Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game have just found their Nirvana. And it’s in Braintree, Essex.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.

“Why’s it spitting?” asks Tom grimacing as he looks out of the window, at the small spots of rain hitting the windscreen. They are so inconsequential, I hadn’t really noticed them until he had pointed them out.

For our second game of the season, and after going to the south coast for our first, it seemed almost rude not to venture into what might be the most abundant football county in the UK, Essex. I’m pretty sure we spend the majority of our time traversing it’s highways and byways, so much so that it’s almost become a second home.

P1000693Thankfully the minuscule amount of rain has not gotten any worse, so Tom unscrews his face, and we are able to continue our journey without anymore grumbling.

The long tailback that greets us as we arrive in Braintree, is not exactly the welcome we wanted. We follow the Sat Nav diligently as we do, until we realise where its directing us, doesn’t exist, and we go from being as cool as cucumbers to having a mini meltdown, Tom desperately trying to direct me, as I navigate the rush hour traffic.

Turning down a nondescript suburban road still feels wrong, when in search of a football ground, despite the countless amount of times we’ve done it, and always find at the end of it what we’re looking for. Some part of my subconscious is still convinced that all football is only played in ‘Mega Domes’ and 90,000 seater stadiums.

You would think if we were clever, that we would’ve used the man in the lurid bright orange shirt of tonight’s home team, Braintree Town FC (BTFC) like the lights on a runway (trust me the kit is bright enough) to guide us, however and long time readers can attest to this, but for those of you new to the blog, I’ll let you in on a little secret, we’re not, so we don’t.

Ignoring him, we pass what I can only describe as prefab yellow houses that are almost toy like, almost completely square like something from a model village, and continue onward down a road, which quickly turns into a lane, then a path then a gravelly patch of wasteland in the middle of the Essex countryside.

Abort, abort, abort I scream to myself in my head. Putting the car into reverse, we retrace our steps, clearly in the wrong place, and only moments away from needing mountain rescue to save us.

I can only apologise to the people of number 39 Muddy Lane, for spending the next ten minutes loitering outside of your front door, continuously revving my engine as I perform what Tom later describes as the “strangest” three point turn he has ever seen.

Back and forth, every couple of seconds I make another small, but totally pointless adjustment. We are getting nowhere and are heading into Austin Powers territory. About a foot away from number 39’s living room, the bottom of my car scraping on the curb, I can only hope that no one wants to leave or get in, because my bonnet is almost touching the letter box.

For the second time tonight I scream, abort, abort, abort as the inside of my head has now gone fully Das Boot. I stop, and use Tom’s face as motivation, it’s a mixture of sheer embarrassment and terror. I just about manage to compose myself long enough to get us the hell out of this heinous situation, which was completely of my own making.

One again, I cannot apologise enough to the poor people of number 39.

Thankfully another BTFC shirt presents itself and we take heed this time, following it like the star of Nazareth, crawling ever so creepily in first gear behind the wearer of the orange of orangeist kits, not wanting to overtake them or deviate from the path whatsoever, to ensure we make it to Cressing Road.

Not quite the pearly gates, however the large wrought iron blue ones at the entrance to the ground are a very welcome sight. Not quite Saint Peter, however the man who sells us our pass to the car park, is just as cordial and patient, as I’m sure the guardian to heaven would be. When I spill my in car change pot all over the floor, sending a good £10 worth of coins to the unreachable realm of under the seat, and I have to cobble a couple of quid together from mainly shrapnel, he doesn’t show for one moment that he might be getting annoyed, he just waits with a holy air, then happily waves us on.

I’m well aware the turnstiles of the last century were not built for great hulking lumps of the 21st century, however it feels just like the icing on the cake of a shocking past hour or so, when I genuinely think I might be stuck. Trying my best not to look completely panicked in front of the ticket seller, half a foot from my face, trapped in his cage fronted, tiny brick cupboard. I eventually pop out the other side, unscathed physically, but with my self esteem a little bruised.

Desktop5What better way to restore one’s morale, than a look around a club shop, we do love a club shop, and a little birdie has told me that there are two of them here, one being so magnificent, it has its own Twitter account. The one admittedly before us though, is pretty standard, a blue shipping container with a gazebo being erected in front of it. A man in a club baseball cap, lays out his wares on a fold out table, and hangs shirts on a portable clothes rail. I fail to see how it warrants its own social media presence.

Hidden between two banks of terracing that stand behind one goal, out of the way, and off the beaten track as all treasures generally are. Never heard of the X on the map, being just off the highroad have you? No you have to search a little, go down a few fiery rat filled sewers, almost get chopped up by the propeller of an ocean liner, or have to bring your own Dad back to life using the cup of Christ, before you can get you hands on the goodies.

I’ll tell you right now, if you’re a true connoisseur of football related trinkets, the Supporters Club Shop at BTFC, is worth being chased by a one hundred boulders for.

Before I go on though, I think it’s important to clarify that we saw no rats at Cressing Road. I don’t want anyone to take my Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade analogy too literally. Unfortunately though I must report we did spot some vermin, just a solitary mouse, Mickey Mouse to be precise, waving from the side of Mr Cheers ice cream van, which Mr Cheers had parked in one corner of the ground.

Get me a chair I’m feeling light headed, hide my wallet this could get expensive, and make room for the big man because once you make the short step up into the low ceilinged blue and orange hut, there is just about enough room to swing a smallish kitten.

Some call it Shangri La, some call it Valhalla, the Ancient Greeks called it Elysium, whatever your faith, whatever your name for Nirvana is, I might have just found mine.

Surely this is now the club shop that all future clubs shops are comparable to, the pinnacle of their kind? I’m choked up just writing this, it quite honestly is a thing of pure beauty. Step aside Mona Lisa, move over Sistine Chapel, because when people hear about this, your visitor numbers are going to plummet, and people will be taking their holidays just off the A120 to marvel at what I have just walked into.

If you have been unlucky enough to watch one of the many thousands of TV programs about home improvement, not the one with Tim Allen, then you will know it’s all about maximizing the space you’ve got, making the most of your ten square foot £1,000,000 apartment in London, by putting your shower under the stairs, oven in the second bedroom, that kind of thing.

This ethos has been embraced with both hands here, although not big, I think my head is almost touching the ceiling and if I stood with both arms outstretched I could touch both walls, however this has not stopped the them using every available inch of space to cover, hang, drape or suspend a whole array of football awesomeness.

Scarves from clubs as far afield as Madrid, Paris and Clacton. One whole wall is covered with programmes, everywhere else you look there are perspex boxes overflowing with more of them. Pins, you want pins, there is a corkboard teeming with them. Teddy Bears, key rings or maybe shirts are your thing? How about a Juventus, Celtic, West Ham or signed Southend one, all for the price of less than a pint in Toms local.

Somehow I resist, the strength of the tractor beam coming from the dark blue Juventus away shirt was strong, but something stops me from handing over what was essentially peanuts and I depart with only with a programme, cherished memories, and the coordinates on the map to find the next X, the 50/50 seller.

DSC_0219I think it would be fair to say BTFC’s home is a tad run down, just in need of a bit of TLC. I expected though a bit more from a club that was last season in the National League. I just have this feeling that I might catch my shirt on a loose nail every time I walk past something. Surrounded on three side by trees, you have the choice of the main stand on one side of the pitch, or what you might call a shed, a long covered terrace on the other, everything in the clubs unmistakable garish shade of orange.

It’s the reaction of two young BTFC fans, scarves around their necks, both clutching their programmes so tightly like they’re going to run away, when they see the players emerging from the narrowest tunnel I’ve even seen, it’s about a man and a half wide, for the warm up, that does away with my bad mood. According to Tom I’ve been well “grumpy” since picking him up.

“Actual footballers” says one to the other, his eyes on stalks, popping out of this head at the sight of seeing a man in his mid twenties in shorts jog onto a football pitch. The second boys response is even better, he is so overjoyed, so clearly delighted by the simple fact, as he puts it “they came close to me” he looks as if he’s had a minor religious experience.

With not only the finest hair in all of non league, but a fantastic name to boot, we bump into Daniel, who is perhaps the most dedicated of groundhoppers and life long BTFC fan. In the shelter of the shed I ask him his thoughts on tonight and on the rest of the season. After the disappointment of relegation, I’m sure immediate promotion is the only thing on their mind.

His reply is brief, but the tone of his voice gives away an apprehension and nervousness of what is to come for his team in the months ahead, “I don’t know, I don’t know” he repeats shaking his head. The main reason for his uncertainty is the fact as he puts it, “this team’s all new”.

“Good evening and welcome to the Ironmongery Direct Stadium” says the voice over the PA, no we haven’t moved on somewhere else, that’s the official, sponsored name for the ground, but I’ve been told the locals still stick with Cressing Road.

The few fans of BTFC’s opponents tonight Dartford FC (DFC) one striding along with a black and white drum slung over his shoulder, are waiting for the arrival of the teams, on the very back row of the terrace behind the goal. The buzz of the bell from the changing room, which can easily be heard, due to its close proximity to the pitch, so close are they that not long before we could hear Zorbas Dance being played from one of them, inspiring the first chant of the night, “Dartford, Dartford”. One fan shouts “come on whites” at the waiting players confined within the extendable tunnel.

Back on the PA, and having read out the DFC team, it’s now time for the BFC line up, which he reads out with noticeably more gusto, than he did the visitors. He then asks the not inconsiderable turnout, to “put their hands together for both teams” and instructs us all to “enjoy the game”.

Their arrival, the players I imagine delighted to be free of their cramped confinements, is indeed greeted by applause as well as the drum. Playing a low rumbling beat, the fans respond to it, “Darts, Darts, Darts”.

With kickoff comes the latest offering from the drum, I’m sure the same that would have been played before an execution. A large cry of “come on your whites” follows, which is met with a sarcastic jeer from the majority of the noisiest home fans who are holed up behind the dugouts in the shed, and reply with their own chant, “Iron, Iron, Iron”. Their good spirits though are soon tested, when DFC craft the first chance of the half.

“Iron army” sing the home fans. Not long after watching their own team nearly concede, do they watch their team go close to scoring themselves. Only a strong hand from a tight angle stops them going ahead, in what early on is a very end to end contest. “Keep going Darts” shouts one of the drummers gang, who responds to everything, literally everything that happens on field, with a rattle of his drum.

Fifteen minutes gone and a big cruncher of a tackle, brings the frantic game to a halt. Our first teeth sucker of the season, the kind that makes you flinch a bit. “Off, off, off” demand the DFC fans. Nearby BTFC don’t quite see it the same, “thought it was a 50/50”.

DSC_0266I do wonder about Tom sometimes, what’s going on in his head. Because when a friend can flit from describing a nearby tree as a “bit Omen” due to the abundance of birds circling it, and then in the next breath tells you how much he wants a team we visit to “do a good hotdog” it’s a bit of a concern.

What had started as being relatively evenly matched, with about twenty five minutes gone, the tide starts to shift in favour of the away team, who Tom suggests so far are the “better side”. When BTFC do go on the attack, one visiting fan is so distraught, the anger in his voice as he screams at his team, asking them rhetorically “where are we?” as BTFC venture closer to his teams goal, is almost indescribable.

The home fans respond to their chance with a chant “Essex, Essex, Essex”, and then have a hell of a lot more to sing and shout about when one of their players displays a moment of sheer brilliance, real bit of class and flair, performing what I think is called a rainbow flick, Tom cooing “bit Brazilian”. With one flick of his boot, he sends the ball over his head, away from the opposition defenders, and continues down the wing.

“Come on Braintree, come on Braintree” sing the fans, at the sight of their players inventiveness. However the good mood is soon somewhat ruined after one of their players shapes up to shoot, from just outside the box, and under no pressure, he let’s rip with the most woeful of shots, that goes miles wide, and the chants are replaced with groans.

Although admittedly Tom has moments when his mind does wander, he is also prone to very great moments of clarity and has the knack for a well timed comment. He is aghast when all the DFC player had to do was poke the ball into the open net, for what some might think was a deserved lead, but instead as Tom points out “he fell over”.

When it comes to timing, tonight he could not have been more spot on. Plenty of chances are being fashioned, however until now no one has been able to convert, the game as Tom puts it, “needs a goal”.

“The build up was nice” says a DFC fan about the move that puts BTFC ahead, somewhat against the run of play some may argue.

As classy of him as it was to recognise and admit that his team has been out foxed, bettered on this occasion, to call the play only “nice” however, doesn’t do it justice. I admit I’m prone to the overuse of superlatives, but the pirouette that spins the attacker away from his marker, really is exquisite, his quick feet, gives him the space to make a neat diagonal pass to a teammate approaching the edge of the box, who is able to continue his run unabated, thanks to the precision of the ball, and coolly side foot it in. It really was very “nice” indeed.

The drum has fallen silent. When the voice comes over the PA to announce who has scored “for the Iron”, the announcer can barely be heard over the celebrating fans, who are so close to him, who can hear them rejoicing over the speakers.

Tom briefly thought the noise was some tragic attempt to pipe in a bit of atmosphere, like canned laughter from a poorly made sitcom, I explain it’s the fans opposite, going nuts by the sounds of it on the lap of the man with the microphone.

Dah, dah, dah, “sexy football” they sing, and they have every right to.

Going ahead has certainly buoyed the home team, who pour it on in the final moments of the half, the shed only getting noisier and noisier, “Iron, Iron, Iron”. One player turns nicely on the edge of the box, curling a shot just over the bar.

As I’ve said already, I like to be a little flowery sometimes, look at life through rose tinted glass, however one passing fan, in his thick Scottish accent, eulogising about the BTFC opener, takes it to another level, suggesting to a fellow fan that the lead up to the goal, “was like watching Barcelona”.

DSC_0308“Iffy pen” suggests Tom, when for the second time in just a few days, we see one given for handball, when I don’t see how the penalised player could’ve really done anything about it. The same nearby fan, who moments ago was evoking thoughts of Messi and the gang, calls the player who steps up “Mr Braintree”, and adds he’s just returned from his “holidays”.

The mood of the home fans, is quite the opposite of the solitary away fan next door to us, who bows
his head, continually rubbing the bridge of his nose, as things go from bad to worse for his side.

2 – 0, penalty well dispatched, looks like it was a good holiday. “Mr Braintree” scores with ease from the spot, runs a short distance, before leaping and punching the air. When the PA comes on again to announce the scorer, he sounds fully caught up in the moment, the mayhem of the fans can be clearly heard once again.

“Good time to score” says Scottish fan, with two minutes left to play and BTFC very much on the front foot. Tom on the other hand can’t take his eyes off the blue kiosk adjacent to the ice cream van, “burger queue is growing”.

With the DFC drum on the move, it was practically silent for the final quarter of the half. The home fans are in a palpable state of shock, “impressive weren’t it” says one to another in the queue for food, “not used to seeing them play football” adds someone else. Someone who is far from impressed is Tom, after being informed there are “no chips” for sale, which he has had confirmed by the man in front of us, an issue with the “wiring” of the fryer he’s told.

We all know a person who when you go out for something to eat with, and it comes to ordering, it’s never straight forward: can I have the chicken caesar salad with the dressing on the side and no chicken? that kind of person, the kind of person I never took Tom for.

However, having heard on the grapevine, of a double cheeseburger, but not seeing it on the menu, Tom doesn’t have long to decide if he is to try his luck asking for it, or does he just stick to what’s available according to the small chalk board. The man in front makes his mind up for him, ordering the doubler, Tom turns to me with a new found courage in his eyes, he’s going to do it, he’s going to order ‘off menu’.

“Cheese between the burgers” is the apparent secret to what makes the “beast” of the double cheese burger Tom is tucking into, a “good choice”, accompanied by some Kinks being played, and in-between humongous mouthfuls, he tells me what a “fine summer’s evening” it’s turned into.

I’m always amazed at regardless of what he orders, regardless of how big it is or how much of it there is, it only ever seems to take him two or three mouthfuls to eat. A group of boys arrive in front of us, not long after we’ve take up position at the very back of the terrace. Talk among them though is not of the two goal lead their team has got, the large flag the DFC fans have put up, that was nowhere to be seen in the first half, but of a topic, very close to Tom’s heart. One of the group is as dismayed as much as Tom, or maybe even slightly more, at the fact they “don’t do chips”.

I’m not sure why I even bother mentioning it, but I didn’t win the “grand total of £70” in the 50/50, meh.

The first quarter of the new half sees the BTFC fans ole-ing their team, which is inevitably interrupted by DTF winning the ball back, and almost going close themselves with their first real attempt on goal.

Putting a bit of a damper on the home fans party. Their parade is further pissed on a little, when they have what looks like a completely valid goal chalked off for an apparent foul. Supporters and players alike are bemused. “You’re joking?!?” asks one fan nearby loudly, to no one in particular, the players remonstrate with the referee, Tom pointing out what seems to be almost what everyone else thought about it, that it was in fact the scorer “being fouled” not the defender.

DSC_0292All the deliberating nearly catches BTFC out, because while they’re still debating the decision, the man in charge has allowed DFC to restart the match and take a free kick, and before it’s dawned on most in attendance that he’s not given it, the away team are racing up the other end and almost score.

Taking up almost where it left off, the game continues to ebb and flow from end to end, each team taking turns at going close. DFC blaze over, BTFC go close with a low shot, which is kept out with what the home fans quite rightly call a “good save”, BTFC then go close again, however for the second time it’s the team under the cosh that score, almost a sucker punch, once again, against the run of play. DT poke home from a corner, the scorer left in a heap on the floor, while his team mates race back to the centre circle.

Although it’s too far away to tell, but judging by the deluge of abuse the DFC fans are aiming at the referee and the BTFC players involved, I think there is a chance they think someone needs to be booked for flattening their player, who’s just halved the goal deficit, they are not happy. Their drum wakes up, the majority of the BTFC fans now on the terrace along from us, reply, “Iron, Iron, Iron, Iron”.

The goal has turned BTFC from a team being ole-ed, to a nervous wreck, their fans a little edgy to say the least. When one DFC player goes down, he get its both barrels after the foul is not given and as one person puts it, it’s “a miracle” when he springs back up to his feet, after acting like he’d been chopped in half. Others are a little less Christian, branding him a “cheat”. Although number 3’s behaviour was a little dastardly, he was an easy target for a group of fans who are looking for a distraction away from their teams current state of mind,  which seems to be to chuck this lead away.

A good ten minutes since the goal not being given, and one BTFC fan is still stuck in a bit of a loop, asking anyone and everyone for answers, why was the goal disallowed? Wandering the terrace, he tries to catch the eye of whoever he can, tapping people on the shoulder, getting their attention anyway he can, to discuss the great injustice of it.

Once more a BTFC player does his bit to lift the game, with a moment of skill. “Not bad for a centre back” says Tom, about the towering and broad defender, whose delicate touch and quick thinking, means we see our second pirouette of night, which leaves the pressing attackers for dead.

With almost exactly a quarter of the game left, I overhear someone perfectly sum up BTFC current position, pulling out the much used Sir Alex Ferguson quote, that although a tad overused, describes where BTFC find themselves currently so perfectly, “squeaky bum time”.

“Oh dear” mutters Tom, “can you hear us over there? ask the DFC fans, as their team celebrates after doing what everyone knew they were going to do, and get that second goal, drawing the game level. “We’re the black and white army”  they sing, “orange, orange, orange” is the reply from the fans on the terrace, and for the first time since the first half, the ominous tell tale sound of the executioner is back.

“Don’t know who’s gonna win it” says Tom, and I have to agree, things have been far too back and forth, far too open, for it to finish all square.

Two curious things happen during what is usually quite an innocuous part of a football match, the announcement of a substitution. Firstly the fact that the announcer says it’s BTFC’s “fourth” substitution, Tom and I both turning to look at each other, mouth but don’t say “fourth”, likes it’s a dirty word. I don’t think it’s a mistake, we must have missed that memo over the summer.

Secondly is the announcer using his air time to ask the fans for one last hurrah, “final ten minutes of the game” he tells us, “get behind the boys” he asks..

DSC_0339BTFC are chucking everything just shy of the broken chip fryer at DFC, which allows the team in white to test the home fans resolve a bit, “don’t lose it now” pleads one in the build up of a DFC counterattack.

The announcer tells us how much time has been added on, and for one final time addresses the supporters, requesting one last push, “four minutes injury time, let’s make some noise”. I’m not sure it’s the noise he wanted, but the drum rumbles once more, it’s perhaps this that prompts one last chant of “come on Braintree, come on Braintree”. Their team respond, with one final chance, but it’s DFC who nearly steal it, it’s only for a great save, and a miss in front of an open goal, that means home hearts aren’t broken.

“England’s number one, England’s number one” sing the home fans, their keeper has well and truly saved his teams blushes, and by all intents and purposes has secured them at least a point. Tom who can appreciate a good save as much as the next man, not a bad goalkeeper at school I can tell you, just can’t understand how the DFC player didn’t score, “how did he miss that?” he asks me slack jawed.

“Good night and god bless” says the dejected sounding announcer, on a bit of a comedown, after all the excitement of the first half. DFC’s players applaud their fans, the referee escorted off by a burly steward is bombarded with boos and demands of an explanation for why he “disallowed” the goal. He doesn’t even flinch, his eyes remain fixed forward, he leaves the pitch under a cloud of even more boos and accusations of being a “cheat” and suggestions that he was “rubbish”.

The BTFC team and staff gather on the pitch for a debrief, the majority of fans stay put where they
are. When the players do eventually start to make their way off, some warming down as they do so, the fans who stayed, make sure to clap them off, the choice of music is a little inappropriate, ‘Happy’ by Pharrell. The mood is far from happy, the captain and scorer of the goal that wasn’t a goal, discusses the decision with a fan, the look on his face of someone who also doesn’t have a clue why it didn’t stand.

If the league gave out wins for excellent shops and players replicating Fifa moves, BTFC would have won hands done. DFC gave it their best shot, their drummer, drawing his inspiration from a wide range of styles, the executioners block to the indigenous people of the great plains, but two pirouettes, a rainbow flick and a treasure trove, was always going to be near enough impossible to beat.

I regret not getting the shirt, I should have just stumped up the cash and got it, it niggles in the back of my head as we make the long dark drive home. For Tom, a first tonight, “never seen a ice cream van in a football ground” he reflects, but its clearly a front, a ruse, an attempt he thinks to distract me from what I know he’s really thinking about.

No chips…. REALLY?!?!

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