WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
As a teenager with dreams of becoming a sports writer, I answered an advert in the local paper to cover Banstead Athletic matches and my love of non-league football was born. Even amid the ugliness and emptiness of a local sports ground on a cold midweek evening, there is beauty to be found in our game
As the last few minutes ticked away it looked as though Banstead Athletic were about to hold out for a famous draw.
The 2000/01 season was just a few weeks old and the Surrey club, regularly watched by crowds of less than 100, had come away to Margate, two leagues further up the pyramid, and held off the challenge of a team who would be promoted to the Conference at the end of the season. This was the magic of the FA Cup qualifying rounds. The preliminary romance that had to be experienced in person before the TV cameras showed up for the first round proper and claimed all the glory.
Those hardy few (not including staff and family members, there were two) who made the trip from Banstead to the Isle of Thanet were ready to give the understated, silent fist pump of their lives before making their way home to prepare for an FA Cup second qualifying round replay at Merland Rise. The crowd would almost certainly reach three figures for such an occasion.
But hang on, who was that lunging desperately towards an over-hit cross at the far post?
Gary Whelan, his rain-soaked bald head glinting in the low autumn sun as his considerable frame slid through the Margate mud. Flinging an outstretched leg towards the ball, more in hope than anticipation, his face contorted with the intensity of the moment, he diverted the ball into the net.
I stared wide-eyed at my friend Neil, attempting to remain neutral in the press area among the home supporters in the main stand, as matching instinctive grins spread across our faces. Down on the sidelines, manager Bob Langford leapt from the bench onto the pitch like a Brian Kidd impersonator, while his silver-haired assistant Ray Best sprung to his feet all too quickly, smashing the top of his head so hard on the dugout roof that I was certain he would need medical attention.
To his credit, the tracksuited veteran coach styled out his clumsy celebration manfully, rushing along the line to join the blissful Banstead bundle by the corner flag. This was a glorious moment.
Around us in the stand, furious locals shouted abuse at their jubilant visitors, unhappy at having their noses rubbed in it. Margate were, after all, top of the Southern League Premier Division, while Banstead were one of the smallest teams in the Ryman League Division Two – the highest level the club had ever reached.
In fact, it was a point of pride among the committee members at Banstead that they had never been relegated. Having formed as a park side towards the end of the Second World War, they had been on an upward trajectory ever since, and now they were two wins away from entering the draw for the FA Cup first round.
The next day, as I queued at the turnstiles at Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea play Liverpool in a televised Premier League match, I was full of it. Margate are one of the best teams in non-league this season and we beat them, away! Banstead could make it to the first round this year!
They didn’t. The run ended in the next round at the hands of Bracknell Town, the only lower-ranked team left in the draw. They went on to beat Aylesbury and land the golden ticket – a first round draw away to a league side, in this case Lincoln City.
I’d travelled to Margate on the team bus to cover the game for Banstead’s matchday programme and the local papers. It was something I’d been doing since I saw an advert in the Epsom Guardian, which I delivered every Thursday evening after school for a bit of pocket money.
The advert appealed for a ‘budding football writer’ to assist the club’s press officer, Colin Darby, who seemed a bit surprised to receive a call from a 13-year-old, but nevertheless invited me (and a responsible adult) to the ground for a game against Windsor & Eton in August 1997.
Colin was sat filling his pipe with tobacco in the aisle seat of the three-stalled press area when I arrived. The stand at Merland Rise consisted of about 100 red bucket seats, with no backs, which had been left over from a refit at Wembley and still contained the old stadium’s ‘W’ logo that somehow worked in a representation of the twin towers. However, the three press seats had a plank of wood fitted in front of them as a desk for your notepads and teamsheets. I was pretty damn excited when I took my place next to Colin and a lady from the Surrey Mirror that afternoon and used my Olympus Dictaphone for the first time to make voice notes of the key moments.
I have no recollection of the final score that day – oh, who am I kidding…it was 1-1 – but after reading my first match report and seeing that it wasn’t utter rubbish, Colin asked if I’d be willing to help out on a more regular basis, when Chelsea weren’t playing at home. I was thrilled, and it wasn’t long before I was rushing to Terry’s newsagents in Banstead High Street on Sunday mornings to fax my match reports to the local Guardian and, if it was a big game, the Surrey Mirror (the win over Margate even made it into the Non-League Paper, then in its infancy).
I built up a collection of programmes and pin badges from all sorts of clubs as I travelled across the south-east: Horsham, Witham, Harlow, Berkhamsted, Molesey, Great Wakering, East Thurrock. Looking at it now, that list is like a Home Counties version of the radio announcement in I’m Alan Partridge, listing the towns within the Radio Norwich wavelength, but at the time it was exciting.
Those days taught me a lot about football writing and even more about the dedicated people who put hours into keeping their local club afloat. As well as Colin, there was chairman Terry Molloy, who was always well turned out in a tweed blazer, as well as a chap called Alan who manned the turnstiles and Gordons Harrison and Taylor, the latter of whom had played for and managed the A’s before becoming club secretary following his retirement.
Then there was elderly Life Vice-President Eric Winser MBE, who passed away during my time covering the club. He had been involved at Banstead for many decades and had supported Arsenal during the Herbert Chapman era, and I loved to sit with him over a half of coke in the club bar at Merland Rise, listening to his stories about the great players he had seen down the years.
If Banstead found themselves in need of a goal in the latter stages of the game, Eric would pick up his stick and make his way slowly but surely to the terrace behind the goal they were attacking, willing the ball in as he stood with his yellow and black scarf. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. I suppose that tells you all you need to know about superstition in football. We do it more for the ritual than the result.
I haven’t been back to Banstead for over a decade now. The last I heard of them, they were making news in Scotland for allegedly receiving money from Rangers. I know that they dropped down a few leagues in the meantime and lost that record of never having been relegated, but I sometimes wonder if some things are still the same; if Gordon Harrison still opens the gate for the players in his navy Vandanel bench coat as they leave the changing rooms, or if they still have those faded red Wembley seats in the stand that backed onto my grandparents’ garden. If so, I hope there is a ‘budding football writer’ making notes in one of those three press seats and rushing home to email his report to the local sports desk.