Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
The tail end of a storm named after a 90’s sitcom buffers me a little as I make the walk to the tube, I can’t really complain though, if the morning news is anything to go by. The underground is far from my favourite mode of transport, but early on a Sunday morning it’s a little less commuters shouting “can you move down please” and a little more the dishevelled husks of revellers rolling home from the night before, or the devastated faces of those people who have to work on a Sunday. I’m not a religious person, but Sundays are for roasts, that old film you have already seen 100 times and Italian football, not for having to help quench the constant thirst for retail therapy.
Tom is making his own way, so it’s a solo mission from North to South, and it’s not long until I’m missing out on the front seat of the driverless DLR (Docklands Light Railway) , but I’m quickly above ground, and the chap who did get the front seat, is having a whale of a time. Admittedly it’s not the most picturesque of days, but the unique perspective the DLR gives of vastly contrasting parts of London, from the high shimmering towers of Canary Wharf to the Tate and Lyle factory looming over rows of terraced houses on its doorstep, is enough to keep me captivated until I disembark at the last stop on the line, Woolwich Arsenal.
Once the all important coffee is bought, I find Tom and we climb aboard our bus, we only have a 20 or so minute journey to today’s ground. We are back on the Wembley trail, it’s the 2nd round, and as the non-league numbers dwindle, for the first time, we will see a team we have already watched in the competition this season.
The opinion of most people who were at Mill Field in the 4th qualifying round, was that Welling United FC (WU) are lucky to still be in the cup. Only a late goal saved their blushes, after Grays Athletic FC had chance after chance, but could not capitalise, only to convincingly win 4 – 0 in the replay.
Our bus ride is unremarkable, except for one curiosity, which leaves us both scratching our heads. Behind one bus stop, in front of a bungalow/funeral directors, is a row of gravestones, of different styles and designs. Not your usual garden decor, I’m more of an ornamental pond man myself, but I’m sure you get what people on the Apprentice would call ‘footfall’ and not a lot else is going on in the crazy paving garden, so why not display your wares. It was one headstone in particular that caught our eye, like a tacky advert for double glazing, written in gold across black marble “this memorial £399.90”.
The very regal sounding ‘Guy Earl Of Warwick’ is where we disembark, only this is a busy high road, with a couple of car dealerships and a jellied eel shop, surely not enough room for a football club one step below the football league. We have been surprised a few times in the last year, of grounds secluded by houses or a supermarket, but wedging in a football club here would be a minor miracle, but blessed be on the 6th day god built Park View Road where WU have been playing since 1977, I guess long before Wrangler jeeps and about the same time that someone last enjoyed a jellied eel.
The winged horse of WU welcomes you through the turnstiles, but not before the away team, Carlisle United FC (CU) are filmed getting off the coach, as the BBC & BT Sport continue their considerable coverage. This also gives Tom enough time to add a very snazzy pin to his collection to go along with the WU one, he now gets a small silver replica FA Cup and he is beyond delighted.
CU are a team who have every right to moan about the weather, considering their ground Brunton Park is under about 6 foot of water, Desmond Ambrose storm has hit Cumbria hard in the last 24 hours. The grey skies, and a few spots of rain are relatively tropical in comparison to what they and their fans have left behind, at silly o’clock this morning to get here for a 14:00 kick off.
Once inside the ground, the sanctuary of the fantastically named ‘Wings Bar’, which conjures up visions of a venue in a 70’s disco film, is sought out quickly, considering today we are standing on the uncovered, bare concrete steps of the terrace behind the goal, and kickoff is over an hour away.
Like a moth to a flame I’m drawn in by the signed football shaped tractor beam, sitting on top of a box of Quality Street flanked by a bottle of Pinot Grigio and whisky. I have handed over £2 to the woman behind the white patio table, with the prize’s expertly displayed in front of her, and only the clunk of it hitting the bottom of the bucket, collecting for the Cumbria flood fund, do I realise what I have done. Tom has seen enough, and walks off, I take some relief that it’s going to very good cause, but will have to attend ‘raffle players anonymous’ next week, I really feel like I have let my sponsor down.
It’s hard to ignore the club shop on the way to the bar, the door propped open, and a man clad head to toe in all things WU, sitting in front of a large St George’s cross with WUFC written across it. The shop itself is not a lot bigger than your average garden shed, you could probably stand arms outstretched and touch each wall, but what it lacks in space it makes up for in character. Every inch of the wall and ceiling is covered in old shirts and flags, a large part of the room is devoted to football programmes old and new, from different teams, and it’s a wrench to not indulge in a few purchases. I have one meeting to go to already next week, I don’t need to go to ‘programme hoarders anonymous’ as well.
Wings bar is already bustling as we walk through the glazed, dark brown, double doors, and into a cosy TV lined room, with a choice of the previous days match between Stoke City FC Vs Man City FC or a live offering from Serie A. Wherever there isn’t a TV, there is some kind of sports memorabilia, the dark red walls are barely visible, not just football though, someone round here is a boxing fan. When I finally find a seat, after marveling as the Playstation set up on one of the TV’s I have Muhammad Ali and Carl Froch looking at me from behind a frame.
Sitting next to the doors we came in through, I get a cold breeze up my back, with the constant stream of people coming in. Behind us it’s hard to not notice the tin foil marvel, the home crafted masterpiece FA Cup, leant up against the window, in one corner of the room. What makes this one a bit special, is that it has wings,Tom comments on the quality of its construction “it’s well made, they are normally all floppy”.
“We can beat Chelsea” says one fan only half joking to a friend on the phone discussing the possibilities of the next rounds draw, as we make our way to find our spot for the game. The lack of cover, and the drizzle means Tom is a little down beat “this could get miserable”.
Standing at the back of the terrace, the constant noise of traffic, being at eye level with people on the top deck of the bus, is a first and with nearby shops almost on top of the ground, means people are able to stand on a fire escape and take some pictures. From what I’m sure is normally a plumb spot to watch the game, high behind the goal, is today slightly obscured by the scaffolding that has been erected with a camera on top. It’s operator making his way up, as the teams come out to warm up to a bit of U2, the same U2 song that plagued us all, for those few sad seasons that ITV had the football highlights, and it sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear it.
There are plenty of kids in scarves, most of them taking the opportunity to have a picture taken pitch side, with about 30 minutes to kick off Tom rightly says “it’s filling up nicely”. We are joined by our FA Cup stalkers @AcrossParkBlog who are continuing their own cup odyssey, this will be their 4th time seeing WU, as they follow the winner from each round. Who better then to get the low down on the home team from, “Welling are ruthlessly efficient”, and thinking back on the performance at Grays, that was exactly what they did, an undistinguished display, but got the job done when required.
The one occasion I don’t bring a umbrella we need one, and every time I open my notebook, the pages get a bit soggy, I’m always nervous of doing a Steve Mcclaren impression, and Tom confirms that I could look a little “wally with the brolly”.
A voice booms over the tannoy, welcoming all in attendance, and starts to read out the team sheet, the gap between names, makes it sound more like a memorial than the lineup, and is in stark contrast to the WU warm up, where the whole team stands in a row on the edge of the pitch, doing what I can only describe as a dance hall move, not quite a Bogle, but a lot of hip swiveling going on.
The TV tower is causing a few issues for some people’s view, people take turns standing in one place, having a look, not liking what they see, moving a foot to one side, taking another look, and deciding that small shift in position, gives them the ideal view of the match.
With kickoff just over 15 minutes away, WU finished the warm up with shooting practice, in the goal right in front of us, and in turn have the whole crowd entertained. The proximity of some pricey cars, and shop fronts, means a WU coach has taken up position in the street behind us, ready to try and prevent any damage. He is called into action on a few occasions, as his team’s accuracy is well off, even the high net can’t catch the ball, and he is sent scrambling trying to stop an accident, or a bill for someone’s window. Every time a shot is high, a huge cheer goes up, and the crowd turn in anticipation, the largest cheer is probably when a nearby police van is about to get whacked, only to be saved by the branches of a nearby tree.
‘We will rock you’ by Queen plays around the ground, and all eyes are fixed on the main stand. Its mix of wooden and plastic seats are all nearly full, and under the corrugated metal roof, between the two dugouts, a camera films, which not long ago had been doing a interview on the pitch and now waits as we all are for the teams to come out.
Queen is quickly replaced by ‘Live and let die’ by none other than Wings, PERFECT! When the teams are read out this time the home team players get a warm reception, the away team get booo’s.
Within a minute from the off, CU get a chance from a cross whipped in from the left, “reds settle” shouts someone from the bench, “wake up Welling, for fucks sake” bemoans a fan near us. What follows is a one sided game between two teams, a league apart, it is quite apparent the chance of any cup upset, is zero.
“United, united, united, united” sing the CU fans who are here in great numbers, standing opposite the main stand, almost filling the smaller, more modern looking one. A few flags hang from the back of it, and one has been draped over the advertising boards pitchside.
At the opposite end of the ground is an identical terrace full of what would seem the noisier of the fans, and they respond to the CU singing “we are wings, we are wings, we are wings”. Occasionally a car goes along behind us, beeping its horn, one person has wound down the window shouting “come on Welling!”
The initial nerves of the first 15 minutes or so, are slowly subsiding, the WU number 20 in central midfield is holding things together admirably, and seems the main fulcrum of the side, but his team mates are guilty of giving the ball away far too easily. On about 18 minutes CU go 1-0 up, and there is no looking back. A simple through ball between the defence, the scorer out muscles one WU player in the box enough to get away a slightly scuffed shot past the keeper.
CU’s scorer runs along the touchline, high fiving the traveling fans, “oh we love you Carlisle we do, oh Carlisle we love you”. They are almost treated to a quick second goal, not long after the restart, the WU bench are livid, the team is slow and sloppy and sitting back far too much “up, up, up” shouts a coach.
“Come on Welling, come on Welling”
Mid conversation, Tom interrupts me and lifts his camera to his eye, the tin foil creation count hits two, this time in the front row of the main stand “oh another FA Cup is out”.
With 30 mins gone both WU players and fans shout for a penalty, Toms opinion is that it “would of been harsh”.
CU double their lead just before half time. A cross is cleared off the WU line, and the resulting corner goes the long way round to getting in the back of the net. The first ball in is well defended, the ball bobbling around is poorly punched to the edge of the box, where a CU player hits a low shot, that the keeper makes up for the iffy punch with a low save, the loose ball once again falls to a CU player whose shot goes in off a teammate.
“Oh when the blues go marching in”
The WU players and fans alike are all convinced that the last touch was off a hand, and remonstrate with the referee, as the CU players celebrate, he stands pointing to the centre circle, shaking his head, with a large smug look on his face.
His half time whistle is followed by a chorus of “boooos”. CU’s fans are understandably happy, at their team’s test book performance “United, United, United, United”.
Tom has headed off before the final whistle, I’m left alone, hanging on tenterhooks, waiting for the raffle numbers to be announced, “£336 has so far been raised for the Cumbria flood fund”. I hold my ticket, the signed ball first prize will not be mine, the second prize bottle of Scotch will not be mine. The 3rd prize “white ticket 296, 297, 298, 299, 300”.
I take a second, staring at the ticket in my hand, and as the voice on the tannoy reads the numbers out again, I realise we have done it, not the first prize admittedly, BUT WE WON SOMETHING IN A RAFFLE, but I’m on my own, Tom has gone to the toilet, I refrain from hugging and celebrating with strangers, and wait for his return.
“I can’t believe you have won” he says, like I would joke about a thing like that, but you can tell he is relieved, my dry spell is over, and I have that winning air about me. There is a bottle of Pinot Grigio with my name on, all I have to do is collect it from the club shop, but that means making my way through the hoards, which Tom just explained was not the easiest, but full of endeavor and pioneer spirit, I set off.
The second place winner is a CU fan, and is equally happy to be getting his hands on his winnings, a bottle of Bells, only to be told, because it’s glass, he can’t take it into the ground, and the same goes with me, we will both be back at full time. Nothing however can dampen my spirits, I swagger back to Tom, I move through the crowd like something from the Matrix.
“Welcome the Wings” says the voice over the tannoy, speaking over ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playing as the players come out. Despite the motivational music, and the upbeat voice, there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm around the ground.
Conversations around us cover a broad spectrum, the game itself is doing little to hold people’s attention. One man starts to sing ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’ by Brian and Michael, others talk about how odd it is to be segregated, and not being able to swap ends, as they usually would, and a group that have appeared for the second half, standing at the foot of the scaffolding, are very vocal, easily antagonised, and are directing it at either the bench or their number 10. “He will get the sack Faz” bellows one of the them, “change it now, change it while we are still in it” adds another.
The first real thing the home fans have to celebrate is not a goal, but their keeper preventing one. At the far end a CU player goes down under a challenge, and the referee points to the spot. Saving low to his left the man in goal does his best to make sure WU still have the slenderest of chances of getting something out of the game.
When WU do have their own shout for a penalty the referee declines. A long ball is expertly controlled on the player’s chest, once in the box, his touch looks to have fooled two players shadowing him, leaving just the keeper to beat. One of the two players sent the wrong way with the clever touch, looks as one man put it to have “taken his fucking legs away” but the man in black had other ideas.
WU number 10 eventually goes off, and not to the bench but straight down the tunnel, much to the satisfaction of the nearby group “shit, shit, shit, shit”, and not long after start singing “burger in the goal, burger in the goal”. Not being sure if someone has hiked their lunch in disgust, on in their opinion someone is a little rotund.
Although WU have looked a lot more spirited in the 2nd half, you get the feeling that perhaps CU have taken the foot off the gas a little. All signs of a comeback diminish when another tackle in the WU box, results in another penalty, and a red card, the player who is sent off takes an age, and when he is finally off the pitch, the CU penalty taker dispatches the spot kick top left, no chance of a save this time.
“Deh, deh, deh, deh, deh Carlisle”
It’s become very gloomy at Park View Road, the clouds have rolled in, the floodlights are on, and the fans continue to give their opinion to the management “very negative”.
On about 70mins CU get a 4th. A ball across the box from the right, is pushed out into the centre of the box by the keeper, to be side footed in by a CU player on the penalty spot.
“What a load of rubbish”
“Deh, deh, deh fucking useless”
One fan is a little more optimistic “we’re going to win 5 – 4”
“I hope that camera ain’t got sound” says Tom, as the swearing is turned to constant, and someone has had enough, and chucks a “toilet roll on the pitch, toilet roll on the pitch”, but even the noisy gang have gone quiet now, much like the rest of the ground, except for the CU fans who are jubilant “Wembley, Wembley”. The only time the home fans stir, is when they ironically jeer a decision that goes their way, they all feel a little hard done by today.
“We nearly scored, we nearly scored” says someone a little high pitched, and as Tom puts it “how did that not go in?!?!” A free kick from the left, sails over the back peddling CU keeper, who can’t get near it, and is only saved by the inside of the post, the ball bounces down, along the goal line, and is cleared.
A 5th and final goal for CU, this time the ball is passed tamely across the box, there is little effort to clear it by the now leggy defence, and the CU attacker tucks it in from close range. “We are not very good” someone even attempts to start a slow hand clap, but it never gets off the ground. It’s almost 6, but it hits the post and I’m sure most people like me were convinced it was going in.
“BOOOOOOOOO” on the final whistle, the biggest round of applause is from the home fans, towards the away fans, “well traveled”, and how right they are, God only knows what a state peoples houses and livelihoods are in because of the weather, and they still schlep 300 plus miles to watch the game, very commendable.
Before we leave, but not forgetting to pick up a fine 2014 vintage Pinot, the tin foil cup count hits a record 3, a young girl in a woolly hat, has one with red and white ribbons on the handles.
Once on the bus home there is a long queue of traffic disappearing up the high road in front of us, visible through the steamed up windows of the top deck, Tom takes up his seat like the cool kid he is on the back row, and tells me “wake me up, when we get there”.
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