It’s a Friday evening in late August and in Coggeshall history is being made as the local football club, established in October 1878, will play its first ever FA Cup tie after almost 140 years of non-involvement in what used to be, until the Premier League ruined everything, England’s most thrilling and most-loved football competition.
It’s been a blustery day, but the afternoon has been quite warm. My wife Paulene and I have had our tea early (bangers and mash) and are making the short drive to Coggeshall; a large crowd is predicted tonight for what is a local ‘derby’ against Witham Town, so we thought we would get in early, park up and have a drink before the rush. Driving along West Street towards ‘The Crops’ we follow a large Audi car with the registration M1 LTS, the personalised number plate of former Ipswich Town player Simon Milton; I wonder to myself if footballers are more likely to have personalised number plates than ‘normal’ people. I think perhaps they are. As we follow I tell Paulene about how hack sportswriter Dave Allard would nearly always refer to Simon Milton in the back pages of the Ipswich Evening Star as “… the former paint sprayer and van driver from Thetford”. Paulene thinks this was rather rude of him. The Audi brakes suddenly as it reaches the turning into the Coggeshall Town car park; “Milts” is evidently not a regular at the Crops. We turn in after him and wait whilst he backs his transport into a space close to the entrance.
There are a good number of cars here already but there is no queue at the turnstile and we soon pay our entrance money (£9 each) and buy a programme (£1.50). At the bar I order a pint of Adnams Ghostship (sadly keg and not real ale) for me and a Campari and soda for Paulene. “A what?” says the young woman behind the bar .
“Campari and soda” I reply.
“What’s that?” She asks.
“It’s Campari topped up with soda”
“What, like lime and soda?”
“Yes, but with Campari instead of the lime, but still with the soda”
“I don’t know if we’ve got that”
“Yes, you have, the Campari is on the top shelf”. The barmaid turns to look at the shelves behind the bar. “Which one is it?”
“The bottle in the middle with the word ‘Campari’ on it”. Paulene is served her Campari and soda (£7.70 with the pint of Ghostship) and explains to the woman stood next to her (who had asked) how she cannot have grain-based drinks due to a food intolerance and so has to stick to wine-based ones like Campari, Martini and Noilly Prat. The woman’s husband tells me how he has a bottle of Campari in a cupboard at home, but has never opened it. Plastic cups of drink in hand we stand outside on the deck and watch what’s occurring whilst playing “Spot the Groundhopper”. We speak with ‘Migz’ who we know from his having played at Wivenhoe Town; he has just joined Witham, his younger brother Tristan plays for Ipswich Town. It’s rather lovely sat out here, with the neat, well-tended pitch before us and the grey leaves of the riverside trees beyond the fields behind the ground blowing in the breeze. But it’s getting a bit chilly and I put my coat on. On the pitch the Coggeshall coach is interviewed in front of a video camera, apparently BT will be showing the match in a highlights programme. Good luck with finding it on BT’s poorly advertised schedules.
Drinks drunk we move to the low seated stand at the side of the pitch and pick a spot at the back, in the middle, saving a seat for Paul who normally videos the match but has given over his gantry to BT tonight.
The BT people said they will let him have a copy of their recording, which is nice of them and much better than the service you get as one of their paying subscribers. The ground is filling up; a large man in front of says to his wife “The barbecue is up and burning, do you want anyfink?” He leaves and returns with burgers and paper napkins; the burgers don’t look burnt despite what he said. The referee and his assistants warm up in front of us, the referee who has scrupulously short hair setting out a series of flattened cones to run between, although he begins by running with his chums to the goal line and back. I thought I saw one of his assistant smirk as the cones were laid out, but it might have been me. They don’t really need these flattened cone things, perhaps they were a Christmas present and he feels obliged to use them or may be just setting them all out and picking them up again is part of the warm up.
The light is fading as cloud builds and the floodlights come on before kick-off. Barbecue smoke drifts in to the air and teases our nostrils as Witham Town in yellow shirts and blue shorts have first kick at the ball playing towards the town, with its fabulous medieval tithe barn and Tudor, double jettied, Paycocke’s house. Coggeshall sport their usual black and red striped shirts with black shorts and socks.
An early free-kick to Coggeshall and their number six and captain Luke Wilson heads the ball over the goal. The game is fast and frantic. “Well in son” shouts a shiny headed man standing near to us and then “Well up son” to another player, showing a touching fatherliness towards the Coggeshall team. At the open end of the ground a lone voice bellows “You’re supposed to be at home” single-handedly trying to create the big match, local derby, cup-tie atmosphere that I hope for at every game.
After just six minutes the Coggeshall captain is substituted due to injury and then there is a flash. I thought the floodlights flickered, but the rumble of thunder that follows
confirms that it was lightning. If the crowd isn’t creating much of a ‘cup-tie’ atmosphere the weather seems to be making an effort and soon it begins to rain. Coggeshall win the first corner of the match as a swarm of raindrops swirl within the beam of the floodlights above. The referee speaks with Witham’s number eleven and two grumpy looking men in suits and ties enter the stand to shelter from the rain, they are wearing huge black coats plastered with the logos of Mitre and Bostik, they must be League or FA officials. It’s another thing I love about non-league football; officials all dressed up and made to sit in a tin shack. Perhaps that’s why they look so grumpy, but at least they’ll get free sandwiches at half-time.
It’s not quite a quarter past eight and Witham’s number three claims the first booking of the evening for acting the playground bully as he unsubtly shoves a Coggeshall player in the back. I’d like to say that he stares wild-eyed up through the rain at the yellow card as it is illuminated by a flash of lightning, but it didn’t really happen like that. The rain gets harder and a dark bank of cloud forms the back drop to the floodlit pitch, which sparkles with rain drops. The thunder and lightning passes over, it’s nearly twenty past eight and Witham win their first corner with what could be their first attempt on goal. Coggeshall have been dominating this game but without troubling the Witham goalkeeper who has a stockade of four big blokes in front of him who block every way through to goal. Coggeshall are nimble and quick but small and Witham are big and solid. A hoofed clearance disappears above the roof line of the stand and I wait for it to fall like someone in 1944 who has just heard a doodlebug engine cut out. After a silent pause the ball noisily clatters the corrugated iron above us. There’s time for Coggeshall to win another corner, which is cleared and then it’s half time.
It’s still raining so we stay where we are, a cup of tea might be in order usually, but there are over 300 people here tonight (309 to be precise) and I don’t want to queue in the rain. I flick through the programme and Paul leaves and returns with a burger. The large man at the front of the stand goes to get a burger, but returns empty-handed, put off by the queue.
The second half brings the football back and Witham’s number ten is soon cautioned for a tackle which the shiny headed man says was two-footed. From the resultant free-kick, Coggeshall’s number ten Ross Wall (a moniker which I randomly notice combines the names of two frozen food manufacturers) sends a flying header goal-wards, but the Witham goalkeeper is equally air worthy and hurls himself to his right to push the ball onto the post and away, drawing excited but frustrated “Ooooohs” from the crowd, including me.
It’s still raining as Coggeshall’s number ten is booked, seemingly because several Witham players surrounded the referee appealing for his censure. But Coggeshall remain the better team, or at least the more attack-minded and entertaining team and soon a throw on the right reaches number seven who turns smartly to send in a rising shot, which the Witham ‘keeper again touches on to the cross bar in spectacular fashion. An hour of the game has passed and another Coggeshall player, number fourteen is booked for sliding into an opponent across the wet turf.
The game remains physical and frantic and wet. A free-kick for Coggeshall almost sneaks under the cross bar and a corner is won after number eleven Nnamdi Nwachuk produces some nifty footwork and tries several times to tee up a shot on his right foot. Coggeshall’s number fifteen replaces number seven and Witham’s number four joins those already booked by the very neat Mr Michael Robertson – Tant the referee. It’s been a game of several free-kicks and much falling over and a special prize should go to Witham number nine, a huge man who several times falls to the ground heavily and lies perfectly still as if mortally wounded. He has clearly learned from watching the World Cup that rolling over and over and over is not convincing; he is the anti-Neymar and amusing with it.
Nnamdi Nwachuk stays down on the turf “Get up , we need you” bawls a team mate. A Witham player goes down and seeks attention “Come on ref, he’s a pansy” shouts the shiny headed man. Coggeshall win more corners, the ball is cleared, is headed over and Nwachuk’s shot is deflected away as everyone struggles to control it on the greasy, wet grass. Nwachuk cannot carry on and is replaced by number eighteen. Witham’s number four is replaced by number fourteen, a curly haired, bearded man who looks like a history teacher who taught me back in 1976. Frustration grows but the pattern of the game doesn’t , Coggeshall press and Witham hold out. The shiny headed man develops a rising, piercing falsetto voice as Witham’s nine fails to get booked “Why doesn’t he book him? He’s taking the piss. It’s ridiculous”. Moments later nine is booked for childishly withholding the ball before a Coggeshall free-kick. The shiny-headed man is apoplectic and with the game ebbing away he turns to religion. “Jesus Christ!” he spits as a searching through ball is played much too long and rolls harmlessly off the pitch. The good word spreads to the woman next to me who on being told there wouldn’t be extra-time if the game is drawn says “Thank God, I don’t think I could take it”.
Entering time added on, the Witham players have taken to complaining heavily when fouled; they earn a free kick which is cleared to the edge of the penalty area where the history teacher clubs it on the volley just past the Coggeshall ‘keeper’s right hand post. It’s the last notable action of the game. The rain has stopped and the smell of cooking meat returns as a pall of barbecue smoke hangs over the pitch. After four minutes of added time it’s all over and we emerge from our shelter into the damp night to say our goodbyes. It’s disappointing not to have seen any goals and ultimately effort and strength have beaten skill but the thunder, lightning and lashing rain beneath the floodlights have made it a memorable evening.