Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue on their non-league adventures, this time braving the extremities south of the river.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

Heading south of the river for a match on a weeknight can prove to be such a pain in the arse, that if I’m honest it can be a little off putting, and hence why our map of clubs visited is a little lopsided, however tonight we have little choice, quite literally.

P1000925The recent snow, that in any semi prepared nation would not be a remote issue, a spot of salt here, a snowplow there and we can all get on as normal, but oh no, not in good old Blighty, has brought some places to a very melodramatic standstill. Its snowdays all round, news pieces about people slipping over outside major railway stations and memes of cars trying to go up hills or coming down them sideways.

Whereas the rest of the country really needs to get a tight grip of itself and just fucking get on with it, non league football must be given some amount of slack. Most clubs if not all, don’t have the finances for undersoil heating or a fancy tractor to sort things out, not to mention how it affects the local infrastructure to that particular club, like the roads, railways etc and of course the players and volunteers that might not able to get there, so they are exempt from my unpatriotic bashing.

Our original game, which was a breezy forty minute drive north of my house, was finally called off earlier today. Going on the various pictures of the pitch at said game appearing on social media, I’m not sure why they went through the rigmarole of someone walking over it for thirty seconds to confirm what everyone thought, that it was unplayable, but rules are rules and they did and its was no great surprise that it was colder and harder than a show giants abs, and I as Beautiful Game fixture secretary, was left at the 11th hour, looking for a new match.

With Tom away for the holidays soon and my next few weeks about to become all about family and eating, finding a day or days where we can both do a match has been difficult, so just giving up, capitulating to Mother Nature was too hard to take, andI wasn’t going to allow us to fall at the first hurdle.

So when in the distance I saw a 3G pitch shaped star, with three groundhoppers on camels heading its way, it was a sign.

The state of the car park outside my block of flats almost meant I didn’t even make it as far as the end of my road, let alone south east London. I was moments away from a full pirouette and a fractured shin, before I managed to fall into the driver’s seat, and prepare the de-icer.

High on the fumes of the contents of the snowflake covered can that has been in my boot untouched for months, I inched along my slush covered street, emerging at the end unscathed and hallucinating but grateful to see the roads before me are in a better state, however the pavements still glisten and glimmer like tinsel in the evening sun, and I’m grateful I’m not a pedestrian.

The further I head east, the more and more apparent it is that the council’s I pass through have their acts together much more than mine, and by the time I end up outside Tom’s there is not an icicely in sight, and I make a mental note that I will be writing a strongly worded email to Barnet town hall when I get home.

IMG_20171212_191136I’m sure it goes without saying that Tom looks like he’s ready for the second battle of Hoth as he climbs in the car, just minus his Tauntaun, but he’s clearly ready for whatever the night has in store for us.

The main issue with going from north to south or vice versa is the Blackwall Tunnel, which I’m sure when it was built in 1987 for the three or four Ford Escorts or Honda Accord’s making the trip through it was more than suitable, however in 2017 with the hundreds of thousands of people using it each day, its near gridlock, like a scene from a Beijing nightmare, rows and rows of red and white lights stretching off into the distance as far as the eye can see.

Once under and out the other side, it’s ever so slightly improved, but not hugely. The only thing getting us though it is critiquing the Christmas lights on show on the front of the houses of the good people of Bromley and Greenwich.

Some are “half arsed” as Tom puts it, the string of red lights draped over the top on the garage does not constitute a display. Some are positively Vegas, Tom’s frugal mind unable to quantify how much the electricity bills must be, and how glad he is that he doesn’t live next door to some of them, as he doesn’t reckon he would ever be able to get to sleep.

The final house we see, moments before turning down the narrow lane to tonight’s ground, Hayes Lane, a turn we’ve made once before, many moons ago, and if I remember rightly there were horses, is a sight quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Imagine Las Vegas and Regents Street had a baby, which was dressed by Liberace. A massive garish twinkling baby with its very own miniature big wheel and giant inflatable snowman, and you’ll have and some idea of what kind of display I’m talking about.

For the second time this season I’ve managed to park in such a place that means Tom is moments away from getting wet feet, only this time the large puddle in the pothole ridden car park, some that are so sizeable you could lose my car in them, round the back of Hayes Lane is frozen, and he’s more likely to go arse over tit, than get his thermal socks soggy.

“No room for numbers” says Tom about the kit of one of the youth teams taking advantage of the hallowed synthetic turf of Hayes Lane, their match coming to a conclusion under the floodlights as we pass through the turnstiles.

The sponsored covered shirts make the overalls of an F1 driver look understated. Smothered from front to back with adverts for God knows what they are quite in keeping with the rest of the ground, where no inch seems to be untouched by advertising of some sort, including the main stand with its black seats. Black maybe because of the local sponsor written across its back wall, that of a local funeral directors.

A brief chat with Bromley FC’s (BFC) General Manager Jeff is a little disheartening, despite tonight being a cup quarter-final, admittedly in one of the lesser competitions the club will play in this season, but still only two games from a final and a shot at a bauble, it’s not it seems one that is taken very “seriously” he explains. With it also being a “freezing cold night” plus a full program of “premiership” games on the TV too, Jeff doesn’t think there will be much of a turn out at all, in his words it’s a fixture they would be “happy” to be drawn “away”.

Perhaps what’s on offer in the portacabin club shop can lift my mood, after schlepping all this way, it’s not exactly what you want to hear that the game is all but considered a bit of a dud. The confined space of the shop throws up a few points of interest like the scale model of Hayes Lane with a very large “do not touch” sign on it, the black and white wig perched on top of the limbless mannequin displaying a scarf and the tiny rosette pinned to a black, white and red flag on the wall.

The rest is pretty standard, manned by a busy and quiet man, who looks a little shocked that there is in fact anyone to serve at all. He shuffles around attending to the various rails and piles of club merchandise, trying not to crash into the many perspex boxes of old programmes that litter the floor.

DSC_0094Unfortunately, they’re going to be the only programmes I’m going see tonight. No its not Erith FC all over again, I haven’t left it too late, they just simply aren’t doing one. I think I need a sit down, the attempt to comfort me with the fact there will be a team sheet available soon, is of little condolence.

To someone not in a near state of utter depression, the sight of what one person describes as a “fussy”
ginger cat roaming around, jumping up on the counter of the turnstile, while someone prepares something to eat for it would warm the cockles of anyone’s heart, but not me, I’m feeling very White Walker right now.

For the second time in a week, the ingenious use of signposts lets us know where we can potentially at least get something to eat or drink, following the arrow to the ever so slightly copyright infringing named Pizza Hatch, it’s a relief to see its shutter is up, but there is not much going on, on the other side. Tom doesn’t think anything has been “turned on yet”.

Returning with a little more than he thought was available, having seen someone with a hot dog, it was a good sign, its a cup of tea only for me, while he showers himself with the “flaky” pastry of his sausage roll. We sit in the macabre stand as the PA is turned on, which is followed by some almighty distortion, then the deafening sound of someone blowing into the microphone, before the music starts to play, to absolutely nobody. Hayes Lane is currently as dead as the customers of the aforementioned undertakers.

The tea is of course boiling, but nice, Tom letting me in on his secret of allowing it to “brew” for a while. For Tom his has a bit “too much sugar”, caught out by the dispenser that he tells me he wasn’t sure how much was coming out. Mines perfect and I finish it rather promptly, with no sausage roll to stuff in my face, Tom can’t quite believe it, inquiring if I have an “asbestos mouth”.

BFC’s opponents tonight Margate FC (MFC) are the first out to warm up, and it’s snood central, Tom should feel very at home. When the home side appear in their unmistakable National League blue jackets, it reminds me of the league difference between the two clubs, which improves my mood somewhat, that and the guzzled tea, as the chance of a little bit of an upset could at least make tonight interesting.

“You’ve had your winnings for this year” says Tom, when I spot a man carrying a tombola in to the club bar, assuming, hoping, praying that there might be some chance of a flutter, to make up for the lack of programme, I pursue him. Ducking my head into the very swanky Ravens Bar, more wine bar, than non league clubhouse, he’s nowhere to been seen, lost among the people watching the football on the big screen.

The voice over the PA offers its welcome, before informing us that one end of the ground is closed due to the “thickness of the ice”. Those that have braved the cold and don’t fancy watching whoever Sky are showing, occupy a few seats in the main stand or loiter on the long concrete terracing behind one goal, everyone seemingly in different states of malaise.

It seems to have taken a reasonable amount of effort for the man, draping what almost look like reins over his shoulder to drag out the extendable black tunnel into its final position. No Seven Nation Army here, no syndicated song you might hear at Stamford Bridge or the Etihad to greet the players as they walk out, they do things differently here at BFC, they have their very own song composed just for them “there’s just one team for me and that’s the town that I come from, in Bromley, in Bromley, in Bromley” sing the Darknesse’ssq sounding band, one steward so well indoctrinated, he joins in mouthing the words, but with no life in his eyes.

DSC_0030Two early chances fall the way of the home side, and quite early on the difference in league positions is apparent.

Stood on the somewhat lonely uncovered and windswept terrace behind the dugouts, that I’m happy to inform you are a sensible space apart, after the silliness at Taunton Town, we are joined only by a couple, one half of which looks like they have little to no interest in being here. We watch on, and it soon becomes clear that the two benches directly in front of us, constantly barking out instructions, might just be the loudest thing we hear all night.

“That’s your responsibility” shouts one of the MFC coaches, when BFC are allowed the time to take a shot at goal that just goes wide. By far the most vocal of the busy bench and just out of sight, is the person with the thick Scottish accent “keep going boys”.

BFC look by far the more dangerous, with twenty five minutes gone, they curl a shot goal wards, which in the end is easy for the keeper to pluck out the air. This is not to say by any means that MFC are just going through the motions, they are getting plenty of the ball, and when they do they move it about well, but they just don’t look to have the same cutting edge as the home team.

The near constant directions from both benches are verging on the distracting as well as the intriguing, quite how much they are walking the players though their positions is fascinating. Because of the competition that it is, I suspect who we are watching are a mixture of the second string and youth players, who need that guidance, mixed in with a couple of the older heads to help steady the ship.

“Come on Margate” shouts the single voice of one of the few traveling fans in their blue and white striped scarves, and it is a welcome change to the never ending chatter from the technical areas, and it goes some way to affirm that we are not in fact at a training match.

On the half hour mark, the fleshy figures in the stand and terrace finally prove they not only here for the sausages rolls and are here to actually get behind their team, when they let out a collective “ohh” one of them going as far as to shout “come on Brom” the only notable noise from the home fans so far, when a goal bound shot is stopped by the “face” as Tom points out of one MFC player. Thirty minutes gone, and the game has far from got going in fact it’s verging on dull.

There is the occasional flicker of hope, the odd moment when I feel like I’m about to see something that Tom and I will talk about on the drive home, like when one BFC player tries an audacious little attempt at a back heel, latching on to a high looping ball into the box, he gets there before the MFC keeper. His faint touch catching out the man in goal, sending the ball goal wards, there is a sharp intake of breath from those here as it looks to be going in, but sadly there is a player in blue at hand to shepherd the ball until the keeper can get back into position and scoop it up.

A good indicator of what kind of a time Tom is having, is how soon he begins inventing and then playing his own little games, to keep himself entertained. The fact we spend the final quarter of the half playing the ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’ game, says it all.

“Fulham Vs Chelsea” is who we are watching tonight according to Tom’s own algorithm, who after a moment to reconsider, swaps Chelsea for Porto. “Definitely Porto” he insists, before second guessing himself again, suggesting now that BFC, could in fact be “Derby. Derby vs Porto”.

Now I’ll give him the Fulham and Derby comparisons, BFC playing in white shirts with black shorts it’s easy enough to make and I could just about give him the Chelsea, MFC comparison, they are both in blue, plus it’s too cold to argue, but Porto, I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong.

So adamant am I, and so adamant is he, that instead of watching the game, I’m going to assume nothing happened, I’m instead watching him scroll though the results of a Porto Google search on his
phone, but he doesn’t stop, just keeps on scrolling, unable to find the example to prove me wrong and him right.

20171212_194523Around the forty five minute mark there is a sudden and quite uncharacteristic flurry of chances. BFC first go close from a corner, and a big sigh from the crowd lets us know that again we are not alone, “That’s a let off” says someone on the MFC bench. By far the best moment of the game so far is saved for last, that’s if you don’t count just after the ref taking the ball in the “nuts” as Tom so eloquently puts it, when one BFC player shows some extraordinary feet, wringing out of the tightest of spots right on the byline, leaving two MFC defenders in his wake, and off he goes into the box.

“I’m quite warm” announces Tom, without prompting, just his “feet” need a bit more attention apparently, maybe he will wear “three pairs of socks” next time he tells me. Before reverting to his near silent and statuesque pose, the only occasional movement is when he brings his vape to his lips and the only noise he makes is the woosh that follows, he gives me an insight of how his mind works. A full ten minutes after our Derby Vs Porto debate, his mind has not stopped “maybe Schalke” he offers up, I’m afraid he is now just saying teams who play in blue.

On the half time whistle, my wish that despite no one caring about today’s game, and no one being here, and those that are here are near comatose, we might still witness the game of games, one that will go down in the annals of time, a gift from the football gods for being committed is quickly fading, Tom as ever more the realistic than romantic, thinks BFC are “gonna win 1 – 0”.

The sound of someone doing doughnuts in a nearby car park soon fills the air, once the voice over the PA reminds us of the score, and that the Raven Bar and Pizza Hatch are still open, which sees Tom off again, leaving me alone sat on the cold concrete, a tiny, tiny bit of me wishing I had stayed at home.

If you are going to have signposts, one to where to play the raffle or half time draw might not go a miss. Depressed enough as it is, the voice over the PA running through the prizes that have been won, which I would have happily shelled £2 out for to be in the mix for, just feels like being kicked when you’re already down.

Tom returning for the second time tonight ladened with gifts, he once again does a good job lifting my mood. This time not in the shape of a cuppa but a bag of chips, quite excellent chips may I add, near Cambridge FC quality. The reason for them being in bag we’re not sure about, as Tom’s burger and chips are in a tray, Tom thinks the bag maybe in honour of the visitors being from the seaside.

A squeal from Tom signifies the wind has nearly robbed him of his dinner, almost toppling it, having caught the lid of his tray like a polystyrene sail, balanced on top of the thick white metal barrier. It’s an altogether more attractive noise that signifies the return of the teams, the now confirmed official dance track to non league football, Insomnia by Faithless which is seemingly following us around wherever we go.

Early BFC pressure sees one player attempt a back to goal flick, spin and volley of near Bergkamp esq proportions, only for the side of the MFC defender blocking what up until then was going to be a splendid effort. They then head wide, and are showing all their skills once again, they go close not long after with another header, which gets the biggest “ahhhh” of the night.

DSC_0226Just under twenty minutes of the second half gone and BFC eventually break the deadlock. The ball is cut back to just inside the box and with a drilled low finish the “super sub” as Tom calls him has put the home side ahead. The celebrations of fans and players alike are muted, but at least we’ve seen a goal.

Finally some energy, some spirit. The goal has breathed some much needed life into what was turning into a turgid affair. MFC who have always looked capable of scoring send a shot agonisingly wide, and not long after going close they equalise, the home side only ahead for roughly eight minutes. Thanks to as the non shiverer of the couple behind us says a “good ball” from out wide on the right that is headed home at the far post, MFC are on level terms.

At least the MFC players look vaguely delighted they have scored, same goes for the four of five of their supporters behind the goal who are enthusiastically applauding the goal with gloved hands. BFC are far from impressed at conceding so soon and try to score with a shot directly from the restart, but it’s a bit of a limp effort.

Sadly from MFC it only takes BFC two minutes to take the lead again, you’re never more vulnerable than just after scoring, someone on the MFC bench will more than likely have muttered to themselves.

The celebrations on and off the pitch are far more animated for the second goal, that has finally shaken the crowd from their slumber and much like the game they seem to have warmed up. “Come on Bromley” one fan shouts, but they are no competition for the lone MFC supporter who despite seeing her team go behind so quickly, is still backing them “come on Margate”.

Tom is now maybe the happiest he’s been all night, even happier than when first tucking into the excellent chips, as extra time seems quite unlikely, in fact BFC look close to pulling away from their Bostick League opponents, close to putting more distance between them, when they flash a header wide.

Although the game has been less than enthralling, a few BFC players have certainly done their prospects no harm, a couple showing an effortless ability to move at pace with the ball seemingly glued to their feet. One such run, sees the player charge towards the box, skipping and slaloming past the MFC defenders before being well and truly taken out in what on first impression looks like the area, but the ref has other ideas, pointing to a fraction outside of it for a free kick.

Unfortunately the set piece, has none of the elegance of the run that won it, and its fired over.

Ten to go and one MFC player is certain they still have a chance “come on boys we can get back in this”. To score though you need the ball, and one clearance from a BFC defender is so astronomical it easily clears the stand and is off into the stratosphere, “didn’t want that in the ground” chuckles Tom as the ball sails over us and out of sight.

DSC_0263Where did this come from I ask myself, as the game swings back and forth from end to end in the dying minutes, where was all this activity in the first eighty five? MFC counter quickly, out numbering BFC at the back but the final shot is wild, and the single voice, whose tone and volume has not changed at all lets out her final cry “come on blues”.

There is the faintest whiff of a twist, a second comeback from MFC, some late pressure, a last ditch block after a corner and a free kick in shooting range, “come on Margate, come on lads” shouts a fan in the stands, but it comes to nothing.

When the fact that the ball going flat, the chips we were served in a bag, theLaurel and Hardy moment on the way to match when the snow covering my roof, shot down and over my windscreen as we stopped at traffic lights and the ongoing argument about what other teams kit the ones being played in look like, are the most memorable things you can take away from the ninety minutes, you know you’ve not been treated to a ‘great’.

However that is just the nature of football, no guarantees, no certainties, that’s what makes it exciting,
and more power to those fans who did show up tonight. The diehards, what some might call the real fans, not the ones who cherry pick the best fixtures, turning up with their scarf and rattle, like they’re there every week, but the ones who turn up for every match, for every regional cup quarter final, whatever the weather, whoever is on TV.

One note though, some kind of indication that clubs are not doing a programme for what reason may be would be much appreciated, just so I can prepare myself, because tonight is going to take hours of counseling to resolve.

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