For what I am about to write may the Lord forgive me.
Every so often I make bold statements. “I will not use my Blackberry after 7pm at night”, “I wont use my laptop in bed”, “I will have a weekend without watching any football”. What, can you repeat that last one again? I WILL NOT WATCH ANY FOOTBALL FOR A WEEKEND. Yes, in a mad moment some months ago I agreed that I would not go to any games for one weekend in a year.
I once agreed never to lie to my Mum, agreed that I would never kiss another girl whilst I was with my first love (aged 8), agreed that I would only have “one more” on a night out (frequently) and that I would not ever, ever open that box under CMF’s side of the bed. So why on earth did I agree to this. With West Ham away to Liverpool and Lewes starting their almost certain run to the FA Trophy final I agreed to go with CMF to an old work reunion (hers not mine) in Hampstead. Fat chance of even getting to a pub to see a match, let alone an actual game – that area of North London is hardly teaming with football clubs.
After driving up to North London, smiling at people I had never met, laughing with people I had met before and generally being the perfect husband/Father I was pulled to one side at 2pm. “You have been so good, do you want to go off somewhere to watch the rugby with Tom on TV?”. Sod the rugby I thought….Could I get to a game anywhere? A quick check on the TBIR iPhone app revealed the nearest club we had never been to was some 8 miles west-south-west in Harrow. And they were at home. Could I? Should I? Would I? Silly question really.
“Erm….what about if we went and did a bit of Christmas shopping? There are a few things I want to get for you and the girls actually. Brent Cross is only 20 minutes away and I can be back to pick you up about 5ish.”
Now I am not admitting to this being a pre-planned strategy but somehow a number of carrier bags from shops such as Marks & Spencers, Currys and Hotel Chocolat padded out with old clothes somehow managed to find their way into the boot of my car on Saturday morning. I have no idea why I would have done that.
SatNav said it was 13 miles and 34 minutes. When the trusty TBIR taxi is fed information on a new ground it somehow miraculously finds its own way there, using short cuts and back doubles so it was no surprise that at 2.34pm we pulled up at Earlsmead, home of Harrow Borough FC.
Harrow Borough had been in the headlines this season. Amazingly considering their league position in the Ryman Premier, their small supporter base and a seemingly difficult run of games, they reached the FA Cup 1st round for only the second time in their history. And to make the story even better they had been given a home draw against high flying nPower League Two side Chesterfield. On the day some 1,000 fans (BBC website suggests this figure was 2,500 but then again they make most things up) squeezed into Earlsmead for the game where they saw a spirited Harrow performance although the visitors eventually ran out 2-0 winners.
It has been a bit of a mixed bag in the last decades for the club. Twice the club turned down promotion to the Conference, fearful of the financial commitment that would have entailed promotion. Then they came within one penalty kick of making the new Conference South in 2004 when they lost in a play off. Since then they have held their own in the Ryman under the guidance of David Howell who has now been in charge for 7 seasons, an incredible achievement for any manager in football, let alone one in the Non Leagues.
Last season the club also got worldwide exposure not perhaps for the right reasons. Well travelled forward Rocky Baptiste joined the club from AFC Wimbledon, and whilst he has scored ten goals for the club he will be for ever be known for THAT miss. Surely you have seen that? No, well watch away and join the 1.12million who have seen it across the world to date.
If Rocky thinks he has problems, then spare a thought for visitors Croydon Athletic. Promotion at a canter last season from the Ryman South seemed to signal the start of an upward journey for the club. Under the guidance of Tim O’Shea and Neil Smith the club started well, winning two and drawing one from their opening three games. And then events in a different world changed everything. A number of Pakistan players were involved in match fixing, the “fixer” was none other than the man who bought the club back in 2008, Mazhar Majeed.
The club were then investigated for money laundering due to his stewardship. With finances withdrawn the club lost its management duo and most of its players too. The club were forced to cancel a number of games and withdraw from the FA Cup and things looked very black for their existence.
However, Non League football is all about unsung heroes so its testament to these people who the club were still here today. Whilst results have been unfavourable they came into this game off the back of an impressive 5-3 win against Margate.
Harrow Borough 3 Croydon Athletic 1- Earlsmead – Saturday 20th November 2010
Despite the cup exploits from just two weeks previously where the home fans had come out in abundance when I paid my £10 to enter I had to double check that it wasn’t a later kick off than 3pm. I counted around 95 people in the ground (official crowd was later announced as 112). Sure it was chilly but surely the locals could get a bit more behind their club?
I had a wander around the ground, stopping to read the noticeboard on the wall. Whilst we are in the digital age where the information superhighway puts the world at our finger tips, there was something nostalgic about the handwritten notes on the board and updates on the club’s progress.
After a minute’s silence impeccably observed by all present for one of the club’s Vice-Presidents the game started. My first observation was the slope of the pitch. Probably the most notable I had ever seen. The second was the car park at the other end of the ground. It was like watching a game back at Stamford Bridge in the 1970’s with the cars parked behind the goal. This was the overflow car park, but with only a dozen or so drivers it was surprising empty. However, on a number of occasions in the first half the ball struck the two vehicles with unerring accuracy and frequency.
The first twenty minutes was all Harrow. They had genuine pace up front and were trying to get Baptiste and Hewitt behind the big Croydon centre backs but surprisingly the opening goal came from a completely different route. A miss timed clearance from the Croydon defence saw the ball fall to Troy Hewitt some 25 yards out and he smashed the ball into the net. Hewitt is having a great season for the club after winning the FA’s player of the round for his hatrick against Eastbourne Borough in the 4th Qualifying round back in October.
I expected the home side to build on this but in keeping with their erratic league form this season they retreated, looked nervous and tried to hoof the ball long to the two forwards to chase. I continued by wander around the ground, eavesdropping on a number of conversations.
“Are Weaselstone losing yet?” (My powers of deduction suggest they were referring to Wealdstone FC from just down the road).
“I hate noisy away fans” (Croydon had brought four fans, two of whom had bongo drums).
“I recognise that referee. He was on my plane back from Majorca in the Summer.”
“Was he on holiday too?”
“Nah he was one of those stewardess blokes” (I kid you not!)
The home fans comfort soon changed when Croydon’s Elgar waltzed through the Croydon’s defence and then slotted the ball home. The Croydon fans went wild whilst Andy Turner, Harrow’s stadium announcer who stood at the window of the 1st floor of the club’s offices overlooking the goal simply shook his head in disbelief. He had seen this all before obviously.
The half seemed to go on forever. In fact when the fourth official announced that there was one additional minute the time was 3.53pm. Not sure what happened there but it was a welcome relief to head next door to the warmth of the bar for a beer.
It was very tempting to stay in there, Bombardier on draft and Soccer Saturday on the TV but that was not what I had committed one of the seven deadly sins to do. I headed back out just to see Croydon come mightily close to taking the lead when the hit the woodwork. The away tifosi went mad at the far end, reliving the moment time and time again much to the keepers annoyance.
It wasn’t the best of games and the veteran Harrow fans in the corner of the ground bemoaned the modern game and these “Fancy Dan boots” and players wearing gloves. In fact it seemed like Harrow’s right back, Kwasi Frempong was only wearing them so that he could get better grip on the ball for his long throws.
I was on a short timer, knowing that I had to get back to Brent Cross tube station to complete my “diversion”. I had promised to be there at 5pm so I was always going to have to leave before the final whistle, which is normally a capital punishment offence, but I did not see why I should be adding slothfulness to the ever increasing list of deadly sins I had committed on the day. And of course as soon as I set foot outside the gates there was a cheer. I peered over the fence to see Harrow’s players celebrating Walters goal. Again, I could lie and say I saw it , but I didn’t so there.
I had hoped that Rocky Baptiste would get on the scoresheet so I could try and right a few wrongs but he hadn’t as I reached the car, ready to do battle with the North London traffic. But of course he eventually did in injury time to make the final score 3-1.
I pulled up at the tube station. Did I come clean? Well I’d rather keep that one to myself, just in case there is a next time.
More pictures from the game can be found at our Flickr stream here.