It’s a dull late January day; layer upon layer of slate grey cloud block out the sun, darkening the soft , deep browns of the claggy fields and casting the naked, leafless trees as black silhouettes. I catch the train to Manningtree from where it is just over a kilometre’s walk to the Brantham Leisure Centre, home of Brantham Athletic; the Blue Imps. At Manningtree Station the platform sign says “Manningtree for Dedham Vale”, but it doesn’t mention Brantham Athletic. Today Brantham Athletic, eighth in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division play Stowmarket Town, third in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. The train is on time; a man walks by as I wait on the platform and opens a bag of crisps, a waft of artificial roast beef flavour assaults my nostrils in his wake. On the train I sit by a window, a ticket above the headrest states that the seat is reserved from Liverpool Street to Ipswich, but it’s vacant; what has happened to the person who reserved this seat? Did they miss the train? Are they getting pissed in the buffet car? The guard makes an announcement; the PA system is faulty and it sounds as if he is just talking loudly from the next carriage. The announcement does not solve the mystery.
Even on a dull January day it’s not a wholly unpleasant walk along the A137 from Manningtree station (which is actually in Lawford) over the River Stour and the marshes and meadows either side. The traffic is nasty but the scenery’s not. I take my life in my hands as I walk beneath the bridge below the railway line where there is no footway just a continuous white line to separate the would-be pedestrian from the traffic, but I survive to tell the tale. At the river, a gang of cormorants are hanging about on the mud. Over the river I am safely into Suffolk and I pass two blokes with powerful looking cameras; twitchers probably; Cattawade marshes is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I cross the old road bridge at Cattawade before walking along Factory Lane past the derelict, mostly demolished premises of ICI and then turn left up towards the Brantham leisure centre. The shingle covered car park is already pretty full and it’s only twenty minutes past two. A sign that says “Kitchen in the clubhouse” strikes me as a little odd, I wouldn’t have expected to find it in the car park. There is no turnstile, just a man in a wooden shed. I pay my entry fee (£7) and buy a programme (£1), the man in the shed meticulously crosses off two more squares on the sheet in front of him. Even now there’s a short queue to get in, they’re all from Stowmarket. I enter the club house, a flat roofed building in the style of the 1950’s or early 1960’s with plenty of windows with UPVC frames. I look towards the bar but the one hand pump has the clip turned away from public gaze, indicating that there’s no real beer here today. I should have stopped for one at the Manningtree Station Buffet instead of just looking at the art in the tunnel beneath the tracks. I buy a bacon roll (£2.50), a young woman takes my money, cooks the bacon and then serves me the roll. “Well done Lill” I hear an older woman say from within the kitchen.
I take my bacon roll outside because the smell of hot cooking oil from the kitchen is a bit unpleasant and with my thick wool jumper and coat I’m feeling rather warm, hot even. I stand on the neatly manicured grass in front of the clubhouse; the teams are warming up on the adjacent cricket pitch which makes Brantham’s a slightly unsatisfactory ‘three-sided’ football ground. More and more Stowmarket Town supporters arrive, identifiable by their black and old gold knitwear. I head for the main stand, a beautifully modest, home-made looking structure of wooden benches smoothed by Suffolk buttocks, and white painted stanchions behind a brick wall, with the words Brantham Athletic Football Club painted along the front of the lean-to roof. If sitting on the back row it’s necessary to be careful standing up so as not to bang your head; I may be 1.87m tall, but I love a low roof. “Martin” calls a voice from the back of the stand; it’s Alistair, a disillusioned Wivenhoe Town supporter. Al takes in a local match most weekends with his young daughter; she’s a real football enthusiast and she’s only about six. We talk as the teams walk onto the pitch at the club house end of the ground before lining up to shake hands and say “How are ya?”. At last the game is ready to begin and I leave Al and his daughter in the stand, partly to promote my self-image as ‘a bit of a loner’, but mostly because it’s hard to see one of the goals over the top of the somewhat outsized metal-framed ‘dug-out’, which looks like the sort of structure you might park your bike in.
Stowmarket Town get first go with the ball, their favoured direction of kicking for this first half being towards the River Stour, the marshes and the main London to Ipswich rail line, with the clubhouse behind them. Stow’ wear an unnecessary away kit of all red, but it contrasts well with Brantham’s all blue strip and together on the bright, soft green turf they form a brilliant scene beneath the grey clouds. This may be Constable Country, but it’s all gone a bit Fauvist down here at the Leisure Centre.
Stowmarket are quickly on the attack and winning a corner. “Be strong” says their coach and I almost expect him to burst into song. Behind the Brantham goal a line of Stowmarket supporters hang over the rail. “Lip-up Fatty” they call to the chunky Brantham number four, appropriately channelling the song by ‘Bad Manners’. The number four then inexpertly slices a hoofed clearance off the pitch and looks down at the pitch as if to blame a worm cast or dissident blade of grass for his mis-kick. I decide that Stow’s number 2 and captain looks like a smaller version of Marseille’s Luis Gustavo.
“Oh Stowmarket is wonderful, oh Stowmarket is wonderful” the Stow’ fans then chant, to the tune of “When The Saints Go Marching In”, going on to qualify this by describing how it is full of the body parts that only women have, as well as Stowmarket Town Football Club. It’s not something Stowmarket town council advertise on their website. Stowmarket continue to dominate possession, but Brantham are their equals. At about twenty past three referee Mr Robertson-Tant, who has a high forehead and deep set eyes, a bit like Herman Munster, airs his yellow card for the first time, booking Stow’s number ten for barging the Brantham goalkeeper. Coincidentally and fascinatingly, one of the linesmen has a pronounced widow’s peak, not unlike Eddie Munster, Herman’s only son.
This is a close game, which is a good explanation for its lack of goals although just before half past three Stow’s number seven does turn smartly as a prelude to hitting a shot against the Brantham cross-bar. With half-time approaching I stand behind the Stowmarket goal in order to be closer to the clubhouse and the tea within. I catch the last exchange of a conversation between two blokes in their twenties or early thirties about an unidentified player. “Yeah, he’s shit, well he’s not shit, but…he’s shit, int he.” This is the sort of incisive player critique that the likes of Mark Lawrenson or Garth Crooks can never hope to provide.
Half-time arrives, the floodlights flicker in to life and I seek the warmth of the clubhouse; my right hand is burning with cold because I seem to have dropped my right glove on the way the railway station; later, on my walk home I will find it on the pavement where it fell. I join the queue for a pounds worth of tea in a polystyrene cup; the man behind me in the queue orders coffee and cheesie-chips; I don’t know why but I find cheesie-chips amusing. Despite the deepening cold I return outside; it’s too warm and noisy in the clubhouse and I’m more suitably dressed for the outdoors. In the window of the clubhouse I look at the team sheet; oddly only the players’ surname and initials are given, which seems unnecessarily formal. I take a look at the programme, there’s not much in it but I like its amateurish layout and the reference to Emiliano Sala in the Chairman’s report. I saw Sala play for Nantes against Lille a couple of years ago and have watched him numerous times on TV, I liked him a lot.
For the start of the second half I watch from the metal, prefabricated stand situated in one corner at the clubhouse end of the ground; apparently the seats were brought from Colchester United’s sadly missed old Layer Road ground. I don’t sit here long because the man behind me talks with a loud, piercing voice which hurts my ears. I return to the side of the ground by the dug outs. Stow’s number four, M Paine becomes the second player to be booked by Mr Robertson-Tant, I’m not sure why.
Stow’ continue to have the ball more of the time than Brantham. but look no more likely to score. “Stop fuckin’ dropping” shouts the Brantham manager to a defender as the game enters its last quarter and nervousness and angst begin to surface. At about half-past four Mr Robertson-Tant books G Clarke of Brantham, firstly raising his arm and flexing his wrist to point to three or four approximate locations around the pitch where Clarke had recently committed other misdemeanours; I like it when referees do that. Persistent fouling is my favourite offence for this very reason. Meanwhile the Stowmarket ‘ultras’ continue through their repertoire, rather repetitively re-living Depeche Mode’s “I just can’t get enough”. It’s almost twenty five to five and Stowmarket almost score as R Garrett receives a ball on the left, surges forward, goes wide of the challenge of the Brantham goal keeper L Avenell, but hits his shot against the base of the goal post from an acute angle.
With the game in its closing minutes I enjoy the glare of the floodlights and the deep blue darkness of the evening sky as much as the increasing anxiety of both teams’ coaches. “Watch that line, watch that line” says one of the Stowmarket coaches to the substitute J Mayhew as if he just can’t be trusted not to stray offside. He then says “Watch that line” just once more, for luck perhaps. “Brandy!” shouts the other bobble-hatted Stow’ coach to his goalkeeper C Brand, although it’s a name more suited to a porn actress, “…put a fuckin’ angle on it”, before saying “Shut it” to a Brantham supporter who passes comment. “Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze!” bawls the Brantham coach preferring cliché to coarseness. The final words before I move towards the exit go to the bobble-hatted Stow’ coach, “Fuck’s sake” he says.
The game ends goalless. It’s been a frustrating match, more for Stowmarket than for Brantham perhaps, but that may be just because of the weight of the combined hopes of their greater number of supporters. As I walk away across the cricket pitch towards the river the teams warm down and the Stow’ supporters wait to applaud their team from the field. I reflect upon whether watching local non-league football isn’t just the perfect way to spend a winter’s afternoon and return to the railway station, smug in the knowledge that I’ve also kept a car off the road today and helped to save the planet.