Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful game attend the London FA Senior Cup final, a meeting of unequals reffed by a ‘character’. 

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.

Traversing Hyde Park Corner at rush hour was a learning curve to say the least for a relatively new driver, I was relieved when I finally crossed the murky brown Thames, heading south, under a heavy grey sky. Twenty minutes late to meet Tom, I cause a small tailback among the Wednesday night commuters outside Denmark Hill station, double parking just long enough to allow my damp compatriot into the car.

Champion Hill is now a reasonably well trodden ground for us, this being our third visit, but having only actually seen Dulwich once. Even though we know where we’re going, it’s location not a secret, I still love the fact it’s secluded, hidden even, by a giant Sainsbury’s and a car wash, the puddles made by the nearby valet service, form in the entrance to the turnstiles.

P1000478It’s stopped raining, for now at least, the normally vibrant ground is missing any of the colour and noise of the ‘The Rabble’, Dulwich fan group, only their stickers and that of many visiting teams and fans from all over the world, cover the empty scaffold, normally used to hang flags and banners from. Also missing is the “noodle bar” that was here for our last visit, Tom noticing this within seconds of arriving.

Normally quick to scorn Tom’s food obsession, I have to admit the food, particularly the dumplings, the scrumptious juicy dumplings, were fantastic when we saw Dulwich Vs Hendon in the FA Cup, but they won’t be available tonight. At the moment it’s hard even getting our hands on a hot drink, having been directed to the tea bar, by someone in the long gallery bar overlooking the pitch, it’s blue hatch is still closed.

The sound system crackling to life, finally brings some life to a slightly dour Champion Hill, the opening bars of a bit of 80’s electro, Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ is much welcomed, one thing learned from our previous visits, that I can tell you for certain, is the music won’t disappoint.

After taking the opportunity to grab a snap with the gloriously ornate silver London FA Senior Cup, the spoils in tonight’s final, the chairman of the “little step five club” Cray Valley Paper Mills FC (CVP), Frank May, fills us in on the many scalps his team have claimed in this years competition, on their run to the final. The likes of “Welling” and “AFC Wimbledon” have fallen before them, as did “Dulwich” in the semi-final, much he thinks to the annoyance of the London FA, as they were hoping for a “big crowd” this evening, he tells us, but they won’t get that now. CVP by Frank’s own admission, are not well followed, the lure of the “twelve other clubs” within just a “few miles” of their South East London home, means competition for fans is high.

He gives us an example of just how tough that struggle is. In an attempt to drum up support, they sent out thousands of free tickets in a local monthly circular. Only two were used, one of them by someone who was already a season ticket holder. They were “happy as Larry” when the tie against AFC Wimbledon, boosted the gate to around 200, but normally they’re in the low 60’s.

On the few occasions we have seen (MT), who are themselves hardly a well followed team, we could be looking at a very low turn out indeed.
The opportunity though to take on another Ryman Premier League team in Metropolitan Police FC, seems to have Frank excited, despite as he puts it that MT have been “struggling”, relegation a serious concern for them this year, he acknowledges they have put out a “strong side” so will still be a test.

Still no tea, those perhaps in the know or who are better organised than us, sit in the stands with a homemade sandwich and a flask watching both teams warm up, under an ever increasingly gloomy sky. CVP are going through your bog standard drills, MT’s players on the other hand have each been handed a large blue rubber band, that is slipped around each ankle, and is used as part of their very energetic preparations.

Tom’s third attempt to get a drink is thwarted, but eventually the small hatch at the base of the main stand is opened, semi skimmed milk, a sugar pourer and a single teaspoon are laid out, we finally manage to lay our hands on a tea for Tom and a coffee for me, the request for which sends the server into a bit of a tailspin, but he gets there in the end. Tom also treats himself to a Crunchie, in my opinion one of the poorer relations of the confectionery world.

DSC_0042Standing in the tunnel with the faint sound of Kasabian in the background, one linesman jogs on the spot, then stretches, while waiting for the emergence of the teams, he knocks on the door to one changing room, “come on lads” but no one is very forth coming. The referee with the ball under his arm is given the run down of proceedings by someone from the London FA, “respect handshake, then the guest of honor is going to come out”.

Still no players, another blast of the buzzer, and another knock on the door “come on lads”. The MT keeper eventually appears, making his way down the long corridor between home and away changing rooms, but no one else is to be seen. One assistant mimes kicking the door down, the other tells him instead of going all Leonidas, to give the buzzer “a big ring”, hopefully third time’s a charm.

CVP are the ones being a bit tardy, eventually their pumped keeper arrives, gloves tucked into the waistband of his shorts, he is repeatedly slapping himself. It’s at this point my suspicions about the referees competence are raised, when he asks the all bright neon orange wearing keeper, if he was in fact the keeper, “no I’m the striker” he replies.

A few players from each team exchange hellos and the odd thumbs up, before the signal from the referee down front that all systems are go, prompting a few shouts from each team “come on then Cray”, “come on boys”.

Once the teams have been introduced to the guest of honour, who in turn is introduced to the players by the respective captains and the announcer struggles with the team names, due to having “no team sheet”, someone in a fleece is sent screaming down the stairs of the main stand, after noticing a slight oversight, some pop up advertising is still pegged down on the pitch, with the referee now ready to kick off.

It’s hard to recount the first fifteen minutes clearly, down to them being so manic. MT straight away show the difference two levels make, however CVP still look dangerous, especially on the counterattack. It’s they who register the first clear cut chance, the ball looking to have gone through the MT keepers legs, but the CVP player is unable to capitalise.

Although MT think the game should’ve been stopped for a foul, the referee disagrees, allowing the play to continue, CVP storm the MT end, going close again, slamming a shot off the chest of the MT keeper. A member of the MT defence is concerned his team mates have “gone quiet” and tries to rally them, “come on”.

It feels already, with only a quarter of an hour gone, that MT have it all to lose, and the pressure is showing. CVP are playing with a lot more freedom, that despite all the MT possession and dominance, they look a lot more fluid in their play.

We’ve seen a fair few goals this season, non come immediately to mind that I could class as being
particularly special, a wonder strike from thirty five yards or a thirty six pass tika-taka masterclass, however on sixteen minutes, during one of our last games of the season, we witness a goal that shoots right to the top of the 2017/18 highlight reel, rubbing shoulders with the likes of meeting Chris Armstrong with dreadlocks, and Iker Casillas in a rainy Portuguese car park.

CVP are awarded a free kick in the centre circle, just inside the MT half. The left foot cross lofts it into the area, an MT defender in dark blue, reaches it first, his clearance hardly resounding, but it sends the ball away from the danger area, or so he thought. CM’s number 9, loitering just outside the box, runs onto the cleared ball, shapes up to hit it on the volley, with all the technique and poise of a Ballon d’Or winner, well to the left of the D.

Cutting across the ball, striking it at about waist height, he hits the shot so sweetly, so perfectly that the MT keeper in red can only look on, reduced to a spectator like the rest of us as the ball tears across the box, nestling in the opposite corner to where the number 9 is now momentarily frozen by the absolute screamer he has just scored, before jogging towards the bench, then changing his mind and heading off towards the corner flag, followed by a trail of teammates, going out of view obscured by the dugouts, where the MT coach just paces back to his seat, shaking his head.

IMG_20170503_194149 (2)When the announcer comes on, now furnished with the team sheet, he almost sounds as surprised as everyone else. Those in attendance, most of whom are sitting in the main stand, are reduced to sounding like the startled Victorians who just saw an ankle, all gasps and a ripple of applause, no raucous celebrations.

MT’s bench and players are not happy, the shouts and instructions from the dugout, are heavy with a sense of anger and annoyance. On the pitch the players are clearly rattled, diving into some hearty challenges. With the ball going out of play, a lost cause really, it being shepherded off the pitch by a CVP player, he is then assaulted from behind by the chasing MT player, who dives in totally unnecessarily, reducing the defender into a heap on the ground.

The downed player is eventually helped back up by the player who just felled him, who astonishingly doesn’t receive a card, highlighting the let’s say ‘laissez faire’ approach of the referee, who has let some shockers go unpunished. Some might say he is letting the game ‘flow’ some might say, the guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Whereas MT’s kit is a very pleasant shade of dark blue, what you might call a classic, a single block colour, delightful in it’s simplicity. CVP on the other hand are wearing a green and white check number, with a graduating fade from top to bottom, straight off a Vivienne Westwood catwalk. It wouldn’t be out of place in one of those click bait articles you see on social media called ‘Premier League’s Worst Ever Away Strips’, alongside a picture of Gary Neville in grey. CVP’s could easily feature being worn by a Mustapha Hadji of Coventry or Benito Carbone of Sheffield Wednesday circa 1997. It’s inclusion in the aforementioned article implies that we don’t like it, but quite the opposite, it’s absolutely stunning in its garishness.

With just shy of half an hour gone, equilibrium in the world is restored, MT get their equalizer, which is difficult to describe with much enthusiasm, because it just wasn’t anywhere near as good as CVP’s, which has now made all goals, other than the sensational, just boring. You would think that this might lighten the mood on the MT bench, but no.

In a near relegation threatened season, a year’s worth of stress, seems to be coming to the fore in the final game of the calender, against a team from two steps below, they should be beating. The shouts and instructions are getting increasingly angry and a bit foamy at the mouth. At one point, one coach instructs an MT player not to let a CVP player “get round him”, which he fails to do, less than impressed in the player’s ability to stop him, the same coach calls the player an “asshole” under his breath.

Not wanting to be unkind, but ‘fluffed it’ might be the only way to describe the CVP players attempt a couple of feet out from the gaping goal, with the ball having been given to him on a plate, in trying be too precise perhaps, instead of going full Alan Shearer and as they say ‘putting your laces through it’, he side foots it wide, which brings more gasps from the crowd. Honestly, I’ve ko idea how he missed it.

The referee continues to be “lenient” as Tom puts it, I think the guy has lost the plot. Full bloodied, doesn’t quite go far enough, to describe the nature of the many wince inducing tackles. Having watched this level of football for a couple of years now, you might think I would be used to it, but there are still a couple of times a game, every game, I turn away from a crunching coming together, expecting to turn back and see someone’s foot pointing the wrong way.

Tom asks me if it’s him “or is this game fast paced?”, fast paced implies there is some method to what is going on before us, frenzied perhaps would be more accurate. All I want to do is sit down and have a smoke, it’s exhausting just watching. I’m not the only one who needs his fix, the CVP chairman has slinked down to pitchside, maybe in the pretence of taking some photos, with the large camera around his neck, but he’s soon taking deep drags on his fag to help relieve the tension.

IMG_20170503_194431MT forge a chance to take the lead, thanks to a big ball over the top, the forwards touch lets him down a little, but he is able to recover, only for the linesman to lift his flag for offside, which triggers another outburst from the MT bench. “He’s in line, you weren’t in line”, snarls someone to the assistant, who in turn starts to bicker with an MT player who agrees with the bench.

A break in play brings an eerie hush over the ground, the downed CVP player is mortified, “looks like he’s crying” says Tom, as the injured player limps off, his shirt pulled up to hide his face, he receives a sympathetic round of applause from the crowd, which maybe is a little premature, because after a hefty squeeze of the magic sponge, he is back on, but isn’t moving freely.

The injury to the CVP player is the first in a small spate of them, the next is to an MT player, we
think. We didn’t see it, down to the fact it happened between the dugouts, more we heard it, an almighty crash into the metal hoarding around the pitch, which brings the whole MT bench to it’s feet, rushing to his aid. A hush descends again, this time the crowd are quiet, and all we can hear are the distant groans of the player. It would seem no amount of orange segments or spray can help him, his replacement is already stripped off and is ready to come on.

Maybe it’s the disruption of the stoppages, or the fact neither team are super human, no one could surely keep up the pace of the first 15/20 minutes for a whole forty five, the game has now gone very flat. MT revert to their dominant early stance, but there are still plenty of MT fans grumbling, it’s been a less than convincing half for the Ryman Premier League team. CVP’s only hope is on the break, especially down their left flank, where some great whipped in crosses with good accuracy seem to be the main and only outlet from the near constant MT pressure.

The CVP player succumbs to his injury, despite trying to run it off, he has to make way, he leaves the pitch and a team who Tom thinks have had the “better chances” despite being under the cosh a bit, but they just haven’t taken advantage of them, could it come back to haunt them?

“No, no, no” repeats the referee like the lead singer from ‘2 Unlimited’, confirming to the amazed players, staff and crowd that he is not willing to award CVP a free kick after as Tom put it, the MT player had “kicked” the CVP player “about 3 seconds after the ball went”.

The goal, the tackles, the barmy referee, the lack of crowd but reasonable action, MT looking more likely to score, but CVP having the better chances, have all made for a very entertaining first half. As the players walk off, those who are here take a collective deep breath, and search their bags and pockets for a Marlboro Red and a lighter.

A reminder that the bar is open rings around the ground, just after Tom had said how “lonely” the girl attending it looked, she spent the whole of the first half looking at her phone, not having to serve a soul. As we switch ends I grab a Coke, just to prevent her falling asleep. The walk also helps Tom warm up a bit, he’s feeling a little chilly, down to the fact he only has a “thin spring jumper on” sometimes I have no words.

Teams back out, MT gather in an instant huddle, I imagine a few choice words were exchanged, maybe even a tea cup or two were broken, going by a few of the sideline barrages in the first half. CVP who don’t look like they have a care in the world, just do a few runs and a light warm up.

DSC_0256“Lets fucking go” shouts one CVP player, whose turn it is to kick off, the notion that they might be intimidated by their higher ranked opponent is blown clear out the water, by the audacious attempt at a shot straight from the restart, sadly thought it’s a bit tame. Are they under mandate to only score extraordinary goals this evening?

Once again a big tackle stops the game, once again there is no card. After seeing the referee in action in the tunnel, I had a feeling he was going to be a ‘character’. He has been a point of interest all match, once the fouled player has recovered, and the game is back under way, he turns his attention to a CVP player, who he begins to reprimand because the colour of his long sleeved undershirt, doesn’t match his kit. “Andreas, Andreas” says the nearby lino, who looks a bit like a wildling, “its green”, talking to him like you might an elderly relative, who just put their handbag in the fridge. Satisfied it’s the right colour, he jogs away smiling “sorry” he says to the player, who just looks baffled. ‘From another planet’ I say to Tom, the assistant/carer, turns to me grinning.

Toms appraisal of one CVP player is little scathing, “selfish” is how he brands him, after he latched onto a poor pass across the MT defence, which sends him off towards goal, unfortunately his run ends up down a blind alley, he had people open to receive the ball, and the chance is lost.

More moans and screams, another player rolling around in obvious pain, another tackle unpunished, has he forgotten his cards? “He kicked him” suggests a CVP player, but it’s all over the head of the slightly mental Andreas.

Fifteen minutes on the clock and MT nearly, nearly score their own special goal, an edge of the box volley that is struck just as sweetly as the CVP effort, zipping just off the ground, it thunders off a defender, with an almighty boom. The ricochet almost goes in by the way of a defender’s toe, but the loose ball is leapt upon. There is a collective “ohhh”, all are more than aware it could’ve been a beaut. They go close again not long after, but the shot is blazed over the crossbar, flying off into the nearby car park

My suggestion of CVP rueing their missed chances, could now be applied to MT, who with fifteen minutes of the half gone, find themselves behind once more. Not conceding as spectacularly as the first time, this time it’s more embarrassingly. The keeper a spectator once again, he rushes out to meet the ball, it’s headed over him, leaving him stranded, the attacker simply side steps him, with the goal at his mercy. Such is the power of the deft flick of his head, he doesn’t need to touch the ball again, but he still follows it in though, to insure it goes over the line. He runs to meet his teammates on the edge of the box, either sucking his thumb or pretending to play it like a trumpet, I’m not sure, maybe it’s the new Griezmann.

The roaring fire that was lit under the first half of the first forty five minutes, that died out, has been reignited, some of the energy or “zip” as Tom put it, has returned, cigarettes at the ready.

Not long after going behind, MT have a huge shout for a penalty declined, Andreas just runs along with his arms firmly clasped behind his back. Tom, thinks there was a spot of simulation about it, and does the international sign for ‘he went over a bit easy’.

Again another shocking challenge goes unchecked, it really was a horror. I was sure after hearing the crunch, and the scream, and turning back to look to see the player writhing about holding the lower part of this leg, I was expecting the aftermath to be far from pretty. He is seen to, gets up in one piece, but again no retribution. “Not even a card for that?” asks an astonished Tom.

I once heard an announcement at a Spurs game over the tannoy, informing someone in the crowd that his daughter had gone into labour, and he was to contact a steward, then someone else in the crowd shouted in reply “she’s only 15”, but I’ve never heard a request for someone to move their car, because it’s “blocking” the nearby supermarkets delivery “trucks”. The announcer goes onto explain if its not moved it might be “run over”.

DSC_0341“Are you done?” asks a CVP player to a teammate lying on his back, propped up on his elbows, this injury the result of a pulled muscle by the looks of it, not a double footed, shin snapper. The now familiar lull, brought on by a break in play caused by an injury, is this time broken not by a smattering of applause for the departing player, but by the screaming MT manger, whose let his displeasure known, and seems close to breaking point.

It looks like it’s all over for the still prone player, accompanied by the physio he makes the long, slow, limping walk back to the bench.

Now behind, every MT chance seems even more crucial, when they miss them the collective vein in the MT coaching staffs forehead grows a little bigger. When a “power header” as Tom put it, goes just over, sensing the ever increasing MT onslaught, a CVP player demands his teammates stay “solid”.

A fresh appeal for the car blocking the traffic goes out, the friendly request from before, has now been replaced with a warning, tantamount to a threat, if its not moved “something may happen to it, when they drive past it “warns the voice over the tannoy.

Ten minutes to go, CVP are pinned back, MT continue to have the lion’s share of possession, but are really not showing any great threat going forward. “Urgency” screams someone from the bench, but it doesn’t seem to be sinking into the players on the pitch, they almost draw level by fluke more than anything, a wayward cross, turns into a shot, which is tipped over the bar by the fingertips of the CVP keeper.

Behind the dugouts the non league standard at a final, of a fold out table from a carboot sale and the best table cloth has been set up, the winners and runners up medals are being laid out on top. One of those arranging them is a bit anxious about the decision to do it so close to the pitch, “if a ball hits this!”.

“Just over five to go” replies the fourth official to the CVP bench after the umptenth request, in the last couple of minutes, for how much of the game is left to play. He also has to remind them to stay in their area, the impending victory and second Ryman Premier League team feather in the cap, has got all involved fidgeting and pacing, no one able to sit down for more than a second.

As if all of a sudden, the board with the extra time already primed and programmed into it, the fact they are about to lose this final has dawned on one MT player, who goes a little Joe Hart, angrily demanding the ball back, when it goes out of play, the response of a cool calm Geordie fourth official does little to sooth him “calm down pal, it’s not multi ball”.

When the board is lifted, the green ‘3’ telling CVP how long they have to hold on for, MT go close, and that again brings another “ohhh” from the crowd. Not that CVP needed telling how much extra time there was, they have asked 400 times in the last minute.

“Corner, corner, corner” shout the CVP bench on the few occasions they get the ball, the players oblige heading straight for the far side of the pitch, running that clock down, frustrating both MT players and bench even more, I fear for their health.

The over excited CVP keeper has thankfully stopped slapping himself, instead he is now rolling around on the floor, hugging a fellow teammate. Finally the well mannered crowd have thrown off the shackles of Victorian society and let out their biggest cheer of the night, and the voice over the tannoy is not talking about obstructions, but is now congratulating the victors.

DSC_0528Those on the bench embrace, before heading off to join up with the rest of the team on the pitch. One of the injured players, subbed off during the match, hobbles over as fast as he can, to join in with the small mosh pit of winners signing “ole, ole, ole”, impressively celebrating only on one foot that’s without a sock or a shoe. Maybe ever more impressively is the Herculean strength of the female physio, who is giving one player a piggyback back. Any thoughts of the CVP keeper perhaps calming down a little, are soon undone, he is offering up high fives to anyone who will accept one with the force of Anthony Joshua.

It’s quiet for MT as they pick up their runners up medals, agonisingly having to walk past what is a
magnificent trophy, that they won’t be getting their hands on. The good mood soon returns, when the announcer introduces the “winners, Cray Valley Paper Mills”. Each player picks up his little red box, and lines up behind the fold out table, ready to lift the cup.

“Ohhhhhhhh”, the players build the suspense before hoisting it skywards, and breaking into a rendition of “champione, champione.” It’s not until the group starts to break up, that it’s clear that the celebrations have not gone totally plan, one player stands looking dumb founded, the physio holding a gauze to his forehead, attending to a gash caused by the flying lid of the cup. “At least you’ll always have something to remember today by” she says pragmatically, before telling him it might need to be “stitched or glued”.

I’m not sure if it was that goal, the elusive bookings, the age old story of David & Goliath or the fact it was a game between two of the more curiously named clubs in the UK, but today will certainly go down as memorable, I just can’t put my finger on why. However, for the players and staff of CVP this gloomy night in South London I would think, will be one they will never forget, as one CVP player said to another leaving the pitch after all was said and done, “what a Wednesday night”.

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