I’m currently reading a delightful book by Tim Cooper called ‘We Go Again’. It is an account of one season in which the author went to 119 matches – and it really captures the essence of non league football.
In my latest Guest Blog post, Tim recalls a match from the following season which I hope you will enjoy. There’s a scrap, a boggy pitch, an abbey in Normandy, Holby City and a particularly flouncy referee, who is the star of the show…
Westside 0 Tooting Bec 0 – Combined Counties Division One – Chalky Lane – 26 February 2020
Chalky Lane is a football ground where, in the wetter months of winter, not much football is played. Not only does the pitch appear to be a sticky bog, but Chalky Lane is home to two clubs: Chessington & Hook FC and tenants Westside. Something that doesn’t appear to help the fixture backlog.
This ground is not unique in the lack of matches being played on it, but it says something when the Westside Twitter feed stirred into action this afternoon for the first time since 8 February. However, that stirring was to confirm that this evening’s game was on and would kick-off at 7.30pm. Get in!
I dashed home from work, quick change, did the bins (because a. it’s bin day and b. even really cool groundhopping types have chores to complete) and was on my way. The M25 behaved itself and before I knew it, I was missing the turning and having to use the Chessington World of Adventures car park to turn around.
Chalky Lane is a narrow lane, heading towards nowhere and, not wishing to spoil the image, the football club have decided not to put up any signs. I come to a halt about 20 yards past the gates, partly because I realise I have over-shot the entrance and partly because of the three boys in the road. Previously in the dark and now lit by my headlights, they are sparring. One is holding a big glove up while another punches it and the third watches on. They turned to look at me and then returned to sparring while I decided to slowly reverse the car back to the entrance.
It is fair to say that it is a quiet evening crowd-wise. At one point I was seriously concerned that I might be the crowd. The ground has a seated stand opposite the enormous dugouts and a terrace behind the goal (filled with lots of wooden dining chairs) next to a massive tunnel but, other than that, it was hardstanding and a pitch perimeter fence. I couldn’t find a tea hut but I did see two blokes unlock a door, enter a small building and come out with drinks and lock the door again. I wondered if there was someone you had to ask for the key to make a drink.
At 7.25 I was beginning to get sceptical that we were kicking off at 7.30pm. One of the Tooting players asked a team-mate why they had come out so early to warm-up. When more (some) people started to arrive, it became clear that Twitter was wrong and it was a 7.45 kick-off. But even then it wasn’t.
Tooting Bec came out of their dressing room first and were lined up inside the tunnel. It’s already 7.44. Next out is Westside, who shuffle along the other wall of the tunnel, roughly five yards from the opposition, so wide is the tunnel. A couple of minutes later the two linesman appear, taking their place at the head of the two teams. What we are missing is a referee. A couple of players begin to complain. One linesman makes a joke about the ref sorting out his hair.
I wasn’t going to write a blog about this game. After writing 119 of them last season (www.wegoagain4.com) I decided to be much more selective as I build up for a possible second book next season. I’ll just have a quiet evening at football. It’s cold, so hands in pockets, no notes, no blog.
At the head of the tunnel – and with the air of a man who is always late but he is Italian and he doesn’t let things like kick-off times cause him to rush – the referee arrives. He doesn’t really break step. As he arrives at the front of the teams, he simply says: ‘Gentleman, shall we’ in a flourishing Italian accent and is off striving onto the pitch. I already know I’m writing a blog.
There is confusion as the match party walks out on to the pitch but can’t decide which way they should face to line-up for handshakes, which is a bit ridiculous as there is only me paying them any attention. They start by facing me but decide they should face the dugouts, which requires the teams to swing round before any shakes can begin. It’s still only me paying attention.
By the time the huddles, coin toss and what appears to be general chatting are completed, it’s 7.53pm when we kick-off and there is not a sense of urgency amongst anyone out on the pitch.
The pitch really is a bog. I spend the first half by one of the linesman, who after five minutes is puffing due to the energy-sapping mud he is running in. I’m worried for him.
The first chance falls to Westside who head the ball over the bar. The Bec keeper is already bawling: ‘Fucking hell boys, what is this, fucking hell…’ at his defence before the ball has even cleared the crossbar.
The first drama of the evening comes when puffing lino raises his flag for offside. The player who was offside doesn’t move and is overtaken by a team-mate who was onside. However, the flag is up but, behind the linesman, I’ve waved my arm to suggest that it was onside. The player involved starts shouting at the linesman that (pointing at me) I’m telling him he is wrong. The situation escalates when the linesman begins to argue back shouting: ‘he is back there, he is back there’ and with that they both look at me. I look sheepish and confirm that ‘I’m not involved’, ‘don’t drag me into this’ and ‘you’ve got the flag’. He was onside though.
There is a shout for a foul, but the referee is in a good position, which he is keen to point out: “Look where I am, look where I am, before complaining”. Again, it is delivered with a flourish, that thick accent and a hundred percentage unwavering confidence. I think I’m a bit in love with the referee.
The shouting and flourishing explanations are only part of the brand. A lot of the brand is his hair. The pitch may be a borderline unplayable bog but if it started to rain, I suspect this game would be abandoned long before there was any chance of his hair getting wet. Think Jim Morrison meets a young Paolo Maldini. Who am I kidding? Just imagine most Italian footballers in the 80s. He glides across the pitch, hair bouncing, eyes never leaving the action. For five minutes I realise I have no idea what has happened in the game but my god I know this referee’s brand.
Re-focusing again, Tooting Bec are angry. They don’t talk to each other; they just shout and swear. One defender suggests that everyone should just ‘fucking relax’ which feels a very threatening way of suggesting people should relax.
Bec start to like each other again as they improve towards half-time. They win a free-kick which the referee tells the taker to ‘put the ball how you prefer…then don’t touch it again’. After this instruction he sets off on the longest ten yards ever, with the entire wall looking over their shoulders at him standing a good three yards beyond where they estimated the ten yards to be.
Late on in the first half, Bec win a corner which results in some jostling in the box. The referee tells the perpetrators ‘I’m just looking for you…imagine that. I’m still here, just looking for you’. It is barmy and brilliant in equal measure and I can’t help but laugh. The players have no comeback and get on with it.
As the half-time whistle blows (and after I stood by the tunnel to take a shameless photo of the referee) I do what the other 20 odd people do and make for the clubhouse. As you would expect in a football ground clubhouse, with big Champions League matches going on, the TV is showing Holby City, so I use the time to provide some background to this unexpected blog.
We are at level ten, in CoCo Div One. The home side Westside sit 14th in their first season at this level following promotion last season. The club was only formed in 1996 to represent West Side Church in Wandsworth, which still sponsors the team. Tooting Bec are 4th but an incredible 36 points behind Jersey Bulls who have won 26 out of 26, scoring 97 and conceding 7 (SEVEN!). The Bec are even younger than Westside, being formed in 2004 and share a home ground with its bigger neighbours, Tooting (Toots/Tooten) & Mitcham.
Despite the game being played in Chessington, the game is a derby with both teams coming from Wandsworth. The name ‘Bec’ comes from Bec Abbey in Normandy and is something to do with some land that someone once gave someone and insisted that the name was kept and used by the local football team or something.
There is a furious shout from one of the dugouts suggesting that the referee has made a mistake. In response the ref wags a finger then mock claps at the suggestion. I’m sure the owner of the voice from the dugout is left speechless and I assume is just staring at the referee in disbelief. The second half is going to be no less flouncy.
The play gets more stretched, the sound of squelching gets louder and my hands are getting colder. At one point the ball flies off the pitch, way over my head. It hits a random fence post that lost its fence panel years ago. Hitting the post causes the ball to change direction and sends it shooting straight into the back of the only person for 100 yards: me.
As the game opens up, the realisation that one goal wins this game grows and the shouts and protests get louder and more desperate. The play swings so many times, yet no one really looks like scoring.
A Westside player tries to beat a couple of players but is caught by a defender. The appeal for a free kick receives ‘no, no, no’ to the power of ten ‘no’s’ sung in an Italian accent…you can sing it as many times as you like, I would have given it.
The games decisive moment comes when the sweary Bec keeper charges out and brings down the Westside striker. (My) referee points to the spot and in a game of fine margins this is the chance. One of Westside’s best players steps up to take it but hits the post, the keeper not getting a touch. However, it’s ok for the home side because the ball has bounced invitingly on the rebound. So keen is the penalty misser to make up for it, he smashes the ball off the top of the crossbar and away to safety. The Bec players celebrate their good fortune and dull twats like me think to themselves that it wouldn’t have counted anyway.
Years ago, I was playing in a game where the same thing happened but this time the player who had missed scored the rebound without any other player touching the ball. As I was wont to do, I chased the referee around for about ten minutes making the point that the goal shouldn’t have stood as the ball has to touch somebody else before the penalty taker can touch it again. After ten minutes of this incessant whining, the referee grew tired of me and booked me. At half-time he came over and said, fair enough, you were right, the goal shouldn’t have stood, so sorry about that. Not wanting the fine for the booking, I asked if I was still booked, to which he replied, ‘oh god yes, you’re still an annoying little shit’, with which, with hindsight, I can’t disagree.
At a time much nearer to 10pm than I was expecting, the referee brought a very entertaining nil-nil draw to an end. I’ve got wet feet from wandering through sodden ground to retrieve errant balls, my hands have long given up, I nearly got embroiled in an offside debate but most importantly in a world where we have less and less characters, I got to enjoy one tonight.
His brand maybe to turn up late, deliver instructions in borderline operatic Italian and have amazing hair but it was in no way to the detriment of the game or his ability to referee the game. As he said to one player who was questioning something, ‘I’m just here to referee’ and with that he flounced off again.
If you enjoyed this guest blog and would like to read more from Tim, you can find his website here. His book, ‘We Go Again’, is available in hard copy from £11.99 or PDF for £2.50. I’ll also pop a review of ‘We Go Again’ up in the book review section of my website when I’ve finished reading it.
Fancy writing a guest blog for my 3,500 subscribers to read? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.