Coggeshall Town 5 Wivenhoe Town 0

It is Friday and at last after four consecutive games at Portman Road, the chance to enjoy the relaxed, happy atmosphere of local non-league football and the associated audible swearing from the players and coaches. It’s a typically cold winter’s evening and just a short drive to Coggeshall from my house. The streets of Coggeshall are quiet and dark, but the fluorescent light of the local Co-op shines like a beacon drawing me in to buy dairy-free white chocolate for dairy intolerant Mrs Brooks, who is unable to come out on a cold night like tonight because her asthma won’t allow it. I’d hate to miss the game because I was stuck in the back of an ambulance with her; in sickness and in health etc.
Back on the road the narrow streets of Coggeshall are suddenly busy with traffic coming in the opposite direction so progress is slow, but at length I turn into the rough car park where a sizeable collection of automobiles is bathed in the soft light spilling out beyond the ‘stadium’ from the floodlights. Football in the evening is all about the lights.

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There is a queue at the turnstile, not really because of large numbers of people wanting to get in but more because the fella on the gate likes to have a chat with everyone and entreat them to ‘enjoy the match’; he has a beer and a fag on the go and says it’s nice to see me again as I hand over a tenner and the odd 50p to cover the £6 entry and £1.50 programme and already I feel pleased to be here.
Just inside the stadium tonight a local Nimby group called PAIN (Parishes Against Incinerator) have a table set up and are collecting signatures from anyone wanting to object to plans to build an incinerator at nearby Rivenhall. Seeing as Rivenhall straddles the river of carbon monoxide and diesel particulates that is the A12 my initial reaction is that a little ‘cleaned up’ smoke from a very tall chimney would be rather lovely by comparison and it seems preferable to landfill, but I don’t know the full facts; I don’t sign up but take a page of tightly typed A4 to learn more.

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Heading along the path towards the clubhouse I meet four Wivenhoe fans I know; four of the self-styled SOBS (Sad Old Bastards) who have followed ‘The Dragons’ through thin and thin since the 1990’s. One of them jokes about coming to visit the home of one of the nouveau-riche of non-league. These guys don’t care overly that Wivenhoe are bottom of the league with a goal difference of minus 66 after 30 games (Coggeshall are fourth with a goal difference of plus 66 after 26 games), they just like football and having a good time watching it; I see them as Messiahs, placed on earth to show supporters of professional clubs the error of their football supporting ways. Further along the path I meet Paul my next door neighbour and then speak with Miguel, brother of Ipswich Town’s Tristan Nydam and a player and youth coach for Wivenhoe.
The clubhouse is busy and people stand around by the changing rooms drinking tea,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

coffee and beer and scoffing sausage rolls, waiting for the teams to emerge from the ship-lap clad changing rooms. I look at the team sheet, pinned to the outside wall. I like the names Ross de Brick and Kyan Gulliver who, along with Gary C Birdett, sound like they might have been in a 1960’s American ‘garage’ band. Amusingly, long serving Wivenhoe

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centre-half Tim Dennis has been re-named on the team sheet as Dennis Timothy.

It is 7.45 and the game begins with Coggeshall in their red and black striped shorts and black shorts kicking towards the clubhouse; Wivenhoe are in all blue. It’s all quite keenly contested but Coggeshall are clearly the more talented side and just before 8 o’clock number seven Tom Monk hooks a shot into the top corner of the Wivenhoe goal from about 20 metres. I stand on the grassy bank that looks down on the pitch with Jonny, one of the SOBS; we talk about football and Jonny tells me about an interesting book he has read called The Chimp Paradox which is about how our minds work. Jonny’s advice is to get a copy and rip out about the first thirty pages, read them and throw the rest away because it gets repetitive after that. Twenty-four minutes of the game have passed and ‘The Seedgrowers’ number nine, Nnamdi Nwatchuku shoots across the Wivenhoe goalkeeper from a narrowish angle to put Coggeshall 2-0 up. .Six minutes later Nnamdi scores again; the most spectacular goal of the night, a shot from 20 metres-odd into the top right hand corner of the goal. Seven minutes after that and Coggeshall score a fourth goal and Jonny and I have no need for a telescope as we get a perfect view of a free-kick, which is swept over the defensive wall and just inside the far post by number eight Conor Hubble.
Half-time comes and I join the queue for a pounds worth of tea. “Man United are winning 1-0” says a bloke in front of me to his ponytailed friend. “Fuck, it’s Cup weekend innit” says the ponytail. The bloke in front of me gets a Twix and the teams are returning to the pitch just as I get my tea and add a splash of milk from a six pint plastic bottle of Cravendale. The girl behind me in the queue asks “Can I get a tea and a coffee?” That’s an odd use of English I think to myself. If I was the young girl in the tea bar I think I would reply that she can have a tea and coffee, but I will get them for her. I don’t often think about being a young girl in a tea bar, but know that the girl in this tea bar needs some help at half-time because there is still a queue for teas and sausage rolls
Wivenhoe have a substitute on for the second half, but within five minutes they are five-nil down as Coggeshall substitute Aaron Cosgrove scores from not too far out at an oblique angle. I am now standing with Bob and Rich’, two more SOBS who I know from my own days watching Wivenhoe, but then I wander off to talk to Paul my next door neighbour and just watch the game from different perspectives, because I can. Behind the goal that backs on to the car park a group of six or seven nine or ten year old girls muck about and do handstands, they’re here to see teeny bopper heart throb Olly Murs, who is on the Coggeshall bench but not named as a substitute; his uncle runs the place.
Despite being second best by some way, some of the Wivenhoe players seem very committed to the cause and they shout and remonstrate with one another as things inevitably go wrong; at one point it looks like they might come to blows. There is much waving of arms and shouting and I’m struck by the fact that the only word I can really make out from any of these animated conversations is “fuck”. One or two players also seem to spend quite a bit of time lying very still on the damp turf. Fortunately they

recover and play on, but it can’t be good for them. A Wivenhoe player lies prone in his own penalty area but the game carries on. When the Wivenhoe goalkeeper eventually gets to boot the ball into touch the game is stopped and Wivenhoe’s ginger-haired number four proceeds to berate the referee Mr Andrew Gray angrily; I am amazed he is not booked, many a more sensitive referee would have sent him off for such front.
One of the Wivenhoe defenders is a large man and although it is a cold night he appears to be sweating more than his team mates and his visibly damp shirt clings to his back unpleasantly. Wivenhoe rarely venture beyond their own half in any numbers but they are now managing to plug the gaps a bit more successfully, although Coggeshall still miss several ‘sitters’. At one point a Coggeshall shot smacks against the cross bar and rebounds down bouncing close to the goal line. None of the players appeal for a goal and play just carries on, but a couple of blokes stood up on the concrete path are adamant the ball was over the line; who needs goal line technology when there are a couple of blokes with beers stood forty yards away.

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Surprisingly, no more goals are scored, although the contest is still kean with plenty of neat football played, particularly by Coggeshall who have looked very good tonight, despite not scoring as many goals as they often do against the weaker teams in the division. I have returned to stand with Rich’ and Bob, who has offered me a mint which I am sucking upon as Mr Gray blows his whistle for the final time. We hang around as the players leave the field and wait to have our photos taken with Olly Murs. I talk to another Paul who the programme says is Coggeshall’s Football Analyst/Media Manager before finally heading out into the car park. On my way out I wander through the now empty stand, erected in 1964, and look at the signs and foam padding, placed on the stanchions to protect the skulls of people taller than five foot four. Outside on the grassy bank there are rabbit droppings. I head into the car park with a car load of SOBS who are still in good spirits, we wish each other well ‘until the next time’. It’s been a good evening.

Wivenhoe Town 1 Walsham le Willows 4

 

It’s been a beautiful week and I’ve become well acquainted with bright blue skies and bright yellow sunshine as I’ve sat and stared out of the window at work. Now at last it’s the weekend and the skies are grey and cloudy, there’s a wind, spits of rain in the air and the sun is nowhere to be seen as I walk through my sunken dream.  This afternoon I am in Wivenhoe for the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League fixture between Wivenhoe Town (aka The Dragons) and Walsham le Willows (aka The Willows).

Walsham le Willows is everything its name suggests, a bucolic village in deepest Suffolk; Wivenhoe is a tiny town or a big village just outside Colchester. The old part of Wivenhoe nestles beside the muddy, marshy river Colne and is commonly perceived as quaint or picturesque, with narrow lanes and boats and wonky half-timbered houses and pargetting and stuff. People come to Wivenhoe for a Sunday afternoon jaunt to sit outside the quayside Crown & Anchor pub with a prosecco or pint of Old Essex Git and a plate of “pub fayre”. Back from the quayside Wivenhoe sprawls out, its buildings like the growth rings of a tree, so that a journey from the centre to the edge is an architectural journey through time. Well, it’s a bit like that anyway, but may be more so if you’re one of the academics or arty weekenders who populate the pretty parts of the town.
At the very, very edge of Wivenhoe at the cross roads of Elmstead Road and Broad Lane, beyond the houses and separated from them by a field of some crop or other is the Broad Lane Sports Ground. In recent years the bit of the sports ground Wivenhoe Town occupies has become the Maple Tree Cars Stadium; that’s since the ”naming rights” took on a financial dimension rather than just being the tradition of away teams calling it “that shit hole”. Sat behind its blue and white painted gates and shaky looking brick pillars, across the barely surfaced car park it’s a bit grim looking, especially on a grey day like today.

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In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Wivenhoe Town was bank-rolled by the owners of the Wivenhoe Port (since closed and transformed into desirable waterfront residences) and that was when the ‘stadium’ and clubhouse was built. Since then a spiral of decline now leaves the place looking a bit dilapidated. But on the plus side it is devoid of the pretensions of some clubs, there are no reserved parking spaces for the Chairman or anyone else here.
Despite rising costs, the admission charges atOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWivenhoe have remained at £6.00 for adults and £3.00 for concessions for the past seven years or more. Rich the turnstile operator tells me that this afternoon’s attendance of 80 brings in about £370 in cash. A few weeks back the referees’ expenses came to £200; it makes you wonder if the FA really give a monkey’s about ‘grass roots’ football. Why not charge clubs a flat fee for the referees and then use about 0.0001% of the Premier League TV money to pay for the travel expenses? It wouldn’t de-rail the gravy train too much would it? It’s not the clubs’ fault if referees don’t live near the places they are sent to referee in.
Football at Wivenhoe is a social occasion and before the game there are huddles of spectators stood around in the area bounded by the turnstile, tea bar, players’ tunnel and pitch, 32711694023_1e64216326_ocatching up on the past two weeks over cups of tea, pints of beer, burgers and bacon rolls. Atypically for an Eastern Counties Premier League club (step nine of the football league ladder), Wivenhoe has a thriving club shop and blue and white hats and scarves abound and today there is a couple buying a club shirt to send to their son in America, although they won’t be staying to watch the match.
From outside you can hear the referee’s bell ring and the players line-up in the very much home -made looking player’s tunnel. The teams walk on to the pitch side by side and after the usual hand shaking nonsense they line-up against one another; Wivenhoe in their all-blue kit looking like an impoverished man’s Chelsea and Walsham le Willows in yellow shirts and red shorts looking like centrifuged blood. Walsham le Willows kick off the game towards the Miles Barbering Service stand and the dark towers of Wivenhoe Park and the University of Essex beyond.
Walsham le Willows start the game very well indeed and almost have a couple of runs in on goal before they get another one and their Number 10, a big, rather ungainly looking bloke scores, knocking a bouncing shot into the far corner of the goal; he turns away to accept the plaudits from his team with a slightly surprised look on his face. Yes, it was that easy. This is a very disappointing start for Wivenhoe because Walsham le Willows are not exactly the Brazilian 1970 World Cup team and consequently there had been hopes for a rare win. Happily for Wivenhoe, the shock of taking the lead so soon seems to affect Walsham le Willows and they allow Wivenhoe to get into the match themselves. After a couple of prototype forays forward, skilful play by the diminutive Hampson on the right results in a low cross and Wivenhoe’s number 11 carefully kicks the ball into the goal from about 6 yards. “Would you like to talk us through that one ‘keeps?” asks a Wivenhoe supporter of the Walsham goalkeeper.
The game settles down from hereon into a rather dull encounter, like the weather. The pitch isn’t helping the players in their struggle; the drying wind has resulted in puffs of dust flying up when the ball hits the ground and winter has taken its toll; there are several bald patches in the grass which look like small bomb craters or the evidence of a large stray dog having been taken short.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Walsham number three amuses the home supporters with his unerring ability to hit the ball into touch from all sorts of unintended angles, but otherwise the game is only notable for the fact that nearly all the Walsham players are very tall and all but one of the Wivenhoe players are much shorter. Hampson for Wivenhoe stands out easily as the most skilful player on the pitch. Neither team looks particularly like scoring, but in the Eastern Counties League that means nothing and shortly before half-time a corner for The Willows sees their number four take advantage of his height and, judging by the marking a Harry Potter style invisibility cloak to head a second goal for the giants from Suffolk.
At half-time I buy a pounds worth of tea and step inside the clubhouse. The etiquette imposed by the league for this level of non-league football demands that the away team committee get free sandwiches, tea and cakes at half time. At most clubs this is served in a separate room away from the hoi polloi, a board room even. But at Wivenhoe a part of the room next to the tea bar has been cordoned off with a waist high, painted wall of breeze blocks topped by a piece of decorative ironmongery of the sort you see on suburban garden gates. The remainder of the room is the route from the outside to the toilets and the bar. I whiled away the break in play stood by the wall getting the half-time results off the telly in the corner of the room and watching the away team committee devour their sandwiches and Battenburg; it was a lot of fun and I was tempted to try and catch a committee member’s eye and do that mime to tell him he had a bit of food on his chin. It was a bit like being at Colchester zoo, but cheaper.
Despite being refreshed by a pounds worth of tea my back is aching; I am ashamed to say I’m not used to standing at football any more. I therefore decide to sit down and head for what are probably the seats with the clearest view in the Eastern Counties League. Wivenhoe has about 160 seats in a well elevated stand, a stand that clearly isn’t quite as big as originally intended, with a row of naked steel girders poking skywards at the back; football’s only henge monument.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the break the match doesn’t improve, but Walsham le Willows decide to dominate. I look about the ground and am impressed by the advertisement for the Morning Star, (the revolution starts at 10 to 5) and intrigued by the one for Freedom Funerals. Is this a company owned by Mr Freedom the undertaker or is this a broader statement about your rights after death? I hope it’s the latter because personally I have always wanted my corpse to be left out on a hillside and have my bones picked clean by birds and animals.
With about twenty minutes left The Willows pretty much ensure that they will win as their number six towers over the Wivenhoe midgets to head a third goal.

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The greatest thing about Wivenhoe Town however is the supporters and although under strength today, the self-anointed SOBS stood behind the goal were still able to raise a few choruses of “Dragons, Dragons, Dragons”; this is in stark contrast to most clubs in this league where a co-ordinated chant is as rare as a UKIP MP but hopefully more welcome. Despite the vocal encouragement, Wivenhoe only sporadically threaten anything resembling a goal attempt however and The Willows confirm the result seconds from full-time as their number nine leaves the Wivenhoe left-back in his wake before trundling on into the penalty area where he runs the ball past the hapless goalkeeper, who had, to his eternal credit, earlier made some pretty good saves, but not this time.
At this level of non-league you never quite know when the game is going to end because there is no fourth official to count the added on time and hold up a little board saying how much longer we have to witness. But today the game didn’t drag on unnecessarily and the welcome release of full-time arrived without rancour. Despite a disappointing result, the final act belonged to the Wivenhoe Town supporters who gathered by the tunnel to applaud both the Walsham le Willows team and their own as they left the field. The result means relegation looms again for Wivenhoe Town, the supporters probably deserve better but have got used to losing and somebody has to.