17 August 2013
FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round
Team Talk. Despite watching Whyteleafe hang around Dulwich’s division for years, I had never ventured to the away fixture at Leafe’s Church Road ground. Shocking really as it’s an easy enough journey. I had an aborted attempt a few seasons back when a fire in the Croydon underpass snarled up traffic for miles. Sadly, I missed the game and Croydon wasn’t totally destroyed. A real lose-lose.
Anyway, last weekend, I finally broke my duck and headed for the deepest, darkest fringes of Pigeon Stand country to see check out the Leafe. It was the start of the FA Cup journey for most teams and a Kent (sorry, Southern Counties East) League vs Combined Counties League clash of nearly-titans was as close to a glamour tie as anyone could wish for.
Despite starting life as Whyteleafe Juniors (or possibly Whyteleafe Albion) in the early 20th Century, the current Whyteleafe FC has only been playing since 1946. After progressing through the local intermediate leagues, Leafe moved into the Surrey Senior League in 1958. With the new division came a move to the current Church Lane ground, from a nearby site in Whyteleafe. I had been informed by those more diligent than myself that the grandstand at the original ground currently forms part of a school playground. Being a Saturday in summer recess, I felt fully within my rights to longingly stare into schoolyard without passers-by calling the police; sadly, for all my snooping, I couldn’t see any grandstand.
In 1981, Whyteleafe moved into the Athenian league where they remained for three seasons before a sideways move into the Isthmian League where they survived several boardroom reshuffles including the appointment of the trustworthy-sounding Dave Swindlehurst.
Relegation finally ended Leafe’s tenure in the Isthmian in 2012. A fact some of their fans seem to blame exclusively on Dulwich Hamlet. Even after 15 months have lapsed, there are still snipes and digs at the Hamlet, it even makes it into their matchday programme. You see, Dulwich lost to a hardy Burgess Hill Town side whom everyone in Whyteleafe thought would be obliterated in the same manner they usually were by the Pink and Blue Wrecking Machine. Sadly (for Whyteleafe), Dulwich never play well at Burgess Hill, so defeat was inevitable. Maybe if Whyteleafe had played better in any one of the 20-odd games they lost, they would have survived without needing our help. Sorry, I digress.
On this FA Cup Saturday, Whyteleafe faced an Extra Preliminary Round match against Epsom and Ewell. As we’ve blogged everyone in the Combined Counties and the Kent League, this was a nice opportunity to catch a glimpse of teams from two of our favourite divisions.
Park the bus. Getting to Church Road is easy. A 40 minute train ride from London Bridge will get you to anyone of Whyteleafe’s three stations within a 10 minute walk. Parking is strictly limited so coming by public transport strongly advised, more so even than usual.
Homefield advantage. Church Road has somewhat of a Territorial Army feel to it. Next to an allotment in the Surrey countryside, a sunken campus of scaffolding and crudely erected outbuildings suddenly creep up on you. Warnings of foul and abusive language are the first thing that greet you. They might be bitter, but they’re a polite bunch.
At first, it’s a bit disorientating, the turnstiles are flush with the perimeter wall and aren’t immediately obvious unless there’s a queue (there wasn’t) so, as in all times of confusion, I headed for the outbuilding marked “Bar”. Cheering is not something I long to hear approaching a non-league bar, it usually means someone is watching the premier league. Right enough, some guy was watching the Liverpool game, luckily he was alone and everyone else was deep in Whyteleafe-based conversation. A few minutes ahead of kickoff I headed for the turnstiles.
The ground itself is a real gem. Two covered terraces and two seating areas. The main stand was unlike any other I’ve encountered, made entirely of concrete and whilst it needed a good lick of paint, continued that sturdy look of a military training base.
The Gold Aviation Stand is without question the signature stand at Church Road. Built around a slope, it holds an array of burgundy seats (I’m guessing from a league ground somewhere), a tea bar and the dressing rooms. All comfortably above pitch level. The elevated dressing room and “tunnel” is unique in Pigeon Stand country and as they players ran out to the sound of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, I started to get the feeling that Church Road should really get into the business of hosting boxing matches. What an entrance.
Almost dead on 3pm, the heavens opened and I took shelter in the stand opposite the Gold Aviation stand. I was taken by the number of boardroom staff at Whyteleafe and how none of them took their ceremonial spot in the main stand, instead choosing to mix with us mortals. I’d like to think they got the idea from Chairman Jack Payne at Dulwich.
As the rain subsided and I continued my walk around the round, I saw evidence of some structural damage to a breeze block wall. Had the Dulwich Young Team (the Warly Posse from nearby Warlingham) who had been wrongfully accused of wall-based damage during the Dulwich fiasco at Leatherhead, actually been practicing on Church Road ahead of their visit to Fletcham Grove? Surely not. Although I’m surprised the Leatherhead board didn’t try that line of enquiry.
Once I’d settled in a covered terrace on the sideline, I had time to notice that there were a lot of fine moustaches kicking around the crowd. My favourite, an old boy reminiscent of Fawlty Tower’s Major. A great look and stern competition for Chessington and Hook’s Swiss Toni.
Prawn sandwiches. The Whyteleafe bar, was the 2012 Sporting Club of the year. Not sure how you get that title, but in fairness, it was a top bar. Two handpumps, coffee and crisps on offer as well as club merchandise displayed behind glass in a museum-style cabinet. This bar really was attacking sales on every front.
Inside the ground was a more conventional club shop selling a “large selection” of badges and boxes upon boxes of programmes. It was jolly good and whilst the large selection of badges turned out to be a little small, the range was exceptional, focussing entirely on non-league clubs. Terry’s Badges, it ain’t but if every you need an Esh Winning or Winterton Rangers badge, this is the place to be. To show that no hard feelings existed between Dulwich fans and Whyteleafe (especially as there’s a whole division between us), I purchased a rather splendid Whyteleafe badge, remorseful that Dulwich don’t delve back into the badge-selling game.
The tea bar was precariously positioned adjacent to the toilets, one wrong move and it could all be so different. As the weather had taken a turn for the worse, I decided that it was time for an early season Bovril. It was, as it always is, just the ticket. I once tried to explain Bovril to an American at an NFL game, it wasn’t easy but that’s what makes Bovril awesome; the fact it’s basically cheap gravy but it’s so so so much more.
…and the game. Three games presented themselves to me on FA Cup saturday: Met Police vs Dulwich at Imber Court, Clapton vs Stanway in Forest Gate with Damon from the Real FA Cup and others in the blogging fraternity, or Whyteleafe. In the end, convenience and the three previous nights on the drink made Whyteleafe the winner. Of the three games, this was the only one with any goals. It had six of them, the vast majority being early goal-of-the-season candidates.
Whyteleafe opened the scoring with a well taken header by Jenson Grant, a big powerful midfielder who has the potential to play at least step 4 football, if not slightly higher. Epsom’s equaliser came after about 30 mins with a wonder goal from Freddie Myrers who hit a dipping, curling shot from the apex of the box.
Whyteleafe, all eyes on Wembley Way, hit back with two goals two minutes just before half-time. Firstly, centre back captain Jason Thompson, who unlike the other son of Surrey who bares his initials, slotted a penalty away with the greatest of ease. Then came a well worked goal tapped away big Gareth Williams.
After the the half-time break (which started excellently with ‘Geno’ by Dexy’s over the Tannoy), Epsom came out all guns blazing. They looked like a determined bunch and on 50 minutes made it 3-2 with a brilliant individual goal by Kyle Hough. If history is kind, it will point to Michael Owen vs Argentina, Gazza vs Aberdeen and Hough vs Whyteleafe. High on Wondergoals, Epsom continued to chip away at Whyteleafe and with around half an hour to go, finally leveled things up after the ball somehow found its way to Epsom’s Reece Jackson after some tireless Leafe defending.
Whyteleafe then found their rhythm, pounding the Epsom and Ewell goal for the rest of the game. In the last five minutes, the hit the crossbar, forced a finger-tip save and worked the ball to Gareth Williams countless times only to see shots saved or blasted over. The frustration was such that one of the Leafe board members had to go for a sit down in between attacks.
In the end it finished 3-3 and whilst a case could be made for a draw being the correct result, Whytleafe fans might feel a tad aggrieved not to have got the win.
Man of the match. The Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup is the very best time to watch the cup. A meeting of nearly 400 clubs who in reality won’t see the 3rd Qualifying Round, let alone the 3rd Round Proper but it’s where all that “Romance of the Cup” stuff that the media churn out every January actually counts for something.
Call it irony, call it blind hope, but the act of making tin-foil replicas of the FA Cup is one of the absolute best things about the cup. As Whyteleafe is one of the cradles of the Non League Day campaign, I was hopeful that someone would get the baco-foil out and happily, I was not disappointed as a group of lads had lovingly crafted a fine fine FA Cup. Hopefully for their sake, they’ll get another round to wave it around.
Post-match rubdown. I must admit, I’ve not been the biggest fan of Whyteleafe in the past due mostly to some fairly terrible attitudes I’ve encountered on the Dulwich Hamlet Forum. However, they seem to be in the minority and of the fans I met on saturday, all seemed thoroughly decent. Importantly John Fowler has also got them playing some attractive football.
As a club, I was heartened to see an range of ages in attendance, not just kids with their grandparents but the all important 20-40 year old crowd who drink more, buy merchandise and bring others along with them. The kind of crowd that has helped attendance at Dulwich Hamlet increase by 160% in 3 years. If Whyteleafe continue to make inroads in their Palace and Chelsea heartlands – which, of course, will be helped by a return to the Isthmian League – they could soon be a force to be reckoned with. Early adopters, you have been warned. Get down to Church Road.