Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to AFC Hornchurch to celebrate a side that has ‘suddenly decided to play football’.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.
The short video posted on Twitter by Haringey Borough FC of their ground which currently resembles the wetlands from a bird sanctuary, aptly highlights quite how much rain there has been in the last 24 hours, and once again my timeline is awash with cancelled games.
It would seem perhaps the rain has not been so severe or the pitches are made of sterner stuff on the East London/Essex borders as the playing surface at A.F.C. Hornchurch (AFC) is good to go, and despite the continued early morning drizzle, I set my sights East, revelling in the novelty of going to a game on a Saturday and not midweek and make my way to Upminster.
As today is in the general vicinity of Tom’s hipster pad, where you bathe in the sink, but it’s ok as there is a market that sells raffata hats and land snails up the road, I’m running solo and for once I’m early. Tom’s reply when I call him “WOW” just shows how poor my timekeeping of late has become. Once united, it’s a quick hop, just two stops on a train overflowing with Saturday shoppers, whose bags apparently need a seat.
Although not on it for long, it’s long enough for Tom to produce a packed lunch, a ruddy tin foil wrapped sandwich and a packet of salt and vinegar chipsticks, “because I had so much time this morning” he explains, and if he didn’t have a girlfriend I think I would’ve married him on the spot. I do however have to slightly question our proposed matrimony when he tells me the filling, ready for it? Pastrami, Philadelphia, peppers, sweetcorn, cucumber and garlic mayonnaise, YIKES!
Usually we are keen to arrive well before kick off, but today we are incredibly early, so take shelter in a nearby pub, find a free table, have a pint and keep one eye on the early Premiership kick off between Norwich and Sunderland. My beer choice is poor to say the least, and I’m forced to crack into the companion supplied snackage, just so I have something to take the flavour of this ‘London Pilsner’ out of my mouth.
Tom recounts his previous night’s foray into an East London boozer. A gaff where the music stopped, every pair of eyes locked on his rugged, but perfectly kept beard, slicked back long but masculine hair and when asked by the barkeep if he could “help”, was told resoundingly “not in here, you’re fucking not!” when he replied and told them he was looking for his girlfriend.
The tranquility of our Saturday afternoon is momentarily shattered, when a man suddenly ups and leaves, kicking open the front door, and smashing a window. It was moments after Sunderland had gone a goal ahead, so Tom does wonder if he was a “Norwich fan?”
We finish up. Afternoon drinking is neither of our strong points, so the single pint has made us both feel a little fuzzy. Tom in his mild state of inebriation is deliriously happy when he spots “they have a Whimpy!” and I do remind myself that with his birthday coming, I know where I’m taking him.
With the weather still less than ideal, the bus stop proves adequate protection, until we jump on the bus which takes us to within a stone’s throw of the ground. The big brown sign ‘Hornchurch Sports & A.F.C. Stadium’ I’m guessing it’s meant to be pointing down the adjacent road, but due perhaps to a local on a drunken jape or someone just being a cock, it is instead pointing to the front of a nearby house, but we are two switched on guys, we’re not falling for that, so ask our phones for help.
Not too far in the distance, drifting over the roofs of the surrounding bungalows, we can hear the music playing at the ground, that does a good job drawing us in. Along with the occasional sight of a floodlight poking out from behind the single storey houses, we know we are on the right track.
Neither of us are prudish, easily offended, or quick to judge, but when we do notice above the turnstile the spray painted cock and the word ‘shit’ we do wonder what we have got ourselves into, but the familiar and comforting cry of the raffle ticket seller “50/50” coming from the other side, is like a reassuring non-league hug, and we know we have nothing to worry about.
The man under the large umbrella indulges me, handing over my single yellow ticket for the half time draw. Tom is off like a flash, not because he can’t stand to watch me waste more of my money on this hideous affliction of mine, but because he can smell mugs, scarves, old programmes and badges, the club shop must be close.
Now imagine the Father Christmas grotto at your local garden centre, a light wood lodge with a covered porch and double doors. Now remove the elves, lights and the fake snow from this familiar festive scene and you have AFC’s shop. Its contents much more interesting than the local fat man in an ill fitting beard. It’s wall to wall boxes are hard not to rummage through, and Tom has already got what he wanted. My search for today’s programme, takes me in the clubhouse ‘The Squibbs Sports Bar’ with its red carpet, and high vantage point overlooking the pitch.
One thing we both love is a bit of character, a wonky stand or interesting locals, something to make a club, ground or stadium stand out from the rest, but a running track is not one of them. It’s not something we have encountered many times, but when you see its unmistakable red surface encapsulating the pitch, it’s hard not to let out a little sigh.
As the rain continues, we hole up in one of the few seated stands dotted around the pitch, and are both instantly under the spell of the 60’s tunes being played by the engaging stadium announcer, “Welcome to the early comers. Bit of a wet one, spring has sprung. It’s like a Japanese car factory, raining Dats and cogs”. Not only does he play the music, he takes requests too “anniversaries, birthdays” poses brain teasers “only Englishman with 4 European Cups winners medals?” as well as his regular duties “back at quarter to with the line ups”.
The home team warm up with a old style black and white ball, as ‘Summer Afternoon’ by the Kinks plays. Unfortunately for Tom, summer feels a long way off, as all we can hear is the tapping of rain on the corrugated roof, and he reluctantly breaks cover to take some pictures. On his return, he points out the DJ’s cubbyhole, not much bigger than a broom cupboard, but with a stack of those cardboard sleeve CD’s you get in your Sunday paper as tall as a small child.
Tom is off again, this time sporting his high-viz waistcoat, to capture the player’s arrivals. Just before they do, the man on the microphone is back and letting us all know about the local companies who offer a discount with the club’s loyalty card: skip hire, pubs, plumbers, garages and an Indian restaurant who apparently do a “lovely curry”.
Like Cassius from Gladiator, the head of the Gladiatorial Games in the Colosseum and its announcer he roars “welcome the Heybridge Swifts FC and the URCHINS”!
Their entrance must be one of the grandest in all non-league, and befitting their introduction. Both teams stand side by side atop a flight of stairs at the end of a short path from the changing rooms overlooking the ground at one end. AFC in red and white stripes their opponents Heybridge Swifts FC (HS) in black and white ones.
The referee does his final stretches, putting his leg high on a nearby wall like a ballerina on the beam, before descending the stairs, at the bottom a single AFC steward highfives the team as they pass. He continues to lead them across the running track, between the steeplechase water jump and the blue pole vault mattress, and onto the pitch.
“Up the Urchins” shouts the AFC hype man, such is his booming presence, one man almost jumps ten foot in the air. As he reads out the teams again, I’m sure but not certain that he has some crowd noise playing as he does. The players names are greeted with a few very mellow “wey, wey” which soon peter out. His job, no I’m going to call it his craft, is normally performed by such monotone, bland characters, and despite the odd Christmas cracker level joke, this guy is making me want to come back, even if it’s just for the chance to hear the haunting ‘Johnny Remember Me’ by John Leyton again.
Just like at most ordinary, run of the mill football matches the local funeral directors are thanked for their support, moments before kick off, “enjoy the game”.
The best view of the match might be on the sundeck outside the clubhouse elevated above the whole ground. A few locals have taken root, their pints resting on the railing, and each with their own comfy seat, it looks very agreeable. We though are drawn in by the fans on the white terrace, “la, la, la, la Hornchurch”, their St George’s cross draped in front of them, “hello, hello, we are the Hornchurch boys”. On our way to join them we can just make out in the distance the sails of a nearby windmill.
Tom is already considering something to eat from the ‘Urchins hotdogs and burgers’ van set, but decides to get it at half time.
Both teams have a lot to play for, but at opposite ends of the table. The hosts are trying to secure a play-off place, the visitors trying to avoid relegation. This therefore makes the opening fifteen minutes or so a bit cagey. It’s AFC who get the first real chance of the match, which is quickly followed by a second and then a third.
The first a swerving shot that goes just wide, the second as the young HS fan next to me says brings a “good save” from the keeper, who is at it again not long after with another solid stop. He at the moment is all that stands between AFC, and his team being out of the game before it has really started. The home fans sensing a goal, up the volume “Urchins, Urchins, Urchins”
If the keeper at one end is shining, stopping everything coming his way, his opposite number is not so fortunate and is to blame for the goal that puts HS in front. A bad case of butterfingers strikes, as he drops a corner, which is stabbed home through a swarm of people on the goal line. “Come on Swifts” shouts one of the few traveling fans, “don’t matter how it goes in” says another.
Moments before going ahead the away supporters had been talking amongst themselves about needing “one point to be safe”. Post goal one confidently suggests “we are definitely safe now”. The oldest of the bunch quickly “shhhhhhh’s” him, “don’t say that, long way to go!”
Occasionally we see a tackle that makes you want to go home, climb into bed and try and forget you ever saw it. “Not even a yellow?!?” asks one baffled HS fan following a lunging, could have snapped a leg like a breadstick example from the marauding AFC fullback, who is beyond lucky to still be on the pitch. One fan screams at the top of his lungs “DISGUSTING!” another proclaims that it’s “the worst tackle I’ve ever seen”. I wince, gasp and grab Tom’s arm like a Victorian lady at a risque show, after seeing saw a mans navel.
A break in play towards the end of the half , means we witness something you don’t see every day on a football pitch, one AFC player uses the stoppage to do a bit of Yoga, and performs a fine downward dog.
When the man in goal for HS saves again, this time from point black range, denying AFC the equaliser, the noise of the home fans, “come on Hornchurch” drowns out the tweeting birds, and sounds of nature blooming all around us brought on by the Sun finally breaking through. Their final chance of the half fizzes just wide and gets a collective “oohhhhh” and a final cry of “Urchins, Urchins, Urchins”
If there was any question I wasn’t already totally in love with music being played here, the fact that the first song of half time is everyone’s favourite 70’s Dutch outfit, Golden Earring’s ‘Radar Love’, this is now beyond doubt and I might have to consider being a regular. I sit on the steps of the terrace, singing along softly under my breath “the road has got me hypnotized” waiting for Tom who’s on the tea run.
The man over the airwaves has broken free from his booth, and is now pacing pitchside, with a silver champagne bucket in one hand, and a mic in the other. It’s 50/50 time and a chance to win “80 smackaroos”. Tom returns, tea sloshing from side to side, focused on not spilling anymore down his jeans after being informed, “we’re getting lids for next season, promise”. A lady in the crowd fails to pick my ticket, but instead Fred’s, fucking Fred with his £80, not that I’m bitter or anything.
‘Smoke On The Water’ greets the returning players, as does some full blown sunshine, and it’s turning into a nice afternoon. Tom is quite right that the music is what might be described as “Dad music” but it’s awesome nonetheless. I get the feeling this track is from a Jeremy Clarkson ‘Best Rock To Drive To EVER!!!’ CD from the Mail on Sunday. With the arrival of the first team, it does mean that an AFC sub whose long flowing hair would give Samson a run for his money has to scamper off the pitch.
Even though the game has kicked off track number two from the Stig fronted CD, ‘Silver Machine’ is still playing, and Tom ponders again a question he has posed before “what would it be like if they left the music playing all the time?”.
Although low in number, the voice of one HS fan, not quite on par with the Hampton and Richmond Brian Blessed, but close, makes up for it as he thunders out “COME ON HEYBRIDGE”
The HS fans have decided to dabble in the dark arts, one of them from nowhere has produced an air horn, that goes off less than a foot from me and almost brings on a stroke. It’s first appearance is early into the new half, as an AFC player swings in a free kick, I suppose he was attempting to put him off his stride, but all it does is give me shell shock and hilariously has the opposite desired effect.
“That backfired” says Tom as the AFC players and supporters celebrate equalising following the aforementioned free kick, and the back post header that followed. “Can we have another one?!?” says one AFC fan who has turned along with most of the rest to sarcastically applaud the horn user, who is looking a little sheepish to say the least.
So shredded are my nerves now, we make a move, not being sure that I can take another audio bombardment. The running track and towering hammer cage makes standing behind the goals not an option, so we take up a spot just to the side of the most vocal of the home support, below a plastic owl which I assume is to scare away the pigeons and a dude rocking the Rockabilly look to perfection, with a tidy quiff, leather jacket and upturned jeans, who occasionally checks his phone with its Elvis Presley cover.
Peter the club security, stands with us briefly, occasionally pulling a cigarette from the box in his long blue jacket and puffs away. He suggests we are not seeing the best of what he describes proudly as “a good footballing side” and that they are not at their “most beautiful today”.
If the first half was a little mediocre, the first fifteen minutes of the second have done more than enough to compensate. First the equalizer and now the referee has pointed at the spot in favour of HS, because as one person puts it the AFC player “flattened” the HS attacker. One home supporter can’t believe it, and ask someone next to us with a quizzical look “are you joking?”.
Good goals are celebrated, hell players will go down in folklore and be talked about for years to come if they score a blinder in their career, even the occasional tackle will get the same treatment, Ledley Kings on Arjen Robben at White Hart Lane springs to mind, but do goalkeepers get the same plaudits? I can think of Bank’s against Pele, but normally all the man in goal gets is stick, because often their mistakes can be the most costly.
What happens next should go down in AFC history, a collection for a statue should start immediately, because the next thirty seconds, are a thing of wonder. Not only does the keeper save the penalty diving down to his right, but his speed and agility means he is up as quick as a flash not only to save one, but two following attempts on goal in a matter of seconds.
We have had a penalty at one end, why not have one at the other, even it up, it only seems fair, the cry of “come on lads push forward” gets the desired result. The referee blows up, and does the ‘arms around him’ motion they do following a tussle between two players that results in a AFC forward on the floor.
Not only have AFC’s now gone ahead after being behind, not only do they look on course to have secured the points required for a playoff spot, to cap off, the man from his tiny room announces that the penalty taker who has just slammed the ball down the middle, has just scored his “100th goal for Hornchurch”, it’s almost too much for one blogger to take!
“Red army, red army” chant the noisy few, one in particular is delighted that AFC have “suddenly decided to play some football” and it’s a nice move that almost brings their third thanks to the zippy number 7 who has been a constant and dangerous outlet for most of the game. His low cross into the box, which should have been leathered in, but instead the intended player takes one touch too many and the move breaks down. Everyone to a man lets out a seismic “ARGHHHH”, it was a good chance.
All of us have a bad day at the office, I guess though most of us have the benefit of not having a bunch of people standing next to our desk drinking, shouting and highlighting every error we make. The number 2 for HS has no such luck, as he is becoming quite the target for the home fans, who have taken to humming the tune that might accompany a clown at the circus when he misplaces a pass or misses a tackle. The final straw for him is when he is penalised for a foul throw, and just looks plain fed up.
A club secretary’s job is never done, and when not anxiously looking on, inevitably with a fag on the the go, Peter is disappearing into the no man’s land behind the stand to get wild clearances. Perhaps more than most I’m sure he is relieved when he sees the board for extra time go up.
“Play offs, play offs” is the ever so slightly relieved chant from the fans, who are able to relax for now at least as their season is not quite over, and the chance for promotion is one step closer. As the players pat each other on the back, the fans celebrate, HS have an on pitch team meeting. Once again a very familiar song is playing, but this one I can’t quite put my finger on, but I know a man who can.
“Only play it when we win” says the stadium announcer tidying up, as the ground empties. ‘Out Of The Blue’ or as most know it the tune from Sports Report is “our victory tune” he explains.
We go in hunt of Peter, to thank him for having us today. First stop is the boardroom, its small sign lent up against the wall at the foot of the door has seen better days, but is charming nonetheless. On opening the door I’m hit by a wall of tropical heat, the lady behind the bar looks nonplussed, but I’m instantly sweating, and luckily for me Peter is elsewhere.
With the red carpet of the clubhouse underfoot again, and getting out of the way of two women both carrying a large bushel of balloons for ‘Gillian;s 60th’ we find Peter finishing up for the day, “I’m almost done now, except buying the referees drinks”. We thank him and the other AFC fans who have been very welcoming.
On the way home we try and figure out AFC’s nickname the ‘Urchins’. We’re nowhere near the sea so it can’t be that kind of urchin, there is a stream that runs along one side of the ground, but I don’t think you get them in freshwater. The only other use of the word I know is the Dickensian description of a toe rag, an oik, a bit of a shit, maybe its that, but it’s not really in keeping with the norm like Tigers, Blades or Black Cats.
Tom suggest that a more literal interpretation of the club’s name would be a better choice. So how about it Hornchurch fans, what do you think about being called the “horny priests”. I don’t think I want to marry him anymore.
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