Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game return in their quest to uncover real meaningful football beyond the big-time glare.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
With the blinds of my bedroom doing a piss poor job of keeping out the bright shards of sunlight, it is that, and not my alarm that wakes me this morning. Usually this would get my day off to a less than ideal start, consuming most of my commute with vengeance directed at Mother Nature, today though is different, today is special, today football is back!
Saying that, it’s not like it’s been gone for long. With the month long European Championship offering a pleasant interlude, or two weeks for an England fan, sigh, football in fact doesn’t feel like it’s even stopped. When Ronaldo had finished posing, and Buffon cemented his credentials as world’s coolest footballer, my summer, much like millions of others has been taken over by Pokemon GO. I did briefly watch some of the Chinese Super League, but decided wandering around a park hoping to catch a floating plant with teeth or firefly cat/wolf thing, was better for my soul.
Post bath, my first big decision of the new season is ‘shorts or no shorts?’. I opt for bare legs, even though they make me look a bit like a member of Alien Ant Farm. As I pack my rucksack, with all the attention and precision of Ray Mears, It crosses my mind that it has only been a couple of months since Alan Pardew was ruining the FA Cup a little bit, and Jesse Lingard made sure we all weren’t subjected to any more fucking dancing, and it really is remarkable that the road to Wembley has started again so soon.
On our personal mission last season to do every round, we managed eleven. It was those early rounds specifically, those rounds where you could tell it was a big deal to progress, that were some of the highlights of 2015/16. Both of us were fully submerged in the romance of the competition, it really didn’t bother us that we didn’t make it to Wembley, because as we got closer, the passion and excitement got further away, nowhere was this more clear than at Arsenal Vs Hull in the fifth round.
Outside the sky is a brilliant blue, there’s not a cloud in sight, and my outfit choice is instantly vindicated. My local tube station is out of action for the weekend, so I’m forced into taking a combination of buses to meet Tom at Liverpool Street. Not that I’m actually that bothered, you’re not going to catch a Snorlax on the Underground, are you?
Oh my bus is on a diversion, oh no one thought to inform me of that at any point during my journey, oh you have now dropped me off in the wrong place. For the second time in less than a couple of hours, an event which would usually send me into a downward spiral of under my breath swearing, is like water off a duck’s back, I’m just not bothered, football is back.
Where I have been dumped, works out OK in the end, and I’m soon on my way. I’m sure it’s just living in a large city, but when using public transport, it seems unavoidable not to notice or overhear something interesting or have some kind of interaction with someone of one kind or another. While I feverishly swipe my phone, trying to get those all important PokeStops, I’m caught up not so much in the conversation of the two actors behind me, “I’m just trying to get paid” says one, but more their hearty, Kenneth Branagh, thespian laughs, that are always in unison, and never independent of each other.
The world again tries to test me, my bus announces that it’s changing destination, but once again I’m unfazed, I would say I’m as cool as a cucumber, but it’s stiflingly hot, thankfully the small lady asking people if they are “a Christian” is also handing out leaflets which come in handy as a fan. I’m again distracted from my jogging blue haired avatar, as the small lady decides to inquire about the driver’s religious beliefs, “I will say a pray for you” she tells him, I just want her to let the guy drive.
A new season, means new ways, for one of us at least, I’m on time. I’m chuffed as I look up at the big electronic clock on the departures board at Liverpool St station, that I am a whole two minutes early.
All in black, wearing jeans and a jacket, Tom descends the stairs, sporting a nifty pair of Ray-Bans, looking effortlessly cool, only he, even in his totally overdressed state, with the thermometer hitting over 25 degrees, can pull it off. I stare at him slack jawed, half Irish and overweight, wondering how does he do it? I almost brought a towel to mop my brow, he just shrugs “ you know I never get it right”.
Something else that hasn’t changed, is his somewhat consistent bleary eyed’ness. Queuing to get our train tickets he tells me of last nights escapades that involved a DJ on the back of a flatbed truck. I must admit I was up a little later than usual, taking in the cultural event of the Rio Olympic opening ceremony, but I was not eating vodka filled scotch eggs or snorting deep fried absinthe cheese straws.
“No Thomas” shouts a Grandmother to her grandson in an Arsenal shirt, causing Tom to turn in his seat, look at the little boy, and wonders for a second if he has just fallen into a time rift, all in the time it takes to pull out of the station.
Our train is far from modern, it’s verging on the antique, it’s deafening, when other trains pass, it feels like we are being shot out of a gun. It is however not loud enough to drown out the slurping noise the man sitting next to us is making, as he eats a ginormous heritage tomato, this is no supermarket tiddler, it’s like an apple, he only stops occasionally to eat a hunk of bread, like an extra from Wolf Hall.
“I’m getting quite hungry” says Tom “should of got a sandwich” he adds. Where as I have tried to turn over a new leaf, my time keeping, Tom is just the same, always thinking about food. As we get closer to our stop, continuing through the freshly cut rolling fields of Essex countryside, our final destination inspires the conversation: fish and chips, pickled onions and Tom’s Dad’s addiction to saveloys. Tom has to get something off his chest, I can see from his face it’s just trying to burst out, “I love a battered sausage” he admits, after saying it his eyes dart around the carriage like he has just admitted to a heinous crime, hopping no one heard.
“Clacton only” says the train, we are next.
On arrival the carriage is filled with the high pitched squeals of children. The train quickly empties and instantly the air is filled with the signature sound of the seaside, squawking gulls. It is though quickly relegated to second place, and replaced by the tedious rumble of pulled luggage, as families landing with bags and buckets and spades, race off to start their summer holidays.
As we get closer to the seafront the telltale signs of a British coastal resort become apparent, old ladies eating ice creams on benches, kids tearing about because of too many sweets, annoyed looking parents trying to catch the aforementioned children, the clicking of the rides, men with their shirts off, when it’s really not that hot, and the flashing lights of the amusements.
“Arcades, 10p machines” says Tom, as we pass Magic City and I have a job on my hands keeping him out. On the promenade, he is again mesmerized, “oh hello” he says like Terry Thomas as he spots one of the many fish and chip stalls near the pier, and he decides for the both of us, what we are having for lunch.
Although it was one of the better deep fried sausages I have ever had, it was fresh atleast, not a bendy meat torpedo, which has been in it’s hot glass prison for eternity, it doesn’t sit quite right with either of us.
Have you heard the one, “there was a Spurs fan, an Arsenal fan and a West Ham fan in a taxi……” you probably haven’t, but it is the situation we find ourselves in. Our driver, a forward thinking Hammer, talks about understanding the “bigger picture” when it comes to West Ham leaving their “home” the Boleyn, but nonetheless is not ecstatic about the move.
When we tell him where we are off to, he is quick to sing the praises of FC Clacton (FCF). It’s always nice to hear when a club are active in the local community, he tells us about the many kids teams, for boys and girls they have, as well as ‘Fun Days’ at the ground. Once we’ve paid him and as we both getting out, he fills us in on one of the fans chants “sea, sea, sea, siders”.
A long white wall outside the Rush Green Bowl has the club’s name emblazoned on it, in tall blue letters, along with the club’s crest, which includes all the things you would expect from a club on the coast, clam shells and boats.
It’s a lot quieter out here than by the front, the only thing interrupting the sound of the gulls is the whir of an air conditioning unit and ‘Bye, Bye Baby’, by the Bay City Rollers. The entrance is little more than a door in a brick wall, there is a turnstile, but such is the size of the gap, you can easily sidestep it, and avoid the customary click.
Once in, a small band of the nicest CFC blue cap wearing hustlers get to work, the first one Chris, is behind an old round dining table with a few copies of today’s programme fanned out, next to a pile of change. With that sorted, next down the line is an older chap in charge of a table jam packed with club merchandise, front and centre a bumper sticker that looks like it has seen better days reads “don’t follow me, follow the seasiders”.
“Start as you mean to go on” he says to me, clutching the all too familiar half time draw scratch card, and it’s not long until I have handed over £2 and he is telling me to be in the clubhouse at half time, to find out if I have won.
Not content with our money for my programme and Tom getting a pin, the Apprentice contestant in him steps forward, “want something for the winter?” he asks, holding up a blue club fleece in front of me to see if it fits, like when your Mum took you shopping. I declined because I can buy my own clothes now thanks Mum, oh and it’s a bit small, and it’s too fucking hot!
Running a non-league football club requires you to be inventive, resourceful, and smart. Nowhere is this more apparent, than the pink Wendy House being used to balance the PA system on top of, blasting out a solid mix of what you might call ‘Dad music’, in no way is that a criticism, I only have praise for a club that plays ‘Back in the USSR’ by the Beatles, I just don’t think you are ever going to hear ‘Hotline Bling’ here.
Both teams are warming up, CFC are doing one particular drill Tom thinks is a bit “mean”, drop the ball and you have to go and play on your own.
Always keen to tick off a few boxes in my ‘I Spy book of non-league football’ I dust it off after its summer hiatus, and tick off, ‘man on grass bank playing an acoustic guitar’ but can’t find one for ‘child’s toy used as part of sound system’ so add that to the notes section. When the “guitar man” as Tom describes him, strides past us with it slung on his back like the member of a Mariachi band, this prompts Tom to take a walk of his own to take some pictures, and leaves me sitting on one of the blue benches of the ‘Mars Drury Stand’ one of three in the ground. Opposite, and much in need of exploring is the curiously named ‘Bus Shelter’ with flags hanging on it’s back wall.
With the blue sky filled with only a few fluffy white clouds, you could not ask for a more picture perfect scene, all with a little bit of Chesney Hawkes playing. People are scattered out around the ground, one man in a scarf, why?, leans on the blue and white railing around the pitch, flicking through his programme. It’s not long until I’m joined by a couple more people, “can I get round you young man” one man asks me as he climbs up the benches to the back of the stand, his friend, looking very smart in a green cardigan, IS HE NOT BOILING?, wipes down his intended spot with a tissue before placing down his own personal cushion.
Tom returns, telling me he has been told to talk to one particular fan who he refers to as “Mr Clacton” the go to guy for questions about the club’s history, but he has been warned, “we might miss the match though, he likes to talk”.
Requiring a much needed drink we head to the clubhouse, where it’s cool, and the majority of the people are hiding. These are the same people, who clearly love a CFC baseball cap, be it blue or white, old or new, almost everyone to a man is sporting one, of one design, or another. While I’m waiting for my change, I overhear a group discussing cobbling together their money to sponsor a player this season, their main choice, ticks all the right boxes it seems “he’s good” confirms one of them to the rest of the group, who all agree.
Pitchside, with the ice in my glass rapidly melting, we join the others congregated around the thin green path leading from the changing room to the pitch. It’s about now I start to panic ever so slightly, while everyone around me doesn’t seem to have noticed, am I the only one who has seen in the distance a plane, yes a plane, not one of the model variety, a real life size light aircraft is baring down on us all, like the scene from a Bond film.
Thankfully there is no spectacular explosion, no union jack parachute, but as it comes in to land mere feet away for the pitch, it is close enough to see the flying goggles and fur lined jacket of the pilot.
“We’ve come all this way for one thing” shouts one of CFC’s opponents, Eton Manor FC (EMFC), as they are led by the referee on to the pitch, all to the rhythmic clapping of ‘We will Rock You’ by Queen. Tom asks if EMFC’s kit is the same as the old QPR red and white number, and admittedly it does look very similar. For a brief moment the two teams line up, and shake hands. As they make their way to their half a couple of players from each side shout “come on Eton”, “come on Clacton”.
“Good to be back” says Tom to me, moments after kick-off.
Spirits are high, and communication has clearly been the buzzword of pre season training, lots of players are shouting all sorts of things, but mainly one word, very loudly, “heads”, “seconds”. EMFC’s keeper falls into the ‘motor mouth’ category, and is non stop.
Tackles are already flying in, Tom makes the same prediction that he normally does about this time, ten minutes into most games we watch, after wincing for about the fourth time after a ’50/50’ “someone is getting sent off”.
“Well done keeper” shouts someone ironically from the stands, as a fumble from the man in goal for EMFC results in CFC going ahead. Tom recalls him moaning about his gloves during the warm up, trying on different pairs, perhaps that was a factor in his butter fingers, but really he should’ve done better with the low cross.
One EMFC player demands “calm” from his teammates, since going behind the away team have been at 6’s and 7’s. The “beast”, the now generic name for a big unit centre forward, and how Tom describes EMFC’s number 9, is causing problems for the defense, but his marker who is almost half his size, is for the time being keeping him under wraps.
I’m not sure if I have mentioned it yet, but it is warm, so when Tom points to the man in front of us wearing the jumper, “I was going to buy”, I’m first impressed, well done for flogging that in August, but then I’m flabbergasted, is everyone cold blooded in these parts, or do I need to just get a grip?
To our left, a group of four home fans, watch on from the sidelines, their own flag draped over the fence in front of them. One stands out from the rest, the guy rocking a double denim, Eagles concert, jeans and jeans jacket combo, paired with a cap covered in football pins, and a club scarf and shirt. With a thin lit rollie constantly in his mouth, he occasionally pulls a quarter bottle of vodka from the inside pocket of his jacket, takes a glug then puts it back, now that’s a way to enjoy your Saturday.
We love non-league football, we love the stripped back, no nonsense feel of it, but one thing I think would be worth adopting form their multi million, spending pre season playing a Boutan best 11, to boost shirts sales cousins on their lofty perch, is a jumbotron or two.
Ok, perhaps jumbotron is wishful thinking, just a moderately sized screen for replays, because when EMFC equalise, I happened to be writing in my notebook, looking up at the point the ball is sailing over the CFC keeper, Tom has a ‘that was a wicked goal’ look on his face, and the scorer has strolled to the sidelines, very nonchalantly, waiting for his team mates to mob him, knowing full well he has done something great.
Things quickly go from bad to worse for CFC, when in the matter of of about five minutes, the match has done a full 180, and EMFC go ahead. “How have you let that happen?!?” shouts Mr Smirnoff from the sidelines, the home bench is just as livid “do you want anything from this game?”.
With an almost carbon copy attack that resulted in the first goal, CFC seem destined to score again, but can’t, this time the keeper doesn’t have any issues with his gloves. The end finishes with CFC having plenty of the ball, but they are just unable to make the right pass when it matters, Tom’s mind is wandering to thoughts of half time snacks “can you smell those onions?” he asks me, which are wafting on the breeze from the burger van behind one goal. When I ask him if he is getting something, he reacts with real disdain, “no, it’s a healthy season” he snaps.
The ground is a little muted on the half time whistle, most pick themselves up and head to the bar. Those who don’t, like us, stay in the shade of the stand, and start the analysis of the first half, many gesturing to now empty parts of the pitch, claiming players should have been “here” or “there”. Two people passing us, chatting among themselves, are a little less tactically minded. “Game started alright” says one of the other shrugging, the reply from the other is someone who could never be called a fair weather fan “we will watch them, we ain’t going anywhere, they are trying their best”.
For a moment a pleasant hush falls over the ground, only the occasional sound of gulls and shooting practise interrupts, soon this changes when the music starts again, unfortunately now with a more contemporary vibe, boooooo, bring back the music made before 1984.
Tom has insisted we move, and as the new half gets under way, we are standing behind the goal in front of the burger van, the same burger van whose side window is being propped open with a broom, so the person inside can watch the match.
Going by the first half’s, ‘open style’, more goals seemed inevitable, and the Gods don’t disappoint, with CFC pulling things equal early, “quick start” says Tom, he’s not wrong, I think some people might still be getting a drink.
Although we could see the group to our left in the first half had a flag up, we could not see what it was. They have also moved, so we can now read what’s on it ‘Vic Dave Les 3 Old Gits FC Clacton Forever’.
The bad habit of not being able to hold on to a lead is shared by both teams. When the diminutive home number 5, who has been doing such a good job marshaling the EMFC number 9, is culpable of a foul in the box, the referee points to the spot. It’s more scuffed than well hit, one EMFC player can’t bare to look and turns his back, one CFC fan near us reckons “it’s going over, he’ll miss”, but no such luck, it’s 3 – 2 to EMFC.
I’m struggling to keep up, as soon as CFC almost equalize again, this time a lobbed ball over the out rushing keeper, misses the goal, instead hitting the broom holding up the burger van window sending it flying, I once again miss a goal, and by the sounds of it, it makes the first one I missed sound like a pea roller.
This time all I hear is the ping of the ball off the woodwork, look up to see the CFC keeper stranded in no man’s land, and the scorer, the EMFC number 9 now has his second, flying off. People are saying things like “35 yarder” and the ref is manically signalling towards the hysterical away bench for the players to get off the pitch and stay in their area.
Really, a big screen for replays can’t be that expensive, can it?
CFC are in disarray, the 4th goal it would seem has pulled the rug from under them, and another comeback looks unlikely. If it is going to happen, it will have something to do with the tall thin, striding number 11, who has carte blanche on the right wing, his long legs allowing him to continuously leave his marker for dead.
“Sea, sea, sea, siders” for the first time in the match the Bus Shelter comes to life, banging on the back of the stand, they offer their support “come on Clacton”, and they along with the rest of the fans are full of praise when one player performs a goal line clearance and prevents a 5th for EMFC.
I think the sun has got to Tom, “that’s a very pretty pigeon” he says pointing his camera at some nearby wildlife, as the players take a much deserved water break. He is though quite right, it’s much nicer than the one legged, mange covered ones we get at home, but I do wonder if he should have brought a hat.
There is no celebration from the player, the fans it’s a different matter, the Bus Shelter sings once again “come on you whites, come on whites”. CFC’s number 11 has just scored a very classy goal, the EMFC keeper is quick off his line again, gets nowhere near the ball, again, and number 11, takes the ball round him with a deft touch and has an empty net all to himself. Before the keeper can compute what’s happened, he has the ball in his hands and he is running back towards the centre circle.
“Get your fucking heads up” shouts someone from the EMFC bench, again they have let CFC back in the match, when it should be out of sight.
“Sea, sea, seasiders”, it’s now all CFC, they are firmly on the front foot, the EMFC players are asking the ref “how long is left?” and are desperately trying to see this one out.
Football chants have a habit of being a bit generic, swap team A’s name with teams B’s, or swap team C’s colours with teams D’s and you have your average football song. So it’s refreshing when you hear a new one, something a little different, no more so than the rendition of “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” coming from the Bus Shelter, love it.
“Looks bad” says someone, “he’s hurt” says someone else after an EMFC player clashes with a teammate. No theatrics, just a long pause in play as the player in question who came off worst is checked over.
With the break in the match, one of the ‘Gits’ is on the phone, giving an update to someone “not going very well I’m afraid” he tells the person on the other end, such is his pessimism he adds that he “has his boots on” and does a little jog on the spot as he tells them.
Thankfully the downed player is up, he is walking off, albeit assisted, and the restart brings a cry from a home fan “come on you Whites”.
A back post header for the EMFC number 9, gets him his hattrick, and sends him running up the pitch with his ear cupped to the crowd and surely he has put the game to bed, once and for all. The away bench, which unlike the home one is a crowded bustling one, more people than I can count are pacing around, offering their twopence, one tells the team that there is “5 minutes left”. The players know the score and are in no rush to get the ball going out of play “leave it” says one to another, the referee is quick to cotton on and tells them “let’s go gents”.
So that’s the FA Cup over for CFC for this season at least, but with the speed it goes around, it won’t be long until they’re back at it again. EMFC on the other hand are through, and God only knows how far they might get, what I do know though is I felt pretty bad when the hattrick man asked me “tell me you got that goal on video?” and I have to break it to him I don’t, he looks distraught.
Having not checked out the Bus Shelter, before we leave I have a quick nose about, the rest of the ground is pretty empty, a solitary CFC players cleans up the bench and we hear a loud cheer from the away team dressing room. The flags are down now, and it reveals, some graffiti, nothing of the cock and ball kind, but kind words from passing football fans, and an actual bus time table.
Tom could not have put it any better, it’s good to be back.
For more blogs, photos & videos by Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game please join them on Facebook and give their page a “like” – Go to Facebook
Follow the boys on Twitter – Go To Twitter
Follow on Instagram #BeautifulGame15 – Go To Instagram