Walsham-le-Willows 3 Brantham Athletic 0

Today, Saturday 13th October, has been designated by persons unknown as “Non-League Day”, which is nice, but also a little patronising. It implies that non-league football is only of any consequence on this one day when there happens to be no Premier League or Championship football. There’s no ‘proper football’ today so you might as well go to a non-league game. Whatever my misgivings, I nevertheless feel it would be bad form if I didn’t go to a non-league game today, and so that is where I am going. Engineering works on the railway west of Ipswich has limited my choice of fixtures a little, to the extent that I am having to travel by car. So, in for a penny in for a pound I have chosen to make the trip to Walsham le Willows, which is pretty much inaccessible by public transport; at the time of writing the No 338 bus leaving Bury St Edmunds at 11:15 will get you to Walsham in bags of time for a 3pm kick off on a Saturday, but there is no bus back, only a bus to Diss at five-past six. The nearest railway station to Walsham is only 6 miles away in Elmswell, but the bus journey between the two involves going into Bury St Edmunds, getting on another bus and journeying back out, an adventure taking over two hours.
It’s a breezy, bright and unseasonably balmy autumn day for a drive through the mid-Suffolk countryside. My Citroen C3 carries me on through the rural splendour of Elmswell and Badwell Ash (there seems to be a tree fixation in local place names) once we have left the rough, patched up and noisy A14; the Highway to The Midlands. Arriving in Walsham-le-Willows I pass the splendid medieval church of St Mary with its wonderfully airy clerestory and fine proportions and then head up the delightfully named Summer Road, to what a firm of structural engineers from Bury St Edmunds has31437733648_4ca963f0c7_o presumably paid to now have called The Morrish Stadium. The word ‘stadium’ does not do this delightful football ground justice and there really needs to be another word to describe a football pitch within the boundary of a cricket pitch surrounded by trees with just a metal stand on the half way line and a small covered standing area behind one goal. There is car parking on both sides of the road, but that adjacent to the pitch and club house is full so I parkover the road by the impressive array of all-weather, 3G pitches that have been built in the past few years. This is a truly magnificent facility and not what you might expect to find in the depths of the Suffolk countryside.
Having neatly parked the Citroen, I leave the car park to cross the road and enter the precincts of the ‘stadium’. I pass an old boy who asks with an enquiring but soft Suffolk accent “Are you Brantham?” “No” I tell him “I think I’m probably impartial today”. “Oh well, that’s probably a good way to be” he replies. Buoyed by his vote of confidence I31437744428_77524097c4_o cross Summer Road and walk on through the little blue gate marked ‘Match day entrance’, which looks like it might also serve the village primary school, although it doesn’t. I walk across the car park to a wooden hut where I pay my entrance money (£7 – it’s gone up £1 since I was last here inn 2014) and am handed a small yellow ticket: “Admit One”. I also purchase a programme (still £1). In front of the club house and bar is a patio area laid out with chairs and tables at which people are sat talking and drinking. I cross the patio to a dark timber clad building, which houses the changing rooms and the tea bar. I order a bacon-butty (£2) from one of the three middle aged ‘dinner ladies’ and am impressed that the meat is supplied by a local butcher, Rolfes of Walsham. This is how local football clubs should be run, promoting and partnering local businesses, not churning out the cheap and the dubious offerings from the Cash n’ Carry.

Satiated I walk through the bar and use the toilet; I briefly consider buying a drink but it looks like only Greene King products are on offer, which is disappointing, so I don’t bother and step outside once again
It’s not long before the referee, his assistants and a few footballers appear in a huddle at the entrance to the changing rooms. They seem afraid to come out into the open but I 30372602607_cb6e1eae9b_oguess they are really just waiting to be sure no one gets left behind. Eventually referee Mr Alistair Wilson leads the teams along the open ‘corridor’ to the pitch where they all line up in front of the stand and indulge in the usual excessive shaking of hands; I always hope that one day the teams will also bow to the stand, but it hasn’t happened yet. Today Walsham are playing another ‘village team’, Brantham Athletic, in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. Walsham are seventh in the league table after nine games and Brantham are just a point behind in eighth, but having only played six games due to a bit of a run in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. Coincidentally, both clubs are village sports clubs, although with Brantham originally being borne out of the local BX plastics factory (since closed and demolished). Both clubs also play on pitches where cricket is played in summer.

Walsham kick-off the game playing towards the tiny ‘covered end’ and the open country side beyond, in the direction of the A143 between Bury and Diss; they wear a dazzling kit of all yellow. Brantham Athletic (nickname The Imps) meanwhile, play in the direction of the bar, clubhouse and the village beyond, and wear an all blue kit with two white diagonal bars across the front. I find that Brantham’s is an unsatisfactory kit, although a good solid navy blue colour, the white bands make the players look like they might have been lying in the road when a white line painting truck came by. The design smacks of the designer of single colour kits having finally run out of ideas, the pressure of coming up with something different every year having at last become too much.
With both teams finally lined up the sound of the referee’s whistle is met with a loud bellow of “Willows” from a man in the main stand and the game begins. After that initial burst of support for The Willows, the people seated around me in the small stand are44399647925_a9d1413cd4_o silent, although the hum of lively conversation can be heard at the other ‘rowdier’ end of the stand where a group of men in their sixties and seventies stand on a small terrace. The peaceful ambience allows me to appreciate just what a lovely, bucolic setting this is. What is possibly an old pavilion on the far side of the site looks like a blacksmith’s shop and the breeze through the leaves of the trees seems to whisper Walsham le Willows.

Uncomfortable with the silence I move and stand next to the Willows’ bench where I can enjoy some shouting and swearing from the coaches. “Movement” “Keep your shape” “Pressure” “Talk to him” are the calls from the unhappy sounding coaches. Brantham have started the better of the two teams and look more purposeful and confident and after nine minutes they win the game’s first corner; then a diagonal cross only just fails to be transformed into a close-range diving header, which might well have caused a goal had it materialised. On the small terrace I hear someone say “We always do well against these”, but The Imps win another corner and Walsham’s number six Craig Nurse commits the first foul on Brantham’s Joseph Yaxley. A Willows player complains to the referee and the coaches bemoan how he talks too much rather than getting on with the game. “Come on fellas, wake up!” then “Aaagh, fuck me” are the words from the bench. “We need one of the strikers on the number eleven” says The Willows’ Nurse to the bench, “Well do it then” is the not unreasonable response.
A quarter of an hour has passed, The Imps have not scored and The Willows are at last settling into the game and playing more successfully in their opponents’ half. All of a sudden a long range shot is tipped onto the cross bar by Brantham goal keeper Luke Evenell. A corner to Walsham follows, and then another one. I move and stand near to the Brantham bench and nearer to the goal that Walsham are attacking; the atmosphere amongst the coaches here seems less tense than on the Walsham bench, but I wouldn’t say they looked happy. Walsham’s number ten Niall McPhillips has been finding space and threading some decent passes through the Brantham defence. It hasn’t gone un-noticed, but so far the Imps’ defence has just argued about it amongst themselves. But then The Imps launch an attack of their own, and number eleven Daniel Rowe finds himself free on the left inside the penalty area, he shoots, but misses the target completely, skewing the ball high and wide. “Ooooh! Ah, ya bell-end” I hear an excited and then dejected voice say from the bench.
It’s almost half past three and Walsham win a third corner. The ball is struck quite low across the pitch and The Willows captain and number nine Jack Brame sidefoots the ball into the corner of the goal past a surprised looking goal keeper to give Walsham the lead. It was slightly unexpected, but in these games anything can happen and often does. Brantham carry on much as before, often getting their wide players to chase long balls but nothing comes of it and the highlight for me in the remaining time before half-time is a slightly panicky looking lofted clearance from Walsham’s Craig Nurse, which soars and then drops to earth with a satisfying clatter on the bonnet of a BMW behind the stand.
With half-time I head the queue for a pounds worth of tea and a sit down at one of the picnic tables on the patio. I hear one of the ‘dinner ladies’ asked if they are busy, “Not very” she says. I reflect on a pretty entertaining first half and flick through the programme. There’s quite a good ‘Half-Time quiz’ which is testing but answerable although question nine sets me thinking. ‘What was Sheffield United’s Brian Deane the first to do?’ it asks. The answer given is ‘Score the first ever Premier League goal’ and it makes me wonder who the second player was to score the first ever Premier League goal. Of course I don’t really care because I don’t give a toss about the Premier League.
Refreshed by what was a very good cup of tea, I watch the players return for the second half and note that the Brantham number six William Crissell is the only player to wear anything other than a ‘regular’ haircut, sporting as he does a very small top-notch. I imagine his influences are more Zlatan Ibrahimovic than Sikhism, although you never know. As the new half develops Walsham are gaining the upper hand and this encourages vocal encouragement from the crowd. “Come on boys – let’s have that other one” calls a man in a throaty Suffolk drawl. Number eleven Ryan Clark hits a post with a shot for Walsham and then screws a follow up shot wide but the second goal doesn’t arrive and a tension builds because Brantham still look capable of an equaliser. Some niggle enters the game and both sides complain to referee Alistair Wilson about perceived injustices and his failure to punish fouls with bookings. “Bottle job” is the accusation from the Walsham bench followed up with “For Chrissakes ma-an”. On the Brantham bench frustration grows that chances are not being made. When a pass is over hit I hear “He’s not getting that, he’s not Usain fucking Bolt”
It’s now about four thirty and it might stay like this, it might not. It doesn’t, as again a little unexpectedly, a shot flies into the top right hand corner of the Brantham goal from outside the penalty area; it’s a helluva goal and should win the game. Despite claims and counter claims for free-kicks and bookings from both sides, up until now the game has been played in a good spirit, but suddenly two players are on the ground and something happens between them which leads to pushing and shoving and a general melee and other players swarm around in an angry knot. If it was in a school playground they would have been chanting “Fight, fight, fight”. Mr Wilson the referee seems paralysed and for a while all he does is blow his whistle, it’s as if he’s trying to speak without taking it out of his mouth. He sounds like a Clanger on amphetamines. It’s all a bit unfortunate, but quite entertaining and the upshot is that Brantham’s number two Callum Bennett is sent off and Walsham’s number seven Ryan Gibbs is booked by Mr Wilson, once he’s stopped whistling. The action doesn’t stop there however as one of the Brantham coaches now berates Mr Wilson from the touch line in a sweary manner and he is sent off as well.
The game is up for Brantham and it’s no more than Walsham deserve when a shot from McPhillips hits the cross bar and number two Lee Warren drives home the rebound to round-off a 3-0 victory for The Willows. It’s been an entertaining afternoon and despite the imbalance in the final score the result was always in doubt until pretty close to the end. The sending’s off and shoving contest just added to the fun; no one wants to see such things really, unless a game is very boring, but when it happens we might as well enjoy it.
Summer Road, Walsham le Willows is a beautiful, bucolic place to watch a football match, especially on an autumn afternoon when the leaves on the surrounding trees are turning form green to gold and if it was closer to home I might come more often. The clichéd setting for football is an urban one, that’s where the evil Premier League is played out, but non-league football is played everywhere and if you want to get away far from the ‘big time’ this is possibly as good as it gets.

Debenham Leisure Centre FC 1 Framlingham Town 4

A journey through the Suffolk countryside on a bright, sunny and unseasonably warm early April afternoon is the lovely prelude to this game, this local derby. Unfortunately, whilst it is easy enough to get to Debenham on a bus for 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, it is not possible to get back again unless you live in Mendlesham or somewhere on the bus route between the two villages. The upshot is that I have had to drive to the Debenham Leisure Centre, and if you do the same, rather than say walk several miles across the fields from Framlingham or Diss, I would recommend getting here in good time because the car park can get full up.
Debenham Leisure Centre FCOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA was founded as recently as 1991 and it is odd that a largish village like Debenham should have to wait so long to have a football club, then when it did happen the club name should include the words Leisure Centre. But in the comparatively short space of 26 years they have progressed as far as the Eastern Counties Premier League, although they currently reside in the First Division, which is step six of the non-league pyramid, or Division Ten if ‘The Championship’ is Division Two.
A yellow and black sign in the car park announces that this is where the football club, known as the Hornets, hang out, but there is no turnstile into the ‘stadium’ and you have to work out that the access is through the leisure centre itself. But once inside it’s still not clear where to go; there are two choices, through the leisure centre bar or down a short corridor which appears to lead to the outside, which if my memory of other football grounds isn’t failing me is where the match is likely to be played. Using logic I opt for the corridor and of course I am wrong and a gentleman older than me appears like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn to ask if I will be watching the match. I am advised that entry is through the bar and he can’t understand why people try to get in the way that I tried to. May be because they can’t understand which way they are supposed to enter I venture. But there is a sign he says. But does it say which way to go I ask. As mysteriously as he appeared he disappears and I find myself in the bar where my accomplice, who I have not mentioned up until now, buys me a pint of cask Speckled Hen in a plastic cup.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Surprisingly perhaps and all credit to the leisure centre staff for this, it tastes pretty darn good. Pints in hand we pay our £5 entry fee to a friendly man with a pint mug full of banknotes who is stood behind a table, and I also purchase a copy of the impressively cheap match programme33948024985_c1fb66a745_o (50p).
We sit outside in the sun at a circular wooden picnic table. A grey-haired man in some sort of commemorative Liverpool shirt brings us bright orange wrist bands to wear,33817958691_1bcae0aa48_o to show that we have paid to watch the game. Apparently the football club has a problem with people watching the matches without paying; this is because there are so many ways into the ground which are unchecked. I will later find what seems to be a public footpath crossing the site which confirms that this club is on a hiding to nothing. After a little while a couple in their late sixties or early seventies sit opposite. The man reads his programme behind his sunglasses and sups a beer. The woman tells him a couple of times that she is enjoying her cup of coffee; “It’s nice sitting here in the sun” she says, but her comment provokes nothing, nothing but silence, it is as if her words had never been uttered. No affirmation, no contradiction, nothing. Another man arrives and says something bland about football and the two men have a conversation. Her cup drained, the woman says how much she enjoyed her coffee, “I suppose you’ll want another one at half-time then” says the man.
A little while later a rounded man walks past our table to the main block of the leisure centre carrying two large jugs of a yellow/orange liquid. Making our own entertainment my accomplice and I earnestly tell each other that under new FA doping rules everyone in both teams must be tested for drug use. At this level of course that is prohibitively expensive so each team is tested in one go, hence a single jug of yellow liquid from each. It’s a team game after all. How we laugh at our own joke.

Time moves on and it’s nearly 3 o’clock; time to take up a position by the rail to watch the match. The Friend’s Meadow ground or Maitland’s as it was formerly known is a basic but neat ground with a small pre-fabricated


stand containing seats straddling the halfway line and a concrete path around the rest of the perimeter. The dugouts are opposite the stand and there is a sturdy post and rail fence around the pitch with a number of advertisement boards attached to it, bearing the names of assorted local plumbers, builders and hairdressers. Behind one goal is a small mound, a grassy knoll, behind that, bushes, a hedge, a field, a tractor. There is a regimented line of poplars some 80 yards beyond the far side of the pitch with a hedge beneath. Daisies and dandelions are beginning to bloom on the mound and on the pitch.

At last it’s 3 pm and Framlingham Town, wearing their kit of green and white hoops kick off towards the council houses at the edge of Debenham. About a quarter past three Framlingham score a goal, not undeservedly because they have been much the better team, quicker and brighter, they pass the ball whereas Debenham in their black-sleeved yellow shirts are slow, less skilful and dull by comparison. The Debenham number 11 seems unable to approach a Framlingham player without fouling him and is spoken to by the short referee, Mr Willmore.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The number 11 doesn’t look very contrite and predictably when he fouls again, the referee brandishes a yellow card in his general direction. A full-faced bearded man leaning on the rail pleads the number 11’s case. “What was that for? That was piss poor” He opines, adding that he hopes the referee is going to be consistent, which is an odd wish given that he is apparently getting his decisions wrong.

The sun beats down as best it can in April forcing my accomplice to make use of his hoodie to protect his delicate northern European complexion. Framlingham continue to be the better team. Debenham just boot the ball forward for their forwards to run after; “Foot race” shouts the bearded man. What other sort of race is there in a football match? A horse race, slow-bicycle race? Let’s kick racism out of football. At about twenty five to four the Debenham number two tackles over-enthusiastically and is booked. From the ensuing free-kick the ball is crossed and after a pass or two, Framlingham, score a second goal, a volley, spectacular of course as all volleys are. The bearded man questions the linesman about the referee’s decision and very helpfully the linesman tells him about the use of excessive force and not being in control when tackling. The bearded man doesn’t recognise this as a thing in football and the linesman tells him that there is an assessor stood near him who can explain and he in turn helpfully tells the bearded man about what you can’t do in the ‘modern game’. The bearded man is unimpressed and moans about making the game ‘non-contact’ and it not being like it was when he played.

About five minutes later Framlingham score yet again just to make a point and soon it is half-time. I and my accomplices, for a second friend has joined me during the first half, head for the tea bar. I buy a soft roll for £2 and a pounds worth of tea in a mug with a handle,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA which is much more civilised than a plastic or polystyrene cup. I have to take the roll outside to a barbecue where another lady gives me a sausage to complete my hot dog The two ladies indoors serving the tea and rolls fight over who gets the three pounds. Later, I speculate as to whether in the same way that some people get into the game without paying, others might bring their own soft roll in order to bag a free hot dog.

For the start of the second half we stand on the grassy knoll, which is a surprisingly good vantage point, although it’s slightly in the shade so it’s a bit cool and eventually we settle at the side of the goal now being defended by Debenham and their bulky goalkeeper, who is a vision in baby blue,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA but doesn’t cast a shadow over us despite his size. After their abject first half display Debenham have made three substitutions with the clumsy number 11 being one of them. Debenham look all the better for their mugs of half-time isotonic tea and their substitutes’ ‘fresh legs’ and attitude, and after just nine minutes of play are awarded a penalty, which is scored by their centre-forward whose first name is Paris. Debenham continue to spend time in the Framlingham half, but their hopes are dealt a severe blow when their pony-tailed substitute falls over and is accused by Framlingham players of diving. Jabbing of fingers ensues before a look of shock crosses the referee’s face and he brandishes his red card at the pony-tailed substitute, apparently for threatening behaviour towards his accusers from Framlingham.

Debenham’s hopes are pretty much dashed and whilst the game begins to meander, there is an unexpected outburst of frustration when following a foul by a Framlingham player the Debenham captain suddenly bawls “when are you going to do something ref!”  The referee looks a little taken aback. After a Debenham player generously heads the ball into his own goal to give Framlingham a fourth goal, the game enters the final ten minutes. Aware of much shouting from the managers we move closer to the ‘technical areas’ and witness a Framlingham substitute having a wee up against the back wall of the dug-out before going on; possibly a superstition or may be that second cup of tea at half-time was a mistake. Interestingly there is a high fence between the dug outs which could easily ‘hide’ a urinal if necessary.

Framlingham have a lot of young players on the field and the coach or manager or whatever he is provides plenty of words of encouragement. Mystifyingly I hear him several times shout “Call him Will” then surmise that he is actually shouting “Call him, Will”. Meanwhile the Debenham manager has a less positive vibe about him and is bemoaning his team’s luck for which he blames the referee. He complains that they should have had a penalty and then complains that the penalty they did score shouldn’t have been a penalty, which on balance seems a fairly pointless complaint.

Eventually time is called and there is some applause, but not a lot from the 128 people who were counted as having paid and those who possibly didn’t. A bit miserable of people not to applaud the effort; these players aren’t being paid fortunes to do this, not here anyway. The crowd drifts away and in making our exit we complete a circuit of the ground, barely stopping to admire some graffiti which looks a bit ‘urban’ and out of place in rural Suffolk.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not a bad afternoon’s entertainment for a fiver.