Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out venturing to the Waterside Stadium in Surrey for a decent game of football and an anaemic burger.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
Considering the amount of rugby clubs we pass, it would almost be a shock to find a football club among them. I never knew south London was so fond of egg chasing, but you don’t seem to be able to move for a London Welsh or Irish and of course Twickenham or HQ to those rugby types amongst you.
Normally bank holidays are reserved exclusively for watching films with Richard Todd in. Looking out of the window at the rain, all tucked up and warm on the sofa, I question why shortly I’ll be heading outside to mess around in it. Our intended game has like so many others have fallen foul of the weather, pitch inspection failed, washout, ducks on pitches and other such things fill my Twitter timeline.
Having anticipated some such weather related disappointment, I had already set about finding an alternative, one with the kind of playing surface that winds up what you might call the purists out there to the enth degree, but to us has been invaluable, meaning we’ve been able to get to two games over this soggy elongated workless weekend.
Not long over the river, a very high and swollen river, we’re officially in bandit country, south London, in fact that couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s lovely. We seem to be driving along the high red brick wall of Kew Gardens forever. The monotony of the never ending border to Kew, is broken up by a tea room Tom points out, that a visit to he tells me is like “stepping back 100 years”.
Not that Tom has much time for contemplating time travel, he is on a near constant weather watch, he’s already informed me he’s got his “poncho”, the poncho he knows how much I “love” he tells me. If walking around with a bloke in a snood wasn’t bad enough, there is a chance today I’ll be standing next to a guy who thinks he looks like a rugged Vietnam war type, but looks more like someone at Disney World, not wanting to get wet on the log flume.
According to Tom the very inconsequential rain should have stopped by now, and he is getting agitated, accusing the app on his phone of “lying” to him.
We are so early, so absurdly early, I think I could have had a good fourty minutes extra in bed this morning, Google maps grip on reality, or lack of it, is really starting to piss me off. Thankfully we find solace at the end of a narrow single file lane that the small brown signs with a crossed knife and fork have pointed us towards.
A pub, where even when you are inside, you can hear the fast running river just a few feet from the front door. It’s almost like white water, any minute now I expect to see Meryl Streep flying down it, pursued by Kevin Bacon.
Almost everyone is getting their bank holiday drink on, we refrain, and I end up with a coffee in a tall slender glass with a very nice biscuit balanced on the saucer. I lose count of the amount of soggy dog walkers coming in, in the short time we are there. Toms order of chips is nowhere to be seen, the pubs till system has gone into a Y2K type meltdown, and his order was lost, so he collects his refund and we head back outside, where Tom reminds me again, “it’s still raining”.
“Yeah let’s go to football on bank holiday Monday” mutters Tom to himself, I think he’s impersonating me, I’m not sure if he knows I can hear him.
The rain has only got heavier since leaving the pub and making the short drive to the ground, plonked on the edge of a vast barren car park. Half of the complex and main stand an athletics club, one of a few things to send a guaranteed shiver down a football fans spine, a running track, the other side of the dual purpose set up, the football pitch.
Still a little bit early, but almost past looking totally crazy, we kill the final ten minutes in the car, Tom quietly shopping for blinds on his phone, his partner having sent him the ones she likes, and he is giving his sartorial opinion.
“Glad I packed my poncho” he says as I open my door, the rain having not got any better, and he wants to make sure I’m aware at just how displeased he is at the fact he is going to have to wander about in it for the next few hours.
Because the home team Walton Casuals FC (WC) share their ground, there is a certain amount of personalising that has to take place on match day. As we arrive at the small metal green shed turnstiles, one man puts out all the vivid orange signage, each adorned with a bright white stags head, from the club’s badge.
“Nice and swanky” says Tom, once we’re in. Not even a year old, Elmbridge Sports Hub still smells a bit of new paint, there is not a hair out of place, there is also not an abundance of character. The down side of a brand new ground with a 3G pitch that means you are almost guaranteed a match, except for maybe a meteor strike, means it all just feels very prefab.
It’s the crumbling stands and frayed edges that I think people yearn for more and more, in this age of almost sanitised football.
Tom is interrupted from telling me he likes the “wooden panels” that surrounds the ground on three sides, maybe he can take some inspiration for his own decor in his new house, by the loud “testing, testing” from the grounds PA.
A brief encounter with the WC manager, Anthony Gayle, gives us an insight into what some might imagine is an unthinkable working scenario: having your Dad as your boss!
Anthony’s Dad though is as “good as gold”, and considering his dad’s wealth of football experience, former Fulham and West Ham player and now Sky Sports News regular Tony Gayle, it would be “crazy” not to “pick his brains”.
He admits the “last two years” have been a “massive learning curve”, he explains that both him and his deputy are “very much coaches” with no managerial experience, but thinks they have “surprised the board” with how well they have done and with such a “young team”.
We are not the only ones bedazzled by the facilities, one coach of the visiting side Corinthian Casuals FC (CC) is somewhat in awe of the size of the away dressing room, “nice to be able to fit a whole team in”, his jaw almost on the other floor, he reiterates again to the group around him that there is “so much space”. They’re like a holiday party, who’ve just turned up at the villa they booked, and it’s so much nicer than the pictures.
It’s a bit windy sitting in the blue fold down chairs of the main stand, Tom doesn’t hang about for long, “I’m going to go and have a look for food” he tells me, like some great explorer. His expedition is short lived, he returns a little forlorn, the man in the small burgundy trailer at the foot of the stand is still “chopping onions” so he’ll “go back in a bit”. One thing he was able to glean from the self proclaimed “gourmet burger” stand, that it’s also got a “gourmet price tag”.
In the light misty rain, WC’s manager with his notepad in hand is talking to small groups of his players, who in shorts and flip flops I’m sure are wondering why we couldn’t have done this inside, giving them instructions for the game ahead.
The expression I’ve heard a few times today is “big game”, it’s fifth Vs sixth, so there is no taking any chances.
There are a few bits of pink and brown, CC’s club colours starting to appear among the steadily increasing crowd, but not really enough yet to compete with the garish WC orange, think Holland 1974, that is still dominant.
Toms second attempt at a “food run”, at least results in something to eat this time, but also plenty of moaning.
“No brioche bun, as advertised” are his first words, sitting down one chair space away from me, with a frankly quite pathetic looking anaemic bun full of huge chunks of “raw onion”. Things though only get worse, his chips are “raw”, the fact he was “let off £3” because the “till wouldn’t open” is of little to no consolation, the food is frankly well below par.
Tom is not the only one disgruntled with the refreshments, one person, I’m guessing a CC supporter is appalled to put it mildly at the price of a hot drink. “£1.80 cup of tea must be having a fucking laugh, rich bastards round here” he says loudly, marching up the steps of the stand, swinging a Tescos carrier bag.
“Want a raffle ticket” says the elderly man in his WC woolly hat, “draw at half time” he tells me. I also bag myself a programme while I’m at it, but the still falling rain means I’m very, very quick to get into the safety of my bag. The usual rush that normally follows getting my raffle of 50/50 tickets is missing today, maybe I’ve become immune, maybe I need to move onto harder stuff, like the Lottery.
It’s so quiet here, almost spookily so, none of the hustle and bustle of suburban life that normally accompanies a match. No sound of a dual carriageway or landing planes, just peace and quiet and the occasional twittering bird, and its making me feel a bit uneasy. Tom is still staring at his phone, still refreshing his weather app, I ask him what it’s telling him, “rain” he barks.
We’ve taken up a new spot at the back of the stand where the seats have armrests and cup holders, not like the “cheap seats” we were in before Tom sneers, as the players appear, WC out well before CC.
With more and more people arriving, I hear more and more just how crucial a win for either team is today, one CC fan going as far as calling it “massive” a game they “can’t afford to lose”. One newly arrived away supporter, I’m sure has seen it all before, and is blessed with a bit more perspective than others. In his green flat cap, he hands over a large bag of food to the CC keeper, who duly expects them from the man who is “92 today” according to the person with him, who explains he “always looks after the players”.
The CC keeper returning from putting the hefty bag of swag in the changing room, thanks the man again and wishes him a “happy birthday”.
By the time the fuzzy voice over the PA is reading out the teams, so distorted that I’ve no idea what he is saying, things are looking a little more even in the stands, the pink and brown, almost equalling the orange.
On the pitch the CC team are going through a warm up routine involving a very large rubber band around their ankles. WC’s team are going through a slightly more orthodox one, although Tom is liking the “back four training”. The defence on their own away from the main group are going through their very own drills. Anthony looking on, still looks very “smart” according to Tom, despite the rain. His shirt and what look like a knitted tie still looking pristine, however I’m sure he’s soaked through.
As the players start to walk off, he has a word with most if not all of his team individually, nothing too drawn out, just a quick word in their ear. He is also as Tom points out an “arse slapper” which can only make me think of a certain episode of Friends.
The noise that greets CC as they come off you could be excused for thinking they were the home team. Disappearing down the half extended white tunnel there are plenty of cheers and lots of clapping, “come on boys”. There is even a brief song, the first of many from the CC supporters who prove to be a bit of a saving grace by the end of the day, “Casuals, Casuals”.
“We’re pink, we’re brown, we’re coming to your town” sing the CC fans erecting their multitude of flags in the rain without a care in the world that they’re going to get drenched. The halves for the first half having been decided. The stand is packed, it’s hard to see an empty seat, but the real die hards are standing behind the goal.
The first chance of the match is to the home side, their player firing a shot right into the midriff of the CC keeper who seems to be “winded” by the attempt according to Tom. Anthony, like the CC fans won’t let a little bit of precipitation stop them, still on the sidelines, giving out instructions, and somehow still managing to look dapper.
Even though we are in the stand, the rain still finds us, the wind blowing inwards, I can hear it rattling on the side of my raised hood. The sun is doing its best to break through, but has a lot of clouds to contend with. At least the game is eventful so far, even if the weather is shocking, CC drag a shot wide, that gets another song “makes me happy, makes me feel this way”. The visitors then have a big shout for a penalty turned down. The two home fans behind us are split over was it or wasn’t it?
What looks like another routine save for the the CC keeper results in a long stoppage. The forceful shot again into his midriff looks relatively everyday, but he is soon writhing around on the floor, his arm waving in the air signalling to the bench there is a problem, while the other hand clutches his ankle.
He looks “wobbly” says Tom as he is helped off, as he gets closer it is clear he is crying. The CC fans make sure to do their bit, softening the blow of the injury the best they can, “there’s only one Danny Bracken”.
His replacement, well is certainly a lot shorter. In fact he doesn’t look much like a keeper at all, Tom suspects, that he may even be an “outfield player”. His unfamiliarity to the role is soon apparent, confirming Toms suspicions when with just over twenty minutes gone, as Tom puts it he didn’t know whether to “come or go”. Caught in no man’s land, the WC player scoops the ball over him Karel Paborsky style, fortunately for the stand in its just wide, but Tom doesn’t think he looks “very confident”.
In number 15 CC have a proper burly forward, I don’t mean he’s in bad shape, but a proper focal point up front. “Big Head” or at least I think that’s what his teammates are calling him is proving to be quite the handful at times with his long shaggy curly hair. He’s not averse to a shoulder flick of pass with his chest. He controls one ball up to him with the top of his torso so well, it initiates a promising attack.
Tom almost gags at the sight of one robust tackle, a bit of a cruncher. The sight of the two players
clattering into each other only seems to excite the CC fans who break out into song “Corinthians, Casuals, Casuals”.
“Stop whinging” shouts a home supporter, after CC make another claim for a penalty.
Despite WC “moving the ball well” as Tom puts it, more concerning is their propensity to “overplay” at times, an admission of their own manager. Clearly under instructions to play out from the back, on a couple of occasions it ends up causing them problems. Dwelling on the ball in the box, CC force the home team back and force them into giving the ball away in a dangerous position, Big Head nearly capitalising, but not quite.
Whereas the new CC keeper has yet to really be “tested” as Tom points out he seems to have certainly settled in to the role. WC’s keeper is very “commanding” as Tom puts, “not like Hugo” a sly dig at Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris after his recent gaff against Chelsea. He will move heaven and earth to win the ball, at one corner wiping out his own teammates, to ensure he claims the cross.
CC’s man in goal eventually has a shot to deal with, he spills the initial effort, but is sprightly enough to gather the loose ball. Perhaps where the number one would have organised the area, the stand in lacking that presence means WC are able to take a short corner into the box unabated, the first time shot fired high and over.
Except for the odd shout from the home fans “come on Casuals” which frankly is just a bit confusing, its very quiet here. The group of CC fans the “pink and brown army” behind the goal though have kept up a near constant rumble since kick off, belting out one song or another. A bit slurry at times, Tom thinks they frankly sound “pissed”. They are fully embracing the spirit of the extra long weekend, there is the faint smell of skunk in the air and Tom is sure, although not 100% certain that one of them has just taken a piss in a pint glass, the short walk to the loo, too much of an inconvenience.
Very much hoping that CC would be playing in their distinct home shirt of chocolate and pink, Tom is somewhat appalled at the “ horrible combo” thinking that such a mix doesn’t “deserve to be on a kit” bit harsh.
The “curse of the captains” as Tom calls it strikes again, the physio only just back out after dealing with the keeper and making her way around the pitch, is suddenly called on again, and cuts short her circumnavigation of the pitch to dash across it, to deal with her latest patient.
“Fuck off” shouts one CC fan, towards the appealing WC players at the other end of the pitch. Their own shout for a penalty is turned down, the referee signalling it hit the player on the lines chest and not his arm.
There are a hatful of opportunities to score for each team in the final minutes of the half. Big Head shows his commitment by quite literally putting his big head on the line, blocking a clearance in an attempt to win back the ball. WC are guilty once again of “fucking over playing it” as Tom puts it, but luckily for them when they give the ball away in their own area, it comes to nothing. CC’s debutante keeper is rounded after rushing off his line, but he manages to force the forward wide, and his eventual ball into the box is hoofed clear, much to the delight of the cheering away fans.
The final chances of the half fall to the visitor’s, Big Head has a speculative long range shot and then WC are “at it again” sighs Tom, this time they give the ball away just outside their box, allowing the CC attacker to turn and get his shot off, but again, surely having used up all of their nine lives, it’s straight at the keeper.
In an unusual twist in how these kind of things are normally conducted, a wooden tombola, the kind of which you last saw at your Schools Summer fair, is carried down to pitchside, and a man without a microphone informs the crowd of the impending draw. The draw may I add being done by a couple of celebrities, the twins from The Shining. In matching pink jackets and red bows in their hair, they pull three lots of tickets from the dark wooden drum, each time the caller yells the numbers, each time I’m unsuccessful.
Barely audible, the caller informs whoever the “lucky winner” is to head to the boardroom to collect their prize.
Toms hope of half time “tea and cakes”, is short lived, he returns with just tea, grumbling at the fact they didn’t have sugar, only “sweetener”. With kick off of the second half imminent, the CC fans have already managed to take down and erect their sizable collection of flags, one of which is the state flag of California, at the opposite end of the ground. “Why the fuck they got that?” asks a confused Tom.
CC’s keeper is out well before his teammates, emerging from the end of the extraordinarily long white tunnel with a fellow player, to go through a quick warm up in goal. Once again there are shouts of “come on Casuals” from the stands as both teams surface, and once again I’ve no idea what Casual they are willing to come on.
The wind has most definitely picked up for the second half, we’ve changed ends with the CC fans, who are soon back at it, “Woke up this morning, got Corinthian Casuals on my mind”. Tom though has a far greater concern than the weather now, the fact that one passing fan has got a “brioche bun”.
Perhaps thanks to the wind, a WC free kick well out wide, ends up hitting the crossbar, and sends a few hearts racing, they are not the only ones. A forceful clearance just after heads straight into the stand, at quite a rate, “not into the posh seats” gasps Tom.
I’m really starting to develop quite a liking for Big Head, who I have now re branded ‘The Bostik League Zlatan’ because of his love of a shoulder flick. He has a much better work rate than the Swede, he has not stopped. He looks like CC’s best chance of a goal, with twenty minutes gone, he puts a shot just wide. The type of which are getting few and far between, each team so conscious not to concede, it’s stifling the game a bit.
Again a downed player stops play and halts the games floundering momentum, “another fucking injury” as Tom crudely points, but when he realises who it is, shows genuine concern, “oh no, Hector is down”.
Surprised by Tom’s knowledge of the player being treated, he normally does not know the name of the club we’re going to see until we are parking outside of it, I ask him “Hector who?”. “Hector Bellerin” he replies, oh I see the guy has long hair and looks a bit like the Spanish Gooner, I see what you did there.
Big Head or Zlatan takes the pause to rally his teammates “come on boys”.
It really is a pleasure to be in the presence of a group of fans with a “nice range of songs” as Tom puts it, so many we see, if they sing at all, have a very limited song book. One fan whirls his scarf above his head, while they start a new one “ally o ally o” they even I think have a song in a different language, Portuguese. A reference to their connection to Corinthians in São Paulo, which is also visible on some of their flags, the biggest of which reads “Torcida Seething”.
Thirty minutes gone, a home breakaway results in their player being “cynically” chopped down as Tom puts it. The resulting yellow card is jeered by the CC fans, but it’s all a bit panto, I’m sure they know it was warranted. The free kick that follows was correctly described as “wired” by Tom. Some might say the attempted shot from about thirty yards out was ‘audacious’, some might say ‘shit’, the flat and low trajectory on the ball never looking like it was going to trouble anyone, as it sailed wide.
WC’s continued insistence to play out from the back, once causes them grief, but surely with no lives left now, they can’t get away with it again. At the other end they have perhaps the most clear cut chance of the half, only for the foot of the CC keeper stopping a certain goal, “that was a save bruv” says one CC supporter.
If anyone is going to score at the moment it looks like WC, however Big Head is still grinding away up front, every hoof to him he wins in the air without fail. It’s not him, but a teammate who has their best chance of the half, its one a piece now. Cutting in off the right wing he sends a low curling shot goalwards, that the long slender WC keeper gets down to quickly and pushes wide.
“Come on Casuals, come on Casuals” shout the CC fans.
“What a turn” I shout as the WC player almost pirouettes on the edge of the box, unleashing a vicious shot. “What a save” replies Tom just as loud, the deputy keeper having a day to remember. The somewhat confusing chant of “come on Casuals” rings out again, this time though it’s definitely the home fans.
“Boys keep working” demands one WC player, another who stands in front of us to take a throw in, smells amazing. We both turn to each other having inhaled his scent, Tom wondering if he has “got a little splash on?”.
The late deluge of chances only continues. Charging through the defence the WC forward is in pole position to guarantee himself the glory, but puts it wide, how?. They are offered another chance, another quick counter attack, another shot again just wide. For a split second it looked like it had top corner written all over it.
“That was it!” cries Tom, that was the winner it had to be, WC might just end up kicking themselves. Another one on one this time it’s not wide, but hits the post, rebounding into the grateful arms of the CC keeper. The CC fans celebrate like they just got the winner, and stop humming the Birdie Song, “People gonna think they scored” says Tom.
CC’s supporters keep their best, loudest and longest rendition of “Casuals on my mind” for right at the end. With one rendition complete, one supporter prepares them to go again, “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8” and off they go, the one fan still whirring his scarf continually above this head.
With what can only be seconds left, CC appeal for a foul about two foot outside of the D, there isn’t even enough time to complain, the downed player halfway into his knees when the referee blows for full time. “Ref” shouts one player aghast, who can’t believe he didn’t give it.
A few WC players fall to their back, the exhaustion of their efforts, clear across their faces. CC’s supporters let the man in charge know just what they think of him,”the referees a wanker”.
While the WC team are deep in debrief with Anthony at the centre of the tight huddle, the CC players walk the line of outstretched hands from their fans, ready to pile on the admiration for their industry. Most touching is the big hug reserved for the keeper, who I later learn is a forward, which really puts in to perspective what an amazing job he did and explains the feeling among the fans that today was a well earned point rather than two points dropped.
With so much at stake on the pitch, the game except in very fleeting moments and of course Big Head, much like the weather was a bit of a damp squib. What saved the day though, what justified not being indoors watching The Longest Day, getting soggy and for Tom at least getting very oniony breath, were the CC fans.
We have said it time and time again, we don’t think there is a right way to support your team or a wrong way, you do what suits you, but if every match we went to had the kind of supporters CC are, loud, colourful and expressive, with flags and songs, well that would just be perfect, because too many clubs we go to the fans are quiet and dare I say a bit to serious, because if you can’t get excited and animated about your team, then why even bother going?
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