Witham Town 1 AFC Hornchurch 6

Today is a bright and beautiful Spring day and it’s a ten minute train ride (£4.25 return with a Gold Card) to Witham, once an elegant country town with a spa, but since the 1960’s consumed by massive estates of London County Council overspill housing. The train is on time, opposite me six blokes in their late twenties or early thirties and one who looks older, talk uninterestingly about a mystery Tottenham Hotspur player. “Last season he was good, he just went in and got the ball and passed it to someone else, but then he started doing all this twisty-turny stuff …”
As I get off the train a railway employee carrying a metal ramp looks at me and in vain for a passenger in a wheelchair. I point down to the next set of doors on the car “He’s getting off down there” I tell him, not lying. Witham station is of red brick and has

Witham Railway Station

decorative cast iron pillars and brackets holding up the canopies over the platforms; a bright and airy glazed bridge above takes you to the road outside. It was much re-built in the early twentieth century after some of it was demolished by a de-railed express train. It’s a lovely old station, a bit like a film set; I look without success for Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard.
A few football supporters, one with a red and white bar scarf, stand outside the Railway pub, which is across the road.

The Railway pub Witham

It’s a fifteen minute walk from the station to Witham Town’s Spa Road ground and I turn left crossing the bridge over the railway tracks. Beyond the station is Baird’s maltings, a looming backdrop of steel grain holders and monumental concrete, Witham’s cathedral. An Australian flag flies outside the maltings signifying its ownership by the international, antipodean brewing suppliers, Graincorp Malt Group.

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I turn right over the bridge into Collingwood Road, past the Labour Party Hall and on into Guithavon Valley, through the nature reserve that straddles the strangely named River Brain. The path turns back through a mighty brick tunnel beneath the

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railway line; rounding the corner past an Asda the ‘Village Glass Stadium’ comes into view at the top of a grassy rise. Set apart from any houses or other buildings, surrounded by a steel palisade fence and with its floodlights and a cross of St George flying above, Witham Town’s ground looks like a commercially sponsored pre-historic hillfort; the access road winds up between the ramparts. Wikipedia tells us that there is evidence of Neolithic occupation in Witham. If there was a zombie apocalypse in Witham, this would be the place to come to be besieged.

Witham Town

As I cross Spa Road towards the ground a stag party wearing stripy blazers and false

moustaches walks from the direction of the football ground. The access to the ground is not pedestrian friendly, there is no dedicated footpath, so I clamber up the grassy bank. It’s not obvious where the turnstiles are but they’re not hard to find. I tender a twenty pound note for the £8 entry fee, but the turnstile operator has little change and asks if I’ve got anything smaller, as it happens I have a fiver and some coins for which I am given an orange ticket. With no change left I tender a twenty pound note to the programme seller who fortunately has plenty of change. The programme (£2) is for three matches this week as Witham catch up on their fixtures after several recent postponements due to very wet weather. Flush with pound coins I lighten the load on my left trouser pocket by investing in a strip of five tickets for the 50-50 draw (£1).
The club shop is a cupboard by the turnstile, the stock is in a cardboard box, but nothing takes my fancy so I look for the bar; I can’t find it so poke my head around the door of the portacabin that is the boardroom to ask directions.

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On the outside wall of the portacabin is a large advert for the local Tory MP, Priti Patel;

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I wonder to myself if she gets to many games now, between her secret meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu; maybe she brings him along to enjoy hospitality in the portacabin. It seems there is no direct access from inside the ground into the bar, but it is possible to get a drink through the hatch from which teas and coffees and trays of chips are sold, so that’s what I do. Pleased that I’ve beaten the rush, I watch a queue grow at the tea hatch as I sit in the sun at a Yogi-bear-style picnic table with my programme and a plastic cup of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40); sadly only pasteurised beer is available.
Sensing the onset of kick-off I stir myself and arrive pitch side as the teams enter the

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arena and go through the pre-match handshakes. Witham kick-off the game towards the railway line end sporting white shirts, navy blue shorts and red socks, whilst Hornchurch are in a change-kit of all-yellow, presumably they’ve not worn they’re usual red and white striped shirts and red shorts because their socks would also be red, like Witham’s. Witham, who are 14th out of twenty-four in the Bostik North Division table start well and look keen. AFC Hornchurch, who are ten points clear at the top of the table and only need a win to secure promotion, look less so, but their fans are here in numbers and are in good voice singing a variety of songs about ‘ornchurch. Interestingly Hornchurch are nicknamed The Urchins, a name presumably constructed for the last four letters of the word Hornchurch and considered preferable to a nickname based on the first four letters of the word. Urchins make up a good deal more than half of the attendance of 178 today.
I wander around the ground taking in the sights and sounds. I hear half a conversation between the two number eights, diminutive, alice band-wearing John Watson, captain of Witham and the huge Olu Oluwatimilehin of Hornchurch. Watson must have been complaining about a challenge as I hear Oluwatimilehin say “But I am always fair”. I watch him for a bit and he’s right, he is a massive bloke but he’s a gentle giant; if he wasn’t Watson would have been flattened.
The game is a bit messy. There are moments of individual skill in controlling and passing the ball but they don’t join up. In a moment of disinterest I spot the Baird maltings off in the distance beyond one corner of the ground and in another I am somewhat repulsed

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by an advert for “Personal Vapour ”, which sounds faintly disgusting. It’s almost twenty past three and George Purcell shoots at the Witham goal, he shins the ball hopelessly but it’s a perfect pass to Brad Warner who scores easily, and against the run of play Hornchurch are ahead. Celebration ensues on the pitch and behind the goal and the game has life. Every few minutes a long white train slides past on the embankment beyond the Hornchurch fans who are singing, to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Sailing “ We are ‘ornchurch, no one likes us, we don’t care” . At the end of a verse I ask the nearest Urchin “ So why does no one like ‘ornhurch then?”. “I dunno” he says “ Beats me an’ all” .
Witham have a small vocal knot of fans behind the other goal whose constant chants echo off the tin walls and roof of the stand. With almost one union flag or cross of St George for each of them, from a distance they look unfortunately like an ad hoc meeting of the BNP. At about half-past three Kenzer Lee clears a Witham Town shot off the goal line, but now it’s almost half-time and a corner to Hornchurch is headed in at the far post by Elliott Styles who ironically only a short while before had been treated for a head injury. It’s 2-0 to happy Hornchurch.

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With half-time I feel in need of refreshment and head for the tea and chips hatch, but seeing a group walk out through a gate marked with a no entry sign and on into the car park from where it is possible to access the club house, I follow. At the bar, a woman possibly in her seventies and a man who is perhaps slightly older and wears a shirt and tie and a cardigan, serve drinks assisted by a much younger woman who reminds very vaguely of that Dr.Lucy Worsley off the telly; I think it’s only her haircut. In the absence of any real beer I order a pint of John Smith’s Bitter (£3.40) and take a seat at a table in front of the television. I watch the half-time scores. Opposite me is an elderly, grey haired man with a somewhat miserable demeanour. Every word he speaks seems to betray a lifetime of disappointment. He’s looking at a betting slip and at the half-time scores, which seem to be going his way. A younger, red-faced man in a Hornchurch shirt is looking over his shoulder. “Oh, you don’t want that” he says “Newport are two up”. The older man looks down at the piece of paper. “Aaah Shit!” he blurts with the deepest imaginable bitterness. The old man is just like Reg (Karl Johnson), the character from the BBC Two TV comedy series “Mum”.
I leave the club house and head out into the car park and back into the stadium through the turnstiles. I haven’t won the 50-50 draw and the game has just started again. The Hornchurch fans are singing “We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Bostik Premier, We’re on our way”. But are they counting un-hatched chickens? Just before a quarter past four Witham score, a cross from John Watson is neatly half volleyed past Urchin’s goalkeeper Sam Mott by Liam Whipps. “Come on ‘ornchurch, get your arses into gear” bellows a man just behind me. Three minutes later and bottoms are apparently engaged as George Purcell is felled in the penalty area and referee Mr Hancock awards a penalty kick from which Purcell himself scores.
Unusually for me, the second half is all about the football as first Witham are also awarded a penalty, which Sam Mott saves and then almost instantly the ball is booted up the other end of the pitch; Bobby Mason the Witham ‘keeper misses the ball and Alex Bentley who has replaced Olu Oluwatimilehin, rolls it into the net to give Hornchurch a 4-1 lead, and it’s not half past four yet. In celebration the Hornchuch fans sing to the tune of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (Land of Hope & Glory) “We ‘ate Dag’nam and Re-dbridge, We ‘ate Ca-nvey too, (they’re shit), We ‘ate Gra-ys A-ffle’ic, But ‘ornchurch we love you”.
Goal number five for Hornchurch, a Brad Warner header from a right wing cross, is scored with a bit more than ten minutes left and the Hornchurch fans’ thoughts turn to a night of continued celebration and they sing “We’re on the piss, with Dave Collis” ; Dave Collis being a substitute who for some reason remains on the bench. Finally, in time added on for injuries and for bad behaviour, of which there has been none, Alex Bentley strikes a shot against the base of a goal post and Chris Assambalonga scores simply from the re-bound. The final score is Witham Town 1 AFC Horchurch 6.
I linger a short while to witness the joy of the Hornchurch players and supporters cavorting about in front of and within the tin stands, but then head off back out through the turnstile, down the grassy slope, across Spa Road, past Asda where I overtake ‘Reg’ and on through the nature reserve, past the Labour Party hall towards the railway station and the view of the maltings.
It’s been a typical late season afternoon of football in the sunshine, but with added trains, dropped aitches and two teams of displaced eastenders. But most of all it’s been an afternoon in which Hornchurch has broken free of the shackles of pointlessness and failure that anchor everyone else, to win promotion; and it’s lovely to see, particularly if it’s really true that no one likes them.

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AFC Sudbury 1 Canvey Island 1

The football season starts way too early, but rumour has it that every cloud has a silver lining and indeed in my admittedly narrow and miserably limited experience there is much joy to be found in a trip out on a sunny summer’s afternoon to watch a non-league football match. Today is such a day and so I set out for Marks Tey station to catch the knackered bus on rails that serves as the train to Sudbury. It is gloriously warm and a gentle, buffeting breeze ruffles my hair as if to say “Have a good time, you young scamp”. Flat-bottomed cumulus recede into the far distance over droopy-eared fields of goldenOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA cereal; leafy boughs sway softly and the wind through the trees seems to whisper “Here we go, here we go, here we go.”
Clutching my rail tickets (Marks Tey to Sudbury and back £4.05 with a Gold Card) I board the train. The service to Sudbury is hourly leaving at a minute past the hour; it’s about five to one. I choose a seat by a window. As the train departs the straining diesel roars frantically but eventually settles into a measured throb as cruising speed is reached and we trundle along between sun-dappled embankments and under red-brick bridges that carry nothing more than farm tractors over the single-track line. The train stops at Wakes Colne for the East Anglian Railway MuseumOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA (recommended) and at Bures which has a country bus-shelterOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA (or is it a garden shed? ) as a station building. After twenty minutes of rural rambling the train arrives in Sudbury.
From the station there is a choice of routes to AFC Sudbury’s home, either through the medieval streets of the town with its half-timbered and handsome Georgian buildings or along the track-bed over the old railway line,

which used to lead onto Long Melford and Bury St Edmunds before it was chopped by ‘that c*nt Dr Beeching’, which was perhaps the original working title of the Croft and Perry BBC tv sitcom “Oh Dr Beeching!”. I take the track-bed or Gainsborough Trail as it is predictably called by the District Council keen to promote the associations with the portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough born in the town in 1727.

 

The trail is a part of the South Suffolk cycle route and is popular with ramblers and dog walkers and just with people walking about in Sudbury. I pass a tattooed man with two Staffordshire Bull terriers, “Alright mate“ he says as if he knows me. ”Yep, alright mate” I reply, as if I know him. A gaggle of children and their blonde mother follow behind.

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The path is lined with tall trees and crosses over gulleys and streams that flow into the River Stour glimpses of which are seen through the trees. On water meadows brown cows graze and on the river swans and ducks paddle idly by. I feel like I’m in a poem by John Betjeman.
The walk along the trail takes fifteen minutes if you don’t dawdle and then it’s necessary to leave the path, stepping down the embankment onto Kings Marsh.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The Marsh is a bit soggy in places today, probably because it’s a marsh and also due to the very heavy rain in mid-week; I get a soggy foot, but heck I’m wearing sandals so it’s pleasantly cooling OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfor my dusty feet; more importantly I don’t step in any cowpats. Off the marsh I turn right onto the lane that takes me to Kings Marsh Stadium or the Wardale Williams stadium as the local opticians of that name have paid for it to be called; a large sign nailed to a tree that suggests I might stumble across some tortoises or sloths. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Outside the ground there are community facilities and I am tempted to brush up on my Lindy Hop or learn a few sweet new moves at the dance class, but I head on to the turnstiles. It costs £10 to get in which is £4 more than it costs on average to watch football at just one step below in the league ladder (Eastern Counties Premier League) although the higher up teams do have to travel further so the overheads increase and it’s likely the players are paid more too, but it’s nevertheless a 67% leap in price. I buy a programme for £2 and head to the bar and club shop, which is a cabinet in the corner. At the bar I have a pint of Nethergate Suffolk County bitter (£3.30) and I wonder why can’t all football clubs, particularly the bigger ones like Ipswich Town and Colchester United offer a decent hand-pulled beer produced by a local brewer that isn’t the brewing monster that is Greene King.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I stand by the pitch with my beer and the souvenir I purchased from the club shop (£1) and bask in the afternoon sun as the players go through their warm-up routines. I pause and reflect on what a beautiful day it is and upon the glorious arboreal back drop to this stadium and beautifully bucolic nature of my journey here. I am jolted from my reverie as I am joined by a friend and colleague who has walked from nearby Borley, he buys me another pint of Suffolk County bitter and has an interesting conversation with the barman:
-“ Two pints of Suffolk County please”
“One?”
-“No, two please”. The pints are drawn and the barman stands them on the bar before asking
“Three pints?” The smart-arse answer might have been, “No, two Babychams a Mackeson and a Noilly Prat”.
We stand just outside the clubhouse and bar leaning on a metal barrier, supping our beers from plastic cups. A succession of pot-bellied, middle aged blokes walk back and forth in front of us between the food stand and the seats. The teams come on to the field and after a minute’s applause for a young player killed in a car accident during the week, the game begins.
This is the first match of the season for Sudbury and their visitors Canvey Island in the Bostik North Division, into which both clubs were relegated at the end of last season; presumably both clubs will be hoping they don’t stick around in this league for long. Sudbury wear their customary yellow shirts and blue shorts whilst Canvey ratherOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA inconveniently I thought wear blue shirts and yellow shorts. It doesn’t make for an ideal composition visually but surprisingly the kits don’t really clash although I think Thomas Gainsborough would have had something to say about it.
The ball pings back and forth as players take it in turns to kick it and it’s fairly entertaining, although not of particularly high quality and effort and running mostly take precedence over skill. Canvey are spending more time in the Sudbury half of the artificial pitch from which clouds of little black rubber balls fly or are scuffed when the ball is kicked; there is a faint rubbery smell at times which doesn’t compare well to the smell of turf, but otherwise you wouldn’t really notice that the pitch wasn’t ‘real’. A small knot of Canvey fans are gathered behind the goal into which their team is kicking and they sing a couple of tunes more usually heard at French Ligue 1 and 2 matches, although sadly not in French. One fan waves a large blue and yellow flag. Sudbury have no ‘ultras’ of their own.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Having hit the cross bar twice in quick succession and survived Sudbury hitting a post, Isle de Canvey take the lead with a fine volley into the top corner of the goal from their centre-forward George Sykes, who for at least two spectators in the ground immediately conjures up thoughts of Bill, Eric and Hatti Jacques. Canvey are still leading when half-time arrives and with the last shrill note of referee Mr George Laflin’s whistle still ringing in my ears I turn to make the short journey to the bar for another two pints of the very fine Nethergate Suffolk County bitter. Before all the players have left the pitch I have returned to our vantage point with two foaming plastic cups of beer.
With Sudbury’s Thomas Gainsborough connection, I am surprised looking around the ground that there is a food kiosk on the far side of the ground with name Turner painted upon it, and my friend and I muse upon what food by the artist JMW Turner would look like; we decide upon smears of tomato sauce and mushy peas resembling a blurry sailing ship. Our eyes are also attracted to an advert board for ‘Paul Pleasants, Entertainer’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA with its wacky rainbow background. What an apposite name for a family entertainer Paul Pleasants is; alliterative too, if it’s real that is and his actual name isn’t something like Barry Bastard.
Feeling enriched by the variety of human experience we are ready for the second half, one in which Sudbury take the upper hand and eventually equalise as a free-kick evades a defensive wall of Canvey Islanders and squeezes beyond the despairing reach of their goalkeeper. The Sudbury players celebrate with abandon. A Canvey fan bawls something incomprehensible which sounds like he’s trying to sell newspapers.
The sun beats down, we drain our beer, we laugh, we cheer and then the final whistle is blown by George Laflin for whom, as referee, we have nothing but respect. It has been a fabulous afternoon of sunshine, warmth, trees, puffy white clouds, pastoral landscapes, beer and football. My only regret is that Thomas Gainsborough could not have been here to capture its glory in oils and have a pint of Suffolk County bitter with us. Summer football at AFC Sudbury is to be recommended, one day I will may be see if football at AFC Sudbury on a dank December day is as much fun.

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