BY PAUL BREEN
Recently there has been a lot written about the Save Grass Roots Football movement, and the plans to create a B League for Premiership teams, somewhere in the midst of the present second and third divisions. Much of the B League rationale seems to come from the idea that it will give young British players an opportunity to actually get on the field rather than warming the benches of clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal. On its own, that’s a decent enough aspiration. Plus, in a week when MK Dons hammered Manchester United in the League Cup, just as Northampton Town beat Liverpool’s second string a couple of years ago, there’s no guarantee these B sides would dominate lower levels against clubs fighting for pride, tradition, and livelihood.
This past month (August), I have had a chance to see clubs from four out of England’s five main divisions in action. The month, and the new season, started with a trip to Wembley Stadium on a stormy Sunday when Arsenal faced Manchester City in the FA Community Shield. A few days later I was at the Valley in Charlton to see a League Cup first round game against Colchester United. Then on the penultimate Saturday of the month, I embarked on a trip to Princes Park in Dartford, to watch the home side take on newly relegated ‘big boys’ at this level Torquay United in the Conference Premier, English football’s fifth tier.
Of the three games, being a Charlton fan, and possibly being biased, the atmosphere was most engaging at the Cup match. Colchester, a division below the home team, found themselves down to ten men inside the first half hour as Charlton ran out 4-0 winners in the end, inside a stadium newly spruced up, freshly painted, and shining red as a London bus on a sunny day. Belgian owners, for whom the jury is still out for many fans, have taken over Charlton Athletic Football Club and invested their money in infrastructure, almost as much as players on the pitch. Like all clubs in the Championship these days, they have to be conscious of Financial Fair Play regulations designed to stop clubs from spending money they don’t have in pursuit of a Premiership place.
Though not everyone at this level seems to agree, and some clubs have considered legal action to win back the freedom to go for broke with their finances, Financial Fair Play seems capable of helping create a more level playing field for all clubs. Remember the days when you could put together a good squad of players under a good manager, on a limited budget, and still dream of making your way up through the divisions? Those days seem as long gone as the childhood stories in Roy of the Rovers, but sometimes you get traces of football’s fading romance when the likes of Burnley and Blackpool rise up to the top level without spending excessive amounts of money. Usually, they’re back down again in a couple of seasons, and sometimes left in more of a mess than if they’d never been promoted at all, and stayed around the middle reaches of the championship, finding contentment at that level. I’ve a friend who’s a Crystal Palace fan who got himself in great trouble on the fans’ forums by suggesting this was where Palace ought to aim for long term, rather than facing the prospect of fighting relegation battles in the Premier League every season.
Moving on to the Conference game, Torquay and Dartford fans might sometimes find themselves musing on the same issue as the unfortunate Palace fan who proposed Championship stability. Torquay’s history of the past twenty years has been one of constant battles to avoid relegation from the football league. Back in 1987, they were literally saved by the skin of a police dog’s teeth! Losing two-nil at home to Crewe Alexandra, and heading for relegation to the non-league in the first season of its introduction to the old Division Four, a police dog by the name of Bryn ran onto the pitch and took a bite out of Scottish defender Jim McNichol’s leg. Thanks to this, a long period of injury time ensued and Torquay striker Paul Dobson eventually struck a 94th minute equaliser to keep Torquay in the league and send Lincoln City down instead. To this day, or at least till 2010 when I visited, the police dog’s picture hangs in the manager’s office at Plainmoor, Torquay’s ground. Several more times, in subsequent decades, they had a close shave and finally succumbed to relegation in 2007 before coming back two years later with a Wembley play-off victory over Cambridge.
Dartford too have had a history, in recent times, of dipping between divisions and finding salvation by the skin of their pease pudding (a popular dish in Kent in the olden days I’m told). Just last season they earned a late reprieve from relegation to the Conference south when rivals Hereford United were expelled and Salisbury City demoted for failure to pay their bills – together totalling what your average Premier League superstar probably earns in a month even if he’s playing a B-movie role on the bench. Having had the reprieve though, they seem keen to make the most of it and the best use of their modern facilities, which offered one of the best matchday experiences I have enjoyed in recent times.
Off the field, fans are free to mingle with one another in the bars and on the terraces. There was no tension, no sense of being policed by stewards, not like last time I went to see Torquay playing AFC Wimbledon on a frosty January afternoon in the division above. My wife, carrying a bottle of Ribena, was asked to take the lid off before entering the ground after her bag was searched. Being a professed hater of football already, and a source of inspiration for a football-hating female in my recent book, this confirmed her view that there’s no joy in going to games because you’re treated as a potential hooligan from start to finish. Down in Dartford there was no such sense of that and you got the feeling that even if they’d been playing neighbours such as Welling United, Erith & Belvedere, or Ebbsfleet, there’d have been no animosity.
On the field, Dartford fought like a team keen to grasp their second chance at Conference football with both fists. Though Torquay had the better individuals on the day, the Darts were far more of a team, unlucky not to win as they missed a second half penalty, deserving of some form of compensation for all the balls booted right out of the ground by Torquay’s frustrated midfielders. Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest to watch, and very different from the other two matches where Charlton, for example, these days play an exciting passing game under the management of Bob Peeters and Arsenal’s short-passing strategy, from defence upwards, showed a team still buzzing from spring’s FA Cup victory over Hull City.
Dartford and Torquay though played with a passion throughout, and more so the hosts than the visitors, even if sometimes you just wished both sets of players would stop and think, just for a split second, before hoofing the ball up the field into nothingness. But that’s part of what divides the differing divisions of football; talent, experience, fitness, and education in how to play the game. Like in all walks of life, luck and circumstance probably comes into it too. The few players in Torquay’s ranks, for example, who were apprentices for Premier League clubs probably know more than most about the narrow margins between success and failure. That’s what you get at this level, the kid who was at Villa two seasons ago, being knocked off the ball by the journeyman non-league semi-pro. One thing both teams had in common, like Colchester and Manchester City, was that they couldn’t score on the day.
Despite a frantic, attacking last few minutes, the game ended goalless and I drifted off towards the bus stop wondering why, and admiring how, fans of both sides could watch this sort of football thirty, even forty weeks a year. Even watching Charlton over these past few years has sometimes been hard on the eyes and the soul, especially a day or two after going to see Premier league teams in action, through getting press tickets. That was how I came to be at the Manchester City and Arsenal game, getting what must have been the very last available tickets on the day, having to climb what seemed like several hundred steps to get up so high that I was practically on the same level as the stadium’s new arches.
Miles below, two teams who normally reside inside my Sky Sports package at weekends played out a 90 minute showpiece where one seemed far more interested than the other. Arsenal, with a spring in their step and a confidence in attacking gradually from the back, took their second trophy in almost as many months and set the stall for newspaper headlines referring to the regularity of London buses. No trophies for ages and then two come along at once. Except, this wasn’t like the FA Cup victory. There almost seemed no soul in the game and it could have just been where I was sitting, so far from the action, on the edge of a crowd that featured two sets of supporters with no particular rivalry or interest in the other. Whole minutes passed by without real engagement with what was happening on the pitch, just glimpses of Arsene Wenger on the touchline and sporadic flashes of brilliance especially from Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud with their three goals.
Once upon a time, this shield that looked like a sheriff’s badge mounted on wood was a feast at the end of a famine – three months without familiar faces and the sight of Liverpool, in their Crown Paints jerseys, up against whoever happened to win the FA Cup after a day long, wedding-like spectacle that started off with glimpses of players having breakfast in Hertfordshire hotels. These days, when even the FA Cup’s importance has been relegated, it feels no more than a glorified friendly. Sooner or later, as has already been suggested, they’ll shift the whole thing off to Singapore or Dubai and it’ll kick-start the process of the 39th game or something else to bring the English football franchise to a global market, just as with all of this year’s pre-season friendlies in the United States that seemed of far more interest to City.
So how does all of this connect together – the constraints that the small clubs live under and the giant clubs we all watch from far away, even if we’re in the same stadium as them? Well, maybe it’s in the Financial Fair Play rules, as a means of saving grass roots football. Hereford and Salisbury suffered for their financial mess, probably because creditors pulled the plug. There must be a dozen or more clubs, in the higher divisions, who would fall to pieces if their creditors took the same set of actions. But as long as the dream of present and future riches remains, that just won’t happen. Manchester United can go on owing hundreds of millions of pounds and still spending fifty million more on players because they’re always going to bring in enough to pay off the interest, unless their place outside the top four becomes fixed and they lose sponsorship deals.
But this is not a criticism of United. To be fair to them, they have developed British and Irish talent over the last decades in a way that has been exceptional, but are finding that very hard to sustain in the face of such wealth on the part of their neighbours in blue. That’s why maybe even for the likes of United and Arsenal there is a need for financial fair play, in whatever form it takes. Then, if these clubs have to live within their means, they might just have to start supplementing their squads with young British players rather than high-earning international superstars. In that way, there won’t be the same need for a B division. Young British players will get their chance to take the field, even if it means occupying the subs bench for a lot of the time. That, at least, would be a step up from filling the cheap seats behind the subs’ benches. Would it be possible today for a club, as Liverpool did in the 80’s, to put together a group of English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish players, with the odd foreigner thrown in, and turn them into European champions? Maybe not because the disparity is so great that the likes of Ray Houghton and John Aldridge would have never developed at Oxford United. They’d have been snapped up and benched early on, and even if they’d been part of a Liverpool or Manchester United B team in Division three, it wouldn’t have been the same.
Okay, times change but some stories are timeless, like the one of the police dog at Torquay, and all the myths and legends that keep fans coming back week in, week out, to watch teams who you’ll never see from an armchair in front of Sky Sports. In my recent book, I’ve written about some of the myths and legends of Charlton Athletic Football Club, including a classic 7-6 Christmas 1957 victory over Huddersfield Town at the Valley. These are the stories that go right to the heart of the grass roots support in this country, and why it’s a pleasure to be able to go to places like Dartford, maybe once in a season, and get a sense of the culture, history, and hospitality of the club. Maybe, down at the bottom of the 5 main divisions, football clubs might be poor and getting poorer still, but English football would be far more impoverished without them.
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