Sunday, September 7, 2014

Grass Roots

I've never been to watch an England international. Not in real life. I've seen plenty of matches from one tournament or another projected into my living room and dutifully roared the three lions onwards, heck I even partook in the conga down Shooters Hill when we beat the Germans 5-1, but I've never had the urge to sit amongst hundreds of school children for a slow tempo friendly at Wembley. There are many who go and support their country as often as possible, both home and abroad (which looks far more appealing), and I take my hat off to them, but it just doesn't float my boat.

So an international break just weeks into the new season must surely frustrate the likes of myself, resigned into a Saturday afternoon of decorating/shopping/gardening/talking to the wife - delete as appropriate. Except I have non league football, and this weekend everyone was invited. Not that they aren't normally you understand, but the machine that is Non League Day gathers more momentum with each passing season and this time around had more media coverage than ever, reaching an audience of both Premier League and Championship regulars plus the armchair Sky sports and Match of the Day aficionados.

My local club, Horley Town, were always going to get my entrance fee on the day, they didn't need the magic of hamster racing or such gimmicks to be assured of that, but with my wife at a wedding in Israel for the week I saw no reason against having a little warm up and making a non league week out of it. So on Tuesday I pulled the scooter out of the hedge and rode up to Tolworth, home of one of non leagues more illustrious names, Corinthian Casuals.

It was, if truth be told, a last minute decision. Horsham were at home to Carshalton Athletic on the same evening and I was set to head south but two reasons stopped me. Firstly, Horsham YMCA were at home the following night so I could visit the ground then, secondly, having such a soft spot for Sutton United I couldn't bring myself to go and watch their bitter rivals from Carshalton. It would be like catching a Palace game just because you could. I'd rather the decorating or whatever option from earlier. So I plumped for the Casuals and the visit of Guernsey for a Ryman South league fixture. And what a great decision it turned out to be.

Corinthian Casuals, the club that every side named Corinthians around the world pay homage too, wore their pink and chocolate halved shirts whilst Guernsey wore green. It wouldn't just be the language that was colourful that night. By complete coincidence I bumped into a familiar face, Ashley of putajumperon fame who I didn't realise lives just over the road from the ground. We watched the visitors take an early lead, cheered by a very noisy group of three from the mainland branch of the supporters club, which despite a clear penalty shout from the Casuals, they managed to hold onto until half time. The second half was something to behold. The home side started to play some wonderful football scoring three goals in the process.It could have been more as they attacked an end which had as many flags as it did supporters. The Ryman South is only one step up from Horley but it's a big step, especially in strength and fitness. This would become more apparent the following night.

Horsham YMCA, unlike their tenants Horsham, play in the first division of the Sussex County League and had done well to hold Redhill, another Ryman South team to a draw in their FA Cup preliminary round visit last Saturday. The clubhouse in Horsham has some great local bottled beers from the Hepworth brewery but I was disappointed to be given a plastic glass to go with it. Fortunately being on the scooter I could only have the one.

Both sides started brightly and both could have taken an early lead, yet a late goal in either half gained Redhill entry into the first qualifying round. A result made more convincing considering the visitors played nigh on the whole second half with only ten men. Horsham YMCA were an honest hard working club but Redhill had a semblance a little derisive both on and off the pitch which certainly didn't warm them to me.

As good as these games were as a spectacle, there's nothing like watching football you have a real interest in. I supported the home sides at both but the outcome was for me immaterial, the joy purely coming from partaking. Non League Day itself and back to business, Horley Town in the FA Vase.

The visitors were Sevenoaks Town and I had a nice chat with the father of one of their players in the bar before kick off. I discovered his lad is Ben Judge, formally of Crawley Town and AFC Wimbledon, who is still enjoying his football at the age of 37. I didn't know anything about Sevenoaks other than the usual google search, they had certainly started their season brightly but offered little in a even first half which they lead only due to overly accommodating defending.

A change of formation and personnel transformed Horley after the break stringing passes together, looking confident, controlled and unhurried on the ball. Two goals for Ashley Nadeson either side of a great strike from Ben Herdman saw a comeback equal in every respect to Corinthian Casuals earlier in the week. Herdman was my man of the match, a workhorse in the middle of the park who helped out wherever necessary including a goal line clearance. strong performances also from left back Jack Poplett and substitute Adam Pullin on the right flank taunted Sevenoaks. A late goalkeeping howler gifted them a late consolation but the 3-2 final scoreline somewhat flattered the visitors.

Not only do the club progress into the next round where they travel to Cray Valley Paper Mills in Eltham, but they also receive pound notes for their achievement. I could have misheard but I believe about six hundred of them. Some of this went behind the bar for the players to enjoy, and a nice touch came when I met the club chairman for the first time and he gave me a pint from the tab. We then watched as the local rugby team arrived and one of their folk drank a pint of Guinness in around ten seconds whilst stood on his head! I've always said those egg chasers were a little special.

Some clubs prospered greatly from Non League Day, Dulwich Hamlet for example getting a crowd the size of which is more akin to Conference levels, whilst for many others it was a regular Saturday. I suppose you only get out of it what you're prepared to put in, but more importantly did the message get across? Unfortunately stopping in a local pub on the walk home I spoke to a chap bemoaning the fact there was no Match of the Day that night. Of course I gave the Non League Day speech, but it fell on deaf ears. Apparently he once played for my local side, managed another then ranted about ticket prices for local football! Did he think his Sky subscription gained him free entry? I don't think it matters how much coverage Non League Day achieves, some people will always believe football started in 1992 with the foundation of the Premier League.

There really is nowt as queer as folk!

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