A journey through the Suffolk countryside on a bright, sunny and unseasonably warm early April afternoon is the lovely prelude to this game, this local derby. Unfortunately, whilst it is easy enough to get to Debenham on a bus for 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, it is not possible to get back again unless you live in Mendlesham or somewhere on the bus route between the two villages. The upshot is that I have had to drive to the Debenham Leisure Centre, and if you do the same, rather than say walk several miles across the fields from Framlingham or Diss, I would recommend getting here in good time because the car park can get full up.
Debenham Leisure Centre FC was founded as recently as 1991 and it is odd that a largish village like Debenham should have to wait so long to have a football club, then when it did happen the club name should include the words Leisure Centre. But in the comparatively short space of 26 years they have progressed as far as the Eastern Counties Premier League, although they currently reside in the First Division, which is step six of the non-league pyramid, or Division Ten if ‘The Championship’ is Division Two.
A yellow and black sign in the car park announces that this is where the football club, known as the Hornets, hang out, but there is no turnstile into the ‘stadium’ and you have to work out that the access is through the leisure centre itself. But once inside it’s still not clear where to go; there are two choices, through the leisure centre bar or down a short corridor which appears to lead to the outside, which if my memory of other football grounds isn’t failing me is where the match is likely to be played. Using logic I opt for the corridor and of course I am wrong and a gentleman older than me appears like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn to ask if I will be watching the match. I am advised that entry is through the bar and he can’t understand why people try to get in the way that I tried to. May be because they can’t understand which way they are supposed to enter I venture. But there is a sign he says. But does it say which way to go I ask. As mysteriously as he appeared he disappears and I find myself in the bar where my accomplice, who I have not mentioned up until now, buys me a pint of cask Speckled Hen in a plastic cup. Surprisingly perhaps and all credit to the leisure centre staff for this, it tastes pretty darn good. Pints in hand we pay our £5 entry fee to a friendly man with a pint mug full of banknotes who is stood behind a table, and I also purchase a copy of the impressively cheap match programme (50p).
We sit outside in the sun at a circular wooden picnic table. A grey-haired man in some sort of commemorative Liverpool shirt brings us bright orange wrist bands to wear, to show that we have paid to watch the game. Apparently the football club has a problem with people watching the matches without paying; this is because there are so many ways into the ground which are unchecked. I will later find what seems to be a public footpath crossing the site which confirms that this club is on a hiding to nothing. After a little while a couple in their late sixties or early seventies sit opposite. The man reads his programme behind his sunglasses and sups a beer. The woman tells him a couple of times that she is enjoying her cup of coffee; “It’s nice sitting here in the sun” she says, but her comment provokes nothing, nothing but silence, it is as if her words had never been uttered. No affirmation, no contradiction, nothing. Another man arrives and says something bland about football and the two men have a conversation. Her cup drained, the woman says how much she enjoyed her coffee, “I suppose you’ll want another one at half-time then” says the man.
A little while later a rounded man walks past our table to the main block of the leisure centre carrying two large jugs of a yellow/orange liquid. Making our own entertainment my accomplice and I earnestly tell each other that under new FA doping rules everyone in both teams must be tested for drug use. At this level of course that is prohibitively expensive so each team is tested in one go, hence a single jug of yellow liquid from each. It’s a team game after all. How we laugh at our own joke.
Time moves on and it’s nearly 3 o’clock; time to take up a position by the rail to watch the match. The Friend’s Meadow ground or Maitland’s as it was formerly known is a basic but neat ground with a small pre-fabricated
stand containing seats straddling the halfway line and a concrete path around the rest of the perimeter. The dugouts are opposite the stand and there is a sturdy post and rail fence around the pitch with a number of advertisement boards attached to it, bearing the names of assorted local plumbers, builders and hairdressers. Behind one goal is a small mound, a grassy knoll, behind that, bushes, a hedge, a field, a tractor. There is a regimented line of poplars some 80 yards beyond the far side of the pitch with a hedge beneath. Daisies and dandelions are beginning to bloom on the mound and on the pitch.
At last it’s 3 pm and Framlingham Town, wearing their kit of green and white hoops kick off towards the council houses at the edge of Debenham. About a quarter past three Framlingham score a goal, not undeservedly because they have been much the better team, quicker and brighter, they pass the ball whereas Debenham in their black-sleeved yellow shirts are slow, less skilful and dull by comparison. The Debenham number 11 seems unable to approach a Framlingham player without fouling him and is spoken to by the short referee, Mr Willmore. The number 11 doesn’t look very contrite and predictably when he fouls again, the referee brandishes a yellow card in his general direction. A full-faced bearded man leaning on the rail pleads the number 11’s case. “What was that for? That was piss poor” He opines, adding that he hopes the referee is going to be consistent, which is an odd wish given that he is apparently getting his decisions wrong.
The sun beats down as best it can in April forcing my accomplice to make use of his hoodie to protect his delicate northern European complexion. Framlingham continue to be the better team. Debenham just boot the ball forward for their forwards to run after; “Foot race” shouts the bearded man. What other sort of race is there in a football match? A horse race, slow-bicycle race? Let’s kick racism out of football. At about twenty five to four the Debenham number two tackles over-enthusiastically and is booked. From the ensuing free-kick the ball is crossed and after a pass or two, Framlingham, score a second goal, a volley, spectacular of course as all volleys are. The bearded man questions the linesman about the referee’s decision and very helpfully the linesman tells him about the use of excessive force and not being in control when tackling. The bearded man doesn’t recognise this as a thing in football and the linesman tells him that there is an assessor stood near him who can explain and he in turn helpfully tells the bearded man about what you can’t do in the ‘modern game’. The bearded man is unimpressed and moans about making the game ‘non-contact’ and it not being like it was when he played.
About five minutes later Framlingham score yet again just to make a point and soon it is half-time. I and my accomplices, for a second friend has joined me during the first half, head for the tea bar. I buy a soft roll for £2 and a pounds worth of tea in a mug with a handle, which is much more civilised than a plastic or polystyrene cup. I have to take the roll outside to a barbecue where another lady gives me a sausage to complete my hot dog The two ladies indoors serving the tea and rolls fight over who gets the three pounds. Later, I speculate as to whether in the same way that some people get into the game without paying, others might bring their own soft roll in order to bag a free hot dog.
For the start of the second half we stand on the grassy knoll, which is a surprisingly good vantage point, although it’s slightly in the shade so it’s a bit cool and eventually we settle at the side of the goal now being defended by Debenham and their bulky goalkeeper, who is a vision in baby blue, but doesn’t cast a shadow over us despite his size. After their abject first half display Debenham have made three substitutions with the clumsy number 11 being one of them. Debenham look all the better for their mugs of half-time isotonic tea and their substitutes’ ‘fresh legs’ and attitude, and after just nine minutes of play are awarded a penalty, which is scored by their centre-forward whose first name is Paris. Debenham continue to spend time in the Framlingham half, but their hopes are dealt a severe blow when their pony-tailed substitute falls over and is accused by Framlingham players of diving. Jabbing of fingers ensues before a look of shock crosses the referee’s face and he brandishes his red card at the pony-tailed substitute, apparently for threatening behaviour towards his accusers from Framlingham.
Debenham’s hopes are pretty much dashed and whilst the game begins to meander, there is an unexpected outburst of frustration when following a foul by a Framlingham player the Debenham captain suddenly bawls “when are you going to do something ref!” The referee looks a little taken aback. After a Debenham player generously heads the ball into his own goal to give Framlingham a fourth goal, the game enters the final ten minutes. Aware of much shouting from the managers we move closer to the ‘technical areas’ and witness a Framlingham substitute having a wee up against the back wall of the dug-out before going on; possibly a superstition or may be that second cup of tea at half-time was a mistake. Interestingly there is a high fence between the dug outs which could easily ‘hide’ a urinal if necessary.
Framlingham have a lot of young players on the field and the coach or manager or whatever he is provides plenty of words of encouragement. Mystifyingly I hear him several times shout “Call him Will” then surmise that he is actually shouting “Call him, Will”. Meanwhile the Debenham manager has a less positive vibe about him and is bemoaning his team’s luck for which he blames the referee. He complains that they should have had a penalty and then complains that the penalty they did score shouldn’t have been a penalty, which on balance seems a fairly pointless complaint.
Eventually time is called and there is some applause, but not a lot from the 128 people who were counted as having paid and those who possibly didn’t. A bit miserable of people not to applaud the effort; these players aren’t being paid fortunes to do this, not here anyway. The crowd drifts away and in making our exit we complete a circuit of the ground, barely stopping to admire some graffiti which looks a bit ‘urban’ and out of place in rural Suffolk.
Not a bad afternoon’s entertainment for a fiver.