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.

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