Monday, 15 October 2012

29. Fawley AFC

A friendly welcome sign for visitors to Fawley AFC.
This is the story of the Fawley flame. It's not a true story, and all the characters within it are fictional. Don't believe a word you read.

A gang of teenage boys are gathered around a pub table on the Waterside (the collective name for the villages squished between Southampton Water and the New Forest). A typical mixed group of the cocky and the dysfunctional. Anthony has been sitting there all evening, scraping dead skin off of a wart on his left index finger whilst listening to Ryan boast about his latest female conquest. Anthony's face is cratered with old acne; his pullover emits a slight odour of vinegar, as his mum hangs out the washing to dry in the kitchen whilst cooking chutneys for holiday money. He leaves his wart-slicing Swiss army pen-knife on the table as he wanders off to the gents, fed up with his alpha male companions.

When he returns, Ryan has opened up all the various knife blades, saws and scissors, and his mates are throwing the pen-knife towards each other, playing a dangerous game of catch with what they have named the spinning death star. Anthony asks for it back, but they tease him by standing up and throwing it over his head in the world's stupidest game of piggy-in-the-middle.

The landlord sees what is happening. The boys have been getting rowdier as the evening progressed and a timid pair of strangers on a date have walked out, nervously glancing towards the noisy table on their way to the door. The landlord likes the boys - they are regular Saturday night visitors, spending a great deal of money at the bar on beer and nuts, and on the triv machine in the corner without ever winning more than a couple of quid in return. He sees himself as a young man in them and doesn't want them to leave and never come back. Even so, they need to be calmed down...

Bench seats in the new stand at Fawley.
Fawley AFC (1) 1 v 2 (0) Bemerton Heath Harlequins FC
FA Vase 1st Round Proper
Saturday 13th October 2012
Entrance: £5
Programme: £1
Attendance: 50-ish
Club shop: No
Colours: Dark blue / Dark blue / Light blue v Black and white halves / Black / Black
National Grid reference: SU4304

Silhouetto allegretto. A sunny day on the Waterside.
...the landlord approaches the table and asks the boys to stop throwing the death star. They acquiesce immediately and settle back down to carry on drinking. The landlord scrapes a wooden chair along the tiled floor and sits down between Anthony and Ryan. He makes a little small talk - asks them what they do for a living and suchlike, before letting them know that he's just had a text from his mate who works in the safety booth at the oil refinery. Apparently, the Fawley flame has just gone out. This is a very bad thing.

You can see the Fawley Oil Refinery for miles. It's visible to walkers and horse riders in the nearby New Forest National Park; you can see it from the Isle of Wight; take a lift to the top of the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, a good twenty miles away, and the chimneys and flare stacks poke up rudely above the non-specific greyness of the surrounding land. And there's always a flame burning at the top of one of the flare stacks, gobbling up excess poisonous gases.

The landlord's mate had texted him to say that the flame had gone out and that it was panic-stations in the refinery. He suspected a vacuum had somehow been created within the stack which may have caused a backdraft. The flame was making its way slowly down the stack. If it reached the bottom, there was an open tank full of crude oil nearby, and if the flame met the oil, then there was no way to avert disaster. The refinery would go ka-boom! and take half of Hampshire with it.

The boys listened quietly. Seven pints never felt so sober. Ryan made his excuses and left. The others followed him. In ten minutes, they were far enough away to feel safe.

But they were back the next week, older and wiser and a little less cocky.

One of two home-made shelters at Fawley AFC.
Now, this is a true story: Fawley AFC were once part of the Esso Sports and Social Club, one of many works social clubs in the area. Big companies used to believe that a healthy worker is a good worker. Until some manager making a name for himself decides that, with profits down to merely £2bn in the last quarter, savings need to be made. The social side of the enterprise makes no money, contributes little, and the fifty-year-old buildings need repairing or replacing. Time to cut them adrift. Nice fat bonus to go with the company car and first-class air travel for Mr Go-Places. Decaying infrastructure for the workers to maintain.

Thus, in 2002, Esso (Fawley), became Fawley AFC, run by independent volunteers as part of a larger sports and social club in Holbury (the actual village of Fawley is a couple of miles away to the south-east). Founded in 1923 as AGWI United (not sure what those initials stood for!), changing their name to Esso (Fawley) in 1949, the club have never been very successful. Trophies won include the Southampton Senior Cup (1935), Hampshire League Division Three West (1953), the Southampton Wednesday League (1961 and 1968), the Southampton Senior League (1980 and 1988), and finally Hampshire League Division Three (1995). Actually, written down like that, I've seen worse imaginary trophy cabinets!

A splendid rusty roller at Fawley.
The trophy at stake on Saturday was the FA Vase, the Football Association's knockout competition for clubs below step 4 (Southern League around here) of the national league system. Wessex League clubs have had reasonable success in this competition - Wimborne Town and Winchester City have both held the trophy aloft; AFC Totton have been beaten finalists; Poole Town were semi-finalists just two seasons ago; and last season, Bournemouth Poppies went all the way to the quarters. Of today's combatants, Bemerton Heath Harlequins reached the fifth round in 1999, whereas this is only Fawley's second-ever entry. Last season, they won two matches before losing to South Park (no, not that South Park). This season, they beat Hamworthy United in the previous round. Up until now, all their ties have been away from home, so Saturday's match created a tiny (really really tiny) piece of football history, as it was their first-ever home match in the Vase.

A fact about Fawley? How about Britain's longest pier? There's no slot machines, funfair or dirty dancehall on this pier - it's strictly for tankers delivering oil.

And another fact? There's a theatre at the sports complex. They'll be doing Calendar Girls - the story of the WI creating a stir with a naked calendar, I believe - between 18th and 20th October if you're down that way. Now, did the WI in Fawley's original name, AGWI, stand for Women's Institute? That would be novel.

FA Cup heroes Blackfield & Langley are Fawley's nearest footballing neighbours - just 1500 metres to the south - Mo Farah could run there in four minutes. As B&L were also in FA Vase action on Saturday, it was a pity they couldn't stagger kick-off times on what was Non-League Day - I'm sure plenty of people would have gone to watch both games as the two grounds are so close (for the record, B&L won their tie 5-1 against Westbury United).

A ticking off and a yellow card from the ref.
To reach Fawley's pitch, you have to walk through the main entrance of the Waterside Sports and Social Club and be waved through to the glass door opposite by the man at the desk. Through the second door, down a ramp and past the boxing club on your right. The shadows on the walls were as crisp as a freshly-snapped Ryvita on this glorious early Autumn day. The football pitch is in the far corner of the complex, beyond the bowling green, rugby pitches and cricket scoreboard. As entry is so strictly controlled, and with all potential entrance points covered in barbed wire, the area has no sign of vandalism of any kind - no graffitti here (such a big problem at Blackfield & Langley). Equipment can be left safely lying around - no chance of anyone walking through the clubhouse with a rusty roller in tow.

There's a friendly welcome at the pay hut. As you walk in, there's Pinky & Perky's Bistro to your right (tea £1). Beyond the bistro are changing rooms in rusty green containers, sited on an old tarmac tennis court. The high fences surrounding the disused tennis court are still in place, which prevents spectators from watching the match unobstructed from behind and to the right of one goal. You can walk past the changing rooms though to the right-hand side of the pitch, where two small home-made shelters are bisected by brick dugouts. Beyond the second shelter is a large shed with a green door (Shakin' Stevens would approve).

On the opposite side is a new stand with wooden bench seats. The far end is out of bounds, so effectively, the ground is two-and-a-half-sided! Plenty of room for their average crowds of around fifty though. I liked it.

Pinky and Perky's Bistro, AKA the refreshments hut at Fawley AFC.
Fawley took the lead in their first-ever home Vase tie in the 20th minute - a low rasper from the edge of the box after Bemerton failed to clear the danger zone. Other than the goal, the first half was fairly even and uneventful. The second half, on the other hand...

...again, action-free for the first ten minutes...until Bemerton's number six was shown a red card for an elbow on a Fawley player as they both chased a loose ball. Not unusual, except the hot-headed Harlequin then threw the ball at the ref as he reached in to his back pocket. The ball bounced off the ref's forehead and out of play near the dugouts. The crowd of 50 or so gave a collective gasp - enough sucking motion to change the direction of the sooty smoke belching out of one of the tall chimneys behind the theatre. The talk was all about how long the ban would be. "A minimum of five matches" seemed to be the consensus.

For the final 35 minutes, the match could have been played out on the stage of the aforementioned theatre, with the referee playing the part of the baddie in the eyes of the home crowd, as well as the miffed away supporters. Fawley tried to hang on to their lead, but ten-man Harlequins were having none of it, as they bought a parking permit for Fawley's penalty area for the remainder of the game. The inevitable equaliser came via a penalty - Bemerton's spot-kick maestro was as cool as a bucket full of liquid nitrogen as he waited for the goalie to move to his right. Penalty duly slotted to his left.

As full-time approached, talk turned to whether there would be extra-time and penalties if it remained 1-1. Nobody seemed to know. However, a second penalty for the team from Wiltshire put paid to this collective conversation. The ball appeared to strike the chest of a Fawley defender as it flew towards goal, but the ref signalled handball. By the trotters of Pigling Bland! The man in black was not popular!

Penalty number two was walloped with aplomb to the keeper's right. There was no coming back for poor old Fawley after that. The team from Salisbury went in to the hat for Monday's second round draw - they will travel to St Austell in Cornwall on November 17th. They could visit the Eden Project whilst they're there. Make a day of it.

After the match, it's across the fields to the shower block.
A fine afternoon out beside the oil refinery chimneys. Another club added to my ever-lengthening list of ones to revisit over the coming long as the Fawley flame behaves itself.

I would have liked to go to another Vase match in the second round, but sadly, all three of my remaining unvisited clubs were knocked out on Saturday. I'll be concentrating on the league for the rest of the season then, same as Fawley.

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