It’s not been possible to travel by passenger train to Hadleigh since 1932, but today the number 91 bus will get you there from Ipswich, although it only does so every 90 minutes. The 15 kilometre bus journey takes about half an hour. To catch the number 91 bus I would first have to board the train to Ipswich and in half the time it would take me to do that and then catch the bus I could have driven to Hadleigh, parked my Citroen C3, had a cup of tea, bought and read the programme and probably done a few other things too.
Today therefore, despite the carbon emissions, I shall drive to see Hadleigh United play Gorleston in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. Consequently I am thankful to Andre-Gustave Citroen, founder of the Citroen car company and am pleased that I metaphorically doffed my cap to what is left of his mortal remains in Montparnasse cemetery when in Paris last month.
Having left the A12, it’s a pleasant drive on a bright autumn afternoon through Holton St Mary and Raydon along the twisting and rolling B1070 into Hadleigh. Wikipedia tells us that Hadleigh has over 200 listed buildings and arriving in the town into Benton Street there are a good number of them as the jettied timbers, steep gables and leaded windows evidence. On into High Street and left into Duke Street, across the remarkable fourteenth century, three arched Toppesfield Bridge (Grade II* listed) and then left into Tinkers Lane, Hadleigh United’s ground ‘The Millfield’ is at the end.
Although it’s only just gone two-thirty, the car park is already full and I am ushered ‘off-road’ through a gate and across the turf behind one of the goals to join a row of cars lined up at the edge of the practice pitch. Leaving my trusty Citroen, I walk back behind the goal and ask the man who directed me through the gate if I need to go back out and
come back in through the turnstile. Apparently I don’t; today is Hadleigh United ‘Community Mascot Day’ and it’s ‘pay what you want’. There is no turnstile at Hadleigh, which is a shame, but I find a man guarding the collecting bucket. I fish a fiver from my wallet and a pound coin from my pocket and give it to him because six quid is about the going rate for Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League Football I reckon. I don’t want to do them down, but equally I’m not about to make a charitable donation. I ask how much a programme is and the man with the bucket says I have already paid, but I give him a quid anyway because that’s what it would normally cost. I don’t really understand the rationale behind a ‘pay what you want’ day, do the club hope everyone will just hand over a tenner? Nevertheless, I live for the day that Ipswich Town have one, although I suspect I will have to live a bloody long time.
There’s still some time to go before kick-off so I pop into the clubhouse and bar to admire the old black and white pictures of bygone teams , I am impressed by a photo of Hadleigh Juniors, which the caption says were winners of the Chelsworth ‘Boys’ Cup, despite that fact that all the players look about forty-five. I consider buying a drink, but it doesn’t look like there is any real ale on offer so I go outside and make do with a pounds worth of tea instead. The area outside the club house is busy with people buying and scoffing chips, burgers and hot dogs and watching hordes of 3 to 9 year olds enjoying what is called Diddy’s and Mini’s football. Mums and Dads look on.
As I walk around to the main (only) stand the pitch is cleared of small children, presumably by some sort of Pied Piper figure. With the sun already quite low in the sky, and shining on the browns and yellows of the autumn trees there is a beautiful golden glow to the afternoon , but a blustery wind is blowing from the north east and out of the sun it is cold. The Millfield is at the edge of the town backing onto the slow moving, weed covered River Brett, the existence of which is hinted at by the presence of a bright orange life buoy propped against the fence. From a distance I can see letters printed on the life belt and I speculate hopefully that they might read MV Marie Celeste or SS Titanic, but sadly they only read BDC, Babergh District Council. At the other end of the ground open, rolling fields skirted with trees rise gently up away from the river in the direction of Layham. As I arrive at the main stand Fat Boy Slim’s “Right Here Right Now” can be heard from the set of Aiwa speakers beneath the roof of the terrace opposite; it’s a sound that seems slightly incongruous in this rustic setting.
I lounge on the second of three steps of cold, grey, wooden benches that run the length of the main stand. The teams emerge from the tin clad building that houses the club house and dressing rooms but looks like a light industrial unit where a bloke in overalls will MOT your car; the players line up on the far side for the ritual handshaking before dispersing for kick off. Behind me one Gorleston supporter asks another how good his burger was; six out of ten is the verdict. “Come On Greens!”, “Come on Gorleston!” shout the Gorleston supporters as the teams prepare for kick-off. “How do you think we’ll do today?” asks one, expectantly. “Who knows” replies the other, cautiously.
It is Hadleigh United, known as the Brettsiders because of their location next to the river, who get first go with the ball, kicking in the direction of said river. Hadleigh wear an all navy blue kit, which would be fine if it didn’t also have white shoulders, giving the players the appearance of wearing small ermine capes, like some sort of House of Lords eleven. Gorleston’s kit by contrast is all green and completely plain, although sadly it’s a rather nasty ‘plastic’ shade of green. My advice to Gorleston when choosing a green kit would be to look at what the French clubs AS Saint-Etienne and Red Star FC are currently wearing in Ligue 1 Conforama and Domino’s Ligue2.
As referee Mr Quick wastes no time in blowing his whistle to begin the match, the bells of the mostly fifteenth century parish church of St Mary the Virgin (Grade 1 listed) ring out across the town to tell everyone that it is three o’clock. Hadleigh might have had the first kick of the ball but it’s Gorleston who are having most kicks thereafter. Gorleston’s eleven Dan Camish is having a lot of fun scampering down the left wing and their number seven Connor Ingram has the first chance to score but heads over the cross bar. Gorleston seem to have a plan to get the ball behind the full-back and then into the middle. Hadleigh however, seem un-certain what to do. This perhaps explains why Gorleston have won their last three matches and are tenth in the league table, whilst Hadleigh languish, seventeenth in the twenty team division. Hadleigh’s number ten Daniel Thrower stands out as their best player however, although their number two Charlie Howlett has made most effort with his hair; his head has the look of an inverted Oreo with pale skin beneath a short back and sides and a bleached top sandwiching a band of natural brown colour. The splendidly named Romario Dunne runs Howlett a not too close second with his hair tied back into a small bun; a style which nevertheless suits his name and makes him look a bit like Stade Malherbe Caen’s Enzo Crivelli, or, less flatteringly perhaps, like one of the women in Grant Wood’s painting Daughters of Revolution.
It’s a reasonably entertaining game, even if neither team is having many shots on goal, but the fact that it’s a sunny afternoon probably helps and peels of bells from St Mary The Virgin delight the ears too, drifting in and out on the gusty breeze; the spire of the church is visible over the roof tops beyond the car park. Suddenly there is a loud bang on the back of the stand as a stray ball from an impromptu Diddies and Minis kickabout strikes corrugated tin. It wakes the spectators in the stand from their reverie but not the Hadleigh team who just before half past three fall behind to a goal from Dan Camish who dashes past Howlett’s haircut into the penalty area and flicks the ball past the orange-clad figure of Nick Punter the Hadleigh goalkeeper.
The main stand is in the shade and feels damp and cold so I decide to alter my perspective on the game by moving behind the Hadleigh goal to bask in the autumn sun. Five minutes later Gorleston score again; another break down the left by Camish and number nine, Ross Gilfedder slides in to prod the ball over the line a split second before Camish’s shot would have crossed the ball of its own free will. As he picks himself up off the turf Gilfedder appears to glance guiltily towards Camish, hoping perhaps that he doesn’t realise he nicked ‘his goal’. Perplexed Hadleigh players look at one another with arms outstretched and palms open, but seem to accept they are all at fault.
I move on again, this time to the side of the pitch so I haven’t got so far to go for my half-time tea. I stand next to two men just in time to over hear the end of a funny story about a funeral. From what I could make out the story teller went to the funeral of someone who he had been told had died, but it turned out that the funeral was for someone else with the same name and his acquaintance wasn’t dead at all. The punch line was something like “Well if he dies again I int going to his funeral ‘cos the cunt never turned up to his first one”. Amusing story over, the conversation switches to football and how the standard of the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division probably isn’t any better than the Touchline Suffolk and Ipswich League Senior Division. Meanwhile, Gorleston win a free-kick near the half way line which is taken by their number five Dave ShadePeter Lamber who is a giant of a man. Lambert boots the ball far over the goal and straight out for a goal kick. “Everything that bloke kicks goes out” says the man the other side of me from the man who went to the funeral. I tell him that I think the problem is he has been built to the wrong scale.
Half-time is almost here and my thoughts have turned to a polystyrene cup of hot tea, but I am going to have to wait. Gorleston’s Mitch Mckay runs onto a through ball and into the penalty area, as he controls the ball Nick Punter, which is an apt name for a goalkeeper, dives at his feet and McKay falls to the ground. Mr Quick, doesn’t hesitate to award a penalty from which Connor Ingram creates the half-time score of 3-0, although not before Hadleigh captain Kris Rose rather angrily and threateningly berates the linesman Mr Pope.
Half-time sees the hordes of Diddies and Minis return to the pitch to take penalties against a large dog in a blue checked hat and coat and a lion that is wearing a T-shirt and possibly a thong. I give the lion the benefit of the doubt and don’t phone Social Services, preferring to warm my hands around a pounds worth of tea whilst I read the programme.
The first action of the second-half sees Hadleigh’s captain Kris Rose very unnecessarily and somewhat viciously scythe down Gorleston’s number ten Jordan Stanton, who is by no means the toughest looking member of the Gorleston team. Rose struts and swaggers away from the scene of the crime advertising his lack of remorse. Pleasingly Mr Quick does not delay in making him the first player to be shown the yellow card. It would seem that Rose has not yet got over his anger from the penalty at the end of the first half. In the programme Rose’s own team mate Michael Barwick outs Rose as the team ‘hardman’, but also the vainest player at the club.
The game carries on and the winners of a prize draw are announced. Ticket number 887 wins a meal for two at the Swan Inn at Lavenham. Another prize involves what sounded like a body wash or scrub, perhaps both. Hadleigh meanwhile, are playing better than they did in the first half and deservedly win a penalty at about a quarter past four from which Dan Thrower scores. Then a little later George Crowe hits a post with a shot and Thrower hits the bar. “Come on Hadleigh, you’re all over them” shouts a man from the stand, not unreasonably. Gorleston are looking worried and a certain tension is evident amongst the players despite their two goal lead. A Gorleston player goes down under a challenge from Charlie Howlett, who is immediately booked by Mr Quick. There is a hiatus as the player receives treatment or counselling and a small boy, probably a Diddy, asks me what happened. I tell him the Gorleston player looks to have been accidentally smacked in the mouth. “Oh yeah, I’ve done that” says the small boy. I don’t know if he means he’s smacked someone else in the mouth or if he’s been smacked, but I don’t get the opportunity to ask as he’s already run off.
Despite being a bright afternoon, there has always been a lot of cloud and now a few spots of rain have appeared on my coat; my fingers are growing increasingly numb and the shadows of the trees at the Layham end of the ground have reached the far end of the pitch. It’s ten to five and Gorleston substitute Ryan Fuller plays in fellow substitute Joel Watts who takes the ball around the on rushing Punter before kicking the ball firmly into the net.
The goal confirms the result beyond all doubt and pushes Hadleigh into the relegation places in the league table. With the final whistle I head back to my Citroen across the practice pitch, dodging the few remaining Diddies and Minis who are knocking footballs about behind the main stand. It’s been a decent afternoon’s entertainment even if Toppesfield Bridge and the bells of St Mary the Virgin will always possibly be the stars.