Tilbury 1-1 St Neots Town
FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round, 12th September 2015.
Expunged; a word encountered only in football, and only for football that ultimately never was. Matches disappeared forever from the records, all knowledge of them denied, like an enemy of the state. You think you were there and you think you saw a game, but did you really? It’s not in the records, so how can you be sure? This fixture now exists in such retrospective ambiguity – thanks to a St Neots goalkeeper who shouldn’t have been a St Neots goalkeeper, this is now a record of a game that may or may not have happened.
Essex; from white stilettos and Waynes in Cortinas to spray-tanned simpletons coining catchphrases from their own stupidity, this is a county where reality has often been constructed rather than lived. Not on the Thames estuary; here Essex is very much lived. ‘Painting?!’ exclaims a thick-set man on the train, ‘What planet is he on?’ His incredulity at a man’s artistry continues, ‘He’s living in a dream world… he’s in a fantasy world that’s what.’ On through three more stations to Chafford Hundred, which you’d always presumed to be a miscarriage of justice far greater than the Birmingham Six, but it turns out is just a new estate in commuterville.
At Tilbury, in the shadow of shipping crates and dockyard cranes, an attractive young woman flutters her eye-lashes at a station employer and runs her fingers through her cornrows in attempt to flirt her way beyond the reach of her Oyster card. Opposite the boarded windows of the Connaught Shipping Agency two men dine in the Rainbow chinese chippy; outside beyond the 99p store a huge wind-turbine silently turns. Calcutta, Sydney, Toronto; roads that point to the town’s shipping heritage take you into the houses. A sofa fades in a front yard, plastic flaps from an unfinished porch, a balloon and sparkling ‘Happy Birthday’ sign are selotaped to a front door where reggae fused techno blasts out above the wobbling turret of a bouncy castle visible over a garage roof.
Through all this, behind pebble-dashed houses, flanked by a caravan site, is the concrete upon concrete of Tilbury’s Chadfields ground. As you reach the turnstile a child clambers out from beneath it. ‘Another one escaped,’ sighs the gateman, though you’re distracted from thoughts he may’ve meant it when you realised he’s handed you a Senior Citizen’s ticket. You’re thirty-two.
Chadfields is a good sized football-ground that has plenty going for it, but the combination of a black paint scheme and industrial back-drop give it a somewhat dystopian feel. Huge metal fences have been erected behind the goals to prevent stray balls disappearing into the adjoining wastelands, they’re effective, but make seeing any of the action from either end impossible. And so fans congregate in the long terrace or the pillbox style grandstand, each set so far back from the pitch that it feels like you’re watching over a neighbour’s fence.
Given all you know of St Neots comes from a university friend who once infamously remarked ‘I went up north once, all the houses were joined together’, you’ve already unconsciously pitched this fixture as a class-war. And so you’re siding with the Dockers, even though your assumption of St Neots as moneyed and well-to-do is duly tested when kick-off is delayed because they can’t find their number 9 shirt. Eventually though the players are released from their pitch-side cage and greeted warmly as the visiting fans set out their flags behind the club-house goal. ‘That’ll do boys, we’ve only got two of our own’ calls over a Tilbury supporter.
The surface is hard; the assistant referee’s footsteps echo like a business woman’s stilettos on a station platform, and the wind that whips the flat-lands of the estuary takes hold of the ball any time it rises above knee-height. It all points to a scrappy game, reinforced when Tilbury’s Danny Smith celebrates successful closing down in the opposition half as if he’d scored a goal. It’s all kick and not quite rush; big appeals and lots of noise. ‘Lino! Lino! It’s gone! It’s f***ing two yards out!’ yells Tilbury’s Jack Carlile as an opponent comfortably skips past him a metre from the touchline; as the official jogs past you he gives an ‘it’s going to be one of those afternoons’ sigh. A ball flies over your head and into a garden of a nearby house. ‘They don’t give ‘em back either’ laments a man in a pristine club polo shirt.
The action is confined to Tilbury’s half and the man who should be wearing number 9, Tom Meechan, capitalises on an unsuccessful offside trap, only for his strike partner Ryan Hawkins to trip a defender off the ball; the unsuspecting Tilbury man face plants the turf to laughter from all quarters and a rendition of the circus theme from the home fans. ‘Oh well done Mr Chairman,’ says the man in the polo shirt, as a big guy in an equally pristine top emerges from behind the stand with a football under his arm.
St Neots keep up the pressure; Nathan Frater drills in a low cross, but the sliding Meechan can’t quite meet it at the back post. Hawkins is denied a run on goal by a good interception from Jake Pooley and two successive Hawkins breaks down the right channel force full-back Jimmy Cook to send a ball thudding off the roof of Burgerland in the caravan park. Tilbury rarely threaten; their best opportunity coming as Emiel Aiken slides a through ball for his fellow forward Neil Richmond, yelling ‘You’re in! You’re in!’ as he does so; perhaps put off by Aiken’s subtlety Richmond scuffs his touch.
On thirty-four minutes the inevitable St Neots goal arrives; neat play down the left gives Connor Hall the opportunity to sweep the ball home from the edge of the area, leaving Tilbury’s ‘keeper – the brilliantly named Clarke Bogard – with no chance. The build-up brought the first telling involvement of giant St Neots winger Guy Mailoncon who sports a mohican with a dyed white tip of the sort that befell the unfortunate feline love interests of Pepe le Pew after walking under a freshly painted gate.
Mailoncon’s second involvement is to be wiped out by Tilbury’s diminutive Matt Game in the centre of the field. ‘His name’s Frodo, ref’ yells a visiting fan as the referee calls Game over to caution him. Tilbury’s frustrations are clearly building. ‘That’s f***ing two minutes to take a goal-kick referee!’ barks their manager. ‘I’d be happy if I were him,’ comments an old fella behind the dugout, ’less time for them to score any more’.
‘If we’re that bad with the wind, God knows how bad we’ll be without it,’ laments a man at the programme table as the half-time whistle sounds. A strong smell of weed and anti-drug signs greet you at the clubhouse porch. Much of the crowd are already inside its dark interior, some of them taking in the photographs of Tilbury teams past that decorate the walls. Prime among them is the side of 1977-78, who battled through nine FA Cup matches; they are pictured before game number ten, on the pitch at Stoke City’s Victoria Ground where they ultimately fell in round three.
In the gents, the two fellas at the urinals either side of you run a post-mortem of St Neots’ goal. ‘You can’t blame him, the ‘keeper’ ‘Nah, you can’t blame him, but he should’ve got to it, so who do you blame?’ ‘I blame you, you c**t for bringing me down here’.
Convention tells you that St Neots will spend the second half racking up a cricket score; Tilbury however have other ideas. Aiken has already headed over from close range before a procesion of St Neots fans return from the club-house and snake their way down to the far end of the ground. They’ve barely taken their place on the terrace when Tilbury defy all that the first half has taught you to equalise. A soft free-kick on the right is whipped in and on the turn Richmond hooks a deft volley into the far corner. It’s a goal so simple you wonder how they managed to make so much hard work of this football lark in the first half.
The game duly opens up and with Tilbury’s back line caught flat in foot, but not in shape Meechan gets in and rounds Bogarde, only for two of the three covering defenders to bundle his shot off the line. Scare survived, the next ten minutes belong to the home side; Aiken has a shot blocked. ‘Come on Saints you’re making them look good’ yells a frustrated voice from behind the goal. They really are.
In a sign of growing confidence full-back Conor Mead, chasing a high ball over his shoulder, somehow manages to control it and turn away from Meechan with a back-heel flick through his own legs; the St Neots fans nearby give grudging appreciation, but, are soon back on his case. ‘You’re so fat it’s unbelievable,’ they chant, though given at least four of them look like they could swallow Mead whole, his size shouldn’t be that inconceivable. As time ticks away the two sides become increasingly frantic; Tilbury see another effort blocked; Jamie Anton puts a shot onto the roof of the net for St Neots. ‘Give, turn, pass, play’ yells Dave Batch from the St Neots dugout as if delivering notes on choreography.
With just four minutes remaining Tilbury’s hopes of snatching a winner are dashed when Smith and Hawkins tussle off the ball; Smith kicks out at Hawkins on the floor and is duly dismissed whilst the other nineteen outfield players congregate to jostle one another with all the ferocity of penguins keeping warm. Smith watches on from the cage of the tunnel, but the game duly peters out, as if somehow everyone already knows that ultimately none of this actually matters and none of it is real.