Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to the West Midlands for some faggots, barms and cup action.

Tom looks me dead in the eyes, as I pull up to the tube station, on what is not too common an occurrence for us, a match on a Saturday. He pumps his right hand like the driver of a big rig pulling his horn. Climbing into the passenger seat he unleashes an ear piercing “road trip”

P1000808“Autumnal” is his appraisal of the weather, he is quite right, the trees that line the early sections of the M1 as we head to the West Midlands, breaking free from Essex, and heading a little further afield, are many shades of copper and brown. He has come to terms with the fact now that he won’t be getting an “Indian summer” this year.

Despite the changing trees, the sky is blue, however this is not the case the more we head into the unknown territories they call Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. “Greying up” says Tom. It really isn’t, it really is still quite pleasant, so much so, I’ve spread my still damp jumper across the back seat of the car to dry in the September sun.

I try to distract him from his sneering weather watch, with some honey roasted cashew nuts or pointing out a giant Jaffa Cake on the side of an HGV, but it’s only momentary, and he’s soon glaring skywards once more, just willing it to turn nasty.

Between mouthfuls of sugar coated nuts, he recounts a recent workplace injury. Being a barber it would seem has it’s risks. He tells me of the fleshy “u” he cut into one finger with a new pair of scissors. Not missing a single gory detail, he tells me about each minute of continual bleeding, as he held said damaged digit under the tap, and when he pulled off the plaster, how it yanked open the bloody wound.

Cashews demolished, and sure that we would encounter some traffic or would make one stop in a service station for Tom to oggle at what’s on offer at the Road Chef, we are neither held up or feel the need to pull over, instead we play ‘spot the football fan’, debating where the many passing coaches and cars are off to. Predominantly it seems to be Watford supporters, unmistakable in their yellow tops and scarves, heading we work out after a quick Google search, to the Hawthorns.

I must admit the the West Midlands, Birmingham, The Black Country, are not areas I know very well. I’ve been on a couple of occasions to watch Spurs at Aston Villa and Coventry, as well as a family day out to Match of the Day Live at the NEC circa 1999, but I can’t admit that it ever struck me as being overly pretty. I’m not saying it’s unattractive, let me be clear, just nothing to write home about.

Making our way ever closer, the promising sign of Stourbridge now on the Sat Nav, we both coo and ahhh, like idiots at a firework display, at some genuinely nice scenery, as we inch ever closer to the home of the Stourbridge FC (SFC) the ‘Glassboys’, the War Memorial Athletic Ground.

Known as the ‘Glassboys’ because of the area’s affinity with exactly that, making world famous glass, my eyes are peeled but I see few signs of this once thriving industry. We do see a water slide, protruding from the side of a leisure centre, wobbling as people shoot down it, which if Tom got his way we’d stop and do, but if I didn’t stop for Cadburys World, I’m not going to stop for that mate, we need to plough on.

What might go down as the finest of football club entrances, with its red brick arch, stone wreaths and wrought iron red and white gates, it was never going to be missed. Driving through the miniature Arc de Triomphe, I’m not sure whether to carry on into the car park, or to stop and lay some flowers at the foot of it, it’s almost sombre.

DSC_0070Just before making our way inside, it’s hard also to miss the garish neon orange posters that cover the outside, that are far from sombre, detailing today’s and future fixtures, like something from a fairground. They also show off the clubs main sponsors a local dental practice.

“A thousand” is how many spectators the steward the other side of the turnstiles reckons will be here today, average gate is about “800” he tells us. It won’t be the first time we’ve encountered the fans of SFC, having crossed paths with them at Whitehawk last season. Having been impressed then at what a racket a couple of hundred if that made, times that by three or four and we should be in for a cracking day.

Well early, of course, we’ve arrived long before kick-off, but are not the only ones. We join the others watching the Women’s Premier League match on the TV, below it Tom waits at the bar, standing on a very fetching football inlaid lino. Waiting to see what he returns with, I admire the many mementos of SFC’s extraordinary FA Cup run last season. Pictures and signed shirts, fill every available inch of wall space.

“Like it up north” says Tom, still with change from a fiver, flabbergasted as he always is, by the price of everything compared to home. He also praises that general area beyond the confines of London Underground, “the north” once more, when someone tells him he can smoke his vape, where he sits.

If the bar from Cheers had red and white blinds, a small stage and women with non league football club branded aprons on, well you could be forgiven for thinking you were sitting in the aforementioned Boston watering hole. As more and more people arrive, each one is greeted with a “hello” a hug or a friendly pat on the back. We are treated no differently, a silver haired man in a club tie passes us, asking if we are “ready?” what for I’m not sure, but we smile. And players walking through carrying their kit bags, offer us a friendly “hello” too.

It’s table service for the match day officials, a lady emerges from the behind the bar, with a tray carrying three mugs of tea, there is though still no sign of Norm.

Talking to Nigel the clubs Press Officer, he thinks today’s match against Alfreton Town FC (ALF) is an “interesting” fixture, a “good test” against a club from the league above, a league that as he puts it SFC are “aspiring” to be in.

Three quarters of the War Memorial Athletic Ground is your standard non league ground. A mixture of uncovered terracing, what the locals call the ‘The Shed’ which has SFC written across its back wall in large red letters, situated behind one goal, and running almost the whole length of one side of the pitch, the grandstand if you will, all seater flanked by two small terraces, all covered by a corrugated roof.

“Never seen that before” says a man in an ALF tie to two other boardroom looking types, standing on the steps of the clubhouse, looking out over the ground. What I think they have “never seen”, is in fact something we have already encountered this season. Nigel had described it as an “unusual ground” the ALF suits seem to agree.

They could be pointing to the dugouts, their curious position having already caught Tom’s eye, “never seen a ground where the dugouts are so far apart”, and neither have I, they’re nigh on next to the corner flags.

DSC_0245However, what I suspect they are commenting on is the proximity of the cricket club next door. One boundary and touchline are only really separated by a shoulder height green fence. The brown wooden score board is almost bigger than ‘The Shed’ and the splendour of the pavilion, with its gabled roof, almost makes you want to go and sit on its steps with a G&T, however with the weather as it currently is, no cricket is getting played today.

Opposite an actual shed which is the spot to pick up your programme and 50/50 tickets I’m told, however no one is there at the moment, so I’ll be back, Tom is shifting his weight from side to side, nervously waiting for what I’ve just ordered us from the beaming young lady in the SFC apron. Acting as translator, I have nearly ten years under my belt living with a northerner, I’m able to explain to Tom what a “barm” is, but he’s not really listening, he can’t stop thinking about what he is about to eat.

I say “us” intentionally, because the local delicacy that is being whipped up for us, as Tom grows increasingly anxious, has me intrigued, so much so I’m breaking my no eating at football rule.

“I love them” said the young lady when I asked her what we are about to eat is like. Tom overhearing someone else ordering what you might call a more traditional football snack, he scowls at me “that’s what I should be having”.

Not Bovril, we’ve established that’s horrible already, not a samosa, a first for us at a game, and sadly not what we’ve ordered, I love a good samosa. For the princely sum of £3 we’ve gone for faggots. In fact not just faggots, but chips, peas and gravy too. Almost spilling out of the struggling yellow Styrofoam container, with two forks pointing out of it, lunch is plonked down in front of us. A mass of green, beige and brown. In fact it’s more brown than anything else, it’s all swimming in a thick glossy gravy.

Using the red roof of one dugout as our table, the rain getting heavier by the minute, we look out over the pitch, and tuck in.

Soft. Soft is the word that seems most appropriate to describe a faggot. It’s certainly not unpleasant tasting, but it is certainly soft, and not what I was expecting. Not that I necessarily thought it was going to be hard, however it’s so far removed from the explanation of one that Tom gave, after having had them before, because his girlfriend bought them by mistake, and if she paid for them, he’s eating them, it’s taken me aback a bit.

Not that Tom would know what it taste likes, he must think I’m a fool, if he doesn’t realize how obvious it is he’s only eating the chips and peas and is circumnavigating the star of the show.

Soft is also the only word Tom can muster, again it tastes nice, but the texture has thrown us. It looks like a meatball a bit, but doesn’t feel like one when you eat it. I suggest it’s a bit like a “kofta” but feel so shockingly middle class saying that, I shudder just recounting it.

Whatever it is, it can’t be all that bad, the container is soon empty, only a few gravy smears remain, oh and what Tom calls the “sack” the pig membrane casing that binds a faggot.

DSC_0285“He eats his faggots” points out Tom as the players start to dribble out of their respective changing rooms and into the rain to warm up. “He” is the “stocky” ALF keeper with his jet black gloves, whose legs are as thick as railway sleepers.

The arrival of the players seems to coincide with the arrival of more and more fans. “It’s filling up” says Tom, pointing to the main stand, many of the seats or spots on it’s long benches have been occupied. One such fan, Stuart, is putting up a flag on a nearby fence, performing what he calls his “tradition” but not before offering us both a animated “welcome to Stourbridge” and a sturdy handshake. He tells us there will be a few more flags going up soon, when their owners are “out of the bar”.

“See you at Wembley” says Stuart, heading off, and out of the rain. I think he was only half joking, considering SFC’s extraordinary run last year, making it to round three, knocking out the likes of Northampton on the way, anything is possible.

The voices of Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael suddenly fill our ears, however it’s only for a moment. There seems to be a level of indecisiveness from the man in charge of the music, as he soon skips to the next song, not happy with that one, he skips again, in fact he does it a couple of times, before settling on a bit of Evelyn Champagne King, who is telling everyone about how her “baby” makes her “love come down”.

50/50 secured from the man in the club tie in what the voice over the PA informs us is the “programme shed”. The choice of music though is a little misleading, Lovely Day by Bill Withers, doesn’t quite reflect reality, the rain has not stopped, but at least it’s the original version. As positive about non league football as I like to be, I can’t abide a knockoff cover of a classic. The funk version of Stairway to Heaven, is just plain awful.

“FA Cup day, know what you’re doing” shouts an SFC coach as the team’s return to the changing rooms. Hoping I’m sure that they are now focused on the task ahead, there is though a chance they could be a little distracted by the man in the red suit covered in white hearts, who is turning a few heads. One ALF players certainly doesn’t have his head in the game, “chips smell lovely bruv” he says to a team mate.

“Come on Stour” shout the fans, who have rammed the main stand, and ‘The Shed’, which is certainly the loudest section of the ground. Governed by the drum which leads them, a chorus of “red army, red army” rings out, moments after kick off.

Squeezed on the end of the front row, having passed the many flags that have been put up joining Stuarts, their custodians having dragged themselves from the bar, we continue to get a little damp, however there is plenty to occupy us, allowing us to ignore the fact we are not totally out of the rain.

The ALF keeper does himself no favours, with a very dodgy goal kick just four minutes in, cementing his position as the focal point of SFC fans attention. “Jammy bastard” one fan brands him, as he just gets away with his iffy kick. Every subsequent one is accompanied by either a “ohhhhh” a blast of a hunter’s duck call or both.

DSC_0311“We are Stourbridge, we are Stourbridge” sing the supporters, the drum which sounds like it has seen better days, does a good job in getting a chant from them. One fan though seems more interested in continuing to target the ALF keeper, when most others seem to have let him off the hook. “Kick it you tosser” he shouts, as the ball is rolled back to the man in goal. When he does it again it’s joined by an “ohhhhh” but no duck call. “He on your list?” asks one man to the keepers tormentor, “might be” he replies, as he carves the man in goals name into his granite vendetta list.

The slick pitch allows for some dramatic sliding tackles, the kind that never look like they are ever going to end well. The wet weather has not though deterred the ALF fans who I can just about hear at the opposite end of the ground, “Alfreton, Alfreton”. One supporter in particular is unperturbed by the downpour, top off, arms outstretched, calling Mother Nature out.

In the space of six minutes the match goes from a relatively dull one, to one that is well and truly spun on it’s head. Two events so similar, that I’m sure the whole ground is overcome with a powerful sense of deja vu when it’s all over.

“Cherrooo, cherro, cherro” sing the fans around us, waving to the ALF number 6 who is making the long walk back to the changing room, only nineteen minutes into the match. Having hauled down the SFC attacker who was bearing down on goal, who had latched onto a lumped long ball over the top, he was quite rightly shown a red card.

There is much remonstrating with the referee from the ALF players in blue, whose shirts say “the reds” on the back, but it was about as stone wall a sending off as you’re likely ever to see.

Six minutes later we all share the overriding feeling of, ‘hasn’t this already happened today?’. The crowd singing their second rendition of “cheeroo, cherro” waving this time even more enthusiastically than before. The similarity in the foul that has resulted in the second red card of the match, another long ball over the top, another last ditch tackle that fells the forward, and the way the player, head down seems to take an age to walk off the pitch.

Whereas the set piece that followed the first red card was pretty unforgettable, the second just outside of the box, it’s fair to say, has an outcome which is a little more memorable.

As the scorer of the free kick that has just walloped the ball past the now not so stocky looking ALF
keeper, his own players berating him, many arms flapping and accusations of you should have had that covered, flying back and forth, he is running toward the main stand. Leaping up and into the crowd to celebrate, before he is mobbed by his teammates, and he quickly becomes the base of a team bundle.

The fans sing the name of the players who has just put the home side ahead, “Tommy, Tommy Tonks”.

Now with a two man advantage, you can imagine the traffic is only really going one way, and we look on as a red and white swarm surges towards the ever shrinking ALF keeper.

The away fans curiously, perhaps inspired by their thirty five minute off target shot, that gets a quack, which until now Tom had not noticed, asking me “what’s that?” looking over each shoulder for the responsible mallard, they have started to sing again. Perhaps having recovered somewhat following their team’s meltdown, I can just make out what the small sodden group are singing, “come on Alfreton”.

DSC_0318Despite the extra players SFC just can’t make it count. It’s almost like they have so much of the ball, such a huge proportion of possession, they don’t know what to do with it. “Hows he not scored that?” asks Tom under his breath, the fans moaning at the missed opportunity. Their team outnumbering and overpowering the ALF defence. The ball is rolled across the box for what had to be a second, only for the ALF keeper to have regained a few inches, helped admittedly by the poor finish, he blocks the point blank shot.

Just before the announcement of “one minute of extra time” there is a shout of “shooooot” towards the player with the ball just outside the box, he does just that, but it’s just wide. However its hard to concentrate on the match, Tom has just informed me there is a person in a “wizard’s hat” just along from us, next to the person in the red tinsel wig.

I’m not sure if it’s directed at the man in charge or the players that were fouled, but the ALF fans are at their loudest so far today, as they bellow “cheat, cheat, cheat” towards the leaving officials and players. This is soon drowned out though by another 80’s classic, which in turn is then replaced with an update of some other half time scores.

“I wanna watch Match of the Day” shouts a boy sitting on the railing behind us, disappointed his evening in front of the TV been ruined, when the score from “the Albion” match is read out. Most of the stands are still pretty full, no mass non league exodus, the weather making sure that most people are staying where they are. One fan braving the rain, tells another that he’s a “bit disappointed with the crowd” I’m assuming he means the amount, they can’t be faulted on the noise they’ve been making.

Someone else venturing into the drizzle is Tom, who throughout the first half was a little bit sulky, on the account of being a bit wet. He suddenly announces he wants some “tea and a Kit Kat”. He pops the hood up on his jacket like a Broadway diva, and struts off, past the smokers, who are forced to take one step out of the cover of the stand, and into the drizzle to hurriedly smoke their moist cigarettes.

Halftime entertainment is the local kids having a go on the drum. One’s thumped out beat gets a muted shout of “Stourbridge”. More impressively though is the person who attempts to play along with James Brown’s, Living in America, even singing along a bit. Got to give him an ‘A’ for effort, unfortunately his choice of song gets little reaction from anyone else.

The small group of ALF fans are fully embracing the change of ends, all now fully clothed, they take up position in ‘The Shed’, which is a little less well occupied than before, but has still enough home fans in it, that things quickly get a bit frosty between the two sets of fans.

Both groups try to out sing each other as the teams emerge, “come on Stourbridge”. The SFC fans coming out on top, purely because of the extra numbers, and not because of any less effort from the new arrivals.

“Oohhhh” cry the SFC fans as their team fizz over an early shot. The resounding feeling among the ALF fans is that they are not getting anything their way at all, “fall over you’ll get a penalty” shouts one, another pleads with the man in charge “come on ref, bloody give us something”. There is a joint religious outpouring when in their eyes, they get a decision finally given in their favour “HALLELUJAH”. Unfortunately for them, the free kick they praised the almighty for, ends up on the roof of the stand, don’t think it’s going to be their day.

DSC_0381Things continue to get a little fractious in ‘The Shed’. Nothing outrageous or untoward. One ALF supporter is accused of being “abusive”. He quickly counters the accusation put before him insisting he’s “not fucking sworn”. Another ALF fan makes his own accusation, complaining that an SFC steward tried to “poke” him in the “eye” with an “umbrella”, but it all soon simmers down.

Tom returns, with a small bowl of chips balanced on top of his cup of tea. “Shall we sing a song for you” sing the ALF fans, towards what has become a relatively quiet home crowd, and not towards Tom, although I am always impressed at his ability to juggle his food.

“Who are ya, who are ya” sing the SFC fans still in ‘The Shed’, antagonising the ALF gatecrashers further, as their team finally double their lead. A close range hooked over the shoulder finish, sees the scorer running off one arm aloft Alan Shearer style. The home fans can finally see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, “que sera, sera, sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Wembley”.

We’ve moved. Tom wanted to eat his Bounty in peace, and if he gets round to it he’ll finish his cuppa which he bought “twenty minutes ago”. I wondered why he was still nursing it, and there seems a very, very good reason, “fucking hottest tea ever” he explains. We have encountered this phenomenon before, non league tea does have a habit of being far hotter than any other tea.

As well as wanting a more convivial atmosphere to finish Tom’s confectionery, the bickering between the SFC and ALF fans was getting a little tiresome. Once again we use the dugout as a table, peering over it’s red roof, just as ALF take a limp shot on goal, that gets a sarcastic “wehhhhhh” from the fans.

I think we can all name a time in our lives when we have instinctively done something, fractions of a second before the rest of our body, more importantly before your brain catches up, normally resulting in a less than ideal outcome. The decision to inexplicably flick his hand at the ball in the penalty area, can be the SFC defenders example of just this brain/body disconnect for 2017. The referee was in no doubt, a blast of his whistle and a commanding point towards the spot, means ALF have a lifeline back into the game, remember they have nine men!!

“Alfreton, la, la, la”, 2 – 1, penalty duly dispatched, the AFC keeper going the wrong way. “How are they not spanking them?” asks Tom, “are they going to fuck this up?” he wonders.

Not sure what it is, a shift in the wind perhaps, but the momentum is definitely going ALF’s way now. An appeal for what looked like a definite free kick on the edge of the ALF box is turned down.
The fouled SFC player falling to his knees, arms outstretched, he looks like the front cover of “Platoon” as Tom puts it, he turns to appeal to the referee, but gets nothing.

IMG_20170930_164408The mood has most definitely changed, it’s tense, “pick it up Stour” shouts a single voice. All the party atmosphere of the first half has drained from everyone, the ALF fans the loudest now, Tom thinking that might have something to do with them being “wankered”. Their team look like the ones who are going to score next, despite their huge handicap. They go close with a whipped cross, that no one can get on the end of, and then have another shout for a penalty denied.

There is one fan though who is still flying the SFC flag high, still giving his all, a young man maybe no older than twelve .Who fidgets and squirms with every pass, has an opinion on every decision. “Come on” he shouts in his own high pitched way, “we need a goal for goodness sake, they’ve got nine, we’ve got eleven, come on Stour”. When his team do get a shot on goal, he offers them a bit of praise “well done lads” but is soon back hammering home the fact that they “need a goal”.

Time is running out for ALF, their bench seem to think SFC are playing for time, their keeper in particular, who they think is taking far too long to take his goal kicks, “speed them up ref, seen paint dry quicker” insists a member of the ALF staff on the bench in front of us.

With five minutes of the half remaining, SFC probably get the closest they have come to killing the game off, a riffled ball across the box, only has to be prodded in at the back post, but the two footed flying attempt to do so from the SFC player comes to nothing. One non inebriated ALF fan goes all 1930’s musical, suggesting that would have been “goodnight Vienna” had it gone in.

Much to the delight of the wizard, who is standing right behind the goal, he uses his powers to conjure SFC;s third. Having played now for well over an hour with two extra men, it finally feels like they have put this tie to bed. Pumping his fists, pointing both fingers towards the player who’s just headed in the third goal, I’m not sure if he’s celebrating or performing another spell.

“Consolation lads, they do a cracking curry after the game” says a voice thought the red caged tunnel, towards the ALF players, watching on from the edge of the pitch, apparently showered and changed and waiting for the final whistle. They are let’s say less than amused with that attempt to console them.

On the final whistle, the referee waits for his escort and for the players to leave the pitch, like it’s an Istanbul derby. One ALF player has said too much and is booked. The SFC players have bigger fish to fry and babies to hold, handed to them from the crowd. As they get closer to the tunnel, they take the time to high five the waiting fans, “red army, red army”. One small group of particularly vocal children, beckon over individual players, who are more than happy to oblige with a handshake.

As we get closer to the tunnel, we notice the patched up door, the glass of which has been hurriedly covered with a flattened out cardboard box, which doesn’t completely conceal the spiderweb of long cracks, caused I suspect by it being kicked or punched, maybe by one the dismissed players? “No call for that” says a miffed looking Nigel.

IMG_20170930_165357We just about find somewhere to sit in the clubhouse, which is now like Cheers on steroids. On the table next to us a large baby, what my girlfriend would affectionately call a “chuff”, in his SFC shirt, does his best to evade his Grandmothers control, clasping at beer mats on the table. She tells us she thinks he’s SFC “youngest fan”. Behind us there is a very, very excited conversation about Harry Potter going on.

I have one last thing I must do before we leave, I’ve got to drive to Manchester, but not before I’ve dropped Tom off in Birmingham to get the train home to London, I need to find out if I’ve won the 50/50. I didn’t hear the numbers called at half time, so still have a modicum of hope running through my veins I could break my duck.

It’s been “claimed” says Steven who runs the SFC Twitter, he says it very casually, but has no idea how much his words hurt me. We say goodbye to him and Rich, his Twitter guru predecessor, who tells us he’ll see us in the “fourth round”.

Despite the ALF fans suggesting that the black county is “wank, wank, wank” from our experience today, that could not be further from the truth. Yes they play dodgy covers, yes there was a child in the crowd with a bow and arrow, but these cannot take away from the simple fact that everyone was just so nice.

I could eulogize for many more paragraphs, diving deep into my rose tinted, non league bag of superlatives to describe our day and SFC in particular, but for once less is more. I’ll leave you with something that Tom read of the clubs code of conduct, that hangs on the wall of  ‘The Shed’:

Remember entrance to the ground is a privilege not a right!

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