On Non-League day Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to the borough of Brentwood for some FA trophy action.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

“Should I bring an umbrella?” asks Tom, climbing into the car, with no obvious sign of rain. Not for the first time I explain that having a brolly anywhere within one mile of a football match, post 2007 will only conjure visions of Steve McClaren, whose decision that night at Wembley, effectively means no one will ever be able to stay dry at a match again.

P1000814Anyway we’re late, well I’m late picking Tom up. I want to blame it on the baby, but FIFA 18 has to take some responsibility, as does the woman going down the Holloway Road at twelve miles an hour, who was then replaced by a huge yellow digger, that was going even slower.

I don’t like to be rushed, I get all of a dither when I’m rushed, and time is ticking. The traffic heading east isn’t improving my mood much, my eyes probably lingering that little too long on the clock and off the road.

The amount of time we spend on this particular stretch of motorway, heading away from the capital, yes you guessed into Essex, you would think I would be able to get around blind folded, but alas no, and as I deviate from the magenta path laid out on the Sat Nav, I add another fifteen minutes to our journey, SIGH.

“I did wonder why you turned her down” adds the back seat driver, telling me he can’t understand why I have turned down the audible instructions of the digital lady perched on my dashboard. It’s because she’s so tedious, and do you know what, you’re not helping with comments like that mate, so keep your opinions to yourself, I’m feeling fragile.

Entering the borough of Brentwood, I inform Tom that it’s the home of a certain nightclub, which he expresses his desire to visit at least once in his life. I’m not sure why. I’m so beyond clubbing, I don’t think they would even let me in the queue, let alone the front door.

The cherry on the top of the cake, vis-a-vis increasingly worsening mood, is our brush with death. My thirty three years flashing before my eyes, as what I think is a conker or perhaps an acorn, ricochets off the windscreen. It’s all a bit of a blur, we got through it, somehow, all I remember is screaming “I WANT TO GO HOME”.

It might be my confused state, having just stood shoulder to shoulder with the grim reaper, but I drive right past the entrance to today’s ground. Again it’s not completely my fault, the entrance to The Arena, home of Brentwood Town FC (BT) where we are spending Non League Day this year, is actually that of a leisure centre. The hand car wash is more obvious than the football club, but I shouldn’t be surprised, have I learned nothing these last three years? A non league ground can be anywhere.

“Funny little place” says Tom once through the single turnstile, now able to see what’s on the other side of the blue metal gate with “Welcome To Brentwood Town Football club” on it. He is particularity intrigued by the couple of armless yellow mannequins, mutilated silhouettes of people dotted around the pitch, the kind players bend free kicks round during their warm up.

The Arena, which I think sounds very Mad Max, somewhere Tina Turner would pitch wonders from the wastelands of a post apocalyptic universe against each other, which might explain the limbless chaps on the pitch, is far from post apocalyptic looking, just your usual hodge podge of non league fixtures and fitting.

Behind one goal is nothing, then behind the other you have the choice of a large covered terrace that Liam the clubs Twitter handler informs us is “affectionately known as the bell end”, because of the presence of a bell and not because of anything smutty. Next door to it is a small seated stand, that looks like something borrowed from Badminton Horse Trials.

DSC_0036The clubhouse, which has the look of a slightly aging Swiss holiday chalet, is all wood by the looks of it, with its bar set back from the pitch and seats out front. Some of which on closer inspection are more like red leather thrones, and are in fact from Highbury according to the faded stickers on the underside. Liam tells us one of the club staff works for Arsenal, so that would make sense. Gotta admire non leagues resourcefulness and ability to recycle.

Just like the sign outside, the one stenciled on the narrow corridor outside the changing rooms, that I spot through the extremely narrow tunnel, it’s about one Tom wide, or the one above the bar, Liam welcomes us to the club, in his flat cap and short sleeve shirt which shows off his extensive tattoos, which he tells us laughing, keep him out the boardroom at away games.

Non league day is quickly the topic of discussion, between handshakes and hello’s that he’s dishing out to the BT players heading off for their warm up. Although for us having Essex on our door step, with it’s never ending amount of clubs to visit is a benefit, for clubs like BT it means lots of competition for bums on seats. He tells us they do so much to try and “entice” people to come, handing out free tickets to local schools is one of them, but it’s the “Dads” they want, because they are ultimately the ones who are going to spend some money.

Usually coinciding with the first round of the FA Trophy, Non League Day can be a bit of a mixed blessing, mainly because FA regulations mean you can’t augment the price of admission, as lots of other clubs will do today to as he puts it to “entice” people to come.

They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t by the sounds of it. One common non league initiative is to offer season ticket holders of League clubs not playing today because it’s the international break, half price entry, but that can rub up the regulars who are paying full price the wrong way.

He is though ultimately positive, with the “size” of Brentwood, there is “potential” he tells us.

Where as some clubs will really see a lot more clicks of the turnstiles today than normal, Liam doesn’t think that’s going to be the case for BT. Also having checked their opponents attendance so far this season he tells us it’s “unusual” for a club to have “less” than them, so he’s not expecting many South Park FC (SP) fans today either.

Liam’s story is a familiar one, local, but not a BT fan man and boy as they say, instead a disillusioned ex season ticket holder at West Ham, who as he puts it has “fallen out of love” going to see them, especially since the move to the London Stadium. Not only was he fed up of having to watch with “binoculars” but also the experience his young children was having was not a good one. When your daughter has come home crying, some things are bigger than your team, and you have to reevaluate.

Offer his kids the chance to go and see the Hammers “not interested”, offer them a Saturday at The Arena, they bite his hand off. Not as he explains do they actually watch the match, they’re much more interested having their own one behind one goal on a patch of grass, but win or lose, they’ll always be waiting for the players at full time for a high five.

“Normally win, normally win” says Jessica, Liam’s daughter confidently clutching her bag of pick and mix, which is about as big as her.

Lastly he tells us that the ground is going to be a little sparser than normal today, normally there are a few flags hanging around the pitch, unfortunately the “well refreshed” person responsible for them on a recent away day, has lost them and now they are doing a “whip round” to replace them.

DSC_0111Once more we are offered a “warm Brentwood welcome” this time by the slightly stern sounding person on the PA. If you could imagine the voice doing a public address warning, which is calm, but with a hint of urgency informing you of an impending natural disaster, he’s your man. It’s not to say he’s not enthusiastic or cold, but his delivery is very authoritative. “Enjoy the game” is how he concludes, having read out the teams, I’m not sure if it’s a suggestion or an order.

The appearance of the teams from the blue PVC tunnel catches me out a little, our late arrival has not allowed me the usual time to settle, to get the lay of the land, so I’m caught somewhat on the hop.

As the teams prepare for kick off, the visitors will be be getting us underway, there is plenty of pre match encouragement, forceful clapping and inspirational two word statements blurted out by both sets of players. With the game only seconds old, one BT player demands of his team mates, “get me that ball back”. Another just shouts “up, up, up” I don’t think in reference to the heart melting Pixar film, nonetheless, Non League Day is GO!

With the home team attacking towards the small pocket of fans behind the goal, it’s not long until they are celebrating. “Great header” cackles one clapping supporter, it looked like an own goal to me, but they all count. The bulk of the plaudits are aimed not at the scorer, but at the BT number 2 whose well delivered cross resulted in the home team going ahead.

Tom informs me he’s “hungry”, having arrived late he was unable to grab anything prematch. He is though a little cautious, “what weird meat we enjoying this week, partridge?” he asks me churlishly after our dabble into faggots at Stourbridge. Today he is free to order whatever he wants. Which I’m sure he will, but he’ll have to wait until half time now.

SP or the “Christmas team” as Tom has christened them, on account of their all red with a hint of green kit, are pinned back, on the ropes and looking like they are going to ship a hat full today. “Liver” is how one player bizarrely abbreviates ‘deliver’ when he tells the full back who crossed for the first goal, to whip one in. BT go close to a second, a towering header flying just over. “Dangerous” says Tom about the constant BT attacks.

“Got to do a lot better than this” pleads one of the “Christmas team”. After it’s only thanks to the face of their keeper, that they have not gone further behind. “Unlucky blues”, “well played wood” shout the fans.

Just over quarter of an hour gone and it seems like a nailed on second, “Izzy” the zippy BT number 17, has just slotted the ball past the SP keeper from an angle. We all watch on in slow motion as it rolls goal wards, the keeper helpless, some fans already celebrating “yesssss” but instead of going into the back of the net, it hits the foot of the post, and rebounds perfectly into the arms of the man in goal, “unlucky Izzy”.

The BT captain who bares a resemblance to “Stephen Ireland” just a bit shorter, according to Tom, is marshaling the midfield. I reckon he is a bit more Cambiaso than the main protagonist of ‘Granny-gate’. Stout and robust he tackles like another son of Cork, Roy Keane, he’s not afraid to put himself about, and his distribution isn’t half bad either. “Unlucky blue” shouts a fan, following a pass from the captain that results in another BT chance, that’s just over. Which triggers one of the BT substitutes to scamper off to get the wayward shot, and you thought you were just chilling on the bench today, and for one fan to lift his arms up above his head, awarding the field goal, like an NFL referee

“What delights are on the menu?” ponders Tom, halftime getting ever closer. Ever since our trip to the West Midlans, he seems to have lost his confidence in the food on offer. Although he explains a “plus of going up north, outside the M25” is that “gravy” will be “involved” with whatever you order.  His keen nose has already detected the whiff of fried onions, which he informs me “smelt good”, and he is very excited when he sees someone pass with a “double trouble” a two patty burger.

DSC_0252Almost thirty minutes in, and SP are offered a lifeline back into the game, thanks to the “dodgy” BT keeper, as one nearby fan put it, after a bit of a flap at a cross results in a scramble and a deflected shot, that goes just wide of the post. “He did not look comfortable” says Tom, one fan can’t bare to look, turning his back on the action, “ohhhh”. The man in goal redeems himself not long after, after his goal kick goes directly through one of the small windows of the SP dugout, “good shot!” says one supporters laughing, “hole in one”, adds Tom.

2 – 0, it’s not a spectacular goal, BT’s number 17 sliding in on his bum to prod home, and is soon back up on his feet he soaring off arms out by his side like an aeroplane. Much better is the celebration of one fan, who momentarily embodies the spirit of ‘The Nature Boy’ Ric Flair, “WOOOOO” he says just like the white haired WWE Hall of Famer.

Cruising with a two goal lead, some fans want “more”, and that might be a good idea. Despite looking pretty well out of it, SP have their moments and with ten minutes of the half to go, they counter following a BT attack. A single player goes on a “wonder run” as Tom puts it, almost single handedly pulling a goal back. Riding tackles he makes it almost the whole length of the pitch, before setting up a team mate, whose shot is saved.

Once again the keeper is applauded, not for his eagle eyed accuracy, but for the fine save that prevents the SP halving their deficit.

BT craft another chance to further their lead, but continue to be wasteful in front of goal, “power not placement” suggests Tom, as one player blasts wide, instead of showing a bit more finesse. However on the stroke of half time Ric Flair is back, as they add a third.

The glory almost goes to my favorite player of the game so far, the marauding BT full back number 2 with his half shaved head. The SP keeper does well to get a hand to his shot, but can’t hang onto it, Johnny on the spot, BT’s tall forward number 9, is on hand to scoop home, who then gets the first song of the day “Brentwood loves you more than you will know”.

“You guys don’t want a season ticket do you?” asks a buoyant Liam, on his way to the clubhouse, our
presence he seems to think is like one of those saluting golden Chinese cats.

At the back of the cramped but lively clubhouse, Tom secures himself a burger from the kitchen not a lot bigger than my car, which is somewhat tardis like, as somehow it’s got two people in it.

“Hot” he says, talking that way people do when they have taken a bite of something that is far too hot to eat, and are forced to juggle it around their mouth with their tongue, gob wide open, steam visibly coming out, desperately trying to avoid an injury. Once he’s recovered, he informs me it’s “cooked” and it’s “good” if not a little “charred” I tell him you call that “caramelized”.

“Welcome back onto the pitch our players, Brentwood Town” says Mr Serious on the microphone. Not sure if it’s a veiled jibe at the away team, or he’s just forgotten, but there is a definite and considerable pause until he welcomes back the “opposition” onto the field.

Everyone is full of beans, Tom is full of a burger, in the small horse show stand, “three well taken goals, three well crafted goals” is one happy fans assessment of his teams first half, another thinks BT should be “six up”.

Jessica gets the half underway with a few rings of the bell that hangs from the roof of the covered terrace, a half of football with a conclusion, that let’s say, we didn’t see coming.

DSC_0312“Switch on Brentwood” screams Liam, agitated at the home team’s sloppy start, SP are far more sprightly. BT’s number 17 gets his half off to a less than auspicious start, although to be fair to him it’s not his fault he got a “fucking karate kick” in the face, and gets no foul given in his favour. “You bent ref?” asks the fan next to me with the Marshal Mathers hair, who descends further and further into a dark place as the game plays out.

3 – 1, SP are rewarded for their energetic start. Awarded a penalty, after a player is hauled down in the box, the spot kick is dispatched, and there is not a moment of celebration, as the players rush back to their half. “Here we go” says one supporter, with that tone of ‘I’ve seen this all before’. “Get your heads up, we’re winning this” calls out someone, reminding the players of their significant lead, who are playing like they’re the ones three nil down, “come on, wake up”

Two minutes later! “Fucking hell”, it’s now 3 – 2, “we could be 7 – 0” says Eminem, who can’t comprehend what is happening. “What is it with us and 3 – 0” mulls over one of the group behind the goal.

Less than two minutes later! “Their bench got him sent off” suggests a fan, as BT’s number two makes his way back to the changing room, up the narrow blue tunnel, no one really having any idea why he got the red.

In the space of about three or maybe four minutes BT have conceded two and had a man sent off. Someone has angered the football Gods, who were smiling on them so favourably in the first half.

“Come on referee” shrieks, the 8 Mile star next to me who can’t believe the big lunge on their keeper, whose flat on his back for a moment, but soon recovered, has gone unpunished.

Unbelievably BT don’t register their first meaningful attack until nearly twenty five minutes of the second half gone. It’s like a different eleven were welcomed onto the pitch after the break, than the one who had to all intense purposes, put this game out of sight in the first forty five. One fan reiterates this anomaly, “how can you play like that the first half, and like this the second”. It’s SP now doing all the tricks and flicks, who also look like a completely different side, however BT are going some way by handing this game to them on a plate.

“Come on Brentwood, these lot are dog shit”. The manager’s reply to his team’s dismal second half performance is the introduction of a unit, their number ten who in no uncertain terms has been sent on with one job to do, “hold up the ball” . With his arrival and with “twenty to go”, BT are still in it, just.

Tom is now fully committed to the home team’s cause, letting out a considerable “ohhhh” as SP flash a header just wide. “Come on Brentwood, lift yourselves” demands one member of the ever increasingly disappointed group around us, who have seen near to no action this end.

The home supporters instructions to their players is for their team to run the clock down, at every opportunity. “Take your time lad” suggests one to a player being replaced, when they are awarded a free kick deep in their half, they emphasise there is no rush to take it, “time, time” repeats one.

SP’s manager rooted to the edge of this area, sleeves of his shirt rolled up, looking a bit like a exasperated deputy head master, watches his team go close again. Liam is getting increasingly hoarse, as his language gets increasingly blue.

Five to go, and the BT keeper is looking shaky, “I get nervous every time they get a corner” mutters a fan.

DSC_0322That was it, that was the chance to rescue what has truly been a game of two halves. The cut back is near perfect, a foot outside the six yard box, all he has to is get his shot on target, but he blazes over, “fucks sake”. I don’t think there is a single person who doesn’t have their head in their hands. “Only bit of football we’ve played second half” says my neighbour quite rightly. It was well worked, but the finish was wild.

3 – 3, one minute of the game remaining. Murmurs that the keeper should have done better, the ball did seem to go right through his hands, are quick to bubble to the surface. “Talk about frustrating” says one fan with what might be the understatement of the season, another thinks they’ve “given it to them!” one hopes that it’s SP’s turn to “fall apart, now they’re back in the game” with five minutes of extra time to play, and judging by the previous ninety, anything is possible.

The game boils over in added time, and there’s a brief outbreak of rutting, which the referee soon gets to grips with, dishing out a couple of yellow cards. “Ref you’re a disgrace” howls one fan, who apparently does not agree with his handling of the situation. Another suggests his willingness to blow his whistle, is because he’s “probably got a book coming out”.

SP almost polish off BT, completing the perfect non league day for them, with three back to back chances in the dying minutes, “come on” shouts the increasingly sweaty deputy head, whose team have done him proud, but can’t complete the ‘Miracle at The Arena”. Their final shot is inches over, “should’ve buried that” says a pragmatic and in equal measure relieved home fan.

It’s mixed emotions on the final whistle, “fuck off” says one fan to no one in particular, Liam offers some encouragement, “heads up lads, we ain’t lost”, one says the kind of thing a parent says to a child, “could of been worse”. There are also differing opinions on the SP fight back, who look dead on their feet, sprawled out on the pitch, I’m sure they’re getting a more positive pep talk than the one they got at half time. “Fair play to them” says one supporter, someone else is less generous “we gave it to them, poor side”.

I don’t think it could ever be said BT don’t care, they might have just thrown away a three goal lead, but I don’t think that is down to not giving a shit. As they walk the line of fans behind the barrier, they are all visibly drained and dejected, they shake the hands of the supporters, who in turn wish them luck in the replay.

“Maddest three minutes ever” says Liam, still upbeat, but I reckon wishing he had never offered us those season tickets.

For what was only our second Non League Day, I leave asking myself is it always like this? Six goals, one red card, a warm welcome, Ric Flair, Eminem, Tom burning his mouth and calling SP “dirty Santa’s” when they get a bit physical. However, thinking back over the last three years Tom always says odd things, he always burns his mouth, I don’t think we’ve left somewhere thinking, ‘God them lot were horrible’, we normally see plenty of goals at least one celebrity look-a-like and its not uncommon to see the card of cards brandished on a regular basis, non league football is like this every day of the season.

Non league is for life, not just for non league day.

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