Cornard United 2 Norwich CBS 2

When Accrington Stanley’s name came out in the FA Cup draw I immediately had a premonition that the next name out would be that of my team, Ipswich Town; it was and I had every intention of travelling to The Crown Ground or ‘Wham Stadium’ as I believe the estate of the late George Michael now pays for it to be called, to witness the match. I still believe in the magic of the FA Cup, like my step-grandson still believes in Father Christmas; stupidly of course because the Premier League has ensured that in England only the same small group of ‘big’ teams will ever win anything ever again. Sadly, I never quite reconciled myself to forking out £37 for a ticket for an 800 kilometre round bus trip that would leave Ipswich at a quarter to seven in the morning, meaning I would have to get up no later than half past five, almost an hour earlier than I do when going to work. To misquote the lyrics of the marvellous Only Ones’ song Another Girl, Another Planet, long journeys wear me out and I can live without it. As a result, today I got up at a little after eight o’clock and am travelling a mere 20 kilometres from my home to Great Cornard to see Cornard United versus Norwich CBS in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division North, an eight-word title worthy of the tenth level of the football league pyramid.
Cornard, which is largely Great Cornard is just outside Sudbury on the north bank of the River Stour, which marks the boundary between Suffolk and Essex. Great Cornard grew massively in the 1960’s with unflatteringly named ‘overspill’ from London, this will account for most of the accents I hear this afternoon being more “Gor blimey guvnor” than “Cor blaaast buh”. I only hear one Suffolk accent this afternoon, my own and I’m only putting it on. My journey today is mostly along the river valley, through Bures and up and down and along the twisting B1508, a rural ride if ever there was one. If I hadn’t felt the cold hand of death at my shoulder I might have taken the time to catch a train and then a No 754 bus followed by a ten or fifteen minute walk, but time is precious at my age so I rely on Andre Citroen’s latest C3 model to deliver me to Blackhouse Lane. Forgetting how close to Sudbury Blackhouse Lane is, I turn right too soon and take a detour in to Little Cornard, but I soon get back on to the B1508, make the correct right turn, and arrive at Cornard United’s Blackhouse Lane ground having allowed a number 754 bus that I first saw in my rear view mirror, to ‘overtake’ me due to my detour.

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It is a cold, still, grey, January day. There are plenty of parking spaces in the car park from where it is a short walk along a gated concrete roadway to the ‘turnstile,’ except there is no turnstile just a gap in the conifer hedge marked by a large white sign with red letters that reads ‘Entrance’. The clubhouse is visible across a sports pitch that sits between the car park and the ground, the words Cornard United are painted in large letters on the side of the building to prove I am in the right place. A man in a shapeless blue sports coat stands in the gap in the hedge and retreats into a small wooden garden shed as I approach. I hand a clean, new ten pound note through a window in the shed to cover the entrance money (£6) and a programme. “We don’t do a programme” I am told and am given an explanation about costs and how the League has said they no longer need to produce a programme. I tell him I understand, and I do, but it’s disappointing; there is a programme on-line, but it’s not the same, it doesn’t even feature a league table let alone a half-time quiz. A printed programme, like a stand, a rail around the pitch or a turnstile marks the difference between a proper football club and just teams kicking around on the local rec’. Having discussed the programme, the man in the coat asks me hesitantly if I’m ‘normal’. Fortunately, I instinctively know what he means and tell him I am. Disappointingly, he seems a little surprised, possibly because the blokes who turn up to watch this level of football are mostly pensioners, but he goes on to explain how some folk will pay the concessionary price (£4) when he doesn’t really think they are as old as they are making out. Privately and controversially I put this down to Suffolk people being stingy and Londoners being dishonest, but I don’t say so.
As we part the man in the shapeless coat tells me that the tea hut and bar are open and I head off towards the club house; it is thinly populated, just three blokes and the bar man, and noting that there is no real ale, I return outside where through a hatch in the front wall I buy a pounds worth of tea in a polystyrene cup. I stand and watch the two teams warming up, there is hardly anyone else here. As the Norwich CBS players and coaches then return to the dressing room prior to kick-off I ask one of them what the CBS stands for; he has no idea.

It’s soon approaching 3 o’clock and the referee is to be heard banging on the dressing room doors like a parent trying to rouse a teenage son from his bed; they evidently don’t have the luxury of bells in the dressing rooms here at Cornard. By and by the two teams line up at the double doors, which are just a few feet from the pitch, and Mr Darling leads them out. Unusually, there is no lining up on the pitch and shaking of everyone’s hands and instead the two teams sprint off to their respective halves of the pitch, with Cornard forming a team-building huddle. Eventually it is Norwich who get first go with the ball, kicking off in the direction of Little Cornard and wearing an unusual ensemble of lime green shirts and socks with grey shorts. Cornard, or the ‘nard as they are known, aim in the direction of the neighbouring Thomas Gainsborough School and Sudbury beyond, when they get the ball; they wear blue shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and blue socks, it’s a more tasteful version of the current Ipswich Town kit and doesn’t advertise on-line gambling; which is nice.
The opening couple of minutes of the match are fast, furious and very messy. Norwich immediately look more assured when in possession but not so when not; Cornard look a bit shaky whether they’ve got the ball or not. At four minutes past three a long through ball is chased by Norwich number ten Jordan Rocastle (nephew of the late Arsenal and England player David Rocastle); he catches up with it and places a low shot past joint manager and goalkeeper Matt Groves to put Cornard a goal behind. Suddenly, near to the Cornard dugout is not a good place to be for people likely to be offended by expletives, profanity and generally naughty words. “Fuckin’ shit, get you’re fuckin’ heads outta your fuckin’ arses” is the coaching advice from the technical area. These are not Suffolk dialect words.
Surprisingly, the coaching seems to work as within two minutes large ‘on-loan’ striker Ben Parkin, formerly known as ‘Omelette’ to his fans when at Wivenhoe Town wins a corner from a deflected shot. The corner kick is headed towards goal but is going well wide before Cornard number six Dave Dowding appears on the far side of the goal and heads the ball firmly across and into the other corner. The scores are level and compared to that of his counterpart, the advice of the Norwich coach is more considered, if less entertaining; “Start again”. Having paid out six quid to watch I hope they do start again, or with the game just six minutes old I shall feel somewhat short-changed.
With both teams having had the satisfaction of scoring a goal, the game settles down. Norwich still look the more accomplished side, but Cornard have improved hugely from the opening two minutes and their heads are now where they should be in relation to their bottoms. When Cornard have the ball they pass it well, when they don’t they defend well; it’s an entertaining match.
I watch from behind the dugouts where a covered pergola type structure shields the tea bar from stray footballs but also helps keep the cold out, a bit anyway. Off to the right, over the fence, beyond the Thomas Gainsborough School I can see the spire of Grade 1 listed St Andrew’s Church.

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I decide to take a wander round and watch the game from different perspectives. The main stand is empty but for a lone man in an Ipswich Town beanie hat who seems to be making notes. I doubt he’s a scout, possibly just writing a match report. Further down the valley behind the stand is Sudbury rugby club; every now and then I hear what sounds like a hunting horn as if all the local Hooray-Henry types are now all watching the rugby since it’s illegal to chase foxes. There are nevertheless far more people watching the game there than there are here, I doubt the crowd watching this game exceeds thirty in number. AFC Sudbury are also at home today just a mile or two away and playing in a league two levels above Cornard are probably a bigger attraction to most, as is the Nethergate ale they serve in their clubhouse.
At twenty-five past three the floodlights flicker into life and then in an unrelated incident Cornard’s number four, Ryan McGibbon becomes the first player to be shown the glow of Mr Darling’s yellow card. Matt Grove makes a very impressive flying save from a volleyed shot following a corner. Norwich’s number three Kieran Rose, a bald man with a colourfully tattooed right arm shares Ryan McGibbon’s experience five minutes before half-time and then entertains everyone by slipping over as he goes to control the ball and then slicing it away, high between the dugouts; it’s an impressive feat of maximum technical difficulty and draws generous laughter from his own team mates and coaches.
Half-time arrives and I quickly get to the tea bar to warm my hands around another polystyrene cupped, pound’s worth of tea. Another man in a ‘sports coat’ who is taking away three cups of tea on a tray (presumably for the referee and his chums) fails to fool me into believing there are no more hot drinks, although it is a plausible ruse. I go inside the clubhouse to check the half-time scores; Ipswich aren’t losing, yet, brilliant! The clubhouse bar has an impressive parquet floor but the tables and chairs look like they might have had a previous life in a school dining room and there is perhaps a faint smell of school dinner, or it could just be floor polish.
At three minutes past four the second half begins and at four minutes past four Cornard’s number ten Jack Graham lobs the ball from a good 20 metres from goal over the advancing pink-clad Norwich goalkeeper who rather fabulously is called Asa Swatman; a name to grace any novel. There is a moment when time stops and nothing seems certain and then everyone sees the ball bounce up into the goal net. People cheer long and loud to make up for the lack of numbers in the crowd.
On the Norwich bench, or rather outside it because he is standing up, the Norwich coach is having a breakdown. “How does that happen?” he asks after clutching his head in his hands. “I can’t believe it”. It’s as if he’s never seen a football match in his life before. Perhaps his previous experience of football was coaching a team of robots. But as theatre he’s worth the entrance money and continues to do so as he queries the portly linesman’s decision that goalkeeper Matt Groves had caught the ball inside his penalty area as opposed to outside it. It’s as if sensing the futility of life he feels he might as well argue about anything, even though he can’t really be certain of the truth and it won’t make any difference anyway. I see one of the Norwich substitutes smiling to himself.

The linesmen by the way are called Mr Bigg and Mr Copsey; I’m guessing which one is which.
Norwich are dominating the game now with Cornard restricted to defending stoutly and engineering the occasional breakaway; but they’re doing a good job of it with Jack Graham running at and around the Norwich defenders like the proverbial pain in the arse. Norwich win a corner and the ball is swung in close to the goal but Cornard clear; the Norwich coach is allowing his frustration to run away with him and resorts to bizarre and previously unknown allegories. “We should start a fuckin’ perfume stand behind the goal” he moans surreally. “They should be fuckin’ throwing themselves in there” he adds, perhaps trying, but failing to make sense of his own words.
It’s not much after four fifteen and Norwich are somewhat fortuitously awarded a free-kick by Mr Darling just outside the Cornard penalty area. Their number ten Tim Hewery steps up to arc the ball over the defensive wall and in to the top left hand corner of the Cornard goal. The scores are once again level and Norwich seem to expect to go on and win; their general play indicates that they might but they don’t and striving to be more ‘direct’ they bring on a large, lumpy target man who they call Cookie, he’s a nuisance but the game is less beautiful for it. Cornard keep breaking away through Jack Graham and from one break a header hits the cross bar and they also hit a post. Matt Groves tips a Norwich shot acrobatically over his cross bar but it’s hard to say which team came closest to scoring.
The referee proves not to be the darling of either side as he makes decisions to frustrate and annoy both, although Norwich are definitely the most upset, no doubt because they expect to win and they aren’t doing so, whilst Cornard are just happy to be here, and not losing. At ten to five Mr Darling uses his whistle for the final time this afternoon and sets the Norwich number ten, Tim Hewery off on a mad rant both at him and possibly the whole Norwich team. He storms off to the dressing room alone, leaving an embarrassed silence amongst everyone else in the ground, which is quite an achievement.
It’s an entertaining end to what has been a very entertaining game. I take a final trip in to the clubhouse to syphon off some of that two pounds worth of tea and on the way out of the ground I speak to the other Cornard co-manager Mike Schofield, who like me, his brother Andy, Matt Groves, Ben Parkin and Ryan McGibbon is one of the many people to have left Wivenhoe Town in recent years. Mike is very pleased with the result, with the game having gone just as planned. Sadly Ipswich have lost at Accrington and are once again out of the FA Cup without making any impression whatsoever, but heck I’m alright I’ll be home in time for tea and although I don’t know it yet will witness Norwich City lose at home to Portsmouth on Serbian TV.

Postscript: An internet search reveals that CBS might stand for Carpentry and Building Services, but then again it might not.

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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Long Melford 2 Newmarket Town 1

Long Melford is a big village, one of the most appealing and attractive in Suffolk according to Suffolk Tourist Guide.com with, according to Wikipedia, a population in 2011 of some 3,518. Melford, as it is known locally, is just a few miles north of Sudbury, it used to have a railway but since 1967 and the evil Doctor Beeching, the line now terminates at Sudbury. If you want to get to Long Melford by public transport therefore, it is necessary get the No 753 bus from Sudbury to Bury St Edmunds. Like the train service from Marks Tey, the bus service runs hourly, but as this is England the trains and buses are not properly co-ordinated; the train to Sudbury arrives at 13.08 and the bus conveniently leaves at 13:30, reaching Long Melford Post Office ten minutes later. On the return journey however, the 754 bus passes Long Melford Post Office at 17:11 and arrives in Sudbury four minutes after the train has left, at 17:20, so there is nearly an hour’s wait in Sudbury for the next train at 18:16.
Today however, I am driving to Long Melford’s Stoneylands ground because I have agreed to give a lift to a man called Roly, who lives in nearby Borley. I happen to know Roly’s house is within walking distance of Stoneylands because Roly has walked it before, but I was in generous mood when we discussed by text message going to the game and very slightly inebriated.
It is a grey, still, cold winter’s day as I make the twisting, undulating drive through Chappel, home of the East Anglian Railway Museum, Mount Bures with its excellent Thatchers Arms pub, Bures with its large empty bus depot, the edge of Cornard and through busy Sudbury before taking the turn towards the wonderfully named Foxearth. In Borley, Roly’s Victorian cottage home is a scene of domestic bliss; his partner Sarah reclines on the sofa with their young baby Lottie, whilst Penny the dog rolls over at my feet and wriggles excitedly. But I don’t linger, there is football to go to and within

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minutes Roly and I are bouncing down the pitted, puddle filled private road that leads to the football ground and my Citroen C3 gets a taste of what it must have been like to be a Citroen 2CV carrying a tray of eggs across a field somewhere in the Auvergne.
Getting parked takes longer than it should as the man in the car in front seems to want to park as close to the entrance as possible, which means reversing gingerly and at first unsuccessfully into a narrow space despite the presence of acres of car free space just 15metres away. There is an air of the village hall about Melford’s ground from the

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outside and indeed the club’s nickname is The Villagers. There is no turnstile as such here, just a few metal and plastic barriers herding would be spectators towards a kiosk of the type that used to be at the exit to municipal car parks back before the days of Pay & Display, when a bloke stamped your ticket and took your money as you left. There is a short queue to get in because it takes the

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grey-haired woman in the kiosk a little while to root around for change from a plastic tub. A board on the side of the kiosk announces the price of admission, but in reality it’s just a green smudge of felt tip pen; fortunately I’ve done my homework so I know from the club website that admission is £7 including a programme.
Once inside, Roly buys me a bottle of Nethergate IPA (£3.50) in the bar, which is the least he could do after I went out of my way to drive him here, selfishly he gets one for himself too. We drink bottled beer because sadly the hand pump on the bar is covered over with a tea towel, which is very disappointing. The woman serving is struggling for change and asks rhetorically how she is expected to run a bar with a float of just four pound coins. I empty my pockets and find just short of ten pounds in change, which she is happy to exchange for a ten pound note; I’m 40p up!

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We sup our beer in the company of other middle-aged and older men stood around tables as men do in bars, but soon we are aware that the teams are coming on to the pitch. We leave the clubhouse just as the line-up for the obligatory handshakes is dissolving away into the two halves of the pitch. Newmarket Town are the visiting team today and they sit seventh with 53 points from 31 games in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League table; Melford are 16th with 39 points from 32 games. It’s a clash between a village known for antique shops and a town known for horse racing. I suspect that watching local football puts us firmly outside those two spheres of activity although weirdly I think, there is an advert in the match programme for “Wealth management advice”, whatever happened to plain old financial advice?
The 1970’s pop blaring from the tannoy stops abruptly as Newmarket, nicknamed predictably as the Jockeys, kick off towards the dull, suburban estate-style houses at the Sudbury end of the ground. Newmarket’s club colours are yellow and blue, but for some unknown reason today they are wearing a rather ugly all red kit with white stripes below the chest, as if they’d brushed their teeth before coming on and dribbled Colgate down their stomachs. Melford play towards the dilapidated wooden fence, shelter and open fields to the north, wearing their signature black and white striped shirts and black shorts. Melford’s kit is embellished with name of the excellent Nethergate Brewery, who have newly built premises at the entrance to the village by the turning to Foxearth.
Newmarket start well, passing neatly and getting forward, but Melford suddenly win possession, breakaway and have a shot, and so it continues. Both teams have a lot of players with beards. Newmarket have the ball most of the time, but Melford spring the occasional surprise, getting the ball to their number seven Hassan Ally who is always in the right place, but never quite makes the final telling cross or pass. The Melford cross bar is hit by a header and then at about twenty five past three a long ball to the right is chased down by Lewis Whitehead who shoots across the Melford goal keeper; Newmarket lead and a number of middle aged men cheer unexpectedly. No one in the crowd is wearing club colours but for a Bedlington Terrier in a red coat, so the presence of away supporters is a surprise.

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Half-time arrives and Newmarket would seem to be in control. Roly has already treated

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or ‘tret’ himself, as he would say in his quaint rustic dialect, to a cheeseburger (£3.00) from the food bar which the programme tells us is called Deb’s Diner. The concluding paragraph of the joint managers’ column in the programme says “Whatever happens, we hope you enjoy your afternoon here in Long Melford, get yourself something to eat and drink…” and Roly has clearly taken note. I don’t ask him if it was an early tea or late lunch or just a celebration that his NHS health check during the week had shown him to be a well man, clearly capable of absorbing the ill-effects of junk food, for the time being at least.
We go into the club house again for two more bottles of Nethergate IPA and to catch the half-time scores on the TV and are much heartened that Ipswich are winning 2-0 at Sunderland. The club house is recently refurbished after the roof fell-in last year and there are several marvellous photos on the walls of past achievements such as Suffolk Senior Cup wins. A trophy cabinet contains a couple of old brown leather footballs which impress me more than the cups and trinkets. When there is a cosy clubhouse, half time is never long enough and it’s soon time to re-join the rows of middle-aged men hanging over the rail around the pitch.

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The second half is not the same as the first, roles are reversed and it is the Villagers who more frequently have the ball at their feet whilst the Jockeys chase about in vain and are pushed back into their own half. For the second half we stand on the opposite side of the ground to the clubhouse near the dugouts and in front of a coniferous hedge, carefullyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and neatly cut into a modernist architectural shape; behind the hedge a close-board wooden fence is in places nailed to its thick trunks. In its neatness the hedge is only matched by the Newmarket goalkeeper’s haircut, but is less contrived. There is more noise on this side of the pitch as the coaches of both team teams shout and urge their teams on.
As the game continues Melford dominate more and more and Newmarket are getting tetchy. Whilst there were hardly any fouls at all in the first half, tiredness and desperation and swearing are introducing a new kind of entertainment. A Melford player goes down and the Newmarket number two complains to Mr Pope and anyone who is listening, because Mr Pope isn’t, that Melford have some right prima donnas, although he pronounces it pre-madonnas. Another foul and a free-kick on the edge of the box and then another. Then, whilst Roly is in the toilet, Melford win a third free-kick. Despite referee Mr Pope taking time to book the perpetrator, Roly still isn’t back by the time Ross Waugh scores, apparently with a header, although to be honest it was one of those messy goals and I had lost track of the ball.
There are only eight minutes left and the blokes in trackie bottoms and sports coats onOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the touchline are visibly tense. The Melford number ten Scott Sloots is hurt and is substituted; as he hobbles off the pitch one or two of his own players seem to be complaining that he is taking his time. “Come on ref, make him get off quicker” I hear. I hadn’t previously realised that there was a point where team togetherness and the will to win would clash. But nevertheless, Melford continue to push forward and in the final minute of injury time there is a run down the left, the ball’s in the box, a shot is blocked and Hassan Ally is in the right place to score from the rebound. Rarely have I seen such elation from a team sixteenth in the league to a winning goal; both coaches burst onto the pitch to celebrate with the team as if this was a most crucial victory. I’m all in favour of making your own fun but this seems to be going a bit far.
To his credit, Mr Pope the referee makes nothing of the exuberance of the Melford coaches and in no time at all the match is over. Roly and I stroll round to the club house to make final use of the toilet before applauding the Melford team from the pitch. It’s been a very entertaining game with a dramatic finale and I’ve made 40p.

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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