Today, Saturday 13th October, has been designated by persons unknown as “Non-League Day”, which is nice, but also a little patronising. It implies that non-league football is only of any consequence on this one day when there happens to be no Premier League or Championship football. There’s no ‘proper football’ today so you might as well go to a non-league game. Whatever my misgivings, I nevertheless feel it would be bad form if I didn’t go to a non-league game today, and so that is where I am going. Engineering works on the railway west of Ipswich has limited my choice of fixtures a little, to the extent that I am having to travel by car. So, in for a penny in for a pound I have chosen to make the trip to Walsham le Willows, which is pretty much inaccessible by public transport; at the time of writing the No 338 bus leaving Bury St Edmunds at 11:15 will get you to Walsham in bags of time for a 3pm kick off on a Saturday, but there is no bus back, only a bus to Diss at five-past six. The nearest railway station to Walsham is only 6 miles away in Elmswell, but the bus journey between the two involves going into Bury St Edmunds, getting on another bus and journeying back out, an adventure taking over two hours.
It’s a breezy, bright and unseasonably balmy autumn day for a drive through the mid-Suffolk countryside. My Citroen C3 carries me on through the rural splendour of Elmswell and Badwell Ash (there seems to be a tree fixation in local place names) once we have left the rough, patched up and noisy A14; the Highway to The Midlands. Arriving in Walsham-le-Willows I pass the splendid medieval church of St Mary with its wonderfully airy clerestory and fine proportions and then head up the delightfully named Summer Road, to what a firm of structural engineers from Bury St Edmunds has presumably paid to now have called The Morrish Stadium. The word ‘stadium’ does not do this delightful football ground justice and there really needs to be another word to describe a football pitch within the boundary of a cricket pitch surrounded by trees with just a metal stand on the half way line and a small covered standing area behind one goal. There is car parking on both sides of the road, but that adjacent to the pitch and club house is full so I park over the road by the impressive array of all-weather, 3G pitches that have been built over the road in the past few years. This is a truly magnificent facility and not what you might expect to find in the depths of the Suffolk countryside.
Having neatly parked the Citroen, I leave the car park to cross the road and enter the precincts of the ‘stadium’. I pass an old boy who asks with an enquiring but soft Suffolk accent “Are you Brantham?” “No” I tell him “I think I’m probably impartial today”. “Oh well, that’s probably a good way to be” he replies. Buoyed by his vote of confidence I cross Summer Road and walk on through the little blue gate marked ‘Match day entrance’, which looks like it might also serve the village primary school, although it doesn’t. I walk across the car park to a wooden hut where I pay my entrance money (£7 – it’s gone up £1 since I was last here inn 2014) and am handed a small yellow ticket: “Admit One”. I also purchase a programme (still £1). In front of the club house and bar is a patio area laid out with chairs and tables at which people are sat talking and drinking. I cross the patio to a dark timber clad building, which houses the changing rooms and the tea bar. I order a bacon-butty (£2) from one of the three middle aged ‘dinner ladies’ and am impressed that the meat is supplied by a local butcher, Rolfes of Walsham. This is how local football clubs should be run, promoting and partnering local businesses, not churning out the cheap and the dubious offerings from the Cash n’ Carry.
Satiated I walk through the bar and use the toilet; I briefly consider buying a drink but it looks like only Greene King products are on offer, which is disappointing, so I don’t bother and step outside once again
It’s not long before the referee, his assistants and a few footballers appear in a huddle at the entrance to the changing rooms. They seem afraid to come out into the open but I guess they are really just waiting to be sure no one gets left behind. Eventually referee Mr Alistair Wilson leads the teams along the open ‘corridor’ to the pitch where they all line up in front of the stand and indulge in the usual excessive shaking of hands; I always hope that one day the teams will also bow to the stand, but it hasn’t happened yet. Today Walsham are playing another ‘village team’, Brantham Athletic, in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. Walsham are seventh in the league table after nine games and Brantham are just a point behind in eighth, but having only played six games due to a bit of a run in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. Coincidentally, both clubs are village sports clubs, although with Brantham originally being borne out of the local BX plastics factory (since closed and demolished). Both clubs also play on pitches where cricket is played in summer.
Walsham kick-off the game playing towards the tiny ‘covered end’ and the open country side beyond, in the direction of the A143 between Bury and Diss; they wear a dazzling kit of all yellow. Brantham Athletic (nickname The Imps) meanwhile, play in the direction of the bar, clubhouse and the village beyond, and wear an all blue kit with two white diagonal bars across the front. I find that Brantham’s is an unsatisfactory kit, although a good solid navy blue colour, the white bands make the players look like they might have been lying in the road when a white line painting truck came by. The design smacks of the designer of single colour kits having finally run out of ideas, the pressure of coming up with something different every year having at last become too much.
With both teams finally lined up the sound of the referee’s whistle is met with a loud bellow of “Willows” from a man in the main stand and the game begins. After that initial burst of support for The Willows, the people seated around me in the small stand are silent, although the hum of lively conversation can be heard at the other ‘rowdier’ end of the stand where a group of men in their sixties and seventies stand on a small terrace. The peaceful ambience allows me to appreciate just what a lovely, bucolic setting this is. What is possibly an old pavilion on the far side of the site looks like a blacksmith’s shop and the breeze through the leaves of the trees seems to whisper Walsham le Willows.
Uncomfortable with the silence I move and stand next to the Willows’ bench where I can enjoy some shouting and swearing from the coaches. “Movement” “Keep your shape” “Pressure” “Talk to him” are the calls from the unhappy sounding coaches. Brantham have started the better of the two teams and look more purposeful and confident and after nine minutes they win the game’s first corner; then a diagonal cross only just fails to be transformed into a close-range diving header, which might well have caused a goal had it materialised. On the small terrace I hear someone say “We always do well against these”, but The Imps win another corner and Walsham’s number six Craig Nurse commits the first foul on Brantham’s Joseph Yaxley. A Willows player complains to the referee and the coaches bemoan how he talks too much rather than getting on with the game. “Come on fellas, wake up!” then “Aaagh, fuck me” are the words from the bench. “We need one of the strikers on the number eleven” says The Willows’ Nurse to the bench, “Well do it then” is the not unreasonable response.
A quarter of an hour has passed, The Imps have not scored and The Willows are at last settling into the game and playing more successfully in their opponents’ half. All of a sudden a long range shot is tipped onto the cross bar by Brantham goal keeper Luke Evenell. A corner to Walsham follows, and then another one. I move and stand near to the Brantham bench and nearer to the goal that Walsham are attacking; the atmosphere amongst the coaches here seems less tense than on the Walsham bench, but I wouldn’t say they looked happy. Walsham’s number ten Niall McPhillips has been finding space and threading some decent passes through the Brantham defence. It hasn’t gone un-noticed, but so far the Imps’ defence has just argued about it amongst themselves. But then The Imps launch an attack of their own, and number eleven Daniel Rowe finds himself free on the left inside the penalty area, he shoots, but misses the target completely, skewing the ball high and wide. “Ooooh! Ah, ya bell-end” I hear an excited and then dejected voice say from the bench.
It’s almost half past three and Walsham win a third corner. The ball is struck quite low across the pitch and The Willows captain and number nine Jack Brame sidefoots the ball into the corner of the goal past a surprised looking goal keeper to give Walsham the lead. It was slightly unexpected, but in these games anything can happen and often does. Brantham carry on much as before, often getting their wide players to chase long balls but nothing comes of it and the highlight for me in the remaining time before half-time is a slightly panicky looking lofted clearance from Walsham’s Craig Nurse, which soars and then drops to earth with a satisfying clatter on the bonnet of a BMW behind the stand.
With half-time I head the queue for a pounds worth of tea and a sit down at one of the picnic tables on the patio. I hear one of the ‘dinner ladies’ asked if they are busy, “Not very” she says. I reflect on a pretty entertaining first half and flick through the programme. There’s quite a good ‘Half-Time quiz’ which is testing but answerable although question nine sets me thinking. ‘What was Sheffield United’s Brian Deane the first to do?’ it asks. The answer given is ‘Score the first ever Premier League goal’ and it makes me wonder who the second player was to score the first ever Premier League goal. Of course I don’t really care because I don’t give a toss about the Premier League.
Refreshed by what was a very good cup of tea, I watch the players return for the second half and note that the Brantham number six William Crissell is the only player to wear anything other than a ‘regular’ haircut, sporting as he does a very small top-notch. I imagine his influences are more Zlatan Ibrahimovic than Sikhism, although you never know. As the new half develops Walsham are gaining the upper hand and this encourages vocal encouragement from the crowd. “Come on boys – let’s have that other one” calls a man in a throaty Suffolk drawl. Number eleven Ryan Clark hits a post with a shot for Walsham and then screws a follow up shot wide but the second goal doesn’t arrive and a tension builds because Brantham still look capable of an equaliser. Some niggle enters the game and both sides complain to referee Alistair Wilson about perceived injustices and his failure to punish fouls with bookings. “Bottle job” is the accusation from the Walsham bench followed up with “For Chrissakes ma-an”. On the Brantham bench frustration grows that chances are not being made. When a pass is over hit I hear “He’s not getting that, he’s not Usain fucking Bolt”
It’s now about four thirty and it might stay like this, it might not. It doesn’t, as again a little unexpectedly, a shot flies into the top right hand corner of the Brantham goal from outside the penalty area; it’s a helluva goal and should win the game. Despite claims and counter claims for free-kicks and bookings from both sides, up until now the game has been played in a good spirit, but suddenly two players are on the ground and something happens between them which leads to pushing and shoving and a general melee and other players swarm around in an angry knot. If it was in a school playground they would have been chanting “Fight, fight, fight”. Mr Wilson the referee seems paralysed and for a while all he does is blow his whistle, it’s as if he’s trying to speak without taking it out of his mouth. He sounds like a Clanger on amphetamines. It’s all a bit unfortunate, but quite entertaining and the upshot is that Brantham’s number two Callum Bennett is sent off and Walsham’s number seven Ryan Gibbs is booked by Mr Wilson, once he’s stopped whistling. The action doesn’t stop there however as one of the Brantham coaches now berates Mr Wilson from the touch line in a sweary manner and he is sent off as well.
The game is up for Brantham and it’s no more than Walsham deserve when a shot from McPhillips hits the cross bar and number two Lee Warren drives home the rebound to round-off a 3-0 victory for The Willows. It’s been an entertaining afternoon and despite the imbalance in the final score the result was always in doubt until pretty close to the end. The sending’s off and shoving contest just added to the fun; no one wants to see such things really, unless a game is very boring, but when it happens we might as well enjoy it.
Summer Road, Walsham le Willows is a beautiful, bucolic place to watch a football match, especially on an autumn afternoon when the leaves on the surrounding trees are turning form green to gold and if it was closer to home I might come more often. The clichéd setting for football is an urban one, that’s where the evil Premier League is played out, but non-league football is played everywhere and if you want to get away far from the ‘big time’ this is possibly as good as it gets.