Despite Barkingside being located in the civilised world – within the M25 – it was still designated as a Proper Away Day. So this Proper Away Day started in the only way possible, with an early meet planned in the pubs of Borough Market. Our merry band had arranged to meet at 11:30 in the Market Porter, which didn’t turn out well, because a) the Market Porter doesn’t open until midday, and more importantly, b) I arrived 45 minutes late. For that, I wholeheartedly blame Terry – of Terry’s caff – for his typically lackadaisical attitude to Saturday morning service, although to be fair the breakfast he did eventually serve up was of typically fantastic quality. So I found the rest of the group in the Wheatsheaf, nursing what looked suspiciously like strawberry flavoured cider. This was not to be the only surprising drink choice of the afternoon.
After a couple in the Wheatsheaf, it was time for an ahead-of-schedule trip to Barkingside, because a couple of us were taking the unusual away day step of interviewing the chairman for a piece in an upcoming programme. More on that in due course. We managed to negotiate the trap – that Barkingside actually play in Ilford, tenants like us, although google says otherwise – and took a train to Seven Kings instead of a tube further north. A short walk from the station, we reached the sign to “Ilford FC”, which pointed us rather confusingly into a municipal car park under a gigantic New Labour public building of some kind (apparently a school, though it could just have easily been the Council buildings). Fortunately, an old fella in a Barkingside jacket reassured us we were on the right track, and after another 50 yards, we paid our £8 to go through the turnstile.
Immediately, it was obvious that this wasn’t your typical non-league ground. For starters, it was a proper athletics stadium, not in the style of Enfield or Hornchurch, but where athletics was very clearly the number one sport. There were pits for steeple chasing, a special area for shot put, a hammer cage and best of all a raised platform for the race starter to get a better view. There was also a proper Italian style ‘curva’ behind one of the goals, still intact in all its glory, presumably from a time when the locals flocked to the track for entertainment rather than watching the X Factor. It was clearly going to be a memorable afternoon. This impression was reinforced when I was kindly handed a teamsheet. It seems Barkingside were initially expecting a Ryman League game!
Interviewing duties with Mark Anderson complete, we started a lap of the ground, tin of Carlsberg in hand (yes, their bar sold tins). After walking round the huge ‘curva’ of terracing at the Long Jump End, we intrepidly traversed the clearly marked “Unsafe Terracing” along the far straight until we reached a small covered terrace. There, we found a “Clapton Ultras” sticker, a reminder that the hipster football movement is not just confined to Dulwich, before bravely continuing through the rubble to the Hammer Cage End. This included a proper separate area for shot put, an electricity sub-station, a pair of shipping containers and an old clubhouse of sorts. The home straight was a little bit more conformist: an open terrace, a small stand, and a bit of terracing in front of the bar.
The match looked like it was about to kick off, as football matches tend to do, so after grabbing another cheap Carlsberg we thought we’d better take up a viewing position for the first half. The Clapton lads clearly had no imagination in deciding where to watch the game from. Why choose a boring down-the-side shed when you could stand on a huge terrace and pretend you’re watching Napoli? This is, obviously, what we chose to do – in no small part because you could literally pretend you were watching Napoli, such was the distance from the back of the terrace to the pitch. I am told that Rob Tolfrey made a good save during the first half, but I couldn’t possibly comment, as he was the best part of a quarter of a mile away with the low sun shining brightly behind him. K’s, meanwhile, huffed and puffed but didn’t really trouble the Barkingside goal, although Dan Sweeney should have scored when clean through one-on-one. This was a particular disappointment, as a track invasion was planned had he put K’s ahead. After half an hour, we bored of the football, which was beyond ordinary, and instead embraced the surroundings, cheering whenever a player had to retrieve the ball from the long-jump pit, and chanting about the athletics rather than the game. “Here for the discus, we’re only here for the discus”…
Half-time was spent in the superbly odd home bar, decorated with West Ham memorabilia and an extraordinary doll of what, I think, was supposed to be Elvis, but instead scared me witless. And then the kind of thing that makes a day out – Jamie won the raffle! And not only did he win the raffle, but the prize was a bottle of red wine instead of cash. The folk of Barkingside knew us well.
Needless to say, the bottle of wine accompanied us back out into the ground for the second half. Four of us took up by far the best vantage point in the ground, perching on the top step of the starter’s viewing point. The football remained appalling, livened up only by our drinking game – drink red wine whenever the Barkingside number 5 touches the ball – and by laughing at the standard of play. At one point, the Barkingside number 4, under no pressure, flicked the ball up so that he could volley it, simply because that way he could belt it further up the pitch. Meanwhile, K’s were managing to allow Barkingside’s token flair player in a side of big lads – the only one allowed long hair and to play without his socks pulled up, like something straight out of the 70s – far too much time and space. “You’re just a sh*t Gareth Ainsworth”, came the amazingly specific taunt from the K’s fans.
K’s did, eventually, score, prompting a big celebration from the travelling support, more out of relief than anything else. But no sooner had the cheering stopped, than Barkingside had scored at the other end. At this point, the afternoon stopped being quite so much fun, as Barkingside started to turn the screw looking for a winner. And they did find it, plus a third goal, to dump K’s out of the Trophy. Barkingside’s number 5 was so uninvolved in the second half that I’d barely finished my wine, which tells you all you need to know about K’s performance.
Still, you can’t let a little thing like being-knocked-out-of-the-FA-Trophy-by-a-glorified-pub-team-having-conceded-three-of-the-worst-goals-of-all-time-and-therefore-your-season-probably-being-over-in-November ruin a day out, can you? So it was back to London Bridge for another couple of beers, and more proof that we are the famous, the famous Kingston (clap, clap, clap, clap). The two blokes next to me asked the correct question, “what’s that scarf, mate?” (the incorrect question is “how did Arsenal get on today?”) and upon hearing the answer Kingstonian followed it up with the even more correct question, “didn’t you lot used to be really good?”, so that I could regale them with tales of past glories. Yes, we’re not famous anymore, but at least we were once. I’ll drink to that.