It’s a grey December afternoon, there is a strong, gusty wind and the forecast is for rain, or for showers at least; ideal weather for a football match, particularly one at step five of the non-league game where shelter from the cold and elements will be minimal. From where I live it is only possible to use public transport in getting to Haverhill by catching a train to Ipswich and then to Cambridge and then a number 13 bus, which overall would take about 4 hours. The 42 kilometre drive by Citroen C3 will take about a minute for every kilometre, perhaps a few more depending on the traffic. I opt for the car journey; I’ll have to make up for the impact on my carbon footprint another time.
Even on a grey day it’s a pleasant enough drive through north Essex, skirting Halstead and then Castle Hedingham, with a glimpse of the Norman castle off to the right, and on through the villages of Great Yeldham, Ridgewell and finally into Suffolk and Sturmer, one of my favourite place names. Arriving on the outskirts of Haverhill the dull estates of houses contrast with what went before. This doesn’t feel like Suffolk, it looks like a ‘new town’ and in a way it is, Haverhill having been expanded in the 1960’s and 1970’s as part the Greater London Plan to re-house people from Inner London. “Overspill” was the less than flattering word often used to describe the towns, and the people.
From Chalkstone Way (a street name made up by developers if ever there was one) I turn the Citroen right into the car park of the New Croft, home of Haverhill Rovers and the Haverhill Community Sports Association. I park up a short walk from the neat metal turnstile block. It’s not half-past two yet and I’m one of the first here.
I hand over my £6 entrance money and remark to the turnstile operator, a man who is probably in his late sixties that it’s good value for money and how surprised I was to have to pay £8 at Framlingham a few weeks ago.
He explains in a London accent how the league tells the clubs that they can charge between £6 and £8, but the club wants to get as many people in as possible, so why charge more than the minimum? Children are admitted free. I buy a programme (£1) and the man tells me I can get food at the tea hut or I can go inside in the warm, in the bar. I choose the tea bar where a mother and daughter combine to serve me with a bacon roll (£2.50); daughter takes the money, mum prepares the roll. It’s a very good bacon roll with two lean rashers of bacon, although in an ideal world a small baguette would get my vote over a soft roll, I blame Brexit.
I eat the bacon roll as the two teams warm up on the pitch in front of me; then I think I might have a drink in the bar, but sadly looking along row of pumps it doesn’t look like there is a real ale and I’m nothing if not discerning. Needing something to wash down the bacon roll I return to the mother and daughter for a cup of tea (£1.20) and then, paper cup in hand, I take a look about. The New Croft is a fine facility with its sports hall, spacious looking changing room and toilet block and 3G pitches, but for a non-league football ground it lacks character. It’s too neat and tidy and there is something a bit soulless and anodyne about it, with its two off the shelf metal stands and sturdy metal rail around the pitch; Meccano meets the Football Trust. The presence of a ‘lost’ football on the roof of the changing room is a good attempt at creating a bit of interest, but it doesn’t compete with the discarded double glazing and bollards of Stowmarket Town, the scaffolding poles of Ipswich Wanderers or the car park kiosk of Long Melford.
The concourse in front of the bar is getting busier as a steady flow of mostly men in their sixties and seventies make their way through the turnstile. The two teams, the referee and his assistants then appear from the Sports Centre building; they stand and wait a while as if to create some pre-match tension before parading onto the pitch and lining up in front of the main stand to indulge in the ritual handshakes.
It is the home team that get first go with the ball, kicking in the direction of Great Wratting and wearing an all deep red kit, and very good it looks too. Wroxham sport blue and white striped shirts with blue shorts and socks; they look like Brighton & Hove Albion and are playing into a strong wind rendered more unpleasant by a fine drizzle, the sort of thing that might well come off the English channel at Brighton. Nicknamed the Yachtsmen, Wroxham should at least be able to tack into this wind in the first half.
Opening exchanges are very messy as the ball is booted up and down the far touchline in turn by both teams.
I go and sit in the main stand which is adorned with two signs proclaiming that it is the Terry McGery stand; the match programme tells us that Mr McGery is the club president. The signs feature a photo of Terry smiling benignly like a pools winner from the side of a bus; it seems somewhat self-aggrandising to me, usually people wait until they’re dead to have football stands named after them. Soon enough however, the football settles down as the rain stops and the cloud clears to reveal a pale blue sky. It all looks rather beautiful with the sun illuminating the red and blue of the teams and the green of the pitch but the few spectators on the far side of the pitch and the occupants of the dugouts have to squint.
There are a number of old boys in the stand behind me each offering his
own commentary of the game. “Bet they’re all called Roy” calls one
making a weak joke about the Wroxham team and a well-known store local
to Wroxham. “Yes, Roy’s of Wroxham” says another slowly and softly, as
if explaining the joke to himself. Wroxham play fast flowing skilful
football, but Haverhill look stronger physically and have two big blokes
up front in their number nine and number ten, Graeme Turner and Mark
Lovell. Haverhill’s strength and directness soon pay off as the ball
drops back to Marc Abbott just outside the penalty area and he half
volleys it with tremendous force into the far corner of the Wroxham net,
it’s a helluva goal which has those capable of standing in the ageing
crowd, on their feet. A couple of old boys behind me are very excited. “
It hardly left the ground” says one and then “ He must have been fully
forty yards out”. It seems not so much that his eyesight is failing him,
more that he is hallucinating.
Although Haverhill lead, the old boys behind me aren’t optimistic as Wroxham launch a series of quick passing moves, their nimble wide players creating chances which are spurned. “Good football” is the considered verdict from the commentary behind. “They’re a good footballing side”, “Attractive”. It takes twenty minutes, during which time Haverhill miss a good number of chances of their own, but eventually Wroxham do equalise as Nathan Stewart breaks clear of the Haverhill defence and Sonny Carey tidies up and places the ball in the net.
The skies have clouded over again but it’s an entertaining game and whilst it looks like Wroxham are quicker and more skilful they don’t seem able to stop Haverhill making chances. A minute before half-time there’s a free-kick and a scramble and the ball is diverted into the Wroxham goal from close range. “Who scored?”
– “It was Foxey”
– “Was it?”
-“Ask him when he comes off” So someone does because it’s now half-time, and it was Foxey, aka Jemel Fox.
I watch the teams and officials leave the field, referee Mr Chambers gingerly holding the ball perhaps because its unpleasantly wet and muddy.
It’s time for another £1.20’s worth of tea so I join the short queue. As I stand and wait I admire the large menu screwed on to the wall, it’s divided into four sections under the headings Food, Snacks, Drinks and Children. “Cheap prices aren’t they?” says a man spotting my interest in the sign. I can’t disagree.
The teams return to the fray and I take a stroll around the pitch. I smile to the linesman with the orange and yellow flag and we speak briefly, agreeing that it’s a bit parky, although I suspect he knows it more than I do because linesmen don’t generally get to wear woolly hats and scarves, although his colleague does look like he’s wearing a trackie top.
The open sides of the ground are bleak and windswept and I don’t linger between the dugouts for long before returning to the comparative warmth of the more populated side of the ground. I stand amongst a line of people stood behind the rail in the half of the field which Wroxham are defending. Haverhill’s Mark Lovell falls to the ground under a challenge from Wroxham’s captain Adam Plumstead as he charges into the penalty area. “ ‘e took his feet away” bawls a voice from behind the rail. Referee Mr Wayne Chambers, who reminds me of a mid-1970’s Eric Clapton agrees and Marc Abbott scores the penalty to put Haverhill 3-1 up.
I return to the comparative comfort of the Terry McGerty stand where the supporters are now more relaxed. Haverhill’s sturdier approach to the game has seen them dominate this half and Wroxham no longer draw their admiration with their ‘attractive’ football. But just before twenty-five past four a run down the left and a low cross, which appears to squeeze between a defenders’ thighs reaches Wroxham’s Adam Plumstead who makes the score 3-2 from close range. I’m expecting Wroxham, who are third in the league and ten points ahead of Haverhill to push for an equaliser but within two minutes a Haverhill corner is played to the near post where number four Jake Noble is unchallenged as he passes the ball into the goal from six yards. The sky has turned a deep cobalt blue and a bank of cloud has built up in the south, threatening a wet journey home. An aeroplane swoops low over the town and banks sharply on its approach into Stansted airport.
The sky has turned a deep cobalt blue and a bank of cloud has built up in the south, threatening a wet journey home. An aeroplane swoops low over the town and banks sharply on its approach into Stansted airport.
The remainder of the game sees substitutions and bookings as desperation takes hold. “You two, come ‘ere” says the Eric Clapton lookalike to Haverhill’s Ryan Yallop and Wroxham’s Sonny Carey as they reach for their inner naughty school boy. Mr Chambers has impressed me all afternoon with his casual approach to the game, he never seems to find it necessary to break into a run, preferring to get to the important incidents just on time as any blues guitarist might if they were a referee. Behind me someone calls out the latest scores at West Ham and Tottenham and one of the old boys gets excited calling out “Corner! Oh, no its not”. The game ends and Haverhill Rovers deserve their win and we’ve all had our money’s worth from a very entertaining match. It’s good to see Suffolk beat Norfolk, even if this doesn’t really feel like Suffolk, with its Cambridge postcode and London accents although old blokes watching football are pretty much the same everywhere.