Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out enjoying a jolly boy’s outing to Margate. 

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

It is a very different car ride today than normal, and it’s a long one, we are certainly getting some miles under our belt in recent weeks, treating ourselves to some new scenery. If subjects for a potential Channel Five documentary called something like ‘Mega Structures’ are your thing, The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge is a doozy. However there is non of the usual chatting, it’s quiet, so quiet I turn the radio on and subject myself to a bit of Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, where Radio 4 people, talk about food in a way only Radio 4 people can.

P1010051Tom is in the car, I’ve picked him up from his new house, even further east, in the next place to become the place to live apparently, but he’s editing the footage from our previous game and not wanting to disturb him, I sit and listen to people talking about the perfect gin and tonic.

Margate, our final destination, feels a lot further away than the last time I visited. That might have something to do with it being a dreary Tuesday in January and not the height of summer. My car then rammed with shorts and sun cream, not with big jackets and de-icer. The sun is setting when we finally see the sea.

All the lights and bustle of the summer holidays are nowhere to be seen. The promenade is sad, grey and unpopulated. It being our third birthday tomorrow, in my head I’d planned a fun day out at the seaside full of candy floss and donkey rides, arcades and fish and chips. However the neon lights of Dreamland are off, the shops full of postcards and things made of shells are closed and boarded up. Looking a bit like an abandoned frontier town, I’m trying to work out what we’re going to do for the next few hours.

A place to park on the front was a mere pipe dream seven months ago, now no problem. Beyond the doors of Showboat the amusement arcade, the multitude of flashing lights that adorn the 2p machines, make it look super inviting. Especially to someone who has a bit, OK a massive soft spot for UK beach resorts. I’ll happily spend a sweltering summers day surrounded by the continuous beeps and dings, with a plastic pot of pound coins, trying to complete Big Buck Hunter.

Through the doors and despite all the apparent life and energy, its empty, much like outside. A couple of employees tinker with the machines, every so often pouring great buckets of coins into another making an almighty din.

Tom is taking a moment to get in the swing of things, he has a look on his face of ‘what am I doing here’. I hand him a pound and he feeds it into one of the change machines, waiting for it to spit out his coppers. His first mistake is that he doesn’t use one of the small pots covered in symbols from a one armed bandit to catch them, amateur.

After he’s tricked a few handful of coins into his machine of choice, he starts to come around, and when it dishes out five paper tickets, he’s fully on board. Next up is bit of Jurassic Park and the sticky handle of my gun, that almost makes me want to gag when I first grasp it, the aftermath no doubt of some young persons recent visit.

I drop out quite quickly, I’ve used up all my change, but Tom is still going strong. Shooting Pterodactyls and Velociraptors with aplomb. When it starts to get a bit hairy and he’s almost overcome, he utters a sentence that will live with me forever, “Oh God I need you”.

It’s time to go, but not before Tom cashes in his tickets for a prize. At the back of the room waiting for him sits a booth displaying all sorts of junk. What does five tickets get you, a pencil sharpener, bouncy ball or Styrofoam Spitfire, no, five Black Jacks is what. Not even Fruit Salads, Black Jacks, the meanest of all the sweets.

27368840_1571716912936297_3852758575736778340_oDinner time and there is nothing one should eat when on the coast other than fish and chips, but not before we take a quick detour via the local Wetherspoons, that is very Wetherspoons and we don’t hang around for long.

Driving up the front just a tad we pass the chiming clock tower on our way to our alfresco dining spot for the evening, a bit of patio furniture opposite Peters Fish Factory.

One benefit of being here in the off season, is the lack of a queue. It’s dark, cold and the wind is whipping off the sea, but its ace, “a pint and fish and chips on a Tuesday night, spoilt” says a smiling Tom. The food is great, the fish divine. My gherkin is about as big as a Coke can and sends a torrent of juice down my face and sleeve and into my beard.

Like every good birthday party, we’ve done some games, Tom failed to win a unicorn stuffed toy for his beloved, despite his brilliant accuracy, we’ve eaten too much, so now it’s time for the main event, football.

My Sat Nav takes us to a very nondescript, slightly gloomy suburban road. If it wasn’t for the dimly lit Margate Football Club (MFC) sign above a tall brick wall, you would have no inkling that a football club was the other side of it.

The shutter covering the bar has yet to be lifted, in the fairy light lined clubhouse at Hartsdown Road. With no chance of a drink, we scale the few steps leading outside, right into the thick of it, straight onto the covered terrace behind one goal. On its back wall reads #InThisTogether.

Thanks to Charlotte, MFC’s Head of Marketing and Communications, the relevance of the # is soon made clear.

It’s been uncertain times for MFC as of late. Relegation last year from the National League South and some let’s say less than ideal people running the club means it’s just not been the happiest of places.

However things are on the up, Charlotte’s enthusiasm alone might be enough to get them promoted or at least “nick” a play-off place this year. As she very kindly shows us whats what, the way she talks about the club and their intentions to make it more “family focused’’ is quite something.

It’s not just changes to the way that the club is run, a new board and owner having taken control in the summer, but changes to the ground as well. One change they’ve already made, perhaps the biggest change a club can make, other than changing the badge or the colour of the home kit, is going from grass to 3G. A surface that means today’s MFC game against Thurrock FC (TFC) is not one falling by the wayside due to a waterlogged pitch, or other such reasons associated with this time of year, like so many others are.

The new owners wanted to make a “statement” they wanted to show their “intent” is how Charlotte puts it. They wanted to prove they are in it for the long term and what bigger way to show your “commitment” then spending over £500,000 on a brand new playing surface.

She also points out other projects, other parts of the ground due an overhaul. The changing rooms for
example, well the portacabins next to the pitch, literally, two feet from the touchline are high up the list. No tunnel or walk out here, its doors open, step down, game time.

Another job on the to do list is to replace the “temporary coffin stand” that Charlotte points to at the other end of the ground. The small blue covered terrace is admittedly a bit pokey and isolated, but without closer inspection I couldn’t possibly say if it warrants its name.

I do like the Arctic Monkeys, so when the PA comes to life with the sound of the Sheffield band, it’s a nice change to pop music I’ve never heard of. They are occasionally interrupted by a jolly, if not ever so slightly nasally sounding announcer, wandering around pitchside with his microphone and clipboard.

Sitting in the clubhouse, not quite sure how I got there, half looking at Tom, half looking at the TV, I’m feeling all of a sudden a little sluggish, I think our massive dinner has come back to haunt me. I’m overcome with that feeling of wanting to snooze on the sofa, watching the Antiques Roadshow though half open eyes while dosing, that post Sunday lunch feeling.

DSC_0109Fed up with looking at my sorry face, a pro at this eating and doing things malarkey, Tom’s just as sprightly as ever, and heads off for a vape. The only thing that stops me curling up and having a nap, is the TFC club official offering me his hand for a handshake, and telling me we’re a “lucky omen” for them after being there when they got promoted at the playoff final last season, no pressure then.

“There’s a drum’’ says Tom on his return, my brief chat with the visitor from Essex has stirred me a little and what better way to shake off the too much food blues, understanding for the first time why people go for a walk after Christmas dinner, Tom convinces me to stand and we go for a walk.

Such is my malaise, I’ve yet to even get a programme. The sight of the beach hut that houses the supporters club and the gentle call of “50/50 only a pound” fully wakes me from my stupor. Weighed down by £18 worth of change, all coins, thankfully it’s only a short walk to the other hut for a programme, next to the slumped man sized crocodile wearing goalkeepers glove and crocs.

I know that no-one won it at the front, nothing was open, so I reckon that it must always be here. It’s not the case that someone got lucky on the coconut shy and has left him there to pick him up on the way home.

Tom seemingly isn’t the only one obsessed with food, as recommendations of what to eat and drink are coming from all quarters, but I’ve only just been able to start moving properly.

Charlotte going at a million miles an hour, stops for a moment to “highly recommend” the burgers, also pointing out the “baked potato” trailer too. A chance encounter with the clubs softly spoken chairman, he tells me the “Bovril is excellent”. The idea of a beefy hot drink on top of that gherkin makes me feel a little queasy, so I smile politely and decline.

I try to guide the coversation back to the reason we are here, not for a culinary tour of the Thanet area, but for football, so I ask MFC’s chairman his thoughts on tonight’s encounter. He thinks it will be a “tough one” the visitors as he puts it having found a bit of “form” in recent weeks.

Between mouthfuls of a ginormous hot dog, a familiar TFC fan gives us his view on the game. With his yellow scarf hanging from his belt, we manage our quick chat all without him trying to get me to eat or drink anything, which is nice. Although he seems to be enjoying his snack, he doesn’t have much hope for the game “don’t think we’ll get much out of today” he tells me, the lack of squad depth or as he puts it “no squad” at all means there are a few new faces and people playing out of position this evening.

The lack of a tunnel, means there is little or no sense of anticipation in the moments before kickoff. That feeling of waiting to see the players arrive, signalling the game is about to start is non existent. Once the plywood doors open, the players are checked by the officials for jewelry and the right coloured under shorts, the players just kind of mill about, like they’re waiting for a bus.

With both teams just about ready to walk out, I say walk out, step on to the pitch, there is a moment of mild panic, what will the players be walking out to? It was “Big Shaq’s” last home game according to Charlotte, but no-one has decided for today. When eventually Insomnia by Faithless starts to play, the players are greeted with shouts of “come on Margate”, and we all get an insight into the mind of the person who picked the song, and what he or she was getting up to on their Saturday nights circa 1995.

The corner flags are going hell for leather, confirming what someone nearby says that “it’s always windy” here. The gusts coming off the channel do little to drown out the good murmur coming from behind the goal, which every so often is puntuated by the shouts of “come on gate”.

Within the crowd dotted about on the steps of the terrace, front and centre from what I can make out from our spot next to the Spend A Penny portable toilet trailer, which I don’t think is in use, is one person, whose voice I definitely recognise. She was there the first time we saw MFC and the last, and I’m sure she’ll be there any other time we see them, in fact I reckon she might be there until the end of time. “Come on blues” she cries in her signature way.

MFC SHIRTSIt’s a “physical” game, “fast and physical” says Tom. The 3G surface giving the ball that slightly unnatural bounce and zip that is does and the presence of the emergency services, “is there always an ambulance at games?” asks Tom, is perhaps there to patch up anyone caught up in the vigorous opening quarter of an hour.

With the wind picking up, it starts to play its part. At one point a big hoof up field, starts to curl back towards the TFC keeper, almost catching him out. It’s joined not long after kick off by a fine rain, the kind of which means you don’t realise quite how wet you’re getting, its fair to say the man in the Meccano gantry filming the match is “brave” and Tom really can’t think of anywhere less he would want to spend “ninety minutes”.

So far the on field action has been a little uninspiring, I’m not sure either team has had a shot on target yet, and our minds have started to wander. Mine ends up gazing at the dazzling all pink strip of the TFC keeper. Tom and I both members of the goalkeepers fraternity, but for different reasons. He was good and I was the fat guy at school who ended up in goal. We discuss the fact the MFC keeper has trousers on, and I tell Tom that I once too had a pair of padded goalkeeper trousers, very Massimo Taibi. However Tom is more Burt Troutman, than accident prone Italian. More of a flat cap, no gloves, kid of guy, showing me just how tough he is when he tells me how he “always admired a keeper in short sleeves”.

It seems like panicked passes are the order of the day as far as MFC are concerned. They are certainly dominating possession, but when they end up in or around the box, the move ultimately ends with frustrated hand gestures and missed opportunities. On the odd occasion TFC do attack, the voice from the stands shouts so loudly in displeasure, sometimes not always using words, a lot of the time just noises, I’m sure she’s putting them off.

MFC whip in two dangerous crosses one after another quite how good a cross they are can be measured by the reaction of the crowd, “fucking hell” shouts you know who, when the first looks like its going to end up in a goal. The second only inches from the attackers head, is touched away at the last moment, “come on boys get at it”.

I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious thing or I’m doing it intentionally, but my ability to shoe horn at least one tenuous Spurs connection with where we end up is getting a bit scary. Last match we visited the Lilywhites of Mossley A.F.C., today the spearhead of the MFC attack is the rapid number 9, Jordan Chiedozie son of one time Spurs player John Chiedozie.

Admittedly Chiedozie Snr was playing for the one true north London club a little bit before my time, but nonetheless its awesome to see his son doing his thing. A very hard “working” player is how Charlotte described him, singling him out as one to watch, and at the moment he looks the most likely to score. He is though easily angered when he doesn’t get things his way, and dare I say there is a streak of the stroppy in him.

Thirty minutes gone and it’s been fast paced, but a bit dull. The early noise of the home fans has subsided slightly, reverting back to a healthy murmur. This is not for long though, as the voice introduces another weapon in her assault on everyones eardrums, a black drum slung over her shoulder. Beating out the rhythm, she leads every chant, in combination with the percussion she is verging on a health and safety risk, she might have to carry a warning sign, ‘may damage hearing’.

Whenever MFC get the ball in the box her voice climbs a couple of octaves and increases by a couple of decibels. Number 9 makes one of his customary surges goalwards, jinking his way into the box, but there is no shot and no pass, despite the request to do one or the other from his teammates, and the attack breaks down, “selfish” mutters Tom. An all too familiar outcome to most if not all of MFC’s promising probes into the visitors box so far.

Warming up in front of us, the TFC subs look on, doing their stretches, one in a full face snood, which Tom is quick to comment on. Mumbling under his breath, that it’s “not that cold” is rich coming from the guy who brought chemically activated hand warmers to our last match.

IMG_20180123_194530Considering we’re in the presence of the original “Porto”, regular readers will be aware of the ongoing saga that is Tom suggesting MFC’s kit looks like the Portuguese clubs one, when it clearly doesn’t. I’m a little shocked when he starts playing ‘match the clubs kits with a team from the football league’, that he doesn’t go for them again, instead he plays it safe, saying TFC’’s gold and green number is “definitely Norwich”.

Best chance of the match so far, with twenty five minutes gone, falls to the home side, which is no great surprise. A well cushioned back post header, is delicately placed onto the edge of the six yard box, but its a fraction behind its intended target, who can’t convert the assist.

TFC have their first meaningful attempt around the same time, however it’s a lazy long range shoot, that never really threatens the man in the trousers.

A day before our birthday we’re treated to a present, a perfectly formed, angled screamer of a present, from who else but Chiedozie Jnr, who has just thumped the ball into the top corner, sending it screaming past the fully outstretched all pink keeper, who can’t even get close. The player is mobbed by his teammates in recognition of what a fine goal it was and the drum is given a few whacks.

TFC try one last “pot shot” as Tom calls it, a long range and audacious attempt, but it’s speculative at best and they finish the half a goal behind.

The chipper voice over the PA is back again, confirming the score “Margate 1, Thurrock 0 at the break”. He is quickly on to the pitch, followed by a gaggle of children like Kents very own Pied Piper. There is the small matter of a penalty shoot out to take place, and the prize “is a big one” according to the man in charge “a signed Margate programme”.

Its a two and a half year old by the name of Archie, who claims the prize. His first penalty having a hint of handball about it, the power in his shot not enough to carry it over the line, so he ran up to the ball and pushed it in, but a blind eye is turned and he gets one of the loudest cheers of the night.

His victory might have had a little to do with the organiser “losing count” of whose scored, frankly he seems to be losing the will to live, admitting that the “cold weather” is “affecting” him. Any of the other participants have a case for some kind of FA review if they wished to pursue it.

Sans hotdog, but with his scarf still hanging from his belt, the TFC fan I spoke to before is no less pessimistic, “can’t see us scoring” he tells me.

The MFC fans already fill the “coffin stand”, in preparation of kick-off. So Tom can finish his tea, which was “good” and “not too hot” and Mars bar, all he can manage after dinner, yes Tom is not eating at a game and its National Pie Day of all days. We take a seat in the small covered stand, opposite the dugouts, where lets say the more mature fans hang out.

Archie the penalty shootout kid, high on his win is bombing about pushing a buggy, while I wait for the 50/50 numbers to be disclosed. Going by the sighs and tuts from those around us, I’m not the only one to be disappointed. That’s 2 – 0 2018!

“All set for the second half” announces the voice over the PA, who has managed to compose himself after his taxing half time activities. As the players emerge, I’m not sure I can get used to watching them just sauntering out and onto the pitch. Being one who loves all the theatrics associated with football, I need a tunnel, I need that feeling you get when you see that first peak of the teams coming back out.

It’s relatively sedate where we are compared to the “coffin stand” where they are banging on the hoardings in front of it, as well as the stand itself to get their noise on. Tom has almost finished up, and although it’s perfectly pleasant and nice to sit down, one fan behind us, an older gentleman has repeated  “come on Margate” ever since kick-off, never once changing the tone of his voice, the delivery exactly the same time after time, so we decide to move on.

DSC_0150Making our way to join the more animated and less monotonous fans, still led by the drum, they are I’m sure much louder than the first half, “come on Margate, come on Margate” they sing. A ball boy is handed some food, a burger and chips if I remember correctly that is almost as big as him, confirming that it’s not just Tom who seemingly only comes to football to eat.

The rain has stopped and there is not a cloud in the jet black sky. On the pitch MFC are going through the routine of giving the ball away, winning it back just as quickly and then giving it away again, they are just about as repetitive as the old fella we just left.

When most of the crowd think they’ve doubled their lead, many fail to see the linesman with his flag up, so have to do that embarrassing thing of having to sit down, when you’re already halfway up, cutting short their celebrations. “Come on” shouts one fan unable to believe its been ruled off, another supporter thinks there are darker forces at play and suggests a “fix”.

Those behind the goal don’t dwell on it for too long and are soon singing once again “oh when the gate go marching in”, Tom though has his own worries, something he had for dinner is troubling him. His battered sausage as he puts it so delicately, is “repeating on him”.

Unfortunately for TFC they have rarely been in the game today, MFC’s second goal seems imminent. It almost comes from a header following a weak punch from the keeper. Lucky for him the attempt is straight into his hands, anywhere else and he would have been a certain goal. Going close again, number 9 is keen to add to his tally, and he gets his very own song, “Oh Jordan Chiedozie”.

The fans can can smell blood, “la, la, la Margate” they chant, getting increasingly raucous. When their sprightly forward goes on one of his runs again, only to be stopped at the very last, by a well timed tackle, the “coffin stand” roof nearly comes off, “come on Margate, come on Margate”. The drum is almost surplus to requirements considering the drummer is louder than the drum..

“We are the gate, we are the gate” chant the fans, the “coffin stand” the happiest coffin I’ve ever seen, as the resilient and sometimes charmed TFC defence finally succumbs to MFC’s number 9 once more. His second far less spectacular than his first. An almost carbon copy of the earlier chance, this time the keeper comes for the ball, but gets nowhere near it. Ricocheting off one TFC player then another on the line, the ball falls kindly to Chiedozie who this times nods it into the net, the man in goal stuck in no mans land.

3 – 0? No, offside again and the locals are getting restless. There are accusations from the fans of dirty goings on, “cheat, cheat. cheat”. One person even asks the man in goal for his opinion, “keeper was it offside?”, but doesn’t get a reply.

When the two goal man is substituted, he should have been the hat trick man, but for the flag happy lino, he is suitably serenaded. In case he wasn’t sure that his industry was appreciated, the voice, without the use of a microphone, but it sounds like she has one from a Who concert, lets him know, “well played Jordan”.

There is always one fan, at every ground who gives the officials above and beyond attention, Hartsdown Road is no different. Standing alone, he berates the linesman in front of him, “you’re an embarrassment” he says to him over and over. The man with the flag can only turn and smirk, biting his tongue I’m sure.

Very much still leading the line, the voice treats up us all to a rendition of the tune from the Great Escape. TFC flash a shot wide, the visiting bench all have their head in their hands, it was close. The home fans are only momentarily concerned, before belting out their next song “Super Margate FC”

With a voice as emphatic as hers, the one with the red hair tumbling out the back of a blue MFC hat, she was bound to have the last word on matters this evening. Once again another MFC attack is halted, because of another suspicious offside, “Lino I’m gonna make you eat that fucking flag” she exclaims in no uncertain terms, and I’m sure I saw him flinch.

P1010021“We love you Margate we do” sing the fans on the final whistle and I doubt I need to point out who was singing the loudest. At the end of the fifth of five home games this month, where the supporters could maybe be excused for a bit of fatigue and despite the claims of one person that there “won’t be many here tonight” because of the weather, they were here in good numbers and never stopped.

It can’t have been much fun supporting Margate this last year or so, relegation and iffy owners could make one think they had angered the football Gods, but you wouldn’t know that from the fans. By all
accounts attendances are steadily increasing, and if this the turn out on a Tuesday night, a Saturday afternoon must be heaving. It’s when a club goes through hard times, that you see what it’s made of and by what we saw tonight MFC are made of solid stuff.

One image that has stuck in my mind from these past three years, is that of the hoard of MFC supporters who near enough took over Hendons Earlsmead Stadium for the 2014/15 Ryman League Premier Play-Off Final. Many with blue painted faces, I compared them to the wood daubed ancient Britain’s of Boudicas army.

Every good army needs a good leader, and from today’s performance its clear who that is. With the same fiery hair as the fearless Celt, from this day forth the voice will be known as, Boudica of Thanet.

Impressive grounds and fancy football are all well and good, but its the passion of the people who go, that really gets me excited. Boudica of Thanet is one such person, that embodies just that, the kind of person that we don’t come across all that often, who affirm why I like doing what we do so much. Its seeing that kind of devotion and non stop support, whatever the weather or the circumstances on or of the pitch, which drives our search.

However do us a favour though Boudica of Thanet if you’re reading this, have a word with the club and get a tunnel, I don’t need to see a player hanging out the dressing room door only in a towel again, you’re loud enough, they’ll listen to you.

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