Halstead Town 2 Fire United 1

Had today’s fixture in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Division One South been played at pretty much any time between April 1860 and January 1st 1962 I could have travelled to it by train. However, thanks to the evil Dr Beeching I am making the twenty minute journey to Rosemary Lane Halstead by Citroen C3. It’s not an unpleasant twenty minute drive on a bright, September afternoon along the winding and undulating rural roads of north Essex, through Earl’s Colne with its three pubs and finally down the hill of Halstead’s High Street and over the River Colne, but I can’t help thinking I would have arrived happier if I hadn’t been personally responsible for the burning of fossil fuel and release of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases. If I was Donald Trump I don’t suppose I would give a shit, but he is an ignoramus. There is a bus service via Colchester (Hedingham Omnibus route 88) but I’m 58, so time isn’t on my side.

In Rosemary Lane I reverse between two marks of Ford Fiesta and scrunch across the shingle, Halstead Town’s own beach, to the turnstile where I pay £6 for entry and £1 for a programme. An impatient youth wants to push past me and I tell him to hang on ten seconds until I have my change. Although the car park is full there doesn’t seem to be

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any one much here yet, it’s only twenty-five past two. A man stands at the end of the main stand and copies down names from today’s team sheet, the tea and food bar isn’t open so I take a look inside the club house. A cluster of drinkers stand at the bar and some sit at tables. I consider buying a drink, but there’s no real ale on offer and I can still taste the cup of tea I had before leaving home, so it’s not like I’m thirsty and I never have any real desire for a glass of artificially carbonated beer. I return outside and ‘do’ a circuit of the pitch to the soundtrack of some awful, sub-disco, bland pop playing over the public address system.

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The referee and assistants are warming up; I noticed from the team sheet that the referee and one of his assistants share the surname Williams, and whilst they do stretches against the rail around the pitch I impudently ask if they are related. They are not, but the referee confirms that Messers Arnot, who officiated at the game I saw last week in Harwich are father and son, although they looked like grandfather and grandson to me. Unusually, but less so than in the not too distant past, the other assistant to the referee is a woman, Ms Withams. They form a contrasting threesome, the referee typically neat and fastidious looking, his male assistant older and almost frail in appearance and his female assistant a somewhat full-figured woman.

Halstead Town football ground, known for now as the Milbank Stadium, has only one stand, it is plain, a little dark and very utilitarian, but to a football fan it is a thing of beauty, arguably the finest stand in the Eastern Counties League after Great Yarmouth’s, which is a Listed Building. May be Heritage England should be listing buildings like this one; its corrugated pitched roof and steel stanchions are redolent of the 1950’s and it was indeed erected in 1950; its plain, post-war utility makes it a sort of football prefab. Most Football League clubs have already demolished their stands like this; it may be small but it’s perfectly formed.

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Time ticks away, more spectators arrive, I choose a seat in the main stand and in due

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course the teams appear in the tunnel at the centre of the stand, beneath a metal cage. The programme tells me that Halstead are top of the league having played seven games, but suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek at home to nearby Coggeshall United, not to be confused with Coggeshall Town. Fire United languish in sixteenth place in the nineteen team league having played only four games, they lost the first three but won 4-0 in midweek.

Fire United Christian Football Club (fortunately they don’t use an acronym) are one of a small number of oddities amongst teams in the non-league football pyramid in that they don’t represent a town or geographical location, but rather people who share a common faith and who largely have a Brazilian background. Founded by a Christian ministry in only 2012, the club has progressed quickly into senior football and is made up of mainly Brazilian ex-pats living and working in London. Whilst they are a new club, interestingly Fire United’s Christian foundation echoes the earliest days of organised football in Britain in which many clubs including the likes of Fulham, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Swindon Town all had their nineteenth century roots in local churches. For Fire United’s sake I hope they don’t end up like them.

The teams line up and the announcer receives a round of applause for his thoroughly plausible pronunciations of the Brazilian/Portuguese names of the Fire United team; but perhaps he was ‘speaking in tongues’ (see Acts of the Apostles 19:6). The Halstead Town chairman resplendent in shorts and T-shirt, no show-off club ties and blazers here, makes a presentation to a player (Nick Miller) making his 100th appearance for the club and then referee Mr Chris Williams begins the game. Fire United, wearing a kit of two

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shades of blue kick-off, playing towards the River Colne and small industrial units between the ground and the river. Halstead Town wear black shorts and socks with black and white striped shirts from which they derive their nickname “The Humbugs”, which as nicknames go is one of the very best. More teams should make reference to sweets and confectionary in their nicknames instead of birds and animals. Halstead are playing in the rough direction of the redundant Holy Trinity Church, a Grade II* Listed Building of the 1840’s designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) in the Gothic Revival style and well worth a look if you like such things.

Early on, ⁹Halstead look eager and have the ball at their feet more than Fire United do. It is a Fire United player who commits the first foul and the one after that and their number seven, Diego Bitencourt is the first player to be spoken to by Mr Williams. Bitencourt is a balding, wiry man, greying at the temples and he looks like he could be any age between thirty and fifty; he can play a bit though. Despite Halstead’s early dominance, it is Fire United who earn the first corner and from then on they don’t look back and win a procession of corner kicks as they begin to dominate the match themselves. The Fire United number four Paulo Grigorio fails to make the best of a few headers from corners but it is his team’s play between the penalty areas that is most impressive. Unfortunately, this team of Brazilians are conforming to the stereotype that I thought had lazily earned them the nickname of the Samba Boys. But they do genuinely play a languid, smooth style of passing game. On the left, number eleven Daniel Lopes is quick and dribbles with both feet, and in the middle and everywhere else number twenty Felipe Melgaco flits and energetically dances about with the ball. At the back number three Rui Semedo is in the mould of OGC Nice’s Dante or Olympique Lyon’s Marcelo as he is unafraid to stop and look up, to stand with the ball at his feet, then nicking and dinking it away from on-rushing forwards before passing it again. It seems that even your average group of working or church-going Brazilians can just form a team and quickly make the ranks of English senior football, so superior is their understanding of the game to ours. Latin American rhythm versus boiled sweets.

Halstead have disappeared from the game largely and when in the twenty third minute Fire United take the lead it is thoroughly deserved, although it is an own-goal from Halstead’s number six Jack Schelvis, who diverts a cross after the Halstead defence give the ball away. Having taken the lead, Fire United fail however to build on their advantage. The game is punctuated by injuries; Paul Grigorio goes down and requires

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treatment; the trainer a large man in grey tracky bottoms and polo shirt runs on holding just a can of spray; miraculously it’s enough and Grigorio is soon back on his feet. As half-time draws near Fire United are comfortable, so much so that like Holland in the 1974 World Cup final they perhaps take things a little for granted. A nascent move down the right is stopped and played all the way back to the goalkeeper for no particular reason. Square passes are played between the Fire United defenders and Halstead close them down; the goalkeeper Lincoln Marques scuffs his clearance into touch. Halstead string a few short passes together from the throw and get into the penalty area, Fire United haven’t picked everyone up; a shot is blocked and runs to Joe Jones who has space to send a low shot beneath Marques and give Halstead a barely deserved equaliser with possibly their first shot on target. Within moments it’s half-time.

I wander down to the clubhouse behind the stand. There is an orderly queue for beer at the bar and two giant TV screens flash images brightly but silently on the walls. There is a print of a painting of the ground back in the 1950’s when the railway line still ran behind the end that doesn’t back on to the river, the painting is entitled “Playing to the whistle” proving that football and puns have never been strangers to one another. When I last came here there were some marvellous old photos of long dead Halstead Town teams on the walls but they seem to have gone, which is a shame. Just inside the door to the clubhouse an area is divided off from the main room and a small sign announces that this is the hospitality area. A long table is covered with plates of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits, some wrapped in silver foil. It looks like a child’s birthday party minus the balloons and a cake. Rows of stackable chairs surround the table, upon which committee members and life members sit with paper plates on their laps. I head outside to the tea bar and invest in a pounds worth of tea.

From the very start of the second half Halstead Town are quicker and more energetic than before and they soon impose themselves on the game through sheer effort. Marques makes good saves from both Jones and Vincent and Jones heads wide when unchallenged. Pavett produces a hard low shot for which Marques throws himself down to his left to push away around the goal post. Fire United bring on a substitute, number eighteen Vasco Jardim, who is large in girth and rivals Humbugs’ number four Ben Morgan and goalkeeper Jack Cherry as the stoutest player on the pitch. Jardim has short legs and amuses several people in the crowd when he falls over spectacularly to claim a free-kick, but is the booked by Mr Williams.

It looks increasingly like Halstead will score again, it is just a question of when, but Fire

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United still create one or two opportunities of their own on the break. I wander around a bit to take in some different views that form the back drop to this game. The fourteenth century church of St Andrew is visible at the top of the hill and behind what is now the Halstead goal, where the railway track once ran a hedge row follows the line of the old embankment; berry laden bushes billowing out in a line like steam from a ghostly locomotive. As the sun begins to

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sink in the west, the shadows of trees envelope one corner of the ground in dappled shade.

I return to the main stand. Fire United’s Daniel Lopes shoots over an empty goal as Gabriel Dias and Jack Cherry collide, and after receiving treatment from the coach’s spray can, Dias is then substituted for number nineteen Glory Lukombo. “ What a great name” says a bloke behind me and I can’t disagree. The Mr Williams holding a flag has to defend not giving an offside decision against Halstead and seems to be talking to himself as he runs back up the line. Then Halstead score. Number eight Jordan Pavett chips a perfect pass over the Fire United defence onto which Callum Vincent runs before placing the ball beyond Marques with what could accurately be called aplomb. Purely on their second half performance Halstead probably deserve it, but as a naturally lazy person I am slightly disappointed that effort and hard work has seemingly won out over strolling about stylishly.

It’s not long before Mr Williams blows his whistle for the final time and with it an appreciative crowd of ninety-three make their respective ways back into the clubhouse or out into the car park and down Rosemary Lane. I and a few others wait a short while to applaud Fire United from the field, before I head back to my Citroen and the journey home.

Ipswich Town 0 Sheffield Wednesday 1

I am on the train to Ipswich for the last home match of the season at Portman Road. My fellow passengers are mostly male. Opposite me is a man who looks like he’s about eighty, he has thin blue lips and a white moustache, but it’s nature that’s done that to him, he hasn’t dressed up for the football, he’s not regretting that he didn’t have any face paints. Another man, probably in his seventies shares the hamster like facial features of Kenny Jacket, whilst another has to ask people to excuse him as he passes down the train to and from the lavatory because of his rotund figure; he wears a T-shirt that says “Weekend Offender”, he is probably a Sheffield Wednesday supporter; we know that northerners drink too much beer and are therefore obese. His northern accent is the clincher.
At Ipswich station there are two policemen in the foyer and three over the road outside the Station Hotel and another two guarding the path down to the car park beyond the bridge over the river. Are they expecting trouble or are they just there to tell people the time? The sun is shining warmly on this bright spring day and there aren’t many people about, although several of the ones that are about are wearing football shirts. Portman Road is a tad busier than usual for half past one on a match day as people stand about waiting for the turnstiles to open. A man wrestles wide-eyed and open-mouthed with a tomato sauce smeared sausage in a bun, which looks like it could slither from his grasp at any moment. The burger concessions, programme dealer34344114435_ee4e4ab848_o and souvenir seller aren’t busy and a car park attendant33960112170_38f8438cda_o sits down on the job. Up round the bend in St Jude’s Tavern the usual football Saturday clientele are there, mostly world weary , white haired and balding, one of them shouts “McCarthy Out” as he gets up to go. After two pints of very tasty Earl Soham Victoria Bitter (£3.20 a pint) and a chat with a friend called Mick which covers football, politics, street-drinkers and getting old, I get up and go too. The season finale beckons like a bin bag that must be put out for the morning refuse collection.

In Portman Road a late arriving coach disgorges Wednesdayites onto the pavement as33502410324_5cc2d0c12c_o two policeman look on; I like to think they have individually welcomed everyone on that bus to Ipswich and wished them a pleasant stay. Northern voices chant about going somewhere and not knowing or caring how they are going to get there; the somewhere it transpires is the Premier League. They should be careful what they wish for. Three Star Wars storm troopers walk past.

Inside the ground the atmosphere builds amongst the Sheffielders who are in high spirits anticipating clinching a place in the promotion play-offs; there are 2,003 of them in a reported crowd of 19,000. A mooted boycott of the match by Town fans who don’t like Mick McCarthy doesn’t seem to have happened; or not so as anyone would notice. The Ipswich crowd look on impassively. It’s the fag end of the season, the empty husk that once contained hopes and dreams now dashed on the terraces like the guts and brains of a piece of roadkill. There should be a minute’s silence in its memory or seeing as it’s football where the crowd aren’t trusted to shut-up, a minute’s applause; but that would smack of irony which is a bit sophisticated for us football fans.

The match begins. Sheffield Wednesday are wearing black shirts and day-glo orange shorts which look like they would be useful in case of floodlight failure or to council highway workers in warm weather. The pitch is well watered and some players slip over. After eight minutes in an apparently unrelated incident 33960241910_3e42a3155f_otwo men with buckets and mops walk along the front of the stand towards a sign that says Exit & Toilets. Sheffield press the Ipswich goal in the manner of the wolf in the story of the the Three Little Pigs and cause few problems for the Ipswich defence and fewer for goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski. Ipswich in turn cause even fewer problems for the Wednesday defence and goalkeeper, but aren’t playing too badly in the context of the season as a whole.  A beach ball that looks like an oversized football 33960221220_0b8d2123e7_oalmost makes it onto the pitch, but a steward takes up the challenge of chasing it along the pitchside and then having caught it squeezing it between himself and the perimeter wall to deflate it. It takes 25 minutes for the Ipswich drums in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand to strike up, but they could only have been passing through as they soon stop and are not heard again. The Wednesday fans are enjoying themselves indulging in some schadenfreude as to Joy Division’s tune they sing “Leeds, Leeds are falling apart, again”. At about twenty to four Ipswich’s Cole Skuse, who will be played by George Clooney in the film of the season, is cautioned for some arm grabbing by referee Mr Coote whose surname makes up a fine threesome with his two lugubrious sounding assistants Mr Lugg and Mr Blunden.

Half-time arrives as it always does and I scan the programme (£3.00) in which Chief Executive Ian Milne amusingly dismisses the season 34302972446_d56ce491e9_oin his opening paragraph by saying “I am not going to repeat the reasons or mitigating circumstances for a disappointing season”. Oh go on ‘Milney’, please do. Elsewhere good luck is wished to the club’s PR manager Jade Cole, who is departing Portman Road after ten years. From her picture she looks like she must have been about twelve when she got the job. Did she jump or was she 34344005625_4eca835255_opushed? She didn’t do much of a job with that 500% season ticket price rise for the Under 11’s or the overnight change in the qualifying age for concessions from 60 to 65 did she? But with policies like that may be her position had become untenable? Doing PR for President Assad might be easier.

The second-half begins with renewed vigour from Sheffield Wednesday who barely let Ipswich have the ball at all now. On their right, number 33,the compact Ross Wallace ‘prods and probes’ and from the far end of the pitch he looks like a poor man’s Mathieu Valbuena, the Olympique Lyon player, about whom incidentally, French TV & Radio journo Guy Carlier has written a book called “Qui veut tuer Mathieu Valbuena” (Who wants to kill Mathieu Valbuena”). Wallace hits a post with a shot which deceives Bartosz Bialkowski into thinking he can reach it.

From an Ipswich perspective the second half is absolutely awful, they do nothing of any note or which could be deemed entertaining and are dominated by the council road men from South Yorkshire. Is a lack of spending in the transfer market by owner Marcus Evans to blame? Sheffield Wednesday meanwhile clearly have money to burn as two men with holdalls containing wet sponges, rather than just the usual one run on to the pitch to treat Ross Wallace when he is down injured. There are seventeen minutes left and a muffled “Come On Ipswich” is heard, but it is only fleeting and I ask myself if it was real or just a ghostly memory of better days carried up the steps and across the seats on the cold breeze blowing down Portman Road from the shade behind the Cobbold Stand.

This looks like it is going to be a goalless draw, but then with thirteen minutes to go Sheffield Wednesday number five, Kieran Lee deftly flicks the ball into the Ipswich goal from close range to make the assembled northerners very happy and make the Ipswich public probably do nothing more than roll their eyes, if they react at all. To the tune of ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ the Sheffield Wednesday fans sing “ We are Wednesday, We are Wednesday, Carlos Is our King”, a song first heard on the streets of Madrid in 1975 with the accession to the Spanish throne of Juan Carlos the first in the wake of the Franco regime. It won’t be a goalless draw after all I muse, it will probably be a 1-0 win to the away team, and so it proves.

Between that goal and the final whistle I ponder whether the advert for Greene King IPA34344022375_6f10e1d29f_o beer on one landing on the stairs in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the instruction that alcoholic drinks are not allowed in view of the pitch34185961352_bcd70e1d81_o on the next is symbolic of the sense of promise followed by disappointment that prevails at Portman Road. Just to compound that, as the match ends and as the half-hearted Suffolk boos are booed the stadium announcer tells us that the Town players will come back out from the dressing room to do an end of season lap of honour around the ground, but then adds that of course it is an offence punishable by death for supporters to enter onto the pitch. Thinking back, he may not have mentioned punishment by death, but nevertheless it’s as if those who run Ipswich Town can’t just concentrate on the positive things, they have to put you in your place as well; miserable bastards, sucking the life and the love from the game.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t wait for that lap of dis-honour and am rewarded by getting the 5.00pm train from which I stare out of the window and watch Ipswich receding into the distance, forgetting a forgettable season and remembering a not-that-faraway place where it is permitted to consume alcohol in view of the pitch, but drunks probably plot to murder Mathieu Valbuena.

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