Hadleigh United 1 Gorleston 4

 

It’s not been possible to travel by passenger train to Hadleigh since 1932, but today the number 91 bus will get you there from Ipswich, although it only does so every 90 minutes. The 15 kilometre bus journey takes about half an hour.  To catch the number 91 bus I would first have to board the train to Ipswich and in half the time it would take me to do that and then catch the bus I could have driven to Hadleigh, parked my Citroen C3, had a cup of tea, bought and read the programme and probably done a few other things too.

Today therefore, despite the carbon emissions, I shall drive to see Hadleigh United play Gorleston in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division.  Consequently I am thankful to Andre-Gustave Citroen, founder of the Citroen car company and am pleased that I metaphorically doffed my cap to what is left of his mortal remains in Montparnasse cemetery when in Paris last month.

Having left the A12, it’s a pleasant drive on a bright autumn afternoon through Holton St Mary and Raydon along the twisting and rolling B1070 into Hadleigh.    Wikipedia tells us that Hadleigh has over 200 listed buildings and arriving in the town into Benton Street there are a good number of them as the jettied timbers, steep gables and leaded windows evidence.  On into High Street and left into Duke Street, across the remarkable fourteenth century, three arched Toppesfield Bridge  (Grade II* listed) and then left  into Tinkers Lane, Hadleigh United’s ground ‘The Millfield’ is at the end.

Although it’s only just gone two-thirty, the car park is already full and I am ushered ‘off-road’ through a gate and across the turf behind one of the goals to join a row of cars lined up at the edge of the practice pitch.  Leaving my trusty Citroen, I walk back behind the goal and ask the man who directed me through the gate if I need to go back out and

come back in through the turnstile.  Apparently I don’t; today is Hadleigh United ‘Community Mascot Day’ and it’s ‘pay what you want’.    There is no turnstile at Hadleigh, which is a shame, but I find a man guarding the collecting bucket.  I fish a fiver from my wallet and a pound coin from my pocket and give it to him because six quid is about the going rate for Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League Football I reckon.  I don’t want to do them down, but equally I’m not about to make a charitable donation.  I ask how much a programme is and the man with the bucket says I have already paid, but I give him a quid anyway because that’s what it would normally cost.  I don’t really understand the rationale behind a ‘pay what you want’ day, do the club hope everyone will just hand over a tenner?  Nevertheless, I live for the day that Ipswich Town have one, although I suspect I will have to live a bloody long time.

There’s still some time to go before kick-off so I pop into the clubhouse and bar to admire the old black and white pictures of bygone teams , I am impressed by a photo of Hadleigh Juniors, which the caption says were winners of the Chelsworth ‘Boys’ Cup, despite that fact that all the players look about forty-five.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  I consider buying a drink, but it doesn’t look like there is any real ale on offer so I go outside and make do with a pounds worth of tea instead.  The area outside the club house is busy with people buying and scoffing chips, burgers and hot dogs and watching hordes of 3 to 9 year olds enjoying what is called Diddy’s and Mini’s football. Mums and Dads look on.

As I walk around to the main (only) stand the pitch is cleared of small children, presumably by some sort of Pied Piper figure.  With the sun already quite low in the sky, and shining on the browns and yellows of the autumn trees there is a beautiful golden glow to the afternoon , but a blustery wind is blowing from the north east and out of the sun it is cold.   The Millfield is at the edge of the town backing onto the slow moving, weed covered River Brett, the existence of which is hinted at by the presence of a bright orange life buoy propped against the fence.  From a distance I can see letters printed on the life belt and I speculate hopefully that they might read MV Marie Celeste or SS Titanic, but sadly they only read BDC, Babergh District Council.  At the other end of the ground open, rolling fields skirted with trees rise gently up away from the river in the direction of Layham.  As I arrive at the main stand Fat Boy Slim’s “Right Here Right Now” can be heard from the set of Aiwa speakers beneath the roof of the terrace opposite; it’s a sound that seems slightly incongruous in this rustic setting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I lounge on the second of three steps of cold, grey, wooden benches that run the length of the main stand.  The teams emerge from the tin clad building that houses the club house and dressing rooms but looks like a light industrial unit where a bloke in overalls will MOT your car; the players line up on the far side for the  ritual handshaking before dispersing for kick off.  Behind me one Gorleston supporter asks another how good his burger was; six out of ten is the verdict.  “Come On Greens!”, “Come on Gorleston!” shout the Gorleston supporters as the teams prepare for kick-off.  “How do you think we’ll do today?” asks one, expectantly.  “Who knows” replies the other, cautiously.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is Hadleigh United, known as the Brettsiders because of their location next to the river, who get first go with the ball, kicking in the direction of said river. Hadleigh wear an all navy blue kit, which would be fine if it didn’t also have white shoulders, giving the players the appearance of wearing small ermine capes, like some sort of House of Lords eleven.  Gorleston’s kit by contrast is all green and completely plain, although sadly it’s a rather nasty ‘plastic’ shade of green.  My advice to Gorleston when choosing a green kit would be to look at what the French clubs AS Saint-Etienne and Red Star FC are currently wearing in Ligue 1 Conforama and Domino’s Ligue2.

As referee Mr Quick wastes no time in blowing his whistle to begin the match, the bells OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof the mostly fifteenth century parish church of St Mary the Virgin (Grade 1 listed) ring out across the town to tell everyone that it is three o’clock.  Hadleigh might have had the first kick of the ball but it’s Gorleston who are having most kicks thereafter.  Gorleston’s eleven Dan Camish is having  a lot of fun scampering down the left wing and their number seven Connor Ingram has the first chance to score but heads over the cross bar.   Gorleston seem to have a plan to get the ball behind the full-back and then into the middle. Hadleigh however, seem un-certain what to do.  This perhaps explains why Gorleston have won their last three matches and are tenth in the league table, whilst Hadleigh languish, seventeenth in the twenty team division.  Hadleigh’s number ten Daniel Thrower stands out as their best player however, although their number two Charlie Howlett has made most effort with his hair;  his head has the look of an inverted Oreo with pale skin beneath a short back and sides and a bleached top sandwiching a band of natural brown colour.  The splendidly named Romario Dunne runs Howlett a not too close second with his hair tied back into  a small bun; a style which nevertheless suits his name and makes him look a bit like Stade Malherbe Caen’s Enzo Crivelli, or, less flatteringly perhaps, like one of the women in Grant Wood’s painting Daughters of Revolution.

It’s a reasonably entertaining game, even if neither team is having many shots on goal,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA but the fact that it’s a sunny afternoon probably helps and peels of bells from St Mary The Virgin delight the ears too, drifting in and out on the gusty breeze; the spire of the church is visible over the roof tops beyond the car park.   Suddenly there is a loud bang on the back of the stand as a stray ball from an impromptu Diddies and Minis kickabout strikes corrugated tin. It wakes the spectators in the stand from their reverie but not the Hadleigh team who just before half past three fall behind to a goal from Dan Camish who dashes past Howlett’s haircut into the penalty area and flicks the ball past the orange-clad figure of Nick Punter the Hadleigh goalkeeper.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The main stand is in the shade and feels damp and cold so I decide to alter my perspective on the game by moving behind the Hadleigh goal to bask in the autumn sun.  Five minutes later Gorleston score again; another break down the left by Camish and number nine, Ross Gilfedder slides in to prod the ball over the line a split second before Camish’s shot would have crossed the ball of its own free will.  As he picks himself up off the turf Gilfedder appears to glance guiltily towards Camish, hoping perhaps that he doesn’t realise he nicked ‘his goal’.  Perplexed Hadleigh players look at one another with arms outstretched and palms open, but seem to accept they are all at fault.

I move on again, this time to the side of the pitch so I haven’t got so far to go for my half-time tea.  I stand next to two men just in time to over hear the end of a funny story about a funeral.   From what I could make out the story teller went to the funeral of someone who he had been told had died, but it turned out that the funeral was for someone else with the same name and his acquaintance wasn’t dead at all.  The punch line was something like “Well if he dies again I int going to his funeral ‘cos the cunt never turned up to his first one”.  Amusing story over, the conversation switches to football and how the standard of the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division probably isn’t any better than the Touchline Suffolk and Ipswich League Senior Division.  Meanwhile, Gorleston win a free-kick near the half way line which is taken by their number five Dave ShadePeter Lamber who is a giant of a man.  Lambert boots the ball far over the goal and straight out for a goal kick. “Everything that bloke kicks goes out” says the man the other side of me from the man who went to the funeral. I tell him that I think the problem is he has been built to the wrong scale.

Half-time is almost here and my thoughts have turned to a polystyrene cup of hot tea, but I am going to have to wait. Gorleston’s Mitch Mckay runs onto a through ball and into the penalty area, as he controls the ball Nick Punter, which is an apt name for a goalkeeper, dives at his feet and McKay falls to the ground.  Mr Quick, doesn’t hesitate to award a penalty from which Connor Ingram creates the half-time score of 3-0, although not before Hadleigh captain Kris Rose rather angrily and threateningly berates the linesman Mr Pope.

Half-time sees the hordes of Diddies and Minis return to the pitch to take penalties OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAagainst a large dog in a blue checked hat and coat and a lion that is wearing a T-shirt and possibly a thong.  I give the lion the benefit of the doubt and don’t phone Social Services, preferring to warm my hands around a pounds worth of tea whilst I read the programme.

The first action of the second-half sees Hadleigh’s captain Kris Rose very unnecessarily and somewhat viciously scythe down Gorleston’s number ten Jordan Stanton, who is by no means the toughest looking member of the Gorleston team.  Rose struts and swaggers away from the scene of the crime advertising his lack of remorse. Pleasingly Mr Quick does not delay in making him the first player to be shown the yellow card.  It would seem that Rose has not yet got over his anger from the penalty at the end of the first half.   In the programme Rose’s own team mate Michael Barwick outs Rose as the team ‘hardman’,  but also the vainest player at the club.

The game carries on and the winners of a prize draw are announced. Ticket number 887 wins a meal for two at the Swan Inn at Lavenham.  Another prize involves what sounded like a body wash or scrub, perhaps both. Hadleigh meanwhile, are playing better than they did in the first half and deservedly win a penalty at about a quarter past four from which Dan Thrower scores.  Then a little later George Crowe hits a post with a shot and Thrower hits the bar.  “Come on Hadleigh, you’re all over them” shouts a man from the stand, not unreasonably. Gorleston are looking worried and a certain tension is evident amongst the players despite their two goal lead.  A Gorleston player goes down under a challenge from Charlie Howlett, who is immediately booked by Mr Quick. There is a hiatus as the player receives treatment or counselling and a small boy, probably a Diddy, asks me what happened.  I tell him the Gorleston player looks to have been accidentally smacked in the mouth. “Oh yeah, I’ve done that” says the small boy.  I don’t know if he means he’s smacked someone else in the mouth or if he’s been smacked, but I don’t get the opportunity to ask as he’s already run off.

Despite being a bright afternoon, there has always been a lot of cloud and now a few spots of rain have appeared on my coat; my fingers are growing increasingly numb and the shadows of the trees at the Layham end of the ground have reached the far end of the pitch.  It’s ten to five and Gorleston substitute Ryan Fuller plays in fellow substitute Joel Watts who takes the ball around the on rushing Punter before kicking the ball firmly into the net.

The goal confirms the result beyond all doubt and pushes Hadleigh into the relegation places in the league table. With the final whistle I head back to my Citroen across the practice pitch, dodging the few remaining Diddies and Minis who are knocking footballs about behind the main stand.  It’s been a decent afternoon’s entertainment even if Toppesfield Bridge and the bells of St Mary the Virgin will always possibly be the stars.

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Coggeshall Town 1 Stowmarket Town 2

An evening in late March and a chill breeze blows along the valley of the River Blackwater. Individuals and people in small groups stride purposefully in the diminishing light through the quiet streets of Coggeshall and across open meadows. At the edge of the town along West Street, the floodlit turf of ‘The Crops’ football ground, draws them in.

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Tonight is a big night in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division. Tonight Coggeshall Town (3rd in the league table) play Stowmarket Town (top of the league) in a re-match after their initial encounter was controversially abandoned well into the second half as one of the linesman complained of not being able to keep his footing on the frosty pitch; Coggeshall had been 2-0 up at the time.

The Crops is a great name for a football ground, particularly for one in a small country town like Coggeshall (pop. 4,727 in the 2011 census), with its half-timbered houses and fully-timbered medieval tithe barn. Just to over-do the bucolic-ness of it all the football team are nicknamed the Seed Growers too. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Crops is dug into the side of a field that slopes down from West Street towards the winding narrow river. The path from the turnstiles to the club house and changing rooms runs behind and above the low main stand with its four rows of seats, characterful uneven fascia and dark corrugated iron roof. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the front of the stand a large sign reads ‘Chelmsford Plastic Warehouse’; I like to think this is an actual thing, like plastic flowers or the Plastic Ono Band. Either side of the stand a steep-ish grassy slope runs down to the pitch-side. The changing rooms occupy a dark wooden building with steps leading down to onto a corner of the pitch. Dug into the ground behind the goal at the clubhouse end is a long low covered terraced with a corrugated tin roof like a utilitarian municipal tram shelter. You can stand behind this ‘tram shelter’, rest your beer on the roof and get a good view of most of the pitch, though you can’t see the near goal-line or a large part of the goal come to that.

For an evening match it’s possible to get to Coggeshall on the number 70 bus from Colchester, but it’s not possible to get back again. Coggeshall has no train station and never has done, so with no lights on my bike, tonight I must make use of the large car park at the side of the ground;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA it’s almost completely full but could be fuller if people had smaller cars or didn’t indulge in ‘greed parking’, taking up more space than they need. According to Parking News (genuine trade paper of the parking industry) this has become more prevalent due to increased levels of obesity. Fat bastards. Entry to the ground is a bargain £4 tonight, the admission reduced because over 200 people had already paid to the see the first match on 21st January, which was never completed. The small but colourful and glossy programme costs £1.00.

The teams take the field, Coggeshall in red and black stripes like AC Milan, Stowmarket in yellow shirts so pale they are almost beige, and red shorts, like a washed out Watford. The Stowmarket shirts bear the Nike logo, but with their insipid colour they look like they’re from Primark. Both teams are clearly tense and the game begins with fouls and squabbles, protests and pleas, and the referee quickly needs to take control. The confident Stowmarket No5 sneers at Coggeshall’s diminutive No8 and insults him, “What’s up midget-boy?” he asks. Rude. These are two well organised and committed sides and what develops is an opera of constant shouts and calls, curses and oaths combined with a ballet of runs and leaps and turns. Under the floodlights it’s a sporting son et lumiere, but with a hint of surreal comedy as a giant cartoon cockerel watches impassively from the sidelines; OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAit’s Rocky the Rooster, the Coggeshall mascot.

Goalless at half-time, in the second half the match becomes a drama as with an hour gone Stowmarket score a penalty; but Coggeshall quickly equalise with a goal of beautiful simplicity, grace and speed. Their fleet of foot No 7, frizzy hair buffeted by the breeze, runs at the defence then threads through a perfect pass for the number 9 to chase and poke past the Stowmarket guardian. Coggeshall hopes are reborn, but the drama builds as with the game entering its final ten minutes hesitancy in the Coggeshall defence allows Stowmarket to score again. All the time this drama is played out before a tiny chorus, the Stowmarket six, a group of visiting supporters who chant and shout from within the tram shelter, their cat calls amplified by its tinny echo. “He’s got his IQ on his shirt, He’s got his IQ on his shirt” they sing to or about someone, it’s not obvious who. As Coggeshall strive to equalise a final twist turns the play into a tragedy as a poor tackle fells the Seed Growers’ Matt Southall; he’s too badly hurt to move immediately and there is a ten minute hiatus as a host of people in big coats run on and off the pitch and concern mounts. Some of the 310 strong crowd leave. Eventually Matt leaves the field to applause, but on a stretcher; his ankle is damaged and a long evening in A & E awaits.

The remaining five minutes produce half chances at both ends, the netting behind the goals does its job in catching stray shots and Stowmarket use up the time doing nothing whenever they can. But this tale has run its course and the game ends to scenes of gay abandon amongst the Stowmarket camp who may well win the league championship now, whilst Coggeshall’s disappointment is tangible, it’s clear this game mattered a bit more than most of the others.

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.

Whitton United 5 Coggeshall Town 4

The Eastern Counties First Division is the tenth tier of English football, just a few seats, some floodlights and a half-time plate of sandwiches for the opposition committee separates it  from the clubs that play on a piece of waste ground and use jumpers for goalposts, well  almost.  But that doesn’t mean clubs at this level don’t have history; Whitton United have been going since 1926 and Coggeshall Town since 1878, the same year as mighty, illustrious Ipswich Town, former League Champions, FA Cup, UEFA Cup and Texaco Cup winners.

It says in the match programme that a Whitton team existed in the late 1800’s, back when Whitton was a small village a mile or more outside Ipswich.  But between the World Wars Ipswich Corporation, as it was then, began to build the Whitton estate providing much needed,  good quality, rented housing for working class people.  Whitton is now a part of Ipswich, and if supporters in the Eastern Counties league did sing (with the notable exception of Wivenhoe Town’s they tend not to) they could chant “Small club in Ipswich, You’re just a small club in Ipswich” without fear of contradiction.

Whitton United is a rare thing in the Eastern Counties League, a team representing a truly urban area, and more than that it might be said to represent a large council estate.  The contrast with Coggeshall therefore is on the face of it quite stark.  Coggeshall, with its National Trust owned medieval buildings and its vineyard and ley lines is positively poncey by comparison.  The other big difference is that Coggeshall Town are being bankrolled; there are stories of players attracted from beyond Essex on the promise of big appearance money.  The realisation of this is shown in their relative league positions with Coggeshall currently top of the table, where they have been virtually all season, whilst Whitton are merely near the top of the bottom half of the table, albeit on a roll of five consecutive victories.

The King George V Fields ground is outside the Whitton estate next to the main road out of town towards the A14 and Stowmarket.   A third of the pitch is overlooked by a large heap of rubble that was once the concrete floor of the Tooks bakery (aka bread factory), formerly the club’s neighbour. Behind one goal there is no accommodation for spectators whatsoever, just a stretch of grass from the goal net to a very big fence, with the road beyond.   There is a stand on each of the other three sides; two of them resembling country bus shelters, one of which is labelled ‘The Shed’; whilst downhill, behind the other goal is a pre- fabricated, metal stand containing the requisite number of seats for the club to play in the Eastern Counties Premier League. should the need arise.  The changing rooms have a wonderful green and white striped tin roof.

It’s a grey, blustery afternoon with a constant threat of rain, but the two teams in their striped kits, Whitton in green and white and Coggeshall in red and black stand out through the gloom and offer the promise of excitement.  I wander around the perimeter rail before the game kicks off and a bloke on his way to one of those ‘bus shelters’ and carrying a couple of pints of beer says hello; “ We need a good result today after last week” he says.  I have no idea what either team did last week, but I agree because it would be churlish and a bit weird not to do so and I’m not one to start an argument with someone I don’t really know.  To begin with, the promise of a good game is all there  as the ball bounces awkwardly on the soft pitch and is buffeted by the wind, producing a scrappy match with neither team looking much good.  Despite kicking up the not inconsiderable slope and against the wind however, Coggeshall gradually start to look the stronger team.

I walk round the back of the dugouts and towards the end of the ground where the only spectators are those in passing cars and buses who are probably surprised to find themselves watching a football match, albeit for a few fleeting seconds only.  One or two beep their car horns as they drive by.  Coggeshall are kicking towards the goal at this end and it doesn’t take long before they score, a close range tap-in from Scarlett, despite claims of offside from Whitton.  Somewhat bizarrely Coggeshall’s number four is booked in the aftermath and from what I can make of what referee Mr Pope seems to be saying, it is because he egged on the Whitton players in their offside protests. ‘You started it’ I think I hear the Pope say as if scolding Martin Luther.  The same player is then spoken to again by his holiness and told to concentrate just on the football by the Coggeshall coach; “I only said bad luck baldy” the player opines after Whitton’s follicly challenged centre-half concedes a free-kick on the edge of his own penalty area.

I drift back towards the Whitton bench having had enough of the Essex club’s manager’s questioning of Mr Pope and decide to briefly compare and contrast him with the Whitton manager.  I conclude that the Whitton man mostly complains to himself and to the bench in a sort of audible internal dialogue.  The results of the comparison fit with my own pre-conceived ideas of Ipswich and Essex people.  Happily for Whitton however, my move into their half coincides with a couple of attacks down the left, one of which results in a free-kick and ends with an unexpected, but not completely undeserved equaliser from Bell.

Half-time arrives with scores all square and I indulge in a pounds worth of tea and a warm in the clubhouse, although I have to be let in because the door only seems to open from the inside.  I return to pitch side too late for the re-start, but haven’t missed anything and take up a spot in the seats behind the goal.  It starts to rain.

With the wind at their backs and playing down the slope it seems like it might be easier for Coggeshall in the second half and gradually, as in the first half they begin to dominate the attacking play, but without really making any decent chances to score; then, a break down the left, a through ball and a goal for Whitton by Percy (sadly his surname not his first name).   It’s a bit of a surprise but the game returns to its previous pattern and with about fifteen minutes left, after some more Coggeshall domination the ball is crossed low, blocked and partly cleared before the Coggeshall substitute Guthmy coolly places the ball in the middle of the goal to equalise.  Now it really looks like Coggeshall will go on to win and that’s what the bloke behind me tells his children when they ask.

The good thing about football however is that is totally unpredictable, which is why all these ‘sports betting companies’ (bookies) advertise relentlessly to part mugs with their money.  Proof of football’s unpredictably arrived within just a minute or two as a deep cross from a corner was headed in at the far post by Griggs to put Whitton ahead again and then within minutes of that a through ball saw  Cheetham brought down in the box resulting in a penalty which gave Whitton a 4-2 lead. The rain had now eased and I stepped out of the stand so that I didn’t have to peer through a goal net and another bigger net placed across the front of the stand to protect inattentive spectators from stray footballs that might inadvertently smack them in the chops when they were looking at their mobile phones rather than the game; serves ‘em right I say.  Barely had I done this and with about six minutes left Whitton scored yet again with Cheetham ‘converting’ a cross by the beautifully named Franco Mallardo.

Surely that was it, 5-2 with just five minutes left? But no, Coggeshall rightly decided that the game wasn’t over until his holiness Mr Pope says so, and just as I would never leave a game before the final whistle, so the ‘Seedgrowers’ , for that is what their nickname is, continued to try and win the match.  And it was a good job they did or this report would be over already.  First, continuing the ecclesiastical surname theme started by the referee, Monk made it 5-3 with a fine half volley from the edge of the penalty area,  and a short while later he then crossed the ball for Nwachuku to smack a fourth goal high in to the Whitton United net.  There was still enough time for a free kick on the edge of the penalty area to be sent over the Whitton cross bar, but finally Mr Pope whistled Amen and the game was over.

It had been a most entertaining game, even if some of the defending had at times been hard to spot, and in difficult conditions on an awkward slopey pitch the players of both teams had given their all.  I was surprised therefore and disappointed that at the end no one clapped or cheered as the two teams left the pitch; but no one booed either, so it was one up on Portman Road I guess.   The 5-4 score line alone deserved some appreciation, but there was nothing, not a cough, not a wheeze, not even a tiny chortle. Everyone just filed away into the car park.   To an extent, at this level of football the result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the two clubs are still there each week to play; this is perhaps true more for a real community club like Whitton United than a club like Coggeshall Town which has been adopted by someone with spare cash like a mini Roman Abramovich.

There was apparently only a crowd of 57 at this match, which is disappointing for a Saturday when Ipswich Town are not playing, and looking about there were very few people under thirty there.  A football match where you can drink in sight of the pitch should be a massive draw and at £6.00 entrance fee it provides good value for money compared to the £40 Norwich City wanted from IpswichTown fans to get into Carrow Road the following day.

Eastern Counties League Football should be the model for sustainable football, so I urge you, support your local team, it’s friendly, it’s funny, it’s fun, it is well worth it.  I had a lovely time.  Thank you Whitton United.