Two Men In Search of The Beautiful Game encounter deju vu among the artisan crispbreads and bibs of East London.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.

Normally hidden behind a row of terraced houses, in a leafy suburb somewhere, secluded from the outside world by a line of trees, scruffy hedge or a crumbling wall, your average non league football ground is not always completely obvious. Yes the floodlights are a good giveaway, but it’s not like they are usually dominating the local landscape, only once you have traversed a gravel drive, or slipped between two terraced houses, does the small turnstile and seen better days sign tell you, that you have arrived. Very rarely are they a stones throw from the financial heart of a nation, under the flight path of a major airport, or have one of London’s busiest train lines, just over the fence.

Once I have made the short journey from east to west, not on a ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ hot train, but still a warm one, cheek to jowl with some Italian tourists and a tutting woman in a pencil skirt, overwhelmed with envy towards the woman with an electric hand fan. I am however thankful that I don’t have to tackle the human obstacle course, that is one commuter fast asleep, almost horizontal in his seat, with his legs in the aisle.

The Mile End Stadium, tonight’s destination, is not perhaps a ground for those looking for character, you will be hard pressed to flood your Instagram account, with pretty pictures of paint flaking from a wooden stand, or the backdrop of a ruined castle overlooking the pitch, but nonetheless it has its own unique qualities.

From our experience, although I’m sure someone more learned may well be able to offer some other examples, but from the grounds we have been to, which is not inconsiderable, I’m not sure you could go to one, where you feel quite so slap bang in the middle of things. The planes thundering overhead to City airport, the frequent rattling of trains on the nearby viaduct or the imposing monolith that is Canary Wharf, hogging the skyline, all let you know you are in the thick of it.

Tom of course being the trendy East Londonite that he is, we are on his patch tonight, doesn’t have to concern himself with public transport, he can hop on board his pea green Vespa, sans Quadrophenia add ons, and nip from home to the ground in no time at all.

When I call him, on the short walk from the station, he is “on the canal”, enjoying an artisan crispbread and bulgerwheat shot no doubt, and tells me he will meet me in “the stand”. I first though have to conquer a maze of five a side pitches, lucky for me, it’s a maze I have the map to, because we have been here before, so I’m not distracted by the shouts of “bibs on” and “nice effort” or when one man asks me to play because they are a “man down”. I’m flattered he asked, knowing full well, I was the last of last resorts, so I don’t let it go to my head.

We are mega early, we are so early, there are so few signs of life, except for the odd person doing laps of the athletics track, that I do wonder if I have got the days wrong.

25-img_20160907_192019 That’s right I said athletics track, and you are also right that’s two now already this season. For all you stat heads out there, that’s 50% of the games we have been to, but it’s no surprise this time like it was at Croydon, like I said, we have been here before, keep up. In fact it’s so familiar, there is a heavy accent of deja vous, as we take a seat, or I should say, we take a wooden bench in the one and only stand, in the same place that we did, over a year before.

March 2015 to be precise, was when we spent a chilly evening here, this evening is quite the opposite, late summer with clear skies. It was the fourth game of our venture, and the first since Tom had lost his Dad, and it feels like a lot of water has passed under the bridge since. Although we had decided to try and see at least every team once, before starting to repeat ourselves, the fact is today we are going to see two completely different teams and enough time has passed, so we both agreed to a second visit to E3.

Tower Hamlets FC were the ‘home’ team that time. Although it’s still an Essex Senior League match tonight, the ‘home’ team is Sporting Bengal United FC (SBU), who are taking on the equally exotic sounding London Bari FC (LB), in an East London derby. I think you would be hard pressed to find another example of a match up in the UK, that could boast two clubs, with quite the same international flavour as this one. Do you think in the German 5th tier, you can watch, Hati Academical Vs Bayern Norwich FC?

“Hope there are a few fans” says Tom, as it’s still just us and the runners and very little else. He also reminds himself that last time, “they didn’t have a food stand” here, and he left “starving”, so fingers crossed he has something in his camera bag, to get him through, or I’m not going to hear the end of it.

We are however both in luck, first I spot a man in a red SBU training top, signifying I hope that there is a game on, and even if Tom can’t get a burger, I do see someone carrying a small storage box full of what looks like tea and mugs and a white kettle, so he might at least be able to get a cuppa.

It’s the away team out first to warm up, their coach isn’t wasting any time, “lets go, lets go, lets go”, he barks at his sluggish players. SBU appear what feels a lot later, but are quickly into their drills, as is the referee and his assistants, who take to the track, for a leisurely jog to prepare themselves.

In the small area between the changing rooms, at the base of the single stand, the two referee assistants are doing their best to get the teams moving, but are not having much joy, and we have already missed the kick off time, “19:46” says the referee in a curt loud voice. A couple more bangs, followed by “ready lads” and a “let’s go fellas” does little to draw either team from the comfort of the dressing room. A “come on lads PLEASE” and a loud blast of his whistle, is followed by a muffled din from behind the door of each changing room, and the players start to appear.

Once through the metal barriers, the kind of which you might see on the road side at the marathon, that we watched a man 45 minutes earlier put in to place, they are a little rudimentary, but do the job that’s required, guiding the players across the red track, on to the pitch, and each into a huddle. Both teams break from the pre match conflab, almost at the same time, one shouting “come on Sporting”, the other, “Bari”. Tom has had his hopes answered, “not a bad turn out” he says, as we take up our positions in the stand, amongst a not too shabby attendance.

“That’s a request number” says Tom after he notices a SBU player is wearing number 55. Non league normally keeps to the age old tradition of one to eleven, but it looks like we might have a ‘Zamorano’ situation on our hands and there is a plus sign between each 5, because the 10 shirt was taken.


You are hard pushed to make out the dugouts on the far side of the pitch, the substitutes and staff reduced to mere specs. The elevated seats in the stand, do their best to make good of a bad situation, and give us a reasonable vantage point of what is a pretty hectic, end to end game.

Both teams are getting chances, SBU adopting the cultured tactic of a ‘big hoof up field’, and almost catch out LB at the back, however the forward can’t control the ball, and the calls for a “first time” shot from the supporters behind us, fall on deaf ears, when he does eventually get the ball out from his feet, and take a shot, it’s saved, impressing those around us, “good reactions”.

It’s not all long ball, LB go through neatly, only for the SBU keeper smothering the ball and getting a big cheer from the whole stand. Not long after his opposite number is back at it, a nice build up from SBU is kept out once again, and the supporters are appreciative of the manner in which they fashioned their chance, “nice play”. One SBU fans feels a goal for his side is imminent, as long as they keep plugging away, “they’re knocking, they’re knocking”, he says.

Where both teams are keen to go forward, pacy and with a tricky player or two each, defending on the other hand seems a bit of an afterthought. LB’s keeper on more than more occasion is forced to releasing a banshee like scream, barracking his team mates.

It’s not a huge shock when SBU go ahead, 1 – 0, it’s a bit unfortunate on the high pitched keeper, a deflection off his own player, sends the ball the opposite way, to what he was expecting, leaving him a little stranded. This concludes a spell for the LB keeper, who Tom delicately suggests “is a bit all over the place”. His attempt at a Neuer ‘sweeper keeper’ impression fails a little, and almost results in a goal, he is also maybe a little hasty off his line again, and can only watch the ball sail over his head, after an audacious chip, which one person thinks is going in, “he’s done it” only for it to crash off the crossbar, and go wide.

SBU are all out attack, and each attempt on goal is preceded with a comment from the guy behind us, a bit like when I watch Spurs and every time the opposition get near our box I say “goal”, a kind of defence mechanism, to protect myself against the distress of conceding. “It’s a goal” he says, but it’s not this time, it’s wide.

Such was the on field action, I had not noticed we were sitting in darkness, until someone turned the lights on in the stand. Conveniently for a struggling blogger, a ‘lights on’ metaphor nicely segways into the fact that LB, have found a late surge, its like someone has turned their lights on too, do you see that I did there? and they get a few late chances. They flash a shot across the goalmouth, but their luck is summed up, when one attempt hits his own teammate in the face, instead of the back of net.


“They’re coming mate” says an SBU fan up against the railing, as the players make their way off. A hush falls over the ground, which is only disturbed by a shout from the 5 a side pitches or the passing of a police car. When the players re-emerge after their orange segments, SBU seem out “really early” to Tom, LB are a way behind them, but no-one seems in rush, there is a definite laid back ethos here tonight, quite the opposite from the inner city bustle that surrounds us.

Maybe a lack of energy, maybe a flying boot or crashing tea cup from the manger, but the start of the new half doesn’t have any of the buccaneer, gung ho, Ossie Ardiles school of management about it, and takes a while to get going, but when it does, it might go down as one of the most entertaining we will see all season.

When LB are saved by the thickness of the cross bar from going further behind, after a sweetly hit free kick bounces off it, the match seems back on script, and a second goal for the home side seems only moments away, until, well, I think Tom put it the best, “I did not see that coming”.

He’s quite right, because one LB player has just dinked the ball over the SBU keeper and the LB keeper is sprinting towards the halfway line, a blur of neon orange, screaming his shrill war cry, “same again, same again”.

There is quite the contrast between the home and away benches. SBU have quite the “entourage” as Tom puts it, their dugout is surrounded, and at anyone time there are at least three people in the technical area. The main man for them in his bright white baseball cap, is demanding, like a character from Mortal Combat, that his team “finish them”. They should be out of sight by now, and when his keeper almost fumbled the ball into the back of his own goal, he let’s out a relieved, “fuck sake”.

LB on the other hand have two relatively calm guys, dishing out the advice, the advice which if you are a Fifa player would be, triangle + L1, for those not initiated in the world of computerised football, that’s a ball over the top, and your fastest player running from deep, but they can’t quite get the timing right, and are racking up the off sides.

“Its coming” shouts the LB keeper, and I sense it too, I think everyone can sense it, a bit of a back against the wall smash and grab, seems to be on the cards. The SBU bench can definitely sense it, but their instructions might be giving the players a bit of a mixed message. “Relax, you’re panicking” says one coach, doing the hands out flat in front of him, palms down, up and down ‘chill the fuck out’ motion managers and coaches do, I can’t though make out if he is also doing the overly exaggerated, mouthed, but totally silent “calm down”, which normally accompanies it, this is however somewhat contradicted by the man next to him demanding the players are “quicker”.

It’s fair to say one is subjected to hearing all sorts of things at football, at any level, some funny, some nasty, some just outright weird, but one thing one of the LB coaches says, in what I think is a French or maybe Italian accent, or maybe he’s from Dalston, and I’m an idiot, is so wonderful. His defender has come up against a player who likes a step over or six, and from the edge of the pitch he guides him, “stand him up” he shouts, nothing that poetic about that, bog standard terminology, however what he says next is worthy of a t-shirt, mural or the title of a bad 00’s movie, “let him dance”. When the attacker has been suitably stopped, he adds one last thing, “good defending”.

Always keen to try and keep impartial it can sometimes be hard not to get wrapped up in one team’s efforts, and LB’s fighting spirit, means I have ever so slightly started to lean towards them. It is though under my breath, I’m not lighting any flares or chanting their name, that I say “shame” when SPU go 2 – 1 ahead, and I get the feeling the football Gods might have given us all the romance they feel fit.


The home team’s orders are simple “4 minutes, keep it compact”.

Maybe the distance from the small perspex bench to the pitch was the problem, maybe the players just weren’t listening, maybe they were still reveling in going ahead, but I’m not sure the message got across.

Once again the contrast between both technical areas is vast, “come on” screams the SPU coach as his team have conspired to ruin his evening, conceding once again to make it 2 – 2. On his knees, head down, he pounds the turf, he is not far off going full ‘Platoon’. The LB bench is a whole other story, both of them are not far off dancing themselves, and it’s their turn to tell their team to be “relaxed” and “compact”.

The games end is as frantic as you might expect, LB have a big shout for a penalty waved away, SBU have one last shot, but it comes to nothing, Tom is concerned for the SBU coach in the baseball cap who he thinks is about to “blow a fuse”. The referee saves him, calling things to an end with a blow of his whistle just before the LB keepers wayward, shanked goal kick, reaches terra firma, and Tom is understated as ever in his appraisal of tonight’s entertainment, “good game, what an end”.

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