It was midday on Saturday, spitting rain. I was with my dad who, for some reason, had come dressed in Fjällräven, trackies, and adidas Sambas, an outfit he’s never even dreamed of before. If not dressed to the nines then at least to a seven or eight—bounding down the street, excited for a game of what would surely be an exhibition of extremely average football. It was all very un-my dad behaviour and, to be honest, it freaked me out.

AFC Hornchurch—known as “The Urchins” for reasons nobody quite remembers—were playing local rivals Romford in the Ryman League Division One North. It was fourth versus sixteenth. A club I played for aged seventeen versus a club I played for aged fifteen. I’ve never been to watch either club since I left them and, to be honest, I hadn’t missed it.

But I felt déjà vu as I walked the sloped road towards the gates, a right turn off a leafy residential street of white stucco bungalows, the quiet broken only when ex-Palace, Peterborough, Coventry, Charlton, Kettering, Corby, and current Chins striker—and sometime boxer—Leon McKenzie, driving a silver hatchback, beeped us to stop walking in the middle of the road.

We let McKenzie pass and, at the gate, paid our fivers and went through the creaking, racing green turnstiles. My dad bought a program from an uninterested old woman; smiling at her while she sat at a white plastic table, lit a fag with an oven fire lighter, and popped the pound coins into a black metal box.

We walked up the wheelchair ramp to the clubhouse—rebuilt after the whole thing burnt down in 1989. Its exterior looks like a suburban general practice but inside it’s grade-A working men’s club: crimson carpet, long wooden bar, little tables in a horseshoe, one television around which an air of community and crisps gathered, kids running around in tracksuits, men with their football shirts tucked into their jeans, generations huddled over a table arguing over whose turn it is to grab the last of the finger food. Oh, and the finger food: free to all who come in the clubhouse. Ham sarnies on white bread, cheese sarnies on white bread, chipolatas, sausage rolls, two kinds of beer nuts, bowls of crisps. And pints: two quid a pop during the game. Tortured by beer 225% more expensive in town, I couldn’t believe my fucking ears.

These ace pictures are from AFC Hornchurch v Tranmere Rovers in 2003 – Image: Well Offside

Then I spotted Max and remembered why it all felt so eerie. Max is in his late-sixties and sat, black fleece and black trousers and khaki boat shoes, at a table at the very front of the house without a beer in front of him. He is the mouthpiece of AFC Hornchurch. He’s been the mouthpiece since early in the 1993/94 season, when his mate Charlie—who used to do the gates—asked him to come and watch his son Robert turn out for the reserves. Max did and decided to never leave.

Or he said he wasn’t that arsed and then very quickly found out that he was arsed, and just couldn’t drag himself away. Now he’s the club’s PA, its MC, its hype man, its unofficial oral historian, its meeter and greeter, its DJ, its co-exec, its morale boosting cheerleader and often, in the summer, its groundsman too.

Seven years ago, I played one full season for AFC Hornchurch: 23 games for the U18s, one goal; one game for the reserves (a win against Grays Athletic Reserves—Fuck off, Gra-ays! Fuck off, Gra-ays! Fuck off, Gra-ays!), no goals. I had been a tidy centre half turned pliable utility player; a well-used, but almost notably unimpressive element of a team that eventually finished second in the league. When I gave up club football after the final game, there was little by way of protest.

Max recognised me immediately.

That’s what Max does, really: he knows every single thing about his club. Twenty-three years he’s been here, nothing’s escaped. Stats? Reels them off like he’s talking in tongues. Players? Recites names like family members. Youth teams? Remembers every starter and sub. Old managers? Still texts them all the time to see how they’re doing.

It’s all there, in his head, behind eyes that show warmth if no real emotion. A guy who manages to be both loud and quiet, gregarious and private, a great talker and a little shy. Dates. Scores. Where he was. What he was wearing. What the weather was like. What was on the radio. The reserve player who missed a penalty in the 89th minute against Clapton with an ill-advised stutter step in 2001. Paul Barnes. Barnsey, with his shuffle. He’ll never forget that. He’ll never forget anything.

***

Two hours before kick-off, Max proudly shows me his four-foot by two-foot announcer’s box; more of an announcer’s cubby really—a wooden closet filled with unlabelled discs and 5-CD changers, whirring foot-long chunks of metal that take an age to get going, each internal cog taking its sweet time and kicking off heat like an oven.

“See, what I have to do, right, is use this machine… It’s really slow, so I have to be on my toes and ready with the next CD. I usually play my own stuff before the game, but when the players warm up I play some modern stuff, pop and Fatboy Slim and that for the players to come out to, like at West Ham—if you cut me open I’ll bleed claret and blue Sam, and… sorry, someone has messed up all my CDs. This is… Ah, this is not on. Sorry… just… just give me a second.”

Image: Well Offside

Up until very recently, Max didn’t just announce for every first team game at the stadium, he did every reserve game, every friendly, every youth team game, every raffle, and the local school athletics tournaments too, since the club shared the ground with the track and field club on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and the occasional Sunday. Lately he’s had to start working shifts; now a prized member of the club’s committee and a grandparent, his time is a little less free than it used to be.

“This is what happens when I let someone else do this,” he said, checking each case and the CD inside it. He hit play. Little Mix’s ‘Shoutout To My Ex’ boomed from the stadium’s ancient speaker system. “Do you know this one?”

I did.

“Do you support West Ham?” he asked me, like he’d forgotten to ask me the password to entry.

I did.

“Good,” he said quietly, satisfied. “Cut me open and I bleed claret and blue. I’ve always said it… I had a season ticket there from 1965 to 2003. Sam, I’ve got claret and blue eyeballs, I have.”

Finally happy with the music—sort of—he shows me his microphones: two new black wireless ones with changer-sized receivers and his prized silver Burns Brothers metal one—“the old steed”—with a long, worn black rubber wire. This was his stage every match day.

“One-one-one,” said Max into his first new mic, labelled red. Too loud. “One-one-two,” he said into the second new mic, labelled blue. Still too loud. “One-one-one…” he said warmly into his metal microphone, his voice—the voice of every pub quizmaster you’ve ever had—flowing from the PA. “One-two-one-one,” like he was telling a seven-inch brushed steel grandson a bedtime story.

He replaced the mic and spoke without looking at me. “So, you’ve been asking around about me?”

I nodded and cleared my throat. I could hear a goal scored on the clubhouse television as sound poured out the mezzanine across the empty pitch.

“Yeah, I hear everything,” he said.

I had indeed asked around. I’d asked my dad what he thought Max was up to, since the pair were pals in my playing days. Straight-faced, he replied: dead. And my mum said she thought he was dead too.

“He must be about eighty now, Sam,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”

I rang the general enquiries number at the stadium to no answer. I searched online for information but found nothing. His name was no longer listed anywhere. Eventually, I found a cached version of the 2008 club directory locked away in an online archive: Club PA listed only as “Max” with no contact number.

I rang the club bar once more and finally someone picked up. On a crackling line, I asked the lad on the other end if he could put me in touch with Max.

“Who?”

“You know, Max. Does all the announcing and that.”

There was a pause. “Oh, I’m… I’m not sure. He’s…” then the line drops out for a few moments. “And when…”—gone again—“…sorry…”—gone again—“…be of more help.”

“You broke up for a second there. Could you say that again, please?”

“I’m sorry, mate. I think Max died quite recently… Okay, bye.”

Click.

I had started this wanting to reach out to a colourful lower league obsessive, and wound up working on a eulogy. I guess my pitch could’ve been much the same:

Nice old bloke takes players and player’s families under his wing, youth team to firsts, above and beyond his duty: geeing them up during a cup run, talking them out of a strop after a big loss. Arm ‘round the shoulder, handing you a cup of sugary tea. Self-styled maître d’ of the league-required post-match refreshments table, unending line of mild patter. Treated us like we mattered…. Blah blah blah.

I joined an AFC Hornchurch forum, asking around for memories.

“Anyone remember Max?” I wrote. “Funny old fella who used to do the PA? Match days aren’t the same without him.”

First response, from 1961 COYI: “Max is still with the urchins. you will be pleased to know the best PA in essex is still strutting his stuff on the mike, same music, same jokes though.”

These non-league forums are much too earnest for a little shake of dead fella bants. A little confused, I emailed club secretary Pete Butcher, former local sportswriter and now top boy of AFC Hornchurch administration, asking if he might mind putting me in touch with Max for this article.

Twenty hours later, a reply:

I’ll ask.

Pete

Unless the Butchers have a Ouija board, it was safe to say he was alive.

Then I heard nothing for a week. I emailed nudges to no avail. I pretended: my emails sometimes get sent to Junk folders and I was just checking that Then another nudge a few days later. Nothing.

Two weeks gone, my self-imposed deadline of the Romford game looming, I grabbed Pete’s number and reintroduced myself and my quest, and he answered the phone like a granddad woken suddenly. “H-hey, hello? Yes?” He rebuffed me again, only semi-politely: “I’ll ask. Goodbye.”

I’d pretty much given up at this point, readying myself to write another MUNDIAL feature about really good nutmegs. Then I get an email from Pete:

Ok – “Max” will speak to you Saturday.

Pete

And now here I was, watching Max mess about with his CDs and then following him past the pitch (“You know it takes me 151 trips up and down the pitch with a lawnmower to get it just right?” he says to me and it’s safe to say I did not know that) from his announcer’s cubby to the small chalet that doubled as the club’s boardroom.

Image: Well Offside

Inside was wooden and warm, carpeted and lined with trophies and plaques. The chairs were padded and velvet cushioned, like you’d find at a funeral home. Along one wall, endless china cups on saucers waiting for tea and black coffee; on the other, two club secretaries and the chairman, Ken—a small, proud white haired man in a smart grey suit—sat quietly watching a very loud game show on the small television mounted in the corner.

“Do you want a drink?” said Max, handing me a cup of black tea. “What do you want to know?”

There was nothing, really. I just wanted to meet him again. It was weird: in my head he was part distant mentor, like a weekend dad, and part Partridge, too loudly playing ‘A Town Called Malice’ before games and making jokes about the match day sponsors, Frankie’s Wine Bar and B.F. Mulley & Son Funeral Home. When I thought he was dead—B.F. Mullered—I felt this weird twinge of guilt in my stomach for leaving the club and never looking back. But that’s what playing club football was to me, something I loved but could leave.

Image: Well Offside

We talked about the club’s fortunes while I sipped bitter black water so hot it made my eyes tear up. There have been ups and downs, he said. All clubs have them. Hornchurch were nothing special in that regard, save for a bankruptcy in 2005 that sent a team on the verge of the Conference—and, for some reason, signing Andrei Kanchelskis from Saturn Moscow Oblast FC in 2004—spiralling further down the football pyramid. Max told me some things he asked be redacted, but it’s safe to say, the owners at that time did not have the club’s best interests at heart.

But then there’s the good times. He slips back to talking about Barnsey and that last minute pen and a time he got on Football Focus back in 2001 because the club had to play two games at once.

“It was a funny old night,” said Max.

Chairman Tony Wallace told the BBC at the time: “We would rather not have had to do things this way, but a combination of postponements because of wet weather and restrictions on when we can play at home left us with little choice.”

“The first team played a game against Ware at home and the reserves played Clapton at theirs,” said Max, in the zone now, eyes fixed to the middle distance, which in this case was a small china tea set balanced on a chair. “The day before my mate sent me a new ringtone. The Great Escape. One of them old ringtones with, with just the notes. Anyway, as it happened, we were down in both games. And I was thinking, ‘We could do The Great Escape here…’

“So then there was me, Hazel Irvine, and the producer Cadge in a little Ford, driving down the A13, to record a segment to be shown on the Beeb the next Saturday. We park up, run into Clapton’s ground, and I see Charlie. I say to him “What’s happening, Charlie? What’s happening?” and he said we were losing. I had to keep ducking between that game and the game against Ware. About five minutes from half-time at Clapton I’d had enough and said “That’ll do” and we all ran out the ground and got in the car and started bombing it back to Hornchurch, down the A13 again, and my phone keeps going off, playing this bloody Great Escape theme tune. In the end we got out of trouble against Clapton but not against Ware, losing 2–1. Then I turned to Hazel and said “Hazel, shall we get a beer?” and too right, we got a beer.

“When I got home that night, twelve o’clock, midnight, my daughter was up ironing and I said “The club’ve asked me to be on the committee again” and I’d said no a few times but they were running the club at the time and needed fresh faces and my daughter, she turns to me and said “Dad, you like it over there, why don’t you just give it a go?” and I did it.”

He did do it, donning a suit and a shirt and tie for every game to look every inch the professional compere, but had to opt for more casual attire when the pissing rain and wind and reaching behind monitors and fucking about with wires started messing with his best clobber. That first year he did lots of jobs before settling as a meet and greet guy: “Not necessarily drinking all the time,” he said, “but just saying hello to people, making sure the referees and players are all alright, that sort of business. I only did that for a season; I did a bit of that today, it don’t disappear from you, you see.”

But when the club ownership changed hands, he was asked to don the microphone for the first time. The gig fit like a lovely old glove.

Image: Well Offside

When I ask for tips on announcing, Max fixes his glare at the china once more. “In this game you have to jump right in and make yourself a character, you know? People don’t wanna listen to a dull bloke on the mic all the time, they want a little bit of colour, bit of joviality, and that’s why I put the music on, the modern stuff, because there’s a time and a place and these footballers are young and they wanna get warmed up to the modern stuff. And then when they go in I’ll whack some oldies back on again.”

Hornchurch has had some big games down the years—Lowestoft in the play-off final in front of 1400, Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup in front of 3500, Peterborough in the FA Cup in front of 3000—and Max has put himself front and centre for every one. “I’m telling you, Sam, when you get up that morning, the adrenaline in your stomach is going round and round. It’s not nerves. It’s adrenaline.”

And then he stops dead, looks at my dictaphone, and catches my eye for the first time in about ten minutes.

“On the day, every word you say has to be right. See, I’ve not said an ‘uh’ or an ‘erm’ to you yet, have I?” He hasn’t. “I just want to make sure it all comes out quickly and everyone can enjoy listening to me and understand me. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people think I joke too much…” Opposition fans harbour an even split of hatred and begrudging respect for him: one blog I saw called him a “mouthy cunt” and another “Cockney Partridge” whereas yet others have wished their stadium had a Max of their own. “I leave it for other people to judge,” he said.

We shake hands and he tells me to say hello after the match but definitely not during, because he’s working.

“And Sam,” he said, as I’m walking out the boardroom chalet. “You know Max ain’t my real name, right?” I think back to the lad on the phone telling me he was dead, the conspicuous lack of surname in the directory, the scare-quotes in Pete’s email.

“I did not,” I say.

“Well… Yeah, it’s not. I have my reasons.”

I head back to the bar to find my dad a little sedated by four pints of Carling. I’ve been gone nearly ninety minutes. I buy a Guinness and sit with him.

“How was it?”

I take a sip. “Yeah, good.”

“Yeah,” he said, taking a sip of his own. “Glad he’s not dead.”

Hornchurch in red and white versus Romford in royal blue was a typically scrappy local derby with the only tension on show navigating a game with a very full bladder.

The relatively low attendance—about 150—was blamed on Dagenham & Redbridge also playing at home that day, and the Urchins’ faithful that were there were a mixed bag: the Hornchurch Stadium kop consisted of a bloke dressed like a greaser who alternated between silence and shouting “Fuck off!” indiscriminately at players, a man in a Macron tracksuit screaming “Fucking Commie!” at a fair-haired Romford winger, a few old blokes in fleeces who quietly read the match day program during lulls in play, a few boys with ket-wigs and skinny jeans, some kids in West Ham shirts, me and my dad.

During one stretch of play where literally nothing happened, a steward called Dave walks over to the main clutch of Hornchurch fans, parked right next to the away support of around thirteen Romford men.

“Any trouble today, lads?” asks Dave.

“No trouble, Dave,” said a man in a grey fleece.

“Okay, lads,” said Dave, and then walks off again.

At half-time my dad gets us both a burger, which was excellent, and a tea that was not, while Max trundles out to do the 50/50 draw for “ninety smackaroons”.

Image: Well Offside

“And, ladies and gents, we’ve got a special guest with us today…” he said, and I start thinking, Oh. “He’s a Hornchurch legend…” Ohh. “Part of a fantastic youth team…” Oh no. “And I’m going to let him come and pick out the winner for the draw.” Fucking hell. “Ladies and gents, Sam Diss!”

Only my dad claps. Max wanders over and asks me to do the honours. I pick a raffle ticket: number ten.

“Number ten, ladies and gents,” said Max. “Number one-oh—number ten! Thank you, Sam. Sam Diss, everyone.”

Nobody claps at all this time and I’m glad, sinking back into the stand and pulling my parka over my head.

Later there’s a goal and Hornchurch win and then we all head to the bar and my dad was buzzing once more. I couldn’t work out why he was so happy and then I realised: I’d forgotten how much all this meant to my dad, and what it meant to me—to be part of something. It was never about the football but when I stopped playing, I stopped being a kid in his eyes. To him I was still the boy he drove all over the southeast for games. He never thought I was going to be a pro, and he went through great lengths to make sure I didn’t think I was going to be either, but being a part of something—that was special. Plus the beer was really cheap here.

After two more pints in the clubhouse, I butted into Max’s conversation and said goodbye.

“Cheers for the chat, Max.”

“No problem, Sam—any time,” he said. “Here, this is Charlie who got me into the game to watch his kid Robert,” pointing at a grey haired fella who clearly didn’t want to chat. “Charlie, this is Sam. He played for the U18s in 2009.”

I smiled and Charlie didn’t.

“I was just telling Sam about how I’ve been here twenty-three years and I’ve had my grandkids signed up as junior members since they were born,” said Max to nobody in particular. In the space of thirty seconds he said goodbye to four fans, two members of staff, and four players—including two Romford players, referring to each by name.

“Max, mate,” I said, all bolshy now I was about to leave. “You know you always talk about West Ham and how if they cut you open you’d bleed claret and blue? It’s funny because it sounds like literally all you care about is Hornchurch…” I searched for words obscured by beer. “If they cut you open you’d bleed red and white.”

Max paused. “I guess you’re right.”

Although neither West Ham nor Hornchurch colours made for very effective examples in this “cut me open” gambit, I kinda was right. I said goodbye and grabbed my dad and left.

Through the turnstiles and back out onto the bungalow road, déjà vu and the old girl with her oven lighter long gone, there was a nice warmth between us.

“That was a good game, wasn’t it?” I said.

“No, it was awful,” he said, laughing. “It was just headers.”

This article originally appeared in Issue 9, which you can’t buy any more, unfortunately. But people are still selling them on eBay for silly money. Buy Issue 15 instead, it’s well good.

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