Animal Magnetism

Isthmian League Division 1 South – Merstham FC v Chipstead FC
Friday, 30th December 2011, 7.45pm
Moatside
Distance 18 miles, Attendance 145
Growing up I’d seen plenty cockerels at football matches. This didn’t make me special, it was just common. Life was better, the summers were longer, the sun shone brighter, and bloody Tottenham seemed to get to Wembley far too often. Then there was Les Bleus, which was always good for at least one coq released onto the pitch. Animals just featured well in sport back then. I could reminisce the many occasions at Vicarage Road when I’d enjoyed the spectacle of the, pre-match, dog display teams with their assault courses. Sometimes it was better than the game itself. And once, once I even witnessed two fans dressed as a pantomime horse trying to enter Boundary Park, Oldham. They were negotiating with the turnstile operator who wanted them to pay for two whilst they insisted they were only one animal (I’m sure it was Oldham, but it might have been a cow). Fancy dress aside, I’d never quite worked out how it was possible to get live farm animals through the turnstiles. There are plenty of grounds where its deemed a criminal offence to take an inanimate, injection-moulded, plastic bottle top into a football stadium, so farm animals… The good thing in non-league, it would appear, is none of the above would seem unusual, and when the weather dictated my destination tonight I knew I’d be seeing one celebrity canine again.
Earlier in the season I saw Merstham’s Cup win at Egham Town. They put in a good performance that night and off the pitch were easily one of the warmest groups of fans, and a dog, that I’d come across. (DISCLAIMER: I’d like to point out, right now, as I can see a few of you sharpening your pencils, that such statements, in no way suggest that any club/fans are closer to my heart than Watford’s… but credit where its due…). Going to Merstham therefore guaranteed me a reunion with these amiable folk and another view of Charlie, primarily the Merstham Football Club mascot in club colours, secondarily a King Charles spaniel if I’m not mistaken. But being at Moatside brought an unexpected canine bonus too…

Undeterred by fog, dropping temperatures, and driving rain, I, a stranger to these parts, wandered into the club house before kick-off. The music didn’t stop, no one stared, and no one suggested I might be lost. The young lady behind the bar I asked how to get into the ground just cordially pointed me in the right direction of the match. Through a door, down a path, and round the corner there was the beautifully kept turnstile. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it was no surprise to find a very well loved stadium, covered on three sides including a large main stand, to the east The Church End and opposite The Albury End. The vacant side of the pitch contained the dugouts (does that qualify as four covered sides? Who knows?).
With the rain still pouring down Merstham drove for early advantage and were not disappointed as Alim Sesay slotted home in the first minute. There followed some good chances for both teams but despite the worsening playing surface neither keeper made and real mistakes. The Moatsiders had most of the possession but failed to improve their lead, and The Chips had some cracking chances but David Wilkinson was equal to every attempt that came near his goal. As so it continued for the rest of the half. An entertaining stalemate.
The interval brought a pleasant first meeting with Simon Roe, who was hiding from the rain in the home dugout. This came to a brief end as rain came down harder in the second period and I took shelter with the away fans in The Albury End. Simon and his camera are obviously made of sterner stuff. The next 45 was much as the first, an evenly matched contest, with chances going to both teams. Whilst Merstham wasted theirs, Chipstead were again thwarted by man of the match Wilkinson who not only dressed like Sepp Maier but almost seemed to be playing like him too (almost). Even when a goal came he was faultless. On the left Callum O’Shea lost his marker, his cross floated over the defence and was met at the far post by the onrushing Russell Bedford. The Chips fans about me stopped their good humoured moaning and celebrated ecstatically. Based on the whole game it was probably a fair outcome but I can imagine the home fans/team/keeper in that moment felt quite embittered.

I dragged my rain-sodden carcass back to the car feeling totally rewarded for braving the elements to attend the match. This club really does have the most convivial fans I’ve ever met, The Chips’ fans were equally engaging, the match was evenly entertaining, Moatside really is a nicely maintained ground, the volunteers at Merstham were all incredibly courteous, and they SERVE TEA IN CHINA MUGS (a triviality I might bore my Grandchildren with one day), and there were two, count them, two dogs in club colours. Charlie was once again resplendent for the home team but for Chipstead there was Tanya. It was easily better than Crufts.

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