Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Non League Day at Harpenden Town FC

Harping on about Non-League Day

Harpenden Town 8 -1 Sport London e Benfica (04:10:10)

David Bevan - from The Seventy Two website - cast aside his usual Saturday routine of a day out at a Football League match to show his support for Non-League Day:

Non-League Day. The pressure. I wanted it to be brilliant. There were numerous options - a game I could walk to in ten minutes, another that I could drive to in fifteen. Instead, I chose a little trip down the M1 to the Home Counties. It is not an area renowned for its high-quality football. Watford, Luton, Stevenage and Barnet are dotted around, but league football remains a stranger to a number of towns just north of the M25 - the likes of St Albans, Hertford and Hemel Hempstead. I settled on Harpenden, though it was not the hosts that swayed me. It was their opposition, glamorous at least in name if not in a more complete nature. For Harpenden Town were welcoming Sport London e Benfica to town. Bem-vido, if you will.

Set in the leafy surrounds of Rothamsted Park, Harpenden's home ground is a little gem. My modest set of wheels came to a halt alongside the away team's assorted Mondeos and Mitsubishis in the car park of an adjoining leisure centre. In twenty years following a team currently residing in the Championship, I don't think I've ever seen an opposition player pay and display prior to kick off. The £3.50 charge equalled the impending cost of entry to the ground. At least they didn't have to stand alongside me at the turnstiles. Not least because there were no turnstiles. Instead, the chairman walked around the ground with a tupperware full of change. Again, no matter how enigmatic he can seem at times, this is not a practice I can imagine Milan Mandaric indulging in too often.

Drink sensibly at Harpenden Football club with no ball games. I gotcha Councillor Roberts.

Even EFW's ample frame could squeeze through these "turnstiles".

All of this came later, though. Firstly, while the visiting side strolled out to conduct a half-hearted pitch inspection, a man in a Harpenden Town baseball cap stood outside the clubhouse smoking a cigarette. This, it turned out, was the President of the club. El Presidente's name is Wynn Owens, a man who played rugby in his youth yet has ended up spending his 22 most recent years involved with the local football club.

Wynn told me everything - and nearly every detail was fascinating. His main concern was whether the gate receipts that day would cover the expenses of the referee and his two assistants. A sobering thought for any true football fan. Harpenden normally attract between 30 and 40 paying fans to routine home games, although the layout of the ground appeared to make it difficult to ensure that every spectator parted with cash for the privilege. As it turned out, the official attendance was 21 - meaning that £73.50 made it into the club coffers. According to Wynn, the matchday officials cost around £100.

Financial worries are not halting ambition at Harpenden. It is necessary ambition, too. The referee brought along one linesman and one lineswoman for the big clash, the latter apparently having to utilise the referee's shower room to prepare for her duties due to the lack of female changing facilities. While only a minor inconvenience on this occasion, it is a failing that prevents Harpenden from entering the FA Vase. There are plans to move the pitch ten metres further from the current ramshackle clubhouse and to install a new facility along one side of the pitch, ensuring the possibility of future participation in the Vase. The club are also one division below the standard required to enter the FA Cup. The new clubhouse will be funded by sponsorship, part of which comes in the form of small advertising boards along the perimeter of the pitch. Each of these 25 boards brings in £200 per season of revenue.

All of this was an added bonus. The real attraction was Sport London e Benfica. The club are aiming, eventually, to reach the Football League. It may be a case of two steps forward and one step back, though, as SLB sat bottom of the table without a point ahead of their trip to Harpenden. And, although their performance was certainly worthy of comment, individual games cannot compete with their overall story in terms of interest.

Sport London e Benfica were formed on 15th May 1981 and are officially affiliated with the Portuguese giants with whom they share part of their name. Currently tenants at the ground of Haringey Borough, SLB are enjoying a moderately meteoric rise through the leagues having only converted from Sunday league football at the start of the 2005/06 season. The majority of their players - the likes of captain Dani da Conceicao, midfielder Djibril Djalo and winger Bruno de Freitas - are Portuguese and they wear the Benfica shirt with pride.

Happily, this sticker passed The Trades Descriptions Act in May of 1981.

Leafy surrounds of Rothamstead Park - tick.

And so to the game itself. Harpenden manager Ryan Thompson stood on the touchline, smoking like a chimney throughout and growling demands at his charges. In contrast, SLB supremo Jose Viana seemed almost silent for the duration. He was, however, called into action on a frequent basis in his alternate role of physio. SLB started brightly, but looked a team of individuals, albeit with real talent, rather than a set of individuals playing together as a team. Harpenden, on the other hand, worked hard and deserved their two-goal lead halfway through the first half. The opener was the result of a terrible goalkeeping error, the ball looping up into the top corner unopposed from an innocuous long-range shot. Within a minute, a calamitous defensive mistake led to a second goal.

SLB took this as their cue to start playing and pulled a goal back from a corner to make it 2-1 at the break. Unfortunately, the remaining action was less competitive. SLB lost what little shape they had during the first half and their early promise evaporated into a disorganised rabble. They conceded six without reply in the second period, another two of which came within 60 seconds of each other. Harpenden's young, wiry centre-forward Aaron Clarke, all shaggy hair and full of running, helped himself to a hat-trick as marking became an occasional, reluctant chore rather than anything approaching a consistent requirement for the SLB back line. At least two of the six second half strikes were reminiscent of the nadir of Robert Green's summer.

Having scored five and conceded 32 in their opening seven league games this season, Sport London e Benfica have a mountain to climb in terms of the improvement needed to stay at this level. After the game, I scoured the internet for more information about the club and stumbled across an admittedly unsubstantiated claim that their previous league game had ended with a red-carded player returning to attack the opposition's substitutes bench with a shovel. Say what you like about non-league football, but life is never dull.

It was a real pleasure to dip into the lives of these two very different football clubs for one afternoon. Both provided stories, the likes of which are almost impossible to replicate amid the professional game. There was a moment, which came in the clubhouse prior to the game, during which the only other people in the room were Harpenden's chairman, his manager and a couple of bar staff. This should not be particularly remarkable, as no-one at Harpenden Town is a celebrity. But therein lies the appeal. I have been to far too many games in the top two divisions of English football which have given me nothing, taking my twenty-odd quid and spitting me out at the end without so much as a pleasant memory of the experience. Harpenden gave me all of the above for a fraction of the price. And for that, I am truly grateful.

David is editor of The Seventy Two. An independent website covering the 72 member clubs of the Football League.

- Feel free to comment below -


IBWM Jeff said...

A fantastic piece 72, and well done Danny for keeping the profile of non-league day up there when plenty of others fell away.

Seventy said...

Ta Jeff.

Really am considering dropping down to follow a Zamaretto Premier Division team for a season. So tempted.

Enjoyed the Harpenden experience so much.

Macky said...

Been to Harpenden once. i really like theplace. Im planning to go back next year and I will bring my wife. I love the hotel near the market town...good food...very hospitable staff...