Banbury’s red and yellow ground never looks subdued but it’s positively garish when the summer sun hits it at the start of the season. Maybe it was that brightness that got in the eyes of Dorchester’s defenders, or maybe it was some kind of early season jitters, or maybe, just maybe, they really are in for a very long season indeed. Their loyal band of followers will have had much to mull over as they completed their 300 mile round trip to watch their boys get splatted 5-1.
Five. One. Banbury will be delighted. Or, at least, their fans will be. The manager seemed to find plenty to fault. Hardly surprising given that for most of the ninety minutes the game didn’t even have the intensity of a pre-season knockabout. With a few honourable exceptions Dorchester didn’t look up to it today, so how to judge how good a side the redmen really are? Impossible to say. Two tap ins inside the opening ten minutes and then a flow of three more before a late-ish penalty offered the visitors a sliver of consolation. Banbury found it hard to keep their shape and harder still to stay motivated to the end. At least the crowd had the pleasure of a win and the latest news from Chelsea’s home loss to Burnley to keep them engaged.
What they don’t tell you is how much you will end up living and dying with athletes whose names you don’t know in contests you hardly cared existed. Yes, there’s Bolt, Farah and the rest on the posters but what actually makes you sit in wide-eyed joy are things like a women’s triple jump final whose lead chops and changes and is, in the end, won by less than an inch: Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela taking the gold ahead of Caterine Ibargüen of Colombia.
That was the first evening of two that we were fortunate enough to attend. Fortunate in this case being twofold: we were lucky in the ballot for seats but also lucky to be able to afford (albeit with severe wincing) to move up a grade to claim our spot. Still, wherever you are in the London Stadium the atmosphere and views are spot on. It really is a lovely place. West Ham are more fortunate than even our luck would allow.
London in August did sometimes feel more like the seaside in winter. No matter. This was a crowd determined to be happy. Not in any forced New Year’s Eve kind of way but in that easy manner that comes from knowing what you will see will entertain and enthrall. That all human emotion would be on display. But also that no one is going to care if you need to rush your child to the loo because they are not prepared to wait until after this particular high jump.
I’m sure some people were bored. I didn’t sit near any giving off such vibes. I’m sure many people were cynical. It’s hard not to be. Some performances require sellotape and steel will to stop the eyebrow raising. Athletics is the rawest of sports in how it feels to find out its heroes dope. It really is that test of body against body, and it’s meant to be an equal test of ability. Nobody is that naive. But sport rises above even its dirtiest instincts. The effort, energy and dedication on display cannot be faked. They could all be drinking Ben Johnson’s magic potion but its lonely, determined training and single-minded focus that gets them here. Or at least that’s my feeble-minded take to rationalise it.
And, in the frenzy of this happy, lovely crowd you can forget it all anyway. I can say, with pride, that in the women’s 1500m I saw a race for the ages. With equal pride I can say that for the final 100m of the men’s 4×400 I was shamelessly, jingoistically Trinidadian as they surged past the USA. The British bronze was safe, we could find our voices to will on the underdogs. The men’s high jump was pretty good too as was Omar McLeod’s 110m hurdles glory. And a beautiful silver for the British women’s 4×400 too.
The final action on the track though was a horde of photographers and assorted media following the messianic Usain Bolt as he took a final lap. A bronze and a DNF were the great man’s return in this, a games too far. His walk felt a lot more like a changing of athletics’ guard than did the handing on the baton to Doha for the next world championships. Sadly, that felt a lot more like business as usual for the IAAF.
When the tickets arrived, I looked over the events we were to see. I made careful note of the van Niekirks of this world and which of those would be performing for us. But, like I say, those guys are the hook. It’s when you’re willing Majededdin Ghazal to bronze in the high jump that you know that they’ve got you, and that you are so very glad that they have.
Henry Blofeld once described The Saffrons as being the quintessential English venue. He was in Eastbourne for the cricket, as indeed Sussex will be later this summer, but, today, whilst there was cricket (and bowls) to see at the Saffrons the noise, colour and crowd were here for the final day of the Southern Combination season.
To the sound of almost constant drumming and the sight of flags and the occasional flare, two sides with only pride to play for did a pretty good job of creating a match worth giving a damn about. Eastbourne took the lead with a neat lob before being pegged back by an absolute scorcher of a shot early in the second half. After a fair bit of nip and tuck a smart header from a corner sealed the deal. Although some of the tackles had a feel of a pre-season friendly (obviously no one wants to be damaged heading into the holiday season), overall it was a pretty enjoyable game. My younger was pleased with his burger and only occasionally complained about how long 45 minutes takes to pass so all was definitely good.
And whilst Blowers quintessential Englishness probably didn’t include ‘Still Hate Thatcher’ t-shirts I like to think there’s something defiantly and wonderfully welcomingly English about the knowing and knowledgeable inclusive passion that sport, even this far down the pyramid, can generate.
Fulham played Manchester United on 2 November, 2013. This photo was taken on 23 April, 2017. The Norman Arms closed in early 2014. There are some less than favourable comments to be found online about the state the place was in then, contrasting with some nicer words a few years before. It’s still boarded up now and history records that Fulham lost 3-1 and were, at the end of the season, relegated.
Over to Hastings and Bexhill rugby club which is now the home of Hastings Conquerors American football club. Their visitors began life as the Chiltern Cheetahs in the mid 80s and lay claim to being the third oldest continuously playing club in the UK whereas Hastings are one of the newest. No matter, old and young now face each other in the same division which, assuming I’m reading this right, sits at the foot of the British American Football pyramid.
Truth to be told, there were pleasures here today but a close contest wasn’t one of them. Hertfordshire got ahead early and then scored often. On each down they seemed to have a few yards head start before Hastings closed them down. When Hastings had the football they didn’t seem to have the same level of coordination and, in the first half (I left at half time owing to life getting in the way), picked up only one first down which they immediately blew by coughing up an interception touchdown.
The final score was 63-0 so a happy journey home for the visitors but a tough day at the office for the Conquerors. But, at least, they now have an office which is a very nice place to watch sport. The rugby clubhouse serves a nice pint, the balcony is a splendid place to survey what’s going on, and, should they get a close game going, they will get more folk to stick around. There was interest aplenty from a healthy contingent from Hastings & Bexhill as well as a good group of preconverted supporters. I’ll certainly be back and I may even make it past half time.
“Is this your first time?” So asked the Sussex groundhopper as I made my way through the muck covered path behind the goal to set up a position to take some photos. I tried to appear quite the veteran of East Sussex soccer but my interlocutor, even more recently arrived, made my experience look puny. This is someone who goes to Battle Baptists and Hollington when the heights of the County League get too dizzy. I can’t compete with that. I just took some photos instead.
But what of the game? Well, we waited for a game of football to break out but it wasn’t that sort of afternoon. There was a lot of effort, a lot of physicality and a lot of passion. What there wasn’t, for most of the time, was anything resembling sustained, coordinated play. In the first half, when the tackles flew, that was kind of fun. In the second, as Westfield tired and neither team did much to inspire, it was less fun. But I can’t be too sad. Any match which features an exploding sugar bowl has to be worth remembering fondly. For the record, Sidlesham won 3-1, overcoming an early deficit to run out deserved winners.
Nobody is going to claim what we saw today was a classic but, as the man who goes from game to game to game will no doubt agree, that’s not why we’re here in the first place.