Long Melford is a big village, one of the most appealing and attractive in Suffolk according to Suffolk Tourist Guide.com with, according to Wikipedia, a population in 2011 of some 3,518. Melford, as it is known locally, is just a few miles north of Sudbury, it used to have a railway but since 1967 and the evil Doctor Beeching, the line now terminates at Sudbury. If you want to get to Long Melford by public transport therefore, it is necessary get the No 753 bus from Sudbury to Bury St Edmunds. Like the train service from Marks Tey, the bus service runs hourly, but as this is England the trains and buses are not properly co-ordinated; the train to Sudbury arrives at 13.08 and the bus conveniently leaves at 13:30, reaching Long Melford Post Office ten minutes later. On the return journey however, the 754 bus passes Long Melford Post Office at 17:11 and arrives in Sudbury four minutes after the train has left, at 17:20, so there is nearly an hour’s wait in Sudbury for the next train at 18:16.
Today however, I am driving to Long Melford’s Stoneylands ground because I have agreed to give a lift to a man called Roly, who lives in nearby Borley. I happen to know Roly’s house is within walking distance of Stoneylands because Roly has walked it before, but I was in generous mood when we discussed by text message going to the game and very slightly inebriated.
It is a grey, still, cold winter’s day as I make the twisting, undulating drive through Chappel, home of the East Anglian Railway Museum, Mount Bures with its excellent Thatchers Arms pub, Bures with its large empty bus depot, the edge of Cornard and through busy Sudbury before taking the turn towards the wonderfully named Foxearth. In Borley, Roly’s Victorian cottage home is a scene of domestic bliss; his partner Sarah reclines on the sofa with their young baby Lottie, whilst Penny the dog rolls over at my feet and wriggles excitedly. But I don’t linger, there is football to go to and within minutes Roly and I are bouncing down the pitted, puddle filled private road that leads to the football ground and my Citroen C3 gets a taste of what it must have been like to be a Citroen 2CV carrying a tray of eggs across a field somewhere in the Auvergne.
Getting parked takes longer than it should as the man in the car in front seems to want to park as close to the entrance as possible, which means reversing gingerly and at first unsuccessfully into a narrow space despite the presence of acres of car free space just 15metres away. There is an air of the village hall about Melford’s ground from the outside and indeed the club’s nickname is The Villagers. There is no turnstile as such here, just a few metal and plastic barriers herding would be spectators towards a kiosk of the type that used to be at the exit to municipal car parks back before the days of Pay & Display, when a bloke stamped your ticket and took your money as you left. There is a short queue to get in because it takes the grey-haired woman in the kiosk a little while to root around for change from a plastic tub. A board on the side of the kiosk announces the price of admission, but in reality it’s just a green smudge of felt tip pen; fortunately I’ve done my homework so I know from the club website that admission is £7 including a programme.
Once inside, Roly buys me a bottle of Nethergate IPA (£3.50) in the bar, which is the least he could do after I went out of my way to drive him here, selfishly he gets one for himself too. We drink bottled beer because sadly the hand pump on the bar is covered over with a tea towel, which is very disappointing. The woman serving is struggling for change and asks rhetorically how she is expected to run a bar with a float of just four pound coins. I empty my pockets and find just short of ten pounds in change, which she is happy to exchange for a ten pound note; I’m 40p up!
We sup our beer in the company of other middle-aged and older men stood around tables as men do in bars, but soon we are aware that the teams are coming on to the pitch. We leave the clubhouse just as the line-up for the obligatory handshakes is dissolving away into the two halves of the pitch. Newmarket Town are the visiting team today and they sit seventh with 53 points from 31 games in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League table; Melford are 16th with 39 points from 32 games. It’s a clash between a village known for antique shops and a town known for horse racing. I suspect that watching local football puts us firmly outside those two spheres of activity although weirdly I think, there is an advert in the match programme for “Wealth management advice”, whatever happened to plain old financial advice?
The 1970’s pop blaring from the tannoy stops abruptly as Newmarket, nicknamed predictably as the Jockeys, kick off towards the dull, suburban estate-style houses at the Sudbury end of the ground. Newmarket’s club colours are yellow and blue, but for some unknown reason today they are wearing a rather ugly all red kit with white stripes below the chest, as if they’d brushed their teeth before coming on and dribbled Colgate down their stomachs. Melford play towards the dilapidated wooden fence, shelter and open fields to the north, wearing their signature black and white striped shirts and black shorts. Melford’s kit is embellished with name of the excellent Nethergate Brewery, who have newly built premises at the entrance to the village by the turning to Foxearth.
Newmarket start well, passing neatly and getting forward, but Melford suddenly win possession, breakaway and have a shot, and so it continues. Both teams have a lot of players with beards. Newmarket have the ball most of the time, but Melford spring the occasional surprise, getting the ball to their number seven Hassan Ally who is always in the right place, but never quite makes the final telling cross or pass. The Melford cross bar is hit by a header and then at about twenty five past three a long ball to the right is chased down by Lewis Whitehead who shoots across the Melford goal keeper; Newmarket lead and a number of middle aged men cheer unexpectedly. No one in the crowd is wearing club colours but for a Bedlington Terrier in a red coat, so the presence of away supporters is a surprise.
Half-time arrives and Newmarket would seem to be in control. Roly has already treated or ‘tret’ himself, as he would say in his quaint rustic dialect, to a cheeseburger (£3.00) from the food bar which the programme tells us is called Deb’s Diner. The concluding paragraph of the joint managers’ column in the programme says “Whatever happens, we hope you enjoy your afternoon here in Long Melford, get yourself something to eat and drink…” and Roly has clearly taken note. I don’t ask him if it was an early tea or late lunch or just a celebration that his NHS health check during the week had shown him to be a well man, clearly capable of absorbing the ill-effects of junk food, for the time being at least.
We go into the club house again for two more bottles of Nethergate IPA and to catch the half-time scores on the TV and are much heartened that Ipswich are winning 2-0 at Sunderland. The club house is recently refurbished after the roof fell-in last year and there are several marvellous photos on the walls of past achievements such as Suffolk Senior Cup wins. A trophy cabinet contains a couple of old brown leather footballs which impress me more than the cups and trinkets. When there is a cosy clubhouse, half time is never long enough and it’s soon time to re-join the rows of middle-aged men hanging over the rail around the pitch.
The second half is not the same as the first, roles are reversed and it is the Villagers who more frequently have the ball at their feet whilst the Jockeys chase about in vain and are pushed back into their own half. For the second half we stand on the opposite side of the ground to the clubhouse near the dugouts and in front of a coniferous hedge, carefully and neatly cut into a modernist architectural shape; behind the hedge a close-board wooden fence is in places nailed to its thick trunks. In its neatness the hedge is only matched by the Newmarket goalkeeper’s haircut, but is less contrived. There is more noise on this side of the pitch as the coaches of both team teams shout and urge their teams on.
As the game continues Melford dominate more and more and Newmarket are getting tetchy. Whilst there were hardly any fouls at all in the first half, tiredness and desperation and swearing are introducing a new kind of entertainment. A Melford player goes down and the Newmarket number two complains to Mr Pope and anyone who is listening, because Mr Pope isn’t, that Melford have some right prima donnas, although he pronounces it pre-madonnas. Another foul and a free-kick on the edge of the box and then another. Then, whilst Roly is in the toilet Melford win a third free-kick. Despite referee Mr Pope taking time to book the perpetrator, Roly still isn’t back by the time Ross Waugh scores, apparently with a header, although to be honest it was one of those messy goals and I had lost track of the ball.
There are only eight minutes left and the blokes in trackie bottoms and sports coats on the touchline are visibly tense. The Melford number ten Scott Sloots is hurt and is substituted; as he hobbles off the pitch one or two of his own players seem to be complaining that he is taking his time. “Come on ref, make him get off quicker” I hear. I hadn’t previously realised that there was a point where team togetherness and the will to win would clash. But nevertheless, Melford continue to push forward and in the final minute of injury time there is a run down the left, the ball’s in the box, a shot is blocked and Hassan Ally is in the right place to score from the rebound. Rarely have I seen such elation from a team sixteenth in the league to a winning goal; both coaches burst onto the pitch to celebrate with the team as if this was a most crucial victory. I’m all in favour of making your own fun but this seems to be going a bit far.
To his credit, Mr Pope the referee makes nothing of the exuberance of the Melford coaches and in no time at all the match is over. Roly and I stroll round to the club house to make final use of the toilet before applauding the Melford team from the pitch. It’s been a very entertaining game with a dramatic finale and I’ve made 40p.