We'd booked a week in the Lake District months ago when we carefully balanced the odds of missing the 'in season' prices, yet avoided missing any potential vital games. Thankfully Charlton capitulated against Sheffield United in the cup as I was faced for a long time with the very real possibility of missing a cup semi final at Wembley, best laid plans and all that. Originally it was just the trip to Brighton I'd have to forfeit, although a rearranged Barnsley game later fell into the equation followed quickly by the Bolton fixture which was moved twenty four hours forward to Good Friday, the day of our drive back south. Never mind, three fixtures to excel and pick up points; if there's a great game to be had Charlton are always cruel enough to save it until my eyes are elsewhere. As it transpired I missed two dismal defeats and finally a slightly better performance resulting in a no score draw. You missed a chance there Charlton, missed a chance.
If you thought a break from football was my sole reason for escaping to the country (and goodness knows it's reason enough), you'd be wrong. Upon arriving in the land of Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck my first inclination was to Google the local football. Kendal Town seemed closest, a club nestling mid table in the Evo-Stik Division One North, NOT the Northern League as I was quickly informed was something completely different. Not only were 'the Mintcakes' (do they really use that nickname) close, but they were at home the following day against Harrogate Railway Athletic, possibly the most northern sounding team in existence. I just had to go.
The Evo-Stik league is a feeder league to the Conference North with the Premier Division level seven of the pyramid and Division One North and South level eight. I was told I could expect a crowd of about a hundred and fifty, in not only a ground I'd never visited before but a league I'd never witnessed too. Never had a holiday had such a promising start.
The ground was everything you'd expect from a distant northern outpost. A wooden grandstand, rickety roofs of corrugated iron above sections of terracing, a scoreboard on a hill yet not a man with a dog in sight. Perhaps I was a little too north for that? The hospitality of the club was second to none and a credit to not only the league or to football in general but a continuation of the warm welcome I received from the whole community. I thought my strong South London accent and charm would isolate me immediately but I was greeted with a smile everywhere I went, although in typing that I realise that I bought a large quantity of beer everywhere I went too. I certainly never heard the words 'flash cockney git' if they were ever thought...
The club bar served a lovely pint and at reduced prices too, the cheap beer an aid to entice supporters to drink feverishly as half the proceeds over the bar go to the players. Everyone you saw working or wearing club overcoats (the northern version of the club blazer) was a volunteer and happy to tell me all about the community club. The ground is owned I believe by Clarks shoes who ten years ago bought out the K shoes company that was not only owner of the ground but also one of the major employers in the town and survives on the whole, like many other small clubs, from the revenue generated by the social events held in the clubroom. I got the impression the landlords were refreshingly rather proud of the association with the community football team and it's history, and I instantly felt at home.
The game itself was of a slightly better quality than I expected, Kendal kicking uphill for the first half and going into the break 2-0 after their number ten had finished with panache on both occasions. Sitting in the grandstand we could hear the benches with some clarity, the Kendal management team disputing every single decision the officials made with language you never heard on Last of the Summer Wine. The second half saw a penalty a piece as the home side ran out eventual 3-1 winners. As a seemingly meaningless mid table affair it was full of intensity and dedication, nobody ever dreaming of pulling out of a tackle.
I fell for it, I almost wished I lived closer so I could watch their run in and their big local derby on Bank Holiday Monday against Lancaster City. Romanticism in football certainly isn't dead but I've my own love affiliations back at home and as we all know, holiday romances have to remain just that, short lived flings. But you never forget them.
So back home for a day and my attentions turned to my local club Horley Town and their ongoing courting with relegation. A home match with third placed Westfield from Woking may not have been the easiest evaluation of Combined Counties Premier Division (level 9) survival but they certainly gave it a go. And this with me watching from the touchline. On arrival at The New Defence, home of Horley Town, joint caretaker manager Anthony Jupp came over and said words to the effect of "not you again, we never win when you're about". He was of course jesting but if he knew about 'the Charlton effect' he'd demand I bought a new wardrobe for non league alone rather than curse them with Charlton off casts!
Horley battled well against an under strength and young Westfield side but their inexperience and nerves unfortunately got the better of them. Unlucky to concede just before the break, they clawed their way back into the match to gain a deserved equalizer after wonderful skills from the always impressive Ashley Nadesan as he beat a couple of defenders to send in the cross for the goal. But again the similarity to Charlton raised it's head, for the visitors went down the other end nigh on straight from the restart to snatch all the points. It was as gut-wrenching at this level as it is at any other, it's a cruel game for sure when you're struggling.
Things will only get tougher for Horley as they venture to South Park for a Bank Holiday derby tomorrow morning. South Park have already been crowned champions and are looking forward to a season of Ryman (Isthmian) football in August. Sorry Juppy, I plan to go. In fact with an early kick off I can watch Horley in the morning then ride the scooter up the A217 to Sutton United for their last Conference South home league fixture against Concord Rangers in the afternoon. A double header to round off my non league season sounds like a perfect and adulterous orgy of football.
I often find myself drifting, disillusioned with so many aspects of modern football . Normally I catch myself and pull myself back in line but recently it seems harder. I'm married to Charlton, we swore oaths when I was a child at a time in every lads life when he knows there is no turning back and it's the other kids in school that will have to settle for a life of supporting the cup winners. In sickness and in health it's Charlton I'm stuck with but of late my eye roams more than ever. And never with the stunning head turner of a club that has won the heart (wallet) of every replica shirt wearing armchair fan but the plainest of the plain, the club ignored by the masses yet more appreciative of my attention. It is just a harmless 'bit on the side' I tell myself, something to keep me amused while my Charlton are working miles away from home and not giving me a second thought.
I know I'll never leave them, the day out on the beer with your mates, the sound of the Covered End in full voice, It's all too much to throw away, and besides, I don't want to become the badly dressed slightly eccentric old man weighed down by a couple of bulging carrier bags that every non league ground seems to attract. But I'm a bloke and it's only natural for me to get a flustered when the club next door offers me a quick hour and a half behind the bike sheds isn't it?