Boxing Day Isthmian North Double – Monday December 26th 2011 (474 & 475)

'The newly-created look-out platform at Ilford proves to be a valuable asset to the club's unofficial stray-ball-chaser...'

Boxing Day. One of those all-too-rare days in the football calendar where kick-off times are invariably staggered – probably more-often-than-not to suit the individual clubs and their players – but nevertheless giving us roving football fans the opportunity of taking in more than the one game. And what’s wrong with that? It certainly puts more money into club coffers, for one thing. For instance, I can travel down to London, take in two games for just the one set of transport costs, and give two clubs the benefit of my hard-earned pennies. It’s a ‘Win-Win’ situation! For most of the rest of the year, all those religiously-observed 3.00pm kick-off times are – to me – something of a wasted opportunity.

Two years ago I managed to squeeze in three games, but for 2011 my sights are set on just two, but a very convenient two in Ilford and Redbridge, both in Isthmian League Division One North and situated barely a couple of miles apart in North-East London, or South-West Essex if you want to be pedantic. And as usual on Boxing day, I have my 13-year old lad for company.

Our leisurely and uneventful drive south on a surprisingly busy M1 and M25 – nobody working but everybody off to the sales – gives us time to check out routes and access times from our second ground – Redbridge – and the first port-of-call, the Cricklewood Stadium used by Ilford FC. The latter stadium is not well-signed, and is tucked away down what looks like a track to a building site. Fortunately we have done our homework online and with the aid of our downloaded google map can pinpoint which hole in the line of buildings is likely to conceal the ground. My on-board navigator – who needs SatNav? – spots a torn sticker on a lamp-post which confirms our astuteness and we welcome the tell-tale sight of floodlights as we pull into a public car-park which serves the stadium. It’s also free parking on Bank Holidays, which is a bonus.

After passing through the turnstile, entry to the stadium itself is either by a gate by the side of the snack bar (a veggie-free zone) or through the main two-tier admin complex which features an upstairs bar with panoramic views of the pitch. We check out the bar which has a sign up apologising for the lack of draught beer (technical issue), but offering a good choice of bottles by way of compensation. There’s a heavy Greene King bias but also a solitary bottle of McEwans Champion, a 7.3%abv belter of a brew. What a shame I’m driving!  A mischievous Jack Russell terrier and a huge fish (in a tank) keep us entertained as we await kick-off time.

The stadium itself is quite well-equipped, if not exactly designed for football. Like most arenas of its type – with the possible exception of Chelmsford – standing behind the goal is not really an option, although there is a curved bank of terracing at one end. A pair of good binoculars and you’d be well away. There’s actually raised terracing on three sides of the ground, but the only cover is a small ‘shed’ on one side, from which the view is severely restricted by the dug-outs, and a modest main stand on the other, in which we decide to sit, as the lad recognises that opportunities to field stray balls are well-limited by the vast run-off areas all round the pitch.

In fact the only real entertainment of a dull and uneventful game comes from within the stand itself, as a young lady – quiet for much of the match – suddenly and unexpectedly bursts into a 60-second rant at the Brentwood number 8, which starts with a tirade of abuse concerning his tendency to fall over at the earliest opportunity and finishes with her questioning the size of his manhood into the bargain. With most of us too astonished to say anything, it’s left to the only other female occupant of the stand to suggest that she might just calm down a bit. “I will not calm down!” she yells defiantly, but a goal for Brentwood shortly thereafter seems to do the trick. We don’t get another peep out of her.

It’s the only goal of a woeful game and you can see why Ilford are bottom of the table. Very few opportunities and no-one to take them.

We move on to Redbridge, just a ten-minute drive away, and in good time for the kick-off as we pull into the car-park. The ground is next to Barkingside tube station, but a strike means there are no trains today, which perhaps accounts for an official attendance of only 40, although it does look like more than that. The clubhouse is a very smart affair having been recently refurbished, and is advertising various TV games. Sadly none of the beer on offer is of any interest to the ale-lover, but we have better luck at the snack bar where you can get egg rolls, and plates of chips. The lad smothers his £1.20 worth with ketchup and settles down on the small balcony to watch the game as he munches.

The ground itself offers a lot of scope for watching from vantage points, with raised terracing down one side and behind one goal, whilst there is cover down the whole of the other side. A small main stand opposite completes the picture, as the area behind the other goal is out-of-bounds no doubt due to the state of the perimeter fence behind it. Amusingly, one of the club officials spends the whole of the game watching the match from a large earth bank which overlooks the covered terrace, his job being to field the stray balls which sail up there from time to time.

The game – between mid-table rivals Redbridge and Waltham Forest – starts well with an early home goal but in between then and just before half time it descends into the sort of mess we have just witnessed at Ilford. Hearteningly, one for each side just before the break bodes well for the second half, which turns out to be far more entertaining. Although only producing two further scores – both for the home side – it’s much more end-to-end and far more entertaining. Well worth the long drive south in fact.

Before writing this piece, I look up the origins of the word Boxing Day in good old Wikipedia. Although opinions are divided, it seems likely that this day after Christmas Day was when the Have-Nots would receive boxed gifts from the more generous of the Haves. A day for giving. How Ilford could have done with some of that generosity today.

Programmes: On the turnstile at both (although I had to ask at Redbridge). Both bright and breezy affairs.

Floodlight pylons: 12 (!) at Ilford, just the regulation 4 at Redbridge

Parakeets: Essex a no-go-area for the sqwarksters

Toilets: The ones in the clubhouse recommended at both

Club Shop: Nothing at Ilford but a section in the clubhouse at Redbridge has some scope, although curiously has two dummies modelling Ford United kit. The club switched to the Redbridge name 7 years ago…..

Music the teams come out to: No

Kop choir: Nothing at either.

Away fans: A few Brentwood supporters in the main stand at Ilford, strangely quiet when the girl was ranting but noisy when they scored. At Redbridge, a couple of old fellahs – one with a post-war rattle – braved some spiteful abuse from a mature vocal local before drifting to the sanctuary of the main stand.

What’s in a name? Brentwood’s Elliott ‘No Beef’ Justham. Presumably his team mate Darren Blewitt thought his first team chances might have gone. Have a feeling Ilford’s Raffael Valentino might get called ‘Rudolf’ on the odd occasion.

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