Considering the amount of rugby clubs we pass, it would almost be a shock to find a football club among them. I never knew south London was so fond of egg chasing, but you don't seem to be able to move for a London Welsh or Irish and of course Twickenham or HQ to those rugby types amongst you.
Normally bank holidays are reserved exclusively for watching films starring Richard Todd. Looking out of the window at the rain, I question why shortly I’ll be heading outside to mess around in it. Our intended game has, like so many others, fallen foul of the weather. Pitch inspection failed, washout, ducks on pitches and other such things fill my Twitter timeline.
Having anticipated some such weather related disappointment, I had already set about finding an alternative, one with the kind of playing surface that winds up what you might call the purists out there to the nth degree, but to us has been invaluable, meaning we've been able to get to two games over this soggy elongated workless weekend. Not long over the river, a very high and swollen river, we’re officially in bandit country, south London. In fact that couldn't be further from the truth, it's lovely. We seem to be driving along the high red brick wall of Kew Gardens forever. The monotony of the never ending border to Kew, is broken up by a tea room, and Tom points out that to visit it is like “stepping back 100 years”.
The palatial away changing room at Walton Casuals
Not that Tom has much time for contemplating time travel- he is on a near constant weather watch. He's already informed me he's got his “poncho”, the poncho he knows how much I “love” he tells me. If walking around with a bloke in a snood wasn't bad enough, there is a chance today I’ll be standing next to a guy who thinks he looks like a rugged Vietnam war type, but looks more like someone at Disney World, not wanting to get wet on the log flume. According to Tom the very inconsequential rain should have stopped by now, and he is getting agitated, accusing the app on his phone of “lying” to him.
We are so early, so absurdly early, I think I could have had a good forty minutes extra in bed this morning, Google maps grip on reality, or lack of it, is really starting to annoy me. Thankfully we find solace at the end of a narrow single file lane that the small brown signs with a crossed knife and fork have pointed us towards. It’s a pub, where, even when you are inside, you can hear the fast running river just a few feet from the front door. It’s almost like white water, and any minute now I expect to see Meryl Streep flying down it, pursued by Kevin Bacon.
Almost everyone is getting a bank holiday drink, but we refrain, and I end up with a coffee in a tall slender glass with a very nice biscuit balanced on the saucer. I lose count of the amount of soggy dog walkers coming in, in the short time we are there. Tom’s order of chips is nowhere to be seen. Apparently the pubs till system has gone into a Y2K type meltdown, and his order was lost, so he collects his refund and we head back outside, where Tom reminds me again, “it's still raining”.
“Yeah let's go to football on bank holiday Monday” mutters Tom to himself. I think he’s impersonating me, I’m not sure if he knows I can hear him.
The home of the brioche bun...usually
The rain has only got heavier since leaving the pub and making the short drive to the ground, which is plonked on the edge of a vast barren car park. Half of the complex houses an athletics club, with one of a few things to send a guaranteed shiver down a football fans spine, a running track, whilst at the other side there is a football pitch.
“Glad I packed my poncho” says Tom as I open my door, the rain having not got any better. He wants to make sure I’m aware just how displeased he is at the fact he is going to have to wander about in it for the next few hours.
Because the home team Walton Casuals FC (WC) share their ground, there is a certain amount of personalising that has to take place on match day. As we arrive at the small metal green shed turnstiles, one man puts out all the vivid orange signage; each adorned with a bright white stags head, from the club's badge.
“Nice and swanky” says Tom, once we’re in. Not even a year old, Elmbridge Sports Hub still smells a bit of new paint, with not a hair out of place. There is also not an abundance of character. The down side of a brand new ground with a 3G pitch that means you are almost guaranteed a match, except for maybe a meteor strike, is that it all just feels very prefab. It’s the crumbling stands and frayed edges that I think people yearn for more and more, in this age of almost sanitised football. Tom is interrupted from telling me he likes the “wooden panels” that surrounds the ground on three sides, maybe he can take some inspiration for his own decor in his new house, by the loud “testing, testing” from the grounds PA.
A brief encounter with the WC manager, Anthony Gayle, gives us an insight into what some might imagine is an unthinkable working scenario: having your Dad as your boss! Anthony's Dad though is as “good as gold”, and considering his dad's wealth of football experience, former Fulham and West Ham player and now Sky Sports News regular Tony Gayle, it would be “crazy” not to “pick his brains”. He admits the “last two years” have been a “massive learning curve”, he explains that both him and his deputy are “very much coaches” with no managerial experience, but thinks they have “surprised the board” with how well they have done and with such a “young team”.
We are not the only ones dazzled by the facilities, one coach of the visiting side Corinthian Casuals
FC (CC) is somewhat in awe of the size of the away dressing room, “nice to be able to fit a whole team in”, his jaw almost on the other floor, he reiterates again to the group around him that there is “so much space”. They’re like a holiday party, who've just turned up at the villa they booked, and it's so much nicer than the pictures.
It's a bit windy sitting in the blue fold down chairs of the main stand, Tom doesn't hang about for long, “I’m going to go and have a look for food” he tells me, like some great explorer. His expedition is short lived, he returns a little forlorn, the man in the small burgundy trailer at the foot of the stand is still “chopping onions” so he’ll “go back in a bit”. One thing he was able to glean from the self proclaimed “gourmet burger” stand, that it's also got a “gourmet price tag”.
In the light misty rain, WC’s manager with his notepad in hand is talking to small groups of his players, who in shorts and flip flops I’m sure are wondering why we couldn't have done this inside, giving them instructions for the game ahead. The expression I’ve heard a few times today is “big game”, it's fifth Vs sixth, so there is no taking any chances.
There are a few bits of pink and brown, CC’s club colours starting to appear among the steadily increasing crowd, but not really enough yet to compete with the garish WC orange, think Holland 1974, that is still dominant.
Toms second attempt at a “food run”, at least results in something to eat this time, but also plenty of moaning.“No brioche bun, as advertised” are his first words, sitting down one chair space away from me, with a frankly quite pathetic looking anaemic bun full of huge chunks of “raw onion”. Things though only get worse, his chips are “raw”, the fact he was “let off £3” because the “till wouldn't open” is of little to no consolation.
Tom is not the only one disgruntled with the refreshments, one person, I’m guessing a CC supporter is appalled to put it mildly at the price of a hot drink. “£1.80 cup of tea must be having a laugh, rich bustards round here” he says loudly, marching up the steps of the stand, swinging a Tescos carrier bag.
“Want a raffle ticket” says the elderly man in his WC woolly hat, “draw at half time” he tells me. I also bag myself a programme while I'm at it, but the still falling rain means I’m very, very quick to get it into the safety of my bag. The usual rush that normally follows getting my raffle of 50/50 tickets is missing today, maybe I’ve become immune, maybe I need to move onto harder stuff, like the Lottery.
It’s so quiet here, almost spookily so, with none of the hustle and bustle of suburban life that normally accompanies a match. No sound of a dual carriageway or landing planes, just peace and quiet and the occasional twittering bird, and it’s making me feel a bit uneasy. Tom is still staring at his phone, still refreshing his weather app. I ask him what it's telling him. “Rain,” he barks.
We’ve taken up a new spot at the back of the stand where the seats have armrests and cup holders, not like the “cheap seats” we were in before Tom sneers, as the players appear, WC out well before CC. With more and more people arriving, I hear more and more just how crucial a win for either team is today, one CC fan going as far as calling it “massive” a game they “can't afford to lose”. One newly arrived away supporter, who I’m sure has seen it all before, is blessed with a bit more perspective than others. In his green flat cap, he hands over a large bag of food to the CC keeper, who duly accepts them from the man who is “92 today” according to the person with him, explaining that he “always looks after the players”. The CC keeper returning from putting the hefty bag of swag in the changing room, thanks the man again and wishes him a “happy birthday”.
By the time the fuzzy voice over the PA is reading out the teams, so distorted that I’ve no idea what he is saying, and things are looking a little more even in the stands, the pink and brown, almost equalling the orange.
On the pitch the CC team are going through a warm up routine involving a very large rubber band around their ankles. WC’s team are going through a slightly more orthodox one, although Tom is liking the “back four training”. The defence on their own away from the main group are going through their very own drills. Anthony looking on, still looks very “smart” according to Tom, despite the rain. His shirt and what look like a knitted tie look pristine, however I'm sure he's soaked through. As the players start to walk off, he has a word with most if not all of his team individually, nothing too drawn out, just a quick word in their ear.
Given the noise that greets CC as they come off you could be excused for thinking they were the home team. Disappearing down the half-extended white tunnel there are plenty of cheers and lots of clapping, “come on boys”. There is even a brief song, the first of many from the CC supporters who prove to be a bit of a saving grace by the end of the day, “Casuals, Casuals”. “We’re pink, we’re brown, we’re coming to your town” they sing, erecting their multitude of flags in the rain without a care in the world that they’re going to get drenched. The halves for the first half having been decided. The stand is packed, it's hard to see an empty seat, but the real die hards are standing behind the goal.
If you were to put all of the letters in this blog end to end they would stretch to the moon and back, so we've only printed a portion of it as we've no head for heights. Read the rest, see the video, and marvel at the pictures by visiting the Beautiful Game website here.
Thanks, as always, to Dan and Tom for loaning their work to us!