An evening in late March and a chill breeze blows along the valley of the River Blackwater. Individuals and people in small groups stride purposefully in the diminishing light through the quiet streets of Coggeshall and across open meadows. At the edge of the town along West Street, the floodlit turf of ‘The Crops’ football ground, draws them in.
Tonight is a big night in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division. Tonight Coggeshall Town (3rd in the league table) play Stowmarket Town (top of the league) in a re-match after their initial encounter was controversially abandoned well into the second half as one of the linesman complained of not being able to keep his footing on the frosty pitch; Coggeshall had been 2-0 up at the time.
The Crops is a great name for a football ground, particularly for one in a small country town like Coggeshall (pop. 4,727 in the 2011 census), with its half-timbered houses and fully-timbered medieval tithe barn. Just to over-do the bucolic-ness of it all the football team are nicknamed the Seed Growers too. The Crops is dug into the side of a field that slopes down from West Street towards the winding narrow river. The path from the turnstiles to the club house and changing rooms runs behind and above the low main stand with its four rows of seats, characterful uneven fascia and dark corrugated iron roof. At the front of the stand a large sign reads ‘Chelmsford Plastic Warehouse’; I like to think this is an actual thing, like plastic flowers or the Plastic Ono Band. Either side of the stand a steep-ish grassy slope runs down to the pitch-side. The changing rooms occupy a dark wooden building with steps leading down to onto a corner of the pitch. Dug into the ground behind the goal at the clubhouse end is a long low covered terraced with a corrugated tin roof like a utilitarian municipal tram shelter. You can stand behind this ‘tram shelter’, rest your beer on the roof and get a good view of most of the pitch, though you can’t see the near goal-line or a large part of the goal come to that.
For an evening match it’s possible to get to Coggeshall on the number 70 bus from Colchester, but it’s not possible to get back again. Coggeshall has no train station and never has done, so with no lights on my bike, tonight I must make use of the large car park at the side of the ground; it’s almost completely full but could be fuller if people had smaller cars or didn’t indulge in ‘greed parking’, taking up more space than they need. According to Parking News (genuine trade paper of the parking industry) this has become more prevalent due to increased levels of obesity. Fat bastards. Entry to the ground is a bargain £4 tonight, the admission reduced because over 200 people had already paid to the see the first match on 21st January, which was never completed. The small but colourful and glossy programme costs £1.00.
The teams take the field, Coggeshall in red and black stripes like AC Milan, Stowmarket in yellow shirts so pale they are almost beige, and red shorts, like a washed out Watford. The Stowmarket shirts bear the Nike logo, but with their insipid colour they look like they’re from Primark. Both teams are clearly tense and the game begins with fouls and squabbles, protests and pleas, and the referee quickly needs to take control. The confident Stowmarket No5 sneers at Coggeshall’s diminutive No8 and insults him, “What’s up midget-boy?” he asks. Rude. These are two well organised and committed sides and what develops is an opera of constant shouts and calls, curses and oaths combined with a ballet of runs and leaps and turns. Under the floodlights it’s a sporting son et lumiere, but with a hint of surreal comedy as a giant cartoon cockerel watches impassively from the sidelines; it’s Rocky the Rooster, the Coggeshall mascot.
Goalless at half-time, in the second half the match becomes a drama as with an hour gone Stowmarket score a penalty; but Coggeshall quickly equalise with a goal of beautiful simplicity, grace and speed. Their fleet of foot No 7, frizzy hair buffeted by the breeze, runs at the defence then threads through a perfect pass for the number 9 to chase and poke past the Stowmarket guardian. Coggeshall hopes are reborn, but the drama builds as with the game entering its final ten minutes hesitancy in the Coggeshall defence allows Stowmarket to score again. All the time this drama is played out before a tiny chorus, the Stowmarket six, a group of visiting supporters who chant and shout from within the tram shelter, their cat calls amplified by its tinny echo. “He’s got his IQ on his shirt, He’s got his IQ on his shirt” they sing to or about someone, it’s not obvious who. As Coggeshall strive to equalise a final twist turns the play into a tragedy as a poor tackle fells the Seed Growers’ Matt Southall; he’s too badly hurt to move immediately and there is a ten minute hiatus as a host of people in big coats run on and off the pitch and concern mounts. Some of the 310 strong crowd leave. Eventually Matt leaves the field to applause, but on a stretcher; his ankle is damaged and a long evening in A & E awaits.
The remaining five minutes produce half chances at both ends, the netting behind the goals does its job in catching stray shots and Stowmarket use up the time doing nothing whenever they can. But this tale has run its course and the game ends to scenes of gay abandon amongst the Stowmarket camp who may well win the league championship now, whilst Coggeshall’s disappointment is tangible, it’s clear this game mattered a bit more than most of the others.