The final Saturday of the football league season has arrived, a special day in the football calendar because it can mean such a lot, or so little. It can be make or break, or it can be pointless, futile, a complete waste of everyone’s time. Too lazy to search for the least important fixture of the day I opt to go to the nearest, which just happens to be the one at which Coggeshall Town will be presented with the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier league trophy, which is in fact a substantial looking cup. But first it will be necessary to endure another ninety minutes of football.
It’s a warm sunny day in early May, blackbirds and sparrows are nesting in my garden and a nesting box for swifts, swallows or house martins has just this morning been put up under the eaves of my house. It’s the May Day Bank Holiday, which people who vote Conservative shouldn’t be allowed to take; hypocrites. Because the weather is warm and fine Mrs Brooks, who has chronic asthma, is able to accompany me today. Anticipating plenty of people wanting to see Coggeshall presented with the league trophy we set off before two o’clock. It’s a slow journey behind a farm tractor but it still only takes about ten minutes.
The sun beats down on the dry and dusty car park at West Street; the Stowmarket team bus is here, provided by Squirrel’s Coaches on which I like to think an-on board hostess offers passengers nut-based snacks. At the turnstile I hand over a twenty pound note, a pound coin and fifty pence piece. In return I receive £10, a programme and a colour picture of the team that won the league on Tuesday night. Admission is £6 for me and £4 for Mrs Brooks who is over 60. Inside the ground the Coggeshall team appear to be having fun warming up on the pitch. Radio Essex is here in female form. Near the main stand we see Jim and Keith; Keith is wearing a T-shirt and shorts, Jim has a coat and a hat. We follow them into the stand to exchange pleasantries; Mrs Brooks hasn’t seen Keith for quite some time, or Jim come to that. Keith is over seventy but points out Olly Murs warming up with the team.
Acquaintances renewed, we head for the bar where Mrs Brooks has a white wine spritzer with soda (£4.00) and I have a pint of Caledonian Brewery Coast to Coast (£3.90), a cold, fizzy beer which I drink very slowly indeed to mitigate its unfortunate repetitive qualities. We step outside to enjoy the Spring sunshine and convivial atmosphere. There are plenty of people on the deck drinking like us and chatting. There is a barbecue set up around the corner of the dressing rooms beneath a white gazebo. People are stretched out on the grassy bank to the side of the seated stand. This is lovely, a football match crossed with a village fete. “The toilets are fairly good in there” says a Suffolk accent. “ They’re bigger than when I last come” says another in reply.
What looks like a mixture of players from Coggeshall’s Under 9’s and Under 10’s teams lines up at the foot of the steps from the
changing rooms to the pitch. Coggeshall’s giant poultry mascot Rocky the Rooster joins them having been led down the steps by his beak. The Stowmarket Town team joins them too. We wait, and wait a bit more. A sort of Haka can be heard from home team dressing room before the Coggeshall team appears and waits on the steps, why they wait is unclear. Eventually however the players step down towards the pitch to be applauded by their ‘guard of honour’. Handshakes ensue and then we’re ready for the game to begin.
Coggeshall kick off aiming towards the club house and in their customary red and black striped shirts with black shorts, very good they look too. Stowmarket Town, kicking towards the West Street vineyard and the town of Coggeshall itself, sadly haven’t put as much thought into their kit today; they wear their home shirts of amber and black stripes, but because their usual black shorts would be black like Coggeshall’s they have ‘borrowed’ the red shorts from their away kit. The result is an unholy mess, all they needed was white or amber shorts and they would have looked fine, but instead they look like they got changed in the dark.
Mrs Brooks and I sit on the grass slope between the club house and the main stand. The first notable action is when the ball is booted out and hurtles like a space capsule re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere onto the grassy bank making a man in a red and blue checked shirt spill his beer. At the far end of the ground six blokes from Stowmarket sing and bang the perimeter fence like the drunks that they probably are. In front of us a golden retriever or labrador, (who really knows the difference?) looks on and barks excitedly when the ball is hoofed out of defence or when the action gets a bit feisty.
It’s twenty past three and Stowmarket’s number seven is booked for a foul; referee Mr Harrison, a very clean cut, angular looking man raises his yellow card slowly, pointedly and dismissively as if to humiliate and punish at the same time. The first corner of the game follows soon after, falling to Coggeshall, but Stowmarket defend it easily and within a minute take the lead as a low cross from the right is turned into the net by the lunging boot of number nine Ace Howell who has evidently wandered un-noticed into the Coggeshall six yard box. Nearby a woman applies sun screen to her arms and the smell of male body spray is wafted by on the breeze, as it does on warm days.
Seven more minutes pass and a deep Coggeshall cross from the right is knocked back into the path of number eight Conor Hubble who steps effortlessly past one defender, sidesteps another and then wellies the ball into the corner of the Stowmarket goal as if to say “ You didn’t really think we wouldn’t equalise did you?”. The Labrador gets excited. Emboldened by the goal, a few Coggeshall supporters shout randomly. “Ridiculous, ref!” is heard as a free-kick goes the ‘wrong way’ and then “Be strong” as if every now and then players are prone to inexplicable weakness and they need reminding not to be.
The shouts of encouragement seemingly have no influence on the score however, which remains 1-1 as Mr Harrison blows for half time. In the break we speak with Paul who is videoing the game and has taken time out to get something to eat at the barbecue. We then meet our next door neighbour, also called Paul who has arrived ‘hot-foot’ from Harry Potter World. Paul is here with his son Sam, who we don’t see at first, but apparently he cuffs the back of his dad’s head as he walk past. Kids of today, eh?
The second half soon unfolds before us and we stand at the other side of the main stand to get a better view of the Coggeshall goals when they arrive, because going to football is all about being optimistic. Stowmarket are now playing into the sun but stood in the metal bus shelter-like stand at the clubhouse end of the ground their fans are even more vociferous than before, although it could all be down to acoustics. The sun is reflecting off the corrugated tin roof of the main stand and a bearded man with long grey hair, tied in a ponytail stands by his bicycle and looks on, which you couldn’t do at a poncey Premier League game, or even at Colchester United, and definitely not for six quid.
“Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you” sing the Stowmarket fans, confusingly already singing a song. No one responds, understandably. The Stowmarket fans sing the same song, but alter the words. “Who the fuck, who the fuck, who the fuck is Olly Murs?” is now the refrain. No one helps them out, so they make up their own answer, seamlessly switching from the Welsh hymn tune to the Latin American rhythm and beat of Hector Anulo’s ‘Guantanamera’, and singing “Shit Robbie Williams, You’re just a shit Robbie Williams”.
The second half is as competitive as the first on the pitch, but to some extent the teams are both good enough to be cancelling one another out. May be the stalemate is what is causing the Stowmarket fans behind the goal to make their own entertainment by constantly stretching their musical and lyrical imaginations, if not their talent. They get that end of season ‘here to celebrate’ feel as they call to the team manager and others in the dugout to “give us a wave”, which they obligingly do. It’s about twenty five past four and Stowmarket earn two corners either side of a fine diving save from the Coggeshall goalkeeper James Bransgrove. “Small club in Marks Tey, You’re just a small club in Mark’s Tey” sing the Stow’ Town choir once again employing Hector Anulo’s most famous tune.
Coggeshall are having more possession of the ball and are getting forward more frequently. Nnamdi Nwachuku taunts the Stowmarket full-back Ollie Brown with his pace and tricky footwork. A man in a Tottenham Hotspur shirt also taunts the full-back, repeatedly telling him he is has no pace; happily the full-back plays on with a smile. It’s nearly half past four, Coggeshall have a corner and Nnamdi Nwachuku jumps athletically, firmly heading the ball into the goal net. It might be the last game of the season but it means a lot and the players mob Nnamdi joyfully. “Twenty big minutes” shouts someone nearby in a spirit of encouragement; I wonder if to Stowmarket the minutes will be the same size as usual or smaller.
It is half past four and Stowmarket equalise, their number nine, the almost fictionally named Ace Howell slipping the ball past the Coggeshall goalkeeper, applying a very fine end to a passing move. The goal means a lot to Stowmarket, who have won their previous ten consecutive matches and presumably would like to add an eleventh. Now everyone’s minutes are the same size again. Coggeshall return to the Stowmarket end of the ground and Nnamdi Nwachuku is sandwiched between two Stow’ defenders. “Every time” bawls someone to my right as if the visiting defenders follow Nwachuku around in pairs, one either side of him.
It’s twenty to five now and Coggeshall have another free-kick, somewhere near the half way line. The ball is punted beyond the Stowmarket defence; only Coggeshall substitute Tom Monk reacts; he runs on, brings they ball under control and smashes it past Stow’ goalkeeper who has at least moved, unlike his team mates. With every goal the celebrations increase in excitement; it’s now officially a ‘five goal thriller’ as the lead has swung back and forth. The remaining ten minutes are probably going to be big again, although no one mentions it. Coggeshall almost get a fourth goal as their number four George Cocklin spectacularly hits the cross bar with a beautiful 30 yard shot which drops over the goalkeeper’s head, rattles the cross bar and bounces down on the goal line in the way shots have ever since the 1966 World Cup final, but without being goals.
The game is dragging on, Mr Harrison the referee doesn’t seem keen to stop, but of course eventually he blows for the final time this season. Then we wait and wait and
wait for the presentation of the league championship trophy. Tables and billboards are put in place. A stack of what look like small shoe boxes sit by the trophy. Bottles of Prosecco are stood on the tables. The players of both teams loaf about on the turf, the Stowmarket players look increasingly bored. Finally, a short announcement precedes each player each receiving a shoe box as his name is announced to generous applause and then the Coggeshall captain Luke Wilson lifts the trophy in a brief orgasm of streamers and pyrotechnics. Joy and happiness abounds, but for us the afternoon is finished and we go home for a barbecue of our own, leaving others to stay and celebrate.