Champions League? You're Having a Laugh

After far too long spent in the armchair with only the odd pricey jaunt to Anfield, a journey to a Ryman League local derby between Tonbridge Angels and Maidstone United got my stepson and I bouncing...
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Delivered by 100 people and backed by a highly committed drummer, the chant rattled out of the South Mezzanine Stand and across the Longmead stadium. I looked down at my stepson, clinging to the fence behind the goalkeeper, he turned around, beaming from ear to ear and eyes wide and said, 'O, this is ace, can we come every week?'

Two hours earlier the scene had been different. I manage his under 9 team and after our training session I asked him if he wanted to go and watch Tonbridge Angels v Maidstone in a Ryman League local derby. He's a budding sweeper and I wanted him to sit on the halfway line with me and watch what how defenders position themselves in defence and attack.  He wasn't too keen at first, but when I mentioned hot dogs and the fact a few of his teammates would be there, he agreed.

In the first half we did just that. Ate hot dogs, talked about the lack of the use of space, how the right-back for the opposition couldn't pass wind effectively and listened to the chuntering old boys in the big stand. A study in misery, they offered nothing more than a ‘shut fucking up Rook,' to the team's new striker and the classic, 'get fucking rid of it..' The game was played at breakneck speed and the defenders had a lot of covering and clearing to do, so as a study in positioning it wasn't too effective. "Shall we watch the second-half with the fans behind the goal?" I asked him as the whistle blew...

After a swift half-time pint with the father and grandfather of his team's goalkeeper, me and the two boys strolled down to the South Mezzanine stand. It was packed to the rafters. Nothing much was happening save for a bit of banter with the goalkeeper and a few half-arsed chants. Then one lad, about 25, whipped off his shirt and screamed, "is this all we've got Tonbridge?" He leapt on the barrier at the front of the stand, proudly showed off his Tonbridge Angels tattoo and began the chant… "WHO ARE WEEEE?"

Fag smoke, hotdog stench, scarves being waved, a stand full of allcomers bouncing, actually bouncing, at a Ryman League match. It knocked me sideways, I didn’t expect it.

In a trice everything changed, the match became an after-thought and the fans behind the goal went mental. For 45 solid minutes they ran through every song they had as the lone drummer beat out the rhythm. "Oh when the blues…" "Drink, Drink" to the tune of Lord of the Dance, "Tommy Warrilow's blue and white army…" "Can you hear the Maidstone sing?" to the classic Kemptown Races and many more. They even did the legendary "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's off to work we go…" as the physio came on. It was ace.

I can't deny that I wanted to be in the stand rather than turned to face them from the fence in front. I have no affinity to Tonbridge apart from that I live near it, knew none of the people but I sang my fucking heart out, as did my stepson, except I bleeped out the swear words for him. We watch endless amounts of football on TV together, and I often have to feign interest in a dispassionate affair for his sake, but this was the best footballing rush I’ve had outside of Anfield, which is hundreds of miles and quid away from being anything more than a twice a season jaunt, since I used to sing for Steve Bull at Molineux in the late 80s.

Fag smoke, hotdog stench, scarves being waved, a stand full of allcomers bouncing, actually bouncing, at a Ryman League match. It knocked me sideways, I didn’t expect it. I used to watch a fair bit of non-league football in The Midlands but I never heard noise like this. The effect on the players was palpable, what had been a messy first half affair turned into a balls out attacking performance that, with a bit of luck and a smidgen of quality, could have been a rout.

The players, a collection of journeymen and young blades stayed on the pitch for five minutes afterwards and clapped the fans. Five minutes, how often do you see that in the upper echelons of football. I know this will be no surprise to some of you, but for me, slightly neutered by armchair watching it was a revelation. After the match we went for a beer, I spent an hour talking football with two blokes I’ve never met, the boy ate some crisps and watched the Man United v Arsenal match in the clubhouse and then stared agog when the players all came in for a pint afterwards.

When we got home afterwards I only had to whisper ‘who are we’ and he’d bellow ‘blue army’. We both hate the colour blue normally, it means Chelsea and Everton, but now it meant vitality, fun, humour, passion and swearing (especially the swearing, I’d forgotten what it was like to laugh at swearwords as a kid).

Him and I have a strong relationship because of football, we bonded very quickly because of a ball when I met his Mum and, although it is not the only base of our relationship, it is the backbone. But this game added a new dimension. A timely reminder for me of what I loved about football as a kid and an introduction for him to a world of football away from the TV studios.

The football was average, the hot dogs terrible and the beer flat. But neither of us cared. And will we be going next week? As it's Canvey Island away I’m not sure. But we’ll be there in two weeks time for Tonbridge Angels v Wealdstone at home, he wants a scarf you see.


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