Lying on the sofa last night, I do my best to concentrate on Christian Bale’s gravelly voiced portrayal of Bat Man, but my head is all over the place. At any other time, Tom Hardy’s muscle bound, mask wearing performance as Bane, would have me captivated, but I’ve just read the Weston Super Mare AFC’s latest tweet: INSPECTION: There will be a pitch inspection tomorrow morning at 9:30.
This is not good, Storm Erik who has been battering the bath mat on the clothes line outside my bedroom window for the last twenty four hours, has really thrown a spanner in the works, and it just about caps off my current run of bad of luck. Frozen pitches, snow, illness and a stint in hospital last week, means that all too rare treat for us, football in daylight and on a Saturday, is going to be scuppered by some daft named weather system.
Like a distress flare, I fire off my own tweet, asking for help and Twitter dutifully responds. There is by all accounts no shortage of football clubs in the general vicinity of the seaside town, but surely if Weston Super Mares pitch is in need of an inspection, those nearby must be destined for the same fate.
I wrestle with not telling Tom that the game is in jeopardy, he has already bought his train tickets, having spent the last week food tasting and visiting florists in Devon in preparation for his wedding in August. Our plan was to meet roughly in the middle, to take in a game, taking advantage of him not being at work.
Hurriedly finishing my cornflakes, my phone buzzes and I almost don’t want to look, it’s the news we didn’t want, “GAME OFF”. Shit.
I walk to my car wracked with anxiety, the skies are blue in London, Erik’s huffing and puffing has certainly lessened, and someone is clearing up after his night time exertions, retrieving their wheelie bin he skidded across the forecourt outside my flat. However the fact it’s all calm here, means nothing, one hundred and fifty miles west, it may be a whole other story. Fuelled only by blind hope, I pray to the football gods that my three hour drive won’t be a wasted one, I’m due a little bit of good luck.
The roads are clear, and I’m making good time, but the car is somewhat devoid of the usual atmosphere. Tom is absent, so it means I have to rely on Radio 4 for company, which is no bad thing, however it would have been handy to have him there if not for the riveting conversation, but simply to turn off my daughters chirping blue elephant, that is somewhere behind me, out of reach, that comes to life at the slightest vibration.
A pit stop for coffee and the sight of an exploding pheasant striking the front of a HGV later, and the shimmering sea of parked cars on the outskirts of Bristol signifies I’m nearly there. The wind has constantly buffeted my car, but as of yet there has been no rain, although the sky is constantly threatening some kind of deluge.
Tom is certainly well prepared, his new waterproof jacket, practical, but a departure from his normal look. It’s more twitcher, then Shoreditch man about town. He recounts four days of non stop rain while he has been deliberating if pie and mash is suitable for a summer wedding. He his though supremely confident that our new game will go ahead, somewhat overly and suspiciously so. For someone who is normally quite easily diverted onto a pessimistic track, it’s a tad out of character.
The sky grows increasingly angry as I double back on myself, towards today’s ground. Tom does his best to elevate my woes with tales of a “trio of desserts” and a list of “canapes” which includes a miniature “toad in the hole”. The sight of the matchstick thin floodlights soaring up into the dreary sky are a welcome sight, and it’s not long before we are winding down a narrow lane and pulling into the curiously named Everyone Active Stadium.
Passing by a long white wall, with silhouettes of people in different states of exercise, it is not enough to divert my attention away from the spots of rain starting to settle on my windscreen. Tom is verging on the fanatical in his attempts to cheer me up, handing me a present, a pair of fingerless gloves, that will be useless today, but at least he has finally got himself some, and I’m grateful he thought to get me some and they go some way to lift my spirits.
Brian, Clevedon Town AFC’s (CT) chairman is the first to greet us, opening the thin metal gate, he is quick to fill us in on the “good drainage” they have. He is also the first to utter the aforementioned catchphrase, that will be bandied about more than once, in the lead up to kick off. Wandering around the pitch a grey haired man with a fork in hand, delicately prods and pokes at the turf, which certainly to my uneducated eye, looks in great nick. “This morning it was perfect,” he explains, but the recent unforecast downpour, is pushing the boundaries of what it can take.
Standing under the full pitch length terrace to shelter from the rain, the sound of it pounding against the sheet metal roof above us, almost making it hard to think, it quickly destroys all Tom’s good work of the gift and talk of “prawn tempura”. His chat with the man with the fork, is not exactly constructive, “not hopeful” he says half whispering, in an attempt to break the news to me gently. “At least it’s not heavy,” he adds, trying his best to keep up his one man pep rally.
It’s the man with the forks turn to repeat “this morning it was perfect” when the CT assistant manager asks him, “how’s it holding up?” Tom continues with his positively drive, “I’m optimistic” he says, “you’ve driven a long way.” The arrival of the referee and his assistants, suited and booted, all doing that hunched shoulder thing people do when it’s raining and they don’t have a brolly, like it’s going to somehow protect them, feels a little ominous. They head straight for the Tuck Shop, the open hatch at the base of the pale brick main stand opposite us.
One of the assistants as Tom puts it looks “mortified” his eyes fixated on the sky, I almost get the sense he is willing for the match to be called off.
The presence of the officials as CT’s Club Secretary Eric puts it from underneath his badge peppered flat cap, takes the decisions re the pitch “out of our hands” it’s “up to the ref now”. Having ended up here all a bit last minute, I’m thankful for Eric in his blue and white striped club scarf, who happily gives us a little background on CT’s season so far.
“We’re sixth” he explains, we being a ridiculously young team with an average age of “twenty two”. The recent success of their “under eighteen” squad, saw most of them promoted to the senior team. Their youth though as Eric tells us doesn’t mean they aren’t coping, quite the contrary, “we’re holding our own”, but each game is about “getting experience” the lack of it can rear its head on occasion he tells us, and physically they can find it difficult at times.
The impertinence of youth can also rub some teams up the wrong way, because when a seventeen year old skips away from you at ease, older opponents can feel somewhat affronted, and things Eric tells us can get a bit “nasty” he says chuckling to himself, likes he’s recounting a specific occasion.
“Look its stopping” announces Tom, pointing to the newly emerging sun, that is doing its best to shed its dark shroud. In the blink of an eye it goes from miserable to wishing I had left my coat in the car because its getting warm. It’s appearance sparks the stadium into life, two people have started to take down the goal nets and Mary J Blige is blaring from the physios portacabin clinic.
Despite the now beaming sun and the rain a distant memory, the arriving away team players of Chipping Sodbury Town FC (CST) seem sceptical as they assess the pitch, not convinced that it’s going to pass muster, “is it on?” ask one to Eric, whose reply is a resounding “yeah, whats wrong with you!”
“Never heard people moan as much as footballers” he says to himself as the CST players, fresh off their mini bus, file past him, “rugby players would love it”. While the 90’s R&B classics continue, along with the smell of deep heat, to flood from the physios room, its TLC’s Scrubs now, Eric continues to be a fine font of local knowledge. I’m listening so keenly to him telling us about the fact that next door to the ground “they train police dogs and horses” that I forget the golden rule that all non league tea is dangerously hot, and nearly melt my lips.
“No trouble here” jokes Eric, their neighbours ensuring it’s probably the safest non league ground going and any lost balls are “put in reception” as it’s probably a good idea no one goes “looking for them”. He also recounts with much pride the recent visit of Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup. It would seem that the thing that stuck with him the most was not the amount of people in attendance, the calibre of the youngsters playing for the Premier League sides under 18’s team, but the fact post match they ordered “twenty eight pizzas” from the local Domino’s, before heading back to the North West.
Fork man has put down his garden tool and now clutches a red sweet tin in the crook of his arm instead, turning him into 50/50 man. He carefully tears two orange tickets from the book and takes my £2, before turning away and trying to hawk some more,“50/50 tickets”. Less than two steps away from him the programme seller in his hi viz waistcoat and flat cap, which apparently is the obligatory head gear in these parts, he is introduced to us by Eric as a “personal friend of Stanley Matthews”.
Such an accolade is too good to simply ignore, so I enquire how this came to be and he tells us of their chance meeting in Nairobi during his time in the army and some years later, he and the ‘The Wizard of the Dribble’ crossed paths again at the opening of the very ground we are at today.
In a another repurposed portacabin, adjacent to the turnstiles where a man sits in his pale yellow booth, watched over by a curious hand drawn picture of Ronaldinho, a home printed sign goes up in the window declaring its the Club Shop. Inside we interrupt the man setting up on the long table down its centre, covered in boxes filled with old programmes and the choice of not one, but two pins for Tom.
I would not go as far as calling it a steady stream of people paying the man with his Brazilian companion to come in, more a trickle. Eric said that the “bad weather” will always put off a few, but it’s a healthy’ish crowd forming almost exclusively around the Tuck Shop as well as inside the white beach hut looking clubhouse, with its impressive collection of club memorabilia on the walls and a hall any pirate would be proud of, of silverware behind the bar.
A few people have taken up one of the blue seats in the main stand, a couple in front of one of the two flags that hang on its back wall. Actually flags might not quite do them justice, they’re more like banners, one alludes to CT’s nickname the Seasiders, but I don’t remember seeing the sea anywhere.
It’s such a softly spoken “hello and welcome” from the person manning the PA that I can barely hear him. The sun has gone, however the rain has yet to return which is something. From one corner of the ground, at the foot of one of the wirey floodlights the teams congregate, and not from the centre of the main stand as one would expect, because as Eric had told us, that’s now the local gym.
The CT manager, former Bristol Rovers player Mikey Bell, offers his players a handshake, before they head out onto the pitch, though a very agricultural looking yellow gate Eric is holding open, each doing their best to avoid the muddy swamp that has formed on the edge of the pitch.
CST number 10 at the back of the line, hurriedly finishes half a banana, before dousing himself in water from a small bottle and with some help from Eric he ensure it ends up in one of the nearby wheelie bins, and not on the floor. It’s what you might call a subdued walkout, no rousing music, not much of a welcome from either set of the fans, a couple look on stony faced, one sips from a plastic pint glass, another seems more interested in his chips than the players. The referee leads them out maybe a quarter of the way, before stopping to perform the handshake.
The shirts of the players, the corner flags and those of the linesman’s ripple in what is a stiff breeze,
the one linesman who looked “mortified” now in shorts and shorts sleeves looks doubly so now. Clearly energised by his pre match snack, CST’s number 10 bounds up and down on the centre spot in preparation of kick off. A single shout goes up from the main stand in support of the visitors, “come on Sodbury” and one home player demands a “big start” from this team mates.
Although he’s yet to put on his fingerless gloves, I think Tom wishes he had brought some sunglasses too, “fucking bright kit” he says half squinting, the towering yet incredibly youthful looking CT keeper is an all neon ensemble, which makes him look like a highlighter pen, and not long after kick off as Tom put it, he’s soon “in the wars”.
A bit of miscommunication sees him collide in mid air with another player, which sends the human sharpie crashing to the ground and for a moment he doesn’t look like he is going to be getting back up anytime soon. Thankfully his time on the horizontal is short lived, although he still looks a little dazed as the CST corner is taken and he knows very little about the header he keeps out, the ball striking him and bouncing back into play, where in the melee he takes another knock to add to his growing collection.
The ball ricochets around the box, falling to a CST player who lashes over from close range. It must have taken a touch, because a second corner is awarded, which results in a second case of the ball pinging off every bum, thigh and midriff, before falling once again to a CST player who just like the one before, fires over from almost exactly the same spot. The keeper, who by the looks of it is still seeing stars, flings his arms up in the air in an attempt to save it and watches the ball clear the top of his goal and the wall behind him.
“That’s two balls gone, good thing you parked around the corner” says Tom, showing concern for my windscreen, but all I can think about is that the Alsatians will have a couple of new playthings.
Scratching his head Tom points out that there is “no one in the away dugout”. Two men in dark tracksuits are patrolling the technical area, but there is a large player shaped gap on the bench behind them and if they carry on committing fouls like “blatantly” kicking CT players, tuts Tom, an example of what Eric said earlier, of opponents turning “nasty”, they might need some back up.
“Should be a card” concludes Tom, but it’s not forthcoming, “ref are you joking?” asks a CT player in a thick west country accent, but no yellow is produced.
I’m not sure from where, but the void behind the CST coaches in the squat little white dugout has been filled by four slightly cold and bored looking substitutes. Just shy of ten minutes gone and it’s the home sides turn to go close with their first effort on target, a nice flick on the edge of the box and a bit of an up and under, allows the forward the time for a shot, but it’s saved well by the feet of the sprawling CST keeper. A keeper who wins the battle of the goalkeeper kits unanimously.
His black shorts and British racing green top, evoking visions of Pat Jennings. In fact the visitors win the battle of the kits too, as nice as the blue and white vertical striped CT top is with hooped socks, CST’s black and white stripes, win by default. It’s also made by Kappa, which inevitably gets Tom excited, and triggers flashbacks to football of the mid 90’s. He won’t admit it, but he also likes it because of the the faint outline of the women’s breasts, sitting back to back to form the manufacturers logo.
The brief noise of rain on the roof above us, does little to dampen my mood, which since kick off has seen a remarkable turnabout. Tom is revelling in the purchase of his own fingerless gloves, about bloody time, but he’s still not 100% satisfied. “Cold tips” he says while showing me his ever so slightly blue fingertips.
“Fucking sort it out” cries one home player after his team allow CST a free shot on goal, luckily for them it wasn’t hit with much conviction and was straight down the keepers throat, who in an attempt to get the ball up field attempts a quick kick, but it’s blocked, so he goes for something a little “unorthodox” as Tom puts it, rolling it out instead like a small child ten pin bowling.
What has been a hectic start, and the reason for my improved mood, is crowned by a quite sublime CST goal, one that had looked like it had been coming since the start. A cross from the left is knocked into the path of their number 7, who takes two touches to circumnavigate his marker on the edge of the box, another to set himself and then lets rip a hooked left foot shot that nestles right in the corner of the net, the CT keeper at full stretch not getting even close.
CST’s number 7’s celebration had promise, you can’t beat a knee slide, but the soft turf, doesn’t really allow him to slide, and instead he digs in, just avoiding going the full Andrew Johnson.
“Let’s build on it” shouts one of the away coaches, the feelings of one of home player is that they haven’t really been in it since kick off, “we’ve been shit from the first second”. They very nearly respond with an almost instant reply to going behind, a curled effort from the edge of the box, buts its right at the keeper.
Things though go from bad to worse for CT, four minutes after going one behind, they concede again. Another edge of the box curler, another case of the CST players being allowed far too much time on the edge of the box to shoot. The second goal, even further out of the reaches of the CT keeper, than the second. This time he doesn’t even move, rooted to the spot as it sails in. The scorer of the seconds celebration is unaffected by the conditions, he lets out a guttural roar, before raising his index finger to his lips, who he is shhing, I’m not quite sure.
Just like when they conceded the first time round, CT almost pull one back straight away, only this time the ball zips across the the goal mouth, inches wide of the far post.
“Is that a rule?” asks Tom. The referee doesn’t seem sure, he looks to his assistant for a bit of guidance, but gets nothing. The CST players are adamant that it is, in fact they are livid that CT haven’t been punished for their defender collecting the goal kick from inside the box, but the referee just waves on play.
In a sign of just how high confidence is among the CST players, their keeper starts to showboat. He could have quite easily caught the ball, but instead controls it on his chest and waits to the very last moment, the onrushing CT forward practically on top of him, before scooping it up.
Would non league football, really be the same without the presence of at least one dog? The answer you’re looking for is no and although it’s not the kind that is going to take down a rampaging rioter, like the ones over the brick wall, he is just as tenacious in his pursuit of his very own deflated football. Charging up and down the length of the terrace, effectively dribbling with it, he shows some nifty touches.
To be clear in no way am I comparing the CT players to the black border collie, but they also have some flashes of real skill, but it’s all too infrequent and they are muscled off the ball with ease. In their captain they have someone who I don’t think has ever been shoved off the ball in his life, “whos that player who plays for Celtic?” asks Tom in reference to the home number 4, and I know just who he is talking about, Scott Brown. Stout, solid, rugged with a shaved head, he does his best to marshal his younger teammates from the centre of midfield, but it’s proving a struggle.
“Too easy” bellows the home keeper, after watching another shot fly over his cross bar. A ball that splits the CT defence, finds the rapid CST number 9, who is really proving to be quite the handful and
his first touch sets him up perfectly, but he’s off target. Big claps echo from the main stand in reply to his effort and Tom is not very hopeful for the home team, “they’re not going to win”. By the sounds of it, Eric feels the same way. “For fucks sake, come on” he shouts, still manning the little yellow gate.
Five minutes until half time and the pitch is “holding up” well comments Tom. At the moment it doesn’t look like the man with the fork is going to have to have much to do come full time. One CT player demands his teammates “fucking up it” but as the half edges towards the break, CST’s number 9 is becoming increasingly rampant. Falling short of hitting him with a anvil, they don’t have an answer for his raw pace. Again he’s away, but this time his touch lets it down, and the CT keeper is able to claim the ball just in the nick of the time, which frustrates the CST forward no end, resulting in him going full Ketsbaia, on a nearby hoarding.
The half concludes with a mighty 50/50 challenge on the edge of the CT box, CST’s number 9 racing away from the home defence yet again, but he’s unable to make anything of his time in the CT area and one home fan asking Eric quietly to “hobble” the CST forward when the players “come off”.
Having opened the gate to allow the players to depart, Eric says in no uncertain terms as the home players with heads bowed trudge past him, that they are “going to get a bollocking”. He almost seems in a mild state of shock, “dismal, the worst they’ve played all season”.
The quiet voice over the PA returns, Tom is long gone, joining the back of the queue at the Tuck Shop. Although I’m interested to see what he comes back with. All his menu testing over the past week, means I think he is actually full. He has not spoken about food once since we got here. The whisperer thanks those who were “kind enough to support” the “50/50”, I strain to hear the number of the winning ticket, but he confirms that I won’t be the one going home with the winnings. A second non league dog, makes me think I’m in for some half time entertainment, but this one is scared off the ball, running away from it, instead of controlling it on it’s thigh and nutmegging its owner.
“Last burger” says a clearly relieved Tom, who couldn’t wait to make it back to our little spot on the terrace to eat, so picked away at his chips like a crow on some fresh roadkill. The click, click, click of the players studs on concrete means we hear them, before we see them. Tom bobs up and down as he eats, trying to warm up, “bit nippy” he says with a mouth full of burger.
To say it’s clear that CT have well and truly had a rocket put up them at the break, might be an understatement, they have come out flying, straight on the front foot, wanting to make up for a very poor first half, and although an early ambitious long range shot is well over, its shows their intentions, as the second half gets underway in the same vein of the first, manic and very physical.
“Wakey, wakey” insists someone from the away bench, as the CT chances come thick and fast. A “good tackle” says Tom, right in the middle of the CST box, is the difference between the home side pulling back an early goal and not. Another curling shot goes over not long after and CT look like a different side.
A monumental burp to my left is followed by the immortal words, “I ate that far too quickly”. I don’t allow my friends Temple of Doom worthy table manners to distract me from what has been a dominant first ten minutes from CT, who are showing more and more of that skill that Eric alluded to pre kick off. A drag back is too quick for one CST player, he catches the man instead of the ball, awarding the home side a free kick in a dangerous position.
Lofted in, it finds a CT player who is able to nod it back towards the edge of the six yard box, where a teammate is ready and waiting to stroke it in. Completely unmarked he has all the time in the world to hit the target, which he does, low down to the CST keepers left. What looks like will be a certain goal, a goal CT more than deserve on their second half performance is somehow kept out.
Inspired by those who have worn the same green jersey before him, he pulls off a a save worthy of the greats of old, like Banks and Wilson. Somehow, god only knows how, he claws it out, and such is my shock, I’m reduced to letting out a high pitched “oh shit” as he gets back to his feet and is justifiably high fived by one of his defence, his teammate all over the pitch applauding his remarkable save.
“Too fucking easy” bemoans one CT player, sixty two minutes on the clock, and after such a rousing start to the second half they find themselves further behind. A slide rule pass inside the left full back, cuts him out of the game completely, a ball across the box and a simple toe poke into the back of the net.
Only seconds before we were both waxing lyrical about how well CT were doing, and then reality comes and slaps them around the face. One home fan has had enough, saying farewell to his friend before he leaves, one CST fan is on his feet in the main stand, making his approval of his teams industry known, “well done Sodbury”.
CT heads are down and CST only look like they are going to add to the home players misery. The visitors have a strong shout for a penalty waved away, after what looked like a hand ball from a CT defender, stooping to almost ankle level, John Terry style to head the ball clear. I’m convinced CT are going to bag themselves a consolation goal, what kind of consolation a single goal brings I’m not sure, but I just have a feeling they are going to do it, Tom on the other hand is not so sure.
I admit I’m not remotely tactically inclined at all, I’m still coming to terms with what a false 9 is, but I’m pretty sure your number 10 should be a bit further up field to initiate the attacks and not be basically playing as a second left back. CT’s play maker is so deep, he does his best with long raking passes out from the back, but he’s having little effect.
Just as CT chins start to lift, CST go close again, but in the words of an always straight talking Tom, their number 9 who has continued to shine, “fluffed it”. Leaving his marker for dead, someone in the stands tells him to “go all the way”, but he conspires to put his shot wide, when he really should have bagged their fourth, almost every single player in black and white stands motionless with their head in their hands, many of their fans let out a sizable groan.
A full body block against a fierce shot on the edge of the CST box leaves one away player poleaxed, the grimace on his face giving away the fact he felt every bit of the drive at goal. When the referee stops play to see if he needs attention, he has to explain to one of CT’s players that the ball hit his hand and not the other way round.
It seems like whenever CT go close, this time a free kick skids off the turf, almost catching out the CST keeper, who is forced into an uncomfortable looking palm away, it inspires CST to try and score again. Minutes after the away bench instructed the team to “organise”, with CT threatening, they power up the other end and number 9 crashes home from close range.
Just as before there is an almost instant reply from CT, but the shot is scuffed and goes wide. As the gloom starts to set in, the Meccano floodlights start to come into their own and CT are on the hunt for a little bit of pride. “Nothing silly” says the referee, moments before the home side whip in a free kick, a deflection kindly delivering it to a player unmarked who is able to head back towards the empty net, only for a CST player to be on hand to clear his lines.
The group of home fans behind the goal seem more absorbed in the football playing dog, then what is going on the pitch and that’s perhaps not a bad thing, as CST almost score a quite magnificent fifth. A quick exchange on the edge of the box is almost finished in style, but the back heel can’t find the number 9. The newly started spitting rain is maybe enough to distract those home fans not in the main stand, from their team going close again to conceding. This time a jinking run, almost ends with a goal, only for the CT keeper to paw the ball around the post.
“Bad day at the office” mutters Eric, the game into its final throes, the pace having finally slowed, the players going somewhat through the motions, after what might have been the most high octane match we’ve seen so far this season. CST finish the match as the rain grows heavier, with one last chance to complete the rout, but it’s one touch to many and the chance goes begging.
I barely have a chance to think in the minutes proceeding the final whistle, Tom has a train to catch and we’ve got about fifteen minuets to do a twenty minute drive. It’s a bit tense as we hare through the surrounding countryside, the rain getting heavier and heavier, I’m contemplating three hours in the car in a monsoon, Tom that he might be twiddling his thumbs at Weston Super Mare station for ninety minutes, until the next train.
Springing from the passengers side door, with one quick look back over his shoulder to see if he has forgotten anything, Tom sprints for the barriers, catching his train his Whatsapp message later told me, with a minute to spare.
Without even knowing it, he has the annoying knack of doing that, Tom summed up today about quarter of an hour into the first half. His way with words is sometimes a little crude, but unlike me he cuts straight to the point, with as few words as possible.
“Feels like a proper non league day” he said, his reasons for saying so I’m sure everyone can relate to. “Shit weather. Shit pitch. Very physical. The dregs from other called off games”.
I couldn’t agree with him more, all of the above contribute to why we both love non league football so much, its the predictable, unpredictably of it that makes it so intriguing. Personally I will struggle to forget today for two reasons, the sound of the ball constantly slapping against cold meat, and the thoughts of PE in January it elicited and just how close the white haired linesman was to a bloody nose at half time, when he lunged for Tom’s chips.
“Shove off” he said smiling, but definitely not joking.