In Part Two of their report, The Beautiful Game duo bring us all the action from Eastleigh FC’s FA Cup tie with Bolton Wanderers. Part One can be found here.
Classical music plays, high tempo strings as the teams emerge. The crowd are at fever pitch “Eastleigh FC blue and white army!” over and over. The captain’s toss the coin and the home side will be attacking our end first. One fan with his back to the pitch, the heavens falling on him, conducts the singing “Hampshire’s blue and white!”.
We have so far spotted a few staples for any person with their Eye-Spy book of the FA Cup – a wooden rattle; a man in a silly wig, it’s an orange one on this occasion; but a new edition may be in order as we have seen a few things I’m sure would get you plenty of points – her majesty, the propeller hat, a man in the blue and white Mexican wrestling mask and a group of 7 or 8 in brown leather flying hats. The tinfoil FA Cup count is a disappointingly just one – a young boy at the front of the stand, but there is still plenty of the day left.
A few umbrella rows break out between people pitch side and those in the first row of the stand. My attention is however on the masterful use of the ‘2 Unlimited’ song ‘No Limit’. “ Eastleigh, Eastleigh, Eastleigh FC!”, and it’s the home team with all the early pressure. When the nippy number 7 latches onto a through ball, and is bearing down on goal his shot is a bit tame, it’s a good chance, but the crowd love the effort and reply with more ear splitting clapping.
“Not a chance yet” comments Tom about Bolton with over fifteen minutes of the game gone, they have been very poor, their fans have had zero to sing about. To be fair to both teams it’s incredible that any kind of football is being played, “These are awful conditions “ says one fan, “ The ball did not bounce once!” adds another.
The rain has not stopped, some people are oblivious to how wet they are getting or just don’t care, the adrenaline off the day is fending off the cold. After the initial 30 or so minutes of frantic Eastleigh attack, the game has settled but the visitors are still yet to register a shot on target. With a moment’s break in the singing there is talk of the game being “called”, the pitch looks awful and there are huge brown scars all over.
One Eastleigh fan behind us, who has been offering the vicinity a constant stream of opinion, does have an interesting theory on why one player is performing so well 0 it’s his birthday. This does though come with a down side because he also thinks the same player will be in a bad mood because he is now one year older.
“You dirty northern bastard!” rings out after a late Bolton tackle, the standard reply from a southern team playing a northern team. With the game so international these days the player himself could be from Lagos or the Cook Islands but is tarred with the same flat cap and whippet brush, none the less.
The EFC number 7 who so far has looked the most threatening is down on the edge of the penalty area and it doesn’t look good. “He is holding his hamstring” comments ‘Dr’ Tom, and once seen by the physio the worst is confirmed by the hand signal he makes to the bench. Quickly people discuss who should come on, Tom feels his replacement, standing on the touch line waiting for the limping number 7, does not share some of the attributes that had proved fruitful for the home side – “he doesn’t look quick”.
There is a flourish of activity in the final 10 minutes, Eastleigh have a shot that sends the Bolton ‘keeper scrambling. “She fell over!”, shout the home fans in response to his jittery attempt to see it wide. Bolton finally get their first shot and it’s a good one, requiring a strong save to keep it out and for the first time we hear the fans from the North West “Come on Bolton!”.
“A torrid half of football” says the mini Motson behind us, which I think is a bit unfair. Eastleigh have outshone their higher league counterparts and the atmosphere has been first rate, I’m not sure you could ask for much more. This is the same person who is moaning about one of their forwards – “He is just shit, he just scores goals” so I’m not sure how much we should take notice of him anyway.
An army of fork wielders are out, doing their best to repair the damage. We bump into one of the tribal mob from outside, “How do you think we’re doing?” she asks, “Not bad, they have only had one shot on target” I reply. Looking at the pitch and even though it’s stopped raining she is a little downbeat “I think it will be called off, its bad”.
I don’t win the 50/50 raffle prize that has swelled along with the attendance to a whopping £565, not an amount to turn your nose up at, that would get me a lot of notebooks.
Many fans are at the “I’m fucking soaked” stage and thus take advantage of people going to the loo or to get something to eat to grab a place in the stand and “get out of the wind”. The man with the microphone for some reason is talking about beach football, but then turns to a much more sensible topic, the scores from around the country. “At least we will be on Match Of The Day Before them” he says laughing, following the cheer because neighbours Southampton are losing.
“Come on Eastleigh” greets the players coming back out.
Within moments of the whistle, people are talking about the possibility of a replay and don’t seem too pumped about it – “too far” and “too cold up there” are some of the more common reasons we overhear. Tom is quite frank “We are not going to Bolton”.
Just over 10 minutes have played of the second half, and the fairy tale starts to come true, Eastleigh score, well actually it’s an own goal, which feels very far away at the opposite end of the pitch.
Pandemonium, an outpouring of joy that might go unmatched this weekend. The Bolton supporters probably wish the ground would swallow them up and take the team with them. One Eastleigh fan is now standing above the crown, his hand on the roof to steady himself “COME ON YOU BOYS IN BLUE!!” they sing with all their might. The singing, supplemented with the stomping of feet and the kicking of the back of the stand, all contained within the low roofed terrace, makes for an awesome noise.
“Neil Lennon looks worried” comments someone, “Four years ago Neil Lennon was manager of Celtic beating Barcelona”.
Only the fingertips of the Eastleigh keeper, keeps the score at 1 – 0. Steely faced he goes and collects the ball, tossing it towards the corner flag, knowing well he pulled off an excellent save. One adoring fan describes his demeanour perfectly – “no emotion” – no screaming and chest slapping, he knows the game is not won yet.
It feels like an age since Eastleigh were able to venture far enough into the Bolton half to pose a threat, but the attack seemed hampered by the conditions, holding up the ball and allowing the visitors to smash it clear. I don’t think it’s a case of Eastleigh trying to sit back on a goal advantage, but more that whatever small sliver of professional pride is left in the visiting players has woken up and they have been applying some pressure of their own.
Time for a change, time for an Ameobi. I can’t work out if the boos from the visiting fans are for the player going off or the player coming on, but regardless the decision has not been well received.
The tinfoil FA Cup count hits a lofty three.
With ten minutes to go, Eastleigh almost grab a second, which one would think would put the game beyond the faltering Bolton, except for another squandered chance, somewhat overshadowed by a bizarre set of events which for a moment has Tom thinking that a pitch invader has stopped a goal. His sudden appearance has every one a bit shocked, especially because he is darting towards the Wanderers box, almost in tandem with the Eastleigh attack. Once apprehended the tit in a red hood is marched off the pitch and is justifiably barracked by the crowd – “wanker, wanker, wanker!”.
Having not scored what seemed like a golden chance to double the lead, Eastleigh are offered a chance on a plate to grab a goal, when the Bolton ‘keeper handles a pass back and the home team are awarded a free-kick just to the left of the 6 yard box, much to the dismay of Lennon on the sideline who lays into the fourth official. With a wall of white shirts on the line to breach, and after much whispering and deliberations, the shot is sent wide and another chance to secure the win goes begging.
“Ole, ole, ole!” cheer some Eastleigh fans as the players pass the ball amongst themselves, “four to go” shouts a solitary voice. When the ball goes out for a home throw-in the player tells the attentive ball boy not to rush. For a moment Bolton think they have saved a bit of face only to be denied by the raised flag of the linesman, much to the delight of the home crowd.
At this crucial nail biting moment, one person has decided to go for a walk carrying two large platters of food, if the prawn sandwich brigade ask for it, they get it, regardless of how edge of your seat the final moments are turning out to be.
“Go for the corner!” advises one fan, “No!” shouts another in disagreement “go for the goal!”.
Bolton score. No FA Cup fairytale. A huge bundle breaks out in the goal when the Eastleigh ‘keeper is far from cooperative when the Bolton player tries to get the ball back. The visiting fans celebrate at the opposite end, I’m sure fuelled by nothing other than relief. The home end is poles apart – “for fucks sake!”. For the first time it falls a little quiet, everyone is gutted, we are gutted that they were literally seconds away from the win.
The voice over the tannoy brings reality crashing down around us “It’s the FA Trophy next week” and whatever your excuse may be, Bolton on a Tuesday night is what is now required to resolve this tie. The final score from Southampton Vs Crystal Palace get’s a half hearted cheer, but the gloss of the day has been ever so, minutely tarnished by the equaliser.
Depending on which groups of fans we pass as we walk down the now dark lane, you get little snapshots of the mood of each teams supporters, the overriding feeling from the Eastleigh fans is “we didn’t deserve that”, one is very pragmatic “we are still in the Cup”.
We wait for our cab back to the station, as the last few 50/50 scarves are now being sold out of a Sports Direct bag on the pavement and once at the station, it’s not a long wait for the coach. I get briefly talking to one Bolton fan who is wearing a SC Paderborn 07 shirt, who gives me my fact of the day when he tells me that the city is twinned with Bolton.
Tom’s head hardly touches the red leather headrest of the coach, and he is out for the count, as we make our way back home.
“I hate football” was muttered by an home fan just after the Bolton goal, three words I’m sure all football fans have said at one point in their lives. The shift from elation to agony in the fraction of a second can be so cruel and for a moment can make you question why you do all this in the first place.
Today though there was so much to confirm exactly why you do, the atmosphere, the excitement, the anticipation, the Queen, the dog/bear, the propeller hat, the performance of the home team, all enough to make you want to shout as loud as you can “I love football!”.