Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game revisit Park View Road for a FA Cup Preliminary round and a spot of Thin Lizzy.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.

I’m not sure if it’s the fact that The Raiders March is the first song on the radio on my way to pick up Tom or the fact that once I have got him, he doesn’t “want to talk about football” after his beloved Arsenal lost to the Champions League winner swollen squad of Stoke City both of which give me great pleasure in equal measure. However as we dip under the Thames, heading South of the river through the Blackwall Tunnel, the sun is out, Tom yanking off his jumper as things start to warm up a little, today already has the feel of being a good one.

P1000714This afternoons venue could creep up on you a little, one could probably pass it without even noticing it, easily distracted by the large car showroom opposite. It’s coordinates for me though will forever be seared into my internal GPS, like a salmon who despite having a brain the size of a grape knows instinctively what river to swim up, what waterfall to jump, to reach that little rock, on that specific stretch of water, to get its spawn on.

Park View Road is the one and only place I’ve actually won something in a raffle! What an achievement, all the way back in 2015, the 2nd place prize of a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which still sits proudly on the shelf in my kitchen, will never be forgotten. I frequently look longingly at it, a reminder of why I always have a go, even two years later I can’t bring myself to move it, it’s just too precious to me, and it has nothing to do with the fact I hate wine, and have no intention of drinking it.

A much, much, much better three point turn later, far better then the horror show at Braintree and without having to worry about local parking restrictions, as it’s a Sunday. Normally a day I observe my strict code of doing nothing, however football is a powerful force, enough to budge me from the sofa, and away from a very average looking ‘Super Sunday’. Nothing about Newcastle this season is going to be super, and I don’t want to face watching Spurs at Wembley Vs Chelsea so I’m recording it. We park right opposite the ground, only the width of the road away from the back of the terrace, the passing buses top deck getting the best view in the house.

Our short thirty minute drive was all done without the hint of Tom being sick, after the previous couple of days of excess at a friend’s wedding in Brighton. Where he assures me he didn’t go at it too hard, despite his girlfriend finding him asleep on the floor of their hotel room next to the bed, when he had started in it.

There are two types of 50/50 I know of in football. Firstly the fundraising type lots of clubs do. Secondly, and I think better known as a half and half, but for the purpose of this, let’s all pretend for a moment we’ve all heard someone call it a “50/50 scarf”

The first is a fantastic way for clubs to boost their revenue on match day. Something most people, some more than others, are more than happy to chuck a pound in the pot for, on the off chance they might win £15 or a hamper of fudge.

The second, and currently ranked third after Sky Sports and Sepp Blatter, in the all time list of most loathed things in football. There will be at least one occasion a season my Twitter timeline is plastered with a picture of a Spurs or Manchester Utd fan with one on at their respective derby, forcing the internet into near meltdown.

It’s well documented that I’m a fan of the 50/50. I’ve never really had reason to discuss my thoughts on the half and half scarf, but I can’t say I’m a fan. Don’t be greedy I say, just have one or the other, or just don’t have one at all. In my humble opinion, it’s only ever going to make you look like a cock.

Today though I can increase that list, as certainly for the first time in three years, we come across a concept I’ve never been aware of before, the 50/50 stadium.

DSC_0063As I said we’ve been to Park View Road before, but the winning of a prize in the raffle and angry Welling United fans around us, shouting at their manager as they got thumped in the FA Cup by Carlisle means I must admit that I have no recollection of the setup being this way.

On one side, the red side, you have a building sized image of players, the large welcome sign and grand turnstiles, that you might expect from a National League side.

On the opposite side, the blue side, well let’s just say you don’t have any of that. The most you get is a small nondescript sign, a small white turnstile, manned by a single person. None of which has any of the razzle dazzle of a club one promotion from being talking about by Colin Murray on a Saturday evening. Honestly it’s a little scruffy, and not instantly obvious what it is in the first place.

Although we’re early, there is a game already in full swing, two local under 11 sides are using half the pitch for a match, as their parents look on from the big blue stand or the all red terrace, all while Wonder Wall by Oasis blares out from a changing room, which won’t be the first song choice today reminiscent of my early teens CD collection.

Alan, Erith & Belvedere FC’s (EB), the team that calls the blue side home, club secretary tells me this is a new initiative they have started, a way to engage with the local community. I ask him about the set up here. To say EB simply ground share is not correct. Mainly because of quite how much of a stamp they have made on it. Normally with a ground share, your are either the landlord or the tenant, where the latter is not allowed to use any blue tack or put any of their own pictures up. The property comes fully furnished, and the lodgers can use the pitch every other Saturday.

With Park View Road this is not the case at all. Although it’s not always been their home. It wasn’t until a “fire” at their old ground in 1997 and after a bit of sofa surfing that followed, did they start calling it home until the start of the 1999-2000 season, taking up a “50 year” lease on the ground with Welling, Alan tells us. The arrangement between both clubs seems relatively straightforward, and one I’m surprised we’ve not see more of. “Our side, their side”, explains Alan. The pitch that divides the two teams who both live under the same roof, their relationship a lot more Bert & Ernie, than a Mark & Jeremy from Peep Show, is “maintained” by Welling also, as are the terracing behind the goals, which Alan is fine with, “less for us to shell out” he adds. And considering the condition of one end, I wouldn’t want the responsibility for sorting it out, it’s in a right state.

Looking on in blue tracksuits the EB players already here, watch the game unfolding on the pitch, offering up advice to the players, and getting very excited when one shows off a bit of skill, “did you see that chop?”. All while the second song from Dan’s early 2000’s mix CD comes on in the home dressing room, Tribute by Tenacious D, “that’s different” comments a slightly baffled Tom.

Always keen to be positive, and never wanting to be mean or unfriendly, I really don’t want anyone at EB to get upset when I say that I don’t think that the shop from our last match at Braintree Town, the finest example of a club shop we’ve ever come across, has much to worry about, when compared to that of EB. Again, not wanting to sound rude, its perhaps hard to even call it a shop, a dilapidated shed with an old front door with a broken window, is the most accurate I can be.

Once inside, there are no obvious lights as such, just piles and piles of programmes scattered around,
and the option to buy either an EB tie or scarf. The only light that allows you to see around the small space, is that coming in through the large opening at one end, which has been created by some chipboard having been pinned open.

IMG_20170820_145617 (2)Accessible only from the outside, and next to the old EB shirts hanging from some coat hangers above a couple of shopping trolleys, is the EB wall of mugs, each one hanging from a large rusty nail.

Among the Hull, Reading and Chelsea chinaware, low bottom right, cooly minding its own business, one in particular catches my eye, an England Euro’ 96 one. Relatively plain and simple, with a couple of dings and chips, it sticks out like a sore thumb. For most people my age, that tournament holds a special place in their heart, it stirs up a unique kind of nostalgia from within them, and not wanting to see it fall into a further state of disrepair and for the sum total of £3, I unhook it from its nail, and put it in my bag, preserving it for generations to come

The young man sporting the slick haircut, who is brimming with confidence, doesn’t have to ask me twice if I want the chance of winning a signed EB football. All I have to do is pick a team or teams on the card he hands me, and fingers crossed it’s the one I pick, that gets drawn out the hat later today. Tottenham are gone, they’re always gone, so I go for Wolves, because I had a Wolves shirt once. Arsenal are gone, so Tom goes for Rangers. “Wish us luck”, I ask the small red headed vendor.

We chat with two EB fans, @wearethederes in his dark blue EB scarf, with the clubs crest of a stag on it, and Ed who has been watching EB for over thirty years. Both are confident of an EB win, “2 -1” is their score prediction, they both tell us without hesitation and almost simultaneously. Both are confident of the win, despite the league difference between EB and their opponents from the league above, Cray Valley Paper Mills FC (CM). They tell us though their team will have to keep their eye on EB old boy Denzel Gayle who they describe as “quick” one miming fast hands to emphasise the point.

Well they don’t mess about here, feels like only moments ago I was riding high on the thought of potentially winning a signed football, and still with a good forty five minutes to kick off, any notion of a win is brought crashing down to earth, with the announcement that the “ball is here” and ready to be collected, but not by me, by whoever picked “Hibernian”. At least the pain of the loss is out of the way nice and early, not having to dwell on its potential outcome, all through the first half.

Toms impending roast dinner, remember it’s Sunday, means gambling is not the only thing getting resolved early. No dash for food at half time and heart palpitations about long queues today, and instead of him thinking to himself that he’s having a large meal in a couple of hours when he gets home so I won’t bother, he just gets his food before kick-off instead.

Sitting pitchside, Tom two mouthfuls into his burger and chips, a second chance for a flutter presents itself, a chance at redemption. Same set up as before, Spurs and Arsenal are gone just like before, but it’s a different prize, this time the chance to pocket £20. Tom opts for Portsmouth, I hope that picking Stoke, Arsenals vanquishers from the day before, might just give me the edge.

“Welcome to Park View Road” says the voice over the PA, I wonder if it’s the same person who decided that Cotton Eye Joe (I NEVER OWNED THAT) was a suitable song choice? He tells us not if he is guilty of such a crime, but that “if you wish to smoke, please use the terrace”.

Along with his potentially dubious taste in music, his public information film address about smoking, he can add the curious way he reads out the teams to the list of reasons why he is a bit different from your average, run of the mill, non league announcer.

The ‘normal’ way I guess is just reading out the number and the name, quick and to the point. He instead reads out their name, fine, nothing wrong with that, then their number, again all normal, but then adds the word “shirt” on the end. The addition of the extra word, feels like we might be here all day, before he is done.

DSC_0122I’m not sure I’m the first person to be fucked by Leeds United, but for the second time today, the agony of defeat is raw, but quick, like the fast removal of a plaster. Whoever picked the Yorkshire club are the winners this time. I really thought my track record at Park View Road stood me in good stead, how wrong I was, 0 – 2.

Alan reminds the announcer at the back of the stand, just before the players arrive, to give a mention to one player who will be making his one hundereth appearance for the club today. @wearethederes and Ed are ready in the stand, @wearethederes scarf strung out across the seats in front of them. The kids from the game earlier, are now jostling in the small space at the mouth of the short tunnel, that rises up from the base of the stand, waiting to be allocated their player as today’s mascots. The consensus among them is that they all want to go with a “striker”.

“Please welcome on to the pitch today’s teams”, one fan follows the announcer with a shout for the home side “come on the Dares”. As the teams shake hands, he goes through the lineups again, “Erith & Belvedere in blue and white quarters” or “Blackburn” as Tom puts it, “Cray Valley in black and green”. EB win the battle of the kits today, but I was hoping for a run out of the CM beauty from the London Senior Cup final, a real gem, but it’s nowhere to be seen

Kick-off is slightly marred by the fact a crazy person behind us suggests it’s “chilly”, when it’s boiling, however first chance of the game, which falls to EB only moments after the start, focuses the mind. The shot on goal though, is not so focused as the ball sails over, almost clearing the nets and heading towards the car showroom on the opposite side of the street.

“Where’s the cover?” asks an EB fan as CM race into the lead with only five minutes gone. The scorers dinked finish is almost kept out, the EB keeper gets a hand to it, but its not quite enough, the ball still able to just dribble over the line. Running towards the corner flag, the player who just put CM ahead, is lifted into the air by the player who assisted him.

The same fan who was bemoaning his teams lack of defending, is soon back to supporting them, “come on Erith, come on Erith” he sings. Another fan suggests to the referee, that he must have missed the “handball” that led up to the goal, I must admit I did.

Unfortunately having the best kit, doesn’t mean you are impervious to attacks, sadly it doesn’t work like something from Harry Potter. Quarter of an hour gone, the league difference between the teams, is looking like a gulf, more than just a few places on a table. This time the scorer of the first, assists with the final ball for CM’s second. “Fucking relentless” shouts the CM keeper, who is not far off. It’s all been one way traffic.

“This is our house” shouts one EB fan behind us, who apparently has just walked off the set of 8 Mile Two, or a teen dance based drama, talking like that. “Fucking wake up” adds another, Tom just decides to take the Lord’s name in vain “Jesus” he says, as the green and black tidal wave continues to crash up against the EB defense, who at the moment look unable to stop them.

There is plenty of advice from the stands, and a little bit of encouragement for them when their forward shows good strength latching on to a long ball from the back, holding off his marker with ease. It’s only a half chance, a tame shot that never really threatened, but it’s their first since the one that almost broke the windscreen of a brand new Alpha Romeo, “that’s better” someone shouts.

Some football supporters in life can be cruel, ripping their team apart at every opportunity, some are the opposite, what people might call a “happy clapper”, the category I’m firmly rooted in. Whatever their name, the EB ones immediately around us also fall into the latter. “Good dummy” shouts one, half laughing, following a defender 100% missing a header, the ball completely bypassing him.

DSC_0189When they have a chance on goal, which are few and far between, the simple fact they register “a shot”, which one fan shouts, only a few notches down from what you might expect if they had actually scored, sparks off one of the only two people in the crowd who are offering any kind of singing or chanting. Curiously though they never do it at the same time, always alternately. “Come on you Dares”, one will shout, “come on you blues” the other will half sing. Maybe it’s just the same person moving about to give the impression of a noisy support.

“Looks a bit viking” comments Tom, who without the burger queue to concern himself with has the time to point out some of the nuances of the game playing out in front of us. As ever though he follows up his slightly left field observation, with one that hits the nail on the head, “got to use him more”. ‘Him’ being the EB number 7, “ come on Olla” shout the home fans, whenever he gets on the ball. His frightening pace is EB’s one and only outlet.

Tom thinks EB are “getting better”, post the “relentless” attacks as the CM keeper put it in the first quarter of the match. The main reason in his eyes for the upturn in performance is simply because they haven’t “conceded”. I agree, I reckon they look a lot more composed, they are passing the ball about with a lot more authority. I suggest you could even say they are ‘stroking’ it about, Tom’s not so sure however, “wouldn’t go that far”.

“That’s better blues”, EB’s determination has paid off, and number 7 has bagged himself a very fine goal indeed, and has well and truly dragged his team back into the game. Leaving the CM defenders in his wake, he picks up the ball just inside his half, tears down the wing, once in the box, the keeper racing out to meet him, he slots it past him into the far corner. The mascots sitting opposite us, show their appreciation by banging their seats.

The half finishes with what might be the line of the day, I thought hearing someone shout “man sandwich” when an EB player is caught between two of CM’s all jumping for the same ball, but when a CM player shows the slightest whiff of a bit of showboating on the edge of the EB box, and one fan like a heckler at a David Copperfield gig, bellows at the defender “watch his trickery”, the human butty comment is easily surpassed.

There is a brief moment of handbags that I think the kids find the most entertaining of anything that’s happened so far, including the three goals, cheering like bloodthirsty spectators at the Colosseum and number 7, nearly, nearly, gets on the end of what someone quite rightly calls a “good ball” which would have put him in on goal.

As the players leave, a much different atmosphere engulfs the home team, than the one that hung over them after the disastrous first fifteen minutes. Now upbeat with a shared feeling of ‘we might be back in this’, following their performance of the last fifteen minutes. One CM supporter asks a player to “keep tight on their number 7”, he looks back, a few steps down the tunnel and tells him smiling, “I’ll try”.

The departing grown up players are quickly replaced by a hoard of much smaller and high pitched ones, as we are treated to a bit of half time entertainment, a penalty shoot out. Well trained by watching too much Premier League football, the scorers emulate their TV heroes, tapping their shirts badge when they score. One of the keepers is just shy of going full Joe Hart when he concedes, oh the face on him. One attempt is so high over the bar, that as Tom points out if it was “two inches lower, that laptop was gone”.

However all the passion, squeals of success, and moans of failure, might be for nothing, as after about five or six spot kicks for each team, one of the coaches asks the other if he is “keeping the score?”. All this while music that was released before any of them taking part were born, once again from NOW 31, blares out from the sound system, “boom, boom, boom, let me hear you say wayo”, followed by a bit of Super Furry Animals.

DSC_0265Fancying a change of scenery, we tell @wearethederes of our proposed move, to what he calls the “Welling side”, which he says with a mild hint of disgust in his voice, like we’re off to join the enemy, If I’m honest we just fancied the look of the padded seats and the carpeted floors.

It’s a spot of Thin Lizzy that greets the players returning to the pitch.

Number 7’s low cross finds its intended target on the edge of the six yard box. Instead of putting his foot through it he decides instead to dummy it, sort of waft his foot at it, an attempt to leave or pass it to a teammate, but to who? There is no one near to him. “Fucking aider” says his manager standing outside the dugout just in front of us, momentarily embodying a cast member of Last of the Summer Wine, looking at his bench for an explanation for why he just did that.

Tom a little less Compo, but just as shocked as the EB manager suggests the player has “gotta to do better than that”.

CM’s coach is quick to acknowledge EB’s swift start and in turn tells his team to “wake up!”. He shouts at his captain, telling him to get the team’s heads “out of the changing room”. His instructions almost come too late, as EB nearly score a deserved equaliser. It’s only a smart reaction save, that stops the point blank range header.

“We’re the blue and white arm” sings the fan in the stand, as the low fizzing shot from you guessed it number 7, looks destined for the bottom corner, so much so before it’s even gone in, Tom has blurted out “goal” like a monosyllabic John Motson. Only for somehow, the CM keeper managing to get down, and with a single strong hand turn the ball around the post.

All EB’s promise of a comeback is thwarted, when a “good cross” as Tom calls it, which kind of undersells it, it was a great first time cross, finds the CM number 9 in the six yard box. At first his header is saved, but the ball loops back down straight on to the head of the number 9, who gets a second bite at the cherry and is able to nod it in on his second attempt.

Once again CM look to have put the result out of sight, once again EB go close not long after conceding to reducing the deficit once more. His manager calls it “unlucky” the player looks distraught, his hands firmly clamped to the top of his head, after he watches his dipping shot from the edge of the box, come back off the bar. Only three games in and Tom reckons if he had scored, we would have seen our “goal of the season” already.

With twenty minutes to play, the result of what has been a thoroughly enjoyable match, seemingly all but confirmed, there is what looks like a innocuous tackle on the far side of the pitch, that sadly develops into an injury that requires a bit more than a blast of the magic spray. It’s shadow hanging over the remainder of the match, like a grey cloud. Bringing life into perspective a bit and really making the result irrelevant, because frankly there are more important things in life.

“Banged his head on the fence” we overhear someone say on the CM bench. “Eggy” has now been down for an uncomfortable amount of time, the physio is with him, and right under the nose of those fans pitchside, he is still being treated.

Number 7 once more shows his great feet, if EB have any chance of scoring, it would seem its only going to come from or via him, as he continues to bomb up and down the right wing, almost completely unabated. “Stop the cross!” shouts the CM bench, but they can’t, they are powerless to stop him. The “great” ball as someone in the stand describes it, that he whips into the box from out wide, is a hairs breath from being poked in at the back post, only for the last ditch actions of a defender knocking it into to touch.

Tom suggests “I’ve fallen in love” with number 7, not sure my feelings for him stretch that far, he is rather good though, and I do tell Tom I would happily take him out for a set menu meal of his choice, if he’s up for it.

DSC_0257However with CM’s number 10 still down, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. Tom reckons he’s getting “stitches”, but he still isn’t moving much. Quite how serious the situation is, is made clear when very calmly the referee approaches the CM bench and checks that they have “called an ambulance”.

With the departure of their number 10, by far CM’s brightest spark, they have lost all of their dynamism and creativity, with a two goal lead and with ten minutes left to play it doesn’t look like it’s going to make a big difference on the outcome.

EB’s number 7 though, has enough flare for both sides, the CM bench now instructing the team to “double up” on him. Such is his flamboyance on occasion he seems to be winding a few people up, which boils over into a brief outbreak of silliness, a bit of rutting, but not much more. Not long after, a CM player goes steaming in, a bit of left overs from the previous spat, which a couple of blokes along from us really enjoyed, taking to their feet to applaud the player who dived in. The referee doesn’t see anything wrong with it, Tom is amazed that he “didn’t book” anyone involved.

“Keep warm” both sets of players are told, as the ambulance arrives at one corner of the pitch. A sickening hush falls over the ground, only the noise of a couple of players doing keepy uppies breaks it. A brief ripple of applause lifts the mood as Eggy is put on the stretcher. The players are told it’s going to be about “three minutes” until the restart, and once again to “get fucking warm”.

“Never get small head wounds, do I?” asks the returning physio to the CM bench

Clapping his hands intensely to get their attention, one CM player demands his team mates are “switched on”, as the game gets back underway following the long delay. EB and I on the other hand are about as switched on as a broken lightbulb, almost from the restart CM add to their lead, 4 – 1.

The stop for the injury has put to an end any kind of EB fight back, CM are well and truly on-top, almost toying with EB. Number 7 now casts a lonely figure on the touchline, and is far from impressed that he’s not getting any of the ball. Almost sulking, and clearly frustrated, he watches the action in his own half, from just inside CM’s, waiting for the ball. When it does come his way, CM’s bench make the same request of the defense, to “stop the cross”, and like every time before that, they are just unable to.

“What a save!” cries Tom, at what firsts looks like an excellent bit of goalkeeping, but was actually the well placed head of an EB defender on the goal line, who manages to get something on what looked like goal number five. The attacker I’m sure could have just put it away, but seems to almost pause for dramatic effect, but it doesn’t quite pay off.

“Four minutes of normal time” to be played, replies the linesman, when asked once again how much of the game is left. There is an air of ‘let’s get this game put to bed now’ about everyone, on both sides, no one seems to know how much is going to be added on for the injury.

CM continue to create in the final moments, EB’s number 7 continues to demand the ball, but isn’t getting a sniff now. The visitors get the final chance of the match, “strike” says the coach from his technical area, as the player shapes up to do so, on the edge of the EB box. A mighty ping follows, not that of the ball crashing off the underside of the bar and in, but off the top of a lamppost behind the goal.

The whole bench laughs, the manager turns to his staff and the substitutes, “that’s what he was aiming for”

There were many subplots to today, many little factors that contributed to an excellent afternoon. The
friendly EB chairman on his bar stool in the scarf draped bar, with it’s replica World Cup trophy, the wall of mugs, the teams sharing the ground, equal partners, rather than that one person nagging the other to put the milk away all the time, the battle of the kits, the carpeted stand or the fact that CM created a bit of club history, by winning they progressed the furthest they ever have in the FA Cup, however all of this seems inconsequential, when someone leaves in an ambulance.

It was a great game, a back and forth game, with plenty of goals, funny lines from the crowd and some tackles that give us the shivers, but again it all seems somewhat unimportant when someone leaves in an ambulance.

What was truly the best bit about today, was the calmness of the officials and the professionalism of the CM physio, because I imagine when you’re lying on your back, looking up at the sky, while someone straps you to a stretcher, its those kind of people you need around you, to help you through a difficult spot, not someone who can write a paragraph about a mug.

Get well soon Eggy!

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