We Have Waited For Too Long, For This Moment To Arrive

As I listen to the song that I decided to use as a lyric for tonight’s piece, I am still undecided if it is “for too long” or “far too long”. But as the vocalist, a Mr Jerry Knight, would also say in the song that “it doesn’t matter”. That this song was out in 1984, when today’s hero was undoubtedly not born (he’d need to be 38) is by the by. Today, Sutton Athletic could proudly say on their Step 5 debut that there was no stopping them, and certainly, no-one could have done it better.

As I get the tortured song analogy out of the way, let me start by reflecting on the events of the past 28 hours or so. Last night, as you would be able to tell from the report, was one of my footballing highlights as a supporter of many many years. I have been to many memorable Millwall games, and some pretty good ones without them, but it’s that close, almost family feeling, that the win last night had on me that made it so special. I didn’t think last night’s piece conveyed the rawness of the emotions I felt, the sheer elation at being there. I watched a superb game, aided by the fact that all the supporters were closely packed on one side of the ground helped the buzz and the anticipation. It was just superb, and while I felt I could have done better with the report, I am immensely proud of it. I think I need to strive to improve more and more to tell the story even better.

The reaction to the post has been amazing. To those of new to me, I wrote, and still have editorial rights, to the cricket blog Being Outside Cricket. If you are a cricket fan, have a look at 2015’s Wisden under the Cricket Blogs section. Those were mad, mad days. We regularly had 2000+ hits per day. It was intense and I had to produce copy virtually every day. It was a recipe for burnout. As I said to one of my readership today, I am a better angry writer than anything else, but it is also immensely destroying. English cricket made me angry. So, with an outlet in writing about non-league football in the shape of this personal blog, I am looking to be positive, and it is not hard to be that. Non-league is amazing and I am really passionate about selling it, and writing about it. But doing it not to get myself noticed, although I love the hits and the views, it is about writing for myself and if others love it, well that’s great. As a result of last night’s post, I have had my record day on Seven and Seven Eighths II. Only cricket and occasional posts on a football blog having a go at Alan Pardew when he was Newcastle manager have got me more. Thank you to everyone who has read it and those who have been nice about it on social media.

So, as an encore, I felt duty bound to go to a game today. It would need to be in the SCEFL and three options looked to be on the table. Firstly, and nearest, was Stansfeld v Bearsted at Glebe. The next was Holmesdale v Hollands & Blair, and thirdly Sutton Athletic v Canterbury City. I put the options on Twitter and within seconds, Sutton has put their hand up and said it had to be them. As Stansfeld’s FA Cup tie is next Sunday I could always see them then, so they were eliminated before the start, so my visit to Holmesdale will have to wait (maybe against Phoenix, we’ll need to see). Sutton’s excellent social media game netted them a punter. It’s not much, but it’s £13.50 they would not have got for entrance, a programme, a burger and a cup of tea.

Of course, probably like a lot of people seeing Sutton Athletic’s name, you think of the place west of Croydon and for people of my age, the United team who beat Coventry City. But this Sutton is the one in Kent, and the team play on the outskirts of Hextable, not a million miles from the M25. The ground is on a lane out of the town, in what looks like farmland, but is actually a really quite nice looking venue, although, as the club will no doubt admit (and do in the programme) that it needs some work to get up to standard for Step 5. At the moment there is one small stand, a temporary structure and a nicely appointed club house. On a lovely summer’s day like today, it was excellent. I am not sure I’d be massively keen to be there on a dark January night with pouring rain, but that’s not today’s exam question. For today, it was nigh on perfect.

I found the ground after my useless satnav left me a half mile short of the venue, and pulled into the car park. As I pulled out of my original selection of space as it was too close to the pitch, the attendant came up to my car and I had another one of those encounters that makes this form of the game so special. He was a Gillingham fan, which always gets the comment that I liked them until they got better than Millwall at the turn of the century, and he filled me in on some of the history of the club, its background, how they ended up on the outskirts of Hextable, how that doesn’t have a pub, and all sorts on the players. When I asked who I should look out for today, he said without hesitation “Arlie”. Of course, I thought he meant Harley as I had done zero research on the game and the club. I did recall that they had given Sheppey a mighty tussle in the two-legged Kent semi-final last season, and he regaled me of tales of that encounter. I could have spoken to him for longer, but needed to get fed and watered!

One thing the parking man did say was that the programme was the best in the league. A proud boast, especially for a team making its debut at this level after a long history in the Kent County League, but it is quite good, with lots of information and pictures, although the chairman does state he has had to make economies as the costs, like everything else, are rising alarmingly. He was apologetic that the entrance is now £10 (including the programme) which to me is absolutely fine. The expected attendance was going to be around 50, so I was told, which I feel is a bit of a shame. The local community have a good club there, so they should try it. I know I am a recent convert, but people won’t regret it.

After I’ve had my burger and tea, I start to take the prep photos for the day, put the selfie online, and I see two semi-familiar figures walking in my direction. “Hello, are you Dmitri” the man asks, and I say yes and of course I know you. It’s Grads, assistant to Steve at Phoenix along with Ben, another assistant. Of course, as Phoenix have drawn today’s opponents, Canterbury City in the FA Vase, they have come along on a scouting mission. I had sort of thought of doing this myself, compiling a dossier on the strengths of this and that, but then checked myself as just a mere fan of the game and not a student of all that “technical nonsense”. But it was good to know that my team were having a look. There did not appear to be any team announcements, or team sheets, so I enquired and found them from the bloke in the blue t-shirt, who let me copy them. I then relayed them to Ben, and I felt like part of the coaching staff. I’m still a child at heart. The visitors first:

And on to the home side:

Sutton marginally winning for neatest handwriting. I’ll be interested (I know I know) on who does the writing for Phoenix. I am prepared to volunteer as I am told mine is obsessively neat and “girl-like” which in this instance I’ll take as a compliment. I’ll bet it is Leggy. And as I am thinking this, who should appear but Mark Sullivan! I can’t escape Phoenix. Talk revolved around last night. Then, as if by magic, the Evans clan appear. Alfie’s dad, in an Under Armour top I am well jell about, Claire, his mum, who likes my posts a lot, and Alfie himself. This is mad. I am here to do a job and we are talking about last night.

The two teams come out and I like both kits. Canterbury City have a burgundy colour top (I won’t call it claret) while Sutton are another team predominately in green. I see Arlie is a tall forward with the number 9 shirt on, and I warm to Canterbury’s number 8. The playing surface is rock hard with the lack of rain, but looks better than it plays (which isn’t badly at all) and it is Sutton who settle the better. There is some early probing down on the left side, kicking away from the rather poor position we have taken by the corner flag on the opposite side of the Sutton attacks. Arlie Desanges gets the all on the left side of the box, creates an opening and shoots wide of the right post in the second minute. Sutton are passing quite nicely and keeping more possession as Canterbury can’t get the ball. There aren’t many chances, and the next I have noted is on 17 minutes when City get their first attempt, when Owen Punselik shoots wide and high from long distance, with the only issue being fetching the ball. While the probing continues, chances aren’t manifesting themselves and Sutton could be forgven for becoming a little anxious. They are certainly much the better side, but need a goal to settle them down. Arlie gets another attempt from a header on 27, but it is comfortable for the keeper.

A minute later and there is a break into the right side of the area. Neil Spencer, who I thought had a terrific game for Sutton finds space on the right of the penalty area and advances uncallenged into it. Instead of having a pop himself, which he could well have done, he does the absolute right thing, squares it to an unmarked and onside Arlie Desanges, who makes no mistake with a sound, comfortable finish low into the net with the keeper nowhere. Sutton are 1 up on 28 minutes, and the nerves, if there were any, could be defused a little.

Sutton look to build upon the lead, but chances still seem elusive. On 39, Sutton’s busy number 10, Conor Evans, has a shot which is dealt with by the keeper. This then highlights why I need a spotter. As I am not sure of the number of the player for my notes who has had that shot, and I see it, I note it down and miss one of the Sutton players hitting the bar! I have no idea how it happened, who did it, but it is Grads who confirms the woodwork has been contacted. I am not lying to you all, so my mistakes are as relevant as my good stuff. No bluffing!

Just before the break and Canterbury have their best chance. A ball is slipped through and the pacey number 10 Joe Nwoko gets a march on his defender, he gets near the byeline, pulls the ball back, and it finds its way to Tyrell Mitford who sees his 20 yard shot well saved by Joe Hyde. It is the last action of the first half.

I then have a conversation with Alfie’s mum who tells me she reads my posts by speed reading looking for Alfie’s name, and then when she says what I says, reads the rest. I am tempted to just put random Alfies in each post now, just to wind her up. Instead the conversation turns to West End Musicals, which, I am afraid, is a bit of a bridge too far for me. I don’t like musicals. I think that is being polite. I remark that I have not taken many notes, to which Alfie says “well, make things up” and it is as if he has asked me to kick my precious dog. I have standards, young Evans. I have standards.

While constantly talking about moving to get some snaps for the blog, I stay where I am for the start of the second half and am well rewarded with a view for goal number 2. Again the creator is Spencer, who gets the ball in the right channel, gets close to the byline, and puts the ball across. It’s a little behind Desanges who does well to steer it goalwards, and the ball loops up over the line, before being cleared away. I see it clearly, it is about two feet over the line and so does the linesman on other side. Sutton are two-nil up and looking every bit a SCEFL Premier team. The second half is barely two minutes old.

With this I move behind the goal and rewarded with my memorable moment of the day. On 51 minutes Sutton win a free-kick on the right side of the area – Spencer again winning the foul and continuing to be a constant threat. A dangerous cross is whipped into the box, and to everyone’s surprise, and especially Charlie Plummer’s, the ball falls to him with an open goal. It isn’t easy, and I am not saying it is a really bad miss, but Charlie snatches at it and it goes wide. He gets berated by his team. Charlie is swearing under his breath (OK, I could hear him) before he shouts “all right, all right. I PANICKED”. Charlie is now one of my favourite players. Good on you mate. See below……

Sutton are totally on top, and Neil Spencer is tormenting the left side of the defence, while Sutton’s left back has the freedom of the other flank. The passing is neat, and Canterbury have rare forays (I will use this word in every piece as Richard Green at Cray Valley loves it). On the hour one of those attacks brings a save out of Hyde, I think from Punselik. But that spurs on Sutton and this time Arlie is the one with the ball running into the area, and it is he turning down a chance for the hat-trick and pulling it across, but Evans can’t make contact when he may well have killed the game. Three minutes later and Spencer is away again, and he chooses to square when he has the goal at his mercy, and City’s number 5, Alex Coyne, calmly puts the ball (just) wide to clear the danger. He gives off an air of nonchalance, which was fooling no-one. On 70 Evans has a good shot saved, but by the time the follow-up is stuck away, the offside flag is up. By now, I’ve returned to my original position and the parking attendant is there.

“What’s your unbiased view?” he says. “Really impressed, you are going to take points off some good sides” which sounds a bit patronising in hindsight. “Nah, we’ll come up against some organised sides who will stop us playing” was his view. I have to say I was disappointed with Canterbury and said I thought Sutton were very comfortable. Grads says today has been a waste as City haven’t had a corner and so can’t even give Boyley a view on how they work their set-pieces, and then says his goodbyes. At this time Nwoko has another long shot which isn’t worrying anyone. I say that Sutton look comfortable and know “that” feeling that the team you support is never comfortable 2 goals up!

On 79, Kola Salami, who has replaced Spencer on the right, is providing City’s left back with a nightmare upon nightmare, because he’s electric fast and wants to impress. In the 10-15 minutes he is on, he terrifies the defence. He gets put in, and instead of squaring, which might have been the better option, he has a go for goal and hits the side netting. If Arlie is cheesed off at the chance of missing a hat-trick, he doesn’t show it. A good team-mate. On 84, City have a chance, but Rowland’s effort is well saved. Canterbury start to build and a Punselik shot a couple of minutes later as he works it on to his right foot is well saved. A corner for City, after Grads has left, works its magic. It is floated into the near post and headed in. I couldn’t tell if it was number 9 or number 6 had scored, but according to SCEFL it is Seb Rowland, and suddenly car park man is nervous. “It should have been six by now” he and his friend say. A bit strong. 4 might be better. But I am not arguing.

It is all academic. Kola has an effort, which he curls wide a minute later, but then the pressure continues, and he puts in Conor Evans down the right side of the box – a common theme – and the number 10 looks up, squares it to an unmarked Arlie Desanges who strokes the ball home to complete a striker’s hat-trick (probably a combined 20 feet out for the three goals) and put Sutton’s fears at rest. 3-1 becomes 4-1 a couple of minutes later. Stop me if you have heard this before, but Kola has his defender on toast down the right side, he advances on goal, cuts inside and then slots into the bottom corner for a fine individual goal. I thought it could have been an own goal, but Kola is claiming it and I am not arguing. He’s been amazing. Wherever he has been before “didn’t have him in their plans” and the guys in the clubhouse are making that fact known.

I really wanted one with the tractor in (see above the goal)

The final whistle goes, I shake hands with the two great chaps I’ve spent the last twenty minutes with, and Claire comes around from their second half vantage point wanting to know if I’ve caught the dog who ran on the field as a picture. Does she think I am some kind of amateur? (Given there is a mum and child on the field, this was taken after the game, so the answer is yes).

Sutton have a debrief as I say my goodbyes and think of what I have watched. Sutton hav played well, could have won by more. There is delight that they are joint top of the league with Punjab United and Rusthall who have won their games 4-1, while we look at Deal’s won over Glebe as an interesting one, given the visitors went 1-0 up.

Three goals – a true striker at this level

A really good day, and in Arlie Desanges, there is no doubt that Sutton have a goalscorer, and a potent attack when allowed to play. I am going to leave it there, as I have written enough this weekend, and want more to reflect upon, but I had a great time at a friendly club. It is a shame the attendance was 52, and I hope the club, which is clearly going in the right direction, gets the backing it undoubtedly deserves. It’s another example of the greatness of the game, of the clubs and the people at this level, and I will cherish these memories. Hat-tricks do that. Add Arlie to Teddy Sheringham, Paul Stewart, Mark Hughes, Paul Jewell, Darren Byfield and a number of others that I have seen score a hat-trick (Teddy four in one season, I might add). They play like that they will be top half, I think. It’s neat, incisive and good to watch.

Thanks Sutton Athletic. I am glad I chose you. Score one for your social media game and your wonderful car park attendant, who called me “The Blogger” (of course I told him I write….)

When You Believe In Things, That You Don’t Understand, Then You Suffer

As with a lot of non-linear story telling, the whole purpose of it is to be self-indulgent and focus on the cleverness or importance of the author or director. Not for them a running list or ordering of events in chronological fashion. No, far too predictable. Jump to a key point in the tale, tease the outcome, and let the audience try to figure out the rest.

So, in tonight’s SCEFL opener between Erith Town and Phoenix Sports, at the 70-odd minute mark, the crucial decision was made which affected the outcome over and above anything the teams, the management and a sometimes overly fussy referee could have done. I switched seats to bring us good luck. I went from 4 rows back next to Claggy and Son, and instead sat at the front with Billy Sullivan and Dean Sawyer. It changed the whole game….. of course it did.

But more of that later. Because there was so much to take from tonight that to do it justice would take an epic post, and, well, this might turn into one. Let’s go back to 6:15 when I left the house. As usual, there was the senior moment. The bound notebook that has been my non-league chronicle had been put in the bag, but as usual, I’d forgotten I’d done it, until I remembered and found it. I was nervous. Really nervous. I’ve said many a time that I hadn’t got into non-league football to feel like this, but I now know that this is probably what I had hoped. The caring about the outcome is the charm. It is the driver of the enthusiasm, but more importantly, the driver of the emotions from the game. What does it matter if my team loses? What will it do to me personally if they do? How upset will I be? These weren’t questions I was posing six months ago, now I am feeling them again.

I got to the ground, and secured a parking space, which is always important to me! I paid the £10.50 for admittance and a matchday magazine, and made my way to the south side of the single stand and sat down. The two teams were warming up, and I was taking a couple of pics, when Dave came up and said hello, and I informed his sons that I had no bananas that evening (a long story, but the kids expect it now). Then, out of the blue, Phil Legg, the all-round gofer to Steve O’Boyle came up, said hello, and gave me a look at the team sheet. He talked me through the selection process, the agonising decisions Steve had made in choosing certain positions, and then a history of his time at Erith and some of the stories about games played there. Now I know some of you might get tired of the “awwww shucks, why me” lines in these pieces, but let me make this really clear to you all. This stuff means the absolute world to me. These are guys who are letting me in, in a very small way, to how a football club is run. It is utterly fascinating and very, very real. I am someone described at times as aloof, distrusting, and who has been hurt by betrayals and placing faith in people I shouldn’t have. I have a barrier, and can be hard to approach. But also, I can be a really open and engaging friend, I think, when you know me. That these guys trust me, even at this stage, and when some know I won’t be with them for long, is magical. They may not think it is anything. It is everything. It’s why I love the club.

After Phil leaves, and I’ve said hello to the Sullivans (Mark asking if I was any more optimistic – silly so and so) my brother rings and we have a chat. Then, after 20 minutes, I realise all the Phoenix boys have left me, but I am told they are now at the north side of the stand, so I go to join them. I say hello, not remembering who all of them are (I’m sorry, I am really bad like that – let’s get pictures so I can remember) and take my seat. The one I would not move from until 70 minutes had passed. I’m next to Claggy’s son, who I ask to act as my spotter. He doesn’t. Why should he? I think he wanted me to eat a banana.

Erith Town are expecting a large crowd, and to be fair, they get one. It is 365 strong, and on a calm summer’s evening, this feels like a decent start to a season. Phil has tipped me off as to some of their good players, but I am looking at bigger pictures. Erith had finished 7th last season. Against the two dominant teams in the SCEFL last season, they lost 2-1 at home to Chatham (2nd) and 2-0 at home to Sheppey (champions). They had beaten Glebe, an expected rival this year, 2-1. This was a tough place to come and get a win, and would be a huge test of Phoenix Sports – I feared for my team because pessimism is my default setting. Why change the habits of a lifetime?

Spot the Chairman.

The stadium is very odd. It is based at Erith Leisure Centre, and has one stand on the west side of the ground. The dugouts are opposite and the changing rooms in the far right corner. The playing surface looked good, but is surrounded by a running track. There were passing references to West Ham, but my brother and I thought more Withdean (that’s Brighton’s old ground for you youngsters out there after they left the Goldstone and Priestfield). By the time the teams had come out, I was beginning to wonder what I had let myself in for, and with camera poised, notebook open, pen found, I was ready. People already indicating that they were looking forward to what I was going to write. Pressure everywhere.

The game itself started two minutes late. Or maybe three. There seemed to be a huge pause between the ball being placed on the centre spot and the game starting. Maybe it was me feeling the pressure, because this already felt like a big game for the two teams. How would Phoenix respond to relegation, which is never a certainty? I had no idea. It felt like a must win, but that’s ridiculous. Isn’t it? I think my nervousness is reflected in the amount of notes I have taken. It is by far the most of any game I have been to. Let’s try and summarise.

On three minutes, after a decent start, Phoenix win a corner on the left. Ex-Millwall Dave Martin takes it, and the keeper and defence are a little confused as Lewis Clark is free at the back post, but his header goes high and wide. I make the note “half a chance that”. It wouldn’t be long before a real chance. Tashi-Jay Kwayie bursts through, there’s a tangle of legs with the defender, he goes down in the box. They aren’t given, are they? Wait! Referee James Black is pointing to the spot. A penalty! What a chance for the Phoenix boys to stamp their mark early. There’s a wait, it’s always a long one…

Captain Ryan Hayes is going to take it. I reach for the proper camera in my rucksack. Thank god there is a load of nonsense going on. I messed up with the penalty on Tuesday at Paper Mills, but that wasn’t going to happen this time. As you can see, above and below, it worked out. Hayes runs up, strokes the ball with the left foot, to the keeper’s left, who has gone the right way, but it is just well enough placed to elude his hand, and it hits the net to a great roar from the lads around me. I’m pleased, of course, but know the assembled supporters will want a good pic. I hope I’ve done OK. Phoenix 1-0 up after 7 minutes, and I’ve got a couple of nice ones in the bag for the blog. The importance is in the correct order. This is a decent start to the SCEFL campaign.

So, at this point my mind is cast back to a game in around 1996. Millwall had been relegated to the 3rd division of English football, and after an iffy start, had won a big game at Watford, and we thought we were fine. We then went up to York City, totally unfancied, bossed them for 45 minutes, were 2-0 up, and collapsed in the second half to lose 3-2. We walked out that day thinking, this isn’t going to be a stroll.

I interrupt this negative thought, and there are more where that came from, because Erith react well to the goal. The Dockers have a chance on 9 minutes when Steadman Callender, who would be a real pain all night, curls a shot wide after a free-kick isn’t cleared very well. It would be a common theme, with Phoenix consistently struggling to clear their lines when the ball was played into the box. Every cross, corner or set piece would be an adventure.

On 15 minutes there is a big penalty appeal for Erith, as the ball hits the Phoenix defender with arms raised. The referee adjudges that the ball did not hit the arms (I think of Henry Douglas), but it is a narrow escape. Erith aren’t going to go away quietly. Dave Martin has a shot on 17, which doesn’t trouble the home keeper, but Phoenix are also looking quite assured early on too. It’s a really decent contest. On 19, Joe Chalker has a shot over after a free-kick is punched out by Andy Walker in the Phoenix goal. As the ball goes up the other end, a foul brings the first yellow card of the game for Ryan Mahal of Erith (which would matter later on, in another piece of non-linear story telling). Phoenix threaten on 21 when a free-kick is flapped at a little by Mackenzie Foley, but no harm done. However, the yellow cards are evened up when Thomas Cousins is pulled up for a foul on the halfway line to avert a break.

Erith created a headed chance, not sure for who, which was headed wide on 25 minutes, again from a right wing cross. Ryan Hayes had a shot on 27 which drifted wide, as the Phoenix forays became more sporadic. On 30 minutes, Erith really should have equalised. Harry Taylor was first denied by a fantastic save by Walker from close range, gathered the rebound, looked certain to score, but saw his second shot blocked, and even then the ball came out to the left side of the goal and another shot was blocked away by Henry Douglas. The Erith fans sensed their time might be coming. I could only see the next goal coming one way. But on 36, from a Dave Martin cross, new Twitter follower Calvin Senedu found himself unmarked at the back post, and headed into the side netting. It looked a really decent chance to put the visitors in the driving seat.

Phoenix were increasingly being pushed back and back and one sensed they needed the half-time whistle. Tashi and Luke were becoming increasingly isolated up front, while Alfie and Bertie in the centre were struggling to impose themselves. On 44 Andy Walker came to the rescue again, with a fantastic save from other new Twitter follower, Alex Nelson, the Erith number 12. But the respite was short lived. In added on time a cross from the right was mishandled (hard to call it an error) by Walker, and Charlie Clover saw his first effort saved on the line. The ball came out to Erith’s left, and the cross was met on the chest by Clover, who then adroitly hooked the ball in on the volley leaving Walker and the Phoenix defence with no chance this time. A well-deserved and really well-taken equaliser. Erith Town could go into the break with confidence. They nearly went in with the lead, with Callender having a decent chance he poked wide from another cross from the left. When the ref blew for half-time, Phoenix were grateful for the break. They were on the ropes.

That is Phil’s Thumb!

I am on Dry July, so didn’t go to the bar, but all the guys in the picture above did. Billy came over and thought Boyley would be laying into them, but I rather hoped he didn’t. I felt that the game had turned a little when there had been some vulnerability from crosses exposed by Erith in our defence, and that in turn the defence started to sit a bit deeper. I thought that was a problem last season too. But I am not about to tell anyone their jobs. I don’t like it when people tell me how to do mine. Like Mogg and the Daily Mail, for instance. And the Guardian too!

If we thought that half-time had changed the momentum, we were sadly disabused. Within a minute, Erith were on the attack, Callender crossed and Taylor had a shot blocked. Callender again threatened, with a cross on 49 that Walker put behind under pressure. Erith’s fast start was certainly concerning me. Tashi’s break on 50, when Bertie Valler put him in, was a breather. The shot might have been wide, but it at least meant we were still a threat. Erith though, were more of one, and Taylor, with another chance headed wide from another dangerous cross. There was a great piece of skill by Thomas Cousins, who “diddled” his opponent, broke down the left, and sent in a dangerous cross to no-one in particular. Again, though, it established a foothold when Erith were threatening to really camp in Phoenix’s final third. On 60 Ryan Hayes sent a fabulous crossfield pass to Dave Martin who beat his man, advanced into the box and tried to chip the keeper, when perhaps he might have crossed? But again, a threat, as the ball sailed over. Two minutes later, Hayes takes a crossfield pass in his stride with some wonderful control, puts in a cross which the Erith defence is grateful to put behind for a corner, but nothing comes of it.

After two passages of play on 65 and 66, where Erith threaten as crosses come over, and Phoenix just about deal with them, Erith come as close as possible to taking the lead on 68, when they hit the crossbar. The subsequent melee sees hacked clearances stay in the box, the ball not quite falling to the home team, and me tearing the little remaining hair on my head out. It seems there is only one winner in this and it is just a matter of time. Another scramble on 74 has me deciding that now is the time to put Plan B into action. I stand up. Housey looks at me as if I am betraying him. He clearly thinks I am leaving. But no, I assure him, I am changing seats to bring us better luck. He accepts this and I wander down to sit by Billy and in front of Dean. Billy is incredibly nervous and consoling himself with a point. I agree, but don’t say anything. I’ve not given up a slightly elevated position to pitch level for a point. Or so I persuade myself.

On 80, Erith are looking dangerous again. Callender, who is becoming a real nuisance, picks the ball up on the right, and starts teasing Thomas Cousins. He beats him to the left and hits a shot that is arcing towards the top corner. It looks for all the world a goal, but Walker is there to claw the ball away as it is curling in. It is a brilliant, match-saving save. Two minutes later a shot by Clover goes wide. 8 minutes on the clock. The bargaining phase is in true effect. A point is really quite good, you know. They are a decent side. They should be winning, really. This is a tough test. All these things were true. Erith had been excellent.

But then football struck. I am claiming my seat change, of course, as the reason, but the gods decided that today was Phoenix’s day. Ryan Hayes received the ball on the right. Dean and I conversed after on how to describe the ball played in – Dean preferred “mishit cross”, whereas I said I’d go with “speculative effort”. In any case it was dangerous and the ball looped over the goalkeeper and out of nowhere hit the crossbar. With the keeper stranded, Alfie Evans was on the spot to gleefully put the ball home, and the Phoenix fans went crazy go bananas. Billy is up off his seat, whereas I’ve let out a “yes” but then concentrated on making the note, as if I am going to forget what happened. Now the mood amongst the men and women in green had changed. A desultory, sombre mood lifted. Football in a nutshell. If I was an Erith fan, it would have felt like a kick in the nutshell. They hadn’t deserved this. I looked at the watch. 8 minutes, plus left. This ain’t over.

Four minutes later and the ball is played out of Phoenix’s defence. Luke Leppard, pretty quiet all night, gets the ball and steals a march on Mahal who brings him down. Leppard is up, and raging, which, even Luke might admit is something of a default setting! The ref knows, the Phoenix fans knows and Mahal knows. He has been booked, this is booking number two, and Erith’s task has just got a bit harder. He is sent off.

As the free-kick is lined up, I am getting slightly irate that we have just two men in the area. They are down to ten, let’s finish this. Put it in there! So I say to Billy and Dean, “we all know Ryan is going to have a shot here, with that few up here”. I know nothing. Ryan runs as if to shoot, but Alfie has sneaked off to his right. Hayes puts the ball to him, and Alfie is now on the bye-line. He cuts the ball across, it evades the keeper, and there, four yards out is Luke Leppard, scorer of no goals since his signing, with the chance. He steers it in, I feel massively chuffed for him because I am a fan, and he runs off to the corner as we all scratch our eyes out and convince ourselves that it was Luke. I mention Sevenoaks again, as if anyone gives a stuff. It’s like a comfort blanket to me, because they were two good goals there. But this has sealed the game and we are all delighted. All of us who want Phoenix to win, that is. Erith have to be gutted. They have been very very good. It has been a terrific game.

There’s just time for a fantastic surging run by Lee Bird that everyone else was too knackered to keep up with, and after just the three minutes of added on time, James Black blows his whistle and the Phoenix supporters are copiously talking about how great it is to play badly and win. This is Mark Sullivan’s line to take, pointing out that Erith will be top 6 (if they play like this, absolutely) and that this is a fantastic win. I realise at this point that I have perhaps concentrated too much on the reporting and writing aspects to really take it in, but then feel more than compensated by more than one of the lads saying “can’t wait to read this blog” which makes me feel good. It is lovely to be appreciated.

I think about leaving quickly afterwards, once Billy has told me that they worked on that free-kick for an hour and it never came off in training, and Mark is chiding me for being such a misery! Dean is working his magic on the social media feed and has the third goal on video. The board is chuffed. Then I see the players and Steve come towards us. At this point I am beginning to worry, that as a 53 year old man (I’ve ticked one over in the summer), I’m feeling a bit like a boyband fan. As Steve hugs the chairman and the players come over too, I see some of them look in my direction. Do they actually know me? I try not to get too close, but then one grabs my hand and says “you’ve got plenty to write about tonight, can’t wait to read it” and I get that Holsworthy at Okehampton thing again. I feel like welling up. Stevie grabs my hand and shakes it. “That was highway robbery, wasn’t it?” and I can’t speak. It’s as if I am part of this, and yet I don’t know how. Sorry if this comes over all “aww shucks” again, but it’s about as self-affirming and humbling an experience as I’ve had in ages. I am, in a very small way, a part of this.

I stay behind as Henry Douglas’s dad says hello. Millwall Alan offers me a place to stay if/when I move to North Hampshire, and Henry’s dad offers to pick me up at the station. They may be joking, but I feel guilty about leaving them when I do move (assuming the survey comes through OK). I have had many, many, great away days, but this is right up there. It was lucky, OK, but that happens. Phoenix stayed in there, somehow, and took their chances at the end. But I am utterly excited at what I have seen. I’ve been drawn in and it feels glorious and captivating. Yes, some of it is they are giving me attention, but I think I repay it with what I do, and I love that it is appreciated. Henry’s dad tells me how much he liked my last piece. I absolutely love that feeling.

After a long conversation, I decide it is time to go. As I leave, Steve is heading up to the bar. I am behind him and he hasn’t seen me. “I’ll see you next week, Steve” I say. He turns around and asks whether I’ll be at the cup game, and I tell him yes, but won’t be on the coach. He talks to me about the game, and about how great Andy Walker was. I try to say that although he made some super saves, I felt that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but I shut up. Steve is the man, I’m not. He’s clearly playing the game over and over in his head, and he has his mind made up. I am pleased for him. He’s already one of my heroes and I am bloody middle-aged and shouldn’t have them at my time of life. I say cheerio, follow Alfie Evans out of the ground, and say nothing, get in my car, and want to fly home, as I consider what the song should be for the lyrics for tonight’s headline. I did say, at first, it should be “I should be so lucky” but then decided on Superstition. I also realise that chip shops close much earlier than they used to around my way. I consider that it is going to take until 2am to write this post. I wasn’t far out. How good are the pictures (I’m a little disappointed)

There is so much more to reflect upon tonight, but let me leave you with something. I went home and away with Millwall for around 15 years. I saw all sorts of away performances, and yet never felt part of anything other than the club itself – as a fan, a ticket purchaser, but never close to anything even as I sat by the tunnel. I never sought acknowledgement, nor was given it. Social media, when it came in towards the end of my time, had been a vehicle to meet some good friends, but also a vitriolic hate-filled sewer with few redeeming features, and everyone knew more than the other one. Everyone had to be a better, more knowledgeable supporter than the other name behind the message board. It was destructive, it was tedious and it was, at times, nasty. It also had several enormous positives. This is so different. This is appreciation, mutual appreciation. It is a true common cause, from the management to the staff, the players and the supporters. It is a beautiful thing, later in my life, that has given me self-esteem, confidence and shaken off some depressive moments and spells. It is the most wondrous thing. I always felt that when a blog post became expected, I would stop. I don’t do on demand. But I feel this writing is, in a silly, small way, a part of the cause. And I will write it until I leave, and I will miss them terribly when I do. But they know, and I know, because of nights like these, I am always, always a part of them. From Phil sitting next to me telling me the team news, to Steve’s conversation this evening, Tony, Alan, Housey and Andrew, Claggy and his kids, the Sullivans, the players, Jay, all of them. I owe you. Writing this is the least I can do.

Say we are top of the league. As I finish this at nearly a quarter to two, I am scheduled to be going to Sutton Athletic tomorrow to see some of our rivals. I may return to this theme then. It has been a simply fantastic evening.