Eyes On The Pies: At the Coalface of the Amateur Game
The Blues Brothers famously had half a packet of cigarettes, a full tank of gas and 106 miles to go until they reached Chicago. Amateurs. I too had a full tank, but had replaced the cigarettes with two unopened packets of Mini Cheddars, while my destination was Barton-upon-Humber, a 484-mile, single-day round trip from home in Somerset. They drove the Bluesmobile, a 1974 Dodge Monaco sedan. I was behind the wheel of a 2001 Skoda Fabia with 170,000 miles on the clock.
Admittedly, I’d brought it on myself. This was just one of many such trips I voluntarily undertook for the research of my book, The Bottom Corner: A Season With The Dreamers Of Non-League Football. But who wouldn’t volunteer to embark on a series of road trips to places they’d never been to in order to watch teams few had ever heard of – especially with the reward of piping hot pies and pasties at journey’s end? (And, of course, the opportunity to write 80,000 words about the ensuing adventures.)
Not that the book was intended to be, nor ended up being, a mere chronicle of motorway closures, wonky football grounds and the enthusiastic consumption of pastry-based snacks. As the subtitle suggests, I placed people at its heart. I travelled those thousands of miles – from Glasgow to Worthing and all points in between – to meet, greet and hear the stories of those unheralded folk involved at all levels of the semi-pro and amateur game. I was there to hear their dreams.
Photo (c) Nige Tassell
It might be the multi-millionaire club owner whose dream was to build a stadium to rival Wembley. It might be the ex-pro still hopeful of winning silverware in the late afternoon of his career. It might be the young buck eager to snag the attention of the scout on the touchline. Or it might simply be the raffle-ticket seller who ultimately wants her ashes to be scattered in the centre circle of the club she’s been supporting for 70-odd years.
I barely scratched the surface. There are tens of thousands of people with such stories to tell in the depths of non-league football. And, usually, interviewing them offers up far more insight and wisdom than interviewing a Premier League player, those whose lives have been cosseted and shrink-wrapped from real life since they were first signed as pre-teens. They rarely have much to say beyond cliché and banality, beyond the party line of both club and sponsor.
And it’s a world that is, generally, more welcoming and less cynical than the cash-hungry professional game. Clichés do abound about the non-league ‘family’, but every cliché has its basis in truth. As a hard-bitten football journalist familiar with trying to scale the impenetrable defences set up by over-zealous press officers, I wasn’t turned down for a single interview during the book’s research. Everyone was willing to talk, everyone found time. And everyone did so with good grace. As Match Of The Day presenter Mark Chapman told me at Eastleigh FC before the non-leaguers took on Bolton Wanderers in last season’s FA Cup: “This is the attraction of these kind of places. People are normal and proper and how you would want everyone to be.”
Normal people but fascinating stories. A world away from the notions of image rights, official partners and players owning entire fleets of supercars. And, perhaps most importantly, a world where the price of a pie won’t require the renegotiation of your mortgage.