Sevenoaks Town 1-1 Seven Acre & Sidcup
FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round, 15 August 2015 . Attendance: 88
At Bat & Ball station four other people leave the train. They’re all going to the game. You can just tell. All of them men; each one carrying a bag, all pausing to check the local area map, or return train times, before heading up the hill to the ground. As you head the same way you catch sight of yourself in the window of a parked car and like Dr Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap are bludgeoned with the stark reality of who you really are; the four men is actually five. You are one of them. Crestfallen. Thirty-two is no age to realise you really are a groundhopper.
In an unsuccessful attempt to distort reality you take a longer route to the ground; a St George’s cross flutters from the window of a weatherboard cottage, a woman talks to a cat, a dog barks at a man unloading a Volvo estate. This is England. Across the forecourt of a petrol station you get your first glimpse of the floodlights; Greatness Park – the sort of name that these days would be lobbed optimistically on an industrial trading estate – here, the home of Sevenoaks Town.
On your arrival both teams are warming up on the park pitch outside the turnstiles; bright cones and brighter bibs against the grey background of an unused skate park. You take a walk up the hill that looms over one end of The Oaks’ pitch, and find three of the other four hoppers already up there; treading the same footsteps as you, taking the same pictures as you, pushing you ever closer to unwrapping a thermos on Christmas Day morning.
People walk their dogs on the yellow grass, an ice-cream van chimes nearby, and down below, above the matey laughter of their charges, the respective team managers can be heard saying team managery things; ‘One more’… ‘and again’… ‘put it in’… ‘and give…’ ‘give and go again…’
You follow the players into the ground where they climb into club branded portacabins. Behind the tea-bar window its proprietor is on the phone; ‘No, none of them left either… no… no it wasn’t like this last week’. The magic of the cup; a diminished selection of crisps. As you stir your coffee the home goalkeeper passes and receives some last minute advice from the log-cabin-come-committee room; ‘Just keep your mouth shut today, yeah?’
Out come the teams. As the referee leads the players to line up for inspection by the thirty or so people occupying the stands, the Seven Acre & Sidcup management duo head to the dugout at which they’ll spend the afternoon perfecting a good cop, bad cop routine; one to give the players mild-mannered, tactical encouragement, the other to bollock the match officials. Both bald, one a bit shorter than the other, they have the appearance of a novelty salt and pepper pot.
With Sevenoaks Town playing a division higher, it’s perhaps not surprising they have the better of the opening ten minutes. Number nine Adrian Stone proves an early handful and has already flashed a half volley wide, when he turns in the rebound from a Tom O’Connor shot, only to be flagged offside. The Acres’ own nine, big Tony Fenech, is having less fun, with every third word that he booms across the field ‘f***’ or ‘f***ing’. ‘F***ing hell lads, f***ing hell’ he yells as he dribbles down a blind alley. ‘F*** off ref,’ he yells as a foul is given against him, ‘I’m f***ing not’ his reply when the referee asks him not to swear at him.
Seven Acre, perhaps realising the divisional gap is clearer on paper than on grass have settled into things now, and on fifteen minutes they round off the game’s first bit of decent possession football with the opening goal; short sharp passing in the centre-circle, a lofted ball over the top, and there’s Fenech, arriving in the penalty area to strike a low half volley into the bottom corner.
Sevenoaks look shell-shocked, and for much of the half play as such. Wingers Chan Quan and Martin Debrah give them decent options out wide, but no-one seems to know how best to utilise their talents; least of all Quan and Debrah. Frustrations starts to build; ‘You’re not moving,’ Stone yells at a full-back who’s motored fifty yards for nothing, whilst Quan is booked for a shirt tug so blatant it’s verging on slapstick.
Since parrying O’Connor’s early effort visiting goalkeeper Charlie Martin has rarely been troubled, though the same can’t be said about an eager committeeman behind his goal who spends the first half scampering around the surrounding hillside expertly retrieving matchballs from brambles and bushes. Back on the field there’s just time for Fenech to get his inevitable booking for dissent before the half ends. ‘Shut up Fenech’ yell half a dozen of the travelling support; a catchphrase voiced instinctively but wearily like red coats in the last week of Pontins summer season.
Half-time; a steady queue at the tea-room, toddlers dribble plastic footballs, a dog sniffs round the stand, two young boys compare lurid football trainers, substitutes take it in turns to shin efforts wide of the goal, and then we’re underway again. With seven subs allowed in the FA Cup you’ve swapped touchlines so as to see the game, rather than fourteen bodies on its periphery half-arsedly doing stretches whilst criticising team-mates.
Sevenoaks waste an early chance as Stone, unmarked at the far post, inexplicably opts to control Debrah’s cross on his chest rather than nod it into the vast amount of goal being neglected by Martin. His opposite number, Richard Stroud, is more involved, fumbling a free-kick onto his post. ‘Boys, that keeper is so baggy’ yells a voice from midfield. Yet despite his apparent loose-fittedness Stroud keeps his side in the tie minutes later; palming Tony Ecuyer’s shot over the bar after the visitors had executed the game’s best passing move to deftly shift the ball round the pitch.
‘This bloody floodlight’ curses an exasperated man in the stand of the whacking great metal pole he’s chosen to sit behind. Sevenoaks change tack; off go Quan and Debrah, on come Steve Camacho and Austin Gacheru. You recognise the latter, you saw him just six months ago, scoring for Carshalton in the division above. Why fight it? You are a groundhopper.
Whilst you’re contemplating what your life has become Sevenoaks come to life; first Martin saves a weak downward Stone header, then he beats Gacheru to a cross from the opposite flank. In doing so he takes the substitute’s full force. Whilst the keeper receives treatment, Fenech circumvents the threat of a second caution for dissent in his own inimitable way, a big sole voice screaming ‘Rick! Rick! Ricky! Tell the ref that’s a f***ing foul!’ It wasn’t, but Martin can’t continue and so Fenech trots downfield to takeover in goal. ‘Nothing changes, nothing changes’ yells Acre’s bad cop from the sidelines as if sticking their big striker in net for the last twenty minutes was always in the plan.
With Stone continuing to display all the aerial capability of Rod Hull, Fenech’s new duties involve little more than collecting a routine header and watching John Lord’s header fly well over his crossbar. Though Sevenoaks pile on the pressure the chances fall at the other end. Josh Patrick, brilliant for The Acre all afternoon, is now alone up front, but he remains a constant threat and an always willing and available outlet. He pulls one effort just wide himself after jinking into the box then leads another break that ultimately ends with Magnus Orelaja firing over on the turn.
Time ticks onwards, but just as it seems the visitors have done enough to win their first ever FA Cup tie; they’re undone by a lapse in concentration. Full-back Anthony Collins has had a fine game, but in hanging back to complain to the linesman about a perceived foul he inadvertently plays Stone onside for Alfie Kitt’s ball over the top. The forward finally takes his chance; slotting past Fenech to level in injury time. It’s a cruel blow to the visitors who’ve been the better side on the day, and when the final whistle sounds they collectively slump to the floor.
You make the walk back to the station, past the woman still in conversation with her cat, past a flat with a huge portrait of Angela Rippon hanging in the front room. At the station two of the other hoppers are already there; ‘the next London train is in twenty-three minutes time’ one of them informs you, unprompted. He has recognised you as one of his own. You and him are one. There’s no going back now. Just you and programme fairs and CAMRA beer guides from here until eternity.