Words & Images: James Bird
Do you believe in magic? Like, actual magic? Not the type of magic with wands and bloated men pulling out a five of diamonds from behind your ear. But the type that makes kids and dads and mums and grans in handy-down scarves hover three foot above the ground. The type that makes ancient terraces wobble. The type that brings out whole towns of people with mouths wide open and eyes wide open and arms wide open. That kind of magic. Do you believe in the magic of the Cup?
Amongst all that changes in football—all the new stats and new cams and big boys with big toys—the magic of the Cup is something that remains, and glows. Those grounds that you thought were limited to ironed-out Subbuteo boards are rightly electrified and rightly championed. There’s still, even if your side is getting fucking carted every week in the league, a chance of glory. Fans don’t boo their team in the Cup, even if they lobbed a packet of Wotsits at the captain’s head the previous week. It’s a separate entity. A chance to make amends. A jug-eared chalice of hope nestled nicely in amongst the Autumn leaves as the cold slog of the League plunders on and on and on. And, that often romanticised image of the kid with the bobble hat stood on his dad’s shoulders to watch his local team play against a bigger team isn’t a myth from an advert. It’s real. It’s happening here, on a very blustery November afternoon in Kent. It’s the magic stuff, and we’re at Bromley for their Emirates FA Cup First Round Tie against League One high-fliers Peterborough. There’s a lot to do. And we’re here early.
There are security guards discussing the best way to get the Peterborough fans into their corner, canteen workers talking about how many pasties to prepare, ticket sellers checking the door to their hut works, and Jack Holland—the captain and centre half of Bromley—is leaning against the fence looking at the 4G pitch. He’s a big boy is Jack—one of those lads that you knew just by looking at him in Year 4 was going to be a captain of any team he played in—and he was born just around the corner. He’s been here at Bromley pretty much all of his life—he played here as a kid—and games like today mean a lot to him. You can tell that just by looking at his face.
“All my friends and family are around, so it’s very dear to my heart,” he tells me. “FA Cup week is something everyone connected to the club looks forward to. To play teams like Peterborough is massive. There’s so much behind the scenes work been going on from the players and the staff, it’s going to feel good now to get out there and play it.
“We won’t go into today any differently because we go into every game like it’s a matter of life or death—and that’s down to the gaffer, he won’t let us go into any game otherwise. We’ll go out there and give it our best. I get butterflies in the stomach before every game, 100%, it never changes. With the FA Cup and a team like this, it’s obviously something special. But I just want to get out there and give the fans something to shout about.”
The fans are already piling in two hours before kick-off. The Club Shop is just to the left of the turnstiles as you walk in, and Jim Brown runs the gaff. He’s been associated with the club since 1961, and he’s done all sorts. He worked in the canteen when he was 15, was head of the Supporter’s Club for a while, and he’s been running the Club Shop for 18 years now. It’s his local club, he goes home and away with them, and he wouldn’t ever be up for doing anything else. When Bromley were at Wembley for the FA Trophy Final last season, he was awarded the volunteer of the year award. He’s a G.
“It was always my aim, even when I was a teenager to see people wearing Bromley colours—wearing a hat or a scarf. And now we’ve got it all in here—so it’s my dream. It’s a family-owned club; we just try to look after everyone. Some clubs are different, but this is who we are. I live in Bromley, always have done, and to be honest with you, to go to a Premier League match doesn’t really appeal to me. It’s my hometown, and it means so much to me.”
It’s cliché. It’s all been said before. I’ve probably written it before. But, you know what? Feck it. There is something very special about football clubs like this. Under tin roofs and inside tin huts and over tins of beer, the community at grounds like this across the country is tangible. There’s a legitimate sense of pride in meaningful achievements—whether that be selling out of the programme or putting coins together to pay for youth team travel or getting to the First Round of the Cup—you can taste, smell, and hear it. Sally’s saying hello to almost everyone who comes through the turnstiles, Sam Adams has 549 programmes to sell from his hut, and this man, Roy Oliver has tasted, smelled, and heard the lot. Roy has done the bloody lot.
Roy Oliver is something special. If you’ve read The Bromley Boys or perhaps seen the film, you’ll know about him. He’s been coming here since the mid-fifties. It’s 2018, now. That’s sixty years. Back then, his nan would be serving the teas and Bovril, and he’d be on the old wooden stand with his dad.
Roy tells me that “It got burned down in mysterious circumstances, that stand” and then crumples with laughter and asks me “Where’s my matches?” He’s the magic man, is Roy.
“Since 61/62 I’ve been going home and away. Ever since. Home and away. My three sons came down with me, and my wife would be doing the hot dogs and the hamburgers. When the stand needed painting, I painted the stand. When there was a running track around the pitch, I’d be down here picking up all the weeds. I’d be on the gulley getting us all the water and that. I’ve even been ball boy.”
Roy, today, still does the Golden Goal raffle for the fans which raises money for the club. He’s the tapestry of the club. The cotton that holds it all together. He’s elementary to it all. I ask him why, why on earth does he do all of this.
“I feel an identity with a club like Bromley. If you went to the Emirates or United or Liverpool, you would never meet the players. So after the game, I’ll go and talk to the players, the chairman, the manager… and you feel a part of something rather than being a number or a seat.”
He’s been to a lot of games, has Roy, but I want to know how he feels about the game on this particular day. Bromley v Peterborough in the FA Cup First Round.
“We don’t always get to play the big boys, but when we’ve got this far, we’ve always succumbed to being beatan. But as long as we have a go today: who knows. It’s the magic of the Cup. Anything can happen on the day. Anything can happen. They should win, they’re higher, and they’re doing well. But it’s the Cup. It’s all on the day.”
The clouds start billowing, the rain starts spitting, the crowd is loud and true. The ref blows his whistle, and the game kicks off. There are kids with faces red from the wind, parents forcing gloves on their chattering hands. Babies with scarves swaddled. A group of girls jumping up and down up and down up and down. Old people shivering, huddled around cups of tea. A bunch of blokes with wet, boozy eyes. Couples with prams and flags. Groups of lads with songs falling out of their mouths. Academy players watching and hoping and saying “move the ball quicker” under their breath. There’s girlfriends and mums and neighbours leaning against the fence. Hoodies being wrapped around heads. There’s that noise that is football: the punch of boot against shin, the sound of seats and feet, the volume of murmur going up as the ball gets closer to the goal. And people yelling stuff. Lots of people yelling. We’re all yelling.
After forty minutes, Roger Johnson scores for Bromley, and they’re one nil up. The crowd is loud and true and absolutely off its rocker. Five minutes later Frankie Raymond (Bromley) puts his arm somewhere near George Cooper’s (Peterborough) face, the Peterborough end goes absolutely off its rocker, and he’s off. Big old red. Matt Godden scores a sexy volley from the resulting free kick, and it’s half-time and it’s 1–1. The night starts to lick its way into the sky after half-time, and Peterborough score two more, with Matt Godden getting another and Joe Ward the other. It’s a shame. Bromley were looking good in the first half.
After the game, the Bromley players clap all sides of the ground, and Jack walks down the side nearest the main stand and gives out high fives, hugs, and kisses. I speak to a couple of academy players, Alpha and Kerry, and they agree that Bromley looked in control of proceedings until the red card. Kerry says that “It’s a shame. It can be something as simple as that that changes a football match.”
Jack, the captain, reckons the same. Says they enjoyed it, played well, but Peterborough’s class showed through with a man sent off. He says the crowd were amazing, which they were, and asks if I’m going for a drink with him afterwards, which I am.
I spoke to a man called Alex before the game. He introduced me to Roy.
Alex said that the reason he comes to Bromley to watch the football here is that it reminds him of being a kid and going with his dad. When you’re a kid, you try absolutely everything you can to be an adult. You get a pram with a pretend kid in it. Then you get a toy till and pretend to be working in a shop. Then you get fake ID and pretend you’re old enough to drink. And then, once the joys of actually getting pissed and actually working in a shop and actually having a child in a pram quickly fade, you do everything you can to remind you of when you were a kid. You go back to look at your old school and think, “God, that was great.” You listen to the albums you listened to as a kid and think, “God, that was great.” You go to the places your parents would take you on holiday and think, “God, that was great.”