Saturday 28th April 2012
Combined Counties Premier Division
TOOTING AND MITCHAM 1, 7. BURY TOWN
' In truth there is no direct access from the bar to the Mosques prayer room but I like to think that occasionally a wayward worshipper will embark on a different pilgrimage and find himself sipping a pint of Guinness and watching the hurling with the locals on a Sunday afternoon.'
There are not many football clubs that can pull my heart stings more so than Tooting and Mitcham. Equally on par with the love of my life Palace this non league club have throughout the years given me an enormous amount of tears and joy in equal measure. Friends have supported them, ridiculed them, played for them and even managed them.
Rich in history and having a proud roll call of eventual league footballers that have played in the famous black and white stripes, Tooting have over the years made the national headlines achieving FA Cup giant killing feats against established league opposition.
Sadly today with other bigger clubs reputedly showing an interest in purchasing Imperial Fields Tooting's new ground, The Terrors find themselves in a precarious financial situation and are in dire peril of becoming an extinct club.
There have been many disastrous moments throughout the long history of English football. Some would argue England's humiliating 6, 3 Wembley defeat at the hands of the Hungarians in 1953, the banning of English clubs in Europe or various penalty shoot out failures against German opposition are our worst. Maradona's hand of God, Tomaszewski's hands of a clown, Gazza's tears of disappointment or Bobby Charlton's comb over ?
Many of these moments are of course open for debate or simply a matter of one's personal choice yet mine would have to be the merging of Tooting FC to Mitcham Wanderers in 1932. You may be surprised by my decision but as an ex citizen of Tooting such a merger can only be compared to teaming up Van Helsing with Dracula, Pol Pot with Gandhi or an alliance of Heaven and Hell. Urban sophistication and cosmopolitan uber cool hand in hand with exiled cockney red necks, retired gangsters, waste lands and traveller camps.
It was only fitting black stripes defaced the original all pure white kit of Tooting and the given nick name because of the merger was ' The Half Half's.'
The worst decision my parents ever made was to emigrate to Mitcham when I was 14. Emigrate yes for going there was like moving to a different country, away from civilisation and cast into a post apocalyptic wilderness. Okay a little exaggeration on my part ( just wanted to include the Mad Max comparison ) but being isolated from friends and dependent on an unreliable single bus service, solitary confinement would of been a more accurate description. Strange that the relatively short distance of three miles can also amount to being a world away.
It goes without saying that I have a loathing for Mitcham yet strangely or maybe naturally my siblings and friends who grew up there hold very different views to my own and have only fond and positive memories of this part of darkest Surrey.
Anyway for most of my teenage years ( ducking the machine gun posts and search lights ) I took every opportunity possible to escape across the Surrey border back to the sanctuary of my old sweet home Tooting Broadway.
During this time I had lost interest in soccer but very gradually began to return to Selhurst Park for the odd game or two. Ironically I now also lived even closer to Sandy Lane ( T&M F.C former ground ) and along with Croydon Athletic so began my flirtations with non league football.
With most of my time and money spent following a league team my relationship with Tooting and Mitcham ( for obvious reasons already mentioned I'll just say Tooting from now on ) can be likened to having a long term affair with another woman. When times at home were particularly bad I would secretly sneak off down to Sandy Lane on a Wednesday night and pay her a visit. Not as pretty, a little bit cheap but always there and always faithful ( admittedly to 50 other men and I ! ).
As comfortable as an old pair of slippers and so at ease that when in bed together able to pass wind under the duvet without the threat of a sharp elbow in the ribs.
Before their move to Imperial Fields in Morden Tooting played at the iconic Sandy Lane near Figge's Marsh. With a giant dilapidated chicken shed for a club house, crumbling terracing and a sand pit for a pitch it is probably more through nostalgia that such a ground was so loved by all.
On many a cold wet night supporters would cower at the elements and head straight for the shelter and warmth of the club bar leaving the shivering footballers to play to a near empty ground. Only during certain crucial times of the match would fans bother to venture outside or staying inside simply peek through one small window conveniently placed above pitch level.
An added incentive to remain inside was the attraction of a very well endowed middle aged barmaid who though not the best looking lady in the world had an amazing power to draw a captive audience ( especially after a few pints of beer ).
There was a general routine that at half time after giving the opposing goalkeeper 45 minutes of intense abuse the Tooting hardcore fans ( all ten of them ) would casually change ends to continue their verbal assault for the second half.
I have never witnessed it but have been informed that on a few occasions goalies were literally driven close to tears and refused to play on. Every goalie that survived such a grilling was richly rewarded with praise for his endurance and a few pints in the club house at the end of the game ( unless he played for arch rivals Dulwich Hamlet ! ).
With Palace playing their reserve games there for a period in the early 90s I was also able to see a number of great players perform at Sandy Lane. A young Alan Shearer for Southampton reserves, an ageing Glen Hoddle for Swindon, Stan Collymore's first Palace cameo, Chris Coleman, Andy Gray, Alan Pardew and Gareth Southgate to name but a few.
I can only cringe with embarrassment when I remember back that in solidarity with some of the much older supporters I would bring the necessary items needed for such matches. Buying two A4 single sheet programmes I would read and crease one and then carefully place the other in a protective plastic covering.
Once placed crease free into a binder I could relax and enjoy the match with a cup of hot tea from my metal flask. Not normal behaviour for a young lad in his twenties but surrounding myself with ageing ' stat-men ' in raincoats on a regular basis has it's repercussions and I've paid dearly ever since. Anyone tempted to write about his or her football experiences in a blog ? Enough said.
With a friend managing Tooting reserves my visits became for a while more frequent and now extended to social events or simply going there for a drink or two. Palace were eventually to move to the vacant Plough Lane for their second string games and my friend would only last a few seasons before moving onto management else where. I also moved further away and again my travels were restricted to the occasional big game and before long to none at all.
With far stricter health and safety regulations and years of neglect Sandy Lane gradually became a virtual relic. By 2002 the club moved into Imperial Fields a plush but soulless new 3,500 capacity stadium at the former Chelsea and Palace training ground in Morden. Sandy Lane Tooting's spiritual home was sadly demolished the land being used for the building of a new housing estate.
For me memories are enhanced by the physical and solid evidence that created them, take those away and apart from the odd photo, news reel and book entry they quickly fade into obscurity. And so it is with Sandy Lane, as time goes on happy personal memories are slowly dissipating like an early morning mist with some more notable recollections kept alive only by reminiscing with friends.
For this level Imperial Fields is an impressive ( maybe too impressive ) state of the art non league ground situated in a mainly residential area of Morden on the Mitcham border. With very good transport links and having the capability for future expansion the ground has become somewhat of a white elephant for The Terrors.
It was hoped that with an improved stadium and better facilities home games would generate higher attendances and future promotion to the the Conference. However crowd numbers on the whole have remained in the low hundreds and with league clubs such as AFC Wimbledon looking for a more local home within the borough the long term prospect of Tooting remaining at Imperial Fields looks ominous.
The ground has one 612 seated covered stand with limited covered terracing behind each goal. There is a very good club house bar ( although it lacks the character of Sandy Lane ), adequate catering, parking and other facilities Imperial Fields cannot fail to impress the visiting supporter.
If travelling from central London Imperial Fields is best served by tram from Wimbledon Station to the Mitcham stop. Buses 118 from Morden tube station and the 280 from Tooting Broadway are other alternatives that stop at Bishopsford Road.
Imperial Fields considering the current worn and tatty condition for me still receives an 8 out of 10 for this level of football.
And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England's green and pleasant land ? Well no but in the 1960s the next best thing, guitar God Jimi Hendrix was blasting out his sonic blues from Mars at Tooting's famous Granada cinema ( In connection NASA have named an area of the Martian landscape after this South London republic. ). Before his drug fuelled psychedelic axe attack it would be nice to think that Jimi ventured into a few pubs and cured his munchies by a visit to the pie and mash shop off the main High Street.
Other musical giants to play here include Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and a host of others.
It is probably in fictitious TV comedy that Tooting has become more of a household name through mainly BBC Ones 70s hit show Citizen Smith starring Robert Lindsey as the work shy revolutionary. Every episode began with the main characters cry of ' power to the people ' outside Tooting Broadway Station.
Recently the very popular Little Britain had a reoccurring character called Ting Tong from Tooting. This continuing story tells of a disturbing relationship between a sexually perverse individual and his Thai bride seeking asylum in the U.K. She is forever being blackmailed by her partner to be deported unless she carry out his depraved instructions.
Both snooker player Jimmy White and 70s pop rocker Marc Bolan went ( or more accurately didn't go ) to my school. Other notable names to have come from or lived in this London district include comedian Paul Merton, actor George Cole, footballers Clinton Morrison and Darren Bent and UK Subs punk veteran Charlie Harper.
When one now thinks of Tooting, Indian food would probably come to mind. Between the Broadway and Tooting Bec lies what is affectionately known by many as the curry corridor. Here South Indian restaurants serve up some of the best Asian food in London that equals or surpasses it's more famous Bangladeshi counterpart in Brick Lane.
If you like your food on the spicy side then no visit would be complete with out a visit to at least one of these culinary hot spots. A few recommended top of the hots places are the Mirch Masala ( basic bench seating but wonderful food ), Lahore Karahi, and Apollo Banana Leaf ( Sri Lankan restaurant slightly away from Tooting heading more towards Colliers Wood ). For light snacks, Indian sweets and somosas try Pooja always busy with a long and fast moving queue.
If traditional London indigenous working class grub is more your thing then what better than a pre match meal of pie and mash at Harrington's just off the curry corridor on Selkirk Road. This legendary institution has been serving pies, liquor and jellied eels to generations of hungry Tooting locals.
Top with a large amount of pepper, drown in vinegar and remember to turn the pie upside down and eat with a spoon. Part of the undoubted charm of the ' Harrington's ' experience is witnessing the older regulars removing their false teeth and sucking the eel meat off the bones before washing it all down with a cup of tea. Unbeatable and a must.
Tooting is the only place in the world to my knowledge to have a pub in a mosque. The old Mayfair cinema complex is now an Islamic centre yet strangely the Mayfair Irish pub at the side of the building stubbornly remained. In truth there is no direct access from the bar to the Mosques prayer room but I like to think that occasionally a wayward worshipper will embark on a different pilgrimage and find himself sipping a pint of Guinness and watching the hurling with the locals on a Sunday afternoon.
Sadly as is common trend across the country working professionals like a decease have moved into the area from neighbouring ' Clarm ' ( Clapham ) and Balham causing Tooting's traditional spit and sawdust pubs to be gradually replaced by pretentious gastro pubs and wine bars. Standard public house names have also been unnecessarily changed to trendy ponce ones and greasy cheese burgers substituted for beef wellington in an attempt to persuade the previous clientèle to politely move on elsewhere.
Today we arrived just before half time after a trek from Selhurst Park because of an early 12.30 kick off. Sadly a very young Tooting side were already 5, 1 down and worse was yet to come. A small crowd sat quietly in the pouring rain accepting The Terrors dismal performance and demotion from the Ryman Premier Division.
With construction work commencing directly outside the ground only added to the mystery of why such a cash strapped club can afford such luxuries considering the present shoddy state of Imperial Fields as a whole. Any questions aimed at workmen are simply replied with shrugging shoulders and blank expressions. However I remain optimistic that whatever happens Tooting will somehow survive or at worse be resurrected by the faithful supporters.
Nearby defunct Croydon Athletic are now on the verge of being reinstated to the bottom tier of the non league pyramid and AFC Wimbledon's miraculous saga should serve as an inspiration to all clubs. How ironic it's The Wombles that are rumoured to be behind all the cloak and dagger goings on at Imperial Fields, only time will tell.