Saturday August 18th, 2007:
Extra Preliminary Round
Haringey Borough V Wembley
I SET OFF for Haringey Borough at 1pm from my home in Braintree, Essex, and travel down the M11 towards London. Although I don’t know where Haringey Borough’s Coles Park Stadium is, I’m vaguely familiar with the North Circular and just need the car’s sat nav for the final few turns. Despite this being the middle of August, it is a horrible day and grey clouds are scudding across the sky. The traffic on the North Circular is heavy, which I put down to a combination of the broken-down cars I pass on the way and supporters heading towards Tottenham’s ground for a Premiership match against Derby County.
It takes a little over an hour before I turn right off the A10 into White Hart Lane – heading the opposite way from Tottenham – and I keep my eyes open for either a set of floodlights, or the Bridisco factory mentioned in the directions page on the club’s website. Eventually both come into view. A set of fences run along the roadside leading to a small opening into the stadium, which is guarded by an octogenarian hobgoblin beside a traffic cone. I pull off the road and open the car window.
‘Is this Haringey Borough?’
Hobgoblin, stammering slightly: ‘Y,y,yes. Five pounds.’ I thrust a twenty pound note into his hand and he fumbles for some change from his wallet.
‘Any chance of a match programme?’ I ask inexpectantly, but he gives me a nod, and as he gropes around in another bag, I look through the entrance into Coles Park Stadium, as dilapidated a sporting venue as you could wish for. Ahead of me are a long line of parking spaces which run along the top end of the pitch. To the left lies more car parking, a bedraggled grandstand and a group of temporary-style buildings which appear to be the clubhouse and changing rooms.
Hobgoblin hands me a flimsy, green and white striped programme with the club’s badge on the front and I drive slowly into the car park. I have plenty of choice. I settle on a space at the bottom end of the car park at one corner of the pitch, figuring that this is the least likely place that my car will get hit by the ball, unless of course one of the two teams has a player who can emulate former England international Geoff Thomas when he hit that horrendous shot at Wembley which scythed off the corner flag.
Safely parked I have a chance to review the situation. Never have I been to a football match so sparsely populated. With just an hour to go before kick off, Coles Park Stadium is almost deserted. A small throng of about six people have followed me in, one of whom is wearing a Wembley baseball cap, so I peg them as the Wembley FC Travelling Support. Three portly middle-aged gents in suits are walking the playing surface and I hazard a guess that this is the ref and his line-os.
The stadium is in the middle of a large area of allotments, which in turn are bordered by housing. Across the road in White Hart Lane, the Bridisco factory looms down over the main car park. Bridisco it transpires is an electrical equipment distributor. A white-posted perimeter fence runs around the pitch, and six floodlights stand around the ground, looking about as effectual as a set of torches glued on to a telegraph pole. The pitch has obviously only recently been cut. You can tell that by the tufted piles of mown grass which scatter the surface. The grandstand is a corrugated iron and concrete affair optimistically split into four sections of sixty six seats each. The players’ tunnel is a gaping sore directly beneath one of these sections. All around the border to the allotments are giant telegraph poles from which hang swathes of netting which at one point were presumably destined to protect a Row Z clearance from ending up in the carrots, potatoes and lettuces. Time has taken its toll however and now the netting is all tangled around the poles, billowing in the strong wind which races across the pitch straight up into the grandstand.
By now a few hardy souls have chosen their seats but I decide to go in search of refreshment, so I walk down the far side of the pitch, around the bottom end and over toward the clubhouse. Inside are a group of about eight tables, one of which is littered with assorted biscuits and a cardboard sign for ‘Club Officials Only’. I walk up to a counter that is emitting the smells of bacon and chip fat. It is manned by a pair of middle-aged women looking overworked despite the absence of any queues.
‘What can I get you?’ asks Woman One.
‘What have you got?’
‘Anything you like,’ she replies.
‘There’s an offer you can’t refuse,’ says Woman Two.
‘He can have whatever he likes as long as he pays for it,’ says Woman One.
‘That’s what she says to all the blokes,’ says Woman Two, with a wink and a laugh that would put Barbara Windsor to shame. I can see that this double-act could go on indefinitely so I intervene.
‘What have you got to eat?’
‘Bacon roll, sausage roll, burger roll, cheeseburger roll.’
‘I’ll have a cup of tea.’
‘No thanks luv, I’m sweet enough.’ Amid much cackling a mug of tea arrives, a strong-looking brew with lumps of spoilt milk swirling around the whirlpool left from a vigorous stirring from Woman Two’s teaspoon.
‘I think your milk’s gone off,’ I say and hand back the mug.
‘That’s not the only thing round here,’ says Woman One.
‘Blimey, you can talk,’ says Woman Two. I rattle a two-pound coin on the counter and harrumph impatiently.
‘Sorry about that luv. Go and sit down and I’ll bring a fresh one over.’
I look around the gloomy room for a seat. There are about fifteen people already inside, all men and all of a type. Exactly the sort of people you would expect to see in a dilapidated stadium on a grey day in August. The Wembley Travelling Support are in one corner, talking loudly about the plight that Spurs will find themselves in if they fail to beat Derby that afternoon. The table reserved for Club Officials now has one middle-aged man swilling Scotch out of a plastic cup. There are no free tables so I decide to attach myself to a silver-haired man sitting with another who looks to be in his late teens. They are both perusing the green programmes handed out by Hobgoblin and swigging cans of Carlsberg bought from the bar that runs beside the serving hatch.
‘Is this seat taken?’ I ask, knowing it isn’t.
‘No go ahead,’ says Silver Hair just as Barbara Windsor’s step-sister brings over a healthier-looking cup of tea. I sip it and take a proper look around. A TV in one corner is pumping out a grainy edition of BBC Rugby, so obviously the Haringey Borough Entertainment Fund doesn’t run to a satellite subscription. The walls look as though they are thirsting for a coat of paint, and in a bid to cover this, they are festooned with pennants from clubs who have previously visited this corner of north London. Bury Town, AFC Sudbury, Felixstowe & Walton FC, and with a delicious irony, a pennant from some outfit called Leyton Pennant. There are also a number of international clubs who I have never heard of. I hope for their sake that they have come from an eastern block country.
As I survey the scene, I ear-wig Silver Hair and Teenager.
Teenager: ‘Look if they get through this round we will have to go to Ware. Saturday 1st September. Preliminary Round. Haringey Borough or Wembley V Ware.’
‘No that means that they will be at home to Ware,’ says Silver Hair, ‘ideally we want Wembley to win so we get a different home ground in the next fixture.’ My ears prick up. This sounds familiar.
Teenager: ‘Do you think the BBC will be here?’
Silver Hair: ‘Well if they do it, they usually start with Wembley and then follow them through. We may see them.’ The BBC? What? I can’t hold back my English reserve any longer. Have to speak to them.
‘Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. It’s just you don’t sound like you support Haringey or Wembley, so I was wondering what you were doing here?’ Silver Hair looks at me and pauses for a split second. I can understand his reservation in a room like this. Most of the people in here are obviously quite mad. Eventually he replies.
‘Well it’s the FA Cup you see,’ he says, ‘every year or so I like to follow it from the early rounds. So we’ve come here today to see Wembley…’
‘… because you have to start the FA Cup with Wembley,’ I finish for him, smarting inside. So much for my brilliantly original idea. Suddenly everyone in the room appears to be potential publishing threats.
‘Yes,’ says Silver Hair, ‘and I used to live in Crouch End when I originally moved down to London, so I’m interested in the area.’
‘And you said something about the BBC being here?’
‘Yes whenever they cover the FA Cup from the start right through to the finish they usually begin with Wembley.’ Recovering from the initial shock, I pry further, testing…
‘So will you be going all the way to the final?’ Silver Hair gives a friendly smile and I experience a strange change in my attitude, from competitiveness to comradeship.
‘I’ll see what happens. I don’t normally go all the way through. Especially when the later rounds are on television. When you start having to travel up and down the country it can get very expensive. Are you planning to do it?’ I nod.
‘I hope you’ve got plenty of money.’
‘Don’t say that,’ I say, winking conspiratorially, ‘my wife already thinks I’m mad coming here for this. I haven’t even considered the money it might cost.’ Silver Hair smiles and I sense that the conversation has run its course. I swig down my tea.
‘Right,’ I say, ‘I’m just going to see if they are going to announce the teams. I might see you again. In fact, it sounds like we will definitely see each other again.’ I walk out of the clubhouse and look at my watch. It’s a quarter to three. A car screeches into the car park and nearly runs me over. A stressed-looking man jumps out, reaches into the back of his car for a kitbag and athletically rushes off to the changing rooms. Nice pre-match build-up.
I stand by the main grandstand looking up at a battered old speaker hanging down from the roof, wondering if at any point it will crackle into life. My problem is the team lists in Hobgoblin’s programme. It announces ‘Today’s Teams’ as ‘From:’ and then has two great big squad lists without shirt numbers. I have no clue which player is which, and this threatens to devastate my attempts at some accurate reportage. As I stand there, I’m approached by a man holding a TV camera and I bristle.
‘Are you anything to do with Wembley?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I say, ‘who are you?’
‘TV production company. ZigZag Productions. We’re here to follow the development of the FA Cup from the early rounds right through to Wembley. We’ve come here today to see Wembley…’
‘…because you have to start the FA Cup with Wembley,’ I finish again, scowling. He misses the anger and starts scanning the ground looking for a target.
‘There are a bunch of Wembley fans in the clubhouse, you should try there,’ I mutter grumpily. Looks like I have some proper competition now. I’m still waiting by the silent speaker when muffled hollers of ‘Come on then lads,’ ‘Let’s have it,’ emerge from the changing rooms and the two teams come out through the tunnel. Haringey in yellow shirts and green shorts and Wembley in red/white shirts and red shorts. Both teams trot out onto the pitch led by a short referee and his two portly linesmen – identifiable as the gents walking the pitch on my arrival. I glare up at the loudspeaker but it stays quiet so I stalk off to find a viewing position. I decide to take up a place behind the Haringey goal. I’m the only person there. The grandstand has filled and a headcount puts the attendance at between forty and fifty people, (The official attendance would later appear on Tony Kempster’s website as sixty two).
At just past 3pm the diminutive referee bellows for ‘Skippers please,’ and after a quick toss-up and change of ends, blows his whistle and the match gets underway. The occasion of an FA Cup tie is apparent as both teams are clearly up for the game. The opening skirmishes lead to some ferocious tackling and an early yellow card for the Wembley number eight. The visitors’ superior skills see them dominant in possession and within five minutes they are awarded a penalty, much to the chagrin of the Borough team. The penalty is to be taken at my end of the pitch and I stand poised with my camera to capture the first goal of my Wembley campaign, but the penalty-taker shanks it into the fence behind which I am standing and an extra from the Jeremy Kyle Show wearing the green of Haringey bellows ‘Justice’ into the face of the crestfallen striker.
But then five minutes later, Wembley do break the deadlock, after some good work on the edge of the box by their number ten who picks up the ball, shimmies inside two Haringey defenders, before drilling the ball into the back of the net. My first FA Cup goal. I check the digital screen on my camera, pleased to see that I’ve more or less got it.
The game restarts and the Wembley attacks continue. One shot loops over the goal landing in the car park just five yards from where I am standing and I realise I have a chance to get a touch of the match ball. A nod from the goalkeeper dispatches me to retrieve it. An FA Cup match ball. Fantastic! I’m holding my camera so can’t pick it up, so I try to ball-juggle it up Ronaldinhio style. Unfortunately I’m not Ronaldinhio and while I flick the ball up off the ground, an over-enthusiastic hump with my right foot ends up pumping the ball back over the fence, right over the goal and straight out of the penalty box. I see the goalkeeper mutter ‘Twat’ at me as he in turn has to do a spot of retrieval, but I’m delighted at getting a touch.
Again the game resumes and as I watch the action, I notice a man walking toward me wearing a green blazer and carrying a clipboard. I accost him as he walks past and ask him if he knows the teams. He turns out to be the Haringey Borough Club Secretary and I’m delighted when he produces the official team sheets for me to copy into Hobgoblin’s programme. It turns out that Paul Shelton was the scorer of the first goal on my cup odyssey.
Wembley’s lead is extended before half time when right back David Taylor hits a deep cross into the Haringey box which due to a defensive mix-up finds itself nestling in the back of the net before anyone can react. Haringey are stunned and finish the half looking like a team staring the earliest of FA Cup exits in the face. I retire to my car as some rain starts to fall and I learn from the radio that Derby are getting gubbed three-nil by Spurs just ten minutes down the road. But I take solace that despite the fact that it’s threatening to piss down, despite the fact that the writing’s on the wall for the Rams to go straight back down to the Championship this season, despite the fact that I’ve got another forty five minutes of this mediocre fare to endure, my beloved Wembley look set to progress.
But in the second half, you get one of those classic examples of Goliathan arrogance. Wembley emerge back onto the pitch with the attitude that all they need to do is see out the remainder of the game. They are all Fancy Dan footwork, and laughs and jokes when their passes and tackles go awry, and slowly but surely Haringey get wind of it. The home team start to press and the chances and attacks mount. Halfway through the second period, a ball is played through and while Wembley scream at the linesman to flag at a player running back from an offside position, Haringey find themselves through on goal. A shot is parried by keeper Lee Pearce, but rebounds out to Haringey substitute Mark Maher who rifles home from the edge of the box. One-two.
Wembley realise that they have been coasting and try to shift gears for the last ten minutes, but Haringey’s tails are up and they are already playing in top gear. They press for the equaliser. I start to sweat. The last thing I want is extra time with the traffic of the Tottenham exodus to navigate.
Haringey’s tricky forward Ronardson Akubuo Obinna (yes, really) whips in a left foot shot which leaves Pearce flinging himself across the goal to parry away. If you saw the considerable bulk of Pearce you would commend the feat. He is the human equivalent of parking the team bus in front of the goal. I’m now willing the referee to blow for full time, as is the Wembley bench. But with just minutes remaining, Obinna finds himself again in space in the Wembley box and this time he makes no mistake in lashing it home. The Borough players go wild. I’m sure the crowd may have done as well, but we are too far away from each other and they are too few for me to hear. Finally the referee blows his whistle and the two teams stand around on the pitch shaking hands. I stand around too wondering what happens now. Do we have extra time or go straight to penalties? It slowly dawns on me that it will be neither. The two teams slump off the pitch and my spirits slump as I realise that we are going to have to do it all again. We are going to a replay.
Haringey Borough 2 (Maher 75, Obinna 88)
Wembley 2 (Shelton 10, Taylor 30)
Money Spent So Far: £5 (Entrance + Programme)
Miles Travelled So Far: 90