A journey into non-league: Whyteleafe FC v Chatham Town

A couple of weeks ago a good friend of mine was running the London marathon for charity (it’s a very worth cause and you can donate here) and myself and my friend Andy decided to head over and do our bit to support him. Whenever I’m out of the country I try to catch a game while I’m away, or at the very least visit a local stadium or club museum. In England I’ve done the Premier League games before and on one of my last visits to London I caught a Championship game at the Valley between Charlton and Burnley where Charlie Austin scored a screamer. This time we went for something a bit further down the football pyramid, we wanted to check out a non-league game.

For the duration of our short stay we were based in Honor Oak. For those unacquainted with the southern extremities of Greater London that’s about midway between Peckham and Dulwich. For this reason our initial plan was to head to a Dulwich Hamlet game but as luck would have it the Hamlet were playing away so we needed another alternative.

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View out to London from One Tree Hill in the middle of Honor Oak

In previous times we might have actually been forced to do some research, however thanks to the global interconnect-ability offered by Twitter Andy simply tweeted at one of the non-league twitter accounts and we were soon inundated with offers. One that caught our eyes offered us a warm welcome at a club near to where we were staying and the promise of some good beer in a rather unorthodox pub. We were sold, we were off to see Whyteleafe F.C. take on Chatham Town.

On a clear, chilly afternoon we set out at a leisurely pace and made our way out by train to Whytleleafe, a village in Surrey not far beyond Croydon. We were meeting Tim, our twitter contact and his mate Steve, in the Radius Arms for a pre-match pint before a classic 3pm Saturday kick-off. We arrived at the Radius ahead of a delayed Tim and could see why the “pub” is somewhat unorthodox, it’s housed in a converted “greasy-spoon” café and at most can seat about 20 people along its bar stools and tall benches. They do good beers and despite the somewhat early hour we went for two pints of ale followed by a couple of a very tasty local porters. Tim and his mate Steve had arrived by this stage, both local lads from the Croydon area. Tim somewhat surprisingly is a West Brom fan and a regular at the Hawthorns but attributes this to family connections to that part of the world. So far the pub and the warm welcome had been all that we’ve been promised so we’re looking forward to getting to the game.

The ground was within the Radius of the pub (sorry) and was located up a pleasant verdant pathway leading to a somewhat secluded entrance. Upon arriving in the car park what you first notice are the two modern full-size pitches. Directly ahead of us two schoolboy teams were in the middle of a game while to our right was the main pitch. Both surfaces were good quality 3G surfaces that are regularly hired out to local clubs and schools and would put a pitch like the one at Oriel Park to shame. We passed through the turnstiles, (£9 tickets, £2 a programme) which are an incongruous vivid red due to the fact that they were bought from Stoke City’s old Victoria Ground, most of pitch is shaded by high trees and at one end is the larger of the stands, built in 1999 for the club’s first round FA Cup match against Chester City, then a league side and to date the biggest gate in the club’s history.

It was the last game of the season and somewhat of a dead rubber, both Whyteleafe and the visitors, Chatham Town were safe in the Isthmian League Division One South but there was still a couple of hundred punters (later confirmed as 288) through the turnstiles.  Whyteleafe are celebrating their 70th anniversary this year, Chatham Town are considerably older having been formed way back in 1882. They also have somewhat of a giant-killing history having reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in the 1888-89 season, defeating Nottingham Forest along the way. Perhaps it was their Victorian era pedigree but Chatham started far quicker, their number 9, Luke Medley dominating proceedings from the get-go. Quick and powerful with a good touch Medley had Chatham 1-0 up after only three minutes. Whytleleafe were playing the better football, O’Leary at the back, Clayton and Lyle all looked good ball-players but Chatham had their game plan working; be combative and keeping looking to bring in the physique and pace of Medley up front.

It paid dividends again after 22 minutes, Medley getting in for his second although you were left with the feeling that the Whyteleafe keeper Adam Highsted could have done better, he looked ponderous in goal, unsure whether to try and close down Medley or hang back. Shawn Lyle got one back for Whyteleafe almost immediately and that was followed up by a goal from Sam Clayton only minutes later, we were back 2-2. But we went in at half-time with the hosts 4-2 down, Luke Medley completing his hat-trick from the penalty spot after 38 minutes before Austin Edwards scored for Chatham Town again just before the break. It was a clear penalty and it’s worth noting that although there were some tough calls including the penalty decision to be made the referee ran the game well and was a calm and authoritative presence on the pitch.

Now while the Radius had been a good spot for pints it hadn’t really been somewhere for food despite it’s status as a former café, this did however provide me with the opportunity for a personal footballing first. For you see, despite over 25 years of attending football matches I’ve never had a pie at a game. You don’t tend to find pies as a food option at League of Ireland games, burgers, chips, hot dogs (usually Denny jumbo sausages in buns) and even crepes a couple of times at Belfield but not pies. I went for a somewhat unappetising looking steak and kidney pie (the other option was a twix) and ordered a pint of ale in the clubhouse. The pie was actually surprisingly tasty and the pint was rather good too. The clubhouse atmosphere was jovial and welcoming despite the score, it had a well-stocked bar, some comfortable looking couches and a pool table, a set up that would be envied by a number of League of Ireland clubs I could name. It also had a fair amount of Crystal Palace memorabilia on the walls. Palace would be the main local club and Alan Pardew is probably Whyteleafe’s most prominent ex-player.

Having spent the first half leaning on the touch line railing we decided to move behind the goal for the second half. Almost immediately we got talking to two more senior gents who were Whyteleafe supporters and on hearing our accents introduced themselves as fellow Irishmen. One in particular professed his continuing interest in the League of Ireland despite being in England for over 40 years and started enquiring about Shamrock Rovers recent performances.

The second half was somewhat more subdued, apart from the six goals of the first we had one late-on to confirm Chatham Town’s victory and a penalty to Whyteleafe that was well dsaved. We moved back to the warmth of the clubhouse for a final pint and a discussion of Leicester’s chances in the last few games before catching our train back.

Having only previously experienced English football in the top two divisions I can see the growing appeal of non-league football, indeed it will strike a chord with many League of Ireland fans who will understand the draw of supporting a local team and know the warmth of supporting a club on a non-global scale. Although it is the eighth tier of English football was still of a decent standard with some nice touches of skill. And it still is in an overall pyramid and there is still that aspiration to progress and the ability to do so, just look at the progress of a club like Burton Albion from non-league to joining the Championship next year. There is always hope to dream. Whyteleafe are developing connections with bigger clubs up the football league and are apparently planning some big investments in their club with some committed local backer. We can only wish them all the best for the future.

Also a big thanks to Tim and Steve for their warm welcome and all those at Whyteleafe F.C. and at the Radius Arms.

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