If a match takes place but nobody can see it, did it really happen?
By Sam Patterson
“The match is definitely on. I’d look like fucking twat if I came from Plymouth for the match, canceled it, and this all cleared up.”
I learned of that quote thirty minutes before kickoff on a Wednesday night from a ticket seller, who had heard it from the referee, so it’s possible something had been lost in translation. But as I stood on the sideline of AFC St. Austell’s ground, Poltair Park, the ref was definitely being exactly what he feared if he thought this match could start. A thick fog cloaked the field. I couldn’t see the opposite sideline. In the early evening darkness, the fog shrouded the floodlights to create detached balls of sunlight that mildly illuminated the ground below. I felt I had stepped out of reality and into a J.M.W. Turner painting.
It showed no sign of letting up. That morning, as my father and I drove our rental car through the colorless, alien, brush of the Dartmoor, we had firmly kept four eyes on the point fifty yards away where oncoming cars might pierce through the fog. When we had stumbled into the match ground two hours before the kick-off, the white sheet was turning into a blanket. A portly man with a thick brogue had walked up to us, mentioned his concerns about the weather, and then disappeared in the other direction, towards fog and unintelligibility.
Nonetheless, at that moment thirty minutes before the scheduled start, all evidence indicated that AFC St. Austell, the Lilywhites, would indeed be playing their South West Peninsula League Premier Division match against Bodmin Town. Neither fog nor God himself would stop this crucial match in England’s 10th tier.
Two fans and longtime friends and residents of St. Austell implored us Americans to come back for the semifinal. Jokingly (I think), one offered his bed and his missus for enticement.
But what the hell was I doing here? I’d previously passed up FA Cup football to search for grunge at the home of Melksham Town FC and all I’d found was a strong community weathering a difficult time. Heartwarming and meaningful, I know, but where were the stabbings? So pops and I struggled on, passing up pub warmth (Chelsea and PSG in the Champions League, this time) for more bush-league ball. With a brewery two minutes away on foot, we reasoned, someone might make enough bad decisions to set something off.
AFC St. Austell, after all, was living on the edge of a wild, non-league ride. In its 125th year, the Lilywhites were on a Cinderella run through the FA Vase, the third most important piece of FA silverware an English team could win, after the Cup and the Trophy. In ten days’ time, the Lilywhites would play the first leg in their semifinal. If they advanced, the final of the competition, which is open to teams in England’s 9th-11th tiers, would be played at Wembley.
You could sense the fans and team officials’ giddiness for their tiny town’s achievement, just not for tonight’s match. Two fans and longtime friends and residents of St. Austell implored us Americans to come back for the semifinal. Jokingly (I think), one offered his bed and his missus for enticement. The PR campaign continued with a team official who brought me indoors and introduced me to Phil, the first team manager who had been wandering the clubhouse.
After a quick exchange of pleasantries, I couldn’t hold back any more from asking, “How are you going to adjust tactics for this fog?”
“We only practice once a week, so we’ll see.”
He wandered off immediately, no doubt distracted by and pissed off at the conditions. I wandered off, too, in the direction of the field, past what turned out to be an adjacent rifle and pistol club. A teenager with an embossed blue shotgun bag nearly knocked me over.
In the interim, the playing conditions had further deteriorated. The pitch was a muddy wreck, and you couldn’t even see center circle from the sideline. Who knows how the linesman was supposed to make an offside call, let alone alert the referee. And I’m talking about the guy on our side, the one who at least had some help from the skylights and clubhouse illuminations. We’d lost our visual on the far-side linesman a while back. He might already have cleared out to the nearest pub.
How St. Austell was even supposed to play was anyone’s guess. In their lily white kits, they seamlessly blended into the fog. I’m sure all passers for the Lilywhites could only distinguish teammates from fog by movement. To have any chance of winning, the Lilywhites needed to take deception to a whole new level: less no-look passing and more ninja stealth. To be fairevery pass after the kick-off was going to be no-look, just not purposefully so. Decked out in their piss yellow kits, Bodmin Town’s players fortunately (or unfortunately) didn’t have this problem.
I heard groans and complaints behind me from spectators wondering just what the hell they were doing on a Wednesday night out in this fog, but I was too captivated by the players’ warm-ups: their poorly hit passes, invisible in the fog, and trapped pathetically; their jogs around the field alternating frequently between visible and invisible; goalies who might as well have been saying prayers for all the help they’d need to save or even see a ball. This was naturally shit football made shitter by the elements.
As scheduled, the match commenced at 7:30. At this point in a story, I’d normally provide at least a little match commentary, but the ability to see the action is a crucial prerequisite for such a report. Like everyone else on the sideline, I tried to paint a picture of the match based on the grunts, shouts, and bounces I kept hearing. Like everyone else on the sideline, I’m pretty sure my painting was more Jackson Pollock than still life.
I’d always thought of the ‘fog of war’ in the figurative: organized groups of men trying to kill each other inevitably leads to confusion. This was literal: A little less war but a hell of a lot more fog.
In this land of the blind, the king had no eyes but he did own a whistle. After two minutes and the first dead-ball of the match, which I uncertainly hypothesized to be offsides against the Lilywhites, the ref blew one short burst followed by another, longer one with an air of finality to it. His wish to avoid ‘twat-ness’ had been fulfilled, and the cost was a three-minute farce forced onto the rest of us fans, players, and coaches alike.
Coach Phil wasn’t into feeling sorry for himself, though. Before his players could enjoy their Wednesday night in peace and pints, he announced an impromptu training session. They still had the light for fifteen minutes, after all. So instead of a game, the fans were getting a public training session, like a pre-World Cup camp for the USMNT, but worse.
Unlike most camps, though, the players weren’t allowed back on the field just so they could tear it up. So they sprinted — waded, really — through the mud and a cigarette butt graveyard back and forth between sets of cones. Some guys felt aggrieved that they’d been baited and switched from a game to a training session, double their weekly workload.
Phil wasn’t having it. If anyone was slacking, it was “I didn’t say stop.” In between sets, it was “when you’re home you can have a breather.” For encouragement, “come on boys!” After fifteen minutes of panting, slipping, cursing, and turning white uniforms brown, Coach Phil gave his boys the coveted “go home,” and they disappeared one last time into the fog on their recovery lap. We followed suit, departing the club for our own enveloping sea of fog and darkness, hopeful that we had enough time to get good chairs at the pub.
AFC St. Austell lost their FA Vase semifinal but won the replay against Bodmin Town 3–0 on a Monday night in April. It was part of an undefeated month, in which they won ten of twelve matches en route to winning the league by twelve points. Over Bodmin Town.