NB: Those who don’t follow non-league football may want to consult the diagram below about English league structures before reading, to avoid confusion over what a Ryman or Conference league is.
It’s an understatement to say there are a few issues to resolve following the devastating floods in the south. Issues such as whether it’s worth cutting flood defence funding if the government later has to pay more for preventable flood damage, why there is funding available to help flood victims but not working families reliant on food banks, and how Nigel Farage so closely resembles a confused frog in his waders and wellies.
The effect of the weather on non-league football is much further down the list. Winter fixtures at these levels are always prone to postponements and abandonments; indeed, the first Tonbridge Angels game I attended back in 2006 was called off after 70 minutes, as the pitch was so waterlogged that the ball was literally floating. Yet these unprecedented conditions have led to a huge backlog of fixtures for many teams. Tonbridge have had to rearrange Conference South fixtures for Thursday nights because Tuesday nights are already fully booked to the end of the season.
This havoc is perilous to the finances, and therefore survival, of clubs up and down the country. We have played just 8 of the season’s 21 home league games, with many more postponed in the past few months. Consequently, with no revenue coming in, the club’s benefactors have had to dip into their own pockets to pay players. Although rescheduled weekday fixtures arguably have a better atmosphere than those on Saturday afternoons, they’re far less profitable, with crowds and bar takings down. This is bad enough for the Angels, who are solvent. Clubs with debts must be watching through their fingers.
Meanwhile the board and supporters of Maidstone United FC, Tonbridge’s rivals, must be feeling pretty smug about this panic. The club were the first in England to install a 3G/’plastic’ pitch at their ground of 2 years, The Gallagher Stadium. Where grass pitches are susceptible to frost or becoming waterlogged, plastic pitches are resilient to the caprices of the season. Accordingly, they’ve had no home games postponed this season.
Yet current rules state that these pitches are unacceptable in both the Football League and the Conference leagues, including the Conference South – the league for which Maidstone are aiming. Sitting top of the Ryman Premier table, they’re well on course for promotion this season. The Conference leagues voted to decide whether the rule should be overturned – but the result was a resounding defeat for the Stones. Their response to democracy? Threatening to sue the Conference.
But, given the weather, their arguments in favour of 3G pitches are clearer than ever. Fewer games postponed, more steady revenue, and opportunities to loan out the pitch, raking in up to £150,000 a season. Their persuasive response to the oft-made point that artificial pitches cause more injuries than grass – that there’ll be even more injuries from a three game a week, end of season fixture pile-up on grass – is even more convincing. Add to this the fact that a European Championship game between Russia and England was played on plastic, and outsiders must be bewildered as to why the Conference would turn down the proposal.
While there is little doubt at this level that 3G pitches are the future, it’s not as simple as it sounds. For a start, they’re not cheap. The FA gives out £150,000 grants for sustainable pitches, but they cost nearly half a million pounds to install, while necessary maintenance costs stand at over £100,000 a year. The cost of installing a pitch in the short term is far more crippling to teams than a few months of precarious weather. It’s not a debt that can be paid off quickly, either; Maidstone are making a profit of just over £180,000 a year from their pitch, but this is with average crowds of nearly 2,000 a game and a league-winning side. They still have debts of over £3.3 million, £2.8 million of which was accumulated on the stadium, to pay off. A change in financial circumstance could destroy the club – a club whose predecessor was wound up in 1992 for bankruptcy. Should the rules remain, they can only be promoted if they groundshare a grass pitch; previous groundshares have seen their crowds dwindle to a tenth of their current average.
Secondly, for as long as artificial pitches are unacceptable in the Football League and ‘proper’ rounds of the FA Cup, they will continue to be in the Conference. There is no point having a vote, or now a lawsuit, to overturn rules in the Conference if in a few years the same argument will need to be had all over again so the Football League will accept them.
Finally, until the threat of injury on them has been assessed long-term, there looms the threat of lawsuits from injured players that would further deplete a club’s finances.
Besides, despite their reasonable points, Maidstone have approached this unreasonably. Aside from shunning democratic decisions, they knew when installing their pitch that it was only acceptable in certain leagues: that they have waited to consult the Conference until the season in which they could have their promotion blocked is madness. As such, their righteous indignation at choosing between stagnation in the Ryman Premier or groundsharing evokes little sympathy.
Their lobbying group, 3G4US, also has dubious ulterior motives. While it has the support of 50 clubs across the football pyramid, one of its chief endorsements comes from FieldTurf, a company specialising in artificial pitches. It takes little effort to imagine the profits that they would make from the leagues embracing their wares.
I have no doubt that 3G pitches will become acceptable soon, as clubs such as Merthyr Tydfil and Harlow Town jump on the plastic bandwagon. But ultimately, the Conference and Football League need to work together, over a sensible timeframe, to work out the logistics and consequences of implementing this change. Until this has been achieved, Maidstone will have to grit their teeth and realise they should have looked before they leapt.
Hosting the Olympics comes in the midst of a difficult period for the UK. In the last few years we’ve seen journalists, politicians and bankers come under intense scrutiny for compromising public trust. Economists predict that the country is on the verge of dipping back into recession for a third time. Austerity measures and riots have kept the papers busy, fees of £9000 per annum will all but price the less wealthy out of university, and, just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, Cher Lloyd’s indescribably appalling ‘Swagger Jagger’ reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart last summer.
It’s a portrait of doom and gloom which even the impending Olympics couldn’t alleviate – in some cases, it just fuelled the fire. The sense in hosting the 30th Olympiad during an economic downturn was questioned vigorously before the Games, and will probably be questioned vigorously after the Games, regardless of their legacy. Detractors heaped scorn upon the Games logo, their mascots and the spiralling cost of the project months in advance, saving their vitriol in the weeks beforehand for the G4S security recruitment debacle, the ticketing process and Olympic Family/corporate privileges such as separate road lanes and plum seats at events. Even following Danny Boyle’s widely acclaimed Opening Ceremony there were digs to be had, as empty seats, a venue food/water shortage and Team GB’s gold medal drought after four days caused public outrage – and let’s not forget the diplomatic crisis incited by a North/South Korean flag mix-up in the women’s football competition just days before the Games officially began.
With such pervasive home-grown press negativity beforehand, the only way to respond was by rebuffing the critics with a well-organised, inclusive Games, a healthy medal total for the home nation, and enough public support to prove that taxpayers wanted the £9.3 billion monster they’d funded. Fortunately, all three boxes seem to have been ticked.
It’s no generalisation or misleading media propaganda that Britain is in the throes of Olympic fever. An estimated 88% of the British population has watched these Olympics at some point, with 27 million watching the Opening Ceremony, while prior to that 10.2 million took to the streets to see the Torch Relay. Twitter has seen almost three times as many ‘#TeamGB’ hashtags in tweets as ‘#TeamUSA’; considering the disparity in population size between the two, and the fact that American viewing figures for this Olympics have surpassed those of any other Games (Atlanta ’96 and Los Angeles ’84 included), this is no little achievement. Their effect has been such that support for Scottish devolution among the public has actually dropped by three percent since July 27th, for which The Independent suggests the ubiquity of Union Flags has been a catalyst. The adage is that the Brits love an underdog; you have to wonder whether the overwhelming public support for London 2012 is at least partly a response to the relentless criticism it received beforehand.
Yet the last week’s national veneration for Team GB is surely a reaction to the negative climate of the past few years. That the country is desperate for an opportunity to party was evident during the Diamond Jubilee weekend, with around 10,000 street parties taking place and 1.5 million people descending on the streets of London to watch the celebrations. The Olympics have built on this air of celebratory patriotism, and offered escapism not only through entertainment, but by making the 541 athletes of Team GB the most important figures in the public sphere for a fortnight. Where Britain’s authority figures have failed us through expenses, phone-hacking and banking scandals, its athletes have succeeded through hard work and determination. That our sportspeople uphold the romantic tenet of ‘hard work = success’, when those with power have consistently shown an appetite for greed and corruption instead, is uplifting to the public.
It’s not just the athletes, either. 70,000 people are volunteering unpaid at the Games; it’s deeply encouraging that these thousands (along with the 170,000 who applied unsuccessfully) were prepared to work for no benefit other than sharing an experience and ensuring the events ran as smoothly as possible. The Games Makers, whose contribution has surely been the most conducive resource for London 2012’s continued success, have not merely carried out their menial tasks; they’ve done them with the best of attitudes, giving the Games a heart and soul. For them to become the defining symbol of this fortnight would befit their altruism and be an inspirational legacy.
What happens when the party’s over, though? While it won’t be over as soon as the Closing Ceremony is, with the Paralympics still to come (half a million tickets for which have been sold since the start of the Games), it will be interesting to see whether the regeneration of east London will be reflected in a rejuvenated public. Whatever the ideological issues with jingoism – primarily, the fostering of a ill-reasoned mindset exemplified by this tweet by Piers Morgan – it gives people a common topic to bond over, creating a sense of community. A sense of community improves public spirit. Could an improved public spirit, then, boost the economy?
It does seem farfetched, but with the Games having had four billion viewers worldwide, there’s certainly potential for a spike in tourism. A palpable national pride is far more likely to endear the world to holidays in the UK than a sullen, apathetic population. As more strangers talk to each other on the Tube about the Olympics, the usual wall of suspicion between the people becomes weaker. In a nation whose paranoia is evident from its surveillance agenda (the UK has 1% of the world’s population, but 20% of its CCTV cameras), it could even be the first step to a shaking off the nation’s ‘emotionally repressed’ stereotype – hardly a bad result.
The London 2012 motto is ‘Inspire a generation’. With what we’ve seen over the past week, hopefully it will be inspiring all generations – not only to get down the gym, but to look to the future with optimism. The success of Team GB’s athletes has proven that background is no hindrance to glory, with many of the most familiar medallists coming from state schools – Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah to name a few – and can hopefully boost the morale of those the recession has hit hardest. Sport may be escapism, but its consequences can certainly be real – and hopefully the Olympics will mark the point at which Britain regenerates, is reenergized, and resolves the underlying issues that have made the last few years so tumultuous.
(Apologies about lack of embedding – WordPress and CoverItLive do not a happy union make.)
07/05/11. 3pm. 2nd vs 4th. Step 3. 7 goals. 2,411 spectators. 1 promotion. 1,589 days (4 years, 4 months and 7 days) have passed since my first game, but I’ve finally seen my beloved football team promoted in their most successful season ever. And it’s probably the greatest feeling in the world. In a week when Osama Bin Laden’s time was finally up, the country was still recovering from a Bank Holidaytastic Easter break and a Royal Wedding, and Chelsea finally got their arses back in gear through dubious refereeing decisions to challenge for the Premiership title, this was the biggest event of the lot for me. This isn’t going to be one of my usual let’s-have-an-argument articles; rather, it’s just a little piece on the joy of promotion, what it means to a dedicated fan, and how I ended up loving Angels instead.
It all began on a very rainy Saturday afternoon. Saturday, December 30th 2006, to be precise. My father and brother were paying a trip to watch their newly-adopted local team, Tonbridge Angels, and I was going along to the Longmead Stadium to see what all the fuss was about. The fuss appeared to be about a team that were losing 2-0 to Ramsgate and reduced to 10 men before the game was called off after 70 minutes, had a swimming-pool of a pitch (admittedly, owing to the diabolical weather conditions), and fans that sang and swore a lot. But, despite swearing being neither big nor clever, a certain very immature 14-year-old found it hilarious, and contrary to parental expectations, I adored the experience. Four and a half years later, I’m still adoring the non-league experience.
They didn’t convert me to liking football – I’d supported Chelsea since early childhood, during the Zola/Poyet/Wise years, when we won the FA Cup twice but were mid-table fodder. Gradually we crept up into the UEFA and Champions League spots, and then Mr Abramovich came in with wallet nicely overflowing, and we all know the story hereafter. Despite still having never attended a match, I’ve watched many, many games on TV, bought each new home shirt since I was about 6, and locked myself in a toilet to sob for fifteen minutes after we lost the 2008 Champions’ League final. But supporting Chelsea vociferously from afar is not the same as planning your weekends and Tuesday nights around the home matches of a team whose ups and downs you live and breathe, who you finance with your student ticket and cheese-and-bacon burger every match, and who you stand in the freezing cold to watch in a Kent Senior Cup replay against a team two leagues below you – and your club has put out a team of reserves and youth players. It becomes a lot more than ‘just a game’ when you turn up every week to watch a Jekyll-and-Hyde side whose favourite pastime seems to be yo-yoing around the league table, and when you chant yourself hoarse for ninety minutes in the hope that it will inspire a glorious victory from the players. You become totally attached to the club, its fans, the players and management, and perhaps even fall in love with the whole package. It’s also my weekly bonding time with my dad and brother, and makes up a lot of the conversations I have with both. So the promotion is something of a big deal to me, especially given that I hopped on the train from Penryn, a mere 300 miles and £63 away, to see the final. But at least it was all worth it.
I’d always daydreamed about the rush of a pitch invasion as the final whistle blew, but due to the PA box’s insistence on people keeping behind the barriers, it was rather belated by the time it came around. By the time I finally strolled onto the pitch I was there with at least a thousand people, most of whom were fair-weather fans, and it became apparent that the busy season had worn the ground out to sandpit status. I finally had the chance to sing the chant that every non-Premiership side aspires to – the one with the deeply profound lyrics “We – are – going up, said we are going up!”. It was incredibly emotional, and something that you just can’t understand unless you’ve had an almost unhealthy love for a team of some description. It was worth all the awkward conversations with friends when something had been planned that I couldn’t attend due to Angels commitments, all the times I felt crushed after a resounding defeat (c.f. Tonbridge Angels 0 – 4 Cray Wanderers, the last game before I went to university), all the times I felt crushed after a rousing victory that I couldn’t attend (c.f. Tonbridge Angels 7 – 1 AFC Hornchurch, the first Saturday after I’d gone to university), the heartbreak of losing in the play-off semi-final to Carshalton in 2009 and the stress of the game itself, having twice chucked away a two-goal lead. But we came through eventually.
Our joy will probably be short-lived; I foresee a relegation battle next season due to a fairly small playing budget. And while I’m rather smug about the prospect of playing Truro City away next year due to conveniently being eight miles from their ground during university months, I’m sure the fixture list will decree this game be played when I’m back in Kent for the holidays. But a football team is for life, not just for promotion – so I’ll keep loving Angels instead.
Anyone who knows me will think twice before inviting me out on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening between July and April. Why? Am I a spy? A vampire? Not so. I’m merely watching 23 men run around a pitch at the Longmead Stadium of the Hildenborough end of Tonbridge, buried in the west Kentish suburbia. Yet whenever I mention Tonbridge Angels, my club of four seasons, people stare at me, goggle-eyed. “Tonbridge has a football team?” they ask in astonishment. Such is the curse of being affiliated with non-league football… or is it?
I’m inclined to make a tenuous link between non-league football and the underground music scene here; just take a look at Yeovil Town. Now stalwarts of League 1, football’s third tier, they began the 2011 season yesterday with a win. Yet fifteen years ago, they were Tonbridge’s opponents in the Isthmian League (now the Ryman Premier League) – this season will be only their eighth as a league side (a side that plays in one of these four divisions; the Premiership, the Championship, League 1 and League 2). Now comes the comparison; many of Yeovil’s fans have felt alienated by the jump to league football. It’s all too reminiscent of many a music fan moaning after their favourite band “sells out” and becomes a gleaming mainstream success. Indeed, when Tonbridge had their Longmead attendance record smashed when an FA Trophy fourth round game against AFC Wimbledon brought a crowd of 2,281 to the ground in 2008, my family had to arrive an hour earlier than usual to ensure our usual spot in the stand was saved. There were so many spectators that it was impossible for the fans to swap stands at half time, a non-league custom which may ring strange to league supporters. The queues for the two burger vans were immense, the Longmead Lounge – the ground’s pub – was overflowing and, in addition, the Angels were walloped 4 – 0. We complained about this after a paltry one game in this situation; it’s easy to see why the Yeovil hardcore were disgruntled by fair-weather fans sitting in their seats and babbling excitedly to their friends about how their team had been promoted to the Football League. It fits the mould of angry indie fans perfectly.
On the other hand, money in the team’s coffers leads to better players being bought, which –theoretically, at least – leads to better results. Money is the key to success. Although I’ve often fought against the assertion that Chelsea ‘bought’ the Premiership title, I have to admit that it’s a major reason for the club’s recent successes (though I stand firm on my perspective that a team can have excellent players, but without an excellent manager, the team cannot be worldbeaters – without Jose Mourinho and now Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea would have been in a Manchester City scenario; full of good players, but unable to gel cohesively to make a true challenge for the title… or will they? We shall see). For fans to get value for their money, in terms of silverware and style, more fans are needed to boost the club’s bank balance. As discovered last season, in the event of a fixture dead-end due to weather, non-league teams at least may be required to release or sell some of their best players to be able to continue paying others. And why? Because no games means no fans, which means no revenue.
Which leads me neatly onto my main point of this article. Anyone who has never been truly immersed in the non-league experience will be confused at this point, assuming that because they’ve never heard of the club, the club has next to no fans. The Angels have an average attendance of about 400 – above average for Step 3 (of non-league – comprising of the Evo-Stik Premier in the North, the Zamaretto Premier in the South-west and Midlands, and the Ryman Premier in the South-east). Some teams in our league in recent years have boasted regular crowds in four-figures (the now-Blue Square South Dartford), whereas some have pitiful two-figure crowds. But Tonbridge are in a healthy financial state, have a core of dedicated fans, and a coat of fair-weather ones. Those 400 know that non-league is not a Saturday version of Sunday kickabouts, held in parks with old and overweight men puffing and panting as they try to mistime a pass to their teammate. It’s a real league. The players may be part-timers, but the Ryman League is a fecund ground for new talent; three Angels players in the time I have been seeing them have made the jump to full-time football, with one moving to League One outfit Brentford (Leon Legge, who in his first season with them won the supporters’ Player Of The Year trophy and the Player Of The Round award for his FA Cup second-round performance in their game against Walsall). In fact, whilst most football followers may not have heard of the Ryman Premier, it is necessary to note that the most talked-about signing of the January transfer window this year was that of Chris Smalling to Manchester United from Fulham. Smalling had moved to The Cottagers the summer beforehand from Ryman Premier team Maidstone United… who are Tonbridge Angels’ main rivals.
So, what are you doing on September 4th? If you are in any way interested in football, you should be paying a visit to your local non-league club. The day is free from any Premiership or Championship fixtures, and has been dubbed ‘Non-League Day’ as part of an initiative to increase public interest in non-league football. Whether or not you decide to visit them again, you’re supporting the growth of grassroots football – the football whose virtues are loudly extolled by pundits and experts across the land, especially when the club has a youth academy (as the Angels do) – and indulging in a football habit that won’t break the bank; essential in a time of fragile economic standing. You never know, you may be surprised by the standard of football. Perhaps if that doesn’t measure up to expectations, you’ll find yourself embracing the banter and camaraderie within the stands, or enjoying the culinary finesse (incidentally, the Angels burgers are fantastic).
As for hijacking the Football League, a la Yeovil? Well, we did hold Brentford to a deserved draw in pre-season, and defeated the newly-League Two side Oxford United in the FA Trophy a few years ago. You have been warned.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death… I can assure you that it is much, much more important than that.” So spoke the late Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool FC. But in light of the current trend of comparing footballers to soldiers, it’s a statement that seems increasingly ironic. This trend is comprised of people writing, or indeed copy-and-pasting, poor and self-righteous generalisations that all footballers are shameless, extravagant gutter fodder with more money in the bank than the entire army gets paid in a year. Whilst I can’t argue that footballers perform a more important task than the forces, it is clear to me that it is grossly unfair to misrepresent both ‘the beautiful game’ and footballers themselves, while comparing them to a ‘heroic’ lifestyle with which it has nothing in common.
Despite being a strong pacifist, I accept that soldiers sacrifice the safety and security of an office job to protect their own and other countries, and wake up each morning knowing that it may be their last. I don’t dispute that – Premier League players at least – are likely to live in relative luxury and unlikely to even consider that they will die on the pitch. But this is my issue: you don’t see the media giving Usain Bolt or Kevin Pietersen a hard time because they’re not on the front line. You don’t see Elton John being picketed for being richer or less of a hero than Jane the nurse or Jim the doctor. Why? Because there is simply no basis for comparison. Our idolisation of the army for their courageous martyrdom means we forget about the homegrown, ordinary heroes; doctors and nurses who routinely save lives as frequently as the forces do by killing off potential threats to security. The unsung scientists who make life-saving drugs. Humanitarian aid workers who deliver supplies to poverty-stricken countries where, although many people die nevertheless, they surely save many people. Even politicians who pass laws to make the country a safer place; bad press has been rife about the ‘nanny state’, but it is important to note that had Germany had the same laws as the UK in place, then perhaps the Love Parade crush would not have occurred and 21 lives would have been saved. These people are as much heroes in their own way as the soldiers are, even though they may not risk their lives. People forget that terror is not the only enemy.
And yet, whilst these people deserve our utmost respect, it is fundamentally important that those who rely on a natural talent are not devalued. Those who write, sing, dance, carve, and, yes, play football may not save lives in the same way as those listed above, but they bring a distraction for the ordinary person to lose themselves in. That’s entertainment. Just because a boy who is skilled with his feet chooses to be a footballer because he shows talent does not make him a moron* or a coward, and he should not be treated as such by the same people who probably listen to artists whose members have lived wild lifestyles of excess; the same people are hardly going to write snooty Facebook statuses reprimanding Ozzy Osbourne and Mick Jagger for not serving in any wars. (*Frank Lampard, despite having an Essex accent which would suggest stupidity, has an A* GCSE in Latin. That is not to be sneered at.) People value entertainment in general with more respect than perhaps it is worth, so why are footballers the only target of this haughty wave of vitriol?
If it is the money, I find it difficult to justify the prices of the world’s top footballers. Yet for a start, I believe Formula One is a richer sport, despite requiring less skill (I may be grossly misjudging here, but it is worth noting that while debate rages over whether an F1 driver wins a race because of his car or his driving ability, the same is rarely asked of a footballer and the ball used). Racing drivers are also typical stalwarts of the celebrity party circuit, yet the online moaners ignore them. Secondly, saying that footballers should be paid less than soldiers is ridiculous on a fiscal level. The state funds soldiers, not footballers, and if more taxes were required to increase the army’s pay – or if public services were cut back further for the same purpose – the moaners would be shouting about injustice from the rooftops. Yet more hypocrisy. There are also far more servicemen and women to pay than there are footballers who have top Premier League salaries, and as for lower down the league system – well, I doubt a League 2 footballer for Torquay United is on a salary anywhere near that of Wayne Rooney’s. Besides, a soldier – if he survives – can theoretically serve for thirty to forty years, whereas a footballer’s career is over within fifteen due to their diminishing speed and skill. So a footballer must accumulate his life’s earnings as quickly as possible before he is “past it”, as only a few are able to be pundits for TV or radio, or columnists for local newspapers. In an ideal world, life-saving would be rewarded with a pay packet greater than that of an entertainer, but as with pure Communism, the fair option is unfeasible in the practical world.
And, although the media unwaveringly represents the champagne-and-cars glitz and glamour side of football, it glosses over footballers who use their financial standing for the greater good. I was surprised to learn that Didier Drogba, one of the top strikers in the world and the Premiership’s top scorer last season, spends much of his earnings on benefiting children in his native Ivory Coast, one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by poverty. An article by The Independent (read it here) tells of Craig Bellamy, portrayed by the press as something of a lout, donating £650,000 of his own to form a youth league structure in the war-torn and fragile African country Sierra Leone in 2008. Ironically, it mentions in the article that the British army intervened in this civil war; the army helped end the war, and now a footballer is helping to make a future for some of the country’s children. The two may not have worked together – unlike the Football War between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, one of the few instances of an intrinsic link between football and war – but it remains intriguing nonetheless that there is a tenuous link. Not all footballers may be philanthropists (the article mentions several others, including Niall Quinn and Robert Green, whose World Cup blunder can surely not undermine his altruism), but there is a whole underworld of goodness in football which goes unnoticed.
In conclusion? Soldiers perform a more vital task than footballers. Yes, they probably do deserve more respect than footballers. But why should the online focus always be on these two pitted against each other? You may as well compare Beethoven and Blur for their musical qualities. There is barely any comparison, and where there are injustices, they are either unfeasible to put right or used to make the world a better place in third world countries. If you still persist on moaning about these things, go and sign up for the army right now. If you’re not going to do that, then STOP MOANING. You have no right to be self-righteous. Thank you, and goodnight.