Step By Step, Day By Day, Every Second Counts, I Can’t Break Away

26th December 2021 – 10:30am – Okehampton

It had been a first for Christmas Day. The first time in my 53 Christmas Days that I had ever spent it outside London. Indeed, the furthest I had ever journeyed on Christmas Day was to Heathrow Airport to meet my wife as she had cleared the UK immigration process. A good few years on we had taken the plunge and driven down to Devon to spend Christmas in Langtree. A dot on the map. A very lovely dot on the map in a lovely area. One of the main attractions for me wasn’t the clear fresh air, although that was nice, or even the solitude, because I have a brother I am very close to, and my parents are buried a 10 minute walk away. I missed them both. What I was looking forward was to see the Boxing Day football (and in turn the 27th December too). There were two games to choose from on that day. The closest to Langtree was El Torrico – Torrington v Torridgeside. The other was about 40 minutes away in Okehampton where Holsworthy were playing.

This was not an easy decision. I quite fancied the new ground down the road, but Okehampton were top and Holsworthy had intrigued me when I had first seen them. I had put these thoughts on Twitter, and the Holsworthy feed had given me some encouragement as I had been following their results and they had reacted. As someone who quite liked that attention, it made my mind up. I would drive down to Okehampton. This involved driving down a road which had cost me £120 for a burst tyre in May, a cut-through to miss out Torrington, and believe me, this played a part in the decision-making. I hate that road.

15th January 2022 – 4:50pm – Mayplace Ground, near Crayford

The music plays. The beginning of the theme tune to The Great Escape. I’m not sure what quite has happened to me in these preceding few minutes. This is an Isthmian League South East Division game between the club at the bottom and another on the fringes of the play-off places. A few weeks earlier and the only Phoenix Club I would know about was the one that Brian Potter headed up. Now I have experienced a football sensation I hadn’t for a very very long time. A last minute winner, in the flesh, and I celebrated it on a cold, dark January night as if they were my own team, not one I had just visited out of curiosity and to do something on a Saturday afternoon.

A few minutes earlier, deep into added on time, Phoenix and Sittingbourne are level at 1-1. Phoenix opened the scoring in the first half, Sittingbourne had equalised quite early in the second. The game looked like petering out into a draw, and I would probably have tried Cray Valley Paper Mills (much closer to my home) or VCD for my London non-league fix (I hadn’t taken to Cray Wanderers). But throughout the game there was a feeling there. This was a team bottom of the league and for all the undoubted struggling they were going through, there was huge effort. Honest endeavour. Their heads had not dropped and they kept going. In to added on time and Phoenix win a corner. Like so many it appeared to have come to nothing. The ball is headed away, outside of the area. It falls beautifully to Phoenix’s centre-back Josh Dorling. He hits it through the players either running out, or too tired to do so on the energy-sapping surface. The ball finds the pathway through, leaving the keeper unsighted and helpless as it hits the back of the net. I have my notebook open, taking down details in my Christmas present from the beloved. As the ball goes in, I let out a huge “yesssssssss” as if this is my team that has scored. I think, even then, I knew that this was “my” team. Yes, Josh Dorling, I blame you, and only you.

October 2020 – Kingsley Road, Bideford, Devon

It had been my first visit to North Devon since 1980. Having booked the cottage in Langtree, we spent a lovely week driving around and seeing various sites, and the main town for food shopping and petrol was Bideford. Coming into the town from the direction of Appledore and Westward Ho! I passed a football ground on the right-hand side. Intrigued, I wondered which league they were in, who they played and their history. I didn’t remember them from any early FA Cup exploits, nor anything about the ground itself, the club’s history. You get the message. Of course, in the middle of a pandemic, just going to watch a sport was a pipe dream, and clubs like Bideford had been cut even more adrift than I could ever have imagined. But what lurked inside their unprepossessing ground? I made a note. I’m going the next time I can. If we come back. With the weather we had had, that wasn’t, by any manor of means, a certainty.

27 December 2021 – Mill Road, Barnstaple4:45pm

Billy Tucker is not a popular man in Bideford. I don’t know the full back-story, but what I have just seen is that he has scored the winning penalty on a truly shocking day in North Devon in the local derby against Bideford. Barnstaple, anchored to the bottom and miles adrift, had just won their first league game of the season and Bideford had been woeful. As the 600+ crowd filed out of the ground, certain vociferous visiting fans were making an attempt to storm the home dressing room to get at Billy. This is the 8th tier of English football! As far away from Stockport in footballing terms, as Stockport are from Manchester City, and yet here were a few youngsters with a bit too much artificial stimulus getting worked up about a defeat. While a lot of me was thinking “what am I doing here with omicron ripping through the UK, and squeezed in to a tidy stadium” a bit more was thinking, this is a bit lively! I’ve gone back to the car park, part questioning my own sanity and part laughing at the seeming madness of it all. This was all a bit too Millwall for me.

22 May 2004 – Cardiff

I will go much more into this as I write, but let’s put this down on paper (digital paper) now. This was the beginning of the end. I didn’t know it at the time, but I do now. I had seen my little old team, Millwall, make the dream game for all clubs, the FA Cup Final. I was there in Cardiff to see my team take on Manchester United in the Final. I was so excited that I scarcely knew what to do in the six weeks since that semi-final win. The team hadn’t, I’m pretty sure, won a game since then either, indicating they were similarly clueless. The day itself was an almighty let down. Not because we lost, because we knew we would in our heart of hearts. Sure, a miracle might happen, but once Cristiano Ronaldo had put United in front, it was a racing certainty that it would be how many. 3-0 was fine, we tried, but were outmatched. Don’t mistake my disappointment at this match for the result or expecting to win. As the final whistle blew, and the victorious fans poured out of the Millennium Stadium, I thought “was that it?”. I felt more of a buzz in 1999 at the Auto Windscreens Shield Final.

You read that right. The victorious fans left. A lot, the vast majority I would suggest of Millwall fans stayed to take in the whole experience. The United players put on the shirts of a player who had died, and danced around the trophy giving off the appearance that this truly mattered. The fans suggested otherwise. As we waited for a bus back to the car park, we passed many United fans looking glum. The one I will always remember responded to my quip “cheer up mate, you won the FA Cup, be happy” to which he snapped back “we are supposed to win trophies”.

I have moments in my life that have scarred me. Just 12 months later my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Within two years my dad had followed her, broken heart aided and abetted by an incurable form of Parkinsons. I saw Millwall fall apart at the seams, I saw what I thought I loved torn apart as the social media revolution took hold, and now if you weren’t on the same page as each other, the discussions turned nasty. But at the root of all this was that United fan so joyless at winning something that fifteen years or so ago, they would have sold their soul for. In many ways they did. The most joyous day of my life, supposedly, in sporting terms had been the most dispiriting. I missed pre-Cup Final me. I missed pre-death of parents life. As I said, more, much much more, on Millwall, and this. But it is key to this little story I am trying to tell.

Upcott Field, Holsworthy – 7:30pm – 5th October 2021

I’m not parking in that car park. I know that for certain. So I flip the car around at the roundabout and park it on the street outside, pointing back to Langtree where we’ve returned, visiting the same cottage for the third time. We do like it down here.

I pay my £5 at the booth and collect the paper programme. I sit in the tiny main stand and settle back, although not too far because this is a bench, not a seat, for Holsworthy v Crediton in the South West Peninsula League EAST. This doesn’t fell very far east to me.

It’s an interesting night as the home team run out 3-1 winners. I have a brief conversation with the linesman, and I also find myself sitting next to the visiting chairman who isn’t happy with Ollie Bray, Holsworthy’s forward player who has a little bit of an edge to him (he left the boot in, and we did see it). The game itself ebbed and flowed on a difficult surface, and Tom Bray’s two goals the main difference. It was enjoyable but while I liked the whole vibe, my soul didn’t feel stirred at all. However, this is where social media does play a part, because the manager, Ryan, gets involved and a hook was dangled. In many ways, I didn’t know what was coming. I thought I’d follow their progress, but didn’t think I’d make a bee-line back when there were so many other teams to see in the area.

The Stadium, Bideford – 4:45 – 2nd October 2021

Three days earlier we took the plunge. The weather had been rubbish, but cleared at around 2pm, so the wife, Teddy the border collie and I made a decision to go the football. Bideford against Paulton Rovers. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, me of nearly a 1000 games in person, I think, and yet this was my first football game in person in around 5 years.

I think the striking moment was when I emailed the club to ask if dogs were allowed, and I got a response in minutes. Yes, absolutely. I was very pleasantly surprised. My dealings with football admin previously had been lamentable. That’s being charitable. I thought I should certainly make an effort, but not if it was raining! Not that much of an effort.

The game itself was OK. Paulton won 2-0, but the home goalkeeper, Adam Seedhouse-Evans had a terrific game and kept the score down with a series of excellent saves. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and the attempts to play football on a surface that was hardly ideal, and that how competitive it felt, and how real it was. I couldn’t, at any point, look at the players out there and thought they were going through the motions. How patronising to think that they would. I bought a scarf, took pictures of Teddy in front of the very witty, and very bitter home support, and had a very good afternoon. The seed had been planted, but what was I going to do with it. Well. You saw what happened, I went to Holsworthy three days after.

Donnacroft Fields, Great Torrington – 19 March 2021

What on earth am I doing here? There’s 30 of us. It’s a bright sunny day, but it is howling a gale, the game has been ruined, and I am freezing. I’ve spent the second half hoping to get out of the wind, and spent it talking to a referee assessor. The visitors, Elmore, have won 2-0, and one of those was a freak wind-assisted effort. The game lacks any quality, and I am not being critical, because in those conditions, how could it have any? What am I doing here?

Then I knew. I’m hooked aren’t I? I’m hooked on this football. What am I doing here? I’m loving being back in touch with football again, that’s what. Even the suffering. Perhaps because of the suffering.

Okehampton – 26 December 2021

“You are the London supporter, aren’t you?”

“Eh”

“We really value your support mate, thanks for coming to see us”

“What? Yes, I am. You know, I just want to see a game, I love following you online”

“No, it’s great. We are really pleased you are here. Going to be a tough game today”

I think, because I really am in a haze about this, that was Ryan Hall who came up to me. I certainly remember talking to his joint manager, Lee Thomas, but that first encounter has floored me. Number 1, how did he know I was from London before I spoke? Number 2, why is he talking to me? Number 3, I think I’m about to cry…. This is lovely.

Then I really got a lump in my throat. “Do you collect badges?”, to which I said no, but then Ryan says, well, the lads wanted to thank you for the online support, and we’ve got one for you.

I don’t care if they have hundreds of them lying around – this meant the absolute world. I am emotional, but I am also in the market to be lured in. A single piece of merchandise, and I am in a state. The feeling is there, though. This is MY team now, and that is that. I’ve been bought at a cheaper price than a McDonalds Happy Meal, probably, but this gift means the world. I don’t ever expect anyone to understand this.

For years, whether we admit it or not, you were a commodity at your bigger club. Someone to milk, use your loyalty to raid your wallet. These guys are different to the impersonal experience of most sport I have encountered. It’s really quite overwhelming. No, it’s not just a pub team, a village team. It’s a community and it’s a bond. I am in shock.

Holsworthy put up a good fight against the league leaders, but a penalty and a late goal give the home team a 2-0 win although the Magpies weren’t downhearted. It would be the last game Holsworthy would lose until April (they’ve taken last season’s results off the website) and even that was away to league challengers Brixham on a Saturday after a semi-final that went to extra time and penalties on the Thursday before. Bought with a badge, how cheap can I be?

A Car Park Just Outside Horsham – 26 February 2022 – 2:00pm

“Hello Lee, long time….”

Non-league football brings me to meeting an old friend after three decades (nearly). Lee has gone a long way since then, and in my own ways, so have I. But non-league has brought us together today. Horsham v Cray Wanderers. An entertaining 2-2 draw. After a lovely day, I drive home. There’s a scratch in my throat. On Monday, it’s covid. That’s me out for a game on Saturday then….

The Artic Stadium, Eltham, London – 1 February 2022 – 7:30pm

It’s a Tuesday night, a cold one, and I am looking to go to a game. I’ve had Cray Wanderers up to here, really, so decide to go to its near namesake, and by far the closest ground to me in Step 4. As I walk through the turnstile, as if by magic, “Glad All Over” comes on the tannoy. You what? That’s a flaming war crime in my opinion. Then I see my article from the game against Phoenix in the programme and I am calmer. Then, as the teams come out, the tannoy man plays RendezVous 2 by Jean-Michelle Jarre. Almost all is forgiven.

Paper Mills win 3-0 v Sevenoaks. I didn’t like Sevenoaks much. They’d beaten Phoenix in a key relegation game a little while ago…

The Bourne Stadium, Sevenoaks – 22 January 2022 – 3:15pm

“What the hell has it to do with him” screams Steve O’Boyle as the Sevenoaks right back screams across from his position to the other side of the field to get one of the visiting players booked. Steve is not happy. He wouldn’t be for the rest of the game as the home side ran out 2-0 winners. The scorer of both goals, Luke Leppard, would sign for Phoenix and not score for them. On that day it felt like a bad result. Hang about. I’ve driven to Sevenoaks for an away game? I hadn’t done that with Millwall in the last 5 years as a season ticket holder. I’ve got a feeling I’m getting up to my neck in it.

East Grinstead – 9 April 2022 – 4:50pm

We, and I mean we, have lost 1-0 in a relegation six-pointer at East Grinstead. We should never have lost that. Phoenix Sports were ruining my Saturday because I never wanted to invest emotionally in football again, and they’ve made me do it. It is the first game I have spent with the club’s “royalty” and I find that a lot of them read my reports and love the publicity I am giving them. They also look at me and you can tell they know “we’ve gotcha. You are Phoenix now”. I’ve spent the home games with two guys near the halfway line, and we reminisce about old football, the old away games with Millwall and Charlton. I have said hello to Mark Sullivan, the week before, and now I am introduced to the director (Alan) and the Chairman (Andrew) who then introduces me to Steve O’Boyle, the manager. This is crazy. Or is it. They all say how much they love the match reports. How they capture the emotion of non-league football and of Phoenix Sports.

On this day, as we walk out of the ground, I feel the pain of a crucial loss. I cared. And if I didn’t know then, I know now. It has me, and there is no letting go.

Upcott Field, Holsworthy, 22 March 2022

I left Langtree at 6:40ish, for the 7:30 kick-off at Upcott Field. Having parked up outside the ground (I saw a number of cars in the club car park hit by footballs, so no chance) I walked up to the kiosk wondering if what they had in store was true. Wendy, one of those club officials every team needs, stopped me before I said a word. “So, I am not to take any money from you, I’ve been told by Ryan”. I got my £10 note out. “No, you are not paying. I am told you have done so much for us on social media”. I was getting a bit embarrassed. They wouldn’t take my money. I was then given a programme and stopped to chat to her and the other two gentlemen on the gate for a while. I found out it was hard to dry the shirts between games, that it cost a fortune to change the lights in the floodlights (they are decent, you can see them from miles away) and that Ryan was self-isolating in his van to watch the game, but that I needed to say hello to him! Also, that a couple of the players had come down with Covid and were in cars watching too. You don’t get that in the best league in the world!

I walked out of the ground at around 10:15, with a real glow. As I said about non-league, if you love it, it loves you back. The chairman was chuffed at an attendance of 152 – I commented to Steve that Bideford had got 170-odd the week before against Parkway and they bought a few. Ryan Hall reckons that the standard isn’t much worse than Bideford, and then I replied that the team that played on New Years Day would have had problems beating a schoolboy outfit (he also said Kai Fisher had really been a great player for them and it is hard not to disagree). What I came away with is a sense of belonging, a sense of real camarederie, a club with its heart in the right place, having come from testing times, friendly people, and it just makes me smile. And people who know me, will know what an achievement that is.

The above is an excerpt from the piece written on the day about Holsworthy’s game against Ivybridge. But it captures the opposite ends of the matchday experience, and what I love about the club. If I win the lottery…..

There are so many other places in between. I am missing out a lot more of the details of my night with Plymouth Parkway fans, the great guys at Cray Valley Paper Mills, my visit to Horsham and meeting an old friend, and the Cray Wanderers experience. They are not to be underestimated or neglected. They are parts of the journey. A fantastic one at that.

When the new season starts there will be new stories, new adventures, and in all likelihood a new team to add, not replace, the two key ones in my affections. I may be moving out of London early on in the season, but that’s not certain yet. Timing, not the move. But someway, somehow, I know I will be there at some point – where there is, who knows? The scene has more twists, more plots, than the best or worst soap operas. It is life in the real world, and it’s authenticity is what makes it what it is. I would ask all of those tired of sport to give it a go. Find a team, Embrace them because it is worth it. Do it for Phoenix, if you live in the area, and do it for Holsworthy down there in Devon. They deserve it all.

What You See Is What You Get – No Hidden Agenda

The one thing I never do is finish what I start. I did one of those personality evaluations on a training course around 25 years ago and it said I was a very low scorer for “completer-finisher” which was about as big a statement of the obvious as I have ever had in life. So I commence this piece of work with a 99.9% chance that I’ll never finish it. So, why bother.

It is a warm June afternoon as I start. I have fretted for nearly six weeks that I have not written anything on my main blog, and just a couple of articles on the cricket portal. This is a light year or two away from 2014-16, when I drove so much content, the present me is both lost in admiration and pretty saddened. At my best, the pieces were read by a couple of hundred people, but it was good while it lasted. On the personal blog, if the peak got a hundred readers per post, it was doing well. A lot of people claim to read the posts, but maybe they are just being nice.

So why start? What have I got to say? Let’s start with who I am, and probably, as importantly who I am not. My name is Peter, I am nearly 53 years old when I have commenced this, and I am just an ordinary person, living an ordinary life in South East London suburbia. I have an online pseudonym, Dmitri Old, and that particular creation has caused me more trouble than I would ever have imagined, but also brought me some great friendships and contacts. My job is important in my life, I have a very interesting relationship with my employer that after three decades of service, I am still not quite sure what I am doing here. I am overweight, but not as much as I used to be. I played mediocre standard club cricket, and about the same level at darts, but was pretty much hopeless at much else. I have become a steps-driven madman, more of that later on, and live in terror of serious illness, unemployment, and doctors/dentists. I walk around in a permanent sense of gloom, worrying constantly, and actually immensely frightened about my mental health. I have a lovely wife, a border collie who makes me fret constantly, but with no exaggeration at all, has been a life saver through the pandemic.

There’s a spoken piece in Paninaro, a song by the Pet Shop Boys, where Chris Lowe mentions the music he doesn’t like. He finishes that little monologue with a line that strikes at the core “what I love, I love passionately”. For me, through my life, that has been sport, and to a lesser degree, music. Sport has been the core of my life, running through the loves, losses, ups, downs and all parts in between since I was a child. My childhood friend, Lee Wellings, recently published his own book, the Dilly Dong Bell, on how sport is losing its way. He worked inside the industry and was closer to the scandals and egos than I will ever be. It was he, though, that pointed me towards non-league football, and I dipped my toe in that particular pond with great scepticism. The results have been very surprising. As Chris Lowe said, what I love, I love passionately, and you will see how Phoenix Sports, a club based in Crayford, and Holsworthy AFC, a team based on the Devon/Cornwall border have made such an impression on me. Even there, though, sport’s enduring charm, preserved as it is, has huge threats and a fight for relevance. I hope to explore some of those themes in the writing. I have some inside access to both clubs and I hope they trust me to do them justice.

What do I mean, though, about the importance of sport in my life. I shall list the teams I care deeply about first, in no real order, but it should give you an idea. I am a Millwall fan. Being one of those has been a huge influence on my life, probably the most considerable in sporting and financial terms. I was a home and away fan for 15 years, a season ticket holder for 25, but turned my back on live attendance a decade ago. Why? I’ll try to explain. I am still, though, very much a Millwall fan. I just don’t go, and I know my friends and other fans will never really truly understand why. I am not sure I do, either.

I am a keen lover of US sports, and the two teams that mean the most are the Miami Dolphins and the Boston Red Sox. I also follow the Chicago Bulls, but that has been a vain pursuit now for 25 years (coming up). The reasons for support are down to individuals in teams when I was making my decision. The three in particular are Dan Marino, Pedro Martinez and, of course, Michael Jordan.

The Dolphins fandom began courtesy of Channel 4, and their early coverage in the UK. I waited for Marino to get back to the Superbowl, after that magical season in 1984/5, but it never happened and now following the Dolphins is akin to waiting for a dentist appointment to end each season so you can go about your business.

Baseball was a bit more complicated. It didn’t have the profile of the NFL or NBA in my teens and twenties, but I knew I didn’t like the New York Yankees, and then Pedro Martinez, and a game in 2000 in particular, snatched me and pulled me towards the Red Sox and their story. For the years up to and around my parents’ passing away I can tell you how the Red Sox seasons went and not much else about sport. 2004 was something else to behold, watching both the end of the Yankees series and the World Series to see history being made was what I felt sport should be. There are sinister shadows of PEDs and so forth hanging over that era, but at the time, it was overwhelming. I still follow the Red Sox avidly, as part of a routine. I think they may still, just, hold my attention.

Basketball was massive for me in the 90s.  My university friend, Martin, really got me into the sport, and once I saw and watched Michael Jordan, I was hooked. I saw the failures in 1989 and 1990, to beat the formidable foe of the Pistons, and hence when he and the Bulls won in 1991, I had been along for some of the ride, rather than just joining the Air Jordan flight in the sky. Jordan is my single biggest sporting admiration, despite the slight tarnishing of him post-career. I can say nothing else in tribute to Jordan than he made me lose many nights sleep, and I didn’t regret a thing. Much much more on him throughout my writing.

If US sports held my interest, I am also a main advocate of those events who attempt to retain a special place in the calendar, most notably the Olympics and the World Cup. Every four years for them and no more. But the problem with tradition, and possibly nostalgia, is that it doesn’t make enough money. Things have to get bigger, have to become more modern, more relevant, sell more stuff, attract more attention, fit into the social media world of shorter attention spans and viral clicks. But, with all that, comes the one undisputed fact. It needs to pay everyone who needs paying. Sport has long since been about who wins, it is now about who earns. It probably always was and I just didn’t want to admit it to myself. Why would a footballer care about being a World Cup winner when he is on half a million of the relevant currency a week? Is legacy something to care about, or something that needs to be now to enhance endorsements? It is going to be the sort of thing running through my writing. It might not always have been better in my day, whatever that is, but it certainly felt better. You will find out why my bete noire is the Premier League.

I am a passionate cricket fan, and took this to the extremes of two visits to Australia for the Ashes (two tests each in 2002 and 2006) and to South Africa. I have been a Surrey member, a regular at the Oval Test, and in the past 10 years, a blogger who made a little impact, but who now sits by and watches as yet another sport drifts away from him. The Paninaro Principle giving way to contact with marketers, bean counters, money generators and the hype machine. Cricket going from a majestic epic over 5 days to a 240 ball crash bang wallop affair that was even too long for our marketing monsters who took it down to 200. What I loved about the sport in all its forms is it catered for a wide range of skills and abilities, and is turning itself more and more into who can hit the ball the furthest more often. It doesn’t lack skill, far from it, but it wasn’t one I ever had. Cricket has moved away from me, and like a desperate old man, I am begging for it to come back. I suspect it never will.

Let’s look at golf. As I start writing these pieces (heaven forfend I have an ego and call it a book) the one thing that always grates is who determines the changes that are made to a sport? It certainly is not the fans. At the top level of golf there were the pantheon events. The four “Majors”. Tennis does it as well. These are the iconic events you need to win to feel like a career is complete. People will remember Colin Montgomerie as a Ryder Cup stalwart and a dominant player on the European Tour, but the “Major” cupboard is bare, and he is as remembered for that. Winning one does not make you a true legend of the sport, but not winning one probably prevents it. There is a dominant golf tour, the PGA Tour, with several iconic, historic events on it – the Players, the Heritage, the Memorial, the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the Colonial, the LA Open – and then there are the money events at the end, the Fed Ex Cup. Money is not in short supply, but still, it is not enough and the game is being split apart by a rebel tour, with money to burn. Why should we care, when the players clearly don’t about what fans want? It isn’t limited to golf, of course not, but it is the most immediate concern.

Sport feels like it gets in its own way. It feels like it has taken away that which made it good, and made me a cynic and a sadder person, contributing more than I would like to admit on my mental degradation. But it still has the capacity to bring forth great joy and that buzz that you will never forget. I think one of my most watched sports clips is the 2009 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Yes, a horse race. For me the Arc was the Eurovision Song Contest of horse racing – Great Britain might win it every now and again, but not often. That race wasn’t even won by a British-trained horse, but by the epic Sea The Stars. His race, the way he won from a boxed position, the visceral burst of speed is matched by one of the most wonderful pieces of commentary, which was brilliant because it wasn’t scripted, felt genuine, and from someone who didn’t seem to deal in hype. “He’ll have to be a champion” was the start of 20 seconds of poetry. There is a pause “he is a champion I reckon” as Sea The Stars gets the gap. “He powers clear…. Perfection in equine form, a horse of a lifetime” as the champion strides clear and wins. I can’t describe its beauty other than I pick it up from the same point each time and it still feels new. I think you know what I might mean.

So when Josh Dorling scores a 95th minute winner against Sittingbourne on my first visit to Phoenix Sport, or Greg LeMond pulls back 50 seconds in the 1989 Tour de France. When Tim Cahill puts your team ahead in the Cup Semi-Final to Stern John scoring in the 90th minute to foil our chances of a Premier League place. When Mark Lewis-Francis brings home the 4×100 metre gold medal in Athens, to Chris Hoy and the 1km gold medal event in the same Olympics where successive riders took it in turn to smash the world record, and Hoy had to go last. To the Ryder Cups to 2005 Ashes and so, so much more. Sport has enriched my life, but it has never felt like that was enough for the authorities, and that moments could be created, not evolve. It is as if what brings the purity of sport and its outcomes to life cannot be left to chance, because “boring” sport does not bring in the revenue, the TV coverage, the social media buzz, the tik to moments. It makes the ordinary hyped, the extraordinary “the greatest ever” and the truly mesmerising moments have nowhere to go. It’s an impatient world, where having patience is not a good thing, it leaves you behind.

This is just a flavour of the sporting life I have had. I have seen so much, recorded so much, that I don’t know where to start, or where this will lead, but while people who write about themselves will start at the beginning, I want to start at the end, and on a story of how two clubs got under my skin, made someone so cynical about football look at it in a completely different light, and how I have met so many terrific people that if there are bad apples, or at least those that might take the sheen off, I haven’t encountered them yet. To an unsuccessful fight against relegation at Phoenix to a club reviving itself in Holsworthy but doing so in a way that drew me in at the first visit, and with both, how openness, accessibility and friendship epitomises sport more than celebrity managers, players on massive wages, and the incessant TV hype. How I look forward to the Saturday at 3pm kick-off – odd isn’t it – and knowing that a routine can be cherished and I can feel at home. You might see a gem of a goal, like Alfie Evans did against Lancing, or you can just watch honest toil and get out of it what you want, without some need to be entertained, because the contest does that for you. It is why I can’t wait for 2022/23 to start, and I hope you follow me through it as I do.

Missing

Some of you, who might notice these things, will have seen that I haven’t written a piece for this blog in six weeks. Those six weeks have not been uneventful, and indeed, not been unworthy of comment. It is just that I haven’t had the enthusiasm to do so. That, in itself, is worrying. I enjoy writing and I know a number of you were keen on the non-league pieces. They just stopped. I know the season did too, but I had all sorts of reviews, comments, thoughts and thank you pieces on my mind. They were never written. I feel sorry for that. I really must get the energy and enthusiasm to do it justice.

I can’t pinpoint a reason for this. I am, as you may have gathered, a troubled soul at times. I knew that the end of the non-league season would be hard to adjust to. I had found something that I could genuinely love to look forward to, something to take me from the incessant, grinding down that work life is taking on me, and the political and economic landscape is doing to all of us out there. Phoenix and Holsworthy, which is what I’d name my law firm if I ran one, were intrinsic parts of my routine, and they were gone. This has not been easy for me. There is no anchor at the end of the week to enjoy the game that I’ve reconnected to. There have been plenty of reminders of why the top element of the game is driving me away, including that finish to the Premier League season, which left me totally cold, and three utterly rotten major finals this season.

But if I had to point to one incident that tipped the balance, it would be on April 23. I had a party to go to for my good friend Sir Peter’s 60th in Henley. I was due an overnight stay and packed accordingly. I was nervous, as I have been when thinking about staying away from home, and from wife and Teddy. I’ve not done all three since the pandemic. So I was nervous, but committed. The traffic around the M25 was bad, but I’m sort of used to that now, and I was quite stressed out about where I was going to park when I got there. But it would have sorted itself out. As I got past the usual M3/M25 junction congestion a truck pulled on to the motorway with wooden/mdf type pallets on the back. It came on in a slightly haphazard way, so that’s why I noticed it. A couple of miles down the road, near the Heathrow turn-off, about 200 yards ahead of me, that same truck shed the pallet on the top. At 70 mph, I knew I couldn’t slow down in time not to hit it. I also knew I couldn’t switch lanes without causing an accident. I had to hit it.

I think I got down to 15-20 mph before bang. My car hit it and drove over the pallet, and I genuinely thought I was going to end up with a crash, upside down or worse. I didn’t flip, so breathed easy, I’d got over the hard part. Then the shock hits you. I pulled over as quickly and safely as I could. I hadn’t punctured. No debris had smashed the windscreen. All felt OK. I got onto the hard shoulder, got out of the car, and there was hardly a meaningful mark on it. I should have been joyous. All I could think of, and still all I can think of now, is if I’d been 50m closer, I’d be dead. That thing would have gone through my windscreen and taken my head off. I stayed in a state of shock most of the day. I didn’t stay at the do long, returning early evening and driving very cautiously along the M25. I have not been the same person since.

So, since then I pulled out on the morning of a proposed overnight stay in Sheffield, because of the same fears. I have talked about moving my role within my work place because it doesn’t pay enough for the stress it puts me through. There’s also something else very stressful on the horizon, but I want to deliver that news fairly and equitably to those that don’t know it yet.

My work did a steps challenge for health and wellbeing, including mental health, whereupon I decided to flog myself to extremes, punish myself for being lazy this year, and displaying all those frightening obsessive and compulsive attributes (and I use that word loosely) to shatter my monthly best. Let me put this into context. I did 5 million steps last year. My best month was 504,000. In May I did 778,000. An average of over 25000 per day, or around 10 miles. I am 53 and overweight. It was madness. My division isn’t even going to win. It might have meant I’ve lost a couple of pounds, but psychologically it was terrifying. An example. I’d had a bad day at work. All my deals were causing me grief on a single day. At the end, a data processing error landed on my door. It was naff all to do with me, but that doesn’t matter. I had had it. I was in tears. So I got my trainers on, and walked. At around 7:15 I set out on the hardest route around our way that I hadn’t even attempted. 10k later, my feet in agony, my knees creaking, and darkness falling I came home. As I said in my tweet, I wanted to walk until my feet bled. Punishment.

31000 steps on a Wednesday. I hadn’t suffered enough. 41700 on Saturday. As I said, I’m nearly 53 and overweight. I am not an athlete. This isn’t humblebragging, it is a cry for help. This isn’t wellbeing, it is self destruction. I am averaging nearly 20000 steps per day since the end of May, and would be more if not for a very nasty stomach bug I seem to have caught today.

Phoenix Sport were relegated on the last day, Hoslworthy won their cup final in great style, as did Bideford, though a lot closer. Cray Valley Paper Mills were eliminated in the play-offs, and Cray Wanderers survived by the skin of their teeth. My acquaintance at their last home game would have been delighted on 22 May when Bromley lifted the FA Trophy. These are all stories to tell, and memories to hold, even the bad ones. Phoenix and Holsworthy have been friends in some difficult times, and for that they will forever be held dear. May it not be long until I see them again, and may it not be long until I pick up the urge to scribe. I have so much I want to say.

Take care.

Dmitri (Peter)

People Might Need Some Tension To Relax

20 April,

If anything exemplifies the need for an outlet, today was it. My first day back in work after the Easter weekend, a follow-up to the usual civil servant baiting in the media over the break, and a sort of crestfallen feeling of once again being the whipping boys and girls. Almost the Millwall FC of supposed “high-brow” employment. I was looking forward to shutting down the laptop and roaming off to Hayes Lane to see another relegation six-pointer to just check my mind out from this stuff and watch good honest toil. This would be the fifth time I have seen Cray Wanderers, second only to Phoenix Sports, and the fourth at Hayes Lane, as lodgers of Bromley FC. I am not grabbed by the Wands – and that’s not a criticism of them so please don’t take it that way – but I sort of pull for them. I don’t want to see them relegated, but it would be quite interesting to see both Paper Mills and Phoenix take them on in the Isthmian SE. The likelihood of all three being in the same division isn’t great.

I had a discussion, over whatsapp, about my pieces and what drives them with my friend Lee. I want to write pieces with an angle, something new, a little different to what I said before, but not just a match report. There are other sources for that. As I got to the ground tonight, I had no real clue what that would be. The game had some drama behind it. Merstham and Leatherhead occupy the bottom two slots in the Isthmian, on 33, and Cray sit above them on goal difference on the same total (the three point deduction, I was advised, was for fielding an ineligible player earlier in the season). Two points above Cray, with 2 games to play including tonight, were opponents East Thurrock United. Everyone else in the league is out of sight. It’s two down, one more for a play-off, I think, or maybe relegated too (no-one seems to know) and one safe out of four. A lot riding on it.

Instead of the football, and we will come on to that, what tonight will always be remembered by me for is the man I watched the game with. I came home tonight and said it was almost as if the chap I was talking to had been modelled on my dad. My father passed away 16 years ago on Tuesday, and he was, and I’m biased, a lovely, honourable, calm, fair, caring, helpful man and I am blessed to be his son. I was never a rebel, but I didn’t follow his teams. Dad was Charlton football, Kent cricket. I am Millwall and Surrey. I respected his views on sport, and on the rare occasions we (Millwall) were live on TV I asked him what he thought, and who the best players were.

Anyway, tonight, this felt like someone like my father I was talking too. Clearly he knew a bit about the game, loved his football (he is a Bromley season ticket holder but came on the off chance tonight) and I had a lovely, lovely time chatting to him about his football experiences, his knowledge of the non-league scene and players he knew and recognised, and he had some of my dad’s fatalism (many’s the time Charlton were 2-0 up and he said “we might draw” – this chap would be happy to lose the FA Trophy Final by 2 goals – just don’t want a spanking). He is really looking forward to the Wembley Final, and I hope, for his sake, Bromley win it. I’ll be thinking of him on 22 May. He recommends I go to Holmesdale, he has no idea where Phoenix Sports is, asked if I’d been to Dartford and Dulwich Hamlet, to which I said they were too high up, and then bemoaned the amount of player movement at the club, saying he recognised just one player from last time he had seen them (and then two when he saw Anthony Cook, and also Sam Wood, who he had seen play for other teams before). I can’t convey adequately how nice it made the evening. As we parted, we shook hands, I told him to have a great day at Wembley and make sure you enjoy it, and he disappeared into the night. Another example, if you need any more, of the way that non-league football has allowed me to gravitate towards nice people. It’s genuinely wonderful.

To the game itself. As usual, and perhaps illogically, I parked in my usual place on Hayes Lane, about a quarter of a mile from the ground. There was something different to last time at the venue – you used to pay your ticket price at the hole in the wall, and be admitted through turnstiles. Now you enter through Bromley FC’s very flash bar and dining facility, and admittance is via an orange wristband into the football ground itself. You then have to go back out to get a programme again, as the old bar is closed. It’s a bit more sophisticated, but also takes more time. Given this was a bumper attendance of 463, with a fair few East Thurrock Fans in the house, the increased processing was noticeable, but not insurmountable. It’s an impressive new feature for the complex, it has to be said.

I wasn’t here to be wined and dined, or beered and burgered, but to watch the crunch relegation six-pointer. As said above, Cray Wanderers have hit poor form at a really poor time, and with Mertsham doing even worse, hope has sprung eternal for East Thurrock and bottom club Leatherhead, who have been there most of the season. The night was a bit cooler than I anticipated with just long sleeve shirt and a “gillet” top on to cover the old torso, and I soon regretted not having a sweater! I took my place in the main stand, and that’s where I first said hello to the man behind me. “Is it safe sitting here”, he asked “as they usually switch the sprinklers on and you get wet”. I was mystified. This is a 3G/4G pitch, so why water it. I don’t know. He pointed out the front seats have netting over them to stop you sitting there. He is a Bromley season ticket holder, so he should know!

The teams came out as the sun was going down. How poetic. Kyel Reid was on the bench, he of the first Cray goalscorer I had seen, but key men up front Chris Dickson and Jamie Yila were. I confess, I knew none of the East Thurrock players. Their kit has a strange motif on the back…”BE RUDE NOT TO”. Different indeed. Cray Wanderers kicked towards the Glyn Beverly Stand in the first half and away we went….

After 10 minutes I said to myself “this is going to be a long night”. The ball pinged around as if keeping possession of it would constitute a Fixed Penalty Notice and a conversation in the House of Commons. If anything the early advantage seemed to be with the visitors. They seemed slightly more composed, but that really wasn’t saying much! The first entry into the notebook came on 5 minutes, when Oli Coker hit a 35 yard shot well wide for East Thurrock (referred to for most of this piece as ETU). On 10 minutes Cray had their first opportunity, a cross from the right wing was knocked down by Chris Dickson, into the path of Sam Wood on the edge of the area, but his left foot shot flew well wide of the target. On 13 minutes, ETU won a corner, and one of the tall chaps, I think Ryan Dear (name rang a bell), headed over. On 15 minutes a defensive clearance by Cray smashed into ETU’s forward and sailed towards goal, but over the bar. I said to the man behind that Millwall had scored a goal like that on Easter Monday, and we then spent the next ten minutes discussing the Old Den, and the Johnny Summers game at the Valley which my Dad missed, but he didn’t!

I have been able to watch a game, take my inane pictures and converse with people at the same time, so each attack, or foray as my good friend at Paper Mills would say, was recorded last night. On 17 there was some trickery and tomfoolery on the left by Cray’s Jamie Vila who ran into the area and promptly fell over “under challenge”. Referee Howard Collins was having none of it, and waved away the half-hearted appeals. On 20 minutes a cross from the left was flicked on in the ETU area, but keeper Arthur Janata (I know, and have visited the offices of a Janata Bank in Dhaka – boring fact) got down in front of Chris DIckson. As the first half got to its half-way point, it was a little frenetic, but still 0-0. The first goal, vital as it was going to be, was not long in coming.

Soul Kader picked up the ball on the right side of midfield for Cray and slipped through a beautifully measured pass for Chris Dickson to latch on to. As Janata banked on a low shot when he came out, Dickson saw him coming and hit a neat, clipped, slightly elevated shot over the keeper and into the net. There was much rejoicing. The Wands had the advantage. The tannoy announcer said 24, I thought 23 minutes, but as Richard has taught me, go with the man with the microphone.

Cray nearly made it 2-0 within a matter of minutes. A terrific cross by Jedd Smith found an unmarked Chris Dickson but his header was straight at Janata, when either side would have doubled the lead. Really easy for me to say, I know. But again the miss wasn’t to prove at all problematic. On 29 minutes I think it was Smith (it wasn’t) again who played a terrific long pass which caught the defence out and Soul Kader latched on to the ball. Again Janata advanced, but left a slight gap to his left hand side which Kader placed the ball into, perhaps just kissing the post as it went into the net. Kader wheeled away in delight, jumping a mile in the air and mirroring the sense of relief the home fans had been given. 2-0 up in a six-pointer. Good stuff. The visitor’s manager immediately took off striker Ollie Miles and replaced him with Nana Adarkwa, which only seemed to reinforce the desperation.

There wasn’t much of a reaction from ETU, with my only note for the rest of the half being an Anthony Cook shot from outside the box that went well wide, again after good work by Kader. The half-time whistle blew and many wise patrons ran (or walked) for the warmth of the bar area, while I sat outside for heaven only knows what reason. To perhaps feel even more cold, or to listen to the tannoy man’s always interesting music selection. My friend was one of those who disappeared, while the ETU fans transferred from one end to the other.

It is tough being a football fan. We’ve all been there. Absolute fair play to these fans.

ETU didn’t make a fast start to the second half, when you sensed they needed a quick response. It was Cray still creating the half chances, looking dangerous. On 52 minutes, Jamie Yila did Jamie Yila things down the left hand side, messed about with it in the corner, took out two defenders, entered the area and blazed a dangerous looking cross shot across the face of the goal. The pressure and pace of the action from Cray meant that even when Chris Dickson took a breather, Sam Wood was yelling at him to up the ante (it was less polite than that). Anthony Cook had been a similarly angry young man in the first half, but always for the team good. Up the ante, keep them alert, on their guard.

On 60 minutes came the killer third, and it was Jamie being Jamie that created it. This time on the right, Yila received the ball and hit a smashing shot across goal that thumped the post with the keeper beaten. The ball fell kindly into the path of Chris Dickson who smashed the ball back, but this time in to the centre of the goal with keeper and defence helpless. 3-0. It had to be game over.

Whether it was Cray Wanderers having what they held, or ETU becoming more desperate, but the notes reflect more pressure from the visitors. On 64 minutes, a dangerous cross from the left was not that comfortably dealt with by the home defence, but cleared eventually. A minute later a dangerous corner was headed by Boswell for ETU (TBC) which beat Nathan Boamah in the home goal but was cleared off the line. On 67 there was a long shot from Johnny Ashman which didn’t trouble the home keeper, and on 69 Cray had a breakaway and I think it was Cook who hit a shot wide.

On 70 minutes, Chris Dickson picked the ball up on the left hand side of midfield, just inside the ETU half, and hit a magnificent crossfield pass. The ball was moved on to Anthony Cook who hit a fierce cross shot that went wide of the visitor’s posts. There was still danger on the break. There would be a reprieve, and a shot of hope for ETU soon after. They built up to it. Johnny Ashman scuffed a shot wide when he might have done better; Adarkwa headed over from an Ashman cross. ETU were going for it. The ball fell into the midfield, 35 yards out, there was a huge collision as two committed players went for the ball (I thought it could have been a free-kick to Cray, but no real complaints). The ball ran loose, and Oli Coker got it, took aim, and hit a magnificent shot into the top right corner of the goal giving Boamah no chance. 3-1 on 72 minutes.

Cray tightened the game up and ETU couldn’t capitalise. The final straw, piece of the puzzle, brick in the wall, insult or whatever came on 86 minutes. A cheeky backheel from Dickson freed “Angry” Sam Wood in and he slotted the ball to the left of the keeper into the bottom corner of the net to seal the game at 4-1. ETU tried to the end, bringing a superb save from Boamah in added on time when Ben Wyss was denied, but the final whistle brought great joy from the home support. The tannoy man went a little bit OTT, but it was a big game, so I’ll let him off. Crestfallen ETU fans were magnanimous in defeat and nice to talk to as I left, but they have a big job at home to in-form Horsham and the feeling I got was they were not confident.

But the final whistle brought my farewell to my new colleague and I wished him well for the summer and that he stay safe. I said at the start that it was like watching a game with my Dad, and a day after his death anniversary, it seemed poignant to me. It’s just another example of making friends, of meeting different people, who love football, but have lost the love of the top level. We are not the few, although we are not the many. But we are there for the game, and this game was worth it all, just for the memories of it I will cherish of spending over 90 minutes with a charming, friendly, knowledgeable, lovable man.

Why does it matter? Read some of the early blog posts, the ones last October and November, when mental health was poor and I felt lost in this world. Felt a lack of purpose, that there was nothing to look forward to save some really nice holidays in Devon. Then non-league, a very supportive wife, some lovely people at lovely clubs came into the mix. I won’t forget people like the car park guys at Sevenoaks, the Horsham staff, the Cray Valley PM season ticket holder and now the man in the red coat who is off to Wembley. It’s shown I need to get out, smell the flowers, enjoy what is out there. It doesn’t appear to mean a lot, not compared to the tiresome premier league behemoth, but it does to me and all those that participate. It is magnificent theatre, played by people who love the game. It’s not all perfect, it has its flaws and bad apples, I’m not that misty eyed, but it works for me.

I miss this Saturday’s games, as you know if you read this. I hope to write something up about them at the end of the weekend, and hope to get to a play-off game next week. Until then, be well. Stay Safe. And love non-league football, because it loves you back.

I Wanna Find Something I’ve Wanted All Along, Somewhere I Belong

April 18,

There was a question posed on Twitter today by Four Four Two. What one thing do you hate about football? My response is the Premier League. The reason, above all, is that it puts money over the sporting ideal, that if you can’t produce your own talent, buy it, at all levels, down to young kids. The fact that hope has to be abandoned. It’s reaction to Leicester winning the league? Make it much much harder. Take more of the money.

You see it in decision making. On what planet is sacking a man who has kept your club in the Premier League eight games from the end of the season a sensible one? It is planet money – that losing that status is such a massive monetary loss that you have to make desperate decisions. The status should not really be the thing – teams have to be relegated as well as promoted – and that should not be the calamity that clubs think it is. Today Millwall won 2-1 to go, at time of writing, one point within a play-off place (Sheffield Utd have just equalised at Bristol City). I couldn’t think of anything worse for the long-term future of the club of promotion, but I know I am in a minority.

I love Millwall still, you can’t stop that, but I have no interest in going to see them. I don’t feel that I belong anymore. It’s not for me anymore, and in many ways that is sad. Honestly, I wasn’t sure who they were playing today!

But this is all a lead up to where I was today. I travelled down to the Kent countryside, passing Brands Hatch and villages I have never been to, and arrived at Gay Dawn Farm, the home of Corinthian FC. Yet again, another team I never knew existed three months ago. Phoenix Sports are staring relegation in the face, third from bottom with two going down. Level on points with Lancing who they beat on Saturday, but with a much better goal difference. Three points clear of Whitstable at the bottom, and again with a much better goal difference. They are two points below Whitehawk, who have a much better goal difference. 4th from bottom is definitely safe. 3rd from bottom is likely play-off bound. The bottom two go down.

Got that?

I hope so.

I drove down the A20, and then thought about relegation battles I’ve followed in the flesh with Millwall. 1989-90, we were down once Manchester United beat us, really. In February, I think we were the last club to register a league win in the 1990s – we first did it in August. It was an epic collapse, but we were down well before the end of the season. 1995-6, I’ve mentioned in the last piece, so you can go back to that. 2005-6 was predictable before the start of the season, when we sacked our manager on the back of pre-season performances, and had a couple more before the end. I thought we were down a long way out, but also had a lot more on my mind (we were formally relegated the Saturday before my Dad passed away). I’d stopped going when we last went down under the genius “leadership” of Holloway, and had stopped going when we fought tooth and nail to survive in 2012-13, I think. I then go back to a relegation battle in the 1982-3 season. I wasn’t going then, but Millwall came from the dead, down and out, and under George Graham went on a mad run at the end of the season to escape. Maybe this is more like Phoenix, who were down and out when Steve O’Boyle took over at the end of 2021, and are now in with a fighting chance of avoiding the drop.

But I genuinely don’t think the people who read these pieces want to read score analysis and what ifs, and what has happened over the years. What is clear from the people who do read this properly, and not to get upset at someone having a go at them for some social media tripe, is the emotional connection that football has revived in me and how that reflects their emotions and ambitions with non-league football. To run forward to the drive home, I reflected back on the game. This is so much more real than the Premier League, and makes me hate that even more. These supporters know heartache, know pain, know frustration and are, by and large, patient with it. Not totally, but this is the game. You won’t win them all. There isn’t a magic passcode (even though Harry Hudson at Sevenoaks seemed to find one). There are serious limitations and ability constraints. You, by and large, can’t buy your way out of trouble. It’s, as much as it can be, merit-based. You get what you earn, and earn what you get. I have to put my hands up here; I have no idea how much relegation will impact Phoenix if it happens. I’d like to think they’d dust themselves down and go again. It seems like that kind of club.

Having taken the turning that the SatNav told me to, and finding, again, that it was wrong, I drove down the right road, with the golf course on the left, and plenty of parking on the right. I was there at 2, and as always, it seems now, the first face I see is Mark Sullivan. The ground is odd. I remarked more than once that I felt like I should get my pads on, and grab a bat (I think the club is linked to Sam Billings’ family). The changing rooms are in a pavilion type building, and it is three-sided. More than once today I heard questions about how the ground is graded, but it is quite pretty, the pitch looked very good for this time of year, and it was another lovely spring day.

I’ve several rules I have made for myself with the blog posts. I am not going to have a go at the players for how they play. These are not highly paid pros, they are playing for the love of the game, or have been rejected by teams higher up. It’s not right for me to have a go, nor judge them by the same standards that you would if you were following teams higher up the pyramid. I also don’t want to betray confidences, or make public some of the more meaningful stuff I am told by club officials. I might on some of the admin side, but I don’t want to cause issues for them, nor talk behind their backs. I hope that if I do say things, people don’t mind because it is not on purpose. I have to editorialise myself and hold back some of what has been told to me. It’s a real challenge, but I don’t want to let people down.

Why am I there so early, I’m asked? I say it is because I am an old man now and all I care about is getting a parking space! We then enter into a session of permutation and scenario analysis, coupled with some psychology about which team has something to play for, and will really try, and which ones may not. The feeling is Corinthian have nothing to play for, but there is some undoubted honesty among these players and I am not thinking they will let up. It just hasn’t seemed to be the way in this league.

I see Alan again, my Millwall man on the board at Phoenix, as well as Mark’s son Billy and sister. They are always (nearly always) there. I’m introduced to another person, shaking his hand, but I am getting really bad with names. I am usually to blown away by people saying how much they enjoy the piece. The man I met in the boardroom on Saturday is Tony, who is the Ipswich fan on the board. He tells me he remembers that relegation game I mentioned in the piece on Saturday. Then Steve says “Hello Dmitri, my larynx are OK thanks” and ridiculously I feel like a Take That fan meeting Mark Owen. “He read that……” I realise I am projecting my 1990s self on today, that getting to have a conversation with a Millwall manager then is the same as this now. But f*** it, it is for me. If you don’t understand that, you haven’t followed what I have written. I feel, even more, that I am being drawn in. In the words of Hotel California, I can check out any time I like, but I don’t think Phoenix is ever going to leave me.

Not going to go into much of the chat, but the passion that Steve has for the club is written on his face. This isn’t pretend stuff, he is living it, perhaps too much. Then I think of how I am when a deal is closing and the work pressure is at the max, and I am a wreck. Steve is better than I am at it. As he said in his interview after Saturday, when he took over he spent untold hours on the phone trying to get players down to Mayplace, and no-one wanted to know. That he has them out of the bottom two is a miracle, and I think it’s not said enough. When I first noticed Phoenix as a team nearby they were adrift. Now look at them. In with a chance.

The country club feeling of Corinthian wasn’t overly dissipated by Phoenix being told to keep off the pitch during the warm-up (the first team all season to disobey this directive we were told), but Steve wasn’t having it and sent the emissary away with a flea in their ear. The feelings of tension were not being alleviated by the distractions and the clock didn’t seem to move around that quickly. I can’t say, honestly, that I feel nervous. I don’t think I believe the boys will win today. I know, because I won’t be there, that it will be truly settled on Saturday. It’s fatalism, it’s acceptance that this is not going to be our day and that anything else will be a bonus.

I’m introduced to further Phoenix alumni, including Housey (admire the French for house in his twitter handle), Tony Highsted the ex-keeping coach who will be my guide for the 1st half and others. It’s almost uncomfortable every time I’m introduced as “Dmitri” but they are all so bloody nice about what I write and how I’ve conveyed the emotions of the last three months that it hurts. I’ve always had this feeling that I’m not enough of a “boy” to be a proper fan. These are people I sort of aspire to be, and felt I wasn’t part of back then, and even now. Supporting Millwall was my life, but I was never, and never felt inside. Almost as if sometimes I had to apologise.

Here, I feel like I belong and it is disconcerting and absolutely lovely, but still I feel like a johnny-come-lately into their world. Nice things, and nice people, aren’t supposed to happen to me. I’ve become aloof as I’ve got older, less trusting, less open to people and their motives. There’s not a day after a game when I come home and tell my wife that so and so was nice, I met this person and this person, and she says “that’s great” and means it. Today, when relating the stories, she said “perhaps they are just nice people and you are overthinking this”. As usual, she has a point.

I will return to the theme later. Because I was talking so much my notes of today’s game are much more sparse, but sometimes I think you don’t read the pieces for that either. It’s about the connection, innit?

The teams came out from the pavilion (after the ref echoes my earlier sentiments by saying “the music doesn’t get any better, does it” from the changing rooms), and I got my quick snaps and walked around to join the Phoenix supporters (about 20-25 of us). I’d just seen a tense looking Andy, the chairman, and said hello. Alan had perched himself on one of the seats behind the goal to the east of the ground, but felt it was optimistic if he thought he’d sit through this. There were murmurs that they’d switch the teams around if Phoenix won the toss, but they didn’t so we all marched up the other end of the ground to hopefully see the visitors score.

I stood next to Tony, and it was remarked that the pitch looked very green, and very, very wide. Tony said, and this took me back “It looks like a Monet. Beautiful from a distance, but disappointing up close (he might have sworn, but wit doesn’t mar the gobsmacking quote if he did).” I looked at him with “furrowed brow”. “That’s going in the piece, isn’t it?” “How could it not….” I replied. At half-time another chap, who I stood next to in the second half (and sorry, I am bad with names, but pretty sure it was Alan (are they all people with their christian names beginning with A)) agreed and said he’d seen a Monet in the Louvre. I think at this point of Trevor and Arthur, my two work colleagues burbling on about Caniletto, and thinking, what is this art nonsense. A Monet? I feel culturally bereft.

Phoenix have not started well, and there are early alarms from some set pieces and crosses. From a hundred yards away Charlie isn’t looking as confident, but for me the midfield is not imposing itself from a Phoenix point of view. Corinthian are using the width to their advantage, but also running at a defence missing the calming influence of Toib Adeyemi. On 10 minutes a cross came from the right, it got to the far post, and not sure who it was for the home side, but the ball went wide when it looked a good chance. Five minutes later a corner came over and James Billings headed on to the roof of the net, which, again looked a good chance. Forward positions were not being picked up well enough.

On 24 Phoenix had a rare foray into the Corinthian box. Great work down the left put Tom Cousins in, who put a ball across the box. It ran across the face of the six yard box, but Craig McGee coming in at the far stick didn’t get the desired contact and the ball went wide. News was coming through at this point that both Lancing and Whitstable were trailing. Within a couple of minutes, so were Phoenix.

It was like watching a slow train crash. The ball went to the wide right position, which had been a key focus already. The cross came in, was quality, but found a frighteningly unmarked Emmanuel Oloyede, who made no mistake with a firm downward header giving Charlie Martin no chance. While I can’t speak for the others around me, I had that sickening feeling. I really feel that Phoenix just don’t chase games well. They are a keep-it-tight, almost hit them on the break team away from home. They don’t have that presence up front to keep it and bring players in, as hard as Luke tries.

It showed, two minutes after the goal and good work by Oloyede ends with a chance for Jack Holland who shoots wide for Corinthian. The support is getting anxious, there seems no modicum of control at all. But then, on 33, a break. Ratti gets it and does some good work on the left. He puts it to Steve Carvell who picks out Alfie Evans who has a real chance, but unlike Saturday Alfie misses the target and the chance goes. It feels like a missed opportunity when we wouldn’t be getting many.

Two minutes later, and the ball gets played into the box. Some of our number think Charlie should be closer to the ball, but it’s massively hard to tell from where I am. The ball falls to Oleyede again and he buries the chance to put Corinthians 2-0 up and the game, to all intents and purposes, feels over. Now we look, through intermittent internet signals, for the results in the three other games that matter. The scores we need. Lancing are 2 down. Whitstable 2-1, soon to be 3-1 down, Whitehawk are drawing, which means they are safe as it stands. There is a real fear, the way the boys are playing, the way Corinthian are playing, that the goal difference might come into it, and we lose our advantage. It’s a long way from that. Even so, every corner is an adventure for Phoenix and time after time the ball could fall to the home side but doesn’t. 2-0 is the right half-time score. Phoenix have been second best.

At half-time I am introduced to the supporter now known as Gorbachev. He’s had a fall at the weekend and now has a juicy red injury on his forehead. Got to say he’s taking it well. Housey invents a new word “diagonoganal” and we all nod. “That’s going in the piece” Tony says. “If I can spell it” I think. Here it is though.

I spend the half-time break talking to Alan F, to another Vince (he may be the only Vince, and the other person I am calling Vince is, in fact, someone else) who might be the skipper’s father, but I can’t remember. Alan M is looking anxious, Mark is bemoaning Phoenix’s inability to string two games together. Then comes rumours of an issue with the referee. He appears to be injured and they need to find an official to replace him. There is a hold-up in play. We hatch plans to kidnap any volunteer so the game can be abandoned and replayed in the week. Joking, of course. Andy comes from the pavilion and informs us that a supporter will run the line in the second half. He’s a “veteran” in a yellow number 17 shirt when he comes out. To be fair, he’s on a hiding to nothing and is not a factor in the second half. News comes through that Whitstable have conceded another…. it’s 4-1 now, and to all intents and purposes, they are relegated.

The second half starts about 15 minutes late, but there’s a familiar feel. Corinthian’s number 9 is one of the better players I have seen this season and smart on the ball. There’s a scary moment on 53 as another cross comes in and is not dealt with and smuggled away. The fatalism is getting worse, and the fans are getting a little grumpy. We need something to believe in, a goal, a chance even. On 55 there’s the merest crack in the window. Luke sets something up down the right, the cross comes in to the back post, the keeper is taken out and Tom Cousins, the left back who I see week-in, week-out piling up and down the wing is closing in. He gets a decent header, down, but somehow, someway it is blocked on the line. The danger is cleared. We appeal that it is over the line, but it isn’t. To be fair, the players don’t think so. I say to Vince I didn’t think it was, and then feel guilty for not saying yes, and not feeling like a true fan.

I don’t take many more notes. The substitutions made by Steve make sense, but they don’t work. The danger is coming from Corinthian who look like they should score a couple more. Left-back Frankie Morgan has a couple, Oloyede has a hat-trick shot well blocked, and the defence appears ill at ease. The random sorties that Phoenix have never really amount to much. A lot of huff and puff, a ton of effort, but the ball never really breaks for them. There’s a clash, Tom gets a booking, There’s a corner, Alfie puts it into the side netting. Nothing is happening. Whitstable are losing 6-1 at Ramsgate, and Lancing have held it at 2-0 to champions Hastings. The final whistle goes and the Phoenix support chew over what has happened. We don’t hang around, which I feel a bit bad about because this is my last game and I don’t get to say goodbye to people who have become good friends. I won’t be there on Saturday against Herne Bay. To a man our support think we will lose that one. We worry with Whitstable down, Lancing have this in their hands to go above us and relegate Phoenix. But football rarely runs to scripts.

As I walk to my car and am about to get in, another chap comes up to me, called Chris and asks if I am Dmitri. He says he loves my pieces and really appreciates them. Sorry if I keep mentioning this – I genuinely don’t want it to be self-reverential, I want to name check them all who say it. It’s a feeling of reinforcement of what I do and it makes me feel good. I’m not going to apologise for this. I talk about how much following Phoenix has meant to me. I see Andy go past, and say my goodbyes. Alan (Millwall) is parked next to me and we note Millwall are now level on points with the play-off places. We say that we would have bitten our arms off to be in this position with Phoenix at the end of 2021, and it’s yes, but…. Then I think, I didn’t know Phoenix existed until January,

That’s the crux of it, really. I have been “with” Phoenix since January. Yet I am talking with people who have lived and breathed the club for years, many many years. Former managers, coaches, officials are those I am talking to at games. Volunteers and committed supporters, and here am I, the bloke with the brown notebook, trying to fit in, and feeling a bit of an impostor. Are they being nice for an ulterior motive? Am I just some weirdo who they are humouring? Why can’t I just accept that I’ve been drawn in to this club? Why not accept the simple fact? Because, if you’ve ever seen any of my pieces on mental health, you will know the conflict between logical and illogical brain, and illogical is still triumphing. But that’s for another piece.

There was an interesting exchange before the game. I want to keep up with Holsworthy’s score and for some reason tell one of the officials that they are 2-1 up. They don’t care about Holsworthy, but I do. How can I care about two teams? Doesn’t that break a code? I’m asked what’s my connection to Devon, where am I from, and I say “I go on holiday there” and it was actually Bideford that were the original gateway. Because Bideford are at Step 4 I’m asked how they compare? I’ve seen Bideford lose all four times I’ve seen them and say that Phoenix might be better than them, but Plymouth Parkway are quite tasty. It’s not Bideford I want to talk about, but Holsworthy, but the occasion today isn’t the time to go into Step 6 when Phoenix are fighting for their Step 4 lives. I see a huge parallel between the Magpies and Phoenix, clubs with a heart, and thankful to them that have allowed me in. That, plus they are not powerhouses in their leagues, but are just good people, fighting against the odds. They both don’t score many, although Holsworthy stick 5 past the bottom team today. I don’t want to come in to non-league for the top teams, that is not what it is about. I want something that strikes a chord with me, and these two do. Maybe because they reach out to me as well? Of course.

I do this reporting stuff because I love writing, and yes, I want people to read it and enjoy it. There was a quote about me many many years ago along the lines of “I want to be a journalist, and it’s sad to watch” and yet although I shrug that off, and say no I don’t, what’s the difference? I write about sporting events from a slightly different angle. Not to report the facts per se, but to convey emotions and impacts on me. I had a conversation with Phil Legg, Leggy as he is known, and said how much the club had given me something to divert me from the pressure and stress of my job. I can’t thank Phoenix (and Holsworthy and Paper Mills) enough for being such great people that I have taken them in and follow them with as much gusto as I can. The pieces have to do them justice because they’ve earned it. I said to someone else, probably Tony, that I used to live and breathe Millwall, and then it died, because of the lack of hope, and the impersonal money-grabbing aim of top football. I am still a fan, but never expected to get into a club with such heart that I actively want to get off my backside and go again. And here I am (actually it was Billy I said this to). I live and breathe it, but differently to Millwall. Using the lyric from Linkin Park, and it applies to Upcott as well as Mayplace, I’ve found somewhere I belong.

I drive home and wonder if there’s enough for my lifetime ambition, to write a book. Trevor, my workmate, has said a few times I should have a go, and think it might be good to have a look at both the Magpies and the Phoenix in more depth. But I don’t really want to. Because I respect them too much to even think of asking, and wanting their time. Steve O’Boyle’s conversation with me will be etched on my brain for as long as I live. That man is living the nightmare, and going through hell to save the club from relegation. The affection for him is overwhelming, but I sense some are worried for him. But I’ll bet he’s just like most of us who live and breathe what we do, and we can relate to some degree. Where we can’t is in his need to put his faith in the players on the field. As someone who is scared to delegate, that’s something I can’t relate to.

I leave the scene, get home, and start this piece. It won’t be the last I write. I have to wrap up my feelings at the end of the season. But to Steve, the players, the officials and ex-officials (Andy, Alan, Tony, Alf, Housey, Tony, Vince, Alan, Mark, Billy and everyone else I met today or before), and to the supporters I have gatecrashed into and been so welcomed, you have made my year, you have helped someone to have a focus on something that matters to me, and I can never repay that gift. It’s priceless. It has been as good a thing as I have ever experienced in sport, and you need to know that. So do you Ryan, Steve and all down there in Holsworthy (even Ollie B!). So do you Richard and Jay at Paper Mills. I’ve found a number of places I can call Somewhere I Belong.

But Here You Are With Your Faith, And Peter Pan Advice

April 16,

If you look back, as I do, to just 3 months ago, I never knew this team existed. I never thought that I would get so into a local team that I partly plan life around them, and I never thought I’d be quoting Billy Joel in one of my titles. There is still capacity in life to surprise.

The theme of all these non-league pieces have been the same. About me, probably more than the teams I watch. About the emotions, mixed at times, pulling at me as I watch a number of teams staffed by wonderful people who you can’t just help but like. I know from the responses I get on social media, from the people at games who have read my stuff, and from those who I now have in a social media network truly inside the game and the clubs themselves, that I resonate with them. In turn, and it is not at all self-effacing, I don’t think I deserve it. I am a newcomer, someone in my 50s, who spurned and sneered at non-league football for so long. I am a true “Johnny-come-lately” and feel if the roles were reversed I would resent, to some degree, my pontifications and pronouncements. But, in a world which increasingly feels like it is losing its way, that niceness and kindness is seen as weakness, and finding something to be happy about is ever more difficult, I cannot quantify how much that all means to me. The “this is Dmitri” introductions at grounds, the invitation into the boardroom (a cabin, but the inner sanctum at Phoenix, the back of the bar at Holsworthy) and the chairman today coming up to me today and saying “great result, can’t wait to read what you write tonight”.

This theme about me and a “journey” to find the soul of football that had been lost to me sounds somewhat twee, but it is real. What is real is that this weekend there were two games that mattered but for very, very different reasons. Yesterday it was Holsworthy at home to Okehampton in the reverse fixture to the Boxing Day match, and which, if truth be told, was the first time a non-league team blew me away with kindness and appreciation. I’m not used to it in my outside life. The second was the huge relegation six-pointer between Phoenix Sports and Lancing FC, to be played at the Mayplace Ground today.

I’ll come to Holsworthy later, but let’s take the day today. Unlike last Saturday where I felt like I got rather too hyped up for the match, I felt a bit more calm. I got the chores done, took Teddy for a longer walk this morning, even had a 10 minute cat-nap before leaving home at around 1:20. A bit earlier than usual, but I wanted to wander around a bit more and get some different angle photos for some “stock shots”. I said hello early to Mark, but he was busy, and his son Billy caught me after my usual purchase of bacon baguette and a cup of tea (my thanks to the tea room staff who are always really nice and I look forward to my routine purchase every week). Billy is a great chap, passionate, as they all are about their club, likes his stats without veering in to the horrors of analytics, and it’ll be good to meet up again on Monday. Alan (see last week) came up to me and said I could have come to the boardroom for tea, but I still feel a bit awkward about all that. Then another of my Twitter contacts, Claggmeister (Dave) came up and said “hello” and thanked me for the pieces I write and said how much he enjoyed them. Others around were now aware I am Dmitri, and it felt quite strange. Not sure who it was who said “Steve isn’t playing today”, but this meant Charlie Martin was in goal. More of that fella later.

I saw Andy, the Chairman, and he said hello. “Lovely day” he said, to which football supporter me said “if we win”. This was no ordinary relegation six pointer. With three games to go, Lancing are three points ahead of Phoenix but with an inferior goal difference. A win today would put Phoenix above Lancing, who have the extremes of fixture levels remaining – home to the champions, Hastings, and then away to bottom club, Whitstable. A draw, while not a total calamity, would not be far short. Phoenix have two games left after today – away at Corinthian (upper mid-table, nothing to play for) and home to Herne Bay (assured, almost of a play-off place, but chasing a home game in those play-offs).

THE MAN ON THE MIC…..

As I said last time, I really hadn’t come back to watch football to get emotionally involved, but there is a sense of inevitability that I would. I got to the ground an hour and a quarter early, for heaven’s sake. I found my usual parking spot taken up by the Lancing coach. This was a “pay what you want” game so I paid full price, those was tempted to ask what the OAP rate was. I was nervous, persuading myself that I wasn’t. One of the club officials told me later that he had a banging headache, had been up since 4am – the chairman said he’d had a really iffy day too, I asked them “Stress?” and before the last “s” sound had come out of my mouth they both said “YES!!!!”.

Of course I am emotionally involved.

I had a walk around the ground, met my good friend who I watch each game with there, still can’t remember his name (so sorry) but he remembers mine. I dropped my rucksack off with him to get the pictures of the teams coming out. I had also popped into the bar for the first time, and was pleasantly surprised with the lager choices. I do need to get some mates down next season. While there, Alan hands me a team sheet. I also get to vote for player of the year. Not telling. Most influential? Josh Dorling. This is all his fault. If he hadn’t scored that last minute winner against Sittingbourne, who knows if I would have fallen for the Phoenix. It made my piece that night miles better that his goal had won the game and set off that emotional response. The one I’d forgotten for over a decade.

I said hello to the character that is Vinny (and more of him later too), but disappointed not to bump into Dean (Mr QPR and from my colleague at the game’s telling, a very fine player in his day). We remarked that Whitstable were losing in the early kick-off, so would not be going above Phoenix into the 3pm game. Phoenix would have been bottom if they had taken a point. It finished 1-0 to Faversham, a devastating blow to Whitstable. Andy, the Chairman, doubles up as tannoy announcer, and his nerves were showing with an early, and probably unscheduled playing of the Final Countdown. He read the teams out, the players congregated, Phoenix out first, looking tense. Lancing made their appearance, the referee, Callum Peter, walked down the stairs and led the two teams out. I get my snaps and get around to my usual spot, just in time for kick-off. One of the guys is missing, but he shows up around 30 minutes in (he doesn’t feel well, and I wonder if this is bothering him too). For the first time since I have gone to Phoenix, the visitors switch ends, so the home team are kicking downhill first half. There’s a noisy youth presence in the main stand – Lancing’s kids – and while I can’t stand the din they made, it’s really great to see. Maybe they are charging me as an OAP because I am acting like one!

By now I’ve been giving my friend the lowdown on last week at East Grinstead. The game is underway. And my mind goes back to a game 26 years ago. The one Millwall game, probably more than any, that I wish we could have back. That season Millwall led the league in December, but fell apart. But we picked up the odd win here or there, but never really felt threatened with the drop. Then teams near the bottom started winning, and on 20 April Oldham Athletic, one of those teams on a roll, came to the Den. It was a chance for Millwall to pull away, kill off the Latics chance of overtaking us. It was a dreadful game. Millwall always looked the more likely, but couldn’t score. Then, boom. Millwall concede a penalty. Richardson scores it. Our only goal threat, Alex Rae, gets sent off which means he misses the last game of the season. Millwall lose 1-0. They lose 3-0 at Huddersfield, 3-2 at home to Stoke, and a 0-0 draw at Ipswich sends us down. The only time we were in the bottom three all season was the last day of the season. A football fan carries scars.

Here Phoenix are in the Oldham role. They’ve been down here all season. Lancing have been drawn into the mix with a poor run at the wrong time. This is pressure. This is football at its best, and whether you are a supporter of a club who gets 30000 or 200, you can relate. A big club never knows what this is like (Chelsea in the late 80s, Man City 20 years ago, maybe the last to feel it), but it is part of football for most others. It’s a horrible feeling, but I chose Phoenix because of it. If they escape, it will be something else. One of the greatest things I’ve seen. The resonance with Oldham is striking. That’s a team now fighting for its football league existence.

“Oh get on with the football”, I sense people reading this might think. The game itself, while central, of course, to the story, is peripheral in terms of details. Phoenix have just one change to the starting XI, as Charlie Martin takes over from Steve Phillips in goal. I look at him and swear he has grown two inches since last time. He looks bigger, more of a presence. I have zero idea about Lancing. I have been advised their keeper is quite good. They don’t look physically imposing.

Phoenix get on top early. Luke is putting it about as usual, and geeing up/giving a right telling off, to all the team as he sticks in tackles, nudges defenders and starts like the energiser bunny. Early forays are repelled, the first note I have is a Phoenix cross from the right, either Alfie or Henry, maybe, which looked to have caught the keeper out but also was too high on six minutes. On 10 minutes, Steve Carvell has a shot which goes tamely wide, but there is a much better effort from Malaki Toussaint, who has a superb shot from 25 yards which has the keeper beaten, but just goes over the left side of the goal. Phoenix are at it, Lancing are not getting a foothold, but there isn’t a goal. I remark that I wonder if I am the problem – haven’t seen a Phoenix goal since Covid. Irrational thoughts maybe, but I am one of those that sometimes think results are pre-ordained. I think this is going to be 0-0. At best. One of life’s optimists.

The pace drops and Lancing start to get into it. Nothing too much, but enough to get Luke Leppard shouting at the midfield and back-line to get their heads back into it. Steve O’Boyle on the sideline senses the mood, the pace dropping, shouting at his team to raise themselves, to fight for the second ball, bemoaning every unchallenged header. There’s the usual dispute over marginal free-kicks but the ref is keeping a lid on the tension and to be fair, both teams aren’t making things too hard. There’s an early substitution for the visitors as Andrew Dalhouse (a big unit, but like most of that build, owner of a really decent touch) is replaced. A corner for Lancing is not dealt with on 23, but it goes wide off a Phoenix man. “Every corner an adventure” is my phrase with Phoenix, whether it’s young Charlie or Steven Phillips. Toib and Lewis are a solid wall, and no really major chances are falling to the visitors.

Steve Carvell has a shot on 29, but that is comfortably saved by Alieu Secka. I remark to my colleagues that I was thinking of wearing my t-shirt the same colour as his top, as I had bought it for my night walks last year to be seen. It’s luminous yellow. On 34 Roberto Ratti does some really decent work down the left, puts in a cross that evades everyone, goes to the back stick, the ball is recycled and runs loose, and Craig McGee, I think, gets there just in front of the defender, but it goes wide. Luke remarks to Roberto to when he should have played the ball. He doesn’t stop. This team needs more Lukes, though. He is constantly on to his team-mates. I’m not sure I’d like him!

Luke Leppard’s A Leaping (I think)

Charlie is dealing with everything he needs to, but the game is now meandering. I completely forget Bideford are playing, no-one down the bottom is playing in the Isthmian South East, though there is an eye on Cray Valley PM and VCD. Also one eye on some of the Isthmian Premier, Lee is letting me know how Horsham, Velocity Cup champions in midweek, are doing, and then there is the Semi-Final of the FA Cup. Also, cricket. Are Surrey going to win today. But the game is too compelling to really focus.

The surface is hard, it is bobbly, but the same for both sides. It was always going to be a tight contest.

As we look to see if it is half-time comes that thing I described a few weeks ago. I call it the moment. A part, an event at football, that is the reason you go. The thing you will always remember. A fe weeks ago I wrote about it. This was about Steve Carvell’s goal v Whistable:

…..But then he does this and all is forgiven. I am not joking when I say that goal will be etched on my brain for the rest of my days. A combination of a sweet, sweet strike, the stakes in the game, the angle of my view of it, and the reaction. Beautiful, beautiful stuff. I’m actually getting emotional writing about it.

I do wonder if the players read this and think “how stupid is this fella”, but honestly chaps, thanks. I can’t thank you enough, actually. More of that later. Thanks Steve for that moment. A magnificent goal. And I am privileged that I was one of the 216 or so that saw it as it happened.

The thing with Steve’s goal was that I was right in the line of fire, I could see it as it hit his boot and arced towards the goal, that it was going in. Today was another one of those moments that will be frozen in time for me, a memory to absolutely cherish, but it was very very different. The game had lulled, but Phoenix were attacking. The ball found itself on the right wing, around 25 yards from the goal-line, at the feet of the unassuming, but nearly always impressive Henry Douglas. He whipped the ball in, and just inside the box, just right of the “D”, Alfie Evans hit it on the volley with his right foot, a swivel volley he caught beautifully. My man next to me sighed, he thought it was going over. I didn’t quite pick the flight up as it left Alfie’s boot. The next thing I see is the ball smacking the underside of the bar and the net bulging. There’s a split second to work out if it has, in fact, gone in. The reaction behind the goal tells you all you need to know. I ask my colleague “who the hell scored that” trying to cross off the names of who it couldn’t be. “Alfie” he says. I’m not cheering. I’m in shock. “What…a….[expletive deleted]….goal”

The sort of goal scored at higher levels that would have the pundits in rapture. I love the clip above… “Well done Alf” seems a huge understatement, but yet so bloody perfect. In a relegation crisis match, a piece of sublime magic has Phoenix out of the bottom two. Only there is another half of football to play. That’s a bit of a hassle.

Alan on the tannoy goes a little berzerk. I’d be surprised if they hadn’t heard “Alfie Evans” at Crayford Town Centre. He says 44, I say 42 minutes, but he gets the final record on Football Web Pages. Soon after the half-time whistle goes and we can take 15 minutes off. During them we see Liverpool are 2-0 up in the Semi. I sigh. Not a fan. In truth, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t care. It’s about Phoenix.

I think everyone around the ground knows that the second half is not going to be fun. Not in the enjoyable, light-hearted sense. In the, if you like to be scared sense of fun. Like rollercoasters, and no, I don’t like rollercoasters.

One of the teams comes out early, I think it was Phoenix, but I can’t remember. It is 5 past 4, so that’s noted for the timings in my notes, which I am getting worse and worse at as the weeks progress. The half doesn’t start well for Phoenix. You can already see the tendency to hold back, play a little deeper, and this looks like Lancing’s best hope because they have pace. On 50 minutes there’s an opportunity. The ball ricochets around the box, the away team never getting a clear shooting chance, but the ball drops to Darius Goldsmith for Lancing who hits a shot from 20 yards that looks goal-bound. Not sure Charlie was near it, but Lewis Clark does a great job of blocking the effort. The warning signs are going off. Lancing sniping in the midfield, Roberto and Luke becoming more isolated, Phoenix looking less precise in clearing.

There’s a chance on 60 for Steve Carvell after I think it was Luke fouled outside the box. It’s a bit further out than last week’s. There’s a debate between Steve and Alfie as to who is to take it. They look to Steve O’Boyle on the sideline for guidance. I can’t put his reponse in big enough capital letters “YOU DECIDE” he shouts. Steve Carvell takes control, and hits his shot into the wall. I couldn’t see Mr O’Boyle’s reaction, as I’m watching the ball come out to Malaki, but the sting is taken out of his shot and the keeper saves comfortably. There’s the gnawing feeling inside that this isn’t going to be 2-0 unless there’s a late breakaway. What Phoenix have, they are really going to have to hold. We were to enter the nerve-shredding half hour.

On 61 minutes, as I was deciding whether to note the Malaki effort, Lancing spring down the other end. Lorenzo Lewis hits a shot wide. On 63 minutes Lancing win a corner. It’s always edge-of-your-seat stuff, and this one is a good one. Harrison Parker, a man with a sort of Grealish hairstyle (I remark about these mainly because I am jealous) rises to head the ball, but he can’t keep it down and it flies over Charlie Martin’s goal. On 65 minutes comes the acid test, there’s a wonderful shot by Modou Jammeh from the right side of the box and it is arrowing into the top corner. Charlie, though, has other ideas and sees it early, leaps across his goal (like a SALMON) and makes a wonderful save. I remark to my colleagues that is because of the two inches he appears to have grown. They are still recovering from the story of Dmitri Old and why this blog is called Seven And Seven Eighths (it’s my HAT size).

The pressure feels unrelenting, Steve O’Boyle is getting louder and louder, and more frustrated as the back line sits deeper and deeper. There are fewer breaks out, though Lancing aren’t creating gilt-edged chances, rather snap shots that pose danger, and crosses that get smuggled or scrambled clear. The ref’s decision making appears to anger both managers (though thought he had a good game and booked no-one), but that’s normal. Charlie takes a siesta in the goal as he does up his shoelaces around 10 times it seems, and winds up the opposition even more. The kids in the main stand are singing “We Believe We Will We Win”, and I remark that I come from the King Herod school. I am a grump. Malaki gets a ball in midfield and wellies it towards the Dartford Crossing. Composure is in short supply.

On 70 there’s a threat down the right from Lancing. Lorenzo Lewis and Modou Jammeh are being nuisances along the front line. This time the ball falls to Matthew Evans, the sub (although Football Web Pages doesn’t say he even came on, so I am probably wrong), but again his shot doesn’t threaten. One might, and does a minute later. Jammeh again gets some space on the left of the box, but his shot is well saved at the near post by Charlie who is growing in confidence and stature. There’s a rare breakaway on 73, Luke Leppard doing excellent work, getting it to Roberto Ratti, who beats a defender, opens the goal up on his left foot, but doesn’t connect cleanly and the ball goes wide.

Another 10 minutes passes. Stoppages, time management, substitutions, some refereeing confusions, but the pressure isn’t easing. There’s a problem with the substitute board which enrages the visitors as the replacements are delayed. Byron Walker comes on for Roberto Ratti to inject a bit more pace, and while that works, he also has a little run-in with one of the opposition that threatens to get a little more tasty. Luke’s acting a bit as peacemaker, but bless him, I’m not sure he’d be my first choice!

On 83 there’s a clash in the centre of the pitch and the ball breaks free. Momentarily there’s a lull as we wonder if a decision is being made, but Lancing have the ball and it is on the left hand side of the D. Matthew Daniel strikes it, and it’s quite well hit. It bounces just in front of Charlie who adjusts superbly to get a vital tip around the corner. Even better, for Phoenix, the referee is obscured and can’t see the save (we had the perfect line of sight) and a goal-kick is given. The Phoenix collective breathes out. Vinny and Mark etc. decamped behind the goal Phoenix are attacking may be missing out on most of the action, but they can be heard. Vinny still hasn’t seen Phoenix commit a foul!

On 88 minutes, and the pressure is still on. Plenty around the box, but no real chances. Darius Goldsmith shoots over from 30 yards. Steve O’Boyle could heat most of South East London with his energy. There’s a break. Phoenix have been going to the corner flag, but this time Luke is in. He looks like he might get there in front of Secka, but the visiting keeper smothers the ball well. There’s a mumble he should have gone into the corner. By now we are in added on time, and no-one has seen the board to work out how many minutes left (indeed, the first Phoenix substitution was enacted by Steve O’Boyle screaming “NUMBER 7 IS COMING OFF”).

Plenty of players are screaming at the referee asking “how long left”, some with an extra seven letter word in it,. Phoenix are defending almost on their six yard box, but with numbers; Toib and Lewis are brilliant today. There’s nothing getting past them. On 94 minutes Liam Hendy has the last shot for the visitors, a long-range effort that sails harmless high and wide. Charlie doesn’t rush. A minute later Callum Peter blows his whistle, there is a roar of relief from the home fans, sighs of despair from the Lancing support, and Alan let’s us all know what we’ve seen by telling us the score. Then comes The Great Escape. The contrast from the first time I heard this, that January day in the cold and damp winter’s night, to the beautiful sunlit day on Easter Saturday couldn’t be more marked. Then I was buzzing at that Josh Dorling winner. Today it meant “see you on Monday, we have a chance”.

I take a few more snaps, and then make my way around to the clubhouse. I bid farewell to my two friends, and wish them a safe and pleasant summer with the “see you next season”, not knowing at what level that might be, and then getting to the place where the players come off which is gated off. Again, a couple more pics, I turn to leave but want to thank Andy for his hospitality, and he grasps my hand. “See you on Monday, then”, he says something like “that wasn’t enjoyable but a great result”. As I go to leave he shouts “Peter, wait a minute”. He’s congratulating the players as they come off, and as the last one comes past he says “come with me, there is someone who wants to meet you”.

I am taken to the boardroom, and as we approach the boardroom, Alf Levy (that’s what it says on his Twitter feed) is coming out. He’s the club secretary and the one who annoyingly comes up first when you search for Phoenix Sports on Twitter. I say hello, and again I’m blown away by the positive reactions to my writing. I am introduced to others, explain that I do it because I just love writing, and that, yes, Phoenix is under my skin, and Andy says “Can’t wait to see what you write about tonight”. I think, good grief, I have to do this tonight! I am then taken to the boardroom, a snug cabin with the Semi-Final on the TV. The crestfallen Lancing board come in, and I genuinely feel their pain. They are a great lot, and hate to think they might go down. Alan, Alf and I think it was another Alan (sorry, not sure) as well as Andy (do they all start with the letter A) are lovely hosts. Lancing have to play Hastings on Monday. They said that a bit. Genuinely nice people. It melts my heart, this football, this passion is something else. One of these two sets of officials, possibly both, are going to be miserable this time next week. That’s football, but it doesn’t make me feel less sorry for them.

PRESSURE!

I think “what am I doing here”, when the referee comes in. He’s a decent fella, from Guildford, who has to do a game at Chippenham on Monday. It’s interesting to hear how he felt the game went, and has a quick drink and has to leave. One more interaction with the game that in 35 years following Millwall I have never come close to. There’s some more inside knowledge stuff which I won’t let onto here, but Andy is clearly really pleased, but like me, he won’t be there next Saturday. Then Andy goes into the main bar, and I say I have to leave, but thank everyone when I depart, and catch a final few words with Alf, who won’t be there at Corinthian on Monday as he has to mind the shop on the ground share Phoenix have.

Even then I can’t quite conjure my own Great Escape as I bump into Mark and Billy as I leave. We discuss the game and how well Charlie played especially, and then at just after 5:30 I left, saying, as I did to most “See You On Monday”.

A brilliant day. Just a brilliant day.

So, with each team having two to play, Whitstable are now three points adrift of Lancing and Phoenix on 30 points. They have a better goal difference than Lancing (-28 to -30), but much worse than Phoenix (-24). Lancing and Phoenix have 33, and above them, and still not out of it are Whitehawk on 35 (better goal difference than all the below by a way) and East Grinstead on 37. Hard to see everyone going past these teams.

On Monday, Whitstable travel to woefully out of form Ramsgate who have only faint chances of the play-offs. As you know, Lancing are at home to champions Hastings United. Whitehawk face Hayward’s Heath who are battling for play-off positions, East Grinstead have a home game against Three Bridges and Phoenix travel to Corinthian.

Next Saturday Whitstable face Lancing, so someone is going to drop points. Whitehawk face a visit to Ashford who are second. East Grinstead go to Hythe, which looked more relevant a couple of weeks ago when both were struggling and Phoenix are at home to play-off chasing Herne Bay. Received wisdom is 36 will be enough to avoid relegation, there may not need to be a play-off involving the third bottom team, but I think it probably needs to be 37.

As I left it was good to see a number of the players leaving and not going to the bar. Monday is big.

At the start of this piece, which, as usual I didn’t think would be this long, I mentioned Holsworthy and Okehampton. They met yesterday at 11am at Upcott Field. The visitors, probably a little forlornly now, are seeing their title hopes slip away as Torpoint and Brixham have used their games in hand to go in front of them. Holsworthy are a solid mid-table team, little to actually play for in the league except pride and position, which at this level, is more than enough. The game went to form – the visitors taking an early 2-0 lead, with their twitter feed teetering on funny and insulting in the description of the goals. I quite liked Okehampton but it wasn’t very respectful to say someone sent a defender for a pasty and such like. Maybe I am being a grump.

Ollie Bray pulled one back early in the second half, and according to sources, the home team gave a good account of themselves before finally coming up short. Ryan is having to cope with a covid outbreak in his team and some key injuries, so although disappointed in the result, the performance bodes well for next season. Good to see the really promising Mark Horn get man of the match. Impressive young player.

There’s been no shortage of great things coming out of non-league for me, but the tweets by the visiting players last night was not one of them. They acted like arses. You need Holsworthy to do a job on Torpoint if possible, and if I were a Magpie I might play a little below par if it were me. I saw the tweets mocking the home team, and the other one that was bang out of order. A shame, because the officials I met on Boxing Day, and the day after were the usual great personalities that light up non-league football.

Just because I am 250 miles away doesn’t mean I don’t care, and that the distance is relative to the feelings I have for the club. My wife has ordered me some Holsworthy merchandise for Easter, and I am made up. It’s a lovely club, the players are all far too young, but I can’t wait for October to get back down there again.

I will finish now. Just some final thanks and a sign-off. Thanks to Andy, Alan, Alf, Mark, David, my friends on the sideline, the players, the fans and Phoenix Sports. I will see you on Monday, and then I have to await my fate and yours from Henley-on-Thames next week. You mean the world to me, you have opened up to me, let me in to see some of the workings of the club, and you didn’t have to. I have loved meeting you all, and you have given me a sense of purpose and a sporting venture to invest my heart and soul in. I hope these pieces really do it justice. Just how important is how my mental health feels at the moment. You may stress me out, Phoenix, but you get me off my backside and back investing emotional attachment to a sport I was rapidly falling out of love with. Just as Holsworthy has done down in Devon, so have you. It is absolutely precious. That goes for Ryan, Steve and Lee down in Holsworthy, and the badge sits on my bookcase as a perfect reminder of kindness and reciprocation of emotions. You are good people. In this world, that means everything. So to Andy, Alan, Mark, Vinny, Dean, Dave (?) and Billy. Thanks. Have a nice Easter, and….

See You On Monday.

I Was Looking For A Job, Then I Found A Job

April 9,

I didn’t return to watching football in person for this.

I did return to watching football in person for the buzz and excitement. But not this.

Not the away trip home wondering what I had just seen.

Not the drive home in a cloud of depression over a football result.

I didn’t want to invest in a team, mentally, passionately, because I think it is quite a destructive state of mind. I really didn’t, and is the part of football I don’t miss. But last night, as I did two weeks ago with another Phoenix Sports game, I came home quite distraught. The sense of a ruined weekend. The unwillingness to recall it in a diary, but knowing that diaries have the rough with the smooth. It is sort of the point. That I needed to write about it, even though I didn’t feel like it.

I am back into this, whatever this can be defnied as, again, and I don’t want to be, but know I can’t avoid it. My head is all over the bloody place. I drove home numbed by a result for a club that three months ago I didn’t know existed and had no clue where they played, in a competition six months ago I would have looked down upon. Part of it is my personality. but more, much more of it, is Phoenix (and as you will also know, Holsworthy AFC too).

As I drove home, the truly atrocious 6-0-6 with two utter clowns, Savage and Sutton, came on my radio. The first caller was an Arsenal fan. They lost at home to Brighton today, having got stuffed at that dreadful lot on Monday. The fan was utter entitlement. Top 4 club in England. Massive history. Arteta has never managed anyone, so we have a manager not worthy of where we are. We have an inexperienced squad. Sutton jumped on the top 4 quote, and I got home and mercifully switched off the radio. This is what I revile in football. I hate that crap. Someone has to win, someone has to lose. Arteta has dragged a crap team up to 4th and now it is getting altitude sickness. So he has to go on the back of two defeats. Success in football is earned, the hard way many times, and it is why I can’t abide those who think because their team went unbeaten in 2004, they should be doing it again in 2022. See also, Manchester United.

Having endured that nonsense, I then watched the Spurs game, and at the end there was a stat screen mentioning “expected goals”. What is this garbage? Spurs have better strikers, playing better, so with fewer chances they are likely to score more goals, but, no, Villa won that game 1.7 to 1. What is this grifting garbage? Who is paying them for this? Millwall played a game at Blackburn a few months ago, had no shots all game, and the commentator kept going on about our Expected Goals being zero. Did someone part with money for this invaluable data. BBC 5 Live have a “statman” who is obviously in such demand that he gets a gig telling me how often someone dribbles and for how far on average. Thanks.

That’s what I have grown to loathe in football. The game is an art, not a science. It is random, while also the better teams usually, but not always, beat the lesser teams. It is not utterly predictable, it is because you need to play the games to earn the points. It is people who just turn up, or watch their team, and expect them to win because they are a top 4 club. It is the analytical side of the game trying to measure waht you can see, and then tell you that you don’t know what you think you know. Everything has to have a reason at the top level. It can’t be explained away as one of those things, or that the team balance isn’t right, or that some players just aren’t that good on a sight test. It’s got to be explained. It has to have numbers, and it has to have an entitlement.

So yes, I am bitter about the game at the top level. Which is why I was searching for something else. Something that encapsulated what the game really should be about and I found non-league football. So while my Millwall days are still here, and I do care still, my feelings are where I want them to be. If we win, great, if we don’t, oh well. We’re one of the smallest budgets in the Championship and punching well above our weight. We will exit that division going down, not up. I’d like us to be more attacking, a better team, but reality bites. Millwall and me are in the cosy familiarity territory, and that relegation will mean we’ll be a bigger fish in a cuthroat pond, rather than a relative minnow feeding off scraps. I can cope with that. I am at peace. Where we are now is really the cap on the hope we are allowed. Top half of the table, real outside shot at the play-offs. That’s the best Millwall can do.

Before I had got to Phoenix Sports I had other clubs vying for my affection, and for me to follow. Bideford, Cray Wanderers (Holsworthy a different beast) for two. Both are struggling at the wrong end of their divisions, but while the Robins are still someone I look out for, and will be grateful for the entrance into the world of non-league, I don’t feel their results like it truly matters. I don’t want them to go down, and it was a big win at Larkhall yesterday after two bad results against Cinderford, but they aren’t even my first choice in the region. It doesn’t help that I’ve seen them lose the four games I have seen them play, including the single worst performance in the 20-odd games I have seen this season – the home defeat to Willand. Cray Wanderers and I just never connected. I can’t put my finger on why, they just haven’t. There isn’t a player I really pull for, it all seems to mean a bit too much at that level, and other than that, I can’t put my finger on it.

Phoenix was different. When selecting a game back in January I had never heard of them before. They were playing against teams I had, like Sittingbourne, but I had no idea who they were. I saw also that they were stone last in the Isthmian SE, so went along with no real expectations. I had been to see Cray a few times and was not into another game down there, so I decided to try my luck. What I saw intrigued me, and then overpowered me. I blame Josh Dorling. In the 90th minute plus, when he smacked that ball through a crowd and into the bottom corner to win against Sittingbourne, that buzz had come back. I wanted to see them again, down at Sevenoaks the week after, not too far, and they were poor. At this point the Sullivans, not an Aussie soap, but a father and son combo close to the club started to talk to me on social media. The recruitment, such as it was, had bitten into me and I felt drawn to it. I wanted a team to follow who weren’t up the top, playing to win leagues – I am not a glory hunter, almost an inverted snob. Phoenix felt right. I then got on board with following them. Holsworthy in Devon, Phoenix in London.

The loss at home to East Grinstead on that perishing night has stuck in my craw ever since. This isn’t something an analyst can explain, it is emotional. Phoenix played really poorly that night, after a bad performance at Sevenoaks. The team never gave up, but they weren’t good. I had resigned myself to relegation. But every so often they gave you hope – a win at Hayward’s Heath out of the blue, the win over Whitstable, decent points away from home, and then crushing disappointment like the home defeats to Ramsgate and Chichester. As you give up, they go to Ashford and win. They go to Three Bridges and win.

I went to the home game against Hythe two weeks ago, and left gutted. It had finished 0-0 but Phoenix had been timid. I felt they over-protected their 18 year old keeper, but could absolutely understand why. But as I left the ground, I felt that was it over. A game fight to beat the drop ending in drawing a must-win game, and one where their opponents, down the bottom and within range, had had a man sent off and were very average. Then Roberto Ratti did his thing at Three Bridges and the game at East Grinstead yesterday became massive. If Phoenix could win, they would go above East Grinstead, possibly above Lancing too. A loss would put the Wasps six points ahead of Phoenix with three games remaining. Not worth contemplating. I had been looking forward to going, because I felt the team had a real chance of making this very interesting.

Phoenix Sports lost 1-0.

I can write out a full match report, but it’s not really the time. This game was a classic relegation battle, if that is not an oxymoron. It actually felt quite emotional as I was watching it as dispassionately as I could muster. I saw the home team come out of the blocks quite quickly, but with Steve Phillips back in goal, there seemed a modicum more assurance at the back, even though every corner or wide free-kick caused some concerns. Steve had to make a few saves, but East Grinstead also snatched at chances – Glenn Wilson heading over when perhaps he should have scored, Andrew Briggs having two opportunities in succession. The home team certainly had the upper hand early on, but Phoenix started to grab a foothold in the game. Luke Leppard harrying and antagonising, Roberto Ratti with some decent touches, and a couple of opportunities came their way, the best falling to Malaki Toussaint, who put the ball wide after great work by Ratti on 12 minutes. I had taken a position up level with the penalty area, but wandered around to behind the goal for the last 10 minutes of the half. My observation was that Phoenix had calmed the game down, looked threatening at times, and that East Grinstead were getting more and more anxious.

Just after Toib Adeyemi had had his header cleared off the line on 33 minutes I joined the Phoenix Club behind the goal. Some context – I had met Alan, a club director and fellow Millwall fan, before the game, who then introduced me to the chairman, Andrew. I was in turn introduced to Steve O’Boyle, the manager, all referring to me as Dmitri, which all still feels a bit strange. They were, as I have found with all at non-league, or nearly all, great people with a passion for the game. Also there was Mark, and two characters I got to follow the game with in Vince and the QPR fan. I said to the chairman that I thought the first half was going OK, that the home team were getting on each other and truly bleating at the ref who was extremely fussy in the first half, and that the storm, such as it was had been weathered.

We went behind the goal Phoenix were attacking in the second half, and the visitors started it well. The best chance fell to Luke Leppard on 56, but he didn’t time his jump well, and the ball drifted wide when he will feel it should have been on target. Phoenix were restricting East Grinstead to occasional forays, but they looked a little more dangerous themselves without creating too many massive chances. They do seem reluctant at times to take that gamble, to have that shot, to put in that cross, preferring to try to make sure. The game, at this level at least, doesn’t work like that, as much as it is as laudable approach.

The vibe behind the goal was positive, though. I have never been one of life’s optimists (an understatement) and yet even I thought only one team really looked like winning this. But you also know in football that it doesn’t really matter what you think, or how you view it. A game like this is totally random. Play this ten times, each side will win three, the others would be drawn and you’d be unlikely to see more than a one goal margin. It was going to be a game of who would take the chance that presented itself, not a matter of time that one team would score. It was a decent game, but made more acute by the importance of the result. Lancing were losing. Whitstable were drawing. There was an opportunity.

Then Mark, who may well be labelled as an optimisit, and who had been praising up the lads said “we have had such a good second half that I’m worried. They’ll take the chance they get. I always worry when games are like this”. I thought he might be over-estimating the dominance of Phoenix, but it was hard to argue that we looked the more likely. But on 75 minutes his prophetic words a couple of minutes earlier came true. It started with a really poor cross by Steve Carvell that wasted an opportunity to create a chance. The keeper got rid of it, suddenly there appeared numbers over on the right hand side, Mark let’s out an expletive next to me, there’s that roar a crowd makes when a player is beaten in a key area that’s about to set up a chance, and then that lull in the noise when the ball finds the player who is going to attempt to score. This time, on the right of the six yard box was Max Walsh, who had come on a substitute for Omar Folkes a few minutes before. His shot arrowed across the goal, and went in. The vocal Wasps’ fans went wild. Mark relayed the news to Billy and told us what we had already heard. We have all been there as football fans. Vince was convinced we could still do it. I have this view that Phoenix are not all that at chasing games, but kept it to myself. Mark, rightly saying a draw would have been an OK result.

Phoenix really didn’t create much in the last 15 minutes. The team seemed to lack vocal leaders, but I am not here to criticise players or the management, or anything to do with the club. It is important, and the club has got under my skin, but it is part of sport. You win, you lose. This was one of those games where losing was more important than other times, but this club had got this far in its fight against relegation after an appalling start to the season. They are still in it – a win against Lancing next Saturday and it is game the hell on. But when the final whistle went, and the home team celebrated, it bloody well hurt. These are good football people and they have seen it and done it. Phoenix is on a tiny budget compared to some of the clubs in this division, clearly punching above their weight. But it still bloody hurts.

I got into the car, listened to the Grand National, and then just thought about just how crap sports reporting has become and how they bin off Stat Man on 5 Live as soon as possible, it seems. This game wasn’t about expected goals, touches in the box or press defence. It was about two teams fighting for their lives, and one team was going to take their chance. You can’t analyse it, you can’t put it into neat little packages or numbers. It’s about taking the moment, not lab experiments or meaningless digitals. The game is played by humans, not robots. It’s why I like this league and the SW Peninsula in particular. Chuck all that stuff out, it’s not wanted. It’s about playing the game and taking from it what you take. Vince can be wildly optimistic, Alan and Andrew with the cloak of pessimism and anxiety, Mark with his assured takes and prescient observations (he was so right about how a draw really wasn’t a bad result, wll before the end) and more off the wall stuff. And me, the newcomer, trying to make sense of it all, but it not really making any sense at all (a bit Stealers Wheel there) who feels a bit of an interloper on a private party, not worthy yet of inclusion, but a keen observer and emotional investor.

I am writing this stupid early on a Sunday morning, and the mind is already racing forward to Saturday and Lancing. It’s massive, a real must win. I don’t think even Mark will think a draw is a good result. I have forgotten to mention that I thought the ground at East Grinstead is really, really lovely, a great facility, and on a bright spring day an absolute picture. Thanks to Richard at Cray Valley PM for giving me the parking advice and I did, indeed, get there early. Thanks also to Alan, Andrew and Mark for even further insights into this great little friendly club – although I still feel uncomfortable about boardroom invitations because I feel I am a newbie who hasn’t earned it – and for Vince and the QPR fan who were great company in the second half.

Around six months ago when I started going, I never thought I would be reprising the 1990s, and watching a team (or teams with Holsworthy as well) with such an emotional investment. I never thought I would care. This much. I am not sure I really want to, but I can’t bloody help it. I bet Statman couldn’t measure how that happened. I bet their isn’t an Expected Caring metric. Because football is only quantified by goals scored and points won. And emotion can never really be predicted, When it will happen, and how big it will be. But all football fans will know that gut punch feeling when a crucial goal goes against you, and they know the release of despair when the referee ends your chance of redemption with the final whistle, and that trudge out of the ground.

See you next Saturday, Phoenix.

A round up of the other key results. Holsworthy, who must be running on fumes and now with the added joy of Covid outbreaks, were held to a 1-1 draw at home bu Bovey Tracey. Two cracking goals according to sources, the home team taking the lead through Tom Bray, but pulled back by half-time. Ryan’s view from the motor (I will never now not picture him managing from his car) was that the boys were unlucky today. Not sure what his target is that he hints at on Twitter, but the season needs to finish strong to build into the Torridge Cup Final against Barnstaple Reserves in a month’s time.

Bideford, as I mentioned above, had a big 1-0 win at Larkhall to move away from the bottom three. The two automatically relegated team are decided (Barnstaple) and more or less decided (Mangotsfield), but the third bottom slot that may be in a play-off is still there, with Bideford, Cinderford and Lymington in the mix. At the top, Plymouth Parkway’s run of 10 wins on the bounce came to an end at challengers Cirencester, to all to play for there.

In the SW Pensinsula, Okehampton won’t quit, and went back above Brixham who were held at home to Axminster. Torpoint won, and the league looks their’s to lose now. Okehampton’s next game is against Holsworthy this weekend at Upcott.

Cray Valley Paper Mills had a bad day out at Sevenoaks, losing 3-0. The play-off places look more secure though as Ramsgate lost again. Their manager, who had put out a mysterious message prior to the game last week that he was going to resign was relieved of his duties, and former Millwall man Steve Lovell is now in charge. They still lost.

Millwall won 4-1. Wonders never cease. Just like Phoenix, they come up with a result when you have really given up on them, and yet you know not to hope. Because, as John Cleese once said in Clockwise, Despair I can deal with, it’s the hope……

So We Chitter Chatter, Gossip On Our Telephone

2nd April,

Let’s start this piece by looking back to last weekend. Having returned to the SE of London, I was looking forward really only to seeing Phoenix Sports and a key game against Hythe Town. That I didn’t write a report on the game was a combination of a number of factors. Exhaustion, which I am feeling some of post-Covid, the thought that I needed all my mental capacity for the week coming up, and another thing that really only struck me after the event. I had felt massive disappointment, and didn’t want to criticise the lads. They had tried their hearts out, but they just didn’t have it. That the game finished 0-0 was by the by. I genuinely felt that was a must-win.

I looked back on this over the week, and in the spare moments when the deal I was working on wasn’t taking over my brain, felt I owed Phoenix a report. Especially Mark Sullivan, the ex-kit manager and Phoenix through and through who explained so much about the club to me last Saturday. I felt I should write, but I couldn’t really face it. But it also meant something else. I was genuinely gutted “we” hadn’t won. Gutted. Disconsolate. I thought this was both worrying and affirming. I didn’t really get into non-league football to be committed to a team, but rather to want teams to do well, rather than needing them to. I had lived that life for 30 years with Millwall, and nearly 20 of them as a home and away fan. I don’t want to return to that. But there’s something about these clubs that make you want them to win more. It’s like adorable puppies – they may be adorable at first, but they are bloody hard work, and I don’t want that. I walked out of the Mayplace Ground absolutely sure that was it. Phoenix were going down. I cared. I really cared.

Fast forward to Thursday. I had had a day. I am involved in a massive deal at work. My area is in finance, and this deal needed to be done that day and we were behind. Just as things looked like working out, my wife comes down the stairs at home and says “do you want more bad news?” The basin in the bathroom had sprung a leak, and it was getting worse and worse. Just what you need. I was at breaking point. Clearing the legal documents was taking forever, my team seemed to be going too slow (they weren’t, they did a great job) and I am scrabbling around Check-a-Trade for an emergency plumber, most of which said “no”. Anyway, one came from Faster Plumbing, I think his name was Jay and he was brilliant and friendly. If you get him, he’ll do the job! The deal finally signed around 5:30, and I escaped up to London to the pub. I had totally forgotten that my beloved team Holsworthy were playing their semi-final in the Torridge Cup against North Molton. I then experienced an agony I’d thought I would never go through… I couldn’t find out the score. Ryan was too busy to let me know, of course, as he is their manager. Then, at around 10:15 or so it came through. They had won on penalties. I exhaled. Damn you Magpies. Why are you doing this to me? Why do I so want you to win? I didn’t get into it for this. I cared. I really cared.

Every Corner An Adventure – from last week at Phoenix Sports

So to today. I had made a decision not to go to Three Bridges to watch Phoenix. I’ve done a lot of driving recently and just didn’t fancy another trip down the M23. So the obvious choice was the Isthmian SE team closer to me than any other in terms of distance. So it was the 10 minute drive to the Artic Stadium to watch Cray Valley Paper Mills against Ramsgate. This pitted 3rd place Millers against the 5th placed team from Thanet. I had seen Ramsgate earlier this year against VCD and was not impressed. Cray Valley had been quite inconsistent, but had eked out a couple of vital wins to cement their play-off place and a win today would probably assure them of it. As readers of this blog might know, I have seen the Millers three times, a 0-0 draw at Phoenix that my report was so well received they printed it in their programme; a 3-0 win over Sevenoaks which was a doddle, and a hard fought 2-1 win against Sittingbourne. I wasn’t gripped by enthusiasm to go, as it has turned bloody cold again and it has been an expensive month (emergency plumbers while very friendly are not very cheap, and we are all nervous about fuel bills, tax rises etc.) But off I popped at just after 2pm, got my normal parking spot in the car park (that’s a big factor for me, assured parking) and went up to the turnstile.

Now, I don’t know if this chap was on a wind-up, had read my social media posts, but the chap in the ticket entrance asked “are you a concession”? Bideford, as you may know, let me in as an over-65. I am around 80% of the way there. I know I have had Covid, but this is not amusing. After my first card was rejected by the ticket machine (it has not been rejected by emergency plumbers, I might add), the second tap got me in. Cursing under my breath at this impudence (a chap actually wrote in an e-mail at work that he thought I was retiring on 31 March – I wish) I decided to take up a place in the little stand on the car park side of the ground. I intended to say hello to Richard, the tannoy man, who I have had interactions with on Twitter to comment on the music selection. Cray Valley PM first welcomed me to Artic Stadium with “Glad All Over” back in February and I nearly turned around and left. I spoke to him at the Sittingbourne game, but didn’t reveal who he was talking to. This time around I just wanted to say hello, take some pictures as the teams came out and then take up my usual spot in the John Jacobs Stand.

Me and the Greens….. More, Much More On These Two Brilliant Chaps

But Richard was not at his post. Oh Well. He’d be back. I’d also arranged to say hello to another person I’d met on Twitter, so there would be a chance to get in touch. I took the usual selfie, posted it on Facebook, then added another picture on Twitter. As I was catching up with team news, worrying that young Charlie Martin was in goal for Phoenix, so Steve Phillips is still injured, a piece of paper was pushed my way. Green it was (to quote Brian Glover from an early Porridge episode). “Hot off the press, hello Dmitri”. It was Richard.

“I had two people over there tell me “that Dmitri fella” has arrived” he said. What? I’d spoken to one guy and told him who I was at the last game I went, but that was pre-covid, so well over a month ago! I have a hard time remembering faces from a week ago. I thanked him and said “it’s Peter” and he went “no…I prefer Dmitri. It’s a good name” (or something like that). I was still processing that people in the ground knew who I was! I then had a good chat about all sorts of stuff, how I’d written a cricket blog and that’s how the name gained traction as I had to write under a pseudonym, and so on. Then, as always, it turned to Rendez-Vous 2, the music that Richard plays as Cray Valley’s walk-out music (Phoenix, by the way, have the truly awful Final Countdown by Europe), and he said he had a surprise for me today. Intrigued.

Richard revealed to me that today he was tannoy man, team-list distributor, preview writer, possibly programme writer, result updater for the web pages, and match report writer for the Non-League Paper. I may have missed a couple out. I let him get on with his work until he played a tune I recognised from my long-distant youth… no, it’s not early Elvis, ticket man, it was this:

Now. I am not a fan of this tune. It reminds me of my infancy. This, knock three bloody times on the ceiling, and Cecilia, but I am sure this was a regular on Ed Stewart’s Junior Choice. Which makes me sound like I should be gaining OAP entrances for football matches, but only puts me in the early 70s, people. Now, I say you should learn something new every day, so to put Shazam on and find out who this was by has made my day. To a degree.

Always liked good midfielders in unglamorous roles. Matt Warren is good

As I am doing it I hear Richard talking to another chap “you know that odd chap who does a lot of social media on us, and writes a lot, called Dmitri” I interjected and said “he’s behind you”. It is Richard’s son (I think, from the interaction – total awks if not) and I think he is called Jay (not my plumbing friend) and as I was to find out, he is the man who does the absolutely fantastic job of social media updating during games for the Millers. Writer me thought “this could be an interesting angle for a post” so I decided to stay put and at least stick with them through the first half. Having been given the inside track at Holsworthy by the manager, the Chairman and senior/life vice president, and having spoken to the Phoenix in his blood ex-kit manager Mark Sullivan last week, I am getting sucked in to the inner workings of the non-league clubs. Seeing how these guys do it was going to be really interesting. I have to say, they gave me a magnificent afternoon of laughter, entertainment and how bloody good they are at spotting action, and getting accurate information out – with one exception which was probably down to Football Web Pages going down at a key time!

So we discussed the length of Rendez Vous 2 – “It’s 11 minutes bloody long” said Jay – and I said I’d seen him at the London concerts back in the 1980s which Richard said he was sad he missed. Then the hammer, or maybe eagle, dropped down. These are palace supporters. Dear oh dear oh dear. We can’t be friends.

I soon got to know they were also really keen on Phoenix doing well. As I said to them I have them in my heart most in this area and recounted how last week had so got me down. They said they hoped they’d stay up. I saw the team news that said Philips was not back and Charlie Martin was in goal again. How every corner had been an adventure last week, but that he’d done well and the defence protected him. The lads were at Three Bridges, and I didn’t have a lot of hope. But I would keep up with them. Meanwhile, down in Devon, Bideford had a key match against Cinderford, who are below them in the table, and a win would go a long way towards the Robins’ safety. A loss….yikes. Their next game was away…to Cinderford. Also, my poor lads from Holsworthy, after 120 minutes and penalties on Thursday, faced title chasing Brixham away. Jurgen Klopp would have been having kittens at that prospect. I think Ryan was too.

Today’s referee was Daniel D’Urso. Surely a coincidence. Is he a relation? No-one seemed to know. He was decent, by the way. Never thought Andy was, but then, the higher you go the more you notice.

This is a long enough piece already, but I have hardly started. It was cool, but quite a lot of blue sky. Ramsgate playing in bright red, PM in their green and black. They switched ends, so PM were kicking towards the Missing Marquee End in the first half, as they did against Sittingbourne. There was a bright start. On 4 minutes Marcel Barrington, seeking his 20th goal of the season, cut in and from the side of the penalty area advanced, and his shot was well saved. My favourite player there, Matthew Warren, had played a good part in winning the ball back to create the chance. Within a minute Ramsgate attacked at the other end as Josh Ajayi made home keeper Chris Lewington work, but it was a comfortable save. 5 minutes later and Ashley Miller shot well wide for Ramsgate from the left side of the area.

Having mentioned, more than once that I was now well over 200 minutes without seeing a goal, the deadlock was broken, if it can be called that with only 14 minutes on the clock. Excellent work by the industrious Anthony Edgar put Marcel Barrington in. He had a lot of work to do, worked an opening and as all strikers (a greedy bunch, ain’t they) he fancied a dig at goal. Like Marcel a lot, by the way, and this time he had the crowd cheering. His shot from the left side of the box should have been saved by visitor keeper Jacob Russell, but it had some power and it nestled into the far corner of the net. 1-0 to the Millers.

It’s now you see the hard work Richard and Jay have to do to keep up. They have to know who did what in the build-up, who scored, what the time was, and any other features. Then Jay sticks it on social media, with amazing accuracy, and Richard scoots into his little music den and announces the goal….In the 14th Minute, for the Millers, it’s…..Marcel Barrington. They then have to report it to Football Web Pages (or the Isthmian South East) and as I can attest, it goes up fast. Poetry in motion. I’m scribbling in my notebook, My entry for this goal says “14 – CP10. CPM 15 great run. Marc just inside box, left foot, should be saved”.

Throughout the half I have to pick and choose my moments. I need to take some pictures for any blog post. I want to keep up with the scores elsewhere, which involves Web Pages for anything to Step 4, except the Southern League which doesn’t seem to report, and the SW Peninsula League is a different kettle of fish entirely. I’m relying on Ryan or Brixham’s feed. But mainly I am interested in how Phoenix are getting on, and shortly after the Millers take the lead there is a “Yes” coming from my mouth! Roberto Ratti, who had the best chance last week, had put Phoenix one up at Three Bridges. Richard and Jay are also content to hear this. A little while later, and I am going “I don’t believe it” as Ratti has made it 2-0 at Three Bridges. This is more than promising. At this point I am reading the wrong thing into Holsworthy’s tweets “Goaaaal 1-0 @Brixham AFC” and then “Goaaaal 2-0 @Brixham AFC”. I think “we” are winning. A tweet at half-time swiftly disabuses me of that notion.

There’s a lull in the action at Artic. Millers are always dangerous, but not been many chances to speak of. The industrious and very skillful Hassan Ibrahiym has an effort on 32 minutes comfortably saved. A good tackle denies Ramsgate a chance a few minutes later as they advanced into the penalty area. It’s close, but there is still a little concern there for the Millers. But in the space of a couple of minutes that concern would evaporate.

On 39, after superb work by Alex Breffo (ex-Phoenix I am told by Jay) the ball lands at the feet of Denzel Gayle. With superb adjustment, he works some space just outside the area and unleashes a magnificent shot from 20 yards which rockets into the corner. A superb goal. Fantastic stuff. Richard darts to the den “On 39 minutes, and his 50th goal for the Millers…number 7 Denzel Gayle”. Social media clicks, web updates all in a flash But then immediately the ball is played over the top, the Ramsgate number 17 is in trouble, the keeper has moved across the box to receive a pass to clear, but Hassan is too quick, too smart, and nicks the ball off Ben Fitchett (Bjorn Borg hairstyle) and passes the ball into the unguarded net. There’s a bit of a pause. What’s happened. Richard darts from the den, and asks what’s happened. Jay isn’t too sure either. I help out a bit, but I saw just the end of the action. Whatever, it is 3-0 and the Millers are well and truly in control. They nearly make it 4-0 when Marcel hits a firm cross into the area but Hassan can’t get there. Mr D’Urso blows for half-time and the home team are 3-0 up.

The Ramsgate manager is livid at the team’s poor defensive display and Mr D’Urso who he thinks has been too lenient. He wanders off the pitch slowly after his team, brooding in his skinny jeans (I remark that he’s the smartest manager I’ve seen in non-league). Richard disappears again to play his eclectic choices of music (oh, my surprise was a remix of Peter Gunn, which he played again at half-time). He remarks during the break that he is a big fan of Peter Gabriel Genesis. Jay isn’t so sure. There’s also Gotye’s “Someone That I Used To Know” played (either before or at half-time and it is something to do with Chichester away).

During the first half the ball is cleared in my direction and lands near my feet. I pick it up and throw it back to the player. I remark to Jay that in the nearly 1000 games I had watched over the years I had touched the ball just twice, one destroying my little finger against his accursed bunch of sorry Surrey slurry, but now, within the space of seven days, I have touched the match ball three more times. I mention Jason Puncheon’s hat-trick. It wasn’t that day, now I remember, it was the Nethercott/Morrison game – the one we won 3-0 and Nethers presents the ball to Clinton and tells him that’s the nearest he got to the ball all day. I then mention only one SE London team has played in a proper European competition, and he then says some player or other who had a good 15 minutes in January for their rot should have our stadium named after him. I mention that I hope they don’t win the FA Cup. We do, for all this, get on!

The Ramsgate Management Team At Half-Time.

When 3-0 up at half-time, there is always a fear you might think the job is done, and it is hard to raise yourself. The Millers come out earlier than Ramsgate, who are probably having the paint stripped off the wall. They’d disappointed me at VCD, and they really weren’t at the races today. When they come out the second half begins. I haven’t noted the time, but a chap walking past me tells me it is 4:07. The two Greens are all over it though. Of course they are. It’s really quite impressive to watch because they are into the game as well, very much so. Jay hasn’t seen the Millers commit a foul all game!

I flick on Web Pages, and hope upon hope that Phoenix are holding the lead and haven’t conceded early. My eyes are disbelieving. 3-0? You what? Ratti again. A hat-trick? No. But there it is 3-0. I have to say that this lot know how to play with your emotions. I sense some regret I didn’t go now, but not a lot. I’m having a lot of fun here, and it’s been really good stuff. The Millers play the best football of the teams I have seen in this league. They have pace, and skill, and a pretty solid defence. I like Matt Warren as the holding midfielder, I know I have said that but today Nathan Green, who was my man of the match against Sittingbourne has had a quiet game. Ade Adeyemo has also played really well.

On 54 Ramsgate win a free-kick on the edge of the area. Jay isn’t convinced. Mr D’Urso is, and Jamie Coyle lines it up for the visitors. It doesn’t bother Lewy in goal as he makes a comfortable save and the danger is averted. 5 minutes later and Ade Adeyemo fashions a chance with some excellent work and his fierce shot is well saved by Russell. On 62 magnificent defensive work by Alex Breffo denies Mitch Chapman a chance for the visitors with a super tackle in the area. The ensuing corner is met by the visitor’s defender, I think, but he headed it down into the ground and over the bar. Ramsgate’s manager is getting more frustrated, as Chris Lewington goes down for treatment and is clearly a lame duck in goal. A message goes out via the physio that he’s not to kick it any more. Meanwhile Jay and Richard are trying to keep up with the substitutions and reporting them on line and to the punters in the ground. This sometimes means younger Green scooting down the sideline to find out the details. It’s fascinating to observe. News comes through that Holsworthy are now 3-0 down. Millwall are 1-1 (interestingly Jay tells me they are 1-0 up – not sure I’d have reciprocated for that lot).

Masters At Work

On 64 minutes Ade has another opportunity, he is giving the defence nightmares at this point, as he appears to be through and just needs to dink it past the keeper. However, Russell gets their first. The man behind me exhorts loudly that Ade might have been fouled, and his partner asks him “Why do you have to shout!” They are good fun, and good people, so it is just wry amusement at this point.

On 66 the Millers win a free-kick. Anthony Edgar lines it up. He shoots, but Russell, in pink, turns it around the corner, for a corner, which is cleared. Phoenix are still 3-0 up and East Grinstead just above them are 0-0 at Sittingbourne. News comes through that Bideford are now 2-0 down. That’s giving Cinderford hope now. Bideford are not great game chasers.

On 70 minutes Tijan Jadama runs into the right side of the penalty area, and is brought down by Ian Gayle (who goes off injured as a result). It’s a clear penalty, but some around me aren’t as sure. After a long delay Joshua Ajayi steps up and tucks the ball past the immobile Lewington and it is 3-1. Richard does his thing, exits the room, and within a couple of minutes makes that old pessimist comment that “we could do with another”.

The Penalty. Ian Gayle (injured) Looks On

Cray Valley have another opportunity after superb work down the left flank, but Marcel can’t get his head to the hard hit cross. They then win a free-kick on the edge of the area. Anthony Edgar lines it up. He shoots, but Russell, in pink, saves it. Three minutes later, a brilliant move, with again wonderful wing play by Anthony Edgar, leads to the Millers’ number 15 pulling the ball back and Denzel Gayle’s shot smacks off the post. Worth a goal that one. And at this point, none of us can get on Football Web Pages. This goes on for the best part of 10 minutes”.

On 84 minutes Cray Valley win a free-kick on the edge of the area. Anthony Edgar lines it up. He shoots, but Russell, in pink, save……er, no he hasn’t. It has ricocheted off him and into the net. It’s 4-1. Richard runs into the room, somehow it looks as though PM are now 5-1 up online, as the Web Pages issue is causing issues! This has made it safe for the Millers now. 4-1. And, for the game, that’s all he wrote. The rest of the game was played out and the home team finished comprehensive winners.

Suddenly I get access again to Web Pages. Millwall are now 2-2 – it turns out Jake Cooper has scored another own goal, but that’s not a bad scoreline really. I then turn on the Isthmian South East, and it’s showing 5-1 to Cray Valley, and I look down and see….. Three Bridges 2. Oh my God! What is happening! I click on it, to see it is in added on time. The last goal was on 89. I keep refreshing. Our game is 5 minutes behind here. Then it comes through as a final and I am delighted. We agree that 8 points are probably required. Richard gives me helpful advice on going to East Grinstead next week.

I hope the above conveys the way I felt the day went. My eternal thanks to the two Greens who provided me with the story today and the angle to write on. I have nothing but admiration for what they do and how they do it. They might think it nothing, and might think it all in a day’s job, but they provide a brilliant service to people not there, and those in the ground. And I then think to myself what is this I am feeling? I desperately want to see the Millers in the Play-Offs, and hope that if they get there the first game at least is at home. Ashford have won today so stay 2nd, but teams behind drop points. As I say my cheerio to them, I say I’ll see them for that. But, I might sneak back for one game. The thing is, I love Phoenix, but there is something stirring for these chaps. The club is so friendly to me, so nice to me. It is just absolutely mind-blowing. I didn’t want to return to this football to care for a team, I wanted to do it to care about football again, and yet this feeling I have is almost one of support. How can I support multiple teams? Is this not against some long-standing code?

I get home, buzzing a bit, feeling that lovely warm glow of a good afternoon out. I turn on the TV. It’s Neville moaning about how crap Manchester United are. It’s a goal ruled out for a minimal foul by the obnoxious VAR system. It’s entitled fans wanting entitled football. There are 70,000 plus there, and the tannoy man says “thank you for your support” which really means, you mugs, thanks for your cash, buy our merchandise, invest in our crypto rip off and watch a load of prima donnas preen on the pitch and play soulless, joyless football. When Richard thanks the Millers for their 144 attendees today, the only Crypto he might be thinking off is the artists who made The Monster Mash. That man’s record collection must be a sight to behold!

So, to wrap up a long old piece. That thing I feel is caring, Of watching what I see, and what it means to Steve and Ryan and Lee at Holsworthy, to Mark Sullivan and the guys I stand with at Phoenix, and today watching the two Greens support the boys in green, with such love and enthusiasm that how can I not pull for them as well as Phoenix. I so hope they get into the Play Offs, because I want to be there with them. I want to be excited again. I want to really, really care again. That’s what these past few months have been really about. The feeling that if you let it and you love football again, it really does love you back when you look hard enough. I don’t want it to be life and death ever again, but I want it to matter. So now, the three become four. Added to the Robins of Bideford, the Magpies of Holsworthy (lost 4-0 in the end) and the Phoenix of Sports, add the Paper Millers of Cray Valley. As Vinnie says at the end of Lock Stock….”It’s been emotional”.

Love non-league, and it loves you back. I never think I wanted what I now have, but in this world of hardness, lying, bitterness, sport being a conduit to relieve you of cash, this is where I am now. And while I didn’t get into the scene for this, I now know. I care. I really do care. And to people like the Greens today. Thanks. It means so much. You inspire old, OAP looking cynics, to care. Great job.

Don’t Start That Talking, I Could Talk All Night

22 March 2022

As the holiday in Devon ends (although I must stress I have been working from the holiday cottage for the past two days and getting very stressed!), the main reason I extended for a couple of days was to go to Upcott Field for the Tuesday night South West Peninsula League, Premier East fixture between Holsworthy AFC and Ivybridge Town. Having written up match reports on Bideford, Phoenix, Cray Valley Paper Mills, Cray Wanderers, VCD, Horsham and even Torridgeside, I wanted to give my “treatment” to the Magpies of Holsworthy. A night I expected to be a little different than others turned out to be a night I will cherish. I am, as my friends in London know, a cynical, almost suspicious person when it comes to others’ good intentions. I often live my life wondering how I am going to be screwed over, or treated badly, by the next spiv that comes my way. Phoenix and Cray Valley PM in London have helped a lot with their good reactions to “what I do” and in turn I have a lot of time for both clubs. But there’s something about Holsworthy AFC that has just struck me in a slightly different way, and it is really hard to describe.

I had a couple of people ask me tonight, why have I become such a fan of Holsworthy and I don’t have an adequate answer for them. I want to preface any response with “I don’t want to come across as patronising” because I am not. They mean a huge amount to me because they have re-connected me to football, almost in its purest sense. These are not the greatest players, in the biggest teams, on the largest stages, but they are honest, committed, love the game and in the case of Holsworthy, they try to play. There is no hoofing it up to the forwards, look for a knock-down and see how it goes. They try to get it on the rutted deck, pass when the ball is bobbling all over the place, and they work really hard. It could be anyone, because I see that in a lot of teams, but Holsworthy, rather than Bideford (who I will still follow, but were insipid on the first three occasions I saw them) caught my eye when they beat Crediton 3-1 in October. Since then, the little phrase I use about non-league, about if you love it, it loves you back, has been amplified by Ryan Hall on Twitter, Lee Thomas his co-manager (when down at Okehampton and tonight). More on other members of the Holsworthy hierarchy, especially Steve Lee the Chairman, later in the piece.

So they were the first team I related to when I started watching the football live again, and although their second performance in person at Okehampton Argyle, the league leaders, resulted in a 2-0 defeat on Boxing Day, the team gave a great account of themselves and were well in the game until the closing stages. They also said hello to me – and gave me a pin badge – and I was genuinely touched. It doesn’t take much to imbue that respect and love for a club, but this was just magic. I now pester the team to let me know how they are doing when playing games, but feel guilty because they have jobs to do in getting results for the club at the same time. But I really want to know. That’s telling. It’s them and Phoenix Sports who I look for first, even before Millwall now.

Holsworthy have not lost since Boxing Day, so I turned up tonight fearing that I was going to end their unbeaten run. On paper they looked up against it. Ivybridge Town sit in 5th, and while the top three may be out of sight, they have a few games in hand on Newton Abbot Spurs above them in 4th, so a win would have been very welcome. Holsworthy dropped to 10th when Elmore won at Torridgeside on Saturday, and their aim is to finish the season on a high and constantly improve performances. There is a lot of optimism in the club and Ryan is a constant source of information on the league and how he sees the team in the light of some of the circumstances it has been in in the not too distant past. He and I have been having Twitter conversations for a good while now and it has been brilliant.

I left Langtree at 6:40ish, for the 7:30 kick-off at Upcott Field. Having parked up outside the ground (I saw a number of cars in the club car park hit by footballs, so no chance) I walked up to the kiosk wondering if what they had in store was true. Wendy, one of those club officials every team needs, stopped me before I said a word. “So, I am not to take any money from you, I’ve been told by Ryan”. I got my £10 note out. “No, you are not paying. I am told you have done so much for us on social media”. I was getting a bit embarrassed. They wouldn’t take my money. I was then given a programme and stopped to chat to her and the other two gentlemen on the gate for a while. I found out it was hard to dry the shirts between games, that it cost a fortune to change the lights in the floodlights (they are decent, you can see them from miles away) and that Ryan was self-isolating in his van to watch the game, but that I needed to say hello to him! Also, that a couple of the players had come down with Covid and were in cars watching too. You don’t get that in the best league in the world!

I walked around to where I sat previously, in the stand just the clubhouse end of the halfway line. Within five minutes the Ivybridge supporting contingent came and sat next to me. Immediately thoughts went back to the Crediton game when I had the visiting chairman stand behind me. I got the notebook out, found out my pen had no ink when the tannoy man announced the Ivybridge team (I hope I can get the names and numbers but it is not always easy) and got the team down for Holsworthy. My favourite, Ollie Bray, aka Jake Humphrey, was at number 11, and would be playing down the left. Morgan “no idea why I was sent off v Okehampton” Reynolds led the line up front, and the man who impressed against Crediton, Tom Bray was on the right. Jedd Peschke and Harley Westlake were the two central defenders, and more of Harley later. Also, down my side in the first half was left-back Mark Horn, and more of him later too!

Unusually for games I’ve seen the teams did not come out together, so no usual team line-up photo from me, just this…

Ivybridge in Green – Holsworthy in black and white stripes.

Unfortunately the match report that follows doesn’t have many of the Ivybridge players’ names as I didn’t match the numbers. I will try to get them, but even FA Full Time lists the teams in alphabetical rather than numerical order. And then, of course, I asked Ivybridge if they could let me know their team list, and, of course, they said yes!

I think I would be massively over-selling the contest as a gripping, end-to-end thriller. My notes from the evening do include some chances that would be probably stretching the definition. A casual neutral may have regarded the match with maybe some contempt, the sort of match that if played by Premier giants would be considered “intriguing” or “tactical” whereas levels below that are not offered the same analysis or insight and are just called dull. For the lack of chances, numerous chances, for me the game had a narrative. As I said to Ryan at the end of the game, the first fifteen minutes saw more passing and qualtiy than the game I had seen on Saturday (and I know the conditions badly affected that game). It began on three minutes when Ollie Bray, who close up doesn’t look like Jake Humphrey (and he called me out for that on Twitter later), made a real nuisance of himself on the left, took on and beat a couple of Ivybridge players before sticking a cross into the danger area. Maybe Morgan Reynolds was so gobsmacked by the agility and dexterity that he froze in shock, but Ollie and his left-sided companion for the evening, Mark Horn certainly did some good work in that half. Meanwhile, my Ivybridge companions were cheering on their number 11 (I think), Dickson, who I think might only be 16.

Romance isn’t dead!

On 5 minutes Ivybridge, who rather took control of the midfield early on, won a corner, and Williams (F) headed over. On 21 minutes Holsworthy won a free-kick 30 yards out, but the shot exemplified why I don’t park in Upcott Field’s facilities as Craig Penberthy’s shot went miles over and threatened the cars. On 25 minutes a defensive error by I don’t know who (and I wouldn’t spare their blushes if I did) let in Ivybridge’s C Pritchard, but when given a chance to shoot the ball took a home bobble and the effort was sliced miles wide. Holsworthy responded. The ball fell inside the box to Jake Humphrey, and the tall number 11 shot from around 10 yards, and caught the keeper out at his near post, but unfortunately he just hit it to the wrong side of the post (I might give Ollie the benefit of the doubt to say he clipped the post, but as I said to him, my eyesight is not the greatest).

On 30 minutes Ivybridge came close to scoring. I confess that I have to do three things when reporting on a game – well four. Watch it. Take Pictures. Take Notes. Not miss anything. As I was doing something other than watching, I looked up and the ball had taken a deflection and was looking to be going goalbound before goalkeeper, and apprentice funny man, Ryan Chadwick pulled off a super save with his feet. I don’t know who shot that, but the ball came out to J Bowker for Ivybridge, who shot the rebound over. A narrow escape. Bowker again came close on 40 minutes with a cross come shot hitting the bar – Ivybridge claiming that as an effort that meant they might have deserved victory may be a little strong, but it was undeniably close.

I had walked out of the covered area to take some shots from a different angle, and one moment amused me. I said hello to the linesman, who seemed a cheery sort, and a few minutes later Jedd Peschke played a super pass from inside his own half to find right winger Tom Bray. Ryan Chadwick’s response from behind him “great pass skip, more luck than judgement” was a real confidence booster. As I said, apprentice funny man!

At half-time I headed over to speak to Ryan, who had sat in his van for the half, most of which with his lights on, quite disconcertingly, when I got accosted by a man and a woman. “Hey, I have been told you have to come with me” I was told. I feel terrible because I didn’t catch his name, but I think it was Terry. I think he is also one of the club’s life presidents. Maybe my Millwall past was catching up with me, and I unknowingly had a ban from any team that played in black and white stripes (in combined games against Newcastle and Notts County, the other Magpies, I had seen Millwall lose just once), but instead I was ushered into the clubhouse, and to the back of there to be introduced to the Chairman, Steve Lee. There was another vice president, and the group I had been sitting with for the first half. I’d been introduced as “he does a lot of really good stuff for us on social media” which, I have to say (even if I didn’t show it) made me quite emotional. I had had a full dinner so didn’t avail myself of the food, but the cup of tea went down a treat (and I had a Swiss roll and a few jelly babies as the resolve weakened) and just said what I really liked about the club, and it was just really a love of writing.

Let me say now, this was getting too much. I genuinely do do what I do, as regular readers here, or those who have read my stuff on Being Outside Cricket or How Did We Lose In Adelaide, because I love writing. I don’t want to be a journalist, I just want to record what I see, what I feel more importantly, and what drives me. I don’t know why, but I feel a little defensive justifying quite why I love Holsworthy and Phoenix in particular. Holsworthy has just sort of grown on me – the game against Crediton felt a good one at the time, and is even better as it gets more distant in the rear-view mirror. The game performance at Okehampton against a better team, but not that much better, was a great choice to watch. Since then it has been a two way street. I keep feeling that I have to emphasise there is no ulterior motive. I owe them a lot to get me enthused in watching football again. I can’t really say that without feeling like an impostor, but I just thought as I was being treated so well “I don’t deserve this”. I loved it, and yet felt that bloody guilt I always feel. I also wanted to get out and watch the second half.

I watched most of it from behind Ryan Chadwick’s goal with, and please let me be right, Terry. Early in the second half Tom Bray made good ground down the right and put in a cross which went across the face of goal with no home player able to get a touch. On 52 minutes Ivybridge won a corner, it caused some discomfort in the home box, plenty of shouts for fouls and so on, before Holsworthy cleared, but just as in the first half, you felt the momentum was with the home team.

My notes get more sketchy from here on in. I have an Ollie Bray shot deflecting wide (possibly saved) on 58, and Tom Bray causing some mayhem on 60 but not creating a clear cut chance. On 64 minutes, Ivybridge won a corner, it wasn’t cleared, the visitor’s number 7, I think had a shot, which Chadwick half saved, but the ball looped up and was absolutely about to go in before a miraculous header over the bar from Harley Westlake that looked from my vantage point as virtually impossible to do. For me that was the moment of the game, a piece of great defending at any level. Ivybridge were causing some problems from corners, and the one resulting from the clearance saw a chance fall for Pritchard, but he sent it over. On 73 Williams (F) had a volley from 20 yards which went over, after good work by Forward, and that is the end of my notes.

After that, I walked around to speak to and say hello to Ryan, finally, and in the remaining 20 minutes of playing time, and 20 minutes after got an education in the league, how things run, the dual registration system, and update on his take on the game and so on. I want to be careful what I write because in my keenness to tell some great stories, I might betray some confidences, but I got further information on why I shouldn’t visit a certain nearby team, certain other information on how some teams are stronger in midweek than on Saturdays, and that Ryan was really pleased with how his team had matched up with a good Ivybridge side and really limited their chances. I also got a nice welcome from joint manager Lee Thomas who I met at Okehampton, and it’s just so bloody nice.

The game got a bit more scrappy and it was clear Holsworthy would be happy with a really well earned point, and I was more concerned that Ivybridge wouldn’t score late and have me labelled a jinx. The ref, who started very fussily but I am not going to have a go because they don’t deserve it at this level, and treated the players like adults and with due regard to potential injuries, played four extra minutes, but the game was destined to remain goalless. A good point, a reasonably pleased Ryan, who told his keeper Ryan, that he hadn’t had to really do too much against one of the better sides in the league. This is a young team, and what was emphasised to me is that the key driving point and ethos in the club at the moment is to reflect the local community in the area, give those lads a real chance, and let them build. I am really impressed at their maturity. I asked a chap in the bar whether there was any experienced pros or ex-pros who might turn out, but the stock in the area doesn’t allow it, and that growing the team like this is the only way.

Having had a great chat with Ryan, and having seen those lights you could see for miles switched off pronto, we walked around to the clubhouse. Ryan couldn’t go in with his covid, so I wandered in. I am currently off the beer, and don’t really like having one when I am driving these days, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Instead I was greeted by Steve Lee, the Chairman, and Mark Horn’s father. I had another fascinating discussion, one of which I’d love to get more into, about how the club was on its knees a couple of years ago, and how pleased they are with the development of the young team and how it is improving and maturing. There is great optimism in the coming seasons, but as I also have seen from other clubs, players really come and go. Holsworthy, though, had seven of the starters from this evening’s game in the squad for Crediton, with one other on the bench for both games, and another out with Covid. It’s quite consistent for this level. For example, Torridgeside seemed to have quite a few different players playing against Torrington (they won 3-1) that evening (as compared to Saturday) as they utilise the dual registration policy to their advantage. It seems to be a building process at Holsworthy, and they are developing as they play tough games.

The other thing I felt in that bar was old. The Old in Dmitri Old. I sort of wondered what the kids in that team think of an old idiot wanting to just soak up a game at, I don’t mean this as an insult, at a low level. It’s watching a team improve, build, and try to do it playing football that I truly like about the club. Their officials and volunteers, probably common to so many clubs, strike such a chord with me. And yet, if I were them I’d look at me and go “what does he want”. The answer is, nothing and everything. I don’t deserve the reception I got from the officials because the players do. From Ollie Bray, the young whippersnapper who left the boot in against Crediton that upset their chairman and then did a pseudo Cantona when he scored, to Tom Bray, probably my favourite player in the team because I’ve liked right sided midfielders all my life, to the duo in the centre Jedd and Harley, Jeff on the right, Ollie Moores (not another booking), Craig and Jay doing their bit in the midfield trenches, and my man of the match, and not just because I spoke to his dad after, Mark Horn on the left who was up against a tricky opponent and looks bloody 16! Because he is. Morgan is a robust, redoubtable forward who is bloody important to the club, or so I am told. They are a good bunch. I hope they go on for the rest of the season and do the business. There are some tough, tough games coming up, but as Ryan Hall said to me after the game, they play well against the strong teams, had beaten Brixham earlier on in the year when they were top, and bemoaned points dropped to teams they should have been taking them from, But they are unbeaten in 2022. My main regret was I didn’t get to see a Thundersausage.#

I also forgot Ryan Chadwick, a good keeper with a poor taste in kits, but a wonderful repartee.

I walked out of the ground at around 10:15, with a real glow. As I said about non-league, if you love it, it loves you back. The chairman was chuffed at an attendance of 152 – I commented to Steve that Bideford had got 170-odd the week before against Parkway and they bought a few. Ryan Hall reckons that the standard isn’t much worse than Bideford, and then I replied that the team that played on New Years Day would have had problems beating a schoolboy outfit (he also said Kai Fisher had really been a great player for them and it is hard not to disagree). What I came away with is a sense of belonging, a sense of real camarederie, a club with its heart in the right place, having come from testing times, friendly people, and it just makes me smile. And people who know me, will know what an achievement that is.

My thanks to all there, the players, Steve, “Terry”, Ryan and Lee, as well as Mark Horn’s dad who says he’s seen my tweets and says “some of them are funny”. I will take that, and then some. You have a good footballing kid there. To Wendy and the others on the gate. To the Ivybridge fans I sat next to, and to their social media person for sending me the team list, you are in a growing number of teams I have a soft spot for. To the South West Peninsula League – it’s great fun, it is passionately played, and I adore it. It has a decent website too (not the Southern League, we don’t like their quality and how poor the updates are on Football Web Pages). I can’t say enough about it. I will be back in early October, and will try like hell to get to another game. I’d love to run down there once more before season’s end, but the petrol prices are bloody silly.

Actually, most of all, I’d like to thank Ryan Hall. He has given me a lot of time online, lots of insight and lots to take away on how football at this level works and is run. I hope he’s getting over the covid.

And me? Blessed. I got back to the cottage, let my wife know what happened, then sighed. It was back to London the following day. All good things must come to an end. It’s just a shame they have to. It was a very special day, and I have been to FA Cup Finals, Semi Finals, the Camp Nou, the Ashes tests, the San Siro, the Olympics etc. and this is up there. Because there is heart, and there are, despite how you feel about the world, genuinely nice people struggling by for something they believe in. It’s so uplifting, even this old cynic couldn’t help being moved by it. So let it in, let it take you over, take the nice words as sincere, and the happiness at the social media stuff as genuine. Don’t look for ulterior motives, accept it. They like you, you like them.

Up the Magpies. Still unbeaten in 2022!

This Town Is Just About Big Enough For The Both Of Us

19 March

A colleague of mine online said to me about non-league football “you’ll know when you have REALLY caught the bug when you go to a game in really foul weather”. Last Saturday, albeit coming off the end of covid, I turned down the chance to watch Torrington due to the wind and rain. Today, there may not have been rain, but there was wind. My heavens there was wind. Because it was also the non-traditional easterly, it wasn’t a normal wind either, because either by design, or whatever, there was precious little shelter from it at all. So although it did not rain, in fact, as you will see from the pictures there was barely a cloud in the sky, it was a tough assignment today for fans and more importantly, the players. So I think I meet the tough weather test, Mark. In part.

After my local online contact cried off, due to the disease that no-one in the country is really supposed to talk about because “it’s over”, from attending Okehampton v Bovey Tracey with me, and also due to my wife wanting to go to an antique fair in Bude limiting my time to travel to a match, I had decided that the game for today would be Torridgeside v Elmore in the South West Peninsula League, Premier East Division.

Of course, this is the league my team down here, Holsworthy AFC play in, and who I will watch on Tuesday night, all being well. That all being well caveat is one we all need to pay attention to when making plans these days – see Okehampton today, and mine for the two weeks before Bideford!

Note the rugby match in the background….

The context for this game really focused around the home team. Torridgeside are presently third from bottom of the league, above Stoke Gabriel & Torbay Police who are totally marooned, and rapidly closing Sidmouth, who were the recipients of Ottery St. Mary’s manager and most of the team around the turn of the year, and have swapped form as well as taking their team to climb closer and closer to the trailing pack. In the case of Torridgeside, it is currently devil takes the hindmost. Sidmouth were 5 points behind going in to today’s fixture (more of that in a minute) having played three games more. Torridgeside were level on points with Honiton Town having played three games more, and with the East Devon team’s game against title chasing Torpoint called off. There was an opportunity for the home team to steal a vital march. Elmore, based I believe, in Tiverton could move above Holsworthy in the table with a win. A solid mid-table team with little to play for in that awful professional parlance. Not at this level.

If you read the posts, I am currently based in Langtree, a village about 6 or 7 miles from the main local town of Great Torrington. With a population of just under 6,000, it has been said that Great Torrington is the healthiest place in Britain to live, given the clean air, good local amenities, and no massive retail outlets (there is a Lidls). Mostly so far on my five trips down here it is good for emergency shopping, a narrow road to drive through to get to Barnstaple, and an intriguing place for two local level football teams. Torrington FC, based near the centre of town oppositie the large St Michaels and All Angels Church, are currently 14th in the South West Peninsula East; Torridgeside AFC are located to the east of the town, on the road to South Molton, and share the facilities, or at least the area, with Torrington rugby club. The home ground is called Donnacroft Fields, and it was there I was headed today. There is a little pang of regret, and perhaps a decent line in a back-up plan, that I am not going on Tuesday night for, as one Torridgeside fan called it today, El Torrico. That’s when the two teams meet at Donnacroft for a game, I think, postponed from Boxing Day. Torrington today entertained Sidmouth at School Lane, a game that would be very handy for Torridgeside if their rivals could win. Let’s just say that my online colleague dissuaded me from attending that for personal reasons, and leave it at that.

So it was, that at just after 2:10, I left Langtree for the short drive to Torrington, and arrived at the Torridgeside ground at 2:30. The car park was already full, so having sought advice from a local, I parked over the road in the industrial estate and walked across the reasonably busy B3227 (Hatchmoor Road) where I quickly figured out this was the rugby club car park and that there might be other facilities for the football team further on. I walked behind the rugby field and through a gap in a hedgerow and there I was at the home of Torridgeside AFC. For free. This can’t be right. So I sought out the door man/woman, found them in a concrete cubicle and paid him my £5. He had a Chelsea jacket on so wondered if I was breaching sanctions by handing that cash over, but instead asked whether there was a programme for the game. I was taken to a tea hut where a very nice lady told me that as Elmore hadn’t supplied a team list, there wasn’t one. This left me a bit worried about how I was going to identify players for this match report without just calling them numbers.

I had a little poke around, took some pictures of the ground during warm ups, and closer to kick-off sought out the officials who were extremely concerned that Elmore had not submitted their team. However they were really accommodating and allowed me to take pictures of the line-ups to enable me to write up the piece, so my thanks to Richard Salvage, Peter Sercombe and Roderick Ashman for keeping this nerd blogger up to date. I took my seat in the little stand towards the south end of the ground, where the ubiquitous tea executive asked me whether I had got the team sheets, to which my affirmation was greeted “you had more luck than me” with a pleasant smile and a laugh. In our stand I reckon there were 8 of us. It’s a bit disconcerting when you hear the gate man say “hello” to two patrons walking up and say “we’re in double figures now”. This is the life of Tier 6 non-league (10th level of the game) and I really wonder how players are paid at all at this level. It’s bloody humbling, but also, amazing that the game is still so pretty well organised and run at this level. Sure, it is much more at the mercy of the weather as Hontion, Crediton and Cullompton are finding it with their pitch issues, but it’s still, from my standpoint, a really engaging league. There’s a real decent scrap at the top, for example, and even the most hopeless team in the division are now giving their opponents tough scraps.

The teams came out to meet the furious breeze. It was blowing hard, and the ground is very exposed on a hill above the town. Torridgeside played in burgundy, with light blue bits on their kit, while Elmore wore green with some form of sash. At the toss the two teams swapped ends meaning that, in theory, Torridgeside had the wind behind them in the first half. In truth, the wind was more of a cross wind with it ever so slightly at their backs, but ever so slightly enough to play havoc with goal-kicks and clearances. The pitch looked quite dry and in decent fettle, if a little, well a lot, bumpy and quite long. The game kicked off a little late, by about 3 minutes, and we were off and running.

The first chance fell to the home side on three minutes. Having witnessed the wind carrying every high ball to our side of the field, the home team got the ball on the deck, worked it to the right hand side of the area where Billy Heard hit a firm shot, but wide of the target. Elmore were struggling to get the ball out of their own half, but on one of their first raids on 7 minutes they won a free-kick on the right side of the penalty area. The kick was taken by Elmore’s number 19 (very helpful on the team sheet above, which doesn’t have a number 19) who whipped in a high cross-come-shot which ended up in the far corner of the net to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.

This is the goal. Not a cloud in the sky! Blowing a gale.

So, who the hell was number 19? The next few minutes had me frantically looking at the team sheets, then eliminating the numbers I had seen. Confusingly I thought I had seen a 9, so was looking for a 4, which hadn’t been spotted. Then I worked out it was a 9, so the name is Harry Butler. As he confirmed on Twitter later in the evening!

Give Harry his due, he appears to be claiming it wasn’t a cross, and his celebration was as if he meant it, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Love how at non-league you get this interaction!

Torridgeside reacted well initially, winning a corner, but having a near miss that I missed due to fretting about who scored the first goal. You and your bloody number 19 shirt Butler. The game, somewhat inevitably was being destroyed by the conditions. I felt the home team thought they were more in their favour than they actually were. Any long balls were hardly ever caught by the players as they ran and ran. Elmore managed the conditions better. On 22 minutes from a free-kick which was partially blocked, the ball was fed out to the left and a dangerous ball in looked to have fallen to Tony Radford about 8 yards out, but he missed his kick. From a corner a minute later, Elmore’s number 7 leapt beautifully and met a crisp header too well, putting it over the bar when he looked likely to score. Elmore number 7, check phone, Lloyd White.

Straight up the other end, the ball was gathered by Jack Magarotto (it’s what it says on the team sheet) and he hit a hopeful 30 yarder for Torridgeside which went well over. Five minutes later, and not catching the number on the shirt, the Torridgeside shot tested the keeper, albeit with as comfortable a save as you could have on a day like today. On 34, George Folland had another long range effort which went wide. The best chance I saw for the home team came on 44, when Heard was fed in again on the right, but shot wide, though this time the ball fell to the Torridgeside number 11, who had been perhaps the player who had best adapted to conditions on the home team, and Shuan Copp (for that is his name) had a good effort blockde before Elmore cleared, and the referee blew for half-time. Most of the assembled masses in the stand believed he had blown a little early, but none of us could really blame him. It was brutal in that wind.

I checked the phone to see how the other teams were doing. Holsworthy had the day off, so no reports from Ryan and the boys there. Bideford had taken an early 2-0 lead, one in the first minute, which had me, for a second going “I should have…..” before telling myself that this were the lot who thought I was 65! I’m going to hold that grudge, chaps! I still want you to win, but…………. Anyway, news from Mayplace was not good. Phoenix down 2-0 at home, with Sevenoaks winning, Herne Bay going ballistic at Lansing, even East Grinstead showing form. I don’t think Phoenix are a chasing side, so that really doesn’t bode well. Info from up the road (it is literally, almost a straight road, with two roundabouts,to Torrington) was Sidmouth had a 1-0 lead, and the assembled bunch were bemoaning having to play that lot in the week. Cray are playing tomorrow, Paper Mills had an early 2-0 lead but had let one in on half-time. Millwall were losing 1-0 at Stoke. This wasn’t a good day. Bideford aside. I suppose as Torrington is a great place to live, if you are 65, you look 52!

I thought I’d take a different perspective in the second half and walked behind the goal (no fences) and around to the other side. It felt like it was less windy as I did so. Behind the goal in which Elmore were attacking in the second half the rugby match had finished, and the players were walking off to their own clubhouse as the game kicked off in our contest. How would Torridgeside adapt to the conditions having been a bit all at sea in the first half? I wandered around to the halfway line on the other side where there stood one man and his clipboard. On his jacket he had Devon FA. Like everyone I have met in the games at this level, he turned out to be amenable, approachable and willing to share his views. But he had a job to do, and that was to assess the referees. It would be unfair to put his comments in this piece, but to sum up mine, I thought he was decent, communicative, fair and despite some complaints from the home team, pretty accurate, although not faultless. I may have been influenced by his letting me have the team sheets, of course.

Elmore, with the wind as much as you could be, started a scrappy second half the better. Their left-sided player, didn’t catch the number though it might have been number 3, Lucas White had a shot on 52 minutes which was well saved by the home keeper, Elijah Clarke, wearing number 19! If it was Lucas White denied on 52, he wasn’t three minutes later. An interchange between him and, I think, Lloyd White, resulted in Lucas skipping past a couple of challenges, giving up one opportunity to shoot to secure a better one, then finishing neatly into the bottom corner from 12 or so yards before running over to the corner flag in celebration and head-butting it! A strange lot, but 2-0 to the visitors has to be worth destroying a few brain cells. The home side were not happy with the decision to let the goal stand (there may have been a foul before the build-up, but neither I nor the assessor spotted anything), and I remarked to him that it was bit of a “tiptoe through the tulips” goal, which isn’t something you’ll hear Guy Mowbray or Martin Tyler say, but may just be stupid enough for Sam Matterface. A player who shall remain nameless exhorted that Torridgeside always get these kinds of referees, to which I had to think, you are down there for a reason, mate. And it ain’t refs.

Elmore had another chance to extend their lead on 58 minutes, but the hopeful cross-shot tested the keeper a little more than it should have and he turned it wide. It was hard discerning the numbers staring into the sun! That’s my excuse. On 62 minutes the home side had the hint of a chance, when Nick Glover tried to head over the oncoming keeper, but didn’t quite get the elevation and it was a comfortable save in the end for the man in pink, Adam Chamberlain (later, in a clash with the striker, he went down injured to which I remarked he didn’t deserve physio attention in that outfit, and judging by the pace in his own physio getting to him, neither did he). On 64 Torridgeside won a free-kick in a central position, which earned the visiting defender a booking, and Rory Paine’s shot was close enough to cause a few murmurs in the visiting defence before creeping wide of the left hand post. The game had always been scrappy, but I defy players of all skills to perform in these conditions, and Torridgeside still, to their credit, kept trying with little reward. Moaning at each and every decision that went against them was understandable. The game had gone. A shot on 77 minutes from Shaun Copp almost caused the keeper to make a mistake, but he gathered on the second attempt, and with three minutes left, and possibly with their best move of the game, Copp put in Paine who shot wide. It would be the last chance of the game. Elmore had their own effort on 84, when Lloyd White cut inside, and hit a shot wide, but in a flurry of late substitutions and unfinished creation of chances, the game petered out to its finale. The visitors walking off with a 2-0 win, as I walked back to the car to get out of the accursed wind.

So what to make of it? It would be the way of snide journos, fans who only want to see “the best” and other supporters to say this was a really poor game and why waste time, money and effort on it? Hell, even a year ago I might have agreed. What was the point. During the second half the Devon FA guy asked me if I was a “groundhopper” which I said no. I said I wrote a blog, for my own enjoyment, and to recall the games, but to me a groundhopper is someone who goes to tick stuff off a list. I am seriously not having a go at that, because that used to be me. As I said to the man on the entrance, I’ve been to over 100 grounds, but the new ground isn’t the thing for me. It’s the stories behind the teams, their own little corner of the football world, their own rivalries, aims and dreams.

These are footballers who play, I assume, for the love of it. How can you play in that gale, on a surface where controlling the ball is tough (but a bloody good one for this time of year before the groundsperson puts a hit out on me), in front of, I counted, about 30 people, and not do it because you love it. The same for the officials. It warms my bloody heart, and I am a huge miserable cynic. I felt guilty at saying to my online colleague that it was a poor game, because that’s just not fair. Unless a team behaves like absolute chumps (Sevenoaks, I see you), you won’t get me calling them out. For 5 quid, I had 90 minutes of honest contest. It had more soul than much of what you see in the modern game. I am really glad I went. I’ll come back again if the opportunity presents. I will remember the ref calling “burgundy ball” when Torridgeside won a throw. I will remember the ref acting as if he was going to book a player for dissent before that player went “I didn’t swear” and was let off. I will remember the camaraderie of the six or seven loyal supporters of the club in that stand. It’s just brilliant when you really sit down and write about it. It wasn’t a great game, it was never going to be when the wind claims high clearances and blows them into football’s equivalent of the deep rough. But there were 25 or so honest footballers giving it their all. Fair play, and thank you, to all of them.

I got back to base at 5:15, which is another pleasure, and caught up with the results. Disaster for Phoenix with a 4-0 home defeat to Chichester. Sevenoaks won from 1 down, winning 4-1, against VCD who are seriously disappointing me after that good win against Ramsgate. East Grinstead eked out a 3-2 win against Burgess Hill which was another bad result. Herne Bay beat Lancing 6-1 away from home, Whitehawk won 2-1 against Ramsgate. Only Whitstable slipped up, losing 2-0 at home to Hythe. This could be the defining weekend for Phoenix. Let’s hope not, but next week they face Hythe, who must be on cloud 9 after today’s win at Whitstable. At the top end of the Isthmian SE, Hastings won again and are now out of sight, 2-0 against Three Bridges. Ashford drew 1-1 at Sittingbourne to sit 12 points behind Hastings. Ramsgate’s loss meant the vital 3-2 win for Cray Valley Paper Mills meant they are now level on 59 points with them in 4th, and they leapfrogged Haywards Heath who they beat today with a 90th minute winner from my favourite player there, Matthew Attenborough-Warren.

In the Southern League, Bideford won 2-0 to put some further distance between them and the relegation places. Mangotsfield lost 2-0 to Frome Town and Barnstaple, needing wins, could only draw at Willand Rovers. Cinderford did not play today. Plymouth Parkway got a vital late penalty to beat play-off contending Winchester. In the Isthmian Premier Horsham lost 3-0 at Wingate & Finchley, while at the bottom of the table Leatherhead climbed from the basement with a 3-1 win over then second bottom East Thurrock. They are 7 points behind Cray Wanderers who player Bowers & Pitsea tomorrow. Millwall lost 2-0.

In the SW Peninsula league, there was a shock win for Elburton Villa over Brixham, so Okehampton, who won 2-0 against Bovey Tracey may have that miracle and still be top at the end of next week. Torrington lost 2-0 at home to Sidmouth, and they are now breathing (Sidmouth that is) down the necks of Torridgeside, Elmore, with this win, leap over Holsworthy into 9th.

So, another day of football. A good day in challenging conditions. My thanks to the players, especially the officials, and the club officers and fans. You have me watching out for you all. It may not, was not, the greatest match, but you make football what it is. Never stop.