Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out taking a short trip to see the Abbotts take on Southend in the Essex Senior Cup.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
“I bet he doesn’t bring you Christmas biscuits” replies Rachel when I tell her Tom has offered to drive this evening. To be clear I don’t live very far at all from tonight’s venue, which I suspect has something to do with him offering and although he didn’t bring me Lebkuchen, he did give me half a Sainsbury chocolate cookie that he said he’d “saved” for me.
Although Spurs are playing in a crucial Champions League tie tonight and instead of preparing myself for a night on the sofa with the heating on, watching it on the TV, I’ve spent the whole day refreshing the Twitter account of Waltham Abbey FC (WA) to see if their pitch will pass the three o’clock inspection.
It did, and that’s why I find myself standing at the end of my road, with the rain coming down around me, waiting for Tom.
Still slightly in shock, it’s not until I see the blinding headlights of Toms car coming towards me, the rain now even heavier, that I realise this is actually about to happen. Flashing his lights as if to say ‘get in’, I open the door to the immortal question, “shall I put the seat warmers on for you?” and fantasy becomes reality.
My car feels little more than an old tin can, in comparisons to Tom’s, which feels like being on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Moody lighting, soft furnishings and cup holders galore. “Tell me if your bum gets hot, it’s on max”, he warns me. His caring side shining through, as he ensures I’m comfortable. He puts his windscreen wipers on their highest setting, the rain now lashing down.
For those of you who have never been in a Mini Countryman, let me tell you you’re missing out. The dashboard is dominated by a large special screen, which Tom can control everything from the Sat Nav to the radio with the dial down to his left. Embodying Commander Chekov and with a few turns of his left wrist, he plots our journey and we’re off.
“This is nothing” he says, the rain we are currently encountering, not a scratch on what he had to endure on the drive to mine, and the both of us share the feeling we might not be seeing a game at WA. Which wouldn’t be the first time, our last attempt to visit them was scuppered by a waterlogged pitch.
The woman bedraggled on the side of road, wet through and in a mild state of disarray, prompts Tom rhetorical question, “we’re choosing to go out in this?”. At the moment I’m more concerned about the fact that my back is now getting very, very hot and that Toms car is better in every single way than mine. Instead of a useless and surly Sat Nav, his says “please” when dishing out the directions.
Having not been the passenger in a car for nearly two years, It’s nice for once to be able to sit back, relax and enjoy what was more accurately no more than a bite of a cookie that Tom “saved” for me, but it’s the thought that counts. Not having to concentrate on getting us where we’re going is a bonus, watching Tom have to pull a very quickfire three point turn on an Essex trading estate, because although she might be polite, his Sat Nav has sent us the wrong way, gives me a mild sense of pleasure.
To be fair to her, the entrance to Capershotts is not exactly clear, opposite the entrance to a graveyard, it’s well let’s say secluded. There is a tall, green unlit sign, but that’s about it and when we eventually find ourselves in the right place, indicating to turn left off the main road, we find we’re not the only ones.
About three cars back in the queue, ahead of us a man battles with the lock of a yellow gate, the traffic around us slowly starting to build. Commuters on their way home from work, already with frayed around the edges start to lose their cool, “where do you want me to go?” asks Tom, as the beeping of car horns increases.
More and more people start to join the growing line behind us. One who turns out to be the WA tea lady behind us, has a far from happy face on and parking almost slap bang in the middle of the road in front of us, the WA manager Mark Stimpson, has just arrived, jumped out of his Audi, abandoning it in a very precarious position, to help with the gate.
The tension is building, not so much in our car, we just put the radio on and are quite enjoying the drama going on around us, although Tom does point out, “we can’t sit here all night”. What was one man, using the torch on his phone, is now three men, using their torches on their phones to guide them, however three quickly becomes two, one man has had enough of the struggle. The traffic is growing by the second, Tom tells me he is “starting to need a wee” and who we think are players trying to get in, are now causing tailbacks in both direction, Tom is sure the “police” will arrive at any moment.
Celebratory car horn honking usually reserved for New Years Eve or major sporting victories, accompanies the opening of the gate, a man manically waves us through and being one of the first into the car park, we realise just how many cars were waiting behind, as a procession of cars snakes in. Including the blue minibus of WA’s opponents, Southend United FC (SU).
The iridescent green colour scheme of WA’s home, is made clear once someone hastily flicks on the floodlights. Underfoot there is an unmistakable squelch every time you take a step and in the background is the near constant roar of a nearby motorway.
“Shit isn’t it” replies the ever Jovial Tony Gay, a WA coach, who we have crossed paths with many times over the last four year, when I bring up the weather. He is the kind of bloke you can hear before you see, larger than life probably doesn’t quite do him justice, but although he thinks the weather is less than ideal, he is far from downbeat.
Sitting under the small shelter behind one goal, the rain having gone full Forrest Gump, it’s coming down on the horizontal. Watching it swirl around the floodlights, it’s almost hypnotic, Tom wonders “if anyone will come”. With very little as far as cover goes, there is more fence then anything, places to keep out of the rain are few and far between. Tom has already worked out where he wants to spend the game, “back row under the F” he tells me. The ‘F’ being the one in WAFC painted on alternative green and white bands on the back of the main stand along one side of the pitch. It’s pale blue seats, the only place you’ll find to sit.
Considering the setting our last outing at Farnborough FC’s opulent Cherrywood Road, Capershotts is worlds apart. No corporate lounges or mega stands here, it’s all scaffolding, roped off no go zones and a portacabin tea bar, proper non league.
For the moment, the pitch is looking in surprisingly good nick, no ominous pools of water, but as ever Tom fears for the sanity of the groundsman, and what will he have to deal with, come full time.
Surrounded by the never ending sound of dripping water, that tap, tap, taps on the metal roof above us. I almost feel guilty from my low wooden bench vantage point, as the already drenched coaches from either team, put out the cones in preparation of the warm ups.
“Who is the lonely dude in the stand, he is very eager” ponders Tom, pointing to the single dark figure, who isn’t under the ‘F’, but has already taken up position in the main stand and means at least one other person, will be here tonight. Keenly studying the Met Office app, it’s a mixed bag for the next few hours. Currently its showing a black cloud with two rain drops, however its forecast for the rest of the evening is white clouds, with one raindrop. “Is it easing?” wonders Tom, looking up from this phone, with a sense of desperation in his voice.
The wind is picking up, the rain a blur in the floodlights, the bare brown trees behind the dugouts sway from side to side and inside the portacabin tea bar, visible through a single grate covered window, the lady from behind us in the queue to get in is busily working away.
“I just wanna know who that guy is?”, asks Tom again, transfixed on the stranger in the stand. A second person joins him, just as eager to secure their spot, but when he thinks he has, he realises he’ll get wet there, so starts the process again. In fact there is a steady stream of people now coming through the tatty yellow brick turnstiles, where between taking money the man manning them brushes away the standing water. Sadly, none coming in, seem to be holding a programme.
“Oh it’s definitely easing” says Tom triumphantly, celebrating the accuracy of his beloved Met Office app. The lights flicker on in the main stand, so at least the two men in it no longer have to sit in darkness. At its far end a man unpacks the PA system from a cardboard box, and with the aid of his zoom lens, Tom is on programme watch for me.
“Come on Southend” shouts an SU fan from the sidelines as the team jogs out in their bright yellow tops. At the same time, after his brief sound test, the PA opens his set with Crazy Horses by The Osmonds as the first song of the night, slowly fading it in. The weather might be crap, but so far the music is excellent.
Another SU fan cheers the name of each player as they walk out, the WA team not long behind them, don’t quite get the same fanfare, a couple stop at the edge of the pitch to cross themselves, before continuing. “Nice snood” beams Tom, the all black Nike number with a white tick, being worn by the WA keeper, gets Tom’s seal of approval.
I just couldn’t bare not knowing any longer, so breaking free from our cover I head towards the turnstile, “twenty minutes, girls stuck in traffic” is the reply of the man who no longer has a broom in his hand, but seems just a tad fed up of having to answer the same query from large nerdy men like myself, about if there will be a programme or not tonight.
The rain has stopped or has it, I have to double check by looking into the floodlights, slightly starry eyed, I can see that it hasn’t quit yet, but it’s far improved. Time for tea, and the tea bar is also in keeping with the high non league standard already been set. No airs and graces, just bare walls except for the faded wonky pictures of old WA teams, one of which most of the lineup have the most wonderful sideburns and cut out luminous stars, displaying the prices of what’s on offer.
Considering it’s actually quite mild, we don’t get a hot drink, instead just opting for a bottle of water and Tom a Lucozade, keen to replace all those electrolytes he’s lost so far today, from sitting about. Back in the stand behind the goal, along with the pigeons, we continue to be surprised by the amount of people arriving, “so many more people here than I thought there would be” says Tom, taking the words out of my mouth. Perhaps it’s the draw of SU, albeit their under 23’s or WA have a pretty die hard following.
We also notice the as I put it Old Trafford style slope around the edge of the pitch, that Tom can’t help himself saying is like the one at the Emirates.
Night Boat to Cairo by Madness makes me think of home and how much my daughter loves to dance to it. Congregated around the turnstile a posse of men, is starting to form, like me waiting on tenterhooks for the arrival of the woman who was only “twenty minutes” away, twenty five minutes ago. Tom just can’t wrap his head around it, people “waiting for a bit of paper” but I can’t be bothered to explain again how it’s so much more than that.
It’s quite subdued as far as entrances go, as the players appear from the caged tunnel to one side of the stand behind the goal. The voice over the PA noticeably lifts when he starts to read the names of the home side out. One home fan, with a green and white scarf above his head, shouts “we are the Abbey” as the teams cross the pitch. “We can do this” he says confidently, but quietly to himself. His score prediction however is far from positive, “reckon we’ll lose 4 – 1”, “well you can go home” replies a fellow fan, far from impressed by his prognosis.
In the brief moment between the players preparing for kick off and the whistle, I nab my programme. Post kick off and SU are straight at it, four minutes gone and the boy with the scarf has a premonition, “they’re going to score” he says as SU race towards the WA goal, showcasing their fighting pace.
A small group of the most committed of SU fans pass us, one of whom is soon under fire, seemingly not aware of what red tape means, he passes under it, into no mans land and and is soon bombarded with whistles and shouts. A long chat about concrete paths ensues, not the most riveting topic in the world. Who I think is the WA chairman explains the need for a continuous concrete path all around the pitch, to keep in line with FA rules, whose visits he jokes “cost” him “£30,000” every time they come.
Ten minutes gone and SU dissect WA, “do not let them score” implores scarf boy. “You can’t let them do that” comments another WA fan, the ease in which SU got down the wing, cut inside and were able to get a shot off, was far too easy.
After nearly a quarter of one way traffic, surrounded by anxious home fans, and the both of us sure this is game going to be over before it’s begun, WA go ahead, albeit slightly fortuitously. It’s a well
hit free kick, however its straight at the SU keeper, who makes a bit of a meal of a simple save and as the WA players celebrate, we are treated to the ringing of a green fire bell just along from us in the stand. WA’s version of the Harlow air raid siren.
“Come on you Abbots” shouts scarf boy padding about restlessly, who is singlehandedly, creating what one might call an atmosphere. Tom on kit watch has taken to SU’s all blue get up, it has a bit of the “France” about it. For me it’s all about the green and white hooped socks of WA, green a colour I still think is all too underutilised in football.
Tom tries for the second week in a row to be ball boy, but returns empty handed, the ball having disappeared into a spooky space behind the main stand, and he didn’t look up for venturing down there. His slight exertion has got his stomach rumbling, “I’m hungry” he tells me before letting out a sizable “ohhhhh” at the sight of a WA foul on a SU player, it’s a real shin clutcher.
For all the difference in pace, touch and quality, it’s WA who double their lead on around twenty minutes. A pirouette in the SU area, sees the WA player away and in on goal, only to be clattered from behind and the referee has no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Some of the younger WA fans, including scarf boy, dash towards that end of the pitch, phones in hand to capture the moment.
As the fire bell sounds again, the voice over the PA is now even more excited than when he was announcing the first goal and he has every right to be. Although they find themselves on the other end of wave after wave of SU attacks, it is they who find themselves in front. “Clinical” is how Tom puts it, two attempts on goal, two goals.
SU are so fast, scarily fast, in their number 9 and 10 they have two players with it to burn. A scintillating counter attack just before the half an hour mark, results in a deftly hit curling shot that strikes the post. Ten or so minutes later and I’m pretty sure everyone is scratching their head, wondering how they are not at least level pegging. A slide rule pass forward is latched onto by the number 9, who before going down under the attention of a WA defender is able to touch the ball off to number 10 who through on goal, instead of just shooting over eggs the pudding, and one step over too many later the chance has gone.
There are claps from the stand that are either applauding the defending or the apparent mercy being shown indirectly by the SU player for not scoring.
Considering my last paragraphs, it would be wrong for me not to say, that WA have their own moments, they are tenacious and should probably have three goals by now, a whipped ball across the SU box goes untouched, all it needed was someone on the other end for a simple tap in.
“Offside again” tuts East London’s Pep, “if they just held their runs’’ he adds. SU have been a bit over eager some might say or even lazy, when it comes to staying on side. As Tom put it if they just held their runs for a fraction they would have been in on goal at least “five times”, and Tom adds, WA “ain’t catching them”.
Another late WA challenge, causes more SU shin clutching and this time a yellow card. The WA players insist to the referee, who Tom is convinced is “semi famous”, that their man got the ball, but he’s having none of it. SU’s free kick is on target, it circumnavigates the wall, but is straight into the arms of the WA keeper.
Into the final five and another WA ball into the box, this time results in a huge threeway coming together between the SU keeper, an SU defender and a WA forward, the ball is loose momentarily but is eventually cleared.
SU’s number 10 hops in frustration, it’s just not coming together for him, some of this is down to the WA defence who are a little fortunate at times, but are doing enough to keep the rampant visitors at bay so far. The home fans cheer their teams clear determination to go in for the break, still two goals to the good.
In football you have halves that feel like they were only ten minutes long, and you have halves that feel, well the opposite. “Long half” says Tom, surely the whistle will be blown any minute. “Stay switched on” shouts someone from the WA bench, following another SU attack.
The half ends with no great surprise, another SU chance, but again it’s thwarted by some more backs to the wall, Gandalf impressed, ‘you will not pass’ defending. Free and away at goal, SU’s number 9 only has to finish. With shades of Ledley King against Arjen Robben at White Lane, in YEAR, the WA defender who looked like he’d been left for dead, finds a second wind, catches up with the striker and from behind, with faultless timing and precision, tackles him and prevents the certain goal.
What a challenge, what a way to finish the half.
You could almost go as far as saying he sounds coquettish, as the best way to describe how the man reading out the score sounds, following the half time whistle. I can’t obviously confirm it, but I think he might have been ever so slightly on cloud nine. The cheers of the crowd are followed by a mini stampede towards the tea bar, much to Toms annoyance, “oh no everyone is going” he says at the thought of having to wait a whole two minutes in line for his chips.
For all the praise I heaped on the DJ for his pre kick off song choices. Deciding that I Don’t Like Mondays, by the BoomTown Rats is a suitable way to start the break, undoes all his good work. Even Mother Nature is appalled, as its start to spit, just about the time the song gets to the first chorus. The rain having so far held off since the biblical down pouring on arrival. Thankfully the mood skyrockets, with the introduction of a bit more of everyone’s cheeky north london Ska outfit Madness and we in attendance are no longer subjected to Geldof.
Our brief chat with Tony Gay, Tom having arrived back in no time at all, who makes the silly mistake of having his chips out on show and Tony is not shy in helping himself, at least until the “soup” he just asked someone to get him, appears, was like being in the presence of an all seeing prophet. His order by the way that got such an extraordinary response, you would’ve thought he’d asked for a lobster bisque, “a soup?!?!” the man bellowed back, in shock.
“They would have got the biggest rolicking” he tells us, there was a distinct chance of some flying teacups in the SU changing room he thinks, they are “professional”, WA “train once a week”. One of the biggest differences between the two sides in the second half will be “fitness” and he is somewhat understated when he suggests the SU’s number 10 is simply a bit “lively”. I get the distinct impression from Tony that with WA having “six reserve” players in the team, he thinks its a minor miracle they are two goals in front.
Some 70’s hair metal with high pitched vocals welcomes the teams out. “Come on you Abbey” shouts someone from the back of the main stand.
“Too fucking easy” screams one WA player, it’s taken SU all of two minutes to grab a goal back. The PA is far from coquettish now, he’s downright depressed. The visitors number 9 has come out the traps flying, it’s his ball into the box from out wide, that is slotted into the back of the net.
Bumping into Peter Miles, A.K.A. Mr Southend, A.K.A groundhopping royalty, really puts into perspective, just how little football we get to each season, today’s match being his “one hundred and twenty sixth” he tell us, and that’s not in the whole of 2018, but the 2018/19 season.
He also tells us of his attempt to visit every “member state of UEFA” his recent trip to Gibraltar taking his tally to “forty” of “fifty five”.
He also fills us in a bit on SU stars of the future, number 10 having made a few “first team” appearances, but he reckons is not “fancied” by the manager. He also lets us in on the fact that SU were 2 – 0 down at half time in the last round, and went on to with “5-2”.
Thirteen minutes gone and the SU comeback is complete, which they achieve in the most outrageous of fashion, an almost halfway line lob, no less, the scorer falling just short of going the full Cantona, his arms out by his side, but his shirt has no collar to pop.
A minute later and WA go a whisker wide with a header, “ohhhhh” go the crowd, the memory of being two goals to the good a distant memory, now they are only able to cling on to the smallest of moments. SU are showboating, WA make a double substitution, and scarf boy is still confident, despite the turnaround in his team’s fortunes, “it’s gonna be 3 -2”.
Nineteen minutes gone and SU have flipped the game on its head, “oh dear, I feel a bit sorry for them” mumbles Tom. The man on the PA now is in a near state of despair and just as Tony had predicted, SU that have come out this second half a different team and have blown WA away. From a “shambles” as Peter put it, to half volley scissors kick finishes, I can’t understand how they made such hard work out of it before, 3 – 2 up now and they are cursing.
“Come on Abbey take your chances” shouts someone from the main stand. I’m not quite sure what “chances” they are referring too, they’ve not had a shot on target in the past twenty five minutes. It’s SU crafting all the chances, their unrelenting pressure almost sees them grab a fourth, only for the shot to sail a fraction over.
Not that SU need any assistance up front, but WA are clearly feeling generous and give them a bit of help with a short pass back to the keeper, that is soon pounced upon in a flash. Lucky for the guilty WA defender, his keeper reaches it just a moment before the SU player, but hearts are still in mouths as he makes his hoofed clearance, that strikes the SU player on the arse, sending the ball goalwards and wide.
Just shy of thirty minutes on the clock and WA register their first shot on target and it’s a good one, low down to the keepers right, it stings his palms and he’s forced to push the ball back into the box. “Come on Abbey” shouts a fan, “greens we go again” shouts a player, both still holding on to slightest thread of positivity. As WA slowly, but surely, edge themselves back into the game.
Despite WA’s slight resurgence, a cross that almost catches the SU keeper out and a second shot on goal in as many minutes is lacking any venom, but it’s something. The football romantic in me is stirred and I ask Tom is there any way WA can get something out of this match, “no” he replies emphatically.
SU are so skillful, the impertinence of youth makes it looks like they don’t even care, they are able to do things with a football, that someone like me could only dream of. At moments it looks like the ball is glued to the end of their feet, to they swagger about the pitch doesn’t quite emphasise just how self-assured they are, cocksure might just about get there.
With just over ten minutes left, SU grab their fourth, an edge of the box screamer low into the left hand corner of the goal, well out of reach of the WA keeper, the voice over the PA ambivalent now. Instead of dwelling on the score, he informs all “eighty eight” of us here, how many other people have braved the rain. “Thought there was more than that” says Tom, as did I.
Scarf boy screams at the sight of a WA header that goes just over, but if I was him, I would be screaming every time SU get the ball, they look like scoring on every attack, as Tom puts it, you would be very “optimistic” about the future if you were an SU fan.
A late lunging and totally unnecessary SU challenge sparks a bit of a flare up, however the referee who Tom is still trying to work out where he has seen him before, has things under control pretty quickly. “Keep battling” insists a WA player.
I manage, with not long to spare to add a tick to my big book of football cliches, when SU send a ball right down the “corridor of uncertainty” as one home fans put it, in the WA box.
The WA supporters wince at the sight of one of their players taking a hammered free kick right in the midriff and then wince again, when SU get their fifth just after, bizarrely replicating the result in the last round exactly. The voice over the PA is nonchalant, he’s completely over it. ”Ohhhhh” says the lady from the now closed tea bar. “Different level” comments one home fan as his team prepare to restart again, and he makes a good point that some of the WA players would have “done a days graft today”.
SU to go close their sixth into added on time, but they start to loose their discipline, awarding WA two free kick in as many minutes on almost the same spot. “Finish” pleads one WA supporter as the ball falls to a WA player on the penalty spot but his shot is blocked and I’m trying my best not to throttle the man behind me, who has ruined my attempt to record the Spurs game and watch it when I get home, “Tottenham have scored”.
The rain held off for the whole match, little consolation for the home fans I’m sure, with the teams back inside, the ground is plunged into the darkness, and the heavens open. Never have we seen a match, that was a game of two halves in the truest sense of the word. The battle of the two ex teammates, who both played for SU no less, was won by SU’s manager tonight, but for a moment, just a brief moment I’m sure Mark Stimpson thought the bragging rights might be his.
A green and white flag flaps at the end of its flag pole as we leave, its at this point we notice the clubhouse the other side of the car park for the first time, bet its nice and dry in there and I’ve still got Toms ginormous belch, “shouldn’t eat dinner in five minutes” ringing in my ears, and I can’t help but wonder if Tony Gay got his soup?
For more blogs, photos & videos by Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game please join them on Facebook and give their page a “like” – Go to Facebook
Follow the boys on Twitter – Go To Twitter
Follow on Instagram #BeautifulGame15 – Go To Instagram