For a while, a few years back, when a big live match was televised by the BBC there was the option of pressing the red button to eliminate the commentary. Suddenly it felt as though you were watching a real game of football again, free to work out for yourself what was happening on the pitch without the superimposed narratives and interpretations of commentators and pundits. It was liberating to be cut off from the noise, to experience something without mediation.
Since the Big Bang of the Premier League and Sky money it’s become increasingly hard to find a quiet corner to escape the packaged narratives of what football is. It’s commodified at all levels, from the circus that is the elite game and those fans who consume their football via Sky down to those who are defiantly Against Modern Football, it seems everything has been put under a self-regarding, restrictive filter. Even the idea of what it means to be ‘a football fan’ has been packaged and regurgitated until it can only exist as cliché, as something ersatz. With all that ‘passion’ and ‘belief’ plastered over it fandom is left to define itself through the vacuous language of advertisers.
And it’s not just the top level of the game that’s infested with this hyper-awareness of what it all means. Even those fans of non-league clubs like Dulwich Hamlet, who have refreshed and reframed what it means to support a football team, are ultimately buying into a commodity and defining themselves by what they consume in a similar way to the Sky consumer of ‘circus’ football.
In the popular construct non-league is about pies, dogs and old blokes with scarves.
Mainly it’s about pies.
For at least the past quarter-century the ‘romance’ of non-league teams in the FA Cup has been rammed down our throats like a marketing slogan, and there was something perfect about the way the picture of Sutton’s reserve goalkeeper eating a pie earlier this year distilled all those lazy, reassuring perceptions of non-league football into a simple image. A fat goalie! A pie!
And it’s not just the tabloids. Even people with a genuine affection for lower-league football tend to drag out images of pastel-hued decay, eccentricity and 1930s levels of stoicism, all bathos and pathos. I can understand those who fetishise old grandstands and turnstile blocks and so on, and who despair when they’re knocked down, but struggling grassroots clubs have other concerns. Last year a club local to me knocked down a quaint, unused 70 year old stand and replaced it with a lottery-funded storage shed. Few people at the club seemed to have had much sentimental regret at its passing. They didn’t have a self-conscious sense of heritage and, despite the sadness some us felt when the stand disappeared, they don’t exist as a groundhoppers’ theme park. They were just glad to have somewhere secure to keep the mowers.
The football we watch in Cornwall is, bar the outlier that is Truro City, a club that has been launched out of the county’s orbit to the heights of the National League South, played between ten and seventeen levels below the Premier League. A couple of hundred people would be considered a good attendance at the highest level, while at the lower levels the players and staff will outnumber the spectators. These are village teams run by volunteers, often dependent on their social clubs for survival, and genuine focal points for the community.
At this level the template doesn’t exist. There’s no externally-imposed pre-existing narrative surrounding a real grassroots game – no room for callers to radio phone-in shows or below-the-line internet commenters with their well-worn third hand opinions
There’s something visceral about watching the game at this level: the smell of the grass, the soil, the Deep Heat; the cruel sound of a centre half clattering into a Number Ten, the same on a council-owned playing field as at the Nou Camp, the same from Madron to Madrid.
Here the grounds are part of the landscape, ephemeral, changing with the seasons and the seasons, and that landscape can dwarf the struggles of the players. In the photographs people just happen to be playing football in a space, and the world, oblivious or indifferent, is going on around them. They often make me think of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts :
“…how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along/… some untidy spot/ Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree…”
And that’s how it should be. It’s only a game, after all.