Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continues their non-league odyssey, this time out venturing to a surprisingly sunny Kent.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
Although it’s nearly October, the sun is still packing a bit of a punch. My somewhat scorched right arm, that took a bit of a battering over the summer, that is currently hanging out the window of my car, is getting a bit of a late summer top up. The sky though looks anything but summery, all stirred up by the arrival of the latest named storm to hit our shores.
I catch a quick glimpse of the new Spurs stadium development over my shoulder, as I make my way to pick up Tom for a second time this week. Tottenham’s new ground, who knows what it will eventually be called, is sparkling and shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Far off in the distance, Canary Wharf and all its towering neighbours are cast in silhouette, shrouded in an ethereal haze.
Tom unlike me is not bare legged today. I am struggling with the notion that I won’t be able to wear shorts for much longer, so am still persisting with them, even though it’s getting to that time of year where all around the country, in houses the length and breadth of the land, people are wondering, shall we put the heating on?
“We’re driving away from the blue” points out Tom. The state of the clouds and their battleship colour only worsens as we get closer to our destination.
As concerned with the weather he is, tonight Tom has bigger problems, he’s “forgotten” his “nut bar”, which was the only thing that got him through our last trip out, due to the lack of food on offer at Newhaven FC. It is now imperative, the way he’s going on about it, his life might depend on it, that there is food available at this evenings ground. Even more so because earlier today, Tom gave blood and had to sit in his car after doing so for fifteen minutes, mainlining a can of Coke, because he felt well “wobbly”.
Big traffic holds up what until then had been quite speedy passage through Kent towards the coast. Eventually passing the incident, on the opposite side of the dual carriageway, there is no apparent reason why we have been sitting still for nearly twenty five minutes. The tailbacks caused by it, stretch on for what seems like miles, so far that people are walking about on the asphalt, doors are open, and people are on the phone explaining why they are going to be late home from work. One victim of the delay is the Margate FC team coach, “there goes the warm up” jokes Tom.
I thought it was going to be difficult to surpass Tom telling me I have “default hair” to cut, which I have taken as being a good thing, because no one wants simple hair, as the best thing that would happen tonight, but there is nothing quite like getting that first glimpse of the sea, and although it’s only brief, it currently sits at the top of today’s highlight reel.
It is almost straight away eclipsed by seeing a boat called Bonzo in someone’s driveway, as we get ever closer to The Belmont, home of Whitstable Town FC (WT), but not quite. “It’s amazing how grounds just pop up out of nowhere” says Tom as without little fanfare The Belmont makes itself known by its red fixtures board, with today’s opponents name scrawled in black marker pen below the homes teams.
Up the bumpy gravel drive, through the gate flying a quite minute Union Jack, we cross the empty car park and find a spot to park. “Those are some dark clouds” says Tom climbing out of the car, sounding like an extra from Twister.
There are non league grounds and then there are non league grounds, The Belmont falls into the latter, the kind of which that would grace a David Bauckham photo essay or a glossy coffee table book. Compact, tidy and on the face of it, it looks in great nick. It’s main feature, the main stand, with its corrugated slanted roof, the clubs name emblazoned across its front and red seats is a dazzler, along with the two small covered terraces behind each goal, it quickly catapults itself into the higher echelons, of the best we’ve visited.
I also like the juxtaposition between the quaint, with an the ultra modern, tower block looming over one of its corners. The large weeping willow thats long leafy tentacles almost dangle down over the pitch, and the hodge podge of flat roofed buildings that are scattered about, make for an eclectic mix.
“Ohhhhh I see ketchup bottles” bristles Tom, and thank fuck for that. It’s not taken long for his spidey senses to home in on the vast array of sauces, relishes and condiments, that wait for him on the small shelf outside Pat’s Pantry. I couldn’t have managed another day of puppy dogs eyes and self pity about the lack of chips or some such.
Things just get better and better when the door of the clubhouse is flung open and inside is what I would consider the archetypal clubhouse should look like. The blueprint for which all other non league clubhouses, should be modeled.
Slightly garish and ageing floral carpet. A small laminate dance floor, that in WT’s case might be the smallest stage ever. It’s no more than about six inches tall. Bow backed dark wooden chairs, sit around small wooden tables, and an arms length from the bar, the fruit machine does its best Blackpool impression. Last but not least and most importantly of all, the walls are covered in tatty and poorly hung pictures of the team the clubhouse serves, absolutely essential.
The presence of golden ceiling fans and the dancefloor makes Tom feel like he’s in “America” and that there is the high chance of a “hoedown” breaking out at any moment. This feeling is soon cut short by the barmaid precariously climbing on the furniture to turn the big TV on. Thankfully whatever provider they have, means they are unable to show the Inter vs Spurs game, which I’m recording at home, instead we get PSV’s visit to the Camp Nou, just in time for Messi to curl in a quite mercurial free kick.
We can be 100% sure we are very much in Blighty, and not Arkensaw, when Tom returns from the bar, the barmaid safely down from her balancing act, with a can of R Whites lemonade, and a pack of Golden Wonders crisps, that I last saw a pack of, circa, 1997 on a Scouts summer camp all while a mixture of Heart FM “baby don’t hurt me, no more” and the BT Sport commentary fills the airwaves.
The Golden Wonders were just a make weight, a bit of filler until Pats Pantry opened, however when it does, Tom informs me that he is “not hungry”, but I’m not having that. I’ve not been sitting here twitching the red plastic blinds to see if its open yet for him like a mentalist for nothing, listening to him repeat his new season mantra of the benefit of “eating early” at games. He’s going to get himself over there and order something, even if I have to march him over myself.
A number plate with “teas” on one side and “snacks” on the other, adorn the hatch doors of Pat’s Pantry, along with hand cut, neon paper star bursts, each with one of Pat’s specialties on it. Dished out in double time, snugly wrapped in a white paper napkin, nestled in a yellow polystyrene tray, Tom
wrestles with one of life’s great dilemas, burger sauce or burger relish?
He first reaches for the burger sauce, but changes his mind post pour, having noticed the relish, “spotted it out the corner of his eye” he explains. Sitting pitch side on one of the many commemorative benches that surround it, not the one dedicated to “The Major” no less, he’s careful not to spill one of the mountain of chips that rub shoulders with his burger, as he starts to tuck in.
Dua Lipa comes bursting over the PA as The Belmont wakes up, and the changeable day turns into a beauty of an evening. Tom is making steady work of his “nice chips”, as we watch a flock of birds, swoop and dive, above the pitch, as they prepare to roost. With the sun almost out of sight, its last rays turn the much clearer sky, a variety of blue and pinks.
At the very far end of the pitch, between us the players of both teams and the officials go through their warm ups, a man, watched on by his friend and a very fat dog, puts the finishing touches to hanging up his flags, one of which is more a banner than a flag, it must be at least fifteen foot long, it’s bright red, and reads “Playing Football The Porter Way”, Porter being the WT manager. The occasional gust of wind hampers his work, he struggles to keep the not inconsiderable sized flags at bay, the man with the fat dog just stands and watches, offering no help to his friend.
Among the jogging, squatting and lunging players, it’s almost impossible to miss the Haywards Heath Town FC (HH) number 9, or the “Unit” as Tom’s dubbed him, slowly going through his own genteel routine away from the bulk of the squad. “I hope he’s not injured” says Tom, the explanation perhaps for his solo workout. The chance of missing out on seeing such a force charge at the home defence tonight, is to much for Tom to bare.
The sky starts to turn again, and with it the wind picks up, sending the flags at times demented, it is though sufficiently clear enough to get a good view of the crescent moon hanging above the main stand. A warm and welcoming voice comes over the PA wishing everyone a “good evening” and the visiting team and fans a “safe trip home”.
Tom has his food, and I have my gambling. He at least has been able to satisfy his obsession today, while I’m still hanging on tenterhooks. I’ve been told that the club do a 50/50 but it’s not until moments before kick off, that I spot a man in a white shirt and club tie, holding a booklet of tickets, that I’m able to satisfy the monkey on my back.
Such is my fever that I’m sure I’ve pushed in front of a lovely looking couple in matching windbreakers, trying their luck too. I apologise, and take a step back. There is a brief polite off, where we each take turns in telling the other to go first, until I do just that, slinging the seller my £2 and securing my tickets.
I’m wracked with a slight sense of guilt, what if I’ve nabbed the winning tickets, what if they were going to use the money for charity or the animal sanctuary they run, instead of just spending it on M and M’s. I joke that I might have got the winners, but their reply makes me doubt they run an owl refuge at all, telling me with a frosty edge, that they’ll “come looking for me”, if they are.
Most of the people here, which is a fair amount, are gathered around the corner of the pitch where the clubhouse resides. A case of standing up, drink in hand, and rolling out the door, to the first available spot. Saying that though, there are little groups of twos and threes dotted all over the place and a good amount of the red seats in the stand are occupied too. Only two home fans as of yet have joined the flags behind the goal and the first shout from the crowd tonight is not that of a home supporter, but of an away one, “come on yellows”.
In keeping with the rest of The Belmont, it’s perhaps not be a huge shock that the changing room setup is a little unusual. Inside what I can only describe as what looks like a Hobbits cottage, the Unit having to stoop quite considerably, almost in half, to get through the door, they are snug to say the least, there is also no tunnel, there is no walk out per se. The referees assistants are in full view of the crowd, as they knock on the doors of them, the players stepping out directly on to the side of the pitch.
Like the massed ranks of some Napoleonic army, both teams line up not in traditional formation, one behind the other, but instead are stretched out shoulder to shoulder, a single man deep, as they cross the pitch. Adopting a slow and methodical pace, it’s only when they reach the other side of the pitch, do they form up single file, to perform the customary hand shake.
We are both delighted to see that the Unit is one of those players making the plodding walk across the pitch, and three minutes into the game he shows off the prime reason he is here, towering for what will not be be the first time tonight above the WT defence, he flicks on the long ball directed at him, climbing into the air much higher, than any of those around him. “He’s going to be trouble” says Tom gleefully.
The first song from the home fans, comes from the supporters behind the goal, whose numbers have swelled since kick off. Their singing though is a little disjointed and I can’t make out what they are saying. Tom is not troubling himself with trying to work out the lyrics to the distant chanting, he’s far too busy marveling at the “Wheres Wally socks” of WT.
I soon find I’m the distracted one, and I only half hear the shout of “come on you reds” from a home fan close by, because I’m concentrating on the instructions being dished out from the WT bench. “Bits, bits” he says over and over. Before our last game at Newhaven I’d never heard this expression, but it is clearly spreading through non league like wildfire, and I’ve still no idea what it means.
For what will not be the last time tonight, WT’s manager, Porter is bellowing at his players. The match is a bit stop start in the opening ten minutes, mainly down to a succession of hoofed clearances that see the ball clear the ground, requiring someone to scramble to find a replacement. “Get in front of the big fella” demands Porter, his players as of yet unable to get to grips with the Unit who is an absolute ball magnet.
I can barely hear anymore what has been since opening the constant sizzle of Pat’s Pantry, over the constant screams and shouts of Porter, who along with his assistant are kicking and heading every ball. With just under a quarter of an hour gone, the Unit gets his first attempt on goal, it will not come as a shock when I tell you it’s a header, but its straight into the arms of the keeper. Two minutes later, he wins another aerial duel, flicking the ball on, but it dawns on me, he can win every ball going, but if his flicks and knockdowns are not really of any benefit to his teammates, then what’s the point.
The singers by the flags strike up again, I still can’t make out what they are saying, but I recognise the tune, it’s Sloop John B. Their next song is clearer, “oh Whitstable is wonderful, it’s full of cockles, mussels and oysters”, but it’s still a little, let’s say woolly, Tom a little less diplomatic, holds no punches, “they sound battered”.
It’s certainly been an intriguing first twenty minutes, fast paced and end to end, but with little final product from either team. There is thankfully plenty else to make up for the lack of goals, like the smooth as silk Irish accent of one HH defender, whose compliments to his teammates, “good kid” and “big man” almost sound like chat up lines and the singers are finding their voice more and more,
this time slagging off local rivals Herne Bay.
Although the pace inevitably starts to wane, the noise level and regularity of Porters shouts do not, “we are so fucking off the pace it’s unreal” he tells his players. “He’s going to have a heart attack” says a concerned Tom. Such is the level of his rage, that after nearly thirty minutes of non stop barking, the referee finds it necessary to have a word, “you’ve got two options, keep your opinions to yourself or you’ll be going”. Even as the referee walks back to restart the game, WT having been awarded a free kick, which brought on much sarcastic applause from the bench and home crowd, they don’t feel things have been going their way so far, he can’t help himself but have the last world “your missus must love Tuesdays, when you’re not home”, he says to the man in charge.
Still no goals, but still plenty to keep us captivated. One HH player makes an attempt at as Tom puts it an “ambitious” long range dropping volley. The fact his defense allowed the HH player enough time on the edge of the box, to take the shot annoys Porter to say the least, “embarrassing at times” he moans. HH go much closer not long after, when they flash a header wide.
It’s taken WT over half an hour to craft their best chace of the match, quick passing gets them in the box, but the final ball can’t find the intended player.
There is a neon glow from the home dugout, as they prepare the board for an impending substitution. The player who has had copious amounts of cold spray aimed at his lower back for the last few minutes, is unable to continue and is coming off.
Five minutes to go to the break and there is a sudden and at times violent spike in intensity. As if neither team wants to be the one to get a bollocking, so they are going hell for leather to make something happen. It’s a HH player responsible for the violence. After showing a great bit of skill to scoop the ball up in the air, he miss times his second touch, and just ends up chopping his marker in half.
The wind has finally died off, but the chances come in a real flurry. WT lash a horrible long range free kick wide, the ball never leaving the ground, just bobbling off into obscurity. The Unit holds off two players with ease, while riding a challenge as he drives forward, but its WT who catch the whole ground off guard with a thunderous strike, that leaves the HH keeper all in white at full stretch, beaten, only for the ball to crash off the crossbar and back into play.
“Better, better” comments Porter, like us all still reeling from the sheer power of the unexpected shot.
WT’s tails are up, their supporters are back at it “Whitstable, Whitstable” and they create their second chance in as many minutes, the corner that follows the scrambled clearance of the rocket shots rebound, has HH’s keeper flapping, only at the second attempt is he just about able to get it clear.
The pace may have peaked and troughed, the battle Porter is having with the referee and his assistants has only intensified. “I can’t listen no more” he protests, when HH are in his eyes awarded an iffy free kick. “You must have a book in that changing room of excuses” he replies when the linesman explains his reasons for giving the foul.
Luckily for the safety of all concerned, he seems close to spontaneous combustion the HH free kick is well off target and is greeted with a chorus of sneering “wehhhh” as it sails off into the weeping willow.
It’s not only the home fans tiring of the referee, “you’re fucking up a good game” shouts a HH one. There is even a little bit of “white spray” banter from one too, it’s either that or VAR at most games now, take your pick.
Smack bang on forty five minutes and HH have a shout for a penalty turned down. The ball is effortlessly sprayed from one side of the pitch to the other, setting free the winger on the far side, on a jinky run into the box. He fires the ball low along the ground and into the area, the ball kicks up in the air, and in the ensuing melee there is a shout for a “handball” but its waved away.
One would expect a couple at any half decent football match, but there seems an unrivaled amount playing today. What I mean by that is the phenomenon that only happens in football where a person’s name, whatever it may be is shortened and ‘ies’ is stuck on the end. We are spoilt for choice today, I lose count of the amounts of Smithies, Sprozies and Fozzies playing.
“Make something happen” is the final plea from Porter, when his team are awarded a free kick, not far into the HH half. The HH player who committed the foul receives a yellow, and is lucky to stay on the pitch, when he kicks the ball away to delay the set piece, as you can imagine Porter is not impressed.
His mood does not improve when the free kick is eventually taken, “sums up our fucking first half” he says as the ball is pumped well long, and straight out of play.
On the final whistle, he is relieved to say the least, that the half is done, “thank fuck for that”.
It’s very quiet all of a sudden with Porter and his staff inside, soon to be joined by the players. The quiet is only interrupted by the same calm voice over the PA as before, whose now informing us all that once he’s “got the results” he’ll let us know who’s “won the cash”, its 50/50 time.
“The lucky number is…..” I wait with bated breath, this could get our season off to the best possible start, £70 gets you a lot of M and M’s, but who am I kidding, why do I get my hopes up. 2018/19 kicks off with a resounding defeat, I bet the couple who went after me won, I bet that was some kind of double bluff, I’ve got a good mind to go and find them.
Sedate is how The Belmont feels during the fifteen minutes between halves, not necessarily a bad thing after the mayhem of the first forty five. The bar is doing good business, and there is a distinct lack of shouting. Tom is uncharacteristically quiet, he’s no chatterbox, but something’s got to him.
Porters assistant is to blame I discover, his piercing death stares, according to my shaken friend, felt like he was “looking into my soul”.
Such is the proximity of the changing rooms to the pitch, we can hear quite clearly the bell being rung by the referee, signifying it’s time to finish up their orange segment. For those maybe out of earshot, there is a gentle prompt from over the PA, “if you’re in the bar ladies and gents, the game is about to restart”.
Much like with the first half, the beginning of the second gets off to a flyer. “Yellows, Yellows” chants one of the HH fans, who have left the bar, not missing the restart thanks to the polite notice and are now gathered around the opposite corner of the pitch that they spent the first.
WT are the first to hit the target, with only about a minute of the half gone, a half volley from the edge of the box. It takes slightly longer than I expected for Porter to get going, but when he does, he has brought his A Game. With less than five minutes gone, and he is about half a comment away from getting his marching orders and just like the first half the flag filled end are singing and just like for most of the first half, I’ve no idea what they’re saying.
It is clear the HH bench dislike the referee as much as the WT one, but they are much more understated. They do though get very animated when the Unit, unmarked at the back post, three foot out, puts a header wide. There is a collective “arghhhhhh” from them all before one turns away, mumbling to himself, “big chance”.
The fact that as Porter puts its, he’s the “biggest bloke on the pitch” and he’s “free” to roam around his team’s penalty area, does little for his blood pressure.
Frantic is probably the only way to describe the opening quarter of an hour of the new half. “Come on son finish” appeals the steward just along from us, who is growing increasingly frustrated as the game goes on. The WT player shoots, only for the HH keeper to pull off a Schmeichel esq starfish leap that stops the goal. The Unit then goes all Harlem Globetrotters, offering the ball back to a WT player following the awarding of a free kick against him, lifting it high above his head and out of the reach of the much shorter WT player.
“Oysterboys till I die” sing the fans behind the goal, who I’ve just realised have not followed usual non league etiquette and swapped ends, according to which way their team are shooting, but have stayed put with their flags since minute one.
The Units contribution is becoming much more telling. He’s able to hold the ball up much better now, bringing his team mates into the game much more, he sets one up with the perfect opportunity to strike a well placed shot from the edge of the box, “ohhh” gasps Tom as the WT keeper at full stretch saves down low to his right. HH go again, “have a go” commands one of the bench, who are not frequently pushed to shout. The player on a great solo run, just inside the box, wallops his shot goalwards, only for it to slam into the midriff of a slightly stunned looking WT defender.
“If the refs seen it, it’s a straight red” says Tom when one WT player is at the other end of what was a bit of a horror challenge in midfield, that leaves him crumpled in a heap, not far from the centre circle. WT’s bench reach peak angriness, but the referee can’t have seen it, he’s been poor, but thats as blatant a dismissal as you’ll ever see, because play continues with the home bench fuming and the downed player still poleaxed.
I’m not sure if its the lager, the sea air or the WT fans are always in such high spirits, but much like the action on the pitch, the game flying from end to end, at one point there is a three way crunching tackle, were the players momentarily interlock like a non league transformer, where because so many people were involved, neither side knows who the foul is awarded to, the songs are coming thick and fast and its a real mixture.
Some are just simple shouts or chants, “Whitstable, Whitstable” and “come on you reds”, some are seafood related, the club, as the flags also reference, are known as the Oysterboys, “we’re shellfish” and some are a little bit blue, “we swallow, we swallow, and that’s the way we like it”.
HH’s number 7 has used up all his 9 lives, well almost. “I bet they bring him off” predicts Porter, after he commits his countless foul of the night. A sly grin develops across the face of the HH coach, when he does just that, as they prepare the subs board sharpish and signal to the referees assistant, that its number 7’s time come off. Porters subsequent howling is a mixture of I bloody knew it and well played.
The home fans songs have gone from the normal, to the rude, to the outright fucking odd. “Stick your fucking haggis up your ass” they sing, before continuing their Scottish themed anal insertion songs, “stick your fucking Irn Bru up your ass”.
Judging by the last thirty minutes, it’s fair to say the game feels like HH’s to win. They have shown much more composure going forward this second half. When one player bursts into the box, showing off some nifty footwork, he’s forced wide, eventually shooting into the sliding torso of the keeper. His bench beyond annoyed that he “stayed up” and didn’t go down under the attention of his marker.
Something must be wrong, the home bench has gone very quiet. The home fans are keeping up this whole putting Scottish things up your bum tangent “stick your Super Tennants up your ass” but the bench is very muted. HH’s are slowly getting more disheartened with the Unit, who despite having all the attributes of a target man, is not having the best day at the office, however I feel the lack of noise coming from Porter and his crew is like the calm before a storm.
It is always terribly awkward when a teams supporters think they’ve scored, only for it to be a trick of the angles, and its gone into the side netting. Everyone of a WT persuasion lets out a mocking “wehhh” when exactly that happens, the second bite of a blocked shot, goes just the wrong side of the post. Even the HH bench half got its hopes up, before realising like everyone else it hadn’t gone in.
Ten minutes of the game to go, the players are starting to question the referees increasingly curious decisions, “what are you smoking?” asks the smooth Irishman, Tom agrees, “he’s a terrible ref”. One home player suggests now is the time for his teammates to “raise” their game, and the home fans are doing their best to motivate them, they’ve hardly stopped all half, “we are Whitstable, we are Whitstable by the sea, no one knows us, we don’t care”.
When he does pull it off, the Unit can be quite brilliant. Holding up the ball, he again tees a teammate up perfectly, who lets fly from the edge of the box a low arrowed shot, through about three different sets of WT legs, that somehow the keeper is able to get hold of, despite the numerous deflections.
Our local steward has gone from offering supportive shouts, “come on you reds” to threats “get a fucking goal”. It is not his team though who are “getting closer” as Tom puts it, it’s all HH, they are showing all the quality. WT look like they are about to be turned over on their own patch, not that you’d know from the home fans demeanor, “Whitstable, Whitstable”, one of whom is bouncing about with a red and white scarf held above his head.
Both benches are close to boiling point, the three points are just sitting there, ready to be pocketed, if only one of the teams could put away just one of their chances. The flag end seem to think in the words of Bob Marley that “every little thing is gonna be alright, I’m not so sure.
They’ve just hoofed another free kick straight out of play, “fucking shit” says Porter and the Unit once more has shown just what he is capable off, with a move that starts with his knock down and ends with an athletic diving save by the WT keeper to push the sublime shot around the post. “Could have been the goal of the season” says Tom.
Surprisingly it’s WT who almost have the last laugh, almost snatching the points right at the death. If it was possible for a game to get anymore frenetic, this one does with the clock running down. “Two to go” says the assistant, when the HH bench ask him how long is left. “Skin the bastard” shouts the nearby steward as the player in red bares down on goal, he does just that, and as he reaches the edge of the box he sends a curling shot across the goal, that goes just wide of the far post, “ohhhh” gasp the fans.
It’s all handshakes and pleasantries the final whistle, the voice over the PA confirms the result, “final score at The Belmont 0 – 0” and while the majority of the fans start to leave, the flag end stay put, offering up one last song to their team, who reciprocate the love, with some above the head football player applause back at them.
For the second time in a week a club’s owner has offered us his club, for the second time in a week it’s hard to fault the welcome from all the people involved with WT. The ground is great, the clubhouse almost better, in Tom’s opinion in might just be worth the visit for the chips alone, Pat’s Pantry gets his thumbs up, plus they do a 50/50 and sell a programme, so its very hard to pick any holes in our visit to The Belmont.
Porter is terrifying, he falls into the ‘I don’t want to bump into him down a dark alley’ category. I’d come again just to see what he’s like when they win, but might be put off, if there was a chance of seeing what he was like when they lose.
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the putting Scottish things up my bum songs, thats a sentence I never thought I would write, but at least the flag end were singing, that’s all that matters.
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