Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game take in Croydon FC v V.C.D Athletic in a FA Cup Preliminary Round replay sweatily whistling the Colonel Bogey March as they go.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.
In the 1957, Bank Holiday Monday essential viewing, Word War Two epic ‘The Bridge On The River Kwai’ the POW’s of the Japanese prison camp are punished in a particular way. Placed inside a small iron box, they are forced to endure the hot Burmese sun for hours on end.
Fast forward fifty nine years, and although in no way am I comparing my plight to that of those fictional or non fictional, who had to suffer such horrors, but a very, very, minute part of me wonders if I have just had a taste, a flavour, a homeopathic sized portion of what those men had to go through, as I board the carriage of the Jubilee line.
It’s overwhelming, all consuming, stifling and frankly fucking hideous. Within moments the flask of water suspended from my rucksack and the reams of tissue I stole from work to mop my brow, seem woefully insufficient, it’s roasting. My aim for the next forty five minutes is to move as little as possible, the less I move, the less potential there is for creating any unnecessary heat.
There is an occasional breeze, the faintest hint of coolness, but it’s all too fleeting, and is just a bit mean. “They got the heating on?” asks one man to another as they get on at a station two down the line, from where I did. Each new commuter makes the same face, a ‘wow, fucking hell’ face, it’s an all body reaction to the oppressive temperature. Many reach for anything they can, a newspaper, a magazine, to fan themselves.
Standing among the dripping suit wearing souls at Canada Water waiting for Tom, once again I’m early, that’s three times in a row, but he’s even earlier, darn it! Not only is he punctual, he is effortlessly slaloming between people, making his way towards me along the platform in his denim shorts and white polo top. Not only is he here before me, no gloating for me this week, he is suitably dressed for once, and is pulling it off with aplomb.
“Hot” is his first and only word to me. After affirming the blooming obvious, he has the cheek to moan that I’m not early enough, on the train he arrived on he “had a seat” and “it was empty”. The scene now, is similar to the platform at a Japanese train station, and we wait anxiously for the men with shovers to cram us all on.
Tom tries to comfort me, reassuring me that “at least it’s got aircon”, but it’s still cosy, and I find myself wedged between another large fellow and a bright orange pole, like a reluctant and overweight stripper. Thankfully the journey isn’t long, and for everyone’s sake the man behind me doesn’t have a handful of $1 bills.
Now south of the river, the blue sky of the north, has been replaced with a grey and overcast one, but guess what, it’s still hot.
I’m not going to pretend I can remember much about the the next fifteen minutes or so of my life, as the hunt for the bus stop, turns into a hunt for the ground, and I have to drag myself, one step at a time, towards the football. What I can recall aren’t what I would class as memories per se, I think my brain is too sweaty to create and store basic things like memories, but they’re more of a hazy waft, like a few hours after waking up, and you half remember a bit of a dream from the night before. I think we passed a Crystal Palace pub claiming to be the ‘Home of the Eagles’ with a red and blue facade and same coloured flags hanging under window boxes, a restaurant called Full Belly’s, and I’m sure Tom reminded me that the following day was a religious holiday for him, ‘National Burger Day’, which he observes like you and I do Christmas.
Tom is of course chipper, asking himself out loud “what will tonight’s dinner be?” and like a bloodhound sniffs the air when he thinks he can smell fish and chips, but his senses are failing him tonight, he “doesn’t know where it’s coming from”. It’s coming from ‘Tony’s SUP”A”FRY’, Tony’s fish and chips, why are you concerned with such things? I can barely stand.
Looking to the general public like someone who could benefit from a carer, I stumble along the pavement, stopping at every lamp post to take pictures of the abundant Holmesdale Fanatics stickers, drawing out our journey. When we do though eventually, somehow, arrive at the entrance to the Croydon Sports Arena, it looks remarkably like a building site.
An older green sign, with missing letters points towards a much newer one which at least spells out in full our destination, and confirms that we are in the right place despite the scaffolding alluding to otherwise.
It would be difficult to miss the neon pink entrance, with the name of the venue in large metallic letters adjacent to it. As we get closer it becomes apparent, that this isn’t just a football ground, it’s an athletics stadium, which Tom confirms, when Tom blurts out “running track”, two words no football fan really ever wants to hear, ask a West Ham supporter.
A blue single storey building is doing an understated impression of Norman Bates’s home on a small hill, overlooking the pitch. On closer inspection and once we have traversed the zigzagging pathway with it’s blue balustrade, a small sign on the front reads “Welcome To Croydon FC” flanked by two images of the clubs crest. Although the sign has ‘welcomed’ us, and the double doors have been pinned open, what is beyond is not exactly unwelcoming, but it’s not perhaps what you would expect.
I call out, “hello”, like someone entering a suspicious looking house in a 90’s slasher movie, I wait for the wind to pick up, slamming the door behind me, and prepare myself for my untimely demise, which may well involve my guts ending up on the floor. Tom stays in the doorway, quivering like Shaggy, “I think it’s the wrong place” he says, as I venture forward. The large sports hall is empty, only the mats for an upcoming Yoga session litter the floor, all but one door and the far end is locked.
Tom is now inside, tentatively following me, a few steps behind. As we get closer to the open door I can hear the faint hum of a large TV, which I can see through the doorway hanging on the wall, a fan whirls away and a couple on a large blue sofa look up, and then turn back to the TV.
The club bar, or ‘Blue Room’ is what the mysterious place at the back of the hall turns out to be, and not the haunt of a Scooby Doo villain. It’s floor to ceiling Croydon FC (CFC), a veritable shrine, it’s as if it’s been decorated by a football obsessed twelve year old. Every inch is covered with flags, scarves, pictures and pennants, it’s wonderful, what every clubhouse or bar should be like, along with the customary fruit machines, it’s got everything you could want. A large all blue Union Jack hangs proudly with ‘Croydon FC’ written across it.
Tom was however half right, we are not in the right place, for the way in that is, a pint yes, but football no. So under instruction we are told to head back down the slope to the flash entrance we had passed.
“Who fancies a go at the golden goal?” asks a man clutching a sandwich bag filled with folded white pieces of paper, within about a nano second of getting in. You don’t have to ask me twice, I pay, make my choices and get told not to “lose it”.
There is clearly a model, a standard blueprint for athletics stadiums, the Croydon Sports Arena, is indiscernible, except for a few differences, like the ping pong table trackside, to the few we have been to before, the same model stretching from Tower Hamlets to TeBe.
One large covered stand dominates, elevated so people can get a view of the far side of the track, and then there’s a lot of space, especially between where you are expected to watch from, and the action in the middle. Although there are three covered standing terraces on the other side, there is also a hammer cage behind one goal, and a shot put circle behind the other, athletics first, football second, which is confirmed by Suniel a club official, who tells us that the club are only able to play on Saturday, Mondays and Wednesdays, so not to clash with the Croydon Harriers meets.
Suniel also breaks it to us that the “tea bar, is currently closed” no one it seems was “expecting a replay”, so the woman who runs it, is running late, due a prior engagement. This is not what Tom wanted to hear, what will he eat, this is also not what another supporter was expecting, turning the corner to see it closed, looking horrified, then checking his watch on his wrist, with a ‘surely it should be open by now’ expression on his face.
The ground is particularly quiet, other than CFC’s opposition, V.C.D. Athletic FC (VCD) warming up, and the occasional screech of the passing trams which appear, and then disappear again behind the fence on the opposite side, which explains CFC’s nickname ‘The Trams’ and is about the only thing I knew about Croydon as a place, is that they have them, it’s very calm, very still.
When Tom mentions that there is “no music” playing, which he thinks might be a “first”, and we have come to love the eclectic mix of non league tunes we hear, so it’s a shame not to be able to sing along with a bit of Golden Earring, except for the faint murmur of the dressing room hip hop, which seems to be the music of choice for most changing rooms, you could hear a pin drop.
It has become more than apparent to us, that the ‘non league world’ is a small one. We have definitely
started to recognize the same faces, some we exchange a smile or a handshake with. Tonight is no different, and we have a catch up with someone we met last season at the beginning of our ‘road to Wembley’, Billy from Erith Town FC. He however is here with ulterior motives, I’m sure he would rather be stuck at home in front of the open fridge, like the rest of us, but he is here on a clandestine mission. Erith are CFC’s next opponents and he is under instruction from his chairman to “take a notepad”, as he wants to know about every area of the team.
Tom is praying the tea bar opens soon, his small ration of Haribo is dwindling, and when it finally does, he is not the only one eager for a cuppa or something in a bread roll. His spider senses are quickly tingling at the sound emanating from the front of the queue, “does that sound like hotdogs?” he ask me, I give up.
“Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3” splutters the tannoy, broadcasting Suniel’s gentle voice around the ground. Once he confirms that it works, he offers out a “good evening everybody” and gets on with reading out the team sheet, the same team sheet that has been pinned to a nearby door, and has caused a bit of a scrum among those who wish to amend their programs. To avoid getting a whack in the face, every so often a bang comes from the opposite side, alerting those outside that someone inside is trying to come out, and wants to avoid an accident. He struggles with the pronunciation of a few names, but finishes off like a pro, in his methodical voice, none of the razzmatazz of QPR, but different strokes and all that.
“Yes please gents” shouts the referee’s assistant, after giving one of the changing room doors a good thump. His prompt results in a mighty roar from one team, who are just about to appear from the base of the main stand, walk up the short makeshift tunnel, and meet the referee who is waiting, fiddling with a ball.
Suniel’s subtle tones once again hopes that everyone will “enjoy the game”. From the stand fans of each team give a shout of support, “come on Vickers”, “come on you Blues”, “come on you Trams”.
Curiously from behind us, a man rings a small hand held bell, moments after the referee has blown his whistle. I join what is not a half bad turnout in the stand, climbing the few steps and picking the nearest empty yellow seat to plonk myself in, there is already a good murmur and the sound of chatting among fans fills the air.
Those like Tom who are not sitting are watching the women at the back of the tea bar feverishly chop onions, as quite the crowd has now formed in anticipation of the food to come.
The step difference, VCD are one above CFC, is apparent quite quickly, with not even fifteen minutes of the game gone the visitors have hit the post and have gone ahead, via the penalty spot. As nice an evening it is, it looks as though it might be a long and hard one for the home team.
“First time!” demands a fan from the stands, as CFC are presented with an opportunity to get back into the game, with just the keeper to beat, and a couple of VCD defenders in hot pursuit, the attacker takes the advice of the fan, but the VCD keeper, in my favourite shade of Buffon pink, saves well.
An outside of the boot flick finish sees VCD extend their lead, and compounds CFC’s challenge. “No not another one” says a CFC supporter next to us, sadly it is. The scorer does the kind of celebration which must send a shudder down his managers spine, a very acrobatic, 8.6 scoring front flip, which I’m sure if not pulled off correctly could result in a funny landing, a tweaked knee, and a month on the sidelines.
The VCD bench wants the players to play on as if it’s “0 – 0” and for them not to “settle on this” but unless for a monumental meltdown, I have the feeling that this is wrapped up well before half time.
Tom finally returns, having watched both goals on the half turn in the queue for the tea bar, peering over the cover of the pole vault mat, which ever so slightly obscured his view. Although he almost didn’t make it back to his seat with the food he just bought, “I almost dropped it” he tells me, he is very impressed, and thinks his burger might even have “mozzarella on it”, very fancy.
A combination of the weather and the running track, does make us both feel as if we are in fact in some corner of the Mediterranean, some Greek island, but that is all brought crashing back to earth when another tram passes, and lets off its ear piercing whine.
VCD think they have scored a third, but it’s ruled offside. One CFC fan wants good value from his night out, “come on Trams, get in the game, I want at least two hours for my money”. This is the same fan, who has been dishing out a booming running commentary from the back of the stand, for most of the match so far, his own voice louder than the tannoy, they should have got him to read out the teams.
CFC are not in this, are second to everything, and are probably a bit pleased to hear the halftime whistle. A whistle that doesn’t follow any added on time, which is noticed by one fastidious timekeeper nearby “he didn’t play any” he says, perhaps an act of kindness from the man in charge.
Not all is lost though for CFC if they can just get their number 11 more involved, he is rapid, scary fast, he should be on the track not the pitch, a Tokyo 2020 Olympian in our midst. When chasing the ball into the corner towards the end of the half, what seems a bit of lost cause, one VCD defender has a considerable head start on him, he quickly eats up the ground, overtakes him and pinches the ball, definitely an asset they should try and exploit in the second half.
The players douse themselves with water as they leave the pitch, even though the sun has all but gone, it’s still bloody warm. A much welcomed breeze kicks up, Tom’s appreciation of it, that its “nice”, is grossly under playing it, it’s magical.
Whilst on the move to the opposite side on the running track for the second half, Suniel is back, once again sounding very far away, and is the bearer of bad news, “12 minutes” he confirms as the golden goal winning time, so we won’t be pocketing the “£40”. Someone asks why the attendance has not been announced, “we’re still counting” says a man in what looks like a CFC tie, must be a bumper crowd.
We’re still wandering along the inside bend of our first 200 when the game gets back underway. Tom plonks himself on the steeplechase hurdle, the perfect seat, but only after I have convinced him that trying to clear the water jump would be an error.
CFC seem a different team after the break, and get an early chance to stake a claim in the match, after a fizzing ball from the wing should have resulted in a goal, but it looks like the man in the box just didn’t think it was going to reach him, “make a fist of is Croydon” demands someone loudly from the stand, that we can hear.
“Eight drops then it stopped” says Tom after some big dollop, monster rain falls briefly, we even hear a rumble in the distance but are not sure if it’s thunder or the imminent arrival of a tram, that are now only a few feet behind us.
Another boom, but this is neither Mother Nature or the local public transport, but a heavy duty block in the CFC six yard box, that prevents the VCD third, and lucky for them it did, because not long after CFC score, 2 – 1.
It’s just about the most simple of goals anyone can score, a mighty hoof from the keeper, who we both commented during the warm up, that he had an atomic weapon of a kick. The attacker gambles on the defender letting it bounce, which he does, the VCD keeper is lost in no man’s land, and the attacker pokes it in.
While VCD berate their man in goal, the scorer has picked up the ball out the back of the net, and is running towards the centre circle, placing the ball on the spot.
VCD now look shaky at the back, CFC number 9 is throwing his weight around and number 11 is starting to make inroads. The home bench demands they are not to “switch off”, the away bench can see that they are under the cosh, and they shore up the defenses, “keep digging in” says someone, who perhaps has watched one too many episodes of Band of Brothers.
The advice from Captain Winters on the sidelines has clearly paid off for VCD, because not only do they think they have got a third, again, which is chalked off, again, with five minutes left, the precise moment that CFC should be plugging away with everything they can, they are now back on top.
One CFC player demands “one last push”, is there a special offer on World War Two films no one has told me about?
As it inevitably always does in the dying moments of most matches, a last and golden chance, will come, one side of the post or bar and its glory, the other, defeat. Such an opportunity falls at the back post, a free header, but it’s wide. Some players have their heads in hands, everyone’s attention is on the player who failed to score, a ‘how did you miss that’ look in their eyes.
One VCD player asks the referee how long is left and is told “2 minutes”, when the whistle is blown for full time, another VCD player lets out a mighty “yesss”, many CFC players sink to their knees, or down onto their haunches then onto their backs. Many on the victorious side, show good sportsman ship, wishing those they have conquered, “all the best for the rest of the season”.
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