You’ve probably always wondered- as surely everybody has- which fictional character would win in a battle; Wolfie Smith or Dot Cotton? Wolfie, or course, has the backing of his entire Tooting Popular Front, whilst Dot can only call upon Mr Papadopolous of the Albert Square Laundrette, so the outcome should be a forgone conclusion- but look deeper. Smith and his erstwhile revolutionary cohorts regular attempts to take on the establishment always ended in failure, whilst Dot, despite appearing vulnerable, has so far managed to overcome a thieving husband, a repeatedly murderous son and a prison sentence for shoplifting- as well as a long term addiction to nicotine.
Today provided perhaps the nearest we’re ever going to come to that contest, as Tooting and Mitcham United- local population eighty thousand- took on Needham Market- five thousand- in the Bostik Premier League. Wolfie Smith and his Popular Front versus Dot Cotton (June Brown was born in Needham Market) and her beautiful launderette. Which was better? There was only one way to find out, and many people travelled by coach, car, rail and tram to witness the outcome.
Actually, most of them seemed to have walked, but let’s not spoil the picture.
A Market celebration
Outside Imperial Fields around eighty minutes before kick off, two supporters of indeterminate provenance- they obviously hadn’t visited before despite having a clear South London twang- were clearly rather taken aback by the sheer scale of this house of Terrors. “Wow. It’s big, isn’t it?” You couldn’t fault their powers of observation; this isn’t Wembley or Old Trafford, but at our level it is indeed a sight to behold. With a capacity of three and a half thousand and opened in 2002, if there was an architectural style that covered ‘modern, yet with character’ this would fit right in the middle. It’s a far cry from Sandy Lane, the ground which United left in 2002, although those rooted in a sepia tinted world might say that it doesn’t have the same atmosphere. A supporter today who also visited in the mid 1990’s might say that it doesn’t have the same toilets, either, and then say a silent prayer of thanks that this is so. How it ever catered for the black and white throng who attended the Terrors FA Cup Third Round tie with Nottingham Forest in 1959 heaven only knows. You can watch Pathe News highlights of that match hereand marvel both at the numbers and at the state of the pitch, whilst thinking yourself lucky that nobody had invented Smellivision.
Back in July, Dulwich Hamlet supporter Mishi Morath represented his side in our series of season previews- our apologies for mentioning them in an article about Tooting! Asked about his favourite away ground, he responded ‘Not one in particular, but the Tooting ground is far too good for them!’ If even a member of the pink and blue army is prepared to complement Imperial Fields- albeit in a typically back handed way- then that perhaps tells you all that you need to know about the facilities on offer.
United have had an underwhelming start to the new campaign. Manager Frank Wilson, speaking to this website in pre-season and just before a home friendly with Crystal Palace, said when asked about his targets; “We’re going to aim for the play-offs; not because we think we’re somehow world beaters but because if you pitch yourselves as a mid-table team and then end up nine or ten points off the play-off positions you always think, ‘what if we’d pushed that bit harder.’ We’ll re-evaluate our aims quarterly but we need to have a go and then see what happens.” It was easy to understand both his optimism and his reasoning, and given we aren’t even half way through that first quarter it is perhaps too early for pessimism to set in, but two points from fifteen hasn’t been the start he would have wished for. The Terrors had been finding life in the top division a little difficult, although last weekend recorded their first victory- over Merstham in the FA Cup- so should have come into this match with some confidence. His players certainly seemed in good spirits as they warmed up pre-match, although it must be said their ball control let them down a little.
Mind you, Frank’s was worse.
Chief Steward Lyn, licenced to diagnose!
For opponents Needham Market the new campaign has simply brought more of the same. This time last season they had eight points, they began this match with seven, from two victories (Thurrock and Folkestone Invicta), one draw (Burgess Hill Town) and two defeats (Wingate & Finchley, Brightlingsea Regent). They also won in the FA Cup last weekend, a comfortable 3-0 victory at Clapton, and sit contentedly in mid table. Last season they finished ninth after at one point leading the way, a phenomenal achievement given the town is tiny and not overly blessed with visitors to swell the matchday numbers- as supporter Mark Coleman (more from him later) pointed out in our July season preview, the fourth best place to visit is an antique shop (what the top three are went unrecorded, but you’d have to expect that Bloomfields is number one). With nearby Leiston also doing well despite being rather tiny you have to wonder what they put in the water in this part of Suffolk, but whatever it is they need to bottle it and sell it to the rest of us.
The match kicked off in glorious sunshine. Two minutes later it was hammering down and Tooting were a goal behind. The two were apparently unconnected. Market earned a corner, and as just as it was about to be taken a home fan in the back row of the stand uttered the fateful words, “I hope we remember to mark from set pieces this week.” If away centre back Sam Nunn had been able to hear this comment he’d have laughed, as at the moment the final word was uttered he was entirely free eight yards out with the ball arrowing towards him. The groans as it hit the net were probably audible in Croydon.
Behind the away goal, the Bog End Army were rather bogged off, and complaining about their side’s lack of physicality. This wasn’t a new refrain, their message board has been echoing with the same complaints, but they had a point, even if it was perhaps a little early to be making it. One of them, a Fulham season ticket holder who explained that he watched the Terrors in between visits to Craven Cottage, was extremely expressive about the situation. At Dulwich Hamlet on Bank Holiday Monday, he explained, it had been “like watching Lord of the Rings- and we were the hobbits.”
As any regular cinema-goer could tell you, the Hobbits won that one, and the Tooting Frodo’s were soon controlling the game. Prompted by the quick feet and intelligent running of Billy Dunn and Danny Clements they were soon putting the away keeper, Daniel Gay, under extreme pressure- pressure which he was equal too. First he was quickly down to his right to save a Dunn free kick, then he was pushing the ball over from Clements, before saving from Eddie Dines, Danny Baggins- sorry, Bassett, and Chace O’Neill.
Also behind the goal, and just to the left of the noise was Chief Steward Lyn Catchpole MBE (Yes, MBE, which she earned for something hush hush which we aren’t allowed to talk about but which involved keeping the country secure. No, before you ask, she isn’t the next James Bond, although she probably wouldn’t tell us if she was). Lyn was taking a moment away from leading her marvellous team to do something rather unexpected. She was radioing the United bench with an injury update. Clements had just been fouled- an offence which earned Joe Wright a yellow card- on the edge of the box, and was taking an awful long time to get up. Lynn, combining her stewarding role with that of stand-in Chief Medical Officer, was just telling Frank and his team that “Danny is OK to continue.” She was entirely right, although she did admit that she had been known to make an incorrect diagnosis.
Given she’d had thirty-five years as a steward, and thirty-three years as Chief Steward, surely she’s allowed one mistake. Although her maths might be a little awry, as if correct it would seem that she must have become Chief Steward aged seven.
The free kick was blasted over the wall and over the bar, but the striped terrors kept coming and Gay was soon in action once more, saving again from O’Neill. And then, the breakthrough- just as a large contingent of the home support wandered off to beat the half time beer queue a corner found Eddie Dines at the back post, and he was able to head home. The whistle blew and both ends of the ground were fairly content with what they’d witnessed- although the Market faithful were disappointed to concede the late equaliser none of them seemed to believe that it hadn’t been deserved.
The sun had decided to break through once more, and it was still shining as the players began to make their way back onto the pitch for the second period. And then, as if in a moment, the sky darkened, the wind got up, and there was a rumble of thunder. A fork of lightning shot across the south London skyline, and the heavens opened once more. Actually they didn’t just open, they were split asunder. So violent was the rain that most of the crowd beat a retreat to the stand, only to then find that only the back two rows gave them any protection from the elements. Before too long almost everyone was stood on the walkway behind the seats- and they were still getting slightly damp.
If the players were affected by the rain they didn’t show it. Market had brought on a substitute keeper- apparently Gay had injured himself in the pre-match warm up, which begs the question of just how good he would have been if fit- the new stopper being goalkeeping coach Nathan Munson, and he made a splendid save from Jeuvan Spencer shortly after the restart. Then, at the other end, Luke Ingram was only thwarted by a deflection after a mazy run. From the corner Ryan Gibbs came close to giving the away side the lead once more, his effort glancing off the bar, and then the ball was at the other end, an O’Neill shot taking a wicked deflection which wrong-footed the keeper before rolling wide of the post. This set the pattern of the entire half, with chances at both ends, none taken.
Behind the far goal, where you’d expect there to be a bank of Needham Market fans, only five had remained whilst the rest sought more substantial shelter at the back of the stand. One was photographer Ben Pooley, and once the rain has subsided a little he was back in the fray once more, and the others were a family of four- Mark, Bev, Jai and Kai. They were untroubled by the elements and, indeed, probably a little hardened to them, given that they’ve been following the Marketmen home and away for eleven years. It must be said that Jai and Kai weren’t really watching the game, rather playing on the bank of terraces- but they had a good excuse, being only five and eight. Bev admitted that the children had been taken to their first matches aged five days and nine days old, which takes football indoctrination to a whole new level, but she also admitted that both children coupled their attachment to Market with a love of Harrow Borough, apparently because they were charmed by the Borough singing section during their last visit to Bloomfields!
Asked about the season so far, both were cautious initially. “We’re doing ok,” said Mark. “We’ve had a lot of issues with injuries. “And we have no fit strikers,” added Bev, “our current number nine is really a winger!” Despite that they both demonstrated the usual football supporter optimism when asked how they thought the campaign would end, both being convinced that this was Market’s year for the play-offs.
As we approached the end of five minutes of added time, now in the sunshine once more, Market had a final chance to win the game. A ball was threaded through to the far side of the box, a shot was lined up, and United keeper Joe Tupper came charging out to block just as those in stripes at the other end held their heads in their hands. The whistle blew, honours were shared, and Market were perhaps a little happier than Tooting given the number of chances the Terrors had failed to convert during the first half.
A lensman at work (thanks Ben!)
In truth, the Goliath v David- Tooting Popular Front v Dot Cotton- scenario doesn’t really pan out. Yes, the geographical area of Tooting and Mitcham is substantially larger than Needham Market, but there are many, many clubs in the area all competing for the same supporters. Sutton United’s Gander Green Lane is two miles away, Carshalton Athletic also two miles, AFC Wimbledon six miles, Crystal Palace five miles. Two hours before kick off nearby Croydon was red with Arsenal shirts, and there are so many other clubs, professional and semi-professional, within a small distance that the biggest surprise is that London’s Non-League scene continues to thrive. Yet thrive it does, and so do the Terrors. For all that this season hasn’t really got properly going yet, the club have two trophies in two years. They were magnificent in the Isthmian South Division last season, and undoubtedly have enough about them to be pretty good at the higher level- although perhaps they might not quite be ready to challenge for a play-off place despite Frank’s hopes.
The last time Tooting and Mitcham United came to national prominence- apart from occasional mentions in the press as the first club of West Ham’s Michail Antonio- Bay City Rollers were the UK’s top band. The likelihood of them coming to national prominence again this year is probably more likely than the nation becoming once more clad in half mast tartan trousers, but only just.
Supporter Andy Harrup wrote in our pre-season previews, ‘I think we will hold our own and end up mid table. It would be nice just to consolidate this season.’ Andy may well be right; this may well turn out to be a season of consolidation. But even if that is so- and yes, after the last two seasons that might feel a little bit of a comedown- there is much for the good folk of Imperial Fields to be happy about.
And they are, and have every reason to continue to be, a happy and welcoming bunch.
Mark, Bev, Kai and Jai