Had it still been 1964, I could have travelled today to Maldon by train, but thanks to the evil Doctor Beeching this is no longer possible, and instead I have made the near twenty-six kilometre journey from my home to that of Maldon & Tiptree Football Club in my trusty, red Citroen C3. On the bright side however, it has saved me a two and quarter kilometre walk from what was the railway station on a grey, deeply overcast, drizzly and at times outright-wet day. Thanks ‘Beechie’, even if in the long term it is another small contribution to global warming, a rise in sea level that will see Maldon & Tiptree’s football ground consumed by the salty waters of the North Sea and our eventual doom. Of course, had it still been 1964 I might have preferred not to walk from Maldon East Station, but instead drive my red, Tri-ang ‘Thunderbolt’ pedal car.
Despite the gloomy weather it’s a pleasant enough journey through the Essex countryside to Maldon, over the muddy River Chelmer, up steep Market Hill and along the historic High Street and down to Park Drive where Maldon & Tiptree football club is to be found. Amusingly, to my addled mind at least, Park Drive shares its name with a now defunct brand of unfiltered and therefore super-carcinogenic cigarette, last popular in the 1950s. I wonder if anyone who smoked them survives. As I drive, I listen to BBC Radio Essex, and a jolly man makes football sound very important as he takes me through this afternoon’s fixtures for Essex’s top football teams. Matt Bloomfield the Colchester United manager gives a very prickly interview and the jolly man mis-pronounces Chelmsford City as Chelmsford Shitty; there will be complaints about that, probably in the Daily Mail as it twists the knife in its campaign against an organisation free of the influence of commercial advertisers. At about half past two I see a forest of floodlights up ahead of me and cars parked at rakish angles on grass verges and I know I have arrived. Finding a spare bit of grass verge of my own because the car park seems full, I park up and head for the turnstiles joining a queue of mature gentlemen.
“One adult and a programme?” enquires the friendly woman on the other side of the turnstile as I tender a ten-pound and a five-pound note, (£10 entry and £2 for the programme); she puts the emphasis on the word ‘adult’ clearly checking that I’m not really a pensioner. “You’re just too polite to ask” I tell her, and she smiles and gives an unnecessary explanation. I must look older than I think. Inside the ground the players are on the pitch warming up, some people have already taken up their places in the three small, seated stands. I take a look at the clubhouse and bar, but a look is all it is as there is no real ale being served and I’m rarely in the mood for anything chilled and gassy. Back outside I take a walk around the ground, it’s not raining but it’s still very grey and a light wind swirls cloud towards the town. I head for the largest of the three stands, a box like structure opposite the club house; it bears the name “The Lifestyle Stand”, I wonder to myself what sort of lifestyle would you name a football stand after, perhaps by sitting in the stand I’ll find out.
“Welcome to the home of football” announces the voice from the public address system, sounding like a refugee from local radio. “Who knew?” I think to myself, and the teams emerge from the slightly grim looking mesh tunnel on the far side of the ground before lining up in the familiar way. Maldon & Tiptree are wearing blue and red striped shirts and blue shorts, whilst todays’ opponents, Basildon United inexplicably wear a change kit of green and white striped shirts with green shorts; if I was Spanish, lost and slightly confused, I might think I was watching Barcelona versus Real Betis. Either way, the colourful kits brighten up a dull afternoon although why Basildon, known as The Bees, I guess because Basildon begins with a letter ‘B’, are not wearing their usual yellow and black kit remains a mystery, unless perhaps it’s still in the wash from last week’s game; with all this rain it must be a bugger to get dry.
“Got to worry when some of the mascots are bigger than the players” says a bloke behind me so that everyone can hear him. “Bigger, or better?” says someone else. This is what had attracted me to this fixture, not the wit of the supporters, but the fact that Maldon & Tiptree are bottom of the Isthmian League having lost all but one of their league games this season, and that was a goalless draw against the team second from bottom in the league table, Coggeshall Town. Although currently at the giddy heights of fifteenth in the twenty-team league, Basildon have a record that exactly matches that of Maldon & Tiptree over their last five games with one draw and four defeats. “I am sure it will be a good game” says Maldon & Tiptree manager Adam Flint in his programme notes.
Basildon get first go with the ball and are kicking towards the end of the ground with no stand, with distant Burnham on Crouch and even more distant Southend beyond; Maldon & Tiptree meanwhile are aiming in the direction of the much more nearby Maldon itself. Within a couple of minutes Maldon & Tiptree win a free kick close to the edge of the Basildon penalty area. “Come on Harv” calls a voice from behind me, and then another. Maldon & Tiptree’s captain, the dreadlocked Laste Dombaxe, and number eleven Harvey Sayer stand over the ball. Dombaxe takes a run up, feigning to kick the ball but in fact looking as if he is more likely to trip over it. As a scam to occupy the opposition however, it seems to work, and Sayer simply steps up to curl the ball over the wall of green and white shirted players and into the top right hand corner of the Basildon goal. One-nil to Maldon & Tiptree and the crowd all around me sound joyful if also surprised. “Great stuff Harv;” is the shout now.
Three minutes later and Harvey Sayer wins a free-kick wide on the right after a fairly inept challenge from the Basildon left-back. Sayer swings the ball in with his left foot, no doubt hoping that someone will get their head or a boot to the ball. Instead, everyone misses the ball, including the Basildon goalkeeper, who stands as if nailed to his goal line and the ball curls inside the far post and Maldon and Tiptree lead 2-0. The crowd cheer and laugh in equal measure except for the Basildon supporters who are keeping quiet.
Barely five minutes in and the game is not panning out at all as I or probably anyone else had expected and as a neutral with a penchant for the dismal I have to admit to being slightly disappointed; I was expecting a desperate struggle and instead Maldon and Tiptree have what is already probably going to be an unassailable lead given Basildon’s recent form. Relief comes in the form of a shot into the side netting of the Basildon goal which results in the net parting company with the stanchion holding it up. The game is stopped as a man in a day-glo tabard attempts a repair. It looks like he’s fixed it, but the referee immediately dashes our hopes as he reveals what a botched job has been made as he tugs at the net and stanchion falls down once again. If only he’s left it alone we could probably have carried on safe in the knowledge that the ball was unlikely to bother the net for a third time this afternoon unless we’re very lucky. Eventually the Maldon number five strides over to help and this is when the problem is solved; I guess this is the advantage of semi-professional football teams, there is usually an appropriate tradesman about to fix most problems.
With the game under way again it settles down into a less a goal-laden event. Twenty minutes pass and Basildon fashion their first shot at goal; it goes out for a throw-in to Maldon & Tiptree. “Lino, ‘elp ‘im” shouts a voice from behind as a perceived foul by a Basildon player is left un-punished. For their part Maldon & Tiptree don’t need much help, they are dominating possession even if they don’t look too much like scoring a third goal just yet. “Two-nil to the Maldon boys” chant a knot of seven or eight youths sat, appropriately enough, in the far from snappily named Maldon & Tiptree Youth FC Community Stand. In the same stand sit a small group of middle-aged Basildon fans, it’s almost as if the Maldon youths are goading them into doing something like spilling their tea, or dropping a glove.
After taking his time with a free-kick Harvey Sayer is unexpectedly booked by referee Mr Hillier who evidently believes Sayer is time-wasting although the game is barely a third of the way through. As if to prove the referee wrong, fate decrees however that from Sayer’s free kick the ball will fly about the Basildon penalty area for a second or two before being booted into the goal by Lance Akins and Maldon lead 3-0. I reflect on how few people are called Lance and how it’s actually quite a good name, better I think than either Brad or Benny who also feature on the Maldon team sheet.
As the match meanders on towards half-time Maldon &Tiptree win a third corner of the half which is spectacularly batted away by the leaping blancmange-pink figure of the Basildon goalkeeper George Marsh. “Come on Maldon” chant a rival bunch of slightly younger and more shrill youths at the open end of the ground, and I leave my seat to make my way round to be first in the queue at the tea bar when the half-time whistle is blown.
Having invested in a plastic cup of Brooke Bond PG Tips (£1.25), I hang about by the Yogi Bear-style picnic tables and look at my programme, which serves not only for today’s match, but also for the game on Tuesday versus Braintree Town in the Essex Senior Cup; two for the price of one, a bargain. The winning numbers for the prize draw are read out over the PA system. First prize is a bottle of wine, second a box of Fairfield Farms crisps and third prize a pack of Foster’s lager. It begins to rain and then the voice of the PA system returns to tells us that no one has yet claimed the pack of Foster’s Lager. No one seems surprised.
I take a walk into the club house for a ‘comfort break’ and by the time I return outside the game has re-started. I walk to the end of the ground where there is no stand and get a different perspective on the game. The PA announcer comes to life again with news that today’s attendance is two-hundred and fifty-seven. “Thank you of your incredible support” says the announcer. “Thank you for your incredible announcement” says a bloke stood near me. After Maldon & Tiptree win a couple of corners I return to the other end of the ground. Substitutions have now been made and one of the Basildon substitutees is stood chatting to some spectators. “Your lot make this lot look good, and they’re shit” says a spectator somewhat bluntly. The player agrees however, and doesn’t seem very impressed with some of his team-mates, which can’t do much for team spirit.
All the floodlights are on now and the pitch has that lovely emerald glow that makes standing outside on a wet, November afternoon much more than just tolerable. Away behind the Lifestyle stand above the grassy bank it sits at the foot of, there is a silvery light amongst the cloud, probably the dull reflection of what lingering afternoon light remains off the waters of the estuary. I make my way back to the Lifestyle stand to see out the remainder of the match. Behind me someone is providing their own match commentary, coaching each of the players in turn. “Keep going”, “Good decision” he calls, as if he’s Zinedine Zidane slumming it for the afternoon. Across the gangway from me a younger voice says “Haaland’s scored already” and then adds “I’m not watching the game” to confirm, as if he needed to, that he’s more interested in the latest scores from his mobile phone.
On the pitch a decent passing move from Maldon & Tiptree concludes with the ball being swept extravagantly wide of the goal by number nine, the exotically monikered Roman Campbell, whose name sounds much too much like like Roman Candle, but then it is November 5th. “Build again boys” says Zinedine. But it’s Basildon who build again and when a cross is launched into the penalty area all sorts of mayhem ensues and someone in a green shirt doesnt quite hurdle a scything leg and Mr Hillier awards a penalty kick. I assume what I noticed was the offence, but any number of fouls could have been taking place. The Maldon & Tiptree ‘keeper, Tommy Dixon-Hodge dives to his right, which is where Basildon’s Tim Monsheju has booted the ball, but with such force and accuracy that Tommy has no chance of stopping it. “Ref, that was poor” shouts someone from behind me as the teams line up to kick off again. Although no one explains what ‘that’ was, I guess it was the decision to award a penalty.
In the remaining six minutes of normal time Basildon substitute Shane Temple throws a tantrum and is cautioned by Mr Hillier, when it looked to me like a Maldon & Tiptree player had tapped him on the bum as he bent down to position the ball for a free-kick, but I could be wrong. “Leeds are 3-2” says the bloke who’s not watching the match, “Brighton 3-2 up”. It’s like sitting next to Jeff Stelling.
Four minutes of additional time are to be played and I get up from my seat and begin to edge my way towards the exit. The Maldon youth are now singing that they want their flag back, which I don’t understand and equally mysteriously an advertisement board reads “Yokogawa co-innovating tomorrow”, and I still have no answers when Mr Hillier blows his whistle for the final time. Although I’m now hastening out of the damp and dark of the evening towards my trusty Citroen, I’m not trying to escape, I just want my tea. It’s been a grand afternoon of non-league football between two well-matched, if imperfect teams and I’ve loved it; I’m also glad I dont have to drive my pedal car back to the railway station.