Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey, this time out taking a festive trip to Bedfordshire. 

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

It is hard to describe adequately quite how lethargic I feel. The mere notion of having to move further than plugging in one of PS4 controllers, is not worth thinking about. Four solid days of eating, sitting and endless bad films, don’t bother with the latest incarnation of Jurassic Park its shocking, as well as numerous late nights filled with double XP on Call Of Duty, plus all the toing and froing between family members houses, for another mince pie, I’m struggling to get myself in the right gear for the night ahead.

P1020670I leave my son, daughter and other half on the sofa, the three of them still in their pyjamas, ready to watch Beetlejuice, trying to remember what day it is, as I stagger to the car in that post Christmas, it’s almost the new year, but not quite, haze. I just about work out it’s a Friday, and it’s no secret we are huge fans of football on a Friday, but it doesn’t feel like a Friday. Frankly I’m not sure what it feels like. It certainly feels like a day I don’t want to eat anymore turkey on, let’s just call it Christmas Day + Three.

I’m happy to report that Tom’s Christmas was a success, long time readers will recall from our last outing that Tom and his fiancee were almost overcome with the stress of having to host on the 25th. He informed me that the beef was not over cooked, in fact it was a bit “BLUE” as he put it, and they did cook sprouts, that went down very well.

Tom also informed me that he did not receive the same bottle of whisky from his soon to be father in law, that he had the previous ten years. Instead he decided to mix it up a bit and got him some gin. His soon to be mother in law, the Queen piss taker, bought him a pink sparkling credit card holder, keeping up the long standing tradition, of showering him with shit gifts.

One day I will learn not to take everything that Google Maps says, as gospel. I should have taken into account that a lot of people are still off work and the kids are not in school, and that it was going to be unlikely to take us the two hours it suggested, to travel only fifty three miles. However such is my Toblerone induced funk, I didn’t put two and two together, and as we motor by some kind of post apocalyptic retail universe and row after row of prefab houses, that Tom thinks looked like the “Truman show”, we arrive so early, we’re not even sure the club will be open, so go in search of a drink on the local high street.

Glistening with Christmas lights, quiet and quaint Potton’s main drag is positively picturesque. I’m assured by the man at the bar of the George & Dragon pub, that went a little bit American Werewolf in London when we walked in, falling just short of the music stopping, but there were certainly a few turned heads, that I’m not to worry about the parking restrictions on the lamppost outside, “ you won’t see a parking warden round here, at this time of night”.

Perched on a couple of stools in one corner of the room, underneath the dart board and at the foot of the Christmas tree, Tom and I enjoy a drink. We use our time constructively, tallying up the scores of a season long prediction challenge, Tom is ahead by three. Any notion that the locals might at any minute drive us out with their pool cues, are put to the sword, following a hello and handshake from the landlord.

“It’s cosy” says Tom, his pint of Coke not sufficient in elevating his high temperature brought on by his long johns and other such attire to help combat the cold. However with our drinks all but done, I’m sure he will still be moaning, when we get outside, for a whole other bunch of reasons. If it’s not too hot, it’s too cold, it’s like hanging out with Goldilocks.

DSC_0031Seasons Greetings, reads the large illumination on the side of one building, as we make our way towards tonight’s ground, without a parking ticket, and although Tom is going on about the cold, he is still whinging. “Hot” he says, panting away next to me like a Labrador. Via the front drive of one Potton residents home, where an impromptu three point turn is required, and Tom ensures I don’t hit any of the “flowers”, we eventually arrive at The Hollow.

When one imagines a pothole, one thinks of a slight dent in the road, a mild inconvenience at best. It therefore would not be accurate to describe those in the car park at the home of Potton United FC (PU) as simply a pothole. Crater, sinkhole, something that Indiana Jones might explore, may be a bit closer to the mark. The noise the bottom of my car makes at one point as I clear the speed bump on the way in, is so sickening I almost cry.

Bathed in darkness The Hollow is not giving much of a clue as to what it has in store. With little to no signs of life, it is therefore a bit surprising to hear Journey blasting out from somewhere, and although I can safely say they are not my favourite band, they are doing a good job of drawing us towards the red brick single storey building behind one goal. The position of which Tom thinks is a bit “dangerous”, which might explain the black metal bars that cover every window.

The beaming smile of Bev, PU’s Secretary is enough alone to justify putting down the chocolate orange, and leaving the house.

She had a “good Christmas” she tells us, a lot of that to do with the fact there was “no football” at PU on boxing day, which she goes on to explain is no bad thing. Although she “loves football on Boxing Day”, the logistics of it, is one she can do without, “you spend all Christmas Day, worrying about the food for the next day”. So she was actually quite relieved following the league reshuffle over the summer, that the one they were joining, unlike the one they left, didn’t have games on Boxing day, and she was able to get her “fix” somewhere else.

A nearby table filled with groundhoppers, taking advantage as we are, of the Friday night football, each scan their programmes attentively. One going through PU’s previous results, comments how the encounter between PU and tonight’s visitors, Biggleswade United FC (BU), earlier in the season, was “0-0”, which is received with a few snorts of derision, not very promising for the game ahead.

The sight of the programme shifts me from my seat, and the fact that the lady at the Potton Pantry, isn’t “ready for me yet”, means Tom joins me on my quest to find the turnstile, which is actually just a gap in the fence with a shed next to it, and not any old shed, but the Beaver Shed. My enquiry if there is a raffle, is met with perhaps one of the most non league replies ever. The people who normally do it, “only got back from France at four” and are “knackered”.

With half the lights having come on since being inside, as well as the music, the current track a bit of an odd one, it sounds like some one is practising their scratching, we get our first look at the minimal, but well formed ground, with its large flat roof all seater stand along one side of the pitch and a much, much smaller, mini terrace to the side of one goal. Behind the opposite goal, is a high metal fence, so substantial, it’s the kind of thing Donald Trump has wet dreams about.

I don’t think there is a single person who walks through the doors of the clubhouse, who are not greeted with some kind of hand shake, hello or some such welcome or another. Returning to a now much fuller bar, our original seat gone, we squeeze on the end of table where a mother and son are in the middle of a game of cards, while the home players all in blue tracksuits, huddled around the dart board.

IMG_20181228_180530The departure of the PU players, some I overhear are off to inspect the pitch, allows the BU players Bev weaves her way through the crowd, clutching what looks like the team sheet and the much louder BU players laugh at the attempts of some players to hit the board. When the Artful Dodger type in his grey flat cap announces “let’s go”, those around the dartboard and the reserved blue tablecloth covered table, stand, the sound of their scraping chairs piercing, they follow him off to the changing room. Reducing the decibel level by about half.
all in red, to have a turn at chucking some arrows.

“We shall struggle” explains Bev’s Dad, Nigel. One of the main reasons being the unavailability of one of their “centre halfs” whose absence he tells us is “out of their countol”. The seemingly constant revolving door at so many non league clubs, also means a “few players have left” but he still remains reasonably positive, “it’s about on the day”.

For a club at this level, you can’t help but be impressed by the set up. The main stand is one I’m sure many clubs would give their right arm to have. The reason PU have it, and not the “wooden one” that used to stand there Nigel tells us, is down to a stroke of misfortune, that in the end had a silver lining. “The old one burnt down, after someone slept in it and left a fag” so “courtesy of an insurance grant” they now have a stand Nigel is clearly very proud of.

Tom is so ready for the Potton Pantry, but is the Potton Pantry ready for him. Guided by the well placed laminated signs, he returns with a sizable looking burger, what he describes as “promising chips” and tales of witchcraft.

Having memorised the menu, after his first failed attempt and having rattled it off at me, after I said I fancied something, I opted for soup, which he dutifully brought me in a Styrofoam cup. The option of soup is not an unfamiliar one, the fact that Tom remembered all the flavours they have on offer is not normal, but it’s not black magic, however the way my minestrone soup was prepared, is straight out of Salem.

Convinced I wouldn’t believe him, if he simply told me, “you’re in for a treat”. Tom then produces his phone from his pocket and proceeds to show me a lady in a blue tabard, using a blender to make it, “apparently it’s the best way to make a Cup a Soup”.

The soup is good, the game of cards to our right has turned into a game of solitaire and a fellow user of the excellent Groundhopper App, David, joins us at our table, who quickly makes me feel very inadequate when he tells us today is the “seven hundred and fifty fifth” game he has logged on the app. Unlike some people for whom simply being near a match counts, he has some very strict criteria, “I won’t do park football or Sunday league”.

Not normally one for loafing around in clubhouses, much to Toms annoyance, the one at PU has well and truly got its claws into me, and it’s a real wrench when with kick off closing in, Tom suggests it’s time to leave. I’m comfy and warm and although there are bars over the windows, I’ve got a reasonable view of the pitch, so seriously consider just staying put.

As per the instructions on the sign at the entrance to the pitch, the players are warming up not on the pitch, but behind the dugouts. The music continues to come a bit out of left field, the latest offering I’m sure has the repeated lyric of, “suck me off, suck me off”. The pitch still only half lit, and the clubhouse is now officially chock a block and in a nice change from someone saying Tom looks like Jurgen Klopp, today its Guillem Balague.

Oh and I forgot to mention the music has taken another interesting turn, when the theme tune to Ghostbusters starts to play.

IMG_20181228_181203Sometimes words are not required, a scrunched up face, says it all. That of one home fan discussing their fortunes tonight, gives the game away completely, not very hopeful at all. “Let’s get ourselves in” is the stern shout from the PU manager, that momentarily drowns out The Weather Girls, as he beckons in the players who are now ignoring the sign and are taking a few pot shots on goal, one of which very nearly kills someone. It’s only for the collective shout of “heads” that a death is prevented.

Passing a children’s slide and the other playground equipment, the players emerge from the side of the clubhouse, down the caged open roofed tunnel all to the sound of E-40’s, Things’ll Never Change. The brief appearance of Bev, sees her get a song from the boisterous crowd that have gathered along the mini terrace in front of a St George’s cross with P U F C in each corner, “we love you Bev Strong, Bev Strong”.

Not since Germany have we seen a fan with a megaphone, and I must admit I didn’t think the next time I would see one would be at a non league ground in Bedfordshire, however I have just been proven wrong, by one fan in the mini stand, who has not used it to start a song or chant but simply to shout, “fuck off Biggleswade”.

There is more shouting, but it’s not from the mini stand or the packed main stand, but the BU manager, who in his thick Spanish accent, from underneath his tight blue woolly hat, is responding to the early home pressure, in the most poetic of ways, “you need to win the war”.

Sounding like he’s repeating the name of an electro indie band, “Danny react, Danny react”, the home bench joins in, however his request of more from his team falls on deaf ears, because with around thirteen minutes on the clock, bearing in mind there is no clock and no PA to confirm it, so don’t hold me to it, the visitors have just taken the lead. The scorer running past the megaphone wielding home fans, with a single finger pushed against his pursed lips, and they are far from impressed.

Although I’m sure PU would disagree, the goal has been a blessing in disguise, after a very slow opening ten minutes, the game has really come to life and we are almost treated to an own goal of Lee Dixon type quality, but the ball drifts just wide, instead of over the hapless BU keeper.

Surprisingly its BU who have been on the back foot since the goal, far from being boosted by goal, it seems to have had the opposite effect and their keeper begins a long string of mistakes, that sends BU hearts racing. “Fucking hell” shouts one player after a shocking kick out from the back, nearly causes them all sorts of bother and when not long after he fumbles a simple cross under minimal pressure, a clear chink in the BU armour is detected by everyone in blue.

There are plenty of people here, there is plenty of low level chatter and a few laughs, especially after the BU keepers fumble, but it’s still very quiet here. The home bench is by far the loudest, on twenty minutes they encourage one player in the box to “hit it”, which he does, turning swiftly and getting his shot off, but it comes to nothing. The away manager has simply been reduced to making angry noises, as his team continue to stutter despite their lead.

Toms childhood ambition of being a ball boy has taken a couple of dents in the last couple of weeks. Firstly at Hitchin when he was so scared the ball was going to hit his face he ducked out of the way of it and tonight when his attempt at a side footed pass back on to the pitch, goes no where near its intended target and he almost falls over.

Talking of Hitchin and our post Christmas outing to Top Field, rummaging in my deep pocket I discover the fragile paper bag containing my pick and mix, that are now are little harder, having spent the last week ten days in the boot of my car. “They’ve kept well” says Tom, who reminds me of his “take a pinch, chuck it in” philosophy, but seems hesitant in giving it a go.

DSC_0038So close! PU go the closest they have to drawing level, after a floated cross is met in the box, but the flicked header is just wide. The move was made possible by one midfielders smart turn, shimmy and serge forward in midfield, cementing the fact that the home side have been the better team since the going behind.The reason perhaps for Tom not having an appetite for “dessert” as he would call it, might be because of the burger, but that’s doubtful, it’s more likely to be down to the fact there is an unmistakable stench in the air, which may have something to do with what Tom thinks is a nearby “sewage works” and having been on both sides of the pitch, he is now referring to where we are now, as the “smelly side”.

When PU are awarded a free kick, their manager is not backwards in coming forwards, “keeper spills everything, get on top of him” he bellows. Sadly his team can’t get the ball over the first man, “what the fuck was that?’’ tut’s a supporter.

Except for picking the ball out of his own net, the home keeper all in neon orange has had very little to do, his counterpart in trousers, I wore trousers when I played in goal at school, like an overweight Massimo Taibi, has been far busier and by the simple fact he has chosen trousers, when its not cold, means the home stopper wins the battle of the number 1’s.

On a rare attack, a BU forward breaks free of the home back line and is bearing down on goal, but as one of the fans behind the goal puts it, “you’re shit” when somehow, his shot balloons up and wide of the goal, and he ends up as a heap on the ground, his face overcome with embarrassment.

Unfortunately the not inconsiderable sized group in the mini stand, their megaphone having a hiatus, are more concerned with slagging people off, then getting behind their team. On the very brief occasion they sing, banging on the back of the stand to get it going, their very limited chant book containing their own version of “he’s one of our own”, is all too infrequent and they soon just revert to type, “you’re fucking shit”.

The linesman frantically shaking his flag on the far side of the pitch to get the attention of the referee, seems to disagree with the suggestion from the home bench that their player, “didn’t touch him”. The cross body check gets a yellow and not content with just using the megaphone, as a megaphone, the home fans are now using it to pipe in their own backing track, “ola, ola, ola, ola”.

My back is starting to ache, the combination of all the roast potatoes and the thin blue railing which is far too low to actually lean on, one man is at a full right angle up against it, means I’m starting to get that feeling in my lower back, that you get when you’ve been standing for too long at a concert. Tom points out a “bench” opposite us, but before I can get too excited, he also points out that it is currently occupied by a “little kid”.

Tom is convinced that BU are going to “demolish” PU in the “second half”, but with still nearly a quarter of the half to play, I’m not quite sure why he is making such grand predictions quite yet. Maybe it had something to do with the sight of the latest PU attempt to equalise, a header that ended up going closer to the corner half than the goal.

IMG_20181228_184128The game might not be the most riveting we’ve seen so far this season, but at least we have the linesman and his crab like shuffle to entertain us, unfortunately because of my big mouth, he gets all self conscious and as Tom put it, “he’s changed now he heard you”.

Despite the shout from increasingly lived home manager, “we’re making our own problems boys”, it’s the BU keeper who he should be directing that at. He is single handedly gifting the home side some golden opportunities to score, but they just can’t make the most of them. With just over five left to play a lofty cross almost catches him out, manically back peddling he just gets enough on it to tip it over and things don’t get any better from the resulting corner, when his woeful attempt at a punch, almost ends in tears.

What was at first a chink in their armour, is now a gaping hole, and the PU manager doesn’t understand why his team are not punishing them, “we’ve got to challenge the keeper”.

Someone quite clearly got a new toy for Christmas, because the megaphone does sound effects too, and one has to applaud the timing of the use of the police siren as the BU physio rushes on the pitch, its immaculate. The shouts of “let him die” aimed at the same downed player the physio is attending to, seem a little harsh and both teams use the break in play to take on some water.

“Polite boy” says Tom, impressed by a BU players choice of language when remonstrating with the linesman for not getting a throw in. Much quieter and with a bit more blaspheming the mumbling commentator next to us, is getting fed up at the sight of his teams wayward passing, “oh my Lord”. Taking things up another level and their manager is close to boiling point, so much bad passing, lazy in possession and criminal indecisiveness, half time could not come soon enough for him.

Muffled boo’s drift out from the mini stand on the half time whistle. They had spent the final few minutes of the half singing their loudest song so far, which I couldn’t for the life of me work out what they were saying. They then asked if anyone could “hear the Biggles sing?” before going full circle, and telling the departing BU players to “fuck off”.
With the lack of music and Tom having already eaten, there is not a lot to talk about, it’s a very somber half time indeed. The passing chat with Luke and his kids, who we’ve bumped into on our travels before is a definite bonus, however never in my life have I wanted some 80’s music distorted by some ageing speakers, like I do right now.

I can’t work out what is better, the false restart, the referee not happy with someone, so he asks for the kick off to be retaken, or the fact some life has returned to The Hollow, when the home manager demands his players, “liven up” and they do just that.

“Keeper well done, unreal from you” shouts one BU fan, at the sight of the once wobbly looking keeper, who now looks far more composed, stopping a barrage of PU shots. Firstly one on one with the “rapid” as one person has dubbed the PU number 7, who was well away from the defence, but couldn’t find the finish and then beating out a fierce low driven shot.

He then undoes all this good work, with a very shonky goal kick, perhaps it had something to do with the crowd behind him in the mini stand, who have not moved for the second half and are singing, “oh Kevin de Bruyne”.

What a first ten minutes we have been treated to, the tempo is through the roof, there have been chances galore and the stress levels on each bench are reaching maximum, which all makes for very
excellent viewing. Convinced his team should have been awarded a penalty after a push in the box after a flowing move, it’s not until he is informed the attacker was “offside” does the BU manager stop his tirade of angry noises.

IMG_20181228_194222_2PU go close following a header at the back post and the ball drops into the middle of the six yard box, which the PU player does well to control and take down well, but he just doesn’t have enough room to turn and shoot.

The “ola, ola, ola” is back in the mini stand, but it’s not for long, and as the four BU fans next to us put it, “it’s all gone quiet over there”, PU have conceded. The BU manager punches the air in delight, as all the promise and optimism of the opening twenty minuets of the new half melts away

“You’re not a sub are you?” asks one of the four BU fans, hanging through the tiny side window of the away dugout, giving some of his beer to someone inside. Only such behaviour would be possible because the BU manager has his back to them, resting down on his haunches watching the match.

A fine mist has rolled in, which for once has nothing to do with the copious amount of smoke Toms vape seems to emit and the not so dodgy keeper is again showing off what else he has in his locker along with all the iffy punches, when from point blank range he tips over a wicked shot and one of the beer sharers is in a near state of shock, “what a save”.

From the resulting corner PU squander a chance to score for the umpteenth time, as hushed “how’s” ring out when the ball travels all the way through the BU box and not one PU player can get on the end of it.

The police siren is back, the “fuck off Biggleswade” brigade are back, the first half BU keeper who has been a changed man since his half time orange is back, with his biggest faux pas of the match so far. Spilling a low tame shot, that almost, almost creeps inside of the post, much to the pleasure of the mini stand, “you’re shit”.

Twenty minutes have played, and although the home side are two behind, it’s all them on and off the pitch. The mega phone is in overdrive, “blue army” they sing, between their unorthodox and very loud match commentary and comments about away players facial hair, “number five has bum fluff”.

Again PU fizz a ball through the BU box, again no one is there to tap it in, again the home fans take a detour way from their usual rhetoric, with a genuine attempt at rallying their players, banging the back wall of the stand, “Potton, Potton” as well as a few lines of “blue army” and only a couple of minutes later, after all their teams huff and puff but with nothing to show for it they are rewarded with a goal.

The backwards header that flies past the keeper is the least that PU deserve and there is no time spent celebrating, the players rush back towards the centre circle limiting themselves to the odd high five. The mini stand have gone all gooey, battering the stand, they show off their much nicer side, “oh Potton we love you”.

“He’s in” gasps a BU fan as the PU number seven, races towards their goal but his shot is wild and over. The home fans are singing about one of their players who “sleeps in his kit” and ensuring he tests his managers nerves completely, the BU keeper is charging out of his area, kung fu kicking the ball clear and in an awkward turn of events a BU supporter then celebrates a goal, that isn’t a goal, and I’m sure feels like a bit of prat.

IMG_20181228_212307We’ve got it all going on here, in the words of Danny Dyer, it’s got very “lively”.

It’s normally Tom I rely on with moments of Pep, for my tactical analysis, but he’s still recovering for his Christmas excesses, so instead I’m required to earwig on one BU fan who is dishing out all the knowledge. His assessment of the PU tactics is crude, but acute, “proper Sunday league set up, lump it up front to two big fuckers”. A second BU fan, who is a far less unrefined, but no less on point, hits the nail on the head. “It’s been all Potton since the second goal” as another home shot swerves towards the BU goal.

Thinking he is the person who can make the difference, one BU sub sidles up to the manager having just finished his warm up and whispers in his ear, “I’m ready”. More pressingly though the man with the microphone is getting a bit out of control, his latest shout of “yiddo”, he’s either a lost Spurs fan or it was something a bit more sinister, has pressed one BU fan to demand that someone one “take the megaphone off him, that’s ridiculous”.

Still very much in the game, chucking everything they can at the visitors, with just under ten left to play, it’s verging on the heartbreaking when a daisy cutter of a shot from outside the box quite literally pings off the foot of the BU post instead of rolling into the back of the net.

The mist has thickened, the temperature has dropped and the shouts from previously buoyant away fans, have grown increasingly nervy, “come on Biggleswade”. I’ve lost count of the amount of chances PU have had and BU have conceded, as another ball skips through the away teams six yard box, if the PU don’t take advantage of one of them soon, they are going to regret it.

Few things are better in football then arguments between dugouts. I don’t condone Mourinho eye gouging or abusing elderly people like Pardew, but a heated exchange of words is never anything other then amusing.

“Google me mate” suggests one of the BU bench, in reply to a comment from the SU technical area. “Shit banter” accuses the home manager of the grey flat cap wearer from the clubhouse. However the decisive blow and the victory goes to the away side, who is a single short sentence, stop the exchange dead, “just like your hairline”.

The nearby BU fans chip in with a few of their own few jabs, “what’s the score?”, they ask, then going as far as to say the the home manger is going to “cry in a minute” but it’s completely unnecessary, he’s out for the count.

Less than five minutes to go and it’s dawned on the mini stand, it might not be their night, “you’re nothing special, we lose every week”. In a sign of sheer desperation, after one fans suggests they, “pretend we’ve scored a goal”, they do just that. Thankfully for their own dignity they stop to claim a penalty, but its waved away.

Anything other than a late flurry of more penalty shouts and chances would have been a disappointment, at the end of a rather thrilling half. The home keeper clears a back pass, that spins off the defender and almost in the goal. BU are awarded a free kick in a dangerous position on the edge of the PU box, only for them to hit it straight at the wall.

The home bench waves the team up field and it nearly pays off. A through ball almost finds the number 7 again, but this time the BU keeper is able to gather, clattering into one of his team mates as he does and two late corners, nearly, nearly conjure an equaliser. The first sees the cross go inches above an unmarked PU players head and the second results in a sea of bodies on the floor and shouts for a penalty and the waving arms of the referee is the signal he is not going to give it.

A much larger cheer than I was expecting rings around The Hollow on the final whistle. The shadowy figures in the main stand must have been BU fans, sitting on their hands until now. The group in the mini stand are not shy in sharing their opinions with the BU players walking off, but why would they care, its water of a ducks back, its them going home with the three points.

Best bit of the night? The magic trick BU pulled off by swapping keepers, without anyone noticing, Tom nearly falling over, the way one group of fans turned the “ya, ya, ya” of the BU manager into a song about Yaya Toure or Bev’s Dad trying to make sure he finally got a bit of recognition, “she gets all the credit, I do all the work”.
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