Tuesday, 1 November 2011

15. Havant & Waterlooville FC

The day of the Hampshire derby arrives at Havant and Waterlooville FC.

You should have seen the boy! The ball driven in from the corner quadrant on the school building side of the ground, the four foot centre-forward in primrose yellow and black pinstripes on his own six yards out with only the keeper to beat. The sun reflecting in the boys' eyes from an open window on the ground floor of the school, dust everywhere - there had been no rain for weeks already, and the legendary summer of '76 hadn't yet officially begun - the centre-forward connected perfectly with the incoming ball. It could only be a goal - surely the small wavy-haired boy in the green nylon goalkeeper's jersey stood no chance? Covered in pale sandy dust and speckled with the scarlet corpses of millions of red mites, he dived to his right, springing like a freshly unboxed slinky at the top of a flight of stairs...

What a save! With his ungloved right hand, the boy shovelled the rock hard ball around the post and out for another corner, opening yet another graze in his already-heavily-scarred right knee as he landed. As the first drop of dark sticky blood escaped from his skin, encrusting immediately upon contact with the suffocating air, the boy was surrounded by his team-mates in their black shirts with round white collars, congratulating him. It must have looked like a little vicars' convention around the keeper, but this was actually the Sharps Copse Junior School football team, and they were on their way to victory over Cowplain Juniors. The keeper buzzed with pleasure as his friends and the small crowd of mums and dads clapped him. Mr Wade, the lanky games teacher, smiled and said well done.

A welcome sign hidden behind the TV tower terrace.
Havant & Waterlooville (1) 5 v 0 (0) Farnborough FC
Saturday 29th October 2011
Blue Square Conference South
Attendance: 799
Entrance: £11
Programme: £2.50
Club shop: Yes, the Hawks Megastore! Scarves, hats, badges, old programmes, kits and caboodle.
Colours: Blue and white hoops / white / white v Yellow with a blue vertical stripe / yellow / stripy
National Grid reference: SU7207 and SU7208
Video highlights: Yes
More video highlights: Yes!

The fans' flag draped over a barrier: "Let's go 4 a little walk".

Of course, you've already guessed, that small boy was me aged eleven. West Leigh was where I grew up; where I obsessed about football; where I could listen to the scores at 5 o'clock on a Saturday and remember them all after one listen, repeating them to my family like a performing seal. Kilmarnock v Dunfermline? He'll never remember that one! Oh, yes he did!

In those times, when I wasn't playing football for the school, or three-and-in in the park behind our house, my dad would take me to watch a match on the back of his red motorbike. Usually, we'd go to Fratton Park to see Pompey struggle to score a goal, but occasionally, he'd take me to Havant & Leigh Park at Front Lawn, or to Jubilee Park to cheer on Waterlooville. These would have been the first three grounds I ever spectated at. Our clubs always seemed to lose, but it didn't matter - it was all part of the weekend routine: wake up to the sound of Leigh Park Gardens' skreeking peacocks; go shopping at Keymarkets in Park Parade, and perhaps drop into the toy shop next door and buy a new packet of Top Trumps or a Subbuteo team; go home and attach sticky numbers to the back of the new Subbuteo players and give them foreign-sounding names such as Roobische Kootz - they would then play their first match and I'd write down the scorers and times...

...Beefburgers for lunch, smothered in ketchup; then on with my blue and white knitted bar scarf and ancient motorbike helmet, and off to the match we'd go!

The rickety TV tower.
Havant & Leigh Park eventually became Havant Town, moving to a new ground on Martin Road, but this was after I'd left the town behind for further education and job opportunities elsewhere. I never got around to seeing them play. I did sporadically still visit Waterlooville, but my football kicks were generally to be found at Fratton Park.

The two neighbours joined forces in 1998 when 'Ville sold their ground for housing and moved in with Havant. Westleigh Park has since been steadily built up to its current state, where it is terraced and covered on all four sides, with a nicely-proportioned 500 seater stand on the west side. It would certainly be good enough for Conference football, and with a little help from the town planners, could easily be extended on two sides to create a ground of a high enough standard for the Football League. I would imagine the club would average crowds of 1,500 or so in the Conference, and 2,500-3,000 should they ever reach Big Boy Land.

A panoramic view from the Bartons Road end of Westleigh Park.

Reaching Big Boy Land is the difficult part. You need money to progress, and the Hawks currently have none. The drainage problems at their ground last season didn't help. Westleigh Park was built on a bog (I know, I used to play down there occasionally before the ground was built - it were all squelchy mud and spiky grass back in my day!). They had to replace the drainage system during the summer, which must have cost a good deal - money which then couldn't be spent on the better quality players required to progress up the league. I would say that the Hawks will be treading water for the next few years, but that would imply the new drains don't work, so I won't.

Autumnal trees in the lowdown sunshine at Havant.
The pitch looked immaculate last Saturday. This armchair Hawk was looking forward to the game immensely - a game which would be played between a team which had lost its pizzazz and one which had lost its mojo since I saw them both play at Eastleigh last season.

Farnborough had gone fully professional over the summer, which on the face of it, seems daft at Conference South level. I suspect the players they employ are probably earning less overall than the part-timers they had last year - all personal fitness trainers and golf club pros in their time away from the club, no doubt. The upside of professionalism should be that the players are fitter and have more time to work on set pieces; the downside is that they will only attract young players who haven't settled into another job elsewhere; on the other hand, another upside is that they might be able to develop these players and sell them on at a profit...still seems daft on crowds of 500 or so though.

The match started slowly. I found myself looking around to see if I could spot any of my old school friends from 1976. There may well have been one or two there, but recognising a man in his mid-forties after not seeing him since the age of eleven isn't easy - they could possibly pass for anything between 30 and 60, depending upon the luck of genetics - they could be grey, pony-tailed or hairless, paunchy or stick-like, tattooed, tired, haggard or harrassed - one thing's for sure, they wouldn't look eleven any more.

The main stand at Havant & Waterlooville, as viewed from the Don's Doors terrace.
The match got going. Farnborough attacked with vim; the Hawks counter-attacked with verve. A few minutes before half-time, the men of 'Avantlooville scored the opener. Ex-Pompey protegé Sammy "once linked with Everton" Igoe stroked in a corner from the left which was headed in by Ollie Palmer. From where I was stood, it looked like the ball bounced off a defender's head, then off the bar, back onto the defender's head, back off the bar again, etc, until the ball eventually dropped over the line, but video evidence proves my mind was playing tricks.

Four more goals in the second half really did for poor old Farnborough - despite the result, they didn't play that badly - it's just that the Hawks were jaw-droppingly good. Backheels, audacious lobs, an Arsenal-style "pass and move and walk it into the net" goal, a thirty-yard thunderbolt...Sammy Igoe's lobbed third goal was as immaculate as his Brylcreemed hair, which makes him look like he's jumped straight out of the Bumper Book Of Football 1948 (in the accompanying photos here, he's the player in black and white).

The 5-0 result left the primrose-shirted professionals of Farnborough staring down at the Stygian gloom of the Southern League underworld. In contrast, Havant & Waterlooville were looking up at the stars on a day when everything went right for them. Now all they need to do is do the same again, week after week.

Starlings in the gloom.
I'll be back to see some more football at Westleigh Park when my travels are over. Actually, I'll probably pop along for the odd game whilst this Hampshire project is ongoing. It just felt right on Saturday. I found myself clapping and cheering and actually meaning it. No more shall I be the armchair Hawk giving a little squeal of delight or a sad sigh when their result appears on the Final Score videprinter. My squeals and sighs will be heard at the ground by fellow enthusiasts.

The next fresh match report should be from the Wessex League in two weeks time. In the meantime, I have unearthed my first-ever match report from Havant & Leigh Park, which I shall post next week.

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