My recent trip to Eastleigh having ended in something of disillusionment that the ethos of non-league football was in retreat I felt I needed an antidote in the shape of a real football hinterland. This was what Row Z was meant to be about, exploring the far reaches of the game, the unloved, the forgotten and the overlooked nooks-and-crannies where football is found. As far away from the gigantic-stadia and corporate sponsored, bloated excesses of the modern game as it is possible to get. This is the desire that leads to me picking my way across a muddy field alongside the players of Hamble Club reserves and AFC Aldermaston reserves to see if Hamble could end their losing streak and put their bad run – including an 18-0 defeat, behind them.
Hamble, or to give it it’s proper name Hamble-le-rice regards itself as a village, though it manages to pack in rather a lot including an aerospace plant and an oil refinery. Hamble is also home to some 5169 people, according to the 2001 Census, one of these people being Dani King who also happens to have been a gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics. In recognition of her achievement the postbox in Hamble’s high-street was painted gold and is now proving to be something of a visitor attraction. As I crouch down to take the perfect shot you see here a couple arrive and also begin taking photographs of the box, then returning from a drizzly walk down to the waterfront I see a pair of young women stood beside the golden box whilst a local presses the button which digitally captures their beaming expressions. Success it seems possesses a magnetic quality. People just want to be close to it, to feel as if they share some small part of it, whether this is standing in a crowd of 70 000+ as their team wins the cup, or having a photograph taken by a golden post box.
Leaving the postbox behind I head off to the Shell Mex ground (presumably given Hamble’s links with oil the name refers to the petrolium giant) home to Hampshire Premier League side Hamble Club F.C who are Hamble’s second team after GE Hamble, the works side from the Aerospace plant who play in the Wessex league. Along the way I pass by the actual Hamble Club, a rather glum looking single-storey social club in the part of Hamble which didn’t get much screen time on Howard’s way. The Shell Mex itself also looks like a glum place with plenty of peeling paint, potholes and copious amounts of mud. There is what seems to be a squash court and club-house attached to the changing rooms, though it’s unclear if either get much use and it is clear that they’ve seen better days.
I make my way into the ground with some trepidation, not least because the place looks as welcoming as the musty old cafe in the Goonies. As I’m here to watch a reserve fixture, I may well be, and indeed appear to be, the only spectator, or at least the only spectator who isn’t either a friend or relative of a player, or a club official. As I arrive the players are returning to the changing rooms having had their pre-match warm-up and I pass through them beside well-weathered portakabin which has a sign reading tea-hut attached to it. A few people are stood inside sipping from foam cups, but the seeming lack of a friendly non-league tea lady puts me even more ill at ease and I hurry on toward the pitch.
There is just one other person milling around alongside the pitch, the AFC Aldermaston official who drives the team mini-bus and will this afternoon be running the line (their often being no official assistant referees at this level) We have a nice chat in which I ask him if they’re expecting a good result – Hamble’s last three games ending 9-0. 18-0 and 16-1 respectively, but rather than any unbounded optimism he talks of the trials and tribulations in getting his team together; The Aldermaston squad only recently arriving having set off from their base at 1pm, leaving late as they were waiting for players to show up. Apparently the club has about 60 players on the books, but many of these have a casual approach meaning getting a team together can be a challenge. It reminded me of my days playing for the 3rd XI at Goldsmiths College when we’d all be assembled in the college canteen on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons waiting until 11 of us were there, often making phone calls to people who said they’d be there. As our budget did not extend to a team-bus we’d have to rely on public transport to reach the venue which was often far out of East London – even our home pitch was in Sidcup, and we’d more often than not be late and have to play two halves of 30 minutes.
As for our results, they looked a little like Hamble’s who have, by anyone’s standards, been having an abysmal season. Both the first team and reserves are rooted to the bottom of their respective leagues like a rusty old anchor wrapped in seaweed at the bottom of the Hamble – The reserves for their part losing every one of their six matches in the process scoring only three goals whilst conceding a rather breathtaking seventy-three. Hamble however, appear to be intent on tearing up the form book and for much of the first half look the better of the two sides – though there is one hairy incident where the Hamble ‘keeper elects to hoof, rather than catch, a relatively innocuous-looking incoming shot. Slicing it the ball swerves up in the air; It could go here, there, or anywhere and looks for a moment as if anywhere may well be the back of the net, but it somehow it avoids going in and Hamble continue with their pressure on an uncomfortable looking Aldermaston defence.
Without taking too much away from Hamble, it is worth pointing out that their opponents are no stranger to bad form themselves; AFC Aldermaston’s first team were in fact not so long ago credited with the worst ever losing streak in British football history – lasting some 40 games. Hamble’s dominant spell continues up until the closing stages of the first half when it all begins to go wrong allowing Aldermaston to take the lead after a corner-kick ends up with the ball being bundled over the line. It’s ugly, but it’s a goal.
Just before half-time another Aldermaston corner-kick sees the ball cross the line on the third attempt – the first being palmed away by the ‘keeper and the second blocked on the line. The first half finishes 2-0 to the visitors. As the Aldermaston team return to the dressing room the Hamble manager, wearing jeans and a track-top, assembles his team by the corner of the pitch for the half-time talk which reflects both the disappointment in conceding two late goals, but the achievement of it only being two goals; “They expected to come here and rout us” he tells his side suggesting that of the two teams it is the visitors who will be most unhappy with the scoreline. He adds that Hamble may yet still win the game predicting that “the next goal wins it.”
Though Hamble do come close to scoring when through on goal just after the restart Aldermaston seem much more relaxed in the second half and begin playing some fluid football with some moves which are easy on the eye, at least for the one neutral amongst the handful of Hamble Club reserves friends and family. Increasingly the game looks beyond Hamble and as it trickles towards it’s conclusion the Hamble manager – now dividing his time between the match and keeping an eye on his young son who is playing with a ball on the rather soggy training pitch – makes one final throw of the dice with his last substitution. However, the player he wants to send on, who has been huddled in a hoodie since the start of the game, doesn’t have any socks. It is decided, as a solution, that another substitute must part with his to allow the player on the pitch “As soon as you get those socks on you’re on” the player in the hoodie is told. The change has no impact whatsoever on the game and it ends 2-0 to Aldermaston, a good result for them, but, recent results considered, a great result for Hamble. Time to paint another postbox.