Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Jumpers for Goalposts

Deal Town 1, Lordswood 1 
Attendance: 88 (by my count)

Old-fashioned football purists avow that you should always support your local team. This is why, growing up in London in the 1980s and 1990s, school-chums who followed Liverpool or Manchester United were invariably the target of scorn and derision. And I must admit that I felt, and still feel, likewise. As a lad I used to go to Chelsea games, but as I grew up and lived in Kensington, I had that entitlement. And in those days, no sane person followed Chelsea in pursuit of glory. Today, when I see a child or young man outside the capital in a Chelsea kit (why did the Blues have to be mostly terrible in my adolescence?), I still feel disdain towards the bearer.

Here on the east coast of Kent, the phenomenon is slightly different. One could hardly label people in West Ham, Crystal Palace and Charlton Athletic tops as "glory hunters", and it's not merely that these are the nearest Premier League teams. South- and East-Londoners have traditionally migrated to the Garden of England, a process accelerated by the boom in house-prices in the capital in the past ten years. There's many a former and "second-generation" Londoner here who can legimitely call these teams "local".

Personally, I have only a passing interest in the top flight of English football these days. I stopped going to Stamford Bridge in the 1990s. It was starting to become vastly expensive to go to matches, where you weren't even allowed to stand on terraces any more. Money and cynicism was sanitising the experience.

I know it's not usual modern protocol to switch football allegience, but I wasn't going to be taken for a mug anymore. For the first half of the Noughties, I migrated to matches further out in West London, in Brentford, then in the third tier of English football (and this season, back in the second). Those years were enormous fun, especially every other Saturday, when all the lads would meet at some London train terminus to venture on an all-day bender to some exotic location, like Huddersfield or Wrexham.

My life is much quieter now, and as of last season, I have been following my current local club, Deal Town, a non-league team who play in the seventh tier of English football (my Brentford allegiance forbids me from patronising Gillingham, the nearest Football League club). 

Last night Deal, pointless and rooted to the bottom of the table, faced Lordswood FC of Chatham, another Kent town. It was a lively, sometimes bruising affair, with Deal having the better of the first half. After the break, however, the visitors went ahead, only for The Whites to level in the 56th minute after Danny Miller charged through the defence to drive it low and wide of the keeper. Deal earn their first point of the season.

To be honest, I wasn't especially interested in what was happening on the pitch, and more with the ambience. Deal Town FC epitomise much of the town itself: old-fashioned, pleasant, picture-postcard England. The adverts at the side of the pitch weren't for multinational corporations and none were in Arab or Korean script, but for local decorators and garages.  The players weren't the spit-roasting, millionaire mercenaries of tabloid infamy, but local lads who played for the love of it. Spectators were allowed both smoke and drink while watching the game. The only thing genuinely modern about the experience was the entrance price: £7, the same amount I paid to attend my first Chelsea game, versus Nottingham Forest, in 1987.

Perhaps I'm a nostalgic, a romanticist. And I dare say every one of those young men on the pitch last night would love to be a famous, super-rich, Premier League footballer instead. Yet, as a spectator, I find the swagger, greed and corruption of modern-day top-flight and international football repellent.

Yet, for me, going to football has never really been about the sport itself. I mainly started going Chelsea because, as a bit of a lonesome nerd in my early teens, I wanted to hang out with the bad boys in The Shed at Stamford Bridge (Queen's Park Rangers were actually nearer, but they were always the "family" club). I then enjoyed the Brentford games for the adventure, the camaraderie and the great booze-ups.

These days I go to football much like one would go to church every Sunday: for ritual, and to lose oneself in a kind of half-attentive, semi-trance. Just as I used to stare at the planes over Brentford's Griffin Park on their way to Heathrow airport, there I was last night, staring at the Full Moon that hung over the birch trees. In the warm breeze, I listened to the woosh of the trains taking the last London commuters back to their Kentish homes. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

Patrick West

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