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)