“Can you hear the Beavers sing?”
Salisbury is not a big city, nor does it pretend to be one. A picturesque, provincial place which wears its history lightly, its medieval centre is home to some of the most beautiful gothic buildings the country has to offer. As you drive north you find yourself surrounded by an increasingly pastoral scene as the great verdant expanse of Salisbury Plain approaches. It is there, beyond suburbia where the concrete turns to soil, that you will find the Raymond McEnhill Stadium, for fourteen years the home of Salisbury City Football Club.
A club which has spent the majority of its sixty-four year existence in parochial obscurity, the Whites made their mark on the national scale in 2006/07 when they reached the Second Round of the FA Cup, earning an ultimately unsuccessful replay against Nottingham Forest after a 1-1 home draw in front of the BBC cameras. That same season had also been Salisbury’s first in the Conference National, then-manager Nick Holmes guiding his side to a more than respectable mid-table finish.
However, with financial difficulties reaching the point of no return, the Wiltshire side went into administration in the autumn of 2009 and, unable to prove their solvency to the league, was punished with relegation to the Southern League Premier (seventh tier). A takeover mid-way through 2010 prevented the club from going out of business, and the fresh optimism which surrounded the team saw Salisbury promoted to the Conference South at the first time of asking. With the club having made a positive start to the current campaign, it was with great optimism that I made the brief trip to the Ray Mac for the visit of Hampton & Richmond Borough.
Sitting in the early autumn air, its nervous breath rolling across the turf and the swaying cornfields which circumvent it, I and 802 others (including Twitter’s very own Tom Goulding) witnessed Salisbury get off to the worst possible start, Hampton & Richmond winning a penalty with the very first attack of the game. The spot-kick was duly converted – much to the delight of the travelling contingent whose banner read ‘Beavers on Tour’ – and brought a veil of bewildered silence down on the Ray Mac. Wind whistled its invisible way across the valley.
Hampton & Richmond, driven by the attractive and efficient passing game of playmaker Nathan Collier, played the more aesthetic football during the first-half and, with Salisbury’s players struggling to find any sort of rhythm, were perhaps unfortunate not to be more than one goal up at the break. Indeed, one of the most pleasing aspects of the afternoon was the endeavour of both teams’ football, a passing game with intelligent use of width being (for the most part) the preferred modus operandi.
Half-time arrived to the crackled strains of JLS, overdressed old men in thick winter coats feverishly checking their transistor radios for news from far-flung grounds. Children kicked balls through hoops, substitutes kicked balls over stands, and a panda wandered, lonely, across the ground. Upon the commencement of the second half a Hampton & Richmond fan, pipe protruding jauntily from his mouth, stalked the touchline bellowing “KILL THEM! KILL THEM! GO IN FOR THE KILL BEAVERS!” An elderly Salisbury supporter – clearly confused as to the horrors and historical contexts of Nazi Germany – muttered, “It’s times like this that make you miss Hitler, he’d round him up.” There’s no place quite like South Wiltshire for ill-considered fascist sentiment.
Whispers of genocide notwithstanding, it was the home side which began the second period with greater purpose, Jake Reid converting the game’s second penalty after Collier had inadvertently handled the ball in the area. Shortly afterwards, Salisbury back in the game and their blood up, Chris Giles headed home from a corner to make it 2-1. Cue delirium in the heavily populated North Stand. “Can you hear the Beavers sing? No-o, no-o. Can you hear the Beavers sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing.” Before us lay a comedy of English passions.
Suddenly, when all seemed to be going the Whites’ way, Hampton & Richmond found an equaliser with twenty minutes to play, Salisbury caught out at the far post from a free-kick and made to pay the heaviest price. Seemingly unperturbed, the hosts showed tremendous resilience to re-claim the lead almost immediately, the ball being bundled over the line in controversial circumstances which led to the booking of one particularly furious defender. Passions were running high; the stage was set, the game afoot.
The visitors continued to push forward in numbers, knocking hard at a door which just refused to open for them. Despite their best efforts, Hampton & Richmond’s afternoon unravelled with ten minutes to go when the same defender who had exploded with anger at the third goal kicked out and found himself dismissed. He had lost his head in the heat of battle, his spittle-flecked indiscipline costing his side at the last. Making the most of their numerical advantage, Salisbury put the game beyond doubt as Matthew Wright scored his second of the afternoon, a fourth goal perhaps not a fair reflection of the stunning performance produced by the supple Rodney Chiweshe in the visitors’ goal.
The final whistle went as the September sun emerged to bathe the ground in an unexpected warmth, supporters shuffling into the car park with their excited murmurs thronging in the air. Salisbury had won, had kept their place in the top four, and, as departing cars threw plumes of dust into evening and snaked their way home, non-league day had been a great success.