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Diary of a Groundhopper: Bearsted 1 Abbey Rangers 2

Bearsted 1 Abbey Rangers 2

Saturday January 5

I fancy a Fourth Round FA Vase match today. There are three teams playing I really don’t know much about. I choose the Bearsted mainly because the club website is making an excited fuss over their ‘Big Day’. And rightly so, being as the Bears have never gone beyond the qualifying rounds before!

The Otham Sports Club, Kent, isn’t much to look at but is set in lovely rural surroundings. The only facilities at the stadium can be found down one side of the pitch: a Portacabin-style clubhouse, boardroom and covered seats and terrace. All this can clearly be seen from the long access track as one drives in.

I pay £7 at the gate and am handed a free programme. Basically, it is a glossy advert booklet with eight photocopied pages inserted containing match information. The clubhouse is packed and I recognise one or two Hopping acquaintances.

This tie brings Southern Counties East up against Combined Counties. It’s a hard-fought affair, settled in extra-time by a breakaway goal from Rangers’ Alex Hendrie. The away side just about deserve it even though the Bears create by far the better chances.

My main focus of the day is the behaviour of the home bench. From the first whistle, they are swearing and shouting at the match officials. Every little decision that goes against them is greeted with a tirade of abuse (the officials do very little wrong). One of the culprits is sent off in the second half. At one point, I thought he was going to refuse to walk!

So here’s the thing: many football fans will feel the lack of respect on show today is a ‘normal’ football afternoon out. Certainly, the abuse is nothing I haven’t heard at most matches this season but that isn’t the point!

According to the players and bench of Bearsted, this defeat is entirely the responsibility of match officials. Definitely not to blame in their eyes is the captain who gets himself booked twice for silly offences. Nor the three players who miss virtually open goals at crucial times. And definitely not their goalkeeper who mucks up a simple backpass to hand the opposition a place in round five.

So why does this matter? I’ll tell you. This was a big day for homely Bearsted. A bumper crowd turn up to see ‘the biggest day in the club’s history’. Some of those fans have never set foot in the ground before: potential new supporters for life. One such family group stands behind the dugouts and are appalled at the behaviour of their ‘homely’ club’s representatives. I doubt they will return anytime soon.

We, as fans, should make a stand against abuse of referees and linesmen. This will be difficult being as there is now an insidious culture of abuse in the stands and on the terraces. It matters because football is losing hundreds of thousands of participants each year. Could this be mums steering their beloved offspring away from a game they see as populated by foul-mouthed thugs, evidenced by the antics of the Premier League clowns on show on telly? Maybe.

But it has to stop and it has to stop now. But it won’t because people like me have been saying it for decades and nothing changes. In fact, it is getting worse. Respect, my arse.

Pre-match info: 8, welcome: 8, facilities: 5, food: 6, charm: 8, match: 5, fans: 5, programme: 5, overall trip: 8, officials: 9, att: 250

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