After a short hiatus Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game resume their journey along the highways and byways of Britain’s non-league circuit.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.
Because of our jet set lives, think of us as the Dan Bilzerian’s of the blogging world if you will, but without the guns, women, jets, strange thin legs or colossal level of douchiness and a bout of illness, Tom could not get out of bed for nearly a week, it’s been over a month since our last match.
In the past four weeks, autumn has turned to winter, I will resist the obvious Game of Thrones reference, and hot sweaty unbearable tubes trains of the early season, have been replaced instead with having to sit next to a chap who nigh on sniffs two times a minute, every minute, for thirty minutes on the train to meet Tom. I wonder if he keeps it up, he might inhale his septum, and will end up looking like an ex-Eastenders cast member.
I try and snooze, I try and block out the nasally one, but a combination of Sir Snorts-A-Lot, people banging into me and the drivers announcements about people keeping “away from the doors”, which sound like Inspector Clouseau, is a fruitless task, so I stare at the flank of a woman reading a Kindle.
Tuesday is very much match day for the majority of the non league teams, there are a few exceptions, for example, FC United of Manchester play on a Friday if Manchester City are at home on a Saturday, and those who are lodgers, such as Sporting Bengal United or Grays Athletic get bumped to Wednesday, because the landlords get priority, or there are those whose ground is also an athletics track, like Croydon FC, where the race meets get top billing.
These exceptions are running out, we have near enough seen all of the teams, in London at least, that have broken from the norm for one reason or another, and play on a Wednesday, our options are now getting a little thin on the ground. Our rigid Wednesday night only requirement, is because it’s Tom’s day off. Any other evening he is crimping, jelling, undercutting and beard waxing East London’s finest, until gone 20:00, so for the time being it’s Wednesday or the highway.
Out east, a short hop from Stratford, where I meet Tom on a packed platform, he makes himself known in the crowd, by doing his best Deli Alli wave, just as our intended train pulls out, there is thankfully a team we haven’t seen before, who are another example of the rebel, nonconformist, Tuesday rejecters, but after a bit of research I think this is probably not because of some ideological hatred of Tuesday’s, however something to do with the the fact it’s another team plying their trade at an athletics stadium, but keep that between ourselves, I haven’t told Tom yet, he’s not a fan.
At Seven Kings station, we climb the stairs to the exit, trying to avoid the bloke who has just got caught in the barriers, trying to fair dodge. Tom who is always well researched, asks me “what level?” are the team we are going to watch, “Essex Senior League” I reply, “our good old favourite” he says with a smile, and he is quite right, the ESL has been a good staple of our non-league exploits, and very rarely disappoints.
Opposite the Cauliflower pub, which might just be one of the most genteel pub names ever, not a mention of a decapitated royal or weapon of war, maybe it’s the start of a new trend, goodbye ‘Hope & Anchor’, hello ‘The Nice Baby Smell Inn’, a simple sign, high on a lamp post, points to Ilford FC (IFC) and Ilford AC. The AC of the latter stands for ‘Athletics Club’, but even though he is standing there taking a picture of it, Tom hasn’t cottoned on, he says nothing, perhaps his still slightly man flu brain, is not computing it, but I don’t take the chance of it being a shock, he has been ill after all, so I tell him, and he replies with little less than a grunt.
“Looks a bit swanky” says Tom, hopefully over the disappointment of the layout of tonight’s venue. There is no sign of a stadium and only a Clapton Ultras sticker gives us some confidence the plain little sign is sending us in the right direction, but for the time being all I can see is the Isaac Newton Academy. It does cross my mind as we make our way through the sparkling new build, if one of Britain’s eminent Natural Philosopher’s was from Ilford, hence the name? Anyway, I can’t see any floodlights, which are normally the biggest give away, but carry on. When we eventually spot a set of black iron gates, with an unlit sign, “welcome to Ilford Sports Ground” next to them, Tom feels a lot more confident, “this looks a bit more footbally”.
Having been to a ground next to a crematorium, it’s not remotely shocking when we pass a graveyard, before finally spotting the red of the track, and the orange glow of the lights, which make you look like someone from Geordie Shore.
Not long into the ground, and someone who turns out to be the IFC manager, Alan Fenn, flies out of the blue tarpaulin lined fences pinched from a building site tunnel, in a black baseball cap, and greets us both on the running track, with a firm handshake. He is quick to recommend the clubs catering, which is served from a small hatch, just past the turnstiles. He gives it a ringing endorsement, “gorgeous grub”, he tells us, it’s “Caribbean food”, he explains. Something a bit different from your normal cash and carry burger, with raw onions.
I could point you in the direction of the previous blogs we have done when we have been to athletics stadiums, to give you an idea of the set up, but that would be a bit lazy, so a quick checklist should suffice, as once again there is no stand or feature of much note, except the long, sweeping concrete steps on one bend of the track, that would be perfect if they were packed with a few thousands flag waving fans, maybe one day.
Hammer net *tick*
Long jump *tick*
The main stand has “Welcome to Ilford” across its front, opposite is the only other covered section behind the dugouts, which as Tom puts it look like they are made up of old “conservatories”. Two flags hang in the small shed, but neither with any writing on them, one would expect something, but they are blank, just two standard flags, fluttering away.
“Its fucking cold isn’t it” says a IFC player, with his hands tucked into the sleeves of his sweatshirt, like you did when you were a kid, and you’d forgotten your gloves. The officials, still suited and booted wander the pitch, and finally a little life is breathed into the stadium, which up till now had been almost silent, as both teams warm up. One late comer doesn’t know what his teammates are going on about, “it’s not that cold” he says, but quickly changes his mind, “it’s fucking cold”.
We have learned that it’s only in the lower leagues, towards the base of the towering football pyramid we all invest so much time in, that you find people involved with clubs, mucking in, wherever and whenever they are needed. Nowhere more is this on show than at IFC, and by the person who is on the turnstile, Michael. When we meet, he is having to repeat the cost of entry to an old chap, who was either balking at the price, or perhaps is a bit hard of hearing.
Between 1979 and 1986 IFC did not exist, “8 years disappeared” says Michael in a slightly mournful tone. Just another club on the scrap heap, a familiar story of bad investments, dubious ownership and the tax man, meant the club went under. After much petitioning of the local council, along with his father, they reformed the club. He though, as he puts it, is the “last one left” of those who helped resurrect the club. In the 30 year anniversary since their reform, they are attempting to get promoted, after relegation from the Ryman League North last season, never a dull moment at the Cricklefield.
Waiting in the players tunnel alone, with only the customary loud hip hop coming from both changing rooms for company, not long before kick off, it is clear it’s not just football tonight, as I have to keep my wits about me, a bunch of full gi wearing, mini ninjas are on the prowl, making their way to Karate class.
The fire hydrant being used to prop open the door of the IFC changing room is moved, allowing it to close. The music is still playing, but after a loud “come on boys”, so loud, I can hear it over the music, which is being played at such a volume, it’s making the speakers make that noise they do when they aren’t up to scratch, suddenly goes off. Tonight’s substitutes make their exit, as they do they offer up their encouragement to the players staying behind, “get it done”.
One is not so lucky, handed the water bottles, he is instructed by one coach, “to do the honours down the kitchen”. “For fucks sake, where’s the kitchen?” he asks, clacking down the hallway in studs, hands full, and annoyed at himself I’m sure, for not being that little bit quicker leaving.
Thinking I can’t see him, standing at the bottom of the steps waiting for the players to arrive, me still at the start of the makeshift tunnel, waiting for the pre-match talking to finish, and for the players to emerge, Tom produces from his bag, for the first time this season, one of the most heinous football related accessories, the snood. He slips it on, and tucks it into his shirt.
Still waiting, looking a little bit like a lurker, a star struck fan waiting at the stage door of a West End musical, I can hear the muffled instructions coming to an end in the home dressing room. After telling the players who is doing what as far as corners and free kicks are concerned, the manager has the last word, “stick to that, 3 points”.
When the bell goes, which I question the need for, I don’t think I have ever seen a team appear on it, and it always takes a couple of bangs on the door, and a couple of shouts from the linesman, to get the teams out. Lined up shoulder to shoulder along the narrow entrance to the pitch, the players from each side make their intentions clear, “come on Manor” shouts one of IFC’s opposition from Eton Manor FC (EM). “Come on Ilford, this is our house” shouts one of the IFC centurions, each one it seems a towering 500 extra.
Our slightly unorthodox choice for where to watch the the first half, because of artistic reasons I’m told, ask Tom, which I think is the umpires platform, means we are caught a little unaware by the early IFC goal. “Great fucking ball” says the scorer, as he is joined by the player responsible for the pass, and the rest of his celebrating teammates. Tom or the ‘Non League Oracle’ confirms an inkling he had earlier in the evening, “told you it would be high scoring’, not sure an early goal guarantees its going to be high scoring, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt for now.
He wasn’t wrong, he rarely is, except for his earlier fashion choice, as EM go level after a header from a corner, and the construction of Toms Grecian temple will start in the morning. “Where are we?” bellows one of the members of the IFC coaching team, who are super vocal, “tighten up!” one demands after they nearly concede again.
Taking time off from defeating the Viet Kong, small minded yocals in a midwest American town or some Burmese fundamentalist, “Rambo” is playing for IFC in the 11 shirt, and is proving problematic for the EM defence.
If Danny Dyer happened to be here, I think he would describe some of the tackles as a bit “tasty”, Tom describes one as “clattering”, not perhaps a word in Mr Dyer’s vocab, but I might be doing him a disservice, when the EM keeper is smashed mid air. When two away players “sandwich” one home player, in a non league ploughmans, each of us take a short intake of breath, and not long after Tom can only mutter two words, “Fifa tackle” when one player flies in on another.
With half time fast approaching, Tom’s thoughts start to wander as they do, normally away from the football, and south towards his stomach. The initial thought of Caribbean food, had not been so appealing, only because of his recent illness, and nothing else, I think he was thinking of something a little simpler, but his mind seems to have changed over the course of forty five minutes in the cold, and now he flat out wants some “jerk chicken” but is not sure it’s on offer, “I couldn’t see it on the menu”.
The first half comes to the end on a personal high for Tom, as the ‘cool name’ quota is upped, after we hear there is an IFC player called DJ and when he realises there is one called “Reko, as well”, well you would have thought all his Christmases had come at once. For the home team the half ends on a bit of a low, after such a strong start they go in a goal behind, with EM getting their second just before the whistle, “fuck sake” shouts an IFC coach from the sidelines.
As the seconds count down, the EM keeper is perceived let’s say, to be ‘taking an age to do anything, to ensure his team go in on top’. This is is not lost on one home player, who asks the referee, if the man in goal is having a “bit of a giggle?”
I take up one of the blue plastic seats in the main stand as Tom heads for tea. One man leafs through the programme, as quiet descends on the ground once again, the only noise is coming from a small group of ground hoppers, who are digesting the first half, and sharing anecdotes from recent games, “the bar is tiny, because the clubhouse burnt down”.
“Jerk chicken and tea” is Tom’s combo of choice, not the usual accompaniment to the West Indian staple, but he will always be his own man. He comes into view, concentrating heavily on not spilling his cuppa, about the same time the players return. “It’s good” the chicken that is, he tells me with half of it in his mouth. He is yet to share his thoughts on the tea, he does though tell me he had to “make it” himself. Handed a cup by the woman at the tea bar, she told him, gesturing, that the “hot water and milk, is over there”.
What Tom says next might shock some, it certainly shocked me. After polishing off his half time snack, he comes out with a bold statement “it was really good, might have beat the dumplings” WOW! For those who didn’t join us for our recent visit to Dulwich Hamlet, firstly, where were you? But secondly you will not know, that the dumplings on offer at Champion Hill were the finest thing Tom has ever eaten at a football match, the zenith of his culinary exploration of lower league football, and he has eaten a lot.
Whatever rocket Alan Fenn put up his players at half time, has worked, IFC have come out of the traps flying, hitting the frame of the goal early on, and it’s only the nearly decapitated head of one EM player, which stops a thunderous goal bound shot from going in, not that he knew much about it, but he most definitely prevented a certain goal. Not that chances are only reserved for the home team, EM not long after go up the other end and fizz an attempt just wide, “nice shot” comments an impressed fan in the stand.
“Let’s go again, we almost had it a minute ago” says an IFC player, the new found confidence, inspires someone in the flag covered stand opposite to start a song, an admittedly fleeting one, and a bit garbled, I struggle to understand what he is singing, but a song nonetheless.
Tom is a new man, “I feel amazing after all that”, he proclaims after finishing his wrap. Aren’t the restorative powers of a bit of food brilliant, he now looks an ever so less pasty shade of green beige, then he did before.
“Gamble” asks Alan Fenn of his team, the goals are there to be got, and he wants his team to take a bit of risk. When Rambo shoots right down the throat of the keeper from point blank range, a distraught fan cries out “you gotta score that!”, dropping his head into his hands, he runs them through his shaggy hair in frustration.
The up and down nature of football is perfectly on display, when down front, the head hanger, is now on his feet, pumping his fist in the air like a Daniel Bryan fan. “Yes, yes, yes” he shouts, as the IFC players celebrate their equaliser, which Tom describes as a “Fifa goal” (you can tell what we’ve been doing in our spare time). I think it’s more of a ‘Nick Sklavounos’ goal, and if you happen to have played football in Durnsford park, N22 in the early 2000’s you would know what I mean, but for those of you who were not there to witness me charging about with an alice band, because of my long hair, let me explain. Nick a childhood friend insisted, when playing football, on scoring only with his knees. The free kick was lofted over, and storming in at the back post, unmarked, the scorer crashes one in off his bumble, a less than unorthodox technique, but they all count.
The supporter in the front row has now gone full WWE superstar, once again is on his feet, hands in the air, repeating his one word celebration, “yes, yes, yes”, after IFC go ahead following a header which Tom described as having happened in slow motion. Such is the one noisy fans joy, he spices things up a bit, trying out a chant made up of more than one word “come on you hoops” and then gets very Pep on us, turning to his fellow fans and claiming “game management” is responsible for the turnaround.
The few EM supporters are becoming increasingly frustrated with the referee, “that’s 4 – 0” one says as the fourth EM player gets booked, with not one of IFC’s yet to receive a caution. In the form of their number 14, who Tom says resembles a “fridge”, because he is a tall broad battering ram, and not in a William Perry kind of way, they look to have the wherewithal to score again and they almost do a with a free kick, which just skims the crossbar. One fan puts it perfectly, “looked like it was in all the way”.
“It’s in the cemetery” comments the life and soul of the party, in the front row, who has become more and more excitable as the game has gone on, as a clearance is sent over the fence, Peter Kay style, finding a temporary home among the tombstones.
For a second time tonight, the supporters opposite are at it again, but this time it’s much more clear what they are saying, “we are Ilford, super Ilford” they sing in response to IFC’s fourth goal of the night. The ‘Yes’ man is back up again, and might want to consider mixing it up a bit, variety is the spice… and all that, maybe try a ‘come on’, ‘nice one’ or go all out and try a South American TV presenter ‘goalllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll’. Not shy to share his opinions with those around him, when an IFC player takes a wild shot on goal, I presume so high and off target it’s gone in the general direction of a local supermarket, he suggests someone will “have to go to Tesco, to get that back”.
The referee becomes the centre of attention in the final moments of the game, as he continues to piss off the traveling contingent, because of what feels like his inability to keep his whistle out of his mouth. When he sends an EM player off for his second yellow, one asks “why you trying to ruin the game?”. One suggests it’s because the referee’s “watch the Premier League, and think they have to ref like the Premier League”.
Ten men, turns to nine, as another player receives a second yellow. As he departs, making his way across the running track to the tunnel, he protests his innocence, to someone in the crowd “I said speed up ref, and he sent me off”.
“We are Ilford, super Ilford” sing the few leaving fans, now in full voice, but not before they are applauded by the players for their support. The second dismissed player, who watched the end of the game from the mouth of the tunnel, has not gone for an early shower, but instead is waiting for the final whistle, because he wants an explanation from the referee. Making his way towards the man in the black, numerous teammates he passes tell him not to bother, but he doesn’t listen, he wants to get something off his chest.
For Alan Fenn’s enthusiasms and the Jerk chicken alone, IFC deserve to be promoted back to the Ryman League North, and once again the Essex Senior League gave us enough talking points for a couple of blogs.
If you can only go to football on a Wednesday too, I couldn’t recommend a better place to start.
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