Groundhopper Girl: The Hundreds Of Times We Went To The Longmead Stadium Because We Live And Breathe A Step 7 Non-League Club (Tonbridge Angels)

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Normally my groundhopper posts involve telling a story over one isolated game. But that’s not possible with my own team, when I’ve been to this ground so many times and seen so many stories, as well as a load of damp squibs. Such is the nature of regular support. So have instead 7 snapshots of how the Longmead stadium experience has changed over the last 8 years…

30th December 2006. Tonbridge Angels v Ramsgate, the Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge. [abandoned]

It all begins on a Biblically rainy penultimate day of the year. My dad and brother have been to the last two home games and finally invite 14-year-old me along to see this Tonbridge Angels team they’ve been banging on about. The ground’s not much to look at; two stands behind the goals, tiny club shop near the entrance, little press/board members’ stand by the pitch, a shell with a few rickety wooden seats next to one of the long sides of the pitch and a bar on the other side, called The Longmead Lounge, which is pretty small and packed with people, mainly because it’s more or less the only warm place in the stadium.

We grab an average burger from the burger van next to the shell and watch the game in front of the stand with the home fans. Our main striker, Jon Main – who will score 7 hat tricks this season and break the club scoring record with 44 goals – is ineffectual, our dodgy keeper Aaron Kerr has an even dodgier hairstyle, and we’re reduced to 10 men as our midfielder Robbie Kember is sent off. Losing 2-0, the rain keeps battering down until the referee abandons the game on 68 minutes after a pass stops dead in a puddle and the ball floats.

A dreadful first match to watch, but what strikes me isn’t the team’s incompetence or the slightly tinpot ground: it’s the passion of the fans (99% male), by which I mean the swearing and chanting. To my innocent 14-year-old grammar school mind it is the funniest, warmest and most animated crowd I’ve ever been part of, and I love it. Much to my dad’s surprise, I want to go the next week, and the next week, and the next…

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21st March 2009. Tonbridge Angels v Ashford Town Middlesex, the Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge. [3-2]

Two and a bit years later and the ground’s been upgraded as we embark on a five year plan to get the team into the Conference South; the shell with 200 seats is now a fully-fledged seated stand with 700 brand new plastic blue seats. There are a few more changes too, as the North Stand has been renamed the Jack Maddams Stand after a youth striker of ours who died in his sleep from a heart defect, Angels legend Jon Main has moved onto future league club AFC Wimbledon, and in less sombre news there’s now a second burger van near the entrance. Their burgers put 3 Michelin starred restaurants to shame in the Steadman family’s book. We know barely any of the other fans (team historian and statto Dan aside), but it doesn’t matter, because we all want the same thing on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening: an Angels win. A few more female fans have drifted onto the scene too.

The game begins unremarkably and continues thus until the 87th minute when, 2-0 down, we score a consolation goal. Unthinkably, in the second minute of extra time, we get an equaliser. With several more minutes of extra time still to play, there’s a buzz around the Jack Maddams Stand that I’ve never felt before: a palpable sense that the winner is coming. And with a beautiful Fraser Logan free-kick that powers into the top left-hand corner in slow-mo on 94 minutes, we’re right, and the home crowd goes absolutely bananas. There’s no better feeling than a last-minute home comeback.

Club shop.

Club shop.

25th April 2009. Tonbridge Angels v Dover Athletic, the Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge. [0-2]

Those late, sweet three points against Ashford help us maintain a promotion push, and we’re confirmed for third place before our last game of the season against league winners Dover. But, like a Lemony Snicket children’s book series, there’s a series of unfortunate events to come. Dover winger Lee Browning is hit in the face by a throw-in and swallows his own tongue, which had both teams’ medics not swiftly rectified would have been fatal; after this delays the game for 15 minutes while an ambulance is called, the referee pulls a hamstring and has to be replaced by one of the linesmen, who in turn has to be replaced by a spectator with the necessary linesman qualifications. In addition to all this we have a player sent off, both managers are sent off after an on-pitch scuffle, and an off-pitch scuffle kicks off near the dugouts around the same time. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt unsafe at a match and is the first time I cry at a match (but certainly not the last), and is probably part of the reason we dismally crash out of the promotion race in our home play-off semi-final, 2-3 against Carshalton Athletic, several days later.

The famous burger van.

The famous burger van.

9th February 2010. Tonbridge Angels v Cray Wanderers, the Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge. [3-2]

We’re staring relegation in the face. It’s February and we’re second bottom in the league; we haven’t won in something like 8 games. But there’s hope, because we go 2-0 up against Cray at home on a Tuesday night- and then they’ve scored once and scored twice. 2-2, ten minutes left to play. Wild with grief at the thought that we are going to be in the Ryman South next season, I lose all sense of dignity and scream “COME ON TONBRIDGE!!! DO- YOU-WANT- TO GET RELEGATED??” like a demented banshee with a strangled voice and with tears in my eyes. My fellow fans give me weird looks. It works though, because we score a winner, and – although we lose the next game against league leaders Dartford – we go on a 13 game unbeaten run and finish the season in 8th, gaining our own camera-wielding Spielberg to film the highlights of our matches on the way. Although my brother does spend the next 4 years making fun of my passionate outburst, so swings and roundabouts.

The PA hut, between the burger van and the Longmead Lounge.

The PA hut, between the burger van and the Longmead Lounge.

7th May 2011. Tonbridge Angels v Lowestoft Town, the Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge. [4-3]

Despite an appalling start to the season, we go on an absolute blinder from October onwards (annoyingly, starting our brilliant run with a 7-1 home victory the game after I’ve packed my bags to go to uni 300 miles away) and finish the season in the dizzying heights of 2nd, meaning a home semi-final (after a nervy 2-goal lead collapse, we come back in extra time to win 3-2 against Harrow Borough), and a home final to Lowestoft Town, the 4th placed team. Revising for imminent first year exams was quite obviously no match for seeing my team maybe get promoted, so I duly paid the ballache £67 for a return ticket home for the weekend. The competitive ground attendance record is smashed as 2,411 turn up. The ground only has a capacity of 3,000, so obviously it’s jam-packed in the stands and we’re ignominiously shunted from our prime spot in the middle of the stand, having to watch from the side so that glory-hunters who couldn’t even name the players or manager can get a good view. (Twats.)

The Longmead Lounge and the watchtower where Trev/'Spielberg' films all the action.

The Longmead Lounge and the watchtower where Trev/’Spielberg’ films all the action.

 

We race into an early 2-0 lead before they get a goal back, but we’re 3-1 up at half time and surely nailed on for the win. Surely? Don’t be stupid, this is the Angels we’re talking about and we never do things the easy way! With 10 minutes to go we’ve somehow managed to chuck away the lead completely and it’s 3-3, and I’m on the verge of tears that we’ve managed to balls it up after being so close… And then Lewis Taylor’s rounding on the goal, ball at his feet, one on one with the goalkeeper, and… GOAL!! 4-3: the crowd goes ballistic, I bawl my eyes out, my dad looks misty-eyed… This time we manage to hold on ’til the death, and despite the best attempts of the PA hut, there’s a pitch invasion. Conference South, here we come!

The tail end of the pitch invasion.

The tail end of the pitch invasion.

26th April 2014. Tonbridge Angels v Havant & Waterlooville, the Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge. [0-0]

Like Flappy Bird we start high in the Conference South – finishing mid-table in our first season – and drop like a stone hereafter (we’re lucky not to get relegated in the 2012/13 season). Our beloved drummer Nev dies just before the 13/14 season kicks off and, fittingly, the atmosphere is like a funeral all season. There’s nothing to cheer about on the pitch, for which the manager blames the fans and the fans blame the manager, and it’s generally all gone Pete Tong. In order to stand a hope of staying up, we must beat Chelmsford away; we are instead humiliated 7-1 to confirm relegation. So this last game against Havant has nothing to play for apart from pride for our departing manager (who quickly confirmed his resignation on the radio after the Chelmsford drubbing), and there is actually some chanting and clapping for the first time in a long time – partly because of the little remaining reverence we have for the man who got us promoted to our highest level, partly because there’s no pressure any more not to get relegated. We earn a respectable goalless draw, applaud, sigh as the Conference South flag flies for the last time, and hope next season will produce something more inspiring than the soulless, useless garbage we’ve seen for the last 9 months.

Tonbridge v Margate.

Tonbridge v Margate.

27th December 2014. Tonbridge Angels v Margate, the Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge. [2-2]

Virtually 8 years since I started coming, and I’ve never seen a Boxing Day (or nearly Boxing Day) win. There have been 5-1 tonkings, last gasp draws (from us), last gasp draws (from them), but no wins. Against moneybags Margate, top of the division and helmed by a manager I’ve actually heard of, it’s unlikely to change here, especially when we go a man down after a grand total of 2 minutes. When the visitors take the lead on 16 minutes, we assume we’re in for a mauling. We’re wrong, getting an equaliser on the stroke of half time and then putting a heroic 10-man performance to take the game to them. They struggle to take their chances and we defend for our lives, eventually seeing our former promotion hero and now Margate player Lewis Taylor bundle our player down in the area to give away the penalty, which Lee Carey tucks away into the far-left corner. We keep attacking, looking dangerous on the break, and the minutes tick down, surely… No, because haven’t you learned anything from this post? We’re allergic to doing things the easy way. The referee magics up 4 extra minutes, they get a corner, their goalkeeper runs up the pitch to make up the numbers and would you bloody believe it; the ball lands at his feet and he powers it into the net like peak Shearer.

Despite the crushing agony of that final goal, I’m reminded why I love this place so much. The ground itself is definitely a bit smarter than it was 8 years ago, and we’re building a new bar type thing behind the Jack Maddams stand to continue refurbishment, but it’s the fans that drew me in all those years ago, and it’s still the fans – chanting and shouting throughout, getting behind the team and insulting the opposition team/fans/town in turn – who are the beating heart of the club. The players and staff change, certain faces in the stand come and go, but the cries of “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH- YOU’RE SHIT!” when the oppo goalie takes a goal kick and the chants of “Oh Tonbridge is wonderful/It’s full of tits, fanny and Angels” never do. And, of course, the burgers are always delicious.

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