Windsor & Eton 2 Burnham 0 (20/12/2008)
Supporters of the smaller clubs in the game will tell you with pride that they support their local team, and will often sing about the fact whenever playing “the big boys”, and their presumed travelling support from all over the country. The truth is, this often isn’t exactly 100% accurate. I live, as the crow flies, about 12 miles from the Madejski Stadium, yet there must be at least a dozen other clubs physically closer to me. And this is just senior clubs, even if some of them get crowds where the players and officials rival spectators for numerical supremacy. The difference is that they are all non-league clubs. Now I’m all for non-league football. I follow the leagues quite keenly and have a fair degree of interest, but, and it’s quite a crucial but, it’s incredibly rare for me to feel tempted to venture out and actually go and watch.
Now and then, with Reading away somewhere or not playing, I get a slight urge to check a game out. Almost always something persuades me that there are better alternatives. Woking is a place I’ve fancied going a few times as they are still at a decent level, but they seem to be perpetually at home to Northwich Victoria, which isn’t a fixture to get the pulse racing. A week before Christmas though, and the home match of Windsor & Eton just piqued my curiosity enough to make me feel like venturing the 10 miles or so to their game.
Windsor is known around the world and is a tourist hotspot – whether you want to pay a “bargain” £12 to see the castle (£40 million repair bills don’t repay themselves, especially when one neglects to take out fire insurance), take a stroll around the historic cloisters of Eton College, or just want to walk around the historic old town and see the house where Nell Gwynne offered her ripened jaffas to the king, it’s a fine place to go. Naturally enough, the football ground is absolutely nowhere near any of that stuff and is of rather less obvious appeal.
One big plus of local football is that you don’t have spend 15 minutes finding somewhere to be overcharged to park, half a mile from the ground. I was at most 40 yards from the turnstile, but I headed just slightly further in the other direction first, as Windsor’s place is very near a decent real old pub – the kind that achieves the look of tradition without at any stage look like it’s trying to be traditional. It even had a proper English barmaid too – the kind that is friendly, slightly dappy, slightly hung over, slightly less than professional, and attractive enough to be pleasing to the eye, but you’d think you are still in with a chance after a couple of beers or four.
The pub, in some ways, was the driving force behind me venturing out. Reading were playing at Birmingham and it was live on SKY. Not having SKY at home, a double dose of football gave me the chance to make a day of it. The first half certainly went swimmingly, with a comfortable as you can hope for away win made all the sweeter by a Guinness or two and a fine large all-day breakfast. The pub, virtually empty when I arrived, slowly began to if not fill, certainly get less capacious, and many seemed to be off to the game later as well. One group, whose numbers swelled one by one as individuals in various states of post-inebriation unsteadiness arrived, talked enthusiastically about the advertising campaign they’d done for local radio advertising the club using ex-BBC commentator Barry Davies. Finding out later that he’s Windsor’s club president made it slightly less of a coup, but it was interesting, to me at least, that they spent all their time talking about fundraising rather than the actual football. And this from a group of young lads too, although I admit that I’m at an age when a few football club managers, let alone players, look young to me.
Fortified with three points and three pints, I made my way to the ground. One of the things that’s often put me off non-league football is that the romantic idyllic charm is usually rather trampled by the brutal reality of it. You imagine leafy landscapes poking over quaint enclosures, and get faced with 8 foot high concrete fencing being overlooked by modern housing and industrial units, covered terraces that make you suspect a line of commuters in the town are puzzled as to why anyone would steal their bus stop, and the inescapable fact that unless you are one of those people who really enjoys the pitch side view, you really aren’t going to be well catered for.
To mock though, it too easy. I felt in generous mood. It was certainly a welcoming place. I passed through the turnstile (singular) into a place where the club seemed genuinely pleased that you were there, where the people doing jobs seemed to want to do their jobs, and where a huge number of the fans seemed to know each other. The ground itself wasn’t even that bad. Sure, the Castle doesn’t need to worry about Stag Meadow becoming a rival attraction, but a curious small and pointy church and a backdrop of Windsor Great Park behind the far goal added something to the setting. It even had a view steps of terracing. True, not enough to get a sense of watching up on high from a kop end, but enough to get a sense of how watching such games could be improved for the non-league spectator if only glam rock and outrageous platform boots made a comeback in the fashion world. For those who can’t wait for the second coming of Marc Bolan for a half-decent view, the main stand is a better option. It may be slightly reminiscent of something out of a Subbuteo set. It’s seats may be faded, and a good proportion of them all but unusable due to the once transparent glass screen ends not having been cleaned since fish came off the ration, but it was enough to give an “angle” on the pitch to see the play develop, as well as nice view into Windsor Great Park during the less interesting moments.
Another thing that had attracted me to this game was a Reading connection. Not only are Windsor & Eton known as the Royalists, to Reading’s “Royals”, but the manager and one player are both Reading old boys – Keith Scott and Martin Williams respectively. Neither are names known much beyond those that saw them play regularly, and neither excelled at Reading either during a “difficult” (OK, rubbish) period for the club. Keith, according to wikipedia, was on the books of no less than 19 clubs during a 16 year career. He was signed by the late Tommy Burns for £250,000, and for all of Tommy’s other talents, prudence wasn’t among them, as Wycombe were considering giving him a free transfer at the time. Williams, known as “skittles” to Reading fans for his tendency to fall over like one without due reason, stuck around rather longer without ever becoming a permanent fixture in the side.
Facing Windsor today, having made an even shorter journey than myself, were Burnham, just 6 miles away across the boxy expanse of Slough’s trading estate – an area most famous for featuring in the opening credits of the Ricky Gervais’ “The Office”. Less well known is that Thunderbirds was also made there, and it’s easy to see the inspiration for Tracey Island, as it’s exactly what Slough doesn’t look like. Burnham itself is undoubtedly not as grim, but however pleasant Burnham village may indeed be, return there would be about the only joy the visitors would have on this day.
Knowing Keith Scott’s playing style, with the finesse of a cement mixer and only slightly more mobility, it was quite a pleasant surprise to see that as a manager he had Windsor trying their best to knock the ball about on the floor and play a bit of football. I’d seen the odd game at this level, the British Gas League Division 1 West (Windsor are a mere 6 promotions from league trips to Old Trafford), before and the tactics then seemed to revolve around aiming the ball in the general direction of the opposition goal at any height that was deemed appropriate, so this was a welcome change. OK, it didn’t always work, but full marks for effort. Even Martin Williams appeared to have shrugged off his banana-peel slapstick ways, and was operating down the wing, controlling the tempo of the game as an “experienced head”.
The league table suggested the Windsor were one of the best teams in the league, but a relatively low goal total hinted that they don’t make things easy for themselves, and that was to be the feature of the game. Windsor’s keeper could have taken out an easel and painted a nice picture of the park or the planes from Heathrow flying overhead, so rarely was he called upon. Burnham’s keeper was much busier, but nowhere near as busy as he ought to have been, such was Windsor’s inability to fashion a decent chance when one seemed likely. Approaching half time it was still 0-0. A palpable hush has fallen over the ground as people contemplated what to do with the next 15 minutes of their lives during half-time. A few shuffled towards the tea bar. One or two other retrieved match programmes from coat pockets in readiness, but one or two Burnham defenders appeared to be mentally already seeking the warmth of the dressing room, allowing a Windsor player enough time and space in the box to have planted an allotment of vegetables unhindered if he’d wished. Instead, he took the option of calmly passing the ball across the keeper, who could only watch, expletive ready but unused on his lips, as it rolled slowly into the corner of the net.
Opting for the main stand view in the second half, avoiding the seats reserved for officials, those requiring a degree of x-ray vision to see the goals, and those seeming popular with the local pigeon community, I settled in readiness for the second half with a quick read of the programme, and noticed that the club’s patron was Prince Phillip. The lack of the royal standard being flown from the corner flags suggested that he wasn’t in attendance today, and it’s kind of hard to imagine him popping down too often. That’s a shame, as apart form offering the chance of the incongruous sight of a member of the monarchy queuing up at the tea bar for a coffee and chips, his stereotypically tact-free comments could be interesting to hear, particularly if an angry opposition manager overhears and realises who is giving stick back to mid-sentence. Instead all in the stand were treated to the combined wit and wisdom of a huddle of pre-pubescent boys at the back of the stand. Fair play to them for their enthusiasm for their club, and even the humility which had them singing “We’re by far the greatest team The British Gas (league) has ever seen”, but mostly their shouts from the back had me wanting to weep for the future of the country. Then again, if I’d popped a few miles up the road and listened to the 12 year olds at Eton, who one day probably will be running the country, then I’d probably be really worried.
Windsor had scored a minute from half time, and effectively killed the game with another goal a minute after. Martin Williams, who’d stayed uncharacteristically upright for 46 minutes so far, was challenged in the box and went down. The ref looked briefly towards his linesman, a sickly child of a man, thin and awkward, and with a complexion pale beyond even English winter standards, before deciding he’d give the penalty regardless. No messing about, the penalty was whacked low and hard into the corner, with the keeper, an ex-Windsor player, taking just as much of a wrong direction in goal as he looks to have in his career.
The goal took all the wind of of Burnham’s sails, although they weren’t exactly the Cutty Sark beforehand, and they all but settled for defeat from that point. They only had one more effort on goal, and that was right at the end when they were probably just trying to do something to keep warm. The only mystery was why Windsor didn’t add any more goals. “Their forwards not being all that good” is the most obvious answer on this game’s showing, but the Burnham keeper just seemed to benefit from all the practice he’d had throughout the game and made a smart stop or two.
So the game drew to a close, 2-0 to the hosts, with the Royalists watched by a princely, if not exactly royal, 201 people. I didn’t come to Windsor as a true convert to the non-league game, and despite viewing the game slightly rosily after Reading’s earlier result, I still wasn’t sold on the idea that what the game lacks compared to the professional game, it makes up for in other areas, but to those who do go, full credit to them, it probably doesn’t matter. At a normal, for want of a better word, football match most see the final whistle as their cue to leave, but many today, if not most, instead made their way to the sizeable clubhouse to extend their evening. Maybe at this level what goes on in the social club is just as much part of the club as what happens on the pitch, and the fans can really feel part of their club in a way that even supporters of the league’s smaller clubs can’t imagine, and that really is the appeal.