Two Men In Search Of the Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time heading across to Hampshire to take in Franborough’s Cherrywood Road.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
“Provisions, just in case” says Rachel, handing me half the contents of a Greggs in a blue and white carrier bag, as well as a packet of German Christmas biscuits, Lebkuchen. I decline the Mexican baguette, chicken with jalapenos and the doughnuts, tightly packed in their cellophane wrapper, opting for a bottle of water, the cinnamon biscuits, thinking surely lighting can’t strike twice.
There is no time for flowery words about sunsets, skyscrapers or clouds, there is not even time to try and catch a glimpse of how White Hart Lane is coming on, by the time I arrive at Tom’s, my eyes are ready to pop out of my skull, there is a pain in my forehead akin to a train trying to smash out of it, so much so I have to get out the car and dive head first into Tom’s bathroom cabinet, resurfacing having necked two Nurofen.
The stress of the rush hour traffic, has done a right number on me. Stop, start, stop start, and a near coming together between me and a blue convertible Mercedes, means I am in a bad mood to say the least.
I’m not the only one to come prepared though, not long into our journey, and Tom produces a single banana from his bag and a small pre used bottle of water, that has clearly been filled up from the tap.
I think it must be the anxiety of what is potentially around the next corner, that means it’s probably the quietest drive we’ve ever made. No music, no radio, no Red Dead Redemption chat, just the crackle of Toms vape, the rustling of me taking another biscuit, I’ve had far too many already, the inside of my mouth feels like a Yankee Candle. Toms banana skin sits folded up on my dashboard, and despite my glares, he has not got the hint, that I would like him to close the window, because it’s fucking cold.
Considering it was only moments ago he reeled off a long list of the articles of clothing that he has with him tonight to combat the chill and considering he just said “I’m dreading the cold” I can’t understand why he is insisting on having the window open, that is allowing all the warm air out and all the arctic wind in. Talk of investing in “military grade” winter clothing, “Everest” type gear to get him through the months ahead, sounds like a sensible investment. Talk though of him making his own “fingerless gloves”, that won’t reveal all of his fingers, just two of them, so he can use his camera, is not so sensible.
“Cobham services” says Tom, with all the dread of a veteran returning to the scene of some great battle. The very palatial motorway service station, was the very place our two hour stay on the M25 last week culminated, after a mixture of emergency resurfacing and a one wheeled caravan, put the kibosh on us getting to our intended game.
Sweaty palms and nervous ticks start to lessen as we fly by, the chance of a repeat of all the sitting, sitting, sitting with no movement at all, constant checking on our ETA, before realising we weren’t going to make it, very, very unlikely. The appearance of some red sections on Tom’s Google maps fastens ones heartbeat a bit, but they prove to be false alarms.
I’ve never been to Farnborough before, as with many of our trips, it takes us to places neither of us have been to or were likely to go to, had it not been for football. I’m aware of the famous airshow, but I’m sure the locals would attest to there being a lot more to their town, then a few days a year, where a Spitfire does a fly pass..
One thing I can certainly tell you, and this may be worth adding to the 2019 Farnborough edition of the Lonely Planet, in fact I’ll quote Tom, because he put it best, there are “sooooo many roundabouts”. Motion sickness has near enough set in, by the time we arrive at the well lit sign at the entrance to Cherrywood Road, home of Farnborough FC (FB).
“Oh I can feel it”, shudders Tom climbing out of the car, the cold making its presence known instantly. Getting my coat and bag out of the boot, it is difficult to not be somewhat dumbstruck by the sheer size of Cherrywood Road. Part of me has to almost pinch myself, double checking that we’re in the right place. Its huge,I feel like we’ve pulled up outside a League One or Two teams ground, and in a minute someone is going to tell me we are supposed to be around the corner.
Your town your team, it reads either side of the turnstiles, the other side of which the ground is still only half lit, not quite revealing its full splendour quite yet. Standing pitchside, Kevin FB’s Vice Chairman, who I’m sure is able to tell from our gawping faces, that we are both quite taken aback by the ground around us, I need to emphasise this is far from your average non league ground by any stretch of the imagination, he tells us it can “hold 6,500” but they would “expect 200 tonight”.
Except for a few stewards, I’m pretty sure we are the first in tonight, the home players are here, we can hear their music coming from the dressing room, but to give you an idea of just how early we are, when Tom notices the woman rolling up the shutter of the fast food kiosk with a fag in hand and asks her when she will start serving, he catches her a bit by surprise, however her reply is fast and overwhelming friendly in equal measure, “anytime, I can cook something for you now if you want?”.
Half of the wiry towering floodlights flicker into life, slowly but surely a bit of life starts to course through the spacious grounds veins. Maybe down to just how cold it is, the whole place feels like it’s moving at half speed. Tom opts for a cup of tea for now, I do too, and although it’s not your customary non league hot, i.e. you can take a sip of it without needing a skin graft, at least its warm.
A man standing under the shelter of the supporters trust stand, sets up a small blue and yellow tombola in preparation I hope of a 50/50. The whiteboard behind him, the results of the last one having been only half wiped away, means I’m hopeful of being able to have a flutter.
I can assure you it’s not the array of shocking coughs that seem to be plaguing most people here that drives us towards the club shop, but more the curiosity of wanting to look at the panels either side of the blue door, dedicated to FB’s history. One denotes FB’s previous incarnation, Farnborough Town FC’s, time in the FA Cup. The other explains why FB are not called Farnborough Town anymore, after going into administration and reforming in 2007.
Much like the ground, the shop is a lot grander than those we are used to. Most shops, if there is one at all and it’s not just a case of selling scarves and hats from behind the bar, or from a shed like at Cray Wanderers or a cupboard like at WIT, normally there is not enough room to swing a cat, and the shelves are quite bare. Although the racks are hardly bursting, there are a nice array of shirts for sale. The counter is covered in all your usual football tat and some a bit more unusual, a Bertie Bassett statue and a red and black scarf covered in enamel pins from football clubs all across Europe.
“Nanny can I have a scarf” asks one young fan of her grandmother as she enters the shop, the debate between her grandparents is, she may well want one, but “will she wear it?”.
Its piece de resistance is the “treasure corner” as Tom calls it, a storage box mountain of old programs, that one man is almost waist deep in, that according to the woman behind the till, took her and her husband “fifty hours” to sort through and categorise.
The first of our football essentials trifecta is soon completed, when I purchase a much more up to date programme then the fading, sepia tinged ones behind me. A programme that not only covers tonight’s game, but FB’s next home game too, ‘double issue’ it says, splashed across its bright yellow cover.
Tom tests my programme nerdiness, when he poses me a scenario: if I was an FB fan, and I attended both games, would I still “buy two?” to ensure my OCD in these matters was satisfied. I tell him even my football programme collection obsession doesn’t stretch that far, but I don’t think he believes me.
Cherywood Road is all go when we emerge from the club shop, steam from the fast food kiosk grills, hangs below its low ceiling, before billowing out, rolling over the shutter and into the nights sky. Box number two of our football essentials checklist is soon fulfilled, the second half of the floodlights allows Tom to assess the menu, “sausage roll and Bovril, 2 quid, dinner sorted” he suggests to me, after saying I was a bit hungry, and he has very kindly worked out what I should get.
“Do you want onions?” asks the lady serving, to which she gets a very enthusiastic “yes please” from Tom.
Burger sauce applied, which Tom then tells me he “always regrets” because it’s “too sickly” and a copious amount on his chips, Tom insists for the next ten minutes we go and find a seat in the club bar, not only to allow for some some respite from the cold, but also because he has got all precious all of a sudden about needing a table to eat off. I’ve seen him inhale a currywurst on the packed terraces of the Yellow Wall, so I don’t know what’s changed all of a sudden.
I relent, but before we head inside, I slip the elderly man in a black hat behind the tombola £2, and he tears four yellow tickets from his book, handing me two, and folding the other two in half, before opening the small door on the side of the octagonal drum and popping them inside.
Tom grabs one of the faux green leather diner style booths in the bar, maybe because they look like the most comfortable place to sit or because they give him the best view of the TV. “Like being at Mums, Emmerdale and crinkle cut chips” he says, momentarily overcome with nostalgia, the theme tune of the ITV soap playing and the irregular shaped potato soggy from vinegar, poking out from underneath his “good burger”.
“Happy boy” he says to himself, one eye on his food, the other on the very odd conversation happening over my shoulder on the TV about erotic fiction.
As with everything else here, the bar is much larger than most places we’ve ever been to. Two fruit machines instead of one, two dart boards, the plush booths, not just second hand pub furniture, the stage, which every good clubhouse or bar should have, looks big enough for a slightly scaled down production of Cats. Even the size of the club badge hanging behind the bar, seems that little bit more opulent.
“I don’t think anyone is coming”, whispers Tom, “should be here by now” he adds, with just over half and hour to kick off, one may of expected to have seen a few more fans than are here currently. At the moment the bar staff almost outnumber the home supporters. We do though catch a glimpse of our first way fans, both in matching Gosport Borough FC (GB) woolly hats, having a pint at a table not far from us.
Tom has something in his beard, but considering how ungenerous he is being when it comes to sharing his chips, I break the normally cast iron bearded brother code, and don’t tell him. Tossing the last small crust of his burger bun into its box, he hoovers up the final few chips, saying to himself as does “very nice, very nice”, as he prepares to put his hat on, the sign he is ready to go back outside.
Our second look at Cherrywood Road, now bathed completely in the stark glow of the floodlights, it allows us both to fully appreciate it in all its glory. Along one side of the pitch, the same side as the dugouts and from where the players will appear, is what one might call the main stand. All seater with its intriguingly named Platinum Bar hospitality suite at its top, that Tom is very keen to investigate.
Opposite the main stand, and the full length of the pitch is a half standing, half seated stand, and behind one goal is a half covered bank of concrete terracing with white railings. There is not a lean to, repurposed bus shelter, piece of scaffolding or a broken seat in sight, Cherrywood Road is not very non league at all.
You may well have noticed, I’ve only described three sides of the ground and this is not because of an Oxford United type set up, with their three sided Kassam Stadium, but because the fourth stand, the one behind the other goal, is so large, so imposing, one could be forgiven for thinking it had once been part of Maine Road, saying that, and keeping to the North West theme, it does bare a striking resemblance to the Cheadle End at Edgeley Park. It’s hundreds of blue seats more than capable of managing the expected attendance tonight, with some to spare.
I’m convinced that some if not most of the ground will be out of bounds, why would you bother to have it all open if you were only expecting two hundred? Why bother having the necessary stewarding and such when no one will be here to use it, however the patrolling men in hi viz and the lack of red and white tape, leads me to believe this will not be the case.
So intrigued by the Platinum Lounge, Tom has disappeared. Pressing his nose up against the glass like a Dickens character at Christmas, he couldn’t stop himself peering through the window, to see how the other half live. Reporting back, we recounts fanciful tales of “silver service” a “programme at your seat” and a “three course meal”, but this can’t be true, this is the seventh tier of the football pyramid, not Stamford Bridge.
I think the idea of a sit down meal and someone serving you broccoli with tongs, appeals to Tom. The sight of the finer things, reignite in him a fire that has always been there. Putting to the sword his salt of the earth, man of the people persona he likes to portray. Hospitality and prawn sandwiches is right up his street, no great surprise mind, considering his stint in club level whilst a season ticket holder at the Emirates.
A young FB fan in matching club shirt and hat waits at the mouth of the dark brick tunnel at the base of the main stand for the arrival of the players. She is on mascot duty and is more than eager to thrust her gloved hand into that of the FB’s captain, confidently strides out across the pitch. Leading from the front she shakes first the hands of the referee and his assistants, before them of the GB players.
So used to hearing a bit of music pre kick off, essential on some occasions because it gives something for Tom and I to talk about, it is a bit strange when we don’t hear anything at all. I’m not saying everyone has to go to the extent of creating a bespoke mix, like they used at Newhaven as the players walk out, but a little music goes a long way to building the atmosphere. I’d be happy with a bit of Radio 4, but I’m probably the only one.
Other than the sizzle of the hotplates and the players warming up, Cherrywood Road had been relatively quiet, until the booming, stern voice, of the stadium announcer thunders from the speakers. His “welcome” a little frosty, and his sudden introduction, makes me think of the first time Dorothy met the Wizard of Oz.
Let’s be honest, we were never going to sit anywhere else but in the “ridiculous” stand as Tom calls it. As nice as the main stand looks, “ohh mood lighting” says Tom as its lights go out, in preparation of kick off, we opt to climb the few steps into the grandstand, that is near enough empty, looks so out of place, but as Tom crucially points out, it is certainly “comfy”.
“Come on boro” and “come on yellows” are the shouts from the scattered crowd. Any of those FB supporters who have opted to sit in what we are now referring to as the ‘Mega Stand’, who offer up their own shouts, it almost echoes in the cavernous empty space that surrounds us.
There is barely no time for us to have our brief and always ill informed discussions about who is going to win, because with merely two minutes on the clock, the GB players are screaming at the referee, who in turn is glaring at his assistant for guidance, because they have just had a header cleared from what they think is from behind the line. All the players look at the referee for a decision, whose eyes are still locked onto his assistant, who shakes his head.
The promising start by the visitors I think somewhat colours Tom decision making process when trying to work out who will be victorious tonight. Not long after seeing GB nearly go ahead, he tells me it is them who he thinks will win. Normally such decisions are based on current form or past head to heads, however Tom informs me he thinks GB will leave with all three points, in a significant departure from his normally Pep like analysis, because they looked the “more energetic” in the warm up.
I also feel GB will be the winners, but must admit this is based on equally ridiculous reasons. I have failed completely to do the slightest bit of research on either team, so opt for the one whose kit I like the most. GB’s shirt and shorts are a shade of green more familiar in a glade than on a football kit. With the black detailing around the shoulders, it makes it one of the more curious designs we are likely to see this season.
I’m doing my best to concentrate on the game, but it’s hard, I just can’t get my head around this stand. I don’t know why I’m so transfixed on it. We’re watching a football match in the Southern League, but it feels and looks like Sheffield Wednesday will be playing here next Saturday.
Proving that how fast you run in the warm up or what colour your shirt is, have little impact on anything at all, FB take the lead on nine minutes. A dinked ball into the box, is latched onto by one forward who takes a few touches before finishing well from a tight angle. Wheeling away the scorer is met by a teammate, who puts him in a headlock and ruffles his hair, much like an overly enthusiastic aunt, you haven’t seen for ages, might do.
A single gruff voice from in front of us, dishes out loud advice to FB. The shouts from the technical areas are equally as loud, if not a bit more angry, but both benches are at such close quarters, I’m not sure if its the home or away manager, who is pissed off.
It may well be the home one, a quarter of the half gone and GB go close again, despite being ahead FB are hardly in control. A superb flick on the edge of the box, sees the player away and heading towards the goal, he shoots high towards the top corner, from an acute angle. Too powerful for the keeper to hold, he is forced to pad it away for a corner.
“Fastest yellow card flash I’ve ever seen” says Tom, the referee dishing out a booking to a FB player, as Tom puts it, without even raising the card “above his head”. The croaky voiced FB fan is bemused. “Whats wrong with you?” he asks his keeper, who Tom confirms, “that’s the second time he’s done that”, the FB stopper having sent his second consecutive goal kick straight into touch.
Another FB booking, allows GB the chance to swing in a free kick, which results in moment of panic, the visitors claim for a penalty, but its waved away. FB regain possession and counterattack. Their eventual shot is pushed wide and receives the muted gloved applause of the fans. FB go close with a header from the resulting corner and more shouts of “come on boro” echo around the Mega Stand.
I finally succumb to the cold, always keen to portray Tom as a bit of a softy and me a hardy mountain man, that isn’t bothered by the silly cold, I cave. Rummaging around in my bag for my black and white shemagh or what Tom calls my “tablecloth”, I wrap it around my neck. He tells me I should get a snood, a shemagh is basically a middle eastern one, just not anywhere near as douchie. Sounding like someone who has shares in Snood Inc, he suggests “everyone should have one” they “make all the difference”.
Tom who rapidly taps his feet as he does his best to bring them back to life, as well as on occasion slapping his thighs, to do the same he points to the man in front of us in a mobility scooter, “he’s got the right idea” he says. The man’s legs and lower torso concealed within a blue sleeping bag.
To suggest the game was dead, would imply it had been alive in the first place, the first thirty minutes, except for the goal and the oh so brief moments where GB forge a half chance, it’s never really got off the ground. Just after the half an hour mark, and a dangerous GB ball across the FB box, hits the heels of the intended forward, who can’t meet the pass in his stride.
Tom is longing for his half time snack, “I want a chocolate bar”. I’m trying my best to not write even more about the Mega Stand, because the game is not giving me anything. There are the odd flashes of excitement, like when one FB winger flies down the wing, into the box, makes his way along the byline and lets fly a close range shot and for a fraction of a second, I and all the FB fans thinks they have doubled their lead, but the all seeing eye that is Tom, brings me crashing down to earth, “side netting”.
The shot that ended up hitting the side of the goal must have taken a deflection, FB are awarded a corner. GB’s keepers attempt to clear it through a sea of people, sees him make a right meal of it, flapping he doesn’t quite make the intended contact, but is saved by the referee who gives a foul.
Such was the velocity the man in GB’s goal hurtling into the other players, he has come off worse for wear and is down in his yard box. What’s wrong with the keeper I ask Tom, sometimes the lens on his camera can give us a bit of an insight into what’s happening at the other end of the pitch, but he doesn’t look, “the cold” he replies.
Other than their very sweetly taken and well worked goal, FB whenever in position are either bobbling the ball around in midfield or are hitting hopeful looking passes up the channels, to exacerbated forwards and wide players who without fail, give the same shrug of the shoulders, each with a ‘what am I supposed to do with that’ look on their face.
As cold as it is, I would still rather be shivering, than inside watching Emmerdale and as the half heads into its final five minutes. GB who much like FB have been very little more than simply present, seem determined to drag this game up by the bootstraps and almost score. Crashing a shot off the foot of the post, they have no intention of giving up on their rare moment of forward momentum easily. Retrieving the rebound, the player who just saw his shoot hit the woodwork, turns and heads back towards the goal, leaving the towering defender whose marking him for dead. The skyscraper knows full well he’s been beaten, and can only hold up his hands, and watch the much smaller man race towards the six yard box, where instead of shooting, he cuts the ball back to a better positioned teammate.
Prompted by a shout to leave it the second of the GB players lined up on the edge of the box to drive the ball goalwards, does just that, letting the ball roll to the man behind him, whose side footed effort goes well over.
“Totally whipped him out” laughs Tom, a FB player is down having been accidental forearm smashed by the referee in the centre circle. However such is the strength of the call from the food kiosk, that Tom can’t keep his eyes off, and instead of watching to see if the man in black is about to perform the People’s Elbow. He’s waffling on instead about how “stuffed” he is, how he only wants a hot drink, and he “couldn’t eat another thing”, even if he wanted to, after his “banana, lots of biscuits, and burger and chips”.
On the stroke of forty five minutes the steely voiced announces their will be “two minutes of added time” and what looked like a “good tackle” to both Tom and I, is awarded as a foul in FB’s favour, giving them one last chance to get the ball into the GB box.
Once again the GB keeper does his best to reach the cross, once again he can’t quite make it and flaps once more. This time though he remains unscathed. With what must be only seconds left to play, it is a “lively” finish as Tom puts is as GB have not one, but two pops at the FB goal. The first is blocked by a GB player, just about summing up this game, the second by the poked out leg of a FB defender.
A lacklustre blast of the referee’s whistle brings the half to an end. The PA confirms the score, then the fact I have not won “£66” on the 50/50 or as it transpires the “golden goal” either, which I didn’t even know was an option. Music for the first time fills the ground and I can’t work out if the people bobbing up and down are dancing to Katy Perry or are trying to keep warm.
In a blue and yellow FB scarf and with a pint in hand, Luke, FB’s programme editor joins me. “Came after they went under” he explains, my first question of course about the origins of the Mega Stand, which much to my surprise it came post 2007 thanks to a previous owner, which there have been few. It has been a far from easy revival since the clubs return from the ashes.
Talking to Luke, he quickly joins the long list of committed volunteers, who make non league football tick. Living no more than twenty minutes away from me in North London, he follows FB home and away, he explains his rather convoluted journey here for midweek games, that relies on a lot of moving parts being in sync, to ensure he gets here on time. As well as being the programme editor, he also has a rather large camera round his neck, so I would not be shocked if he told me he moonlights as the clubs photographer too.
Tom spends nigh on the whole of the break in the shuffling queue of woolly hat wearers for a cup of tea, returning slowly, having the steps of the stand to contend with, as he makes the return leg with a cup of tea in each hand.
A combination of nattering with Luke and trying desperately to eat my rock hard Kit Kat, without cracking a molar, the first fifteen minutes of the second half are a little hazy. I can tell you that GB go
close twice, picking up where they left off, and Luke is growing increasingly anxious, “getting closer”. He then utters the immortal words every football fan will say at some point during a match when their team is holding on to a one goal lead, “we need a second”.
“Come on” he barks, right in my ear, half out of his seat, as an FB forward races towards the GB goal, one on one, but his shot is saved.
The GB player who was a hairs breadth from getting on the end of a cross in the FB six yard box, lies on the pitch head in hands, mulling over just how close to it he was. As nice as the “great tea” as Tom puts it is, and as welcome as the mild sugar rush the Kit Kat brings is, the game still has failed to catch light.
“Come on boro” shouts an animated Luke when a FB free kick travels all the way through the GB box and out the other side unmolested, resulting in much disgruntled groaning from the home fans. They look to go close again, but sadly the cross into the box, can’t match the quality of run and delicate touch, that would have been the perfect end to an inspired solo move. The groans this time are not of disapproval but concern, as the wide player at full pelt careered heavily into the hoarding, and most in attendance take a sharp intake of breath.
“He got up quick” says Tom, relieved as I’m sure everyone is, that the player whose run came to an abrupt and what sounded like a very painful end, is back up on his feet.
Luke fills me in on more about the ground, as I badger him for more information, he tells me it is “league standard” and was recently used by a top flight “Russian club” to train in. Then my cross examination is put on hold, when with less than a quarter of an hour left, GB have been reduced to ten men, after a player is shown his second yellow, and as he makes the long slow walk off, he is serenaded with chants of “cheerio, cheerio, cheerio”.
“Shit” shouts Luke, FB have just conceded. The joy of being a goal up and having a man extra, lasted all of about six minutes. The two GB fans from the bar, have been joined by at least four others behind the goal and they watch the scorer, who just dispatched the ball high into the roof of the net, come to a stop in front of them, after an impressive knee side.
The PA shows for the first time, the faintest hint of emotion, clearly annoyed as he has to confirm the time of the goal and name of the scorer. “It’s been coming since about the sixtieth minute” says Luke astutely. There are the odd shouts of “come on you yellows” but they are few and far between, with the ten men of GB now well on top.
A deep GB cross looks like it might be heading for the top right hand corner only for it to be plucked from the air by the FB keeper. “Come on boro” shout the fans, without an ounce of optimism One member of the home bench almost quotes Journey, but gets it wrong, “keep believing”.
“Happy with a 1 – 1” says Tom, the GB keeper, not surprisingly now taking an eternity to do the simplest of tasks. “Get on with it” shouts one FB supporter, his shenanigans have not gone unnoticed by them either. There is much debate between two GB players who should take the latest free kick, when they eventually decided it should be the keeper, he ends up kicking it right out of play, much to the delight of the home fans.
Into the final five minutes and GB are trying to waste every possible second they can, “you’ve been mugged off”, shouts a member of the ever increasingly vocal home fans to the referee, a GB player has gone down, apparently injured and the physio is called for. Sarcastic applause rings out as to no one’s great surprise, the injured player is back on his feet and is as right as rain.
The late appearance of the much coveted number 12, Michael Fernandes, who Luke tells me has been scouted by a swathe of “Premier League clubs” and who I don’t think is the person of the same name I went to primary school with, will in Luke’s opinion, “make the difference”. Fernandes is “very fast” and “very skillful” adds Luke, only his “decision making” can let him down, but he’s young and his early touches are very promising.
“Win the game for us Michael” implores a voice from the crowd.
Fernandes introduction has roused the fans, their shouts are a bit more hopeful now, “come on boro”. Luke is now permanently perched on the edge of his seat, “come on” he shouts once more, almost directly into my ear and on the other side of me I’ve got Tom hammering his thighs again, trying now his best to thaw out his hand.
“For a team with ten men, they’re playing alright” says Luke begrudgingly, no end of enthusiastic clapping from the home bench, is really inspiring the home team. “Get on with it” booms one voice from behind us, the GB keeper is back at it, and his antics are starting to wear a bit thin.
Like an excited school boy, Luke is a bundle of energy every time Fernandes gets near the ball, “come on Michael” he screams. The crowd are growing increasingly desperate for their team to get something out of the game, it is now simply a case of giving the ball to the number 12 and hoping he can do some magic.
“Make it count boys” pleads one home fan, FB having been awarded a free kick with perhaps no more than two minutes on the clock. It’s hooked in, but it is far from threatening, but they at least get a corner from it. The team form up, jostling with each other for space in the GB penalty area.
“Fucking get it” shouts a relieved Luke, who just leapt from his chair, punching the air, his team in the eighty ninth minute, with a back post header, from the player he tells me, a bit quieter than most of his deafening cries, is making his “debut” tonight, having just signed from Wingate & Finchley.
Seconds after the restart, and the PA, without even the slightest hit that he might have enjoyed the potential winner, informs us all of the “five minutes” of added time there is to play. Which has pretty much everyone scratching their heads, unable to work out how the officials have come to that total.
However considering the marked improvement in the home fans sprites, in particular that of the two standing gentleman, about halfway up the main stand, with hands firmly shoved in pockets, who have not been shy of sharing their opinions, “we like you now lino” says one, to the nearby assistant who before then had been the main focus of their wrath, I don’t think they are going to start splitting hairs.
One of the two men, overcome by the sight of seeing his team take the lead, is reprimanded by his daughter, “Dad don’t say that”, she says, when he gets a bit ahead of himself, with still four minutes of the match to play, “it’s in the bag, it’s in the bag”, he says on repeat.
Luke now even more buoyant before, but falling short of giving a blow by blow commentary, he leaves that to the two men in the stand, is still giddy at the sight of Fernandes getting the ball, “look at the pace on him” he says, like a proud father at Sports day.
“Take it in the corners” instructs one fan, the pain of previous ninety minutes noticeable in his voice, they’re in front now, and that how he wants it to stay. When the player gets there, the shout from the manager echos, that of the supporters, “stay there!”.
There is a brief moment when time almost stands still, the ball has escaped the corner, and are we about to have a Ginola for France against Bulgaria moment? The ball now back in GB’s possession they are allowed the space to take shot at goal, it’s on target, but also straight at the keeper, who grasps the ball with two hands and sinks to the floor, and everyone can exhale.
“You can’t go early, you don’t know what will happen” says one of the two standing FB supporters to a group leaving, “need to beat the rush” replies one of the departing trio.
This is it, GB’s last chance to salvage what wouldn’t be a completely undeserved point. “Oh God here we go” says a nearby FB fan nervously, almost unable to watch, “we can’t concede now” he says as the visiting team shape up to take their corner. “Well in” he cheers as an FB defender gives it the full Peter Kay, and wallops the ball well clear.
It’s all handshakes and pleasantries from both teams following the final whistle. Emerging from the tunnel, the dismissed GB player, changed and apparently holding a pair of pink trousers, is looking for trouble. It’s only thanks to the quick thinking of one steward, who prevents him from getting much further than the edge of the pitch, that disaster is averted.
In Luke today we met another person who without the need of financial reward, has devoted a large chunk of his life, most of it to travelling, to support and help run his football team, simply as he put it, because of his “love of the club”.
In FB we encountered a club, that our brief time with posed more questions than it answered. Was the person doing the PA a man in a green suit with a curly moustache in a tiny cupboard? Was Tom the happiest he’s ever been in almost four years, when he got to be ball boy, tossing the ball back to a player? Will either of us ever get the feeling back in our hands? Are FB the only club at this level, offering a matchday hospitality experience?
Most importantly though, and to justify the efforts of Luke and his fellow fans and volunteers, will they ever fill Cherrywood Road again?
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