Sunday, September 20, 2020

MATCH 6: Being Here is Everything: Leatherhead vs. Horsham

 Leatherhead 1 Horsham 1 (Isthmian League Premier Division)
Fetcham Grove, 19 September 2020

In usual times, live football provides me with two important things: a sense of structure, and guaranteed sociality. Usually, I don't have to think much about either, as a season has such a cast-iron routine. But when Norwich announced that 1,000 fans would be allowed into Carrow Road for their Championship match against Preston North End - surprisingly, given that they'd suspended the planned return last week following new government advice - I didn't consider for a moment the possibility of applying to be part of this trial run. Only one in 25 season ticket holders would be allowed to enter the stadium, and the prospect of sitting there, surrounded by empty seats with little atmosphere, being shepherded around a one-way system by people in masks, inspired nothing but sadness. Really, I'd rather wait until it's closer to normal.

I decided instead to press on with my non-League odyssey, despite finding no-one to join me this Saturday. I wondered if going solo would make me feel unbearably lonely, as I've felt so much since lockdown began in March - and paradoxically more so since things have begun to open up but people have been reluctant to meet in large groups or go anywhere indoors, with most cultural life on hold. But I decided that going to a game might be preferable to watching the Norwich-Preston stream on iFollow, and having no company would be liberating in terms of which I chose to visit, without having to worry about what might work for someone else.

Lately, I've developed a two-tier answer to "How are you?". On the surface, I'm fine - getting washed and dressed every day, going to my studio and writing a lot, finding ways of seeing friends, playing and watching football. Underneath, I'm anxious and depressed, convinced I've lost plenty of work and worried about the short and long-term future, mourning the political project that died in December and horrified at how forty years of neoliberalism and austerity have led the UK to one of the world's worst Covid-19 death tolls, and almost certainly to more lockdowns, with normal life not returning any time soon. I returned to the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, designed to measure your feelings in the past week. One question struck me: 'I look forward with enjoyment to things:' with the options 'As much as I ever did', 'Rather less than I used to', 'Definitely less than I used to' and 'Not at all'.
Choosing 'Definitely less', I thought about football. I don't always look forward to Norwich games by any means - Rotherham at home on a Tuesday night in January in a season that's already petering out, for example, sparks little enthusiasm but I'll still go. Even then, after all, I'll get to see friends I've shared my experiences with for years, standing in the spot at Carrow Road that I've made my own, singing the songs I've learned over decades of devotion to the club. Being able to go to non-League football is nice, and gives me something to do in a life that currently feels like playing a computer game on demo mode, but of course I look forward to going alone to an unfamiliar team less than I do going to Norwich, with the incredible highs and lows that come with following a fairly competitive team for thirty years.

Looking at potential fixtures on The London Football Guide, helpfully sent by people reading this blog, I wondered which might provide the most interesting new experience. I decided on Leatherhead vs. Horsham for several reasons. Firstly, I went to sixth form college in Horsham in the late 1990s, but never joined my friends to watch the local club. Looking back, I wonder if that was my depression speaking: something told me I wouldn't enjoy it, despite me laughing at the chants that my classmates relayed to me from Queen Street. Secondly, I knew a little of Leatherhead's history, or at least their most famous match - their FA Cup fourth round match in January 1975, when they went 2-0 up at Leicester thanks to goals by Peter McGillicuddy and Chris Kelly, known as "the Leatherhead Lip" for his tendency to talk up the team, but tired in the second half and lost 3-2. Thirdly, it would allow another thing that I like about football in usual times, and that was the opportunity to see a new part of the country - I realised I could combine the match with a trip to Box Hill, feeling that spending time alone with nature would be a better way to spend my morning than alone at home, killing time before a game.

I took a train out of London for the first time since March (besides my recent trip to Horley), and was soon glad I had. It was a perfect day for a hike up the hill, and I was rewarded with a beautiful view from the summit, as well as the relaxing sights of the River Mole and the forest. As I stared out over Surrey, I wondered if my preference for old football - and especially that of the 1970s - over the contemporary was itself a symptom of depression. Some of my feelings are nostalgic, for sure: I love the rough tackles and the ramshackle terraces, but it's probably better for players and supporters that football is safer now. My aesthetic preference for muddy pitches runs counter to the fact that the standard is far higher now than fifty years ago, partly because of improvements to groundkeeping, but this is one example of how factors that made football more unpredictable have been weeded out in the quest to make it presentable and profitable.
Watching the Leatherhead vs. Leicester City footage, there is no advertising on the players' shirts, with just simple hoardings on the touchlines, rather than the logos for gambling companies or multinational corporations plastered all over today's ludicrously expensive kits that change every summer and the distracting electronic boards that assault the eye from every part of the ground. Shocks like the one Leatherhead so nearly achieved are rarer now, and the FA Cup has been devalued because bigger clubs prioritise the more lucrative Premier League and Champions League, which themselves turn up far fewer surprise winners than in the past due to the concentration of wealth and talent among a smaller number of sides. I don't think it's just depression that makes me feel like football has been hollowed out, and one of the most appealing parts of the Labour manifesto in 2019 was its focus on returning clubs to their communities, partly by dealing with exploitative ticket prices.

Having not visited a new town for a long time - probably not since that desperate December afternoon getting out the vote in Rye - I took a walk through Leatherhead. It was small, but had a few interesting features, notably Kingston House, where John Wesley preached his final sermon,and Cradlers House, dating back to the 14th century. One of the things getting to me most about the current situation is how few surprises it generates, with social circles limited to six people at a time, so with that said, seeing this brilliantly dramatic Brutalist pumping station near the ground was memorably unexpected.

On entering, I sat in the main stand and read the programme. The Tanners' glory days were in the 1970s - they made the FA Cup second round in 1975-76, 1976-77 and 1978-79, and the FA Trophy final in 1978. Fetcham Grove felt old-fashioned in a way I've rarely seen in England since the renovation and replacement of stadia after the Taylor Report, and it appealed to my nostalgic, melancholic side. (You can see the 1970s ground in this Super-8 footage of the FA Trophy semi-final first leg from 1978, shot from the main stand.) The regulars were glad to be back for Leatherhead's first competitive match of the season, making jokes together, and one of the coaching staff greeting two boys on the touchline with a smile. It was nice to be there, and it felt even better just after kick-off, when Tanners midfielder Misha Djemaili smashed in a 30-yard shot that would have graced any stadium.

From there the game settled down, with Leatherhead the better side but creating little. I began to feel distracted, constantly looking at my phone, unsure of what I wanted from it. On Twitter, I saw people fretting about the likelihood of another lockdown, updates from Norwich that provoked no feeling (despite an exciting-sounding 2-2 draw) and the online Labour conference, at which the party signalled their willingness to dump the transformative aspects of the 2019 manifesto in favour of ingratiating themselves with 'forces, family, flag'. (My friends were especially angry that Tom Watson, one of the most egregious wreckers of the Corbyn era and the one I came to despise the most, had taken up an advisory role with Betfair and Paddy Power; that reminded me that this time last year, I missed a Norwich match to go to The World Transformed, now unavoidably being held online when my comrades and I desperately need the joys of physical organising.)

Trying to keep my mind from wandering, I paid attention to the Horsham fans behind the goal. Despite having some prior connection with them, I couldn't feel they were mine as I have with Horley Town: I commuted from Horley to Horsham as a teenager, and still have several close friends from the town, but decided to stay with the home fans and cheer accordingly. I thought back to the jokey Horsham FC website that my friend Robin showed me in the computer room at Collyer's back in 1999, entitled 'Southwater Donkey Sanctuary' with profiles of the players, giving their nicknames and other details. They had a joke at the time that their right-back was schizophrenic, and fans would sing "There's only two Martin Lemprieres"; it's hard to imagine anyone doing that now, and I think it's for the best. The main remnant of the late 1990s was the Hornets' most popular song, "Give me lard in my heart, keep me Horsham", closing with "No surrender to the low fat spread" and hearing it again after twenty years genuinely gave me a cheer.

Horsham came back into the match in the second half, despite Leatherhead bringing on club legend Jerry Nnamani for his 400th appearance and hitting the post through striker Great Evans. Still, my mind drifted, as it often does during my worst depressive episodes; I was looking at my phone again when Horsham put in a cross and midfielder Jack Brivio headed in a well-deserved equaliser, and at full-time, a draw seemed like a fair result. I trundled back to Leatherhead station, satisfied in my solitude, glad that I'd dragged myself out of bed and out of London: I knew it wouldn't fix my problems, let alone those of the wider world, but I felt a good deal better for my jaunt to Box Hill - and to Fetcham Grove.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

MATCH 5: Out, Out, Out! Kingstonian vs. Horley Town

Kingstonian 4 Horley Town 1 (FA Cup preliminary qualifying round)
King George's Field, 12 September 2020
If I'm supporting anyone this season, it's Horley Town, but their 2018 move from the Combines Counties League to the Southern Combination means I won't see the Clarets as often as I'd like. I've committed to my non-League ground-hopping, but would prefer to stay near London rather than make long trips into Sussex, which the move will necessitate So I was delighted when the Clarets won at Eastbourne United to set up an FA Cup preliminary qualifying round tie at Kingstonian - a famous old club that I have long meant to visit - but I wasn't sure exactly where I'd be going.

I knew the Ks had left Kingsmeadow, as the story made the Guardian, but not where they'd ended up. Kingstonian only began playing at the 4,850-capacity ground in Norbiton in 1989, but this move facilitated their most successful period since the 1930s, as they rose up to the Conference in 1998, achieving their highest ever finish, 5th, in 2000. They also won the FA Trophy in 1999 and 2000, when former France striker Amara Simba scored their winning goal, and reached the FA Cup fourth round in 2001, knocking out Brentford and Southend before losing 1-0 to Bristol City in a replay. However, they over-reached, went back down to the Isthmian League in the same season as their best-ever Cup run, and ran into financial difficulties. The chairman, property developer Rajesh Khosla, sold Kingsmeadow to AFC Wimbledon - recently set up as a community club after the original Wimbledon relocated to Milton Keynes - for £2.4m, and kept the money. Kingstonian paid a peppercorn rent to stay, until AFC sold the stadium to Chelsea for their academy and women's teams in June 2016, to fund their own move back to a new Plough Lane in Wimbledon.
This caused considerable bad feeling, even though AFC Wimbledon gave £1m to Kingstonian to put towards a new stadium on the former Chessington Golf Centre, on the fringe of the Kingston borough. Wimbledon left Kingsmeadow in May; Kingstonian played in Leatherhead for a season before announcing an arrangement to share King George's Field with Corinthian-Casuals in January 2018. So I took the train to Tolworth, on the London-Surrey fringes, after checking the Kingstonian website to make sure fans were still being admitted. The website said, 'With the recent increase in Covid-19 infections, it's crucial that we all take care of each other. Please follow all instructions from volunteers, and the guidance given by posters around the ground.' asked supporters to arrive in masks, which had to be worn in the clubhouse and boardroom, which would have queuing systems, as would the burger van; there would be temperature checks and hand sanitiser on the door, and the supporters' shop would be closed. Between the station and the ground, I lost my mask, but luckily, it didn't come up on the turnstile; if it had come to it, I could have bought a Ks one, but I didn't want to advertise an allegiance when I was definitely there as an away fan.

This was Kingstonian's first match of the season, and I bumped into Jamie - a long-time Ks fan, and part of their media team, who I met through the London football blogging circle years ago - on entering. I told him I'd already been to four games this season, packing them in as I didn't think fans would be admitted for long, amidst fears of a big second wave of infection. He was equally pessimistic, thinking like I did that another lockdown would finish clubs far bigger than the two on display today. This led us to exchanged details of our respective clubs, and I said I expected Kingstonian - a semi-professional club with a large following - to make light work of Horley's spirited but limited part-timers. Helpfully, Jamie had written for the matchday programme, detailing K's new arrivals for 2020-21, including Tom Howard, once of Chelsea's academy, to introduce me to some of the day's players, yet again entirely unfamiliar to me.

Part of a crowd of 355 - the largest of any I'd been in since Norwich's FA Cup fifth round tie at Tottenham back in March - Horley had an away following of less than ten people, who were no more optimistic than me about the likely result. I wandered around the ground, noting another sign that this was a more competitive club than some of the others I'd visited this season - I could actually make out the announcements, including the line-ups, on the PA system. I saw Kingstonian flags, an anti-homophobia flag, and a wall of stickers for clubs including several for Corinthian Casuals, as well as AFC Wimbledon, Torino, Mechelen, Rochdale, Glentoran, Streatham Rovers and the Against Modern Football movement. I didn't notice any for the Ks, although I'm sure some were there.
Wishing I had a Horley sticker (or scarf), I went behind the goal where Kingstonian attacked in the first half. Next to me was a boy in a Norwich City top: I told his father that I was a Norwich fan too, and it turned out they were season ticket holders in the same Carrow Road stand as me; following last week's government announcement, they didn't expect to be back until the spring, and I feel the same way. I saw fans of other League clubs, and had a chat with a family of Fulham supporters who were quite philosophical about being locked out of their return to the Premier League, and enjoyed how this scenario had brought about camaraderie between rival fans, as we reminisced about games between Norwich and Fulham (including the single worst day I've ever had a match) and people who'd played for both clubs.

In his notes, the programme editor noted that that 'hateful virus that has so viciously swept the planet and changed almost every facet of almost everybody's lives' meant that Kingstonian were entering the FA Cup at the Preliminary rather than their usual First Qualifying Round, and Ks manager Hayden Bird wrote about how they could not be complacent, as they'd gone to the New Defence for a behind-closed-doors friendly in August and drawn 1-1, saying he was 'very impressed' with Horley, who had 'talented players in a well-organised team'. As soon as the match kicked off, after the sides took the knee for Black Lives Matter, there was little doubt about the result, as Kingstonian looked quicker, stronger and fitter. Winger Corie Andrews, who scored in the friendly, shot them ahead after 12 minutes; Horley struggled to produce any quality final balls in their sporadic counter-attacks, and once centre-back Simon Cooper put them 2-0 up a few minutes before half-time, I felt the match was settled.

I stayed where I was during the interval, as Jamie and the other passionate Ks fans switched ends to watch their team's attacks during the second half. Horley improved and looked a little more threatening, failing to score after a goalmouth scramble, and then Cooper made it three on 68 minutes to remove any lingering doubts. The handful of away fans were delighted to see the Clarets get a goal through Richard Pingling a few minutes later, before Lewis Pearch - who, one of our group said, had recently played for Horley on loan - made it 4-1. There was no more score so I filed out, sorry but not surprised that my adopted team had gone out of the Cup. That said, Kingstonian are one of the largest clubs currently allowed to admit fans, so if Horley had got much further then I likely wouldn't have been able to watch them anyway. Still, there's always next year - isn't there?

Thursday, September 10, 2020

MATCH 4: Building Back Up: Ilford vs. Redbridge

Ilford 6 Redbridge 2 (Essex Senior League)
Cricklefield Stadium, 9 September 2020

One thing I'm finding interesting about ground-hopping around various regional leagues is discovering these long, proud, parallel histories of non-League clubs, about which was I previously entirely ignorant. I really wanted to go to a match with my friend Chris, who I met in 2008 through our shared support of Norwich City and the campaign I co-founded against homophobia in football, who helped me to get my Guardian series ten years ago and has been with me to numerous Norwich games, as well as visiting me at Horley Town back in 2012. At this level, it's not too easy to pin down fixtures: I can't locate a centralised calendar, even on The Non-League Paper site, and my current solution is to trawl through a self-made Twitter list of south-eastern teams in the hope of finding something. This week there were plenty of Tuesday games, but Chris could only do Wednesday, and all I could see was an Essex Senior League tie at Ilford a place and team I knew very little about, despite it being less than ten miles away from my east London home.

Indeed, I joked on Twitter that I '[didn't] know about Ilford chants', so I would just 'loudly recite the milk speech for the entire match' – a reference to the only thing I knew about the area, its former MP Mike Gapes, whose bizarre Commons outburst about milk, the Irish border and Brexit has become a left-wing meme, and who lost his seat in the recent election after forming the ill-conceived splitter party (or Kaufmanesque performance art project) Change UK. (It turns out that Gapes, a big West Ham fan, is one of Ilford FC's Vice-Presidents.) I walked through the town, seeing its Renaissance-style Town Hall and the Kenneth More Theatre, a stylish Brutalist building opened in January 1975 with a studio for experimental work that is sadly unlikely to survive lockdown (having been threatened with closure last July for financial reasons) and got to Cricklefield Stadium well ahead of kick-off, having no trouble buying a ticket despite worrying that this local derby against Redbridge might sell out, given the limited capacity.

I had no trouble getting in: there were none of the coronavirus-related delays I had at Balham, and in fact the fewest signs yet of the pandemic, despite the afternoon's announcement that gatherings of more than six people, indoor or outdoor, were once again to be outlawed due to a nationwide spike in the infection. It turned out this didn't apply to workplaces, schools or 'Covid-secure sports events', so I heard no anxieties about football shutting down again once the restrictions come in on Monday. (It does mean, however, that Norwich City have put their plans for a limited re-admittance of fans on hold.) On the door, Steve the club's media man recognised me from Twitter (as I'd tagged the club) and I said I wouldn't necessarily be leading the chants (although I decided against a detailed explanation of the Gapes memes), instead telling him about my "project" of visiting lots of non-League clubs this season and writing about it.

Steve encouraged me to dedicate myself to Ilford FC. Just four games into this nomadic season, I've already noticed how every team I visit wants me as a regular supporter, and I believe them more than I'd believe a bigger club using a hashtag like '#EveryFanMatters' on social media
– mainly because it's so easy to have face-to-face conversations with the people running the operation. When I said I usually went to Norwich City, he told me that Ilford had got to the FA Cup first round (proper) in 1958-59 and gone out to Norwich, at the start of a run that ended with the Canaries becoming one of a handful of sides to reach the semi-final while in the third division. As at Horley Town, the chairman was on the turnstile, and I was soon talking to three people about how Ilford's history went back to 1881, having survived the mergers that have swallowed up many smaller east London sides, and they were considered important enough to play tour matches against Barcelona (and Ajax) in the 1920s. (The picture above is from a display at the bar the club recently got a National Lottery grant to fix up the main stand and put on an exhibition about their past.) One of the group said he'd first heard of the club in 1974, when they reached the last-ever FA Amateur Cup final, walking out at Wembley in front of a crowd of 30,500. This had made him a lifelong fan, but Ilford have never made it back to the national stadium for the finals of either of the competitions that replaced the Amateur Cup, the FA Trophy and the FA Vase.

Could they reach such heights again, in terms of achievement or support? In the age of neoliberalism and globalisation, the two things have become detached at the highest levels, at least to some extent: for example, AFC Bournemouth, who had rarely been out of the bottom two divisions before 2010, were able to sustain Premier League football for five years despite having a capacity of less than 12,000 due to investment from Russian businessman Maxim Demin. With no international exposure or television money, Ilford are reliant on gate receipts, and need more than the occasional Non-League Day usually held when the top two leagues are on an international break to bring in enough to have a chance of reasserting themselves as one of England's leading non-League teams. Non-League Day has been cancelled this autumn due to the ongoing uncertainty, but every Saturday is non-League day right now, and there may never be a better time for Ilford to capture wandering fans.

Walking through the town, I wondered if more long-term socio-economic changes may benefit the club. There's talk of the pandemic bringing down rents in east London, but I haven't seen it, and as people move ever further from the centre, Ilford will probably gentrify, with its bus and fast train links to Stratford and Liverpool Street. Another famous old club, Dulwich Hamlet – who had players representing England as late as the 1920s have climbed back up to the sixth tier as people moving to south-east England have adopted them and developed a vibrant fan culture, and the same could happen to Ilford over the next decade or so.

On tonight's evidence, new arrivals could do far worse than come to Cricklefield regularly. I didn't lead the chants, and nor did anyone else: with an athletics track putting fans at some distance from the pitch, and no stands behind the goals, it doesn't lend itself so well to the passionate fan cultures of Clapton CFC or Dulwich Hamlet, or even Walthamstow. But it feels like an appropriate home for a famous old club, with banners around sporting photos of Ilford's FA Amateur Cup Final appearance in 1958, and the packed main stand where most of us congregated saw Ilford race into a 3-0 lead within twenty minutes, the pick of the goals being a great free-kick by their right winger, Juan Cardona, that would have graced any occasion.

Redbridge won and scored a penalty just before half-time, and after the interval, pushed for another goal to bring them back into contention. Ilford's new goalkeeper, Josh Blackburn, made several astonishing saves, and then Cardona hit Redbridge on the break to complete his hat-trick. Yemi Adelani struck his second of the night to put Ilford 5-1 up; Chris and I were just talking about how Redbridge's striker Josh Sykes, on a substitute, was looking useful when he was sent off for elbowing a home defender as he went for a high ball. Sykes walked down the athletic track towards the changing room saying "I might as well become a fucking ballerina", adding the words "bald cunt" to further amuse the fans, with whom he soon came and sat. There was one more goal for each team and the amassed supporters clapped and cheered Ilford off at the end – if they are going to attract the kind of crowds that they did in the age before many domestic league matches were televised, and rise back up the leagues or through the rounds of the cup competitions, this felt like the perfect way to start.