Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game take in Barking v Sporting Bengal United with a fan playing good cop, bad cop at a Porto-esque display.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.

It is only the lights on at the adjacent running track, that give any kind of inkling that we are in the right place, or in fact, there is a football club here at all. The ‘Welcome’ sign is nailed high up on some chipboard on top of a graffitied, makeshift white fence. It does at least confirm, as it puts it, that this is the “Home of the ‘Blues”, Barking FC (BFC).

Undeniably gloomy, and with a faint whiff of what Tom thinks is “pickled onions”, which he hopes with his one track mind has no bearing on the “burgers”, the car park is at least quiet, which allows me a few moments to decompress and unwind.

P1000130My journey here was mostly solo, having picked up Tom from a nearby Tube station. I navigated the rush hour filled North Circular and a large chunk of the East End alone with only the voice coming from my phone, barking instructions at me, my phobia of large roundabouts, and the thumping of my heart, as company.

Once we’ve squeezed through the tight white turnstile, manned by Geoff in his blue BFC scarf, who is kind enough to let us in a bit early, even though they’re not strictly “open” yet, it is still only thanks to the second hand light from next door, partially illuminating Mayesbrook Park, that it’s clear there is a football ground before us.

The weather doesn’t help, it’s overcast, miserable, and dark, very dark, also the fact that the floodlights are yet to be turned on, means we are really unable to get a good look at our surroundings. Geoff and a small posse of staff are waiting for the club Chairman, Rob, to do the honours, who is yet to arrive. Because of this, our tour by Geoff is cut short, as by his own admission, there’s “not a lot you can see in the dark”. He is though able to check if there is any standing water in the goal mouth, which amazingly there isn’t. Considering the recent deluge across London, much to his surprise, and that of the BFC manager who had told him the pitch, “was better than he thought it would be”.

Nearby, coming from a doorway of what looks like a white shipping container, there is a glow, which has the same warmth and dazzling quality of the briefcase in the diner in Pulp Fiction. The clubs crest fastened to the inside of the door, drawing us in. We can soon hear the chatter of the large TV on the bar, just in front of a mirror, with ‘BARKING FC’ spelt out in blue, between two black and white footballs.

The kind offer of a cup of tea, is hastily retracted, on the realisation there is a shortage of cups, only enough currently for the referee and his assistants. The ability to see, and now drink, hinging on the arrival of the all powerful, demigod of a Chairman.

Loud music from the home changing room, a blue shipping container, which the use of Tom thinks is great, “cheap and cheerful”, soon floods into the clubhouse, drowning out the TV and pretty much everything else. Not arriving on a cloud or with thunderbolts shooting from his fingers, Rob is finally here, in his long club coat, not only with cups, but with the capability to turn the lights on.

Leaving the clubhouse, along with another stunning example of an over dressed referee, I mean really, he looks like a pimp. Geoff is able to finish showing us around, telling us, I’m sure much to Tom’s dismay, that the “burger bar is not ready yet”. Passing through the enclosed wire tunnel, which evokes the feeling of some South American stadium I’ve seen on YouTube, all enclosed because of a fear of breeze block or severed animal head being thrown, but in East London, he tells us smiling he is also “security” and one of his jobs is to “keep the tunnel clear”.

IMG_20170131_194154With the light, comes the drizzle, visibly falling though its rays. One player takes the opportunity to tentatively shuffle towards the pitches edge, in socks and flip flops. “How soft is it”, he asks me, I tell him I’ve no idea, not having braved it myself yet, even though I have a far more sensible choice of footwear on than him, he lightly prods at it with his beachwear, “very soft”, he says, before beating a hasty retreat back inside.

Drizzle has turned to full blown rain, Tom with his practical hat on, is reassured by the fact there is at least, “enough cover”. We have the pick of a corrugated roofed terrace behind one goal, or the ‘Brad Robinson Memorial Stand’, which runs almost the length of one side of the pitch, with it’s curved roof and red seats. He is though a little perplexed, by the blue and white barrier that surrounds the field, “not often you see a brick wall around the pitch”.

Having spent the past few moments staring off into the distance, Tom turns to me, looking like he’s just seen something he shouldn’t have, like the small Amish boy in ‘Witness’, he murmurs “weird ritual”. I delicately ask what he means, handling someone with a mild case of shock, with the required kid gloves, he eventually tells me how he watched a player “poor two polystyrene cups of water” one on each boot, “before coming onto the pitch”. I must admit, my first thoughts were not voodoo, black magic or any other form of the dark arts, but a bit more of a sensible one: perhaps he was cleaning them? I suggest, which seems to put his mind at ease.

“At least it’s not cold” says Tom, as we both huddle in the away dugout, which if you can imagine, looks like a half finished conservatory, with no windows, trying to keep dry. He is however correct, it is certainly not cold, not Canvey Island or Harlow Town cold, but even with the lights now being on, it does still seem very dark. Compared to the glowing, nuclear lights of next door, it does still feel a little murky, Tom reckons that BFC might just be “saving on a bit of power”.

Tom sees a coach of the away side, Sporting Bengal United FC (SBU) coming across the pitch, and it’s time to scarper, Tom seems especially keen to make a move, because it is in fact the manager, or the“angry one” as Tom put its. Angry is doing him somewhat of a disservice, vocal and passionate from the sidelines yes, but angry no. His team when we saw them earlier in the season were having a particularly bad day at the office, so he was a little emotional, but in fact, he is probably one of the nicest people you could meet.

He’s happy enough to let us stay put in his dugout, as he prepares for the warm up. He is a little
concerned about the pitch, telling us his foot “sank in” on the walk over. As far as the game is concerned, he wants to make sure they can keep it “respectable”, BFC are top of the Essex Senior League and somewhat flying, SBU are languishing, near the bottom, their biggest problem at the moment is they are “creating chances, but can’t put it in the back of the net”.

DSC_0092I feel a little bit guilty disturbing the lady in the clubhouse, who is midway through having a bit of dinner, when I ask her for a cuppa. Thankfully there are now plenty of cups, however the same could not be said for change, my £20 note sending her into such a tailspin, that she eventually just gives them to me, and tells me to come back later.

Tom and I enjoy our fine cup of tea, standing at the back of the terrace, as the two teams warm up, who in spite of the conditions, are very sprightly. That can’t be said though for one BFC late comer, who is making slow progress across the pitch, to join his team mates, one coach telling him, he is “oozing with enthusiasm”. The same can also be said for one SBU coach, shivering, he declared to me, how he “hates Tuesday football, reeling off reasons why they shouldn’t have to do it, which mainly focused on, the traffic when traveling at rush hour, and the cold.

Finally the lights are at full power, but all they do is highlight quite how much rain is falling, Tom is concerned for the groundsman, “this pitch will get ruined”, it’s already showing signs of wear and tear, and we’ve only had the the warm up. I’m surprised to hear when one person says it wasn’t even “touch and go” as far as the pitch was concerned. A few of the home fans seem to be optimistic also, one suggesting that “as long as its doesn’t start pelting” that the pitch should hold up.

There is not much waiting about, the players are not contained to the all wire tunnel, similar to something your hamster might be kept in, for long. There is though an ever so slight delay, for the presentation of an engraved silver dish, to a BFC player for making his 100th appearance for the club, but it’s a short ceremony, and soon the players are lining up, shaking hands and preparing for the kick off.

Tom is already very comfortable in the press box, just shy of the halfway line, in the main stand. Its slightly raised position, and curved wooden back chairs, that look straight out of a local pub, give us a great view of the two early BFC chances. The second one brings out a bit of the Carry On in Tom, as a player tries to lob the keeper, “cheeky”.

It’s all BFC, chances are coming thick and fast, so the crowd is a little stunned when SBU look to have gone ahead, only for it to be disallowed. The referee deciding that the indirect free kick had not had the required amount of touches, before hitting the back of the net. Chalking it off much to the dismay of the SBU’s, chain smoking, coach, the shiverer from before, who’s standing next to us, instead of in the dugout, because of the “better view”, who was adamant a player, “touched it”, before it went in.

The occasional roar of a plane overhead, the lights of a nearby block of flats twinkling through a line of leafless trees, and the not quite pelting, but very close to it rain, is a somewhat bleak, but not unpleasant backdrop, for a game, that since the disallowed free kick, has become very entertaining. An end to end game, and fast paced, as fast as the sodden pitch will allow, it’s only slowed, by the astronomical amount of offsides.

“It’s a 50/50” challenge, says a BFC supporter, nonchalantly, after a big clash, that leaves one SBU player clutching his leg, rolling in the mud. It results in a yellow card for the home player, and although I’m sure the conditions had a big part to play in it, it didn’t look cynical, however it was the kind that makes you draw a short sharp intake of breath, through your teeth.

DSC_0147The SBU coach, can now add fidgeting, and doing a running commentary, to the list of skills, that accompany his loud advice, and plenty of supportive clapping. He only occasionally breaks character, to ask a friend for the up to date Liverpool score, but quickly slips back into the role, very method, when he is appalled by one players missed chance, that really should’ve drawn the game level. “How you miss that?” he bellows, but he can play the good cop too, when SBU get close to scoring, soon after, he is quick to praise the, “good effort” as well.

I have little sympathy for Tom when he starts moaning, “I’m fed up of being wet”, he tells me, this little outburst coinciding suspiciously with hearing that Arsenal are currently losing 2 – 0 to Watford at home, which he simply rolls his eyes at. I’m even less inclined to feel sorry for him, with the arrival of an old fella, wearing BFC blue almost head to toe, scarf, hat and jacket. Clutching his brolly, with the the sound of a squawking, Talk Sport presenter emanating from a radio, secreted somewhere about his person. He is sodden, he’s on stray ball duty.

With the rain inching closer and closer to being considered “pelting” the SBU coach, doesn’t think either team “can do anything on this turf”. Prompted by the ball getting help up during a SBU counterattack, he reiterates his point to the nearby assistant “lino can’t do anything on this surface, not playable”.

A collective “yes” rings out, from the small pockets of fans dotted around the ground, after BFC break the deadlock, not that I had a great view of it, the man with the flag, was ill positioned, right in my eye line. “Come on Blues” shouts the blue man, now sitting in the front row of the stand, the SBU coach next to us, is a little dejected, “we don’t deserve that”.

We soon witness his best bad cop, after a another glaring miss, “yo shit man how many you going to miss?” he asks from the stand, before reverting to good cop again, “next one” he says, making sure to knock the player down, then build him back up, in a matter of seconds. Under his breath though, he curses them “what a time to fucking concede” they had held out almost the whole half, only to go behind on the stroke of forty five minutes.

As the players drudge off, some whacking their boots on the wall by the tunnel, clearing them of the accumulated mud, most people stay put, wanting to keep as far away from the ever increasing rain for as long as possible. Instead, like me, they stay in their seat, half listening to the hysterical, hyperactive shouting that is Talk Sport, coming from the radio. A few hardy BFC subs, take to the pitch, for some shooting practice, however Tom, is nowhere to be seen.

He soon materialises from the gloom, hood up, damp, but it’s fleeting, he has to go back and get his burger and chips in “ten minutes” The teams are already coming back out, and it’s time for him to “get my burger”, thinking he had a few moments to sit, their arrival only reinforcing the fact he feels, “halftime always goes so quickly”.

“Come on you Blues” shouts the man all in blue, his radio almost as loud as our SBU neighbour, who is still offering instructions, “smash it”, he shouts as the away side rack up the first chance of the half, the shot is well hit, saved, spilled, then recovered.

DSC_0284The intrepid food explorer is back, clutching two white paper plates, his meal concealed between them, to me though he looks like a greedy person returning from a buffet. He seems happy, revealing his cheeseburger, with onions, always going to get extra points if you give Tom onions, but his reply does make me question the mood he is actually in, when I ask him how he is, “soggy”.

“Offside lino”, “bad defending lads” is the exchange between an SBU supporter and the official, after BFC double their lead, with about ten minutes of the new half gone. Once again the man in blue, offers up the only kind of a chant or song from the crowd, if only he would mix it up a bit “come on you Blues”.

“It’s like watching Porto Vs Chelsea away” says Tom, a comment I think we can all agree, is a little bit out of left field, on a wet Tuesday night in Barking, but when he explains his thinking, the similarities in the clubs kits, I can see where he is coming from, kind of. Our banal conversation, is somewhat put to the sword, when the home keeper, quite suddenly, and with nobody near him, falls to the ground, sprawled out on his back.

There is a sudden blast of the referee’s whistle, someone in the crowd suggests a “head injury”, however I didn’t see anything. It’s a little tense, and a hush descends, as the referee jogs over, to attend to the downed player.

Cramp, totally undramatic, cramp. The keeper it would seem has been struck down by a particularly violent strain, “how long will this cramp last?” asks someone in the stand. The players look miserable, the rain has gone up another notch, and they do their best to stay warm. The break does allow for a bit of audience participation with the assistant however, when one chatty soul asks him if he’s, “got his trunks on?”

Eventually he’s up, but needs plenty of assistance to limp off, “that doesn’t look good, he can barely stand on it” says Tom, who then wonders if BFC, “have a replacement?”. They do, and after a good eight or nine minutes, he’s on, and the game gets back underway.

Regardless of Tom’s appraisal of the pitch, “the ball just ain’t moving”, it really is a mess, with Tom adding that it must be like “playing in custard”, it is however moved well enough by BFC that they are able to get a third, with just under twenty minutes of the game left. “Nice move” says a suitably impressed Tom, a move, that sends the winger down the right, he cuts the ball back into the box, allowing for a simple finish. “School boy error” comments the SBU coach, once again in bad cop mode, he’s not impressed.

SBU’s managers assessment of their recent problems is not far off the mark, they have indeed missed some sitters, thev had a hat full of chances, some which they really should’ve converted.

“That’s their third disallowed goal”, says Tom, when once again, the ball is over the line, but again SBU are offside. Tonight has been a case of them very much being in the game, but never looking like at any point, that they were going to take it by the scruff of the neck and win it. One player does have a hit and hope moment, from far out, just before the end, a speculative shot , that is just saved, that draws a “wooo” from the crowd, but once again, it’s close but no cigar.

DSC_0301“I don’t think this pitch will ever be playable again” says Tom, both of us looking out across a marshland, a new inner city RSPB waterfowl sanctuary. The referee, perhaps having had enough of running around ankle deep in cold mud, catches everyone out, with the full time whistle, not playing any of the anticipated extra time, because of the “freakish cramp” as Tom puts it.

“Can think of better things to do on a Tuesday night” says a drowned rat BFC coach, soaked to the skin, but still cheery. Geoff is pragmatic, only once he has apologised for Mother Nature, “sorry about the weather” he says, but “at least you got to see a good game”. Before we skedaddled, I get talking to the father of the substitute keeper, who is seventeen, and is one of his two sons playing tonight. I ask him if he knows what struck the keeper down with such ferocity, he confirmed it was “cramp”, adding that the players were royally taking the piss out of him, and his theatrics.

The car once again becomes a sanctuary, a safe place out of the wind and rain, such is Tom’s dampness, he goes as far as to ask me if I’ve “got any towels?” About halfway home, it hits me, I come out in a cold sweet, I’m ashamed, I’m a father, what kind of example am I setting, I’m not a good person, as ‘The Simpsons would say’, “I’m histories greatest monster”, I never went back and paid for the tea!

Barking FC, IOU £2.00.

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