Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful game head to Harlow to watch the Hawks take on the Metropolitan Police in the Rymans League. It’s cold but ‘real men don’t wear gloves’.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.

‘Welcome To Essex’ reads the road side sign illuminated by the car’s headlights, as we wind our way along a dark, tree lined road. As we weave through the pitch black, which Tom had previously described as “countryside”, although it’s not really, we’re only just outside the M25, not that I’m going to correct him, we’re not talking, we’ve had our first in car argument.

P1000116I think I’m quite within my rights to be a little miffed, his chief responsibility is to get us there, but when we miss our exit, because he has started to play Candy Crush, well I’m not best pleased. The deathly silence, is soon broken though, “logs”, he announces, reading a small sign on the verge. Thankfully conversation is soon flowing again, predominantly about the thought process of the jogger we pass, in the middle of nowhere.

Talking of nowhere, that’s exactly where Tom thinks we are “driving to”. At one point, he thinks it’s funny to suggest a scenario, for us to imagine: what would happen if he had “put the wrong place” in the Sat Nav?. Considering our Sleepy Hollow surroundings, it doesn’t bare thinking about.

Shouting “there”, as we whizz pass our turning, is not adequate notice, when we’re going at about 40 miles an hour, forcing me into a three point turn, admittedly my favourite, of all the maneuvers, in a nearby road. Retracing our steps, all is soon forgiven, a brown sign about halfway up a lamp post, points us in the right direction “Harlow Town FC”, it squashes any notion of being lost in no man’s land, and for the first time, the warm, comforting, glow of the floodlights are visible.

The entrance to the Harlow Arena, once we’ve parked, is not that dissimilar to a leisure centre, although, I’ve never been to a swimming pool with a bouncer. Tall and of WWE proportions, with a clipboard in hand and a pencil thin red tie, he ticks us off his list, like the doorman at the Camden Palace, and lets us in.

Midway through a sandwich, Tim, Harlow Town FC’s (HT) stadium General Manager, he has to do that hurried chewing thing, we all do, when you have a gob full, but need to talk. He swiftly joins the list of non league men with incredible handshakes, it’s like a Boa Constrictor. Walking down the tunnel towards the pitch, the entrance of, also having very visible security, Tim gives us the lowdown, pointing to the covered terrace opposite, as to where the “main support” will be during the game.

What he says next, he does so casually, it catches me out at first, my face I’m sure looking a little puzzled, “if we score, you’ll hear the famous air raid siren”. You what? I think to myself, is he having us on? Not wanting to seem rude, I don’t question it, perhaps he hears it in his own head, we both nod along, thanking him, and let him get back to his pre match munch.

Before we “look at the shop”, Tom loves a club shop, he’s gotta get his pin, I take a moment to try and figure out the significance of a sign on a pitch side gate, “BERNABEU”. They don’t seem like a club, with unrealistic notions of grandeur, and although I’m sure their 3G turf is just as hallowed to its fans, as those in Madrid, they are surely not comparing the Harlow Arena to the eleven time Champions League winner’s home, or are they, it is quite nice here.

IMG_20170124_193236In one corner of the ground, just beyond the turnstiles, the small club shop, is one of the finer examples we have seen. A healthy selection of mouse mats, coasters and mugs, surround the decapitated polystyrene head wearing woolly hats, and the armless torso, displaying the clubs red and white, ‘Where’s Wally’, hooped shirt. Interestingly leant up against one wall, a selection of drums, and large flags in the clubs colours, catch my eye.

“Should win” says an HT fan in the shop, when I ask him, how he thinks they will get on tonight, he follows up his prediction with a shrug, and one of my top five cliche’s of all time, “ but football’s a funny old game”. I have him to thank, not only for raising a grin on my face, but also from sparing me from looking like a complete tit, post my entrance into the clubs “golden goal” competition.

Having handed over my £2, my penchant for a non league flutter is well known, 50/50’s and other such club money raisers, have been a bit thin on the ground lately, so it’s nice to be able chuck a bit of cash about, like billy big bollocks. Under the instructions from the lady behind the counter, I choose two white balls, that look suspiciously like dried old haricot beans from the back of the cupboard, each with a number on.

This is where the aforementioned fan does his good deed, noticing me start to walk away, he tells me that they, “go in there when you’re done with it” pointing to another tin, next to the one I had just drawn my numbers from. Ahhhhhhh, the bean lottery is just the way to get your number, the number on the ball, corresponding to a minute in the game. You’re not expected to walk around with two tiny spheres about your person, you tell the woman running the shop your number, or numbers in my case, that you’ve picked, give her your name, and Bob’s your uncle.

‘1’, I tell her. The noise she makes on hearing this, priceless, a kind of ‘I’m disappointed for you’ exhale of air, and I know exactly what she means, without any need of an exchange of words, not a good start. My second number, ‘17’, is not greeted by the same disgruntled sound, so I might be in with at least half a chance.

No bone crushing handshake, but a warm welcome nonetheless, and talk of football players known as “The Machine”, when we meet the host of the ‘Ryman Round Up Show’. He records his weekly show in the HT board room, high at the back of the main stand, overlooking its mostly red seats, bar a few exceptions, a few white ones that spell out HTFC.

Again I don’t want to be rude, but first people are talking about air raid sirens, now it’s mechanical players. The android in question, Alex Reid, will be chalking up his “150th” goal for the club today, if he scores tonight, we’re informed. His nickname by the sounds of it, is warranted, after he “scored 46 goals in his second season, part of which he had a broken ankle”.

“Welcome to the Harlow Arena” says the voice over the tannoy, as the players arrive from the red extendable tunnel, at the foot of the stand, passing a small boy, with his hand outstretched for a high five, all while a bit of the Dave Clark Five, warms the cold night air “Glad All Over”, they sing. “Come on Met” shouts a Metropolitan Police FC (MT) player, to his teammates, all who are sporting the most dazzling day glow yellow kit.

IMG_20170124_194321The inkling of an animated support, after seeing the drums and flags in the shop, is confirmed, before we’ve even made it round the pitch to take up position behind the dugouts, which I must add had red velvet seats in them, very grand. A small group in one corner of the terrace, are already at it “Harlow Town, Harlow Town”, they chant, using the metal back of the stand, to add a bit of rhythm. A more conventional form of percussion, can soon be heard, as they move onto another song, now to the beat of the drum slung over one mans shoulder. I can’t quite make out the words, but it’s definitely to the tune of The Champs, ‘Tequila’, only I think they’ve replaced the 1958 songs single word, with a player’s name.

“Goal number 150, The Machine” howls the stadium announcer after four minutes, a simple close range tap in, gets the player his milestone, and the first goal of the game. Now I’m sure many of you are thinking, ‘you must be gutted, that’s one of your golden goal picks down the drain’, but I must be honest, that is far from my thinking right now. Because right now, right at this exact moment in time, as the players finish their celebrations and start to jog back to their own half, an ear splitting sound starts to emanate from the terrace, slowly at first, but steadily building, into a deafening wail.

Tim wasn’t pulling our leg, he wasn’t drunk, mad or both, they really have a bloody air raid siren, which instantly surpasses any kind of fan atmosphere aid, if there is such a thing, we have ever seen. I am forced to suppress the emotions it’s stirring in me, of the 1940’s twelve year old, I was in a previous life: Doodlebugs, V2’s, Anderson Shelters, spirit of the blitz, Mum sleeping with GI’s for chewing gum and tights. Tom hands me my cup of tea, which I put it down on the ice covered railing around the pitch, we gawp at each other, Tom as ever, able to sum up the moment perfectly, “I didn’t expect that”.

Following the mind blowing experience, that was the siren, Tom and I still in a mild state of shock, there is a quick reminder to the sparse MT following, of the score from the home supporters, “your 1 – 0 down”, which in turn is succeeded by some police based ‘banter’, which must plague MT, wherever they go, “you’re nicked”, shouts someone. What crime the player is accused of, I’m not sure, perhaps it’s ‘crimes against defending’, it was fairly easy for HT to move the ball around them to score, or maybe ‘crimes against football shirts’ MT’s shade of yellow is somewhat garish.

“I’ve got something you’re gonna hate”, says Tom, looking at me, as his hands rummage around in his rucksack, “spare socks”. I’m sure regular readers will know, I’m a stoic, old school, stiff upper lip, Bovril guzzling, rugged kind of guy, and not a snood wearing, East London type like Tom. So the sight of him hopping from foot to foot, putting on a pair of fluffy socks, to keep his toesie woesies warm, well I can feel the bile start to rise, in the back of my throat. He should just let his toes go black, then snap them off without flinching, like all the other proper men, pah.

Having made it around the pitch, Tom now with his cashmere socks on, the nearby drum, reverberates off the metal roof, “hello, hello, we are the Harlow Boys”. To suggest those around us are ‘boys’ might be a bit far fetched, but we have both noticed, that it’s certainly a “younger” crowd as Tom put it, compared to most games we go to. There are of course a smattering of oldies, and white beards, and surprisingly it’s them guilty of the police themed ribbing, which rears its head again, this time after a robust MT challenge, “that was criminal”.

Tom’s thoughts of half time food, are a little premature even for him, however after seeing someone pre kick off tucking into a burger, he described as a “monster”, I doubt he has been able to the think of little else. His attention, is soon brought back into focus, after a fizzing shot from the edge of the box, just misses the top corner, “bit lethal that number 11” he comments, before falling silent, and back to deciding, burger sauce or no burger sauce?

DSC_0184 (1)Not content with singing among themselves, banging their drum, and letting the banshee out of her box, after a goal is scored, the group also make demands of other members of the crowd, like a maniacal Disney villain. They insist at one point that an elderly man on the opposite side of the pitch, waves at them, he quickly does what he’s told, raising his oversized red and white scarf above his head, and waving it back at them, but looks happy enough to do so, so no harm done.

MT’s bench is a scene of much head shaking and quiet contemplation, as their team struggle to have any effect on the game. The so far dominant home performance, has got the home fans geed up and full of song, “we are Harlow, super Harlow, we are Harlow, from the farm, next to Poundland, next to Poundand, next to Poundland, over there” they sing, all pointing in unison, to what I can only imagine is an actual Poundland, (other budget retailers are available) that I imagine is along the road, behind the goal.

Just before half time, HT create three solid chances, non of which are converted, but in doing so they  reassert their dominance, and turn the MT manager, an even more ashen colour. “Really great stuff” says one fan, after their first chance. Tom’s fan crush, number 11 goes close, only a last ditch save, one on one, sends the ball over the bar, instead of into the back of the neck, and a whipped ball across the box, after a surging run down the right, needed only the faintest of touches, to turn it goal wards.

The half comes to an end, with a resounding rendition of a chant, sung to the tune of ‘The Adam’s Family’ theme. On the half time whistle, there are a few left shivering on the terrace, most people, Tom included, have made a beeline to the marquee, for something to eat and the warmth of the bar.

“Sometimes we have three” Ian tells me, in his HT woolly hat, “Ian’s here today”, adds Ian, pointing to another Ian, custodian of the battleship grey siren, on its own little stand, as he makes the short walk from one end of the of the terrace, to the other. I can’t even start to compute, what three of them, would be like. The raw power, so overwhelming, I fear it might make me faint, like a Victorian lady, Tom having to revive me with a dose of smelling salts.

Ian in the hat, is the partner of Donna, the match day secretary, who was also well prepared for the wintry weather, in her smart and very fetching long bright red HT coat, she was kind enough, to get us a team sheet before kickoff.

Tom returns a happy man, clutching a floury bap, that he says is much better than his most recent burger, at Canvey Island. Tonight’s, is warm for starters, and has the added bonus of “onions”. The half time music is soon off, and in the brief moment of silence, all I can hear is the nearby road purring, but peace and quiet is a rare commodity round here, and the sudden loud bang of the drum, makes me jump, blowing away any half time cobwebs, preparing me of the second half.

HT comfortably pick up, from where they left off at halftime, scoring early, this time from a corner. The stadium announcer once again, has just about enough time to tell us it’s “The Machine’s” 151st goal, before we witness the thunderous power of the siren up close, which Ian with the hat had described as their “trademark” during our half time chat. It’s certainly loud, that goes without saying, but it’s Ian with the sirens technique, the slow start, that really makes it awesome, it quickly builds, putting you a little on edge, until it drops.

DSC_0165One fan, from the school of tough rugged blokes, like me, our motto, ‘why do players wear long sleeves?’, shares his ethos with an MT player, only for it to somewhat backfire. “Real men don’t wear gloves”, he shouts, only for a player from his own team, to wave his gloved hands, back at him. I’m pretty sure, if you were that way inclined, you could insert a meme right about here, titled, AWKWARD!.

There are a couple of mainstays in our blogs, things you can be sure we will comment on, be it if we’re in Dortmund or Dagenham. Tom and his search for the ultimate football snack is one, the weather is another. Not wanting to disappoint, tonight is no different, it’s cold, it’s bloody cold. Much like when he gets his snood out, my derision of him, only masks, my own inadequacies, and I wish I had brought a spare pair of socks, my feet are numb, I’m about as rugged as a silk scarf.

MT score, but it’s quickly disallowed, sparking another deluge of police themed jeering, “book him Danno”, “arrest him”. At least shortly after, when a HT player, wins back possession, the choice of “robbed there”, at least kind of works.

“That’s our song”, says a protective Tom, after the latest rendition of, “we’re red, we’re white, we’re fucking dynamite”, like Arsenal have some ownership on it, and the world of football songs is not plagued with plagiarism, it’s a dog eat dog world, my man.

With about quarter of an hour left, sloppy HT play, allows MT a toe hold in the game, as they halve the home team’s lead. “Shall we sing a song for you” ask the home fans generously, to the MT supporters who are conspicuous in their silence, and for the first time, HT don’t look completely in charge, it would really be scandalous if they ended up allowing MT back in the game. Not that the majority of home fans near us are bothered, except one who lets out a booming, and slightly annoyed sounding “come on Harlow”. The rest though have given up on the drum, and someone is now playing The Champs on their phone, another supporter suggesting, “let’s all have a disco”.

“We’re 3 – 1 up, we’re 3 – 1 up” sing the fans, after the best goal of the night, a curling, outside of the box beauty, well out of the reach of the diving MT keeper, that instantly extinguishes, any thoughts of an MT resurgence. Once again, the name of the scorer is read out, and although Tom and I now know, exactly what to expect next, we are no less excited by the third rendition of the sirens song.

We leave the terrace, and slowly make our way around the pitch in the dying minutes of the game. We are not the only ones troubled by the weather, “we’re fucking freezing” says someone in the main stand, one person goes as far as to ask the referee “how longs left?, I’m frozen”. A few people are making their way home, but not in any great number, a person behind us wondering if they have been “spooked, by the fog coming in?”. Something not lost on Tom, having only moments before asked, “is it me, or is the pitch smoking?”.

DSC_0198HT really should have finished with four on the board, a chance right in front of the goal, only a few feet out, is put wide, Tom thinks it must be down to the players “cold feet”, why don’t you lend him your socks? They are presented with another chance, soon after, but once again, when it would seem easier to score, they miss, Tom this time, suggesting it must’ve hit a “divot”, not sure you can use that excuse, on a 3G pitch.

On full time, my hand is once again subjected to an onslaught from Tim’s Titan hands, on our way to the car. We comment on what a good turnout it was tonight, which he quickly tells us is “not a big crowd” for them, even on a weeknight. We also tell him how much we enjoyed the character of the terrace, which he says are not near their normal number, however, “they make enough noise for the ones not here”.

Back in the car, thawing out in front of the heater, the relative silence, is almost unnerving, after the audio assault of the last couple of hours. We both come to the conclusion, when all things are considered, that it’s worth the admission price alone, to be deafened by the siren.

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