Two Men In Search Of the Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out venturing south of the river to Eden Park Avenue. 

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

There are some football fans, whose team reside south of the river Thames, who swear blind that “it is wonderful”. I can tell you from first hand experience, that it is far from wonderful, when trying to get there from North London at rush hour. Almost exactly two hours it took us to travel the seventeen miles from Toms to tonight’s ground. Bloody Ken, no Boris, no Sadiq, oh whoever it is.

P1020286Almost certain we had completely exhausted the conversational topic of FIFA 19, amazingly there is still more to discuss about Tom’s current game of choice. I’m still unsure if I’m going to get this year’s edition, as my twelve year old son keeps profoundly telling me, its just the same game Dad, with a different number on the front.

Our extended time in the car though, does allow Tom to fill me in on the Gentleman’s Club, he saw situated right next to Whipsnade Zoo, on a recent family outing, and by sheer coincidence I’m sure, starts asking if I know about any non league football clubs in the Whipsnade area.

Having grown up in North London my whole life, there is an unmistakable change in aura, as soon as you emerge from the other side of the Blackwall Tunnel. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but it happens. The houses look the same, so do the people, they have all the same shops, and drive on the same side of the road, but it just feels different.

Perhaps it’s the sight of a decrepit speed boat in the front garden of one house, I say garden, I mean balancing on the doorstep, with Jaws painted along its side. Perhaps it’s the trams, the fact we passed somewhere called Peter Pan’s Park, or maybe it’s just down to the fact that looming in the distance is the Crystal Palace, doing a shoddy impression of Alexandra Palace, that is frankly offensive.

Is he OK? Some of you may be asking yourself, he’s going in on South London pretty hard, what’s his problem, it’s really not that bad. Well I’ll tell you what concerned reader, it is that bad and I’ll tell you why. I hold it completely responsible as my final destination today, as to why I came, seconds, I mean seconds away from losing my brand new phone, because I had left it on the roof of my car, and only realised about five minutes later, and thankfully, and consider yourself lucky South London because I might have had to go medieval on you, that it was still there.

It is a relatively unassuming entrance to the delightfully named Eden Park Avenue, which is a welcome sight after being tormented by an overly long Dutch lorry for the last ten miles. The sheer amount of trees that hang over the potholed driveway are certainly in keeping with the grounds name.

Beyond the white turnstiles, manned by a gruff white haired man in a blue gilet, who is fond of a cigarette, I get the feeling he thinks his job is more to stand guard, than to welcome people in, is a quite outstanding fluorescent green pitch. It’s grass not 3G, and it looks like you could roll it up and lay it in your front room. “It’s like the Emirates” says Tom, both of us in genuine awe of the playing surface.

Beckenham Town FC’s (BT) kit man explains its because “no one else plays on it” and who would dare, going by the size of the “please keep off the pitch” sign, and there is a chance the gilet man might snap you in half if you do.

BT or the Becks, their nickname written in red across the back of one of two small all seater stands, filled with black chairs that look straight out of a primary school, are really flying so far this season, undefeated in eight. The whole ground is really a very pleasant surprise. With a strict colour scheme of red and white, it is in remarkably good nick, surrounded by the back gardens or the nearby terraced houses, more trees, all sitting under a quite stunning clear sky, filled with flecks of pink and orange.

The serene, suburban peace, is only briefly shattered by the odd passing train, but they are soon gone again and tranquillity is restored.

A small speaker outside the entrance to the long single storey clubhouse, gently pumps out a few pop hits, but not too loudly as to become tedious, or intrusive as the music at so many grounds can become. We take a seat on one of the many picnics tables, surrounded by an inordinate amount of ‘no ball games’ signs, Tom’s eyes firmly fixed on the refreshments hatch, which is securely closed, he like me probably trying to work out why it’s outside has been covered in artificial grass.

20181003_175832“At least it’s a nice evening” says Tom, contemplating already I think the fact he might not be getting fed tonight. “I’m hungry” he announces, like somebody might overhear him, and whip him something up. His frown though, is soon turned upside down, when he spots a lady with a carton of milk in one hand, and an orange mesh bag with three onions in the other, “oh the tea lady’s arrived”.

BT’s opponents this evening, Erith Town FC (ET), have flagrantly ignored the message on the very visible sign they passed, newly arrived, they have congregated on the pristine pitch, and out the corner of my eye, I’m sure the gilet man is twitching, but says nothing.

The appeal in the programme for help with the clubhouse roof has Tom occupied, although he’s only half concentrating on the words, as he keeps looking up towards the fake grass covered doors, that are still closed, but his heightened food at football senses can detect some activity, “burgers are cooking, I can smell them”.

Behind Tom, in one of the lean tos, that stand behind the goal are a couple of quite sizable BT flags, not of the left on your seat at a friendly at Wembley, in a desperate attempt to get an atmosphere kind of flags, but swaying on the Yellow Wall kind of one. Part of me fantasises about some local Ultras group turning up, ten minutes before kick off, and that we are going to be treated to a smoke, pyro and Tifo show, but Tom quickly bursts my bubble, when he makes his second Arsenal reference of the night, which he attempts to justify after seeing my eyes roll, “the colour scheme works” he says, it is very red and white here, saying the flags are just like the ones that appear as the players walk out on match days, all we need now are the air hostesses.

It’s getting cold, not so long ago we were being caressed by mild early autumn sun, but now its gone, I’m wishing I had put my jumper on.

Tom is getting ever closer to his dinner, the tea lady has reappeared hands full of teaspoons, milk and sauces. Although it’s not the first of my imaginary BT Ultras turning up though, at least it’s someone, it was getting close to a two men and his dog situation. “It’s hotting up” says Tom, as a slow but steady stream of people start to pass through the turnstile.

Not wanting to abandon his post for long, gilet man sprints to the newly opened hatch, gets his cup of tea and quite impressively sprints back, not spilling a drop. Tom of course is not far behind him, buoyed by being able to get his food on, and although I’ve secured programme number five of the season, that’s five out of five so far, I’m not however getting much of a 50/50 vibe.

When a big man bangs a book of raffle tickets on the same table a BT coach is doing the final tweeks to the starting eleven, he declares loudly, “just need the bucket now” my previous ill feeling start to melt away.

“No chips, only burgers and hot dogs” says Tom, just after very nearly falling over, following his visit to the hatch, a hatch that he said looked like it was a “persons kitchen” by which he means, it wasn’t all stainless steel and catering equipment, but Formica worktops, mug trees and kids artwork stuck to the fridge.

I’m not sure what Tom is more impressed by, the burger, which he calls “good” between half full mouthfuls, the fact is was cooked on a “George Foreman” or by the footlong hot dog, he now feels he overlooked, and depending on how much room he has left after this burger, he is considering something I don’t think he has ever done before, “eating twice”.

His food envy has rocked him hard, “think I made a mistake” he says, staring lovingly at someone and their thirty and a half centimetres of frankfurter. Like he said the burger was “good”, the “plastic mozzarella” on top a nice touch, but the limited “options” as far as the sauces were concerned, was a disappointment.

Another explanation for why the pitch looks so immaculate, is highlighted when both teams appear for their warm ups, jogging right on by it, heading instead to an unlit field next door. Both teams got through their routines very loudly, considering the lack of lights, maybe it’s a way of working out where each other are.

IMG_20181003_184138A small group forms around the man sticking tonight’s lineups to the top of a fence post, made up of those football types who see it fit to deface their programme, with lines, ticks and crosses, ensuring they have the correct information for posterity. Looking on is BT’s owner Mick who when I ask him, reckons they might get “80” here tonight “if we’re lucky”.

Considering BT don’t ground share, I ask why do they play on a Wednesday, most clubs will play on Tuesday in the week, BT changed to “get more people”, less competition on a Wednesday, fewer places for Groundhoppers to go, although by the look on his face, he doesn’t look totally convinced its paid off. He explains one reason for not getting bumper attendances, despite there being “lots of money in the area” is that it’s just not “very football”.

Both teams appear from the far end of the clubhouse, sheltered for a moment by the veranda, and once they’ve been checked over by the referees assistants, one of whom we heard earlier asking his girlfriend who he had dragged along, to go and get him a towel from Sainsburys because he had forgotten his and that he couldn’t hang around with her for long, because he and the other officials were “listening to music” and getting “in the zone”, they step out onto the long, garden fence lined approach to the edge of the pitch.

We’ve seen louder walk outs, there is no PA, no signature tune to greet the players. All I can hear are the eleven high fives the BT kitman gives the players as they pass him.

Mick may have got his wish by the time the teams are crossing the pitch to line up for the handshake. The ground I would go as far as saying has a gentle buzz about it. Both the stands are well occupied, and three chaps have picked their spot behind the goal, all on fold out chairs.

It’s dark now, Crystal Palace and its woeful impersonation obscured by the night, the lights are bright, and its cold, really cold, just about perfect conditions for an evening of football.

The first ten minutes of the game are very, very shouty, everyone is guilty of far too much  unnecessary shouting. Along with the trains, which have become far more frequent as the evening has gone on, occasionally giving a blast of its horn as it leaves the nearby station, and some local cats having a very loud punch up, Eden Park Avenue has got very rowdy.

It’s the visitors bench who just pip the home one to the loudest award, “relax” bellows one of their number, not the man though who has just gone full Bielsa, and is watching from the technical area sitting on a water cooler.

Resurrecting something we haven’t played for a while, Tom is straight in there with his picks for  ‘match the clubs kits with a teams from the football league’, “Arsenal Vs Inter Milan” he says, and for once I can’t disagree. “I like a black and blue shirt” he adds, ET’s striped shirt, most definitely has a bit of the Nerazzurri about it

“Get hold of it Beckenham”, demands one fan, ET have just had a goalbound shot blocked and the match so far has been very manic, still lots of shouting, but not much actual football being played. A distant sound of clattering scaffolding only adds to the din, “has the clubhouse fallen down?” wonders Tom, was the request for help in the programme too late.

I wish I knew how to snap Tom out of his bizarre Rainman like commentary on the different footballs that are in rotation, that he has started, but I don’t. “That’s a nice ball that” he highlights when a new one is tossed on the pitch. The downside of having such close by neighbours, big hoofy clearances end up in their gardens, sending poor sods off in search of them in the grassy hinterland behind the fence. “They must go through so many balls” he adds sympathetically, and if it’s not balls, it’s the nearby dog he is gassing about. It is a very nice dog, a very “docile” dog as he puts it, but it’s a dog.

After a very chaotic first fifteen, BT all of a sudden and quite noticeably change it up a gear, the undefeated BT remember. “Well played Beckenham, good football” says the man next to us, the opposite side to the dog, almost under his breath, as he will do for the entirety of the night, his only little commentary, after BT get a shot of at goal, following some neat passing.

20181003_194309(0)A minute later and they are ahead, “well done Beckenham” says our neighbour. “Ref, ref, that came from your fuck up” shouts someone on the ET bench, not best pleased he gave the free kick in the first place, the referee who will end up being quite a prominent character by the end of the night.

The ET keeper in pink a bit of a spectator, as the header flies passed him, despite his best diving efforts to get close to it.

“1-0, we go again” insists one of the BT coaches, making sure the players don’t think the job is done. There really was quite the shift in their momentum in the minutes preceding the goal, “they just look a league above” says Tom. Who doesn’t have very high hopes for ET now, “I think they are going to thrash them”.

Someone I did not expect to be adding to the cacophony of noise, both the benches and the players are still at it, and the latest train makes me jump a bit, just like the others have, when it thunders by, blasting its horn, is the now not so “placid” dog, who at the sight of a nearby ball, one just saved from no man’s land, has changed into a whole other animal.

Tom has a dilemma, I can see he has been wanting to say something for a couple of minutes, but has been hesitating, and then all of a sudden blurts it out, “would you laugh if I wore a gilet?”. If I’m honest, I would have normally, the gilet is reserved in my eyes for the likes of Tim Sherwood, and not for any friend of mine. Except my Mum just got my daughter one, which she looks great in, effortlessly channeling the spirit of Marty McFly, pulling off a kind of 80’s retro chic with ease, so in fact I’m OK with it.

Tom slips it on, its garish yellow liner looking quite inviting actually, wishing I had brought my jumper once again, it really is quite chilly.

“Ohhhhhh” gasp the crowd, BT have just gone close again, a low powerful shot, just wide of the far post. “Well done Beckenham” applauds one supporter, “unlucky son” mumbles our co commentator.

Maybe it the sight of their meaningful first attack, with twenty odd minutes gone, but one of the ET bench has just shouted, “fuck me in the ass”. However his unconventional praise, I think its praise is short lived. As the game grows increasingly robust, his team are starting to look more and more “overwhelmed” as Tom puts it. It’s all BT, a great ball over the top, nearly finds it’s man, but is cut out in the nick of time, it is a simple case of when, not if BT will score again.

The lights of the passing trains through the trees, continues to be a bizarre source of entertainment, as to the ever changing footballs seem to be to Tom, he has without fail, made a comment about every new one he has seen.

ET are given a ray of hope, when BT give the ball away in midfield, one of their first real lapses in concentration, and ET pounce, the eventual shot, blocked in the the box. “Lets up the tempo” shouts one BT player in response, they have been a tad lackadaisical since going ahead, but saying that it doesn’t take much for them to craft a chance. “Good football Becks” says you know who, as they put another attempt, a header this time, just wide of the target.

Tom thinks ET “have given up a bit” shoulders certainly seem to have sagged. With ten minutes of the half remaining, their number 4 as Tom put it, is “trying to sort it out”, but isn’t having much joy. Edging close to the break, and Tom still a bit cold, his gilet not sufficient, maybe he should have got one with some with arms, is considering a hot drink, “might have to get a tea or a hot chocolate”. I on the other hand, having seen no sight of the big man with his bucket, am contemplating a raffle free half time.

Despite all their dominance, Tom isn’t sure BT have “have had a chance” since they went ahead, “lots of almosts” and the “odd moment” but nothing clear cut. Their final pass a little lacking, they are getting forward with ease, but that killer final ball is missing.

“Are you fucking joking?” asks ET’s keeper resplendent in his pink top, to the referee when he waves away the appeal from the ET player for what looked like a stonewall penalty, the bench are also adamant, no mention of anything to do with his “ass” this time, the same foulmouthed coach as before, just shows his disgust, with a good old fashioned “fuck off”.

IMG_20181003_194942The tackling continues to be hard, but mostly within the letter of the law. A man is wandering around in shorts, and Tom is convinced he must be “Scottish or Northern”. The sight of the man’s chilly calfs has confirmed he is now one hundred percent getting a “hot drink and a Kit Kat”.

“Last ten minutes we’ve been shit” says one BT player loudly to his teammates, if it wasn’t for ET’s
complete inability to pass the ball into the box properly, they might be level. For the first time today ET are on top, and they finish the half on top. It’s BT who have the final attempt of the half, a long range shot that is easily held, but ET can surely walk in, with a modicum of confidence, after looking like they were going to get brushed aside after going behind.

Thanks to the strange array of available seating, I plonk myself down on one of the three metal seats not far from us and I quickly work out it is probably a bit too cold to be sitting about, Tom is off double speed, leaving me to listen to the trains and watching one ET sub get very, very angry because no one will pass to him.

“Pat makes a good cup of tea” says Tom, returning with a suitably scalding hot cup of non league tea in a white Styrofoam cup. Who’s Pat I ask, the “tea lady” he explains, however he cuts me off when I start to compliment him on how nice it was he found out her name, only for him to inform me that after visiting Pat’s Pantry at Whitstable Town, from now on, all tea lady’s are called Pat.

One item of clothing I can assure you my daughter certainly doesn’t own, and never will, is a snood, so I assure Tom I would have guffawed heartily had he been able to find his, after rummaging around in his bag for it, “can’t find my snood” he says dejectedly.

I’m sure it’s become even colder in the short amount of time the players have been away, it also seems to be even darker, the floodlights having to work even harder. The noise of chatter fills the stands, peoples breath is visible, winter is getting ever closer. The sound of a dog barking, makes the ears of our once again “placid” K9, ears prick, but he doesn’t seem to feel it’s necessary to get up.

The hot tea is doing a great job in keeping my vital signs up, the single finger of Kit Kat Tom gives me was a bit of a struggle to get, “I don’t want to take my gloves off” he says, before relenting and snapping me one off, not wanting to get chocolate on his newly acquired hardware.

ET win an early free kick, which has to be retaken because of an encroaching BT player, who gets a few choice words slung his way, and a yellow card. He does well to pretend he is the innocent party, arms out by his side, a look of shock on his face, I was just running past and jumped in the air and flicked out my boot guvnor, what I done wrong?, but he surely knows it was a bit of an arsehole move.

It’s been a quick start from both teams, but the game has descended into a bit of a win the ball lose the ball session in midfield, the BT keeper is not impressed, “not a good enough start”.

“I got the ball, I got the ball” says the lanky stunned looking BT defender, who towers over the referee, who has just put him in the book, “loves a yellow” says Tom, and I have to agree, the man in change does seem a little officious, and the case of did he get the ball or not, will be relevant in the not so far in the future, however we have another goal to enjoy first.

ET will be well annoyed at how sloppy the second goal they conceded was, they were nowhere near fast enough to react to the corner, which is eventually bundled clear, and are guilty again of the same mistake, when BT regain possession and are able with ease to slide the ball in to the path of the player, no one has followed. He meets it, but because it’s been slightly over hit, all he can do is give it a delicate flick, with the heel of his foot, sending the ball into the six yard box, where it is met by his sliding teammate who finishes the move.

The back heeler and the scorer peel away towards the corner flag, the scorer jumping into the open arms of the quick thinker, who holds him aloft. The ET players just trudge back towards the centre circle, some with their heads down, some livid, the feeling made worse I’m sure by their promising start to the new half.

IMG_20181003_195128“That changes everything” sung Billy Currington apparently, but also said by an almost gleeful Tom, who stops just shy of rubbing his hands together like Fagin. The long thin BT defender who was booked earlier, despite his claims of innocence, has just received a second. This one for me, was a lot more definitive, and he has barely stood back up, and the referee is brandishing the yellow card, then his red, inches from his face.

“Back to back reds” points out Tom as he makes the long walk off, the second sending off we’ve seen in as many games. I can’t make out what is being said, but there is much angry manly shouting coming from the other end of the pitch, towards the referee.

ET’s resulting free kick takes a nick off the top of the wall and goes over, Tom looks at me with a glint in his eye, “if they score next, we’re in for a thriller”. “Heads on boys” shouts an ET fan from the sidelines, who like Tom knows full well, that whoever scores the next goal is crucial.

The referee and his assistants are getting it hard from the crowd. “What you watching ref?” asks one angry spectator, when a BT player is left poleaxed, writhing in agony, not rolling around theatrically, he is properly hurt. “Think he might of chundered” whispers Tom about the injured player on the far side of the pitch, “he’s holding his throat”.

They may well find themselves a man down, but at times you would be troubled to know that. BT move the ball around well, have cool heads and are still very much in the game. In the away teams dugout, that is illuminated like a school disco, by the substitutes board being prepared, they are about to try and affect the ease in which BT are still dictating the pace of the game, even with their disadvantage, it’s time to roll the dice.

“Going all out attack” says Tom as the double change is made, “Erith playing four up front”, he’s gone “4-2-4” ads Pep, sorry Tom, who has obviously been listening very astutely to FIFA 19 and decided today was as good a time as any, to regurgitate all his newly learnt lingo.

Twenty minutes to go, “liven up” shouts the BT keeper, an ET fan offers his own encouragement in response, “come on blues it’s not over”. ET are certainly showing more and more the difference in the numbers, a sharp turn on the edge of the BT box, allows the player to make a short pass that finds his teammate, only for the keeper to smother the ball at his feet.

A newly arrived ET attacker is frighteningly quick, “he’s like having Aaron Lennon” says Tom, surprised he didn’t say Walcott, but maybe he didn’t want to be rude. His pace allows him to get into the box with ease down the right wing, but his first of many forays for the remainder of the match, ends with a a shot straight at the keeper.

“Oh to be a ref” sighs Tom, the man in charge this time surrounded by both teams players, one BT player down, having let out a sickening scream, he lays prone, clutching his ankle. “Don’t listen to the scream, he got the ball” is someones round about way in saying the ET player who made the tackle, didn’t deserve the yellow he was about to be given.

The referee is close to losing control, it’s all got a bit like the wild west, and not of the unrealistic Will Smith kind. Players are taking optimistic long range lobbed attempts from free kicks, there is again lots more yelling, lots of shouting and claims for things that just aren’t things, but among the chaos, BT are still very comfortable, maybe they thrive on the lawlessness, holed up in their own half, untroubled as Tom puts it by ET “throwing the kitchen sink at them”.

“Unlucky” roars the ET board member in his club tie just along from us, the other side of the “placid” dog, who joined our little section after swapping ends at half time, to the player who just hit a volley so sweetly from the edge of the box, it’s frankly a shame to see it go right into the arms of the keeper, it deserved more. Behind them, there is a definite crunch caused by a far too big a man, attempting to fence hop, to reclaim a lost ball.

ET go close again not long after, a goal bound header is cleared and the referee is soon in for more grief, “get the cards out then tosser” shouts a BT fan, when a player is fouled, but not looking like he is going to produce one, the BT players tell each other to “keep going, keep going”, and maybe now at their lowest ebb, the ET players have begun squabbling.

IMG_20181003_202155_6The game has fizzled out quite considerably, both benches are very quiet for the first time, maybe a case of them both thinking the result is a forgone conclusion. There is plenty of late ET pressure, particularly in wide areas, with some brilliant overlapping runs, but they inevitably come to nothing. BT do their best to clear their lines and are reduced to straight up counter attacking football. More than once they outnumber ET at the back, only for some last ditch heroics or sloppy passes to just about keep the visitors in the game.

ET hold on for as long as they can, but in the end succumb to the homes teams attacks, grabbing themselves a late third. It really is too easy for BT, carrying the ball from deep, the scorer has an option in the box, but doesn’t use him, and slides the ball under the keeper and into the far corner of the net. Arms out by his side, he struts towards the celebrating fans, “get in” he shouts before high fiving one of them. One player, a little late to the party, slides along the pitch on his knees, arriving at the still celebrating scorers feet.

There is some very muted applause and lots of bickering among the BT players when ET get themselves a conciliation goal. An expression I’ve never really understood, I don’t think much is going to console any team who have just lost. Anyway I’m reeling from the fact the Spurs game I’ve been recording at home, just got ruined by the person next to me, updating someone else like an annoying talking vidiprinter.

On the final whistle, both teams exchange the customary handshakes, the ET players and staff are
quick to get into dissecting the previous ninety minutes, the BT players are quick to try their best to rid themselves of the previous ninety minutes exertions. Some lie on their backs, legs propped up above them on the hoarding, stretching their legs. When they eventually walk off, their supporters have stuck around to cheer them in, “well played boys”.

A bit of a diamond in the rough is how I would describe BT, I say rough, the houses around here are massive, and some of the cars parked in their driveways cost more than some countries GDP. I’ll be honest they were not a club really on our radar, only because of Tom’s recent change of job, and no longer having Tuesday off, did we come.

The ground is great, the food was good, if you come and try the footlong, let us know what its like, Tom is still upset he didn’t have it. I’m sure Mr Gilet is nice once you get to know him, they do a programme and if the big man finds a bucket, they might have a raffle too.

Let me put it like this, I would happily spend two hours in traffic again to come here, without hesitation.

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