Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

I thought Rayners Lane was just a place on the far extremities of the Piccadilly line, not somewhere that unless I happened to fall asleep, and awoke post public dribbling or perhaps I was plucked from my bed by a great tornado with my small dog, and dropped on a witch with snazzy shoes, I would never have any reason to visit. As I step off the tube I realise I’m not in Finchley anymore.

For the second time in a week, I’m going things alone, for the second time in a week I’m early, for the second time in a week I’m sitting on a train platform looking like someone whose Tinder date has not turned up. Tom has had the benefit of a day off, so he has been toiling away on the sofa in his pants playing on his Playstation, I however have been up since 06:30 and have been dealing with irate people about late pet food orders.

In my current mood I have little patience for the commuters whizzing from the city, or some such tie required prison and their one track barging mentality. Thankfully though it’s a pleasant enough evening, what you might call a hazy one, and for the first time in what seems like an age we are in my neck of the woods instead of the deep dark East always conveniently a stone’s throw from the fashionable one’s. Going at how ever many miles an hour I am, I pass the always impressive looking Wembley, which means I’m now a only couple of stops from my station.

Two or three trains after mine, Tom finally appears, with less hair than when I saw him last, but still with a beard, as by his own admission it’s the only thing that is differentiating him between a child and an adult ticket. The breaking news of the moment is that Prince is dead, neither of us are huge fans, so we just add him to the ‘dead celebrities call sheet 2016’, Tom however is concerned for his older sister, who he describes as being “obsessed” with the purple one.

The season at all levels is in the process of winding down, the fixture calendar is dominated by play-offs, semi-finals or finals of one trophy or another. At this time of year, imaginative planning is required  due to fixture backlogs thanks to weather or cup runs and it can kick up some unusual days for a game. The only time I usually watch football on a Thursday is Spurs in the Europa League, so heading off to a non-league match is a little unusual.

A mix of the old and new surrounds us as we get off the bus and make the short walk to The Tithe Farm Social Club home of Rayners Lane FC (RL). Although there are houses in various stages of completion, Tom is quite right when he comments that it’s “very green”, nowhere is a better example than in front of RL’s clubhouse which is almost completely obscured from the road by a ginormous willow tree, fit for Ratty, Toad and friends.

While grabbing a few photos before we go in an extremely socially conscious passer by informs me completely unprompted that the houses adjacent are “all council” before carrying on. Perhaps he mistook my note taking and red woolly jumper as the uniform of the invading North London gentrification army, here to steal the much needed affordable housing from the local community, or maybe he was just mental.

The lush surroundings continue past the clubhouse and onto a very good looking pitch, almost completely surrounded by tall conifers. Other than a small covered section opposite between the two dugouts, there is not a lot else. You have two options pitch-side for how you might want to view the match, one is to lean against the thin white metal fence that encircles the pitch or option two is to take a seat on one of the many benches or picnic tables scattered along the top of a small grass bank.

Pat the club’s assistant manager is on the pitch, perhaps giving it the once over, considering as he tells us the “pitch don’t take water well”, and this fixture has already been rearranged once already do to it’s inability to deal with a downpour. All is good now though, the pitch is fine and it’s just a matter of as he puts it “waiting for the players from their real lives” to arrive.

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It’s been quite the cup run for the step six side, “I don’t think we have got this far in a couple of years” Pat explains, in his first year along with the rest of the coaching staff in charge, after previously being the coach of the reserves. They have knocked out a few higher level teams along the way “they might have underestimated us, which was nice” Pat tells us with a grin. You can tell progressing to the final would be a big coup for the club tonight, but he doesn’t think the players quite “understand the enormity” of what they could achieve by doing it.

It will be down to Pat and the club coach to take the reins tonight, the manager is in America, watching his son play. Having already rearranged his trip once because of reaching the semi-final, he couldn’t do it again after the previous week’s postponement.

Tonight’s opposition Cockfosters FC (CFC) from a step above have been in a fine vein of form themselves, in fact when Pat paid them a visit on a bit of a scouting mission he saw their first loss in fifteen, which has given him some confidence. Another member of the coaching staff also having seen them recently, is not perhaps as confident, “they were bang on”.

He tells us CFC’s keeper is “on loan from Barnet” and his standing as a “proper player” is confirmed by the fact he is “on the club website”. Not that RL aren’t blessed with their own “proper player” with his own pedigree, not playing mind but coaching, Paul Fishenden was a member of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’.

Considering our entrance was via a stone path between the smoking hut and the social club, Tom asks out of curiosity where the turnstiles are. Pat turns and points to a chap in a flat cap, standing on the edge of the nearby car park, with a small table next to him “Danny is the turnstile” he tells us smirking. A cut glass bowl full of £1 coins holds the float, and a small white sign displaying ticket prices has been fastened to the ever so slightly wonky fence.

The music blaring from the home dressing room, is accompanied by similar music, which is just as loud coming from the open windows of various players cars pulling up in the car park. Hovering outside the blue doored ‘AWAY’ dressing room, the CFC manager says hello, and tells us with a confident air he is “feeling alright” about the game. As we leave him and his small posse, he takes a call, a player running late perhaps, who he informs “is starting in midfield”.

It’s greying up a bit as Pat puts out the cones and the home team start to appear, in pale yellow tops. With a main road running behind one goal, Tom sees the benefit of the tightly planted trees that stop wild shots hitting passing cars or pedestrians, “saves you losing balls”, he says with his practical hat on.

In his club tie and pin, the RL chairman, a local tiling magnate, has got wind of us poking around and comes over to say hello. Definitely someone you would call a big character, which is clear within seconds, he is quick to excitedly tell us about all the changes afoot: a new pitch, new clubhouse new facilities for the players are all the the pipe line, but emphasises the point of doing things “slowly”, not that he is dragging his heels or avoiding investment, but making sure they are not running before they can walk.

Rayners Lane FC 080He clearly has a firm grip on the reins, the fact his daughter has to ask for 70p to get a snack from the tea hatch, shows me there are no freebies, look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves, but he is also doing his best to make sure its a friendly club, Tom is quite right when he says “definitely one of the warmest welcomes we have got”. It’s not every day a club chairman takes your tea order and as he heads off to get it for us, asks us to “let me know if I can get you anything, we’ve got some sausage rolls”.

Not wanting to take advantage of their kind hospitality, Tom intercepts the RL chairman’s daughter halfway to our table with the two white mugs. Non-league tea can always be a bit hit and miss, it’s always hot, dangerously hot, but it’s consistency can vary wildly. My personal yardstick for a good cuppa is the ones my Mancunian fiancee makes, I think they get taught that kind of thing in school up there along with whippet racing and barm cake eating, but the one at RL has been made with all the skill of Tom Cruise in ‘Cocktail’, it’s a beaut, and is taking the edge off the chill rolling in as the sun goes down.

There is a reasonable smattering of blazers here tonight, and word must have got out about the fine tea on offer, as quite a crowd has gathered around the hatch, “teas all round” says Tom. All we can hear for the next couple of minutes between the players warming up, and the constant buzzing of planes from nearby Heathrow is the unmistakable noise, of a teaspoon on a china mug.

The chairman’s final words are a friendly warning, not long before kick-off, after he suggests that if there is anything we want to ask him to do it now because by his own words he “gets a bit carried away during the game”.

It’s a relatively muted entrance from both teams, RL in green shorts, yellow socks and shirts, CFC in a very nice all dark blue number. Except for the referee, “alright lads” he says before leading them out and the occasional shout from the sidelines “come on Lane”, “come on Fosters”, it’s verging on the solemn, there is non of the excitement you would perhaps expect from a semi-final. Both teams huddle, when RL break there is a resounding “come on!”, the referee and his assistants wait on the centre circle, and once everyone is in place, the whistle goes, which brings a bit of noise from the crowd.

One fan sets the standard for the almost constant barrage of grief the referee will get for the rest of the match. Seconds after the kick off the ball is kicked into touch, he quite rightly awards the throw in to the correct team and someone shouts jokingly (I hope) “terrible decision!”.

The game is brought to an early and long halt when a CFC player goes off with what looks like a cut, “I think he’s bleeding” says Tom peering through his camera, using the zoom to see what’s happening on the far side of the pitch. I can only hope the fix up job on the player is as good as the one I notice on Tom’s jacket, the result he tells me of a fire, brought on by his vape cigarette battery reacting with his keys.

The RL bench want to ensure the players don’t cool down, the first request falls on deaf ears “yellows keep warm”, the second is said with a lot more intensity and gets the players in gear “come on Lane keep warm, don’t just stand around!”.

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Some referees are laissez-faire, and let the game play, some are officious and like the sound of their own voice. Tonight’s is verging on the latter, much to the annoyance of the two CFC fans in front of us, who don’t feel anything is going their way “gonna give blue one?” . The players also seem to feel that things aren’t going their way either, one who is particularly eloquent when he doesn’t get the decision he thinks he deserves, “fuck me sideways!”.

For a second time there is a lengthy hold up, again due to an injury to a CFC player this time its the goalkeeper, and its doesn’t look like he will be able to continue. Within seconds of being down, and signaling to the bench, he has stripped off two layers to his bare chest, gets a wolf whistle for his trouble and is eventually helped off clutching his shoulder.

“Hope they got a spare keeper, looks like they only have two subs” says Tom about the very thin looking CFC bench. Luckily they have, in the form of a pink glove wearing mountain man, with a wilderness beard, who is raring to come on. As he jogs on the pitch he shouts in a grizzly bear voice “come on Fosters”, and having not been on the pitch for more than five minutes, it’s clear we have a “shouter” as Tom puts it, a phenomenon amongst non-league goalkeepers who are keen to say the least to be in constant communication with their back line. “Straight lines, straight lines” he bellows, I assume someone knows what he is going on about.

You might say RL have shaded the opening thirty minutes or so, but it would be by a hairs breath. To be honest there has not been a huge amount of quality from either side. The stand out player so far would be RL’s number 3 who is clearly a student from the Roberto Carlos school of defending, and needs no prompting to bomb up the flank.

When CFC do get in the RL area, the home team can be a little guilty of losing their heads, one player screams like he has just slipped off the deck of the Orca into the mouth of a shark, following a scramble in the area and on more than one occasion Toms says “panic stations”. It’s not though until late in the game that CFC register their first shot on goal, but it’s straight at the keeper.

The half comes to an end with the most memorable thing being the substitute keeper who has been non stop, maybe Red Bull was on special offer, and at points he has simply been reduced to making guttural almost animal noises. When he does speak, and I can understand what he is saying it’s still a bit baffling “have a look, have a look” he says. His last comment of the half is in appreciation of a team mate’s actions, “love that, love that” he says, “course you do” replies Tom.

Even in the simple act of blowing his whistle the referee manages to wind someone up “that was a bit sharp”. The clever people head out of the cold and into the clubhouse, Tom has one thing on his mind, “tea”. He does ponder for a few moments, before heading off “kinda wanna another sausage roll, kinda don’t”, I will have to see what he returns with.

Two teas, two Kit-Kats and two sausage rolls, that someone described as “legendary”, are plundered from the glass fronted cabinet in the tea bar. “All that for £4.70” Tom tells me, which has got him giddy with excitement “cheapest dinner I’ve ever had”. Tom sips from one mug thinking it’s his, “nope” he says shaking his head, he picks up the second “oh I don’t know anymore, they are both as sweet as each other”.

Rayners Lane FC 135The start of the new half is far more vocal, with players from each side doing their bit to energize their teammates “switch on Lane” shouts a home player, one CFC player demand’s “let’s go get it”. It also gives us a chance to realise that the player who received treatment early in first half, not only has he now got a juicy black eye, but also the fact that he bares a striking resemblance to Everton’s Leighton Baines.

As the second half gets underway, I think more people are in the social club, playing darts, using one of the full sized snooker tables in the suitable dark room, or like Tom with both eyes, instead of one are watching the Arsenal game instead.

Great wing play, and the “cut back” that the forward in the box requested almost puts CFC ahead. The player shapes up to shoot, looks certain at least to hit the target, but ends up blazing over, “got stars in his eyes” says Tom, the trees showing their worth once again, stop the ball from ending up on a car roof. In fact chances are coming much more readily for the away team who are certainly on the front foot. One player almost scoring the sublime, but unfortunately his overhead kick is just wide.

Although the shout from each sides fans are effectively the same, they both have vastly different connotations. “Come on Fosters” is said by the supporters of the side who are close to getting a goal. “Come on Lane” is said by a supporter who can sense his team is about to go behind, if they don’t get their act together, a sentiment shared with one of the players, “stretched again, tighten up!”

Somewhat against the form of the second half, RL almost go ahead after a low cross is drilled in, almost decapitates a CFC player in the box, sending the deflected spinning ball up in the air and almost in for a freak own goal.

“Its got 0 – 0 all over it” says Tom, as the game despite a few recent chances still doesn’t look like catching fire. “Good effort” shouts someone on the RL bench after they go close with the first chance of the half that is of their creation, the noise from the CFC bench “arghhhhhh” tells you just how close it was.

Not for the first time the ball ends up in the trees and not in the back of the green and yellow striped nets, after another CFC chances goes begging. “That’s a good ball” says tom as its crossed into the box, and sets up a free header which is put criminally wide.

With Tom’s prediction of a goalless match getting closer to realization, it’s a slice of good luck and a big pinch of skill that breaks the deadlock, and puts CFC ahead. “No way he has kept that in” says an astonished Tom after a cross field ball which looked destined for the foliage, is controlled on the far side, and now the CFC wide player is running along the by line, baring down on goal, but from a less than ideal angle.

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It would seem he has little intention of finding a teammate in the box, not that there are many to hand, probably like us they assumed it was going out for a goal kick, and therefore are not in the box to offer support. Then from the tightest of angles he shoots the ball high into the net, and its looks like we have a winner.

The scorer followed by his teammates, disappear into a completely empty corner of the ground to celebrate. “No-one tracking their fucking runners” is one RL players outburst following the goal, considering he did it all by himself, I’m not sure it had anything to do with runners. One player tries to be a bit more positive “come on Lane, come on” but the game is all but done.

There is a late flourish from RL, the kind of pressure you would expect in the dying moments, when a team knows its won and is happy to sit back. The CFC keeper does a good job disrupting any momentum RL are attempting to build, by taking as long as he possibly can with every kick. When the final whistle goes CFC are victorious, “fucking get in” says one of their players.

Post game we get the chance to take a quick picture of CFC in buoyant mood, mid pose it all gets a little bit Fenerbahce, as RL’s ground is plunged into darkness, and CFC’s on pitch celebrations are cut a little short, I’m sure it’s not the intention, but we all take it as our cue to leave. Pat walking off sums up RL’s game perfectly in just a couple of words “one time we switched off, punished”.

After thanking the chairman in the clubhouse, who’s enjoying a drink and some of the food laid out on the bar, we can over hear CFC in their changing room. A whole team rendition of  ‘Ring Of Fire’ by Johnny Cash, no words, just the tune “la, la, la, la” what better way to mark your triumph, who doesn’t love a bit of the ‘Man In Black’.

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