Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out venturing to Essex to watch two clubs they hold equal affection for. 

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

The sky is a delightful shade of pale blue and there’s not a cloud to be seen, but I’m really in no state of mind to appreciate it. I’ve spent well over half my time awake today behind the wheel of my car. I drove me and my family back from Manchester this morning, after a few days with the fiancee’s rents, taking in the rolling Derbyshire dales and an afternoon tea to die for, however that all feels like a distant memory now. Our drive back was held up by roadworks and we spent the last thirty miles trying to drown out my daughter with classic FM because she had had enough and was losing her shit.

P1020273There is a significantly sized Tom shaped hole in the passenger seat to my left. Only adding to my condition is the rush hour traffic I encounter at every turn. My attempt to avoid a local choke point, just leads me straight into another one. I hurriedly call Tom, between creeping forward another few feet to tell him I’m going to be late, and he might be better off making his own way to tonight’s ground himself. He doesn’t disguise his displeasure very well, I think he has become quite accustomed to being chauffeured about.

Despite Tom only living twenty four minutes away according to the message he sent me, I manage somehow to get to Parkside, home of Aveley FC and temporary abode of Grays Athletic FC (GA), who we are here to see tonight before him. I’m surprised not to see him already parked up and waiting for me. I’d also forgotten since the last time we were here, New Years Eve 2017, quite how brutal the black and yellow striped speedbumps are in the car park. The kind of which regardless of how slow you are going, they almost send you airborne and one is scared they may end up snapping your car in half.

I’m not the only early bird, GA’s opponents Bowers & Pitsea FC (BP) kit man is waiting patiently on the steps of the uber modern Parkside, its blue facade the same colour as the sky, surrounded by kit bags, finishing off what looks like a packed lunch from a bright pink lunch box.

Considering Toms first car was a turquoise Fiat Panda, he was the first of our friend group to get his licence, the front seat of which I was very familiar with, being driven around, slouched and stoned, never really go anywhere just mooching about. His new one, a brand spanking Mini Cooper Countryman, is quite the upgrade.

Dark blue and much larger than my little silver tin can, his arrival in the carpark is like a scene from a Top Gear montage, clearing the speedbumps like they weren’t even there, he sidles up next to me, the chrome fixtures gleaming. He winds down his window, I say winds his are electric, mine aren’t, and says “hello” in a very suave James Bond kind of way, what a twat.

A little bit of new FIFA chat later, Tom telling me how impossible it is to score and defend, we’re standing alongside Parkside’s dull green 3G pitch, remembering quickly quite how IKEA like the whole place is and just how little there really is to look at. GA’s previous home, which also saw them bunking up with Aveley, they’ve been homeless since 2010, was right out of the old school. There was a very high chance of turning your ankle on a loose bit of concrete, but it had heaps of character and a stunning main stand.

Parkside is pristeen, it still feels brand new, even though its been open for over a year now, and as Tom dubbed it last time we came, it’s “the future”. 3G and 4G pitches that can been used not only by the club, but the local community too and all that comes along with that, but it’s just a bit sterile.

The devilishly smart looking Wayne Franklin, BP’s goalkeeping coach, still in his civies, having just arrived in a very ritzy white motor, gives a confined nod when I ask him how he thinks they will get on tonight. He’s soon off, back up the concertinaed tunnel, to get changed into his black joggers and long coat, that we’re much more accustomed to seeing him in.

BP’s players, all in matching tracksuits, have occupied a section of the main stands blue seats, their manager Rob Small sits side on with his head in a notebook, I assume putting the finishing touches on his starting eleven. The GA players, in highlighter pen yellow tops, arrive in dribs and drabs, up the short set of steps outside the ground and straight into the home changing room.

20180926_182040There is little sign of life in the glass fronted bar, that occupies the whole bottom floor of the main stand. The same can be said for the food hatch. “I hope there’s food” prays Tom, when he notices its doors are firmly shut. In fact there are few signs of life anywhere really, other than the players padding about and around the two grey trestle tables set up around the turnstiles.

Tom may not have his food yet, which he thinks is increasingly “doubtful” because with GA being lodgers, as one GA committee member Glynn has informed him, they are not responsible for it, so he can’t help with his enquiry if it will be open tonight. I on the other hand, have no such concerns re. a little bit of action of my own, a considerable section of one of the grey tables is occupied with a plethora of raffle prizes.

A cuddly toy, bottles of wine, that if I won I’d never drink, a bumper box of biscuits and with Christmas almost here, what could turn out to be a very handy box of Celebrations. “A pound a strip” says the woman sitting behind the mountain of swag. I hand her two pound coins, and in return get two strips of orange raffle tickets.

Adjacent to my potential winnings, is a small selection of club merchandise, keyrings, scarves, magnets, that sort of thing. Tom a keen pin collector can’t remember if he has already got a GA one though, and doesn’t want a “duplicate”.

There is a quite sudden flurry of activity around the tables, when a succession of people start to click through the turnstiles, most if not all head straight for the raffle, those digestives must be a big draw, before moving on to Glynn, is his GA jacket who is on programme duty, which he’s  fanned out, his small money box, eager for coins.
He, like everyone else we’ve spoken to so far, Sim the kit man, and Peter the club photographer, who without fail every time we see him, asks us are we “still searching”, confirms as Sim put it, it’s going to be “difficult” for them tonight. Peter puts it down to the simple fact they “can’t score goals”, Glynn the fact that a few injuries means they are “stretched” and Sim that they are just “so inconsistent”, add all that together, and then put them up against a BP side that as Glynn put it “are very ambitious”, it really could be a tough night for the home side.

What until now had been a very peaceful evening, is shattered by the bizarre mix of nearby locals on dirt bikes, a passing chinook helicopter and the slightly nervous sounding voice of the man on the PA, “hello ladies and gentlemen” he says, but we only hear about every other word, because his mic is on the blink, and he currently sounds like the radio edit of a very sweary song.

The attempt to announce the date of an upcoming cup fixture, is undermined by the fact that when he says the date the mic drops again, and no one knows when it will be, “that’s helpful” says an acerbic GA fan. Tom always championing the underdog, thinks it’s very unfair that people are making fun of the man and his “speech impediment’’.

Fully extended now, the vinyl tunnel links the cobalt blue stand to the pitch. There is a subdued ripple of applause as the players arrive, the attempt to do one last rundown of the teams is hampered again by the dodgy mic.

“Come on Bowers” shouts an old chap in a flat cap, making his way slowly towards the goal the visitors are attacking, moments after kick off. From behind me and out of the gloom a hand appears and then the face of someone whose own football travels we’ve followed closely, Dave aka or @davethephoto. One half of The Haribo Tour, called such because he rewards his young son with a sweet every time a goal is scored in the match they attend, comes over and says hello. As nice as it is to finally meet him though, I can’t pretend that his lack of fizzy cola bottles or pear drops to offer us,
is a bit of a piss take.

The flat cap wearing BP fan eventually joins the small posse of familiar BP faces behind the goal. They watch on as one of their players, is treated for what looks like a considerable bang to the head. The physio is quickly by his side, shining a light in his eyes. The downed player is soon up, but is walking tentatively towards the touchline, “looks a bit confused” says Dr Tom, and I have to concur, he doesn’t look with it at all.

IMG_20180926_194103_1“Ref, ref, ref, ref, ref” barks the BP physio, which has the touch of Alan Partridge about him, eventually getting the man in blacks attention, he half shoves the still groggy looking player back on to the pitch.

“Not again” says Tom when play is held up by another heavy fall, this time it’s a GA player. He is up much quicker than the BP player was, who despite the best efforts of the physio, is being substituted off.

A full quarter of the half has elapsed before either team has their first meaningful effort, I say meaningful, it’s a shot by a BP player, but its well off target. His technique is good, controlling the ball on his chest, he hits the half volley well enough, but its, way, way over. “Come on Bowers” shouts a fan with an air of, we can do better than that.

The ever present sound of the unmistakable Rob Small, who can be seen pacing his technical area, is non stop with his advice and instructions. When BP’s keeper flaps at a GA corner, Rob talks them through dealing with, move by move, until the danger has passed.

“How you work that one out ref?” asks a not best pleased GA fan when the call for a foul, doesn’t go his team’s way. The same supporter informs the man in charge that the local “Specsavers is still open”. The referee like me and Tom, may have had one eye on the full moon slowing rising over the small seated stand opposite us, almost glowing red, Tom goes all Sky at Night, describing it as “captivating”.

If it’s not the referee the GA fans are grumbling about, its their own team. I wouldn’t go so far as saying they are disgruntled, but there is a slight feel their patience is a little frayed. “Keep it simple” appeals one, when his team seem intent on over complicating things. For the first twenty five minutes, they have shown very little threat going forward, confirming all the things we’d been told pre kick off.

GA’s keeper is by far the loudest player on the pitch, he’s a proper screamer, and so far he has been the busier. He’s forced to franticly back pedal at one point, trying as best as he can to get to the back post to intercept the ball, that’s just been chipped across his box. The intended BP player waiting for it, attempts a high hooked shot, that goes wide and BP are creating significantly more chances than the home team.

In GA’s number 9 we have our second hulking centre forward in a week, but he’s not as hulking according to Tom as Hayward Heath’s Unit. GA’s number 9 is too “skinny” says Tom and what he lacks in stature, he also lacks in the ability to hold the ball up and bring teammates into the game.

“Ooohhhhh” gasp the home crowd, when what might have been their first attack of the half, after almost half an hour, goes begging. “Should of fucking buried it” says a man behind us, in a thick Scottish accent, “and he knows it” he adds about the player who just missed a tap in, the ball having flown across the six yard box from the right wing, “look at him shaking his head”.

GA are very hardworking, they are defending well, but panic at times. “Relax” shouts one of their players, when they give up possession once more. They are coping with what is always a pretty rampant BP forward line, for now, but this is soon to change.
The applause is not for the BP player who has just hit the most delicious of volleys, our second chest trap and strike of the evening. This unlike the first is well on target and is destined for the top right hand corner, only for the strong hands and athletic spring of GA’s all yellow stopper, who forces it wide.

Less than a minute later and GA finally succumb to BP. Cutting in off the right wing and into the box, the scorer let loose a low shot from past the full stretch keeper down to left. Under the impression that the blue seats around us were predominantly filled with home fans, this is soon debunked by the sheer amount of clapping and shouts of “Bowers, Bowers, Bowers”, coming from then and in particular a very vocal young fan on the front row.

IMG_20180926_194123_2“Come on blues keep going” shouts one GA supporter.

The moon now even higher and looking even more resplendent, we are not the only ones trying to get the perfect moon rising non league football picture. Cameras and phones alike are snapping and clicking away around us.

Rob Small who is never seemingly content, is still dishing out words of wisdom to his players and he perhaps has every right to remind his team not to rest on their laurels, because not long after going ahead, they nearly give up their lead. Falling foul of the same ball from the right, that travels right across their box, but again no GA player can get a touch, “ohhhhh” gasp the stand again.

Having just gone so close to drawing level, GA perhaps sum up their current form, by then almost gifting BP a second, when a defender attempts a John Terry style, stooping pitch level header, that goes very wrong, giving the ball straight to a BP forward, who just can’t quite make the most of the opportunity.

BP can sense GA are wobbling, and are rampant in their search of another goal. Into the final five of
the half and it’s only a vital last ditch touch from the GA keeper that prevents the ball meeting the forehead of the BP player lining up to head in. The resulting corner sees them go close again, the keeper once more required to get fingertips to the goal bound effort, tipping it over.

Following the second corner, GA show a brief example of what they are capable off, winning back possession on the edge of their own box, and breaking instantly. The majority of BP are still in the GA box, as the all blue counter attack makes its way down to the other end of the pitch. only for the final ball to be poor, just about summing up their half in one simple over hit pass.

The final five minutes of normal time get a little heated or “feisty” as Tom puts it. When one BP player does well to wriggle free of the attention of a couple of markers, he’s unceremoniously stopped with a bit of a hack. BP are then themselves guilty of a very late challenge in midfield, “have a word ref” demands one home fan. He does, and it’s a booking, no great surprise. The vocal BP fan child, who is yet to reach peak loudness, exclaims it was a “perfect challenge”, in his own high pitched way.

“Minimum of four minutes extra time” announces the PA, who manages I think to complete his first sentence of the night. Tom has returned double quick with dinner. Having been ever so concerned about when to go, because there are “a lot of people here”, and he’s right, there is, so he mustered all his Arsenal’ness and sacrificed missing some of the game, to ensure he didn’t have to stand in a queue for five minutes.

It’s GA who finish the half ever so slightly on top. They hit the target with an effort from outside the box, but its a bit tame and never looked like troubling anyone and then go close with a towering header, the jump of the player responsible something really to behold, he looked to be about eight feet off the ground.

The tunnel is dragged into position at quite a pace, seconds after the half time whistle. “Come on Bowers”, “lets go Bowers” shouts the young fan, who has been joined by a friend, who both stand at the mouth of the tunnel, hands outstretched, looking for a high five from the passing BP players, who duly obliged.

20180926_194722I guess a Tango is like a Coke, just orange. My drink request to Tom a bit lost in translation perhaps, however it’s cold and tastes good, and goes down a treat. Tom is happy with the “lots of chips” he got, but is not impressed with the “raw onions” and is worried he now “stinks” and the burger is more “bread” than meat.

It’s at this juncture between me finding out that I of course have not won anything on the raffle and @davethephoto asking me how many times a season do I say to myself “waste of money”, it’s a lot, that Tom informs me of an interesting equation he has formulated over the last three years:

“When someone offers you a double burger, you know you’re in trouble” he tells me, it means its a “thin patty” so the vendor offers “two” to “make up for it”.

The early GA pressure after the restart, breeds hope among the home fans, perhaps the BP win is not the forgone conclusion most thought it might be. The group of GA supporters who have congregated to our left, one with a video camera at the end of a very long telescopic stand, are quick to bring to the attention of the officials, what they think is the flagrant time wasting, being committed by the BP’s keeper.

Tom puts GA’s flying start down to what must have been a “good team talk’. After ten minutes they go close following a surging run into the box. They go close again not long after with a shot from an acute angle, that’s just over.

WIth the game finally hotting up, for some reason conversation turns away from it, and onto the fact that I’m wearing shorts again, still holding onto the last vestiges of summer. Tom suggests I should get some of those “fashionable” ones with zip on, zip off legs. He reminds me of a pair he used to wear when we went clubbing in our youth, because of how “hot” he used to get. If I’m honest, I’m still struggling with the suggestion that they are “fashionable”.

“Come on ref, get hold of him” exclaims one GA fan, who is growing tired of the BP keepers time wasting, Tom is sure “he’s going to get booked”. I’m all up for a little bit of the dark arts, they are part and parcel of the game, but he’s not being very subtle about it.

A flying Bruce Lee kung fu volley might have been the best goal we’d have seen all season, sadly for us the GA player responsible for the acrobatics, and everyone in attendance, his attempt is over.

“Come on you blues” shouts one of the animated bunch to our left. Just when things were going well for them, their transformed forward line takes a bit of a knock when a player pulls up after a quite excellent piece of aerial control. The downed player reaches for his hamstring, “oh he’s fucked, he’s pulled something” sighs a GA supporter, as the physio, who as Tom puts it “travels light”, runs to his aid, with seemingly no medical kit, unless it’s all stuffed in her pockets.

On the twenty minute mark BP show how dangerous they can be, having been solidly under the cosh, they burst into life with a sweeping counterattack. The ball is hammered across the box, only to be cut out, just before it can be prodded into the back of the net.

“Come on Grays” pleads one home fan, “talk to each other” requests another, when three players all go for the same ball at a corner. Rob Small still prowling, reminds his players to “enjoy defending”.

Without fail every BP goal kick is accompanied with a comment, about how long it is taking for it to be taken. When the keeper goes down, adopting a new tactic think the home fans, “he didn’t fucking touch him” points out one, the locals start to get a little “restless” as @davethephoto puts it. “Get up you tart” shouts one to the keeper curled up in a foetal position, “add the time on ref” commands another. When the keeper does get up, there is no booking as had been requested and one supporter anoints him “Lazarus”.

“Bowers are on the ropes” says Tom, unfortunately for GA, who have been on top since the whistle, they just can’t punish them, and persisting with the boxing analogies, BP prove like any good fighter that however much they may be close to taiking a knee, don’t underestimate them, they still might just catch you out, and they almost do just that, right against the run of play, only for a last ditch GA tackle in the box stopping a certain goal.

Almost inevitably, when a team are on top, but don’t make it count, at some point in the game, the tide will start to shift. “Come on Grays, they’re on top now” mourns one supporter. The GA dominance has come to an abrupt end and in the space of about five minutes BP craft three good chances and with this the young visiting fan has found his voice again, “come on Bowers”.

DSC_0112“We had a good spell” laments one fan, almost nostalgic for all those nearlys and almosts that happened only about ten minutes ago, “we always have a little spell” adds another, fed up.

With less than ten minutes to go the prayers of the suffering GA fans are answered. “Whip it” says one standing behind me, as the winger assesses his options. He does just that, drifting in a high looping cross in to the BP box. “Handball” mutters Tom, he like the BP players who have surrounded the referee, some talking to his assistant about GA’s equaliser, are sure he’s finished with his hand or at least his arm, all while the player whose bundled it in celebrates and the bunch to our left are on their feet.

The mic is still playing up, crackling as the scorers name is read out, “who?” asks one supporter. “Come on boys, let’s get the winner” shouts a buoyed home fan. It would seem if anyone is going to get a second for them, it will be GA’s Carlos who got first, who at times looks like he is going to try and win the game single handedly. His quick feet, allow him to let off a shot, which is deflected wide.

The mood of the home fans has changed dramatically, it’s like the difference between night and day, and in those final five minutes of normal time, plus whatever was added on, I have never heard one mans name said so often, Carlos this, and Carlos that.

Perhaps not completely understanding the rules, I’ll put it down to his age, the now continuously singing young BP fan, has a brief exchange with a much older local one, when the home supporters shout for a handball. “Your goal was a handball” replies the young man quickly, as if one cancels out the other.

“How many more blue?” asks one exacerbated GA fan, after his team curl a close range shot over. “You’re fucking joking” blurts out another, who can’t believe they’ve not gone in front.

All of a sudden and out of nowhere the sound of a drum echoes around the dazzlingly lit Parkside, emanating from the BP fans behind the goal, “where has that been all day?” asks Tom, as confused as I am, as to why it’s taken eighty nine minutes for it to make an appearance.

“Let’s make it a good one” appeals a GA supporter, in the moments before they line up to take a freekick. The ball is into the right area, but is cleared. Soon enough though Carlos is back at it, shooting from a tight angle, after another of his solo runs, stinging the palms of the BP keeper. The young BP fan is now constantly on his feet having gone full hyper and is literally bouncing, “come on Bowers, come on Bowers, come on Bowers, come on Bowers, come on Bowers”.

Can someone please explain to me what “bits” means, because for the third game running, someone has told someone else to do some “bits” and I’m fucking clueless.
The sound that rings out around us, is one I imagine someone might make in the throws of a huge coronary. The collective agnony of the GA fans, when the ball is lashed into the area, but is missed again, is palpable. A corner to them follows, its cleared, bouncing to a player on the edge of the box. You can see the thought process all over his face, should I hit this or shouldn’t I. He does, and it’s only inches over.

“Come on Bowers keep pushing” urges on BP supporter. Their youngest fan here, who is also hands down their noisiest, is living quite vicariously through the eleven men on the pitch in red and white stripes. His heart is almost broken by a poor kick by the BP keeper, which results in a one on one with a GA forward. One recovering challenge in the box later, and the GA fans and players claim a penalty, buts its waved away.

Uncomfortably loud feedback this time blights the man with the microphone, as he attempts to tell us of the “four minutes of extra time” left to be play.

DSC_0217“We deserved a winner” comments one GA fan to another following the final whistle and maybe on the balance of play they did, but it didn’t come, despite the one man show that was Carlos and all his efforts. One supporter probably put it best, describing the result as a “good point” earned. One they had to work hard for, be thankful for a stroke of good luck for and one that at times, they looked a long way from getting.

We’ve no idea why, but there is a delay to the players leaving the pitch, when an almighty rukus breaks out, but thankfully common sense prevails and its broken up. BP are last of the pitch, post team debrief and thanking their supporters behind the goal.

I’m kind of glad it ended a draw, I feel we have a foot so firmly planted in both camps, its like watching two family members have a punch up, it’s really hard to take any gratification from them taking lumps out of each other.

BP are a team on the up, they have been since we first saw them win promotion and with all the recent upgrades they have done to their ground, if feels like the sky’s the limit. GA, well GA have stalled a bit, still sleeping on other teams sofas, fan owned now, which is definitely A positive, their fate firmly in their own hands, after their own financial issues.

GA much like BP have always been so good to us, so helpful, so accommodating, so friendly. I’m not sure we’ve visited a club with a stronger sense of history, with a more committed fan base, who deserve their own corner of the non league world to call home, and when they do, which I’m sure they will, we want to be the first in the queue to watch them.

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