Nowhere to Go but Dead

St Just v Falmouth Town, Cornwall Combination League

A young Rod Beer, his interest in football triggered by the 1966 World Cup, first watched St Just play at the age of seven. He immersed himself in the team with the singular passion of the football-besotted kid, assuming his first club role as unofficial ball boy. “I was very fast at jumping over dry stone walls,” Rod recalls. “Of course it could take a little longer if you were one-up and under pressure.” Having mastered the dark arts of mild gamesmanship he went on to become club secretary and chairman, and despite now living out of the county he’s retained a lifelong bond with the club.

The highlight of Rod’s childhood footballing memories is of a 1971 Combination League Cup win over Illogan, played at Penzance’s Penlee Park in front of a record crowd of over 1000, but it was always the games against local rivals that caught the imagination. When the league fixtures didn’t start until October the season would begin with Combination League Cup matches. In a locally based round robin group system, St Just would be playing teams like Penzance, Marazion and Mousehole home and away. “It was always a wonderful start to the season. All these local derbies a week apart, so people would start the season by kicking each other.”

While there are still the old rivalries, many feel that social change has diluted their intensity. “The biggest crowd in the Combo in recent years was for a Boxing Day Pendeen-St Just game. But it has changed. When I started watching the team almost all the players would have had a connection with local industry like Geevor Mine or the dry dock at Penzance. Now there aren’t those huge employers that create that cohesion.”

Founded in 1894, the club were founder members of the Cornwall Senior League. They won the league in 1959 and the next season they entered the fledgling Combination League, becoming champions in 1962. Remarkably, since entering the Combo they’ve stayed put for all of its 59 years, untroubled by promotion or relegation. They like it here, and today’s special for being their 2000th consecutive Combination League fixture.

Six miles from Land’s End, Lafrowda Park, St Just’s home since 1954, is the mainland’s most westerly ground. While it seems quite a benign place on a mild Autumn day like this, in the winter it can be bleak. Traditionally few teams have relished the long trip west to face a side with a notoriety for being unflinching battlers. “Over the years, statistically there’s a bigger difference between St Just’s percentage of wins home and away than any other team in the league,” says Rod. “The wind is like nowhere else, and we do sometimes get the fog. When I was chairman I tried to get the second strip changed to slate grey, to make us more invisible.

“I think their reputation is for being rather doughty, trying very hard and possibly being quite a physical side. And perhaps it’s something to do with being descendants of tin miners but traditionally our players have always seemed to be small. But still very courageous. The majority of that 1971 side were 5 foot 6 or so. They had that reputation of being uncompromising and combative. But there’s also a tradition of really great playmakers and inside forwards.”

Rod has always suspected that the league powers that be have regarded the club as something of an inconvenience. “Some clubs mysteriously never seem to be fixtured to face long trips in midweek, yet other clubs are rather less equal. I don’t think we’ve always been favoured by one or two of the league hierarchy. St Just were sent to Newquay for evening matches several years in succession. The longest possible trip in the league on a night when Newquay’s first team weren’t playing, so they would be able to load up their team. Certain patterns develop, such as Helston never seeming to travel further than Culdrose for an evening match. It’s not random.

“Under the old system clubs met and voted on matters of promotion and relegation. Ludgvan survived after finishing bottom five years in succession”. Rod suspects that St Just wouldn’t have been treated so leniently. “We knew that if we fell into the bottom two places there were people who would say, quite pragmatically, ‘We don’t want to go all the way down there, in the fog and the wind and the rain. Let’s have a club just down the road instead.’ I once heard someone say of St Just, ‘Once you’ve got down there, there’s nowhere else to go but dead’.”

Rod first became actively involved in the committee in the mid-90s, when he became Secretary. “At that time money was starting to float around in the league,” he says.

In the close-knit, self-contained world of local football there are constant rumours about which clubs are paying players. These are generally met with silence or denial, so it’s refreshing, and something of a revelation, when Rod openly admits to having proffered a few brown envelopes in his day.

“I suppose I became more involved in the season where we realised we’d be heading for re-election unless something happened at the club. And I decided to give them some money to sign some players. The only way we were going to stay in the league was if we signed some people from further afield. I was living 40 miles away in Summercourt at the time. I would get up very early and drive up to Plymouth, collect the players – a goalkeeper, a centre half and a centre forward – bring them down to play for St Just, take them back to Plymouth and then back to Summercourt. And I paid them for the privilege.”

These 260 mile Saturday round trips and the dent they made in Rod’s wallet are one of the main reasons St Just have survived in this league so long.

“Over the years it probably cost me 20 or 30 grand. For one crucial match against Penzance I think I paid them about 100 quid each. I think that was maybe exceptionally high. I would have thought that if players are being paid now they’re probably getting 20 or 30 pounds a game. We have a league in which almost every club pays players. Ironically, now St Just are one of the few that don’t.”

And this dependence on there being a ready stream of outgoing cash illustrates how there’s a conflict between grassroots clubs’ ambition and their need to just continue to exist.

“There is a tension between having administrative bodies like the FA, which base their philosophy firstly on the assumption that everyone is engaged in a process of continuous improvement; secondly that every club is ambitious to play at the highest level it possibly can; thirdly that there will be sufficient individuals, even if those underlying motivations are present, to actually put that into practice. And then you come to the end of Cornwall and you ask a group of people who are trying, on a shoestring, to keep the club running, ‘Would you rather play football in a way in which you can turn up at half past one on Saturday, or do you want to go and play Bude or Crediton, maybe, in the new set-up?’.”

The risk, as Rod sees it, is of losing everything through throwing meagre resources at a dream. “Do St Just want to play in a league which will involve long travel and risk facing those problems, or would they rather almost go back to their historical roots and play a group of teams like St Buryan, down the road?”

Today’s anniversary game against Falmouth Town seconds is probably deserving of more than the perfunctory plate presentation to the club chairman, long before kick-off, from a league official who is in a hurry to be elsewhere. And nor is the manic opening to the game befitting of the occasion. Much of the half is a frantic midfield pinball, with neither side able to maintain any meaningful possession. 15 minutes in, Falmouth break through the melee and score. St Just are unable to find a pass to release their forwards and they go in 0-1.

After the break St Just seem to have found some composure and are beginning to create chances, but Falmouth break out down the left wing and score a second. The home team come close with a couple of headers but are unable to ever take control of the game, and it ends 0-2.

Fittingly, perhaps, St Just end the day snugly in mid-table. If they finish high enough there’s the potential next season to join a new ‘all Cornwall’ league composed of teams from the Combination, East Cornwall and Southwest Peninsula leagues. But it’s hard to imagine them leaving the Combo. They like it here, after all.

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