Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
With non-league day fast approaching, the once dreaded international break – which is usually a wilderness of meaningless qualifiers, friendlies and uninspiring England performances – is now a chance, with your “first team” not playing, to rejoice, embrace, celebrate and experience that local football club you have passed a thousand times, but never visited.
You know exactly the one I mean; the one between the gym and cinema complex, the one with a field for a pitch and a shed for a stand or the one you have passed on the bus and have always told yourself, “I should check that out one day”.
Well now is the time, these clubs are open as usual; no players jetting off representing their nation here, so stop fretting that there is nothing worth watching because you are wrong, you could not be more wrong. There is a whole world out there, waiting to welcome you, waiting to share its history, its community, its football.
Now I must be clear, I’m very new to the lower rungs of the football ladder, I only went to my first non-league game less than a year ago but I feel so passionate about it. I feel it has had such a profound affect on my view of football, that I would like to share some of my highlights of the last 10 months, and hopefully, help make your mind up on what to do on Saturday 10th October.
My experiences have been shared; this has been a joint venture, me and my Arsenal loving friend. Tom is a good guy, he works hard, pays the bills, but one life choice means that when it comes to watching football together, we are poles apart because, you see, I am a Spurs fan and although he is one of my friends who actually likes football – the majority don’t – this Montague and Capulet scale rivalry means we very rarely sit down together to watch a game, except for the derby.
So, in late 2014 we came up with a couple of ideas of how to make this happen. I made the first suggestion: why don’t we watch every team outside the Premiership, inside the M25 in 12 months, but after some actual research I realised that if I was ever to see my son, fiance or family, this was not going to be doable. We also discussed adopting a neutral team and following them for a season, but Tom said why limit ourselves to just one. So we agreed to just start watching non-league football, as much as we can, without it becoming like an episode of Challenge Anneka.
I have always had the dream of being a writer. In my teens, I was convinced I could turn my love of music into a job, and after watching “Almost Famous” I was convinced this was completely achievable. Sadly, this was not to be the case and now at the age of 31 I am a frustrated writer trapped in a Customer Service Supervisor’s body.
Tom has a great eye for a picture and this was made ever so apparent after he presented me with a collection of four photos, in a frame, of pictures he had taken of White Hart Lane, as a Christmas present.
We hoped we could combine our love of football, photography and writing and document our travels, sharing with whoever is interested, and “Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game” was born.
The snippets below are in no particular order and I’m sure I will end up kicking myself because I left something out, but they are probably the moments that have really punctuated the last few months. I will, however, spare you the story of the man/boy/twat audiologically assaulting me from a bike when he barked in my ear while making my way to a game with my family. And the girl brushing her teeth at Clapton FC, or being verbally abused by a 12-year-old girl “what you looking at, you fat shit?”, or most recently the boy/man/weirdo who flashed me the top of his cock and pubes at Dartford station.
I feel these could end up putting people off, and that’s the last thing I would want to do.
Bowers & Pitsea FC Vs Clapton FC, Essex Senior League Cup Final, Burroughs Park, 10/05/15.
On a Sunday in May, we had our first encounter with a group of fans who support their team like the Ultra groups of Italy and Germany, in a league way, way outside the top flight, where most teams would be lucky to get 10’s of supporters at home and away games – they get 100’s.
In deepest darkest Essex, we had our second chance of the season to follow a team on the day of their Cup Final, on this occasion it was Bowers & Pitsea FC of the Essex Senior League. We joined the squad and a handful of fans on the coach to the game, sat nervously in the corner of the dressing room as the manager gave his pre-match team talk, and followed the team out as they walked on the pitch. That in itself was a very special experience, it really gave us a fantastic insight into how a manager and team behave on such a big day.
What changed the day from a fantastic one to an amazing one was the arrival of the supporters of Bowers opposition on a couple of tatty old coaches from East London. The Clapton Ultras had arrived. Draped in scarves and flags covered in the anti-fascist emblem, sporting shirts of like minded teams such as St. Pauli, passing beer and flares under the fence past security, and the constant drumming, it was impossible not to be intrigued.
The sleepy club of Great Wakering Rovers FC did not know what had hit them, as the numbers swelled and the two coach loads streamed through the single turnstile and occupied the main terrace behind the two dugouts. Quickly, every inch available was used to hang a flag from, the smell of weed and the fizz of polish lager being opened filled the cramped stand and as the teams arrived, the first of many coloured smoke bombs were let off, engulfing the area.
For 90 minutes their team took a hiding, they lost 7 – 1, but that did not stop them supporting, singing, drumming. At half time they produced an anti-Tory tifo, and at the end of the match serenaded the devastated team in a song on the pitch, making sure to applaud the victors as well “well played Bowers, well played Bowers”.
For the both of us it was unlike anything we had seen at a football match before, truly remarkable support. The word Ultra in most people’s minds conjures up an image of scarf covered faces or right wing views, but Clapton could not be more opposite. Forged around community, anti-fascist and anti-homophobic ideals, but most of all a “support your team no matter what” attitude, it really opened our eyes to what was possible, what is out there, for two guys used to the sometimes sterile atmosphere of the Premier League it showed us there is an alternative, which is thriving!
To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/not-been-home-on-saturday-since-bowers.html
North Ferriby United AFC Vs Wrexham FC, FA Trophy Final, Wembley Stadium, 29/03/15.
What can I say about this one? It was a day of firsts and the most emotional a football match has ever made me.
It was a miserable day, nah it was a damn right shitty day as we made our way up Wembley Way, rain falling, sodden, with my 8-year-old son in tow, who is not quite sold on football. Minecraft is a lot more interesting, but the draw of a game at Wembley was enough to convince him to come.
Both of us were not really sure what to expect from a competition we had never heard of; the FA Trophy. I must also admit having never heard of one of the two teams and only vaguely knowing of the other because I’m sure they are the topic of a pub quiz question about Welsh teams playing in England.
We had decided, in an uncharacteristic sign of patriotism, to sit in the “English” end and also who doesn’t love an underdog, so sitting with the fans of a small Yorkshire village team North Ferriby United AFC was a no brainer.
We took our seats and what unfolded before us was the stuff of fairy tales, football at its absolute best. There was, though, a few “downs” to start with, before we could have any “ups”.
Wrexham raced into a two goal lead, everything was going to script, the plucky team from up North, just could not cope, or so we thought. At no point, though, did the morale of the supporters around us dip, they sang and waved flags. The family behind us lived every emotion; Grandma whacked me a few times in the face with her whirling scarf.
Into the second half it was all change and a penalty from the captain, a goal from a substitute, and the game was 2 – 2. A whole village celebrated around us but there was to be a few more twists as we went into extra time.
The substitute, was becoming a “super sub” as he put North Ferriby into the lead; cue pandemonium and a few more whacks in the face from granny. There was now a genuine belief they could win this, but Wrexham had one last sting in the tale, and scored a third, sending us into a penalty shootout.
Wembley was probably only a quarter full that day and the shootout happened at the opposite end in front of the legions of Welsh fans. Neither team really excelled from the spot, and when one team scored or missed, there was a strange delay for it to register, it felt like miles away.
It was Wrexham on the day who were just that little bit worse at penalties than North Ferriby. When they missed their fifth penalty, they handed the win to Ferriby. I was in floods of tears. Never has football done this to me, Euro ‘96 was probably the saddest football has ever made me but I have never cried before, I have no connection to either team, but something within me snapped. I’m talking proper crying – Mediterranean funeral crying, all done with the biggest smile on my face.
After explaining to my son why Dad was crying, we had a long conversation on the way home with me having to explain that football “is not always that exciting”.
To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/the-st-juste-final-fa-trophy-final.html
Tennis Borussia Berlin Vs VSG Altglienicke, Berlin Liga, Mommsenstadion, 13/03/15.
Non-League Day is a concept that has gone international, so if you happen to be in Germany on the 10th, don’t despair – your city break has just got better! Although they celebrate it on a different date, why not be like most Brits abroad and pretend you are in Blighty anyway? If Berlin was your destination and you would like to see how the Germans do non-league football and Tennis Borussia Berlin are playing, then I cannot recommend a visit to the Mommsenstadion highly enough.
Built in 1930 for the 1936 Olympics, this ageing concrete relic is a must. Jerome Boateng’s first club, and boasting a ridiculous amount of its players who have gone on to bigger and better things, the club formed around a table tennis club have a fan group “The TeBe Party Army” who will rival any, at any level. Their ethos of anti-fascist, anti-homophobic, refugees welcome support has made them unpopular in some parts, but that should be exactly one of the reasons you go.
Our visit was a cold night back in February and started in a non-descript portacabin next to a motorway to the south west of the city centre. From the outside, the Fan Base is not perhaps the most welcoming of venues, but once inside the scarf lined walls, donated by visitors, surrounding a Fussball table and the dimly lit bar with the occasional flash of purple, the club’s colours, it was the perfect way to start the evening.
Led through the woods by our football sherpa, Alex – who we had met in the Fan Base – at a brisk pace, we made our way through woodland, illuminated by the nearby floodlights. Once inside, the wafting white smoke of the food stall compelled us join its snaking queue, towards sausage and mustard Nirvana, and with a beer in hand, we made our way to the Party Army to watch the game.
Flags lined the fence separating the fans from the pitch but never has a fence been more redundant, and instead of holding back the hordes, it’s used to hang a multitude of flags. Every time a corner for the opposition was taken in front of them, they would all shake their keys above their heads attempting to put off the away team player. What got me the most though, what sold me on TeBe on top of the lovely people, ground, atmosphere, food and ethos was at the end of the game, watching the players, who despite having lost, walked along the fence high fiving the outstretched hands of the supporters, thanking them for their support. This was something, until then, I had never seen before.
Although they lost that night, they went on to win the league and are flying now in their new division; it was a football moment that will live long in the memory.
To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/football-friends-rocknroll-berlin-liga.html
What I want to emphasise the most is this: perhaps one thing that has been apparent at 100% of the places we have visited is the unequivocal warm welcome we have received. Yes, some of the football has been a bit iffy and yes, some of the grounds are a bit leaky and need a lick of paint, but without fail people have been willing to chat, discuss and inform us about the football club they are passionate about and that passion is infectious, it will make you want to go back again and again, and explore other local teams, other grassroots teams, other non-league teams. Make sure you don’t miss out.
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