Titanic, deckchairs, football ground

Working for the Football Association must me remarkable fun, and by “remarkable” I mean “barely”, and by “fun”, I mean “an alternative to slamming your dangly bits in a car door.”  It’s not as though football fans are ignorant of the constant stream of brain farts guffing from the collective mind of the FA, we’ve suffered down the years, from the Wembley reconstruction mess to the constantly bewildering way managerial choices are mishandled. Do they get rejects from The Apprentice to make these choices? I don’t want to imagine how that might work out. Sorry, Fabio, it’s just not working out (you being statistically the best manager we’ve had in 40 years, and all), so just dance in your pants, dance in your pants!

What the FA has splooged all over the place this week is somewhat niche in its audience though no less an example of them getting a simple task utterly Andover-over-Timperley. Having looked into how to resolve pressing issues amongst the cluttered number of divisions in non-league football they have announced the equivalent of shoving paperwork into a top drawer for looking at ‘you know, later, like when I’ve less, you know, busy?’.

In short, the FA was tasked with sorting out the perennial problem of cutting back the weeds and cleaning up the rock garden that is the middle bits of the non-league pyramid. As currently constituted, the pyramid resembles a capital “A” written by a drunk, blind monkey, on fire, in space, which makes the latest decision all the more frustrating and self-defeating. Pushing back decisions into the never-never might work for the full-time, professional leagues; it tends not to have much of a positive outcome for semi-professional or amateur sides. Non-league football has been allowed to develop its current wobbly state precisely because decisions on the geographic spread of divisions and the number of teams in each league have been deferred and delayed year-on-year.

In broad terms, each step down provides for each division to become more geographically specific. Blue Square/Conference Premier is a national league, fed by the geographically spread Conference North and South feeder divisions, themselves fed by the Northern/Midlands/Southern feeder divisions, and so on. Due to the unpredictable nature of the football season, with some relegations/promotions not confirmed until April or May, fitting teams into the right place can be an arduous (read, improvised) process. Don’t need to tell fans of Durham or Bishop’s Stortford or King’s Lynn about being plonked into the wrong leagues. Having to travel across the East Coast Main Line for every away trip, Durham have recently requested to be demoted from the Northern League Division One for financial reasons. King’s Lynn were wound up by the Courts. Bishop’s are wound up by not being able to travel south for any away game in their “northern” leagues.

By expanding divisions at Steps 3 and 4, the FA is putting more stress and strain on the financial constraints suffered by teams who can’t add extra away days without feeling the pinch. There’s no argument for expanding the Premier League or Championship, so how can it be justified further down? What compensation will the FA offer for the inevitable damage to non-league grounds after four (or more for ground share clubs) games being played across winter or spring?

From Step 4, the FA should look at streamlining the feeder leagues whilst ensuring the geographic spread is as tight as possible. It’s not the kind of thing which looks to me as brain surgery, and yet the great and good suits always make the easiest task the hardest execution. There can only be one consequence from this week’s decision – more games for clubs which can’t always afford it, more games for fans who can’t always travel, and less confidence amongst teams towards a streamlined, relevant league structure. Deferring decisions on this can’t wait any longer.

Groundhop at Squire’s Gate









To the first game of the season, the North West Counties league and a coastal train to the environs of Blackpool. Game One – Squire’s Gate vs Congleton Town.

Beforehand, I had been given the impression that it would be the visitors taking the game to the Fylde, which turned out not to be the case. It was the home team, resplendent in two-tone shirts, who made the early chances count, turning in a very comfortable 4-0 lead by half-time.

It was grassroots stuff, top to bottom, from the tumbledown ground to the confusion caused by referee whistles coming from an adjacent game. The ground had some nice touches – a social club style bar with a TARDIS-effect gents, wooden gantry stands with room for flasks of tea, and the “St Annes Fish Restaurant Stand” with club initials freshly daubed in blue emulsion.

Best goal of the game was a simple freekick turned into an up-and-under which neither wall nor keeper had much chance in stopping. Squire’s Gate had the better pace and space awareness – at times, the only thing Congleton had was a couple of forwards who had very little strength.

Although Congleton did wake up (“They drew the second half, FACT” noted my fellow ‘hopper), it was far too little, far too late. It did shake Squire’s a bit – notably their keeper turned into a right old flapper.

North West Counties has plenty of decent sides who always make for entertaining matches, which this turned into even with the massive deficit. Enjoyable and within walking distance of a fair decent pub. Nowt wrong with that.

pies, chips, and anoraks

One regular column inside the Non-League weekly newspaper is called “Diary of a Groundhopper”. Written by different fans every week, its tales and regales follow the national football scene which exists beneath the 92 League teams, beneath even the Conference and its feeder divisions. From the website 50 Yards Wide, this one description of a groundhop should give you the idea of what is meant…

With our original plans thrown into disarray by the lack of a referee at Talysarn, it was a case of any port in a storm at 1-30pm on Saturday. Luckily, Llanllyfni is no more than a couple of miles from Talysarn and arriving at 1-40 it was good to see both teams out warming up for the 2pm KO.Ths is one of those grounds that you’d struggle to find if it wan’t a match day. The goals, pitch perimeter fence, dugouts & advertising boards (banners to be precise) all disappear once the game is over, leaving an open field behind the village hall. However, with everything set up, it feels very much like a proper venue, the only thing it lacks is cover.

Another site, now moved, called “Extreme Groundhopping” lists the grounds visited by the author so far – Arsenal’s Emirates and Bolton’s Reebok joined by Brantham Athletic (they play at a Social Club of the same name, and I’ve never heard of them), and Norwich United (played within the Ridgeons League Premier Division).

Everything in life collects its obsessives. Ale festivals are great for this, one table always reserved for the men of a certain vintage exchanging tour anecdotes like society-ball veterans transported from another age in anoraks and t-shirts. “Selbeh 92, ‘member that, eh? Nowt like that any more, Grimsby last year being an exception, of course!”

Train spotting, it almost goes without saying, has the same effect upon men (though, and this is absolutely true, on the train from Wigan one afternoon I spotted a man and woman sat around a picnic-table at the side of Platform 4. Romance, right there).

The groundhopper is distinctly, absolutely, completely British. It’s the very best of the eccentric and the obsessive, the man who makes lists, the woman who always puts clothes in order of colour. We’ve all heard of “doing the 92”, a creditable trophy to chase for any football fan, which requires the committed individuals involved to watch a full game at every one for the ninety-two League stadia. (There is a very good dedicated website, soon to be updated for the coming season). As it happens, there may be purists who are shaking their head at this slap-dash explanation. Just watch the game? What about having to buy a programme? What about doing it in alphabetical order? Of postcodes?

Despite being a hobby, ostensibly, the ”rules” pervade the whole groundhopping community. Ever heard of stamp collectors who tend not to accept British definitives or anything from WH Smith starterpacks? Then we’re in the same arena here.

The question on rules was asked on the Non League Matters forum. It’s worth only enjoying this reply in all its glory;

To watch a game, you should be there from start to end, including extra time if played. (Note, Should, not Must).

For example, different people have different ideas of what to do if they miss the start, maybe due to circumstances beyond their control. This is always a potential problem on long trips.

Some will not go without a programme, or without a pasty crimp or whatever.

Some make detailed accounts of players, goal scorers, even perhaps numbers of corners – others would not be able to tell you the score if you ask 7 days after the game.

I think everyone keeps some sort of record, although I know some that are trying to create records from memory, having not kept them from the start of their football watching. [I am lucky in that from the first time I watched a match and decided this was for me, I actually kept a list of the games seen – although some friendlies were not on the list, and a match at Barking which my grandfather had taken me to some years previously was not recorded]

So talk to other hoppers at games, exchange views on here – make up your own mind and then be true to yourself, (no one else is counting for you

Yes, that’s right, an earlier poster was concerned by the sale of pies or burgers for a groundhop to “count”. We’re in dangerous territory, folks.

(You would be, in very enjoyable territory as I understand it, if you watch a game at Devon where burgers are of such massive consistency that the use of excessive tomato ketchup is recommended as otherwise the mouth would almost run out of saliva).

Accusations of ‘not being proper fans’ are thrown at groundhops as though some of the mud will stick. It’s bizarre to think such finger-pointing could have any validity; there’s enough struggle to deal with the hypnotised SKY brigade, for whom football exists for glitz, glamour and the top 10 Premier League places. Groundhoppers may not have a single team of their own to follow, though why should this be considered a handicap? Hobbies breed snobs, true, and it’s true on both sides. It can lead to awkward conversations with potential future fathers-in-law. (“Don’t have a team, eh? Poofter, hmm? One of those give votes to black disabled lesbians, I suppose?”)

I have experienced two different extremes of the groundhop within the British Isles, from the extreme of walking 30 minutes down the road to Irongate (home of Bamber Bridge, which is not called the QED stadium for God’s sake…), right to the train-bus-Metro-unintended-overnight-stay-in-Newcastle weekend to watch the FA Cup Qualifier between Burscough and Howden. All fans should have at least one nightmare away trip story, after all.

The groundhop status taps into an argument right at the core of the non-league game. Notwithstanding notable exceptions – most Blue Square Premier sides, AFC Halifax, FC United of Manchester – crowd sizes can be very small, and rather quiet. Messageboards and forums hum to the sound of perennial questions – does non league football even count? How low down the pyramid is acceptable? What’s the widely held distinction between teams playing Sunday kickabouts on the park and Suffolk County games?

My opinion has always been open minded, perhaps over-romantacisesd. There is a moment of the Saturday afternoon, in my way of thinking, when hundreds of referees across the country blow whistles in unison, momentarily and fleetingly uniting all the levels of football as one, before the differences blossom again and all games return to their rightful place in the strata. At one broadbrush level, there’s little difference between the very highest and most low of games, though only somebody so deep in denial that they hold an Egyptian passport would argue that the playing fields genuinely are level. Sadly the anorak tendency within non league has allowed the inverse snobbery to build within otherwise genial fanbases. Yes, the ‘culture’ amongst some lower league sides is at the opposite side of the Premier League glitz and glamour. That perhaps is the whole point, and should not be the measure by which some fans decide validity of support amongst others.

For groundhopping, my rules are fairly straight forward. Enjoy yourself. It’s a game of football, the significance of which should not override the more important specifics, such as roundly criticising the rightback with the acceleration of a mobility scooter and suggesting the liner closest to you enjoys extra-curricular activities with someone other than his wife. Taking a month out of supporting your team – I don’t recommend this often – to take in five or six complete unknowns in new stadia could be just the break you need (that is, if you’re an Aston Villa fan not otherwise in need of education). If there’s any judgemental element to this, it’s unfortunate and it’s human nature. Different strengths can be found all over the stands and terraces, it’s unfortunate that the mud sticks strongest below the League line.

So let’s just shake off all the complexities here. There’s only a month before the season starts, and that means it’s time enough to plan fantasy football teams, train journeys to far-flung away games, and ensure everyone knows not to purchase pies from Altrincham….