In The Presence Of Angels

WORDS: ALAN FISHER

PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVID BAUCKHAM

The steward, the programme seller and the guy shaking the bucket with the Golden Goals tickets welcome us because they are happy being part of their local club, and they want us to enjoy ourselves too. When you truly embrace non-league football, you may well discover that it embraces you back…

Tonbridge Angels 3

The entrance for wheelchair users at Tonbridge Angels’ ground is a white plastic door next to the turnstiles. A la mode in the eyes of an eager buyer in 1995, it’s a left-over relic of a past sponsor and nothing is wasted in non-league football. 20 years on, for once a double glazing salesman was telling the truth – it really is indestructible.

The attentive steward sees us coming, opens it with a flourish and says he will look after my wife while I pop back out and pay for both of us. My wife doesn’t need looking after. With all due respect to the Angels and their opponents Stevenage in this pre-season friendly, she’s not going to get lost in the crowd.

But of course that’s not the point. The steward, and the programme seller, and the guy shaking the bucket with the Golden Goals tickets, welcome us because they are happy being part of their local club and want us to enjoy ourselves too.  Their enthusiasm is infectious but the biggest problem facing the Angels is that while their fans care deeply about their hometown club, Tonbridge itself remains indifferent and aloof.

Tonbridge Angels were relegated from the Conference South at the end of last season and begin this campaign in the Ryman Premier. Experienced new manager Steve McKimm’s first task was to find a team. All but one of the previous squad departed in the summer.  A. Trialist has a role to play this evening.

If there is any anxiety in the air, you wouldn’t know. The ground looks immaculate this balmy summer evening, rich green turf surrounded by stands on three sides. We stroll along the fourth, a wide promenade between the dugouts and the club buildings, including a bar where you can buy a beer and watch the match. Here there’s space in the evening sun to meet friends and family, enjoy a burger or have a kickabout with the kids. A few die-hards assiduously copy down the teams. I overhear the four Stevenage fans who have made the trip puzzling over a few names, unknown even to them. Martha the black labrador lollops past in her Tonbridge shirt to be greeted by the regulars, who admire her pink collar, new for this season.

We join my wife’s family at the halfway line. Husbands, wives, grandparents and teenagers, three generations and several different relationships in a reconstituted family who are all happy to see each other. Some are more interested in football than others but that’s not the point either. We can enjoy the game and each other’s company. Football brings people together like nothing else.

The teams line up and there ensues one of the great pleasures of non-league football, trooping round to the end your team is attacking. At either end of the ground there are two covered terraces, each around the width of the penalty area. They look like a design an eight-year-old might come up with but they certainly do their job. I doubt their basic construction included the acoustics but within them a small number of fans can make a hell of a noise. The Angels’ diehards really get behind their team. Even in the muted atmosphere of a friendly, they don’t hesitate to barrack a couple of the Stevenage men for perceived injustices.

We keep going and sit in the covered seating that stretches for most of the touchline. The old boy at the gate hands us a little ‘admit one’ ticket in return for my extra pound. No charge for my wife: “Wouldn’t dream of it.” Yet the club probably needs every pound it can get. Like many non-league clubs they struggle along on gate receipts and small amounts of local sponsorship. Part of Tonbridge since 1947, their most famous sons are Malcolm McDonald, the former Newcastle, Arsenal and England powerhouse centre forward and Roy Hodgson. There’s a loyal crowd but no past glories or benevolent boardroom benefactor.

Tonbridge Angels 1

Tonbridge is a tricky place to pin down. Wander along the banks of the Medway as it meanders past the twelfth century castle through the park to acres of rustic woodland beyond. Turn around and on a clear day catch a glimpse of Sainsbury’s car-park through the pillars of a crumbling empty office block, hideous municipal-style offices and an half-empty shopping mall that nobody shops in. It’s hard to find the heart of the town.

In the shadow of affluent neighbours Sevenoaks to the north and Tunbridge Wells to the south, for many of us that’s no bad thing. However, there remains a sense of a town struggling to find its own identity. Football clubs respond to and reflect the local culture of which they are a part and the Angels are no exception.

This is a club at arm’s length from the town, within but not quite part of it. The ground is to be found hiding at end of a ‘no through road’, just too far from the town centre to comfortably walk. It wasn’t always that way. That deserted shopping centre and car-park was once the site of football and county cricket. Those eighties planners have a lot to answer for.

Approach the town from any direction and you drive through beautiful Kent greenery. Wealth shelters discreetly behind immaculate walls of impenetrable leylandii but appearances can be deceptive.

“Tonbridge is a town of contrasts. It’s increasingly diverse and there are real divisions.” Amy Weaver should know. She spent many years working with young women in a local community project run by a charity, much needed and extremely well-used but recently closed due to lack of funding. The Big Society exists only in David Cameron’s imagination.

“You’ve got the big houses and Tonbridge School, £30k a year, one of the most expensive in the country. Yet the Trench estate where the ground is, is as deprived as any in the south. Life expectancy is five years less than the ward right next door.”

The visitor wouldn’t know Tonbridge had a football team. The sole road sign is a mere few hundred yards from the ground and even that says ‘Sportsground’, not Longmead, the name of the stadium, or the name of the club. Walking the length of the busy High Street from the station, I counted three A4 size posters of forthcoming fixtures in shop windows, nothing else. One is in the local sports shop, hanging alongside the shirts of Premier League clubs, not Angels’ blue.

And here’s the real problem. Central London is only a 40-minute train-ride away. It’s hard to compete against the rival attraction of five Premier League clubs. When I first moved here from London 13 years ago, Arsenal shirts predominated with a sprinkling of West Ham and Manchester United. Now Chelsea shirts are worn as leisurewear, as common in the high street as a middle-market clothing brand-name.

The Premier League’s stifling hubris is mercifully a world away as Tonbridge and Stevenage kick off.  The match quickly settles into a pattern. The league side are not at full strength but are fitter and stronger, so it’s no surprise when they go a goal up. Tonbridge create some neat moves, promising a season of good passing football, but their strikers are ineffective. The loyalists behind the Stevenage keeper see most of the action from afar. A group near me warm up for pre-season by roundly abusing the linesman, as far as I can tell basically for being a linesman.

Once the players get their second wind, a few of the pros get into the swing of things. Watching non-league or the occasional ‘legends’ game, I’m always struck by the pride these seasoned professionals have in their game. The Stevenage keeper is Chris Day. I saw his one match for Spurs and he’s been successful at his present club for many years. Now in his late thirties and a solid figure, he is roaring at his defenders to get organised, as if this were a top of the table league clash. The figure nipping at heels and having a go at the ref is familiar too. Charlie Lee, who I saw in Spurs reserves, committed and combative in midfield.

Tonbridge Angels 2

Half-time, I stretch my legs and snatch a few words with David Brown, who has lived locally all his life. A loyal Aston Villa fan through family connections, his regular visits dwindled gradually over the past five or six years. Now he’s Angels, home and away. “I used to go to Villa and come here occasionally. Now it’s the other way around. Coming here, I very quickly got to know a lot of people. That’s the beauty of non-league – you can talk to the players, manager, the directors. You’d never get that in the Premier League.”

This is his first year as stadium announcer, I need hardly add unpaid. When asked why, he just shrugs. “Everybody chips in and I wanted to help too. People are grateful for anyone who helps.” He pauses. “The board, they’re not premiership people. They’re not posers, pretending they are at a big club like some chairmen in this league do. The chairman mows the grass, the board mend fences, clean the gutters.”

The Tonbridge faithful troop round to the other end. Stevenage goalkeeping coach Dave Beasant signs autographs. The second half is similar to the first. Tonbridge finally have a chance and score with their first shot on target but Stevenage hit back with two more.

This entertaining, open match is bathed in a soothing blend of floodlight and the setting sun. Time to kick back and enjoy football for football’s sake. Decent football, wholehearted players on a summer’s evening. An absolute pleasure.

Full-time, Tonbridge 1 Stevenage 3. No rush to go home, fans loiter or pop into the bar. The visiting players warm down on the pitch, the younger men stretching intently while the older pros stand to one side and chat, ignoring the coach’s approaches.

At Tonbridge, the optimistic anticipation of the new season is well-founded. Things are changing. That empty office is now smart sheltered housing. Any site with a vague possibility of a river view is now crammed with flats. It feels like developers will build next to a puddle in the road, such is the enticement of a glimpse of water. Developments with names like Medway Wharf and Waterside Lodge will attract young couples and families, although if we have a repeat of last winter’s floods, for ground-floor residents Waterside Reach is not so much an address as a description of their living room.

In these changing times, Tonbridge Angels has a key role to play, one which could secure its future and bring it close to the town once more. The Angels will shortly become a community club, run by members each paying £30 pa. Many clubs have chosen this route because of financial problems but the Angels operate within their means. Amy Weaver is convinced of the benefits for club and town. “We’re becoming a community based club because that’s the right option. The board have been great, really forward thinking. The council are supportive too. Tonbridge is a nice place but lacking community cohesion. The club can now become a massive asset for the town.”

In facing the future, Tonbridge Angels have made a virtue of their problems. As a community club they hope to establish a secure identity within the town and enhance the open, friendly involvement that characterises the club’s tradition. For some, like Amy or myself for that matter, they co-exist contentedly alongside longstanding Premier League allegiances. For an increasing number of other football fans, they provide a viable alternative, providing the camaraderie and sense of belonging that is at the core of British football support. Either way, the future for this small town club looks bright.

On the way out I bump into David again. “The groundsman’s spotted a few bits of grass that grow quicker than the rest. Mower can’t get at them so I’ll sort it for him.” I wondered why he was carrying a pair of scissors.

You can follow Alan Fisher on Twitter @spursblogger
David Bauckham kindly granted permission for use of his photography on this feature. You can follow him on Twitter @CentreCirclePub and see his superb photography collections by visiting his Flickr site.
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