Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out venturing to Gloucestershire to see Slimbridge AFC take on Merthyr Town in the Southern League Challenge Cup 1st round.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

I would never really have considered myself an ambitious person until today. I’ve always adopted the Dude’s from the Big Lebowski attitude to life, take it as it comes, one day at a time, just without the accompanying high lactose cocktails. That was until I convinced myself we could drive at rush hour, one hundred and forty six miles to Gloucestershire, in two hours.

SLIM PROGIf I’m honest I had slightly fudged my research to accommodate Toms ‘no further than two hours away midweek rule because he has work the next day’. Two hours fifteen is how long it would take at about two in the morning, leaving at 15:30 and the Google Map directions have turned various shades of red and orange, its way of indicating traffic, pushing the total travel time closer to three hours.

It doesn’t take long for Tom to cotton on that I may have somewhat tried to pull the wool over his eyes and as you can imagine he is not best pleased. He’s not a shouter or a get red faced and sweaty, he’s a quiet, not a sulker, but an uncomfortable quieter. I try my best to strike up conversation, “juicy peach” he snaps, when I enquire about what Vape flavour he is enjoying today, and he only briefly softens when we start talking about FIFA 19 again, yes I know there is still more to talk about, but ultimately, he is pissed off.

What was perhaps most frustrating about our journey was the stop start nature of it. As soon as we seemed to be making some headway, reclaiming back some time from my Sat Navs ever increasing ETA, we would hit another patch of slow moving traffic. I try my best to lift the mood in the car, waxing lyrical about the stunning scenery that surrounds, it looks like a Countryfile calendar.

Tom though, between intakes of “juicy peach” which he admits is a bit old, so smells more like “mouldy peach” is instead pointing out all the places we could be going instead of tonight’s final destination, still some miles ahead. “Crocodiles of the World”, a pub who’s having a “jazz and cocktails” night, in fact he just spends the rest of our time in the car pouting and ohhing at the vast array of nice looking pubs we see, tutting at everyone we pass, the further away from London we get.

I do my best to not show the blind panic that is slowly consuming me, Tom heard the low petrol ding my car makes a while back and I have seen him glancing over, but we are fully in the red now and I’m not sure how much longer we have left. If he wasn’t apoplectic enough already, breaking down in the middle of nowhere, because I’m playing petrol roulette, might just be the final test of our relationship.

My last hope, is that the novelty of seeing a motorbike with a sidecar, will keep him occupied long enough to get where we’re going, before he hits me. I force a laugh out when he says we should get one, according to him we would be like the football equivalent of the “hairy bikers”.

We arrive at Thornhill Park, home of Slimbridge A.F.C. (AFC) a full forty minutes later than we had planned. The sun is almost gone, and we are not the only ones arriving a little late, AFC’s opponents have arrived in their pink and purple coach that’s far too big to get in the entrance to the car park, so pulls up on the road outside, causing a jam of one, as the players and staff of Merthyr Town FC (MT) start to disembark.

Standing by the door in his hi-viz coat an AFC official welcomes each and every person who gets off and rumour has it, that MT of the division above AFC, have brought a strong team.

You couldn’t really ask for more from the AFC clubhouse, a well stocked bar, old shirts on the walls and well used leather chairs, with well worn in arms, around small wooden tables. Outside on the sizable veranda, the kind of which is normally found attached to the outside of some great plantation house of the deep south, the smokers among the locals are camped out. At its far end, the bright strip light of the food and snack bar illuminates a woman busily working inside, all while someones ‘Hits of the 60’s’ free CD from the Mail on Sunday, plays over the PA.

IMG_20181010_184304The lady prowling around by the turnstiles clutching a book of raffle tickets, is quick to pounce on any new arrival, she does though let the small girl, with an even smaller dog, pass her unaccosted. I of course am more than happy to be preyed upon, happily handing over my change for a couple of blue tickets.

Our trifecta of non league football perfection, gambling, food and a programme, will go uncompleted tonight. It’s just a matter of when, not if Tom will be eating something, despite his usual procrastinations, “shall I eat, I could eat”, he will, who’s he kidding. AFC are sadly one of the ever increasing list of clubs that no longer sell a programme. Now I completely understand why clubs don’t, Rob AFC’s press officer told me that they lose something like “£1000” a year on them, which of course is just not viable at this level, regardless of how sad it makes a few silly twats, with OCD like me, feel.

I take a seat on one of the white wrought iron thrones in front of the clubhouse, fed up of waiting for Tom to decide what he is going to order from the curiously named “snack tariff”, stuck to one of the swung open doors of the snack bar. Another smaller sign, quite minuscule in fact, informs patrons that the food is to order, and there will be a short wait.

Food in hand, cheeseburger and chips, Tom particularly taken by the sight of the chips after our chip free outing last time, but still reeling from missing out on the foot long hotdog he overlooked, joins me on one of some of the oversized garden furniture, but before tucking in, he shares his feelings about the “shit music”, that’s gone a bit “80’s disco” that is not his “cup of tea”. I must admit the change in CD, to another ‘Best Of…..’ from the Mail on Sunday is not my bag either, who honestly wants to listen to Footloose while they’re eating.

The sound of what I think is the nearby M5, what Tom seems to think is a horse galloping about the other side of a hedge and the teams warming up, all mixed in with what sounds a bit like the theme tune from Baywatch, but isn’t and there is a distinct lack of high cut swimming costumes to be seen, is a bit surreal.

“1, 2, 1, 2” says the voice over the PA, interrupting the music. Talking to Rob, he contradicts what we had heard earlier, “Merthyr not brought a strong side” he tells us, and he has no idea “what kind of a team they’re going to put out”, but he is hopeful the match should at least be, “entertaining”, helped by as he puts it the “friendship” between the clubs, forged in the throws of an “epic FA Cup” tussle they had a few years back.

“Welcome to Thornhill Park” says the voice once more, offering a special welcome to “our friends from Wales”.

From out between the clubhouse and the turnstiles the players arrive, unfortunately the music has not
improved. There is little wrong with the reggae instrumental The Liquidator, except that for most people it just evokes visions of a certain West London football club, and no one wants that in their lives.

“The Swans line up quickly” says the announcer hurriedly, the players are on the centre circle, the referee has raised his whistle to his lips and got things underway, and the voice tries his best to rattle off the remaining names of the starting eleven, but can’t do it quickly enough, he’s still talking, with the game now in full flow.

His final words are to let us know that if the game is “level after ninety minutes” the match will “go straight to penalty kicks”. Tom prodding me in the ribs tells me what he overheard an AFC official say, who shares his sentiment for hoping all is concluded with the regulation ninety, “fucking hope not”.

MT register the first attempt on goal by either team, within less than a minute. Bad news for the home team you would think, good for those travelling fans who have occupied the covered stand behind the goal their team is attacking. Their flags already draped over the railings, one massive one though, far too big for the stand, hangs with a bit of a sag, from the roof.

IMG_20181010_185425I’m afraid you are going to have to forgive me for the lack of on field action comment, for about the next ten to fifteen minutes of the match, because the late arrival of a certain Welshman and his girlfriend, means we were not really able to concentrate much on the on pitch activities. To say Kieran, an MT fan who we met on our trip to Penydarren Park, could talk the hind legs of a donkey, would be an understatement. His partner, Samantha is quite the opposite, I’m sure simply down to the fact, because there just simple isn’t ever a chance for her to say anything.

He comes bearing gifts mind, a pale blue MT shirt for Tom, and his arrival bizarrely coincides with Toms stomach starting to rumble, “still hungry” he informs me. His original meal was a “bit small”, nice, just not copious and Kieran’s entrance has made his taste buds nostalgic, thinking of the food on offer from our trip to South Wales. “It’s not a cob” he says to himself fondly, remembering the hollowed out loaf of bread stuffed with chips, that they famously sell.

Although constant, his stream of consciousness is at least helpful, “thought we were putting out a youth side, that’s majority first team”, he says after having had a chance to survey the team. “He needs match fitness, he needs match fitness”, he explains pointing to various players on the pitch.

It’s only clapping from the all seater stand to our left that finally breaks Kierans flow, “good save” says a home fan sitting within its gloom, the AFC keeper in his colour coordinated orange kit, boots and gloves, that Tom had earlier expressed he “quite liked”, has just done well to save with his feet, one on one with an MT attacker.

The outburst of one MT player has us in stitches when a flick on in midfield from an AFC player completely circumnavigates him, and he knows farewell he’s been had, “oh you cunt”. He maybe thinks he has got his own back, when MT have the ball in the back of the net, buts its ruled offside.

“We should be fresh for this, we had no game last week”, points out Kieran, and his team certainly look that way. They take a short corner, rolling it to the edge of the box, and the first time shot is well hit, but saved. The charging run by one defender, Ledley King style into midfield and beyond, nearly results in a goal, they are as you might put it, grabbing the bull, or in this case the swan, by the horns.

Although its comes from an MT error at the back, a bit of a gift after one player can’t control a pass, and its latched onto by the AFC number 10, I thinks it’s fair to say no one had expected going by the teams performances so far, that it would be AFC who took the lead.

AFC’s tirelessly working number 10, hits his shot which is blocked, the ricochet falls kindly for number 10, who passes to a teammate, whose surge into the box, allows him enough room to slot home, low to the keepers left.

“Come on lift it” shouts one MT player, as they prepare to reset for the restart, Tom like me wonders if the League Cup, of whatever league it may be, is treated with contempt, considered just a bit of a nuisance. “I don’t think they care” says Tom, not about MT’s application so far in trying to get a goal, more about their response to going behind.

They have no difficulty crafting opportunities, a “cheeky” flick as Tom describes it by one player, that sends the ball over his head, who then strikes it on the volley, that is just over is made to look much easier than it was, and proves they have the wherewithal to do better. They blaze over not long after, as Tom puts it, “they still look deadly”.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say Tom’s food was insubstantial, it looked adequate enough to me. For him though, it doesn’t seem to have really hit the spot, “I’m still hungry”. His next statement is a little bit out of left field, his current craving is not for more chips, a pie or burger, normal football fair, but “mint ice cream”.

“I’ve become addicted to mint Magnums” he explains and tries to persuade me to “go get him one” because he is sure there “must be a Tesco around here somewhere”.

DSC_0039In their number 10, AFC have a player who Tom has started simply referring to as, “The Tank”. A combative, strong, physical type, who also has an eye for a pass and a rocket of a shot. At one point he nearly kills a man with a long range effort. “Played Yash” shouts a nearby AFC fan, when he bullies an MT player off the ball, and makes an incisive pass forward.

Unfortunately though, and despite “The Tanks” best efforts, his tenacity alone cannot make the game come to life, the match so far really having the air of a bit of a training session about it. It’s got to the point, with about ten minutes of the half left, where Tom is showing me a selection of “sexy football kits”. Napoli and Lazio’s offerings this season, are particular standouts.

“That was an early one” says Tom, the both of us somewhat caught out by the announcement of the raffle. Distracted away from the match once more, the voice reads out the ticket number for the “first prize”, nope nothing, then the ticket number for the “second prize”, nope nothing. Tom thinks he’s helping by parroting his little catchphrase, “you’ve gotta be in to win it”. It’s going to be a hard old slog this season.

One would not go as far as calling the MT fans strung out behind the goal with their flags, who have travelled to Gloucestershire tonight, a hoard, but I’m surprised to have not have heard as much as a peep from them so far. In fact no one here, except for Keiran, is making much noise of any kind at all.

“Nice chocolate bar and cup of tea” says Tom, considering his halftime treat already. I disturb him from his reverie, when I point out just how hairy the lineman’s legs are, yes it really has got to that point, and he replies all Crocodile Dundee, hiking up the the right leg of his trousers, “that’s not hairy,
I’ll show you hairy”.

A couple of minutes before the break and Yash “The Tank”, gets a much deserved goal. He starts the move with his back to goal, but loses his man with ease, with a swivel and drop of the shoulder, smashing home AFC’s second. Not wanting to take anything at all away from the home team, but the fact that as Tom points out that MT just don’t seem to “care”, and there is zero “anger” he adds, from any of the players, that they have gone further behind to a team from a division below them, makes it feel a bit hollow.

MT have had far more shots on goal, however it’s just a case of AFC taking their chances I suppose, being far more efficient. They have had two shots on target, and have two goals to show for it and they very nearly make it three from three, the predicts Tom, only for the player to put it wide.

Kieran is back, so please excuse the lack of on pitch punditry for the next paragraph or so. He has returned having himself sampled the food, and is far from hungry. “He knows the inside track” says Tom impressed by the tale of his food at football hack. “Doubled up for three quid” he tells us, Kieran who maybe talks the fastest I’ve ever heard a person speak, all with a subtle Welsh twang. He got a “huge pile” he adds smugly, “fed three people, for three quid” he informs us, bristling with hubris.

Tom is clearly 50% impressed, 50% annoyed. One thing though he is a little sceptical about is the “trinity of sauces” that accompanied the meal, “mayo, brown sauce and ketchup” are not three things he wants anywhere near each other on his plate of food.

“Somebody’s got to clap them off” says Kieran, moments after the half time whistle, as almost no noise greets the leaving players, except for his half hearted applause. There is a slight spike in the volume levels, when the AFC supporters do the same, but it’s hardly seismic.

20181010_194356You could say Kierans opinion of the Southern League Challenge Cup, is reflective of his team’s attitude. “Tried to pay to get out of it” he tells us, “but they rejected us”. With the prize money being the sum total of “£100” for winning it, they probably spent double that on coach hire to get here.

“I’ve got fucking burnt fingers” is Toms reply at the end of his slow carrying tea walk back from the snack bar. The tea in his words is “not non league hot” but the slight spillage that occurred, has still singed his fingers. Rustling in the pocket of his coat, he produces a Snickers and a Twix, and we sit down in the main stand for a bit of half time sustenance.

His Snickers was nice enough he tells me, but he is already contemplating “more chips”.

Tom partakes in a bit more football shirt perving, when the MT fans pass us, flags down and in hand, one of them wearing a very fetching bright yellow MT away kit. The music has also taken a bit of an upward turn, “like that song” says Tom, the first time he’s not screwed his face up in reaction to the latest tune, when the Jackson 5, come over the airways.

MT are out well, well early. Tom puts it down to either they have “received the biggest rollocking in the world” or they are so keen to “go home” they want to get the second half underway as soon as possible.

The MT flags are soon back up, but there is nowhere to hang the really big one. A horn, may be the big flags substitute, making its first appearance of the night, when someone gives it a single blast. Where was that in the first half?

It certainly looks like it may have been the “rollocking” Tom had eluded too, because MT have a lot more purpose now, and like the beginning of the first half, it is they who have the first shot of the second. Kieran thinks the “match is going to penalties” even though his side are two behind, he reckons the comeback is on when they are awarded a free kick right on the edge of the AFC box.

“2-1” he says confidently as the player lines up to hit the ball, but the effort is just wide of the mark.

Even though it looks like the MT’s give a fuck meter has risen a few notches, they are still a bit sloppy with their passing, “keep the fucking ball” shouts one of their players, Kieran apologising for his team’s “Tourettes”. They also have to contest with AFC’s number 10, whose pins have certainly impressed Toms, he’s got “legs like tree trunks” he says, as he shows off his “beastness” again as Tom puts it. Troubling the MT defence no end, constantly backing into players.

If it was a “rollocking” the MT players got, the effects were very short lived, all of about a quarter of an hour, AFC have just bagged their “third goal of the evening”, says the voice over the PA with a slight hint of surprise, and what a goal it was, great feet from the full back, sees him side step one defender, side step another and coolly finish. He celebrates with few hand shakes and high fives, with the fans behind goal. Tom applauds the full backs skill, “very Nacho Monreal”.

MT’s bench are demanding the players attempt to get some semblance of “control” and when they do they are more than capable of putting together a fast paced attack, which nine times out of ten results in an attempt at goal, “too easy” shouts the AFC keeper when one such shot goes just wide, but it’s in other parts of the pitch tonight, they’ve been well below par.

There are the odd attempts to rally the troops, various players try to whip their fellow teammates into some kind of shape, but as Tom puts it, it’s not very “convincing”.

No horn, no chanting, the MT flags are fluttering and the sky is jet black. There is no game noise, two players, one from each team are being treated for injuries and all that I can hear is a slight murmur from the stand and the nearby motorway.

DSC_0083“Did he just have a shot?” asks a puzzled Tom, it certainly looks like the MT player taking a free kick has just tried a very, very ambitious long range shot, and the amount of teeth sucking from the fans, makes me think it wasn’t very far off target at all.

I know just what we need to lift the game that on  the thirty minute mark, has descended into a bit of a dull affair, not the “optimistic” long range effort from one AFC player, that gets a very strong firework display type response from the crowd, “ohhhhhh”, but another goal.

“Tap in” shouts an AFC coach from the bench, following his team’s quite excellent counter attack, one player standing almost alone in the middle of the six yard box, waits to see what the player with the ball bombing it down the left wing, whose exquisite shimmy sees him side step the MT defender, is about to do. MT’s keeper dives at this feet, but the ball squirms free and the bench get their wish of a “tap in”.

Four down now, to a team from the division below, regardless of who’s playing, young ones, old ones, unfit ones, one MT player hits the nail on the head, it’s time to have some “fucking pride”.

There is a Sven Goran Eriksson amount of AFC subs following their fourth goal and although we’ve seen the amount of goals we have, we can’t help but be a tad more interested in seeing what boots the hairy legged referees assistant has one, running the line in front of us, after seeing the shiny blue ones the lino at Sheffield FC had on. “They’re old, looks like he had them at school” adjudicates Tom.

One passing MT fan @therovingsheep tells us he thinks the “chance of a five, four win” as he makes the slow walk back towards the clubhouse is unlikely, but “it’s nice to get away from the wife and cat” he adds, plus he can “tick the ground off”.

Kieran is back, doing what Kieran does, and I lose all semblance of what is going on. “Do you tell the groundhopper app that?” asks Tom as Kieran informs us he is about to leave, having arrived late, asking his partner if they can “put the seat heaters on”, all his bravado about us wearing jackets and long trousers, from before and how tough he was because he was in shorts, has vanished.

He is though around long enough, to let out an excited “hello” as MT grab a late goal, in the final five minutes of normal time. A goal that is a very, very strong “contender” as Tom puts it, for our goal of the season. A fine feathered lob from well outside the box, sails over the AFC keeper and finally gives the MT fans something to clap.

Although it’s all far too late, their goal has certainly woken them up. Not long after getting their first, they nearly get a second, shooting just wide, but it’s all too little to late.

The man walking around with the microphone, who I’m assuming is also the voice over the PA is having a moment of crisis with his equipment, tapping the top of it, hoping it comes back to life, not to continue his match day duties according to one AFC fan, but to ensure he can partake in an impromptu “rap battle”.

Yash is back at it again, it’s all one way traffic, he holds the ball up, feeds his teammate who attempts the same swivel and shot as he did for his goal, but curls it wide. MT’s keeper who Tom has got into his head is “sixteen” saves well with his feet when AFC get forward again, doing his best to keep the score half respectable, “impressive” says a man in a blue AFC sweater.

IMG_20181010_214005AFC then hit the bottom of the post and get a reward for their late pressure with their fifth goal, “fucking five one” says the man in the sweater, shocked by the scoreline.

“Sorry about that, microphone problems, two goals to announce” says the voice after his absence. The crowd around me are singing the praises of Yash, “just gets better and better” and one member I
assume of the regular AFC team, MT are not the only ones who have shuffled the pack tonight, jokes that he will be “definitely be on the bench on Saturday”.

MT sting the palms of the AFC keeper one last time, but it’s all over, queue The Liquidator.

The first time we saw AFC way back in 2015, they caused a bit of an upset, that time in the FA Cup, against opposition from a higher league, and well, that’s just what they have done tonight. Kieran and MT might not be all that into the Southern League Challenge Cup, but going by the faces of the supporters and players of AFC, they certainly seem to have a different opinion. That Chelsea music, is suitably drowned out by the fans, waiting to congratulate their team.

If it wasn’t for the League Cup Spurs play in, I wouldn’t have my fondest memories as a Tottenham fan, so I say embrace all competitions, nothing better than a piece of silverware for the trophy cabinet, whatever it may be.

Good luck in the next round AFC, go get that “£100”.

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