Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to the ‘Greek island’ of Billericay to see the Town climb a stairway to heaven.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

There have been a few changes of late since our last outing. I got a Sat Nav, so I no longer have to rely on my accomplice navigating, between rounds of Candy Crush, as I now have an ever so aggressive sounding lady in a box, telling me where to go. Oh and I found out that my fiance and I’s impending child, is going to be a girl, so nothing major, well chuffed with the Sat Nav, even though she is bit curt.

Despite the machine now protruding from my windscreen, which tells me what lane to be in, our expected time of arrival and the presence of any speed cameras, it unfortunately doesn’t make me any better at driving, and even though it clearly highlighted the left lane in a lurid shade of fuchsia, I’m bombing along in the right lane in 5th gear. I realise my mistake too late, and add a seven mile detour, on this evenings foray into Essex.

P1000243 - USETom and I while away the added miles, discussing all manner of things, house prices, if we are good enough at FIFA to become professionals and the realisation that our partners love us going to midweek games, so they get the house to themselves. Tom even lets me on to the fact his girlfriend, his University educated girlfriend, who claims to have never heard of Billericay, asked him if it was a “Greek island”.

There is only a momentary silence, when the car is filled with an unpleasant smell, both of us I’m sure wondering if the other is responsible. I challenge Tom, who simply and conveniently blames it on being in the “countryside”, an easy get out.

Listening solely on the directions of the talking box, and removing any common sense from the equation, can be costly, a lesson I have learnt already in my short time having it, but it doesn’t stop me falling into the same trap, time and time again. Following the highlighted route to the chequered flag, means we pass New Lodge, home of Billericay Town FC (BT) which is wonderfully lit behind what looks like a recently pruned line of hedges, making it easier to see from the road, than maybe it ever has been, as well as Tom saying “there it is”, doesn’t stop me, because it’s not where I’m being directed.

I have to admit defeat, when Tom points out we have just parked in the Billericay Lawn Tennis Club car park, at the end of a narrow, cone lined road. Expecting to see fellow football types, exiting the numerous arriving cars, it is in fact mainly people in an array sports wear, clutching tennis racquets.

A U turn later we have our spot in the car park/field, adjacent to New Lodge, and it’s only a short walk back up the road, and with a hefty suck in of the gut later, I’m just about through the white turnstile, and we’re in.

I don’t know who Keith is, but I need to know where he is ASAP, because according to the whiteboard, only feet from where we have come in, just next to the clubs shop which is in the process of being opened, he is the man selling the 50/50 tickets.

“This wasn’t here last Wednesday” says a man in a BT scarf gawping at what he tells us are brand new dugouts, and a white railing around the pitch. The same man advises us that the snack bar isn’t “open yet”, (he said “yet” Tom, keep cool), and the best place to get a cup of tea, would be in the clubhouse.

When you think of clubhouse, you think of a pokey but charming bar with a few faded old club team photos on the wall, and a couple of tatty chairs. Now take that image, package it up inside a rocket and fire it into space, because the clubhouse at New Lodge, is like the ballroom from ‘The Shining’. A sea of tables, all with blue upholstered chairs, a carpet which has a design reminiscent of country pub, and the club’s name scrawled in large swirling blue lettering on the back wall.

It’s a simple cup of tea for us, although by the looks of what’s on offer from the well stocked bar, with a blue and white scarf hung above it, they might be able to whip you up a Cosmo. We find a seat at one of the many tables, and join the other patrons looking up a mournful Paul Doswell, Sutton United FC’s manager, discussing the ugly repercussions of ‘Piegate’.

IMG_20170221_180532“Who wants the job at Blackburn?” asks the bar man rhetorically, as the scandal of a big man eating for money, is replaced with the news of the most recent casualty of the Blackburn Rovers managerial merry go round, “I do” replies a lady in a BT shirt, happy to toss her hat in the ring. With all that sorted, her CV will be in the post in the morning, Sky Sports news is substituted for the gentle sound of snooker.

What might be earth’s quietest sport, matches the calm of the mega clubhouse, it also makes Tom and I start to whisper, as if we were actually there, “fancy some crisps” he asks me quietly,  not wanting to distract the player from his difficult shot. He distracts himself from his hunger pains, which is hard as he has been ill all week and is under instruction to keep his energy up, by reading the “commercial opportunities” pamphlet on our table.

“Club mascot” he proposes, which I think we can all agree would would be all kinds of wrong, I’m just far too big for one, although if you are interested, you can be for £150 and you get a free kit. A kit that just like at Barking FC, Tom notices has a striking resemblance to that of Chelsea’s, “Courtois in goal”, he comments, pointing at the keepers strip.

This however can only hold his attention for so long, and soon he’s off “I’m gonna get some crisps”. Not wanting to upset him in his delicate state, I refrain from telling him what I hear, when I think some of the clubs catering are asked “what they got” for tonight, and one of them replied “frogs legs”, it would only depress him.

Ahhhhh, this must be the Keith I have been looking for, who with blue bucket in hand, is selling 50/50 tickets to the table next to ours. The pound coins are already rolling around my sweaty palm when he walks over and asks, “50/50 tickets?”. I’m sure he’s able to sense my eagerness, he tells me to put my cash in the “bin”, which he carries in the crook of his arm, while he tears my perforated tickets from the book and hands them over, wishing me “good luck”. When he asks Tom if he wants one, he points to me with that judgmental look on his face, “no, he’s the gambler”.

Music like for so many people, is a huge part of my life, in fact football took a bit of a back seat for me in my teens, when I discovered my parents turntable and knackered vinyl in the loft. Neil Young appealing to me, a lot more, than twenty two men running around.

Although football is now very much back on the scene, it has far from dislodged my love of music, so therefore, what’s being played at the grounds we go to, is always a point of discussion.

Generally I would say there are two camps, which most clubs fall into, as far as the music they play are concerned:

Camp 1. Everyday chart hits, the kind of stuff you hear on Radio 1 or MTV
Camp 2. What Tom has affectionately dubbed “Dad music”, classic rock of a Top Gear montage persuasion.

After tonight, there are officially three! We had a similar experience at A.F.C. Hornchurch and Fisher FC, which I thought must’ve been an apparition, an anomaly, however as we walk out of the clubhouse, milling around pitch side, the tannoy comes to life, not with Little Mix, but a piano rendition of ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

Do my ears deceive me? No, it’s most definitely the familiar melody of the much overplayed, nowhere near to being their best song, how about ‘The Battle of Evermore’ for example or ‘Gallows Pole’, I have to agree with Wayne’s World “No Stairway”, however it is such a drastic change from the norm, it’s caught me unawares.

Slipping into a hazy long haired, wavy screened, adolescent flash back, I notice the arrival of a few away fans, in their red scarves, which stand outs somewhat among the of blue and white of the home supporters. The players of South Park FC (SP) have not been here too long either, all in matching black tracksuits, they are taking potshots at goal.

Before we go any further, I can assure you from this point on, you won’t read one lazy mid 90’s cartoon reference from me, many more music, TV and film ones may well appear, yes, but I can swear on my unborn child’s life to not fall into that net, Tom however is convinced we will hear one “Cartman” reference before the night is over.

“Lets wander in” says an SP coach from the side of the pitch, towards the nearby players, who are soon filing along the caged tunnel, and through the players and officials door. None of that is particularly remarkable, a scene replicated at many clubs around the country, but how many can claim it was all done to a bit of Led Zeppelin, which is soon replaced by some jazz, wonderful, wonderful jazz, which now fills the airways, and as the last SP player leaves the pitch, it’s all to the backdrop of a rambling six minute trumpet solo. So infectious is the melody, a passing BT coach hums along, as he goes about his duties.

IMG_20170221_194134A single BT player doing his stretches in the dugout, is able to enjoy a bit of Frank Sinatra, that is far louder than the music in the changing room, which for once is just a murmur in the background. Soon the silky, local radio voiced person responsible for this awesome playlist, makes himself known, “What’s going on?” he asks.

“Welcome to Billericay Town” he adds, before informing us of the “plethora of stationery” available at the club shop, that the “Blues cafe” is selling “burgers in a bun” and “sausage in a roll” and the fact that you’ve “gotta be in” the 50/50 “to win it”.

The music once again takes another turn, “guess who just found a double CD of TV themes?” he says, as the reggae starts to play, he signs off, “who can tell me what tune this is?”, fading out expertly.

While I’ve been reveling in the excellent music, Tom has been in the club shop, he hasn’t returned with a pencil and ruler set, but did manage to get a pin, which was a little tricky, considering he had to do it in near pitch black. “Hit a cable” that powers the shop he was told, a little hiccup, after the recent home improvements.

New Lodge is a mixture of old and new. The obvious recent additions, like the sparkling dugouts, stand side by side with the small hunched back corrugated roofed main stand, which sits just behind them. From the outside the red brick clubhouse with Billericay Town FC in large white letters on the side, looks a bit like my old primary school, and dotted around the ground, there are covered terraces and stands of different shapes and sizes, and the snack bar which looks a bit like a beach hut.

Chatting to BT’s physio he comments how the little touches, like the newly “painted stand” are only small, but go a long way, and make a big difference. When he asks me if I’ve “been in the toilets?” I’m a little stumped, thankfully he goes on to explain, they have had a complete makeover, “looks like a nightclub” he explains, “like its marble” he adds, before clarifying, “its not”, they’re not made of money.

“Listening to Phil Collins” is the reply I get from Tom, when I call him, trying to find out where he is. He appears, just as the BT players finish their warm up, a couple of fans line the way in, with outstretched hands, high fiving the players, and wishing them “good luck”. I’m in no way shape or form a Phil Collins fan, but the DJ somewhat undoes all his good work, when he pops on the Spice Girls, although perhaps being able to sense the collective rage of the crowd, he soon redeems himself with a bit of Queen.

I’m pretty sure it’s Eminem playing in the BT dressing room, moments before the players appear, as I do my very best to stay out of the way. The blue door is closed, and it’s a mixture of Marshal Mathers and encouraging shouts from the players coming from beyond it. When the referee’s assistants arrive, one is known to a couple of the BT staff, his name causing a few giggles. “Wally”, one coach remembers, and you can insert your own Where’s Wally?, and red and white scarf jokes here, which by his own admission, “he’s heard all before”.

The door opened and soon the players are being checked over, by Wally’s opposite number. Instead of lining up with his team mates, BT’s number 3 holds back, pacing the corridor, at one point making such intense eye contact, I don’t know what to do with myself. To say he is pumped, might be an understatement. SP feel a long way behind, but eventually line up next to BT, all in red.

“Come on blues” shouts one fan as the players make the short walk to the pitch, the woman from the clubhouse, is now standing the the other side of the tunnel, holding up a shimmering blue pillow case sized flag, “Billericay Town FC Pride of Essex”. What I can imagine is only heightening the adrenaline levels further of BT’s number 3, is the theme from Rocky, which welcomes the players. The fans also do their bit, banging the back of the stand behind the goal, adding to the collective din.

No beating around the bush here, the entrance music has clearly had the desired effect, because only two minutes in, BT are celebrating their first goal. A header from a corner, the goal scorer acknowledges the jumping fans behind the goal, he then stops and waits for his teams mates, all of which would not have been possible, if it wasn’t for the referee’s assistant, holding back the corner flag, which was whipping about all over the place in the wind, and was at risk of taking someone’s eye out. The fans behind the goal, break into their first song of the night, “singing i i ipy, we come from Billericay, i i ipy, ipy i”.

DSC_0127“Don’t think you had thirty seconds” says Tom, confusing tonight’s gambling, with my other poison, a golden goal.

They nearly double their lead moments later, the ball going agonisingly wide, the SP keeper scrambling, all eyes watching on as the ball bounces the wrong side of the post, the onlooking fans let out a unified “ahhhh” as the ball goes into touch. Another chance, this time the keeper is just able to stop the ball from squirming under him, but there is no respite, and not long after a curling shot flies just over, hitting the back of the stand.

There is a league separating the two teams, and at the moment every place between them is showing, its an onslaught, in years to come, some may even call it, ‘The Siege of New Lodge’.

“Interesting goal keepers kit” says Tom, about the curious little number SP’s number one is wearing. It’s got a kind of a mid 90’s Kevin Pressman feel about it, although I’m sure the retro look of what he has on is far from his mind right now. He is being bombarded on and off the pitch, every nervous goal kick or pass back gets “ohhhhhhhh” from the crowd, and I bet he wishes he could have a moment to get his breath back. BT’s man in goal, on the other hand has had almost nothing to do, but still insists on shouting “up, up, up, up” to his players, who if they were any further forward, would be in the stand.

2 – 0, twenty five minutes gone and a nice finish across the outstretched keeper, doubles BT’s lead. The fans just behind are in great spirits, “oh what a night, watching ‘Ricky on a Tuesday night” they sing.

“I wonder when it’s a good time to eat?” asks Tom. I roll my eyes, “what?” he replies, “there are a lot
of people here”.

3 – 0, SP’s keeper does well with his feet to block the close range shot, but no one is marking his team mate on the edge of the six yard box, who mops up the ricochet, tapping the ball into the empty net. The scorer is lifted into the air briefly by the player who took the first shot, he’s nicely brought back down to earth and it’s back slapping and hair ruffles for everybody.

Nudging me in the side, Tom points towards the approaching Keith, who is holding up a clipboard, like a holiday rep at a Mediterranean airport. On it is not the name of a resort, but the numbers of the 50/50 draw. As he edges closer, I’m all fingers and thumbs, trying to dig out my tickets from my notebook. “It’s an early one” he tells me, I instantly get my hopes up, as I must’ve been one of the first people to purchase a ticket.

Why do I do it to myself, no winnings for me today. It’s like a dagger in the heart, every time. I thought we were friends Keith.

Post the early onslaught, and the three quickfire goals, the high tempo has relented a little, BT calling a momentary ceasefire, allowing SP to evacuate their wounded. Sitting off their shell shocked opponents, who are now able to venture out of their half, such leniency only goes and backfires, as totally out of the blue, and I must admit we totally missed it, SP score, and never in all my time watching football, has a goal been received with such an eery silence.

DSC_0183Normality is soon restored, the blip of conceding is quickly forgotten as BT score their fourth. “Keeper you’re shit” shouts someone from the crowd, to the man in goal who is currently sitting on the floor, legs sprawled out in front of him like a giant toddler, with a look of pure shock on his face. A nearby child, cries out “come on ‘ricky, punish them!”. You’re four one up and it’s not even half time, what else do you want, heads on spikes?

The smooth voice confirms the score as the players make their way inside, he also suggests that the 50/50 victor should use the break, to find Keith so he can “dispense your winnings”, I won’t be doing anything of the sort, because I’m a loser, so will sit in the stand, while Tom joins the queue for food.

A father and son duo of SP fans, who were just specks at the other end of the pitch for the first half behind the opposite goal, pass me doing the half time shuffle. Both in red scarves, the boy is checking the scores on his phone, his father looking a little dispirited.

“You’re a gent” is the greeting for one man struggling with two hands full of styrofoam cups, returning from the tea run. Some fans are a bit more self sufficient and are pulling flasks out, and crack on with a cuppa brought from home. One SP fan rejoining his friends in the stand, is asked if he is going to “put his boots on” for the second half. Which triggers a five minute monologue about the virtues of “possession football”.

I make my way over to the elevated terrace behind the goal for the second half. I find Tom, back pressed up against the wall looking guilty. With greasy lips and an orange polystyrene tray in his hand, he has already devoured his burger and chips, which he says was nice, but now feels “sick” because of “too much burger sauce”.

The stand behind us is packed, and from somewhere within the throng, emerges Paul, and we have one of those social media, real life crossover moments. “Since I was this high” he says, doing that thing we all do, hovering your hand around ours knees, to show we mean little or young, when he tells us how long he has been a BT supporter. “Lots of ups and downs, more downs” he explains, but he proudly tells us they’re “my team”. Considering they lost to the Ryman League’s basement club in their last game, and are romping all over this one, it sounds about right when he says BT are a “funny team, you don’t know who’s gonna turn up”.

It’s cold now, the wind is close to howling, and BT have picked up where they left off, however there is a short spell, not long into the new half, which could amazingly prevent, what at the moment seems like near certain appearance in this years Ryman League Cup Final.

“Abandonment” shouts a fan, “is there an electrician in the crowd?” asks another, as part of New Lodge is plunged into darkness, “we can’t pay our bills”, suggests one supporter, when some of the floodlights go out. The referee blows his whistle, and there is a moment where no one’s sure if we are going to see the end of the match, however after a short deliberation, he seems happy to continue, even if one side of the pitch is a bit gloomy.

With one potential banana skin avoided, having to stop now with a three goal lead, in a semi-final, would be a bit hard to bare, the straight red card for a BT player, is the next hurdle they are going to have to overcome, and is a lot more likely to have an impact on the game, than it being a bit dingy.

“Better not cost us the final” says a fan jokingly, with a hint of superiority/arrogance considering the score, but be careful, because as most watch the dismissed player make the walk of shame, SP only go and grab a second, and the same jolly voice from moments before, has a slightly different tone now, “oh dear”.

The mood has definitely dropped, even more so when SP nearly get a third, “fluffed that” says Tom when the player missed, forcing one BT fan to ask those around him, with a bit of a high pitched shriek, “what is going on this evening?” and for the first time the small band of traveling fans, make themselves heard.

“Fucking hell” shouts someone, “liven the fuck up” says someone else, from the near stunned pack behind us, SP taking full advantage of the extra man, score again. Now when the home fans chant or sing, its almost sounds like a plea, to just get over the finish line, “come on Billericay”, “come on blues”. BT have gone from absolute cruise control, to panic stations. Tensions soon boil over on the pitch, and there is a little bit of argie bargie, that quickly blows over.

DSC_0150SP’s keeper, who has been getting it the neck since the first minute, is now getting grief for something as simple as cleaning his boots, “stop kicking them, they were new 30 years ago”, barks one fan, when he bangs his studs on the goalpost. Now I’m no psychologist, but I believe this is called ‘projecting’, transferring one’s own anxieties on to others, to relieve internal pressure.

Ten minutes to go, and SP fashion another chance, there is a feeling of inevitability from those around us, that the BT ship is going down, in the most spectacular fashion, they are second to every ball, and are frankly all over the place. “You can walk slower than that” suggests a fan to a departing BT player being replaced, one person can’t take the strain and needs medical assistance, “get the heart defibrillator, form an orderly queue”.

“Looked like a penalty to me” says Howard Webb in a cupboard or Tom to you and I, when an SP player is felled in the BT box. The away side continue to get closer and closer to an equaliser, it’s BT’s turn to be camped out in their half. Every SP shot, pass or tackle is followed by a chorus of jittery “ohhhs” and “ahhhs”.

I can think of slightly more pleasant ways to describe going home, than “let’s make like baby and head out”, but this is exactly what one leaving BT fan says to his small group, who perhaps are unable to bare anymore of the match, which has descended into a error ridden, last days of Rome, headless chicken, please don’t let us fuck this up-athon.

“Bring me sunshine” plays over the tannoy on the full whistle, beautiful glossing over the previous ninety minutes of madness. There is an almighty cheer from the fans behind the goal, which undoubtedly is tinged with a huge dose of relief. The players applaud the fans, and the fans reciprocate, as they leave the pitch, each side of the fenced off corridor, is lined with people who continue to clap and praise them.

On our way out of what is now a very, very windy New Lodge, I get a glimpse first of the board room, like Oliver peering through the window into Scarface’s opulent living room, with carved glass inlay doors, and then the new toilets, which are decorated with some black sparkling materiel, straight out of Liberace’s house.

It may be worth putting New Lodge high up on your list of grounds to visit, if its only to see the vaulted ceilings of the clubhouse, the most dazzling toilets in non-league football, or simply because I get the feeling more change is on the wind, and it might look a lot different in the not too distant future.

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