“The omens aren’t good. We haven’t seen a red Ferrari yet.” says Philip. We are in the car, Sharon in the driving seat, Philip in the passenger seat and Kelly and I on the back seat. Rich yellow fields with bands of black are visible on the right hand side of the road. Every time I’ve been in Sharon’s car we have all sat in the same positions, and it’s oddly comfortable, a modern re-imagining of a family day out where everybody has a great time and nobody argues.
“Why a red Ferrari?” says Kelly.
“A red Ferrari means we score a goal.” says Philip.
We are going to watch Philip and Sharon’s beloved Bromley FC play a league match against Sutton United, a rival team a little bit further round the purgatorial concrete doughnut that is the M25. I’ve been looking forward to this ever since we first became friends – initially it was meant as a joke (“when you come down you’ll have to come watch Bromley play”) but I was determined to take them up on it: to many people’s surprise, I rather like football. Bromley versus Sutton is the equivalent of a local derby, in as far as any two towns loosely connected to the same giant roundabout can be considered neighbours.
“Is that so?” I say. I am as superstitious as the next person, if not more so – I don’t like reading stories about illness in case I start to develop the symptoms, feel uneasy when I have an odd number of Facebook friends – but a red Ferrari?
“Yes.” says Sharon in that matter-of-fact way you use when saying something which stands to reason. “A red Ferrari means a goal for us. A parked Ferrari means we score a penalty.”
“Do you get many red Ferraris here?”
“You’d be surprised.” says Philip. “There are lots of rich people living round Sevenoaks.”
There’s always an internal logic to these things, I tell myself. I keep telling myself that for a couple of minutes, at which point my theory is tested.
“This is the roundabout where Barry and Nic live!”
We are indeed approaching a roundabout, but there are no signs of human habitation. Why would there be? It’s a roundabout.
“Barry Moore and Nic McDonnell, two of our ex-players, live in the middle of this roundabout.” says Philip, again with the total confidence of somebody stating the self-evident.
“Not really.” says Sharon. “But they used to get picked up from this roundabout every week for matches so we invented this whole life for them where they lived in a little house on the roundabout.”
“You can’t see it.” says Philip, chuckling. “We think it’s behind those trees.”
It makes a strange sort of sense, when you think about it. Football is all about myths and legends after all, and non-league football more than most, foremost among them the legends of past success and the myth of future success. The car comes off the roundabout and hurtles up the A25, past more glorious fields of golden rape.
“What about Andy?” says Sharon.
“Andy lived at Fleet Services.” comes the reply.
Sutton United’s ground is on Gander Green Lane, which sounds like it should be part of a chocolate-box English village but is in fact a long ugly street which could be anywhere in suburbia. There is little or no sign that there is a match in the vicinity, no flocks of shirted fans, no sense of mounting excitement, just unremarkable bay-windowed houses with unremarkable cars parked outside. We walk past the chip shop, which in any other context might be called retro but in this one is simply tired and dated, and head into the Plough, the nearest pub.
Inside the Plough I get a strong feeling of seeing another England which is just as real as the one I live in but which I would otherwise never visit. The clientele are all people I would never lay eyes on in my day-to-day life. A woman standing at the bar has a mullet which is bright, artificial, rape-coloured yellow at the top and jet black at the bottom - a choice which, however baffling, can only be deliberate. A couple of old chaps with moustaches sit companionably in the corner poring over what look like match programmes. The bar itself is wood-panelled in a way which reminds of the kitchen in my family home, three decades ago. The nostalgic theme is continued in the choice of bar snacks, because the pub sells Golden Wonder crisps, a brand I thought no longer existed. I momentarily think we might have fallen into a wormhole and emerged in 1982.
“I can’t believe they sell Golden Wonder.” says Kelly. I find that reassuring; at least it’s not just me.
“Still, they do Bacon Fries, can’t complain. I had a packet of Bacon Fries and a packet of Scampi Fries at the same time recently, it was like a junk food surf and turf.”
The sun comes through the pink curtains giving everything a fitting sepia tone. Kelly fiddles with her phone, trying to pick up the start of the Boat Race. For some reason, they’ve chosen not to show it on the televisions in the pub.
“It smells of pickled eggs in here.” I add, to nobody in particular, louder than I had intended. “It smells of the sort of farts that make your underpants humid.”
Having said my piece, I gaze across the room again at the two-tone mullet, wondering if it’s in her club colours, and finish my cider. I try to imagine a world so small that you might come here for a drink before the match, watch the match, come back here after the match and stay until closing time and then I realise I’d really rather not be able to.
Inside the ground, we make our way through the turnstiles and stand there waiting for the coin toss. The reason for this is another of Philip and Sharon’s match day rituals; they always stand on the terraces behind the goal Bromley is attacking, which means that they change ends at half-time. I get a whiff of charred animal flesh, one of my favourite smells.
“I can smell hot meat.”
“Donkey burgers.” says Philip disparagingly.
“Oh, are they not good?”
“Of course they’re not good, we’re at a non-league football ground.” This is a good point which hadn’t really occurred to me.
“I used to love the food at football matches. Of course, my taste was a lot simpler back then. Now it would all be, ‘What, you mean there’s no sundried tomato relish? Do I pay extra for goats cheese?’”
Philip smiles, partly in sympathy.
“What I like about you is that this is about the most masculine environment you could possibly be in and you’re still wearing your handbag. And she,” – at this point he gestures at Kelly – “is watching the Boat Race on her bloody phone.”
“It’s a manbag, not a handbag.” I say, in a manner which doesn’t make me seem any more masculine.
We take our place on the terraces, the coin toss concluded, and look out at the action beginning to unfold. Ahead of us, standing right at the front of the terraces, is a group of teenagers. They repeatedly kick what would be the advertising hoardings (if the ground had any advertising), striking up a primitive drumbeat.
“Look.” I say to Philip. “That one over there has a far smaller manbag than I do. It’s more like a pochette. And he looks like Zac Goldsmith, so I think that makes me the winner in the masculinity stakes.”
“I know he’s got a handbag, and so has his friend with the gilet. It just means that they’re far more at ease with their sexuality than you are.”
“What do you mean, at ease with their sexuality? What sexuality? You make it sound like we’re all into bumming.”
I was accused of being “amazingly camp” a few months back on the bus by my friend Ruth, and the main thing I learned is that there is no way to deny being amazingly camp which doesn’t sound, well, amazingly camp. This denial is just the same, hanging in the air like an empty waste of words. I peer over Sharon’s shoulder and see a man wearing a big woolly hat, shades perched on a giant bulbous nose, like a red floret. He most certainly isn’t into bumming (and no handbag, either: I checked).
“So who should we look out for?” says Kelly.
“Number 9, Hakeem, the big centre forward.” says Philip.
“Oh, look at his thighs!”
“I believe the adjective is imposing.” I say, chipping in.
“What, he has imposing thighs?”
“No you fool, I mean he’s what’s known as an imposing striker. I don’t have any opinion about his thighs.”
In the car on the way here Philip had said he was hoping for “a quiet first twenty minutes”, the rationale being that to concede a goal would be bad but to score an early goal would be to invite a spirited fightback and almost certain defeat. He gets his wish, because we go on to experience a first half which is almost completely devoid of entertainment on the pitch. Fortunately, this is by no means the same as saying that the match is not entertaining.
Most of the enjoyment comes from the sense of community, of being part of a small cluster of people – larger than a throng but smaller than a crowd – united in frustration and disappointment. There are a number of things which bring these people together. For instance, they seem to live in the past. The pair of gentlemen over to my right – one wearing a bright blue beanie, the other wearing a black beanie – constantly talk about the past; previous matches, statistics and pieces of trivia about the personnel on either side. “He used to play for Brighton” says one of them. “We got him from Crystal Palace.” says the other. This exchange of factoids seems to pass for conversation during the dull parts of the first half, which is much of it. I wonder if one day in the future they will talk about this match like that, but I doubt they’re paying enough attention to be able to remember much about it.
I also enjoy standing there listening to the easy rhythm of the conversation between Philip and Sharon, which has all the hallmarks of one had many times in which either of them could say either line of dialogue.
“You can see what tactics Sutton is using.”
“Yes, brute force and ignorance.”
“They’re not a bad team, but we’re making them look better than they are.”
“At least our defence is pretty solid.”
“It should be, it’s getting plenty of practice.”
At that point I lean over.
“You two are just like Statler and Waldorf.”
“They’re winning everything in the air.” says Philip.
“And they’re keeping their shape better.” I say. I realise that in some circumstances, if I wasn’t carrying a handbag, I could almost sound like I know what I’m talking about.
“But our outfits are better!” says Kelly. Bromley are playing in red, their away strip, and red has always been her favourite colour. I look across at her, in her fake fur coat, sporting a black beret with a brooch on it, new handbag at her hip. She looks even more incongruous than I do; at least I borrowed a team scarf from Sharon before we left the house.
“You’re playing up to a stereotype here, aren’t you?”
Her nose crinkles and she beams.
“Just a little bit.”
Another thing which unites the fans is the sheer weight of criticism on the terraces. Everything is wrong; our play, their tactics, all the refereeing decisions. As someone who naturally finds fault with everything and always assumes the worst, I am beginning to think that non-league football is my spiritual home. At one point a decision at the other end of the pitch leaves all the fans to my left spluttering jobsworth in outrage and Philip gives me a wry look. “Anyone would think the linesman had a better view than us.” he says equably.
“Would you settle for a nil-nil draw?”
“No, we need a win. But not getting defeated is the most important thing today.”
I look at Philip in complete bemusement, amazed that football can make even the most intelligent or articulate of men into a source of Colemanballs.
Shortly afterwards, Sutton score a goal – Philip has obviously jinxed things – and a hardcore group of fans off to my right launch into a raucous chorus of “shit ground no fans” which makes up in enthusiasm for what it lacks in decibels.
“Can we get a refund on a season ticket?” says the man with the bulbous nose to his friend.
We change ends at half time, stopping only to pick up some surprisingly nice cups of tea. From the opposite end we can see that the pitch slopes slightly towards us, giving us hope that gravity will help where talent, or the lack of it, has so far failed to provide the answer. I inhale a Twix in record time and looking for somewhere to dispose of the wrapper I spot a giant wire cage with a handful of forlorn polystyrene cups in it.
“They knew we were coming.” says Philip. “So they were expecting a load of rubbish.”
The second half is a completely different proposition and goes in the blink of an eye. Right at the start a Bromley player dives in the Sutton box and the referee sends their defender off. The irony: it’s as bad a decision as any he’s made during the match, but the away fans are delighted. The roar from the supporters behind the goal is almost deafening, “Brom-a-lee, Brom-a-lee” they sing, proving that any word can have three syllables if you try hard enough.
The funniest thing is watching the change in Philip as we get closer and closer to the final whistle. The reasonableness and detachment of the first half have completely vanished and in their place is a shouting, heckling troublemaker. It’s a running joke that whenever Bromley get a corner they take a continental short corner and lose the ball. After they get a third corner, Philip shouts “AND THIS TIME GET IT IN THE FUCKING BOX” to a huge laugh from everyone within earshot (which is most people). Instead, they take yet another short corner and play it straight to the opposition.
“Why not take a short corner next time, for a change?” says the hawk-nosed man next to us in disgust.
“I’d rather have a Fruit Corner than a short corner.” I say, trying to be helpful. Sharon gives me a withering stare.
“Yes, because yoghurt-based jokes go down so well at a football match.”
The tension dissolves when partway through the second half Hakeem, the big man with the imposing thighs, rises up in the box and scores a header. Minutes later he hits the crossbar and you can see something shift in the away supporters, a feeling that they could win the match: could, but probably won’t.
“That’s more like it, that’s more like it, bit of passion.” says Philip.
“Mainly from you.”
“They’ve got some momentum, they’ve got some momentum.” he replies. He seems to have lost the ability to say anything just the once.
Towards the end there is a frantic and fruitless scramble for the last goal which would turn one point into three, but I find myself a bit detached. I feel like I’ve had ninety minutes’ worth of fun already and I’m worried about it all ending in disaster as predicted by the red Ferrari, or lack thereof. Instead I entertain myself thinking about football’s vast potential for smut. Keep it tight shouts the very butch man on my right. Get into him. Get him off. Pull him off. I suppose if you’re secure enough in your masculinity you’re above sniggering at such things.
“Hakeem is much better second half.” says Sharon.
“He’s got someone playing with him, that’s why he’s come to life.” says Philip. I just raise an eyebrow. By this point nothing else is required.
When the final whistle comes there is a general sigh of relief on all sides. The Sutton fans are relieved not to have lost after the dubious sending off. Philip and Sharon are relieved not to have lost. I am relieved that we haven’t turned out to be a bad omen. The ground empties in no time at all, and we trudge through the turnstiles and back to the car. I cast one last glance at The Plough, and note that it’s almost as ugly on the outside.
“I’ve learned two things today.” I say to Sharon. “One is that non-league football is really good fun, and the other is how glad I am that I don’t live in Sutton.”
On the way home, we sit in our usual formation – Sharon in the driving seat, Philip in the passenger seat, Kelly and I in the back. We chatter away happily and Philip checks the all-important other scores on his phone. I cast my mind back, remembering a conversation we had on the way to the ground, after we’d come off the motorway.
“I saw a red Lotus.” said Kelly hopefully. “Does that count?”
“No.” said Philip. “It has to be a red Ferrari or nothing.”
“I like the tone of voice of your ‘oh’ though, you sound properly disappointed. Hold on to that disappointment, it will stand you in good stead in non-league football.”
It wasn’t disappointing, though. It wasn’t disappointing at all.
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