SNAP!

Pre-Season Friendly – Ashford Untied FC v Crawley Down Gatwick FC
Saturday, 4th August 2012, 3pm
The Homelands
Distance 71 miles, Attendance 40-ish adults, five children and a Mystery Machine (headcount)
“Oh, let’s go down early. The children will have more time to play with their friends, and you… you will get to spend time with Amanda.” I offered as sweetly as I could without appearing nauseas. My lovely wife paused, staring into my eyes. Could she spot it? Had she discovered the copy of Non-League Paper in the living room, with red pen scribbles over the pre-season fixtures? Smiling back I could tell she was wondering what scheme I was cooking up. “What about you hon? You know Adam’s playing cricket? What will you do?” she enquired. “Oh, I’ll think of something…”
Leaving my family behind somewhere in the middle of nowhere (yes, we back at friends Pluckley) I checked again for the bag I hadn’t really packed and hid in the boot the day before. Camera, spare batteries, notepad, two pens (red and black), both Bic Crystals (it’s a design classic you know), my scribbled on Non-League Paper, a jumper, and most importantly the address of Homelands. I was ready.
Before you ask, Google said “17 minutes”… but like always, I truly doubt they’ve actually driven the route. Hump back bridges, narrow lanes, high hedges, poor sight lines, and very absent or very obscured signs. After getting lost twice I found myself at the eastern end of Magpie Hall Road. Ashford Road ran to the right and the left; directly opposite was Ashford Cricket Club. I knew I was close. Turn right, past the builders merchants, and on the left clearly sign posted was the home land of some golfers and The Nuts & Bolts.

At the turnstile I was informed there would be no tickets, programmes or team sheets as this was a pre-season game but, if I looked to the left there was a board with the teams on it. Not since Moneyfields near the start of “The Long Way” FA Cup journey had I seen a chalk board and I’m unlikely to get over them. There filling it in was a man dressed in green. To our left was an impressive, well kept stand in club green and fine tea bar serving the best Non-League Chips I’ve ever had (yes I had submitted an entry to NLC). Behind each goal were matching green covered terraces and opposite the stand in an open standing area are the dugouts.

Standing behind the dugouts as the echoing tannoy announced the teams running out before me, the comforting sun beat down as planes of another era buzzed about the sky. “Come on boys, straight from the off” yelled Tom Carr, the Ashford keeper. “Straight from the off” came the echo from a team mate further up the field. Ashford as it turned out had some good early possession but it was Crawley Down who got closest to goal with the first corner. They soon won another, and then on seven minutes Ashford conceded a free-kick to the left of the six yard box; both it and the resulting corner also came to nothing.

Whilst my mind drifted round how coaches train players to either attack at, or defend from, such close range free-kicks, and how much time they’d spend on this, the players of both teams ambled about as if still on summer BBQ duty. Breaking from the summer pleasantries, Ashford’s Sam Conlon – on their first real attack – shot from distance leaving the keeper rooted to the spot. The ball hit the back of the net and the handful of fans behind the goal applauded enthusiastically. Their team soon gained in confidence and within minutes had tried the same feat again a couple of times – first Pete Williams and then another chap whose name I couldn’t read on the chalk board – but sadly both missed.
Clearly higher division Crawley needed to get a grip on the game, but it would be almost twenty minutes before they’d break their duck, and the Ashford resolve. Luke Blueden shot from distance but Carr couldn’t hold the shot, and Gabbi Odunaire tapped the ball home. Complaints of offside could easily be waved away by both the lino, and me standing behind him. Moments later – whilst both teams were wasting chances – Jack Page headed straight into Carr’s arms when he really should’ve scored, then Blueden and Odunaire failed to read each other’s thoughts for another golden chance.
When Crawley’s second arrived I was distracted by a biplane flying over though just managed to catch Blueden slotting past Carr when through one-on-one. Page then shot over, a solitary fan booed Ashford getting a yellow card, and – overlooking the sock tape law infringement – the green blame game began, before Crawley struck again and again. Both came from well rehearsed corners floated into the near post by Fraser Logan and powerfully headed in by Craig Richards. “Oi, COME ON!” implored Ashford’s Luke Cuthbert as team mates argued amongst themselves. “GREEN ‘EDS!!!” yelled his keeper (Dr Seuss would’ve like Ham too) as the ball approached once more. It wasn’t as if Ashford weren’t trying but – on the break – Crawley were fairly potent. Looking about to see the reaction of the home crowd two things struck me. In Ashford they wear green like the Dutch wear orange, and the chips looked fantastic.
Leaning back in the shade of the stand as appalling music damaged my ears and luminous training tops moved about, a feast sat before me. I wasn’t hungry, but well, I just couldn’t resist: chips, tea and chocolate – the food of kings (non-league kings at least).

Back on the football front I wondered how many non-league teams – like Ashford – had short-sleeved shirts, and was intrigued to see the linesmen had changed both ends and flags (does this happen often?) before witnessing a manoeuvre of such clumsiness that it was clear Ashford – even at 4-1 down – still had a chance to get back in the game.
If you’ve seen the Cruyff-Olsen penalty you’ll know the move… on the break, Blueden and Odunaire ran clear of the defence, only the keeper to beat. The first pass was executed perfectly, as was the control. Then came the second pass, good, and the tap in, fantastic. It all looked perfect. But the lino’s flag signalled something else; offside. When the defence doesn’t even bother to chase back I have no idea how any player could fail at this move, but they had.
Subs soon flew on and off the pitch, Blueden and Odunaire eventually made amends with Crawley’s fifth, corners came and went, and the sun disappeared – along with the biplanes – behind the clouds. The rest of the match wasn’t as fluid as the first half but the shouting continued, and both keepers made a couple of good saves. It was clear the players were tiring, creating more space, or perhaps like the fans – with the sun appearing again – they just wanted to get back to the BBQ.
Collecting my things, I noticed the “Ashford United” sign and made a mental note to find out what had happened to the team name, then thought it best I look up why “Gatwick” now appeared on the other’s badge, before strolling for the turnstiles, past the second chalkboard I’d ever seen at a game, and leaving the second Ashford Town team I’d ever gone to see.

Two chalk boards, two Ashford Towns… SNAP!
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