VAR! VAR! VAR!
A few weeks ago, we were surprised to see a pal from outside of the football turn up at IF for the game versus Ashford. His regular fix came from his long journeys to Manchester, where he has a season ticket for the champions of the Premier League. So, why did a fella who watches the best side in the country week in, week out, end up at Imperial Fields? And- crucially- why has he come back? We asked him to jot down his thoughts. He’s actually a journalist in real life, yaknow. Hark at SLiBaW...
“VAR! VAR! VAR!”
It’s not the chant I expected to hear or wanted to hear. It’s a beautiful sunny August evening in south London. I’ve enjoyed it all so far. But now, 30 minutes into my first ever Tooting & Mitcham United game, one which the home side has completely controlled, Ashford Town have had the temerity to score, bundling the ball home from a corner to equalise Tooting’s exquisitely worked opener.
VAR is the reason I’m here. I support a Premier League team in the northern city where I grew up that has had two perfectly good goals ruled out by VAR in the first two games of the season. The most recent being a last-minute winner which I had celebrated widely, seeing no reason why it could possibly be reviewed, let alone chalked off.
I wrote a long mournful email to the mate who sits next to me and who I plan away trips with, explaining that the fact we can’t celebrate goals anymore until some numpty in a caravan near Slough has explored any marginal reason to disallow them has ruined the game. I’m unlikely ever to return, hope he can find somebody to use my season ticket, will cancel my hotel bookings for the champions league away games and look forward to spending the rest of my life watching non-league.
He replies with just two words.
But here I am. The Tooting Ultras, a hundred yards away from the goal at the opposite end seethe with the injustice of this setback and call, half joking, for a review they know won’t come. I feel their pain. I’ve loved the look and feel of Imperial Fields. I’ve cursed myself for living in Tooting for 20 years without coming before. But what has really knocked me out is just how good the football is. I had expected the eighth tier to be not far off parks football. But this looks much closer to league two. Tooting have a young, strong side full of running who have clearly been taught to play football the right way.
They pass it out from the back. They don’t lump it, even though some of the characters sat around me clearly want them to and get frustrated that the players prefer to play the ball in the direction they’re facing to make sure it goes to a teammate in space, even if that means going backwards. They play with pace and precision.
Not long after the rare Ashford attack, Tooting regain the lead with a well worked move down the right and a nicely placed header. The second half brings a gorgeous third, lovely through ball down the right, great run and cross, immaculate low finish.
In the weeks since I have, inevitably, returned to my first love but now constantly check on Twitter for the Tooting score.
It’s been almost a month and I’m back for my second game, this time against Bedford Sports. There’s a chill in the air. Jumpers ready for the second half. The opposition seem better matched, also young, strong and fast. Tooting play the better football but more long balls this time. Instead of the constant control against Ashford, this time they seem to play in fits and starts. But when they come to life, they suddenly put together bursts of thrilling one- touch passing and movement that have knocked their opponents cold with two goals.
I’m starting to put names to my favourite players. I’ve liked Daryl Coleman since the first warm up, one of those smart players who looks older and slower than the youngsters around him but who uses his brain to make time for himself while everyone else is rushing, shaping to launch the ball and then laying it off two yards the other direction giving a team mate space that previously didn’t seem to be there. He has set up the second goal with a smart pass to the left and David ‘Didi’ Castanho, less eye-catching in midfield than his colleagues but a big contributor I now realise, has arrived at the right moment to bury it.
Now Razzaq Coleman, another lovely player to watch, runs clear down the left, goes past the right back and chips the keeper. It’s a simply outrageous goal, the highlight of an evening that then fizzles out with a patchy second half and a bad injury to Castanho leaving TMUFC down to ten men. They still press though and Dominic Morgan-Griffiths, my man of the match, orchestrates a move which ends with him being taken down in the box and a penalty for 4-0.
There’s other players too, I’m just starting to appreciate. Goalkeeper James Shaw kept Bedford out early on with a couple of smart saves and George Ademiluyi, who does the job of two men up and down the right side like some kind of demented Duracell bunny, might well become my favourite player.
“How was your latest evening at Streatham Rovers?” My mate texts. “Excellent, pal. I’ll bring you one day.”
I’m not going to attach myself to another sporting roller coaster, but I reckon I’ll get to TMUFC maybe once a month. Studying the programme on the tube back to Tooting Bec, it seems the team plays in a quite bewildering array of cups.