Sunday, November 1, 2020

MATCH 11: That's All for Now: Horley Town vs. CB Hounslow United

Horley Town 5 CB Hounslow United 1 (FA Vase first round)
The New Defence, 31 October 2020

When spectators were allowed back into non-League games, I'd planned to blog about every one I watched. That didn't happen: I soon found that in the absence of live music or theatre, with my reluctance to visit socially-distanced cinemas in a face mask and my friends' shared unwillingness to meet in pubs or restaurants, football became my main social activity. At times I went to two, three or even four matches a week, finding it was the only thing that offered any sense of surprise, any opportunity to visit places I normally wouldn't, even if those places were no more exotic than Carshalton or Leatherhead. I didn't always have enough to say, about the club(s), the matches or the experiences, to make a long piece worthwhile, and as I predicted after my second game, at Balham, this project started to feel like a bit of a chore: a lot of effort for not much reward in terms of readership, money or creative development.
I've covered a lot of ground: besides the ten games written up here, I've been to Wingate & Finchley, Haringey Borough, Tooting & Mitcham, Corinthian-Casuals, Hornchurch, Cray Valley Paper Mills and Cray Wanderers. The latter provided one of my favourite moments in a season where I've lamented the lack of any familiarity when Merstham, bottom of the Isthmian League Premier Division, brought on their player-coach - 48-year-old ex-Fulham striker Barry Hayles, who got booked for screaming at the referee in his team's 6-0 defeat. Apart from that throwback to 2001 - and the days when high-level players wound down by dropping through the leagues - there hasn't been much to say that a conventional report wouldn't do. Hence not writing up the best game I've seen this season: Colliers Wood United vs. Redhill, when Redhill went 3-0 up in the first half, Colliers Wood pulled back two goals just after half-time and then equalised after 70 minutes, Redhill grabbed a late winner and then the home team had a man sent off.
I didn't write up my second trip to Horley Town, either, for a 4-0 win over East Preston in the Southern Combination in which the clarets looked a genuinely strong side (and far improved on the first time I saw them this season). Having seen their excellent start to the season, I felt they might be a good bet for the FA Vase, for clubs in tiers 9-11 of the pyramid, and planned to see them at CB Hounslow United in the first round after they won their qualifying tie at Punjab United with a last-minute goal. I wanted to add Hounslow to my list of clubs visited, but the tie was switched to Horley - I didn't know why, but my friend Chris and I decided to go anyway. In the week, I saw Clapton CFC were playing Stonewall, politically a far more intriguing prospect between two teams I hadn't yet seen, but despite that and the torrential rain, I decided to stick with my plan and drag myself back to the New Defence. A good decision, it turned out, as the Clapton game got called off after a late pitch inspection, while Horley's went ahead.

Chris and I ate together in a pub - illicitly, I think, as Horley is in Tier 1 but we'd come from London, in Tier 2, and apparently we take our restrictions with us. Nobody asked, so we sat and checked the result from Norwich's early kick-off against Bristol City and then talked about politics: our mutual loathing of Sir Keir Starmer QC, and the growing inevitability of another lockdown, after restrictions were introduced in Belgium, France, Germany, Greece and Spain.
Would it mean the end of our football-watching? It has mostly felt low-risk, with SARS-CoV2 not persisting in well-ventilated outdoor areas for long, but lately, as the infection and death rates have cshot back up and London was put into Tier 2, I've been a bit more anxious, both at games with larger crowds (like the 600 at Corinthian-Casuals v. Leatherhead last weekend) and on busy trains to get to them. As we walked past the River Mole to The New Defence, the weather cleared, and we got a nice afternoon for what we suspected might be our last trip for a while.

Almost immediately, my decision to come, and my hunch that Horley could hope to win the FA Vase, were vindicated. Left-back Ryan Brackpool headed home from a corner on 12 minutes, and Horley soon got two more, with new signings Lewis Pearch (who scored for Kingstonian in their FA Cup win over Horley) and Mario Quiasacca linking up brilliantly with forwards Adam Grant and Kofi Quartey. The Clarets were dominant, forcing several good saves from CB Hounslow goalkeeper Sam Bersey and hitting the post; the game didn't have much tension, especially after Smith scored a penalty early in the second half and then Quartey made it 5-0 a few minutes later, but there was a genuine feel-good factor among the 100 or so fans, and nothing like that mounting sense of dread I'd felt back in March, including at the Spurs game I went to, and which had returned over the last few weeks. I told Chris I'd planned to come back for the next lockdown, having spent the first one here, and hoped I'd be able to watch Horley Town during my stay.

Horley conceded in injury time, but could easily have won by more than 5-1. We celebrated with a quick trip to the clubhouse bar, full of old team pictures like the one above, and walked through the churchyard back to the station, checking our phones for the announcement on the new measures planned for 5pm. That was delayed by more than two hours, meaning Chris and I had parted company by the time the Prime Minister and his scientists clarified what had been leaked to their client journalists while we were watching the match.
'Clarified' is a difficult word to use of any of this government's communications, delivered as they are to an imagined audience of idiots through a public sphere that has been shot to shit, but this is almost certainly the last game I'll see for at least a month, with no-one allowed to meet more than one other person outdoors until early December. "Elite" sport will continue, we were told, without fans but doubtless continuing to be put on pay-per-view at exorbitant prices - I hope fans keep boycotting it, like the Newcastle United supporters who gave their £15 to local food banks instead. Chances are I'll watch Norwich out of boredom if nothing else, but expect to find it just as miserable as in June; I'm not expecting to go back to Carrow Road this season, and now I have my doubts about next year as well, and really, I'd much rather go to The New Defence than sit alone through another soulless, sterile spectacle of a fanless football match in any case. Fingers crossed that Horley Town and other clubs of their size can welcome people back soon - and that if my prediction proves accurate and they make it to Wembley, that I am able to attend.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

MATCH 10: How Unfortunate: Carshalton Athletic vs. Horsham

Carshalton Athletic 3 Horsham 1 (Isthmian League Premier Division)
Colston Avenue, 12 October 2020

Sometimes, football fans tell me they're only interested in the present and not the past, and I never quite believe them. Most people don't spend as much time watching highlights of old games as I do - I'll watch almost anything, going back to the earliest days of film (although the codification of football is more contemporaneous with the development of photography). But every fan wants their club to generate memories: the greatest are the ones that feel best in the moment, winning matches or even trophies, but so much of the game's texture, and emotional appeal, comes from the accumulation of moments that are joyous, sad, funny or infuriating, or even stultifying, and you can learn so much about how supporters relate to it by the recollections that stick with them most.

A melancholic person at heart, who loves that line in Half Man Half Biscuit's Depressed Beyond Tablets about how "all the results of my lifetime are a string of nil-nils", I'm attracted to the disappointing and the dismal, and I find myself talking about Norwich City's lows as much as, if not more than their highs. (Do your own joke about their proportions.) Now enough time has passed, friends and I often look back and laugh at 2008-2009, when Norwich were relegated to the third division for the first time in fifty years after a disastrous season in which they signed seventeen players on loan, meaning that we frequently turned up at matches with no idea who half the squad even were, watching a team that looked like they were having exactly the same experience.

On train trips to games in more recent, better times, we could make each other laugh just by mentioning one of these loanees, almost competing to drag up the most forgotten names. The one that stayed most with me was Omar Koroma, who joined Portsmouth from Gambian club Banjul Hawks in July 2008 and came to Norwich for the 2008-09 season soon after. Manager Glenn Roeder told fans he could sign better players on loan than permanently, calling Koroma "a lovely mover" who was "exciting and full of enthusiasm". I only went to a handful of games that year, but saw one of Koroma's few starts, at Southampton in September 2008, who also went down at the end of the season. It had one of St. Mary's' lowest-ever crowds, but as Southampton were so cash-strapped, barely anyone was on the turnstiles and so I missed the first fifteen minutes, waiting outside in the pouring rain. Koroma was substituted soon after Dejan Stefanović was sent off and David McGoldrick made it 2-0 from a penalty, and he went back to Portsmouth after a serious ankle injury a couple of months later. He never played a Football League match again, trialling with Brøndby and then spending time with Forest Green Rovers, Wealdstone and Dulwich Hamlet, playing in Iceland and Kazakhstan before returning to London and ending up at Carshalton Athletic.

Carshalton were high on my list of clubs to visit this season. This was partly because I thought it would be fun to see Koroma when I'm unable to see the Norwich players with whom I've built up relationships (or the new signings, with whom I would have liked to) and barely know any of those I do see. It was also because Carshalton are the nearest club to Wallington, where my parents grew up - I spent a lot of time around there as a child but haven't been back in a decade, since the last of my grandparents died. I've always liked the way football provides a reason to visit places I otherwise wouldn't, and have seen a lot of England this way - this year, it's London's outermost suburbs and its small satellite towns, and Carshalton sits on the hinterland of those categories.

For some reason, Carshalton often play home matches on Monday nights, making them easy to cross off my list. (There's very little else to do socially besides football right now, after all.) I decided to spend an afternoon wandering around the local area, getting the train to Wallington and walking down the high street for the first time since the mid-1990s. My main memory of it was buying the Playfair Football Annual in WH Smith in 1993: the first time I owned any sort of football directory, feeding my interest in records of the game's recent and longer-term history. I did that with my grandmother, who died in 2012, aged 97; my walk took me past her old house on Croydon Road and to Beddington Park, behind Wallington Grammar School where my dad took his O-Levels. I have a photo of my grandmother at the park in 1928, but no memories of visiting with her: the thing that's stayed with me is my youthful trips to the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum, although it wasn't until this week that I really appreciated how the area was much more an outer district of London than a town in its own right.

My favourite football novel isn't really about football at all (and nor, you might say, are these blogs, most of the time). In his semi-autobiographical work The Unfortunates (1969), famously presented as a set of unbound chapters in a box to be read in any order, B. S. Johnson uses a trip to Nottingham to cover a game as a springboard for a stream of consciousness, thinking about a friend who died of cancer, whom he closely associated with the city. I did the same for my grandmother, remembering childhood afternoons feeding the ducks at Carshalton Ponds, or sat talking under the war memorial, or playing board games and listening to the radio with her in her little kitchen. (For some reason, I have an especially strong memory of listening to Liverpool's FA Cup semi-final against Portsmouth in 1992, in which she had no interest.)

She certainly never mentioned the prospect of going to see Carshalton Athletic with me, any more than my father ever raised the possibility of watching Horley Town, so I didn't have any memories attached to the club. Their ground being on Colston Avenue reminded me of the one political moment I've enjoyed since December: the people of Bristol tearing down the long hated statue of slave trader Edward Colston and throwing into the sea during the Black Lives Matter protests. Carshalton officially call it The War Memorial Sports Ground - people in that part of the country are far keener to remember the world wars than the Empire, for reasons I've explored elsewhere - and on entering, the first thing I saw was a Carshalton Athletic team photo from 1914, the year the First World War started, and my grandmother was born.

Next, I looked out for Omar Koroma, the only current Carshalton player I knew. Luckily he was starting. On my way, I thought back to 90 Minutes, my favourite football magazine as a teen, and their 'My Sad Mate' feature - another stupid thing that had stayed with me, especially the Bristol Rovers fan who had gone to QPR to see striker Devon White, who had recently left for Loftus Road, only to find that White wasn't playing. It took him some time to get into the game, but gradually he became the focal point of the Robins' attack, and I found out that he'd already scored four goals this season. He came alive in the second half, with his team already 2-0 up as Horsham managed to score two virtually identical own goals from Carshalton corners. I had my camera ready as Koroma broke through on goal and clattered into Horsham's keeper; I was just about to text a snide comment to my friend Chris when Koroma struck a low shot underneath the goalkeeper after a lovely Carshalton move.
A few Norwich fans on Twitter were delighted that I'd seen Koroma score; the Carshalton supporters around me were annoyed that he was substituted soon after. Writing this, I looked up the report from that last time I'd watched him, and saw I'd remembered it wrong: Koroma, just 18 years old, had a lively match and made a few chances, enough so that he'd started Norwich's next match, at home to Derby County. Perhaps he impressed less: Norwich lost 2-1 with Koroma on the wing for an hour, before he was taken off and not seen again. (The game was later part of an investigation into match-fixing.) So perhaps I owed Koroma an apology, and probably my father as well: I used to make fun of him for talking in Cockney rhyming slang, thinking Wallington and Carshalton were firmly in Surrey, but on returning, they felt far more like Greater London, as Ian Nairn pointed out in his reflections on nearby Mitcham in his book on the county. Leaving the ground and seeing the 1913-14 photo again, I thought about how football is about generating memories, whether they be converted into terrace chants, nostalgic pub chats or pieces of writing; either way, that connection with its numerous, endless narratives is what keeps me coming back.

Monday, October 12, 2020

MATCH 9: From Romania with Love: FC Romania vs. Tooting & Mitcham United

FC Romania 0 Tooting & Mitcham United 1 (Isthmian League South Central Division)
Theobalds Lane, 7 October 2020

Along with FC Deportivo Galicia, FC Romania were one of London’s non-League clubs I most wanted to see. Formed in August 2006 by a group of Romanian workers in London who wanted to play in their spare time, they soon switched from Sunday to Saturday football and gradually rose up to the semi-professional Isthmian League, where they now play in the South Central Division – the eighth tier of the English pyramid. Since being denied promotion in 2012 due to their ground not meeting Essex Senior League standards, they have shared Theobalds Lane with Cheshunt, on north-east London’s fringes: an easy journey for me, and one that I made with my friend Lillian, who often canvassed with me in December’s election, and Orit, who was excited to be seeing another politically resonant club.
Like many other English children who didn’t have a team to support in the 1994 World Cup, I was captivated by the Romaniaside that beat Argentina 3-2 in a thrilling second round tie, with their mercurial playmaker, Gheorghe Hagi. That summer was when English clubs finally went for big-name overseas players in numbers: the FA had banned them from signing professional foreigners until 1978, and then they found players were reluctant to move here during the 1980s, first because of the stringent work permit regulations and then the five-year ban from European competitions after the Heysel disaster in 1985. Tottenham, who made waves when the FA's barriers dropped by signing two of Argentina’s World Cup winners, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, led the way again. Their surprise capture of Jürgen Klinsmann in July 1994 made headlines, but they also signed two stars from Romania’s quarter-finalists – forward Ilie Dumitrescu and defender/midfielder Gheorghe Popescu, while Sheffield Wednesday brought in full-back Dan Petrescu.
Before the deposition of Nicolae Ceauşescu – captured brilliantly in Harun Farocki and Andrej Ujică’s film Videograms of a Revolution (1992) – English clubs were not able to sign players from Romania in any case. One of the beneficiaries of UEFA’s ban on English teams were Steaua Bucharest, who in May 1986 became the first and only club within the Soviet sphere to win the European Cup. They beat Barcelona 2-0 on penalties in Seville after a 0-0 draw, with goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam emerging as the hero, before fading back into obscurity. Three years later, and with Hagi in their midfield, Steaua reached the final again. This time, they lost 4-0 to AC Milan, with the trio of Dutch stars who filled their quota of foreign players allowed by UEFA at the time, and their core of domestic players who formed the backbone of the Italian side that lost the World Cup final on penalties in 1994.
There were changes afoot in 1989: not just the Romanian revolution in December, but also UEFA planning to restructure the European Cup from a straight, unseeded knock-out with home and away legs to a World Cup-style league-cup hybrid, partly in response to Steaua reaching the 1986 final after beating the champions of Denmark, Hungary, Finland and Belgium. The political tensions around Romanian football of the time are captured in Corneliu Poromboiu's film The Second Game (2014), in which Poromboiu talks over a video recording of a match between Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest in December 1988 with his father, who refereed the game. They talk interestingly about how the two teams, for which nearly all of Romania's golden generation played, were affiliated with the army and the secret police, with Steaua being Ceauşescu's favourites, and both keen for him to fix it in their favour. (The match, as it obvious from the picture above, was played in driving snow if it were any other set of teams, said Poromboiu sr., it would have been postponed.)

The opportunity Poromboiu's film misses is not talking about how the Steaua side that made two European Cup finals and formed the basis for the 1994 national team got broken up, and how and why Romania declined as a footballing force in the 21st century. After the Jean-Marc Bosman case was resolved in 1995, UEFA dropped the 'three foreigners' rule for European competitions and EU countries dropped such restrictions in their domestic leagues. Within the next decade, and especially after the EU expansion in 2004, Europe's best players became concentrated in the top western leagues Spain, Italy, Germany and England. These nations now dominate the Champions League: since Porto beat Monaco in 2004, only Paris Saint-Germain, with their Qatari billions, have made the final. Without the same kind of oligarch owners as the biggest Russian teams, clubs from former Warsaw Pact countries have rarely threatened the knock-out stages, as their most promising players get disbanded across Europe, often vanishing into big clubs' squads, bouncing from loan to loan and failing to realise their potential.

This has obviously been detrimental to eastern Europe's national sides too - these days, it's only Spain and Germany who have been able to built successful teams around a nucleus of players concentrated at one or two clubs. My friend Chris (a frequent companion, at Ilford, Hendon and elsewhere) and I went to Bucharest in September 2017 and saw Romania play Armenia in a World Cup qualifier. With the side already unlikely to make it out of a weak group, the crowd in the impressive new national stadium booed the German coach Christoph Daum, and Romania laboured to a 1-0 win with a last-minute goal. A few of that team have played in England, before or since: centre-back Vlad Chiricheş had an underwhelming spell at Tottenham in 2013-15 after moving from Steaua; Adrian Popa left Steaua for Reading in 2017 and has since played 15 games in England, spending last season back on loan in Bucharest; Florin Andone has struggled at Brighton & Hove Albion, following the footsteps of Steaua's 1986 captain Ştefan Iovan, who became the first Romanian to play in England after he joined Brighton in 1991, but featured just six times. Other Romanians in England haven't had the best time: Florin Răducioiu, the star striker of the 1994 team, joined West Ham to much excitement in 1996 but left before the end of the season; Răzvan Raț had a similarly bad time with the Hammers; Adrian Mutu got sacked by Chelsea after failing a drug test and had to pay the club £15m in compensation.

In Bucharest, Chris and I also walked around Steaua's old training complex in Ghencea, the graveyards for those killed in the 1989 revolution, and the palace that the Ceauşescus built for themselves, which displaced an entire district, cost €3bn and is sinking under the weight of its own hubris (by 6mm a year). The tour guide told us this heaviness was partly due to Elena's love of chandeliers: the complex had 3,000. Unlike Romanian footballers of the time concentrated at Steaua, who were Nicolae's chosen team the leaders had freedom of movement, and Elena flew to Paris every morning to get a French croissant. Of all the Soviet satellite regimes, theirs was the most indulgent and the most corrupt; I doubt many in Romania saw a European Cup victory as an acceptable trade-off for their 24-year rule, nor a World Cup quarter-final as a worthwhile legacy.

Playing in the same bright yellow as the national side, FC Romania were established well before Romania joined the EU in 2013 (with Bulgaria, who also lit up the 1994 World Cup and haven't been as good since). Quite how Brexit will affect the club remains unknown: many but not all of the current squad are Romanian, and I would guess that they have applied for leave to remain after the UK leaves the European Union on 31 December, but have no idea if they have been successful, and they will almost certainly find it harder to recruit new players after freedom of movement ends. (I suspect a loophole will be found for Premier League clubs to sign whoever they want, that is unlikely to apply at this level.)

Getting the train through north-east London and then walking through the town, Lillian and I reflected that the area reminded us of our canvassing for Labour in December, when - among other things - we were desperately trying to elect a government that would scrap the hostile environment and preserve that freedom of movement. I read that FC Romania are still looking for a home that feels more like theirs, but have slowly built up a base in part by inviting Cheshunt fans to watch them when the host club are away - there was a crowd of 86 for this match, a vocal away support and a mix of nationalities following the home team. The programme had a list of Romanian phrases that you may hear on the terraces, a lot cleaner that the things that I guessed were yelled at Christoph Daum and his team when I was in Bucharest, and the club's long-serving manager, Ion Vintila, gives FC Romania a sense of constancy and was sat in front of us in the main stand during the second half.

You may have mentioned that here, I've discussed the match at hand in even less detail than usual. Like the Steaua-Dinamo clash in The Second Game, it was quite uneventful until late in the second half, when FC Romania's French defender Jesse Armoo got sent off for a second booking and Tooting & Mitcham United's Jack Rose broke through for a last-gasp winner. This was FC Romania's fourth defeat in a row, picking up from a difficult 2019-20; how easy it is for them to keep going at all amidst England's reactionary nationalist turn is yet to be seen.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

MATCH 8: The Road to Wembley: Hendon vs. Maidstone United

Hendon 0 Maidstone United 1 (FA Cup second qualifying round)
Silver Jubilee Park, 3 October 2020
I thought I wasn't going to get to see the game I had planned for my birthday, for two reasons. The first was utterly mundane: torrential rain. Not being familiar with the clubs I'm visiting this season, I didn't know that Hendon had an artificial 3G pitch that couldn't become waterlogged, meaning there was no need for the kind of late inspection as at Clapton CFC or Walthamstow. The second, however, was quite surreal - a product of the government's haphazard and badly communicated Covid-19 regulations that clearly hadn't considered the cup competitions. The FA Cup second qualifying round draw had put several Step 3 (seventh tier) clubs from various regional leagues, who are allowed to admit fans to 30% of capacity, at home to Step 2 clubs (from the National League's northern and southern divisions, who enter the Cup at this stage), who still aren't after the national rise in Covid-19 cases led the government to drop the re-admittance of fans at all non-league levels, planned for 3 October.

It looked like all second qualifying round matches might be played behind closed doors, until the FA issued guidance saying that if two Step 2 clubs were facing each other or were drawn at home to a lower side, no spectators could be let in. If a team from Step 3 (or below) were at home to one from Step 2, they could only allow home fans. This obviously seemed absurd: Corinthian-Casuals, due to play Dulwich Hamlet - promoted to the National League South a few seasons back, largely thanks to income from their growing fanbase - put out a statement saying that 'As the coronavirus is clearly clever enough to differentiate between supporters of Step 2 and Step 3 clubs', they could not admit Dulwich fans, saying that 'We’d like to place on record that as a club, we are not in favour of this utterly baffling ruling, we believe it is wholly unnecessary and we are having to put in place these restrictions under duress.'
Ahead of their tie against Maidstone United of the National League South, community-owned Hendon stated that they were 'unclear as to the logic behind this decision' but had 'little choice but to follow the FA's directions'. They offered refunds to any Maidstone fans who had bought a ticket, saying that anyone in Maidstone colours or celebrating a visiting goal would be asked to leave the stadium. They reopened sales, making it all-ticket, so I booked for myself and my friend Chris (who had recently joined me at Ilford, as well as Wingate & Finchey's match against Bowers & Pitsea).

We met at a pub in Hendon, where we were instinctively pleased to see Norwich on TV, until we registered the empty seats signifying our ongoing exile from Carrow Road. There was just one small screen showing City; the barman tried to put it on a larger one but found it interfered with the ones displaying Chelsea's Premier League match against Crystal Palace, which the handful of other drinkers wanted to watch, and we ended up not being able to see Norwich at all, after being ushered around the pub's one-way system more than once. We didn't care, by now used to feeling disengaged from the club we'd followed for decades by the pandemic, and talked instead about Barney Ronay's recent Guardian article on how these circumstances were a gift to top-level football's oligarchical owners, most interested in international television revenue than local fans. After lamenting that for the first time in years, our club would sign people that we may well never see play, as we don't expect to go to a City game until next season at least, we felt more frustration at the difficulty of ordering food via the pub's app than we did by the news that Norwich had lost 1-0 to a late free-kick by Wayne Rooney.

The technological problems continued when we got to Silver Jubilee Park, which Hendon share with Edgware Town, as Chris couldn't get the QR code for the Track and Trace system to work on his new smartphone. As I still use an old Nokia, I couldn't scan it either, so we joined a long queue to have our names written down, exacerbated by the man on the door having run out of space on his paper. There were no temperate checks as I'd had at Balham or Haringey Borough, but more overt guidance to leave if displaying Covid-19 symptoms than I'd seen elsewhere. Wanting to make myself look more like a home fan, I'd brought a football scarf - I often buy these on foreign travels, and I had one in Hendon's colours that was actually for Karpaty Lviv, that I took over ones for Rapid Wien and Flora Tallinn, also in green and white.

I could have got a Hendon scarf in the well-stocked club shop, with old and new replica kits as well as second-hand books, including the Playfair Non-League Football Annual from 1991-92. That was the original Maidstone United's final season - their third as a Football League club, a status for which they made huge financial gambles that ultimately bankrupted them and they resigned from the league and went into liquidation in August 1992, shortly after Aldershot. The new Maidstone United did not claim the old club's history, but climbed back up to the National League in 2015 before relegation four years later: Step 2 football is unsustainable without paying spectators, as a guest article in the programme by The Non-League Paper pointed out, and so this was the Stones' first game of the season, having last played a competitive game on 14 March. Presumably, that article was submitted before Friday, when the government pledged £10m to help the 67 clubs at Step 2 play behind closed doors, and hopefully avoid the bankruptcies that wiped out many of the fifth and sixth-tier clubs in that old Playfair annual. (What's going to happen to Football League clubs to avoid a repeat of Bury and Macclesfield Town's recent collapses remains to be seen.)

Maidstone United wore their purple away kit when they didn't need to - one of those aesthetic changes of modern football that annoys me far more than it probably should, especially in a context where they weren't showing it off to potential consumers. Seeing how many players were wearing flourescent footwear, I commented to Chris about how Alex Ferguson banned Manchester United's youth teams from using anything other than black boots, stating my (possibly reactionary) belief that such things should only be allowed for players on the Ballon d'Or shortlist. Still, we admitted, Maidstone were likely to be the biggest club we watched all season, and their centre-back George Elokobi, one of the few people I'd witnessed in my pre-pandemic supporting life, was the best player I've seen all season by an absolute mile.

Now 34 and a player-coach, former Wolves star Elokobi organised his defence - which also include ex-Arsenal, Gillingham and Trinidad & Tobago right-back Gavin Hoyte - superbly, meaning Hendon rarely got a sniff of goal despite looking sharper in the first half. The match was goalless at half-time and I sensed that the home team had to score first to have another chance of progressing. In my Karpaty Lviv scarf, near the halfway line, I was surprised to find myself getting behind the home team, willing them to pull off an upset, sympathising with Hendon manager Lee Allinson as he screamed "What's the difference?" at a linesman after his team weren't given a penalty soon after Maidstone had won a free-kick for a similar pull on a shirt a few moments earlier.

On 76 minutes, Maidstone's new Kosovan midfielder Kreshnic Krasniqi played Hoyte in down the right; his cross was deflected to striker Ibrahim Olutade, who spent most of last season on loan at Leatherhead, and who made it 1-0, just after coming on as a substitute. Unexpectedly, I heard cheering: I looked around to see if anyone was getting kicked out, then saw a group of Maidstone fans peering over a perimeter wall in a way I've only ever seen in Pathé clips of football from before World War II, clapping and singing. They kept up the noise for the rest of the match, which finished without further score, and later, I saw a short video of them posted on their club's Twitter feed, captioned 'Come on you Stones'.
Flicking through the programme as the ground emptied, I learned that Hendon's best ever Cup run was in 1974, when they drew 1-1 at Newcastle United in the third round before losing 4-0 at home in the replay, played at Watford rather than Hendon's old Claremont Road ground to maximise revenue. Walking out of Silver Jubilee Park, I could see Wembley Stadium on the horizon, but whoever I support this season, this is likely to be the closest I get to it: I may find a team in the third or even fourth qualifying rounds who are still admitting fans, but beyond that it's likely to be television or nothing, and for me, that's just a turn-off.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

MATCH 7: Solidarity Forever: FC Deportivo Galicia vs. AFC Hayes

FC Deportivo Galicia 1 AFC Hayes 1 (Combined Counties Division One)
Bedfont Recreation Ground, 29 September 2020
Being shut out of Carrow Road means not seeing some old friends for the foreseeable future, but it has also provided plenty of ways to make new ones. When I told people I was doing this blog, some - including a few not normally into football - said they wanted to join me at these matches. This added an extra layer to the project: initially, I was looking for clubs that would be interesting to visit for reasons beyond mere convenience. Now, I was also looking to match each club with the best potential companion - someone with a link to a team's area or past, or who might share my interest in a club's political, historical or cultural significance.
When I read cultural critic Orit Gat's essay about Zinedine Zidane and French society in The White Review - the opening chapter of a football book she's writing called If Anything Happens - I knew I wanted to go to a match with her. Having followed her work for some time, I looked at my list of teams to visit and thought she might be intrigued by FC Deportivo Galicia, set up in west London in 1968 by a group of Galician migrants fleeing Franco's Spain, and rose up the pyramid during the 1990s (around the same time as Deportivo de La Coruña's golden age, in fact) to the Combined Counties League. I'd never heard of them before this season - I knew a few players had come to England during the Spanish Civil War, including Emilio Aldecoa, Sabino Barinaga, José Gallego and Raimundo Pérez Lezama, but not an entire club founded near the end of the fascist dictatorship. As interested in my football writing as I was in hers, and sharing my curiosity about this Spanish club in London, Orit agreed to come with me, and we both knew well in advance that we'd find plenty to talk about.

When we met, I told Orit I'd decided not to write up every game - it was just too much work, especially as I was going to several matches a week in the absence of much else to do, and I thought it might be nice to keep some things just for myself. On the night before this, I'd seen Leatherhead again, away at Haringey Borough with my friend Andi (who previously joined me at Balham), and had enjoyed it, as Haringey had a vibrant fanbase. I found little to say about the game that I haven't already written here, though, as Andi and I talked further about the collapse of the blogging circle, and how this project hasn't found a wider network to support it. (One reason why I didn't write about going back to Horley Town on Saturday for their 4-0 win over East Preston, or seeing Wingate & Finchley lose to Bowers & Pitsea on Sunday - four games in four days!) It got me thinking about how, of all the bloggers, Andi was the only one with whom I'd formed a lasting friendship, having a similar interest in the socio-political issues around football while also trying not to take it with stifling seriousness, being as moved by petty squabbles between Dulwich Hamlet and Leatherhead as by the greatness of Bayern Munich or Barcelona over the last ten years (and both agreeing that Half Man Half Biscuit provided the greatest summary of what's wrong with modern football culture in just one verse).

It took a while for Orit and I to find each other: Deportivo Galicia play at Bedfont Recreation Ground, sharing with Bedfont Sports. It backs onto Bedfont & Feltham's ground, The Orchard; she went to the right club, I didn't. We got a drink in the bar, which was decorated with famous football quotes - I wondered, aloud, if Bill Shankly would have said his line about it being more important than life or death if he'd been at Heysel or Hillsborough and Orit, a Liverpool fan who grew up in Israel, said she preferred Jürgen Klopp's description of football as "the most important of the unimportant things", something Klopp has repeated amidst the pandemic. We had both written about watching football in the age of Covid-19 - me about the sadness of not going to Norwich, and Orit about the strange audio-visual changes it had brought about for TV viewers, especially those watching Liverpool finally claim the Premier League title. Our ways of watching football were very different: Orit had grown up near Hapoel Tel Aviv, the most left-wing club in Israel, but didn't go to games because of the constant threat of terrorism. It wasn't easy to watch games on TV either, as there was only one channel - a stark contrast to my youth, when I went several times a season to Norwich games and watched no end of English league and international matches on television.

We immediately got into the politics of football - the lack of anything in England's higher levels comparable to the sectarianism of Celtic and Rangers, let alone the ultra-nationalism of Beitar Jerusalem and their fans' intense hostility to the club signing two Chechen Muslims in 2013 (captured in the documentary Forever Pure). She was researching the history of Hakoah Vienna, the Jewish club that won the Austrian league in 1924-25, before its players either left for Mandatory Palestine or died in the Holocaust after the club was dissolved, days after the Anschluss. We talked about how some of football's most successful individuals had been less willing to consider the politics of their positions: Sepp Herberger managed Germany, and then West Germany, between 1936 and 1964, keeping hundreds of pages of notes and diaries that mentioned nothing but football. That led us onto more recent figures such as John Barnes and of course Zinedine Zidane who preferred to let their feet do the talking as they became reluctant figureheads in struggles against racism. (I couldn't help but wonder how popular Zidane, now as synonymous with Real Madrid, famously backed by General Franco, as he is with the Franco-Algerian community, was amongst Deportivo Galicia's supporters.)

We talked so much, trying to cram in everything we wanted to say to each other about the art and politics of football, that I missed the line-ups, although we soon gathered that most if not all of Deportivo's players were Spanish speakers. We stood by the halfway-line and kept up our conversation as the game unfolded, with Hayes having more of the ball and looking a little more threatening but Galicia attacking on the break, with a striker missing horribly from close range before Anas Igozouln (who previously played for a club called The Curve, named after a North Kensington community centre that supported people affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, and had many players of North African origin before they folded in September 2019) put Deportivo ahead right on half-time.

During the break, we got on literature, discussing Svetlana Alexeivich and Isabel Allende, who Orit was reading. (Apt, I felt, as I'd just finished watching Patricio Guzmán's Battle of Chile.) We shared our love of writers and thinkers who took sport seriously, from Roland Barthes to David Foster Wallace, and of David Goldblatt's magnificent Marxist history, The Ball is Round, that spanned from the English public schools of the 1850s to 21st century Africa and Asia in a thousand breathless pages. Neither of us had read any football books by women, however - not even Jennifer Doyle, whose From a Left Wing was a highlight of the blogging circle, had published one, and I hope someone takes on Orit's book and starts to rectify this absence.
We got drawn back into the match as Hayes equalised soon after the restart, as we moved to the main stand in front of a group of Deportivo ultras in the club's blue and white scarves. My favourite reminder of their Anglo-Spanish status came as a Deportivo player raced down the left wing: a woman shouted "Vamos, vamos, vamos!" as he beat a couple of opponents. When he ran into Hayes' right-back, a man behind me just said, "Bugger." (It turned out the woman was watching with former Deportivo La Coruña goalkeeper Fabri, who latched onto Deportivo Galicia after joining Fulham in 2018.) There were no more goals, just a penalty appeal that ended in a yellow card for diving and some angry home fans, and 1-1 seemed a fair result.

Orit and I got the Tube back into central London together, now talking about all sorts of things besides football, from how we both went home during lockdown to the US Presidential debate due to start in a few hours. I suggested we meet again, perhaps to watch Clapton Community FC with their popular kit modelled on the flag of the Second Spanish Republic, and we talked about how it strange that we hadn't met before, given the number of our mutual interests and acquaintances. I went home thinking about how many people I've met through football, and how I make friends through it. Gone are the days, thankfully, when I had friends with whom I could only talk about football, or where I had to use football as a way of convincing certain men, usually colleagues, that I wasn't irretrievably weird. My friends who I just see at games, in Norwich or elsewhere, are all people who I can talk to about music or politics, who are anti-Tory even if they're not as left as me. Not all of my closest friends in my wider life are football fans, although I struggle to relate to anyone who outwardly detests it, and I find it best when a shared passion for football comes with shared cultural tastes and political leanings - as I knew it would with Orit, who I'm sure I'll see again, in a gallery or a ground, before too long.

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.