Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey this time out venturing to Rushden to witness a reborn club complete with Belly Buster burgers.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

“No long johns today” says a positively gleaming Tom, patting his thighs. He is almost as bright as the sun, who after two consecutive matches consisting of grey skies, snow, shivering, frost nip and numb toes, is a sight to behold. In fact there is no sign of the white stuff that twenty four hours ago blanketed almost everything in sight.P1010486

It’s not a long drive tonight considering how far and wide we’ve been on some trips this season, however it’s quite a distance on a weeknight for us. The extra time in the car though allows Tom to fill me in on the aftermath of the Pukka sausage roll he’d had the previous day and the fact he went to Hatton Garden earlier ring shopping.

Having been subtly dropping hints for months, I can only hope I get the solitaire black diamond with platinum, I’ve always wanted.

The outskirts of one town we pass through is a curious place, full of new build “toy houses” as Tom calls them. So new is the development that my Sat Nav thinks at one point we are driving headlong across a field and Tom and I can’t stop ogling the prefab dwellings up for sale, in these preformed clusters, like they have been fired out of a child’s play set. You can even have a pink one by the looks of it, if you so desire.

Closer to our destination and the brand spanking new houses are replaced with much older ones, and as we wind along the back roads of Northamptonshire, playing the “oh that’s nice” game. Pointing out which of the palacious mansions set back from the leafy road, behind closed gates we fancy moving into.

After all the nearby dainty houses, with a few newer ones scattered among them, passing through what seems like the very pleasant town of Rushden, I did not expect to find myself parking opposite the long red brick wall of an industrial estate.

Tall thin spindly floodlights shoot up skywards beyond the flat roofed entrance to Hayden Road. There is little or no signs of life, there is though an open door, which we investigate nervously. A long corridor the other side of it gives up no suggestion of what is to be found. An empty bar and many closed doors, makes us wonder if we have broken our all time record for being too early, that for the first time ever, we are the first here, before anyone to do with the actual club.

“You here for the Diamonds?” asks a lady behind us. Having not quite found what we were looking for, a club that Tom remembers on the way here “playing on Fifa” once upon a time, but who now in their new guise after reforming in 2011, play in the Southern League and not the Football League, AFC Rushden & Diamonds (AFC)

Turning to be greeted by a helpful face, is a woman who I’m not sure how she could tell, but said we looked a bit “lost”.

So early are we, that there is a wedding reception still taking place in one of the functions rooms. Someones special day stands between us and the pitch. If we hadn’t had our friendly local guide to lead us, I think we would have just waited for it to finish, far too embarrassed to barge right through. I try to cover the dance floor as quickly as possible. Getting out of the way of the glaring people in their finest.

I offer a mumbled and flustered “congratulations” to the happy couple at one table as we pass, but just get blank faces back.

IMG_20180320_183159From the state of the pitch you wouldn’t know that earlier in the day it had been subject to a dreaded pitch inspection. Waterlogged was the reason, if I remember the tweet correctly. Thanks to the volunteers here late last night and during the day today we have a game to watch. As one lady standing pitch side near us puts it, giving an inkling as to just what kind of club we are at, when she tells us about the “good band” of fans who turned up to help.

Watching on as the groundsman finishes touching up the lines with his white paint dispensing machine, Tom says he imagines its quite a “nice job”, “theraputic”. As he completes the goal line, someone shouts “don’t fall in”. The considerable patch of sand in the six yard box, a giveaway to that area being one of the worst affected.

The radio playing around the ground, echos the same controversy that Tom had mentioned on the way here, that the wedding cake for the royal wedding this year, for the first time since God only knows, will not be fruitcake. Heretics, burn them at the stake.

Still talking about food and after he has informed me just like radio 5 live just has, slow news day, that it will be “lemon cake”, he stops, his jaw almost hitting the ground, he’s just spotted The Burger Monster menu.

I had not told him, but I knew before getting here AFC were somewhat well known, even famous you might say in the non league world for their food. A prime destination for anyone on a pilgrimage like Tom is, for those trying to achieve food at football nirvana.

Scrawled across a whiteboard pinched from a primary school, in different coloured marker, different shapes outline different things on offer. With all the choice, it could take one a while to decide what they are having. Towards the bottom left hand corner of the vast menu, almost discreetly, is by the looks of it, something from Man Vs Food, the “Belly Buster”.

I think we both put on a stone just reading its contents: burger, bacon, sausage, egg, cheese. I almost considered loosening my belt, such is the sheer volume of ingredients, all of which are somehow contained within one standard bun. Tom though does not have the look of someone relishing the challenge, but of someone who looks defeated before even ordering it.

Having said I was thinking of eating today myself, having said I fancied a nibble of something, Tom points out “I picked a good day to eat chips”, considering the vast array of toppings and combination of things you can have with them.

Talking to Jon, AFC’s Vice Chairman, he emphasises quite what a “rush” it was at the beginning of this season to secure Hayden Road as their home, having played somewhere else for the previous one. When I ask him why there is a lack of anything to signify this is their home, he points out that it was far more important to “make sure” they had “ground grading” before worrying about any “fancy signs’.

Slowly but surely though they are starting to establish themselves here, Jon confirms they will be here for at least next season too, which allows them to put down some tentative roots, instead of not bothering to unpack any boxes, before they will just have to fill them all up in a few months time.

The club shop is being renovated, as we talk to Jon a man hangs a long line of sweatshirts and hoodies on its outside. Next to that, and the other side of the mini metal covered terrace, is Dale’s Bar, which to the fans is a lot more than a place to get a pint, but a shrine, in honour of a keeper from their previous incarnation who sadly took his own life, and why the club Jon explains have “retired” the number 1.

DSC_0019There is no shortage of people to talk to here. When Jon departs, the mantle to tell us more about this famous team is club Treasurer John. From the North West originally, Mossley, his face awash with confusion when we tell him we had been their recently, he explains how AFC are one of the most hallowed things in football, fan owned. The club is 100% supporter run, the board made up of all fans, no-one from the old regime.

Both John and Jon do not take me as fans who are wallowing in the mire of losing the club they once knew, forced to rebuild it, due to the mismanagement of others. There is a brief moment of nostalgia from John, telling me how good his son was at “winning the Champions League with Rushden” but he is not overly nostalgic for long, and is soon telling us about the “fourty teams” they run, and their “not for profit academy”.

“Should be a good game” he adds, its first vs fourth tonight. Although he admits to having “lost count” of the amount of games they have had postponed this season, so I’m sure there must be some relief that it’s going ahead in the first place. All the bad weather means their run in to the end of the season is pretty consistently “Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday”.

The draw of the white portacabin club shop is all too strong. The row of club merchandise hung on hangers outside subtly lead you towards its small door. Inside, the three or four trellis tables are smothered with an extensive collection of wonderful football tat, badges, magnets, mugs, keyrings, giant mouse mats and phone covers. Most intriguing of all, are the temporary tattoos. For the princely sum of 50p, you can lick and stick your way to being the ultimate AFC fan with a semi permanent club badge about your person, wherever you may wish.

“Like the Hayes Santa hat” says Tom, as a Hayes & Yeading United FC (HYU) player strides on to the pitch. A player one of their coaches is glad to see after getting a “bit worried” because they were all running late. Tom also realises he could have quite easily worn his “red and white” Arsenal “scarf” and fitted in just fine tonight.

The small table placed outside Dale’s Bar, has all the necessary accouterments for a good non league tea or coffee placed on top. Inside its a moving and poignant tribute to the former player. His shirts and pictures cover the walls, and a large AFC flag hangs from the ceiling.

When the players emerge from the short narrow tunnel at the base of the main stand, which is securely closed and looks almost derelict, all the lights of the ground are put on and there is a cheery welcome from the voice over the echoey PA “hello and good evening all you earlybirds”.

With a few spots on the back row of the mini metal terrace already filled. A terrace that for some unknown reason I have become quite fascinated with. It has all the features and fittings of one from a much larger stadium, but has been condensed to fit in a non league ground. It looks like, with just under thirty minutes to kick off, the announcers wish of a “decent turnout” may be becoming reality.

“Ladies and gentlemen” says the man with the microphone who knows how to play a crowd, leaving a suitable dramatic pause to grab everyones attention, announces that everyone is to make sure they get themselves an “end of season draw ticket”.

DSC_0026My ears prick like a like a startled foal, although it wouldn’t have the instant gratification of a golden goal win or a football scratch card. If I play the long game, I could end up with a nice little surprise come the end of the season. When he also informs the crowd that there is a “50/50” too, well that beats any Belly Buster or countless options of things to have with chips.

It’s a succession of old wooden tables near the turnstiles where I’m able to conclude a tidy bit of business in no time at all. First up the man in the blue rain coat, sells me my programme, a real, glossy paper programme, not a digital one as I had feared AFC produce and one with today’s date, contrary to what John said, that they wouldn’t be doing a “reprint” as tonight’s fixture is one of the many that have been postponed.

Next door, three elderly ladies sitting on white patio furniture take my money in exchange for the 50/50. I’m allowed to pick from which colour book I want, pink and blue for me. Next up is the lady selling the end of season draw tickets, where there is a chance to win some big money as well as “vouchers for a meal out” or if I’m really lucky I might be able to “get my nails done”.

A single HYU flag hangs from the fence behind one goal, a fence that separates the nearby flats and the ground. So close are the windows, that one flick of the curtain and you would have a grandstand view. The names of the HYU players are followed by a “wey” by the small but animated bunch of visiting fans standing in front of the flag.

There is a slight haze hanging over the pitch. Has the announcer who is clearly one for a bit of the dramatics released a suitable blast of dry ice or was it as Tom claims, “that was me” and it’s his sour cherry vape smoke making things a bit murky.

“Is this all you get at home?” ask the HYU fans. When the reply is less than forthcoming they ask “is this a library?”. Considering how many people surround the pitch a steady uninterrupted line of onlookers, the mini metal terrace looking close to full, it must be one of the highest attendances we’ve seen all season, and certainly for a night game.

Eventually the busy covered stand comes to life, “come on Rushden, come on Rushden” one person at its very back, standing in near darkness, bangs the metal stand of extra noise. They remind the noisy visitors that as it stands “we are top of the league”.

On the pitch there is a brief outburst from a few players from each team, “lets start fucking well lads” shouts one AFC player, “come on boys” shouts a less sweary HYU player.

It’s the AFC fans turn to ask something, “can you hear the Hayes boys sing?” and just like their counterparts at the other end had, they follow one question with another, “whats it like to see a crowd?”. The HYU fans refute the claim they are being quiet, suggesting in reply it is them “making all the noise”.

It’s quite a manic opening fifteen minutes, the ball changing possession seemingly with every pass or should I say attempted one, but there is little to nothing as far as actual goal threats are concerned. AFC’s early sloppiness, a feature of their whole evening inspires the latest HFU song, “top of the league you’re having a laugh”.

Once again this season we are in the presence of a very noisy keeper. The HYU stopper in his all purple kit makes up for his small stature, with his big voice. So numerous are his shouts and instructions, that they quickly start to just sound like noises, a succession of grunt and yelps, that has not been lost on one AFC fan. “Understood that” shouts the fan when the HYU keeper says something that actually makes sense.

For a once league club, I guess it should not be a great surprise of the following they have, it really is an impressive turnout. Their loudest song of the night “come on you whites” is followed by a few shouts of “you whites”, “you whites” from different fans.DSC_0086

The HYU supporters are certainly outnumbered, but continue to give a good account of themselves, “we’ve got more flags than you”. AFC’s singing is sporadic, it even gets a little quiet, as Tom comments it’s just “murmurs from the crowd” and the inquisitive visiting fans ask AFC’s, “where” their “famous atmosphere” is, but not before informing us all of the extent that they are willing to go to follow their team “over land and sea” and “Uxbridge”.

There are the occasional flashes of activity on the pitch, much like in the crowd, “we’re the white and blue army” sing the AFC fans, who stop and fall quiet just as quickly as they start. Their number 10 has caught Tom’s eye “he’s got magic in his boots” he says, as he repeatedly shows good touches and a bit of flair, but nothing yet to fashion a real attempt on goal.

“Think I should get in the burger queue” ponders Tom, it’s over twenty minutes to the break, but such are the numbers here, and it’s a tight ground, not a huge amount of room, he is getting a little anxious about getting near the food.

AFC’s number 10, proves with some dogged determination, that Tom is justified when he shouts “told ya” in my ear. Then like someone who runs a Klondike he reiterates his previous point “magic in them boots”. Somehow after slipping and with the overly close attention of his marker, he still manages to keep possession and continue forward. However like so much of AFC’s play in the final third it really comes to nothing.

Finally a shot, a low driven shot that stings the palms of the AFC keeper.

“Off, off, off” are the shouts of the AFC fans, when one of their players is flattened by a rather crude tackle. The referee deemed it a fair challenge, and awarded a corner. “This guy’s a comedian” says an astonished AFC player.

The home team have plenty of possession, but the same flaw continues to haunt them. They have numerous prolonged periods with the ball, passing it around the edge of the HYU box, probing for an opening. On one occasion when the ball is passed to their roaming number five. A centre back not afraid to charge forward and ping balls all over the place. The quite simple pass, rolls over his foot and goes out, he looks mortified, Tom leans over and whispers in my ear “no magic in those boots”.

“He headed it the wrong way” exclaims Tom, when AFC maybe go the closest to getting something on target. A match of header ping pong breaks out in the HYU box, but the final touch instead of going goal wards, somehow goes in the opposite direction.

It finally dawns on me, with just over five minutes of the half to go, who the HYU keeper reminds me of. The mixture of he hairstyle and the short stature, makes me sure he’s got a bit of the Griezmann about him, Tom is far from convinced.

“Ohhhhh”” gasp the AFC supporters, breaking their near silence in response to HYU going close to taking the lead late in the half. Right in front of the away fans, they ask again if this “is a library”, then start singing “oh when the Hayes go marching in”. They quieten ever so slightly when one player makes a wild attempt at a volley, that goes close to breaking a window of the flats behind the goal.

A passing car beeping its horn, may have been a coincidence, but it stirs AFC fans from their malaise, “come on Diamonds”. For them though their team are giving them little to sing about, for a countless time a good move is undone by a rushed final pass and HYU are looking more and more to capitalise on their mistakes with fast counterattacks, which only encourages their fans “we are the Hayes, we are the Hayes”.

Since the start, to me at least, it has felt like AFC were always going to shoot themselves in the foot somehow, that their propensity to give the ball away would come back to haunt them, on forty four minutes, that’s exactly what happened.

DSC_0233HYU’s goal that sends its scorer and most of the team haring off into the crowd, leaping on their fans, doesn’t come directly from a mistake per se, more a lack of decisiveness in defence. Having plenty of opportunities to get rid of the ball and there for the danger, instead they hesitate. HYU win it back, and take the lead.

There is never a great time to concede, regardless of what someone on the Match of the Day panel might say, but so close to half time, always feels that little bit worse. The fans attempt to rouse the players for the final minutes, “come on Rushden, come on Rushden”. However it’s the HYU supporters who are the loudest as the players walk in, “super Hayes”.

Finally the moment I’ve been waiting for, the thing that has got me through a relatively ordinary first half, the 50/50 draw. “Blue ticket” says the voice over the PA, yes, I have one of them. A prize of “£85”, yes, I would be more than happy to take that home. Ticket number “584”, no, that’s not me, fuck it.

Just to rub it in, a man with a much smaller and more mobile whiteboard than the one outside the food bar, its walking around the pitch with the winning number on.

“They deserve to be one up, fair reflection of the performance” says one AFC fan to another, reflecting on the first half. He is quite right that when he adds that HYU just looked a “yard faster” than AFC, but powered by the eternal optimism all football fans possess, in varying degrees of course, he makes sure his “fingers are crossed” as “you never know”.

All that remains in the yellow polystyrene box that once contained the 1/4 lb Diamond Burger with bacon Tom has already finished, is a small bit of rind and a couple of chips, “double fried” ones at that. The noise as he sits down is enough to tell me he enjoyed it, a slow exhale of air. “Glad I didn’t go for the Belly Buster” he says, struggling to get his words out, his entire being concentrating on digesting what he calls the “best burger at football ever”.

Tom is not a person to throw this kind of accolade around willy nilly, this is serious stuff, as he puts it, the man who made it, “knows how to make a burger”. High praise indeed from the André Michelin of the non league food world.

“Come on Rushden” shout the fans, in response to their teams early pressure. HYU’s small group now occupy the mini metal stand, with no space to hang their flag, it is now draped over the hoarding around the pitch. AFC supporters now fill the narrow strip behind the other goal and their noise reflects their teams good start, “you whites, you whites, you whites”.

AFC have a big shout for a penalty turned down, “handball” is the collective cry, nope, just a corner according to the referee, who is starting to come in for some stick, “you’re having a blinder ref”. The resulting corner is played short and almost came to something, the ball ricocheting around the box, but just doesn’t fall to a home player and is hoofed clear.

“Dear oh dear” says a nearby AFC fan, as the mood turns a bit, and the supporters are really starting to grumble. One is far from impressed by one of his players decision making, “that’s silly, absolute lunacy”. AFC just continue to get sloppier and sloppier.

Every AFC attack is coming down their right side, their number 7 the main outlet, and they put together a few nice moves to release him down the wing, but he epitomises his whole teams performance. In bags of space, he chooses to cross first time, instead of taking a much needed extra touch and composing himself.

There is a hush as one AFC player prepares to take a corner. The shouty keeper looks to me to have fumbled his attempt to claim it, the referee thinks he’s been fouled. If I’m honest the man in goal looked to make the most of the very minimal contact and one AFC fan lets him know that, “you cheeky sod” he barks angrily.

IMG_20180320_213612Fifteen minutes to go, the tension amongst the home fans is palpable, many continue to show their displeasure at their teams complete inability to complete a pass. As Tom puts it HYU look to “want it more” they are more “up for it”. AFC’s fans are given a thin sliver of hope, when a shot cannons back off the foot of the post. “Come on Rushden, come on Rusden” they sing, at least they got off a shot this time, attempts on goal have been few and far between all match.

The home end is very quiet, I’m not sure the away end has ever been less than a bit rowdy all game. The one thing that both sets of supporters have in common, is their growing dislike of the referee. “You don’t know what you’re doing” chant the HYU fans.

Tom thinks the visitors have come with a concise “game plan” and have so far executed it very well. They have been compact and break quickly. Not to want to bang on about it, but nothing has changed much as far as AFC are convinced, is has not been the performance of a team at the top of the table, and the HYU fans let them know that, “you’re not very good, you’re not very good”.

A late HYU break, sees the ball fizzed across the AFC box, and is just about cleared. Watching their team almost go further behind, doesn’t dampen spirits further, but has quite the opposite effect. For the first time in a long time, the fans are well and truly going for it, “come on Rushden, come on Rushden”.

Everyone thought that was it, everyone, every single fan of either team, every player, both benches, everyone thought that was the equalizer, however the HYU keeper who is by no way a tall and imposing one, somehow, pulled off a point blank save, stopping a top corner bound header.

It was one of those saves where time stops still, he seemed to hang in the hair, the ball by the looks of it already behind him, but he manages to claw it out. “Come on boys” screams one HYU player, knowing full well that luck might just be on their side tonight.

The remarkable save inspires an AFC siege, “Rushden, Rushden”, this though does not perturb the HYU fans who been treated to little or no action at their end, but still keep going, “we are Hayes, we are Hayes”. One AFC player hits a low pile driver of a shot just wide. With the traffic going only one way, they win what looks like a dubious free kick, the HYU player who supposedly gave the foul away can’t believe it. In absolute shock at the decision, he falls to his knees and repeatedly punches the floor.

“That was never a foul, not in a million years” says one AFC fan, when they are awarded another suspicious free kick dead centre in front of goal, just outside the box. Last chance to get a shot on goal. Nope, comes to nothing. They win another one, in almost exactly the same place. “This is it then” says the man from the shop, this is the last bite at the cherry, but again they just can’t make it count.

“If only it was like this in the first half” says the man from the shop, after watching the second well placed set piece come to nothing. If only AFC had shown the same desire for the first eighty minutes, that they had for the final ten.

HYU bobble a shot just wide, a two goal margin would have maybe flattered them a little.“We love you Hayes we do, we love you Hayes you do” sing 5the HYU supporters, who are almost exclusively making all the noise now. With a few people starting to make off, they sing the age old, “is there a fire drill”.

There is a team huddle, and plenty of high fives for each other from the HYU players on the pitch. The goal scorer does a celebratory knee slide in front of the still singing and applauding fans.

DSC_0320Favourite bit of Toms night, hands down the burger, favourite bit of my night Tom telling me about the HYU player slipping over on a celebrating fans programme that flew onto the pitch, following the HYU goal. Handing it back to the fan who had lost it, the number ten had a face like thunder, that could have killed, he was not impressed.

I imagine its not really important where AFC play, if they stay at Hayden Road for the next two or ten

seasons its not important, maybe they will go back to their old home, that John said was only “three miles” away, and is still awaiting development to this day, its the ethos and heart of the people running the club who make it hands down one of the nicest we have ever visited. Not the bricks and mortar.

Tom said to me within ten minutes of arriving, “community”. That sense of spirit that maybe only fan ownership can give you, the likes of which we’ve felt in places like FC United of Manchester, is very special indeed.

Will AFC ever reach the climes that means some kid will be able to win the Premier League with them on Fifa again, who knows. However they seem to have stable and passionate foundation, that certainly means they are going to give it a good go trying to get there.

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