We have replaced one major London train station for another in recent weeks, Waterloo becoming our meeting point today instead of London Bridge. We are breaking free of the M25 that manacles us to our Oyster Cards and are heading for the coast in search of the second silver named stadium in a week.
Many others are using this station as their starting point also – West Ham, Crystal Palace and Ipswich colours are on show to name a few. Different teams from different leagues, but for this weekend they are all unified by one thing, the FA Cup.
“Well Sir, you are in for a surprise” says Tom looking very happy with himself. Not long after taking our seat on the train, his bag resting on the table, he asks me the immortal question, “Chipsticks or Wotsits?”.
Slightly baffled, but remembering that after 12 months he has now succumbed to the fact that he, we, can’t keep eating burgers, Pot Noodles and chips, he has made us a packed lunch. My hesitation means he makes my mind up for me, tossing me a pack of Wotsits, along with two tin foil wrapped, chicken salad rolls.
There is no way to be poetic about the weather, it’s a shitty day, and the further we go South the gloomier it gets – “it’s going to be one of those days” adds my ever positive companion.
More and more rain covers the windows as we zip along and only when the concessions cart cracks me on the knee do I break away from constantly refreshing Twitter, making sure our game has not been called off.
The ticket inspector reminds us that it’s not a straightforward journey, we will have the pleasure of a rail replacement bus for some part of it and it’s not long after we are climbing off the train in Basingstoke and onto a coach reminiscent of school.
A few Lancashire accents remind us that our jaunt from London pales into comparison when you consider the Bolton Wanderers FC fans’ long trip from the North West to the South coast for today’s FA Cup Third Round game against non-league Eastleigh FC.
At one stop we are joined by more fans on the FA Cup trail, this time Southampton. There is probably little doubt that their game is going ahead at St Mary’s, but at Eastleigh they have just announced a pitch inspection. I can just picture the referee walking around in waders and Bolton fans behind us point to a flooded pitch in a passing park and voice our thoughts exactly “hope it’s not like that in the goalmouth”.
“Breezy down on the coast” says Tom doing up his jacket as we get off at Southampton Parkway, a stone’s throw from the ground, we hear a few Wanderers fans asking each other “Is the match off?” The answer is no, for now at least.
Twitter has informed us that the pitch passed its first inspection, but another is to follow. Trapped in limbo, we decide to jump in a cab, after discovering you can’t walk from here and we don’t fancy running across the intersection of a busy motorway.
The cab can’t go any further, the normal route is blocked off by bright orange men and the driver seems keen to get our money and shoot, there is an ever so slight whiff of mayhem in the air.
One opportunistic person, unperturbed by the traffic, is happy to wander around offering his wares to every passing person or car “match day scarves, get your match day scarves” he announces, holding a 50/50 out in front of him.
Once Tom gets his pin from a man’s makeshift stall under a large green umbrella in a nearby hotel car park, we make our way down a quiet winding lane, round one corner past a large church, and not long after the Silverlake Stadium.
“You can tell the BBC are here,” says Tom, pointing at the huge equipment filled trucks, that are taking up a large part of the car park.
No one really knows what to do with themselves, including us, as the ground is yet to open. Some people have congregated around a gate which looks onto the pitch and over the tops of their heads we can just make out the referee doing his second inspection.
Many people like me are glued to their phones, hoping for the green light, one away fan we meet who set off at 07:30 this morning exclaims he “hopes it goes ahead, or it’s a long way back”.
To kill some time we collect our tickets from the prefab club shop that has a brown door like one from a terraced house. A man sitting behind a low table, once I give him my name, flicks through a pile of white envelopes, plucking one out and handing it to me.
My ears then prick up like a police dog, behind me I can hear a familiar sound “50/50 tickets”. I turn to see a woman holding a book of them above her head, as she makes her way out of the door. I pursue, intercepting her just outside, hand over my money and secure the winning tickets, obviously.
The wind is still up – two flags are both almost continuously horizontal. One a St George’s cross with Eastleigh written across it, the other has the RAF roundel. A reference to the clubs nickname the ‘Spitfires’, a recently adopted one chosen by the fans in 2005, due to the local area’s association with the famous World War Two fighter plane.
Conveniently the turnstile on our ticket is just next to the shop, and we join the Eastleigh fans in their fascinating array of hats. One group all have matching blue trilby’s, another man is in a rainbow hat with no brim or peak and a propeller on top.
Even now with tickets in hand, we still don’t know if the game is on, a muffled voice over the tannoy for a moment gives everyone hope, it sounds like he said “game on” but no one is sure.
Conversation around us turns to certain TV channels choice of games for live broadcast over the weekend, Manchester United for example have a quite uninspiring match with Sheffield United, one home fans feels they have been overlooked, “one non-league team left, that’s the BBC for you”.
“Come on Eastleigh” shouts a fan at the front of the queue, “about time” and “there we go” say others, as the noise of the opening gates, is a promising one, it looks like we all won’t have come all this way for nothing.
A quick check on Twitter, and it is confirmed, for the second time in a week, someone unwittingly makes a Wayne’s World reference or nod to a 90’s sitcom, GAME ON!
We join the Black Friday style rush into the ground, yet no one is trampled or punched for a TV, there is no time for that, people are just relieved and like us are quick to find their spot in the North Stand.
A single storey covered terrace, with a corrugated roof, silver non-slip floor, and two large flags hanging from the back. With just over an hour until kick off, the ground staff are still on the pitch, some with forks, prodding away at regular intervals, one man has a leaf blower, blasting the grass, trying to clear any standing water.
Behind the far goal is a large all seater stand, with green seats, that somewhat dwarfs the rest of the ground. Along one side of the pitch is a terrace similar to ours, opposite it is a much smaller stand, with blue seats, and the dugouts just in front.
Even the howling of the leaf blower competing with the music being played can’t dampen the feeling of occasion surging around the the place. It’s clearly a very tight knit club, I’m not sure I have ever seen so many people hug or shake hands, that community spirit has been evident from arrival, this is a day they are going to enjoy to its fullest.
“That looks quite nice” says Tom as a man clutching a pint walks by, and the temptation only nine days into a ‘dry January’ is plain to see. The woman who shortly follows, darting from one bar to another clutching two massive bottles of vodka, is just rubbing salt into the wound.
He takes his mind off booze with food, and despite the boy next to us with a deep filled square pie, the newly erected marquee with its ‘Food & Drink” sign, or the ‘Grandstand Grill’ with its considerable queue, Tom sticks with what he has brought from home.
There are kids and families everywhere, two young girls struggle with their overflowing tray of chips. The same debate between people plays out in front of us, over and over again, where to stand? Tom thinks we should have gone to the back to allow for “leaning” as we wait, I think we are better placed with the barricade just in front of us.
Cones are placed on the pitch, for what I can only imagine will be a light warm up, considering the last few days efforts to make it playable. When EFC come out it is to rapturous applause, I think everyone to a man is clapping.
Tom returns from the bar, with only soft drinks in his hand, he gives me a bit of an insight into what we might expect from the rest of the day “judging by the bar, it’s going to get a bit rowdy, it’s rammed!”
“Welcome to the Silverlake” says the man standing on the sidelines with a microphone, as the bedraggled looking club mascot, a bear or maybe a dog wearing a home kit, walks along high-fiving people as he goes, perhaps they could not stretch to a fully working miniature Spitfire, if they get through to the next round, perhaps the budget will allow for one.
“It’s a bit sticky out here” he is being very kind, there is a puddle in front of us you could sail a model ship in “but I’m sure we will have a good game” which I don’t doubt, I have a feeling today will be a good one.
Eastleigh’s fine league form, and their opponent’s current plummeting fortunes, plus the far from ideal conditions just screams ‘cup upset’ or dare I say ‘giant killing’. I could be watching montages in years to come, the next time Round 3 rolls around and say “I was there”.
“Pass that along” says the man to my left holding a large box of blue and white balloons, each person taking a couple then doing as instructed. For the next five minutes all that can be heard is the wheezing and panting of people blowing them up, then the farting noise of people letting them go.
The occasional stray one flies by, or in a couple of cases some people are guilty of over inflating, and get a bit of a shock. The appearance of them provokes Tom to share a family secret “good thing my sister is not here, she has a fear of balloons”.
Still with half an hour until kick off a drum to our left starts and I’m not sure I can remember longer than about a minute for the rest of the day,that some rhythm is not being bashed out. People join in by stomping their feet, and the singing begins “I just can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough, Eastleigh FC!”.
Not satisfied with one song they belt out one after another “Blue army, blue army!”. It’s non stop, the drummer also has some skills, not just random whacking he adds in the odd flourish. The rain continues and is getting harder, but this has no effect on the fans “We’re Eastleigh FC, we’re Eastleigh FC!”.
The few people unable to squeeze under the stand are pitchside against the railing, and are getting wet, but are distracted from their misery by an impromptu rendition of the National Anthem. Perhaps a local patriotic pregame tradition, or maybe because there is a man dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, with a full face mask, white gloves, Union Jack purse conducting the crowd, and then carrying on with his/her ‘Gangnam Style’ dance.
“Apparently Shola Ameobi is playing” says one fan to another behind us “Shola?” he replies, “not even the proper Ameobi”. The teams are read out, whichever Ameobi it is, he is on the bench. Every Bolton player’s names are followed by a “booooooo!” and when it’s Eastleigh’s turn, each player’s name is followed with a rapturous endorsement.
The blue and white tunnel has been extended, a ‘guard of honour’ consisting of children and men holding large flags are out well before the teams, and the man on the mic is back out doing his best hype man impression “let’s make some noise!!”.
He asks each section of the crowd for a cheer, lastly coming to us “Shed End show them how it’s done” and they do, the loudest by far, “we are Eastleigh, super Eastleigh from the lane!”.
Be sure to check out Part Two tomorrow, when The Beautiful Game duo bring us the conclusion of their FA Cup day out.