Haverhill and Felixstowe are on opposite sides of the county of Suffolk, Felixstowe being in the far east, on the coast, Haverhill in the far west, almost in Cambridgeshire and as close as anywhere in Suffolk gets to a motorway, the M11. Unless you live within walking distance, getting to Haverhill is only possible by road, the town having been deprived of its railway by Dr Beeching in the late 1960’s; a really stupid decision given that in the same decade Haverhill was chosen as one of a number of small towns which would expand with ‘overspill’ population from London. Cambridge is where trains comes closest and then it’s a number 13 bus to Haverhill. The town now has a population of some 28,000 compared to the 5,500 who lived here before it was expanded; it could do with its own railway station, it’s one of the largest towns without one.
My journey by car to Haverhill, whilst not a good thing for the environment is pleasurable enough as I drive along the winding roads of north Essex, darkened by drying smears of damp from earlier in the day. A watery sun appears beneath and between dark clouds and brilliant yellows and golds from leaves that still cling to grey trees illuminate the roadside. Thatched and half-timbered buildings line the way, there’s a village green, a closed pub called the Sugar Loaves, two football teams observe a minute’s silence as I pass by; this is rural England on a Saturday afternoon in autumn.
Driving out of the wonderfully named village of Sturmer I reach the edge of Haverhill, with its industrial estates and business park and row upon row of bland estate housing. At its edge it’s a bleak looking place, a mini new town, out of keeping with its rustic, geographical location. But the grey cloud has cleared and the sky is now blue, I follow the orbital road around the north of the town carefully negotiating the rubber, traffic calming speed bumps. Just past a large school, or academy as it is now pretentiously known is the town sports centre and New Croft, the San Siro of west Suffolk shared by both Haverhill Rovers and Haverhill Borough football clubs as the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza is shared by Inter Milan and AC Milan. But this being England the two Haverhill’s don’t actually play on the same pitch, Rovers play on a grass one on one side of the sports centre and Borough play on a ‘plastic’ 3G pitch at 90 degrees to it.
Parking within staggering distance of the turnstile I stop to admire the club crest which features a spinning wheel, there is also a notice announcing rather ungenerously that there is no free entry after half-time. Disappointed by such stinginess I approach the turnstile. “Oi, there’s another one” a man says to the turnstile operator who is about to desert his post. He’s referring to me, bloody cheek. “Another one”!
Channelling the spirit of Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner I tell him, I’m not just another one (or a number); I don’t think he believes me. Entry costs £6.00 which is pretty standard for the Eastern Counties Premier League and the attractive looking, but ultimately slightly dull programme costs a further £1.00. Boldly, the front cover features a colourised photo of what looks like quite a nasty two-footed tackle by a bearded Haverhill player. Just inside the turnstile to the left is the tea hut; it’s neat and new and its black weather boarding gives the appearance of a traditional ‘shed’, the type of structure that all non-league grounds should have. Its open door is welcoming and I venture inside and invest in £2.50’s worth of bacon roll and £1.20’s worth of tea, served to me by a pleasant young woman who is appreciative of the change I offer her in payment. As I turn to leave I recognise a group of Ipswich Town supporters sat at a table drinking tea; they are at a loose end because International matches have resulted in a blank weekend for the Town and they have chosen Haverhill to get their weekly football fix.
I eat my bacon roll and drink my tea outside, trying to absorb the pre-match atmosphere; but there isn’t any. There are a lot of Felixstowe supporters here today, probably because their team, who are known as the ‘Seasiders’ are top of the league, some 13 points ahead of the team in second place having won eighteen of the nineteen games they have played. But the Felixstowe fans aren’t a rowdy bunch, although they add a splash of colour with their red and white scarves. I use the toilet facilities, which are round the corner by Haverhill Rovers’ pitch. Returning into the green cage that surrounds the 3G artificial pitch I detect that my hands and fingers smell as if the soap dispensers in the toilet were filled with washing up liquid; odd.
It’s almost time for the match to start and a bloke with a radio microphone announces that there will be a minute’s silence before kick-off and he then reads out the teams,
shirt numbers and surnames only. Being Haverhill, the announcer has a London accent and therefore a lot of vowel sounds are absent, but amusingly (for me anyway) it sounds as a result as if the Haverhill number 11 is called Bottom; he is actually called Botten. The Felixstowe left-back is called Stefano Mallardo and I don’t know why, but some strange word association forms in my head and I imagine a man called Arturo Mullardo, who had he been real might have been Benito Mussolini’s favourite comedian.
Respectful silence observed to a background of shouts from a match taking place on a neighbouring pitch, Felixstowe kick off booting towards that academy and the Haverhill Rovers pitch. Felixstowe wear red and white strips with red shorts and from the front their shirts look like Signal toothpaste; Haverhill wear a faded looking all blue kit which has a nasty sheen to it and on the basis of their kit I do not think they will win this afternoon. Less than five minutes into the match and a Haverhill player swings a leg to hoof the ball clear of the penalty area. Nobody laughs, but hilariously he misses the ball completely and instead poleaxes a Felixstowe player stood where the ball should have been. There is not much doubt it is a penalty, although it did look bizarrely accidental, and as a result Felixstowe quickly take the lead as Francis sends the penalty kick past Borough ‘keeper Smith. The Felixstowe supporters, many of whom have gathered on a small terrace which looks like an opened-up metal shoe box, cheer merrily.
Haverhill respond quite well to falling behind so soon and possess the ball all around the Felixstowe penalty area but don’t manage a shot. The Borough goalkeeper makes lots of encouraging noises and urges ‘more urgency’ for some reason; with over 80 minutes still to play I think he’s panicking. Has he never heard the phrase “Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey” I wonder. That’s English football for you though, with its “Get it in the mixer” mentality.
I am intrigued as to why Felixstowe are so far ahead at the top of the league table and search for something special amongst their team. It’s true that they are nearly all quite tall and they look more imposing than the Haverhill team, but their respective kits have something to do with that. Felixstowe certainly have fewer fat players and Borough are notable for having two or three quite portly fellows in their team. I attribute this to diet with Felixstowe probably eating more fish being coastal and Haverhill just eating pie and mash because they are displaced Londoners. One way in which non-league football has the edge over po-faced professionalism is in the variety of shapes and sizes of the players and the fact that a bloke who looks like he has just stepped out of the crowd can be the butt of terrace jokes but then deliver a defence splitting pass or make a perfectly timed sliding tackle. Haverhill’s left-back is such a player as he explains to the wide-man in front of him something about ‘getting there’ and a bloke in the Felixstowe crowd asks “Getting where? The buffet?” How we laugh.
The game has settled down into a combative affair; disappointingly Felixstowe are not spectacular, they don’t tear Haverhill apart with joyous, flowing football but they are the better team and most of the action takes place in the Haverhill half of the plastic “3G” pitch on which clouds of tiny rubber balls are puffed up with every kick and bounce of
the ball. There are clouds in the sky above too, slightly unusual ones and more beautiful than the game. Haverhill’s number four is the first player to be booked by referee Mr Cutmore and there are a number of discussions between referee and players as decisions are questioned and foul play admonished. Some discussions appear quite intimate as referee and players stand very close to one another.
At about twenty five to four Felixstowe score another goal, a corner sees the ball drop in front of Davies and he can’t miss from about four yards out; Haverhill’s players complain that the Seasiders’ goal keeper had bundled one of their players over; Mr Cutmore listens politely but dismisses their pleas without hesitation.
Another ten minutes of physicality pass and it’s half-time. I have edged my way towards the tea hut as the first half ebbs away and am one of the first to get another £1.20’s worth of tea. The air is heavy with smell of chip-frying in the hut so I head back outside where my tea cools nicely as evening begins to envelop the New Croft. I take a look about;
there are lots of notices attached to the cage that surrounds the 3G pitch; smoking and chewing gum are banned within the confines of the “3G Stadium”, presumably not because of concerns about public health or unsightly, open-mouthed mastication but because of what cigarettes and gum might do to the plastic and rubber. With its plastic pitch, metal stands and fences and little wheels beneath the goals the stadium seems very artificial and temporary, as if after the game it will be folded up and put away in a cupboard inside the sports centre. I smile at a banner that proclaims that the Co-op funeral service proudly sponsors walking football; if I was a walking footballer I think I’d be worried and would be wary of men in black stood on the touchline. The Co-op must think they’re onto a good thing; middle aged blokes on a diet of pie and mash still playing sport, even slowly.
The return of Mr Cutmore and his entourage jolts me from my reverie. I drain my paper cup and the game begins again, and Haverhill have more of the ball than before, but no more shots on goal than in the first half. Several times Haverhill break away down the left flank, but nothing more than that, and when they do shoot it troubles the high metal fencing more than the Felixstowe goalkeeper. I take up a seat at the back of the metal stand a bit further along from the shoe box. The floodlights are on and reflect off the bald pate of the man sat in front of me, fortunately the lenses in my glass are ‘reactalight’. Unusually all the spectator accommodation is on just one side of the ground and it’s not possible to walk all around the pitch, which is a bit disappointing as I can’t stand behind the dugout and listen to the managers cursing and swearing at their players, the linesmen and the referee. Bad language is an essential part of the game despite the Eastern Counties league’s entreaties in the programme to “Keep it down for the kids”. Substitutions take place. On the opposite side of the pitch the linesman is busy. His shock of orange hair is quite stunning and matches the autumn colours of the leaves on the trees behind him; as the light fades he almost glows beneath the beams of the floodlights. The other linesman is a slight figure with a thin beard, he looks like he’s feeling the cold and guiltily slips a hand into the pocket of his shorts when play is at the other end of the pitch.
The second half is a bit boring. The football isn’t very good. It’s clear Felixstowe have this game won and its only half past four. A Haverhill supporter snipes that the Felixstowe players are from Ipswich, as if being from somewhere 10 miles away is a terrible crime in a local league for local people. A Seasider retorts spikily that the players are from Felixstowe, like the supporters, perhaps implying that most of the population of Haverhill is really from London, but I could be reading too much into that.
Sensing my boredom perhaps, the Seasiders push forward again and a cross from the left results in a shot which is blocked and then from close to the edge of the penalty area the ball is half-volleyed into the corner of the Haverhill goal by the fictional sounding substitute, Kye Ruel. The goal removes all doubt about the final result and ten to five soon arrives when Mr Cutmore blows his whistle to call time. Those from Haverhill leave quietly, whilst the Felixstowe fans wait to applaud their team. I am soon in my car and negotiating rubber speed bumps.