Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to leafy Hertfordshire for a mad game that threatens to melt their brains to cheese.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

“Back on the burgers” are Tom’s first words getting into the car, as he not only confirms he is in better shape than he was on our last outing but inadvertently names this week’s blog before even having said hello.

Heading North tonight, our stop start journey along swollen rush hour filled roads takes Tom on a trip down memory lane. Driving through East Finchley and then Muswell Hill, he noticeably lights up. The green trees and smog-less skies, a welcome change to the IPA drenched dystopia he has voluntarily moved to in East London, all in his quest to be ‘cool’.

P1000828Once in leafy Hertfordshire in the low crisp light of an early October night, it makes the supposed aforementioned leafy parts of North London, look like they are pretending.

It’s not totally apparent that we have arrived in the correct place, when we pull into another leisure centre expecting to find a football ground. The long skinny blue gate, with WFC for Ware FC (WFC) written in even thinner white metal struts gives us an inkling that we are where we are supposed to be, but other than the gate and the man tending to it in a high viz jacket, there are very few signs of life.

Not long out of the car, looking for the way in, we are soon set upon in the nicest of ways by a short and softly spoken man in a long black WFC jacket. Tapping on the initials on his chest, BS for Bill Spink WFC’s Secretary, he welcomes us to Wodson Park.

Bill doesn’t beat around the bush and we are subjected to a whirlwind breakdown of the clubs current fortunes, “lots of first teamers out injured” he explains as the reason for their less than glowing recent run of form, but he’s quick to tell us the “kids” deputising for the “first teamers” did “well” and that two of their recent missing numbers are “back tonight”.

With a little bit of a nod and a wink he suggests we keep an eye out for one of their players in particular, one with a European pedigree, who scored against “Anderlecht” in the “Champions League” he explains. Having yet seemingly not taken a breath, we are both impressed by Bill’s machine gun delivery and the fact we might be seeing a player of such stature.

Bill moves on from WFC’s on field dilemmas, peeking up at us from the brim of his New York Red Bull cap, and fills us in a bit about WFC as a club. It’s “ family run” he tells us, between him and his “five daughters” who are spread out throughout the club in different roles, from the treasurer to the tea bar.

WFC’s opponents tonight might just be the club we’ve crossed paths with the most these last three years, Bowers & Pitsea FC (BP). Arriving not long after us, it’s hard to miss the large outstretched hand of the clubs goalkeeping coach, Wayne. Ever positive and happy to chat, with arms crossed he tells me he is “confident” they’ll be heading back to Essex with three points, as long as they do all the “basics right” they should get a “result” he adds.

Much like Bill did, talking in almost hushed tones, he points down the the long tunnel at the players milling about on the pitch at the other end, and singles out a player worth paying extra attention to tonight, BP’s keeper, who he tells us he has what it takes to “go far”.

I’m parched, a drink is in order, we’ve not stopped gassing to one person or another since arriving and Tom is clearly back to his best returning from the bar with two pints of Coke and some “Mini Cheddars”, nice to see he’s got his appetite back.

DSC_0052The large function room with the bar in, is half bathed in light, half in darkness. The dance floor at the far end, the other side of the half drawn partitions although a bit gloomy, still seems like a more than adequate place for some of the local kids to use as a makeshift playground. The lit side, with its small bar decorated with the club crest that’s seen better days, it’s covered pool and fussball tables and walls adorned with ever so slightly wonky pictures and club memorabilia is fairly empty, except for us and one lady with a pint who looks to be playing Candy Crush on her tablet, however all this is about to change.

Enter stage left a hyper member of the WFC staff in club polo shirt, who is excitable to say the least, even more so than the kids charging around on the parquet dance floor or the one perched behind the bar who has to be kept being told not to pull any pints.

“Lively” he says in response to questions of “how was Madrid?”. A fellow Spurs fan he tells the small crowd gathering around him that he had to “keep pinching” himself, having just watched Tottenham go toe to toe with the European Champions, and leaving the Bernabeu with a well earned point.

Maybe it’s a Hertfordshire thing, or a Ware thing, but he also much like Bill doesn’t seem to need to take a breath. With an ever growing audience he reels off his thoughts on selling Kyle Walker, informing all that are listening that if Spurs won the league he’d “spend two weeks in Thailand” and goes into quite graphic detail about the intimate act he would be happy to perform if it meant Spurs re-signed Gareth Bale.

The glare of the floodlights coming through the double doors and the faint sound of Natalie Imbruglia is my cue to go in search of a programme, leaving the Spurs debate now in full flow, which has moved onto the pros and cons of selling Luka Modric, where one lady makes her position very clear on the Croatian midfielder, let’s just say she’s not a fan.

A small laminated sign pinned to a fence alludes to a 50/50, but when I enquire with the women on the turnstiles, they have a feeling that it might not be happening tonight and I’d have to ask the “lady
behind the bar”. I retrace my steps, on reaching the bar I’m disappointed to hear there will be no 50/50, the notice is a little out of date. Perhaps sensing my abject disappointment, the lady behind the bar has an alternative “can do you a scratch card?” she offers.

As she rummages high up on a shelf, searching for a while, I get the feeling this isn’t a regular occurrence. I’m overwhelmed with the excitement of being able to possibly win “£20” according to the slightly dusty card she has finally found, but in equal measure I feel a bit pathetic, this infliction of mine is getting out of hand.

It was only ever going to be Tottenham and Arsenal I picked from the list of teams, the pen I’ve been given only half works, I’m offered a different one, but I’ve come prepared, soon producing my own from the deep pocket of my coat and just about manage to scribble our names in the small boxes. “The joy” says Tom sarcastically, as I hand over my money, transaction complete, fingers tightly crossed, will tonight be the night?

20171024_182436Sitting in one of the blue seats of the main stand, noticing the odd white one, which I put down to a bit of non league recycling there is not much to say about Wodson Park. Surrounded by fading autumn trees, there is a covered terrace on the opposite side and little else. Either side of the main stand, the two dugouts are Stourbridge FC apart, they are closer to the corner flags, than each other. I’m not sure if its normal, or just for the pleasure of the paying public tonight, but the overpowering smell of Deep Heat, emanating from the changing rooms in the bowels of the stand, is so powerful, I get a bit of a head rush.

Coming down from my eucalyptus high, I’m soon aware of many familiar BP faces, particularly Darren, BP’s fixer and all round top bloke, he joins me in the stand, perching on one of the small steps next to me.

“What’s the team?” he asks a fellow BP supporter, “same as Saturday?” he asks again before they can reply, they confirm that is the case, and he seems satisfied, “do the job”. By the sounds of it BP putting out the same team two games in a row is just short of a minor miracle at the moment, due to the “injuries, injuries, injuries” that have blighted them the last “month or so”, he tells me. Darren who knows a thing or two about football pitches explains the one at WFC is a real “leveller” and looking at the the state of the undulating centre line, it’s anything but level.

Music, much like what Toms eats and my gambling are a pretty common theme throughout our blogs and for once it’s nice to be able to share with others who subscribe to my theory on what music a club plays says about it and the choices of the DJ sets. “Better music than our place” says Darren as the Beatles start to play, and it has not been lost on me so far tonight the eclectic but more than acceptable playlist.

“Can’t stand we run out to Robbie Williams” says one member of the BP group, visibly appalled by the clubs choice of walk out music. His face contorted with disgust at the mere mention of the “Steps” greatest hits album which reared its head at a recent home match, “fucking tragedy”.

A fare few pie and chips are flying out the tea bar hatch, but non yet in Tom’s direction. BP are warming up now in their very agreeable pink bibs and Darren asks a late arrival for their prediction for tonight, “what you reckon Joe?”, “take another scrappy 1 – 0” he replies, I can assure you Joe you’re gonna get a lot more than that.

Straight off the ‘Best Music for Dads to drive to’ CD, Art for Art’s Sake by 10cc starts to play, as the players make their way in and the BP manager Rob Small addresses the many tracksuit clad BP payers, that he doesn’t have at his disposal tonight, “a lot of talent in this stand” he says before disappearing down the scrap heap challenge creation of a tunnel.

Seven Nation army by the White Stripes is certainly a step up on “the fat dancer from Take That” to quote Noel Gallagher, as entry music. “Come on Bowers” shouts a fan, just before we are all deafened by the PA welcoming us to “Wodson Park”.

“No excuses” shouts Rob Small with the game only seconds old, “set your tone” he says to the players, standing alone on the edge of the box, having just told the BP kit man leaning against the railing just behind him, half jokingly half not “not to talk to him”. Something I’ve learnt from our time in Rob’s presence, he is never anything but focused on the job at hand.

DSC_0115The first ten minutes certainly do set the scene for what might be the most extraordinary forty five minutes of football either of us have ever seen. BP have an early shout for a penalty declined, then go close with a half volley “should of scored that” says Tom as the chance goes begging. “Come on Bowers” yells a supporters from behind the WFC goal that is living a bit of a charmed life.

It certainly won’t be the most memorable of goals tonight, and somewhat against the run of play, it’s the home team who take the lead. Assisted by the face of their number 10, who stops a full blooded clearance with his mush from close range without even flinching. Tom christening him a “beast”, he unwittingly sets up a teammate in the box, who at the second attempt, his first having been stopped by the BP keepers boat race, he pokes home, putting WFC in the lead.

In the next four minutes between WFC going ahead, and BP equalising in equally scrappy fashion, the game continues to show signs of being an absolute barnstormer. “This games got goals in it” says Tom, moments before our second of the night, but not before we are treated to a masterful pirouette by the WFC number 10 who beautifully pivots one footed on the ball to evade his marker, the BP keeper going full Nuear, rushing off his goal line to chest the ball down and start an attack from the back. I notice that the odd white seats in the main stand are not random but spell out WFC and the pre match words of Bill seem like an ominous premonition, the likes of which are normally dished out by long haired ladies in the Sheriff of Nottinghams dungeon “we’ll score early, then lose the game”.

BP are relentless, a constant threat, Rob Small at some points emulating the great Ossie Ardiles, by adopting the infrequently used tactic of one at the back, and nine in attack, they flood forwards onto a hapless looking WFC defence at every opportunity, with always three or four players in the box, ready to receive the ball. Tom hits the nail on the head, “Bowers play like they wanna go home at half time”.

Not for the first time tonight WFC’s keeper is required to pull off a quite excellent save to prevent BP going further ahead, but there is very little he can do a few minutes later, with twenty two minutes gone. The surging run of BP’s number 9 goes unabated by the WFC defence and hes allowed to pick his spot and then curl a low shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box, and well out of the reach of the man in the WFC goal.

Tom so delighted by BP’s second lets out an audible whimper, like a Victorian lady who just saw a shin. The more robust gents behind the goal let out a much more masculine “come on Bowers” . While the WFC team argue among themselves, BP complete their ascension to the top, and with a poetic coincidence not far in the distance we are treated to some fireworks, filling up the night sky, set off I’m sure to signal and celebrate BP’s turnaround and unrelenting attacks.

Before we go any further I need you to join me, I need you to travel back to 2002 and the World Cup quarter final in Shizuoka, England Vs Brazil. If I remember correctly I was still in my dressing gown, as I was for most of that tournament due to the time difference, when England crashed out in the year we were going to to do it right, thanks to a free kick from a certain toothy long haired Barcelona player. The debate afterwards was not is the pony tailed gooner goalkeeper who was prone to such gaffs, Nayam, at fault, but did Ronaldinho mean it? Was it a cross miss judged by the man in goal or was it a spectacular set piece from a player at the heights of his powers?

Fast forward now to a cold October night in Hertfordshire, thankfully I’m not in my dressing gown, a similar debate breaks out, did he mean it? I think we’ve just witnessed what might already be our goal of the season, only ten games gone, Tom agrees it was a very fine goal, but is not convinced however that it was his intention.

From all of thirty five to forty yards the BP number 4 has creamed in the most audacious free kick straight into the top corner. Five keepers on form were not getting close to it, you have to ask yourself was one of the nearby fireworks attached to the ball?

I’m not sure who are more shocked the fans behind the goal, each one letting out a “woohoo” arms in the air, having just witnessed something a bit special or the scorer who is soon mobbed by his teammates on the pitch, and by those in the stand in a big red and white bundle. The final congratulation is from his manager, who runs along the touchline, for a handshake and a hug.

DSC_0165“All fucking dayyyyyy” screams one BP player as WFC attempt a shot directly from the restart, that fails to catch out the keeper. As if this game wasn’t loopy enough already, if that had gone in, Tom and I’s brains might have just squirted out our ears like melting cheese.

There seems little chance of this game slowing down, swinging back and forth from end to end WFC almost get back into the game straight away with a stunning volley but it’s just off target. I’m not sure how the man in charge is able to keep up, at one point the BP players have to be reminded by Rob Small that “you’re arguing, we’re playing” as they remonstrate with the man in charge, with the game still going on around them.

“Bowers relax” instructs Rob Small who, who might just be the politest manager in football, finishing most of his barked orders with a “thank you”. WFC are certainly seeing plenty of possession they’re not out of this by any stretch even though they’re two goals behind, Rob has to caution his players that they need to “focus on being better without the ball”.

With ten left to play of the half, BP send a thunderbolt just off target, that crashes off the mental fence behind the goal, causing a couple of the small group watching on to jump. There was a part of me that thought tonight was going to be a little dull, but when BP are involved, that is very rarely the case. Their own manager even wants them to embrace the less glamorous sides of the game, “enjoy defending” he tells his players.

WFC go close in the final five minutes of the half, there is then a brief stoppage when the BP keeper has to hop the fence around the pitch to retrieve the ball so we can play on. In their number 10 the home side have a player who is noticeably a notch or two above his teammates. “Lovely touch” says Tom as he delicately flicks the ball to a teammate, unfortunately for him, the rest of his team just don’t seem up to it.

There are the occasional flickers from WFC of what Tom suggests might be the “greatest comeback of all time”, but for once even I have to admit that’s a little dramatic, not sure were getting treated to an Istanbul 2005 tonight. It’s more likely going to be a case of BP running “away with it”, which he points out is certainly a possibility too. BP are far from one dimensional, and seem to have many different ways to hurt you. In the dying moments of the half, they force two quite spectacular saves from the WFC keeper. “He did it again” gasps Tom when it seemed a goal was the only outcome.

“Well played Bowers” cheer the fans clapping their team off for a well earned orange slice. I need a rest having just watched the most frantic and all consuming half of football we’ve ever seen, so slump down on the back row of the terrace to compose myself. Tom is off in search of food, and for some reason “hopes” the tea bar has got “something left” I’m not sure why, it’s not exactly busy here tonight.

For Tom the “foods not as exciting as the football” and a little dear in his learned opinion, £5.20 a little steep for burger and chips.

DSC_0301(1)WFC are out well early, “they don’t look happy” says Tom who reckons they have been given a “rollicking”. One player does his best to motivate his teammates “liven up Ware” but it’s a tad half arsed, when BP make their way out, one players roaring “come on Bowers, come on”, is a little more convincing.

“I’m back” announces Tom, who watched the opening moments of the new half seated on the terrace steps behind me finishing his dinner, watching BP as I did come flying out of the traps. “Great start” he adds as BP continue to pile on the pressure. The away side hit the bar early on, after a vital touch from the WFC keeper who despite conceding three is on track to be their man of the match. “Wake up” screams a WFC player as a BP header flies just wide and their goal again is living on borrowed time.

BP clearly have plenty of goals in them, however WFC are showing a modicum more composure. They almost catch BP cold, when their concentration slips for a moment. “Watch the short one!” shouts the BP player, as WFC line up to take a corner, no-one takes notice of the players foresight, and WFC do just that, play the corner short, and almost grab a goal.

“Starting to rain” grimaces Tom with the palm of his hand turned skywards as a single spot of rain falls from the clear black sky, but who has time to worry about that, BP have just had a goal bound shot blocked and then their bench has “ringside seats” as Tom puts it to a hefty tackle right in front of them, things are getting heated.

Along with the WFC number 10 and the man in goal, their number 4 has also impressed. Playing the “Makelele” role as Tom puts it, at times is “bossing it” single handedly putting out numerous BP fires at once, trying desperately hard to hold it together, but one man can only do so much.

“Jesus Christ we just had a free kick” says the forlorn WFC player, hands over his face, walking away from the scene of BP’s fourth. Only moments before his team were considering their own set piece from a dangerous potion, but now find themselves even further behind.

A minute later WFC’s number 4 is booked, as frustrations start to boil over and another BP player looks to be on the injury list, limping off. The game as Tom puts it is getting a little “cynical” and one BP player looks very lucky to still being on the pitch as he just seemed to straight up kick one of the opposition.

“First of the half?” asks Tom with half an hour of the second forty five gone, following WFC off target attempt.

Tom continues to give every player a top flight equivalent, “hes like Xavi” he labels the WFC number 10 who admittedly has flair and a range of passing but as demonstrated “can’t take a free kick”. In a good position, his attempt is poor and it’s straight into the keepers arms.

DSC_0286BP continue to be so dominant like “a well oiled machine” says Tom and they continue to “enjoy defending”. WFC do graze the BP crossbar late on, thanks to a quite brilliant cross field pass from “Xavi” that started the attack, and Tom tells me he “told” me, quite how much like the diminutive Spaniard the WFC player was. The away team almost make it five, players are telling each other to “finish” but the arse of the keeper stops it rolling over the line.

As Tom puts it, it’s somewhat of an “unsavoury” end to the game, as an almighty “bust up” as he calls it involving most of the players from both sides breaks out, marring what until now has been a cracker of a match. The BP fans tell the players to “get him out of there” one of their players in particular seems a little hot headed and needs extracting from the situation, another supporter reminds them they’re “4-1 up” and there really is no need for all this silliness. One fan asks for calm, and for his team to “see this game out please”.

Despite the referee having had words with those involved, dishing out yellows to the main protagonists the nonsense rumbles on, and again he is forced to intervene. Not long after and perhaps for “something he said” Tom reckons, WFC number 7 is shown a straight red, we truly have seen it all now.

What feels like well, well into injury time, WFC grab a consolation second goal, a towering header, that is received with muted applause. The tunnel being extended is normally a good sign that the end of the match is imminent, however its been pulled out a while now, and the game feels like it’s never going to end.

Rob Small instructs the players to thank the travelling fans, when the whistle is finally blown on what has been an eventful evening to say the least, but not before both he and Wayne have shaken hands with the WFC keeper, who after the the BP with the wonder foot, has been the stand out performer, with some outstanding stops or “Match of the Day save of the season shit” as Tom so eloquently put it. The few away supporters meet the players at the side of the pitch and there is an exchange of high fives and thank yous.

On our way to the car, I pop into the bar, and its hard to miss the many solemn faces. With hopes of a win on the scratch card, only to be told it was “Middelsborough” under the small silver square, leaving I probably look as jolly as the WFC fans drinking their sorrows away.

“Don’t really like blue, but I like their kit” says Tom about WFC’s two tone kit, a striped number of navy and sky, when summarising tonight’s epic clash on the drive home, his ‘Spark’s Final Thought’ if you like. For once the kit of either team is low down my list of things to get excited about. Although the second half failed to quite live up to the first, you would have to have been close to super human to have been able to keep that up for a whole ninety minutes, over all we were genuinely treated to one of the most thrilling, entertaining, insert adjective here, games we’ve ever seen, it quite literally had everything.

Wayne was at least half right, it was certainly worth keeping an eye on a goal keeper tonight, but it wasn’t BP’s. The man between the sticks for WFC was outstanding, a diamond in the rough, I suspect Wayne’s prediction that BP’s keeper will “go far” could quite also easily apply to the WFC number 1. If it hadn’t been for him it could have been a cricket score.

Almost home, I still can’t decide what was more worrying: The fact I nearly fell over retrieving a ball, how much I now have a complete irrational hatred of Middlesbrough, because it was they who denied me £20 quid or the Nostradamus ability of Bill, whose prediction of tonight’s outcome was so accurate, its almost scary. It’s always the quite ones.

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