Barlow's Park and Tadley Calleva FC logo

Barlow's Park, Tadley

Tadley Calleva FC vs. Hamble Club FC
Wessex League Premier Division

"Dying swans, twisted wings, beauty not needed here," the first line of Iron Maiden's 'Brave New World' paints a picture of the tragedy and sadness that preceded the dawning of a new age. Now, there may not have been a steep rise in mortality rates of those rubber necked psychopaths in the past six months (and even if there was, we wouldn't know), but there certainly has been with the human race.

Barlow's Park exterior
Welcome back, obligatory poorly taken exterior ground shot.

Beauty has not been needed here, because we've all been stuck inside, most of us cowering with fear and binge watching Netflix. Many have lost their dreams, lost their loves and lost their lives in "this garden of fear". That garden being that little inconvenience, the COVID-19 pandemic that altered the landscape of human life overnight.

Offices, restaurants, holidays, concerts, and, most importantly, sports were gone. Everything we've taken for granted (like standing within six feet of a loved one or someone you barely tolerate) or used as a distraction from everyday life suddenly vanished, laying bare the grim reality of a new world filled with people mindlessly singing happy birthday as they scrub the skin off their hands, and no immediate means of escape.

Tadley Calleva and Hamble Club players await kick off.
This savage is back home, football is back.

This wasn't quite the world envisaged by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel of the same name that provided the inspiration for the song. He wrote of a dystopian world controlled by a totalitarian system that completely and utterly manipulates your feelings and movements. Although with some Olympic gold medal winning mental gymnastics you could argue this is the world in which we currently live, but only if you're a complete and utter moron.

I was lucky, the pandemic left only a trail of refunds for the tickets of events that will never take place (apart from the damn EFL Trophy final, which will permanently be in a state of TBA, long after the Salford City owners get bored and the club falls by the wayside) and little else. An ill advised attempt at growing what would ultimately prove to be the facial hair equivalent of grass growing in the hottest parts of the Sahara desert, was about as bad as it got.

Hamble Club FC's goalkeeper, Ellis Grant, catches a Tadley Calleva cross
When I say jump you say how high, I ain't never seen nobody get so high.

YouTube's rabbit hole of archives provided some welcome relief from the live sports sized whole in my life, groundhopping slowly becoming a distant memory, but there's only so much enjoyment that you can get out of watching back a 2019 minor league baseball game where you already know who won.

Whilst major sports slowly started to return one by one and bubbles became a word no longer just synonymous with pet chimpanzees and West Ham supporters, non league football fans were robbed of a satisfying conclusion to their team's seasons. Personally, I felt The FA made the right call in just cancelling the season outright once it became clear that it would be impossible to play again, but they displayed a fascinating level of incompetence of how they handled everything.

Spectator standing area at Barlow's Park
It's great to be back, surrounded by interesting makeshift structures that could be classified as stands. The chalk markings around the pitch are new though, a sign of the 'new normal'.

Using points-per-game was a ludicrously unfair and, quite frankly, shit way of resolving anything. A system that rewarded teams over a snapshot in time, irrespective of form and who they had still left to play. The Premier League and Championship's comeback proved as much. However, since they insisted on ignoring my views and using it for levels 3-6 anyway (sorry Tranmere), they may as well have applied it to the leagues below and rewarded teams like Jersey Bulls, who had already mathematically secured the Combined Counties Division One title.

Six months on from the end of the world (and football) as we know it, and since people don't really give a crap anymore anyway about social distancing because following guidance for more than one month is hard, apparently, sports are finally starting to come back with the fans. And so it was here, deep in the heart of Roman country on the Hampshire/Berkshire border where I would make my first venture into this brave new world. Okay, second. But I'd already written about the Rivermoor Stadium.

A Tadley Calleva player taking a corner as fans watch on at Barlow's Park
That doesn't look like social distancing. Hamble's marking from this corner did though.

It was great to be back. Saturdays once again becoming dedicated to finding some random sporting contest of varying quality, and standing in a field of grass surrounded by a fence that looks like it could fall down at any minute and reflect on whether this really is the best use of one's time. It still beats watching Reading on iFollow though.

It's certainly different to how it was. One way systems now turn every ground into some sort of sporting IKEA (but without the meatballs halfway through), meaning you have to awkwardly ask to be let back out immediately after going through the turnstiles at Barlow's Park and discovering there's no way to get to the bar. Ordering that pre-match pint from a bemused bar person standing behind a sheet of clear plastic will take some getting used to. You know how it's really hard to hear the person working behind those screens at the Post Office? Yeah.

Match action at Tadley Calleva's Barlow's Park home
Nothing like getting to see an attacker easily dispossessed in person once again.

Then there's knowing where to sit and stand. Now you're greeted with tape draped over rows of seats to stop old people sitting on them (why aren't you isolated at home, you maniacs?) and chalk outlines around the pitch show supporters where they can stand at a safe distance from one another will almost certainly be ignored by the time more than 300 are allowed in.

Hand sanitiser is everywhere, representing a ginormous culture shock for football fans who have spent years conditioning themselves to believe it's perfectly acceptable and hygienic to go for a half time whizz and not bother washing their hands afterwards. Someone pointing a gun at your head to measure your temperature (or transmit radiation straight into your pineal gland, again, if you're a complete moron) upon arrival will also become normal.

A look towards the dugouts at Barlow's Park
Even the sun shows up for non league football's great return.

But once the game gets underway and you're greeted with the welcome sight of that first shot to blaze miles over the crossbar and into a neighbouring garden, you'll soon forget about all of that. It'll almost feel as though it never went away in the first place.

This is the brave new world in which we live. It may not be what it once was, but it's a step in the right direction to getting things back to normal again, until all the covidiots who simply don't give a damn and perplexingly refuse to believe in science have their way and plunge us right back to where we started. They're going to use points per game again, aren't they?

Tadley Calleva won 2-1.

Useless information about Barlow's Park

Address: Silchester Road, Tadley, Hampshire, RG26 3PX
Capacity: 1,000
Pitch Type: The thickest lawn known to man
Ticket Price: £6
Programme: £1, 24 pages
Cheapest Pint: £4

Tadley Calleva FC programme