A short bus ride and a walk through dimly lit streets, we arrive at the open metal gates of tonight’s home team, Wadham Lodge FC’s ground, its name spelt out in metal work across it “Wadham Lodge Sports Ground”. The young man on the gate decked out in a high-viz waistcoat appears from the gloom like a spectre, confirms we are in the right place and ensures us that beyond the complex of 5-a-side pitches is what we are looking for.
“He won’t know whats hit him” says Tom, as we make our way across the car park, in search of the way in, because today’s visiting fans are a slight departure from the ‘one man and his dog’ we usually see.
They are counting up the float in the turnstile, as someone else puts up a sign declaring “No alcohol in the stadium arena, No smoke bombs to be used”, again in preparation of the ‘Clapton Ultras’, who have received a few pleas on social media from Wadham Lodge to leave their own brand of support at home, it’s most definitely the first time we have seen a non-league club insisting “no flares”. To be clear it’s about not Wadham Lodge being party poopers, it’s about the potential financial penalties from the league.
Our enquiry asking for ‘Sharon’ resulted in us waiting as someone went in search of her and not long after we are greeted by the smiling club secretary in a red club jacket. She escorts us through a small labyrinth of corridors, up a flight of stairs, ending up at the door of the boardroom.
“Cup of tea?” she asks, as we take a seat on one of the black leather sofas around the edge of the room, beneath a TV showing Sky Sports. As the large tea urn is drained and a small paper plate is piled high with custard creams, we are joined by not one Sharon, but two and the grilling begins. Sharon ‘Two’ is in charge of club hospitality, as well as cleaning the kits – no one is restricted to one job title at this level.
After explaining what we do, we are much more interested to hear about their story; and it’s a familiar and interesting one comprised of a love of football and community. Sharon ‘One’ explains that she has always been involved in youth football, “been around the block a bit” she says smiling. Wadham Lodge are only tenants at the ground, not owners, in fact no one can own it, because the site is part of a charity, donated to the local area to ensure there is always a space for local people to play sport.
Both Sharons tell us with much delight that one of those local’s was none other than David Beckham, who was a regular fixture around here, playing on the very pitch as tonight’s game, even at one point using the clubs function room for a party.
The ‘good cop, good cop’ Sharon duo is joined by Martyn Fitch, the ever smiling and enthusiastic club Chairman. We sit back, sip our tea and get a whirlwind history lesson and a fascinating insight into the mind of a Chairman and the ethos of this young club.
The floodlights come on behind us, illuminating the big window looking out from the boardroom over the pitch, “About time” says Jamie – Martyn’s son – who is the club’s goalkeeping coach.
Martyn quickly turns to tonight’s game, “I don’t fear anyone at home”. He is confident that the “big pitch” and “long grass” plays right into their game plan, currently sitting 5th in the Essex Senior League, two places above Clapton FC, with the turn of the year only a month away, they must be happy with their progress, but he emphasises that there is still work to do. Wadham Lodge have been guilty of giving away leads, and conceding goals late on in games. “We are the draw specialists” says Jamie.
It’s been a meteoric rise through the ranks in the last seven years, “exceeded all expectation, since we started” adds Martyn which is hard to disagree with, Six promotions in eight years is not a record to turn your nose up.
There seem to be plenty of highs around here, but they come with plenty of lows, most of them stemming from a lack of help and money. “Really scratching around to get volunteers, as well as sponsors”, says Martyn, but the biggest thing holding back the club is only being tenants and not having their own ground. It means all the money from behind the bar, goes in someone else’s pocket, only the money from the gate and the tea bar outside lines their coffers. “Well I’m hungry” says Tom, happy to help them out, will his obligatory delve into food at football.
I finish up, and join Tom outside, where the Wadham Lodge players are in a row, legs up on the fence around the pitch, like a scene from the Bolshoi ballet. There seems to be a bit of a tension in the air, one Wadham coach on the pitch shouts to the congregation of high viz clad men “got more security than fans!”. With 15 minutes to go the Ultras are not yet here in any great numbers, just one or two fans make their way in, not the great Mongol hordes they seem to be anticipating.
“All a bit German, this cage” says Tom, and he is not wrong about the corridor of chain link fencing that leads from the changing rooms to the pitch, it’s a lot longer than your average tunnel, and has a distinctly 1980’s European feel about it, it’s not the prettiest of things if I’m honest.
There has been so much rain the last couple of the days, the pitch looks heavy to say the least, the covered standing areas behind each goal might come in handy. The winter weather I’m sure will start affecting more and more games, and the cold is already getting to Tom – “Wish I had a vest on” – I think the Dr Martens are going to have to come out the cupboard, because my feet are freezing.
Each team stand single file, encased by the cage, the Wadham Lodge captain turns and addresses the rest of the team “Come on boys!”. Tom tells me he likes the all-white kit which the home team are sporting, but the fact that’s what Spurs play in, makes it hard for him to admit.
As the players walk out on to the pitch, we can see the heads of the Ultras bobbing above the fence next to the turnstile, they are here. “Everywhere we go, everywhere we go”.
The flags go up quickly behind the goal, just in time for the minutes silence, in memory of the recent atrocities in Paris. The referee’s whistle ever so slightly confused one, who starts singing, only to be quickly “shhhhhhed!” and the ground falls silent. When it’s over, the Ultras start again, as the rest in attendance applaud a moments silence well observed.
A replacement for the drum at home games is the metal panelling of the stand, which is kicked to keep the rhythm and shakes the structure to what feels like near collapse. Tom has taken Jamie’s advice and has gone early to get a burger, which on his return he describes as “one of the best”. Once he’s finished, his post meal vape smoke rolls across the pitch, and sadly will be the only pyro Wadham Lodge will be seeing tonight.
The early first half action is predominantly the subs scrabbling around for spare balls, as the gardens of the nearby houses keep gobbling them up every time someone makes a Row Z clearance. At one point a Wadham Lodge player gets fed up with the bench being a bit slow in getting a spare ball to the Clapton player waiting to take a corner – “FUCKING WAKE UP!”
As far as the on field action is concerned it’s all CFC, with Waldham limited to a few moments of possession, and a quick counter attack when they manage to win the ball back.
With 25 minutes gone, the chances start to come thick and fast for Clapton. A good cross seems destined to result in a goal, but the header is blocked last minute. Two big penalty shouts, one after the other go unheard – “The first one was a dive, but the second seemed a good shout” says a nearby fan. An unorthodox save by the legs of the Wadham Lodge ‘keeper sends the ball high and spinning back towards his goal. He scrambles, and lucky for him the bounce takes it just wide.
As ever it’s hard to concentrate on the game in such close proximity to the Ultras, but their song choices always make me smile “Tell me why, I follow Clapton away” to the tune of Backstreet Boys opus, ‘I Want It That Way’.
A Clapton goal finally comes with ten minutes of the half remaining, after a shot hits the post, a second shot is blocked and on the third attempt it’s put away. Standing on the fence, the Ultras go off – “win away, win away, we’re going to to win away” – followed by a high pitched, milk curdling “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh”.
Wadham seem to have an appetite for their own destruction, poor in possession, prompting one player to shout “KEEP THE BALL!”. On one of the few times the home side do get a shot off the Clapton ‘keeper makes a fine one handed save tipping it over “Senegal number one, Senegal number one!”, sing the Ultras.
“Are you smoking crack!?!” shouts one Clapton fan after the referee chalks off what would have been their second after he deems the scorer to have pushed his marker to get an advantage to bury his header. With the half coming to an end the Wadham fans muster a song, to which the Clapton Ultras “shhhh” each other so they can hear it, replying with “Your fans are adorable!”.
The tea bar is doing good business, some much needed money for the club, with lots of people walking away with tin foil wrapped morsels. We each grab a cuppa, take up a seat in the front row of the stand, Tom rues not getting a Kit Kat.
WL are first out – “Come on boys, lets fucking raise it” – shouts one of the players. Clapton have the first chance of the half, a wicked free kick from the edge of the box, which, instead of going up and over, goes low and around the base of the wall. The Ultras are convinced the fumbled save goes over the line, but the referee says no. Despite the early scare Wadham are a lot more on the front foot this half and Clapton are sitting much further back.
When the visitors do break through the defence their opponents are convinced it’s offside, but the linesman tells one protesting player to stop moaning – “just because he ran faster than you!”
At the far end of the pitch a Wadham player goes down in the box,and as the referee points to the spot, though in Tom’s opinion it was “A bit soft”. The spot kick is dispatched, which inspires one of the few songs from the home fans “Wad army, Wad army!” as the players sprint from the box to celebrate with the bench. “We forgot that you were here” respond the Clapton Ultras, still confident they will win despite the setback – “We’re going to win 2-1!”.
As Wadham begin to finally impose themselves on the game the ever threatening rain appears, not in the form of a few gentle drops, but like a scene from the film Twister, which forces us to the shelter of the main stand, as the rain whirls around the ground.
Chances are few and far between for Clapham now, but when the home goalkeeper rushes out of his goal to meet the attacker, the Clapham player easily rounds him, but the angle is too tight and he can’t finish. Both teams by this time happy for a draw, the Ultras continue to sing and when some fireworks go off in the distance they sing “No pyro, no party!”. The large contingent of Italian amongst them start singing in their mother tongue, forcing the non-Italians just to hum the tune.
What seems like the last chance of the game falls to Wadham, but the shot is pulled well wide, and the crowd let out a collective “Ooohhhhhhhhhh”. When they manage to squeeze in one last foray into the box, a Clapham player dives in on a Wadham opponent and for the second time in 15 minutes the referee points to the spot. The result is the same, bringing perhaps the most noise from the home fans of the night. Their choice of chant directed at the Ultras – “You’re not singing anymore” – is slightly misjudged, as the visiting fans are now probably louder than ever, showing their disgust at the awarding of the penalty – “2-1 to the referee!”.
“Surely they can’t fuck this up” says Tom, alluding to their previous record of giving away leads in the final minutes, and as someone near us confirms “We are very good at 2-2’s”.
Wadham have pulled it off – the two Sharon’s are clearly overjoyed, I don’t think they have budged from their spot next to the pitch all night. The home players applaud the fans behind the goal whilst, without fail, every Clapham player approaches the still singing Ultras to express their gratitude for the constant support. The support from the Ultras is outstanding, it is one thing packing the scaffold on a warm August afternoon, but an away game, midweek when most people look out the window and think “sofa time”, is the real mark of club’s support.
When Tom is invited into the changing room by the Wadham manager to grab some pictures of the victors, he is slightly surprised by the naked man posing for him, but snaps away nonetheless, wishes them well and gets the hell out. The offer from almost everyone to join them in the boardroom post match, is hard to turn down, and I am a bit of sucker for a tiny triangle sandwich.
Wadham welcomed us in with open arms and really gave us a good idea about life on Walton’s Mountain. Except for a few messages on Twitter, they didn’t know us from Adam, but flung open their doors, were warm and inviting, not at any point guarded or sceptical of what we were up to, and displayed a great passion for football.
We must thank the two Sharon’s, Martyn, Jaime, Tony, and everyone involved at the club, and implore all to make the trip East and check out #LodgeLife.