Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league adventures, this time to the heart of Hertfordshire. “We go to some funny old places…”

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.

I think it’s reasonable to say our journey to Hertfordshire tonight felt anything but safe. One person trying to merge badly with fast moving traffic and the speeding white 4×4 that nearly demolished a motorcycle all contributed to a hectic forty five minute car ride, however an indepth debate about the new Call Of Duty and learning that Tom once piloted a helicopter, meant I got to tonight’s ground, without having a complete and utter mental breakdown.

If I thought though that once off the motorway we were in for an easy ride, I was wrong. Three jam packed lanes of people desperately trying to get home, and prepared to do anything to get there that little bit sooner, are now replaced by pitchblack snaking tree lined lanes, without a street light in sight, having to resort to full beam to ensure we don’t end up in a hedge.

P1000859“We do go to some funny old places” says Tom, as I do a three point turn in the makeshift gravel car park of the local girl guides hut, having blindly followed the Sat Nav once again. Reverting to the more reliable Google maps, it has us quickly on the right track and not too far in the distance we can see the bright glow of some floodlights, and a small square stand.

One last treacherous avenue successfully traversed, over a bridge and we encounter our second makeshift car park of the evening. With more trees than parking bays it’s not instantly apparent where we can leave the old blog mobile, but we find a place. Somewhere that quite unintentionally means Tom almost falls in a ditch as he gets out. “There’s a stream there” he says, having just avoided getting his feet wet.

The stuff you use to line the bottom of your plant pots with, crocks is what I think you call them, are not conventional flooring for a car park, but none the less, this fresh obstacle does not faze us, we negotiate them without a scratch, and make it to the turnstiles in one piece.

Tonight we came prepared, our last outing was a cold one, so Tom has broken out his large fluffy hooded winter jacket, as well as some gloves a hat and yes, the snood, but it’s a wasted effort, it’s far from wintry. I think you could go as far as to call it mild, I probably could have gotten away with leaving my coat in the car.

Hertingfordbury Park home of Hertford Town FC (HT) since before World War Two we’re informed by the club chairman in his mint green jumper who gives us a quick history lesson, has the instant feeling of being a good’un. I can’t quite put my finger on why, maybe it’s the old stand, with its wooden seats that look like they might have been there since before World War One or maybe it’s becasue of the “Welcome to Hertford Town FC” sign along its side in gold lettering. I know for certain Tom likes it, he made his opinion clear within seconds of walking in. “Pukka pies” he squeals, their tell tale orange logo hard to miss on the front of the long Stag (the clubs crest) covered Fan-Fayre Bar, with its HTFC number plate.

That indescribable feeling is only heightened when we enter the low roofed instantly cosy clubhouse, where everything that can possibly be blue, in keeping with the clubs nickname, The Blues, is. The stag theme also continues with the bronze head of one mounted on one wall, the county flag on another, which features yes you guessed it, Bambi’s dad, and emblazoned above the bar in scrawled calligraphy the club’s name. The only thing that doesn’t quite fit, it’s neither blue or has a stag on it, is a Belgian flag, promoting a low countries beer.

Tom is on the tea run, and returns a very happy boy indeed. Not only is the tea at a sensible temperature, breaking ranks with most non league cuppas that you can’t drink for an hour, but having had a chance to survey his options for dinner a little closer, he is very impressed, “best food selection we’ve ever had” he tells me with a sparkle in his eyes.

HT might not conform to the scalding hot tea stereotype but what they do conform to is the non league rule that everyone does everything, so when the chairman comes out from behind the bar, having pulled a couple of pints it’s no great surprise. On his way for a cigarette, rolling tobacco and Rizla in hand, we get a feel from him for how he thinks this evening will go.

IMG_20171114_183207“Lackluster performance on Saturday” he tell us, obviously not sure then what tonight will bring. When we ask what kind of an attendance he would expect, he explains it all “depends if people wanna watch England”,  the three lions taking on Neymar and the gang at Wembley tonight, so he reckons they’ll get only around “180”, he tells us with a slightly screwed up face, as he crunches the numbers in his head.

A person who was always going to be here, regardless of who England were playing, is not a HT supporter, but one of their opposition, Witham Town FC (WT). Sitting at the other end of our long table, intently checking his phone, in his bright yellow WT shirt, blue hat and scarf is the well known Witham Town super fan, James.

Known to some as one of the stars of the Channel 4 dating show The Undateables, to those in the non league world he’s known as maybe one of, if not the most diehard non league football fan going, he’s like a one man Clapton Scaffold or Dulwich Rabble. With his trusty selfie stick and flag filled rucksack at his feet, he’s more than happy to share his thoughts on WT’s chances.

It will be a “tricky game” he thinks, “but we will do well”. He reckons his team will keep a clean sheet too, and leave with a “2-0” win. James though is not around for long, finishing the last sips of his Diet Coke, he is a man in demand, and has an interview for Witham Town FC TV to do.

There is no shortage of people willing to chat and say hello. Stuart in his black flat cap, makes it clear that being a HT fan is far from easy, “never know with us, we know how to lose” he tells us laughing, having half lifted his hat off his head, as if to allow some of the strain of it all to escape his brain. They have conceded “six” twice this season but then “beat Canvey Island” who are top of the league, it was like the “Alamo” someone else chips in. Stuart asks if we watched “Sweden last night?, comparing their goalless draw against  Italy in their World Cup playoff, where the Scandinavians did more defending than attacking, but got the result, to their recent win over the league leaders.

It’s been made perfectly clear in our five or ten minutes in the bar, that it’s never plain sailing in these parts.

With his hat firmly back on his head, Stuart leaves us, prompting Tom to lean over the table and under his breath tell me he “really” likes “it here” it’s “got everything”. Now of course it being Tom some of that has to do with the “great burger van”, but also the “nice clubhouse”, and the “old English football feel” the whole place has “about it”. Very rarely is Tom so forthcoming with his thoughts, he normally leaves it to me to do all the rose tinted gushing, but he’s definitely feeling it tonight and we’ve only had a cup of tea.

Programme secured, not making that mistake again! I ensured I had one in my bag early doors, to avoid the Churchillian black dog of depression hanging over me like at Erith Town.

Only half of Hertingfordbury Park is currently bathed in light, not all the floodlights have yet been turned on, so there is still a slight gloom around the ground. The squat main stand sits almost completely in darkness, with just a chink of light coming from its base, and the doorway the teams will be appearing from later.

The Stable End, the covered terrace behind one goal is relatively bare, except for a neatly painted and
frightfully menacing looking blue and yellow stag on its back wall. It has bags of attitude in its beady black eyes, like it’s going to corner you for your beer money and get you with its antlers. This perhaps explains the smiling stone Buddha below it, there to calm it.

And then there was light, as the full complement of wiry floodlights are switched on, showing Hertingfordbury Park off in all its glory. Cones have been put out on the pitch, but there is a distinct lack of players. A couple of WT’s arrive, and get a hearty clap from James, who has already set up his flags along side one of the dug outs. HT’s own fans have put up theirs, but their collection is somewhat dwarfed by the man with Ultra on the back of his shirt.

DSC_0014However his applause is a little in vain, the players realising they are in the wrong place turnabout and head to where Tom is, the “bog” or training field, behind the pitch, where a few players are taking pot shots at him, as he photographs them warming up.

I’m surprised with the overpowering smell of onions coming from the food bar, that Tom is able to concentrate, like football fan catnip, I’m sure they’re what are drawing in the steady stream of fans. The near constant clicking of the turnstile, with its door that curiously has a letter box, is a good sign people have not sided with Gareth Southgate this evening, one steward has already had to put the ‘car park full’ sign out.

Perhaps the fact that someone seems to be testing the PA system explains the distinct lack of music so far, not that that’s a bad thing, and when some does finally come on it’s not blaring out, just a faint bit of MGMT wafting out of the speakers.

The departing WT players, having finished their warm up with a few minutes on the main pitch are greeted by a fan at the mouth of the tunnel, hands full of food and a drink, he is unable to offer them his hand as they pass, telling each one to “come on” so offers his elbow instead, which some awkwardly touch/shake before heading back inside, wondering what the hell have I just done.

Both teams arrive as they should, from the foot of the main stand, shouting and encouraging each other. Although I didn’t see it myself, Tom thought it worth mentioning the starry eyed boy, looking on as the players walked out. Turning to his father beside him, asking if he thought he would ever play for the “Hertford Town first team”. His Dad’s reply is one that will melt anybody’s heart, “you don’t even know the offside rule” he sneered, oh. Tom saying the hope of one day turning out for his local team, died visibly in the little man’s eyes.

With the toss of the coin and the deciding of ends, James’s flag hoisting has been a tad pointless, “took him about an hour to do that” says a person sitting behind me in the now perfectly emulated steep bank of seats in the main stand. He passes me at double speed with an armful of crumpled polyester on his way to set up at the other end of the pitch.

“Hertford come on” shouts a player moments before kick off, which is repeated by someone in the stand. They all though pale into insignificance when James gets going, his voice positively booming as he stretches the acoustics to their limits, the very acoustics Tom saw him testing pre kick off, walking around the pitch clapping, “good here”, he says to himself, his assessment concluded.

“Come on you yellows” screams the “multi talented” WT supporter. Tom impressed by the fact that he can not only sing “come on you town” but he can also finish tying up one of his six flags at the same time

Breaking somewhat with tradition, a small group of HT fans are not behind the goal they are attacking this first half, but the one they are defending. Holed up in the Stable End, some are even sitting with their backs against the wall. The complete opposite to James who is on to his next song “la, la, la, la Whitham” arms outstretched above his head. He seems to have a never ending song book, the next one is an old favourite of many a football fan, but with an unfamiliar ending, “que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Tilbury”.

Always on trend, and never one to stray too far from the path, Tom is already thinking about what he’s having at half time, in a very roundabout way. Attempting to disguise his own selfishness, he pretends he cares what I might be having, because I mentioned I was a bit hungry on the way here “you hungry yet?” he asks. He apparently “skipped breakfast”, as he got up to late because he was “up till three playing COD”.

“Come on you yellows” sings James as WT win a corner, that results in our first bit of action of the night, an almighty scramble, ending with an attempted back heel goal from less than a foot out, that hits the post. Watching his team go close, means James only gets louder, his voice like a “fog horn” says Tom, singing about just how far he’s prepared to go to watch his beloved WT, “over land and sea and Chelmsford”.

IMG_20171114_191829If the game wasn’t proving to be as entertaining as it is, you could quite easily watch James all night, his energy is infectious, Tom will be “surprised” if he’s “got a voice left” by the end of the match and can’t believe that he’s not “got a drum”, a must surely for any self respecting Ultra.

His powerful voice tests the acoustics, much like his team are testing HT’s defence who Tom already thinks are going to be “ripped apart” by WT, with their “quick passing” and rapid front three who Tom reckons are all “below 6ft” its pace over power in the visiting ranks, no “lump” up front as Tom puts it.

Another goalmouth scramble, the well placed face of a HT player on the line stops the goal, and then there is an almighty shout for a “handball” the WT players chasing the referee as play continues, James is convinced “handball referee” and so is Tom “looked like a handball to me”.

As the occasional train trundles along behind the main stand, HT’s goal is living a charmed life, from long range WT hit the woodwork once more, the attempt just a fraction high from being a real stunner, “Witham, Witham, Witham” sings the one man yellow wall.

The slight delay in play because of an injury is almost welcomed, the first twenty minutes have been frantic, “too frantic” says Tom who needs to catch his breath. When a ball appears over the stand behind us, from the car park, halting play for a second time, it’s appearance thoroughly annoys the HT keeper to say the least “fuck off” he shouts. “Think he was happy with that kick” laughs Tom, as the man in goal is forced to retake his well placed boot up field.

HT get their own go at a goal mouth scramble, somewhere in the middle of which they have their own penalty shout turned down. “1-1” says an eagle eyed Tom, both teams now equal in the penalties
that weren’t given race, he agrees with the home bench though that it should have been given. The referee however disagrees, and the ball ends up being bicycle kicked over the bar.

On twenty minutes the home teams resolve is broken, as WT take the lead in quite excellent fashion, with an expertly worked goal. A chest trap, a pass, a flick on, a swivel, 1 – 0. The quality of their creation is not lost on the celebrating players, the scorer is mobbed, having placed his low fizzing shot from the edge of the box into the bottom corner, well out of reach of the out stretched keeper.

“Yes, Yes, Yes” shouts Daniel Bryan in the non league beanie, pumping his fist and going red in the face. His scarf tossed in the air, as he takes things up a gear. First suggesting we all have a “disco” but before anyone has a chance to join him, he just cracks on by himself, “la, la, la, la bouncy, bouncy” pogoing on the spot.

I’m not sure what it is, but the last few games we’ve been to, have been a a bit bad tempered in parts. Perhaps it’s just down to what’s at stake or perhaps some other contributing factor, the moons cycle or lay lines, whatever it is, tonight’s no different. Tom goes as far as suggesting it’s a bit “gladiatorial” and thinks we should “chuck a sword” on the pitch and “see what happens”. It’s not only elbows flying in, but some rash and unnecessary tackles too, Tom has the feeling that “someone is getting sent off”.

DSC_0117The home fans are growing increasingly despondent not only at their own teams loose passing and sloppy play at times, but with the man in charge. Boos ring out from the small and most vocal group of HT supporters standing behind a single flag on the sidelines, when they think they’re through on goal, and don’t agree when it’s given offside.

WT are rampant and have another shout for a penalty declined. Their willingness to pile forward does occasionally leave them a little vulnerable, and on a couple of occasions they are required to haul down the HT attackers to prevent the breakaway. One such fouls subsequent free kick which is hoisted into the box sparks another appeal for a spot kick, which again is waved away and I’m losing count of how many that is now.

Both benches are going nuts, screaming at the top of their lungs, HT’s at the referee for not giving the penalty for a clear shove and WT’s are threatening to pull off one of their own players for some reason, “it’s fucking embarrassing” they shout, but what is causing them to feel so disconcerted is not clear.

“Referee get a fucking grip” asks one nearby HT fan, when a strange debacle stops play. It’s not an extra ball this time, but a cock up with a HT substitution. “Try that again” says a confused Tom, as the home bench lift the electronic board for a second time, this time is seems with the right number and the injured player can limp off. “Why did they just try to make a sub with no player ready” wonders Tom.

“Free header” screeches the HT keeper, as the defender still recovering from his acrobatic goal line clearance just moments before is picking himself up out of the goal, having just prevented a quite certain second WT goal.

After most if not all moments of niggling handbags between players, James’s response to their silly behaviour is perfect, “ohhhhh” he says going a little Vic & Bob. However on reflection his mid nineties comedy duo impression doesn’t quite match the severity of one bust up, that leaves one WT player sprawled out on the pitch clutching his face.

“What the fuck did he do?” asks Tom when the HT number 10 is shown a red card, having picked up his second yellow of the night. Despite being given his marching orders, he is not exactly prompt in leaving. “What did I do, what did I do?” he asks, over and over without reply almost frothing at the mouth, so incensed that he has been sent off. “Referee you’re a fucking joke” shouts a far from impressed home fan, the man in black is now officially tonight’s bogeyman.

The departing player, makes the long slow walk back to the changing rooms, receiving a few half hearted claps as he does so.

On the half time whistle, a half may I add that absolutely flew by, we get one last cry from James “come on Whitham” while he takes his flags down in preparation for the second half and the angry HT fans on the sidelines continue only to get angrier and their grumbling is as loud as it’s been. The voice over the PA is disappointed to say the least, “Hertford Town 0 – Witham Town 1” he says in a very glum tone, before updating us on the “latest from Wembley”.

Marching in the direction of the food Tom is wringing his hands in anticipation, “think I might have the full works”.

There is a fair old buzz around the sizzling grills of the Fan-Fayre Bar, from the not inconsiderable turnout. An impromptu kick about has broken out next to us, the ball and players occasionally crashing up against the metal fence that separates the concrete pitch and the alfresco pitch view dining options available.

DSC_0229Tom returns barely able to carry his “proper feast” the yellow polystyrene container overflowing with wait for it what might be the “food of the year so far”. Braintree’s “monster burger” is still the frontrunner, but HT are giving them a run for their money, and all for £6.50 including two drinks, you “get your money’s worth” too. Spare a thought though for the two almost untouched trays of chips, smothered in ketchup, that have been abandoned on our table, for no obvious reason, they didn’t deserve that.

“You go, I can’t” says Tom, his mouth overflowing just as the yellow polystyrene container was. The players are out, but he can’t join me pitch side, he’s still “got a burger” to finish, a burger that might just have the beating of my companion, when he admits for the “first time” that he’s started to feel “full”.

“Bang that drum bloody loud” says a HT fan to another, making his way to the Stable End and it’s the first sign of the local philharmonic orchestra, who were absent in the first half, but who are now taking up position for the second. James has also moved, and has got his flags up in record time once again, “yellows, yellows, yellows”.

WT come flying out of the traps, all that pace and slick passing from the first half is back on show, but as pleasing on the eye as they can be, it’s hard not to focus on what’s occurring to our right, “what’s going on in there?” asks Tom as all manner of musical instruments start to play, a drum, a horn a Kazoo? “Hertford, Hertford, Hertford” they sing, not only is there an orchestra in there, but a choir too. “Where were they in the first half?” queries Tom.

When the harmonica starts up, “got it all in there” says a baffled Tom, it feels like the icing on the cake. Not an instrument instantly associated with football, but oh does it work.

All the early promise of a noisy second half, is a little premature, they are sporadic at best and it’s much quieter now with James at the other end of the pitch. For the time being it’s just the hum of generators of the food bar behind us, the odd shout of “come on you blues” and the guys next to us checking the Ireland Vs Denmark score.

I can assure you that it’s not cold, the temperature has dropped a fraction since we arrived, but nothing to concern yourself with. Not enough to make you try and remember all those hours of watching Ray Mears and what to do when you’re stuck in the arctic. Tom on the other hand has cracked, and out comes the snood, that gets its first outing of 2017/18. I reiterate with him the fact it’s hardly necessary, however he tells me he’s putting it on because his camera strap is “chaffing his neck”, but I don’t buy it.

The booking of a WT player sees the HT fans go all Sunday school, “hallelujah, hallelujah”. Not long after when a WT player goes down a little easily in their eyes, they go all Hunt For Red October, “dive, dive, dive”.

I already have two children, and at the moment have no plans for a third, but being out with Tom sometimes, especially when he asks me things like “get me a snake from the tuck shop” I feel like I have one girl, one boy and a bearded vape smoking man child.

“Not had one of these in years” he says, returning with a long red jelly snake that is apparently “rock
hard” so he tells me he is going to have to “sit on it for a bit”. The fact we are standing might make that a little bit tough, however he got me a raspberry Maoam, so I won’t say anything, I’ll let him work that one out for himself.

HT’s second half showing on the pitch, has well and truly woken up the fans, they may well be down to ten men, but you wouldn’t know it. When they threaten to pull one back, with about a quarter of an hour gone, the supporters make themselves heard “Hertford, Hertford, Hertford”.

DSC_0310However HT mustn’t be too overconfident, despite the fact you wouldn’t know they are a man less, because WT almost go straight up the other end and score themselves “ohhhhh” gasp the fans around us, one of whom is wearing his “lucky shirt”, a shirt made by Kappa, a brand that Tom admits to being a big fan of because of the “boobies”.

“Big save” says Tom, as WT’s all green keeper keeps them in front with a low one handed stop. “Looks like they’ve got the extra man” adds Tom about HT, as the fans continue to be inspired by their teams determined showing, “Hertford Town, Hertford Town, Hertford Town, ARE WE” they sing, lead by the drum.

A mixture of not being the most subtle bloke in the world and Tom’s apparent super power, earwigging, means we get the lowdown on the HT red card, from the very player who was sent off, all showered now in his club tracksuit standing just along from us. His defence after admitting quite openly he’d been a little bit Mario Fellaini let’s say, is that he didn’t deserve the card, because the “ref didn’t see it”.

I’m not sure whats crueler the hummed chorus of a tune more commonly associated with the circus, that evokes visions of men in tiny cars with the doors falling off, which does rear its head at football on occasions when a player drops a clanger or chants of the “keeper is a blue” when on sixty eight minutes the man in the WT goal takes a swing at a bobbling passback, only to completely slice it, sending it spinning off behind him, allowing the HT forward who gambled on a mistake, to score from close range.

“Do another one keeper” shouts one of the fans behind the goal, another is pretending they’re nice “thanks keeper” but you know they are just rubbing it in. The band strikes up once more, “come on Hertford, Hertford”, all while the WT keeper who Tom says was doing the age old goalkeepers trick of looking at the “divots” as he calls them, attempting to impart some blame on the playing surface, is consoled by a team mate.

Tom is also very, very smug. His suggestion that the “blues, blues, blues” the fans now singing along to the violent blasts of a horn, needed to “score in the next 10 minutes” to have a chance of getting something from this game has come to fruition, with about thirty seconds to spare.

For the first time James has fallen quiet, his unshakable support dented slightly by the goal, but it’s not for long though, “come on your yellows” he chants. The home fans now however start to match him, getting only louder and more raucous, “Hertford town FC, HTFC” they sing and every time the WT keeper has to take a kick he gets a jeering “ooohhhhhhhhhh” in anticipation of another gaff.

An unexpected Manchester United reference follows the departure of one WT player being substituted, “see you Zlatan” shouts someone. Perhaps because of his ponytail and beard or his love of kicking people. WT need to make changes, they’ve been a different side since the break, a bit “anti climatic” says a disappointed Tom, after such an assured first half performance.

It’s all the home team now, on and off the pitch. The fans in the Stable End are really starting to show off, first when they start playing the Funeral March, then the Imperial March. The soloist on the harmonica then plays a tune I know but can’t name, it has a bit of a Dixy feel to it, however the next song I know well, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ which they play note perfect.

The commentators curse almost strikes for a second game running when not long after talking up HT and how well they are doing, WT nearly score, but they can’t take advantage of the gaping net. “How wide you want the goal?” asks a fan, as the sitter is skied over, while another supporter nearby admits that WT nearly going ahead, nearly caused him to “shit himself”.

IMG_20171114_203757“Good save” says Tom, as the HT keeper who has not had a lot to do at all this half, pulls off another vital save. At the other end of the pitch, almost single handedly HT’s number 11 has grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and is really taking it to WT. He is the catalyst for most of what HT are doing at the business end. It is then no great surprise when he is involved in a great attacking move, only for the the final player, as Tom put it “tried too much” and his attempt to take it past one last defender is foiled.

The fans are still going, “come on Hertford, come on Hertford”, the harmonica is still going, all while their team doggedly try to snatch a winner. The WT bench demand their players “keep digging” and they are almost, almost undone with the final pass of the night, a through ball is pursued by the player in blue, but is reached by the man all in green just a fraction before.

“Final score Hertford Town 1, Witham Town 1” announces the mono tone voice over the PA on the final whistle.

“1 – 0 and you fucked it up” sing the HT fans who are in no rush to leave, unlike WT’s players who are up the tunnel in a flash, in the distance their most vocal of fans is taking down his flags for the last time. The WT keeper is thanked again as he makes his way off with his towel over his head. The HT players applaud the crowd who are still not budging, “we love you Hertford we do, we love you Hertford we do”.

There is still no sign of movement from fans or players, the supporters are still under the cover of the terrace, the harmonicas playing one last song. The players and staff are in a huddle on the pitch, I would think and rightly so discussing the positives they can take from the game. A shout of “well fought blues” sums up their second half perfectly.

Standing pitch side, just about to leave, we are joined as we were in the bar before the game, by some now familiar faces, all with an acceptable amount of pride plastered across them. “Good for forty five minutes” says one, “good” is an understatement, how about stoic? If HT had maybe just had a touch more composure when it mattered, they could have easily walked away with all three points.

What can I say other than get yourself down to Hertingfordbury Park. I can’t guarantee you’ll see a grown man playing with a wheel barrow, a visiting fan with a “clap that rivals his shout” as Tom put it or that you might be treated to the most thrilling of 1 – 1 draws you’re ever likely to see. But what I can guarantee you though is a warm welcome, a good cuppa, good chips, a tuck shop, noisy fans and if it is your thing a charming stand the likes of which are becoming few and far between.

HT are another fine example of a club who join the ever growing list of reasons why we love doing what we do so much. If you do happen to go to a night match though and you’re not driving, bring a torch, because the road is terrifying.

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