Downsizers: And Another Thing

From the July 2007 issue of FourFourTwo...

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Our panel, left to right:
Dominic Liddicott-Mee, Magazine Customer Services – Torquay U, ex Man United
Neil Bateman, Electrician – Heybridge Swifts, ex Ipswich Town
Steve Brown, Marketing Agent – Shrewsbury Town, ex Arsenal
Roy Beeson, IT Manager – Stevenage Borough, ex Leicester City

How did you come to jump ships to a new club?

Stevenage They’re the local team to me: I tried it and I liked it. I’m from Leicestershire and I’ve been a City fan since I was in the womb. It’s only in latter years that I’ve become disaffected with the football in front of me; with the rubbish quality on and off the pitch. There’s the new stadium, the razamatazz of the PA announcer, the way they tender out stadium facilities to the lowest bidder… At Stevenage, at least you know what you’ll be getting: a tea urn at the end of the stand.
Torquay I actually still feel slightly ashamed for following my mates and becoming a Man U fan in the first place. It wasn’t until I moved away from Torquay that I realised I was getting nothing out of it: even if Man U did win everything, I didn’t really identify with the club or the players. When I moved back home, I thought: “If I don’t support Torquay, then who is going to?”. Since then, I’ve even got to play on the Plainmoor pitch. At the weekend I went for an audition to be matchday announcer, and I got it! You don’t get opportunities like that at Old Trafford, do you?
Heybridge Up until the end of last season me and the wife had Ipswich season tickets, but what with work commitments and a three-hour round trip from the coast, we decided not to renew. Still, we needed our football fix so we went along to Heybridge and got completely wrapped up in it. In the big local derby against Chelmsford City (who were gunning for the Ryman Premier title), we equalised with minutes to go and I found myself jumping in the air for the first time. The involvement is actually greater. I asked about getting a shirt, and they said if they didn’t have one my size, they’d give me an old first-team shirt! Now it looks like I’m going to end up on the Supporters’ Club committee, and I’m building the club a website!
Shrewsbury I used to support Arsenal actively until five years ago, but the Premiership has totally changed. I don’t like the money going into it, the money the guys earn, the expense, the cheating: the Ashley Cole saga was the end. There’s no loyalty. And so I took the decision to sell myself on eBay! I said I’d go and support any club in the world, starting the bidding at 1p. Bayern Munich and River Plate were bidding at one point, but eventually I was bought for £102 by Shrewsbury Town!

What are the positives you’ve taken from downsizing?

Torquay By downsizing, you’re not downsizing the enjoyment you get out of football – you’re increasing it. When we got promotion, I felt so much more part of it, having had the chance to meet the players – not to mention Helen Chamberlain. It’s more than just the club, it’s the community. Also, looking up the leagues, I can talk about the Premiership with any fan of those clubs, but they overlook the rest of football.
Shrewsbury It makes you feel special, supporting a smaller club instead of the usual Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal. You stand out more. It means something. It’s individual. Stevenage This is my season ticket from Leicester this season, which cost £280 – and I’ve only used six stubs. Compared to possibly the worst season ever at Leicester, at Stevenage I was watching a team of players playing for each other, not individuals. They may not be the best players in the world, but they’re honest. As an environment, it’s more relaxed. I haven’t got a family, but if I did I’d be happier bringing them along to Stevenage than Leicester.
Heybridge You go and watch a game and you feel appreciated. You’re not just a number in the crowd, you’re not just X pounds going into a turnstile, a wallet to be milked – that’s how I started to feel in the Championship and the Premier.
Shrewsbury Course, I’m the opposite to you two – I just swapped a half-hour trip for a three-and-a-half-hour trip. When I went to my first game, I took along my Arsenal shirt and was brought on to the pitch! I was introduced by the pre-match commentator: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to welcome Steve Brown, who we just bought from Arsenal, for £102 and 68 pence”. A lot of the 3,500 fans must have thought, “Well, he can’t be very good…”

But aren’t you really still a secret fan of your original club?

Shrewsbury I don’t really look at the Arsenal games. If they’re on TV I might watch them, but I don’t care. The passion is gone. They’ve had a pretty boring season, frankly, and I’ve had a fantastic season: in the playoffs against MK Dons, and a chance of going to Wembley. And everyone has been so welcoming at Shrewsbury – fans come up to me to say “hope you’re enjoying it”. I’ve met the players and the manager; the club captain Richard Hope said hello, and you just can’t get that close to millionaires. It’s a totally different world, it makes you feel special. I never met anyone at Arsenal. You just feel threatened.
Stevenage I haven’t completely jumped ship. If it came to Stevenage versus Leicester in a Cup game, I’d be a Leicester City supporter. It’s in the blood, and I don’t think I could ever change. On Saturday, Stevenage have got the FA Trophy Final at Wembley, and instead of the expected 15,000 allocation they’ve sold 25,000 to the club… but this is also the same day as Football Aid at the Walkers Stadium, and the guy who sits next to me at work – a City fan, coincidentally; my Leicester City conscience – is playing in a team of Leicester legends. It’s all for charity. I didn’t realise the dates clashed. So I’ll be supporting him from the stands rather than sitting at Wembley in that magnificent stadium that I really want to go and see…
Heybridge I still think of myself as an Ipswich fan, but when it comes to next season I’ll have a season ticket at Heybridge, and I’ll probably only get to a couple of Ipswich games that don’t clash with the Swifts, rather than the other way round. I’ll always be an Ipswich fan – it’s in your blood; the first match I went to was in 1977 – but over time the weighting will change. I enjoy it more, to be honest with you. It’s a different experience now, in the top leagues: it’s like going to the cinema, not like watching football.

Is there an element of nostalgia in your downsizing, going in search of football the way it used to be?

Heybridge Very much so. To be able to stand on the terraces as opposed to having to sit on a plastic seat… To be able to stand there and drink a pint while you’re watching the game – there’s a lot to be said for it. And everybody stands behind the goal, and you all move round at half time. To me, the atmosphere is very much like it was at football in the early ‘80s, albeit on a smaller scale. There’s an intimacy that’s gone, now.
Torquay When we’ve had big teams in the Cup, having terracing has been absolute godsend for the atmosphere, and fitting everybody in. You can move around and stand with different people. And there’s nothing better than jumping up and down like a maniac when your team scores.
Shrewsbury I love it, standing at pitch level, right on the halfway line – it all makes it seem so sterile, sitting miles from the action in a grandstand. I’ve really rediscovered my passion for football. And it’s worked out well for me because I’ve seen the last season at Gay Meadow, which is a pretty ropey stadium but it has a great deal of nostalgia for everyone – and then there’s the move to New Meadow this close season.
Stevenage The main reason I still go to Leicester is because of the people I travel up and go to the games with. If those people disappeared, then I’d be very unlilkely to renew my Leicester season ticket. When I do go, it’s all about before and after the match, not the journeyman players who have nothing to do with the club. I must admit, the first time I went to see Stevenage it was because [Leicester O’Neill-era legend] Steve Guppy plays for them. Meanwhile, following a non-league team reminds me of City’s old pre-season friendlies: it’s safe to have terracing; it’s okay for people to bring car blankets to put over their knees in the stand. There’s less invested in it.
Heybridge It’s all too packaged and perfect in the top leagues – like going to McDonald’s to buy a burger, except you go to White Hart Lane to buy a football match. The nice thing about a crowd of 200 is that when you abuse the ref, you know full well he can hear everything you’re saying!

Do you care what other more loyal fans might think of you, possibly branding you a defector?

Torquay It’s a really bizarre feeling, but my conscience tells me that I was a defector for ever supporting a team other than Torquay United. Now I sit and look in disgust at those fans, and think “I was one of them”.
Heybridge You mean you were once as bad as your evil twin brother, the Spurs fan!? Stevenage When you first raised the issue of ‘defectors’ on the messageboard, I was kind of okay with it – until someone pointed out, “you’re going to be the most famous defector Leicester has ever known”! I’m quite happy to be referred to as someone who’s ‘downsized’, but I wouldn’t ever want my loyalty to be questioned.
Shrewsbury Talking to people at Shrewsbury, 99 percent say they understand. I must just add that no money changed hands when I sold my football soul! Of course, it was originally a bit of a joke, and it was completely random to end up a Shrewsbury fan; but I’ve been to six games this season and have been made fantastically welcome; I’ve taken along at least ten more friends and family members, and now I’m hooked for life! The only trouble is, I haven’t seen them win yet. They went 14 games unbeaten until I went see them at Swindon, which they duly lost. Last weekend, with 30 seconds to go, I thought I was going to lose my bad-mascot jinx effect, but then bloody Grimsby scored; but at least we got into the play-offs.

Does the difference between supporting a smaller club rather than a big club come down to reality versus unreality?

Heybridge One of the problems is that football has become fashionable, and if you talk to anybody now, everybody supports a football club – and virtually all of them support a club in the Premiership. I think going to watch a lower team is perhaps an affirmation that you enjoy football as opposed to being part of the hype that it’s become. It’s anti-fashion, if you like.
Stevenage I enjoy playing football, and I enjoy watching players that, with a little stretch of the imagination, I could almost have ended up playing against. In that way, it is more real, less of a product.
Torquay You’ve got to be a certain sort of person to ask yourself why you support a big club; what you’ll do when the fantastic run of success comes to an end. Does anyone really think people who support big teams are big, successful winners themselves? No-one can take me away from Torquay now because I’ve done all that, and now my heart is with my hometown team. I’m with them as they go out of the Football League, and it can’t get much worse than that; but I can help out and play a part.
Heybridge You’re a fan, not a customer.

So what other attractions are there at the lower level that aren’t part of the experience higher up the football pyramid?

Torquay Well, there have been several occasions this year when we’ve turned up with the wrong colour kit. At Boston, for example, we had to wear their reserve kit. We’ve done it about four times in all. Then there was our midweek game against Hartlepool, completely at the other end of the country from Torquay: there were just eight of us booked to go on this away journey, not enough for a coach. So we ended up getting driven up there in a mini-bus by the club’s Commercial Director!
Stevenage It was amazing when the Stevenage star striker, Anthony Elding, wanted to leave the club and go into League football – professional football. He pushed it and pushed it; but Stevenage isn’t the sort of club to be held over a barrel, because they’ve got a millionaire chairman. And what they eventually did was, they shipped him to Kettering who were in the division below, where he spent a whole season. You don’t get that in the Premier League, where the players always get what they want!
Shrewsbury When I went up to the Bury game, a snowy weekend in Shrewsbury, all the fans on the messageboard had a call to action and 40 or 50 of them went down to Gay Meadow with their spades. At least I didn’t see them lose that one!
Heybridge And you don’t get sponsors in the Prem like ‘Morris Lubricants’, do you? I like it at Swifts when you give the linesman a lot of stick, and he turns round and gives you a lot of stick back! Something I will say, when I was just down in the loo, an old boy says to me when I was drying my hands: “Oh, you’re a Newcastle fan”. And I said, “No, no – Heybridge Swifts”. And he said, “Oh, you’re not football, then”. “Ryman Premier,” I put him right. “two steps below the Football League.” “Oh, good on yer,” he says…

While we’ve been talking, Chelsea and Man United have been playing on the big screen. Does anybody know what the score is?

Shrewsbury I didn’t even know it was on.
Stevenage They’re both trying to insult each other by playing their second teams.
Heybridge I couldn’t give a fuck. As a neutral, I’d be more interested if they were playing for something, like a place in the play-offs – or if it was a relegation battle.
Torquay There were twice as many people in the pub earlier, when it was Exeter-Oxford from last night!

Interviews: July 2007.