Spilt tea and cheap hotels

The Newport County player overhit the ball, which spun over the pitchside hoarding and landed squarely on a plastic table by the refreshment bar. It hit a cup of tea, splattering the contents over its owner, a wheelchair-bound Hayes & Yeading Utd fan.

“You f**kin’ w***er,” he shouted in the direction of the players. “Come ‘ere and I’ll smack you one.”

The Newport players laughed – and they were smiling later as they came from behind to beat the Blue Square Premier’s worst supported team 2-1 in way out West London.

I’ve been on an oddball odyssey of fixtures in the last couple of weeks, catching games such as Cheltenham Town v Stevenage, Chester v Chorley – as well as Manchester United’s.

I find them a refreshing antidote to watching the glamour of Manchester United and Barcelona, and I’m fortunate to have a job which justifies going to obscure grounds full of the weird and wonderful.

From men with strings around their waist where most people have belts to the glamour of the assistant manager’s beautiful wife, who sat in front of me at Cheltenham with her children.

She told me about the various towns she’d lived in following her husband’s football career, cast a curious eye over the nearby WAGs and went mad when The Robins scored.

I love watching out for emerging talents, hoping that I can say I saw him when he started out. The singer Paul Heaton is similarly afflicted. He is proud to have spotted the sublime Juan Carlos Valeron as a 16-year-old in the Canary Islands.

At Hayes, I found myself stationed behind a gaggle of non-league managers and scouts who were looking out for gems and knew something about every player on the field.

Some had upcoming ties against either team, they all knew each other and the camaraderie was rich. They talked of “northern birds” and “trips up north” and all knew the landlord of a pub who, reluctant to pay Sky’s fees to televise sport, had Tippexed a white pint pot sign on the TV screen in his pub so it looked like he had paid.

Hayes have a hardcore of 300 fans and play in a league where Luton Town attract gates 20 times as large. Using the same scale in the Premiership, Blackpool’s 15,000 would mean that Manchester United would average 300,000.

Try as the club might with half price admission for Premier League season ticket holders, football in Hayes is poorly supported. This is despite Chelsea previously training in adjacent Harlington and the area having produced many a good footballer.

It’s not the most salubrious area of London either. My hotel room, in a former school building opposite the ground where George Orwell once taught, cost just £35.

Chester was very different, a beautiful “northern” city and the scene of the remarkable turnaround of Chester FC. Chester City went bust earlier this year.

Fans blamed an owner who you perhaps wouldn’t want to bump into down a dark alley, but those fans did something about it when the grim reaper called. Inspired by other fan owned clubs, they formed a new club, negotiated with the council to play at the Deva Stadium and started life four leagues below the Football League.

“It’s been a stressful 12 months, very challenging, but very rewarding,” says Chester’s press officer Jeff Banks. “When we knew that the previous club Chester City were not going to last the season, we had to be ready. That’s when Chester FC – the previous name for the club - was born.”

“We have good examples to follow like FC United, AFC Telford and AFC Wimbledon. People had given up on Chester City and it was our job to get those people interested again. We told people to trust us – they knew us, knew that we went to matches and were longstanding supporters. Our group ‘City Fans United’ grew quickly and now has around 2,500 members. The council and local businesses chipped in too. We had the support of the city and knew what we wanted. People feel like they belong to the club again. Supporters help sweep up after the match because they want to help their club. Everyone wants a piece of it.

“Mark Lawrenson once said that Chester didn’t deserve a football club. We’ve proved him wrong.”

Last Saturday a huge crowd of over 3,000, including loads of young lads going to the match with their mates, saw them lose to Chorley side managed by Gary Flitcroft and featuring Matt Jansen as sub in a top of the table clash.

My journey from Manchester was on a train full of travelling Chorley, working class lads who had met in their local pub at 9am before their journey south, armed with bags of lager cans.

I spoke to several who turned out to be disenfranchised Manchester United fans, bored with Premier League football and the costs involved. So now they watch non-league. With oddballs like me.

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