Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to Bridon to witness a team in splendid form and to eat half-cooked chips.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

Hello 2017, hello first game of the New Year, hello shiny North Greenwich station, hello smug look on my face, as for the second game running, I’m early, and here before Tom, don’t let anyone say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Annoyingly Tom doesn’t allow me to wallow in my new found  smug glow for long, or to gaze at the impressive sky line, the shimmering Canary Wharf just off in the distance, as he soon arrives, bearing gifts. Handing me a long, slender box, wrapped in a curious goth black paper, which he apologises for, “sorry”, he wishes me a late “happy birthday”.

I needed cheering up, not because I’m a year older since our last match, I’ve done that crying, but because I spent a large portion of today watching the new Martin Scorsese film, ‘Silence’. A graphic, heart wrenching tale of the attempted introduction of Christianity into Japan, that has left me feeling a little low. When I unwrap my present, but only once I’ve made it past the overly used sellotape, do I feel very touched, when I discover I’m now the owner of a sparkling, silver Parker Pen.

P1130395 (2)“Fed up of you chewing” he says, in reference to my propensity to gnaw on the end of my biro, between notes, which I imagine is a less than attractive site.

Tom’s gift giving, and me opening it, has meant we have taken our eye off the ever expanding queue for our bus, we really should have paid more attention, the bruises on our arms from the elbows of pensioners, desperately trying to get to the front, should’ve set off the alarm bells, but I was too busy gushing about my new pen, and Tom was too busy lapping up the praise, I was heaping on him.

Eventually on board, Tom somehow finding a seat, I’m stuck in the doorway, deflecting the tuts of people trying to get off, as we wind our way through South East London, where every stop seems to start with ‘Millennium’, but not one of them ends in ‘Falcon’.

“Always think that’s a bit morbid”, says Tom, the bus dropping us off outside a care home, which is only separated from the nearby cemetery, its headstones partially lit by the full moon, by a stone wall and black iron railings. He then makes a kind of motion implying that they, ‘they’ being the elderly residents, once expired, are simply tipped over the fence.

A potholed, tree lined car park, where Mums and Dads wrangle their children after the end of football practice on the nearby astroturf, who beep their horns at us to get out of the way, as they race home, is where Google maps has brought us, “Meridian Sports and Social Club” reads Tom out loud from the sign in front of us, but something doesn’t feel right.

We continue on, in that pioneer spirit we both embody, ignoring the ‘where the fuck are we’ look, Tom is giving me, we round the corner of a big white building, that dominates surroundings, eventually arriving at the poorly lit doors of the Meridian Sports Bar, peering through the windows, at a room full of people inside.

Adjacent it looks like there is a further pitch, there are certainly flood lights, but they are off, the full moon quite literally unable to shed any light on, if we are in fact in the right place. We are somewhat relieved, when who turns out to be the groundsman instructs, who turns out to be the coach of the visiting team, that they are to warm up away from the pitch, but can jump on “ten minutes” before kick off, so they can “get used to it”. I suspect it might be in a bit of state, something to do with the recent inclement weather.

Tom’s glare has now been dialed back a bit, but he is still not convinced. Once in the bar, the players of tonight’s home side, Bridon Ropes FC (BR) are sitting side by side, with their opponents, Crowborough Athletic FC (CA), all in their respective club tracksuits, their kit bags littering the floor, we both can finally breathe easy.

IMG_20170111_190243It’s a cup of tea for Tom, which he waits for as the staff discuss the rota for an upcoming wedding. He returns from the long bar, excitedly, with a green packet of crisps, the bold writing on the front, has got him intrigued “pleasingly punchy”, they claim. However after a few bites, he informs me slightly disappointed, that they are “not very punchy” and are “just cheese and onion crisps”.

Being the trooper that he is, he is quickly reassessing his options, “looking forward to curry and chips” he tells me, reading from the menu above the stainless steel topped food counter, a young woman uses it to keep her balance, standing on top of a gold hoverboard. “Bacon roll”, announces the tabard wearing woman from behind, “BACON ROLL” she shouts, finally getting its recipients attention, who goes up to claim it.

“Maybe a baked potato, you can’t go wrong with a baked potato”, Tom informs me.

It’s a short, but sweet “hello” from the BR’s Chairman, Clive. Not in any way suggesting he was dismissive or rude, but he just seemed like someone with 101 things to do, and one of them was not gassing with us two. He very kindly tells us we are welcome to look around, and then he’s off again.

Outside the floodlights are now on, and it gives us a much better idea of our surroundings. The big white building, with the children in their gi’s doing laps of the upstairs function room, is very much the main feature of the ground, the lights have also illuminated the small turnstile, next to it a sign, “home of Bridon Ropes FC”, which features the clubs badge, a coil of rope.

“It’s too cold”, says the woman hovering between the turnstile and the bar, not wanting to commit herself to standing outside for too long. When she does take up position, I overhear her suggesting to Clive, they should get a heater, he jokingly replies that they “can’t afford one”.

I think its right to say that the Meridian Sports Ground is minimalist in appearance, no unnecessary clutter, except for a ride along mower that looks like it’s seen better days, I bet the place has great feng shui. A pale fence, the kind you have in your garden surrounds the ground, a simple white metal railing separates the spectators from the players. There is a small, blue seated stand on the halfway line, opposite the clear perspex dugouts, and behind them a long line of bare trees, on the horizon the blinking light of Canary Wharf. Behind each goal large nets prevent stray balls going in the car park at one end, and into people’s houses at the other.

Despite its low key setup, it has everything you need, and is very tidy, the pitch in particular catching Tom’s eye, who he thinks the person responsible for it, might be partial to a bit of “Fifa”, because of the geometric pattern mowed into it. I suggest that perhaps they have taken inspiration from the King Power stadium. Also any thought of it being a mud bath, after the groundsman’s comments before, are quickly dismissed, it looks like a fine surface, which is confirmed by a CA player leaving it after the warm up, when a club official says, it “looks nice”, the player replies “it is”.

The players tunnel is long and dark, the referee’s assistant, a mere silhouette, only when the changing room door opens, does the light from inside flood out. As is more often the case in non league football, BR ground share, so they have their own ‘home’ changing room, upstairs, and the visitors use the actual ‘home’ changing room, of the team who they share the ground with, a bit of a head scratcher.

Unlike the Olympistadion in Berlin, there is no escalator, to bring the pampered stars from upstairs to down, just an unpainted staircase, with a pair of double doors with round portholes at the bottom.

10-DSC_0055Both teams line up side by side, shivering and fidgeting. Some I imagine are already cold, and some nervously anticipate the wall of cold air that is about to hit them, once they step outside.

“Come on Ropes”, “come on Crowborough” shout both supporters and players as the teams arrive on the pitch, greeted also by a stiff wind. Above where the players emerged, a couple of people have bagged the best seat in the house, the first floor balcony of the sports bar/changing rooms/dojo. They only get a couple of feet onto the pitch, before the referee stops them, initiates the handshake, between the hopping, hand in shorts to keep warm players, no need to walk in this chill all the way to the centre circle.

With the visitors being from a league above BR, it is no great surprise that they start very much on the front foot, however it’s the underdogs if you like, that get the first meaningful chance, much to the announce of one CA player who remonstrates with the lino, after losing the ball in a robust challenge, asking, while still on the floor, “how is that not a foul?”, all whilst BR counterattack, their attempt requiring a fingertip save to keep it out.

There are the occasional shouts from the two sets of supporters, the majority of the home ones are gathered around the dugouts, the majority of the away ones sitting, or standing near the stand. The players as ever are noisy, shouting instructions at each other, those kind of inspirational, could be from a poster, kind of one liners, however both fans and players are overshadowed, about a quarter of an hour into the half by the young girl, maybe 7 or 8, in a white winter jacket, running down the side of the pitch shouting “FOOTBALL”, and looking as happy as Larry.

“Game heads” shouts the BR keeper to his teammates who have all just mobbed their coach on the sideline, joined by the rest of the bench, following a quite unexpected goal, that puts them in the lead, completely against the run of play.

There is a lot of the game to go, but one nearby BR fan is already speculating about how it would be a, “good result for us”, if they were able to win. I also hear him explain to the person next to him, the somewhat mythical run CA, are currently one, “29 unbeaten”, he explains, for it to come to an end against a team from a league below, would be a bit of shock.

CA almost equalised straight away, a constant of the match so far, has been their prowess in the air. Two corners, one right after the other, are very dangerous. BR’s coach looks on, “that’s a ball you don’t know what to do with” he says to himself. His keeper, in his own words, being a little bit “flappy”, they are lucky to come out unscathed.

Since their goal BR have come on leaps and bounds, growing into the game you might say, fashioning themselves a chance to double their lead, the shot is flashed across the goal, bringing the bench to its feet in anticipation, but its wide. The home coach is a real picture, turning and squirming, either standing bolt upright arms crossed, or rocking down low on his haunches, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. CA look a different side since the goal, rattled and out of sorts, lacking any of the confidence they were showing, before they conceded.

“Tell my ankle that” says a downed CA player to the referee, after a big, “50/50” challenge, as Tom puts it, which is not the first of the night by any stretch of the imagination. The man in charge saw nothing wrong with it, and let’s play continue, and certainly doesn’t enter into any kind of conversation with the CA players talking joint,  which if I was him, I would keep under wraps.

Much like, if such a thing existed, I wouldn’t know about these kind of things, I’m a family man, some kind of food pornographer, Tom whispers in my ear “jacket potato”, which sends a shiver down my spine.

This must mean the end of the half is close, if he is thinking about food again. It does end shortly after his sweet nothings, but not before one last scare for BR. A skewed kick out from their keeper, puts the ball at the feet of a CA player, just outside the box, which doesn’t come to anything, but one female spectator is on her last nerve, “STOP IT” she screams.

Lucky for her the whistle blows, allowing some respite, Tom joins pretty much everyone else making their way back to the bar, leaving me, watching the substitutes, try and keep warm, with a a bit of shooting practice.

13-DSC_0154Players have to crisscross with fans, holding hot drinks in white cups, as they return for the second half, a couple of standoffs break out, “you first”, “no you first”, but I’m happy to report, they all end amicably, without gunfire.

In one hand a cup of tea, in the other a groaning, yellow polystyrene tray of what Tom says are “half cooked chips”. With no obvious place to rest his drink, my frozen hands are full, so I’m of no help, he finds himself with a bit of a conundrum. There is a brief moment of silence, and I think if I were to look close enough, I could see the cogs in his head, trying to figure out how to overcome his predicament.

Surely what any respectable person wouldn’t do, would be to lift the tray to their mouth, reject millions of years of evolution, the need for an opposable thumb, and attack the the chips, head on, like a character from Hungry Hippo. Oh wait, hang on……..

Once he’s removed the mayonnaise, which I think is in fact salad cream, but he won’t hear a word of it, from his face, as well as the BBQ sauce, which he liked very much, he tells me of a halftime, handbags, that has spilled outside, meaning the second half is a bit of a blur of watching Tom devour chips, with no hands, telling me why he did not get a jacket potato, because of the “20 minute” wait, and pointing out one of the main protagonists of the aforementioned handbags, who is not very far away from us, and is repeatedly, and very loudly  using the expression, “mugging me off”.

Not sure of the context of the “mugging off”, I wonder if he thought his chips were half cooked? He should have just slathered them in the BBQ sauce, and everything would’ve been good in the world.

As we all the know, the basis of most male friendships, is taking much glee in watching their friends
embarrass themselves, and as we moved to a new vantage point, I was the length of a white shatterproof ruler away from being able to recount the story of Tom being hit in the head by a stray ball, for years to come, it was so close!

Usual service has resumed once again, and it’s all one way traffic, the idea of BR getting out of their half, seems like fantasy, eventually CA’s pressure pays off, the constant waves of attack prove too much, and they get themselves a penalty. “Horrible challenge” says Tom, it wasn’t cynical or dangerous, just poorly timed.

“Possibly the worst penalty I’ve ever seen” states Tom ,”power over precision” he adds, proving pressure is a two way thing, after CA’s number 10 skies the ball over the bar.

There are many expressions applicable, to BR’s current situation, ones that adequately encapsulate how the game is playing out for them right now, ‘backs to the wall’, ‘in the trenches’, or why not reference a well known 13 siege Texas Revolution, ‘ The Alamo’. Following a long range, screamer of a shot from CA, which is just fractions over, one BR player shouts, “regroup”, chillingly echoing some fallen platoon, on its last stand, just need Michael Caine, and a dodgy upper class accent to complete the scene.

CA are being equally stoic, their keeper yelling at the top of his lungs, “give everything”. Tom on the other hand, while the poetry of human suffering is playing out in front of us, is talking about “wintering in Spain”, as the cold slowly gets to him.

With the game entering its final moments, BR get a rare corner. “Why’s the big man taking it” queries Tom, as the towering BR player approaches the corner flag, and is joined, by a much shorter teammate. His stature would imply he would be better off in the box, but when his team mate nudges him the ball, the man mountain stands inches from the flag, the ball at his feet, with two CA players trying to win the ball back, to no avail. With not a single BR player in the box, Tom cotton’s on, that we are witnessing the dark arts in play, running down the clock. “That’s why” he says, as the ball bounced off the unit for a goal kick, eating up valuable time, and their dastardly plan is complete.

08-DSC_0028It was coming, CA’s impending goal seemed inevitable, there was some small glimmer of hope that the football Gods would allow a bit of an upset, but CA had been so relentless, looking particularly dangerous all game from corners and crosses, it’s not a huge surprise, that it’s a headed goal, that draws things level. There is little celebration from the away team, the scorer jumps and punches the air, dishing out a few low fives to his teams mates, but one player has already picked up the ball and is jogging towards the centre circle, there is no time to waste. BR like statues in the blue, are motionless and distraught that they were unable to hold out.

The CA player with the ball, puts it on the centre circle, and the visitors now have the air of a team, going for the kill. The BR coach from the dug out, does his best to lift the players, “heads up”.

“How much is left” asks Tom, as the match descends into a bit of a twilight zone, it feels like it should’ve been well over by now, but it just carries on, each minute that passes, feels like a minute closer to CA scoring again. It’s a small miracle it’s not happened already, following the most almighty of goal mouth scrambles, which had goal line clearances, and a cross come shot hitting the bar, and going out, BR are holding on for dear life.

Stunned silence, from everyone in the ground except the celebrating CA players and supporters. The supplier of the cross from the wing, which resulted in CB’s second goal, their second in maybe just over a minute, another header, is getting all the plaudits, his teammates rushing over to him, even the keeper, makes the full pitch dash to jump on top of the bundle.

Once again, there is a cry from the home dugout, “we fucking go again”, but it’s wishful thinking, this dream is over, heartbreak all round.

BR’s coach has the job of literally picking his players up off the floor, following the final whistle. The dejection and sorrow of the last minute loss, is clear to see across everyone’s faces. CA have been gathered in a group, for an on pitch debrief. I’m sure the sentiment of the management being, that’s what happens when you don’t give up, that’s what happens when you give it everything you can until the last.

As they leave the pitch, their supporters line the exit, “come on Borough” someone shouts, one person is whirling a wooden rattle, in recognition of their efforts.

With the ground empty, the cold and wind driving everyone inside, it’s only us and the BR cameraman, climbing down from his homemade gantry, which has a tripod and a bar stool on top, left in the ground. He explains how the videos are a massive help for the coaches, amazing how at this level, measures like that are being taken to improve the team, but also in case a player scores a “worldy”, they can see it again.

Before we leave, Tom needs to visit the loo, which it turns out are also the away team showers, he returns with the look of someone who has seen more than he was prepared for.

Having already been aware of CA’s remarkable current record, before the BR fan had mentioned it in the first half, such is its near Biblical status, I wanted to confirm it for myself, with someone from the club, to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. I interrupt a man in a CA jacket, who’s just about to dig into a plate of chips, to confirm the run, “twenty eight wins, two draws”, he confirms, wow!


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