Framlingham Town 2 Norwich United 0

On a Saturday afternoon the number 118 bus leaves Ipswich at a quarter to two and arrives outside the former White Horse pub in Framlingham about forty-five minutes later, from where according to Google maps it is a thirteen minute walk up Bridge Street and Market Hill, along Church Street, Castle Street and up Badingham Road to the Badingham Road Sports ground, home of Framlingham Town Football Club. The only problem with this if wanting to watch a football match is that it is necessary to leave at half-time to catch the last bus back to Ipswich at a quarter past four. There are two later buses out of Framlingham, but they will only get you as far as Framsden. With passenger rail services to Fram’ having ceased in 1952, and deciding that unless sleeping in a hedge, stopping over for the weekend in Framsden or Framlingham (the next bus to Ipswich is on Monday morning) is a tad extravagant just to watch a Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier League game, I have no option today but to get a bigger shoe for my carbon footprint and travel by car.
Even for someone wracked with guilt over his Citroen C3’s carbon emissions, having turned off the A12 it’s a pleasant drive along the B1116, which follows the valley of the River Ore through Hacheston and Parham. Tilled brown fields, grey flints, golden leaves and gaunt trees beneath a broad, bright sky set the scene for our winding, undulating journey. It’s all a bit ‘Akenfield’ out here. In Framlingham I park up near the 12th century castle and we, for today I am with my wife Paulene, pop to the Co-op for a small picnic; we would eat at the football club, but Paulene’s food intolerances won’t allow it. We stop off at the church of St Michael on the way back to the car to look at the display of knitted poppies draped over the south porch for Remembrance day tomorrow and take a look inside at the tombs of the ancient Howard family, feudal lords of the area after Sir Roger; appropriately the local Conservative Club is just over the road too.44933944875_965acaf762_z
It’s a very short drive from Sir Roger Bigod’s castle to Framlingham Sports Club on Badingham Road; like Stowmarket Town , Walsham le Willows and Brantham Athletic, Framlingham Town Football Club is now a part of the local sports club. Back in the 12th century Sir Roger was probably more of a hunting man than a footballer though. The roughly surfaced car park is pretty full, but we find a space and head into the club house for a drink, where we encounter what appears to be a ladies’ sports team all sat down in green trackie-tops having their dinner, and the shutters on the bar are down. Making an about turn we head around the corner to the turnstile entrance to the football ground , a nicely painted and brightly lit walk-through shed. Inside the shed a jolly man with a proper Suffolk accent relieves me of the admission fee (£8 each), which by at least a pound is the most I have ever paid to see an Eastern Counties League game and therefore seems a bit steep; I don’t think I paid more than a fiver when I last came to a match here about eighteen months ago. Financially bruised as I am, it doesn’t deter me however from splashing out on a programme (£1) too. On some days money means nothing to me. The man in the shed tells us that we can get beer or wine at the tea bar now, so the bar only opens later, I then have to remind him that I’ve paid for a programme too and he hands one over.
We walk the few yards to the main stand, briefly stopping to exchange pleasantries with a contented looking lady sat on a chair, basking in the low autumn sun. She always sits here she tells us. The tea bar is in the middle of the small brick stand at the back of the three rows of neat green seats. We both have a tea (£1), I have milk, Paulene doesn’t due to dairy intolerance; coincidentally she’s a bit scared of cows too. Paulene selects a seat in the corner of the stand; it will no doubt get colder later and this looks like a spot that will offer the closest approximation to ‘cosy’ once the sun has gone down. We drink our tea and eat our picnic, which mostly consists of Suffolk ham and crisps; we watch the officials warm up, which is always entertaining. Today’s threesome look refreshinglyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA young and unusually trendy; one has a beard, one sports what may be designer stubble whilst the third has one of those tied-up, top-knot haircuts with two partings. I always thought the Football Association had their own barbers who tried to make all referees look like Action Man, but it seems not. They’ll have to keep an eye on the fella with the top-knot; seems a bit of a individualist.
It’s still only about half past two, so like the spend thrift that I am I return to the tea bar for a bottle of Adnam’s Ghostship (£3) to wash down the salty picnic. The lady who serves me pours the beer expertly whilst explaining how it tends to froth up in plastic glasses. I tell her I think she deserves some sort of drum roll as she pours, but hold back with a round of applause when it’s done. Beer in hand I take a stroll round the pitch and wait for the teams to emerge from the dressing room behind the stand. Eventually, to the strains of Nancy Sinatra’s “These boots were made for walking”, an unusual but impressive choice, the teams walk on to the pitch led by the referee Mr Jack Willmore and his assistants Jack Lock and the somewhat theatrical sounding Ayrton Hursey; if I had to make a guess I’d say Ayrton is the one with ‘the hair’.
The ritual handshaking occurs and the teams chase off to their respective halves of the pitch. The Framlingham players then line the centre circle and because it is Remembrance Day tomorrow the Last Post is played over the PA system, but no one seems to have told Norwich United and they ‘knock up’ as usual, as footballers do. Sadly it’s a bit shambolic and had it been filmed would surely make the cut for a possible Channel 5 documentary series entitled “When poignant ceremonies goes wrong”. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith the Last Post over, it’s time for the minute’s silence, which happily is well observed by everyone and I suspect we all feel much better for it. For future reference, the Last Post should probably follow the silence.
It’s Norwich United, nickname The Planters, who kick-off the match in the direction of Rendham wearing a change kit of red shirts with white sleeves, red shorts and socks whilst Fram’, known informally as ‘The Castlemen’ wear green and white hooped shirts with white shorts and socks. Fram’ play in the direction of the town and the castle, of which one of the decorated Tudor chimneys is just visible from the Rendham end of the ground. The game begins quietly with Fram’ playing neatly and Norwich occasionally bursting forward, but neither side is very effective close to the opposition goal with the important forward passes often being over-hit or too easily intercepted; but it’s nice enough to watch all the same.
The sun sinks ever lower through a wreath of cloud as the half progresses and with the main stand and facilities on the north side of the pitch, most of the sixty-three strong crowd spend a lot of time squinting and holding their hands up to their foreheads as if looking out to sea. Spectators stood by the pitch-side rail cast long shadows behind them on to the metal boundary fence. I stand for a while by the team dugouts on the shaded side of the pitch where it feels rather cold and damp. Behind me is what looks like a small, dilapidated cricket pavilion and rather bizarrely, next to that is what appears to be a boarded up Council house.

The game is being played in a good spirit and although the players whinge and whine about perceived unpunished fouls and faux free-kicks there seems to be a realisation that it’s only a game; a fact that quiet reflection during the minute’s silence should have confirmed beyond all doubt. When Mr Willmore doesn’t give handball as the ball strikes the upper arm of Norwich’s full-back Adam Probert, Fram’s number seven Simon Poacher grasps his head with both hands in over-affected disbelief. Probert laughs, although it’s not clear if he’s laughing at having got away with a handball or at Poacher’s ham-handed histrionics. There are corners and crosses and misses of a sort, but it takes until the fortieth minute for either team to have a really decent looking attempt on goal when Fram’s Max Willet lands a long range shot on the roof of the Norwich goal just as the floodlights come on; a moment of double illumination. When Fram’s number five Anthony Johnson then unnecessarily concedes a corner his goalkeeper Gary Rose can be heard to say frustratedly “I told him to leave it, I told him”. But the corner comes to nothing, so no harm done.
Half-time and the seeping chill of the late autumn afternoon demands another pound’s worth of tea from the tea-bar. The result of the 50-50 draw is announced and it is revealed that the winner is the club chairman. “Money goes to money” says a man next to me in the queue at the tea bar. But the chairman seems down to earth enough, he’s stood in the tea bar and he’s not dressed up in a suit like the Norwich contingent. Teas purchased, Paulene and I huddle in the corner of the stand, the side screen of which, somewhat peculiarly, is double-glazed, which seems a little unnecessary given that it is a necessary feature of all stands that one side is left completely open. I have a flick through the programme. It’s a colourful and glossy little publication, short of text but sporting the best advert I have seen in a programme for some time – “AFS for Your Fumigation Requirements” it reads; I will be sure to give them a call for my next pre-harvest grainstore treatments. There is also an advert for agricultural trailers and, more prosaically, for Framlingham Pizza and Grill, which shows a colourful array of pizzas and fast foods against a back drop of the castle, as if the two are somehow intrinsically linked. Genuinely, I never cease to be impressed by the support of local businesses for their local team, even if they do make me laugh a bit too; all power to their advertising elbows.
At three fifty-six Mr Willmore blows his whistle to begin the second half. Within a short space of time Fram’s number nine Danny Smith runs down the right, crosses the ball and it strikes the arm or hand of the Norwich number six and captain Andy Eastaugh. Mr Willmore awards a penalty. There is a bit of a delay as we wait for the inevitable arguments from the Norwich players to subside. A seasoned Suffolk voice to my left says “If I was the ref that ruddy goalkeeper woulda gone by now”. When the penalty is finally taken, Simon Poacher scores; a rustic cheer erupts from the main stand to which I add my voice. I can’t remain impartial when it’s Suffolk versus a Norwich team, although in truth Norwich United aren’t from Norwich at all, but from Blofield five miles away, as is Poringland where the club began in 1903 as Poringland and District, a name which sounds more like a bus company than a football club.
The game needed a goal and given the first half display a penalty seemed the only way it was likely to happen. Fram’ hadn’t really pushed enough players forward in the first half, but now they are looking strong down the right wing where number eleven Max Willet is getting plenty of the ball; he puts in a couple of crosses but there is no one to get on the end of them. Fram’s number ten comes close however as he twist and turns and shoots forcing the purple clad Norwich goalkeeper Luke Pearson to make the first proper save of the match as he tips the ball over the cross-bar.
Play goes on and darkness descends and I inexplicably notice how many of the players have severe haircuts and resemble those of army conscripts from World War One. TheOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Norwich number four Sam Applegate would seem to have a particularly vicious barber who has given Sam a haircut which makes him look as if he is wearing a skull cap. Fram’s number six James Mayhew becomes the first player to be booked by Mr Willmore. The excitement increases as Fram’ look for a second goal, but also look to hang on to their lead. “Go on Fram’”, “Go on, close ‘em down” “Come on Fram’, play football” are the calls of advice from the main stand.
Norwich have an attack and win a corner. “When was the last time we scored from a corner?” says a Norfolk accent. There’s a slight pause before the terse reply “Last week wasn’t it?” From the corner a Norwich header hits the Fram’ goalkeeper or someone on the goal line provoking predictable calls of handball, but nobody seems very convinced, least of all Mr Willmore.
45815355781_1b8fc59db8_oAt just before twenty five past four Max Willets chases off down the right for Fram’ once again. He gets into the penalty area, checks, changes pace and gains half a yard on the full-back before crossing the ball and Jake Seaber, whose name doesn’t even appear in the programme, scores a simple tap-in at the far post. The cheer for the second goal is even bigger than for the first and I once again join in; witnessing a Suffolk team called Town score a second goal against a team from Norwich is something I’ve not done in quite a while. Up the Towun!
I wander off around the other side of the ground again to enjoy the final quarter of the game. Under the floodlights the colours of the two teams comes alive and so does the match, but not in a good way. Norwich have applied some pressure without success, but have also had to defend and evidently not to the standard their goalkeeper Luke Pearson expects and he suddenly throws a tantrum, stomping stiff-legged from his goal and bawling incomprehensibly. A short while later there is a fracas near the centre of the pitch, I have no clue what has happened but Fram’s Simon Poacher staggers from a melee looking like he’s been punched in the stomach. A Norwich player is booked and the Fram’ coaches tell the linesman he knows what he saw; something to do with Norwich number five Sam Watts throwing a punch. Mr Willmore consults his assistant with the haircut and Watts is shown the red card; after a short argument he accepts his fate and returns to the dressing room. There’s not long left now, especially as the referee seems keen to finish the game as quickly as he can and within a few minutes as Fram’ goalkeeper launches a kick Mr Willmore calls time.
The crowd of mostly middle-aged and older men are appreciative of what they’ve seen this afternoon. Although Fram’ remain second from bottom in the twenty team Eastern Counties Premier League they’ve beaten a team who were ten places above them and only last season were two divisions above them. For my part it’s been a fun afternoon of goals, beer, medieval architecture and a sending off, I couldn’t ask for more.

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Walsham-le-Willows 3 Brantham Athletic 0

Today, Saturday 13th October, has been designated by persons unknown as “Non-League Day”, which is nice, but also a little patronising. It implies that non-league football is only of any consequence on this one day when there happens to be no Premier League or Championship football. There’s no ‘proper football’ today so you might as well go to a non-league game. Whatever my misgivings, I nevertheless feel it would be bad form if I didn’t go to a non-league game today, and so that is where I am going. Engineering works on the railway west of Ipswich has limited my choice of fixtures a little, to the extent that I am having to travel by car. So, in for a penny in for a pound I have chosen to make the trip to Walsham le Willows, which is pretty much inaccessible by public transport; at the time of writing the No 338 bus leaving Bury St Edmunds at 11:15 will get you to Walsham in bags of time for a 3pm kick off on a Saturday, but there is no bus back, only a bus to Diss at five-past six. The nearest railway station to Walsham is only 6 miles away in Elmswell, but the bus journey between the two involves going into Bury St Edmunds, getting on another bus and journeying back out, an adventure taking over two hours.
It’s a breezy, bright and unseasonably balmy autumn day for a drive through the mid-Suffolk countryside. My Citroen C3 carries me on through the rural splendour of Elmswell and Badwell Ash (there seems to be a tree fixation in local place names) once we have left the rough, patched up and noisy A14; the Highway to The Midlands. Arriving in Walsham-le-Willows I pass the splendid medieval church of St Mary with its wonderfully airy clerestory and fine proportions and then head up the delightfully named Summer Road, to what a firm of structural engineers from Bury St Edmunds has31437733648_4ca963f0c7_o presumably paid to now have called The Morrish Stadium. The word ‘stadium’ does not do this delightful football ground justice and there really needs to be another word to describe a football pitch within the boundary of a cricket pitch surrounded by trees with just a metal stand on the half way line and a small covered standing area behind one goal. There is car parking on both sides of the road, but that adjacent to the pitch and club house is full so I parkover the road by the impressive array of all-weather, 3G pitches that have been built in the past few years. This is a truly magnificent facility and not what you might expect to find in the depths of the Suffolk countryside.
Having neatly parked the Citroen, I leave the car park to cross the road and enter the precincts of the ‘stadium’. I pass an old boy who asks with an enquiring but soft Suffolk accent “Are you Brantham?” “No” I tell him “I think I’m probably impartial today”. “Oh well, that’s probably a good way to be” he replies. Buoyed by his vote of confidence I31437744428_77524097c4_o cross Summer Road and walk on through the little blue gate marked ‘Match day entrance’, which looks like it might also serve the village primary school, although it doesn’t. I walk across the car park to a wooden hut where I pay my entrance money (£7 – it’s gone up £1 since I was last here inn 2014) and am handed a small yellow ticket: “Admit One”. I also purchase a programme (still £1). In front of the club house and bar is a patio area laid out with chairs and tables at which people are sat talking and drinking. I cross the patio to a dark timber clad building, which houses the changing rooms and the tea bar. I order a bacon-butty (£2) from one of the three middle aged ‘dinner ladies’ and am impressed that the meat is supplied by a local butcher, Rolfes of Walsham. This is how local football clubs should be run, promoting and partnering local businesses, not churning out the cheap and the dubious offerings from the Cash n’ Carry.


Satiated I walk through the bar and use the toilet; I briefly consider buying a drink but it looks like only Greene King products are on offer, which is disappointing, so I don’t bother and step outside once again
It’s not long before the referee, his assistants and a few footballers appear in a huddle at the entrance to the changing rooms. They seem afraid to come out into the open but I 30372602607_cb6e1eae9b_oguess they are really just waiting to be sure no one gets left behind. Eventually referee Mr Alistair Wilson leads the teams along the open ‘corridor’ to the pitch where they all line up in front of the stand and indulge in the usual excessive shaking of hands; I always hope that one day the teams will also bow to the stand, but it hasn’t happened yet. Today Walsham are playing another ‘village team’, Brantham Athletic, in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League Premier Division. Walsham are seventh in the league table after nine games and Brantham are just a point behind in eighth, but having only played six games due to a bit of a run in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. Coincidentally, both clubs are village sports clubs, although with Brantham originally being borne out of the local BX plastics factory (since closed and demolished). Both clubs also play on pitches where cricket is played in summer.

Walsham kick-off the game playing towards the tiny ‘covered end’ and the open country side beyond, in the direction of the A143 between Bury and Diss; they wear a dazzling kit of all yellow. Brantham Athletic (nickname The Imps) meanwhile, play in the direction of the bar, clubhouse and the village beyond, and wear an all blue kit with two white diagonal bars across the front. I find that Brantham’s is an unsatisfactory kit, although a good solid navy blue colour, the white bands make the players look like they might have been lying in the road when a white line painting truck came by. The design smacks of the designer of single colour kits having finally run out of ideas, the pressure of coming up with something different every year having at last become too much.
With both teams finally lined up the sound of the referee’s whistle is met with a loud bellow of “Willows” from a man in the main stand and the game begins. After that initial burst of support for The Willows, the people seated around me in the small stand are44399647925_a9d1413cd4_o silent, although the hum of lively conversation can be heard at the other ‘rowdier’ end of the stand where a group of men in their sixties and seventies stand on a small terrace. The peaceful ambience allows me to appreciate just what a lovely, bucolic setting this is. What is possibly an old pavilion on the far side of the site looks like a blacksmith’s shop and the breeze through the leaves of the trees seems to whisper Walsham le Willows.

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Uncomfortable with the silence I move and stand next to the Willows’ bench where I can enjoy some shouting and swearing from the coaches. “Movement” “Keep your shape” “Pressure” “Talk to him” are the calls from the unhappy sounding coaches. Brantham have started the better of the two teams and look more purposeful and confident and after nine minutes they win the game’s first corner; then a diagonal cross only just fails to be transformed into a close-range diving header, which might well have caused a goal had it materialised. On the small terrace I hear someone say “We always do well against these”, but The Imps win another corner and Walsham’s number six Craig Nurse commits the first foul on Brantham’s Joseph Yaxley. A Willows player complains to the referee and the coaches bemoan how he talks too much rather than getting on with the game. “Come on fellas, wake up!” then “Aaagh, fuck me” are the words from the bench. “We need one of the strikers on the number eleven” says The Willows’ Nurse to the bench, “Well do it then” is the not unreasonable response.
A quarter of an hour has passed, The Imps have not scored and The Willows are at last settling into the game and playing more successfully in their opponents’ half. All of a sudden a long range shot is tipped onto the cross bar by Brantham goal keeper Luke Evenell. A corner to Walsham follows, and then another one. I move and stand near to the Brantham bench and nearer to the goal that Walsham are attacking; the atmosphere amongst the coaches here seems less tense than on the Walsham bench, but I wouldn’t say they looked happy. Walsham’s number ten Niall McPhillips has been finding space and threading some decent passes through the Brantham defence. It hasn’t gone un-noticed, but so far the Imps’ defence has just argued about it amongst themselves. But then The Imps launch an attack of their own, and number eleven Daniel Rowe finds himself free on the left inside the penalty area, he shoots, but misses the target completely, skewing the ball high and wide. “Ooooh! Ah, ya bell-end” I hear an excited and then dejected voice say from the bench.
It’s almost half past three and Walsham win a third corner. The ball is struck quite low across the pitch and The Willows captain and number nine Jack Brame sidefoots the ball into the corner of the goal past a surprised looking goal keeper to give Walsham the lead. It was slightly unexpected, but in these games anything can happen and often does. Brantham carry on much as before, often getting their wide players to chase long balls but nothing comes of it and the highlight for me in the remaining time before half-time is a slightly panicky looking lofted clearance from Walsham’s Craig Nurse, which soars and then drops to earth with a satisfying clatter on the bonnet of a BMW behind the stand.
With half-time I head the queue for a pounds worth of tea and a sit down at one of the picnic tables on the patio. I hear one of the ‘dinner ladies’ asked if they are busy, “Not very” she says. I reflect on a pretty entertaining first half and flick through the programme. There’s quite a good ‘Half-Time quiz’ which is testing but answerable although question nine sets me thinking. ‘What was Sheffield United’s Brian Deane the first to do?’ it asks. The answer given is ‘Score the first ever Premier League goal’ and it makes me wonder who the second player was to score the first ever Premier League goal. Of course I don’t really care because I don’t give a toss about the Premier League.
Refreshed by what was a very good cup of tea, I watch the players return for the second half and note that the Brantham number six William Crissell is the only player to wear anything other than a ‘regular’ haircut, sporting as he does a very small top-notch. I imagine his influences are more Zlatan Ibrahimovic than Sikhism, although you never know. As the new half develops Walsham are gaining the upper hand and this encourages vocal encouragement from the crowd. “Come on boys – let’s have that other one” calls a man in a throaty Suffolk drawl. Number eleven Ryan Clark hits a post with a shot for Walsham and then screws a follow up shot wide but the second goal doesn’t arrive and a tension builds because Brantham still look capable of an equaliser. Some niggle enters the game and both sides complain to referee Alistair Wilson about perceived injustices and his failure to punish fouls with bookings. “Bottle job” is the accusation from the Walsham bench followed up with “For Chrissakes ma-an”. On the Brantham bench frustration grows that chances are not being made. When a pass is over hit I hear “He’s not getting that, he’s not Usain fucking Bolt”
It’s now about four thirty and it might stay like this, it might not. It doesn’t, as again a little unexpectedly, a shot flies into the top right hand corner of the Brantham goal from outside the penalty area; it’s a helluva goal and should win the game. Despite claims and counter claims for free-kicks and bookings from both sides, up until now the game has been played in a good spirit, but suddenly two players are on the ground and something happens between them which leads to pushing and shoving and a general melee and other players swarm around in an angry knot. If it was in a school playground they would have been chanting “Fight, fight, fight”. Mr Wilson the referee seems paralysed and for a while all he does is blow his whistle, it’s as if he’s trying to speak without taking it out of his mouth. He sounds like a Clanger on amphetamines. It’s all a bit unfortunate, but quite entertaining and the upshot is that Brantham’s number two Callum Bennett is sent off and Walsham’s number seven Ryan Gibbs is booked by Mr Wilson, once he’s stopped whistling. The action doesn’t stop there however as one of the Brantham coaches now berates Mr Wilson from the touch line in a sweary manner and he is sent off as well.
The game is up for Brantham and it’s no more than Walsham deserve when a shot from McPhillips hits the cross bar and number two Lee Warren drives home the rebound to round-off a 3-0 victory for The Willows. It’s been an entertaining afternoon and despite the imbalance in the final score the result was always in doubt until pretty close to the end. The sending’s off and shoving contest just added to the fun; no one wants to see such things really, unless a game is very boring, but when it happens we might as well enjoy it.
Summer Road, Walsham le Willows is a beautiful, bucolic place to watch a football match, especially on an autumn afternoon when the leaves on the surrounding trees are turning form green to gold and if it was closer to home I might come more often. The clichéd setting for football is an urban one, that’s where the evil Premier League is played out, but non-league football is played everywhere and if you want to get away far from the ‘big time’ this is possibly as good as it gets.

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.