BY MARK GODFREY
This article was originally published in issue 1 of The Football Pink magazine http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00ED1WO1A
The deserted, well-lit motorway, which just moments earlier provided our pathway through countryside darkened by the early winter sunset, suddenly hastens us towards some sort of conurbation. Nothing substantial or memorable, the total opposite in fact, but there is now more ‘life’ around us than before. Unfamiliar road markings try to usher and tempt us into unknown towns and streets, preying on our geographical uncertainty.” Is this it?” we say to ourselves as we change tack and divert to one of the random ‘A’ road tributaries. This could well be the right place, but there are no dead-giveaways, no hoards, no snaking lines of eager pilgrims, winding their way in their thousands towards a floodlit super-structure rising from the ground like a modern-day monolith. No recognisable features or landmarks and even less in the way of help from the awkwardly placed signposts. Rows of traditional, decaying, terraced houses give way to identikit modern housing estates, built for the aspirational that lack the ambition or ability to be truly upwardly mobile. The only signs of life revolve around the scruffy looking off-licence, where hooded youths on bikes come and go with plastic bags full of who knows what. The neon glow of the take-away joint attracts the eye. Inside, polo-shirted workers bustle here and there. We could be anywhere. And at the same time we are nowhere. In the distance we see activity. Old men in coloured scarfs accompany children in matching bobble hats. They must be going to the game. Where else could they be going in this provincial backwater? Our faith in them is rewarded as we spot an illuminated grandstand, of sorts, in the distance, indicating we have reached our goal in spite of ourselves and our navigational challenges. Welcome to Prescot. Welcome to non-league football.
We alight from our vehicle having parked underneath one of the few functioning street lights in an attempt to ease our security fears. We needn’t have bothered. The broken-glass-covered pavement only goes to show the precarious nature of the surroundings. But, far from being intimidated, those in our vicinity heading to the game are in jovial spirits, affording us a friendly greeting as we approach. “Alright lads?” they enquire, knowing fine well we’re outsiders. “Should be a cracker tonight”, one of them adds, trying to engage us in a brief pre-match debate. But in reality, we all want this or any other discussion to take place indoors, not out in the freezing January night air. So we all head for the same place of respite; the clubhouse. In non-league football, certainly at levels below the Blue Square Premier, the clubhouse is the place of choice for the majority of match goers for their pre-game libation. Most likely there will be other local hostelries on offer but the convenience offered by a pitch-side pub has considerable pulling power. To access the aforementioned supporters bar we must first negotiate our way through one of the two functioning turnstiles. The paint may be new but the metal and accompanying rust are distinctly of the Art Deco period. We part with nine pounds sterling apiece to pass through the rickety entrance.
The darkness which had previously enveloped us is split by the green oasis of artificial light reflecting from the pitch. Volunteers wearing Wellington boots carry pitch forks and stride purposefully across the turf as the tracksuited players emerge in dribs and drabs from the archaic changing rooms to begin their warm up preparations. Hats and gloves are also in evidence as they sprint fervently up and down the field, desperately trying to loosen the muscles. Plumes of exhaled breath rise high in the air above them, emphasising further the falling temperatures they will have to combat in addition to the evening’s opposition. Thinking better of watching them perform their routines, we scurry alongside the perimeter fencing and head straight for the warm solace on offer in the clubhouse, and judging by the scarcity of people standing on the crumbling terraces, we aren’t the first to arrive at this wise conclusion. As we enter through the rather creaky entrance door, a welcome blast of warm air hits our frozen facial extremities giving us the opportunity to unzip our jackets, remove the gloves and let our fingers thaw out. The first decision to be made; what are we drinking? Excluding the designated driver, the football is a good excuse for a pint or two. Or several. And even though the weather is more akin to that of a night in the Arctic tundra, a cold pint is top of the wish list. In most clubhouses the choice extends to the same three or four generic branded lagers, one domestically, mass-produced ale and the obligatory Irish stout. On the odd occasion you can find a club that sells something a little unusual, perhaps local, as in the case of ‘Spartan Ale’ found at Blyth Spartans, which is an uninspiring beverage with a taste registering somewhere between homebrew and washing-up liquid. After a brief consultation process we plump for the Guinness. With half an hour until kick-off, the flat consistency of ‘the black stuff’ leads us to think we can probably neck two before proceedings get under way outside.
The clubhouse itself is hardly packed. But then what should I be expecting for a freezing Wednesday night in the Northern Premier League? Sipping away at my drink I cast my gaze around the bar, looking to find any other hardy souls who have made the long journey to deepest Merseyside for this crucial away fixture and at a rough count, I estimate ten people have made the trip. There may be more on their way or even some who are happy, or foolish enough, to brave the elements outside rather than stay warm inside the clubhouse. Even if ten is the final figure, that’s not a bad turnout. Fulham often struggle to take that many supporters with them on their travels and they’ve been in the Premier League for over a decade. The locals are hardly outnumbering the travelling fans either. There was no queue for the bar, no difficulty finding a seat. Through the clubhouse windows we notice the players darting back into their changing facilities. Their warm-up curtailed early, and who could blame them considering the conditions? Perhaps they want to coat their thighs with another application of liniment to stimulate the blood flow. So, having devoured our pre-match pints of Guinness and packets of Scampi Fries, the two teams are on their way out onto the pitch. It’s time to put the hat and the extra thick gloves back on and ‘enjoy’ the game.
As the referee blows his whistle to open the first half, the players bounce up and down on the spot to generate heat or to take their minds off the sharp bite in the air. Those wearing long-sleeved shirts tuck their hands inside the cuffs for extra protection. Both sets of centre-halves have taken the short-sleeved shirt option as if to prove their hardness. The early exchanges bear more resemblance to a game of pass-the-parcel with an artillery shell as the ball is regularly propelled from one end of the pitch to the other like a howitzer. Supporters of both clubs who may have otherwise spaced themselves out on the plentiful open spaces of this dilapidated venue have congregated in the main stand in the vague hope that there will be more shared body heat to take advantage of. Others have decided on the more sensible approach; stay inside the clubhouse and watch the game through the windows. Being ‘real’ fans we opt to watch the game out in the open as God intended. Our hardiness is rewarded as a game of football eventually breaks out. Both teams start stylishly passing the ball to their own team mates in ‘non’ non-league style. This is no mean feat considering the notable slope of the pitch, the poorly manicured grass and what looks like several patches of daisies and mushrooms scattered around the playing surface. Before too long we are treated to goals, and for the travelling support the goals come at the right end. First one, then soon after a second, and in the delirium a few songs even break out amongst the 20 to 30 visiting faithful who have finally all made it. The natives, however, are restless, and gradually, one by one, they traipse disconsolately back into the refuge of the club.
As the first half meanders towards its conclusion, the home side concede a third, and most likely, killer goal. Just as the away fans’ celebrations subside, the referee calls time on proceedings and everyone piles into the welcoming atmosphere of the bar to take the opportunity of getting warm and to imbibe some more alcohol during the 15 minute interval. Now, you may have noticed that the constant thread running through this story centres around the bar or clubhouse. In the world of non-league football, that tends to be the way of things. It is a gathering or meeting point for supporters of both clubs, where friends and rivals get together before, during and after a match to share a pint and chat about the game, work, family and all manner of things in a generally cordial environment.
Before we know it, the players have returned to the field and the second half is under way. As a contest, it should be game over and therefore our aim is to survive the conditions. Immediately, we head to the refreshment van to purchase two key ingredients of any trip to a British football game; a pie and a cup of Bovril. When asked about the type of meat contained within the pie’s pastry casing, the proprietor of the mobile ‘greasy spoon’ replies with a rather vague “brown meat”. After a moment’s consideration and having observed the potentially more suspicious alternative on offer (hot dog) I’m the only one brave enough to go with the indistinctly flavoured pie. The Bovril is bought with two purposes in mind. Firstly, the salty, beefy taste is not unpleasant and gives a sense of emotional comfort. Its second effect is one of actual physical heat, hence its universal popularity at sporting events held outside in winter time, like football. Although Bovril is just meat extract combined with boiling hot water, when these two parties are married together, the resultant liquid develops almost radioactive properties with a half-life able to keep the drinker warm for hours to come both on the inside and for the hands wrapped around the plastic cup. However, drinking the Bovril within 10 minutes of its initial creation has serious consequences for the skin on the inside of your mouth and on your tongue (I never stop making that error). With full stomachs and burnt mouths, our attention switches back to the play, which by now has become pretty monotonous for those unfortunate enough to be watching. Even the players seem to be bored with the whole affair, just wishing away the minutes until they can have a hot shower. Perhaps they’re playing badly to get substituted by the manager so they can jump in the proverbial ‘early bath’ for the right reasons.
With about 20 minutes of the game left, it was noticeable that people were leaving the ground altogether. The home fans had obviously had enough and getting home earlier than expected held more appeal than watching this excuse for a game of football. Only the away fans and the hardiest of loyal, local supporters were willing to see this through to the bitter end. And even we were all retreating to the clubhouse to view the game through the badly glazed windows which separated us from the sub-zero temperatures outside. It was only at this late stage that we really noted the strange nature of those who remained. Never before, or since, had I seen such a collection of disfigured and bizarre looking individuals at a football match. So many missing teeth, half bitten-off ears, wrongly spelt tattoos, bulbous noses and hair-lips. And that was just the women! But seriously, please don’t think this is a direct attack on the genetic frailties of the people of Prescot in particular, because I am exaggerating. Only slightly though. For Prescot, read Workington, Gainsborough, Blyth, Frickley and countless others. Following a non-league club around the remote, forgotten outposts of the English game gives you a real glimpse at the sweaty underbelly of life in 21st century Britain, warts (literally) and all.
The shrill of the final whistle pierces the clubhouse windows and brings blessed relief to all concerned. The two teams and groups of staff head for the dressing rooms, while those who hadn’t already abandoned the evening’s ‘entertainment’, stick around for the customary spread put on by the hosts for the players, who get their chance to grab a few mini-sausage rolls, roast potatoes and pizza slices while engaging with the people who came to see them in action. After pinching a few leftovers and finishing our last pint, we decide that time is pressing and if we don’t leave soon we may get stuck in this one-horse-town for the night. We hit the road along with the other six or seven cars full of visiting fans and have the same difficulties getting away from Prescot as we did trying to find the place.
Although this tale, which I admit is only partially accurate and not an exact revisiting of the truth, paints a rather grim and depressing picture of following non-league football, I will counter that perception by telling you that some of my best moments, experiences and friendships as a football fan have come as a result of going on the road to places like Prescot. As a supporter of a Premier League team who has become more and more bored and disillusioned with the behaviour and predictability of the game at the highest level and the financial greed which has consumed the clubs responsible, I would urge everyone to stop lining the pockets of football’s reckless, selfish billionaires and give your hard-earned pound to your local non-league club instead. You’ll be doing them a favour, and perhaps yourself too.