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Dec 02

Broken promises, white elephants, promotion and homelessness: A Nomad’s guide to League and Non League Football

What does being a football fan mean to you? Here Matt Bowman explores the highs and the lows of being an avid supporter…

‘BROKEN PROMISES, WHITE ELEPHANTS, PROMOTION & HOMELESSNESS: A NOMAD’S GUIDE TO LEAGUE AND NON LEAGUE FOOTBALL.’

The Promised Land, The Promised Land! That over-familiar term used by the optimistic football fan in search of sporting Nirvana. The Pilgrims who will follow a tie clad Moses through the Red Sea and to the top of the mountain only to find it’s made from a mole hill. As a football fan I have experienced both the football league and non-league football, both the promises of riches and the painful yet truly awe inspiring achievements of footballing poverty. In this article I attempt to contrast both experiences and ultimately discover which is the most worthwhile.

Since I could remember I was a Leeds United fan, the club of my father. I remember as a six year old dancing around the living room with him as Leeds won the then Barclays Division 1. A team full of the finest British footballers and a Gaelic Genius: Strachan, Chapman, Luckic, Mcallister, Speed and of course the enigmatic Eric Cantona had fought off a late season surge from Manchester United to cling on to the title on the last day of the season. This was my first taste of football induced ecstasy and I wanted more.

September 2000. I am 16 years old and I’m about to embark on a journey to discover my true footballing identity. I had discovered Darlington FC. This was not a club who were confined by the strict commercial rules and impersonal nature of the premier league. This was real football. Real Football. Where the players were humans and not untouchable demi-gods of the marketing man; football where the players were slaves to the badge and not the pay packet. The season before, Darlington had been saved from extinction by chip-board magnate and convicted safe-cracker George Reynolds (this was in the days before fit and proper owner tests).

Reynolds had entered the club to a huge fanfare after declaring he had a five year plan to get lowly Darlington into the Premier League and would build a new state of the art 25,000 all-seater stadium. Perhaps deluded by the charisma of Reynolds and the conviction of his words, Darlington fans put their faith in him.

It was the season after I first set foot into Feethams, the home of Darlington FC since 1883. A stadium with terraces at either end, a brand new main stand and a “matchbox” rundown wooden stand which housed away fans. The “Tin Shed” which housed the vocal majority of the Quakers support is where I spent the next two agonising seasons. The club had failed to achieve promotion the season before and Reynolds, seeing this as failure by the playing squad, punished them by publishing their weekly salaries in the Northern Echo (a local newspaper of quite high reputation in the North East). This lead to a chain reaction of events resulting in the resignation of popular manager David Hodgson. Ex-Sunderland centre-half Gary Bennett was hastily installed as manager and the playing budget slashed, leading to a season of stagnancy and frustration for Quakers supporters.

As a fan, that season spent on the terraces really did bond me with the lower league game; bonding with other fans in adversity and always seeing a chink of light at the end of the tunnel. I had full blown (and less commonly known) football-related Stockholm Syndrome. The game had me hostage and no matter how much it hurt me I was firm friends with it.

The hope of two seasons ago had become hazy in the smoke and the reflection of reality staring back in the mirrors was not pretty. Reynolds’ promises had begun to rip at the seams to reveal a future of turmoil, frustration and eventual relegation from the Football League. Reynolds’ behaviour became increasingly bizarre, culminating in the Faustino Asprilla saga in which Reynolds claimed he had clinched the signing of the Colombian superstar only for him to disappear the night before he was due to sign.

This was effectively where my love affair with Darlington ended as they departed Feethams to move into their kit-build 27,500 all-seater stadium, where the ticket office asked you which row would you like, not which seat. I was off to University and football had become a secondary concern behind studying and obvious extra-curricular activities. Yes I went to Swindon, Walsall, Oxford and Cheltenham to watch the Quakers play, but it was never the same.

A great football man once said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, its much more serious than that.” This statement could be used as a literal description of many people who work, or rather volunteer, in non-league football. Men, women, children and even some animals give their lives to clubs up and down the country, often working tirelessly to keep their club afloat for little recognition or reward. Non-league football is a real hot-bed of community champions, local heroes and the crematorium of ex-pros, roasted on a weekly basis by passionate fans. Non-leaue football in a sentence is ‘the heartbeat, the origins & the roots of the great game.’

In 2007 I was introduced by a friend to Gloucester City AFC, a team who were at that time the longest standing members in the Southern Premier League. My first game was Shortwood United in the FA Cup. Easy Peasy, I thought (being a novice Gloucester City fan at the time), a team three leagues below should be a veritable stroll in the park. How wrong I was: Gloucester City put in possibly one of the worst performance in recent times and were soundly beaten by a physical Shortwood side.

Many people asked why I returned after this performance. The truth is I don’t honestly know. There is something of the macabre about me I suppose, I emphasised with the frustration and pain felt by Gloucester City fans that day, after all I had been there not five years earlier.

At Darlington, fans barely spoke to each other and all away day travel was pretty much the exclusive domain of the official travel club, in essence the damned steel vessel of the underachieving Football League fan. With Gloucester City away days appeared much more of an adventure, not least for me as half of the teams Gloucester played I’d hardly ever heard of, let alone visited. Within weeks of following the Tigers I was accepted as part of the pack and invited on away trips, this was a great opportunity to learn more about the club and its ethos. It was on these away trips I truly learned to love Gloucester City FC.

Season 2008/2009 gave me the best experience I have ever had in football as Gloucester City, playing thirty miles away from the city in Cirencester after abandoning their Meadow Park home following the floods of 2007, achieved the unthinkable. Following a sixteen game unbeaten run Gloucester reached the play-offs and after coming past a competitive Cambridge team in the semi-final it was off to Farnborough for the final.

Farnborough were typical of many clubs at non-league level: a phoenix club. A club who lived by the Gordon Brown Maxim of economics; boom ‘n bust. In true Farnborough style they had thrown everything at gaining promotion and narrowly missed out to a late season surge from Corby Town. This game was going to be a game of pedigree versus form.

It was a warm early May day and optimism was in the air as hundreds of City fans travelled to Hampshire for a date with destiny. Fans who had supported the club for fifty years and had not seen any success since the 1960s. Fans who had watched City struggle through financial hardship and the newer fans like me who had recently found the club and in honesty were slightly embarassed to be accepted and stand alongside the fans who had dragged the club back from the abyss. But there I was amd never before had I felt so passionate, so at one with the game…I kicked, headed and tackled with every change in momentum. When I describe football to non-fans I describe it as being like a really fast paced game of chess in which you are trying to move the other teams players to make the space to get yours behind. Well if this was a game of chess I somehow suspect even Bob Fisher might have struggled to keep his composure.

MATT ROSE!!! The fans surged in ecstasy as the ball nestled in the apologetic Farnborough net. Matt Rose and Alex Sykes had formed a formidable midfield partnership, scoring thirty-four goals between them in a partnership to which Rose had contributed just one. Never before and never again will I compare Matt Rose to the Matrix but in that moment in time Rose, rather like Morpheus, seemed to strike the ball in slow motion and the ball painfully moved towards the goal, then time sped up as I was mobbed by fellow Tigers. This was our moment!! This was it. One problem: Farnborough were a good side and we had an hour to hold out.

The second half was tense. A marathon rendition of “Barmy Army” rang out from the chorus of somewhat shell-shocked City fans. At one stage I was asked, “Why aren’t you joining in?” Well the truth is I was too tense, my vocal chords would not allow sound or at least any squeak of optimism leave my lips. I had seen hope and unadulterated optimism in sport before only for it to turn out to be an illusion of the weak lower league football fan’s mind. Farnborough were dominant in possession but had rarely threatened a water-tight City defence. Then, with literally seconds left, hearts were in mouths as a Farnborough forward found himself free and looped the ball inches over the city bar…

Its funny how football can bring seemingly grown, professional men to tears but that’s the magic of non-league football: you don’t just support, you feel with every ounce of your heart and at Gloucester City that season everyone was a part of something magical. That rare thing you get in football where a club as a whole is united. I for one will never forget the hugs I shared and the tears I shed with fellow City fans that day.

I guess my overarching point is that there is a thin line between success and failure. Between joy and pain. It is important that as football fans of league or non-league, we understand that football is bigger than any of us. Darlington last season were relegated to the Conference following the inevitable bursting of the financial bubble. Lower-league and non-league football clubs alike are akin to wounded gazelles waiting to be picked off by that merciless predator, the taxman… an experience Farsley Celtic and Ilkeston fans know only too well.

As football fans we experience extreme highs and lows but we must stand together united as fans if our concept, understanding and culture of football is to survive. The difference between non-league and league football fans? Nothing, we will all follow ‘Moses’ to the promised land in the pursuit of the footballing mirage….

SportGlos welcomes articles from Gloucestershire’s football community so if you want to write about your club, a particular player or a burning issue please get in touch

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