It’s been a beautiful week and I’ve become well acquainted with bright blue skies and bright yellow sunshine as I’ve sat and stared out of the window at work. Now at last it’s the weekend and the skies are grey and cloudy, there’s a wind, spits of rain in the air and the sun is nowhere to be seen as I walk through my sunken dream. This afternoon I am in Wivenhoe for the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League fixture between Wivenhoe Town (aka The Dragons) and Walsham le Willows (aka The Willows).
Walsham le Willows is everything its name suggests, a bucolic village in deepest Suffolk; Wivenhoe is a tiny town or a big village just outside Colchester. The old part of Wivenhoe nestles beside the muddy, marshy river Colne and is commonly perceived as quaint or picturesque, with narrow lanes and boats and wonky half-timbered houses and pargetting and stuff. People come to Wivenhoe for a Sunday afternoon jaunt to sit outside the quayside Crown & Anchor pub with a prosecco or pint of Old Essex Git and a plate of “pub fayre”. Back from the quayside Wivenhoe sprawls out, its buildings like the growth rings of a tree, so that a journey from the centre to the edge is an architectural journey through time. Well, it’s a bit like that anyway, but may be more so if you’re one of the academics or arty weekenders who populate the pretty parts of the town.
At the very, very edge of Wivenhoe at the cross roads of Elmstead Road and Broad Lane, beyond the houses and separated from them by a field of some crop or other is the Broad Lane Sports Ground. In recent years the bit of the sports ground Wivenhoe Town occupies has become the Maple Tree Cars Stadium; that’s since the ”naming rights” took on a financial dimension rather than just being the tradition of away teams calling it “that shit hole”. Sat behind its blue and white painted gates and shaky looking brick pillars, across the barely surfaced car park it’s a bit grim looking, especially on a grey day like today.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Wivenhoe Town was bank-rolled by the owners of the Wivenhoe Port (since closed and transformed into desirable waterfront residences) and that was when the ‘stadium’ and clubhouse was built. Since then a spiral of decline now leaves the place looking a bit dilapidated. But on the plus side it is devoid of the pretensions of some clubs, there are no reserved parking spaces for the Chairman or anyone else here.
Despite rising costs, the admission charges atWivenhoe have remained at £6.00 for adults and £3.00 for concessions for the past seven years or more. Rich the turnstile operator tells me that this afternoon’s attendance of 80 brings in about £370 in cash. A few weeks back the referees’ expenses came to £200; it makes you wonder if the FA really give a monkey’s about ‘grass roots’ football. Why not charge clubs a flat fee for the referees and then use about 0.0001% of the Premier League TV money to pay for the travel expenses? It wouldn’t de-rail the gravy train too much would it? It’s not the clubs’ fault if referees don’t live near the places they are sent to referee in.
Football at Wivenhoe is a social occasion and before the game there are huddles of spectators stood around in the area bounded by the turnstile, tea bar, players’ tunnel and pitch, catching up on the past two weeks over cups of tea, pints of beer, burgers and bacon rolls. Atypically for an Eastern Counties Premier League club (step nine of the football league ladder), Wivenhoe has a thriving club shop and blue and white hats and scarves abound and today there is a couple buying a club shirt to send to their son in America, although they won’t be staying to watch the match.
From outside you can hear the referee’s bell ring and the players line-up in the very much home -made looking player’s tunnel. The teams walk on to the pitch side by side and after the usual hand shaking nonsense they line-up against one another; Wivenhoe in their all-blue kit looking like an impoverished man’s Chelsea and Walsham le Willows in yellow shirts and red shorts looking like centrifuged blood. Walsham le Willows kick off the game towards the Miles Barbering Service stand and the dark towers of Wivenhoe Park and the University of Essex beyond.
Walsham le Willows start the game very well indeed and almost have a couple of runs in on goal before they get another one and their Number 10, a big, rather ungainly looking bloke scores, knocking a bouncing shot into the far corner of the goal; he turns away to accept the plaudits from his team with a slightly surprised look on his face. Yes, it was that easy. This is a very disappointing start for Wivenhoe because Walsham le Willows are not exactly the Brazilian 1970 World Cup team and consequently there had been hopes for a rare win. Happily for Wivenhoe, the shock of taking the lead so soon seems to affect Walsham le Willows and they allow Wivenhoe to get into the match themselves. After a couple of prototype forays forward, skilful play by the diminutive Hampson on the right results in a low cross and Wivenhoe’s number 11 carefully kicks the ball into the goal from about 6 yards. “Would you like to talk us through that one ‘keeps?” asks a Wivenhoe supporter of the Walsham goalkeeper.
The game settles down from hereon into a rather dull encounter, like the weather. The pitch isn’t helping the players in their struggle; the drying wind has resulted in puffs of dust flying up when the ball hits the ground and winter has taken its toll; there are several bald patches in the grass which look like small bomb craters or the evidence of a large stray dog having been taken short.
The Walsham number three amuses the home supporters with his unerring ability to hit the ball into touch from all sorts of unintended angles, but otherwise the game is only notable for the fact that nearly all the Walsham players are very tall and all but one of the Wivenhoe players are much shorter. Hampson for Wivenhoe stands out easily as the most skilful player on the pitch. Neither team looks particularly like scoring, but in the Eastern Counties League that means nothing and shortly before half-time a corner for The Willows sees their number four take advantage of his height and, judging by the marking a Harry Potter style invisibility cloak to head a second goal for the giants from Suffolk.
At half-time I buy a pounds worth of tea and step inside the clubhouse. The etiquette imposed by the league for this level of non-league football demands that the away team committee get free sandwiches, tea and cakes at half time. At most clubs this is served in a separate room away from the hoi polloi, a board room even. But at Wivenhoe a part of the room next to the tea bar has been cordoned off with a waist high, painted wall of breeze blocks topped by a piece of decorative ironmongery of the sort you see on suburban garden gates. The remainder of the room is the route from the outside to the toilets and the bar. I whiled away the break in play stood by the wall getting the half-time results off the telly in the corner of the room and watching the away team committee devour their sandwiches and Battenburg; it was a lot of fun and I was tempted to try and catch a committee member’s eye and do that mime to tell him he had a bit of food on his chin. It was a bit like being at Colchester zoo, but cheaper.
Despite being refreshed by a pounds worth of tea my back is aching; I am ashamed to say I’m not used to standing at football any more. I therefore decide to sit down and head for what are probably the seats with the clearest view in the Eastern Counties League. Wivenhoe has about 160 seats in a well elevated stand, a stand that clearly isn’t quite as big as originally intended, with a row of naked steel girders poking skywards at the back; football’s only henge monument.
After the break the match doesn’t improve, but Walsham le Willows decide to dominate. I look about the ground and am impressed by the advertisement for the Morning Star, (the revolution starts at 10 to 5) and intrigued by the one for Freedom Funerals. Is this a company owned by Mr Freedom the undertaker or is this a broader statement about your rights after death? I hope it’s the latter because personally I have always wanted my corpse to be left out on a hillside and have my bones picked clean by birds and animals.
With about twenty minutes left The Willows pretty much ensure that they will win as their number six towers over the Wivenhoe midgets to head a third goal.
The greatest thing about Wivenhoe Town however is the supporters and although under strength today, the self-anointed SOBS stood behind the goal were still able to raise a few choruses of “Dragons, Dragons, Dragons”; this is in stark contrast to most clubs in this league where a co-ordinated chant is as rare as a UKIP MP but hopefully more welcome. Despite the vocal encouragement, Wivenhoe only sporadically threaten anything resembling a goal attempt however and The Willows confirm the result seconds from full-time as their number nine leaves the Wivenhoe left-back in his wake before trundling on into the penalty area where he runs the ball past the hapless goalkeeper, who had, to his eternal credit, earlier made some pretty good saves, but not this time.
At this level of non-league you never quite know when the game is going to end because there is no fourth official to count the added on time and hold up a little board saying how much longer we have to witness. But today the game didn’t drag on unnecessarily and the welcome release of full-time arrived without rancour. Despite a disappointing result, the final act belonged to the Wivenhoe Town supporters who gathered by the tunnel to applaud both the Walsham le Willows team and their own as they left the field. The result means relegation looms again for Wivenhoe Town, the supporters probably deserve better but have got used to losing and somebody has to.