Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to Potters Bar for a FA Cup fixture remembering what trees look like into the bargain.
“Very green” says Tom, who’s forgotten what a tree looks like, since moving to the sprawling concrete rain soaked, Blade Runner back lot set that is Dalston. He is though quite right, I think I could go as far as describing our short hop to the other side of the M25 (miraculously not to Essex, and instead to Hertfordshire) as very lush indeed.
As with lots of these satellite towns that surround London, where the 07:32 to Kings Cross looks like a meme about the Japanese railway, it feels far enough from the hustle and bustle, and you pass enough fields, that yo think you’re going on a bit of an outing, picnic optional, but if the draw of the smog, bright lights, poorly parked Ubers and the smell of fried chicken and skunk, is too strong, you could be on Oxford street in forty minutes.
Potters Bar most recently has become a little more than just that place up the road, to now that place where my sister and my brother in law now live. In fact I’m retracing the route to her house almost exactly, ending up on her very road, in the search of tonight’s game.
“I wondered why you were speeding up” queries Tom as we pass the low slung sign pointing to our destination. A short time later, and after almost surpassing in awfulness my Austin Powers three point turn disaster from our trip to Braintree, saving it only at the very last, we’re now making our way down the narrow road towards the ground.
The modestly sized car park is somewhat bulging under the weight of the many cars that fill its spaces. A few cones reserve a couple of them for more important people than us, and we’re bang out of luck as the two cars in front of us take the last two spots available for the likes of you and me.
A mild dilemma, where do we go now? Opposite the residential parking is clearly sign posted with angry yellow signs, threatening all sorts if you park there without all the relevant passes. The adjacent schools entrance with its jagged yellow road markings outside its gate make it clear they’re not to be parked on, so Tom suggests my sisters, who is only two hundred meters down the road, but she is not someone who takes kindly to unexpected visitors, so that is somewhat out of the question.
Such are the demand for spaces, when we finally find somewhere on the ever narrowing street leading to the ground, a car pulls up right behind me, almost touching my bumper, making sure it can squeeze into the very last space. Now his turn to be out of luck, a forlorn looking man rolls down his window, and asks if I know of where else there is to park, all I can do is shrug.
“Dinky” is how Tom describes the Pakex Stadium home of Potters Bar Town FC (PB). Dinky being a nice way of describing somewhere as small, but still perfectly formed, the opposite of words like pokey or cramped. The latter conjures up images of where Harry Potter had to live during his formative years on Privet Drive. If you are not a fan of JK Rowling’s wizard, I’m not either but recently did the Warner Bros. Studio Tour for my thirty two year old brothers birthday, this is not a good thing, anyway I digress.
Through a wooden gate, following the signs, at the end of a short alleyway, a squat rectangular turnstile greets you. Although it technically has two entrances, one seems to have become the place to store old patio furniture and the rest of the contents of your average shed, so instead has been reduced to one.
The gleaming white foot operated turnstiles are more than comfortable, a fixture from the old Wembley I understand, are far from an Edwardian squeeze like so many others, for lumpus maximus here, allowing me to make a more than graceful entrance. On the other side, under the autumn sky, on what might be the years last nice evening, temptations are close at hand. Sitting, due to his apparent injury in a high viz waistcoat and battleship grey cast on his leg, I’m immediately asked if I want to by some tickets for the “raffle”.
Tom having sidestepped him, impervious to his powers, was sure to tell him that I’ve “never won”, and I’m handing over £2 for two strips of white tickets, without the foggiest idea of what the prize even is.
Sitting on one of the few benches dotted around outside the clubhouse, pint of coke secured, its apparent there is a considerable amount of regeneration going on. Someone having had already commented to Tom about the “big investment” in the sparkling new red brick clubhouse and adjoining changing rooms, which admittedly look to be an improvement on the marooned portacabins on stilts near by, which are the same colour as the scarves many of the home fans are sporting, that look like they’ve been condemned.
With the sun dipping ever further behind the trees, trees which make up a large proportion of the scenery here, that and a large block of flats that run the whole length of one side of the pitch, it’s getting chilly. My promise that Dagenham was going to be the last appearance of my shorts for 2017 was a lie, and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise to you about that, but I wish I’d kept my own promise, because my legs are cold and I’d put on my jumper, if Rachel hadn’t shrunk it in the dryer.
As well as trees and flats, there are a few other fixtures that give it the necessary feel of a non league ground. Behind one goal is a small covered terrace, with no apparent counterpart opposite. Beyond the compact flat roofed brick dugouts, is a larger flat roofed brick stand with a single bench in it. What you might call the ‘main stand’, the Bert Wright stand with it’s curved roofed is all seater, with a patchwork of different coloured seats. It’s within this that the PA/DJ/Chemical Brother, is fiddling with the many knobs, button and levels of the sound system, that is producing some curious results.
I can’t say I’m all that bothered about Ocean Colour Scene as a band, I can take them or leave them, shifting more towards ‘leave them’ if I’m totally honest. So I must admit I prefer it when the PA/DJ/Chemical Brother has managed to turn down their song to a more acceptable level, than the ear bursting volume it was at previously, as he continues to fiddle about.
It’s not an infrequent sight within non league, to meet a person so bursting with energy, that if you were that way inclined, you would say you can almost see all the passion and positivity physically coming out of them.
Adam is no different, bounding over to our table, hand stretched out to greet us, in his club fleece. He tells us his role at the club is “fixture secretary” but admits quickly “it’s not all about titles” at PB, stiffening his back as he tells us, doing a bit of a lord snooty impression, implying that at other clubs it’s quite the opposite, and frankly it’s probably more accurate to call him the “general dogs body”. As is the case with all non league clubs it’s all about “pitching in” when and where he’s needed, everyone here, as with so many other clubs, are “volunteers”.
At PB it’s a family affair he explains, his Dad’s the chairman, and his Mum among other things does the food in the boardroom.
Newly promoted to the Bostik League North, he agrees they are “doing well” but they are still a “small club” with “no money”. Therefore the visit of a National League South side in Hampton & Richmond Borough FC (HB) is “massive”. Not only is it a good test for the team, who Adam says “jelled well” in preseason, but I’m sure a few extra people than normal thought the gate, and not to
forget the winnings if they do go through tonight, are all very welcome indeed.
By the sounds of it, if the constant clink of the raffle man’s bucket, and the already busy bar, are anything to go by, they are doing ok so far tonight, but no drinking outside. Don’t want to upset anyone at the Football Association. Remember tonight is an FA Cup game, so all the FA’s draconian rules are in play.
PB were very close to progressing at the first attempt, going ahead on seventy four minutes in the original tie. Only for HB to equalize via the spot on the eighty sixth, and saving themselves some blushes.
It’s the home team first out to warm up, not on the pitch, the red chalkboard making it clear that’s out of bounds “KEEP OFF THE PITCH TA!”. Instead they head for the field behind the main stand, where the DJ has at least got the volume correct, but has managed to turn down the lyrics, treating us to an instrumental version of ‘What’s the frequency Kenneth’ by REM.
With around twenty minutes to kick off there is as of yet no sign of any great number of HB fans who I know travel well, perhaps they are the fashionable late types.
We are finally treated to some music with words “sit down next to me” sings James, and I notice a few HB supporters, but still none of the noisy rabble we saw when we paid them a visit at the Beveree Stadium.
“Have a good one” says a man quietly, as he sips from his polystyrene cup, to the PB players heading inside. Their coach from the sidelines having instructed them “in we go”. From behind the door of the home dressing room, The Next Episode by Dr. Dre, words and all is playing.
In contrast to his sometimes raucous music, when the announcer comes over the airwaves, he’s incredibly quiet and softly spoken, “warm welcome to the Pakex Stadium” he says. When he reads out the HB team there is not an ounce of emotion in his voice, when it’s the turn of the “Scholars” as PB are known, so called because the club was formed by a local P.E Master for former scholars, there is a notable change of tone in his voice, a slight spike in excitement. However it’s all relative, he goes from almost deadpan and whispering, to not so deadpan and talking a little louder.
Beside me, a great debate is in full flow, the ‘where do we sit/stand’ debate. “That’s always packed” says one of the group, pointing to the stand behind the dugouts. In the end they stay put, the elder of the three, producing a foldout chair and plonking himself in it.
“Come on Hampton”, sing the HB fans who have somewhat appeared from the ether, occupying the stand behind the goal, their red and blue flags quickly going up. At the opposite end, PB’s equivalent respond “Bar army”. Their chant getting a sarcastic “wehhhhh” from the visiting fans.
The back and forth doesn’t stop there, “where were you on Sunday?” asks one particularly hoarse sounding PB fan, “I was there watching us being shit” replies a HB supporter, and as if knowing fair well there is no coming back from their next chant, it really is a bit of a conversation killer, the stand belt out a couple of “who to be beaver’s”, which as expected, gets no reply.
Oh yeah, while all this has been going on, a football match broke out, HB notching up the first shot on goal of the game after only a couple of minutes.
After being stumped for a moment by the militarized buck toothed animal chant, the PB five start up again, their ringleader giving each chant a hell of a lot of whelly, “Bar army, Bar army” it almost sounds painful. One HB fan is concerned “watch that voice” he suggests.
With two divisions between them, it’s no great surprise that all the early pressure is coming from HB, who are somewhat piling it on their opponents. Encouraged by this, although admittedly they need little excuse to sing from my experience, the HB fans are at it again, “come on Hampton”. One although he doesn’t fully commit to it, lets slip a couple of low key “Wembley, Wembley’s”, but it’s not with a huge amount of conviction.
“That will do” says a HB supporter, after PB finally get close to an attempt on goal after a quarter of an hour. A shot that isn’t even on target and is well wide. “Bar, Bar” shouts the gravelly one, who is once again warned about his strained delivery, “I’d really watch that voice”.
The HB fans are not short of a one liner or two, “he fell over the length of the grass” shouts one when a PB player goes down rather easily looking for a free kick. Others though are less concerned with making witty quips, and more concerned about their side having PB by the scruff of the neck for twenty minutes, it has been relentless one way traffic, but they’re just not being decisive enough, “lets see some control” one demands.
For all the warnings and concern for the PB fan’s voice, ironically it’s a HB supporters voice, that’s first to crack. Midway through a chant, it goes, he abandons the chant, sounding like a teen whose voice has just broken. Turning a few heads, he explains to the inquisitive faces in front of him, “I told you twenty minutes, my voice will go” he says like someone with a terminal case of laryngitis.
“There’s a mans cock behind you pissing” says Tom, I must be clear he doesn’t mean a mans cock independent from the body urinating all by it’s self, close enough to be able to hear it leaving and falling on the floor, but a fully grown man with cock and all, who can’t be bothered to make the short walk to the loo and instead is not very discreetly standing behind the small terrace, relieving himself. “We know what you’re doing” sing the rest of the group, I think everyone knows what he’s doing, he’s hardly hidden.
With his voice faring much better that the HB fans, the PB supporter cries out for the first time in a while, “Bar army”. “You still here?” asks one of the HB supporters, who with half an hour gone, are in the process of taking down their flags, as talk turns to half time drinks. “To the bar” says someone a little over eagerly, the match still very much going on. One person explains how Chelsea have an app that means you can pre order your drinks, and pick them up at half time. I think PB intended to have that scheme rolled out, around the summer of 2127.
“Keeper, that was your get out of jail free card”, says a HB fan, following a near fatal error by the
man in goal for PB. His attempted kick is blocked, I’m not sure if he was trying a bit of a fake out with the opposition, but it didn’t work, and his bluff was called. The hurried clearance comes off the encroaching player, falling kindly at his feat. With the keeper in no man’s land, the forward swings his foot, Nwankwo Kanu style from the goal line. His wedged chip almost lobs the stranded keeper, missing only by a fraction, and ending up in the side netting.
From the look on his face, he didn’t need reminding he’s a lucky man, he’s almost ashen, head down, as he collects the ball to take the goal kick.“Come on you scholars” shouts what I’m sure is a relieved fan.
With five minutes to go in the half, PB make an attempt on goal. Again it can only really be called an attempt, because its off target, another wayward shot. Tom questions if they have even had a shot “on target” and that would have to be a resounding no. They’ve only had two shots, and both were well wide of the mark.
As profligate as HB have been with possession, one of their fans asking of his team to try and pass to “someone wearing our shirt”, they have certainly given PB enough of the ball. However they are just as excellent at picking the PB players pockets and winning the ball back, as they are at giving it away. Almost toying with the home team’s players, who must think ‘yes we’ve got the ball now, go, go, go’, only to have it taken away again, quickly falling once more under the HB cosh.
“I think I cursed number 11” says a guilty sounding Tom, who since singing the praises of the diminutive, silky attacker, he’s been a little bit out of the match. Going from the most dangerous thing since a nuclear powered bowie knife, to a toothpick, all thanks to the big grey cloud of Toms expectations hanging over him.
Somehow the half is going to finish all square, unless either team score in the “two minutes” of additional time the softly spoken announcer has just informed us there will be. There is one last rallying cry from both sets of fans, “Beavers, Beavers, Bears” and “Bar army” from the person who I can report still has his voice.
It’s fair to say the cool calm voice of the announcer could probably tell you about a less than positive test result at the doctors, his smooth delivery making it all sound ok. When he explains that if the game goes to “extra time” there will be “hot chocolate” available from the “gourmet kitchen” well, that just makes the idea of standing around for another thirty minutes in the cold, seem just dandy.
I couldn’t ask for a better person either, to break it to me that I have been unsuccessful in tonight’s raffle. My tickets are not even the right color, they are not “yellow” or “green” but white, that’s 0 – 5 for the season now, however I don’t feel too downbeat, because the way it was broken to me was so charming.
“You Potters Bar?” asks a twelve year old. I tell him I am, concerned about the repercussions if I tell him otherwise, sorry Spurs. Him and his friends satisfied with my reply, turn their attention to the PB players warming up. “1 – 0 to the Potters” replies the player when quizzed what he thinks the score will be, “only 1 – 0” says the appalled and slightly overly optimistic child.
A bit fed up of all the ‘banter’ coming their way, one line “are you a WIFI, because I feel a good connection”, the bizarrest of the stream of nonsense heading their way. I suspect the shot that is well high and wide, that sends the kids scattering to find the ball was totally intentional, “that will keep them busy”.
While I’m bearing witness to these strange interactions, Tom has disappeared with my £20 note, for a hot drink and a snack. Before leaving he double checked if I wanted something, he didn’t want me getting “jealous” of his.
Tom obviously went at the right time, one nearby fan won’t contemplate going now, down to the fact as he puts it, the queue is “horrendous”. I also think his mind might have been made up by the soft clicking of the players studs, returning for the second half.
“Burnt fingers” yelps Tom not only clutching two hot drinks, but also managing to balance a ketchup smothered hotdog in his mitts too, remember he’s already had dinner. I nearly fainted as we got out the car and he told me he’d “eaten”, before leaving the house. Having missed lunch due to Destiny Two, and only having had a “cup of tea and a penguin”, not that long ago he had a large burrito, but as he puts it “I couldn’t help myself”.
His balancing act almost goes south, “I’m losing my onions” he says, forcing me to help him, his snack teetering on the edge of oblivion. Giving him a free hand, this only allows him to rummage deep in the pockets of his jacket, to produce two Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers.
Both teams are back out, both HB flags are back up, both sets of fans are back singing. Now standing with the “Bar army” their first song of the half, is a new one “his name’s too long, hes got no song”.
It is though the visiting supporters who are singing the loudest, only three minutes into the new half when they finally break PB’s resolve, and score.
Despite being a goal behind, the kids from half time continue to lead the PB fans who now occupy the covered terrace, “come on you scholars” they sing, the adults replying with manly broken voices, one of whom who has opted for the Tom Baker Dr Who style home scarf, that is near to touching the floor.
Unfortunately for the ever optimistic home fans, clearly firm believers in the magic of the FA Cup, who start signing “we’re gonna win 3 – 2” when their side concede what from the outside looks like a great goal. A clever run and a powerful low driven shot from the edge of the box, into the bottom corner, but if you scratch the surface, some home fans around us tutting. They think the keeper really should have done better, and it would’ve been nice if a defender or three had tried to stop him, however that number 11 is pretty elusive, and deserved his goal. The gulf between the two teams is more apparent than ever.
With eighteen minutes of the second half gone, the game feels all but over.
Not that this means the home fans are going to stop chanting, one of the younger ones always starting it, the older ones joining in and taking his lead. It might be worth explaining however to the young man singing “is this the library?, that it’s not one you generally sing about your own ground.
If only the team, were giving as much as the fans. Overhearing the PB coaches, one seems to think the performance and “mistakes” are down to tiredness. They have been without the ball for long periods, chasing the game, number 11 constant torment.
Standing next to the HB bench, and momentarily blinded by the dazzling subs board, it’s hard not to be somewhat transfixed by the tall, lean, silver haired Martin Tyler pacing about, offering his own well mannered opinions and instructions to the players. In his obligatory sky blue Vanarama National League coat, jogging bottoms, tucked into socks, and well worn but comfy looking Adidas boots, Tom admits he thought he would have been more of a “Puma king man”.
One of the many joys of non league football, is the proximity to the pitch that it allows you, and being able to enjoy the conversations between players and officials. Tonight we are treated to two exemplary examples of this.
Firstly from a HB player, following a less than legal PB tackle right in front of the HB bench, that does not result in a booking. “Don’t feel sorry for them” says one HB player to the referee, who reckons the man in charge is going easy on the underdogs.
The second example, is from the opposite side of the coin, this time a PB player, after his team are not awarded a foul and freekick, “they don’t need anymore help”.
With ten minutes to go a small group of PB fans have seen enough, they leave through a small crack in the hedge behind us, like four kids in fur coats disappearing into a large wardrobe. A HB coach who also spots this unorthodox exit, saying it must play havoc with the attendance figures, the official one saying “12” people are here, when in fact it’s more like “200”.
On the other hand, the HB supporters are still in good voice, they won’t be going anytime soon, “red and blue army, ally, ally o” they sing. They also suggest to the now quiet home fans that they “have more songs” than them, admittedly they have been a little less forthcoming with a tune from their small repertoire, since the second goal.
Although Tom calls HB’s third goal of the night the “final nail in the coffin”, and one PB player seemingly agrees with him, “it’s 3 – 0, it’s done” he says to a teammate. The game has been somewhat out of sight since the forty eighth minute. HB have been making chances at will, their number 9, holding up the ball well, with plenty of keen runners willing to have a go. Number 11 who so often is in acres of space, is constantly demanding the ball, swapping wings, visibly annoyed more than once when the ball isn’t passed to him.
Three goals to the good, and with three minutes of added time to play, one HB player still demands of his team mates that they “keep going to the end”, which he delivers with a hearty motivational hand clap.
“Where the fuck is Cinderford?” sing the HB fans, who are not quite sure where the next round of the FA Cup is taking them. The players in what I must admit is a very dashing pale blue and white vertical stripped strip, which almost looks like a jockeys slicks, approach the traveling supporters to applaud them.. In single file the players shake hands and hi five the lined up fans, some telling them “see you in Cinderford”, wherever that may be.
Tonight offered so much, so many things that alone would have made the trip worth it: the kind voice of the announcer, letting me down easily with news of my raffle failure, the decent turnout, two sets of singing fans, the member of the HB coaching staff at the food bar at full time, desperate to get his hands on a burger, because “they smelt so good from the bench”, an HB fan shouting “Aguerooooo” when one of their players took a last minute shot at the end of the game, or was it when Martin Tyler pumped his fist just before the final whistle to a man on the side lines, asking him if he remembers the “conversation we had in the car park” which sounded ever so slightly Mafioso.
In fact it was none of these, but a passing comment I heard someone make about PB, being a “work
in progress”. A throwaway comment perhaps, but to me the sign of another reason to love non league football. Yes PB is not a massive club, with an abundance of bells and whistles, but it seems the money they do have, is being spent in the right way, on the kind of things that will help the club have longevity, for years to come.
Thanks to the stewardship and devotion of one family and a committed group of volunteers the “dinky” Pakex stadium is a friendly, welcoming and comfortable place to enjoy watching a match, with a decent hot dog by all accounts. Now who could ask for any more than that?
For more blogs, photos & videos by Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game please join them on Facebook and give their page a “like” – Go to Facebook
Follow the boys on Twitter – Go To Twitter
Follow on Instagram #BeautifulGame15 – Go To Instagram