It had been a damp morning, I had walked to the village post office in a light drizzle and then driven back to collect a prescription for my wife from the pharmacist opposite the post office because I had forgotten it first time around. I now leave the house for the third time in an hour to walk to the railway station. The day is dull and grey, but as I turn the corner into the station forecourt there is a single bloom on a hawthorn bush. It seems Rachel Carson’s silent spring is delayed for another year, but it’s surely coming.
Putting aside thoughts of doomsday I board the train and text a man called Gary to let him know I am in the third car of the train. The smell of cheap perfume, so cheap it could just be the smell of washing powder, permeates the warm air of the carriage; behind me a couple speak to one another in a foreign language. Gary is accompanying me today and will join me on the train at Colchester and in due course he does so, but not before I anticipate his boarding of the train by the door nearest me only to see a man who looks like Iggy Pop’s heavier brother board in his place, which I find a little disconcerting. Gary has read previous entries on this blog and this has inspired him to want to join me, because it sounds such fun.
Gary and I catch up on events since we last met and soon arrive at Ipswich where there is another half an hour to wait for the train to Felixstowe, we therefore adjourn to the Station Hotel opposite where Gary drinks a pint of a strategically branded ‘American’ lager called Samuel Adams, served in a strangely shaped glass and I drink a pint of a fashionably hoppy ‘craft ale’ that I have never heard of, which is probably brewed furtively by the Greene King brewery. The Station Hotel is pleasant enough but reeks of the latest corporate house style of a national brewing chain.
At about ten to two we drain our glasses and cross the road back to the railway station to discover that due to a passenger being taken ill, the 13.58 to Felixstowe has been cancelled. The Ipswich to Felixstowe passenger rail service has to be one of the least reliable anywhere on Earth and suffers regular cancellations for a variety of reasons, sometimes for days at a time. This may be because it is just a one track, one carriage shuttle service, but this being so there should be a contingency plan to maintain a service. If this were mainland Europe there would probably be a regular tram or light rail service between Ipswich and Felixstowe, but sadly this is brexiting Britain.
The cancellation provokes a quick assessment of where else there is an accessible game this afternoon and it’s a choice between Needham Market, Whitton United or Ipswich Wanderers. Seeing as we are at the railway station from where trains run directly to Needham, but buses do not run directly to Whitton or Humber Doucy Lane it is easiest to go to Needham. A convoluted ticket refund and new ticket purchase procedure later (£3.05 for a day return with a Gold Card), we are ready to catch the 14.20 to Cambridge calling at Needham Market.
The hourly train journey to Needham is short and sweet, taking just ten minutes to sneak out of Ipswich’s back door past the ever more dilapidated, former Fison’s factory at Bramford and along the wide valley of the River Gipping. Needham Market station is a thing of beauty, a red brick building in the Jacobean style and dating from 1846, it is Grade 2 listed. Happily, although it was closed in 1967 it re-opened just four years later. Tearing myself away from the loveliness of the railway station, it is a numbingly simple and direct walk to Bloomfields, the home of Needham Market Town Football Club. Across, the station forecourt, sadly dominated by parked cars, past the wonderfully named Rampant Horse pub where Calvors beer and lager brewed locally in Coddenham is served, across the main road, down the side of the Swan Hotel and on up the side of the valley, leaving the timber framed buildings of central Needham and reaching the football ground through an estate of 1960’s bungalows. The route is so simple and direct it is as if the railway station and the football ground are the two most important things in Needham Market and as Gary remarks, the path between is akin to Wembley Way.
At Bloomfields we walk through the busy car park and are both £11 lighter having passed through the turnstile, on the other side of which a programme costs a further £2. It’s not twenty to three yet so we take a detour into the clubhouse and there being no real beer on offer we imbibe something called East Coast IPA (£3.00 a pint). The pump label shows the east coast of America for some reason, although the beer is manufactured by Greene King in Bury St Edmunds and my view is that they are hustling in on the good name of the ‘other’ Suffolk brewer Adnams, which uses the slogan ’beer from the coast’. Gary likes the beer, but then he likes Carlsberg; I find it much too cold, bland and fizzy and I’m glad when it’s over. That’s ‘the thing’ about drinking alcohol, it has to be pretty disgusting not to finish it.
Outside, the sizeable crowd of 495 mill about and lean over the pitchside rail, whilst the two teams appear to be caged up inside the tunnel from the dressing rooms. Eventually the teams process onto the field side by side and go through all that hand shaking malarkey. The stadium announcer speaks with a mild Suffolk accent which sounds clipped as if he doesn’t read very well, but in fact that is just the nature of reading out loud with a Suffolk accent. Gary and I remark on the name of the Dulwich number eleven, Sanchez Ming, the sort of name to strike fear into the heart of Donald Trump, if he has one. Today’s match is sponsored by John and Sue. Gary and I elect to stand with the Dulwich supporters in the barn like structure behind the near goal at the Ipswich end of the ground. If Needham ever had to make this stand all-seater they could do so with the addition of just a few straw bales.
The match begins with Dulwich Hamlet, all in pink, kicking towards Ipswich whilst Needham, who are disguised as Melchester Rovers play in the direction of Stowmarket. Dulwich start well and have an early shot blocked. A Dulwich supporter sounds a doom-laden warning to the Needham goalkeeper, Danny Gay, that he is on borrowed time. When he does it again someone responds that we all are. It’s marvellous how Step 3 non-league football gets you in touch with a sense of your own mortality. The goalkeeper smiles kindly, but it’s not even ten past three when following a turn and through ball from Dipo Akenyemi, Dulwich’s nippy number seven Nyren Clunis appears in front of goal with the ball at his feet and just the large frame of Danny Gay between him and glory. Nyren and glory are united as the ball is at first blocked by big Danny, but Clunis rolls in the rebound and the Dulwich supporters cheer gleefully. A man in a dark raincoat and trilby hat dances around holding a banner that says ‘Goal’ in case anyone was in any doubt that Dulwich had scored. A woman swings a small pink and navy blue football rattle, but it doesn’t.
Dulwich continue to provide all the attempts on goal and a selection of corner kicks and shortly after twenty past three Clunis scores again, in similar circumstances to the first goal, but due to a defensive mistake and Danny Gay makes no initial save. This time the man in the dark raincoat and hat toots a pink plastic horn to celebrate. The Needham locals look on silently, inscrutably, like Ipswich Town fans do. They may have been expecting defeat, Dulwich, after all, are striking out at top of the twenty-four team Bostik Premier Division, whilst Needham are meandering around the wilderness of mid-table anonymity where existence has no meaning; they are 14th . A twenty-four team league is much too large.
As half-time approaches Gary asks if I fancy a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate and from his short menu I choose tea (£1). Gary has a tea too. Over tea Gary talks fondly about his grandfather who was a Communist and stood as such in a council election in the London Borough of Brent in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. He was a well-known character on the west London estate where he lived, but he didn’t get elected. It was because of his grandad that Gary read Robert Tressell’s book “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist”. We both agree that with today’s ‘gig economy’ the working life of many people is much the same in relative terms to what it would have been a hundred years ago.
We put the revolution on hold as the teams return to the field and we move to the other end of the ground to the side of the all-seated Les Ward stand, which is a small, prefabricated, metal structure. The Marketmen show glimpses of recovery as the new half begins but at seven minutes past four Dulwich score a third goal when Nyren Clunis passes to Nathan Ferguson who shoots accurately between the goalpost and the clawing, despairing, outstretched glove of Danny Gay.
Despite Needham showing a bit more attacking intent in the second half Dulwich are too good for them. Danny Gay has a chat with the Dulwich fans behind the goal; he seems to be counselling one supporter telling him that he is sure he could get a wife, because he has one. Later there is outrage amongst the Dulwich fans as The Marketmen’s Sam Nunn hacks down Clunis in full flight and is merely booked by referee Mr Paul Burnham who has blatantly ignored the supporters chants of “Off! Off! Off!”. Danny Gay then makes a fine save, diving to his left to tip away a shot that would otherwise have given Clunis his hat-trick.
The floodlights have now come on as the greyness of the day deepens and low cloud descends over the gaunt trees and power lines that provide a distant backdrop. A chill bites at my bare hands, which I push deep into my coat pockets. The game is drawing to a close and the result is already known. It is a somewhat pernickety and mean-spirited therefore when Mr Burnham penalises Dulwich goalkeeper Corey Addai for holding onto the ball too long, invoking a rarely enforced rule that results in an indirect free-kick to Needham and a harsh booking for Addai. Mr Burnham is a short, stocky, completely bald man whilst Addai is just 20 years old, 6 foot 7 inches tall and with an enormous head of hair. I suspect a barely hidden agenda provoked by jealousy.
Needham’s free-kick inevitably comes to nought and after four minutes of added time the game ends. The Needham number ten, Jamie Griffiths, who has worn a large head bandage throughout the afternoon is elected Man of the Match and receives a bottle of Champagne from John and Sue the match sponsors, whilst standing in front of a board plastered with company logos and being photographed.
Gary and I reflect on what has been an entertaining match as we head back down into Needham village. The next train is not until ten to six and therefore we have a good forty minutes or more to end the afternoon by enjoying a pint of ultra-locally brewed beer in the conveniently located and fabulously named Rampant Horse public house.
Finally, Dulwich Hamlet are currently going through a torrid time due to the development company Meadow Partners who own their Champion Hill ground having undertaken a number of immoral and twisted actions such a trying to seize the rights to the club name and trademarks, loading debt onto the club and preventing it from taking profits form match day bars. Presumably Meadow Partners want rid of the club so that they can make profit from developing the site for housing.
Go to https://savedulwichhamlet.org.uk for more information and details of the Fans United day on Good Friday when Dulwich invite fans from all clubs to attend their match versus Dorking at Tooting & Mitcham’s ground where they are now forced to finish their season.