Archive | August, 2018

Into The Abyss — Twice in a Weekend.

29 Aug

I have a confession to make! I was born with an incurable disease. It seriously impinges on my life at times, although I have learnt to live with it. Periodically I travel to meet up with fellow sufferers. We offer each other solidarity and support, and these gatherings help us all to cope with our affliction and somehow keep going. Some have got serious doses of the disease such that it has come to completely dominate their lives. Luckily, I have a relatively mild version of it although it does flair up to fever pitch every now and again. The disease is called Spireiteitus. It is little known outside north-east Derbyshire in the English midlands, although I have personally met people from: Belgium, Spain, the USA and even Japan who have been affected by it.  So what is it? I know it sounds like an unsavoury skin disease but it is thankfully a lot less serious than that. It consists of a compulsion to support and slavishly follow the English lower league football team — Chesterfield FC. They are affectionately known as the Spireites because of the town church’s famously crooked or twisted spire. I was born there in the dim and distant year of 1949, and my dad, a fellow sufferer, initiated me into the highs and lows of Spireitehood sometime in the early 1960s. I have been a sufferer or addict ever since.

Spireiteitus affects all kinds of people — young, middle aged and old, men and women, disabled and able bodied. I have met a blind person who regularly attends games, listening to the commentary on the local radio and enjoying the roar of the crowd and the exciting atmosphere as the match eddies to and fro. Recently, I met a Spireite in a wheelchair who had travelled for 3 hours on a train to see them play in the north east. He wasn’t having a good day — he had fallen off the last train at Hartlepool because his wheelchair went careering off the side of the ramp. Then he found he couldn’t get into the booking office to collect his pre-paid ticket because there was a high ridge at the bottom of the door. I helped him out by getting his ticket for him. That’s the thing about being a football supporter — it’s like being in a close-knit club where everybody helps and supports everyone else without hesitation. (I have written in a previous blog about the time when a Chesterfield fan shared his taxi with my son and I, from High Wycombe station to Wycombe Wanderers football ground but refused to let me share the fare because I was “a fellow Spireite.”) Later, going back to the Hartlepool match, I counted 8 wheelchair Spireites who had made the long journey from the north midlands to the north east coast.

Football fandom is a constant balancing act between hope and despair. I am not talking about “pseudo fans” who pretend to support the most succesful teams in the land even though they have no genuine connection with them. I am referring to the fan who has a club in his/her blood. He/she is stuck with following that team, irrespective of its success or lack of success on the field of play. The explanation for my strange addiction is a simple geographical one. I was born just a few miles from the ground. My father, grandfather, brother, cousins and nearly all my school friends, supported Chesterfield FC. A few friends pretended to be Manchester United supporters and basked in vicarious glory every time United won something. I suspect that many of them would have switched to another more succesful team, if and when Man Utd stopped winning. However, my fellow Spireites and I, supporting our own local team, stayed loyal to the team through thick and thin. It is a stoical approach to football which is sadly in danger of dying out. Many football fans demand success and have less and less tolerance of failure. As soon as their team loses a few matches, there are screams for the manager to be sacked or the Chairman to resign. Patience, deferred gratification and loyalty are becoming an increasingly rare commodity. This is why I’m pleased to be supporting a small club that is often struggling. I am proud to be a life-long Chesterfield supporter and to suffer uncomplainingly from spireiteitus.

Chesterfield had some success about 4 or 5 years ago. They got promoted from Football League Division 2 ( which is actually the 4th tier of English football). They went up as Champions and had a rare moment of “glory”, being able to hold up the trophy in front of their cheering fans. They then went on to get into the playoffs to get into the Championship ( 2nd Division) from League 1 ( actually the 3rd division) . I hope this is not too confusing for you! But then the rot set in. We lost our manager, lured away to Portsmouth for more money. Many of our better players were sold. The next 3 managerial appointments were unsuccessful. In fact 2 of them were absolutely disastrous. Chesterfield were relegated down to Division 2 again ( ie Division 4) and then, horror of horrors, dropped straight out of the football league altogether. For the first time in nearly a century, Chesterfield FC, the 4th oldest league club in the country, became a non-league club. It was a humiliating moment for the Spireites. In fact it was difficult to believe and accept. There were lots of expressions of grief and anger. It was almost as if we were mourning a death. Was this the end of the world as we knew it? As expected this was a time of exaggerated emotions and over the top language. Hyperboles flew back and forth like confetti. Just before the disaster became a reality, anguished fans talked of being on the brink of “oblivion” or of teetering on the edge of “the abyss.” People were full of dread and foreboding.

Well, we fell into the abyss folks! Weeping and wailing, we tumbled into the bottomless pit. Except, we found it did have a bottom — it’s called the Vanarama National League. It’s the 5th tier of English football. It’s a funny feeling at first — supporting a non-League football team. It’s as if we are invisible. There is little or no mention of it in the press; little or no coverage of it on the television. It contains teams from places you’ve never heard of such as Ebbsfleet or Maidenhead, or teams you never usually associate with the working class game of football such as Harrogate. However it does contain some sleeping giants– teams that were once mainstays in the football league such as Leyton Orient and Hartlepool United, and, wait for it– Chesterfield. It exists in the shadows, out of the mainstream of British football and public consciousness. As I contemplated going to support the Spireites in this obscure league I had a sinking feeling. Would the football be really bad? Would the crowds be really small? Would the matches be devoid of  real atmosphere? Yet I knew, in order to remain a true Spireite, I had to overcome these misgivings, bite the bullet and descend into the abyss.

I was unable to attend the first few matches but followed the scores avidly on my smartphone. ( all the ups and downs of a live match while sitting on my own sofa pretending to be a normal person.) At last, towards the end of August came an opportunity to go to Chesterfield and watch my first ever non-league match. As it so happened, by a complete fluke of the fixture list, the Spireites were also playing in Hartlepool just 2 days later, as it was a Bank Holiday weekend. Hartlepool is quite close to where I live, only about 1.5 hours away instead of the usual 2 to 3 hour trek to Chesterfield. So it would be 2 descents into the pit in one eventful weekend. What was in store for me? Apart from enduring the mockery of my wife who hates football and who thought I had gone mad when I told her, it was to be two fascinating journeys into the unknown.

I love my football day trips to Chesterfield, even though they are quite long. I am going home to my roots and I am going to meet up with 4000 to 5000 fellow Spireites. I usually go by rail as I hate driving down the traffic clogged A1 and M1. I can curl up in my seat and read a book or the paper and let the train take the strain. Around me are: couples with their children, elderly people struggling with their luggage ( I always offer to help), young people staring at their smartphones, colourfully and smartly dressed hen parties or race goers.( we pass through York) and groups of young to middle-aged men talking endlessly about football as they too, are going to a match. I suspect that none of them will give more than a passing glance at the silver-haired “old” man reading his book. I would imagine that none of them in their wildest dreams, would think I was going on a descent into a sinister, dark abyss. I look forward to spotting a steam locomotive outside the National Railway Museum in York, to glancing at the medieval walls and minster of that same city and at the impressive minster church at Doncaster. I drink in the views of the city of Sheffield spreading up the Pennine hillsides.  I used to live there in the 1970s. Finally the striking Crooked Spire of Chesterfield’s St Mary’s Church slides into view. I leave the station, slipping past the statue of George Stephenson, the famous railway pioneer who spent his last days there and walk up into the familier town. After a nice lunch at the Stephenson Tea and  Coffee Rooms and a nostalgic wander round the cobbled, medieval style market square, I walk out to the ground, about a mile and a half outside the centre. I like to walk because it gets my step count up and makes me feel as if I am getting some exercise.

So what was non-league football like? Well, to tell the truth, it wasn’t much different from a match in Division 1 or 2. Maybe a thousand had been shaved off the home crowd since I last went to see them in April. But there was still a crowd of over 4600 which is pretty good for non-league. Barnet, our opponants even brought 140 valient souls who had made the journey up from north London to support their team against lowly Chesterfield. Just think — being Londoners, they could have chosen to follow Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham, Crystal Palace or Fulham, all teams in the Premier League of English football. But Barnet is in their blood and they are sticking with their team, even in this humble, largely unacknowledged league. The match was hard fought and competitive. There were moments of skill mixed in with the mundane and the clumsy. There was lots of hoofing the ball upfield instead of passing through the opposition. But there were exciting dribbles, last minute tackles, great shots and dazzling saves. It was the usual emotional roller coaster ride. The crowd was passionate and vocal, even though this was not the World Cup final or the Champions League. There was camaraderie beween the fans too. Everyone stood up to give a minute’s applause for a young , 19 year old Barnet fan who had recently died on a bus taking him to a match. Although rivalries are keen, there seems to be a friendlier feel to this lowly league. Looking at the fans forum on the Internet, there is a certain sense of “we’re all in it together.” Of course there was the usual moaning and groaning at the ref and about the perceived bad fouls of the opposition. But that’s normal and indicates that life in the abyss doesn’t lack passion.

I think I’m going to enjoy my excursions into the Vanarama National League. The matches have most of the ingredients of the leagues above, except there is an incremental diminuation of skill. The only problem was that Chesterfield fell to an excellent Barnet  strike in the last minute. It was like a sudden punch in the stomach. We all trooped out of the ground disappointed and disconsolate. But the good thing about football is that there’s always the next match. Hope springs eternal. As you know, on this particular weekend, I actually went to the next match — at Hartlepool. It was another keenly fought encounter on the north east coast with seagulls swooping over the pitch during  play. I watched it in the home stand but I was quite safe. We exchanged friendly banter and wished each other well for the rest of the season. Poolies, as they call themselves, are just as passionate as the Spireites. On their shirts is printed “Never Say Die.” On the side of their main stand, large banners proclain: ” Born a Poolie. Live a Poolie. Die a Poolie!” They are suffering from a lifelong disease too. You could say they are :”poorlie”! They have had triumphs and disasters just like us, and again like us, they have sadly endured more of the latter in recent years. Like the Spireites, they could be described as inveterate masochists.

Well at Hartlepool, Chesterfield contrived to lose again. It was their fourth defeat in a row. After the joys of 3 straight wins at the start of the season, it looks like we are in for another period of suffering. My weekend was ultimately disappointing as far as the results were concerned. But it was rich in experiences and encounters. In fact I quite enjoyed my double descent into oblivion!

 

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