Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out visiting the Clarets of Chelmsford for a glorious advert for what lies beyond the glare of Sky.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
It was long after I got home tonight that I realised my forearms were somewhere on the colour chart between a cooked lobster and a Coke can, the damage really having already been done before we’d even reached today’s ground, driving along with my right arm jutting halfway out of the open window of my car, topping up my white van man tan. Did it dawn on me, that despite all the agony of having After Sun put on them, and hardly being able to pick them up above my head, the morning after, that it was all totally worth it.
Picking Tom up from home is not unusual, most of our days out start that way, but the fact I’m getting out of the car, walking up to his blue door, and ringing the bell, because I come bearing gifts, is not exactly the norm.
A bakewell tart, not any old bakewell tart mind, no Mr Kipling knock off, but one from Bakewell itself, from what I’m sure is one of the many bakeries in the small Derbyshire town, who claim to have been the first to make it.
He is either a very good actor, or he is genuinely happy I’ve just handed him a Teller mine sized, almond covered dessert and much to my surprise there is a present coming back my way too. When I remove the crimson, gold fringed pennant of AC Sorrento with a seahorse on, Tom having just returned from a holiday in southern Italy. I fear that my present is nowhere near as good, regardless of its authentic provenance.
Considering I went to Stockport and he went to Naples, there is only so much I want to hear about margaritas and day trips to the Amalfi Coast. I do my best to steer the conversation away from his holiday, but he just ends up talking about his upcoming loft conversion and the trials and tribulations of engagement ring shopping and I seriously start to wonder, if we have officially run out of anything interesting to say to each other today.
Yes, yes, I know, there are other places to watch football than Essex, but we are somewhat inexplicably drawn to the place, time after time. I myself don’t see the Chelmsford Cathedral, it’s impressive spire jutting up into the hazy blue sky, but it catches Tom’s eye above the sea of modern day places of worship. The houses of retail therapy, that litter the road sides, in their little prefab clusters.
I normally don’t entertain Toms fanciful ideas, but when as he always does, points out in his unique high pitched way things we are passing, I seriously wonder if we have time for a quick round at the “pitch and putt”.
I’m sure I can see an ever so slight shimmer, a heat haze on the asphalt of the car park, approaching the turnstiles, the large sign welcoming us to “The home of the Clarets”. I already feel ill equipped for the heat, and have an instant feeling of sympathy for the hired security in their obligatory uniform of white buttoned up shirt and black trousers. If I’m already suffering, they must be sweating bullets.
Only inside the ground for maybe twenty five seconds, and Tom has already made two quickfire observations. Firstly that the main stand is a “long way from the pitch” he is not wrong, the Melbourne Community Stadium has an athletics track, and although a few modifications have been made for match day, two small stands erected behind each goal, are inside the perimeter of the red track, one covered, one not, a prime place to get an excellent sunburn, there is still a vast distance between where the bulk of people will be sitting, in the shade, and the game itself.
Secondly, and even though there is no love lost between Tom and running tracks at football, the fact that the food van, currently blasting out some Elvis, where surprisingly the three women manning the grill, look flawless, I would be in bits, has “pineapple in their burgers”.
Such tropical conditions and exotic food, one could be forgiven for thinking they were on holiday.
“Picked a good day for it” I hear twice in short succession, I’m not sure what is “good” at all about standing about in the blazing sun all day, the player going through a fitness test, clearly struggling with some small niggle, pulling up every so often, I’m sure doesn’t think the added high temperatures are anyway close to “good”.
A couple of CC flags flutter on their poles on the front of the club’s supporters trust shed, alluding to some kind of breeze but I can’t feel it. I’m too fat, too white and too Irish for this kind of weather, I like to skulk around in the darkness, when the weather gets all “good”.
The only place for me is in the stand, the cool, shady stand, right next to a gargantuan CC flag. There are a few in fact already up, the other hangs from the side of the hammer cage, that sits conspicuously on one corner of the pitch, the green nets of which, the ones that ensure you don’t get a 16lb lump of stone in the head, have been lowered, so as to not totally impede your view, but the large metal frame of the cage, kind of already does that.
An all too uncommon sight at non league grounds is a score board, moving up into the higher echelons of the non league world, and the National League, I guess they are more common, but it’s nice to see one nonetheless. The red dot-matrix one, far off in the distance, on the side of a leisure centre type looking building, which Tom is convinced has a “swimming pool” inside, is a little bit on the small side, but has the added bonus of also being able to display the CC “starting XII”.
“Food looks good, I’m excited today” says Tom, joining me in the stand. He is very much a sun worshipper. With his jaunty baseball cap, shades and overly hairy extremities on show, he is like a pig in shit, loving nothing more than strolling around in the hideous heat. You would think I would be a little perturbed by the fact we are attending a play-off semi-final, today’s two teams now only two games away from the National League, and he is getting hot under the collar about the dining options. However, I’m long desensitised to his skewed priorities.
It’s not like I haven’t been totally forthcoming with my displeasure at the current conditions, so when he does join me, clutching a can of Coke, small beads of condensation running down the side just like in the adverts, and doesn’t have one for me, well I’m appalled.
The very brief blast of music from the PA, mixes with the distant sounds of the programme seller and the constant sound of the spatula from the food truck working the hotplate. For once we are not the only ones early. Many like Tom are loving the weather, standing outside the very contemporary clubhouse, with the club’s motto emblazoned below its crest on its side, “Many Minds One Heart”, enjoying a pint. While I look on sweating and thirsty. “Not a Coldplay fan” suggests Tom as only a couple of lines from one of their drippy songs escape the speakers, before being turned off again.
CC’s manger with his distinctive slicked back hair, is out to prod the pitch and looks happy. Tom has his own concerns, his stomach, he doesn’t think he can make it to half time, “I might have to eat before kick off”. I know he didn’t try and bribe me with food, maybe it was the promise of a cold drink of my own, but I decided to leave the safe haven of the stand, heading out into the pounding heat.
The people selling the vast array of sweets under their red gazebo, have the right idea, portable, take it where you want shade. The pear drops and flying saucers, remind Tom of “Highbury”, and the people there who used to sell them from under a red and white striped tarpaulin on match days. Funnily one of my abiding memories from my few visits there, is of just that too.
You can feel the heat from the grill, but the people behind it are clearly old hats, and seem unfazed. Tom thinks he may have found an explanation to the slightly underwhelming club shop, a man next to a table with a boot bag on and no pins, is because all the clubs money has been spent on the “condiments”.
To a football food aficionado, there is no finer sight than a vast array of sauces, relishes and even
pickles. Two large murky looking jars, are available, for you to apply some to taste, to your burger. Tom will have none of them or pineapple, but it does have “monterey jack cheese” very fancy.
The programme seller in his shed looks very happy and cool, inviting me to plunge my hand lucky dip style into a bowl to pick my two golden goal tickets, before I can even glance at the prize list pinned to the wall, he has fired it off at me word for word.
It’s the call of the sweet seller who is the newest addition to the ever growing atmosphere. People are
already sitting on the steps of the sunburn trap terrace, I’m sure without the relevant factor cream on, many seats of the stand are quickly being occupied.
Adding their own unique noise to the maelstrom, are the newly arrived away fans, them of Hampton & Richmond Borough FC (HB) who we hear, long before we see, “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers”.
A home flag is put up behind one goal, will all the delicacy of hanging a priceless painting, once erected, all the edges straight, making sure it’s looking its best, its patted with the kind of fondness that you don’t really expect to see at football, and which is normally reserved for an ageing family pet.
When overhearing a confused conversation between two passing CC fan’s, I wonder if the heat has claimed its first victims. “Hope our manager gets sacked” says one to the other, “why?” replies the second man quizzically, who clearly doesn’t understand his friends statement. “He’s useless” he replies, which just gets an even more confused face in response. “Look what he did at Southampton” says the first man, trying to back up his point. The face of the second man is now a picture of absolute bemusement. The first man now just about cottoning on to the fact there may be some crossed wires, tries to clarify, “who did you think I meant?”, “not here!”.
What is actually the club shop is now open, you can tell this by the two yellow silhouettes of men, usually used for free kick practise wearing the club’s home shirt propped up outside. Right next to the tiny white and claret CC wheelbarrow that I nearly trip over. It makes me wonder who the man with the boot bag and the table was, a local fraudster?
It’s Tom Jones now spilling from the burger van, entertaining the ever growing crowds. “Next, next, next” shout the servers, trying their best to make some impact on the snaking line, pineapple must be popular.
Sweltering hot, face meltingly warm, but it does little to hamper the HB fans already in good voice. As the HB players head in from their warm up, each one it seems gets their own song, one about a “magic hat”. One returning CC player, is asked for his shirt by a small autograph hunter “can’t give you my shirt” he explains, wouldn’t go down well with the “kit man”, but he’s more than happy to scribble in the kids programme.
I bet it’s quite warm in the creaking claret extendable tunnel, which is man handled into place. With the bright sun beaming through it, the players ready to emerge from inside it, are bathed in a pale crimson light. When they eventually step out of the dark, all hell breaks loose, and doesn’t stop for the next hour and half.
The away fans have occupied the curiously placed steps to one side of the tunnel, a long way from the pitch and at totally the wrong angle. They are soon belting out a few lines of “we love you Hampton we do” as the players file past them, along the narrow strip of roll out fake grass, past the long jump pit, and right at the naked hammer cage. A single home fan, an older man, stands close by, holding up and waving a flag at the passing players.
There is a monumental change of ends, the CC fans flooding towards the covered terrace, the HB supporters leaving their awkward little spot and now occupying the sun burn trap, hurriedly putting up their own flags as the both teams huddle on the pitch, for a few last words before kick off.
“Up the city” says the man on the PA.
Although here in greater numbers, it had not been the home fans, but those of HB ‘making all the noise’ as they say, this dramatically changes once everyone has settled in their first half homes.
The din coming from the opposite end of the pitch is nothing short of staggering, something we have been very rarely treated to at a non league match. Everything that can be banged or hit to make a noise is being so. One man at the front, with both fists pounds the hoarding like an irate gorilla, “CCFC, CCFC, CCFC, CCFC”.
Lots of early home pressure, results in a shout for a penalty, so loud, that if I was the referee I would have given it, just to avoid being shouted at so deafeningly again. It was like something you would hear at a top flight game. You must excuse my slight shell shock, we are just simply not used to so many people at the games we go to, I’m slightly in awe.
Two minutes later and HB have their own shout for a spot kick, it’s nowhere near as loud, or intimidating, and the ref doesn’t give it.
CC have come out the blocks flying, their fans and players, “City, City, City”. On the pitch and they have just crashed a header off the bar, not even ten minutes gone and they look rampant, the supporters doing a great job of whipping themselves into something just short of a frenzy, “we all follow the Chelmsford, over land and sea”.
Seconds after hitting the bar, HB’s towering keeper in his vivid yellow strip is almost lobbed, frantically back peddling, he manages to tip the ball over the bar. HB need to wake up sharpish, they are almost out of this and it’s not even begun. “City, City, City” sing the home fans once more, who are thunderous.
Again the woodwork stops HB going behind, just to be clear about twelve minutes have elapsed, the home fans are so loud, “CCFC, CCFC, CCFC”. The corner that follows the most recent test of the goals paint job, sees the ball cleared off the HB line. “Come on Hampton, come on Hampton” plead the away fans.
HB’s keeper has the tendency for a bit of a rush of blood to the head at times, he loves to charge off his line, causing a few hearts to flutter on occasions. CC’s keeper is quite the opposite he is a sturdy unit of a man, with a Samurai topknot, of “Jack Butland” proportions Tom suggests. Like a slow moving boulder, he doesn’t spend too much time out of his six yard box.
Just over twenty minutes gone and HB are finally getting some modicum of possession, but their play is a bit sloppy, the players not quite up to speed yet, in tune with each other, each misplaced pass gets a small groan from their fans. “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers” they chant, which I stand by maybe being the nicest chant in football. The reply from the CC fans is not so demure, “it’s nice to know you’re here, fuck off”.
In a brief lull, we have time to play our favourite game of pointing out what other kits the kits on show look a bit like, today its Burnley Vs Argentina. Tom asks “what number would you be?”. I’ve never really thought about it, I used to play in goal at school, but always fancied myself as a goal scoring centre back, so say 5. “You would be Steve Bold” he tells me, before divulging he “likes” the number “7”.
Although HB are very much on the back foot, they at least have started to grow into the game now, feeding off scraps you might say, relying on the home team to make a mistake and then counter attacking, rather than really creating anything of their own.
Another loose HB pass at the back is quickly pounced on, sending the CC attacker towards goal, but his final attempt is well wide. The game has certainly settled since the madness of the opening fifteen minutes. There is still the occasional barrage from the CC end, but they are certainly nowhere near as loud, their manic chanting and King Kong hoarding bashing has subsided. Replaced now with their own fair old bit of grumbling about their teams careless play.
With the home supporters much quiter, the HB fans now have a chance to show what they are all about, and are the loudest for the first time today, “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers”.
Ten minutes of the half left and CC break into the box, the attempt at goal is blocked, bringing an almighty “ohhhhhh”, then a “ahhhhh” from the main stand. I really can’t impress on you enough just quite how hot it is, the sun beating down on my considerable forehead is quite unbearable. Tom reckons the “heat” is the reason for the games diminishing pace, “you imagine running around in this for forty five minutes”, “fuck knows how people play in Brazil”.
A CC goal is starting to look imminent, not if, but when, they have another shot blocked in the box, it’s all getting very last ditch in the HB defence. There are shouts of “off, off, off” when a swashbuckling and free flowing CC counter attack is halted by what Tom describes as a “dirty fucking tackle”. When the referee only produces a yellow, the fans clearly wanting, expecting more, they don’t hold back in letting him know their displeasure.
In the considerable build up to the resulting free kick, “take your fucking time” says Tom, as the taker and a teammate take an age lining it up, the CC fans seem to be anticipating things, “claret, claret, claret” they chant excitedly. Sadly for the expectant fans the set piece is well over, well well over, “after all that, at least get it close” tut’s Tom.
Much like the opening exchanges, the closing ones are just as frantic. CC tickle the wood work again, then shoot just over, which gets another rousing “ohhhhhh” from the big crowd. Their number 7 then goes on a winding run down the right wing, cutting inside, then out, his eventual cross blocked by the HB defender who did well to keep up with him.
It is though the visitors, who finish the half with a late chance, but not before a bit of panto in response to a HB player who is, and call me a cynic, playing for time. Going down, then miraculously getting back up again when he doesn’t get the free kick, much to the disapproval of the
home fans, “wanker, wanker, wanker”.
HB’s last gasp effort comes thanks to a bit of a flap from the CC keeper, who palms the ball into the area, but the HB player who gets on the other end of it, is only able to strike it with a bit of his thigh and a lot of his knee, and the ball goes wide.
“Come on Beavers, come on” shout the HB fans, as the players make their way off, grateful I’m sure for fifteen minutes out of the blistering sun.
“We will have extra time and penalties” confirms the voice over the PA, if the score stays the way it is. He then runs through the half time scores from the Premiership, National League, and most importantly the Bostick League North Play Off final where it’s still “0-0” between Haringey Borough Vs Canvey Island.
Then he does something that has happened far too often for my liking this season, and I put it down to poor advertising, its not for a lack of trying to find it on my part, but he informs all interested parties that the “half time draw” will take place shortly. For the first time though, Tom is disappointed for me, looking at me like I’d just lost a loved one, instead of his usual ‘you’re a pathetic addict’ one, which is comforting.
There has been what might be a record breaking change of ends, the HB fans much like the players want to give their sizzling skin a rest and have soon filled the covered terrace, their flags up in a flash. Not content with listening to Katy Perry, they take to banging the stand, spending the remainder of the break signing to themselves.
CC’s manager is out long before his players, clutching two small bottles of water, his arrival is applauded, he raises his hand to acknowledge the crowd, and Tom comments something that is plainly clear to see, he is “well liked”.
It seems a much fairer fight between the two sets of fans when the players return. “Come on
City, come on City” sing the home fans who have now occupied the sunburn trap, the HB supporters who have had a miraculous injection of something, are now giving it a hearty “Hampton, Hampton, Hampton”.
The voice over the PA expresses the same sentiment as the fans, “come on City”, just after reading out the results of the half time draw. “Missed out on £220 pounds” says Tom in horror. I think if he knew how much was at stake, he might start buying himself a couple of tickets.
It is somewhat of a condolence that I at least still have the golden goal tickets securely placed in the breast pocket of my shirt, but not a lot.
HB open the second half with a half chance, that falls tamely into the keepers hands. CC respond with an equally tame attempt, and as the two teams get back into the flow of things, two CC ball boys in white caps, both perched on plastic stools share a jelly snake, which one went and got in the break from the sweet stand. They listen to the away fans who are now belting out their songs, unsure why they keep repeating the name of a certain river dwelling big tailed mammal, “Beavers, Beavers, Beavers”.
On the 53rd minute of the game, the whole dynamic of it changes, when one CC player goes full John Terry. The keepers attempt to claim the cross from the corner is woeful, now on the floor, having missed the ball completely, it hits a HB player, fortunately falling straight at his feet he takes an almighty swing at it, the ball now destined for the bottom corner.
Seeing his team are about to go behind, one CC player is under the impression it’s rush goalie, he stops the shot from going in with two hands low down to his right. There is a huge shout for a penalty from the HB fans behind the goal, and for a split second the game continues, the players then make their own claim, but conscious the ball is still in play, the referee having not blown up yet, they scramble to poke home the rebound following the players save.
The short sharp bursts of the referee’s whistle and his pointed hand, mean he has seen the glaring handball, penalty for HB, straight red card for the CC player.
It’s a very long walk to the tunnel, a very very long walk, regardless of the added ignominy of having been sent off, giving away a penalty, and all the eyes of the fans upon you. He pulls his shirt half up to cover his face, but I’m sure is consoled in some small way by the soft ripple of applause he gets and the comments of encouragement from the crowd, “don’t worry love”.
He doesn’t make it all the way to the tunnel before the spot kick is taken, he stands watching on from the sidelines with his teammates warming up, as the HB player coolly tucks the ball into the bottom right hand corner.
His shirt off now, hanging from one hand, accompanied by a steward he makes the final few steps off down the tunnel, but not before a small boy offers him a high five, which he reluctantly gives back. The HB players in their Argentina esq shirts at the far end of the pitch dash for the corner flags to celebrate, and their fans behind the goal, ramp up the noise levels another couple of notches.
The home crowds confidence has clearly taken a knock, they try to rally, but its just nowhere near as loud, “come on City”.
Three minutes after going behind, CC have their own shout for a penalty, which is waved away, and I’ve only just about got round to opening my golden goal tickets with my sweaty hands to find to no great surprise, I was well out the running, 88th and 90th.
“Get me some sweets” asks Tom, I think the ball boys jelly snake has made him jealous and I think he might be a bit delirious, he keeps muttering “burny, burny” in my ear, and if I’m honest his neck is looking a bit medium rare.
Practically every member of the HB bench are on their feet, watching the loose ball ricochet around the CC box, before it is hooked clear, the CC manager angrily barks at his team from the sidelines, all while the HB supporters reel off song, after song, “We’re the red and blue army” and the tune that until our visit to HB a couple of years ago, Tom thought only Arsenal sung, “who to, who to be, who to be a Beaver”.
CC’s fans attempt a reply, but again it’s just a bit flat.
Just over the half an hour mark, and cries of “dirty, dirty Essex” is coming from the covered terrace with the HB fans in. A cynical CC tackle, a swipe at the heels of the HB player who is almost away and free of the defence, sees him sent crashing to the floor. “Off, off, off” demand the HB supporters, but it’s only a yellow.
The free kick that follows is headed wide, and I think it’s fair to say, HB have not really capitalised yet on the man advantage.
All of the CC fans energy is being diverted away from their impressive signing from the first half, towards the referee, whose action or lack of it at times is causing them much consternation, “what’s wrong with you ref?” one asks angrily when he doesn’t give what they all seem to think is a clear foul on the edge of the HB box.
When they finally get a call their way, it gets one of the biggest cheers of the day, and a clash of heads brings about a much needed water break, but ends up giving the home fans just more time to
grow angrier and angrier, time to build more and more vitriol towards the man in charge.
With the game edging closer and closer to full time, HB try every way they can to slow and manage the last ten minutes or so. There is plenty of arm waving from the home bench and shouting from the stands at the amount of time they are taking to make their substitutes.
It doesn’t feel like its getting any cooler, however much water I drink, or however many times I wipe my brow with my shirt, I’m still too hot, I’m still horribly sweaty. The ball boys are now pouring water into their hats to keep themselves cool.
The change in the two sets of fans from the first to second half is dramatic, the HB supporters have not stopped, “Beavers, Beavers”, every attempt by the home fans doesn’t even have a quarter of the spirit that it did in the first half.
On the pitch, and you still wouldn’t really know that CC are a man worse off, they have HB pegged back, “get it away” shouts one of the red and blue woolly scarf wearing fans, insane, as another ball is pumped into their box, and scrambled away.
Five minutes to go, plus what I would think might be a considerable amount of injury time, the down side of time wasting, which HB are now doing expertly, is that it gets added onto the end. A HB corner sees them only send three up, and just before its about to be taken, they decide to make another change. This does not go down well with the locals.
Who they bring on, gives a window into the thinking of the HB manager, a towering, braided hair, muscle bound predator looking mother fucker. A huge dude, who would have no issue hunting Arnie and his mates in the jungle. He has one job to do, hold the ball up. At one point he has two CC players trying their hardest to win the ball back off him, and it’s like watching two ewoks trying to chop down a redwood.
“Come on ref, what’s going on?” asks a CC fan from the stands, the general consensus is that the man in the charge has been anything but.
HB’s keeper almost lets the hosts back into the game with seconds of normal time left, a fumble in the box allows for a shot which is blocked and then the follow up, which is hit over. “Wehhhhhhh” shout the HB fans, doing a bad job at masking their relief.
The counter on the tiny scoreboard reads 90 when HB almost, almost put the game to bed, a shot across the keeper from a tight angle, can only be parried into the six yard box, but no one, because pretty much everyone else is camped just outside their box, is their to finish.
Four minutes of extra time to go, every CC mistake gets a cheer, a whistle, the jingling of fine West London jewelry from the HB fans, who somehow continue to get louder, “Beavers, Beavers”. CC players frantically clammer for the ball, trying to take throw ins as quickly as possible, trying to get the ball forward.
They sing again a song about a “magic hat”, perhaps it’s the one covering the bald head of the HB manager, who now stands arms raised almost constantly, gesticulating towards his players, as they sink back, deeper and deeper into their half.
The whistle can only be moments away, the covered terrace is taking one hell of a kicking, the fans it contains and those spilling out either side of it, are close to exploding, “Hampton, Hampton, Hampton”.
There is a monumental outpouring of emotion on the final whistle, from vastly different ends of the spectrum. The HB players whoop and shout, hugging each other, the CC players stand frozen, the magnitude of whats just happened, visible flooding through them. The visiting players don’t gloat for too long in front of their defeated foe, making sure to do the right thing, and shake hands and commiserate their stunned opponents.
Socks rolled down, the CC players gather at the feet of their manger, one lies shirt off on the pitch, just staring skywards, as the HB players approach their fans.
“Beavers, Beavers, Beavers” sing the visiting supporters for the last time, most having amassed on the railing awaiting for the players to arrive. A large blue and red flag is tossed towards one who duly catches it and starts to unfurl it. Numerous players are embraced almost consumed by the congratulatory outstretched hands of the fans who have been quite superb this second half.
The players, as the fans still serenade them, then form a small tight circle, some words are said, and they break. It had the air of a full stop, the job is only half done, they’ve enjoyed this moment, now on to the final.
CC’s players and staff are still on the pitch, the HB ones long down the tunnel, their fans having dashed to clap them off one last time. Not all the home fans have left yet, a small group has stopped behind, waiting for their team to eventually leave.
We’ve been to finals, we’ve seen people win things, loose things and get promoted, but I wonder if a semi-final is that little bit more charged, that little bit more exciting because of the ‘what if?’ because if you win that one, then God only knows what might happen next. A final, well is final, its all over, a semi-final, still has an element of anticipation about it, of what the next game still to come will bring.
Not only was it a quite a battle on the pitch, but off it too. A ram packed stadium and two sets of fans giving it their all. I’m not a huge fan of the expression ‘a good advert for non league football’ it always seems a bit condescending. However today, today shows you just what is going on outside the gaze of Sky TV. That the football world has so much more to offer as far as big occasions and rousing atmospheres are concerned, than only what is happening in the ‘top flight’ and its glorious, a bit hot, but glorious.
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