Ten Reasons to Love the Football League
So Football is officially dead then — beside images of sideburns, NHS celebrations, Kenneth Branagh in a top hat, a Somali-born hero, David Rudisha, the lightning bolt and the tranquil surrounds of ‘Eton Dorney’, the game has lost its sheen — embattled as it was when Freddie Flintoff inspired an Embrace song in 2005 and Jonny drop kicked that ball two years before.
Well maybe — but we still feel there are reasons to celebrate the return of the round ball — and the Football League in particular. Hence, Lanterne Rouge (LR), Lloyd (LL) and John McGee (JM) have been called upon to provide 10 reasons why the resumption of hostilities is to be welcomed this blisteringly hot August Saturday.
Exhibit 1: All Together Now by The Farm
It shouldn’t work — a squad of baggy chancers hopping on the Groovy Train in the wake of the Mondays and the Roses, plagiarising Persil Automatic with their marketing and adding a cheesy dance beat to a Pachelbel fugue while paying homage to World War One. Nor should it when combined with another bunch of chancers who, while currently enjoying a break from criticism due to their sponsorship of Dave Brailsford’s band of brothers have at their helm a man who likes to pretend he doesn’t listen in on people’s phones and has recently endorsed an American vice presidential candidate somehow further to the right than Sarah Palin.
But somehow, Sky sum up the mood by deploying The Farm’s indie anthem theme tune on their Football League coverage — even more than they did when utilising another classic, Black Grape’s England’s Irie. Laddish? Yes. A tiny bit mindless. Possibly. No matter — it does get you out of your seat. (LR)
Exhibit 2: Away Days
Unlike the anodyne coverage that tends to get served up for our armchair enjoyment, there’s nothing quite like a day on the road following your team. Those Saturdays, and the odd midweek evening, devoted to exploring virgin territory as well as old haunts, pencilled in to your diary sometimes 9 months in advance when fixtures are published.
Of course, away days are on offer at all levels. Yet I’d argue that a particularly strong feature of the Football League is the many opportunities it presents for a cracking trip.
Whereas on the one hand Premier League games risk making you feel anonymous, non-league fixtures can be suffocatingly low-profile; the only activity you’re likely to see as you approach a ground in the Southern Premier of a Saturday afternoon is a 40-something chartered accountant hosing down his off-street parked Audi.
Instead, the Football League possesses a nice balance between the two extremes.
Trips to cutesy old towns and cities such as Cheltenham, Hereford and Shrewsbury present a chance to explore cobbled streets, neck local ales in lovely old coaching inns and — if you’re lucky enough to follow a well-supported team — generally take over a place for a day (I’ll never forget that police escort up Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush).
Meanwhile, fulfilling away fixtures at our grander brethren — Leeds, Wolves, Bolton; you know the type — often coincides with the home team being down on their luck, meaning a cheaper day out than it would be in the Premier League and, just as important, a better chance of winning.
I bloody love them. (LL)
Exhibit 3: Being Allowed to Disdain MK: Dons
In the wider world of football, hating of MK:Dons is something of a national pastime and beatification of ‘Da People’s Klub’, tofu knitting, tank top sporter’s beardy sustainable footballing cuddlefest of choice AFC Wimbledon taken as read for anyone who is, y’know, ‘real’ or ‘gets it’.
The rhetoric often slips into the type of facile guff cloud parped out by Twenty Twelve Head of Brand Siobhan Sharpe and applied to football – ‘They stole the club! Woah man, that’s totally uncool, what a bunch of shit!’
But for those of us who choose to follow a lower league club, particularly those in League One, there are very real reasons to look down on the roundabout berks.
Their manager Karl Robinson may be one of the nation’s brightest but he’s also a twiny, nasty little eejit.
Their stadium is set in the middle of hell, almost inaccessible by foot or public transport and has as much atmosphere as an iron lung. We’ve been there, some of us didn’t even have to pay and saw our club win with a last minute pen, got absolutely smashed drinking Hobgoblin bought at the next door ASDA straight from the bottle on the train home, and it was still shit. As for the local ale house? Bletchley’s Enigma Tavern or ‘Hades Gate’ as we’ll dub it – set in a Burger King Car Park, this hexagonal hell hole has to be visited to be believed. On a recent visit TTU witnessed a shirtless local rolling a bifter on the boot of a Vauxhall Astra in the car park while our pal, an Interpol detective, looked on in peels of laughter. Now that really is a reason to hate a club.
Mostly and worst of all though, it’s because they’re good and better than ‘us’, and that’s bloody annoying. (JM)
Exhibit 4: Reasonable kick-off times
Given that I support a club that has never played above the second tier of English football (not that I go on about it), this isn’t necessarily an exhibit inspired by personal experience.
No, instead I’ve vicariously lived through friends’ pain, indeed anguish, as they’ve been denied a spot at one of their teams’ games due to television coverage. Often, it’s resulted in wasted expenditure on train tickets and/or hotel stays. Worse still, it’s sometimes foiled plans for convenient meet ups with friends.
This has dripped down to the Football League, a Sunday evening game between Cardiff and Forest a couple of seasons ago a particular example of tee-vee’s noxious impact. But, in the vast majority of each season’s programme, kick-off times remain the same from whence the fixture computer spits them out in June.
That’s a big thing for those who like to diarise. Organisers, time-keepers, precious twats, call them what you will; but I’m one of them and the Football League feeds my fetish for Moleskine.
Barnet away on 13th October? It’s pencilled in, along with the date for when tickets go on general sale. Already I’ve batted off a request for alternative arrangements on the same day, thanks to the diary. And the Football League, because I can safely say that the game will be going ahead on that day at 3pm. No channel will want to show that shit. (LL)
Exhibit 5: (Not) Knowing Your Enemy
One consequence of the Premier League’s Quest for World Domination has been Fantasy Football’s rise in popularity. Over the past few days I’ve been inundated (well, copied in to two mass emails) with requests to join private leagues within the Official Fantasy Premier League empire. It now seems that if you (a) have even the vaguest interest in football and (b) work in a group environment and/or have access to a Facebook account, then not entering a team is a bit anti-social.
I used to go in for this, mainly to provide some motivation to take an interest in the top tier. But years of over familiarity with the system — and its demands on your Friday afternoons — left me fatigued.
Also, the depth to which it required me to possess an appreciation of players’ form and stats was unsettling. On the two occasions that I kept going for the whole season, I ended up feeling like I knew far too much about Gareth Bale’s appearance to assist ratio and why it was important to pick a goalkeeper at a middling club rather than one from the top four.
Once removed from the competitive environment, I’ve realised that I really, really, really don’t ever want to participate again.
No, I’d like to focus my observations around League 2, as well as the divisions the book-end it. Rather than watch Soccer Saturday with one mind on whether Clint Dempsey might pop up with a late goal, I’d prefer to turn up to matches knowing absolutely nothing about Dagenham’s new strike partner for Brian Woodall before passing on my judgement to the 30 or so followers that might also possess an interest.
When a new defender signs on for my team who I once saw in a 20 minute FA Cup second round replay cameo at Maidenhead, I’d like to be the one guy in the know on my club messageboard.
Above all, I want to be shocked and surprised by what I see from game to game; gutted when I realise that Morecambe’s winger wasn’t as rubbish as I’d banked on him being. I’d choose that any day over double points for a Torres hat-trick. (LL)
Exhibit 6: Matchday Esoterica
Football League grounds the land over fight each other to proffer a smorgasbord of tawdry, turgid and downright bizarre to the paying public in a futile attempt to offer value for money to those who may feel short changed by the footballing fare on offer for their hard earned tin.
Barely a weekend goes by without some scamp in Wycombe, Scunthorpe or Yeovil winning an inflatable pony by stuffing a lacklustre penalty past a grown man dressed as a cartoon tiger. And the baying crowds cannot get enough.
The true zenith of absurdity comes at Carlisle’s Brunton Park, or ‘Steve Dunn’s Lair’ as those in the know dub it – after the unfailingly cheery PA announcer and Master of Ceremonies.
Here comes a show of post-modern head-scratching which has no parallel, where watching a chubby eight year old lad prance pom-pom in hand amongst the local lithe adolescents as part of the half-time cheerleading show is a weekly occurance.
Where the mascot is a fox. A real, actual, dead fox. Stuffed, glassy eyed and carried motionless to the centre circle by, you’ve guessed it, a man dressed as a cartoon fox. The type of ceremony which would make Amazonian shamen chuckle were it ever to cross their gaze.
Where a Chelsea anthem, written by Chelsea fans (Madness’ One Step Beyond) has been re-dubbed to fit its inauspicious surrounds.
‘Hey you! Don’t watch that, watch this – Carlisle United at Brunton Park!’ There really is no experience quite like it. (JM)
Exhibit 7: Not being Aston Villa
Can you imagine what it’s like being an Aston Villa fan these days? You’re not telling me that trophyless decades punctuated solely by the odd 0-0 draw against one of the big four, played out in front of an increasingly mute Holte End is more fun that supporting a Wycombe Wanderers side with yo-yo tendencies that would delight the creators of I Love the 1970s.
No – just existing in the Premier League ISN’T better than winning promotions, making play-off appearances and putting one over the big boys when you’re not expected to. Look at Man City’s crowds when they plummeted into the Third rank, witness the +40,000 gates Sheffield Wednesday enjoyed one Boxing Day that Terry Curran lit up. The Football League provides a chance to actually win things – and no, fourth place does not mean you have won something – Scunthorpe United fans can rest assured that they’ll see their captain lift meaningful silverware long before anyone from Tottenham Hotspur ever does again. (LR)
Exhibit 8: The Pies at the Globe Arena, Morecambe
As TTU’s resident ‘died in the wool Northerner’ I know a thing or two about what constitutes a good pie. It is not the fetid, ant riddled grey slop a pal was once dished up at Brunton Park with the label ‘Scotch Pie’ mustering a dusty clarion call to the local trading standards. Nor do those plastic vac-packed monstrosities they serve in the P*emier L*ague come close – ‘Pukka’ in name only surely.
I have had, and enjoyed, a Chicken Balti Pie but for real savourable bliss there is no match for Morecambe and their chef Graham Aimson, whose award winning pies are a treat for the tastebuds and so good they sell them in Harrods. Indeed, in a fit of homesickness I recently forked out the best part of ten sheets for one of his golden crusted Chicken and Leek beauties. My gluttonous, salivating side overcoming my inner skinflint.
1200 people agree with me at the Globe Arena every week though, and if you get the chance, you should make sure it’s 1201. (JM)
Exhibit 9: The Pyramid
That Fleetwood Town’s ascension to our midst raises a few awkward questions is beyond doubt and we have devoted much of the past few day to trawling through the mire of debt and financial dodgy dealing of a range of our clubs (see Lloyd on the men from Highbury, Gavin Barber on Ipswich and John McGee’s comment provoking tirade on Pompey) but the mere fact that re-election is a thing of the past does allow anyone to theoretically climb the ziggurat to English football’s zenith.
Their reputation may have been besmirched by journos and rivals fans unhappy with the ‘homely’ surroundings of Plough Lane, the snarling of Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise, Fash’s elbows and the ‘sidesplitting’ antics of the Crazy Gang, but the rest of us were cheering on when Dave Beasant plunged to deny John Aldridge one May day in 1988.
Wimbledon’s ascent would still appear miraculous if it were not for the comparative ease with which others have trodden the same path. True, money helps — and sometimes (see the aforementioned Frattonisers) it can be deployed to grotesque levels — but Wigan Athletic followed the Dons into the League just a year later in the late seventies and have also prospered.
That said, I’m not one for kneejerk criticism of alternative ways. There are sound arguments for the franchise system and absence of promotion and relegation in the context of American sports — but the fluidity of the English pyramid is a joy to behold. I’ll be attending a Premier League fixture at the Madejski Stadium tomorrow in the full knowledge that a year from now, I may be making a very uncomfortable journey to the County Ground or Brisbane Road for a League game — but not Stadium: MK of course. (LR)
Exhibit 10: Mutual Respect
However incendiary the response to yesterday’s McGee missive calling into question Pompey’s right to spend the money Plymouth fans collected for them in buckets on wages for Lee Williamson, it was actually heartening to see so many fans take the time to address the points made in detail and to properly engage in serious debate. Partisanship is still the norm among Football League fans and you’ll continue to witness its worst ravages on the message board network, but no way does it approach the sheer vitriol of Premier Leaguers — as Ian King of Two Hundred Percent remarked in a tweet two days ago, some people just like labelling each other ‘c u next Tuesdays’ on the internet.
For such railings appear insignificant beside the mutual respect fans have for one another when sharing a common lot of crumbling stadia, high ticket prices, disdain from the media, government and Premier League fans and — let’s face it — an often sub-prime product on the field of play.
So, seeing fans club together to argue for safe standing, decreased ticket prices, the maintaining of key traditions (even if they are over ridden as in the case of Cardiff City), adjusted kick off times and, above all, the formation of supporters’ trusts (see Gary Andrews’ masterly sequence of chapters in the new Pitch Invasion book) and other systems of fans ownership is cockle-warming indeed — and yes, that means you Pompey too. (LR)
Roll on Three O’Clock