Waking up in the middle of the night – around 3 am to be precise – and finding out what you’d eaten in the previous 24 hours isn’t what I would call the best start to the day.
It was mainly lamb – lamb biryani for lunch, shallow fried lamb liver for evening starters and another lamb dish for the main. I lay the blame solely on the liver. Clearly shaken by this uncharted event, I lay on my bed in the morning wondering if football should be on the afternoon lunch menu. A quick glance at the fixtures and the events midweek at Kidderminster suggested Aggborough would be a good place to pitch up my caravan. However, the £30 train ticket put a downer on that. Searching for alternatives I noticed FA Vase Fifth Round games were also on that afternoon and having not been to any game in that competition before I thought it would be a good time to break my duck.
I would never give myself a 10/10 in geography but I’m not hopeless either. I would admit, however, that I had to look up places like Coalville, Torpoint, Leiston and Leverstock Green on the map. The task was gargantuan but I was sold on Leverstock Green, mainly because of the £7.85 train ticket to Hemel Hempstead. But first, I headed to the post office to collect this book which has been lying there for more than two weeks. Thinking I would look stupid holding a parcel in the football ground I headed to the off-license to buy a drink and getting a white plastic bag to keep the book in. I thought it would also come in handy to keep the programme uncreased! Soon enough, I was on a train to Hemel.
Hemel Hempstead is within the London’s commuter belt, so it didn’t take long for the train to get there from Euston stopping en-route at Watford Junction, where most of the football-bound public alighted for the Watford-Burnley game. As for me, I waited for the next stop. Hemel Hempstead Town F.C. are the town’s senior club playing in the Premier Division of the Southern League. However, the proximity to London clubs and Watford means that they seldom get crowds above 200 despite being a town with growing population. Leverstock Green, where I was heading, is a suburb of Hemel Hempstead, mainly in the news for being one of the main affected areas in the Buncefield Oil Depot explosion in 2005. The club, Leverstock Green FC, has been around for more than a century, formed in 1895, but haven’t seen a great deal of success. This season, however, they are having a good run in the FA Vase and have reached the fifth round for the first time in their history. The local public, it seems, has also taken notice and is coming out with ever increasing numbers in each round. With 79 in for their first round game, 125 and 224 for third and fourth respectively, yesterday a bumper crowd of 337 packed in to watch them play Rye United from Good Old Sussex by the Sea (copyright Mr D Last, we think – Ed) in the fifth round of the Vase.
I was hoping to get the number 6 bus to the ground, mentioned on Leverstock’s website, but on arriving outside the station couldn’t find any mention of the number of strings on a guitar. A quick tweet to @levgreenfc and I was told that 320 was my saviour. After a 20 minute wait, the bus arrived and I was on my way. As these buses never announce which stop is coming, I had to rely on GPS to find the right time to press the red button. The technology told me that I was another stop away from the ground, which wasn’t wrong, as I later found out. But the bus suddenly swerved right and I was condemned to a 10 minute trek back the ground, which resulted in missing the kick off. Many people were still getting in. £6 pound admission. Not too bad, I thought. Once in, I couldn’t find any programme sellers so I headed towards the other end of the pitch hoping to get one at half-time.
‘Welcome to Hell’ might be a cordial greeting in Galatasaray but people in Leverstock Green are of a more pleasant disposition. I have never seen a nicer welcome than this – ‘Welcome to Pancake Lane’.
Pancakes, though, were not on the menu as I later found out after waiting for my burger for 10 minutes. The good ladies running the tea-hut were probably not accustomed to serving more than the normal crowd that had come to watch this Vase tie. The smattering of red and black flags, shirts and mohicans (yes!) made up a sizeable away contingent from Sussex. The first thing that strikes you about the pitch is the slope on one side. And, with rain over the past couple of days, it was in a heavy state. Champagne Football was certainly out of question.
Leverstock Green took the lead soon enough after I arrived. A good cross from the right from one Louis Austin was too good to miss. No Rye players thought it was worthwhile to mark Ben Butler, who duly obliged with a header to give Levy the lead in the 14th minute. Rye responded by having a couple of chances themselves. They were soon rewarded when Danny Ellis handled the ball in the penalty area and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Duncan MacArthur stepped up and converted the spot-kick to send the visiting fans delirious. I have to say that I missed this completely as I was still in the queue waiting for the burger, reasonably priced at £1.60. Levy took control of the game after that and, as they were playing down the slope in the first half, they ought to make best use of the conditions. Some good chances followed, one tipped over the bar by the keeper and another cleared off the line. Just before the end of the first half, Rye got away with a clear foul on Austin, who would have been one-on-one with the keeper. Levy ended the first half on a strong note but you sensed Rye would come back in the second half as the slope of the pitch would come to their aid.
Half time was spent watching England dismantling Italy at Twickenham. The search for a programme went in vain. Back for the second half, I moved along the pitch to the side Levy would be kicking towards. The home-side had a great opportunity right after the whistle when Austin went clean through, the Rye keeper making the best use of his legs to save it. After that chance it was one way traffic as Rye asserted themselves on the game. The home side were clearly second best at all the second balls. Luckily, they had a keeper, Carl Tasker, who stepped up to the task at hand and pulled out some scintillating saves. One of the members of the home coaching staff came over to my side and mentioned that his keeper was having a blinder. He couldn’t, however, thwart all their efforts as Rye’s persistence was rewarded with a goal in the 76th minute, Shaun Loft heading in from a corner.
The fans, sensing the tie now slipping away, urged the Levy players to get back in the game. It didn’t help a lot as Levy struggled to create chances. Rye had looked suspect at set-pieces but the home side couldn’t make the best use of them. The main talking point of the game was left for the last. With just a minute to go, a Levy player was fouled in the penalty area and the referee blew his whistle, much to the delight of the home fans. However, the linesman had flagged for offside in the build up so the referee reversed his decision, which didn’t go down well with the home dugout as they called the linesman every name under the sun. As someone who was right in line with the linesman I thought the offside call was the right decision from him but then I know football is partisan and I was only a neutral. Seconds later, the referee blew the final whistle and the dream was over for Leverstock Green. The Levy coach immediately rushed towards the referee to confront him about his decision but it was all going to be in vain.
Rye United were in the quarter-finals of the FA Vase and their players celebrated on the pitch as if they had won the Champions League, long after the echoes of the final whistle could no longer be heard in this part of Hemel Hempstead. It was an unadulterated outpouring of joyous emotion, far away from the money-fuelled artificial emotions we see sometimes in upper echelons of football. These players know that this victory isn’t going to change their lives. They are still going to turn up at work next day and be expected to go about it as if nothing has happened. I recently watched a documentary “Out of the Ashes”, which chronicles the remarkable journey of Afghan cricketers in their quest to qualify for this year’s World Cup. Towards the end, one of the Afghan cricketers says, “Pull up your sleeves, come on to the street and start dancing, because happiness is rare in a poor man’s life.” Those words couldn’t have been more apt for the post-match celebrations.
As for me, I headed back to Euston, with the plastic bag gone to waste, in the company of a non-league/football grounds anorak and Fareham Town supporter, and tried to get as much information out of him as possible. Oxford’s old Manor Ground, Hillingdon Borough and Stranraer were some of the things that came up in discussion. It wasn’t long before the train touched down at Euston and I was soon surrounded with Arsenal and Wolves shirts (along with a cheeky “Sexist? Do me a favour love!” shirt). I knew I was back in the world of BSkyB’s Premier League.
Thanks to Yasser for the report, you can follow him at @yasser11 on Twitter.