This year, Non-League Day coincided with the 3rd qualifying round of the FA Cup, and it was always my intention to check out a local tie as a dry run for a future odyssey of watching a match in every round. I hadn’t expected something quite this local so far into the competition though; I thought I’d have to venture beyond Hampshire on the train, but I ended up being able to take a direct bus from just outside my house. This is because little Wessex Leaguers Blackfield & Langley had progressed in the competition, but would be massive underdogs against Conference South side Maidenhead United.
As I didn’t have to travel until the afternoon, I put the morning to good use by running. I take part in Southampton Parkrun whenever possible; the 5K distance is well within my capabilities, but the five miles I have to run to get there from Totton, and another five miles back, make it into a half marathon every time.
Another local runner, Alice Burch, is currently attempting a world record for marathons run on consecutive days, doing the 26+ miles 60 times in a row to raise money for animal welfare charity SPANA. As each marathon is a hundred and something lonely laps of Southampton Athletics Track she has asked for volunteer runners to join her whenever possible, and as said track is only a short distance from the Common where the Parkrun takes place, I thought I’d do another mile or two there.
Unfortunately though, I got my timings all wrong: I was too late for the Parkrun, and too early for Alice and her team, and I couldn’t really wait for them without jeopardising getting to Blackfield on time. So I returned somewhat disappointed, but at least the run there and back had been worthwhile in itself: it was the first time I’ve gone over ten miles since the London Marathon, after which I’ve spent too long lazing around and basking in my accomplishment.
After a refreshing bath, and changing from the Chester FC shirt I’d run in to the two I would wear to the match (old long-sleeved away shirt underneath, current short-sleeved shirt on top), I prepared some provisions. I wanted to live down to the stereotype of having a flask of hot tea in a carrier bag. But the flask had a disgusting build-up of brownish-green slime at the bottom and had to be binned, so I took a small bottle of orange squash instead.
And so to the journey, a relatively short one: Blackfield is close to my home in Totton, insomuch as it’s close to anywhere. But Totton itself is seen as a remote backwater by the people of Southampton, and Blackfield is a little known outpost even to us. Those who claim to know the place will wink knowingly and play the tune from Deliverance on an imaginary banjo – and there has actually been a movie filmed in the area, low-budget horror Forest of the Damned, featuring genre legend Tom Savini and a scene-stealing cameo from author Shaun Hutson, but unlikely ever to win any awards.
Thankfully the bus ride presented no evidence of generations of inbreeding nor widespread cannibalism, but that was the only positive thing to say about it. My fellow passengers were a contrasting juxtaposition of demographics: white-haired old ladies in front of me and lads in hoodies at the back, pretty fly for white guys as they played loud, expletive-laden rap music and commented: “Mate, that’s sick!” The old ladies never once turned around or even tutted. Perhaps they also thought it sick, but more likely they just couldn’t hear it.
There was nothing worth seeing through the window to report on: the area is officially considered to be in the New Forest I think, but this part is no place for ponies and picnics. Most of the journey was spent in a strange void between civilisation and nature, but with the benefits of neither. No matter, as I had a book with me; The Master and Margerita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, recommended reading on my university course, but I found the chaotic prose almost indecipherable, and looked up just in time to be briefly distracted by a couple of flashes of red, but it turned out to be just a Ladbrokes and a KFC, given pride of place by a village that’s apparently very proud to have them.
I got off at what I hoped was the right stop, and was relieved to see this impressive sign confirming the event in question:
I followed the arrow, but before I saw the stadium I couldn’t help noticing the vast towers and chimneys of the oil refinery which loomed over the area and flavoured the air:
But lo, there was indeed a magnificent theatre of football at the end of the road:
Somewhat unorthodox in that one corner of the ground was given over to a skate ramp:
I bought the obligatory match programme and a strip of raffle tickets, and bagged one of the seats in the little stand. The skate ramp, along with a bench in the public park at the other end of the ground, gave a potential free viewing spot to anyone who wanted it, but few did, and none of them for longer than ten minutes or so.
The match itself started with some excitement; a first minute corner for Maidenhead requiring a brilliant save by the Blackfield keeper from what would have been an own goal. It set a pattern for pressure from the visitors; dominating possession but without making it count. Their full-back and winger rampaged down the right, often reaching the by-line but rarely producing end product, another corner led to a clear chance being poked wide, and the Blackfield centre-back headed a teasing cross away from right under his own bar. The home team only offered the merest hint of a threat on the break, striker Rico Wilson declining a first time shot and then regretting it as the angle became prohibitively narrow; the Maidenhead keeper first making the save, then seeing the rebound go into the side netting, and the first half remained goalless.
Meanwhile, the skies had turned grey, either from cloud cover or smog from the refinery, and a cruel biting wind had whipped up across the bare, exposed stadium. I became grateful that I’d opted for a second Chester shirt beneath my jacket, but wished that I’d gone for the hot thermos after all, rotten residue or not. That said, the tea bar in the green Portakabin looked like the best thing in the stadium.
I wasn’t having the most joyful time, but almost had a huge boost during the interval. Straining my ears to hear the scratchy and muffled tannoy announce the raffle winners, I thought I’d scooped second prize, but when I went to claim it, I was told that he’d said Yellow 85, not the Yellow 25 that I was holding.
Back to my seat then, and the second half began with Blackfield’s keeper again making a great save from a corner, but soon afterwards his side had a great chance to take the lead. A defensive clearance was blocked, they broke down the left, and the low cross left Rico Wilson with an open goal. But in his eagerness, he slid in too early and got there before the ball, which bounced to safety off his backside when it was easier to score.
There was no way that wasn’t going to be costly, and Blackfield were punished a few minutes later. It was a good move by Maidenhead, creating a chance on the edge of the box which was drilled against the post. But ironically for the Blackfield keeper, who had spared a teammate the ignominy of an own goal, it came back off him and over the line. Cruel for him, but not undeserved for Maidenhead, nor particularly out of keeping with the quality of play.
And that was pretty much it. Blackfield brought on a second striker, then threw their centre-back forward as a target man, but never threatened again. I got to hoping Maidenhead would score again, so I could leave and get the earlier bus, and they did indeed get the ball in the net again. But I was denied even that small mercy, as the goal was ruled offside, and I felt compelled to stay to the bitter end. Shortly after the final whistle was blown on Maidenhead’s 1-0 win, I got within sight of the bus stop just as my intended ride pulled away from there and towards civilisation.
Thus, I eventually returned home later than planned, to an angry wife and a cold fish pie. Behold the bleakness! But that’s what you want as a non-league fan; you wear days like this as a badge of honour. I can’t wait for the next one.