It’s a breezy, cool, late April evening with a threat of rain in the air; setting off along the A120 I set my car windscreen wipers to intermittent. But it’s still light and there’s no need for headlights. I might have travelled by bus (Service 70 from Colchester to Chelmsford via Braintree), except that I wouldn’t have been able to get home because the last bus in my direction from Coggeshall leaves before half past seven. An overnight stay in Coggeshall would have been extravagant.
My Citroen C3 bounces over the rutted car park of Coggeshall Town car park and we come to rest facing the pitch. The car park is not yet full, but there are a good few vehicles here, including the white Ford Transit that is the Haverhill Borough team bus, which is encouraging. I nod and smile to the man who has parked next to me; I am impressed that the gaffer tape securing his Ford Mondeo’s rear bumper matches its silver paintwork. “Alright mate?” he says. I follow him and his wife through the turnstile and wait whilst they nominate their player of the season; they’re regulars. In time I pass through the turnstile myself, entry is £6 and I buy a programme too (£1.50). I walk along the concrete path behind and above the main stand towards the club house. The Haverhill Borough team are warming up on the main pitch whilst the Coggeshall players have a kick-about on the practice pitch.
In the clubhouse I speak to Paul who runs the club twitter account and films the games. We talk about marriage and being happy, but agree we’re here for the football. Paul goes to set up his camera and I head to the bar to buy a pint of Caledonian Brewery Coast to Coast (£3.90) which turns out to be very cold and very fizzy. I feel like I might explode as I struggle uncomfortably to suppress a series of frosty burps. I may not buy this beer again; I may not have to with its hoppy flavours repeatedly bubbling up from below. I speak with Jim who is usually with Keith, but not tonight because Keith was double-booked. Jim asks if will be writing about tonight. “I expect so” I say. “You can tell you’re an Ipswich fan” says Jim mysteriously. I step outside.
Kick-off is approaching and I rest my beer on the roof of the stand and look at the programme. Men huddle around the team sheet displayed on the outside wall of the changing rooms. I move down into the stand behind the goal before the two teams line up side by side behind the referee on the steps leading down from the changing rooms to the pitch. A Haverhill supporter lazily and thoughtlessly leaves open the gate from the steps into the stand, so I public spiritedly close it, joking to the referee that we don’t want any players taking a wrong turn into the stand. He makes reference to my beer implying that it might result in such an occurrence. I avoid burping in his general direction. With the players safely on the pitch I wander round to the main stand. “It’s a bit wet innit? The grass” says a man to his partner.
Haverhill kick off in the direction of the town wearing a somewhat dull all blue kit, whilst Coggeshall stand out under the lights in their handsome red and black stripes with black shorts. Coggeshall soon gain possession and on that basis proceed to do most of the attacking. They have the first shot. “Come on ref, keep an eye on the game” says a man angrily as Coggeshall’s number 7 is fouled.
The match is a bit scrappy, full of hoofs and meaty headers. Coggeshall’s play is disjointed as they try too hastily to get the ball forward; if they win tonight they will be promoted to the Bostik League Division 1 North. But it’s a fine night at West Street with a distinctive atmosphere emanating from the swears and shouts and the rattle and clatter of studs on the hard pitch, even though the grass is a bit wet, as the man said. On the far side of the pitch the Coggeshall bench is packed with players and coaches. But the Haverhill bench is home to just three, who look like they’re waiting for a bus; they’ve got a long wait; it’s a good job they’ve got their own in the car park. Beyond the far side of the ground the valley leads down to the River Blackwater, lined with spindly trees leaning in the breeze beneath a mass of travelling clouds; if the pitch had been covered in poppies Claude Monet might have painted it.
“Get it tight”. “Good boy”. It’s a minute to eight and Coggeshall’s number eight places a firm shot towards a point just behind the inside of the goal post, but the young Haverhill goalkeeper makes a fine save, diving to his right. There is banter in the stands amongst of old boys in their late sixties or seventies. A much younger woman in the front row turns round in appreciation. In conversation a Haverhill fan relays that their goalkeeper is just seventeen years-old. Sensing some sort of boastfulness a Coggeshall fan counters that their full-backs have mental ages of three and four.
It’s nearly ten past eight and Coggeshall’s star man, number nine Nnamdi Nwachuku shoots spectacularly over the angle of the goalpost and crossbar. There’s a corner to Coggeshall. “Who’s got the big man coming in?” shouts a concerned voice from within the stand. Haverhill’s number eight is booked by referee Mr Gerry Heron for a foul on Coggeshall’s number seven. Another corner to Coggeshall and an urgent voice from on the pitch asks “Who the fuckin’ ‘’ell’s got the free?” Good question; the ’free’ shoots, but misses.
Only ten minutes to half-time and there’s a free-kick to Coggeshall. The kick is taken, a hand goes up and Gerry Heron awards a penalty to Coggeshall. Haverhill’s number 4, a very chunky, quite skilful but gobby midfield player is not happy; had he been incandescent with rage he might have spontaneously combusted and burned very brightly. Fortunately he doesn’t and Gerry Heron cautions him amidst much animated waving of arms from the portly playmaker. Back to the penalty spot. Nwachuku scores. “ Cool as you like” says a man nearby.
Coggeshall want more goals and number seven makes a run down the right in front of the stand. “Do ‘im son, do ‘im, all day long” calls a voice with rising excitement before releasing a mournful groan as seven’s cross rises almost vertically from his ankle and over the stand. But it’s half time now and I invest in a pound’s worth of tea with a dash of Danish owned Cravendale brand milk, in the hope that it might quell the beery repetition I am still suffering and warm my chilled intestines. I stand about and like Edward Hopper enjoy the light spilling out through the window from the club house bar and onto the deck. It’s getting dark and the cloudy sky has turned cobalt blue.
For the second half I stand in the corner near the goal that Coggeshall are attacking, but it’s a bit breezy and I move ‘indoors’ into the seats of the main stand, close to the old boys whose banter had amused in the first half . It’s like sitting in front of Statler and Waldorf in the Muppet Show, but there’s five of them.
It’s now five past nine and rain is being carried on the wind into the front row of the stand, making a row of lads laugh as they get wet. “Is it raining?” asks a woman behind me somewhere. “I didn’t know it was raining” she adds unnecessarily. Seven minutes later Coggeshall number three Curtiss Haynes-Brown advances down the left, then a bit more. “Go on! Hit One!” Someone shouts, so he does and he scores and it’s 2-0 to Coggeshall.
Haverhill are still resisting as best they can and there is a brief contretemps between Nwachuku and the chunky number four. Gerry Heron intervenes but takes no specific action despite advice from the stand that “It’s that fat fucker, number four, ref!” Haverhill take heart and with about fifteen minutes to go their number ten forces the Coggeshall goalkeeper into making his first real save of the night. But Nwachuku soon scores another goal after making a dashing run towards goal and a bit later skips through the Haverhill defence once again to complete his hat-trick for the evening and increase Coggeshall’s goal difference to +117 for the season.
That’s promotion secured and the old fellas behind seem keen to leave a bit early, but fear that Coggeshall might score again and they’ll miss it. One of them says that they didn’t really leave early on Saturday but the team played on without them. Someone complains that it seems a very long half, but then perhaps sensing that people have seen enough Gerry Heron whistles for the last time; it’s not quite twenty five to ten. I’ll be home in five minutes.