I first went to watch Wivenhoe Town in December 1990, it was a match against Bognor Regis; the Dragons, as Wivenhoe are known lost 2-1 but were flying high back then, in the Vauxhall sponsored Isthmian League or such like, but that’s not the case anymore. Today Wivenhoe Town are in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division South (there is no Second Division) and are at home to Harwich & Parkeston, a club with an equal or even more illustrious past, who are recovering from a recent spell of self-imposed ignominy in the Essex and Suffolk Border League, but are now on a run of eleven consecutive victories. Wivenhoe are on a similar run of eleven consecutive games, albeit one of consecutive defeats.
It’s a beautifully still, bright but cold mid-January afternoon as I coax my Citroën C3 over the ruts and potholes of the car park at the Broad Lane Sports Ground, Wivenhoe. Whilst I could get to Wivenhoe Town’s home by No 62 bus from Colchester, or by train to Wivenhoe and a 30 minute walk past four pubs out to Broad Lane, today I am glad to be accompanied by my wife Paulene and therefore, as a result of her unpredictable asthma we have travelled by car. The crunch of gravel beneath the wheels of the Citroën is pleasing even if the bouncing sensation over the potholes is less so and our French car makes us feel like Inspector Maigret might have done if on a day off he’d driven down to Wivenhoe to watch a match. There are only a few remaining spaces in the car park, and it’s still not much after half past two.
Getting out of the Citroën we walk across the car park to the strains of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” blaring tinnily from the PA system inside the ground; this unexpected soundtrack to this moment in our lives is a somewhat surreal experience and it’s hard to imagine finding any sort of ‘uptown girl’ in or around this non-league football club car park. I would of course like to say that Paulene could be that uptown girl, but she’s from Portsmouth.
The white painted breeze-blocks of the turnstile hut are almost blinding in the pale winter sun, but we manage to feel our way there past the bright blue and red refuse bins. At the turnstile I hand over a fresh ten pound note from which I receive no change for one adult admission (£6), one retired person’s admission (£3) and a programme (£1) . We stop at the turnstile and talk to Rich’ who has been operating this turnstile for at least the past five years now. Just inside the gate, hanging around on the forecourt in front of the clubhouse and the tea bar we find Bob, and then Steve walks over, about to pack a large burger-filled bun into his mouth. He tells us he’s dining out today. We are soon joined by ‘the Mole’ (real name Mark) and Biff (real name Ian) , all of them stalwart, long-term supporters who have been watching The Dragons through thin, thinner and thinner still. Bob tells us about his gammy knee, which needs replacing with a plastic one. Mole, who apparently acquired his nickname because people where he worked at the Post Office sorting office in Colchester thought he was a Trotskyite agitator, tells us of how there are plans afoot for the Football Association to acquire Broad Lane from the Council and the trust who currently administer it.
We are all still stood about chatting sociably as the two teams line up in the tunnel, a sliding, cream painted, metal structure that looks like it might have been made from an old bedstead. Fat Boy Slim’s swirly, anticipation-raising “Right Here, Right Now” so beloved by the people who choose the music at football grounds has usurped Billy Joel, and the teams emerge side by side behind the two men and one lady in black, Messrs Jarvis and Laider and Ms Withams. I’m disappointed not to see any sign of Wivvy the Wivenhoe dragon mascot; no scorch marks, no droppings , nothing. Multiple handshakes over with, the two teams retreat to their own halves on the pitch, to huddle in the case of Harwich whilst Wivenhoe just line-up. Harwich kick-off the game in the direction of the car park, clubhouse and the black towers of the University of Essex beyond in Wivenhoe Park; they sport an un-necessary change kit of all-red whilst Wivenhoe wear all-blue creating the classic football scene of reds versus blues on a background of green.
Harwich begin the game in a hurry and in the first couple of minutes, as we make our way down to the sunny end of the ground, they pin Wivenhoe back, winning a couple of corners and a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area. Harwich’s number four Shaun Kroussis sweeps the ball over the Wivenhoe defensive wall but it doesn’t get past the goalkeeper. “Gotta be fuckin’ stronger in the wall” bawls the Wivenhoe manager, although it’s hard to see how they could have stopped the ball going over the wall without perhaps also being a foot taller. By the time we reach the sunshine of the tennis court end of the ground Harwich’s period of dominance has abated and the game settles down into a terrible mess of misplaced, over-hit and failed passes punctuated by hoofs and shouts and trips and falls; it’s awful. Wivenhoe’s forwards are regularly flagged offside. “ Piss-off linesman” shouts Steve encouragingly as the flag is raised again. An advert at the side of the ground says nothing more than “Need a cab? 01206 543210” as if predicting that there are times when the game can be so bad that all you might want to do is leave.
In a rare moment of football Harwich have a shot on target. A brief chorus of “Ha-rwich, Ha-rwich” rings out from the fifty or so visiting supporters behind the goal. The quick riposte from the three Wivenhoe fans stood in the sunshine at the opposite end of the ground is one of “We thought you were dead, we were right, we were right”. Things don’t get any better on the pitch but looking for something positive to say Steve reflects that “At least we’ve brought them down to our level”. Seeking solace where we can we appreciate just how very pleasant it is stood here in the low winter sunshine; it must be a good degree warmer than in the shade by the main stand where there’s even a chill breeze. No doubt feeling blessed, Steve asks “Where do we keep finding all these colour blind players?”
It’s a surprise when Bob says it’s nearly half-time, we must have been enjoying ourselves really, it just hasn’t felt like it, and the time has flown by. I join the queue by the clubhouse and am soon picking up two polystyrene cups of tea (£2) from Janet in the tea bar. Through the window I can see the Harwich & Parkeston club officials eagerly munching their way through the sandwiches and cake that Wivenhoe has had to provide as hospitality under league rules. I take a look at the team sheet and am at first a little confused as to the player’s names because they have all been written out surname first. I hadn’t really noticed this until I read the name of Harwich’s number eleven, Rose Tyler. The Harwich number seventeen Joseph Joseph makes me think of Major Major in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 as well the Beatles’ Get Back.
We stroll back towards the terrace pausing by the perimeter wall to speak with Michael the assistant Harwich manager who apologises for the first half and tells us that there was no jug of half-time squash provided for the Harwich players, which seems a bit stingy. As I wander back along the terrace I spill a bit of my tea down the front of my coat and Paulene berates me to the general amusement of a bunch of men who no doubt secretly recognise their own plight in witnessing my moment of misery. To make matters worse I feel guilty for spilling that tea when I know there are Harwich players who went thirsty at half-time.
The second half begins and pleasingly it is much better than the first and some football breaks out. Long evening shadows now extend right across the pitch and as the sun sets over the car park leaving a red smudge across the clear sky, the moon rises over in the direction of Harwich and the floodlights turn on one by one; it’s a beautiful sight.
Harwich are looking a better team now, but so are Wivenhoe and both seem to have remembered the purpose of the game. At about twenty past four we come as close to seeing a goal as perhaps you can without actually seeing one. Harwich cause confusion in the Wivenhoe defence and the ball runs to Elliott Johnson who with time to accurately direct his shot effects masterful precision to strike the ball against the Wivenhoe keeper’s left hand post. Sometimes seeing the ball hit the post is almost as good as an actual goal; I’d be surprised if the late Jimmy Hill in one of his many attempts to ‘improve’ the game hadn’t at some time suggested that hitting the post should count as at least half a goal.
The Wivenhoe supporters don’t seem to have an over-abundance of confidence in their team’s goalkeeper Aaron Reid, but contrary to their expectations he is making some very good saves. Someone asks the question whether this could be a man of the match performance from Aaron. “ To be fair, he’s overdue one” says Steve supportively. But, for the goalkeeper to be man of the match usually means that the opposing team is better and so it proves. Harwich have another attack, time stands still in the Wivenhoe penalty area and so do their defenders and Harwich number sixteen, or possibly fourteen, I can’t quite make it out under the energy saving floodlight bulbs, sends a low shot in to the net. It’s about twenty-five to five. At twenty to five much the same thing happens again and what looks like it might have been the same player moves in slow motion before scoring with another low shot. I later learn that the goalscorers are Callum Griffths (No16) and Jordan Heath (No9). I have a new glasses prescription, perhaps I should use it.
There is much joy at the tennis courts end of the ground and the Shrimpers fans are in good voice singing “Ohhh, Harwich & Parkeston” to the tune of the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ and “Bus stop near Asda, we’re just a bus stop near Asda” to the tune of Joseito Fernandez’s Guantanamera. At the car park end the Wivenhoe support, which was boosted at half-time by the arrival of Rich’ from the turnstile resigns itself to yet another defeat, but still seems to be having fun, finding amusement in mimicking the whining of some of the players “R-ef, r-ef, r-e-e-ef” and by carefully and politely not mentioning how stout the lines-lady is when querying her offside decisions. Having female officials would seem to improve everyone’s behaviour, so all power to them.
With ninety minutes and not much more played referee Mr Jarvis calls time. As much as I hate to say it, it has been a game of two halves, neither of them much good for Wivenhoe but it’s been good to see one previously well regarded club seemingly back on the road to recovery. The handful of Wivenhoe fans who remain are still clearly enjoying themselves too, even if the entertainment is largely of their own making. But as an Ipswich Town supporter I know all about that and personally I think winning is over-rated.