For Non-League Day: Waltham Forest FC vs Ilford FC
Yesterday, in the midst of a bizarre week of International fixture scheduling, fans up and down the country were left without a game to watch in the top two tiers of English football. With no Premier League or Championship matches, the hugely successful Non-League Day returned for its second year. Without a game or even Jeff and the boys’ ranting on the TV available, I trundled down to the home of Ryman Division One North (RD1N) team Waltham Forest FC to see their FA Cup Preliminary round match-up against rivals Ilford FC.
As I arrived at the Cricklefields Stadium* in Seven Kings, Essex, not entirely sure what to expect, I was confronted by a sight which was distinctly comforting: Proper turnstiles.
Cricklefields is situated down a dusty lane leading from the High Road, past a cemetery and two rather large-scale building sites, however as I approached the gate, I could hear the shouts of “come on Ilford, we can do this” and “let’s go Forest, just like we did on Monday”.
Only five days earlier, Waltham Forest had defeated Ilford 1-0 ‘away’ to move third in the RD1N and it appeared their fans were expecting a similar result here and looking forward to progressing in the oldest cup competition in the world.
Walking into the ground, I was delighted to see that the game was yet to kick off. The ticket for the game cost £8.00 and, as I wanted a programme as well, I got 50p change from a tenner. As the young guy at the gate released his foot pedal and I heard the familiar click-click-click of that old cast iron gate turning, I felt the familiar butterflies of childhood returning. As I pushed through, past the tuck-shop towards the field, I saw the terracing sprawling away in the mid-afternoon sunshine, I couldn’t help a grin.
The stadium was a simple affair, a small stand on the club house side where I chose to stand, and an even smaller one on the opposite side in front of a healthy copse of trees, where the team’s dug-outs sat.
The teams were already on the field, huddled together in a pre-match team talk. Ilford were loud, bouncing, calling out to each other to “come on Ilford, let’s do this. Every first, every second ball. Come on Ilford.”
Forest were less vocal, but their players looked serious and ready for battle.
The referee called together the team captains for the coin toss, with Forest captain Gazmend Dauti winning and opting to kick right to left
Ilford skipper, goalkeeper Rob Budd relayed this to his team and the match was ready to kick off.
The referee waved at both of his assistants – at this level, are they still called linesmen? – and called to both goalkeepers, ensuring their readiness for the impending battle.
As the Ilford forwards stood over the ball, waiting for the referee’s signal to start, the tension was palpable. A young lady was bemoaning a case of forgotten house keys, a man could be heard muttering about a lost cigarette lighter and one gentleman, roared “Come on then Forest, let’s ‘ave this”. And then, the whistle.
As the game kicked off, my attention was drawn to the origin of the great “come on Forest” bellow, for a sound I’ve not heard for many a year resonated around the tiny sports ground.
A wooden rattle.
A staple accessory for much of the twentieth century, the wooden football rattle seemed to disappear from view along with terracing and beers in the hands of watching fans. But here, in this corner of Greater London, the familiar crackling sound of the lovingly polished rattle, from the most vocal of the Stags fan, seemed more fitting than anything else I saw on non-league day, and again, I found myself grinning as the sun beat down.
The game had begun at a tentative pace, with both teams probing and moving the ball around, without either truly threatening their opponents. Slowly however, Forest began to take a hold of the game, pressing Ilford, pushing them deeper into their own half. Forest skipper Dauti was dictating the play from the centre of the park, and looking every bit the midfield general, was driving his team forward.
Around twenty minutes, a huge booming voice roared from the far side of the pitch as Ilford manager, Colin Walton went ballistic at right-winger Vendel Nunes. “Get up there right now, I don’t want to see you dropping deep get up there and stay on his shoulder… no I don’t want excuses, just get up there” Walton yelled pointing at the Forest centre-back.
Almost immediately, Ilford forged up the field, hitting the ball long and winning the flick on. As they built their attack on the far-side of the pitch, Nunes, the object of his manager’s wrath a few moments before, made an intelligent run to the back post. When the cross came in, unmarked, he powered a header past Forest keeper Aaron Omand.
The inquisition began in earnest, with each defender asking the other who had been picking up Nunes. Dauti rallied his troops however, and from the resulting kick off, they again surged at Ilford piling on the pressure and driving their opponents ever deeper.
As Forest bombarded Ilford with free kicks and long-throws, Ilford were being increasingly pulled around the pitch.
Then the ball was crossed to the club house side of the pitch and knocked out for a corner. Forest took it short to Dauti who with a neat step over, jinked inside the Ilford defender and, from the corner of the penalty area, curled a stunning strike inside Ilford ‘keeper Rudd’s far post.
Waltham Forest had equalised. 1-1.
The game continued until half-time with Forest pushing Ilford back towards their goal. However with a combination of dogged defending and poor end product on many of Forest’s final deliveries, the first half finished 1-1.
I was hugely impressed with the attacking of Forest and the defensive, counter-attacking display on offer from Ilford. Sure, there was a lot of long balls from deep and the channels were not so much being worked as bombarded, however players such as Forest’s big target-man Richard Shittu, winger Manu Dagher, goalscorer Dauti and right-back Elton Sackey had shown no little skill and composure.
As the players filed off into the dressing rooms, via the ‘tunnel’, I nipped back to the tuck shop to grab a drink, bought a can of cola for 80p and returned to the ground to have a flick through my match programme.
Reading through the ‘Our Players’ section, I discovered that Forest right-winger Manu Dagher, was in fact a Liberian International footballer who had played some 90 times in the professional Dutch leagues. I also realised, given that more than three times the amount of copy had been allocated in his profile, captain Gaz Dauti was something of a pin-up for Forest fans.
I took a new position for the start of the second half, on the same side, but towards the opposite end of the ground, hopeful of seeing Forest bang in some more goals that their attacking prowess deserved. The second half started with Forest kicking off, and before long, they were camped in Ilford’s half, forcing the play down the right through the flicks from Shittu, the probing of Dauti and the dribbling skills of Dagher.
As Forest were starting to gain a stranglehold on the match, so Ilford once again found their rhythm, counter-attacking with pace and catching the Forest defensive line high up the pitch.
Ilford gained a some free-kicks which troubled the Forest defence as the play ebbed and flowed, a real end-to-end spectacle ensued.
Both teams drove at each other and, as the programme had reported in its analysis of the red cards each team had received in previous games against each other, the tackles started to fly in and tempers flared.
Ilford captain and ‘keeper Rob Budd could be clearly heard lambasting his defence for losing their markers, dropping too deep and a myriad other mistakes, with a language so colourful as to make a 19th century sailor blush.
The referee however maintained a strong grip on the game, booking Ilford striker Shaun Harris for a late challenge on Forest right-back Elton Sackey.
Sackey had an outstanding second half. Following the move inside by Dagher, to play off front man Shittu, Forest manager Wale Ojelabi introduced a player (number 14, I’ve been trying to work out his name from the programme, all to no avail!) who repeatedly received the ball and squandered possession. Every time the ball his way, back from his inattentive winger before him, Sackey was the epitome of composure.
Shittu as well, was further imposing himself on the Ilford defence as the game became more physical and his presence as the proverbial battering ram allowed the two creative driving forces of Dauti and Dagher behind him to boss the midfield and dictate the play.
Ilford however were not to be outdone and fought back through a combination of tough tackling and set-pieces.
From a corner they sent a header just wide and with the superb dead balls from Hong and long throws from (I think!) Khalid Jama – who had one of the longest run ups I have ever seen besides perhaps Rory Delap – the forced back the Stags time and again.
Tempers continued to flare however as opposing players sniped at each other. The referee gave Forest captain Dauti a ticking off after the midfielder had followed him, making his displeasure at several decisions going against his team known.
As the game drew to a close and the tackles continued to fly, the cries of the Forest die-hard (him with the rattle) subsided as both teams seemed happy to settle for a draw.
Then, with around ten minutes until time, a ball was crossed from deep by Sackey and headed into touch for a throw-in to Forest.
The ball sailed onto the running track surrounding the pitch, bouncing over the three-foot barrier separating the fans from the players and bounced over my head and over the grassy hill behind the terracing where I was standing.
Off I took, galloping up the terraces and over the hill to retrieve the ball, camera bobbing around my neck and note-book flung to the floor. Grabbing the ball, I spun it in my hands, before launching a goalkeepers throw, which the Forest player caught without it bouncing. As I tweeted at the time, it was fan involvement at it’s best. I was delighted and the grin which had been permanently residing on my face all afternoon, broke into a huge smile as the player called “Cheers mate”.
With the game winding down, Ilford conceded a free-kick about thirty yards from goal. Dauti took the ball and, very deliberately, placed the ball on the turf to attempt, with what would surely be the final kick of the game.
As he waited for the referee’s whistle, staring at the Ilford goal, Dauti looked ready to create history.
With the referee finally satisfied the wall was far enough away, he blew his whistle.
Dauti started his three or four step run-up.
Planting his foot, he struck the ball with venom, a cloud of dust rising from the pitch and… his shot struck the wall and bounced clear.
The match was over. At 1-1 a probably fair result for both teams.
My Man of the Match was a close run thing between the tough Forest right-back Elton Sackey and, Stags skipper Gazmend Dauti. Dauti’s stunning first half strike just tipped the scales in his favour for me in the end.
“The replay’s on Wednesday, same night as England are playing” I was told by a guy collecting the corner flags.
I can’t say for certain I won’t watch the England game instead on Wednesday. What I can say however, was that over the course of two hours on Saturday afternoon, I smiled so much at this sport that I love; more than I have at any game since I was a youngster.
Thanks also to the Non-League Day movement to putting me on to a match that I otherwise wouldn’t have ever taken in.