Sitting at my desk at work doing a late shift a few Mondays ago, I waited patiently as the BBC, who had decided to televise the first round FA Cup draw from a cramped clubhouse in Yorkshire, to see what the red velvet bag would bring us this time.
Two draws jumped out, the visit of Colchester United FC to Wealdstone FC, or Staines Town FC’s visit to Leyton Orient FC. We had previously attempted a visit to Wealdstone only for it to be canceled within seconds of arriving due to a waterlogged pitch, and instead of watching a game we ate a very nice cheese roll and got a look at the lesser spotted raider.
Leyton Orient FC (LO) has been a club Tom has repeatedly mentioned he would like to visit, and the idea of a non-league away day, sitting with the fans of Staines Town FC (ST) a club from the Ryman League, visiting a League Two club, made Brisbane Road the obvious destination for us.
Although we have enjoyed the smaller, intimate, fudge raffle grounds of the non-league sides, in the previous rounds of the FA Cup, today we are somewhat thankful we are visiting a League side, with appropriate pitch drainage, and covered stands because it has not stopped raining, Twitter was awash with canceled games, but with League status comes money, and with money brings the ability to prevent your pitch turning into a bog.
As Tom is a trendy East London type, his journey to Leyton was a relatively straightforward one, and mine should have been too, arriving at Leyton tube station, only a short walk from the ground, but in need of a cash point, I had to take a detour. A nearby Post Office gave me my readies, it was then that my mini nightmare began. Following the yellow arrows on the local totems, I somehow ended up in the sprawling car park of an ASDA and B&Q.
My lateness had prompted a text from Tom “are you alive?” and even a message from my fiancee, who Tom had called to ask where I was. If I had a flare, I would have shot it skywards, and waited for the chopper to get me out of Dodge. However, the second best thing to a flare gun, is UBER, and after the driver got lost, I was finally rescued in a Chevrolet Orlando, basically a bright white, four by four footballers car, and was dropped off three minutes later by the LO supporters club..
Just before getting on the tube I had received a text from Keith, who runs the ST Twitter account, and who had kindly offered to meet me with some tickets for today, as neither of us were available previously to get to ST to pick the tickets up in person.
We had both said we would be arriving at 13:00, but after my hair pulling moments outside ASDA it was almost 14:00, and considering he was doing us a favour I didn’t want to take the piss, however he to had his own travel issues, and thankfully arrived at the same time as me.
In his yellow ST shirt, and blue and yellow scarf, Keith handed over the tickets, I wished him well, and I could finally relax, apologising profusely to Tom for being so late, and start to enjoy the day.
Standing outside between the ST player’s coach, and an NHS pharmacy, that is somehow incorporated into the structure of the ground, and would not be the first curiosity of Brisbane Road.
The sign on the wall notifies you of the next fixture, the name of the away side, looking like it had been hastily made, a little bit Blue Peter, we sipped the slightly over fizzy lager, and both discussed the previous nights FA Cup match between Salford City FC and Notts County FC, and hoped all the giant killing magic had not been used up.
Tom also described the bustling bar of the supporters club beyond the red doors, with it’s inordinate amount of cask ales on offer, which are sadly a bit wasted on Tom and I’s heathen palates, and the fact he almost did not get in because today of all days, he had decided to wear his Arsenal FC jacket, and although it only has a small red cannon on the breast, the eagle eyed door men still spotted it, but smiled and let him pass, but not without paying £1 first for his guest pass.
I also purchase my first square programme, I slight novelty to the programme obsessed like me, and after commenting to the man selling them I never seen one like it before, he said “you can’t have been round in the 70’s then”
The miserable weather prompted us to make our way to the away end, and the shelter of the Baskin and Robbins stand, hoping for the fine ale selection to be replaced by rum & raisin or mint choc chip. Due to the makeup of the ground, a mixture of residential and commercial, we start walking down a slope towards a gate with some flats beyond, “this doesn’t look right” says Tom as we continue, past some discarded mattresses, which Toms seems to know are from IKEA, and it’s only when we see two people in yellow jackets, asking to search our bags, does it become clear that it is a turnstile they are standing next to, and not someone’s front door.
Post search, post check for pyro, we are in, to be greeted by the bizarrest ground I think I have ever been in. The ice cream away end is a standard modern stand, which already has a few ST flags hanging at the back of it. What you might call the “original” or oldest looking stand along one side of the pitch is empty and looks closed, with ”The O’s” spelt out in black seats, against the rest that are red, and its large gabled roof with “Leyton Orient” written on the front is a nice feature, the rest though is slightly less formulaic.
Opposite us is a block of flats, with a single tier all-seater stand attached, each open corner of the ground is filled with more flats, whose balconies look out over the pitch, Tom has somehow found out that this view will cost you £1,200 a month, if you wanted to live there. Down the other side of the pitch, are more red seats by the dugout and the players tunnel, and then this large grey void before what looks like executive boxes, way, way above the pitch, like watching football from the top of the Shard.
Following the large white dragon footprints, which I can’t work out what they are, until Tom reminds me that the LO badge has two red dragons on it, and realise we are not being led into a child’s playground. The concessions under the stand, all breeze block, exposed steel work, is a little dreary, even a smattering of enlarged child’s art on the wall and an ST fan in a pink pig hat can’t cheer it up, give me the Harry Abrahams Stadium, over this any day.
Tom, as always, begins to furiously dissect the food menu, deciding what to have at some point, but pre-game another drink will do for now. Somehow we do spend quite a lot of our time standing next to a bowl of UHT milk and sugar, trying to work out what a “pizza pod” is, wondering if it’s a spelling mistake or just some delicacy, these two couscous lovers from North London, have yet to experience.
“We’ve got the tin foil FA Cup” sing the supporters at the bar, and in doing so highlight one of my favourite sights at a football match, a gleaming silver facsimile of the famous trophy. “Yellow and blue, yellow and blue” is the next of what will be many songs, as the group at the bar swells, and our away day starts to come together.
We climb the stairs to the back of the stand, grateful that the Serie A type net behind the goal is being taken down, and was to prevent balls hitting us in the warm up, and not stuff from us hitting the players. “We might be standing a lot, I don’t think they will be sitting” says Tom grinning and pointing to the noisy ST fans standing in front of us, armed now with not one, but two homemade FA Cups.
“Oh West London is wonderful.”
Two rows of children, accompanied by a large red dragon, wave flags as the teams enter the pitch.
Keith is sitting in front of us, and produces a triple points score item for your I-Spy football book, a brass bugle, with red and gold braiding around the handle. I thought I was going to have trouble getting my umbrella in, but it would seem anything goes here. It also prompts Tom to pose a question, “did we get our tickets off the ring leader?”, the horn a sign of his capo status perhaps, the leader of the fans, the conch from Lord of the Flies, for ST supporters.
“Ryman League and we’re having a laugh.”
The walk on music, is completely drowned out by the fans once they see their team, “COME ON YOU SWANS” and “OH WHEN THE SWANS GO MARCHING IN”
The game’s proximity to Remembrance Sunday means the teams gather around the centre circle, joined by the large red dragon, and the crowd stand and fall silent, in unison we all take a moment to remember those lost in conflict.
The blast of the whistle confuses a few ST fans who think it’s to notify the end and not the beginning of the minute’s silence, but after a few “shhhhh’s” it is impeccably, and respectfully observed by all in attendance.
When the referee blows again, all around us explode, I’m not sure the same can be said for the LO fans, who are not here in any great number at all. When Keith gives his bugle a blast, it causes his immediate neighbours to flinch, turn round and give him a bit of a glare.
To the tune of Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’, with a few lyrical tweaks, the game gets under way “the Swans will tear you apart again”.
Very soon into the beginning of the match, the league difference, becomes strikingly apparent, and regardless of the non stop singing, ST are powerless to stop LO going 3 goals ahead in a matter of about 15 minutes. The first goal is a cross from the left, and a back post header, which instead of quieting the fans their reply is pragmatic and positive “we’re going to win 2 – 1” and have a dig at the still quiet LO fans “1 – 0 and you still don’t sing?”
LO’s second is an attack down the left again, but this time the cross is along the ground and it’s side footed in, still no effect on the mood of the fans “yellows, yellows, yellows”. The third is a tap in following a paired shot from outside the box by the ST keeper, who is in my personal favourite of all the possible colours a keeper can play in, pink.
At this point I think it is more than clear that the tie is over, and although Tom and I look at each other after each goal, with a kind of “oh shit” look, and Tom says “it’s going to take a miracle from them to score 3”, the people around us are quite the opposite. One fan says quite rightly “ that’s the difference” and as far as the on field action he is right, that 15 minute blitz has really taken the wind out of their sails, but the supporters on the other hand are quite rightly unperturbed “we’re having more fun that you”.
Strangely though after the third goal ST start to get into the game, perhaps LO have eased up a little, but none the less, they start to trouble LO particularly from out wide, and especially when the slightly indecisive and flappy home keeper is called into action.
With almost thirty minutes played, the LO keeper offers ST a tiny sliver of hope, and something for the ST fans to really get happy about. A corner is crossed in, cleared poorly by LO to the edge of the box, and headed back in by a ST player.
Two LO players then jostle with each other, one heading the ball up instead of out. With the ball about to drop onto the edge of the 6 yard box, the keeper bombs out, limply punches it straight to a LT player just inside the area, who deftly hooks a shot over the stranded keeper, and ST have their goal.
“Dodgy keeper, dodgy keeper.”
Keith’s bugle and the tin foil cup’s are held aloft, as they celebrate. A few blasts of the horn, signify not the start of the hunt, but the start of even more singing, even more jibes at the quiet home fans, more banging of the back wall of the stand “Staines Town” and many more pretend cup lifting ceremonies. The fans huddling low, “ooooooooohhhhhhhh” and then when the cup is lifted Wembley style, they all celebrate together.
“Que Sera Sera, what ever will be, will be, we’re going to Wembley.”
ST players heads are up, “if they could just get another one” says Tom, and he is correct the goal has really buoyed the team, they look to have punished LO lifting their foot off the pedal, all of a sudden ST look more solid at the back, and spend the next ten minutes offering some resistance to the red onslaught.
“Yellow army, yellow army, yellow army”
The people on their balconies, braving the weather for a bit of Saturday entertainment, are duly rewarded, when they as well as us, bear witness to the best goal of the game so far, and a very, very fine example of the perfect free kick, up and over the wall, and right in the top left hand corner, a real beauty, making it make 4-1, and as Tom puts it “that might have killed it”.
A man near us, is an example to Tom on how to prepare for a football match, having previously handed out boiled sweets, he now tucks into some bread and butter from his bountiful rucksack, as the standing fans around him praise the team,“it’s just like watching Brazil” after ST muster an attack. A man in front, after returning from the loo, and with the regularity of the scoring, asks a small boy “have I missed any goals?”
Only when the LO fans behind the opposite goal shout for a penalty, do they make their first considerable noise of the day, and the ST fans are quick to sarcastically acknowledge it, “we forgot you were here”.
Just before half time ST are awarded a free kick, which comes to nothing, except Tom notices an unorthodox technique used by a ST player to distract his marker. Now this is not for the faint hearted, Victorian or Under 18’s of you out there, so please move on if that is you, but the ST player appeared to pretend to finger the bum of his opposite number, and I’m not sure what’s more harrowing, the thought of it, or Tom’s actions that accompany him telling me
As the team’s walk off, the ST supporters serenade the players “we’re Staines and we’re proud of you”.
Tom like every good Arsenal fan, left just before the half time whistle to get a drink and something to eat, only to return with some bad news, as well as what turns out to be bad food, they have run out of beer, and I warn him “there will be a riot”.
Once we have grieved the lack of beer, Tom eats an onion loaded burger, and I have an awkward and uncomfortable public eating experience, when my mince and onion pie, which is Alan Partridge hot, disintegrates in my hand, once I have removed it from its battered red tin case, I’m left with what looks like a hand full of shit. I wish I was like the boiled sweet and bread and butter man, who is now eating a homemade stir fry from a tupperware box, oh to be organised.
We are however pleasantly distracted by an on pitch ceremony led by an actual bugle player, not Keith, honouring the members of LO who joined the Football Battalion, as well as staff of the club who were lost in the Great War and since, and when they play the Last Stand, and lower the flags, it sends the hairs up on the back of my neck, “we will remember them”.
The returning fans are less than impressed by the lack of refreshments, “no beer, shit ground, no fans, no beer”. On the blast of the whistle the ever supportive away fans let LO know “we’re going to win 5-4”, and an early chance for ST encourages even more singing “yellow’s, yellow’s, yellow’s”, but one is a little frustrated “he is trying to walk it in”.
In all honesty the game is dead, and it’s only a matter of time before LO score a 5th, but they are doing their best to miss easy chances. ST’s keeper however having conceded four, has pulled off some marvellous saves, and has kept the score in single figures.
ST’s songs get a bit more colourful you might say in the second half, and more creative, particularly towards the LO fan in a “fake Stone Island jacket”. One woman screams in a demonic fashion and they all sing “we’ve got a lunatic” A group of young LO fans “a shit One Direction” as they are dubbed, bite at every chant, standing and posturing, only to be told to sit down by a steward, and create ever more entertainment.
Although ST look more solid, they have little going forward, and they have their keeper to thank over and over.
It’s not until almost full time that the home fans get a song going, only to be hit with a barrage in reply from the ST fans, “you’ve got more stewards than fans”, “have you heard the League team sing?”
LO get two goals in the final moments, ST’s keeper can’t stop everything even though he has tried, and as the home fans start to leave, a new song starts around us “is there a fire drill?”
Around this time the majority of fans have left their seats, not to leave and sulk, but to congregate on the edge of the pitch, still singing, waiting to applaud their team.
On the final whistle the announcement from the travelling fans “we’re going on the pitch” is not followed through, except by two. One man runs on, slips over, runs off. One girl on the other hand, sprints to the halfway line, talks to an ST player, and then sprints back, jumps the barrier, and with a little help from some fellow fans, avoids the clutches of the stewards.
The remaining fans form a line behind the goal, and the obviously down beat players, must be lifted as the supporters sing, shake hands, and congratulate them on their efforts, the result is immaterial, the fact they tried is all that matters, some players hug and kiss loved ones all whilst ‘Rockin all over the world’ plays by Status Quo over the public address system. The absolute best moment is when the manager is handed his small Son from the crowd, and the fans sing “your Dad is a legend, your Dad is a legend”.
Walking back to the station we end up in a pub inside the old Town Hall, and find a warm dry corner and once Tom tells me of a recent dream he had where we visited Borussia Dortmund, he did not have a ticket, refusing to buy one on the gate, because it was too expensive, but then getting a cheaper “special one” only to find himself watching the game from a concrete box with a window, but no sound. After I question my friend’s mental state, we deliberate our experience, both coming to a similar conclusion.
The ST fans were every superlative under the sun, and why not make up your own for good measure, like “amaziastical”. When I say non stop, I mean that in the most literal way, it was relentless.
I love it when a fan base and players meet like they did tonight, we have seen it a few times, and it never gets old, it’s that connection we are searching for, not fancy stadiums or the best players, but when they both recognise what each other has brought to the occasion, it is so uplifting.
A mention has to go out to the LO fans who stayed after to applaud the away team, and supporters, very classy.
I fear we might not see anything like that again, or at least it is becoming more and more unlikely as the non league teams numbers start to dwindle, and the bigger teams start to dominate, but fingers crossed, maybe someone will prove me wrong!