BY DARREN LUKE
The chairman of the Hackney and Leyton League, glancing over the windswept expanse of pitches on Hackney Marshes, despairs of the FA’s attitude to the lower level game: ‘They don’t know what it is! Grassroots football is park football. They think it’s the Conference!’. The same could probably be said of most people who consume their football via Sky, and Nige Tassell’s season-long journey through the non-league, his search for ‘football with a soul’, is a reminder of the vast gradation between the tiers of the pyramid. From the Hackney Marshes game between Bow Badgers and Dynamo Gobbler to Tranmere Rovers’ push to return to the League, Tassell’s choice of subjects serves to remind us how broad a church exists outside the ‘blessed ninety-two’. For every FC United – living the dream in a beautiful new stadium with a lavish trophy room, turning out in a sponsor-free kit – there are countless others just hoping to continue existing. All non-league life is here.
Over the course of last season Tassell visited clubs across the pyramid and across the country, but his main focus is on two clubs with contrasting fortunes – Tranmere’s attempt to reach the play-offs and tenth tier Bishop Sutton’s hopes of avoiding a second successive relegation.
For Tranmere Rovers two consecutive relegations have led to the Vanarama National League, where they are living as ‘a seriously oversized fish in a modest pond’. With the highest attendance in the non-league they have become a prize scalp for other teams. Their owner, ex-FA chief executive Mark Palios, has adopted a financial pragmatism where the goal is primarily to ‘keep the fans interested’, and Palios rues the unpredictability of football as a business in which ‘the art form conflicts with the economics’.
The ‘art form’ is of less relevance to Somerset village team Bishop Sutton, a club that can’t even afford to pay players petrol money. Denied promotion to the Southern League due to an inability to comply with ground regulations, the subsequent exodus of players and staff to a club with better facilities and prospects meant their goal the previous season was just to fulfil their fixtures and avoid fines. A terrible run of form led to relegation, and they’re in freefall still. After 16 winless months they finally hang on for a 1-0 victory over Roman Glass St George. It’s hard not to smile at Tassell’s description of the scenes at the final whistle, with some players sunk on their knees, others whooping and high-fiving, the coaches hugging while Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now booms out from the clubhouse. And they’re still 17 points adrift at the bottom of the league. The team later celebrate by sharing a jug of squash and a Swiss roll.
For those of us who watch grassroots football much of the landscape described by Tassell (the rustic pitches, the detritus of the dugouts, the gobby goalies) is so familiar that it seems unremarkable, but it’s good to be reminded of its quirks and he captures its atmosphere perfectly. It’s also nice to see that Tassell is a connoisseur of the ‘football walk’, that twenty-minute stroll from town centre to turnstile during which ‘you could almost taste the expectancy, where you could ascertain the collective mindset of your fellow fans’.
From the obsessive groundhoppers to the scouts putting in the motorway miles, Tassell hears from those who make the pyramid what it is. Alongside the journeyman professionals and the Premier League academy rejects he meets lower league players who don’t fit the stereotypes. There’s Rob Gier, who when not being captain of the Philippines national side turns out for ninth tier Ascot United; Adam Priestley, PE teacher and striker for Shaw Lane Aquaforce, who finds himself playing in the Euro qualifiers for Gibraltar against world champions Germany; Barry Hayles, at 43 relishing an FA Cup run with Southern League Chesham and enjoying ‘swansong after swansong after swansong’.
Some of the players are clearly working at too low a level. Emley’s Ashley Flynn, scorer of 80 goals in the Northern Counties League, has the club’s ground swarming with scouts, but has no intention of giving up his day job: ‘I’d just save the football money and put it to one side. I’ve been on £10 a goal, but I end up just spending that in the club bar. I’d get a drink for my mate who’d bring me up there and I’d get one for myself, a bag of crisps, a chocolate bar and it would be gone.’ Despite the book’s title, most of the players who feature come across not as ‘dreamers’ but as realistic pragmatists. So Salford City striker Gareth Seddon, enjoying a taste of fame through a BBC documentary series on the club, enthuses charmingly on his new-found minor celebrity: ‘It’s been brilliant. It’s as though I’m actually a decent player and I’m famous’.
A recurring theme throughout the book is the lack of funding and the precarious existences faced by so many clubs in an era where the divide between top and bottom is becoming ever more pronounced. Thanks to the Elite Player Performance Plan, supposedly designed to increase the pool of talent available to the national side, Premier League clubs can now have the pick of the fruits of lower league academies at knock-down prices (Palace chairman Steve Parish once likened the EPPP to ‘letting lions into a petting zoo’). As a result, many lower league clubs consider academies no longer viable.
That a well-supported, famous old club like Hereford United can go to the wall says much about the modern game. The original club was wound up in December 2014 and their Edgar Street ground locked up. A group of fans mobilised to resurrect the club and after much work a lease was signed to reoccupy the ground. Tassell describes the Havishamesque scene that met the new owners after the keys were handed over in June – muddy kits and mouldy towels left over from the final training session six months earlier, mince pies on a tray and Christmas decorations in the bar. The team re-started in the ninth tier, but gates of over 4,000 belied their position and their season ended with an appearance in the FA Vase final and the Hereford bull parading around Wembley. For the club’s media officer this only raised more concerns: ‘We haven’t got a trophy cabinet. I think someone’s going to knock a few shelves together…’
Tassell also identifies a new kind of club in those that have redefined themselves and the way they exist within the community. There’s Forest Green Rovers, under a chairman who was a former new-age traveller who made a fortune producing wind turbines, playing on a pitch of organic grass and serving only vegan food. There’s a fan-owned community model like Lewes. Run mainly by volunteers they have forged a distinct identity, partly through their celebrated match day posters (on the day of Tassell’s visit, as a treat for a visiting stag-do, the groom gets to shake hands with the players on the pitch before the game and to pick the man of the match). And, perhaps epitomising best the phenomenon that is against modern football, there is Dulwich Hamlet, transformed through a series of community initiatives into a progressive, pro-actively anti-discriminatory other.
Tassell succeeds in finding ‘football with a soul’ at all levels, but it is perhaps at innovative, confident clubs like these that the future looks most positive for the non-league game. While there is a danger that the supposed ‘real football’ culture at a ‘lifestyle’ club like Dulwich Hamlet becomes just another commodity to be self-consciously consumed as an alternative to Sky and the Premier League, there is no doubt that the excesses of the elite have inspired a certain sector of the non-league to boldly redefine itself. These are clubs that are no longer looking enviously upwards but recognising the value of what they have. Flicking a defiant two fingers at the circus that is the top level game, this is best exemplified by the FC United fans chanting in the direction of the Salford club down the road, to the tune of the Inspiral Carpets hit, ‘This is how it feels to be FC/ This is how it feels to be home/ This is how it feels when you don’t sell your arse to a gnome’.
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