal. Ten minutes of the half to go and CR whip a ball across the box, and there isn’t even as much as an ohhh or an ahhh.
The visitors go close again, the same ball inside in the CR left back is paying off dividends for them, the ball into the box this time is met by a player who attempts a Zola back heel, but its blocked by a combination of his marker and the keeper, although at least that is what he thought. Instead of getting the corner he thought he deserved, its a goal kick and he looks perplexed.
Perhaps the biggest shouter of them all, apart from the single BRT fan in his green hat, is someone on the CR bench, who every time he yells, “put some graft in” the latest of his offerings, Tom thinks he is going to give himself a “fucking heart attack”.
What might just be the highlight of the night so far, is the sight in the distance of the failed bicycle kick attempted by one CR player at a corner. This falls just in front of hearing the voice of the BRT manager for the first time who sounds like the villain from a Disney feature film.
Listening to the near constant mumbled commentary of the BRT fan in the green hat is how I spend the final moments of the first half. “Come on rocks get hold of it” he says watching on, leaning against the railing, which isn’t really a railing at all, but looks like what you see on the edge of a race track.
“Come on ref blow up” he shouts, and the man in charge does just that.
Once again there is little to no crowd noise, the odd clap, once again the players are the loudest thing, talking in twos and trees as they leave the pitch, dissecting among themselves the first forty five minutes. It’s not until the music starts again, the use of Faithless as walk out music a little taster of what the next fifteen minutes has in store for us, as we violently veer away from disco and go headlong into 90’s dance anthems.
“Tune” says Tom as he prepares to head towards the gleaming beacon in the night that is the Food Station, much like everyone else. The “tune” in question is Gala’s ‘Freed From Desire’ which has put a definite spring in his step, as he heads off for food.
For what might be the first time, I’m eating too tonight. Something has come over me, maybe it’s kind of being able to taste again, after ten days of eating with a cold and being neither able to smell or taste what was in front of me.
Black Box’s 1989 hit ‘Ride on Time’ means Tom is positively sashaying towards me with his hands filled with his picks from the Food Station. He is having a wicked time, “great music” he says as he sits down, bobbing his head. The musical choices reminding him of his ill fated lads holiday, I didn’t go, I didn’t know him them, to the Ionian Islands, “it’s like being in Kavos”.
Tom is quite happy with his cheeseburger and chips, and as he puts it, “at least the chips are cooked”. I’m not sure he will ever forgive the half cooked ones at Walton Casuals. Although my burger is perfectly nice, it is very soft, there is little to distinguish as far as texture is concerned, between the bun, the filling, and then the bun on the other side. Tom explains it’s simply a case of not being “used to it” and that they are always “generally” quite squishy.
“Another banger” as Tom puts it accompanies the players return, ‘What Is Love’ by Haddaway. The sound of the players studs on the concentrate, we hear long before we see them.
After what was a relatively mundane first half, CR have come out with a bit more purpose. They have an early powerful shot, that can only be palmed back into the area and is eventually cleared. Also after a first half devoid of almost no home fan interaction at all, we finally hear them, “come on yellows”, “come on concord”.
Both teams look like they’ve had a Lucozade. BRT continue to cause CR problems, and much like the home team, look to have a bit more intent. “Oh come on” shouts a home fan, a thing that is still slightly shocking to hear, when CR are pressured into giving the ball away in defence by the BRT forwards.
Despite the early promise from the stands and on the pitch, again it falls very quiet, “let me referee, you play” we hear the man in charge say to one player as clear as day. Full of cheese burgers, we take a seat in the main stand, just in front of a female supporter sitting alone, who has groaning down to a fine art. Simply from the tone and volume of her sighs, you can tell just how displeased she is, whenever her team make a wayward pass.
BRT certainly look like they have a goal in them, and still craft chances. Another ball cut back into the box is this time skied well over by the attackers left foot. With ten minutes gone, they almost equalise very dramatically with a delicate side footed lob over the stranded keeper, watches it bounce just the right side of his post, which brings a small ripple of applause from the BRT three behind his goal.
A quarter of an hour gone and the home side double their lead. The first attempted shot squirming under the keeper, allowing for a teammate to power home with the follow up.
The thoughts of the CR keeper with his team now two goals ahead is not to celebrate, but to threaten. Threaten his defence, not congratulate or encourage, but to talk to them in such a way that it sounds like he will hurt them, if they don’t listen to what he has to say, “don’t let them get near our box”.
CR nearly add a third, but the point blank shot somehow is blazed over, and I mean well over. Their keeper is also soon on the warpath when BGT hit is post, and he looks to be preparing the thumb screws. Much like in the first half after going behind, BRT seem that little bit more brighter of the two teams. CR seem content with sitting deep, probably the worst thing to do with such an intimidating keeper, BRT are most definitely are on the front foot.
CR’s keeper exuberantly thanks one player, retreating further and further towards their own goal means BGT are getting bigger and bigger sniffs of a goal of their own. “Well done boy” he shouts at the player who has just saved a certain goal with a last ditch block, the keeper flipping effortlessly between good cop and bad cop.
There is another goal like block by a CR player, but this time its at the other end of the pitch, as one teammate blocks another’s goal bound effort following a corner. The loose ball is latched onto by a CR player with his back to goal, who turns sharply, but see his shots deflected wide. It’s the BRT keeper this time who is thankful, the same keeper who might just win shoutiest goalie of the season competition.
“Where is the hunger?” asks the BGT captain in his plastic face mask. Even though they find themselves two behind, they are still very much in the match. This is not lost on the frankly scary CR keeper, who is back playing bad cop, as he scalds his defenders once again.
Into the final ten minutes, and CR start to employ a few unsavoury tactics lets say. One player is down injured, he scoots off the pitch and the game continues. Somehow, maybe because of the stiffening breeze, he finds himself back on the pitch, forcing the referee to stop the play, much to the annoyance of one BRT fan behind us, “poor referee”.
With roughly seven minutes left and BRT grab the goal they always looked capable of getting, thanks in some part to a bit of a deflection. I think there is little chance of seeing the good cop again tonight. What we would have called at school a daisy cutter of a shot, is fired goal wards, when the player with the ball frankly having gone down a bit of a dead end, has no other options other than to have a crack.
Off the calf of a CR defender the ball screws like a well played snooker shot, into the goal, via the the foot of the post.
“You fucking let them have a shot” froths the man in goal, he is beyond livid they have just conceded.
BT’s manager is back at it, a mixture of the Captain Hook and Jafar, he asks for one last push from his team “lets go again”.
My attempt to record the Brighton Vs Spurs match and watch it when I get home, without knowing the score is ruined, when I overhear some people discussing it, although they have conflicting reports from the Amex, neither are good though.
CR are back to trying to kill the game off, they are as Tom puts it “going for the corners”.
The visitors have one last effort, a response to the near uninterrupted barking of their furious sounding manager. A free kick not that far outside of the CR box. There is the definite air of throwing the kitchen sink at this, one last try to at least get a point, nigh on everyone is in the CR box, even the keeper has gone up, not something you see every day, another tick on the unusual game checklist.
Why oh why, the BRT player decided to shoot directly, with a box rammed full of players in front of him, only he will only ever know, but needless to say his low drive is blocked, possession is now back in the hands of the CR and their goal is gaping.
“Shoooooooot” shouts one CR fan, one of the smallish group now behind the goal. The player not far over the halfway line obliges, and it looks good, but it’s just a fraction, a millimetre too high and hits the crossbar, and out. Their collective “ahhhhhhh” as they watch the ball bounce out of play, is the noisiest they have been all night.
BRT now pepper the CR goal, “hold on to it” demands one fan, fed up at this crucial time in the match seeing his team constantly give the ball way. One supporter sums up how I’m sure everyone must be feeling, “I never thought this game would of ended with my heart in my mouth”.
At no point did the game ever feel like it was going to be enthralling. The same fan discussing the near wonder goal from well outside of the area, said how he was “willing it down all the way” the ball seemingly hanging in the air for an “eternity”.
CR are certainly making “hard work of it” as one supporter puts it, the crowd condensing ninety minutes of opinions and spirit into the final seconds. “Come on ref, blow the whistle” one demands, and for the second time tonight he does what the crowd asks, and does just that.
“Yesssssss” says someone, his elongated expression, testament to just how vital the three points were tonight, in avoiding the drop. However he is the about the only one, I expected a bit more fanfare following the final whistle, but the Arena is soon empty, most fans darting for the exit at double time.
It was not the most riveting of games, not one memorable for its abundance of atmosphere, the music was quite brilliant but the setting not one that is ever going to adorn the glossy pages of a coffee table book about non league football. However the words of Andy Wilkins CR’s photographer, who I bumped into at half time, negate any bad smell, dodgy view or damaged stand, “it’s not the greatest ground, but we take pride in what we do”.
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