AFC Wimbledon 0 Ipswich Town 0

After six months off-work due to illness, today is my first day back, albeit for a shortened day of just six hours toil.  Keen to prove to the world and myself that this really marks a return to normal life, I am going for broke and also making my first away trip of the season, catching one of three supporters’ buses from Portman Road (£21, but half price with my Season Ticket holder’s voucher) to Kingsmeadow (aka the Cherry Red Records Stadium), Kingston, current home of AFC Wimbledon.  At the start of the season I drew up a list of six third division football grounds, of which Kingsmeadow was one, that I would be able to visit for the first time following the Town; four of those away fixtures have already passed with me in no fit state to attend, so for someone who is blissfully transported by the sight of unfamiliar arrangements of floodlight pylons, coloured polyurethane seats, corrugated sheet metal and concrete steps tonight is an opportunity not to be missed.

Leaving my office at 3pm I make the short walk to Portman Road and approach the back of the short line of three buses. I am booked on Coach Two, which as logic demands is helpfully parked in front of Coach Three and behind Coach One.   I prepare to board but stood by the door and subtly blocking my path is a stern, un-smiling woman with a clipboard and passenger list; “Surname” she says and a subversive voice in my head says “Don’t tell her Pike!”. There was a time not long ago when it was possible to travel on these supporters’ buses anonymously, but times change and football clubs seem to have become ever more controlling and paranoid. In a spirit of mild rebellion and in an attempt to inject the friendly face of humanity I give her my first name also, she eyes me suspiciously as I mount the steps into the bus acknowledging the driver with a nod and muffled greeting as I climb.

The bus is almost full with the usual misfits that travel like this and most pairs of seats are occupied by at least one person; after checking that it is not taken I settle down on the first vacant single seat I come to next to a balding, grey haired and bearded man in a blue polyester football shirt.  Within not many minutes the buses set off one by one to make the left turn onto Handford Road and the highways beyond.  As the bus slows at the Tesco roundabout at the edge of town I check my watch; we’ve been on the road for ten minutes, it seems like hours.  I know I have to take my copy of “Soccer Empire The World Cup and the Future of France” (Laurent Dubois, University of California Press 2010) from my blue cloth bag decorated with the stars of the EU flag (a 2 Euro purchase from the gift shop at the EU Parliament in Brussels )and begin to read to pass the time.

Whilst I learn of Jules Rimet, Guadeloupe and Felix Eboue the buses speed beyond the Suffolk border and on past Colchester with its football ground sitting remote and detached from the town by the A12, past dull Witham and bland Chelmsford towards the M25.  The buses bear the name Suffolk Norse on their flanks, it’s a curious moniker for a fleet of coaches, but then I see the vision of us all lined up in pairs side by side down the length of the bus and I see a longship full of Vikings, of Norsemen, albeit Vikings and Norsemen who have lost their oars. The fleet name makes sense; we are a collection of middle aged blokes led by one severe woman setting off to metaphorically rape and pillage a small corner of metropolitan Surrey. 

Darkness falls somewhere in Kent and crawling through the endless pre-war Tudorbethan suburbia of Chessington, Tolworth and New Malden, two hours and fifty minutes after leaving Ipswich, we eventually spy the floodlights of Kingsmeadow, which shine like beacons to these weary, but in my case well-read travellers.  The buses draw up in front of a parade of suburban shops and I alight as fast as good manners will allow, turning back towards the entrance to the ground where I  have arranged to meet a longstanding friend who is known as Jah on account of his love of reggae music.  Jah lives nearby in Kingston (Surrey not Jamaica) and has sourced our tickets for tonight’s game.  With handshakes and greetings out of the way I buy a match programme (£3) and we head for what is not by any means the nearest public house; however, knowledgeable of my loathing of ‘rubbish beer’ Jah has selected a pub called The Norbiton where he says the beer is ‘decent’. It’s a 15 minute walk through anonymous residential streets to The Norbiton which appears gloriously out of the gloom, light spilling from its tall Edwardian windows and beckoning us in.  Inside we meet Jeremy a friend of Jah who already nurses a pint of what looks suspiciously like lager; he buys me a pint of an Espresso Stout the exact name of which I forget, whilst Jah has a pint of Sambrooke Junction Bitter.   Jeremy is kindly providing one of our tickets.  We talk of our past, our age, of my health, of politics, of women’s football and of Jeremy’s unusually small Toyota IQ car in which we will soon travel back to Kingsmeadow. Jeremy is impressed that I have travelled all the way down from Ipswich for tonight’s game.  Part way through our conversation I realise that although I paid for my programme back at the ground and took my change (four fifty pence pieces) I never actually took the programme.  Bugger.  After Jah treats me to a second pint, this time the Junction Bitter, and has a half himself, it is about twenty-five minutes past seven and time to head for the match. I fold myself into the back of the tiny Toyota whilst Jah, who for a man who is not yet sixty years old is very inflexible, clambers into the front passenger seat.  Jeremy tells us that he usually parks the Toyota directly outside the ground, but tonight the kerbs of Kingston Road are tightly packed and no spaces can be found, and kick off is fast approaching. We drive around the block again and praise be,  in a side road just opposite the ground we find a couple of metres of tarmac between a Vauxhall and a dropped kerb into which the Toyota will fit.

It’s a matter of yards across the street to Kingsmeadow; we enter through the main entrance beneath a high metal arch that announces the name “Kingsmeadow” and spotting the programme sellers beneath  I explain how I didn’t take my programme earlier; he must have realised too as he straightaway hands me one. Around the corner on Jack Goodchild Way we meet a man called Jonathan who incidentally has a Mexican wife, but more importantly the other ‘spare’ ticket and he also hands us each a programme; together we head for the entrance to the main stand.  Entering the stadium is like walking into a social club and it is self-evident that this is very much a non-league stadium. There are no turnstiles as such but we form two orderly queues and pass our bar coded tickets beneath a scanner; looking ahead through a short tunnel beneath the stand I can see the players are already on the pitch, it’s like a snatched glimpse into another world through a magic portal.  A few steps on and we are into the stand and stood at the side of the pitch; our seats are a little to the left beyond the players tunnel which we cross in front of, in the front row behind a thickly painted blue metal crush barrier.

The illuminated scoreboard in the corner of the ground shows that we have missed the first two minutes of the match but it also confirms that we haven’t missed any goals; no real surprise there.  Our seats are within a couple of metres of the pitch and it feels like we are truly part of the game, as indeed the crowd should be.  The atmosphere in this small stand is sociable and happy, clearly everyone here is a regular; club officials, coaches and players mingle in the stand and plainly know some of the supporters, this is like being at a non-league match.  Behind me a man who shouts to the referee that he’s a muppet sounds just like a man who shouts the same thing at Coggeshall Town.

The football is unexceptional.  Ipswich, playing in red and blue with pale yellow socks towards the beautifully and exotically named Chemflow Stand, also known less interestingly as the Athletics End, pass the ball about a bit and if this was a competition to see who could pass the most and most accurately they would win, but inaccurate hoofs and hopeful punts play their part in ensuring that incisive moves are kept to the barest minimum.  The Wimbledon supporters whose team is in all blue get their kicks where they can and cheer with more enthusiasm than perhaps the players’ abilities deserve.  Architecturally Kingsmeadow is a dull little arena, but beneath the floodlights with the backdrop of a few gaunt, grey, leafless trees it springs to life.

Jah and I point and chuckle and guffaw as play after play come to naught. We observe that the referee Mr Craig Hicks has very, very neat hair and Jah mentions the recently aired TV programme Inside Number Nine.   I admit to Jah that I have often wondered about referees’ sexuality.   Mr Hicks may just be light on his feet as he tiptoes away from a tete-a-tete with an errant player and then flicks his wrist theatrically for a free-kick, after which Jah and I spontaneously raise our arms to mimic his slightly camp wrist action whilst the people behind us probably wonder about our sexuality.

“Go on Piggy” shouts Jeremy at Wimbledon number thirty-nine Joe Pigott and I tell him how much I envy Wimbledon supporters having a player they can call Piggy.  Jeremy adds to my jealousy, telling me that they also shout “Feed the Pig”.   Joe Pigott is featured on the front of the match programme. Jonathan asks if I was at the 1978 FA Cup final and seems impressed when I tell him I was.  There are very few sustained songs or chants coming from either set of supporters and Jah and I lament the loss of the great tunes of Gary Glitter and the Glitter Band which are no longer socially acceptable.  When I returned to work this morning I would have very much liked to have sung to my colleagues “Did you miss me when I was away, did you hang my picture on your wall? Did you miss me every single day? I bet you didn’t miss me at all, at all, I bet you didn’t miss me at all. Hello, Hello. It’s good to be back. It’s good to be back.”

Ipswich hit the cross bar in a moment of madness and half-time arrives, and I am in great need of a visit to the small toilet beneath the stand; it’s a cold night and those two pints are trying to get out, but first we must wait for the players to leave the pitch and the blue polythene players’ tunnel to be retracted.  This stadium is the antithesis of the theatre of dreams and it’s great because it is full of the inconveniences that reflect real life.

Relieved we return to our seats for the second half.  If the first half was unexceptional the second is exceptional for being even more unexceptional. It’s as if the players have become frustrated or bored by their inability to do anything much very successfully and have given up.  Weirdly however, it’s not the sort of game that people boo because it retains a kind of competitive tension, either side could score because they are both so inept that either one could just hand victory to the other at any moment.  Hope remains but of course our hopes are foolish.  The absence of appreciable football does at least let me appreciate the fine oak tree that stands and spreads itself behind the covered terrace opposite in which the Ipswich supporters are stood. Jah and I also enjoy the mask worn by Town’s on-loan number three Josh Earl who inspires a conversation about the TV series “My name is Earl”.  When Earl is substituted a man behind us, possibly the “You’re a Muppet ref” man attempts to riff on the problem of a masked player taking off his mask when substituted and then coming back on to the field unrecognised. If anyone laughs, they do so quietly.  Meanwhile a small knot of Ipswich supporters try to scuff-up the bonhomie that has existed for most of the match with a chant of “Who the fucking hell are you?” but it is in no way clear to whom they are addressing their song and no one seems to care.

My hands are cold but I remember I have gloves in my pocket and I put them on, but warmer hands don’t make up for the poor standard of football in the second half, nor does a half volley by Town’s Will Keane which is spectacularly kept out of the goal net by Wimbledon goalkeeper Joe Day, a name which is impressive in its economic use of syllables.  Keane’s attempt is as close as Ipswich come to scoring and the game ends with Wimbledon pretending to be the attacking team as they win a couple of corners and generally mill about threateningly in the Ipswich penalty area.  The final whistle comes as a relief to all and Wimbledon’s supporters, again displaying the pragmatism of the lower leagues, seem happy with claiming a point, realising it’s better than not existing at all.

The evening is over so quickly and I bid Jeremy, Jah and Jonathan good night before heading back to my six-wheeled golden long ship and the voyage home. I’ve had a lovely time and look forward to coming back next season.

Coggeshall Town 2 Felixstowe & Walton United 1


It’s Easter and it is unseasonably warm. The mercury hit 23 degrees in my back garden yesterday and today could be warmer. In holiday mood and beneath a clear blue sky my wife Paulene and I set off in our trusty Citroen C3 on the short journey to Coggeshall to watch Coggeshall Town play Felixstowe & Walton United in the Bostik League, Division One North. We are taking the scenic route today in order to drop off Easter eggs for the grandsons; I feel like the Easter Bunny.

On arrival at their house, their father Colin is slouched watching Tottenham Hotspur on the telly, he responds mono- syllabically to our attempts at conversation. Tottenham are losing, I quietly hope that they continue to do so. Grandson Harvey is as loquacious as his father, but does let Paulene know as economically as possible that it’s the same type of Easter egg we bought him last year.

With Easter eggs delivered we obligingly pop to the Co-op as their advertisements tell us to, so that I can draw some cash and Paulene can buy chocolate of her own; non-dairy chocolate, white vanilla by i-choc; Paulene is dairy intolerant. Leaving the treasures of the Co-op behind us we complete the third leg of our journey, heading along West Street before turning left in to the bouncy car park of what was once known colourfully as ‘The Crops’, but has boringly been re-christened the West
Street Ground; how dull. Our Citroen C3 wishes it was a 2CV. A steward directs me to pull up close “to that one over there” a large Vauxhall. We disembark and a car load of Felixstowe followers park up next to us in another, smaller Vauxhall. At the turnstile I hand over two ten pound notes and receive £3.50 is change (Adult £10, Pensioner £5, programme £1.50). “Enjoy the match” says the turnstile operator “You too” I tell him “If you get to see it”. Oddly, the cost of entry has gone up a pound since I last was here for the FA Cup tie versus Witham in August last year, maybe FA Cup ties are just cheaper

We walk along the concrete path to the clubhouse, looking down upon the pitch on to which water sprinklers gently play. The path along the ‘top of the ground’, behind the main stand is one of the things I like best about “The Crops”. In the clubhouse Tottenham are still on the telly and they’re still losing. To celebrate I order a glass of Rose and a pint of Adnams Ghostship (£7.90 for the two); disappointingly the Ghostship is of the fizzy variety, but at least it’s not Greene King.

Drinks in hands we step back outside and sit at a “Yogi Bear–style picnic table”, I order a sausage roll (£3.50) from the ‘tea-hatch’. £3.50 might seem a lot for a sausage roll but there is more sausage meat in this sausage roll than in all the sausage rolls ever sold by Greggs put together; and this is real sausage meat, not a weird pink paste. I exaggerate perhaps, but not much. In truth, there is perhaps so much sausage meat that I would recommend bringing a small selection of pickles to help it down and add further to your enjoyment.

A steady stream of locals and visiting Felixstowe supporters make their way to the clubhouse from the turnstile and car park beyond, along the concrete path. Eventually I finish my sausage roll and we decide to take shelter from the sun in the shade of the main stand, which the Coggeshall Town website tells us was erected in 1964. We find seats near the middle of the stand at the very back, two seats behind Keith and Jim, who are in the front row and kindly share their team sheets with us.

Keith and Jim went to watch Colchester United play Grimsby Town yesterday; Keith nearly fell asleep he tells us. A friend of Keith and Jim arrives and hands out bars of chocolate, explaining that he won’t be at the game next week.

The teams are announced over one of the clearest sounding PA systems I have ever heard at a football ground and the teams line-up for the ritual shaking of hands; “See, home team on the left, away team on the right” points out Paulene, giving closure to a conversation we had over dinner a few days ago. It’s something I had never noticed, perhaps because I don’t care enough.

Coggeshall kick-off in the direction of the clubhouse and Braintree far beyond, wearing their red and black striped shirts with black shorts and red socks; it’s a fine looking kit. Sartorially however, Felixstowe do their best to match them with an attractive away ensemble of pale blue and white striped shirts with white shorts; if the two-teams swapped shorts and Coggeshall bleached their socks it would look like AC Milan v Argentina. Felixstowe, known as The Seasiders, aim in the direction of the car park and downtown Coggeshall, with its clock tower and the Co-op. Coggeshall, or The Seedgrowers as they are known informally are swift going forward and dominate the early stages.

Felixstowe don’t look much good. The play is rough and the Felixstowe No3, Henry Barley goes down two or three times, much to the disgust of some of the home crowd. “Pussy” shouts one, “Watch him, he doesn’t fancy it anymore” says the man next to me, “It’s a man’s game” calls another. “Erm no, Aussie Rules is a man’s game” says Paulene as a quiet aside, just to me. So far the game has mostly been Coggeshall’s Nnamdi Nwachuku and Michael Gyasi harrying the Felixstowe defence with their speed and nifty footwork. Seventeen minutes pass, Coggeshall piece together a few passes down the right and a cross finds No8 Tevan Allen; he is on his own at the near post. With time on his hands Tevan kicks the ball up in the air and then, as it drops back down to head height, executes a spectacular overhead kick sending it into the far corner of the goal. It is a remarkable goal, even more so if the initial kick up in the air was intended rather than being a case of not quite controlling the ball, but the latter sadly seems more likely. Tevan celebrates appropriately.

With the breakthrough made, Coggeshall will surely go on score more. But no, with the breakthrough made Felixstowe improve and begin to get forward themselves, often on ‘the break’ with their No9, the heftily built Liam Hillyard, a sort of non-league version of former Ipswich Town player Martyn Waghorn, making the runs into the penalty area. The game stagnates a bit as it becomes more even, with neither side playing particuarly well. The referee Mr Karl Sear makes himself unpopular with the home supporters because he doesn’t book any Felixstowe players, only talks to them, whilst also awarding Felixstowe several free-kicks, seemingly for not much at all.

My attention wanders and I admire a rusty hole in the corrugated iron roof of the stand; ventilation is just what’s needed on a warm day like today.
With a fraction more than five minutes until half-time, Liam Hillyard breaks down the right for Felixstowe, he confuses the Coggeshall defenders sufficiently to pass the ball across the penalty area to Henry Barley who looks to have taken the ball too close to goal before booting it high into the net from an acute angle. After the comments made towards him earlier, Henry Barley might allow himself a wry smile (geddit?).

Things look bleak for Coggeshall; having failed to make the most of their advantage they have now lost it. But football as a game apart from being old is nothing if not funny and soon The Seedgrowers win a free kick. The ball is struck hopefully into the penalty area, players jump and the ball hits random body parts, boots are swung in the direction of the moving ball but none makes proper contact, a Felixstowe player sends the ball towards his own goalkeeper, two Felixstowe defenders go to aim a kick but politely leave it to one another; tired and bemused by its long journey across the penalty area the ball gives itself up to a surprised Nnamdi Nwachuku who happily scores a close-range goal as ropey as the Seedgrowers’ first goal was spectacular. The goal is greeted almost with jeers and laughter, but it still counts and it makes Nnamdi and this little corner of Coggeshall very happy.
Half-time soon follows and we leave our seats; Paulene to use the facilities, me to take our coats back to the car, we really won’t need them today. “Are you leaving?” asks Keith. I reassure him that
I’ll be back for the second half.

Returning from the Citroen I meet my next door neighbour Paul and his eldest son Matthew on the concrete path as they head to the car park end that Coggeshall will be attacking in the second half. Paul has captured the glory of Coggeshall’s second goal on his mobile phone, I think the best bit is where the two Felixstowe defenders let each other boot the ball and neither does. On the grass bank below the concrete path is Colin with his wife Tessa and grandson Harvey and Paulene; I join them in the sunshine and eat a coconut based flapjack that I bought at the Co-op and on which the chocolate has melted. I get just four out of ten in the “Seedgrowers’ half-time quiz” in the programme; how is any one supposed to know that Jamie Carragher has the middle names Lee and Duncan? The second half begins.

The expectation amongst those around me is that Coggeshall will score a third goal, but it doesn’t happen. The game becomes niggly and fractious with lots of swear words; Coggeshall Town is the place to come for sweary football. I kick back and stretch out on the grass enjoying the warmth of the Spring sunshine and the stillness of the afternoon, the peacefulness only punctuated by angry curses from players and supporters and frantic scribbling in his notebook by referee Mr Sear who books six players, three from each team including both Coggeshall goalscorers. Some decent chances to score are missed by both teams and Felixstowe perhaps have the best ones, but if you’d never been to a football match before and had come along because you’d heard about “the beautiful game”, you’d think Pele was a liar. The final act sees Felixstowe’s Callum Bennet sent off by Mr Sears for a poorly thought-out tackle, although conveniently for Bennett he didn’t have far to go because he committed the foul quite close to the corner of the field and the steps to the changing room; so it wasn’t all bad.

With the final whistle I reflect upon what has been a beautiful afternoon in the sun before we head back to the clubhouse for another drink; it’s that kind of a day. I look out for Jim and Keith as the ground empties but don’t see them, I worry that Keith thinks I didn’t return for the second half, which would make me no better than Pele.

Heybridge Swifts 2 Grays Athletic 1


It’s a Spring-like Saturday in late March and there is just a week to go until the clocks go forward; there are tiny buds on the trees and although the sky is overcast the air smells fresh and clear.  Frogs are mating in my garden pond and frisky Collared Doves are settling on my satellite dish and messing up the signal.  It’s a beautiful day to make the twenty-odd kilometre trip by Citroen C3, past Feering to Tiptree and on through Great and Little Totham to Heybridge, a village of about 8,000 people on the north side of the River Blackwater from Maldon.  Until September 1964 it would have been possible to catch a train from Witham to Maldon East and Heybridge station, but the evil Dr Richard Beeching put an end to that and thoughtlessly condemned this corner of Essex to a future of increased traffic and air pollution.

Leaving the B1022 I turn left into Scraley Road, home of Heybridge Swifts Football Club.  Scraley Road is not an attractive name, it sounds a bit like Scaley Road and conjures up images of an unfortunate skin condition.  It’s only about two-thirty but the rough, unsurfaced car park is already full; happily there is an overflow car park about 50 metres along on the right, although for some people that’s too far and they have chosen to park at the side of the road.  The overflow car park is just a muddy track to the local rugby club but it’ll do and I pull up out of the mud and puddles onto a patch of lush grass to park the Citroen.   I walk back to football ground which, as a large sign tells me, is now known as the Aspen Waite Arena, which sounds extremely posh.  When did football grounds become arenas I wonder to myself; probably about the same time that ‘naming rights’ became ‘a thing’ I reply, but silently so as not to appear weird.   I cross the main car park to the black and white painted metal turnstile block avoiding more puddles and form a fledgling queue behind one other person, although I have to walk around two others who seem to be having difficulty finding their money.  Entry costs £10 for an adult and I ask for a programme too (£2).  “There you are dear” says the friendly lady turnstile operator, handing me a glossy programme and a small amber cloakroom ticket with the word ‘Adult’ on, which I soon lose.

From the turnstile I emerge directly into an open space behind one of the goals, to my left a blue polythene tunnel doesn’t quite make it from the changing rooms to the perimeter of the pitch, beyond that is a well populated open patch of grass behind which sit the clubhouse/bar and the tea bar.  I step inside the busy clubhouse but there’s no real ale on the bar, just the usual bland, mass-produced, heavily advertised fizzy stuff, so I head back outside to the tea bar to join a queue of one.  With the previous customer gone away clutching a burger and cup of tea I ask the smiley-faced young woman behind the counter if there are any sausage rolls.  There are and having found his oven gloves the ‘chef’, a more serious-faced, grey-haired man, takes a baking tray from the oven and prises a row of half a dozen sausage rolls from it with a spatula.  I pay the young woman (£1.50) and smiling she hands me one of the ‘released’ sausage rolls in a white paper napkin.   The sausage roll tastes much better for that smile but otherwise compares to one from Greggs, although not as greasy, which is a good thing.

I have time to wander around the ground and take in the architecture before the teams emerge from the blue polythene tunnel and line-up to say “hello” to one another;  as they do so the theme from ‘Z Cars’ plays over the public address system.  The music ends abruptly and the teams are announced very rapidly by a man inside a glass box in the middle of the Mick Gibson Family Stand.  This afternoon’s opponents are Grays Athletic.  As I drove here listening to BBC Radio Essex, the match was described as a ‘derby’ by a young-sounding presenter called Victoria. But given that all but six of the twenty teams in the Bostik Football League North Division there are from Essex there are rather a lot of ‘derbys’. 

The Swifts kick-off towards the First Call Community Stand and the River Blackwater and Maldon beyond; they wear black and white striped shirts with white shorts and socks, a colour scheme no doubt inspired by the colours of Apus Apus, the Swift, although seen up close Swifts are actually dark brown.   Grays Athletic meanwhile are in all blue with white sleeves and look a bit like Ipswich Town playing away to a team that wears white shorts; they are playing in the direction of the club house and Tiptree.   As much as  Grays might look like my team Ipswich Town and even though the legendary Fabian Wilnis played for them (33 times in 2008-09 season) I decide to support Heybridge Swifts today;  Swifts are my favourite birds because they remind me of warm summer evenings and Swifts is such a great if disappointingly rare name for a football club.  I grew up in Shotley  in Suffolk where the village team, now known as Shotley Rose after the village pub, were originally the Shotley Swifts; in the 1920’s my grandfather was on the committee and  I have a much-prized photo of him with the team posing with a trophy.

A long line of home supporters file from the clubhouse to the far end of the ground to stand behind the goal into which the Swifts are hoping to score.  The home team dominate the opening stages and have the first shot as the ball rebounds to their number seven the top-notch wearing Elliott Ronto whose shot is well saved by the Grays ‘keeper, the beautifully named Clark Bogard.   Although he sounds like a matinee idol, Clark is a large man who clearly does not possess a ‘six-pack’ and from a distance his all yellow kit would, for a short-sighted person, perhaps give the impression of a naked Homer Simpson.  Predictably the ‘wit’ of the home supporters is soon in evidence. “Come on Fatty” shouts an estuarine voice as Bogard lingers over a goal kick.  There is a rowdy atmosphere on the shallow covered terrace and two lads self-consciously bang a couple of drums, but not enough to really annoy anyone.  “ E’s only ‘ere for the after match meal” shouts someone else at the ‘keeper. “The food’s good here” responds Clark with a greedy expression, admirably entering into the fun.  “Ello princess” shouts a pre-pubescent lad following a strangely different tack.   A man in his sixties shuffles through the stand selling half-time draw tickets. “Afternoon Steve, Bob” he says to a couple of regulars.  I buy a strip of tickets, numbers 416 to 420 for a pound, I am not destined to win.

The name of Swifts’ Toib Adeyemi is an early entry in the notebook of the tall, elegant referee Mr Farai Hallam, but Swifts continue to get closer to the Grays’ goal than vice versa.  It’s a bit after a quarter past three and Grays number 11 Joao Carlos surges past the Swifts left-back and crosses the ball, it ends up in the Heybridge net and Grays are winning; it’s an own goal and is attributed to Swifts’ number nine Daniel Walker. “Come on you Swifts” is the not-downhearted response from the terrace of the First Call Community Stand.  A black-headed gull wheels above the pitch and disappears over the stand; I move from behind the goal to sit in the main stand, a structure with a row of tubular stanchions along its front, behind which the blue plastic seats have a shallow rake; it’s a classic non-league football stand in a classic non-league ground, a bit home-made looking and scruffy in places, but therein lies its character.  A German Shepherd and two other dogs that look like poodles but aren’t look on, although it’s doubtful they brought themselves here on their own. As the half wears on I move again, closer to the tea bar this time, and am now amongst the Grays Athletic supporters.  Grays are now doing better in terms of possession of the ball and are enjoying a few breakaways.  Number eleven Joao Carlos is a threat down the left, “Go on Carlos” and “Get in the fuckin’ box” shout the Grays fans, before Carlos is booked by Mr Hallam for diving. 

Half-time arrives a little late because of a few stoppages for injuries and I make the short walk to the tea bar but have to join a slow moving queue.  Behind me two men, a West Ham supporter and an Orient supporter talk about the Orient; the football club, not the far East.  The Hammers fan has a habit of finishing the O’s fan’s sentences, like in that sketch by The Two Ronnies, but not as funny. They agree that West Ham isn’t proper football anymore; this (Heybridge Swifts) is proper football.  Eventually my turn comes and I ask the smiley-faced young woman for a tea (£1); she’s still smiling and her smile can’t help but raise the spirits of Swifts fans unhappy that their team is losing.

I drink my polystyrene cup of tea as I take a look through the programme.   I read the thoughts of Swifts’ manager Julian Dicks which are plain and straightforward except for one sentence which reads “Then we gave away a free kick and no one stood on the ball and they popped the ball out and their forward hit a worldy.  He wont hit a ball like that again down hill with the wind behind and Chris had no chance”.  Sheer poetry.

It is five past four and with the start of the second-half I take up a place on one of the two rows of wooden benches in the Mick Gibson Family Stand.  There don’t seem to be any families in the stand although the rest of the ground is well peopled with mums and dads and children of all ages.  I wonder who Mick Gibson is or was and if the stand is just for his family.  The Swifts seem re-invigorated by their half-time tea and the words of Julian Dicks.  Firstly Manny Osei-Owusi gets wide and plays the ball back only for number four Nicholas Brown to skew his shot embarrassingly wide, but minutes later a corner is won, the ball is sent towards goal and repulsed, but only as far as  Toib Adeyemi who is on hand to send it into the goal from close range and the scores are level at one each.  The crowd cheers, although not as much as I thought they would, but then lunchtime and afternoon drinking does make you feel a little sluggish.

I make the same circuit of the ground that I made in the first-half enjoying the different back drops to the action on the field; bare trees on one side, 1960’s suburban houses on the other and blue skies and wispy cloud above.  The sun is now shining through the cloud and shadows of trees and the Mick Gibson Family Stand play across the pitch.  On the opposite side of the ground spectators shadows play against the corrugated metal boundary fence; it’s beautiful in a way that a football match inside a large stadium never can be.

I sit again in the main stand and catch half a conversation behind me as a man explains to his friend about a holiday or short-break he’s been on.  “They’re good hotels too, they suit me, know what I mean?” he says. I don’t know what he means, but then he wasn’t talking to me.  It’s about twenty five past four and the Swifts win a free-kick and rather unexpectedly their number eight, the ostentatiously named Jack Adlington-Pile scores with what might be termed a Jack Adlington-Pile driver, a thundering direct shot worthy of winning any game.   Unavoidably there is a bit more of a reaction to this goal as people voice a collective “Cor!”.   Grays are marshalled well by their imposing captain Stanley Muguo but they can’t get back in to the game and it’s the Swifts who come closest to scoring again as another free-kick, this time from number four Nicholas Brown defies the laws of physics by hitting the inside of a post and re-bounding out.  

As the match heads towards its conclusion Adlington-Pile and Luke Wilson get to see Mr Hallam’s yellow card, as disappointingly they attempt to hang on to the lead by foul means as well as fair.  Whilst the match remains interesting, Grays are just not good enough to score again and the fact that although only four places separate the teams in the league table, Swifts have nineteen, and now twenty-two more points tells a story.

With the final whistle the Grays Athletic players form a post-match huddle, perhaps to stem recriminations, whilst the Swifts enjoy a bit of a love-in with their justifiably appreciative supporters.  It’s been a good match, and arguably going a goal behind and coming back to win is the best sort of win there is.  Scraley Road, or the Aspen Waite Arena as it is known until someone makes a better offer, is a fine non-league ground even if they don’t serve proper beer and like Swifts on summer evenings I look forward to a return.  

Ipswich Town 2 Middlesbrough 2

It is Sunday, the day of rest when traditionally, indigenous western Europeans would go to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChristian church services, but nowadays most people just generally laze about if they can and nurse their hangovers. It is wrong therefore that I have to keep looking at the clock in order to be sure I shower and breakfast before twenty to eleven when I will need to catch the train to Ipswich for the final match of the season. Curse the Football League and Sky television and their ridiculous 12:30 kick off, something that could never happen in a civilised country like France where lunch is important. Other than tired, I cannot imagine how Middlesbrough supporters must feel having to travel the best part of three hundred miles to get here from Teesside.
The 10:55 train is on time and generously peopled with Ipswich Town supporters. I sit down on the end of a row of three seats; a sinewy bald man wearing last season’s Town shirt is at the other end; he moves his rucksack off the middle seat as I sit down; he reads a Sunday supplement and then The Economist. Nerd. A gregarious elderly man from Witham gets on at Colchester and walks down the train. He sees the blue shirts and asks “Any true Blues here?” He receives a few grunted acknowledgements “Haha, well done!” he says and then sits down. Seeing a lad in a Town shirt on the next set of seats he gets up again and asks “How far have you come for the match today then?” The boy answers “Braintree.” The old man laughs. “Ha, ha Braintree!” he says “ ‘orrible sodding place isn’t it? ”
It is a glorious sunny day and in Ipswich Middlesbrough supporters are gathered in the

beer garden of the Station Hotel, a pub which will miss the football season and the regular visitations from people from other towns and cities intent on enjoying a day out. Portman Road is busy, the turnstiles are open, I buy a programme (£3) and consider that people will eat burgers at any time of day. Up on St Matthews Street St Jude’s Tavern is not very busy. I purchase a pint of the Match Day Special, which today is St.Jude’s St Clements (£2.50) a light beer with a hint of a tang of orange citrus; ideal on a hot day like today. A man speaks to me who seems to know me, I have no idea who he is, he even sits at the table where I am sat. I am soon also joined by Ollie however, a much younger man and work colleague. I have a ticket for Ollie which he has purchased from Roly for a knock down price of a tenner, because Roly has a fortieth birthday bash to attend on the Norfolk Broads. Ollie offers to buy me another drink, but I decline. Ollie has a pint of the match day special too.
At about five past twelve we head for Portman Road bidding farewell to the jolly landlord who wishes us “Bon match” except in English. I enter the stadium to the strains of “Living on a prayer” by Bon Jovi, a depressing song, both because it is awful and because it recalls 1986 the year Ipswich Town were relegated from the first division and the long decline began. My first port of call is the toilet where, with a bloke stood at either end of the urinal a third man annoys me by standing in the middle with no room either side of him.
Having recovered my composure I take to a seat a row or two in front of Pat from Clacton and next to ever-present Phil, who hasn’t missed a game in 30 years and his son Elwood. The teams aren’t out yet but a guard of honour of youngsters with flags lines the

way from the players’ tunnel. Crazee the mascot is heroically waving a much larger flag, a bit like Liberty Leading the People in Delacroix’s painting depicting the revolution of 1830, although I doubt many other people think so and Crazee hasn’t bared his breasts either. A woman at the front of the stand wearing a strapless top which looks like it has been partly torn off her could possibly fill in at any moment, if required.
Rapture and applause for the conquering heroes of Reading out of the way the game begins. Town kick off in their customary blue and white towards me and the other occupants of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand. I am pleased to see the ‘Boro not opting to wear some superfluous away kit, but instead adorned with their traditional all red kit with a white band across the chest, like back in the 1970’s. I am reminded of Jack Charlton and the Middlesbrough team that had one of the greatest collection of surnames of any team ever: Platt, Craggs, Boam, Spraggon, Foggon, Brine and Woof. Today the white band bears the name of the shirt sponsor, something called ‘Ramsden Currency’. I thought Ramsden’s was a Fish & Chips franchise but they seem to have diversified into banking, hence the expression ‘cheap as chips’ I guess. Seeing as they’re from the northeast it’s probably something to do with pay day loans.
Portman Road is unusually noisy, due in part to over 1,800 Smog Monsters, as the

inhabitants of Middlesbrough are sometimes unkindly known, although a diet of ‘Parmos’ doesn’t do them a lot of favours. But Ipswich fans in the Sir Bobby Robson stand are in reasonable voice and the drum in the corner is being beaten enthusiastically. It helps that Town start the game like a team on a mission to win, which I guess they are. For the first ten minutes Ipswich dominate and then Freddie Sears scores a searing goal, winning the ball wide on the right before advancing and making the ball disappear before making it reappear as it hits the back of the net.
The goal perhaps changes matters and Middlesbrough begin to keep the ball to themselves to prevent such a thing happening again. It’s not long before the ‘Boro fans are borrowing a Pet Shop Boys tune to complain to the Ipswich fans that despite their team winning they are still not singing. It’s a fair cop. Then Town’s Cole Skuse collapses Britt Assambalonga in full flight and is booked by referee Mr Coote, who sadly has a full head of hair. There is a lot of hair on display today with the ‘Boro’s Ryan Shotton sporting tied-back tinted dreadlocks which resemble a trussed up Tarantula. Adam Clayton’s tiny top notch, a sort of My Little Ponytail looks pathetic in comparison, but clearly the barbers of Teesside are doing alright off the back or head of the football club. This is why a successful football teams is said to be so good for the local economy.
In the Sir Bobby Robson stand Town fans turn “Oh when the saints going marching in ” into a dreadful dirge as if predicting Southampton’s relegation. The song subsides and with a half an hour gone the Boro fans are asking if this is a library and where the nineteenth century American literature might be found. They go on to advise that Town fans “Only sing when you’re farming” before asking the whereabouts of our combine harvesters, immediately giving away their ignorance of the farming year and the fact that no one much has their own combine harvester anymore. It’s five past one and time for a drinks break. The old couple behind me moan and groan as if this is some terrible affront to them. It wasn’t like this in their day, dehydration was a fact of life and you had to get on with it, like you did with diphtheria and fatal industrial accidents.
Thirty nine minutes pass before the Boro fans decide they cannot take it any longer and get out their Welsh hymnals and sing that “Your support is, your support is, your support is fucking shit”. I enjoy the sense of anticipation created by the repetition of the first line. Half –time arrives and Ipswich are still winning 1-0 although defending has had to become their playing style of choice. I speak with Ray and his wife Ros who is making her annual visit or pilgrimage to Portman Road. I check on the buddleia on the roof of the stand; it’s still there and doing well but it’s too high up to see any butterflies. It is forty years ago today that Ipswich Town won the FA Cup and as a half-time treat five

blokes in their sixties, who it turns out are members of that winning team are paraded onto the pitch with an FA Cup (there’s more than one apparently). They remain by the dugouts and a bloke with a mike asks some dull questions, before they are lead away. It would have been better if they could have been driven around the pitch in some sort of football version of a “pope-mobile” to take the applause from each stand in turn.
The second half sees Ipswich defend more and more, and more desperately, with shot after shot being blocked. Middlesbrough are much the better team in terms of being able to pass to each other and take shots on goal. Too often Ipswich hit the ball with more hope than subtlety or careful weighting so that it finds another Ipswich player. There is a skills gap, but as time rolls on it looks like it might be Town’s lucky day; but then it turns out not to be as following a corner Stewart Downing takes a shot from the edge of the penalty area and miraculously it doesn’t hit anyone or anything between Downing’s boot and the goal net.
Seventy-five minutes have passed and it’s time for another drinks break. “Ohhhh, what the heck is goin’ on?” says an angry old voice “What a load of ….” but he trails off unable to think of a word for what it is a load of. Despite having already been introduced to the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAconcept of the drinks break in the first half, the old folks’ understanding and acceptance has not improved. They must be quite mean spirited to want to deny a drink to people who have been running several miles on a hot sunny day. Health professionals tells us that old people do not drink enough and it would seem they don’t want other people to drink either.
Perhaps reinvigorated by the drinks break, Ipswich begin to attack again with seven minutes of the match remaining earn a penalty, which Martyn Waghorn makes into a goal and Ipswich are once again winning. There are no complaints about the lack of support now as Ipswich fans nervously urge their team to hold out against the Boro’ who set up tents around the edge of the Ipswich penalty area. The Ipswich cross bar is smote and Daniel Ayala, a former Norwich player heads the re-bounding ball into the net, but is delightfully deemed offside. Ayala does not accept the decision gracefully, which only adds to the fun.
The game enters uncharted amounts of time added on, probably because of those pesky drinks breaks, and thirteen minutes after Waghorn’s penalty a Middlesbrough corner is headed ‘home’ by Patrick Bamford, an oddly upper class looking player who could be up for the weekend from Eton or Harrow.
Isn’t it a pity, isn’t it a shame? Yes, but the final whistle now blows and the news is that Norwich have been thrashed 5-1 by Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich have therefore finished above Norwich in the final league table and so all’s well that ends well etcetera. It has been an exciting match which Middlesbrough should have won but Ipswich could have won and that seems enough at the moment to make some Town fans optimistic, but it’s probably just the sunshine.

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Braintree Town 1 Truro City 1

It’s a mild and blowy Tuesday night in November and there’s a ‘top of the table clash’ just eight miles down the road from my house as Braintree Town play Truro City in the Vanarama National League South. It might not be far from my house, but Braintree is a bloody long way from Truro, 343 miles apparently and as far as any club has ever travelled to play a league match against Braintree Town. In awe of such a statistic I am inexorably drawn to witness the occasion.
I could get to Braintree by train, but I’d have to change at Witham and I don’t want to do that. So I take the easy option, which is to drive. Parking up near the end of Clockhouse Way at about ten past seven, the streets are quiet, with no one heading for the match, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdrawn by the eerie glow of the floodlights through the now mostly skeletal boughs of the trees. L S Lowry would never have made much of his painting ‘Going to the match’ if he’d lived and painted in Braintree. Entering the car park of the Ironmongery Direct Stadium (formerly and more prosaically known as Cressing Road) I stop to snap a photo for this blog. “How many pictures of grounds have you got then?” asks a man heading for the turnstile. He thinks I’m a ground hopper. I am a bit embarrassed, but say “Oooh, not many, a couple of hundred”.
The admission price this season at Braintree has very sportingly been reduced from £16 to £14 following relegation and similarly the programme is 50p cheaper too, although it’s no longer glossy, I like it all the more for that. I enter the stadium to the strains of Amen Corner: “If paradise is half as nice as being here with you…” which makes me feel wanted. Sadly the welcoming choice of music does not last until kick-off as the two teams enter the field to Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Fanfare for the common man”. I say Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s; but it was only their arrangement of a piece written by American composer Aaron Copland, which your common man might possibly not know. It’s no less appropriate for work-a-day Braintree but it’s a bit naff too. But there’s nothing very exotic about the Vanarama National League South,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA as its name perhaps suggests; like a lot of non-league football it is the haunt of builders and ‘White Van Man’, which is possibly why Vanarama, purveyors of commercial vehicles, thought it worth their while to sponsor it.
I take up a position at the end of the low metal roofed terrace on the east side of the ground, known as The Shed. Three Truro fans are attaching flags to the back wall of the stand, one of which refers to Truro being the Tin Men.

There is a larger group of Truro fans stood behind the goal at the end of the ground that the teams appeared from; they have a big Cornish flag. Truro City kick-off the game towards those supporters, wearing all blue, whilst Braintree make it a colourful spectacle by wearing all orange. The three Truro fans immediately make one helluva racket repeating “Truro, Truro, Truro” over and over and over again to the tune of Amazing Grace. A larger bunch of Braintree fans stood just a few yards away look on slightly bemused or perhaps impressed; eventually they respond with some chants of “Iron, Iron, Iron” , but not any old iron, the Iron that is Braintree Town’s nickname. They soon give up in the face of Truro’s Amazing Grace however, which eventually ends abruptly with a little cough. The Truro fans then start to sing ”Come on Truro, come on Truro” to the tune of Auld Lang Syne which is predictably answered with “Fuck off Truro, fuck off Truro” to the same tune; the concept of terrace wit is grossly exaggerated.
Meanwhile, jet airliners from Stanstead soar overhead, the noise of their engines blotted out by three blokes form Cornwall under an echoing tin roof. On the pitch Braintree look sharp from the start with their diminutive number seven darting about on the wing just in front of me and the Cornishmen. Both teams seem to be made up of three or four enormous blokes; at least two at the back and one up front. The remainder of the team look tiny by comparison, it’s as if the Vanarama National League South imposes some sort of combined height quota on its teams; the aggregate height of the team not being allowed to exceed the length of seven Transit vans placed end to end. Truro’s number four is possibly the most enormous man on the pitch, he sports a beard and although he is absolutely massive he doesn’t really deserve the ‘fat bastard’ epithet the Braintree supporters inevitably award him.
The three Cornishmen embark on an acapello rendition of “Come On Truro” in what is rapidly becoming an evening of K-tel ‘s greatest hits from the terraces . The Truro supporters behind the goal break into a rare song and the vocal threesome sing “We forgot that you were here” to Bread of Heaven. Intrigued by this I ask one of the Cornishmen why they aren’t they with the others behind the goal. He tells me it’s because they wanted to be under the roof. I ask if there isn’t some split between Truro supporters, “Don’t ask” he says, so I don’t. One of their flags is for the Truro City Independent Supporters Club so I just speculate that may be there is some sort of great Cornish schism much like the one that afflicted the Christian Church in the middle of the eleventh century. (1054).
Meanwhile it’s not a bad match, the blend of big blokes and smaller ones is an even one and the teams are well matched, but to the extent that the ball is rarely in danger of hitting either goal net. I am conscious that a man in a hi-vis jacket has been stood next to me for several seconds and I turn slightly to my right to face him. He’s a steward, and it’s as if he’s been waiting for me to acknowledge him, “Could you stand behind there please sir” he says, gesturing towards the chunky orange crush barrier. “Okay” I say cheerily, not wishing to cause a scene, although I had been quite happy where I was. The Beatles “Hey Jude” is now the vehicle for the latest chants of “Truro” whilst Braintree supporters weirdly and somewhat mournfully appropriate “Sloop John B” to chant “We know who we are, We know who we are, There’s one team in Essex, We know who we are”.
It’s about twenty past eight and suddenly the Braintree Town defence mysteriously melts away allowing Truro’s number ten Cody Cooke to run through and score a goal. The Truro fans are very pleased and inevitably have a song to celebrate the occasion as they tell us “ Cody Cooke is one of us, he loves Truro” although I thought it sounded like he loves Jesus, which of course he might. Half-past eight arrives and brings with it half-time and I move to the terrace by the players tunnel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The tannoy treats us to a rarely heard hit from 1970, Blackfoot Sue’s “Standing In The Road”; tonight at Cressing Road is proving to be a musical wonderland.
The second half begins and Braintree quickly hit their first decent shot on target and then they score as Roman Michael-Purcell easily turns in a cross from Phil Roberts who had made an exciting run forward. Restless as I am I am now sat in the box like main stand. Behind me a man who probably has a mental illness provides an occasional commentary announcing players names and incidents. His voice reminds me a little of the late John Arlot; he has a slight burr which lengthens the players’ names. He seems to have a love for the sounds of the names and is familiar with them all; he repeats some of them often such as Marcel Barrington and Christian Frimpong, who he calls Ping Pong. His ‘commentary’ is in in the style of John Motson as he announces substitutions for both teams but then Truro’s Andrew Neal flattens Frimpong in full flight. “Refereee, refereeee!” our commentator calls and then adds “Fucking cunt” . Then, to close this episode he says “Yellow card, Andrew Neal, the cheeky little fellow”.
The wind is getting stronger and swirls of willow leaves spiral down in front of the stand onto the edge of the pitch. More substitutions are announced behind me as is the fact that Matt Baxter does not come off the bench for Braintree, “ Not Matt Baxter, not Matt Baxter” is the refrain. The game remains tight and interesting as both teams play to win but don’t really come that close to getting a second goal. Truro substitute Tyler Harvey likes to run at the Braintree defence and creates a couple of half-chances and with his long tied back hair he looks like he might be found surfing on Newquay beach when not turning out on a Tuesday night for Truro City. I like to think there is a VW campervan somewhere in the club car park.
The match draws to a close with both sides going for goal unsuccessfully. It was tight at the top of the Vanarama National League South table when this game began and now when it ends at a bit after half past nine, it still is; a point for each team alters nothing. The home crowd are perhaps more disappointed not to have won than the travellers from Cornwall who have at least had a road trip and a jolly sing-song; and me, I’ve had a lovely time.