The Sun, what a sight for sore eyes you are- and there's almost not a cloud in sight to block you out, what a treat. The appearance of the sun is not the only nice surprise today, the second being a much-welcomed stowaway taking up a seat in the back of the car.
Tall, so tall Tom has to move his seat forward a few notches; young, he makes me feel very old when he asks me if I’m aware of a certain “grime artist” who is currently “blowing up” and dashing, chiseled features and floppy blond hair. Tom’s nephew Obe is doing a fine job in reducing the average age in the car by about ten years, and is upping the cool quota too.
It’s another short hop from East London to Essex again, to a place probably most well-known for its nearby shopping centre rather than its football club. The brick lined entrance and board with this afternoon's fixture displayed and customary shocking non league car park,with potholes you could lose cars in gives Ship Lane a near instant feel of being a proper ground. No hint of a leisure centre, running track or any brushed steel, its football through and through; although one though can't avoid the hotel doing its best ‘house from Psycho’ impression, overlooking us from its lofty position, perched on top of an adjacent hill, but this does nothing to detract from the charm of the place.
Inside and the fine weather is really showing off Ship Lane in the best possible light, the whole ground is positively iridescent. The centrepiece is its main stand, with its high corrugated roof, flat black and intermittent green and yellow seats. The colours of the home team Thurrock FC (TFC).
Thurrock FC- Beautiful Game
It is the sort of stand that are few and far between on our travels. This thing didn't come out of a flat pack with instructions, this was built by hand from the ground up, I’m told by the very hands of the clubs long time owner and his father. The South family synonymous with this neck of the woods and once proprietors of the hotel.
Green and yellow is absolutely everywhere, the striped goal nets, fence around the pitch and the railings on the covered terracing behind each goal. Beyond the confines of the ground it's hardly scenic, long strings of criss-crossing electricity pylons and a very nearby motorway, but none of this can diminish the fact that its the kind of non league ground that gets people like me, who are excited by places like this, excited.
There is no sign of any players here yet, neither of the home side or away, Hendon FC (HFC). On the pitch one TFC coach, Tony, who if I said was larger than life might not quite describe him properly, is taking some local children through a training session, while their parents look on from the sidelines.
Such is the involvement of the South family, when the owner Tommy pops his silver haired bed head out the top window of the red brick cottage clubhouse, still in his robe, asking the group below him, which includes Tom “alright lads?”, Tom is the only one bemused, “I think that's his bedroom?”. It becomes instantly clear just how integral he is to the club and the club to him.
Fans in the sunshine at Thurrock FC
Our ties with TFC certainly don't stretch as far back as Tommy's, but we certainly feel a strong connection to them, after sharing the drama of the Ryman League North Playoff final last season. We’ve seen them play since, not that long ago at Margate, but a visit here has been long overdue.
The recently arrived HFC players doing their pre match walkabout still in their black tracksuits, are not doing much walking about, instead they are captivated by Tony's session which is coming to an end. When he pretends to call Lionel Messi for a chat, breaking into some at least A level grade Spanish, few people can resist the grin forming on their face, least of all the kids.
Not here long, and Tom is already a happy boy, not only is the sun out, but the sizable hatch to the Thurrock Snack Bar has pinged open, releasing an almost overwhelming smell of food cooking on the hotplate, which hits you like one of the trucks bombing along the nearby A282. A quick glance at the specials board, leaves Tom salivating.
Securing my programme, the vendor telling me “it’s not as much as that” when I produce a £10 to pay for it from the small opening next to door to the clubhouse, I’m 50% on the way to match day happiness. On hearing though that the golden goal seller is “unwell” for a split second I feel like a really unpleasant person, more worried about not getting my fix than the health of the person who normally sells them. I’m truly a bad man.
Hendon celebrate the end of their beautiful game
Obe has been nowhere to be seen since arriving, the draw of the clubhouse, some football on the TV and cheap beer means he would rather sit roasting in there (it is unbearably warm) on the edge of the parquet dance floor, than wander around musing about the architecture of a stand, with us old fogies.
I’m kind of glad when he shows me that he has managed to get himself a golden goal ticket, it means there is someone here selling them, his is for the 41st minute, “just before half time” he's happy with that, but it puts us in direct competition. I eventually acquire mine, “oh 12 is good” my rival says, there is a slight gasp when I reveal my ticket. The stand-in seller is someone who insists on calling us “lucky omens” for TFC, our lucky rabbit foot status bestowed upon us after the play off win, but after watching them lose at Margate I feel our powers might be waning a little.
As bizarrely interesting as Obe’s tales of his time at the top of the ‘playing FIFA online’ tree is, again making us both feel ancient. Telling us about “trials” and “strict” kick off times it’s like he's talking about things from a different world. It’s also just far too hot to sit in here anymore to listen, the nearby radiators must be close to eleven, time for some fresh air.
“Testing 1, 2, testing 1, 2” says- according to Tom- the “delightful” sounding man on the PA, whose evaluation of the equipment is followed by some music. The tunes though play second fiddle to Tony who is taking the grown-ups through their drills now and is just as enthusiastic with them as he was with the kids.
One player warming up away from the main group, has what looks like a very large black rubber band around his waist, with another coach holding onto the ends like reins. Tom reckons it must be some kind of "fitness test", Tony just thinks it's the ideal time to “neighhhhhhhh”.
Mike is a relieved man, “2:30 all done, very efficient” he tells us, taking a breather after completing all his match day toing and froing. Relatively new to the role of media titan and general all-rounder, but a long time TFC supporter he tells us that he's like a swan “all graceful on top” and then mimes with his hands the manic feet paddling away underneath.
“Welcome to Ship Lane” says the voice over the PA, who does a quick run through of the teams. When its TFC’s turn he is super hyped, and gives it lots of vigour. The mascots, the same boys who had been treated to Tony's Lionel Messi call earlier are lined up outside the red brick cottage at the other end of the ground to the clubhouse. It’s very similar in appearance, although where the players are currently is single storey, so it's unlikely there is enough room for an elderly man to sleep in it. Hanging above the door, the yellow and green sign reads, Welcome To Thurrock FC.
Impatient, the youths are close to revolting, “why are we waiting?” they sing. They don't have to wait much longer to accompany the players on the very, very short walk onto the pitch and then the much longer one to in front of the main stand for the handshake.
“Come on Thurrock” shout the mascots making their way to their seats, behind them a ragtag group of adults try to keep up. The match is underway.
One thing we’ve learnt from our brief time in the presence of TFC fans, is that they are a lively lot. Their flags at the back of the squat terrace are already up and the group of no more than ten
are quick to get going, “come on Thurrock, come on Thurrock”. Their team do likewise, the game only minutes old and they've just cut a ball from out wide into the box, that was promising but comes to nothing.
“I've started a timer” says Obe, it takes me a second to work out what he's going on about, until he explains because of the lack of scoreboard and clock, he won't know if he's won the golden goal or not. Tom and I both explain it will be announced, but this does not placate him.
Part of me admires this ingenuity, his rivalry adding to the thrill, part of me is annoyed I didn't think of it.
Continue reading this piece by visiting the Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game website, for lots of marvellous Bostik and non Bostik writing, images and videos.
You can also watch their video of this visit here.