Category Archives: football

The Road to Wembley re-lined with red brick pavers.

by Neil Chapman

This you should know. Over the last couple of weeks or so, I’ve posted on the remarkable success of Tunbridge Wells FC and their cup run. Their road to Wembley. I live in the town, I love the game, why not? After writing the pieces I then tweeted links to them. Yes, I’m on Twitter. people tell me you have to be, but I’m not convinced but if it helps, why not? You have to remember that the whole point of this website, this blog, is to point people at my book on Amazon. Thing is, the tweets got a lot of interest, and the site got a lot of ‘hits’, and I got a message from the sports editor of the local newspaper, ‘Tunbridge Wells Courier’. They were planning an eight page pull-out supplement to appear in Cup Final weekend edition. Would I write a piece for it, say approx 1000 words? Yes I would. Here it is……   

Unbelievable is an overworked word, but surely this headline was a few weeks ago?

Unbelievable is an overworked word, but surely this headline was a few weeks ago?

So what happened? How did we get here then, eh? For years we’ve been giving the back page of the ‘Courier’ a quick glance to see how they got on last week – and let’s be honest we weren’t expecting too much, were we? – and now, suddenly, we are on our way to Wembley! Did I miss something? It seems we all have.

This was a club that hadn’t won anything for years, a club that had found its comfort zone in the Kent league, a club that seemed to lose key players at the end of every season, but reckoned that the new signings would be even better. A club that for years promised the following season would be the one. Well, suddenly they are that club. The club that became a team. Unbeaten since last October, winners of the Kent Senior Cup, and the in final of the FA Vase. At Wembley. Let me write that again. In the final of the FA Vase at Wembley. I know, I know. Get used to it!

Am I a fan? Well, probably like you, I am now. Lots of us are… …now. As I write the team’s supporters have gone from a hardcore of 200 supporters to over 10,000 that have bought tickets for Wembley. 10,000! Unbelievable just a few short weeks ago.

It took me 35 years of living in this town to make my way to the Culverden stadium – disgraceful really – and last year I saw them get dumped out of the 4th round by St. Ives; a match they could have won. So fast-forward to earlier this year, 4th round again, and I’m not expecting too much, especially as they were playing the team that won it in 2012, Dunston FC. But this time The Wells soak up a lot of pressure, defend well, (must have been the new signings!) and score in the second-half. 1-0. Thank you.

Then they go off to Bath (without me) and beat Larkhall FC. They had a man sent off, came from behind twice, and then nicked the winner in the last minute of extra time. I’m starting to think that this is a team that doesn’t know when it’s beaten.

Now it’s the sixth round and starting to get serious. Only eight teams left. Hadleigh FC from Ipswich are the visitors. Interest in the town is growing and a record crowd saw The Wells dispatch them 2-0. They made it look easy too. Next!

Don’t tell the players but now they are only two games away from Wembley. First leg of the semi-final, and if I’m really honest, after 20 minutes I’m thinking they might as well be ten games away. Their opponents, Shildon FC looked quicker, stronger, well organised and better on the ball. And confident. They expected to win. And why not? They had a couple of players who frightened the life out of the new record crowd of 1754, every time they got the ball. But The Wells defend as if their lives depend on it. You can’t write this team off. Outplayed for an hour then two lightening breakaways lead to two goals. Try and remember that, Shildon, next week in the second leg, this team does not lie down.

Oh dear. What have I said? An hour into the second leg and Shildon are 3-0 up, and the Wells are flat on their backs. Could be, should be, five or six to Shildon, they’re bossing the game and it’s

3-0 to Shildon and bye bye Wells? Thanks to 'This is Kent.'

3-0 to Shildon and bye bye Wells?
Thanks to ‘This is Kent.’

looking like another one of those ‘gallant’ defeats. Another one in the procession of Northern League teams stamping their pit boots over a side from the effete South on their way to Wembley. Thing is, no–one told that to the lads from the most effete town in the South, Tunbridge Wells. They wouldn’t have understood their accents anyway.

Away from home, in front of a baying hostile crowd, against a very good side who have outplayed you for large parts of both games and your lead wiped out very early on. You’re going out of the Cup. Your dream is over. You? You, at Wembley? Playing on the hallowed turf? Get real. You’re three nil down. Seems it was just a dream after all. Whey-aye mon, the ‘Road to Wembley’ isn’t lined with red – brick pavers.

How, how exactly do you cope with that, mentally? The TV pundits will tell you this is when you have to really ‘want it’. Want it more than the other side. But it’s been pretty obvious that for 80 minutes or so that Shildon would quite like it too.

But we know what happened. Skill is one thing, teamwork, fitness, tactics, desire, are others. But didn’t Shildon have that? Yes. But the Wells had belief. Real belief and guts. When it mattered. With only minutes remaining somehow they find a goal. Now it’s extra time and they snatch a winner. Lucky? Err, I don’t think so. Remember Larkhall? Sorry Shildon but I did warn you. This team does not lie down.

Carlsberg don't do tickets, but if they did......

Carlsberg don’t do tickets, but if they did……

And now it’s Wembley and for the first time in the long and distinguished history of Tunbridge Wells, thousands of its citizens are off to a major national final. Martin Larkin’s red and white army snaking its way around the M25, their cardigans and Boden tops cast off (just for the day of course) for bright new shiny red TWFC tee shirts.

It’s a day the players, the club, and probably Wembley will remember for the rest of their lives.

So will we.

Thanks boys and good luck!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They dared to dream.

by Neil Chapman

So how was your Saturday afternoon? Mine was the worst I can remember for some time.

It was also the best I can remember for a very long time!

I had sooo many things I had to do, sooo many places I had to be. But I spent it sitting hunched over the laptop, watching an online report of The Match.

What match, Chappers? The match, the second leg of the FA Vase semi-final. You know, the one I wrote about last week: “Tunbridge Wells, Theatre of Dreams”, http://bit.ly/Zhphoz when we (Tunbridge Wells) won 2-0 against Shildon. As I said then, all we had to do was go up there and come away with no worse than a 1-0 defeat and Tunbridge Wells FC would be at Wembley for the final. That still doesn’t look right in a sentence, does it? Well, whether it looks right or not, you’d better get used to it because that’s what happened. The Wells won on aggregate. They are going to Wembley.

But for a while there – well most of the time yesterday afternoon- it wasn’t going to happen. The Wells were run ragged. The online running commentaries said it, the post match interviews confirmed it. Shildon were the better team on the day. Unlucky. Deserved to get something out of the game.

Last week I said Shildon looked a good side. In fairness no-one could tell; the pitch was such a mud-bath it was impossible to say. It was what they call a good leveller. Even so, I think Tunbridge Wells FC realised Shildon were a good side and I think they went up there knowing they had a job on. Somewhere deep down – if they’re honest- they may have thought they ‘got away with it’ in the first leg at home. They knew to a man, and so did the supporters, that an early goal for Shildon in this game was the last thing they needed. A two goal lead, for some stupid unfathomable reason, isn’t as healthy as it sounds, especially against a good side. You just know, if they get one back, they have the momentum, physically and mentally, and a second one, the equaliser could be on the way if you’re not careful. You need to keep things steady for a while.  Or all your earlier hard work counts for nothing. So guess what? About 20 minutes in Shildon have scored two, wiped out the deficit, and are all over The Wells like a nasty rash. They are the better team it seems.

OK, as you know I wasn’t there (Easter, family arriving…excuses, excuses etc. etc.) but I didn’t have to be there. I’d already been there so often in my own ‘career’. I know how it goes when it’s going for you and when it’s going against you. Especially when it’s going against you; sometimes it’s unstoppable. Sometimes it’s easier to give in, to say OK, OK, you win, you’re the better side. We were lucky last time. If you happen to be playing in front of their febrile home crowd it doesn’t get any easier. Your loyal followers are easily outshouted, especially when the second goal goes in. So now they expect a procession, more goals. Let’s show ‘em, let’s humiliate these Southern softies. Don’t they know? When will they get it? Football is a game best played by Northerners, an inner city game. Tunbridge Wells? Do me a favour. Puhleeeaase. Someone actually tweeted Tunbridge Wells is full of lawyers, doctors and architects. Perhaps they should have a wander around the town centre late one Saturday night? … They might need a doctor at some point. Let’s see if they can find one.

So sometimes it’s easier to be the plucky loser, shake their hands say “well done, you were just too good on the day”. It’s a very English thing to do. And isn’t Tunbridge Wells the very apogee of Englishness? The Courier would still have hailed them, we would have hailed them. You did us proud boys… bad luck.

Then, early in the second half Shildon get their third. Game over the way this is going.

...good player, good goal. Will it be enough though? Thanks to 'This is Kent.'

…good player, good goal. Will it be enough though?
Thanks to ‘This is Kent.’

They are now in the lead. They are now on their way to Wembley. And for a few minutes, everyone, everyone in that ground, both sets of supporters, both teams and both managers thought that was it. Human. Natural. The Wells manager, the soon to be Sir Martin Larkins OBE. MBE, Mr. Freedom of the Borough, said as much. So here we are, around four o’clock in a cold North Eastern mining village, three down fighting wave after wave of attacks from a rampant, energised side. Where are our lad’s hearts and minds now? It’s at times like this you need a captain. A Jason Bourne type. Someone who can get you out of scrapes and win through. Well, funny you should mention that.. As it happens TWFC has such a captain, who just happens to be named Jason Bourne. You have to ask who wrote this script. Outrageous!

We can only imagine where his heart is at this moment of this match. The biggest of his career.… TWFC’s skipper, about 250 games for the Wells, been there years, it’s what he is, through and

Jason with Norman who played for the Wells 60 years ago....thanks to @elbowe

Jason with Norman who played for the Wells 60 years ago….thanks to @elbowe

through and here he is, half an hour from Wembley… and losing!   Hardly ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ at the moment… we are looking for ‘The Bourne Legacy!’  I’m sorry, getting carried away.

Well my heart is clinging in there too. Just. Imagine you’re with me, hunched over this Laptop watching the sporadic texts come in, courtesy of Glenn Garrett, sports editor of the Courier. He’s calling it. He’s saying this isn’t going well, this is getting worse. It’s not his fault it’s all gloom and doom. He’s right! Glenn is calling what he is seeing.

But, and I know it’s easy to say this now, but I will. Because I’ve been there, I know what can happen, and sometimes I know it’s simply hope trying to triumph over reality and that can lead to crushing disappointment. But sometimes, just sometimes….

Then out of the blue, if I’m reading our man’s missives correctly, we score. Andy scores. The Wells equalise. How? We were under the cosh. What happened? Who gives a fuck? We’ve scored.This could be a “sometimes just sometimes” moment. We can squeeze extra time out of this if we are lucky. And we do. And now I’m in full ‘hope’ mode, but I can’t watch anymore. So I’m up and down, in and out of the kitchen, hearing the match texts arrive, but not wanting to see them. I’ll wait until there’s a few. Might make it easier. I know it’s almost the end of the second period of extra time now. So I go back. It’s still all Shildon apart from a few sporadic Well’s raids.

Then Glenn reports “Goal!” Simply that.  It’s staring back at me for a minute? Two minutes?  This isn’t fair Glenn and you know it.  Who the fuck has scored this goal? I’ve taken a dislike to this man. Then you do know it. You know the Couriers’s sports editor wouldn’t mess with your mind like that. Would he? Then he confirms what you hoped, dared dream for the past hour or so. 3-2. Simply that. The Wells are through, on aggregate. I love you, Glenn.

I can write paragraph after paragraph trying to explain what that means. WEMBLEY. That won’t mean too much if you’re not really into football. It means everything if you are. Me? I think you know. I grew up dreaming about the place. Dreaming how I’d score the winner there. Don’t laugh but I still do, I really do. It never leaves you. But let’s move on. It’s every kid’s dream.

I’ll just say this and please excuse me; it’s not braggadocio, it’s really not. I’m just trying to put their achievement into perspective. I played for a couple of league clubs, picked up a couple of youth international caps whilst at Derby County, and played semi-pro non-league for years. Played in lots of FA cup games, FA Trophy games etc. etc. I never, ever got with a million miles of Wembley. Never. Can’t think of anyone I know that did. And ask 99% of professional footballers and they will tell you the same thing. It’s a dream. Wembley is a dream. The ultimate dream. And somehow that still doesn’t put this in to perspective. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. I’ll just say that for the people that are interested in the game, understand the game, these guys will become legends in Tunbridge Wells history. Their names will be recorded, their pictures popping up, being published in local rags for years to come. Hyperbole? I don’t think so.

You know what’s ‘bad’ about this? Because from now until May 4th,, the Town is going to be in uproar.  Four or five weeks of breathless madness. Suddenly everyone is interested. We are all supporters. Already the TW twitterati are making plans to be there; it’s all about how can we get tickets? How shall we travel? I’m just waiting for the “what shall I wear” tweet. That won’t be long.  TV, the Nationals, interviews, the whole media circus will descend on the team, you’ll see.

The lads... the legends... you'll see. Thanks to 'This is Kent.'

The lads… the legends… you’ll see.
Thanks to ‘This is Kent.’

And yet, a couple of weeks ago, did you care? Really care? TWFC were just a couple of columns on the back page of the K&S Courier and only a couple of hundred at most cared enough to go watch them regularly. Trust me, I’m not ‘having a go’. I’m just as bad. I watched them last year for the first time when they got knocked out at the last 32 stage … and I’ve watched the last three home games in this current competition. So I’m hardly a stalwart. But I’ll go and watch them more in the future. I mean that. And I’ll go to Wembley, and if you’re from Tunbridge Wells or close by, or have any semblance of interest, so should you. It’s one of those days that only come along once in a lifetime.

And since you’re interested. I shall be wearing mostly red.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theatre of dreams at Tunbridge Wells

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

..thats me...back row, third from the right. The white Pele.

..thats me…back row, third from the right. The white Pele.

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… …

4688455-promo

..pic courtesy of KS Courier

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

...doesn't get too muddy here.

…doesn’t get too muddy here.

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?

 

“Over here son… on me head”

by Neil Chapman

I wrote this at the time of the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa. The greedy and corrupt people who run the game had introduced a new ball,, ‘The Jubulani’. None of the players wanted to play with it, especially the goalkeepers because it was much lighter than the normal ball they had played with  for several years, and were used to. This one moved around a lot, swerved and got up to all sorts of tricks. But FIFA, the governing body were getting their palms greased, so play with it they did.

Made me cross and it made me think. So…..

 

It’s all balls

I was watching a World Cup match the other night, Italy v. Paraguay, and the ongoing controversy about the new lightweight ‘Jabulani’ ball, got me thinking about the ‘old days’. And my Gran.

The match was played in a downpour and the commentator was in his element, repeating his mantra about watered pitches, “the players like the ball to skid and zip over the wet surface of the pitch. Makes for a quicker, more skillful game.”.

You know what? These lads don’t know they’re born!

I was born and bred in Walsall in the West Midlands. So what I hear you say? Well, back then, as now, Walsall was the centre of the leather industry. Today Walsall still produces luxury leather goods, handbags, purses etc.under licence for some of the world’s biggest brands. Now as then, they still produce the world’s best saddles. ( Even today Walsall F.C. are nick-named ‘The Saddlers’, a chant that’s a little easier on the ear than a vuvuzela).

And back then, but not now, the worlds best footballs were made in Walsall. Leather footballs. The leading producer was a company called “Jabez Cliff’. If my memory serves me correctly, Brylcreamed centre-forwards would kick off with a Jabez Cliff ball every Saturday at 3 pm.  at all 46 league games back in the 50’s and early 60’s, such was Walsall’s contribution to the beautiful game.

My Gran was a leading light in all of this. Well, sort of. She was an outworker for the Jabez Cliff company. Every Monday morning, a man from the company would deliver hundreds of leather strips and a great ball of waxed twine. Then, though the week, with the help of a wooden contraption that acted as a last, and the biggest needle you have ever seen, she would sew these leather strips together and turn them into footballs, or case balls as they were called then. If I know my Gran, her footballs would have been even rounder than the ‘Jabulani’ ball, but that’s another story.

Back at the factory, a bladder had to be inserted into the leather case, which was then blown with a bicycle pump to a pressure you could only guess from years of experience. It would then be laced up, and the knot tucked away under the lacing. As many a Brylcreamed centre forward with lumps on his forehead will tell you, the knot would sometimes work free.

In those days, playing with a leather football, wet pitches were not what the players of the day wanted to see. Skip and zip across the surface it did not. Roll and stop is what it did. It collected water you see, absorbed it, and after five minutes the thing became a pudding! A very heavy pudding, and heading the thing was like being punched by Mike Tyson in a bad mood. I imagine heading the ‘Jabulani’ would be like being punched by Audley Harrison.

As for ‘bending it like Beckham’ forget it. Deviation in flight was not something that kept goalkeepers awake at night, getting the thing airborne was the trick. As for Rory Delap, he would be out of a job.

Still, whatever ball England had played with the other night, new Jabulani’ ball or old leather  case ball, that shot that beat Robert Green the other night? My Gran would have saved that.