Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue on their non-league odyssey because what else is there to do on a Saturday afternoon? It’s got to be Thurrock.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

The sun, what a sight for sore eyes you are and there’s almost not a cloud in sight to block you out, what a treat. The appearance of the sun is not the only nice surprise today, the second being a much welcomed stowaway taking up a seat in the back of the car.

P1010286Tall, so tall Tom has to move his seat forward a few notches, young, he makes me feel very old when we asks me if I’m aware of a certain “grime artist” who is currently “blowing up” and dashing, chiseled features and floppy blond hair. Toms nephew Obe, is doing a fine job in reducing the average age in the car by about ten years, and is upping the cool quota too.

It’s another short hop from East London to Essex again, to a place probably most well known for its nearby shopping centre, than football club. The brick lined entrance and board with this afternoon’s fixture on, customary shocking non league car park, with potholes you could lose cars in, gives Ship Lane a near instant feel of being a proper ground. No hint of a leisure centre, running track or any brushed steel, its football through and through.

One though can’t avoid the hotel doing its best house from Psycho impression, overlooking us from its lofty position, perched on top of an adjacent hill, but this does nothing to detract from the charm of the place.

Inside and the fine weather is really showing off Ship Lane in the best possible light, the whole ground is positively iridescent. The centrepiece it’s main stand, with its high corrugated roof, flat black and intermittent green and yellow seats. The colours of the home team Thurrock FC (TFC).

It is the sort of stand that are few and far between on our travels, this thing didn’t come out of a flat pack with instructions, this was built by hand from the ground up. I’m told by the very hands of the clubs long time owner and his father. The South family synonymous with this neck of the woods and once proprietors of the hotel.

Green and yellow is absolutely everywhere, the striped goal nets, fence around the pitch and the railings on the covered terracing behind each goal. Beyond the confines of the ground it’s hardly scenic, long strings of criss crossing electricity pylons and a very nearby motorway, but none of this can diminish from the fact that its the kind of non league ground that gets people like me, who are excited by places like this, excited.

There is no sign of any players here yet, neither of the home side or away, Hendon FC (HFC). On the pitch one TFC coach, Tony, who if I said was larger than life, might not quite describe him properly, is taking some local children through a training session, while their parents look on from the sidelines.

Such is the involvement of the South family, when the owner Tommy pops his silver haired bed head out the top window of the red brick cottage clubhouse, still in his robe, asking the group below him, which includes Tom “alright lads?”, Tom is the only one bemused, “think that’s his bedroom?”. It becomes instantly clear just how integral he is to the club and the club to him.

DSC_0051Our ties with TFC certainly don’t stretch as far back as Tommy’s, but we certainly feel a strong connection to them, after sharing the drama of the Ryman League North Playoff final last season. We’ve seen them play since, not that long ago at Margate, but a visit here has been long overdue.

The recently arrived HFC players doing their pre match walkabout still in their black tracksuits, are not doing much walking about, instead they are captivated by Tony’s session which is coming to an end. When he pretends to call Lionel Messi for a chat, breaking into some at least A level grade Spanish, few people can resist the grin forming on their face, least of all the kids.

Not here long, and Tom is already a happy boy, not only is the sun out, but the sizable hatch to the Thurrock Snack Bar has pinged open, releasing an almost overwhelming smell of food cooking on the hotplate, which hits you like one of the trucks bombing along the nearby A282. A quick glance at the specials board, leaves Tom salivating.

Securing my programme, the vendor telling me “its not as much as that” when I produce a £10 to pay for it from the small opening next to door to the clubhouse, I’m 50% on the way to match day happiness. On hearing though that the golden goal seller is “unwell” for a split second feel like a really shitty person, I find myself more worried about not getting my fix, than the health of the person who normally sells them. I’m not a good person.

Obe has been nowhere to be seen since arriving, the draw of the clubhouse, some football on the TV and cheap beer, means he would rather sit roasting in there, it is unbearably warm, on the edge of the parquet dance floor, then wander around musing about the architecture of a stand, with us old fogies.

I’m kind of glad when he shows me that he has managed to get himself a golden goal ticket, it means there is someone here selling them, his is for the 41st minute, “just before half time” he’s happy with that, but it puts us in direct competition. I eventually acquire mine, “oh 12 is good” my rival says, there is a slight gasp when I reveal my ticket. The stand in seller is someone who insists on calling us “lucky omens” for TFC, our lucky rabbit foot status bestowed upon us after the play off win, but after watching them lose at Margate, I feel our powers might be waning a little.

As bizarrely interesting as Obe’s tales of his time at the top of the playing Fifa online tree is, again he very easily makes us both feel ancient. Telling us about “trials” and “strict” kick off times it’s like he’s talking about things from a different world. It’s also just far too hot to sit in here anymore to listen, the nearby radiators must be close to eleven, time for some fresh air.

“Testing 1, 2, testing 1, 2” says according to Tom the “delightful” sounding man on the PA, whose evaluation of the equipment is followed by some music. The tunes though play second fiddle to Tony who is taking the grown ups through their drills now and is just as enthusiastic with them as he was with the kids.

IMG_20180217_125317One player warming up away from the main group, has what looks like a very large black rubber band around his waist, with another coach holding onto the ends like reins. Tom reckons it must be some kind of “fitness test”, Tony just thinks it’s the ideal time to “neighhhhhhhh”.

Mike is a relieved man, “2:30 all done, very efficient” he tells us, taking a breather after completing all his match day toing and froing. Relatively new to the role of media titan and general all rounder, but a long time TFC supporter he tells us that he’s like a swan “all graceful on top” and then mimes with his hands the manic feet paddling away underneath.

“Welcome to Ship Lane” says the voice over the PA, who does a quick run through of the teams. When its TFC’s turn he is super hyped, and gives it lots of vigour. The mascots, the same boys who had been treated to Tony’s Lionel Messi call earlier are lined up outside the red brick cottage at the other end of the ground to the clubhouse. It’s very similar in appearance, although where the players are currently is single storey, so it’s unlikely there is enough room for an elderly man to sleep in it. Hanging above the door, the yellow and green sign reads, Welcome To Thurrock FC.

Impatient, the youths are close to revolting, “why are we waiting?” they sing. They don’t have to wait much longer to accompany the players on the very, very short walk onto the pitch and then the much longer one to in front of the main stand for the handshake.

“Come on Thurrock” shout the mascots making their way to their seats, behind them a ragtag group of adults try to keep up. The match is underway.

One thing we’ve learnt from our brief time in the presence of TFC fans, is that they are a lively lot. Their flags at the back of the squat terrace are already up and the group of no more than ten
are quick to get going, “come on Thurrock, come on Thurrock”. Their team do likewise, the game only minutes old and they’ve just cut a ball from out wide into the box, that was promising but comes to nothing.

“I’ve started a timer” says Obe, it takes me a second to work out what he’s going on about, until he explains because of the lack of scoreboard and clock, he won’t know if he’s won the golden goal or not. Tom and I both explain it will be announced, but this does not placate him.

Part of me admires this ingenuity, his rivalry adding to the thrill, part of me is annoyed I didn’t think of it.

Those singing in the stand along from us, “super Thurrock FC” do so with one arm raised and a hand shielding their eyes from the dazzling sun. I myself have adopted a one eye closed squint kind of look. Tom the perennial sun seeker tells me its “nice to see some sun”. Some of the home fans however reckon it’s “toastie” in fact it’s “too hot” and the game should be “called off”.

One supporter has got his outfit choice all wrong and is being made well aware of it. “What a terrible jacket” one person says laughing to themselves. The jacket in question is a bright blue puffy one with a fur hood, the likes of which are more commonly seen where Ranulph Fiennes is, not in Purfleet. The suggestion that he must be “sweating his bollocks off” does not look far from the truth as he peels it off, half exacerbated.

DSC_0226Despite the chants of “its like watching Brazil” from the TFC fans, following a passage of slick play and the comparison with the Samba Boys is made even easier by the fact they play in yellow, but the first twenty minutes from both sides has been a little tame.

There seem to have been more lost footballs than shots on goal, I’ve lost count of the amount of times a clearance has gone well past row Z, forcing a small child to rush off behind a stand to recover it.

Those who are maybe new to our blog, will not necessarily be aware of the fact I have a small obsession with pink kits, specifically pink goalkeeper kits. I’m therefore in seventh heaven at the sight of not one but two of them today. There is though some derision from Tom and Obe, who think I must be “colour blind” because HFC’s kit according to them is “orange” and not pink. It’s certainly not as neon Buffon as TFC’s but it’s definitely pink, a coral pushing a salmon.

A “flambouyont” dive as Tom describes it, by one HFC player wins them a free kick, but after all the deliberation its a “weak” attempt says an unimpressed Tom. TFC are certainly edging the encounter so far, they are certainly more direct than HFC who pass the ball around a bit more, but as far as clear cut chances are concerned, there has been nul.

Obe is convinced the HFC player responsible for the big challenge, one where the sound of it sends a shudder through you, has “gotta go”. In fact two TFC players are down at the same time, but for unconnected reasons. The physio heads straight for the player involved in the punishing tackle. “Priorities” says Tom, like the man with the magic sponge picked him because they are BFF’s.

“Can’t believe that” says Obe, stunned that the referee has not booked the player responsible for the less than textbook challenge.

One TFC fans powers of prophecy are a bit off, he is sure that the score is about to change, when they get a free kick out wide “1-0” he says as the ball is crossed in, but it ends up missing everyone in the box.

With five minutes to go, it’s the visitors who fashion the best chance of the game, putting a shot just wide. Obe though has bigger things on his mind, I knew I liked this kid. Another injury, around the fortieth minute, the TFC physio is greeted with chants of “super hands, super hands” as he enters the pitch, means one of his golden goal tickets is about to become obsolete. “That’s ruined” he says, looking at his timer. No concern for the player, just the prize, he will fit in around here.

A late offside call sees a TFC attack halted, wrongly in the eyes of the fans, “what a load of cobblers” says one, another suggests the linesman should “stick his flag up” his “ass”. Like most football fans, fickle, in the next breath they are praising the officials, when a foul is given their way, “well done ref” much to the annoyance of the HFC bench “what the fuck you doing?” they ask.

All square at the break, the TFC flags are down and have been packed away into a sports bag, for the short journey to the other end. Tom has made his way to join the queue at the snack bar, not for one burger, but two, as I am in the presence of two football eaters today, it must be a family thing.

P1010220Obe like his uncle has headed off early “to beat the queue at the bar”. I sit alone with a speaker two foot away from my ear blasting out overly loud Ed Sheeran, who is miraculously being drowned out by the mascots in full ‘too much sugar’ mode. Screaming, shouting while one kicks a drinks can about its a cacophony, rattling around under the metal roof of the stand. A couple of times the odd child takes a considerable tumble, and I expect tears, but they just pick themselves up and get back to tearing around like mad men.

Their indestructible nature might be down to one of them being the “terminator”.

The sun has started to dip now bathing Ship Lane in the most gorgeous shades of pale orange and yellow, if the place didn’t look picture perfect before, its gallery worthy now. A few white and green scarf wearing HFC fans have appeared where their TFC counterparts were before.

“Better than Stamford Bridge” declares Obe, finishing his burger, the same burger he had to ring Tom to remind him to put ketchup on.

TFC’s flags have reappeared from the sports bag, and hang from the back of the terrace once more. Their fans continue to sing as they did for most of the first half, but it’s HFC who have come out much the brighter, and it is they who break the deadlock in the most impressive of style.

“Waste” says someone behind me, when HFC take their corner short. On first appearances it certainly seems that the set piece has not been taken well. Number 7 who receives the ball, looks to have nowhere to go, confronted by two TFC defenders, no amount of step overs or shoulder drops look like they are going to get him anywhere.

Still with the ball, he starts to move towards the halfway line, losing one of his markers, he sees his window of opportunity, quickly changing direction, he sets off back towards the box. His shirt being almost constantly pulled, the referee plays advantage, and thank god he did. Now in the the area, his hapless marker behind him.

Confronted in the box by a TFC player in yellow, there is still plenty to do, just over the line and from an acute angle, he bends the ball around the defender, well out of reach of the all pink keeper who is reduced to being an observer. One TFC player looks on as the ball nestles in the back of the net, he can only lift his hands, grasping his own head in dismay.

The celebration of the scorer is coolness personified, no choreographed handshake or shirt over his head, just a slow walk back up the pitch, he leaves it to his teammates to go crazy, leaping all over him. His bench are pretty happy to, “have that you cunt” one member of it shouts, another thanks the referee, I’m assuming for letting the play continue.

“Just what the game needed” says the same voice who suggested the short corner was a “waste”. The
match was screaming for a goal, but couldn’t you have done your magic six minutes later number 7? I would have won the golden goal if you had. Instead one of the parents of the mascots looks like all his Christmases have come at once.

DSC_0374HFC go close again, straight away, no idea how it wasn’t a goal. The ball is slid across the six yard box, a foot from the goal line, the player sliding in, conspires to hit it over the bar, instead of into the back of the net. Tony is growing increasingly annoyed, “step it up” he shouts to the players.

I’m not quite sure what sparks it, but there is an near all team royal rumble at one point. It starts with both number 7’s rutting, before all twenty other players are involved. HFC’s manager sensing the possibility of things getting out of hand, directs two of his coaches to “get on the pitch” and to get their players “away” from the feud. The TFC fans behind the goal seem to be enjoying the exchange, breaking into song, “we are the fleet, we are the fleet”.

No-one is remotely concerned with my well being, when I’m forced to make an emergency manoeuvre to get out of the way of a flying ball, much more interested in the leftovers from the mass quarrel, one TFC player not very subtly barging one HFC player running for the ball right into the home dugout. For a moment the HFC player looks like he’s going to retaliate, except for a shout from his own bench of “keep it together” stopping him.

The TFC fans are loving all the controversy, humming the Entrance of the Gladiators as things continue to heat up.

All be it a different member of the Sparks/Jones family, but the shout of  “ he’s gotta go” is the same. This time a HFC through ball has caught out the TFC defence, sending the away player off towards goal, only for him to be unceremoniously clattered into, looks like the last man to me, but nothing is given once again. Tom can’t believe it was anything other than a red.

“Get me a fucking goal” demands Tony under his breath to a nearby player. They almost do just that, firstly when a player on the far side wriggles free of plenty of attention and fires a low shot against the legs of the HFC keeper. “That’s what he can do, that’s what he can do” says Tony after the players effort. In contrast the HFC bench are not as full of praise, quite the opposite, enraged that the player was allowed to do that.

Tony’s wish is almost granted, in the most spectacular of ways. Pushing on, the number 3 heads towards the box, with no-one showing themselves for a pass, he decided to let rip a curling right foot shot, that from the moment he hit it look destined for the top corner. Not only looking a bit like Buffon in his stunning pink kit, the HFC keeper pulls off a save worthy of the sexy Italian, somehow getting a hand to it and tipping it over.

Another flare up, this time in the box, there are a few shouts of “embarrassing” from both sets of fans. Even the benches are going at it, “sort your fucking hair out” says someone on the home bench towards a coach on the away one. A TFC fan chips in, a big fella is calling a slightly smaller fella a “maggot”, it’s getting a little bit unsavoury and we’re stuck right in the middle of it.

“I can’t hear you” screams Tony to the players, it might have something to do with the most excellent rendition of “come on you yellow and greens”. A chant before the end of last season I’d only ever heard sung by Celtic fans, but it has been adapted by the TFC supporters, who we saw belting it out at the playoff final.

DSC_0408“You don’t see them given very often” says Tom, having just watched a HFC player go right over the top of the TFC forward in an attempt to clear the ball away. It looks like hes trying to climb on his shoulders for a piggyback. Regardless of the frequency in those kind of fouls being given, the referee didn’t like it, and it’s a penalty to TFC. “I believe in you” squeals one of the onlooking children.

“Fucking beautiful” shouts the HFC manager, as his keeper has just pulled off his second game changing save of the match. “It’s just not their day” says Tom. TFC have had the chances but have found a man in goal having one of those afternoons.

They almost, almost score from the resulting corner, the keeper flaps at the cross, but the ricochet is kind and he gets another bite at the cherry and is able to gather the loose ball.

The sun has all but gone now, casting long spindly shadows of the nearby pylons across the pitch. The TFC supporters haven’t stopped, despite the ups and downs “super Thurrock FC” and neither has Tony, non stop pacing up and down on the sidelines. At one point he explodes in a fit of swearing, only to remember he has his own audience of small people and apologises profusely to their stunned faces, explaining that sometimes he gets a bit caught up in moment.

“Last ten let’s have it” shouts the ever energetic coach.

HFC introduce some fresh legs for the closing minutes, the voice over the PA’s attempt to read out his
name gets a few giggles. “He bottled that” says Obe, the voice aborting the name halfway, ending up just making a noise, he would have been better off if he’d committed to it, given it more of a go.

TFC fans are sure that the HFC keeper is taking a little too long with his kicks, counting out loud every time he has the ball, “1, 2, 3, 4 , 5”. HFC go close from a corner, the game on a bit of a knife edge, “come on boys” shouts a fan, as the voice over the PA has a little less of an issue informing us all there will be a “minimum of five minutes of additional time”, then he did with the recent substitute.

The expectations of a rip roaring final five don’t materialise. TFC have a snap shot that gets a collective “ohhh” but for the crowd, that’s about it. HFC spend anytime they have with the ball, running it into the corners.

While a few TFC players applaud their supporters, the voice for the last time today “thanks” us for our “attendance”. The smattering of HFC fans, clap their players off, while their manager lets say has a bit of a heated chat with the referee and his assistants.

Ship Lane soon falls quiet, its almost dusk, and most people have left. Sadly there is a good chance that Ship Lane won’t be filled with the sounds of football for much longer, its tenure as a ground coming to an end after thirty three years.

A little bird had told me recently  that 2017/18s may well be the final season for TFC and I don’t just mean at Ship Lane, I mean full stop. It was just a bit of a rumour then, with no official word from the club, but that’s all changed now.

DSC_0441Their demise is not due to some crooked landlord, debt or poor management, but due to ill heath Tommy South, who has decided after thirty odd years hes got to step down, and has put the club up for sale.

TFC are not the most well followed club, they are not blessed with hundreds and hundreds of supporters, but that small group who are here week in and week out, and the volunteers like Mike, who help things tick along, are just as important to the fabric of the game as those fans of a club with thousands, and thousands of them.

Having always been so kind and accommodating to us, in the few times we have crossed paths with them, we can not speak highly enough of TFC.

A genuine jewel in the crown not only of the Essex non league scene, UK non league scene, but of all football. I can”t even start to imagine what it would be like as a fan, to know that time is almost up. That the next home game, you are one game closer to not being able to stand in your favourite spot, buy that half time cup of tea or speak to that person whose name you don’t know, but you always have a chat with on match day, because that’s the power football has.

It’s heartbreaking if I’m honest, I can only tell you that all our fingers and toes are crossed, and all our prayers are heading the football Gods way, hoping for a positive outcome.

Ultimately if you don’t have a team to go and support, what else is there to do on a Saturday afternoon?

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