Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game end their non-league odyssey for the summer with a tense finale that leads to a promotion party.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
Have we made a wrong turning somewhere? Everything we’ve passed so far, are the same things we always pass when making our way to south west London, a busy Kew Gardens with bustling queues of horticulturally minded people, the “time travel tea room” that Tom always points out and sunny Richmond, but when we see a sign for “The Hamptons”, and as much as a day out in the upmarket Long Island community of the rich and famous would be, I do for a second wonder if my already unreliable Sat Nav has finally given up the ghost.
South west London’s suburbs seem to be gleaming even more than usual today, there is something about this neck of the woods, that regardless of the weather, it always looks highly polished. Nestled at the end of one of its cul de sacs, not far from the Thames, its presence only signified by an understated sign above a red brick wall, is the Beveree, home of Hampton & Richmond Borough FC (HB).
Stuck to the front of the aforementioned sign, along with the date and today’s fixture, is a single piece of A4 paper, on it in red it reads “GAME SOLD OUT”. These three words are about as common at a non league match as a full and comprehensive post match warm down, and rarely, and I mean rarely, certainly in our experience, they are only ever seen at this time of season.
“Mmmmmmm BBQ” says Tom, only having just stepped the other side of the blue iron gates to the ground. “We’ve got plenty of beer” says Rob, the HB head of media in his club tie, who informs us that today they have an “outside and inside bar” in preparation of the sell out crowd.
The charcoal of said BBQ, that Tom has already keanly sniffed out, is only smoldering, they as of yet are to take on the crucial shade of white, meaning its primed for cooking, “wonder when they will be ready?”. Such is our eager arrival time, although we are not the only ones, the entrance to pitchside is yet to be opened. It’s not a fence, gate or barrier stopping you, but two high viz wearing security guards, and one of those elasticated line devices commonly found near the till of your local department store.
For Rob, it’s his last day in his current role and what a way to see out his tenure than with a final, with a place in the National League, one promotion from the football league at stake. The enormity of the occasion is clearly written across his face.The “3,000” sell out crowd of course comes with its own responsibilities, but he admits with a sly grin on his face that the ground “will be bouncing” come kick off.
It is deceptively warm, not overly sunny, but still balmy. The ground still all but deserted, means I have the pick of places to sit, to take a moment to try and fathom how all those people are going to fit in to such a tight stadium. Surrounded by trees and nearby houses, so close are its neighbours that they don’t play music here on matchdays so as to not disturb them.
Around us the weather is discussed, as people offer familiar faces warm and nervous “hellos”. Most are more inclined to talk about the agreable climes, than to dwell on the gravity of the ninety minutes to come. Two of HB’s media team are in vastly differing states of mind. “I’m ok” says one, pointing to his colleague though, he is quite the opposite, “he’s lost his head, glad he’s not playing”. The weight of the occasion is clearly visible affecting him as he fidgets, quite unsure what to do with himself. He repeats over and over like some victim of shell shock the same fact about HB’s opponents today, “not conceded a goal in 453 mins”.
On the pitch and looking a lot less agitated, in their luminous orange fringed tracksuits, are what stand between HB and promotion, the players of Braintree Town FC (BT).
With more eyes on you than normal, this of course for the entrepreneurial minded out there, is a great opportunity to make a bit more money. One such way is sponsorship, not ball sponsorships as you sometimes see at games, that has been deemed “not allowed” by the league according to the moustache wearing man in the sharp grey suit, but the sponsorship of the “team sheet” which has been given the green light. Ingenious or a step too far?
It’s quite easy to distinguish a BT fan from a HB one. It’s the orange, the unmistakable and blinding orange of BT’s home kit. The newly arrived BT family, a Mum, Dad and child stick out like a sore thumb, such is the glare coming from the scarf hanging from her bag, and as more and more arrive, some sporting scratchy looking nylon wigs, they look like they could be used as some kind of road safety aid.
The blue container that passes as the club shop is suitably filled with all the necessary tat that one would expect. The large plush head of a hat wearing beaver, the first reference today to HB’s quite excellent nickname, in one corner, it’s large eyes looking up at me, mouth open showing off his prominent front teeth, is a little odd, but having been going to non league football as long as we have now, one becomes immune to such things.
“Golden goal, programme” calls the man in the blue and red striped scarf gently, in keeping with the genteel surroundings, no barrowboy bellowing here. It’s not from the shed that I pluck my tickets from the small white box from this time, like I did the last time we came here, two years ago, but from underneath a gleaming white gazebo, another new addition to the ground for the big day.
We’re both surprised to find a seat in one corner of the inside bar. Half of it has been carved up in anticipation of long queues, signs litter the wall saying things like pay here. Thankfully Tom is not long at the bar, he’s not been held up by the appearance of more people in bright orange wigs. While he was gone a family have taken up the spot next to us, the father in the green and white stripes of Real Betis not the blue and red of HB or the orange of BT.
Once settled, Tom poses what might be his most ridiculous question of the season.
“I wonder if Richard Hammond has been here?” he ponders because the bar we are currently in is called Hammonds Bar. It’s about now that part of me admitted to the rest of me that it’s quite happy that today is our last game of the season.
Thankfully Tom has bigger fish to fry than wondering too long if a non league football teams bar is named after Richard ‘The Hamster’ Hammond, and that’s filling his stomach.
“I’ve gotta eat, not running that gauntlet again”. Said “gauntlet” that Tom so poetically referenced, is the ‘not getting any food’ one. The use of the world “gauntlet” making the problem sound a lot more life and death then it actually is. After not managing to get a burger at King’s Lynn, because they had sold out, forcing him to get some chicken nuggets on the way home and forcing me to me to have to listen to him eating them, he is getting his food in early today.
Thankfully there is none of the melodrama we encountered in Norfolk, but as ever with Tom, he’s never happy. When I notice he has not got his usual side of chips he explains, “no chips, crisps, not the same”.
It’s interesting to say the least some of the faces that the HB fans have pull, in the moments after asking them how they think they will get on today. It’s a face somewhere between ‘I just don’t fucking know’ and ‘put me to sleep now and wake me up after its over, I just can’t bare it’.
Talking to one HB supporter in a flat cap and club scarf, who points out he is also is yet to “recover” from the “horrible” sunshine we were subjected to at the Semi-Final in Chelmsford, he makes the point that I think most of those that we’ve met today will agree with, “you just don’t know on the day”, and he’s not the first person to point out that thing called pressure, that can affect people in all sorts of ways, “people play differently”.
All the stewards, all the people, all the angst he is feeling, feels far too much like “proper football” which he admits is not what he “signed up for”.
Ninety minutes to kick off and there is already an excellent buzz about the place, the what for a better word, you could call a courtyard outside the Top Gear themed bar is quickly filling up, one of the programme sellers is doing rounds of the crowd selling them from out of a grey bucket and a solitary copper looks on, who as of yet has I’m sure, had nothing to do.
BT’s manager does what looks like the team sheet, crouched on the pitch, juggling between both hands a pen, a white polystyrene cup and his mobile.
“Think I went to the wrong place, they do chips” says Tom, when he notices the long line running down the side of the clubhouse, the small window at its head, doing frantic business. Many spots in the stands and covered terraces are steadily starting to be occupied.
There is much toing and froing being done by a multitude of people in different states of high viz dress. Those who are what you might say more senior, those with headsets look calm, those a little further down the pecking order, hired for the day I imagine look a little bit like fish out of water.
I overhear a crackled message over one nearby walkie talkie, that sends the stewards into overdrive, “road blocked outside”, another message flashes over the network, “Braintree have arrived, four coaches, request more stewards”.
None of the chatter among those in charge with keeping a lid on any over excited fans today, is to do with what I have been told by a few people already, is the imminent arrival of the unified world heavyweight champion, Anthony Joshua.
Dan one of the newly arrived BT fans, who is not wearing a wig, although more and more of them are, the Essex wig stocks must be nigh on depleted by now, has a drum instead. He is “surprised” the ground has not been “segregated”, he tells me if it had been “at our ground, it would have”.
The sun does its best to poke out from behind the clouds, but quickly pokes back in again. We are treated to our first announcement over the PA “good afternoon and welcome to The Accord Beveree Stadium”. A passing car beeps its horn in support and in the distance I can make out faint chanting, “making all the noise” I suspect it’s some approaching BT fans, but I can’t be sure
I wish I didn’t have my sodding jumper with me, with the sun now insisting on sticking around, I’m far too bloody warm.
“Who are ya, who are ya?” ask some of the BT fans whose number since the panicked message about the four coaches, has increased dramatically, in response to the first low and slow rendition of everyone’s family friendly, but also a bit smutty chant, if you are that way inclined, of “beavers, beavers, beavers”.
Dans drum gets its first outing as do a couple of orange balloons, that bob about in the terrace by the corner flag, where the majority of the BT fans now stand, as the BT players arrive for their warm up. ”I feel like there is more of them, than there is of us” says one nearby HB supporter, talking about the orange invasion, that has somewhat taken over this quiet corner of South West London.
There is more talk of AJ, “he’s been seen in the local area” says one person. Discussion of the apparent sighting of who is no doubt a pretty major sporting star, soon fades away, as the home team appear from the white extendable tunnel, the action of which is not dissimilar to that of the Alien Queens mouth from the Ridley Scott sci fi franchise. “Come on boys” shout the fans, as a ripple of applause quickly spreads around the ground.
“Sorry to be repetitive” says the apologetic voice over the PA, who retireates once again that there is to be no alcohol “in sight of the pitch”.
It’s hard to miss the HB unit, that is their Predator sized and Predator hair do wearing forward warming up. In the distance I can continue to hear the chanting, but its not getting any closer, I was expecting some sudden, flare waving influx of BT supporters, some great dramatic entrance, but it has yet to materialise. I do though notice the arrival of the once chief executive of the FA Brian Barwick, slinking up to the board room.
Forty minutes to go and both small all seater stands are all but full. A young boy on a scouting mission has to break the bad news to his Dad, “only one seat left”, Dad looks pissed. A BT fan is brandishing a tiny home made sign, which I can just about make out says “come on you iron”. There is even more talk about AJ, some people seemingly more pumped about the possibility of seeing him, than the game, “is he here yet?”
Some kids in front of us practice how they are going to get over the fence come the full time whistle. After much deliberation they have concluded that its a bit too high for a leg up, and if push comes to shove, they can just “roll over” it.
With still thirty minutes to kick off, one nearby HB fans tells his friend that the ground is the “most packed I’ve ever seen it”. A boy and girl both wearing orange and white checkered flags like capes pass us, as does a Sky Sport News presenter, with no cape, but that smarmy look on his face as they all seem to have.
The distant singing is finally getting louder, there are even more orange wigs, as well as people carrying inflatable palm trees one of them in a bright orange bowler hat. The voice over the PA is soon back again, “hello to those who have arrived since my last announcement. Still waiting on the team, so can’t give you them”.
Tom is almost smug about his decision to have eaten when we did, there is according to him a “cat in hells chance” of getting anything now he says, the crowd now at a point where you really have to negotiate your way through it.
The covered terrace to our left is now a sea of orange, with people wearing big orange glasses, orange hats, garlands of fake orange flowers around their neck. “Iron, iron” they sing, not because of their resemblance to the famous Scottish drink, but because of the clubs origins as a works team for a steel framed window company. When the PA checks in again, this time with the teams, he reads out BT first who as he points out are “all in orange, you can’t miss them”
Dan on his drum, who admitted to being “very, very nervous” can be heard even more frequently now. Whenever he starts to hammer out a beat, the fans around him start to sing, the HB fans near us, piggy back it and sing their own song to the same tune, “Hampton, Hampton”.
When it’s the turn to read out the names of those starting for the “beavers” the voice describes their kits colours too, just like BT. The visiting fans do their best to drown him out with another, not related to scottish fizzy drink chant of, “iron, iron”.
The singing HB fans around us on the small section of uncovered steps behind the goal, below the balcony of the boardroom, are significantly outnumbered by those in orange, but still, just like they did then they were vastly outnumbered at Chelmsford, hold their own.
“We are going up” sing the ever swelling numbers to our left. Both sets of fans join together for one song, about a common enemy. Local rivals for BT, recent foe for HB, “we all hate Chelmsford clap your hands”. The BT supporters then emphasizes that rivalry with their next song, “we’re all having a party, because Chelmsford fucked it up”.
The elderly female HB fan with the homemade paper mache, sellotape covered megaphone, is going to struggle to be heard above the constant barrage of songs coming from both sets of fans. The drum is now a constant, somewhere deep inside the mass of BT supporters, Dan continues to bash away, “town army, town army”. The relatively young age of those around us, is soon picked up on by the HB fans, “you’re going back to school on Monday”. One HB supporter takes instant umbridge to this slur, I’m not sure why, I’m pretty sure he was just talking about his GCSEs, he fires back with “go claim your pensions you old fucks”.
It’s hard to argue with the claim that its the “Braintree boys making all the noise” in the moments running up to kick off, or at least what we thought was kick off, there has just been an announcement that the games start will be delayed ten minutes. Although the home fans are signing, “who to be a beaver”, one new arrival with a flag over his shoulder boosts the noise levels a bit, they are lacking a bit of that oomph they had at the Semi-Final.
With all the necessary Vanarama paraphernalia now out on the pitch, this game is about to begin.
I can barely hear myself think in the seconds following the appearance of the players. The PA’s description of the kits was only half right, BT are playing in white, but still have orange shorts on. A couple of streamers enter the pitch thrown by the BT fans, and its inflatable mayhem, more trees have appeared and someone has those stick clacker things they give out at Leicester City.
It’s the HB fans who have to make the mad dash to other end of the pitch, the BT fans foresight and good luck to make camp on the terrace has paid off. They are able to continue as they were “iron, iron”. The HB fans have to battle past the pitch side crowds, but not before a quick rendition of a song they always sing about a “magic hat”.
“Get behind your teams and come on you beavers” says the voice over the PA excitedly, finally able to talk to us about as he put it, something other than “housekeeping” and public information announcements.
Its BT who have the first crack at goal, admittedly a half hearted one. “Can you hear the Hampton sing?” ask the BT fans following more deafening shouts of “iron, iron”. The HB supporters certainly look more unified all in one place now, but if I’m honest I can’t hear them sing. All I can hear are the BT supporters, singing one song after another, “you are my Braintree, my only Braintree”.
In a brief lull, just after I notice an inflatable banana doing the rounds among the BT fans, Tom disappointingly points out that as of yet there has been “no AJ” however he is still hopeful of an appearance, “maybe he’ll do the trophy”.
HB’s first attempt is a little wild, and not on target, the rash shot comes at the end of a counter attack, after a BT corner, and ends up in the tall oak tree behind the stand. However about three minutes later, with what is probably only their second time near the BT goal, HB take the lead.
“Yesssssss, yessssss” shouts a HB fan who had not joined the migration to the other end, where a red smoke bomb is now billowing from the edge of the pitch, and the players have raced off to the side of the pitch to celebrate.
The response to going behind from the BT fans is almost instantaneous, “iron, iron, iron” and once the game has restarted, the players are back at it too, not seemingly too affected by conceding, quickly attacking down the wing, and winning a corner. The morale of the fans has far from been affected, if anything they are encouraged to sing even louder, “come on Braintree”, and one person has decided that now is as good a time as any, to blow up and chuck around a large inflatable football.
BT are big and physical, HB simply are not. The HB fan in the flat cap made the point before that they, and I tend to agree, “rode their luck in the semi”, and even though they are ahead, BT look far more convincing.
Now I get it, it can take me a while to cotton on to things sometimes, but now I understand the relevance of the trees, and the accompanying song of “we’ve brought a tree”, its because they are called Brain-tree. It’s almost, but not as good as the Tranmere fans all with melons at Wembley last
season, because their manager is called Micky Mellon.
Another slight respite in the BT fans noise, means I can hear the occasional balloon being popped and the HB supporters, who feel a very long way away, banging the stand “who to be a beaver”. With fifteen minutes gone, there are still lots of people moving about, “late comers” Tom suggests. BT again flex their muscles on the pitch when the attacker shrugs off his defender with ease, bearing down on goal, he hasn’t yet though seen the flag up for off side.
HB certainly look a lot better than they did in the semi-final, they could have been about three goals behind in the first ten minutes at the Melbourne Stadium. What they lack in brawn, they definitely make up in brains, showing off a few nifty touches and moves to get in good positions. One players turn, loses three markers in a flash, and his subsequent slide rule pass, has just a bit too much on it, the player who was inches away from getting on the end of, knew they were on to a good thing. He raises his thumb in recognition of the quick thinking.
The particularly dense clump of orange wigs to our right, who are all wearing matching play-off Final t-shirts too, join in the latest round of “iron, iron”, watching on as their team have what is probably their best attack since going behind, with about twenty minutes ago. The BT pressure continues to build as they go close again not long after, a low curled attempt is just blocked.
Bizarrely though, the woman next to me wearing a hands free kit, is celebrating, when no goals have been scored. Apparently there is another match, somewhere else in the country which is holding 50% of her attention.
“Get hold of it, get it down” demands one of the orange wig gang. His team do just that, going close for a third time in a matter of minutes. A super cross is perfectly placed for the player in middle of the six yard box to head home, somehow though the straining HB defender, who didn’t look like he had enough spring to reach it to head it clear, does, just.
With the break edging ever closer, the pace final ten minutes certainly accelerates. Shouts of “cheat, cheat” rings out from the BT fans when a foul is given in favour of the HB keeper whose poor attempt to punch, where he just jumped on a team mate then fell on the floor, is deemed a foul, as Tom put it, “he just missed it”.
HB’s number 10 is certainly looking the liveliest of the HB team, he is able to turn on a sixpence, doing so twice in quick succession, one allows him to send a good ball down the wing, the second he does not far outside the box, this time he unleashes a shot, that sails just wide.
I do wish people would stop popping those balloons, they don’t half make me jump.
“Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning” suggest the BT fans, to the HB ones, who I don’t think are even singing. In fact I’m not sure anyone is for the first time today. The BT fans around us are starting to grumble a bit, “get it on the deck” one demands, it has got mighty hoofy out there. They have good moments of build up play, but the passing is loose at times, much to the annoyance of the fans, “get hold of it”.
On the stroke of half time, the game is all square. Again a well placed cross, they have looked threatening all game from wide areas, finally pays off, and is nodded home from close range. Off heads the scorer, arms outstretched by his side, straight towards the BT fans, followed by his teammates.
“We know who we are, a pub team from Essex, we know who we are” sing the BT fans as the players head in. Those HB supporters already up this end, crowd either side of the tunnel, offering encouragement to the departing players, “come on beavers, come on”.
There is a monumental change of ends by the crowd, it’s almost biblical. Each set of supporters pack up their worldly possessions, their inflatables in the case of the BT fans, and head to the opposite end of the ground. Maybe some will take the opportunity to get a tea or coffee from the “tuck shop” that the voice over the PA has just informed us all is open.
The sun thankfully is currently behind some clouds, and there is a much welcomed breeze. Now with a little bit of room, I’m able to sit down for a moment, where I am able to listen to a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the first half from a couple of HB fans.
“We invited it on ourselves, just sitting back” says one about the goal. “We don’t generally concede lots of goal, but the ones we do are never well crafted”, replies another. The feeling from them all is that their team just didn’t do enough, they “switched off”, when it came to trying to prevent the goal. One felt they had “half a dozen” opportunities to stop the goal “happening” but they didn’t take any of them, “we’re not asserting ourselves”.
One of the fans though is pragmatic, “back to where we were at kick off”, one well let’s say isn’t, “they’re going to go in buzzing, we’re going in crushed”.
The sun is back out, Spurs are losing to Leicester and the old lady with the homemade megaphone is back. It’s pretty slow going for anyone trying to move about, there really is no space to move, no space to swing a cat, or even a beaver.
Once again the tunnel is manhandled into place. Gone are all the orange wigs, back are the young cohorts of a HB persuasion, “beavers, beavers” they sing. BT huddle just before kick off, HB do what can only be described as the hokey cokey.
It is an absolute solid bar of orange contained within the small covered terrace at the opposite end of the pitch, they’re still signing, “everywhere we go” but are not as intrusive on ones eardrums now. That is now the job of the small band around us, who it might just be me, are struggling to get into the swing of things. “La, la, la, la, Hampton” they attempt, but its lacking some of that energy we’ve come to know of them.
Late comers with burgers have missed the restart and are streaming past us, looking for a place to stand. The man next to me has taken it upon himself to single handedly berate the nearby linesman, “fuck off back to Cornwall” he screams. His thought process behind him giving an offside, when he didn’t think it was, is because the assistant is “probably from Truro” who HB “knocked out” during their run to the Final.
“Let’s get some fucking possesion” is the consensus of the HB supporters. They haven’t really got going in the new half, in fact the first fifteen minutes have been a little bit stagnant, HB scrappy, BT solid. One fan with plenty of the game left to play and things all level, is already contemplating the worst, “I’m pro promotion” he says, his friend glares back at him, I think already knowing what he is about to say next “but it’s not the end of the world” if they don’t go up.
When the HB fans are told off for banging on the wall of the boardroom, their second half replacement for the hoarding, this does not go down well. “National League officials having their prawn sandwiches” shouts one in reply petulantly, like Rick from the Young Ones. This only adds to their general bad mood, as they had before been told they were not allowed to hang their flag from the balcony above us, as they normally would.
“Sing up Hampton, sing up Hampton” asks one HB fan behind us, standing on the final railing of the terrace, he waves his arms towards his fellow fans, trying to get a response. The megaphone lady is doing her bit, only now do I realise in her other hand she is holding a tiny stuffed beaver.
As far as the game is concerned, there is very little to report. There is a brief and collective intake of breath, which is held, but then quickly exhaled by the HB fans who think they may have just given away a penalty. BT then have a pop at goal, which is way over and gets a sarcastic “weyyyyyyyy”.
The main focus of one supporter, is not on the game, but at getting some kind of noise from the “fucking 3,000 of you, lets fucking hear you then”. This Churchillian rallying address gets a whole
string of songs “if you don’t do the bouncy bouncy you’re from Staines” which is then followed by the whole terrace pogoing, no-one wants to be tarred with that brush. “AFC Wimbledon we’re coming for you” didn’t know there was beef between the two clubs, and “Alan Dowson’s red and blue army” aimed at their always animated, bald headed manager.
Half an hour gone, and I’m just going to say it, the game has gone a bit shit. The HB fans are so preoccupied singing about arson, it’s all gone very Marshall Mathers, “one man and his petrol can, went to burn down Staines”, I’m not sure they have noticed.
HB are so deep, they almost concede from a shot that is blocked on the line, following a bit of a goalmouth scramble after a freekick. “I’ve not seen us have a chance since we scored” says a concerned HB fan quietly to the one next to him.
“Roll him off, roll him off, dig a grave, dig a grave” sings one particularly exasperated HB fan towards a supposedly injured BT player, tantalisingly close to the edge of the pitch, who insists he needs treatment, and can’t scooch the few feet off the pitch to allow play to continue. His decision to play possum is greeted with more disdain, so much so that one person just yells “generic football shouting” so on the face of things, they look like they’re taking part.
Into the last quarter of an hour, HB have a long range effort which is jeered by their own fans until one realizes, “to be fair isn’t that our first shot of the half?”. In the distance I can hear the faint rumble of the BT drum, a bit closer to home and one person chucks his accumulator betting slip on the pitch, “fuck off Chelsea” he shouts as he does so.
HB’s hot headed keeper, who displayed his penchant for unnecessarily rushing out of goal in the semi-final, does it once again, it almost looks like he is wrestling with the BT forward, it looks for a moment as though he has yanked him to the floor. The ball is loose and falls to a BT player who attempts a shot at the now empty net, only for one HB player to be covering the line.
This calls for the introduction of the HB Predator, the unit, someone as he did in the semi-final, who is able to hold up the ball.
The HB fans are pensive, one has even resorted to calling the referee a “fucking wet wipe” such is his delirium. “Come on Hampton sing up” demands the same fan who has been trying all game to rouse the supporters, in response to more digs of “can you hear the Hampton sing?” from the BT fans.
Less than ten to go and BT win a free kick just outside the HB box. “They better not fucking score this” says one fan, they don’t, it’s straight into the hands of the HB keeper who initiates a counterattack. Which as with most moves, breaks down in midfield, the game has officially becoming a bit of a slog, neither team really doing much up front.
I feel a few spots of rain on my face, but it doesn’t last for long. “Ref they’re taking the piss out of you” shouts one person, when the Predator is deemed to have fouled his marker, I think he was just showing off a bit of his trademark upper body strength.
“We’re sitting too deep” laments one HB supporter. I’m sure the BT fans can sense there is a chance they might just nick this in the final five minutes, they let out a rousing string of “iron, iron, iron” in anticipation. One of their orange streamers hangs from the goal in front of them, and one HB fan professes to needing “a piss” but doesnt wanna budge, because he doesn’t want to “miss a goal”.
The news that there will be five minutes of added time is greeted with one of the loudest chants of “beavers, beavers, beavers” of the day. HB players have come out of their shells a bit too, “good pressure, good pressure” mutters one fan, as his team look to be having one final hurrah.
Quite against the run of play, it’s all HB, “give us some magic” asks one supporter to a player.
“Dirty, dirty Essex” sing the fans now, following a BT foul on the edge of their box. “Come on score, it will be funny as fuck” snears one fan. “Ohhhhhh” they all cry at the attempt, but its not the winning goal. Admittedly it’s not been the most entertaining of games, but I think I would still rather just see out the final few minutes, then play slaps like the couple next to us.
Extra time it is, the voice on the PA reminds everyone that its an “offence to go on the playing surface” which is greeted with laughs, “like that’s going to stop anyone” points out one person. I take sit down among a sea of legs. The teen to my right leans over me, to talk to a friend about our video from the semi-final, unaware I’m right below him and his genitals are about an inch away from my face.
BT fans are staying put, the HB ones seem unsure what to do, eventually at the last minute they decide to swap ends, one staying behind points out it will take “fifteen minutes to get down there”. The PA once again tells all in attendance to “get behind the teams, come on beavers”.
An early BT chance sees many hands clasped to the back of heads, only for some relief when the keeper gets to the through ball before the attacker. “Thick fans throwing the ball back straight away” scorns one supporter, annoyed his fellow fans don’t have the nouse to slow the game down a bit.
“Come on Hampton, got to get back in this game” pleads one person, after BT flash a header wide and somehow, somehow miss a near open goal, following a superb lofted ball into the box, a neat turn, but the shots ends up in a nearby tree.
I’m nearly overcome by the pungent smell of someone’s nearby pickled onion Monster Munch, they however are not affecting the megaphone lady who continues to make her quiet offering to the atmosphere, stuffed toy still in hands.
In the next two minutes, are more chances on goal, then I think has been in the whole ninety minutes of regulation time. HB slide the ball to the back post, a scramble ensues in the box, for a moment it looks like they might poke home, but it ends up in the arms of the BT keerer, which is followed by shouts of “back pass” but the referee does not think so.
For a brief moment HB seem truly on top, for the first time since going ahead, only for BT to then go close themselves with a low bending shot that goes just wide of the foot of the post.
“Beavers, beavers” sing the home fans, truly unified for the first time today. HB then win a free kick in a good position, only for BT to win the ball back almost instantly, and it’s only the scything tackle of one player, that stops the rapid BT forward from getting closer to goal, who had just rode three challenges, before he was stopped.
“You are my Hampton” sings a child with a very odd voice, who is then joined by the adults. His face a picture, he turns to his dad pumping his fists, “I did it”.
Still no goals, the teams swap ends for the second half of extra time, “we always do better coming this way, we’re going to win this now” says one BT fan confidently. The PA just before the restart, for what must be the fourth time now, cheers on his team, “come on the beavers”.
The HB fans are back, the flag is back, it now dances over the heads of the people behind us. One supporter has taken off his scarf and is whirling it above his head, this is the kind of noise from these fans we expected, finally finding their voice, better late than never.
“BT look tired” says Tom, who doesn’t see this going any other way than penalties. I’m not so sure, HB might have just peaked at the right time.
Still not feeling like any call is going their way, the HB fans froth at the mouth, so angry at the ref. “He lives” one shouts after a downed BT player who let out the most agonising scream gets back up. “Fucking clown” is how one fan brands the referee.
He just can’t bare to watch a BT corner, so turns his back to the pitch, only turning back once it’s cleared. The other fans don’t have such worries, they are all going “bouncy, bouncy” again.
The half ends with late BT surge, “get into him” cries one person. There is one shout of “come on Hampton” so loud, one fan turns round in a near state of shock, patting her chest, implying the sheer volume of it nearly brought on a cardiac arrest.
Tom just shakes his head, BT were given the chance to win it on a plate, the ball across the area is not a difficult one to control, but the player on the edge of the six yard box fluffs his lines and will not be claiming the glory for himself.
Penalties it is.
“Sometimes you just don’t like football” says a nearby HB fan, the penalty takers decided, one person confirming that it will be your standard old school ABAB routine when it comes to the spot kicks, and not the new fangled swedish pop group “ABBA”.
“I’m actually going to die”, “I can’t watch” are just some of the murmured comments from those around us.
Both teams lineup, arms around each other on the halfway line, here we go.
The first HB penalty is hardly convincing, but he scores it, punching his fist to the crowd. BT’s first taker steps us, “I hope this goes in the river”, I’m not sure where it ended up, but it’s over, well over, HB ahead.
HB’s second is saved, by an ecstatic BT keeper, and BT’s second is put away, it’s all level.
Up steps the Predator, “keep it simple” suggests one supporter, it’s almost too simple, a bit lackluster the BT keeper almost getting a hand to it, but it squirms in.
“After two kicks its two all” says the voice over the PA.
BT score, and then its down to the HB number 10 who has been their stand out player of the match, there is some concern from those behind us about his record from the spot this season, and they have every right to be so, his kick heading towards the same spot on the river as the BT attempt earlier. He pulls his shirt up over his face, struggling to comprehend what has just happened.
BT score again, HB do too, probably their best penalty of the day, top right hand corner. It all comes down to this final kick for BT, score it and they are through.
We’d seen HB three times before today, every time they’d won, our good run comes to an end as the BT player dispatches his kick far out the reach of the HB keeper, wheeling away, the boos and jeers of the HB fans not enough to put him off. BT win, BT are promoted.
The BT fans unsurprisingly haven’t paid any attention to the words of the voice over the PA said about not going on the pitch, a tidal wave of orange soon breaks over the barrier and floods towards the players and coaches. The HB fans in a quiet state of shock, applaud their departing players, having to watch what might just be one of the toughest sights in football, someone celebrating a promotion on your own patch.
All the National League gubbins is set up for the awarding of the gleaming silver trophy, that bares a striking resemblance to the FA Cup. BT’s manger is in floods of tears, and the voice over the PA tries in vein to instruct the BT fans to get off the pitch, telling them the presentation can’t happen until they do so.
A fantastic display of sportsmanship is shown by some HB fans, who applaud the BT players after their quick sprint back to the changing room. The HB players stand by dejected, some embracing BT players, commiserating and congratulating offered by each in equal measure. They have to watch on as each BT player is called up one by one up to receive their medal, as the fans, who are not quite off the pitch sing once again, “we’re just a pub team from Essex”.
The slightly Orwellian animal farm figure of Barwick is quick to get out of the way, having just handed over the trophy to the BT manager and captain, the bottles of fizz are soon popped, one player has got far too enthusiastic and crashes through the new erected boards, tumbling to the floor. Trophy held aloft, it’s not the players turn to sing, “we are going up”.
Many selfies, many tears, many hugs and many more songs about how “shit” Chelmsford City are, follow. The kids with flags as capes zoom around the pitch, players embrace fans and family members. One BT coach is already thinking about the post match party, “Sugar Hut, what?”. As one BT fan also called Dan put it, not the drum carrying one, “we finished 6th, we finished 6th”, which in his eyes makes what they have just done, that little bit more unbelievable.
I’m fairly sure a few peoples attempts to get their picture of the winning team, who happily pose for their fans, were ruined by the half inflated palm trees floating about. However no-one is fussed, they’re all too busy shouting, “iron, iron, iron”.
For once it’s not the fact I didn’t win the golden goal that is the saddest part of the day, but seeing the
HB fans who we have got to know, simply because of the amount of times we’ve seen them play, just how gutted they were. That is not to say we are not delighted for the couple of BT supporters we have also come to know.
I’m sure there is a Game Of Thrones reference one could make about BT, one family from the much watched show I’m sure are known as ‘ironborn’, who come from the Iron Islands but frankly I’m too frazzled to make it. Anyway the words of a mother dragging her family home, who walk past us in the car, are much better than any poor attempt by me to knit together the world of dragons and white walkers and that of non league football.
The reason she gives to her protesting brood for why they were going home, was phenomenal, “we’re all hungry, and dad has had enough to drink’’.
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