The Eastern Counties First Division is the tenth tier of English football, just a few seats, some floodlights and a half-time plate of sandwiches for the opposition committee separates it from the clubs that play on a piece of waste ground and use jumpers for goalposts, well almost. But that doesn’t mean clubs at this level don’t have history; Whitton United have been going since 1926 and Coggeshall Town since 1878, the same year as mighty, illustrious Ipswich Town, former League Champions, FA Cup, UEFA Cup and Texaco Cup winners.
It says in the match programme that a Whitton team existed in the late 1800’s, back when Whitton was a small village a mile or more outside Ipswich. But between the World Wars Ipswich Corporation, as it was then, began to build the Whitton estate providing much needed, good quality, rented housing for working class people. Whitton is now a part of Ipswich, and if supporters in the Eastern Counties league did sing (with the notable exception of Wivenhoe Town’s they tend not to) they could chant “Small club in Ipswich, You’re just a small club in Ipswich” without fear of contradiction.
Whitton United is a rare thing in the Eastern Counties League, a team representing a truly urban area, and more than that it might be said to represent a large council estate. The contrast with Coggeshall therefore is on the face of it quite stark. Coggeshall, with its National Trust owned medieval buildings and its vineyard and ley lines is positively poncey by comparison. The other big difference is that Coggeshall Town are being bankrolled; there are stories of players attracted from beyond Essex on the promise of big appearance money. The realisation of this is shown in their relative league positions with Coggeshall currently top of the table, where they have been virtually all season, whilst Whitton are merely near the top of the bottom half of the table, albeit on a roll of five consecutive victories.
The King George V Fields ground is outside the Whitton estate next to the main road out of town towards the A14 and Stowmarket. A third of the pitch is overlooked by a large heap of rubble that was once the concrete floor of the Tooks bakery (aka bread factory), formerly the club’s neighbour. Behind one goal there is no accommodation for spectators whatsoever, just a stretch of grass from the goal net to a very big fence, with the road beyond. There is a stand on each of the other three sides; two of them resembling country bus shelters, one of which is labelled ‘The Shed’; whilst downhill, behind the other goal is a pre- fabricated, metal stand containing the requisite number of seats for the club to play in the Eastern Counties Premier League. should the need arise. The changing rooms have a wonderful green and white striped tin roof.
It’s a grey, blustery afternoon with a constant threat of rain, but the two teams in their striped kits, Whitton in green and white and Coggeshall in red and black stand out through the gloom and offer the promise of excitement. I wander around the perimeter rail before the game kicks off and a bloke on his way to one of those ‘bus shelters’ and carrying a couple of pints of beer says hello; “ We need a good result today after last week” he says. I have no idea what either team did last week, but I agree because it would be churlish and a bit weird not to do so and I’m not one to start an argument with someone I don’t really know. To begin with, the promise of a good game is all there as the ball bounces awkwardly on the soft pitch and is buffeted by the wind, producing a scrappy match with neither team looking much good. Despite kicking up the not inconsiderable slope and against the wind however, Coggeshall gradually start to look the stronger team.
I walk round the back of the dugouts and towards the end of the ground where the only spectators are those in passing cars and buses who are probably surprised to find themselves watching a football match, albeit for a few fleeting seconds only. One or two beep their car horns as they drive by. Coggeshall are kicking towards the goal at this end and it doesn’t take long before they score, a close range tap-in from Scarlett, despite claims of offside from Whitton. Somewhat bizarrely Coggeshall’s number four is booked in the aftermath and from what I can make of what referee Mr Pope seems to be saying, it is because he egged on the Whitton players in their offside protests. ‘You started it’ I think I hear the Pope say as if scolding Martin Luther. The same player is then spoken to again by his holiness and told to concentrate just on the football by the Coggeshall coach; “I only said bad luck baldy” the player opines after Whitton’s follicly challenged centre-half concedes a free-kick on the edge of his own penalty area.
I drift back towards the Whitton bench having had enough of the Essex club’s manager’s questioning of Mr Pope and decide to briefly compare and contrast him with the Whitton manager. I conclude that the Whitton man mostly complains to himself and to the bench in a sort of audible internal dialogue. The results of the comparison fit with my own pre-conceived ideas of Ipswich and Essex people. Happily for Whitton however, my move into their half coincides with a couple of attacks down the left, one of which results in a free-kick and ends with an unexpected, but not completely undeserved equaliser from Bell.
Half-time arrives with scores all square and I indulge in a pounds worth of tea and a warm in the clubhouse, although I have to be let in because the door only seems to open from the inside. I return to pitch side too late for the re-start, but haven’t missed anything and take up a spot in the seats behind the goal. It starts to rain.
With the wind at their backs and playing down the slope it seems like it might be easier for Coggeshall in the second half and gradually, as in the first half they begin to dominate the attacking play, but without really making any decent chances to score; then, a break down the left, a through ball and a goal for Whitton by Percy (sadly his surname not his first name). It’s a bit of a surprise but the game returns to its previous pattern and with about fifteen minutes left, after some more Coggeshall domination the ball is crossed low, blocked and partly cleared before the Coggeshall substitute Guthmy coolly places the ball in the middle of the goal to equalise. Now it really looks like Coggeshall will go on to win and that’s what the bloke behind me tells his children when they ask.
The good thing about football however is that is totally unpredictable, which is why all these ‘sports betting companies’ (bookies) advertise relentlessly to part mugs with their money. Proof of football’s unpredictably arrived within just a minute or two as a deep cross from a corner was headed in at the far post by Griggs to put Whitton ahead again and then within minutes of that a through ball saw Cheetham brought down in the box resulting in a penalty which gave Whitton a 4-2 lead. The rain had now eased and I stepped out of the stand so that I didn’t have to peer through a goal net and another bigger net placed across the front of the stand to protect inattentive spectators from stray footballs that might inadvertently smack them in the chops when they were looking at their mobile phones rather than the game; serves ‘em right I say. Barely had I done this and with about six minutes left Whitton scored yet again with Cheetham ‘converting’ a cross by the beautifully named Franco Mallardo.
Surely that was it, 5-2 with just five minutes left? But no, Coggeshall rightly decided that the game wasn’t over until his holiness Mr Pope says so, and just as I would never leave a game before the final whistle, so the ‘Seedgrowers’ , for that is what their nickname is, continued to try and win the match. And it was a good job they did or this report would be over already. First, continuing the ecclesiastical surname theme started by the referee, Monk made it 5-3 with a fine half volley from the edge of the penalty area, and a short while later he then crossed the ball for Nwachuku to smack a fourth goal high in to the Whitton United net. There was still enough time for a free kick on the edge of the penalty area to be sent over the Whitton cross bar, but finally Mr Pope whistled Amen and the game was over.
It had been a most entertaining game, even if some of the defending had at times been hard to spot, and in difficult conditions on an awkward slopey pitch the players of both teams had given their all. I was surprised therefore and disappointed that at the end no one clapped or cheered as the two teams left the pitch; but no one booed either, so it was one up on Portman Road I guess. The 5-4 score line alone deserved some appreciation, but there was nothing, not a cough, not a wheeze, not even a tiny chortle. Everyone just filed away into the car park. To an extent, at this level of football the result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the two clubs are still there each week to play; this is perhaps true more for a real community club like Whitton United than a club like Coggeshall Town which has been adopted by someone with spare cash like a mini Roman Abramovich.
There was apparently only a crowd of 57 at this match, which is disappointing for a Saturday when Ipswich Town are not playing, and looking about there were very few people under thirty there. A football match where you can drink in sight of the pitch should be a massive draw and at £6.00 entrance fee it provides good value for money compared to the £40 Norwich City wanted from IpswichTown fans to get into Carrow Road the following day.
Eastern Counties League Football should be the model for sustainable football, so I urge you, support your local team, it’s friendly, it’s funny, it’s fun, it is well worth it. I had a lovely time. Thank you Whitton United.