Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game once again venture into the non-league hinterland of breeze blocks and tea bars this time to Tilbury, Essex.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

My part time job as Tom’s personal chauffeur takes me to some of London’s lesser known corners. On this occasion I pass a mural of Mark Noble that wouldn’t look out of place on the side of a Belfast house and the bronze effigies of Hurst, Peters and Wilson holding Moore aloft, Jules Rimet and all on the same corner some might remember where the Manchester United bus got bottled on its arrival at the nearby Boleyn Ground, for its very last match.

Having arrived early, yes I do have the capability of turning up on time, I wait for my companion. The honk of my car horn fails to get his attention when I see him, he swivels his head so he certainly heard it, however it’s not until I do it again, in combination with some manic hand waving of children’s television presenter levels, does he realise it’s me, and not as he tells me once getting in, someone harassing the nearby woman and her baby.

P1000822There is a brief moment of silence following his suggestion that he mistook me for some kind of pest, but also because I think he still has a house to view, which in fact he’s already done. Both waiting for the other, there is a long pause before he tells me “we can go” and we’re off, yes you guessed to …………………….. ESSEX

The ever so slightly out of place white windmill in the field next to the slip road pulling off the A13 might just be for the next few hours the most picturesque thing we see. The early evening sunset, with it’s many shades of orange, yellow and red is certainly helping, but the rest of Tilbury we have seen up until now is, well let’s just say it’s not quite picture postcard stuff.

If industrial landscapes are your thing, container ships and cranes are your idea of scenic then it’s well worth a visit. If you don’t fall into that category though, then this particular part of Essex on the mouth of the Thames estuary, and still very much a thriving port, is maybe not for you.

The grey breeze block wall with TFC built into it with black breeze blocks, is the only giveaway we have arrived at Chadfields, home of Tilbury FC (TFC). The single barking dog behind the big black gates of the nearby travelers site, only adds to the slight feeling of desolation that has begun to creep over me, the further off the motorway we traveled.

With it’s all black shutters firmly locked, almost looking like it’s been abandoned, the clubhouse from the outside at least, I wouldn’t say looks neglected, but maybe it’s just seen better days.

When all of a sudden the shutters sputter to life, emitting an almighty screech then a slow rumble as they retract, they reveal windows, through which and past the net curtains we can see signs of life. Until now it had been Tom and I, the faint sound of Gangsters Paradise in the distance and next doors dog. The twinkle of the fruit machines, and the large face of some member of the Sky Sports news team being projected on to the wall, is comforting to say the least.

Inside, the mock tudor look intrigues me, but it’s black beams and white walls match the black and white kit of TFC so they work. Hanging on them, some a little skewiff, are the faded pictures of the clubs past teams. Above the bar pinned to the wall is club merchandise for sale, neon spiked notices inform you of the prices, but the lighting is very low, edging on the side of dingy, and I can’t make out how much anything costs. Next to them the clubs trophies, cups and awards clutter a small wooden shelf.

“Game of pool” asks Tom, pointing to the table, next to the fruit machines. I’d much rather play foosball, but I’m too busy earwigging on the conversation being had by the small group sitting at the bar, talking about the recent departure of the TFC manager. “Did you apply?” asks one already sitting on a tall stool next to a new arrival. Another late comer asks them all “any news on the manager?” but doesn’t get much of a reply.

John in his green military style jacket, collar turned up in preparation for what is going to be a breezy night, is pretty honest about TFC’s current run of form “dismal” he calls it. Inconsistency is their biggest weakness, in their case not from “game to game” but from “half to half”.

20171010_175133“Team selection baffled us all” he explains about some of the managers choices. An ex club captain who John tells us is “such a nice man” who despite the chairman’s best efforts to “talk him out” of his decision following their defeat and exit from the FA Trophy in their previous match, that was it, he was done, he walked. However John does feel that he slightly “deserted” them. It was a young and inexperienced team he’d built, with no member of his defence older than 18 or 19, John felt he should’ve stuck with them a bit longer.

The Ultras of Italy might not be something you would associate with a non league football club in the South East of England, but when John tells us they had a “sit down with the players”, it all feels a little Curva Nord.

Although we didn’t talk, we have been in John’s presence before, in another clubhouse. Where he and his merry band had somewhat taken over, singing at half time, and getting a few less than impressed glances, and in some cases a little bit more, from the locals. TFC normally take “30 to 40” away he explains, but he thinks they’ll be lucky to get “half a dozen” here tonight making any kind of “atmosphere”.

Only living a stone’s throw from Chadfields it was in fact a team a little further afield that he has supported most of his life. Seduced like so many were at that time by the likes of Best, Charlton and Law, he was a Manchester United fan and season ticket holder at old Trafford for “40 years”

Now though it’s about “brilliant” non league football, he says lighting up, “I love this now” he tells us. The freedom of not constantly being told “what to do and where to go” that stifles the Premier League appeals to him.

Before returning to the bar, John tells us to keep an eye out for one TFC fan who will be here tonight, Mavis, someone who is still traveling away at the grand old age of 84. Who made the trip up to Notts County, when TFC played them in the FA Cup in 1948. This dip into the clubs history sparks his own stream of nostalgia. He goes on to tell us about his own FA Cup adventure with the club at Stoke. A “football special from Tilbury” his reminiscences borrowing my rose tinted football glasses just for a moment, before handing them back, “those days are long gone” he adds, with a visible drop of his shoulders.

As John put it Chadfields is held together by the odd “four by two”, it’s heyday a while ago now, but this doesn’t mean there is any less pride in their little corner of the football world. A woman organises and polishes the outside of the Tea Bar, its hatch having just been thrown open for business, all to the sound of Chaka Khan.

No 50/50 tonight, but there is a raffle, tickets are secured from the big chap in the TFC hoody by the turnstile. “Bottle of wine” or a “box of chocolates” are the prizes, he tells me looking back over his shoulder at the brown laminated topped table under what looks like a perspex bike shelter

The grounds main feature is the two storey stand/changing room combo, set back from the the pitch,
which are joined by a caged tunnel, above which a sign reads “Home of the Dockers”. With the sun all but set, you can make out the twinkling red lights that top the cranes at the nearby dock, over the roof of the the single storey red brick stand opposite.

In one corner John and his crew have hung their flags, both quite sizable, one reads Tilbury FC with no great surprise a black and white back ground, the other an equally large St George’s Cross with The Dockers on it, just in front of them the TFC team are going through their warm up.

Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, by McFadden & Whitehead seems like the ideal song to motivate a team who are not on the best of runs, good subconscious inspiration for the match to come. Evelyn Champagne King then follows, having made her way down from the West Midlands, and she’s still going on about someone making her “love come down”.

IMG_20171010_180634Standing pitch side, Tom receives a healthy boost to his ego, after he deftly stroked a loose pass back to the beckoning player, “you’re in” he said.

I’m not sure if it’s John’s trip down memory lane, something triggered by watching the players of both teams going through their pre match drills or by Toms invite to play tonight, but he decides to share with me a fond memory from yesteryear, and his all too short career as our school’s goal keeper. He recounts it with all the authority of one of the great story tellers of history, like a modern day Homer. “They called on me” he tells me, after the first team keeper was a no show, and his performance was so notable, he was asked to play again. Unfortunately for him when he did, he conceded eight and never played for them “again”.

“Come on boys” shouts one of the TFC players over Mr Brightside by the Killers playing over the PA. The arrival of TFC’s opponent’s Cheshunt FC (CFC) means there are a few bits of kit porn on show. Not so much the shiny sky blue number of the away team or the pastel yellow TFC keeper’s kit, but the always fashionable, a total classic, every boy should have one for those nights when you just don’t know what to wear, the black and white striped home kit. I love a black and white striped kit. There must also be a very honorable mention for the CFC checkered purple goalkeepers jersey, very stylish indeed.

“Tilbury let’s get going” orders one player slightly prematurely pre coin toss, because before we get started the teams are required to swap ends. Watching all this from ground level, I have that unmistakable feeling of people being behind me. I turn to spot a pair of beady eyes, peering out across the pitch, having climbed the stairs to the first floor stand, for an elevated view of the first half.

The importance of the match and the situation that the team finds itself in is not lost on one TFC player, “big point to prove” he informs his teammates, as the game gets underway. “Come on boys, come on” shouts another “hunt it down” he demands.

People are still arriving after the whistle, and they will have to find somewhere else to stand, because we’re both very comfortable, “ohh I like this barrier” says Tom, about the one surrounding the pitch, that is at a very forgiving height for a good non league lean.

“Oh hello” coo’s Tom as a TFC cross is swiped at by a CFC defender in the six yard box, who misses it completely, but lucky for him the keeper with the terrifying voice, in his excellent purple kit is behind him to mop up, and prevent any more embarrassment. “Come on Tilbury” shouts one of John and the gang on the far side of the pitch, as the match swings from end to end, first CFC are attacking then TFC.

There are numerous requests from the TFC crowd to their players to “have a dig”, seemingly very eager to comply they do just that, but nine times out of ten the result is wild and well off target. “Like a shot” comments Tom as another one sails wide. They have a little more luck with a cut back into the box, but no one is there to finish and a ball over the top that the forward just can’t latch on to.

Tom though has other concerns, not the fact that a Peter Kay’esq ‘Have It’ clearance has just cleared the stand and landed in someone’s back garden and as he puts it they now have a “trophy” of the night, but the fact that he has not “seen anybody eat” and he’s “hungry” because he didn’t have any “lunch”, and yes people, he might have to eat “early”.

Much like one of the great detectives of the small screen Columbo, Jessica Fletcher or Bergerac he has been doing some discreet investigations, and the fact they’ve “got sauces out” on a table in front of the tea bar, leads him to have some hope.

DSC_0267According to Tom you can’t “slip over then nearly pop it in the top corner” but that’s exactly what one CFC player does, picking himself up, and nearly bagging an absolute stunner. “Fuck off” shouts Tom as the pastel yellow wearer is forced into a good save, receiving a round of applause from the fans and we see our first real solid chance of the night, after each team’s hat full of almosts and off targets.

On the half hour mark all of the home side’s early composure seems to have evaporated, and it all gets a bit headless chicken, CFC’s number 9 & 10 and their bulldozer or “pitbull” ways as Tom describes them are literally shoving people off the ball at will, winning it back and setting up the CFC attacks, as the tide starts to turn in the away team’s favour.

“We’ve switched off” moans a TFC player as their keeper pushes another CFC effort wide.

The match descends somewhat into a who can shout the loudest competition, the play itself is scrappy and lacking in any real quality. “Switch the play” instructs the CFC keeper to the outfield players, his voice continuing to be of some concern, “fucking scary” says Tom, it really is, it’s almost like a roar than a regular human voice.

TFC almost take the lead with a spectacular attempt of Van Basten proportions, it’s so good, the player attempting it hurts himself in the process, with his volley from a reasonably tight angle flying just over. The injury summons a sudden and deathly hush over the ground as the player is seen to. He is soon back up again and is fine, and just as if someone pressed play on the crowd, all the noise is back and the game is once again underway.

It’s then CFC’s turn to go close once more, “I thought that was bursting the net” says Tom as an almighty banger of a shot is once again just off the mark.

“Love that!” shouts an excited TFC fan as bang on half time they take the lead. The scorer looked to be totally crowded out, surrounded in the box, with his back to goal somehow he manages to turn like
a London taxi cab, and with little or no back lift, pokes in his top corner shot.

“Easy this managing lark” suggests a fan to the TFC staff leaving the pitch for the break.

There is no announcement of the winning raffle numbers, just a small chalkboard to check between the turnstile and the tea bar. Before I’ve even reached it I know I won’t be walking away with a box of Roses tonight, Tom makes sure to rub it in just how close I was “off by one number”.

Tom disappears to see if his earlier findings were correct, and the sign of sauce is a TFC Bat Signal for a burger and chips. One TFC fan, an older man in a flat cap was certainly impressed by the effort that put his team ahead, “fucking good goal that”, he also reckons the scorer should be getting a considerable pay rise “give that man an extra £1”.

“You don’t know how good this is” says Tom, joining me on the step of the terrace, to tuck into his food, which before he takes his second bite, he can’t stop himself, reiterating to me my raffle near miss once again “one number!”

CFC start the second half as they mean to go on, some wicked feet and the attacker has skipped past his defender, only for his ball into the box, to not be anywhere near as good as twinkle toes and the chance to equalise goes begging.

Back and forth the game goes, TFC go close, “ohhhh” go the crowd, as a free header goes tantalisingly close, “well done Dockers”. Tom gives me the honour of re-joining me, dinner complete. “That was amazing” he says in that glutinous, just finished too much Sunday lunch way that people do when they’ve gorged a little, next step would be to take your trousers off and sit on the sofa.

DSC_0304The away team are showing all the early signs of a team angered by conceding so late on in the first half, after having a few opportunities themselves to go ahead. They are certainly on top in the opening exchanges, stinging the TFC keeper’s palms once more with a fierce shot. Standing now just in front of John, it’s hard to miss Mavis who is just as vocal as the rest, “come on you Dockers”

“Turn and face the ball” she shouts, being of about the same proportions as Yoda, but much, much louder. I’m pretty sure she joins in with every song, as the small group, become more and more animated. “Hard to believe it’s not Scholes” they sing as the TFC number 9 spearheads a counter attack straight from a CFC corner. “Life ain’t fair when you’re born with ginger hair” they sing next about the same player, one of them post song ponders “fancy having a Scholes song and then that”.

Twenty minutes gone and one CFC player earns himself a yellow card after a BIG tackle from the Scottish referee, Tom telling me that “all referees should be Scottish”, CFC frustrations are quickly coming to the surface. Once again they test the home keeper, who’s forced to concede a corner, that prompts another rendition of “come on you Dockers”.

TFC continue to drop deeper, and deeper, one fans tip that they “keep it tight”, is a sensible one, but inviting the CFC attacks on to them feels like a dangerous game to me. The Jedi reckons Tilbury were “let off”, as CFC go close for the umpteenth time.

“You don’t get nothing for that” says John after a CFC player crashes an almighty long range shot off the crossbar, well out of reach of the keeper. “Come on you Ambers” sings a CFC supporter for the first time, the first and only sign so far tonight of the presence of any away fans.

The many missed chances, hitting the woodwork, the player being poleaxed by a ball straight in the nuts or from point blank range missing what looked like a simple tap in, might be a good clue, as Tom puts it, that it “might not be” CFC’s “day”.

“Don’t fall for that” says the CFC number 9 to the referee, as he awards a foul against the visitors. Number 9 feeling that there is a spot of theatrics going on from the downed TFC player. “Why don’t you fuck off” shouts a TFC fan to the number 9, who then says something back. “I’ll wait for you outside” replies not one of the burly Essex types, but the smallest of them, and the oldest by a long way, who then goes a bit Harry Enfield after challenging the man maybe a quarter of her age, “you’re a very rude young man”.

One CFC player insures his team mates a goal “will come” they must just “keep the ball”, and he’s not far off, as they go close once again, but they just can’t capitalize. “How much do we want this?” asks a TFC player to his teammates, after CFC again craft another chance they don’t take, I’m loosing count. The away bench are screaming at the player who had done all the hard work, but can’t finish, they could be well out of sight even if they’d only taken half of their chances.

“How many opportunities?” ask the TFC keeper of his teammates, who must take a huge amount of credit for the score still being 1 – 0, to a team in front of him who seem willing to give CFC as many goes as possible to score. The fans watching on, as their team hang on by the skin of their teeth can only sing and hope “come on you Dockers, come on you Dockers”.

TFC almost score with their first foray into the other teams box in what feels like an age, buts it’s deflected just over. However, there is no time for the fans to dwell on their own near miss, as they now have to watch again as they almost concede. One on one with the keeper, the man in goal does well to keep them at bay, but in doing so there is an almighty coming together with the CFC forward. For the second and last time of the night, the few away fans that are actually present, remind us they are in attendance “come on you Ambers”.

DSC_0421Five minutes of extra time to play, five minutes for TFC to hold on, five minutes for CFC to score a goal their efforts thoroughly deserve. Wanting to help those five minutes pass as quickly as possible, the TFC keeper makes sure to ask the referee and his assistant if he is OK to take his goal kick, offering them both a thumbs up, then waiting patiently for an acknowledgment that he is OK to go ahead.

“Fight for it Tilbury” insists a fan, as the never ending CFC onslaught continues. “You’ve been conned there says a TFC player when CFC are awarded a free kick just outside the box, for the second time tonight the referees gullibility is brought into question. Lining up the ball, making sure the valve is pointing in the right way, checking the wind directions, consulting with team mates all seems a bit daft, when you just end up taking a limp shot straight at the keeper. Mavis is less than impressed “should’ve had a shot” she says sarcastically.

CFC’s last chance of the night just about sums up their evening, they are doing all the right things, but when it comes to crunch time, they just can’t convert. “All fucking day” says a nearby TFC fan somewhat overly confidently as for the countless time tonight the keeper saves a goal bound shot, this time with his feet, and there simply isn’t enough time left for CFC to try again.

“Hello, hello, we are the Tilbury boys” sing the fans on the final whistle, one TFC coach pumps his fist towards them, and lets out an uncontrollable “wehhey”, one CFC player lies prone on the pitch hands over his face, unable to believe they got nothing from tonight. Both fans and players applaud each other, a mix of relief they held on, and belief that this might be the start of the end of their current slump.

“Forgot how it feels to win” says TFC club secretary Stephen, having to speak up slightly as the team have just put on their victory song in the nearby changing room, some even singing along, “not heard this in a while” he adds with a rye smile. Johns assessment of the teams current inconsistencies couldn’t have been more prophetic, very rarely have we seen a team put in two such differing displays, from one half to another.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say, and yes TFC is not the most eye catching of grounds, with the most cutting edge facilities, but they also say beauty is only skin deep, and if you look under the surface you will find a core of supporters and volunteers, who are just itching for their club to thrive again. At the moment it all just feels like its seen happier days, a bit of a hangover from better times and recent fortunes means there is a bit of grey cloud hanging over them at the moment, but they clearly have the people there to shoo that away, Mavis alone could do it on her own I’m sure. They just need that spark on the pitch, to get them going.

Talking of Mavis, I have my own run in with her on the way to the loo, when she tells me because I’m a “big bloke” she wouldn’t want a fight with me, but bets she could “run faster than me”.

I briefly deliberate with myself while washing my hands if I would in fact lose a foot race to an octogenarian, but I can’t stop thinking about some food for thought Tom served me off the back of my most recent raffle failure, “how much have you spent on those?”

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