The Other Side of Football — Up The Spireites!

1 Feb

It’s difficult to write about football ( or soccer) with any objectivity. Thanks to saturation coverage in the media, its importance has been inflated to ridiculous levels. Hooliganism has been largely sorted in Britain ( though not completely) but other unsavoury developments constantly rear their ugly heads. Numerous Premier League clubs have become the playthings or part of the cooperate business- plan of foreign billionairres, be they Russian, American or Gulf Arab. Top level players are paid unbelievably high salaries that are an insult to every ordinary working person in the country. I heard of one highly paid footballer who regularly burnt £50 notes to impress his mates in the pub. Top players are now ranked alongside film and TV stars as A-List celebrities, their every move, utterance or tweet given the full glare of publicity. Then there are the armies of followers, dazzled by the hype, wealth, fame and success, who attach themselves to the biggest and richest clubs. Many of these so-called supporters don’t even come from or live in the place where their team is based. Many “fans” don’t actually come from the same country! The power of television has made football into a global force, and an important part of the show-business industry. Thus we get the strange, confusing situation of finding droves of Manchester United, Chelsea, Milan or Barcelona fans throughout Africa, Asia and all parts of Europe!

Famous players are mobbed and idolised when they visit these far-flung outposts of their club’s empire. Gullible fans may not even realise that the visit has only been organised in order to sell more replica shirts and club merchanise to generate yet more wealth for the “business.” How can a person support a team which he/she can never get to see live? I don’t understand. This blog isn’t about that side of football — the false, over-hyped worlds of the Premier league, La Liga or Serie A. It’s about the other side of football that doesn’t appear in the celebrity mags, the back pages of the tabloids or on Match of the Day. This is the football of the poorer, unfashionable clubs who struggle on despite: low attendances, financial hardship and perennial lack of real success.

Every Saturday, towns up and down the land witness a curious ritual. Men of all shapes, sizes and ages, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, all start walking in the same direction at around the same time. A few women mingle in with them but it’s mostly men. Cars too, head for the same destination, starting to thicken and clog up the streets as the goal gets closer. Special buses deliver yet more people. Almost all are bedecked in scarves, hats or shirts of the same colour, as if they are in uniform. If this was a Sunday in days gone by, you might think that the throng was making its way dutifully to church. But this is a Saturday and the hallowed focus of the pilgrimage is the football ground or stadium. Its large stands and tall floodlight pylons rear up, dwarving the buildings around. The football ground is the modern equivalent of the cathedral or of Ancient Rome’s Colosseum or Circus Maximus. It is a place where people can go to forget their troubles, even if only for a couple of hours. Today it’s not bread, circuses or rousing sermons that are fed up to the “masses” but football and more football ( and perhaps “reality TV”). Football is in some ways the new religion. Loyal fans flock to worship their idols, pray for a win, take part in communal call- and- response chanting and exercise blind faith. The similarities between a football crowd and a church congregation are striking.

For many ordinary supporters, football is not the glamour of the Premiership or the Champions’ league (except on the telly.) It is shivering on a terrace on a freezing winter’s afternoon, watching a rubbish game littered with clumsy mistakes and supporting a side that’s not won anything for decades and probably never will. This is what I call “grass-roots football”, where supporters shout and cheer for their team irrespective of their position in the league. They would despise the pseudo- fans who only support sides that are at or near the top. These are dismissed as “fair-weather supporters” and awarded scant respect. Real, grass roots fans are always there, through rain and shine, cheering, moaning, screaming, groaning, often swearing, but always hoping. They root for artisans rather than artists. Constant failure and disappointment is hard to swallow but the genuine fan grins and bears it. There’s always next week or next season. Football at this level breeds stoicism, not a bad quality to have amongst the modern clamour for instant gratification. It also breeds incredible loyalty. I know a lifelong supporter of Chester City, a team that was relegated from the football league and thrown out of the next league down because it’s lack of finance meant it couldn’t pay the coach firm to take it to away fixtures. Chester City, a proud, historical club, was declared bankrupt and ceased to exist a couple of years ago. However, my friend Andy and thousands of other Chester supporters, refused to give up. Chester was reformed as a “phoenix club” on the basis of money proferred by loyal fans and resumed life in the “Evostick League North”, 2 or 3 levels below the actual Football league. One super rich Premiership player, Michael Owen, donated one of his race-horses to the Chester cause. That alone shows the  enormous disparity between the top and the bottom in football. The resurrection of Chester also illustrates the lengths that real grass-roots fans are willing to go to support their clubs. As I write, the same sort of thing is happening at unfashionable Darlington FC –” The Quakers”

This unstinting loyalty is a major characteristic of a genuine football fan, irrespective of whether he/she is following a “big club” or one of the many small ones. Unfortunately this does not often happen with the players, especially in the higher echelons of the game. It seems that, aided and abetted by agents, many will move clubs simply to get more money or easier success. They may kiss the badge upon scoring but then “desert” the club that has nurtured them and developed their talents in order to earn mega-bucks elsewhere. Manchester City’s team is stacked full of such “mercenaries” attracted by the high salaries on offer. Loyal fans, who do not switch clubs, regard these money-hungry players as “traitors” and they get roundly booed whenever they re-appear at their former home ground. My Uncle Victor has not switched clubs since he was 8 years old. He is now 93 and still is an avid supporter of his home town team. Loyalty may seem an old-fashioned concept in this modern age of every one for himself ( herself) but it is still an admirable and important quality to possess. It is present in bucketfuls amongst fans, especially in the lower leagues.

Football at this level is not always a happy experience. A lot of pain and frustration has to be endured. So why do thousands take part in this demonstration of masochism every week for 9 months of the year? Being a lower league follower is a bit like being a lemming constantly hovering near the edge of the cliff and flirting with “disaster.”  The question is quite difficult to sensibly answer.

I support one such unglamerous club — Chesterfield FC.  You won’t find many people in Ghana, Malaysia or Japan supporting Chesterfield! Yet it has a long, rich history. It’s the 4th oldest club in the Football League having been founded in 1867, when either Gladstone or Disraeli was Prime Minister and Victoria was just getting comfortable on her throne. Hence it is older than Arsenal, Manchester Utd, Chelsea or Liverpool. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after the town’s famous landmark — the Crooked spire. The local church of St Mary’s had its 13th century spire built with unseasoned timbers such that they warped. The spire was twisted like a cork-screw and from some angles it looks crooked and about to fall down. It’s a bit like an English Leaning Tower of Pisa and has become the symbol of the town and its football club. The crooked spire logo appears on the players’ shirts and supporters’ scarves.

The Spireites have enjoyed little big-time success but still attract a faithful following of between 3000 and 7000 supporters. In the 1930’s we narrowly missed out on promotion to the top division on goal difference. More recently, in 1997, we just failed to get to the FA Cup Final at Wembley because of a referee’s mistake. ( At least we think so.) As in the World Cup Final of 1966, the ball crashed off the cross-bar and bounced behind the goalline, but Chesterfield didn’t have a friendly Russian linesman to award a goal . The referee didn’t allow the goal which would have put us 3-1 up against 10 men with only about 15 minutes to go. So we never made it to the final to face Chelsea. Middlesbrough, our top flight opponants, forced a draw then won the replay with the help of their expensively paid foreign stars. I have always ” hated” Middlesbrough ever since, even though I now live near their ground.

This irrational “hatred”, coming from a normally mild-mannered man, perhaps explains one of the magnetic attractions of the game. In everyday life we can be pleasant and polite as society demands. However at a football match we can be as loud, raucous and rude as we like and it is accepted as “normal” behaviour. A whole gamut of intense emotions can be released within the “safe” confines of the match. Just for that 90 minutes one can become a raving “maniac”, letting the adrenaline run freely, before hopefully going back to ” normal” at the end of the game. My son, Ian, once had to pull me away to safety as I was about to carry out a suicidal one-man pitch invasion at Bradford. The Chesterfield goalkeeper was being surrounded and jostled by a posse of Bradford players and I was so incensed that I would have been on the pitch, literally fighting for my team. Luckily for me, Ian intervened and calmed me down.

Supporters exhibit emotions in a whole variety of ways. Some cheer and sing; others chant and clap. When you do it at the same time as hundreds of other people it can be very exhilerating. Meanwhile, others never seem to stop moaning and complaining, be it about the opposition’s tactics, the perceived mistakes of the officials or the home team’s deficiencies. What is really happening is that the match is acting as a sort of safety valve, helping people to let off steam and release everyday tensions. Some supporters actually sit in silence for much of the match. They are apparently indifferent to what is happening on the pitch, but you can guarantee that on the inside they resemble a boiling volcano ready to blow! Last season I sat near to such a “silent supporter” at a Chesterfield home match. He said nothing for over an hour. Then, after a petty dispute over the award of a throw-in, he suddenly screamed at the linesperson:” Are you bloody blind?” After that solitary outburst, he went back to silent mode for the rest of the match!

It’s strange being a Spireite, an Owl ( Sheffield Wednesday), a Latic ( Oldham Athletic), a Hatter ( Luton Town), or a supporter of the countless other lower league clubs. Success is scarce, failure is common, yet we climb on to the emotional roller-coaster every season. Something in our DNA dictates that we cannot remain indifferent. One’s mood on a matchday or even for the whole subsequent week, depends on the success or failure of 11 men chasing a ball round a field. If they win, we supporters go into work with a spring in our step and a smile on our faces. If they lose we feel strangely depressed and out of sorts. But as I indicated above, this can be seen as a positive thing, for  supporting  a lower club provides excellent emotional training for the realities of life.

Another attraction of following a football team is the feeling of camaraderie that exists. It’s a human need to be with other people and to feel part of something. When thousands come together with the same objective and determined to all pull together, it can be very empowering. In smaller clubs such as Chesterfield FC it’s like belonging to one big, extended family. Being part of it gives one a lovely warm feeling inside. OK, it’s a vicarious world and not our real, everyday life, but it still makes us feel secure and accepted, if only for the duration of the match. Supporters of the same team watch out for each other, greet each other in the street and enjoy each others’ company in the stands. I recently went with my son, Ian, to see Chesterfield playing away at Wycombe Wanderers. Ian, for some incomprehensible reason, is a Newcastle United fan but sometimes helps me to support the little club of my birthplace. We took the train up from London to High Wycombe but just missed the bus that would have taken us out to the ground on the edge of town. The last taxi started to drive off as we approached. It looked as though we were in danger of missing the start of the match. Then I spotted a flash of blue and white in the back of the taxi. It belonged to a Chesterfield fan we had just followed out of the station. I stepped forward and waved frantically. He spotted me and stopped the car to let us in. We had never met before but we were automatically friends and allies because we had all travelled into “enemy” territory to support the “Spires”. The next 20 minutes were full of strange, excitable Spireite talk, incomprehensible to the taxi driver who had probably never even heard of the crooked spire. When we arrived at the ground, Adams Park, our new friend insisted on paying even though I had our half of the fare all ready. He said it was because we were all Spireites. He came from London but he still supported the Spires whenever they ventured south.

It was a cold but exciting day in Wycombe. Chesterfield twice led and I shouted and cheered myself hoarse. ( something I wouldn’t normally do in my “real” life.) Despite my advanced age ( 62) I jumped up and down like a young kid. Football is very good for helping you to shed the years. When we scored, I even found myself hugging complete strangers, the normal barriers of reserve having been swept away by the excitement and drama of the match. When we lost to virtually the last kick of the match, it was like a collective blow in the solar plexus. There was a long low moan then the Chesterfield fans closed ranks in adversity, grimly swallowed defeat and trudged out of the ground hoping that next week would bring better luck.

One season earlier I had had a similar communal experience in a fixture at Darlington. This feeling of togetherness and solidarity is even stronger in away matches. It was a bitter cold Boxing Day with a raw wind whipping into us. Several hundred of us shivered on the terrace behind one of the goals. For 80 minutes, it was an increasingly cold and miserable experience, the only consolation being that we got to practice our Derbyshire grit. The pain increased as Darlington, who we were expected to beat easily, took a two-nil lead. The chanting of the Chesterfield fans was more in defiance than celebration. Apparently, according to the drum- accompanied chants, I had been recruited into “Sheridon’s blue and white barmy-army” ( John Sheridon is the current manager of Chesterfield.) I had to agree that I must have been particularly barmy to leave my warm house to endure this bleak experince. Then, out of the blue, Chesterfield scored 3 goals in 10 crazy, ecstatic minutes! They were scored right in front of us and we all went berserk! As in the match above I found myself leaping up and down, embracing strangers and singing: “We’re Spireites ‘Till We Die!” Insane and inane I know but no-one can deny that for a few heady minutes I was transported on to a different plain. My emotions had surged from one extreme to another and the whole exhilerating experience was magnified because I was sharing it with hundreds of others.

I tell you all this to illustrate that being a football supporter is often about comradeship and togetherness. Being a fan increases one’s sense of identity. Sport, especially football, can give its participants a strong sense of who they are. We all belong to the football, and in my case the Spireite, family. What’s more, this family does not consist of only testosterone-filled, aggressive young men, as is the popular conception. I have sat near to : women and young children, old men with zimmer frames, handicapped people in wheel chairs and even a middle-aged blind woman. She listened to the match commentary on the local radio,assisted by her partially-sighted husband, not being able to see a thing but enjoying the “live” atmosphere.

The live experience is a crucial part of the attraction of a match. Unlike much of our pre-recorded, packaged entertainment industry, a live sports event is completely unpredictable. Literally, anything can happen and quite often does. Who would have thought that bottom of the table Blackburn Rovers would have beaten Manchester United near the top at fortress Old Trafford? Every match is a potentially thrilling journey into the unknown. This applies equally to a match in Chesterfield as it does in Barcelona.

Being a “Spireite” gives me excitement, a strong sense of identity and the ability to patiently cope with constant disappointment. It gives me strong links with the town of my birth, where my original roots were. It strengthens bonds between me and various friends and family who also look out for the team. Even my 85 year old mother mentions the latest score in our weekly telephone conversations. I have just got back in touch with one of my closest school friends after over 30 years of lost contact. We went to many Chesterfield  matches together in the 60’s standing on the “kop” at the old Saltergate ground. Guess what Vic and I talk about at least 50% of the time? He lives in Brighton, I live near Middlesbrough, but we both still support dear old Chesterfield.

I’m pleased that I have grown up with football in my blood. My dad passed it on to me and I have transferred it to my son. I actually know some men and many women who hate football. Some, including my wife, feel sorry for me thinking me immature and silly for caring deeply about the fortunes of 11 men in blue shirts chasing a ball. They may have a point! I share the criticisms of excessive salaries in the Premier league, the antics of some of the players and the often hysterical media coverage. I also share their condemnation of violence and over- the- top aggression, whether it be amongst the fans or out on the pitch. However, I have no intention of joining them in their empty world of indifference.( to football partisanship that is.) I’d rather be passionate about something, even if others think it silly. Why would I want to deny myself: all that excitement, drama, spectacle, skill, history, comradeship, solidarity and strong sense of identity? In some ways I feel sorry for those who don’t wish to involve themselves in this rich world of experience. ( Can shopping offer anything close to all this?) I know it’s like a drug or even a disease but it gives me huge pleasure and a special edge to my life.

These days, Chesterfield FC is so relatively poor that it has to borrow spare players from richer clubs. You might think we supporters would find it difficult to accept them, as they technically have given their allegiance to another team. But to me, it doesn’t matter whether they play for us for 10 years or 90 minutes — as soon as they pull on the blue shirt with its crooked spire logo, they instantly becoming “Spireites,” carrying the hopes and dreams of the thousands on the Chesterfield terraces. Each one has the potential to become part of the club’s history, as a hero or as a villain. Maybe, if he scores a hat-trick or saves a crucial penalty, he could become part of Chesterfield folk-lore. Come on you Spireites! Silly I know, but there you go!

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2 Responses to “The Other Side of Football — Up The Spireites!”

  1. Claire Ashmore January 16, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    This was really interesting, thank you. I was wondering whether you can recall any rivalry Chesterfield has with specific clubs, and names they may have called the Spireites.

    • scrapstu1949 January 25, 2015 at 7:58 pm #

      Hi Claire — Sorry I haven’t replied sooner. Chesterfield have had the usual local rivals. Spireite fans have always hated Sheff Wednesday. Also we have rivalries with Sheffield United, Rotherham , Doncaster and Mansfield. It’s all to do with geography really. We have never had much of an active rivalry with derby County because they have always been in a higher division than us as far as I can remember.. – The same goes for Barnsley. I cannot recall any names we have been called by rival fans except the usual unprintable ones.
      Actually Chesterfield have cooperated with Sheffield United quite a bit over the years. We have bought or borrowed their players, sold them ours and even bought our first set of floodlights from them! Chesterfield were the last team in the Football League to get floodlights — second hand from Bramhall lane!

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