From pre-match meal to dug-out to dressing room commiserations Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game share Grays Athletic’s Ryman League Cup Final day.
Words by Daniel Magner. Pictures by Tom Sparks.
Today starts a long time before kick-off, on the hottest day of the year so far in the beer garden of the Holiday Inn, Brentwood, Essex, nervously waiting for the arrival of Grays Athletic FC (GA). Today is a first for us and a unique and exciting experience in prospect in our short time as football bloggers. Thanks to David Raven, first team coach of GA, they have kindly agreed to let us shadow the team on the day of the Ryman League Cup Final against Hendon FC (HFC).
We have arranged to meet up with the team in Brentwood, and travel down to Croydon, South London, for their pre match meal, meet up with the rest of the team, and then on to Whyteleafe FC, Church Road, the venue of the final.
The both of us really don’t know what to expect, and discuss the possible reaction and response we might get will they feel we are intruding on their big day?
It gets close to 3 o’clock, the time we have arranged to meet them and we make our way in to the lobby of the hotel. A group of 3 or 4 sit around a table, making a bit of noise surrounded by kit bags, and stand out compared to the men in suits using the hotels conference rooms. One player, slightly older than the rest holds court talking football as the other younger players listen attentively.
It’s not long before a well-dressed man in a white shirt and cufflinks approaches us and introduces himself in his thick scouse accent, its David Raven. All of a sudden everything feels very real, and the feelings of nervousness turn into excitement.
The group of 3 or 4 has grown, and they are now making a fair bit of noise. David calls for their attention and introduces us, and explains what we are here to do. I have to thank them on our behalf, I tell them we hope to not get in the way, and if we do to tell us to fuck off, and they laugh and this breaks the ice a little.
The noise level rises again, and they set about chatting amongst themselves. Tom sets off to grab some pictures, and I discuss the day ahead with David. Not the whole team are here in fact some are still at work, including the club captain and goal keeper, who we will be meeting up with later in Croydon.
David points out a few of the players, and the club owner Andy Swallow, who has recently arrived, and his son Danny Swallow, who is an under 21 player, Vice Chairman and who has just started his professional boxing career. He though has a soft cast on his food, and so won’t be playing today. The older player is in fact Glen Little, who will be a familiar name to fans of Reading, Burnley and Portsmouth. Glen has recently joined the club, and David explains his experience is invaluable, especially with the younger players, who David says he is fantastic at lifting up, not in an arm around the shoulder way, but in a “kick us up the arse” kind of way.
I ask David about the clubs best attributes on the pitch, and he is quick to reply with it’s their “spirit and great team character”, that has gone a long way towards their recent 12 game unbeaten run, which was only ended the previous weekend, by league leaders Maidstone FC. The fact they played on AstroTurf in their previous match, as they will tonight, he thinks will give them a slight advantage. He does say that this is the quietest he has ever seen them and that they would be lying if they said there was not a little bit of apprehension and nerves ahead of the final.
Their opponents HFC are in great form and sit 2nd in the league, they are an older and more experienced team, well organised and who have goals all throughout the team. The league meeting between the two clubs ended with a Hendon 3–2 victory, and in fact the whole fixture will be replayed a few days later, as the next league fixture pitches them both at it again.
A large white coach has pulled up in the car park outside the hotel, just like the one you would go on school trips in, and slightly behind schedule, everyone files outside, puts their bags in the hold and boards the coach. The team make their way to the back, the owner and other club officials sit at the front, and we sit in the middle.
The players quickly relax, either heads down looking at their phones, or talking about the previous night’s action in the Champions League. Glen Little once again, holds the attention of those around him, discussing the ins and outs of player’s performances in the games, as well as discussing his own experiences playing for Portsmouth in Europe. He talks enthusiastically about visiting Braga’s mountain side stadium, and having to take a lift to the pitch, as well as the time they played the AC Milan side with the potent attacking force of Inzaghi and Shevchenko.
There is a blog or even a book in Glen Little, as like many of the players listening to his anecdotes, I could of happily sat and listened all day as he spoke about his time under Harry Redknapp, Tony Adams take over at Portsmouth and playing at the Emirates against Arsenal to recall only a few of the stories I overheard on the coach. He seems to have an encyclopaedic memory over every line up he has played in, against, every goal scored in his 500 plus game career.
Another real character and someone else who could write a blog or book about is the clubs owner, Andy Swallow who comes and sits with us. By his own admission he is not one for social media, and although David had run us coming along with him, I think he wants to suss out what we are about and what we are here to do.
Andy has owned the club for the last 7 years, after taking it over from a friend, in the team’s last year of the conference. His ownership has been a far from quiet one, as after relegation from the conference, the club in fact had no league football, and what followed was a protracted case with the FA about what level the team would join. He says he understands now why his friend wanted to sell up, and move on from the headaches and expense of owning a football team.
Andy is a West Ham fan, the large tattoo on his forearm, and East London accent makes that clear. He has a long history of being involved with football in the east of the capital, after running a youth academy in Loughton and playing under Frank Lampard in the pub team owned by Lampard Senior and Harry Redknapp.
In the search for a new ground for GA, they have currently not played in the borough for 6 years, he had a run in with the club he supports, after buying and renovating a West Ham training ground purchased by the Icelandic consortium that once owned West Ham, and he says the current owners Sullivan & Gold without even realising they owned, renovated it, only for them to kick him out without even playing a game there.
With a smile on his face he nods in the direction of the current first team manager, and tells us how his own managerial style has rubbed off on him. Andy was manager the previous season, won his first five games, got them out of relegation and got them through 25 games in 66 days!
As we cross the Dartford Bridge he tells us he also has fallen out of love, and doesn’t go to see West Ham all that often anymore, what was once a proud community club, has lost what it used to stand for in these days of big money, top flight football.
Not long after Andy sits down the first team manager also comes and introduces himself, Mark Bentley. His name may be familiar to many, and his recent exploits in a game for GA got him nationwide recognition and a YouTube video with over a half a million views. Through my own dim-wittedness however, it was not until he mentioned it, that I put two and two together, and recognised the man whose football story had brought a huge grin to my face, like so many others.
In a recent match against Hampton & Richmond Borough, with his team 2-1 down, the player/manager subs himself on to play in defence, shortly after he scores a goal from a corner, to equalize, but the story does not end there! After the GA keeper goes off with an injury and without any replacements, Mark puts himself in goal, and ends up saving a penalty. GA then goes on to win the game 3-2, and a non-league legend is born!
Mark, who works as a coach at Enfield College for his day job is very friendly and happy to chat with us, only to be interrupted by his phone ringing, as players traveling on their own ask for directions, or in the case of one player, who has turned up in Brentwood an hour late.
He is confident of a victory. He knows HFC as a team are solid, and experienced, but not very mobile and as quick as his, and he feels they will dominate possession. When I ask if he knows his team line up, he says he does except for one player who needs a fitness test but who he thinks will be alright.
The team have played 5 games to get to the final, and much like the League Cup in the professional leagues, the competition is used to blood young players, and give others a rest, until all of a sudden you get to the quarters and it looks like you are in with a shout of winning it.
Andy and Mark both say it’s hard to keep Saturday’s game against HFC out of your mind, and Andy even says he would take a win on Saturday over today, as it would mean going into the last game of the season with a promotion place, still to fight for. Mark says at this time of the season, every game is a “Cup Final”.
During this whole time Glen Little has not stopped, at one point Andy turns around points at him, and jokingly pretends to fall asleep.
We arrive at the Hampton Hilton a bit later than planned, I think we had got a bit lost. The remaining players are standing outside, most of them in blue GA tops. The team are welcomed by the staff at the hotel, and we make our way to a private dining hall past a sign saying, “Grays Athletic FC, private dinner”.
The players are quick to fill their plates and tuck in, we nip to the bar for a pint, and are kindly invited to help ourselves to the buffet. Mark walks past our table, and laughs “they’re on the beers”. We make our way to the protein & carb buffet, of chicken, eggs, and pasta. I ask one player who is helping himself, how much they normally eat before a game, and he says they never usually get a pre-match meal and he was starving, and filling up.
The dining hall is filled with the noise of knives and forks on plates, and little else. Some players are going up for round two and three as we sit down, one player hammers through two yogurts in quick succession. As soon as they had started, they are finished again, one player reclines on the leather seats, and the familiar noise of them talking fills the room, Andy has two napkins in his ears, and Glen Little is still going, as he regales his team mates with more stories from his career.
The meal is simply a pit stop, a chance for the players to fuel up for the match ahead, and there is no time for ceremony. We are in and out pretty sharpish, as we pull away from the hotel David says “No time for snoozing now lads!”
We are running late, and the rush hour traffic is not helping. There seems to be a few frantic phone calls, as the club officials have to be at a match briefing at 18:00, and it’s almost that now. After a check with the driver, and a look at the Sat Nav, David once again announces to the coach, “10 minutes lads”.
On arrival at Church Road, the home of Whyteleafe, we are met off the bus by the clubs Vice Chairman. The club sits at the bottom of a valley, surrounded by hills, in a very pleasant, green and leafy part of Surrey. An elderly lady sits on a white plastic chair selling programmes, and there are a few GA fans there to meet the players from the bus, and call out their names.
The players and staff grab their kit from the coach and queue up at the “player’s entrance” to have their names ticked off the list, by the security in a high vis jacket. We hang back, and Keith says under his breath, “Its ok lads, you’re with me”. He explains that we are with the club, pointing to Tom, and explains he is the photographer. The security guard looks at the paper on his clip board, and as if he was a Jedi Master, Andy says to him “they are on the other list”. Hypnotised by his East London charm, this seems to be enough for the man in bright yellow, and we are in.
The players all pile in to the “Home” dressing room. Once everyone is in, there is not enough room to swing a cat, the players put down their bags, and are ushered out, as now it’s time for the kit man to do his job and with the help of Keith and his Son they tear into the brand new match day kit. Andy has had Cup Final shirts made up, brilliant white, with the date, opponents and occasion embroidered under the clubs badge in gold, he hands one out to all the staff as a memento of the day.
A kit man’s job is not an easy one as some players own superstitions make even putting out the socks a challenge. Nike socks have an L and R on each pair, one player’s own kink means he has to have an L and R, and if he doesn’t will go in search of one, until he finds one. He also produces a box of sweets that would make Willy Wonker jealous, and says we better take one now, before the players get to them. The special occasions also means the players can cut the socks, as some prefer to wear their own, and just the long ones above the ankle, a usual no, no but given the ok by Andy.
The players cram themselves on the benches in the changing room, they all seem delighted at the brand new kit, and are happy to find out they will also be able to keep their cup final shirts as well.
Mark takes the centre of the room and talks to the players about the game ahead, the importance of taking their chances when they come to them, something he says they have been guilty of not doing all season. He emphasises that their pace, against the HFC defence will cause them significant problems, and they should all be buzzing, it’s a cup final, and they deserve to be here, they deserve some silverware, they have to go out and match their work rate, and their quality will shine through.
We make an exit to allow the players to change in peace, and go in search of a much needed pint.
It’s a short walk out of the stadium, to the clubhouse, which by now has a considerable number of fans outside, predominantly in the blue of GA, enjoying the warm evening. The bar is just as warm inside, and has all the noise and bustle one would expect.
Drink in hand, we head back into the ground and GA have finished changing and are now on the pitch warming up. David has changed from his shirt and tie, into black shorts, blue socks and a white t shirt and is laying out cones.
Mark and Glen Little run the players though their drills, not surprisingly he is the loudest one out there and leads by example, showing the rest of the team what to do next. We stand behind the goal, somewhat guiltily drinking a pint, as they sweat in the still warm sun.
Some players warm up the keeper, and their own boots with shooting practise, some have not quite got their eye in yet and send the balls crashing into the corrugated back wall of the main stand, one balls takes a ricochet, bounces up the air to shouts of “heads” and drops down plumb on the top of a passing man’s head, somewhat unfazed by it, he just grins and carries on.
It’s not long until kick off now, so the players make their way off and up the small flight of stairs at one corner of the ground, up to the changing rooms next to the main stand, overlooking the pitch. The GA fans clap their team off, and once inside the changing room, the strong smell of Deep Heat is somewhat over whelming, players tuck in to the massive box of sweets, the music is turned down, and it’s time for the Manager to do his bit.
Mark seems a cool calm and collected type, as Andy had said to me earlier in the day, “there are only so many Churchillian speeches you can give” and Mark’s style, seems very much about explaining plainly and concisely, what he expects of them and what they need to do to win. He discusses the few changes that HT have made, and how they might affect their starting formation.
Glen Little also talks to the team, standing alongside Mark “Hit that target”, “It’s just another game”, “A great opportunity to show them how good we are”, “lovely night for football”.
The music is turned up again, and Eminem comes blasting out, players clap their hands, and offer their own words of encouragement to the team. All of a sudden a bell above my head rings, its game time!!
The door to the changing room opens, and they jostle out, we hang back and as Glen Little passes us, he give me a first pump and Andy shakes our hands, and says “Come on”.
Both teams line the stairs to the pitch and as the officials lead them on, a roar is let out by the fans, there seems to be a lot more blue, than green and white, and we are moments from kick off.
“COME ON GRAYS”
The teams line up, and shake hands with the dignitaries and officials, as is customary on Cup Final Day. The teams then shake each other’s hands, HFC line up for a team photo, and GA leap, sprint and bound away.
The early signs are good for GA, Mark was correct and they do have the lion’s share of possession. Two early corners, and fast counter attacks, but GA are on the front foot from the get go. The GA fans are also doing well, and making plenty of noise “Can you hear the Hendon sing, we can’t hear a fucking thing!”
HFC manager is very loud, and is constantly barking instructions from pitch side to his team and this results in the GA fans shouting “Shhhhhhhhh!”
Two GA players warm up in front of us, one of them is an under 21 player, whose recent good goal scoring form since his return, earned him a call up to the final squad, the GA fans affectionately sing “He’s 7 foot tall, he’s 7 foot tall”, he smiles and raises his hand. Not long after there is a huge shout for a HFC penalty turned down, the other GA player warming up in front of us, looks at us with an assured face which screams “that was definitely a penalty”
The turned down penalty sparks HFC into life, and they have GA pegged back. It also sparks the HFC fans into life, and from the main stand, draped in flags, they begin to sing.
It looks like going into the break all square, only for the game to come alive with 3 goals in about 5 minutes. Unfortunately GA’s dominance in possession, is let down by their inability to get a shot away when it matters, and HFC get the first goal. What seems like a reasonable simple shot, from my position behind the bench, is fumbled by the keeper, pops from his grasp, 1-0. The HFC fans break out into chants of “Dodgy keeper, dodgy keeper”. From their position on the touch line Glen Little says, “still lots of time”.
Almost bang on half time HFC take a further lead, two goals in quick succession. A case perhaps, of GA still dwelling on the first goal and not really having their heads back in the game. Mark claps his hands, rooted to the touch line and shouts “come on guys”, and they respond well, because almost from kick off GA grab a goal back. A ball chipped into the box, is latched on to by the number 10, who has looked the best GA player of the game so far, and side foots it past the keeper. David is up from his seat in the dugout and lets the team know what he thinks “that’s how easy it is, you’re making them look good”, he turns to the bench with a grin, and the bench all snigger. Glen Little continues to talk to the team and when the board goes up with 1 minute extra time, he points to it, and instructs the players to “play it out, let’s get in”, Mark adds a similar sentiment “see it out, slow it down”.
The mood in the changing room has changed vastly in the space of 45 minutes. Once again the players squeeze on to the benches, and Mark & Glen discuss the 1st half’s performance, and admit they have been surprised that HFC “have come to play”, expecting them to sit back more than they have. The point that was made before the teams went out, that they are not taking their chances when they come is reiterated by Mark, “it’s our decision making that’s letting us down”, but he reassures them, “chances will come, you have to believe”
Glen as you might expect is to the point, “they have been the best, we haven’t!”, and “don’t be scared to get shots off”. He does his best to reinvigorate the team for the 2nd half, “it’s a heavy weight clash, but come on guys it’s a Cup Final!”
The players seem low, heads are down and its quiet tense. The players do their best to respond to the management, “come on guys”, “big 45, no fucking regrets” but its muted and lacking any real gusto. David wants them to keep their heads up, “let’s keep positive” and as the bell goes in the dressing room, the players get to their feet, the clicking of their studs on the floor, and Mark has the final word, “enough fucking talking!”
GA has taken on board all the advice they were given at half time, and come out the second half flying, and its wave after wave of attack, and HFC have no reply. The full back on the left is constantly finding room, and delivering fantastic crosses, one after another in to the box. The players are shooting on sight, only for the HFC defenders, like an immovable object, to block everything that comes their way.
GA fans are still making the most noise, and have swapped ends at half time with HFC, and now occupy the large covered stand at one end of the pitch, “CAN YOU HEAR THE HENDON SING?”, “you got more flags than fans, you forgot to bring your mates!” Tom is pitch side, taking pics and I’m on the other side of the fence being dive bombed by midges.
HFC get their first real chance of the game after 25 minutes, and GA are slowly falling back into bad habits, getting in great positions, but not shooting, and they are once again punished for not taking them, when HFC go further ahead with a screamer from outside the box, across the keeper from the left. The few HFC fans are quick to goad the noisy GA fans at the other end of the pitch, “you’re not singing anymore”
GA almost perform the same trick from the first half, and grab a goal back almost instantly, but the chip over the keeper hits the bar. The fall back on the left, number 2 is having a fantastic half, his delivery is pin point, and he has a curling shot from outside the box, but a fingertip save forces it over. They are throwing everything at HFC, the keeper is having a great night and in combination with the bus sized centre backs, they are unpassable, like Gandalf himself says “YOU SHALL NOT PASS”.
The one time Gandalf’s defence is broken, is because of great work on the left, the player gets right along the by-line, cuts it back and tees up his player, but manages to miss, I’m still not sure how he missed, and neither was he, as he lies face down on the pitch exasperated.
Marks last throw of the dice is to bring Glen Little on to perhaps marshal a remarkable come back, and the young Under 21 player to hopefully bring some of his form and threat up front.
Five minutes in red goes up, to show the extra time, and GA are going to make them a frantic five, after grabbing back a late goal, a header from one of their excellent corners.
The last five minutes, are sadly for GA just like the 45 before them, and the ball just won’t go in, and when the whistle goes, it’s not their day, and HFC will lift the cup, 3-2.
League officials are quick to bring a small table on to the pitch, along with the cup to present to the winners. HFC celebrate and GA slowly makes their way towards where they will shortly have to pick up their runners up medals. The players and staff are clearly gutted, based on the possession and the chances they had in the 2nd half, a loss is very cruel. Some players sit on the floor, and I’m sure the last thing they want is to pick up the medals, probably all they want to do is get changed and go home, all this waiting leaves too much time to think over the last 90 minutes, and I’m sure they’re starting to pick apart what they could of done differently and start the self-critique.
Mark talks to the team, “we got to lift ourselves, lift your heads and we go again”! Although tonight will feel like a huge blow, there is still something to play for in the league, and they can’t let this result ruin that.
They line up, and receive their medals, the GA fans now line the edge of the pitch, and applaud their team in the same great fashion they have the whole match, a real credit to their club.
I’m alone in the changing room Tom is outside taking pictures of the victors. The mood is at an all-time low, and I feel like it’s inappropriate for me to be there, I feel like I’m gawping at someone’s tragedy or downfall. Mark speaks in this calm tone, but with a bit more anger or aggression than he has shown before “don’t let our season fizzle out”, and in reference to the game against HFC in 3 day’s time, “they are fucking beatable”. As if to rub it in, a huge cheer comes through the wall from the HFC changing room. One player breaks the silence, “sorry guys that was a bad miss!”
Once again I leave the team to get changed, and sit in the now empty stand. The flood lights are turned off and plunge the ground into darkness, it’s still a lovely warm evening, and I go in search of Tom. The HLC manager is posing with their fans, taking pictures with the cup, HFC players are doing interviews to camera, and once I find Tom, it’s time for us to leave, so we make our way to thank everyone and make our way back home.
David has changed back into his shirt and tie, and with his kit bag in hand we bump into him leaving the changing room. We thank him for the fantastic opportunity, and say how sorry we are they did not get the result, his response is quite pragmatic, “well that’s football”, I ask how the team are, “they are particularly down, because they know how well they played. One shot in the half, and they score a peach”.
Tom mentioned he saw Andy in his much hated suit, making his way to the board room, Glen is now doing a piece to camera in the car park, HFC players are tucking in to the complementary after match meal.
We walk down a long, dark road, lined with coaches, discussing the day’s events, and really having to pinch ourselves, that what just happened, actually happened.
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