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.

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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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Felixstowe & Walton v Haverhill Borough Needham Market 0 Dulwich Hamlet 3

It had been a damp morning, I had walked to the village post office in a light drizzle and then driven back to collect a prescription for my wife from the pharmacist opposite the post office because I had forgotten it first time around. I now leave the house for the third time in an hour to walk to the railway station. The day is dull and grey, but as I turn the corner into the station forecourt there is a single bloom on a hawthorn bush. It seems Rachel Carson’s silent spring is delayed for another year, but it’s surely coming.
Putting aside thoughts of doomsday I board the train and text a man called Gary to let him know I am in the third car of the train. The smell of cheap perfume, so cheap it could just be the smell of washing powder, permeates the warm air of the carriage; behind me a couple speak to one another in a foreign language. Gary is accompanying me today and will join me on the train at Colchester and in due course he does so, but not before I anticipate his boarding of the train by the door nearest me only to see a man who looks like Iggy Pop’s heavier brother board in his place, which I find a little disconcerting. Gary has read previous entries on this blog and this has inspired him to want to join me, because it sounds such fun.
Gary and I catch up on events since we last met and soon arrive at Ipswich where there is another half an hour to wait for the train to Felixstowe, we therefore adjourn to the Station Hotel opposite where Gary drinks a pint of a strategically branded ‘American’ lager called Samuel Adams, served in a strangely shaped glass and I drink a pint of a fashionably hoppy ‘craft ale’ that I have never heard of, which is probably brewed furtively by the Greene King brewery. The Station Hotel is pleasant enough but reeks of the latest corporate house style of a national brewing chain.
At about ten to two we drain our glasses and cross the road back to the railway station to discover that due to a passenger being taken ill, the 13.58 to Felixstowe has been cancelled. The Ipswich to Felixstowe passenger rail service has to be one of the least reliable anywhere on Earth and suffers regular cancellations for a variety of reasons, sometimes for days at a time. This may be because it is just a one track, one carriage shuttle service, but this being so there should be a contingency plan to maintain a service. If this were mainland Europe there would probably be a regular tram or light rail service between Ipswich and Felixstowe, but sadly this is brexiting Britain.
The cancellation provokes a quick assessment of where else there is an accessible game this afternoon and it’s a choice between Needham Market, Whitton United or Ipswich Wanderers. Seeing as we are at the railway station from where trains run directly to Needham, but buses do not run directly to Whitton or Humber Doucy Lane it is easiest to go to Needham. A convoluted ticket refund and new ticket purchase procedure later (£3.05 for a day return with a Gold Card), we are ready to catch the 14.20 to Cambridge calling at Needham Market.
The hourly train journey to Needham is short and sweet, taking just ten minutes to sneak out of Ipswich’s back door past the ever more dilapidated, former Fison’s factory at Bramford and along the wide valley of the River Gipping. Needham Market station is aOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA thing of beauty, a red brick building in the Jacobean style and dating from 1846, it is Grade 2 listed. Happily, although it was closed in 1967 it re-opened just four years later. Tearing myself away from the loveliness of the railway station, it is a numbingly simple and direct walk to Bloomfields, the home of Needham Market Town Football Club. Across, the station forecourt, sadly dominated by parked cars, past the wonderfully named Rampant Horse pub where Calvors beer and lager brewed locally in Coddenham is served, across the main road, down the side of the Swan Hotel and on up the side of the valley, leaving the timber framed buildings of central Needham and reaching the football ground through an estate of 1960’s bungalows. The route is so simple and direct it is as if the railway station and the football ground are the two most important things in Needham Market and as Gary remarks, the path between is akin to Wembley Way.
At Bloomfields we walk through the busy car park and are both £11 lighter having passed through the turnstile, on the other side of which a programme costs a further £2. It’s not twenty to three yet so we take a detour into the clubhouse and there being no real beer on offer we imbibe something called East Coast IPA (£3.00 a pint). The pump label shows the east coast of America for some reason, although the beer is manufactured by Greene King in Bury St Edmunds and my view is that they are hustling in on the good name of the ‘other’ Suffolk brewer Adnams, which uses the slogan ’beer from the coast’. Gary likes the beer, but then he likes Carlsberg; I find it much too cold, bland and fizzy and I’m glad when it’s over. That’s ‘the thing’ about drinking alcohol, it has to be pretty disgusting not to finish it.


Outside, the sizeable crowd of 495 mill about and lean over the pitchside rail, whilst the two teams appear to be caged up inside the tunnel from the dressing rooms. Eventually the teams process onto the field side by side and go through all that hand shaking malarkey. The stadium announcer speaks with a mild Suffolk accent which sounds clipped as if he doesn’t read very well, but in fact that is just the nature of reading out loud with a Suffolk accent. Gary and I remark on the name of the Dulwich number eleven, Sanchez Ming, the sort of name to strike fear into the heart of Donald Trump, if he has one. Today’s match is sponsored by John and Sue. Gary and I elect to stand with the Dulwich supporters in the barn like structure behind the near goal at the Ipswich end of the ground. If Needham ever had to make this stand all-seater they could do so with the addition of just a few straw bales.


The match begins with Dulwich Hamlet, all in pink, kicking towards Ipswich whilst Needham, who are disguised as Melchester Rovers play in the direction of Stowmarket. Dulwich start well and have an early shot blocked. A Dulwich supporter sounds a doom-laden warning to the Needham goalkeeper, Danny Gay, that he is on borrowed time. When he does it again someone responds that we all are. It’s marvellous how Step 3 non-league football gets you in touch with a sense of your own mortality. The goalkeeper smiles kindly, but it’s not even ten past three when following a turn and through ball from Dipo Akenyemi, Dulwich’s nippy number seven Nyren Clunis appears in front of goal with the ball at his feet and just the large frame of Danny Gay between him and glory. Nyren and glory are united as the ball is at first blocked by big Danny, but Clunis rolls in the rebound and the Dulwich supporters cheer gleefully. A man in a dark raincoat and trilby hat dances around holding a banner that says ‘Goal’ in case anyone was in any doubt that Dulwich had scored. A woman swings a small pink and navy blue football rattle, but it doesn’t. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Dulwich continue to provide all the attempts on goal and a selection of corner kicks and shortly after twenty past three Clunis scores again, in similar circumstances to the first goal, but due to a defensive mistake and Danny Gay makes no initial save. This time the man in the dark raincoat and hat toots a pink plastic horn to celebrate. The Needham locals look on silently, inscrutably, like Ipswich Town fans do. They may have been expecting defeat, Dulwich, after all, are striking out at top of the twenty-four team Bostik Premier Division, whilst Needham are meandering around the wilderness of mid-table anonymity where existence has no meaning; they are 14th . A twenty-four team league is much too large.
As half-time approaches Gary asks if I fancy a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate and from his short menu I choose tea (£1). Gary has a tea too. Over tea Gary talks fondly about his grandfather who was a Communist and stood as such in a council election in the London Borough of Brent in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. He was a well-known character on the west London estate where he lived, but he didn’t get elected. It was because of his grandad that Gary read Robert Tressell’s book “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist”. We both agree that with today’s ‘gig economy’ the working life of many people is much the same in relative terms to what it would have been a hundred years ago.
We put the revolution on hold as the teams return to the field and we move to the other end of the ground to the side of the all-seated Les Ward stand, which is a small, prefabricated, metal structure. The Marketmen show glimpses of recovery as the new half begins but at seven minutes past four Dulwich score a third goal when Nyren Clunis passes to Nathan Ferguson who shoots accurately between the goalpost and the clawing, despairing, outstretched glove of Danny Gay.
Despite Needham showing a bit more attacking intent in the second half Dulwich are too good for them. Danny Gay has a chat with the Dulwich fans behind the goal; he seems to be counselling one supporter telling him that he is sure he could get a wife, because he has one. Later there is outrage amongst the Dulwich fans as The Marketmen’s Sam Nunn hacks down Clunis in full flight and is merely booked by referee Mr Paul Burnham who has blatantly ignored the supporters chants of “Off! Off! Off!”. Danny Gay then makes a fine save, diving to his left to tip away a shot that would otherwise have given Clunis his hat-trick.
The floodlights have now come on as the greyness of the day deepens and low cloud descends over the gaunt trees and power lines that provide a distant backdrop. A chill bites at my bare hands, which I push deep into my coat pockets. The game is drawing to a close and the result is already known. It is a somewhat pernickety and mean-spirited therefore when Mr Burnham penalises Dulwich goalkeeper Corey Addai for holding onto the ball too long, invoking a rarely enforced rule that results in an indirect free-kick to Needham and a harsh booking for Addai. Mr Burnham is a short, stocky, completely bald man whilst Addai is just 20 years old, 6 foot 7 inches tall and with an enormous head of hair. I suspect a barely hidden agenda provoked by jealousy.
Needham’s free-kick inevitably comes to nought and after four minutes of added time the game ends. The Needham number ten, Jamie Griffiths, who has worn a large head bandage throughout the afternoon is elected Man of the Match and receives a bottle of Champagne from John and Sue the match sponsors, whilst standing in front of a board plastered with company logos and being photographed.
Gary and I reflect on what has been an entertaining match as we head back down into Needham village. The next train is not until ten to six and therefore we have a good forty minutes or more to end the afternoon by enjoying a pint of ultra-locally brewed beer in the conveniently located and fabulously named Rampant Horse public house.

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Finally, Dulwich Hamlet are currently going through a torrid time due to the development company Meadow Partners who own their Champion Hill ground having undertaken a number of immoral and twisted actions such a trying to seize the rights to the club name and trademarks, loading debt onto the club and preventing it from taking profits form match day bars. Presumably Meadow Partners want rid of the club so that they can make profit from developing the site for housing.
Go to https://savedulwichhamlet.org.uk for more information and details of the Fans United day on Good Friday when Dulwich invite fans from all clubs to attend their match versus Dorking at Tooting & Mitcham’s ground where they are now forced to finish their season.

Bury Town 0 Waltham Abbey 0

It’s a thirty-five minute train ride from Ipswich to Bury St Edmunds (£7.20 return with a Gold Card) stopping at Needham Market, Stowmarket, Elmswell and Thurston, which for a 25 mile journey by train seems quite a long time. But whilst it’s not one of the fastest train rides in the world, it’s pleasant enough and there’s a busyness and hum about it due to the churn of passengers at each of the four stops.
I board the 1320 and sit at a table seat where just before departure I am joined by three blokes in their thirties who seem to be part of a larger group on a stag weekend, but they also seem to be Margate supporters heading the nine miles down the track to today’s match at Needham Market; an interesting combination that beats paintballing in Dublin. At Stowmarket the train fills up again and pulls away from the station passing the Green Meadow ground, where later this afternoon Stowmarket Town will beat Ipswich Wanderers 3-0. Three well-turned out women in their forties apologetically take up the empty seats around me, asking if I mind if they sit there. “As long as you behave yourselves” I say and they reply that they can’t promise anything but they’ve only had one drink so far today. They’re heading for the bright lights of Bury St Edmunds to celebrate a birthday and they natter constantly throughout the journey about all of life’s trials. “Oooh, I can’t get on with public transport” says one “You know that striped carpet we’ve got” says another “ …had to have it re-laid twice, they got it all wrong on the stairs” . “I don’t go shopping anymore” says the third “Just do click and collect”. “Same with me” replies one “But I just buy baked potatoes”. Then one talks at length about the problems with parking outside her house and an intimidating little bloke in a Range Rover who’s got four cars and a bike, but there’s only him and his wife living there. She doesn’t know what they’re going to do when Annabel gets a car.
Arriving at five to two at Bury St Edmunds’ beautiful red brick railway station, the

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women alight and thank me for letting them sit with me, I tell them it was my pleasure, and it was. Stepping onto the platform I immediately breathe in the sweet smell of the local sugar beet factory, a smell that transports me back to the school playing fields of Ipswich in the 1970’s. It’s not exactly a pleasant smell because it’s thick and cloying, but it’s always at its strongest on clear, bright, cold days like today when the wind is in the east and the sky is a frigid blue, and for that reason I can’t help but like it. The sugar beet factory is a thing of beauty with its grey concrete silos and billowing trail of white steam belching and then dissipating into that blue sky. I feel glad to be alive, but it’ll pass.
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Heading for the town centre I turn to admire the railway station with its pair of ‘minarets’ and then set-off along Northgate Street before turning into Cannon Street and stopping at the Old Cannon Brewery, hotel and bistro. Most of the people in here are eating and it doesnt have the ambience of a pre-match boozer, but I just have a pint of Black Pig (£3.50) and sit at a small table facing the shiny brewing vessels to read the football pages of the Bury Free Press. The headline story concerns Walsham le Willows FC who apparently are being threatened with relegation from the Eastern Counties Premier League if they don’t resolve some health and safety issues at their ground in Summer Lane. I worry why the League considers relegation would resolve the issue, unless the view is that in Division One some injury and possible death is to be expected.
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I wrestle with the idea of having another pint, but decide to head for Bury Town’s ground because it’s now twenty five past two and I’m not sure exactly how far it is or what delights await me at Ram Meadow. I am surprised at how quickly and easily I find the ground considering that I last came here in February 1989. The approach is across the adjacent municipal surface car park (£1.80 for three hours) and is not very imposing; there is no sense of arrival, just a close board wooden fence and three advert hoardings with a single gate. If there was a queue at the turnstile people could be mown down by small men in Range Rovers desperate to park.

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I pay my entrance money (£9) and step around the turnstile to stand in what looks like a queue to buy a programme (£2), but it’s not, it’s just old blokes talking; so I step around them explaining to the programme seller that I thought they were a queue. The layout of Ram Meadow is a lot like that of King’s Meadow in Sudbury with the main stand and club house on the west side. The club house at Ram Meadow is new and tacked onto the end of it is a conservatory which is the members’ lounge.
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Through the glass I can see people scoffing plates of boiled potatoes and pies. By the side of the conservatory is the club shop, it’s the sort of structure that the occupiers of suburban bungalows call a ‘garden room’. I love a club shop; this one is pedalling the usual shirts, scarves and woolly hats but also bears and dinosaurs in Bury Town t-shirts.I head for the bar.

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The club house at Ram Meadow is quite new having opened in September 2016; it’s a very plain building but I forgive this because there’s a hand pump on the bar, although the barmaid doesn’t know what it’s serving, just that it isn’t what it says on the pump clip. I buy a pint (£3.40) and have pricked the barmaid’s curiosity; she has to find out what the beer is, but returns to say she’s none the wiser and the barrel just says SX SW Pale Ale. I take a seat at the side of the room near where the Bury Town Under 10’s are getting ready to be mascots; there is cake on a table and a mother stands with a plate of chips with a look of ‘do you want any more of these?” on her face.
Two blokes next to me are talking about the match. “So where is Waltham Abbey then?” asks one. “Down near Harlow by the M25” says the second, looking it up on his ‘phone. “They’re all fucking down there, these clubs” is the reply. They speak not in Suffolk accents but as though they really should know where Waltham Abbey is. The beer is good and is quickly gone so I step back out into the cold afternoon. It’s not long until kick-off so I think about where is going to be a good spot to watch the game. I wander back round to the corner of the ground by the turnstiles and the teams are just coming onto the pitch when a voice says “Allo Martin”. It’s Dave, the man with whom I used to write the ‘A Load of Cobbolds’ fanzine back in the 1990’s. In his day Dave was every bit as dedicated to watching Ipswich Town as ever-present Phil who never misses a game is now. I will be eternally jealous of Dave because in 1981 he was in a minibus that went to St Etienne to see Ipswich win 4-1 in Ipswich Town’s greatest performance ever. But Dave became disillusioned and did something about it, he stopped going. But Dave can’t give up football and now has a Bury Town season ticket.
Dave and I walk round to where he sits every week, in the Jimmy Rattle stand with two old codgers who like to just sit and moan. The Jimmy Rattle stand is a long low, multi-stanchioned structure with just a few rows of lovely, warm, wooden bench seats. A scaffolding tower adds interest in the centre, from where each match is filmed.
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The game begins with Waltham Abbey, in green and white hooped shirts and green shorts, kicking towards Bury St Edmunds cathedral, and Bury Town, in all blue, kicking towards the sugar beet factory and its plume of white steam. If I had to choose ends, I’d choose the sugar beet factory.
The pitch is soft and muddy and the colourful kits and clear blue sky make a beautiful scene. Dave updates me on family life; his eldest daughter who I met as a toddler in 1992 is now head of history at a school in Cambridge; I remember her being able to say “We are top of the league; we are top of the league”. Dave says how his younger daughter is less academic and her idea of preparing for an exam was to do her make-up and hair. She has a boyfriend who plays for Bury Town. Dave likens his children to Lisa and Bart Simpson and clearly enjoys that they are so different.
Meanwhile, on the pitch the game is entertaining whilst being of rather poor quality in terms of skill and well organised football. My attention is mostly taken by a Waltham Abbey player who looks as if his kit is a size too large for him
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and the Bury right-back for whom the opposite is true.

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Bury are expected to win as they sit 10th in the Bostik League North Division table, whilst Waltham Abbey are 13th and have lost most of their last eight or nine games. Very little happens near the goals and most time is spent ploughing through the muddy turf of the congested midfield. But near the end of the half Waltham Abbey twice break free and although their number ten looks certain to score he contrarily hits each post and then a short while later another player carelessly boots a third good chance wide.
We buy a fifty-fifty draw ticket each (£1.00) from a lady called Maureen and the half soon

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ends. With half-time I return to the club house to catch up on the half-time scores, and to celebrate that Ipswich are winning I buy another pint of the mystery pale ale. With my beer in a plastic cup I am free to wander outside and explore, and as I do so my beer gets colder and colder as the sun sinks low in the west. At the sugar beet factory end of the ground is a an advertisement board for The Suffolk Pest Control Comp[any Ltd , which features a silhouette of a Suffolk Punch horse; I didn’t know
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these animals were considered pests, but can well imagine that an infestation of them would be a bit of a bugger. But it does account for why the Suffolk Punch is a rare breed.
As the game resumes I visit the outside toilet, in which very weirdly I think I can detect a faint smell of Christmas pudding. I pass the ‘Home and Away Directors box’ and wonder if there are other TV Soap themed directors’ boxes around the country or whether this is the only one. I wander back past the clubhouse where the faces of men holding pint glasses peer out through the double glazing, watching the game from the warmth of an alcoholic haze. As with most non-league or local football, the crowd is mostly made up of middle-aged men and older, and the occasional dog.
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There should be more dogs at football matches.

The most passionate Bury fans have now re-located to the Cathedral end and pinned

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their flags to the high quality close board wooden fence that encloses the ground. “BTFC. Suffolk Is Ours” boasts one flag somewhat incomprehensibly. It smacks of the same conceit that sees the town of Bury St Edmunds label itself “a jewel in the crown of Suffolk”.
Back on the Jimmy Rattle side of the ground I meet Andrew, a fellow public sector employee who is here with his young son who points out that the Waltham Abbey substitute has an interesting hairstyle. Indeed, he looks like he is from a 1970’s

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discotheque and as we watch, the ball comes to him inside the Bury Town penalty area, he aims a kick and misses the ball completely.
By and by I return to sit again with Dave and the game carries on much as before, but Bury are the more dominant team now without ever really looking like scoring; it’s a lot like watching the Championship, but cheaper and more fun. We talk a little bit of politics and how even the Labour Party supporters are Tories in Bury St Edmunds. The game is drawing to a close and Bury hit a post, but even before the three minutes of added on time is announced people are drifting away, beating the imagined rush of 274 people all simultaneously trying to get through the one little gate in that wooden fence. “Have you had enough entertainment for one afternoon?” asks Dave of the old boy who was sat next to him as he toddles off home.
The three minutes elapse and I reflect that I have enjoyed a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment. I say good bye to Dave as I head once again to see if I can still smell Christmas pudding and Dave goes round the corner to pop in on his mother-in-law. Before I finally leave Ram Meadow I check on the full-time score at Preston where Ipswich have won. On the walk back to the railway station I phone my wife and as the camera pans away from my afternoon Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ can be heard.
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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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