by Neil Chapman
Surreal that’s all I can say. Surreal. And on so many levels too. Where shall I start?
At the Culverden Stadium in Tunbridge Wells of course, where yesterday a football match was played. Tunbridge Wells FC. beat Shildon FC. in the first leg of the F.A.Vase. At this point many readers living in Tunbridge Wells will have turned away; this town is not a ‘football town’. Sorry. We’re not interested. It’s a so-called game played by those oiks further North. No, not Tonbridge, I mean The North. And then there’s all that money, and just look at that awful Gazza person, those WAGs whatever they are, and please don’t even mention John Terry.
Look, don’t turn away just yet, let me try this:
Tunbridge Wells FC. are 90 minutes away from playing at Wembley.
Oops, just lost a few more readers. Well tough, their loss.
I’ll just say this to those who think it was just another football game.
Wrong! Very wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong. Yesterday was almost theatre. It wasn’t just about football; it was about hopes, dreams and aspirations. Not just those of a squad of players, but I guess all those that have been associated with Tunbridge Wells FC. over the years. And those who casually follow their results in “ The Courier”. In many ways this was so much more than just a football match. Without over-dramatising, it was part of an impossible dream for these players, for this Club, for this town. You should be proud. You should at least take an interest.
Yesterday, before the game, I had the surreal pleasure of driving around the leafy Culverden area of Tunbridge Wells trying to find a parking spot. For once, lack of parking wasn’t our greedy Council’s fault, no it was the sheer volume of traffic. And you could tell from the worried faces behind the twitching curtains that crowds of this size are unprecedented in this neck of the woods. In fact it was an all-time record crowd of 1754. But parking spots we all got, and we all followed the droves to the ground. Where we queued. Yes queued. Almost a first here, I reckon, and it was quite a long queue winding back up the dirt path, and between the rhododendrons from whence we came. But it was orderly, polite and respectful. A queue made in Tunbridge Wells. There was a patient air, the quiet buzz of conversation, with lots of dads holding their children’s hands, probably taking them to their first football game. Classic, and great to see. And as we stood and waited we could hear the noise of the Shildon fans from inside the Clubhouse, chanting and beating on some bloody great drum. Yes, the oiks had taken a drum inside the clubhouse. Inside. I’ll say no more. Let’s move on.
In the 35 years I’ve lived in Tunbridge Wells, I’ve only been here very occasionally, shame on me, but I’ve followed this year’s cup run with some interest. Why? Because I’ve played a bit in my time
and I love the game. Coming from Walsall in the West Midlands as I do, I could be parked and in the ground at the Wolves, West Bromwich Albion, Walsall, Aston Villa, or Birmingham City all within 30 minutes of my house. And on every occasion I could, I did. So, it’s in my blood, yes?
For all those of you that have never been to The Culverden, let me tell you. It’s not an all-seater. OK? I don’t think the Taylor report got this far. There are a few seats but you’re better off standing. But wherever you position yourself you’ll have a good view. I think the average gate is around a couple of hundred and even today with over 1750 here, we weren’t packed. Clubhouse and bar are handily placed just as you go in and usually drum free, and even today you could pick your spot. There’s even a man with a microphone. Once he used to announce the crowd changes to the teams but today it’s oh so different. This is his big day too.
Advert over, but you should go. I should go more because I call myself a football fan. Anyway… …
The match? Well 2-0 almost flatters Tunbridge Wells. Shildon looked a good side, a very good side and for long periods had the Wells pinned in their own half. But the weather had determined that the pitch was a mud bath with the surface of an ice rink and many passes never reached their intended man, simply coming to a stop in the mud. So who knows who were the best footballing side? Couldn’t tell. Both sides struggled to play their game. Was it a lottery? Probably. I do know that the Wells absorbed a lot of pressure but then scored two good goals as a result of two well-executed breakaways.
I also know that the Wells will have it “all to do” as they say, when they go to Shildon this coming Saturday for the second leg. When it comes to this stage of a tournament, the semi-final stage, it matters little who the best footballing side is. What matters is who wants it more. Who wants to get to Wembley more. The Wells have a 2 goal cushion. Something to defend. Something to build on. But what a prize. Wembley! Unthinkable. Seriously unthinkable. As I said, surreal.
Want another surreal moment?
Try this. Halfway through the match, the Wells have been pinned in their own penalty area for ages, the ball pinging around in their box as if in some giant pinball machine, Wells players throwing their bodies on the line, up to their neck in muck, mud and bullets, defending corner after corner. Surely Shildon will score with all this pressure? And if they score now, you just know they’ll get another one, probably two. Game over. Tie over. Tense? To a man, the biggest crowd ever watching the biggest game ever will tell you just how tense this was. And our man on the microphone? What does he do? He decides it’s time to announce a couple of Birthday dedications. Excellent.
The whistle blows. We’ve won the first leg. The Wells players knew exactly what to do, they’ve seen it enough times on TV. And now it’s their turn. They run to their supporters, arms raised above their heads, clapping. Ecstatic. The crowd respond. Shildon slump off and go straight to their dressing room. They look a beaten side. Their manager follows them in, effing and blinding. Not happy. “Lads gave me all they had, left nuffin’ on the pitch, showed their character. And as for that effing ref…”
The man with the drum had gone very quiet too, obviously finding it difficult to play where he’s been told to put it. Their fans were quiet now too. They’d been giving it large all afternoon; we had politely waved back.
And so the record crowd left. In orderly fashion, of course. Back to our cars and off into the Tunbridge Wells night with no thought of rampaging through the town centre or pillaging the Pantiles. Good God no, we all went home for a nice cup of tea.
So, a good result. For us. And it made it to BBC’s ‘Final Score’ and also Sky Sports Results. And that’s big time. Because the F.A.Vase is big time. It’s a direct successor to the F.A. Amateur Cup, which once upon a time attracted crowds of 100,000 to Wembley finals. Well that’s not going to happen with Tunbridge Wells in the final. Even so. What a day.
Just think, if someone had said to you a few months ago that you might be going to the finest
football stadium in the world, to watch Tunbridge Wells contest the final of one of the oldest football competitions in the world, what would you have thought?
Surreal I’d have thought. Bloody surreal. And wrong. Wrong, wrong wrong! Somehow I never thought I would ever see Tunbridge Wells, FA. Vase final and Wembley in the same sentence. This is the province of the Northern pit village sides of yesteryear. The Bishop Aucklands, the Blyth Spartans, the Crook Towns, the Liverpool sides like Skelmersdale and the London fancy-dans like Walthamstow Avenue, Enfield and Wycombe Wanderers. But in it they are. Well in it. Two nil up and only ninety minutes to play. So it’s right, right, right. This time next week lads eh? C’mon. You can do it!
And if they do? I’ll be there. And that music shop in town. You know the one. The one at the bottom of Grove Hill Road directly opposite Hoopers? Any chance they sell those big drums?