Maybe I Don’t Really Wanna Know, How Your Garden Grows

I think this happens all the time to me – initial bursts of energy, and then lethargy as writing a blog takes time. That enthusiasm to write, which you need to have, gets harder when you don’t really know how to express your feelings on a game of football. I went to Cray Valley Paper Mills yesterday, yet had no intention of writing it up even though I took notes, and plenty of pictures. I might do a summary piece on the sister blog (The Magpies and The Phoenix) in time. As the game ended, with a cracking goal I might add, I didn’t feel the desire to write about it. Warning signs. Also, absolute evidence of the ups and downs of my personality. There are reasons.

The enjoyment of the season inevitably wanes as the proximity to the start of the season becomes more distant. Maybe I am part of the furniture rather than some novelty act, at least that is how it feels. Or maybe, I just have the hump because I am the unlucky so and so that has real lip trouble when the sun comes out and have a particularly nasty one at the moment which makes me down (there is massive psychological scar from my teenage years, which induces paranoia when I get one). It doesn’t take a lot to induce the miseries. As a blog writer the enthusiasm is generated by hits and interest, which wanes too as the novelty wears off and the inspiration for writing becomes harder. When the podcast struggled this week, then I felt even lower. I’m trying my best, people! Don’t you love me any more?

So, first paragraph, a load of self-pity, a bit of my own ego bruised, a whinge and a moan, and having a pop at life in general. You thought I’d been too upbeat this season? Ha!

The fact is that, as we all know, and as I am only too aware, the football season is a monumental grind, and we aren’t even out of August yet and Phoenix are falling behind on league games played while they are in all the early rounds of the cup competitions. After last week’s unconvincing win against SCEFL Premier bottom club Tunbridge Wells, the FA Vase preliminary round, or whatever this one is, saw Phoenix drawn away at Canterbury City. They play at Sittingbourne’s ground, somewhere in the vicinity of the town of that name, but in actuality, and technically speaking in the arse end of nowhere. I had been warned by Richard at Paper Mills of this fact, but still, they were some of the choicest country lanes my satnav took me down to get there.

I also don’t really like Sunday football. It is not a day that is meant for the game at any meaningful level as it was always the recreational game’s day – and yes that speaks to my age in this televised football era. It always felt to me that football should be a neat package. Saturday for football, Sunday for rest the day before work or school. Now we have nonsense like Friday nights and even Thursday this week for a Premier League game. What is going on? Anyway, today was not going to be a conventional day whatever the weather, as Canterbury share with Sittingbourne, who as hosts of course have preferential rights, and they chose to play their home Isthmian game on Saturday. This meant either Friday night or Sunday and we got the latter. It’s been known for a while, but the SCEFL Premier had some fixtures on Saturday (for teams with byes in the Vase) and most play tomorrow as well. Phoenix fall two games behind some of those teams, and have an FA Cup tie on Saturday as well.

I never really knew who played in the Vase and who played in the Trophy, but it appears as though the dividing line is the Step 4 to Step 5. So this year instead of being in the Trophy, as they were last year, Phoenix are in the FA Vase. Steve is said to be keen on a run in this competition, and if truth be told, on paper, we had to fancy our chances. Canterbury have not had a great start to the season, I saw them at Sutton Athletic when they were really poor, and they have since had a 10-0 reverse in a FA Cup REPLAY! They have had a win in the SCEFL, against Holmesdale. Phoenix are unbeaten in all competitions, and, it is fair to say, unconvincing in most of them as well. A good performance was needed to get the show on the road, the wheels on the track, the pointer in the right direction – oh, OK, it is a cup competition, a win is really all that matters today.

The first disappointment of the day was Paul could not make it. As you have read, it has been great for me to go to football with my brother again, and he is, despite his pleas otherwise, getting into it. He was not too pleased to have to miss the game, but I am sure he will be back on Saturday. Just to let you know, Paul, a lot of the guys asked after you, so you were missed.

After navigating the country lanes, and going through a village that clearly despises cars (Tunstall) with speed humps, chicanes and all sorts designed to make you cheesed off, I missed the turning to the ground, had to find somewhere to U-Turn and then found myself in a science park, which is actually where the ground is. The car park was quite full, but nothing to do really with the football. Something called “Kevstock”, it appeared, was going on, complete with music and so on. More of that later. As you may guess, the title of this piece came from one of the songs we heard!

As I walked up to the turnstile, there was Alf, the former secretary. Always good to see a familiar face. Canterbury charge £8 to get in, plus £2 for a programme. I’m still a sucker for these, so of course I had a purchase. For the second day on the spin, and another reason I am down in the dumps, I was asked if I was a senior citizen. This is really beginning to peeve me. When I mentioned it to Vince and chums, they said, “what are you moaning for, it is £2 off”. The price of my effing dignity, Mr Clark et al, that’s what it is! That is why it cheeses me off. One theory is it is my cap that does it. Not buying it. I now have a complex. Derek did it to me at Cray Valley Paper Mills yesterday as well.

Dave and the boys were there, I gave them a banana update, they probably think I am going senile. No Billy today, no Chairman Andy fresh from his tour de force on BBC Radio London this week. Housey says hello, Mark is there, bemoaning West Ham not having a shot on target, and Alan is there although probably a bit disappointed that Bexley CC lost in the semi-final of the national T20 competition (although they are going to Lord’s in the National Club Cup Final). Tony is setting up the Veo, and securing a team sheet for the Phoenix not quite as massive. The Mayplace Messi Mob are there, and Richard from Paper Mills enters the fray, with a carton of chips, ruined by ketchup. These things grate. The Phoenix team has one change from last week’s starting line-up. Steve Philips retires to his abode, awaiting another call up no doubt, and Andy Walker is back between the sticks. I don’t see much change from the match v Sutton Athletic in the Canterbury team, but then, I can’t say I am hugely interested. There’s just a feel of total lethargy. The ground is nice enough, the weather is lovely, the surface looks firm as they all are at the moment, and it is a cup tie. But the vibe, just not there.

Steve comes over before kick-off to say hello to everyone. He’d been to see the Rusthall v Glebe game the previous day, where the home side kept their unbeaten run going with a last minute equaliser. Steve had his views, given we are playing the surprise package from the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells next week, but I am not sharing them here! Jamie Philpot was missing from Glebe again yesterday, and no-one seems to really know why. Steve is still a little perturbed about his sending off last week, and is hoping that evidence from the video will help his cause. He seems a little subdued as well. It must be something in the air.

The teams come out from the opposite corner of the ground to where we are. I do like the park benches to the side of the pitch, it has to be said. As is usual, when we win the toss, Ryan switches the teams around, so we are attacking the goal to the right. As we make our way behind the goal, the ball is played over the top, the keeper and defender get into a tangle, Marcus Elliott is making a massive nuisance of himself, appears to get a foot in first, and the ball heads slowly goalwards and potentially for Marcus to follow in and score within 30 seconds. Except the referee blows his whistle. I don’t know for what, because given it is a drop ball on the restart, Marcus has not done anything wrong. Consensus was for a head injury to the keeper, but, whatever, it is a curious start to the game.

We get to the seating area behind the goal, where there is a “press” area with a table, so I nab it for the notebook and camera. It’s not the greatest of views, or angles for photos, but it will do. Within seconds Phoenix win a free-kick on their right. Ryan Hayes swings over a cross, Lewis Clark gets up first but can’t control the header and it goes harmlessly wide (see below).

Positive signs thus far. Phoenix popping it around, Canterbury sitting back, not pressing, and the visitors looking for openings. On 9 minutes Ryan Hayes puts in another cross, Marcus Elliott gets in the header, but it lacks power and it is a comfortable save for Lee Kidman in the Canterbury goal. On 15 minutes the home side have their first foray, but it is not a scintillating effort, a 20-yarder by Owen Punselie which is comfortably saved by Andy Walker.

Two minutes later comes Phoenix’s best chance of the half. The ball is cleared, and finds Dave Martin free of his defender, with one home player between him, and Alfie Evans to his right, and the goal. Dave does the unselfish thing and lays it across to the Mayplace Messi, who doesn’t get the right control (possibly a bobble) and scuffs the chance. A bit reminiscent of the chance at home to Glebe. The consensus of the behind the goal Phoenix Massive was that it was only a matter of time before class would out, but as I repeat in saying all the time, I am a pessimist. We are not in control until we are 3-0 up. Not Phoenix, not Millwall, not anyone.

Chances kept coming, mainly from set plays. A corner on 24 by Ryan Hayes reaches Lee Bird at the back stick who heads goalwards, but Kidman is there to gather easily. Two minutes later, another corner, similar location, and it is the King of the Barnehurst Jungle, Luke Leppard there, to head the ball, but this time it is wide of the post. On 28, a lovely piece of improvisation by Tom Cousins, with a cheeky reverse pass so nearly puts in Alfie Evans, and as I am a sucker for clever ideas, it merits a mention in the piece. But as this flurry of attacking intent yields no reward, the game slows down. The movement isn’t there, the passing is listless, aimless, the gameplan fails to materialise. Phoenix have had a number of these types of spells. They have, so far, managed to avoid catastrophe during them, more often than not, but we were starting to get concerned.

Then, on 41 minutes, while on the attack, a pass goes astray from Phoenix (I have not noted who it was, so blame avoided), and it is one of those that catches the defence a little too far forward. Suddenly Canterbury break down the right, the home player jinking one way then the other, and then pulls the ball across the face of the penalty box. There Tyrell Mitford takes the ball, controls it, and from what looks like 20 yards where I am sitting, buries a low hard shot to Andy Walker’s right and into the bottom corner. An absolute sucker punch, well-taken, and just how Canterbury might have scripted it. There’s dismay at our end. “We’ve given them something to hold on to now” says one.

The goal does not provoke much of a reaction prior to half-time, and indeed, Canterbury have another effort just before the break from distance which Walker saves comfortably, but isn’t a great sign going into the half, which comes shortly after. Losing 1-0, not the scenario we thought we might face.

The Phoenix Massive all take their leave and move towards the other end. I sit there, just one other fella staying and we bemoan the first half display. We haven’t really tested the keeper. I keep on about my theory that Ryan should play in front of the back 4 today and let some pace go down the wings, based on the way Sutton tore Canterbury apart late in the game earlier this season. I pack up my stuff and trudge around to the other end, get some pictures of the players as they come out. This is prefaced by a huge shouting rallying cry from the dressing room before Phoenix come out. It isn’t Steve, I recognise that voice anywhere (and, like everyone else today, seems to be on the chill pills, he has hardly said a word first half), and it is the first sign I’ve seen or heard of the severity of the situation. Phoenix have to be better.

For some reason, alright, a number of reasons, I’m not feeling my conversational best today (sorry to everyone who thought I might be a bit more aloof than normal today – it’s the lip, and other stuff) and I don’t stand as close to the Phoenix Massive in the second half. Partly because I want to get a better angle for the pictures, and partly to take my own views of what is happening. What happens, is 10-12 minutes of utter ferocity I’ve not seen from Phoenix this season. This is what we expected to see more often. The fabled head of steam. That elusive period where you pound the opposition into submission, gaining momentum, forcing your will on the game.

On 49 minutes a cross goes to the far post. Dave Martin is there and nods the ball back. It doesn’t fall for the Phoenix boys but Luke does his usual foraging, lays the ball back to Lee Bird who crashes in a 20 yard shot which is saved by Kidman. Intent shown. I have barely noted this down when Tom Cousins picks the ball up in his own half, drives forward, and as the opportunity opens up decides to have a pop himself which Kidman saves well. A minute later and the ball finds Ryan Hayes on the right side of the area, he brings the ball inside and from the edge of the box hits a low left foot shot that is on target, and agains Kidman is forced into a save. The pressure is mounting. Can Phoenix keep it up? Where is the equaliser?

Phoenix win a free-kick on half-way. Cleverly Dave Martin takes it quickly and as we’ve seen a number of times before this season, his cross-field pass to Ryan Hayes is excellent. Ryan gets it under control, takes the ball near to the bye-line, puts over a super cross, and crashing in at the far post is the Big Cat of Crayford, Luke Leppard to power in an unstoppable header to level the scores. The cheers from our end are of relief, and Phoenix have their reward for a spell of pressure. 1-1. Now what?

Two minutes later, and we found out. The ball found its way to Alfie Evans, midway inside the half. I am not lying to you, it was Oxhey Jets, but a little more central. I watch him advance towards the area, the defenders not sure what to do, backing off a little, and I shout “hit it Alfie”. No idea if he heard me, my voice doesn’t carry, but hit it he does. As it leaves his boot, it’s in. No doubt. The ball arc towards the top right corner of the goal as he sees it, a perfect strike, hitting the back of the net, with the keeper no chance. A terrific goal, an absolute gem from the Mayplace Messi. His mum and dad must be very proud. I text Paul that it is 2-1. The response from someone who says that he hasn’t got the bug yet? “Mayplace Messi”.

Phoenix keep the pressure on, and nearly score a third although there is a confusing offside flag. We win another corner, and Ryan hits another far post one which we think a defender turned on to his own post before the ball is cleared. The linesman has his flag up for something. As an aside, earlier in the half, Dave Martin is caught offside and his complaint is that the linesman was not up with play and was guessing. The linesman’s retort was “maybe, but I guessed right” was silently acknowledged by your scribe. “Nice reply”, I thought. Noted.

On 63 minutes Alfie has another shot at goal, but this time Kidman is equal to it. On 70 minutes Ryan Hayes gets in on the right hand side of the area, and his chip into the area / shot at goal doesn’t clear Kidman, who saved it with his eyes wide shut.

Canterbury really didn’t create too much after the second goal, but as I am a pessimist I never felt very comfortable with the lead as Phoenix started to make changes, taking off Cousins (injured), Lee Bird, Marcus Elliott and I think someone else, or are we allowed only three subs. City had an acrobatic shot go well wide on 70, Nwoko blasted a 20 yarder over on 75 minutes, and a free-kick outside the box was blasted into the wall and cleared from danger. I have no notes of anything Phoenix did in the last 25 minutes. They played the game out and took their place in the next round of the FA Vase. When the final whistle blew, it was job done, and a really strange feeling. It had been that kind of day really.

The players came over and shook hands with us, and that’s good to see. The club is built on that camaraderie and spirit and I think some of us know there is more in there, and something just isn’t gelling. But for heaven’s sake, it might be a tough watch, but in six games this season, five away from home, we have won 4 and drawn 2. As you will know, and as Mark was also saying, we need to work hard to win games at this stage of the season. As the games become more routine, maybe we will see the quality that the side undoubtedly has, come through. I don’t think the quick pitches favour us at the moment. Marcus had a really tough game today, and yet I think he played quite well in his other appearances for someone who has hardly trained with the squad. Tashi was injured, and we haven’t seen what he can do yet either. Maybe we should be patient, and yet that is not something football ever allows you.

There were all sorts of comments after the game, most revolving around “we just did enough”, “didn’t want to exert ourselves too much” “controlled the game after we got in front” and so on, and all decent points. Maybe they weren’t worried at 1-0 down, but I was! That 15 minutes of fury, where Phoenix imposed their will on the game was enough today. Canterbury were much better than they were at Sutton, much better organised, more savvy, but a little outmatched at times. But they were game and good opponents. To pick yourself up from a 10-0 defeat a couple of weeks ago speaks volumes.

So to the backdrop. The second half was played out to the sound of a band singing various cover versions at “Kevstock”. You do not get this at your regular Premier League fixture! Dave was on to this like a flash – you need to take one of these songs for the title of your blog post. It’s so transparent how I work that even Dave has sussed it. I did mention that I had taken the lyrics from one of the bands numbers on last week’s post….

So as Phoenix were attacking, we were getting a rendition of “Some Might Say” in the background. The crap Blur song “Country House” was recognised as being something that might apply to me in a few weeks – although my proposed new home is not a big house, a very big house. As the game subsided a little after the attacking, the band thought we might Live Forever, and then we played out the last few minutes to the dirge that is Coldplay’s “Yellow”. Look at the bloody stars, and how they shine for you. As we left the game, the band, who clearly like Oasis, started “Stand By Me”. Ah yes. The first line of that one could aptly describe the first half. Made a Meal, and threw it up on Sunday. I’ve got a lot of things to learn. I advised Dave’s kids that you should never do an Oasis cover, because there is only one Liam. I think they still think I am a banana loony toon.

On to the next round, and a shorter trip to Bridon Ropes, a wonderful name for a football team, on 24 September on the Charlton/Woolwich border (if such a thing exists). Bridon Ropes are in the SCEFL First Division, and Phoenix have to fancy their chances. But as today showed, you can’t take anything for granted. There were times when the display today made you think we might have.

As I left, missing Richard and feeling a bit bad about it as I don’t think I am going to get to Paper Mills before my move, I felt quite sad coming home. It is dawning on me that if all goes to plan, by the time of the next round of the Vase, I might either be moved, or about to be moved, and around 100 miles from the Mayplace. It’s really quite a sad thought. When the energy prices rocket like they are supposed to, I might have to rein back on how many games I might be able to come back for. I would love to come to most of them, but know this isn’t possible. I feel the knot loosening and I don’t like this feeling, As if I have to give up something I never knew I was looking for, and then found it. As Richard says to me many times, it is such a friendly club. You feel part of them, and them of us. It’s all transient, players come and players go. But I already see the Phoenix ethos. I like it. It will always be a part of me. It makes me feel a bit melancholy now, but the move is right. We will make it work, somehow.

Just to finish off. Look out for extra pictures on The Magpies and The Phoenix (link here). Also may write up a quick match report on the Paper Mills game on there too (picture space is running out on here). I have decided not to go to a game tomorrow, Bank Holiday Monday, and midweek looks a bit sparse. Back to work on Thursday. Sigh. But at least it is with Phoenix through in both cup competitions, living to fight another day. As Steve and the lads might say. Stand By Me. As I might say, in tune with the set list, Phoenix, with me, will Live Forever.

Winners Are Grinners. I think.

Someone’s Been Talking, And I’ve Got The Blame

It had been a dull kind of day. I’d got up early, had to go in the office. That was stopped by some incident or other on Southeastern, and I had to return home. Oyster refunds were a joke, and I gave up – I will try again tomorrow – and a new team member seemed a really pleasant young lad, but then, as I said, they are all young to me now. But as I pottered about at lunchtime a Tweet came up.

Hmmm. Why not? Nothing else to do tonight, I could leave at 6:45 and get there in plenty of time. Seems like something to do. I cleared it with internal affairs and set out for K-Sports at Aylesford/Ditton to watch this SCEFL Division 1 fixture. Notebook packed, camera packed (with SD Card!) and a couple of soft drinks, I got there in plenty of time, paid the £6 entrance fee and was confronted by another 3G pitch, but quite a neat and tidy ground.

I chatted to an old chap, who had played for Croydon back in the day, and we bemoaned the lack of team information. This was going to be a challenge if I wanted to write a report, but I will have a go because I like a challenge, and the detective work to find the teams out. I knew very little about either team, other than Greenways lost to Phoenix 4-2 draw in a pre-season game. Kent Football United. Nothing.

The match itself was actually pretty good, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had a couple of conversations with supporters who tried to help me out with names, and then seemed thoroughly bemused by the titel of this blog! Not surprised, to be honest, and I might have to work on it. It was a warm evening, a bit of light, very light occasional drizzle (or was it hallucinations), I think it might be called “sultry”. Greenways in green, natch, and KFU in yellow and black. I wondered what I was going to get.

What we did see was Greenways come out of the traps rapidly. Constantly in action during the game, and also with a little bit to say for himself too, Simon Walton made one of many breaks down the right flank, and played in Jake Lovell, a very nippy, clever-running striker, who had his effort well blocked by the visiting keeper. I’m afraid I currently have no player names for KFU, but will update if I secure team sheets. From a corner shortly after, a cross by Greenways’ number 11, Rhys [surname tbc] had the keeper in all sorts of trouble, but no-one to apply the finishing touch. The hits kept coming, and after another ball split the visiting defence, Simon Walton loomed in on goal. His touch past the keeper was too heavy and almost certainly the chance would have been gone, but the visiting keeper had committed and collided with Walton who went down. A clear penalty and a booking for the keeper. After a short delay which helped me get the main camera out of the rucksack, Walton confidently stroked the ball to the keeper’s right and into the bottom corner to put Greenways 1-0 up after 6 minutes.

But Greenways didn’t rest on their laurels. Barely a minute later, another defence splitting pass by Maganga, and Jake Lovell was in on goal. One on one, he beat the keeper but also the right hand post (as we looked from halfway) and the chance was missed. It wouldn’t be Jake’s last. Four minutes later, through again, this time the keeper made a good save, but the rebound came out to Walton, who hit a decent shot that was always rising slightly too high, and KFU survived another scare. On 16, a terrific reverse pass by Rhys (number 21) out Jake Lovell in again, and the keeper denied him again. This was becoming a pattern. The supporters around me were saying the same thing “we could be 4-0 up, we might regret this”.

KFU had not been an attacking force at all, their midfield swamped, and the defence picked apart by the pacey running of the front line for Greenways. The bleeding was stopped as the game entered a quiet phase with few chances. But KFU offered up an indication that they might be here for more than a loss on 41 minuteswhen a quick pass over the top found their number 11 put through, but his attempted lob never got high enough and it was a comfortable save for Dan Stevens in the Greenways goal. Greenways had a chance at the other end when Walton put number 21 in and he saw his shot saved. In added on time at the end of the half, after a KFU free-kick was partially cleared, a fierce shot by the KFU 11 was blocked on the line by a home defender. For all their attacking and chance creation, Greenways needed little reminding that their lead was a narrow one.

KFU came out of the gates well in the second half and created a decent early opportunity. The number 17 beautifully beat his man and crossed for the number 9, who couldn’t get clean contact on his shot and Stevens saved. While they were gaining a foothold, and keeping things steady in midfield, Walton down the right and Lovell through the middle were still a constant threat. Walton set up a chance for the number 8 (his name might be Sheepwash from the number used in a previous game) who had his first shot well blocked, and his second skew wide. This was just prior to the hour.

On the hour though, KFU had their best chance of the match. A cross into the box was met by the KFU 17 who made good contact with his head, but just within range of Dan Stevens who made a very decent point blank save. It really should have been 1-1. This was turning into a fascinating contest as United were making inroads, and Greenways were wobbling at times.

Chances still came and went. A long range free-kick by Greenways’ number 6 (maybe Brown), was hit over from 35 yards. Simon Walton missed a decent headed chance which I saw on 66, and missed another on 72, headin wide, which I also missed, but the Greenways’ injured defender’s father told me how good an opportunity it was. In between those, the two KFU subs, the hugely impressive number 15 who would cause the home side a ton of problems, and the number 18, combined , but the 15 scuffed his shot and the danger passed. There was another great chance when a quick free-kick caught the home defence unawares, but the 15 couldn’t take it. While they probed and prodded, chances were not coming the visitors way, but the threat was there. A corner or free-kick always instilled fear in the home team, but to be fair, the central defence and anchor midfield were strong all game.

The game had a fitting epitaph. Lovell had been wonderful all game with his movement and sensible passing. A real threat. He had one last chance in added on time, put through, but yet again denied by the keeper. It just wasn’t his day in front of goal, but he is going to score a few one day if he keeps getting in these positions. He and Walton especially really impressed me. Marcel in centre midfield was also a very calming and sensible presence. The final whistle sounded to a relieved home crowd (I reckon around 50-60) greeting a Greenways 1-0 win.

A pleasant Monday night’s football in Kent, at a nice ground and as always some good people. As I explained to a number, I’d given up on league football to watch games like this. I am not a ground hopper, I am a game collector, and if they are at home on a Monday before I move, I’d love to come again. I’d like to have a team sheet and know the players a bit better, but you can’t have everything, and in some ways it enhanced the fun and challenge in this report.

An absolute pleasure, I thought a decent standard with two teams with quite decent pace in key areas, and all that was missing was finishing. Thanks to all, and good luck to both teams this season.

Song lyric is from One More Chance, by Pet Shop Boys, and is dedicated to Jake Lovell. I do seriously hope to get team sheets/names to update this and if anyone from Greenways and Kent Football United read this and can help me out, I would be hugely grateful. Thanks for a good game.

I’m Feelin’ OK This Mornin’ And You Know We’re On A Road To Paradise

If you know the song lyric, and the title of the tune, it is by no means a reflection on Oxhey Jets. It is more on the fact that both teams start this competition and have absolutely ZERO chance of winning it. This is something that I am still struggling with. But I wanted to put it that the trip to Oxhey wasn’t a road to nowhere. I loved my time there, it was a really friendly club and I wish them well this season. To the degree they may even enter my ever-expanding non-league portfolio of clubs I have a “soft spot” for.

I have to say that I had been really looking forward to the game, and the day itself. It promised to be a long one as I had to get to Mayplace for an 11am departure, and then after the game, down to King’s Cross for a meal at 9pm with friends. It wasn’t helped by being ill on Friday night. Then I didn’t get much sleep. I was absolutely shattered before I even started the day. Billy Sullivan had persuaded me to take the coach, and my brother kindly gave me a lift to Mayplace. I am trying my hardest to get him to come along to a game. I will some day.

I got to the ground, and inevitably Phil Legg was there. “I listened to your podcast, really good. I stopped when you got to that South West stuff….” What can you do, everyone’s a critic. Claggy and his two lads soon followed, and more nice words about the podcast. The players filed in, and I said hello to new signing Joe Denny, who seemed cool enough. I know this is going to sound really odd, but I feel really awkward talking to players, even at this level. I am, let’s be fair, totally in awe of them! I think it is going to take some time to get remotely used to this. On a personal level, it may be an awkwardness in me and a confidence issue, which means I am a far better at expressing myself through this, than actually talking to people, but hey, it’s also still nice that anyone who plays decent level football still has my “fanboy” approach to them. If I can’t look up to them, then I am going to look down on them, and I was a crap footballer.

Steve is there, saying he knows very little about Oxhey, but he did have a good holiday. “I drove past Salisbury” he says to me, once again reminding me I am being a traitor by moving. How’s it going, I’m asked, and he then says Ben can pick me up to take me to games. Ben lives nowhere near Salisbury!

The coach arrives, we let the real stars, the players on first, and then I get on. This is the first time I have ever gone to a football match on a coach. I always drove, except, I think, for two games on a train. What’s the etiquetter? Now the bit I was really worried about. Who the hell can I sit next to? I’m not a small unit, and in the end I get a biggish prize. It’s Grads, the assistant manager who I saw at Sutton last week. Steve comes up as well and says that everything is “off the record” and I say “of course”. It is important for this blog to be honest, but I’m not here to upset and betray people that have taken me into their football family. If I have a go at the managment or the players, it won’t be on purpose. I wrote my cricket blogs desperately wanting to keep my distance. Here, this is about more than football. It is about assisting my mental health, wellbeing, and expanding a circle of friends and going on a fairly spiritual journey. It sounds ridiculously crap, but it isn’t. It is noticeable how my attitude to work, life and everything has picked up since that return to watching Phoenix in early July. This stuff matters.

So I take in the discussions with Grads on youth development, the Erith match and some of the previous times as coaching at Millwall and so on with great interest. Any input from me on the debates feel lightweight. There’ssome humour about past employees as we motor along the M25. We arrive at the Boundary Stadium in Oxhey at around 12:30 and nobody really knows what to do. It is a bright day, everyone seems right up for it, Tony has our Veo camera, the 20 or so Phoenix Fan Club camp in the bar, and the hosts kindly open it early. There’s a little disappointment that the Liverpool game is not on the TV, instead it is Norwich v Wigan (no BT Sport, no criticism). Some try to find a pub nearby, but they return soon so that search must have been fruitless. I took a picture I really like of Steve on the ground, alone in his thoughts….

I have a decent conversation with the Chairman’s father Roy about pretty much anything other than football. I didn’t know he was Andy’s dad, but it was great. Also Vince and Housey asked after the move, and when I might come back, and have invited me to the game on the 10th December against Erith Town. I might be up then (if the move goes ahead etc.). At 2:30 we went into the ground, a very fair £7, and sat in the shade until it was determined which end would be attacked by Phoenix in the first half. Phil had bought the teams to me, and the club handed out a team sheet as well. Really nicely organised.

While sitting in the bar the home team players were sat on a table near to the TV. They looked very, very young. Now to me, they all look quite young, but this seemed exceptionally so, and not many with a huge physical presence. Also interested me that Dave Martin, experienced former-Millwall man came in and was the only one to watch the Norwich v Wigan game. I kept looking and going to myself, he used to play for Millwall, aka, God-like! Your regular reminder that I am 53.

To the game itself. The day was warm, not hot, but the pitch looked rock hard although quite “verdant” – I’m sure somone said that (or it might have been about our one before we left). Eloquent mob, this Phoenix lot. Steve made one change to the starting line-up from the Erith game, bringing in new signing Joe Denny, who Steve said he had agreed the signing on his holiday at Swanage Beach, to replace Calvin Senedu. Lee Bird again might consider himself unlucky to be left out. Who would be a manager?

As Dave and his boys moved to the right, the teams switched ends after the toss, and I smiled knowingly as they came back and then joined them for the trek behind to goal to the north of the ground. Then I knew I had to get to work with camera and notebook. This wasn’t going to be easy. Dave was acting as my spotter (unofficial) and the game began. Time was noted, the FA Cup started here.

After a few minutes of early exchanges in midfield, the first attempt fell to Ryan Hayes, who from the right of the penalty area hit a crisp 20 yard shot that was tipped over the bar, via a flick of the metalwork, by home keeper Jack Fletcher. From a corner on 5 minutes taken by Hayes, new signing Denny leapt best and flicked his header goalwards, but was denied agonisingly as it hit the inside of the post and came out of again. There were mass grabbing of heads from the Phoenix Massive, and then a debate about the thinness of the goalposts contributing to this particular incident. Scientific logic not necessarily required.

Denny came close again on 7 minutes, again from a corner, but this time his header went wide. Phoenix definitely had the run of the area from set-pieces, but it needed a calming goal. It did not come. Before we know it, Oxhey come out from the pressure, break, and their forward (too far to see from my perspective) and Andy Walker come together, but there is no penalty. We had a sharp intake of breath. I don’t know, and invoke the Arsene Wenger defence. I didn’t see it from my vantage point.

On 12 minutes there was another fright for the home side as a ball into the box isn’t dealt with well. Probing down the Phoenix right seemed most effective, and Tashi was causing problems with his pace and movement. Luke Leppard was being Luke, a man who set his default dial to intense, and thinks that is being too casual. I confess to the kids next to me that he’s my favourite player in the team. He tries his heart out and I’d hate to think what defenders feel like. He’s like a rottweiler who has been starved of meat. We think he’s a butcher. Makes that even more appropriate.

On 17 minutes Dave Martin gets set free on the left and looks dangerous as he advances into the area. Tashi and Luke are in the box, but Dave hears the sound of the trumpets and has a pop from a narrow angle but it is wild and flies high and wide, when he probably should have squared. I think he knows it too. He looks a little sheepish.

On 27 the deadlock is broken. Ryan Hayes puts a ball over from the right that finds Thomas Cousins at the far side of the area. Cousins whips a cross over which is met by the Mayplace Messi, Alfie Evans, who defying his “lack of” height headers firmly and it smacks the bar. We grab skulls again, but as we feel sorry for ourselves the busy Leppard gets in, recycles the ball outside the area and Ryan Hayes hits a low 20 yard drive, which took a tiny nick off a defender before nestling into the bottom corner of the goal. 1-0 and Phoenix could exhale. Billy gets the word out on social media, and that bleedin’ air horn gets another airing. More of that accursed thing later.

I decide now is the time to get the proper camera out, and so note taking becomes less of a priority. I sometimes wish I could just sit back and enjoy the game, but I do like the writing, and I love that people like it too. So it is a balance. There’s a little gem of a moment where Ryan Hayes on the right somehow manages to eke out a very dangerous cross from a tight position, the sort not many at this level could get over and it is headed wide. Phoenix look in control, although the pace in the Jets team isn’t dealt with totally comfortable. This is just filler for the events of minute 38 – Luke Leppard has the ball on the left and flips the ball inside to Dave Martin who is free in front of goal, he works the ball on to his wrong foot, and passes the ball neatly into the bottom corner of the net to put Phoenix 2-0 up. The tie feels almost secured.

Half-time was met with good cheer by the Sullivan/Clagg/Dmitri clan and we headed around to the centre of the ground. The thoughts were that the game felt quite secure, but obviously the next goal, should it come from Oxhey, would make the game. The kids are going on about who has assisted the dull Premier League Goals, the adults talking about the Super Six or accas, and I just sigh. I still need to put my lottery numbers in (I do, usual result). Having secured a burger by semi-nefarious means, and the players come out for the second half, we move down to the Dead Rat end (Dave claimed to have seen one, but thinks they’ve cleared it – it’s the bloody countrysided for heaven’s sake) and await either a comfortable win, or a battle. It would be the latter.

On 53 minutes a free-kick is won on Phoenix’s right. Ryan Hayes takes it again, and it is another wonderful delivery to the far post, and again it is Joe Denny who rises highest and this time heads across goal, but there is no-one there to stick it into the net. Again we rue a chance to put the game away, as Oxhey Jets are not going away, and the game is getting a little tougher to referee, as challenges start to go in. Tashi is subsituted for Taylor Robinson, who impressed in a couple of pre-season games. Tashi assures us, as he walks behind the goal, that his injury isn’t too bad and he should be fine for the next game.

Sometimes, you just know an idea is bad. Someone even mentioned bringing a drum. That’s a hard NO!

On 67 minutes Oxhey have their first meaningful effort on target. The ball is fed in from the left by Dunbar-Bonnie and from about 15 yards out Reid Sims hits the ball. It is mishit and bounces into the ground but with the spin and hard surface the ball is arcing towards the goal. Thankfully for Phoenix, Andy Walker is there to push the ball aside.

A couple of minutes later there is a major flashpoint. The ball goes into the area and it is one of those where the keeper probably has a split-second advantage to get to the ball first, but a forward player isn’t going to shy away from the challenge. This, to many people’s surprise, wasn’t Luke, but Taylor. As home keeper Fletcher gathers, Taylor has gone in too and made contact. I have to say, from my viewpoint, that if this had gone to VAR, Taylor might have walked. It didn’t look good. To Fletcher’s credit he got up pretty much straight away and made not as much of it as his defenders. Who did! Some of the Phoenix support weighed in with their totally unbiased opinions of the incident, and there was some back and forth with the keeper. When all was done, Taylor was booked, and as I said to one of the Clagg lads, I thought he was lucky. It’s amazing how clear things seem when you are right by the incident!

As the game threatens to get more fractious, the view is that Oxhey were being put off their game by getting angry. Certainly the number 4, Harry Brady, isn’t on the Phoenix Christmas Card list at this point. There’s a moment where Taylor is put in with a long ball, and the cry is “you’re in”. Brady, I believe, says “not with that touch he isn’t” (there may have been an additional word, I can’t recall) and then Robinson nicks it inside him. The chance comes to nothing. I suppose everyone really had the last laugh.

On 75 the game comes alive. A free-kick from the right, taken by Kristian Swaby is floated in, the ball bounces up and falls to Oxhey skipper Sam Denham, a centre-back by trade, who shows excellent technique in smashing home a superb shot from about 15 yards giving Walker no chance as it nestles into his bottom right corner. The Oxhey fans make quite a noise when this goes in. The slough of despair envelopes the Phoenix massive. I am trying desperately to pick out the scorer, and we all finally agree it is the number 5, but we’re not quite sure.

So now there’s anxiety. Thoughts to a replay I would miss if Jets get an equaliser. Oxhey start to exert pressure, but I don’t feel too concerned, I don’t know why. Maybe it is because I don’t feel this is that big a deal for Phoenix. They, according to Billy, have never been beyond the 3rd Qualifying Round. But it is the FA Cup. I don’t know. Am I becoming that dreaded thing, “a new fan”. The type that think Cup competitions are a useless distraction?

That bloody airhorn….captured and not cropped to remind me of the horror.

Anyway, I need not worry. On 82 minutes Ryan Hayes hits a shot from outside the box after Robinson is fouled. The ball beats Fletcher but hits the bar again. This time the underside and the ball is semi-cleared. As I’m noting down the shot, I look up and suddenly I see Alfie Evans about to shoot. He curls his shot into the far corner (for him) from 20 yards to practically seal the tie. In the build up, it is a key interjection by Lee Bird, who wins back posession, which Alfie takes up, turns his defender to work the space for his shot. It’s a very decent goal. Once again, Phoenix turn the screw late in the game. Just as at Erith. When the backs were to the wall a little, they came out in the end and knocked the opposition out.

In the dying minutes Phoenix should have made it 4-1. A cross from the right by Ryan Hayes was met by Luke Leppard, who mis-timed his jump, arguably got too much on it and headed wide when it did seem easier to score. Sorry, Luke. Got to call it. I’m sure the goals are going to come because he is working his tail off. There was one instance of a one (Luke) on two opposition players that I recall. He never shirks. But it was a bad miss!

The final whistle blew and Phoenix had run out 3-1 winners. As we made our way round the ground to go to the bar, and after a brief delay to get past the players entrance/exit as the Oxhey management kept their team on the field, expertly resolved by Tony Highstead, the man who gets things dones (next, we’ll see if he can sort Putin out), we heard the news from Chipstead. Having been 1 down, it appears as though Tunbridge Wells have gone 2-1 in the lead, and that is the final. In two weeks we will be heading to the Culverden Stadium. This appears easier to get to than Chipstead. I note that Bideford made it through, 1-0 over Bridgwater, and Andover New Street won 2-0 at Warminster. Glebe saw off Holmesdale 4-3 and get to play Cray Valley Paper Mills in the next round. Sutton Athletic won 1-0 over Welling Town, our league opponents next week.

After a return to the bar and a little download on the day’s action, part two of mine comes into focus, and as Tony is rounding everyone up to get on the coach, I have to bid some farewells. I won’t though, to that airhorn, which the kids enjoyed. Also the singing. There’s a magic moment where Mark leads a song, and his daughter is cringing that will be seared on me. But it’s also pretty endearing. We left the main board members to their own devices on the centre terrace, but it was good to be behind the goals. The Cup brings out the best in us.

That’s what it is about, isn’t it? While this jaded, cynical old soul bemoans what has happened to the FA Cup and the sheer vandalism allowed to diminish it is why money and sport are never mutual bedfellows, the scale of dreams here is also limited. What constitutes a good cup run for Phoenix. The eye is on the SCEFL prize, and that has to take precedence. The Vase gives Phoenix a more viable route to a long run, but cup football is capricious. The FA Cup might get you to a rendez-vous with a Step 2 or 3 team, but chances are that will be a long shot. The next round offers an opportunity, but then what? But it wasn’t long ago that Marine, of step 4, I think, got to play Tottenham and the feeling is this Phoenix team might be better than last year’s Step 4 team. It is a dream, of course it is. But I can’t help but feel that unless the monetary prize helps Phoenix out, it is just a ghost we can’t chase. I hate that I feel this way. Hate it.

The Cup should be sacrosanct, and 200+ games were played in it this weekend showing its appeal. Clubs who had never played got the chance to create their tiny part of history. It is brilliant. It is pure theatre. It means so much. I’d give anything to play one minute in an FA Cup tie. Here, in August, it begins. In January, Premier League clubs will participate, moan about fixture congestion, play weakened sides, eliminate everything that made the Cup great, including replays, moan about extra time etc, and the money men make their decisions as it is diluted and Saturday at 3pm becomes the exception, not the norm. As I finish this, City have strolled to a win over a team that shocked them to pieces four months ago. The juxtaposition to me is stark. We gave up a great competition, and what made it great, for the league, where without something cataclysmic happening, looks like a City procession (I know it is too soon, I know).

I have had some special cup memories. Millwall beating Leicester in 1985 when they had a god ordinary front line of Gary Lineker and Alan Smith. There was the win at Arsenal in 1995, followed up by a win at Chelsea in the next round. There are more, but when push came to shove in the noughties, the FA Cup were games I stopped going to, after we got to the final in 2004. I explained why that game had a profound effect on me on the podcast.

“And my rottweiler puppy is this big, so I can have you…”

The day itself was brilliant. I can appear quite aloof, and still don’t feel as though I deserve the inner sanctum stuff. I still like to keep a little distance, if only not to look like a football lightweight. I don’t know non-league football. I am learning it, and I am fascinated by it. I don’t feel I should be bumping fists with the players, or having conversations in the car park with Steve O’Boyle. Why me? I know, I say it every piece. This morning I am getting the feedback from Holsworthy’s opening day loss in the SW Peninsula League from Ryan Hall. Why me? I exchanged numbers with Phoenix’s right back’s father, Steve, who is just such a lovely bloke, and he’s offering me lifts to games. I say it once, and will never tire of it. It is overwhelming. It has enhanced my life and given me something to truly look forward to each weekend. I barely cared Millwall lost 2-0. They seem just a name I care about, a distant fantasy I will never return to. It’s strange, it can’t really be explained. A friend I went to dinner with last night wants to arrange a game to go to before I leave for Hampshire, and I can’t think of one, really. I sort of, at times, want to keep this to myself. I don’t know. It all feels like gibberish when you put it like that.

Grads thinking, I hope I haven’t got that boring old lump next to me on the coach home.

In the words of Keith Olbermann, I’ve done just about as much damage as I can do here. I hope to record a third podcast, reflecting a bit more on all this, in the next day or so, and looking forward to Welling Town away next week. Holsworthy have a game on Tuesday as well, so keeping an eye on that. Thanks for all the feedback, nearly all good. Thanks also to Oxhey Jets, and their video producer Davie Mason (the intro feels like an airline safety video):

But most of all thanks to Dave and his brilliant sons, to the Sullivans, the Mortlocks, the don, Mr Highstead, Grads for listening to my nonsense on the coach, Steve O’Boyle, who just inspires me each time I meet him, and all the others (Vince, Housey, Phil, Ben, the keeper’s coach et al). I will remember yesterday fondly. Up there with the best Cup memories. I hope I can get more up for the next round. I think I just might. It was who I spent it with that mattered.

The road to nowhere, becomes the road to somewhere. Royal Tunbridge Wells. 20th August. Bring it on. I think.

You Know I Love You, Even When You Don’t Try

Going back to 1986, I think, for the song lyric. That season was one where I went to one game all season, and that was by happenstance. Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool, and only because my then neighbour was going and offered me the chance. I liked Tottenham then, but with Glenn Hoddle about to go, I didn’t see much past that time, and life was going to change very quickly. A bit like now, actually.

So I thought I’d jot down some thoughts on what is upcoming before it actually happens, and how I see my non-league football watching working out.

Work is work, and will always be there, but it is ever so slightly quieter in the school holiday period, and some of my larger or important pieces of work are probably with people held up getting across or under the channel, braving our airports, or overseas enjoying some beach life. Me? Not for me. I prefer travel with a purpose, have a move to plan, and most importantly, of course, my football life to map out in the upcoming months. The first month, with that new season excitement, the thoughts of ambition and optimism (the latter not for me) and how to map out August in particular, is something I’ve not done, properly, since my home and away days back in the early 2000s. This is great. It really is!

I have been thinking how to play this season, and I have several aims and principles to put down.

  1. I am NOT a groundhopper. I don’t really want to go to football grounds to collect them. If there is nothing else on, or a better option, then I will go there. I’ve been to over 100 grounds for football. From San Siro and Camp Nou, Ferencvaros and the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, to Donnacroft in Torridgeside, or University of Greenwich at Avery Hill. Legends like Roker Park, Ayresome Park, Maine Road and The Den, newer cookie-cutters like Stadium of Light, St. Mary’s and Sixfields. So new grounds are nice, but I don’t have the money or time to do that.
  2. While here in London, it is Phoenix Sports as the priority. So I don’t intend to miss a game until I move. I think, at best/worst that is going to be six weeks, so up until mid-September. The most vulnerable is probably going to see Welling Town at Chatham on a Saturday afternoon, or Canterbury City at Sittingbourne during the bank holiday weekend. They might be the ones I miss. The big one, for me, is the 17th August clash with Glebe. Also, can’t wait for the FA Cup match on Saturday week as well. What happens after I move? Well, if it is before end of September, I already have a midweek game in October pencilled in. I hope to come up a few times before the end of the season. So Erith Town, Erith & Belvedere (at Welling United), Oxhey Jets and Lordswood are on the horizon.
  3. I will be moving to NW Hampshire, and this means priority number 2 (or maybe 1.1) is Holsworthy AFC down in deepest Devon. I am down there for a week in October, where the fixture computer has done me no favours with two away games from my Langtree base. One is on the outskirts of Plymouth, the other on the M5 just east of Tiverton. However, with the move to NW Hampshire, the games at Honiton, Axminster and Bridport become very manageable. All three are in the winter months, so vulnerable to the weather, but let’s wait and see. Christmas is still TBD, so may get to see Holsworthy v Okehampton if down there. But given this is a season where Step 5 is really up on offer with the top 4 promoted, I’ll be following the Magpies really closely, with all the fun that entails in trying to find out the scores. Ryan Hall has a team to run without me nagging him!
  4. Who do I follow in NW Hampshire? The three closest teams are Andover Town, Andover New Street and Salisbury FC. I followed the two Andover teams on Twitter this morning, and Street are in front for following me back almost immediately – I am that cheap. Salisbury, it appears managed by Steve Claridge, are a bit high up the pyramid for me (Step 3?) but I have a game in mind for them already. Already made a mental note of the Christmas clash between the two Andover teams. Depending on when we move (all being well) I’ll be down there really quickly to judge the lie of the land. As I have found out, teams pick you rather than the other way around.
  5. There are then the “soft spot” teams to keep an eye on. In London that is Cray Valley Paper Mills, for reasons captured in my pieces about them last year. Indeed, I hope to get down there tonight for their pre-season game against Maidstone (perhaps photos to follow). I was sad to see Matt Warren had left for Sittingbourne – I really liked him as a holding, passing midfielder last season. Also in London, there is Cray Wanderers, who while never really capturing my heart in the way Phoenix and to a lesser extent Paper Mills did, are still going to be kept an eye out for.
  6. In Devon, that team is Bideford, where this all started and I will always be grateful. It may be in October that I miss one of the Holsworthy trips to see them instead. I note that the midweek games don’t clash at present, so might get a home game on 11 October. The away games at Sholing, Frome and Lymington might be of more interest, though. Highworth, who were probably the closest to where we are going, have moved into another division (sideways) so that was a shame. The other team I really liked last year were Plymouth Parkway, and their fans in particular. I have their game at Salisbury in my sights which is in early February, and Swindon Supermarine as well. A lot is going to depend on how the money situation is, though. I am certainly not immune to the cost of living issues.
  7. I will also go to see the team nearest to where I am at the moment before I move. That team is FC Elmstead in the SCEFL Division 1. There look to be a couple of opportunities, one of which is the opening match in the FA Vase because Phoenix are not playing that day (their fixture is put back until Sunday, I believe as Canterbury share with Sittingbourne who are at home on the Saturday). The ground is within walking distance, so no real excuses.
  8. And finally, Millwall themselves. I am as detached as I have ever been from them, have no desire to pay £30 or whatever to watch them, yet remain a supporter in the sense that there is no other league club I give a remote toss about. They were a part of my life, in many ways still are, but not to go any more. I hope they do really well, surprise people, turn some heads, but as always, I start off with the desire that they avoid relegation and everything else is a bonus.
  9. Finally, finally, there is the abomination of the Qatar World Cup to contend with. When this competition is the only game in town, then it is an easy choice. However, non-league will continue throughout and this provides some stiff competition. I think England’s group games are Monday, Friday and Tuesday, so not the main midweek or weekend to avoid. I hope the clubs do some stuff around them, and that will be interesting to see. It’s just rubbish though, in my view. I think it is going to be a dreadful competition. I love the World Cup, by the way.
  10. There will be a team that surprises me, that makes me like them, due to a fan, a player, a game, an occasion, a feeling. That’s what Phoenix did. That’s how Holsworthy did it. I liked Okehampton’s officials, wasn’t so taken on something that happened after (including having a pop at me on Twitter, laughable muppets) and their twitter feed riles me. I’m sure they care, so there is a need for some care. It is personal in the extreme – I will have some soft spots for Lancing as their officials took a calamitous (at the time) defeat with such good grace that it was genuinely touching. I liked the Ivybridge officials too, whereas wasn’t taken with Sevenoaks, although their car park guys were great, and as for Corinthian! Well. It’s not a bleedin’ garden party!
  11. I want memories. I want good pictures, and lots of bad ones, and I want angles and stories like last season. That is what the game is all about.

I am not going to make any promises on the blogging front. I have found that is a fool’s errand. I was really chuffed to see the terrific reaction to the piece at the weekend – again, nearly 300 combined hits is great for a blog off the beaten path. I hope to attract and entice fellow travellers along the way, to bring out the essence of non-league, the individual impact it has, the enhancements it makes to my life, and to others, and the work that goes on behind the scenes to make the game work. These people are amazing, dedicated, fanatical, but often rational, clear-headed and focused. The two chairman I have met fit into those categories, the officials surrounding them so passionate about the clubs that you can’t help but be drawn in. If you love non-league, it really does love you back.

So, with Erith Town on Friday night, and the opening game of the 2022/23 SCEFL (and it might be in any of the Step 5 or 6 leagues, I don’t know) season now just 72 hours away, the new season is within touching distance. I Can’t Wait (as Nu Shooz might have sung).

And If The Sunshine Has A Meaning, Tellin’ Me Not To Let Things Get In My Way

I am not an optimist!

Dave Martin hits the free-kick to put Phoenix 1-0 up against Walthamstow FC. As the visiting keeper (top fella by the way) shifted his wall right, so I moved too….. Quite like this one.

A month to the day since my last post, on non-league of course, and I have just got back from the Mayplace Ground where Phoenix Sports have played their last pre-season game against Walthamstow FC. I have been to three of their preparation games, the previous two at the University of Greenwich at Avery Hill, but today was the dress rehearsal for the SCEFL season opener on Friday at Erith Town. The game was pretty good, a keenly contested 1-1 draw with a team newly promoted to Step 4 matched up with a team recently relegated from Step 4 to Step 5. Phoenix had the best of the first half leading 1-0 through a Dave Martin free-kick, but one of Walthamstow’s two number 14s equalised with around 10 minutes to go and that was the goal scoring action. Either side of the equaliser Phoenix missed gilt-edged chances when the visiting keeper made decent saves when he should not have been given a prayer. I won’t name those who missed. If they read this they will know who they are.

Today was a final pre-season warm up for yours truly. The notebook was dusted off and the action noted, but not really for a full piece because I have a certain thing about pre-season football. But it was a decent run-out, and I am certainly more (but not totally familiar) with the players for Phoenix. It helps the newbies are all quite distinguishable. Tashi is the striker, with very noticeable hair colouring, and made an immediate impression on first sighting with at least two goals against Paper Mills in the 5-1 win (he could claim a hat-trick, but I’m not sure who is claiming that equaliser). Ryan Hayes is the new skipper, and he has a presence, wears long-sleeves, has a captain’s armband, and is genuinely loud! He is the new midfield man, brought in to bring some steel and experience. There is a new keeper, replacing Steve Phillips, Andy Walker, who comes in from promoted Chatham Town, and he has a presence in between the sticks. I will, still, miss Stevie’s “Shuffle” call though. I voted him my player of the year for the games I saw last season. Andy looks a very good replacement. Then there is Dave Martin. Ex-Millwall. I’d recognise him a mile off. He has come from Hastings. The one thing I don’t remember about him is he is a really angry man on the pitch! He scares me, and I am just watching the bloody game.

This just makes me smile. Steve sat away from the bench, one of his squad players entranced by the action!

It is interesting this season, as I feel like it is a bit different in tone for me, and for Phoenix. Let’s start with the football club, which is much more important. I missed the end of season relegation, and wanted to be there with the team as their amazing attempt to escape the drop came up short. When I first saw them they were dead and buried. But they fought. How they bloody well fought. They held good teams, slipped up (usually chasing games), but won at places like Ashford towards the end. Now they have dropped into the SCEFL, they are one of the fancied teams to bounce right back. But this is tough, really tough. Just the one team is definitely promoted, the next four I think go into play-offs, or maybe it is second only goes into a play-off. I’ll find out. During last season, Glebe, one of the favoured teams in this league, who finished third in 2021-22, pronounced, via their chairman, that the top four in the SCEFL would finish in the top half of the Isthmian SE. A bold statement indeed. Sheppey and Chatham who rolled through the SCEFL last season will show the validity of that statement when they pit their teams against the rest of the chaff in the Isthmian. I think you underestimate how strong that league is, how difficult it is. I don’t underestimate the SCEFL either.

But Phoenix are one of the bigger fish, but I can’t say that I think they will win the league until I’ve seen the first few games. The start is tough. Erith Town (away) on Friday is a good test – they finished 7th. Next up is Welling Town (away) – they finished 14th, so a gauge for both clubs. Then comes what looks like the biggest game, Glebe at home on a Wednesday night. They finished 3rd, beat both the top clubs last year, and are highly fancied to go a bit better. Not least by themselves, I’d imagine. It isn’t a club that lacks confidence. Should be a good one, and I am really looking forward to that one. Then it is K Sports away (17th) before they meet Erith and Belvedere in another local derby in early September. E&B finished 6th. The other teams up there last season were Deal Town and Kennington, and Whitstable came down with Phoenix. It looks competitive. It is not just the big games against the top teams, but how Phoenix deal with teams that may not appear as strong. The beauty is, I don’t have a clue how this is all going to work out. That’s the joy. For reference here is last year’s league table. Click the link.

The foul that resulted in the free-kick from which we scored. Looks in the area to me. It’s Tashi sprawled out there…

My fear, and pre-season gave a false impression early on, is I am not sure how Phoenix are going to score the goals required to go up. I think they’ll be fine in defence, although some of the more knowledgeable home fans cite this as a cause for concern as Toib has left the club and there has been a miss on one of the signings, but will Tashi up front be able to score the goals needed? It isn’t just on him, of course, but there is a lot of hope placed on his shoulders. But, as I said, at the top, I am not an optimist. I never, really have been.

So I can’t tell you how excited I am about the SCEFL. Once again, the power of non-league football wields its emotional sword, striking into my head after three months respite, or possibly a better description, void. A void I never thought I would experience again after I packed in the Millwall season ticket ten years ago. In fact, that thrill had died a bit before then. When I went to the first pre-season game (for me) against Cray Valley Paper Mills, and met up with Dave (who I bumped into at Sidcup on a night at the Hackney Carriage), got greeted by Steve O’Boyle (the manager) and praised by the chairman Andrew Mortlock to non-league “legend” Tony Incenzo, as well as bumping in to Leggy as well, and with Dean (Maverick 10) now on the coaching staff, and familiar faces around, it was a huge reassurance. I really struggled mentally after the end of the non-league season, possibly also due to that near miss on the M25, and the struggles at work seeming insurmountable. But with the familiar faces, and a focus on the upcoming season, there’s something to look forward to.

This matters. It matters immensely. It is also interesting how I am viewing my role, such as it is. Last season I was a novelty to the team there. Some middle-aged oddball, perhaps with a little gift for scribing, turning up, finding his heart being snatched away by Phoenix and by Holsworthy, and trying to convey it in match reports and emotional downloads of previous angst and despair. Trying to express what it has meant has been my reason to write, and there feels like a lot more to say. But I also find myself bumping up against myself. I don’t want these pieces just to be soft-focus love-ins, but there is also absolutely no way that I can slag these guys off for anything. That’s the problem. So even saying I am doubting their ability to bounce right back feels a bit like an act of betrayal. Mark Sullivan, a West Ham fan, but I like him, is my polar opposite. He could find sunshine on the rainiest of days, and he’s telling me how this team is full of it, another one will choke like they always do, and this one is over-rated, and this favourite has a lot to prove and so on, and I want to believe. Mark thought we could get a result after the loss at Corinthian when we all felt that was it. I wish I could be like that. But I can’t.

Late corner. But zoom in and….. (it will be back)

So. There is an issue. In many ways, a really good one, but in others, quite a sad one. I turned up to the Paper Mills game and Steve O’Boyle recognised me and said hello. Then talked to me about the season, he thinks we have a good side and is really confident, and I am with Dave, who trains the kids, when I said, we’ve put the house on the market and looking to move. When asked where, I say North Hampshire. Boyley says “you can’t do that, you’ve just started supporting us”. I felt like a traitor. I am never, ever, going to stop supporting Phoenix, I just won’t be able to go as often. But I felt awful. It’s also pretty damn touching for an old man. I keep saying this, and believe me if you want, but these guys have made me feel better as a person. That they are interested in me, even in a small way. I felt I’d lost that over a number of years. It’s massively important that I have the ability to make new friends and in the two clubs I have adopted. I have regular chats with Ryan Hall, the manager at Holsworthy. The chairman there sent me a birthday message, saying I am now an honorary committee member. The Phoenix management team, and board, are just brilliant to me. I can’t express my utter gratitude. It might seem a bit too needy, but that’s just how I feel.

On Friday, at 7pm, I got a call from the Hampshire estate agent. Our offer has been accepted for the house we want. We got a good one on our house in London. Things are about to get real. Money will be a bit tighter, but it is going to be for everyone. There will be a new team I will probably fall for a bit in the area I am moving to, given Andover have two. But already my mind is whirring away. How often will I get to Phoenix, and how will I do it. Can I stay at my brothers overnight, and drive there? Could I sort out the Saturday run once every few weeks – after all, I used to do it all the time when I earned a lot less in the 90s when I went Millwall home and away. Phoenix have been such a fantastic part of my last 6 months that I owe them. Massively. I want to move to village life, but I also don’t want to turn my back on friends. That is the balance that needs to be struck. Yet again, it is worth repeating, I had no idea six months ago that this is how I would be.

There’s so much more in my head, whizzing around. Like Luke Leppard today asking me if Dave Martin had been fouled (this after Luke and Dave gave the ref an absolute volley) because I was laughing, I nodded, he’d been clipped. Luke smiled. He’s a character. There’s so many there, though. It’s what makes it so special. I cannot wait for Friday. I cannot wait for Saturday week and the FA Cup trip to Oxhey Jets. I cannot wait for the Glebe game. If the move falls through, I stay where I am, and can watch Phoenix in their Kent odyssey to my heart’s content. I would like to see FC Elmstead, probably the nearest team to me before any move. I said in one of my pieces the line from a Linkin Park song (hey, today’s is from a bloody boy band), that somewhere I belong, and it is in this great part of the football pyramid. The people are worth the time. I owe them. I hope they realise that.

See you Friday. I might be more optimistic, you never know. But I am not about to change the habits of a lifetime. Nor am I going to make predictions. The joy of the SCEFL is I do not have a clue. Isn’t that really how sport should be?

If you don’t know the song from the lyric in the title, well the opening line summed up today – I woke up today with this feelin’. That better things are comin’ my way. The new season is nearly here. Keep on Movin’

Update – Walthamstow goal scored by Reece Mosanya. https://twitter.com/walthamstowfc/status/1550898873962569733?s=20&t=dNeGBRB5C77E0sGxP9MebQ

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.

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

April 18,

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

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

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

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

Got that?

I hope so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 16,

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

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

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

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

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

THE MAN ON THE MIC…..

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

Of course I am emotionally involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke Leppard’s A Leaping (I think)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRESSURE!

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

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

A brilliant day. Just a brilliant day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See You On Monday.

Losing In Four Episodes

15 March 2022

When I developed that almost imperceptible scratch in the back of my throat on 26 February driving home from Horsham v Cray Wanderers, I didn’t really think that my next game was going to be 17 days away. I didn’t think that I would fall ill with Covid, I didn’t think I would avoid a game on the following Saturday (I was going to go to Whitehawk v Phoenix) and then I gave up the chance to go to midweek fixtures and then the first Saturday down in Devon. I wasn’t going to miss Bideford v Plymouth Parkway. But, as I came back to the cottage in Langtree on Tuesday afternoon, I was exhausted. Spent. I had an hour’s sleep, some food, and decided to go. I wasn’t really going to miss it, but was this the sensible thing to do?

Since I last wrote on football, what has happened? Bideford, towards the lower end of the Southern League, South Division, have had a bit of a resurgence in the last few weeks. They have been picking up points on the road, and getting a few at home too. They are in a bit of a scrap with Cinderford and Mangotsfield towards the bottom, with Barnstaple still adrift despite their own modest improvements. Bideford are not safe from relegation play-offs, however they work, but there has been an uptick since the last time I saw them on New Year’s Day and their lamentable 4-0 home defeat to Willand. Their opponents, Plymouth Parkway, are towards the top but with a lot of games in hand. Their last outing had been a 4-1 victory over Barnstaple which seemed to have the effect on the bottom club by promptly releasing three of their players. Parkway have been lauded by my online correspondent as a club to emulate, with a good set-up and going places. Indeed, not to jump ahead of myself, I stood with the visitors fans for the second half and they told me how they had progressed over the years. It was an enjoyable conversation.

Before I get to the game, though, the news on the day had been Chelsea, in an example of utterly not reading the room, requesting that Middlesbrough play their own home FA Cup tie against the mighty World Club Champions behind closed doors because they could not sell tickets to their own fans. So the second tier club should give up its own ticket revenue because this club had profitted from the Russian Oligarch’s Loot and now had the clock run out on them? No-one outside of your own club, of any major level, has one iota of sympathy now the clock has struck midnight and your club, temporarily, has been turned into a pumpkin. You’ll be fine in the longer term. A hedge fund owner, or petrodollar state will buy you out, you’ll be able to compete at the top table, and this little episode will be in the rear view mirror. But hey, let’s just spare a thought for the supporters of a club who had it all bought for them having a little time of relative poverty. Give me the 20 or so Plymouth Parkway fans I spent 45 minutes with than this lot. Cry me a bloody river.

Having parked up at 7:15, I got my first shock when I paid for my ticket. Paying on the card as per usual, I didn’t pay much heed to what I was tapping, or how much for, until I got my ticket. £6 for a concession. Now, I am not sure if the ticket price had come down because it was a Tuesday. No-one told me. So I am assuming the gentleman on the gate believes I am over 60 years old. Now that was a bruising of my ego. I wandered around, purchased a hot dog and cup of tea, and sat in the stand on the far side of the ground from the dressing rooms. Plymouth had quite an attractive silver kit with a white and blue sash (a bit old school crystal palace like before that ludicrous mob tried to become the Croydon Barca), and as my friend in the Holsworthy hierarchy said, a reputation for playing good football and being a progressive club. I had seen Bideford three times before – lost three, goals for 0, goals against 7. Maybe tonight was going to be the night.

To my left were the main vocal element of the Bideford fan base, and tonight they started early about Barnstaple sacking players, and their future prospects in this division. There was not much sympathy. The leading scorer for Barnstaple had put a tweet out, since deleted, about his dismissal from the club, and his opinions of the chairman who did it, intimating that he should “suck a dick”, whatever that means. This evening would also be my first sighting of the charismatic online presence that is Kai Fisher, a central defender who has joined Bidefords since I last saw them, and who had an interesting debate on a refereeing decision that went against the Robins a few weeks ago. Just for fun he is doing a charity sky dive on Sunday! Doubt Mason Mount will be doing any of that. There’s also a really positive story behind Kai, and I would encourage you to follow him on Twitter – if you can stand the forthright football opinions.

I really don’t know why Football Web Pages cannot keep the Southern League fixtures as up to date as the Isthmian – it is hugely frustrating. There are no team lists, and Bideford’s tannoy really isn’t the best, so I may be misrepresenting names in my notes. Sorry, I’m not a professional. There genuinely wasn’t a lot to write in the first 30 minutes as the game was hugely scrappy and while Parkway were the better side, it was clear, there was a lot more resolution in defence by Bideford, almost a whole light year more organised than that New Year debacle. Kai is a presence, but the midfield, although not holding on to the ball and leaving the lone striker isolated, kept a good shape and the Parkway team were getting frustrated. The first chance came on 7 minutes when Thomas Bath, the Parkway number 9 had a shot comfortably saved by Adam Seedhouse-Evans in the Bideford goal. It was a tight angle, and not really a chance, but it stood out because not much happened for a while after. There was a wild cross shot from Parkway’s number 2, which could have been converted but no-one was there, and a booking too for a hard challenge by, I think, Matthew Andrew for Parkway.

The first real chance came from a free-kick to Bideford. The cross was met by a good header from Kai Fisher, which was on target but comfortably saved. On 27, Parkway came close when a cross from the left was met at the far post by Andrew who saw his effort go past the far post and wide. A few minutes later and Seedhouse-Evans was called into action to save a 20 yarder by Palfrey, and Parkway began to assert themselves more and more. On 37 there were claims for a penalty, but the referee booked Bath for simulation. I remarked to Ryan Hall on Twitter DM that there was no way Bideford were scoring that night, but that Parkway had not imposed themselves enough. Within a couple of minutes the ball was fed out on the left to Parkway’s Ryan Lane, who hit a cross into the box that caught out Adam Seedhouse-Evans and ended up in the far corner of the net. OK, Ryan, it might have been a shot, but who cares. 1-0. A wag near to me suggested Mister Seedhouse-Evans should perhaps go back to Barnstaple after that. That would be half-time.

I wandered around the ground and decided to take up a position level with the penalty area that Parkway would be attacking in the second half. I soon realised I was in with the away fans and struck up a conversation with a chap who talked me through the second half (much thanks, really appreciated) and some of the back-stories. I was aware Parkway had had a sensational run in the FA Trophy, and that was why they were so many games back in the league (around 4-6 behind on teams above them). They had come through the SW Pensinsula League and Western League and thought that they might still challenge for the title this season, but they had a really hard run in playing twice a week now until the end of the season. As we were getting into more details, on 49 minutes, a cross/shot from the right was narrowly missed at the far post when it looked like it was going to be 2-0 to the visitors.

Bideford started to get more into the game as the attacking “force” from Parkway seemed to diminish. A through ball to the Bideford number 9, Charles Hanson was just cleared away by the visitor keeper. A free-kick into the box saw a collision with the home number 9, but no foul was given. The home feed says James Mayne so I’ll go with that instead! Then at the other end Parkway started to put some more pressure on – a shot deflected wide on 63 minutes, and then a contest between Seedhouse-Evans and Michael Williams saw the ball go wide off the latter’s head on 66.

Bideford made a couple of substitutions and within minutes those changes reaped a reward, and my first sighting of a Bideford goal. A free-kick awarded outside the box was smashed goal-bound but richocheted up in the air. As the ball came down substitute Matthew Buchan got their first and volleyed the ball into the right corner of the goal. Incredulity on my part. Buchan turned away and ran towards the hecklers from earlier. The Parkway fans around me were disconsolate. They had dominated but not enough to ward off their plucky visitors. They became more concerned as the home team eked the time out. Time taken on goal-kicks, throw-ins etc were needling them more. It was a sense that the fans had that this was a must-win, and Parkway weren’t winning.

After one stoppage I saw Thomas Bath walk around the perimeter, so asked the guy next to me what was going on. The answer was obvious, he was being substituted and the replacement, to put it mildly, looked a big fella. My resident expert informed me he had been a prolific scorer at SW Peninsula level, but he had lost his way a bit and came back to Parkway. His name is Adam Carter, and what was evident was that the aim of attack would be even more aimed aerially.

On 79 minutes Parkway won a free-kick. After a little delay and jostling in the area, the ball came over, and surrounded by a few defenders, Adam Carter rose and powered a header into the net to restore the lead. My fellow supporters were rather pleased, but more relieved than delight. Carter had restored a vital lead and Bideford had it all to do again.

The winning goal

On 83, a corner for Bideford came to the edge of the box and was met sweetly on the volley by Alexander Moyse, but it went just over. Bideford were still in the fight, giving it a real go, and on 88 minutes they nearly equalised. In fact, all around were really not sure how they didn’t. Another free-kick, the ball finding substitute Saddam Bello, and the next thing we saw from our angle was the ball hitting the post while some home players were claiming a goal. The referee and linesman were clear it wasn’t, and Parkway smuggled the ball to safety. It would be Bideford’s last hurrah. Parkway played out time for a crucial 2-1 away win, and Bideford could reflect on a game display, keeping one of the better teams in the league at arms’ length for the vast majority of it.

Post-match reflections and social media revolved around the tough nature of the contest and some mutual respect between players and managers of both teams. The supporters towards the playing surface exit thought Bideford had played well, but the better team had won. No doubt this was by far the best performance I had seen from Bideford, but the three previous had been really poor, so it was a low bar to clear, but there was a huge amount of resistance, and a greater structure to the defensive end of the game. The striker could get isolated and was a lot in the first half, but there’s resilience in the team and they should be fine. Should be. But there is still work to do. I was really impressed by Kai Fisher and he seems to have bolstered a back four that seemed to have a highway through it at times in the games I had seen.

I got back to base within 30 minutes of getting into the car and endured the Radio 5 commentary on the end of the Manchester United game. The sheer desperation and entitlement of the commentary and the game itself was a stark contrast to the contest I had seen. It never fails to strike me that even when a team like Parkway think they should win, their fans were hugely appreciative when they did, and would have shrugged it off if they hadn’t. When United get eliminated its akin to a national disaster. It really isn’t. That’s why non-league has resonated. It’s also why I like focusing on the bottom end of the tables too, and watching my teams fight and scrap, and improve.

Thanks once again to Bideford AFC for the additional re-connection to the game and good luck for the rest of the season. The rest of my trip will be on the SW Peninsula League, and I can’t wait to experience it again. To Plymouth Parkway, well done, your supporters were great company and I hope you reach your goals this season. You certainly gave me no reason to dislike you. Once again South West football had given me an entertaining, if morally bruising evening. Seriously people. I don’t look 60. Do I?

Langtree Is Formulating Energies

The day after my previous post came the news I had been hoping to avoid, but in my heart knew was inevitable. There was going to come a time that the red line would show next to the “T” and I would have covid. That happened on Monday 28th February, and in line with my policies and code, I immediately stopped blogging while I am off work. That I didn’t feel like it is by the by.

How was it? I had a scratch in my throat when I came back from Horsham. I tested negative even though my throat was sore on the Sunday as we cleared out the furniture, putting it down to the dust that the removal and breaking down of the old cupboards had kicked up. On Monday I woke up feeling OK except that I had lost my voice. I signed in for work, said, via text messaging, that I couldn’t really speak and during the morning meeting took an LFT which confirmed the bad news. Straight into self-isolation with everyone telling me to rest as the key thing to do. So I did.

On Monday I felt it get a little worse, but nothing to write home about it. Tuesday a little worse still, with the throat now turning into a cough, with a lot of saliva (rather than phlegm) and the start of a head cold. Still, not that bad, but still resting. Wednesday it got worse. The head cold had really taken over, with the sinuses becoming the issue and some pretty crappy headaches. But I improved on Wednesday and felt ready to do some work. Instead Thursday administered the kick in the head. The sinuses were appalling, the headache dreadful and I felt pretty crap. Friday I came back a bit, until my wife confirmed she had it.

Since then I have felt a bit ropey to be honest. It never really went to my chest, but it has hammered my fitness. I am not the most fit, but you may know I did a 5 million step challenge last year and I feel like all the fitness benefits have gone. I am currently down in Devon, and both my wife are negative so we can roam about, but while her lingering symptoms are different to mine, I am back to being immensely physically tired, I mean sleep needed tired, around 5pm each night. The sea and country air are great but it is not having totally the desired effect. I am away for a few more days yet, so let us see how it goes.

So my thoughts on Coronavirus, or Omicron, Or B2 or whatever? I had a monster respiratory virus in 1994. As did my brother. I remember how very ill I was then. I was a smoker too at the time, which is mad (PS – 19 years without a cigarette on Sunday). I lost 2 stone in weight when I had that. Covid wasn’t in that episode’s league. I wouldn’t even put it level in severity with the cold/virus I had when I went to Peru and Colombia in 2018, and I put some of that down to the yellow fever vaccine. But what it was, still is, is a virus that just does not foxtrot oscar. I may be negative testing, but now, 18 days on I still feel it every morning and every afternoon. My asthma pump intake is up. My head is stuffed in the morning. I can’t walk the distances I did, and uphill, like coming out of Polperro on Monday is a challenge. I am told these symptoms, effects, whatever, last a while, and I feel sad my efforts of last year have been lost, but also have to think that those efforts of last year also helped a lot. If I hadn’t been as fit (for me) as I was, would I have been worse. I am absolutely certain that the vaccine took the edge off it and kept the symptoms “mild”.

There’s also the recriminations. Did I let down my guard too much by going into the pub and going into the office. No-one I was down the pub with tested positive, which might knock that off as the source. There is an outbreak at work, indeed one of my colleagues in my team has it now, but he didn’t get it from me, but there are also outbreaks everywhere. Was it on a site visit? Was it somewhere else?

10 Seconds Later – Heart In Mouth As Teddy Jumped Off This And Landed Awkwardly – No Harm Done.

I am mainly through the other side of it now, so there is some positivity. Being in Devon and out of the stressful work environment has also helped, although not really looking forward to my two days working from home down here next week. There has been no non-league football for me until last night, and more of that later down the line. I’ve missed it, but you do have to look after yourself.

Langtree is our little bolthole. It is the fifth time we have been down here, and the weather looks set fair until we return. It is a quiet village with no shops, a pub open at times I can’t really tell, a road going through it to Torrington and to Holsworthy, and about 8 miles from the larger town of Bideford. It is 30 minutes or so from Bude, and about the same to Barnstaple. It is quiet, in the main. It is why we love it, and will return as long as the owners allow us to. We are bonus cash because we come off peak. I’m not sure this will be as lovely with crowds of holidaymakers, which sounds hypocritical because it is!

I have felt we have not done as much this time around, but as my wife reminds me, we are both coming off covid! So far we went to Appledore before the bad weather on Saturday where I decided not to go to Torrington to watch their game due to the rain. Sunday was a nicer day for weather and we ended up in Bude for the sunset which, as they say, was nice. Monday we went to Polperro and Talland Bay, again some good pics, although a little heart palpitation when Teddy landed awkwardly after jumping off a rock and started limping. Thankfully all OK. Tuesday was a walk around Bideford and looking in the market and charity shops, where I got a barometer and Bromley Boys! Last night was Bideford AFC v Plymouth Parkway, which I will write about tomorrow, and then today was Barnstaple (and Teddy having random strangers taking pictures of him) and then a very cold walk on Saunton Sands where I felt the malady as well as developed tinnitus in my right ear.

So to those of you coming down with covid, my advice is, and it isn’t original – REST. Take it easy and at your own pace. Don’t push too hard physically. Keep going but not too much. Listen to what your body is telling you. As my boss also said, don’t panic. Be sensible, and just rest. I think I started back to high stress work a little too early, but I knew I had a holiday to recuperate, and we are feeling a bit better for it. Most of all, be thankful that the vaccine takes the edge off it for a lot of people. It wouldn’t have taken much for it to be worse. Also, don’t think it is gone when you first feel better. It hasn’t. I was still testing positive for 5 days after the symptoms were getting better, and they do come back. It’s a funky so and so. It is also totally individual. My wife has had much different symptoms than I did, and my colleague different to both of us. I never had a fever, for instance.

Anyway, I will write up my notes from an interesting game between Bideford and Plymouth Parkway that took place last night. I have not decided where to go on Saturday – five options, Bideford v Slimbridge, Crediton v Ivybridge (who play Holsworthy on Tuesday night – I will be there), Torrington v Sidmouth, Torridgeside v Elmore or Okehampton v Bovey Tracey. Tough choice – the two Torrington teams are closest. Okehampton are still top, and that looks the biggest game. Torridgeside need the points. Sidmouth do too. Decisions in Devon.

Have a good day, week, month everyone!