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Who Are Ya

Searching for English Football's Soul with Non-League Fanatics

Turns out English football's soul was hiding in Aldershot on a wet Tuesday night.

by Clive Martin, Photos: Jake Lewis
11 October 2013, 11:47am

It's clear to even the most avid Soccer AM viewer that the world of football has entered its Age of Enlightenment. In years to come, the broadsheet features, ghost-written autobiographies and ITV4 docs will tell us that the 2010s were football's Educating Rita period, the moment where it put down its tattered Supergoals pull-out and picked up Jonathan Wilson's Inverting The Pyramid. Football stopped spending its evenings heading shotglasses in Staffordshire nightclubs; instead it stayed in, watched videos of the young Riquelme and read Joey Barton's tweets about Nietzsche.

Now, of the old school "break his legs, get it in the sky" mould, only Mark Hughes remains, replacing Tony Pulis in the same way that Kim Jong-un replaced Kim Jong-il. But he's a manager out of time, throwing punches at an opponent that isn't there, like a lost Vietcong soldier taking shots at stoned gap year students paddling in the Mekong.

However, there is still that part of English football that stays true to the idea of big lads, broken bones and burger vans. The non-leagues. The leagues whose very existence seems to be negated by their prefix. The semi-pro sanctuary for fans who hate diving, players who hate passing and linesmen so thick-skinned they must be autistic. To understand just where the state of non-league football is in 2013, we headed down to its very own Clásico: Aldershot vs Luton.

The first incarnation of the Aldershot team, Aldershot FC, folded in 1992, only to be replaced by the new-fangled Aldershot Town FC a year later. The club skirted around the lower divisions for a decade or so, eventually finding themselves in the heady world of the football league in 2008. Things were going well for a while (there was a cup run that saw them play Man Utd), but eventually the strain of the wage bill took its toll on the club, they fell into huge debts and were relegated back into the Conference last season.

This narrative attracted me to them. I liked the idea of a relative sleeping giant, I knew that they'd have a big fanbase from their league years, and that the town's army-bred sense of loyalty and lack of real rivals would mean that Aldershot probably weren't a club whose fanbase had been sucked into the vacuum of one of the imperial Premier League super teams. 

If you really want to understand a football club, you've got to understand the town in which it sits. Sitting unprettily on the Surrey-Hampshire border, it's one of those Home Counties towns that'll make even the most aggressive of Sunderland fans reconsider the phrase "soft southern shite". This is a town that has been bombed by Republican terrorists (the IRA) and mocked by knights of the realm (John Betjeman). Understandably then, it has something of the barricade about it. It's a place where all the cornershops are run by retired Gurkhas, and where pubs are named after wars Britain sent its sons off to die in.

In short, it's the Britain that Nigel Farage would live in if he weren't a dandy fassy in thin socks.

It was clear to me that this was my spot. You know it's a proper pub when it's named after a muddy, frostbitten, miserable war over a Ukrainian peninsula most famously described, within "The Charge of the Light Brigade", as the "valley of Death". A proper fucking boozer where you wear the right strip, respect the gaffer, remember the name of the Shots' top scorer in their promotion season and have absolutely no truck with the Ottoman Empire. Right?

In actual fact, it was a fairly non-partisan affair. Despite a few bits of club paraphernalia dotted around the walls, the pub was mostly full of Luton fans. But they hadn't invaded the place and made it their own, like some territorial fantasy straight out of a Nick Love film. No, they were there because it was conveniently located and had a big garden. There were no bouncers checking season tickets, no songs, no Stone Island, no bar staff-glassings. It was just a pub, with some people about to watch a game of football in it.

It was in strange contrast to the pre-match pub culture that I'm used to as a supporter of a Premier League club. Being a jaded, glory-hunting Chelsea fan, I'm used to an uneasy dichotomy of crews of agitated looking guys in quilted jackets doing bumps of nasty gak off their season tickets, and guys in salmon pink trousers talking about the Mata issue over a Nastro Azzurro. But everyone here seemed happy to co-exist in the same leaky boat.

Heading into the ground, I was faced with the truth about English football grounds. That despite "The Emirates Experience" or whatever obscure methods of branding and persuasion the clubs are employing to get you to spend £12 on a Tuborg and a Pukka, most football stadiums actually are like this: transitory settlements of corrugated iron, portaloos and boxed-in coaches. They look more like makeshift prisons from Children Of Men than theatres of dreams. 

This thing came in at a predictably outrageous £4 or so. While it probably wouldn't impress the Observer Food Monthly crowd who fill Stamford Bridge these days, it tasted like pretty much every hotdog I've ever had at a public event, from the boat race to Glastonbury, and at time of going to press, it doesn't appear to have had any lasting effect on my health. Which, to be honest, is all you can ask for from a tube of pig dicks and oatmeal, wrapped in staleproof bread and bought from a restaurant on wheels emitting enough carbon dioxide to reopen that ozone layer.

I considered having a cheeky half in the stadium's members' bar, "The John McGinty Lounge", but being in possession of neither a club membership or the faintest knowledge of who John McGinty is (was he was that guy in Scrubs and Platoon?), I decided that I was probably better off staying in the stands. It seemed a friendly enough club, but all you've got to do at some club bars is question the captain's England potential and you'll be in the handily located St John's Ambulance in no time.

The best thing about non-league grounds (and a few stubborn league ones) is the terraces. At most football games these days, you'll spend your afternoon wedged between overweight, latent thugs, trying to tame some patronising plastic chair which snaps at your arse whenever you have the temerity to break club rules by standing up to celebrate the goal you paid £50 to see. 

Look, Hillsborough happened long before I was old enough to watch football, so terraces are amazing to me. Standing here, with your solar plexus pressed up against the cold steel bar which is more or less the only thing separating you from the battle on the pitch, you can't help but feel that this is how football is meant to be watched. It feels gladiatorial. You feel closer to the action than you could with even the most outrageously priced season ticket for a PL club. The barrier between player and fan vanishes and it feels like you could quite easily get smacked in the face by an off-form, unhinged centre forward you've been abusing.

Or just drunkenly shout at these enthusiastic young people.

When was it that every football club got its own cheerleading squad? And when did it become the dream of Bring It On-obsessed teenage girls to dance around in front of the misogynistic colostomy bags in replica shirts who make up 90 percent of this country's football fanbase?

Thankfully, these ladies didn't suffer anything as bleak as the rendition of "Who Let The Dogs Out" that I saw Fulham's "Cravenettes" receive when they staged an ambitious routine in front of the visiting Chelsea fans. Instead, they were treated to the abject disinterest of drunk men waiting for sport to be played in mud.

It being an English football match, there was of course a bunch of prawn cocktail-bellied blokes in suits presenting somebody or something with a big cheque for some reason.

Finally, it was time for the players to line-up. Among their ranks, Aldershot boasted a number of tasty youngsters signed on loan deals from the likes of Millwall and Portsmouth. They reminded me of the kids I played football with at school, the ones who roasted entire teams on the playing field and ended up getting kicked out of the Brentford academy at 19. What they lacked in teamwork and intelligence, they made up for in flair, but really, they were only here for themselves. It's awful to say that anyone in their teens is already a tragic figure, but these deluded playground Rivaldos were their own worst enemy. Their talent had long been outstripped by their egos, and now their egos were ruining their talent. They hated to pass and inevitably found themselves running into trouble over and over again.

Luton were a more solid unit, with only one player there on loan. It probably explained why Luton are fourth and Aldershot are 23rd. True, they were more chicken tikka burger than tiki-taka, shunting endless deeply unfashionable long balls into the channels, but they were effective. They also had a cult hero in their ranks, in the atrociously out-of-shape shape of Steve McNulty, a filthy centre half who looks slightly older than my dad, yet is somehow only 30. He is Luton's rock, their penalty area Titan.

Cheering them on was Aldershot's mascot, "The Phoenix", who made up for his laconic lack of a real name with his mythological persona. Instead of a cliched friendly lion, or a cunty swan, Aldershot have gone down a more obscure route for their furry cheerleader, who is named after Aldershot Town's existence as a "phoenix club" that rose from the ashes of one killed by poverty. Cheery stuff for the kids to get behind.

If I'm honest, he wasn't much of a mascot. Instead of cheering on the fans, teasing the linesmen, hugging the players who scored and antagonising the opposition's mob, he just kind of stood on the goalline watching the game like one of Fifa's weird, staring fifth officials at a student union fancy dress party. It made me wonder if he was even a sanctioned mascot at all, or just a superfan in disguise circumnavigating some kind of banning order.

Doing a much better job of cheering the Shots on, however, were these lot. A part of me worried if perhaps Aldershot's young fanbase would have been been decimated over the last decade by revolving addictions to Pro Evo and Fifa, but in actual fact, they seemed to have their own ultras division. This was almost definitely the hardcore end of things; the stand with flags, songs, hair gel and police escorts. It was what real grassroots football supporting should be about; bigging up your town and slagging off someone else's. Even though you secretly hate where you live and have never been to where they live, save for an hour or two at an away game.

Unfortunately, such support only came in pockets. There was a large part of the crowd who didn't seem to be enjoying themselves at all, rather propping their chins up on the terrace bars, waiting to die. I wondered if these people really enjoyed football at all, or if it was some heady mix of undying loyalty, masochism and proximity that brought them here to watch a game like this in silence. Sure, if you're watching the Milan derby or something you can probably take some pleasure out of standing back and taking it all in. But a game like this? You've paid 15 quid for the ticket, the football's not great, so why not get involved?

It was Luton who scored first, with England C-team regular Andre Gray finding himself in space in only the fourth minute. The £30,000 man craftily curled one in behind Shots keeper Nick Pope. The defending was a bit dodgy, but the finish was impeccable. We had a game on our hands already.

Predictably, the Luton lot went berserk, jumping up and trying to hug each other, before calming down when they realised it was only four minutes in. It was a moment of mass jubilation halted by some immediate, collective sense of perspective. But still they raised their voices, singing all of the songs in their canon, and adding a few pan-club classics, like the seminal "Who's The Wanker With The Drum?"

Aldershot equalised ten minutes later with a tap-in. Football was ebbing and flowing and now it was time for the Luton fans to retreat into an embarrassed hush.

This pattern of back and forth is more or less standard at any game, but occasionally you get a moment of unity. On wet Tuesday nights in Aldershot it turns out such moments are induced by Luton Town players going down so that both sets of fans can put aside their differences to call him a "poof". It was like some kind of twisted, quasi-homophobic version of the Christmas Day match between the Germans and the Allies in WW1.

After another goal or two, half time came around. Some of the fans staged a mini exodus towards the promise-vans and the clubhouse, but many stayed behind in the stand. They were treated to the cheerleaders' conceptual take on "We Found Love", and another chance to see someone get presented with an absurd cheque.

We decided to patrol the perimeter, where we stumbled upon this moment of heart-breaking intergenerational conflict. The poor dad with his head buried in the BBC Final Score app, quietly smarting after failing to convince his son that Steve Claridge (one-time Aldershot FC legend) was superior to the Messis and Hamsiks of the footballing universe. Sure, Messi's got the tricks, he said, but Claridge, oh no my lad, he had the heart. And you can have all the lollipops and stepovers in the world, but down here, it's heart that'll get you through. 

For the second half, we went along to this distant part of the stadium; the pessimists' playground. A tucked away half-stand which was left completely open to the elements, as if its fans were standing there to pay penance rather than enjoy themselves. The subtext seemed to me to be that the covered areas were somewhat flash and gaudy and that the only real way to watch football was huddled together on some concrete steps, being lashed by the elements.

It was a weird crowd. Some were jolly, happy to be as close to the pitch as they possibly could without getting arrested. Others were angry, perhaps standing here because it was where their linesman abuse was most audible. And some were completely silent, watching sour-faced and voicing their disappointment not by shouting, but by spitting on the ground like grizzled Home Counties cowboys.

By the time Luton's Shaun Walley was putting away an 80th minute equalising penalty, the game had descended into a kind of heart-breaking farce. Aldershot had been robbed by some terrible refereeing and this was the worst bit. You see, an injustice in the non-leagues is something that nobody other than those who are directly concerned cares about. It's like a massacre in a country without white people. There will be no backpage headlines on the ref's decisions, no slow-motion replay analysed by Hansen and Shearer, just the hard facts of non-league life. The Conference is a place where you have to get busy playing, or get busy losing.

As the 90th minute dawned, it seemed as though the 3-3 scoreline was a result that told not only the story of the game, but the story of the non-leagues as a whole. It's a score that reveals a series of paradoxes; disappointment and chaos, contentment and exhaustion, drama and mundanity, agony and lethargy. It's a world that's simultaneously ridiculous and also highly predictable and completely unsatisfying. Nobody was going home happy tonight. Not the players, not the managers, not the fans.

As we slowly flooded out, I realised that contrary to how I thought they might have been, the fans weren't particularly sad, ecstatic, angry or arrogant about the outcome of the game. They seemed relaxed, happy, fulfilled. But how could that be? It was a game in which neither team did themselves any favours, and without being patronising, it was a Tuesday night in Aldershot. Surely this is the kind of miserable, lower-league existence that most of us were taught to mock by our fathers and Tim Lovejoy? Surely they should be fucking miserable and consider getting on the two-year waiting list for an Emirates season ticket?

But non-league fans aren't in it for the same reasons that most other football fans are. They're in it because they want to feel part of something. Big business football can be utterly alienating, and who wouldn't rather tour with Black Flag in a bus with no floor than with U2 in a private jet with no soul?

Like it or not, while we're all embracing the more sophisticated world of Barcelona, Belgium and the Bundesliga, we're being forced further away from the real heart of football and further into our armchairs. In fact, the rise of the Most Beautiful Game (Guardiola's) is a victory for the armchair fan who sees football as an entertainment choice, the latest example of the reification of talent that first made people stop playing football and start watching it instead. 

As a non-league fan though, you can stand cheek by jowl with your heroes. Chances are, you'll live in the same town as them, you might even serve them in a shop (and some of them might serve you). Non-league fans aren't masochists or nutters, they're just obscurists. They're no different to people who go to every Half Man Half Biscuit gig, or seek out rare Air Force Ones on eBay. They aren't mad, they're just passionate.

Although, that can seem like a fine line when you're watching Aldershot at home on a Tuesday night.

Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive

Previously in this series:

I Went Looking for England Football Fans and Found Only a Lost England

We Spent Transfer Deadline Day with Marauding Arsenal Fans at the Emirates