Man Out of Time

Madron v Stithians, Trelawny League Division 4

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Almost every football phone-in radio show you listen to seems to feature an Arsenal fan calling in to moan about their underachieving team. They’re invariably followed by a call from a supporter of mid-table Championship club x, who will let the Arsenal fan know that they don’t know they’re born, that they should try watching their side every week. Sometimes a fan of Division Two strugglers y will chip in, announcing that, actually, they don’t know what everyone’s moaning about because they have to play their home fixtures in a shoebox in the middle of the road.

Stop it. All of you. Now. Because here at Madron, on a hill outside Penzance, that chain of misfortune ends. Google ‘worst football team in Britain’ and you’ll find them, thanks to an infamous 55-0 defeat a few years back. Now, just two games into Cornwall’s lowest level league’s new season and the goals column already reads For:1 Against:28. Arsene Wenger? Don’t know you’re born.

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At the helm of all this is Alan Davenport, a 76-year-old Mancunian who is club manager, groundsman, financer and general railer against the powers that be. Alan’s been at the club for 36 years, and shrugs off the hoo-hah around the 55-0 scoreline. “We did alright out of it. We had film crews, people from all over the world paying attention.”

One of the perks of infamy was a new kit provided by the Dave TV channel. It’s just a bit unfortunate that the programme it chose to promote through the deal, the title of which now adorns the team’s shirts, was 24 Hours To Go Broke.

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There’s no regular income other than player match subs and a steady flow of cash from Alan’s own pocket, so it’s a constant financial struggle to keep the club afloat. The clubhouse could do with a makeover, the boiler’s been out of order for over a year, so it’s cold showers after the game, and now, to Alan’s consternation, the mower’s broke.

Player subs barely cover the cost of a referee at home games, so it’s only when they play away, and the other side pay for the ref, that anything goes into the club’s kitty. The dearth of resources has seen players being lured away to other clubs, not just by the promise of relative footballing success, but also by little enticements like having their match subs paid, having a few quid put behind the bar after a game.

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But the real bugbear for Alan is the frequent imposition of fines by the league when the club are unable to turn out with a full complement of players.  “How can they fine us ten pounds a player? When you actually bother to turn up and play the game with seven players? If we agree to play short and then they want to fine us it hardly seems worth bothering. They should applaud you for playing.”

“We’re not professional and they shouldn’t expect us to play three games in a week when these lads are working all week. You get injured, you’re off work. They’ll get thirty quid a week off our insurance and sick pay, but that’s it. The way the league’s run, it’s all about money now. They fine you for anything.”

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Even before a ball of the new season had been kicked Madron had received a £170 fine from the Trelawny League. Reportedly someone at the club had been involved in a minor car crash, which resulted in the completed player registration papers not being at the clubhouse in time to be sent off to meet the deadline. Rather than a last minute drive around the wilds of West Penwith to collect the signatures, in time-honoured fashion the secretary just filled in the forms himself. Only he used the same pen for every form. And all the signatures were in identical handwriting. Charged with maladministration, the club were fined £10 for each form.

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Last season the club ended with just three points from 26 games, after having points deducted for the couple of fixtures where they were unable to muster the requisite seven players. Earlier this week they’d managed to field nine for a 14-1 home defeat to Penzance reserves.

Today there are ten registered players missing . There’s a stag do, a couple of injuries and players working. Several are playing in the village cricket team’s last game of the season. Alan’s informed that the club’s only goalkeeper is one of them, and despairs of finding a replacement: “It could be me. Oh, dear God! I might have to go on and just foul a couple.”

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An hour before kick-off, and a pile of signing-on forms lies optimistically on a table in the clubhouse as Alan sits with the club secretary, who is making a series of desperate phone calls to reel in a few more players.

A lot of hope is being pinned  on a phone call Alan received from a potential new player earlier: “There’s a lad from Sennen rung this morning. Don’t know where he plays. He’ll be in.”

As kick-off nears, the Sennen lad still hasn’t been able to find the ground. He’s tantalisingly close, and in his absence he’s beginning to take on mythical footballing abilities. It feels as though we’re waiting for Wenck’s 12th Army to storm in and save the day.

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The game kicks off with Madron fielding seven players, but within a few minutes, presumably with that last minute paperwork being rushed through, they’ve managed to make it ten. They’re unable to exploit the fierce Atlantic wind behind them and go in 1-0 down. There’s a sense that they could turn this round if they weren’t a man short. Alan realises that there’s a registered player in the clubhouse who’s unable to play because he’s looking after his baby.

Eyeing a chance of victory, Alan steps in as babysitter so he can get his man out on the pitch. For much of the second half the sounds of the match are drowned out by the piercing screams of the child as Alan ineffectually pushes its pram up and down outside the clubhouse. Eventually the player concedes that it’s an act of cruelty to both parties and leaves the pitch to comfort his baby. With the wind against them now, Madron end up losing the game 3-0.

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Teams come and go according to the law of natural selection, and there’s a point of view that Madron’s continuing existence in the league is an aberration, that the life-support should have been switched off long ago. There have to be regulations, and you can understand how the league might consider Alan Davenport to be some maverick Colonel Kurtz, making a mockery of its reputation from his Wild West fiefdom.

But for Alan it’s only the football that matters. Who else would still be here, well into their seventies, pouring time, energy and money into a team that invariably meets with failure? Without him there would almost certainly be no club.

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And if the club couldn’t manage without Alan, then nor could Alan manage without the club. Despite all the troubles the game remains his love: “I enjoy it. Come up here, get the grass cut out, nobody to bother you. It’s fresh air you’re getting. Just wish I didn’t have these daft knees and hips and what have you. But it’s all through football, so why worry? I’d never leave it. I’ll still be here when they scatter my ashes across the pitch. So I can shout at ’em!”

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Postscript.

After I posted the pictures from the game onto flickr, the photo-sharing website, somebody created a new account so they could comment on them. Their ‘comment’ was a question about the number of players Madron fielded in the match. The name on this new account is that of an official at the Cornwall FA. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

More match photos here

2 Replies to “Man Out of Time”

  1. Thanks. The best thing about doing this is meeting so many proper ‘football people’. They’re all different, and flawed like the rest of us, but people like Alan make you realise what commitment really is.

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