Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Downton v Fareham Town

A floodlight pole rises high above the stand at Downton FC in Wiltshire.
If you know the Moomins, you'll know they lived in a bleak land. A bleak, watery world full of mysterious silent creatures. A gloomy, wintery place where everyone has too much time to think, always waiting for something to happen.

As I drove across the New Forest on my way to Downton on Saturday, it was easy to imagine I was passing through a Moomin-style Scandinavian lakeland. Water, water everywhere, with tussocky islands rising above the twinkling surface - the only places where ponies could stand to keep their hooves dry whilst attempting to digest the rough forest grass.

Across the heath, I fancied I saw a boat full of Hattifatteners staring at cars as they splashed past at a steady and respectful 40mph. Inspecting their barometer, they then paddled off in to the distance, trying to reach the horizon before sunset.

The Olympic flag flutters proudly in a neighbouring garden.
Downton FC (2) 2 v 3 (1) Fareham Town FC
Sydenhams Wessex League Premier Division
Saturday 15th February 2014
Attendance: 60-70
Admission: £6, included programme
Colours: Red / white / red v All blue
National Grid reference: SU1621

Muddy but playable at Downton on Saturday.
On and on across the forest heaths, passing broken ancient oak trees, too heavy for the rising water table, roots no longer able to cope. A 100mph gust of wind, and down they all go, tired and sodden, wishing for one regretful moment that they'd been born a swamp mango, but by the time they reach the ground, twisted and horizontal, realising that they'd actually had a pretty worthwhile life as a friend to the local beetles, nuthatches and squirrels. Their acorns would take root and they would be replaced soon enough. No regrets.

Rattling over the cattle grid which separates the wild lands from the villages of Redlynch, Woodfalls and Downton, I soon came to the bridge over the River Avon. Thundering and tumbling along, inches from the top of the bank, like a classroom full of 6 year olds high on Sunny D, it looked more like a roistering mountain river than the usual placid Hampshire/Wiltshire/Dorset border waterway. The poor ducks and moorhens that would normally be waiting patiently for passers-by to throw them a bag of stale breadcrumbs were nowhere to be seen.

A successful defensive header from Downton's leaping number 4, Joe Mancini (the pitch doesn't slope - that was me holding the camera at a wobbly angle...)
Through Downton village and on to Wick Lane, the final leg of the journey. Here, I drove across a manhole cover with water gushing out of its holes like four miniature geysers. To the right, a farmer's field was now a lake. There were the missing ducks, happily swimming around where once there were horses.

I begin to wonder if I've made a wasted journey. Surely Downton's pitch won't be playable in this underwater landscape? Have the players been supplied with snorkels and flippers? Will the goalkeepers be paddling around in rubber dinghies? Will the referee be blowing his whistle in the style of a blue whale's mating call - the world's most efficient underwater whistling sound?

Then I turned left in to the football club's car park...

Acrobatics practice was going well for the slopestyle skiing in Sochi.
I was at Downton because it was the only match on in the Wessex League on Saturday - only the seventh game to be played in the league's Premier Division throughout February so far (and this was already the third Saturday). I follow Fareham's secretary Paul Proctor on Twitter, and he'd tweeted that the game was definitely on mid-morning. I was grateful. My original choices of either Havant & Waterlooville v Gosport Borough in the FA Trophy semi-final or Sholing v Larkhall Athletic in the FA Vase were already amongst the waterlogged fallen.

Twitter is mighty useful at this time of the year - it's far more likely to be updated than a club's website. I'm on it, but I'm not worth following - I never remember to post anything worthwhile. However, the likes of Paul and Mike Robins of Bournemouth Poppies are the local gods of useful information for us groundhoppers. And all the other club volunteers who tweet that their matches are on or off in good time...thank you! It's much appreciated!

Fareham's barmy army go nuts as their team draw level at 2-2.
Downton's ground is developed on one side, with the clubhouse, tea bar and changing rooms all in the same block by the entrance. Beyond the changing rooms is a medium-sized stand with room for around 200 on four rows of wooden bench seats - black for the spectators, white for club officials. The rest of the ground has hard standing only, with a little muddy footpath behind the white brick dugouts.

Fareham Town would have been particularly pleased to play this game, as they still have another 24 to complete, with only around ten weeks of the season remaining. I can't help thinking that with 22 clubs in the Wessex League's top division and at least three cup competitions for most clubs, a minimum of 45 games to fit in to the inevitably weather-disrupted season is too much. Every year, there's a rush to play ten or fifteen games in April for a lot of clubs. Too much for the part-time players and the volunteers who run the show. However, reducing the number of clubs in the top division would mean more relegation spots one season, so I don't suppose anyone's going to vote for that at the AGM.

A rainbow appears over Downton FC.
The pitch was indeed muddy, but playable. Fareham took an early lead, Ashley Tattersall heading in from six yards on four minutes. Half an hour later, the away side's goalie made like a Coldplay album (A Rush Of Blood To The Head), unsuccessfully trying to tackle Downton's Craig Lewis on the far left of the box. A chip to the centre for Martin Johnson to nod home for an easy equaliser.

Then, in injury time, there was one of those point-blank handballs on the edge of Fareham's six yard area that you just can't get out of the way for. The ref insisted the unlucky hand had prevented a goal and Tattersall was off. Harshly, very harshly. Jamie Walters walloped the resulting pen high and central to make it 2-1 at half-time.

Fareham's flag-handling ultras were downhearted, but they soon regrouped at the far end, Belgian flag behind the net, cross of St George to the keeper's right (I should have asked them why they have a Belgian flag...), ready to yell their boys on to a famous victory in the second 45.

And it happened, boy did it happen. Backs against the wall, battling boots on, Town came out roistering. 2-2 after 56 minutes, a scrambled effort, but they all count. The winner came with 15 minutes remaining, a header from a corner by Captain Jonesy. Pandemonium behind the goal from the six ultras, making up 10% of the crowd, but 100% of the noise...

A mysterious little shed with a pipe and a stopcock.
One day, the world will be a dry place once more and football matches will be commonplace - every Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday between now and the end of the season for Fareham. With the attitude they showed on Saturday, they'll win more than they lose. In the meantime, Downton face a relegation scrap with Romsey Town, Fawley and Totton & Eling. Plenty to look forward to between now and the end of April.

Driving back across the misty evening forest, the Hattifatteners had gone. I wonder if they ever reached the horizon?