Every now and then – sometimes unexpectedly – you come across a football club that restores your faith in the spirit of the game. The game that we all grew to love and cherish as a meaningful way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I found one such club at Cockfosters, a humble little outfit that knows its place at the end of the Piccadilly Line in the London Borough of Enfield. Like most clubs in Greater London, they have to compete with football giants like Arsenal and Tottenham. “This is an Arsenal-obsessed area,” said one club official with no small amount of resignation in his voice.
But it’s FA Cup day again and Cockfosters are really up for it. “The lads heard you were coming and they’ve been having their haircuts and generally a bit excited about it,” said Cockfosters manager Dean Barker. The boyish former prolific goalscorer also looked like he’d had a bit of male grooming in the days leading up to the preliminary round tie with Tower Hamlets. They insisted on a team photograph and seemed to enjoy the experience. It was a good start to the day.
Off the pitch, Cockfosters provided a warm welcome. “Ah, Mr Jensen, we’ve been expecting you,” said one club official (my visit was announced in the programme). It wasn’t quite James Bond territory, but it’s always good to be well received and a cup of tea was quickly forthcoming.
Barker had to contend with the usual player unavailability, thanks to weddings and holidays. But his team had enjoyed a good start to the season and had won three of its five league games and successfully negotiated the extra preliminary round of the FA Cup with a 4-1 win against Burnham Ramblers.
Cockfosters’ opponents, Tower Hamlets, come from the Essex Senior League. They were previously called Bethnal Green United. Their home is the Mile End Stadium. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is a curious mix of the wealthy and the poor. It houses a number of global financial houses – I work there myself – and at the same time, it has a very high rate of long-term illness and premature death. It also has the second highest unemployment rate in London.
Tower Hamlets came mob-handed with coaching staff, far more than is normally allowed in the dugout area. One member of the entourage told me he was a players’ agent, which made me smile given we were talking about an Essex Senior League side. It wasn’t the first time I had spoken to someone at a non-league game claiming to be an agent, but it underlined to me that perhaps we are getting things out of perspective.
I took my place on the far side in an improvised “press box” comprising a table and chair – a special thanks to the manager’s brother, Paul Barker for putting that together. From my vantage point, I saw a riveting and very absorbing game. Cockfosters started well, but the crisp passing of Tower Hamlets soon started to take control.
Once the visitors settled, their pace up front caused Cockfosters problems. In the 26th minute, Tower Hamlets went ahead, the Cockfosters defence stood and watched as Jerome Martelli controlled the ball inside the area and rolled a tame shot into the net. It was a poor goal to concede.
It was no surprise when they extended their lead after 38 minutes, a determined run down the flank by Randell Williams and after a deflection, Martelli scored again with a first-time low drive. Martelli, who used to play for Cockfosters, looked a class act, by far the best player on the pitch. Tower Hamlets only signed him a few days before the game. “He’s a very good player, but watch his discipline,” said a Cockfosters supporter. “We had him here, you know.” Those words proved quite prophetic.
Cockfosters came out a different team in the second period. “We had a few choice words in the dressing room,” said Dean Barker, who sat in his dugout before the teams came out looking a little angry. Within two minutes of the restart, Shane Reid scored from close range after Gary Simmonds’ shot was parried by Sean Bazell. It was just the response Barker was looking for.
Tower Hamlets could have extended their lead when Martelli shot over the bar after good work by Randell Williams. But Cockfosters levelled when a free kick to the far post was headed home by substitute Jacob Kalonda – his first FA Cup goal. “They should have had him on from the start,” said one Chalk Lane regular.
Seconds later, Tower Hamlets received another blow when Martelli was sent off for a simulated dive. It was very obvious, even from distance, but the crowded dugout from East London went into overdrive. The Tower Hamlets manager, Ade Abayomi, a softly-spoken character most of the time, admonished his colleagues for getting too excited.
In the 72nd minute, it got worse for Abayomi, Cockfosters defender Jack Grosvenor shooting past Bazell after a scramble. The players piled on each other and Barker punched the air with delight.
It could have got even worse when Cockfosters centre forward Ben Andreos struck the woodwork with a free kick and then sent a header onto the roof of the net. Andreos was desperately unlucky not to get on the scoresheet in a very busy second half.
Just as the game looked to have drifted beyond Tower Hamlets, a tame ball into the area by Williams was fumbled by Byfield and it fell to Aliu Ibrahim who had the simple job of tapping into the net. It was heartbreaking for Byfield, who had earlier pulled off some fine saves. Nobody could quite believe it, but in truth, it was a fair result, and richly entertaining.
Both Cockfosters boss Dean Barker and his counterpart, Ade Abayomi were gasping for breath. “We came back well after being two-goals down and we could have won it but for that last minute goal. At the end of the day, I’m delighted with the way we responded after the break.”
Abayomi felt his side deserved the draw. “It was a tough game, but we showed what we can do in the first half and then got that bit of luck in the dying seconds. We have a young side (many have been with Abayomi for 10 years) and our composure and discipline will determine how far we go. For a while, we allowed our heads to drop, but we regained our composure and we’re still in the Cup.”
Either of the two sides could be out of the FA Cup within 48 hours of this first meeting. The replay is due to be held on Bank Holiday Monday. You wouldn’t bet on the outcome. It had been a good excursion and a game that had everything. If anyone wants to know why people retain such high affection for non-league football, this game provided the perfect advertisement.