There is something about the name Braintree that is slightly funny. Brain is quite a funny word to start with. “Is this a piece of your brain?” Basil Fawlty enquired of Mrs Richards. In a similar vein, it’s easy to say Braintree in the same the way that Mr Gumby says “Gumby” in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Try it. See?
So, it was with Pythonesque humour in mind that I travelled down the A120 before finally parking my car towards the end of the rather charmingly named Clockhouse Way, which leads to Braintree Town’s strangely named Ironmongery Direct Stadium. Ironmongery is a lovely word though, so Victorian; it’s a pity it’s paired with ‘Direct’. The company may well want to get across the idea that their products can be ordered and delivered promptly, but if your business name really counts they have left a big space in the market for a rival company called “Ironmongery Post-Haste”.
It was a little after 7 o’clock and Clockhouse Way was deserted, my only company being the smell of people’s dinners wafting from kitchen windows and extractor fans. The evidence says they eat mostly meat and gravy in Braintree, in Clockhouse Way on a Tuesday in any case; not a sniff of curry, Bolognese sauce, Bourguignon or Paella here. The houses around the north end of the stadium are like little sugar cubes, flat roofed, angular and white they date from the 1920’s and were built by the Crittall company for their workers; these houses were the prototype for the planned village of Silver End just a few miles from Braintree to the south east. The roots of Braintree Town Football Club lie in Crittall’s and the Crittall Athletic Football club.
As I rounded the corner towards the football ground I at last saw a few other would be spectators walking to the match, summoned by the glow of the flood lights. Sixteen quid lighter I was in the ground where I promptly donated another £2.50 for a programme. Eighteen pounds and fifty pence seems a lot to watch semi-professional football I thought, even if a lot of the teams they play against in the Vanarama National League are fully professional. Oh well, I’m here now. The only food outlet in the ground is just inside the gate and I breathed in the smell of chips, vinegar and oil as I watched the teams warm up and four middle aged ladies toiled away behind me preparing their saturated fat-based fayre.
Whilst it just happens to be the name of the club’s main sponsor, The Ironmongery Direct Stadium is well named because there is a lot of metal on show here. The terraces are narrow and dominated by sturdy, tubular, orange crush barriers; there is sheet metal fencing behind one end; the main stand (the only one with seats) is a box of steel girders and metal sheeting and on the opposite side of the ground the terrace has a long, low metal roof over it. Behind the goal at both ends of the ground even a part of the very terrace itself is made of steel. The whole place is tied together with bolts and lashings of blue and mostly orange paint; it looks a treat. Even the buckets of sand to sprinkle on the pitch are orange,but sadly they’re made of plastic; note to self – a sales opportunity for Ironmongery Post-Haste.
I wander all around the ground before settling under the metal roof of the terrace behind the dug outs. Tonight Braintree, home of The Prodigy are playing Woking, home of The Jam. That’s Entertainment! The scene as the teams line up is a Fauvist dream with Braintree in orange shirts and blue shorts and Woking in red and white halved shirts all on a bright green pitch, made more vivid by the floodlights. The game kicks off and immediately a raucous chorus of “Iron, Iron, Iron, Iron, Iron” rattles out from under the roofed terrace from a bunch of blokes in their thirties and forties. They are a motley and shouty bunch; one of them is well over 6 feet tall and wears yellow hi-vis trousers and a vivid orange bobble hat for that ‘got here straight from work’ look. A smaller, hollow faced man sports a very straggly mullet. It’s easy to imagine this being a works outing for the men from Crittall’s foundry.
Woking start the game much better than Braintree and launch several quick and simple attacks, earning a couple of corners. With only ten minutes gone they deserve to be ahead. But the home supporters have their faith placed in top scorer Michael Cheek and his close range dribbler also earns a corner. “Come on Cheeky” is the cry from the terrace, but not in a camp way, sadly.
Then I get to touch the ball, which is something that’s only ever happened to me twice before at a ‘big’ game like this (at Vale Park and Upton Park if you’re interested). The ball comes flying off the pitch in my direction. “Heads” shout the shouty blokes, but I just raise my right arm and in one smooth movement pat the ball down onto the terrace from where it bounces over the perimeter wall and back on to the pitch. That must’ve looked pretty cool I think. It is met by those on the terrace with the silence of disappointment that I haven’t made a prat of myself. I‘ve put my shoulder out mind, but they don’t know that.
No doubt feeling caressed and relaxed by my touch, the ball soon nestles in the Woking net courtesy of a 20 yard shot by Cheeky. “Oh when The Iron, Oh when The Iron, Oh when The Iron go steaming in” is the new confident chant from the terrace where no one seems to notice that it sounds like a song about laundry. The Woking fans on the open terrace behind the far goal are downcast, but only temporarily as within a couple of minutes the exotically named Delano Sam-Yorke is given the simple task of tapping the ball over the Braintree goal line to equalise.
The action is frenetic and the Braintree right-back, who has the most nobbly bald head I have ever seen, hits a post for Braintree before Sam-Yorke scores again, this time a glorious shot high into the net, to give Woking the lead. From under the roof of the terrace a volley of effing and blinding escapes, along with noisy calls to “sord it aaart”.Woking are worth their lead however and have earned the applause of their supporters when it’s time to troop off for half-time into the changing room, which oddly looks a lot like a council bungalow. Meanwhile the home supporters abuse the referee angrily for perceived mis-judgements which favoured Woking.
Perusing the team sheet (free tonight because the printer is a bit ropey) the name of Woking’s No 3 Terell Thomas makes me smile as I imagine a footballing cad sporting a moustache, cravat and gap between his front teeth. I also like the surname of their No 2, Jake Caprice, although so far he seems pretty reliable. Half-time ends and the second half begins and the supporters have changed ends like the teams; this is what football should be like. I stand with some Woking fans now; visitors from a strange town, they look better fed and better dressed than the locals of Braintree. There is one very tall, upright, and rather prim looking lady stood on her own, who is very neatly attired with red and white scarf and bobble hat. I overhear a very respectable looking couple nearby whisper “Wendoline” to one another as she passes by, which being familiar with the work of Aardman Animations is exactly what I’d thought. I smirk knowingly at them and want to ask if they know Paul Weller.
Woking still look the better side, they are quick in attack whereas Braintree are ponderous and a bit aimless. When Woking score a third goal about twenty minutes before the end the Woking fans cheer very loudly, clearly relieved that they feel the result is now safe. I move along the terrace to be nearer the dugouts which are as high as the eaves of the stand. It’s an evening for coats and a man near me turns to his friend and says how glad he is he “wrapped-up warm” tonight. The Woking manager Garry Hill wears a short, dark coat over a shirt and tie and office worker trousers, he could have just got here from a job in the city. He is animated and between encouraging shouts to his players he has a gesture driven conversation with his coach; with his wide range of hand movements if Garry Hill didn’t have that job in the city he could be a bookie at a race course. In contrast the Braintree Town manager Hakan Hayrettin stays wrapped up in his massive polyester manager’s coat inside the Perspex dug-out; he barely moves and looks like he’s digesting a heavy meal. Hakan leaves the animation and shouting to a coach in a shapeless blue coat, who has Ken Dodd hair and patrols the ‘technical area’. As an aside, why does football insist on calling that oblong in front of the dug-out a ‘technical area’? What’s so technical about a rectangle of turf and a few white lines? It must have been the FA who coined the term, the same FA who based a nation’s coaching ethos on the so very technical ‘get it in the mixer’ approach of Charles Hughes.
As the game heads towards its conclusion Braintree make a host of substitutions as they seek to penetrate the Woking defence, but tonight Woking are simply too good for them. To their credit however, the Braintree supporters in the crowd of 572 mostly stay on until the bitter end and they still seem to retain the faith and will be back again on April 8th to see The Iron take on Dover Athletic.
On balance it was a good night despite the result, but tonight I particularly enjoyed the shirts of both teams, oh and also of course, I got to touch the ball.