Life in the Lower Leagues
Commonplace Newsletter #101
You don’t get to choose where you are born, which means- given how I was brought up- that you don’t get to decide which football1 team you support.
Geography is destiny.
This is the first lesson.
Sure, as a child you would be attracted to supporting the teams that were then dominating the top flight2- in my youth it was the legendary Manchester United team helmed by Sir Alex Ferguson- the era of Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs and super substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjær. And there was also Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal with their swaggering, elegant style of play led by Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and more. But this didn’t matter. I was born in the town of Walsall which meant that I supported Walsall FC. Not the nearby (and better ranked) Wolverhampton Wanderers or Aston Villa or Birmingham City. No, it was Walsall ‘til I die.
You don’t get to choose.
Yes, you may in theory have the choice to disregard the game all together, to become one of those ‘I’m not really into sports’ people, one of those guys who pontificates about the ridiculousness of becoming emotionally invested in eleven men kicking a ball around on a Saturday afternoon, or about how money has ruined the modern game and all that, but these sentiments always struck me as sour grapes. As being an example of one of those things that was factually true but was dishonest in terms of the intent with which the pontificator uttered those words. And also, if I have to suffer through this then you should too.
As far as I can see, if you’ve been raised with football, with proper, local town (goalless-draw-on-a- windy drizzly -November, freezing-to-death-in-the-home-stand) football it never truly leaves you. You can only abandon it by becoming the sporting equivalent of a lapsed Catholic, because however much you try to distance yourself from the now baffling ceremonies, you will find that they have already imprinted their worldview on you in all kinds of subtle ways. You never quite get to leave, try as you might.
This is the second lesson.
I’ll talk about Walsall FC because this is what I know, but what I’m saying will go equally for people from Lincoln, Morecambe, Grimsby, Gillingham, Swindon, Mansfield, Blackpool, Sunderland and dozens of other big towns and small cities where the fates of the clubs and the fates of the communities have been intertwined for generations.
My team is nicknamed The Saddlers- a testament to a proud history of saddlemaking3 and leatherwork that has steadily died off over my lifetime and my father’s lifetime. You look at some of the other teams around us, some of the other towns on our level and you see the same thing- The Railwaymen, The Mariners, The Cobblers, The Hatters- all names that bristle with the Victorian optimism and confidence of their 19th century founders and that now just read as sad reminders of how our forefathers used to make and export actual things.
If you want to know why so many working class young men in England are known for being disaffected and angry, you just have to ponder those football club nicknames and all the meaning and history behind them. Consider the men who come from these towns and support these clubs and who do manage to find meaning for themselves, they tend to either go into the (relatively) few manual trades that remain and become plumbers, electricians, carpenters, or builders (all of these would be good nicknames for football teams), or else they take those latent desires to build something and put in an honest day’s graft of hard physical labour by going to the gym every day4. The surprisingly widespread use of anabolic steroids among this demographic makes sense against this backdrop.
Different industries, different towns, same story. We used to have mines, we used to have steelworks, we used to have bustling docks and smoking factories and now we have boarded-up pubs and graffiti and people who’ve been on the sick for decades5.
But in spite of bleak economic prospects, in spite of the seemingly clueless, corrupt and out-for-themselves politicians in the South East and their whole system which appears to have virtually nothing to the people who come from these lower league former industrial towns, in spite of the weather, the housing market, the potholes in the roads and the soaring cost of a pint, in spite of everything there is still the football. In a world of change and decay and (media provoked) intergenerational tension there is still the football, as dependable and consistent as the North Star in the night sky6.
I remember going to games as a child- some matches in the week, some away fixtures whenever we7 would have a half-decent run in the FA Cup8 but mostly Saturday afternoon home matches at Bescot Stadium. Dad would park the car what felt like miles away from the ground and as we quick-marched to make kick off we joined up with the throng of fellow supporters in their red scarves, red woolly hats, and their home or away shirts peeking out from under their zip-up coats. I remember the shouted song about how ‘All the lads and lasses, all the smiling faces’ were ‘Going down the Wednesbury Road, to see the Walsall aces’ (A song which made far less sense once the team moved away from their old stadium Fellows Park, which was indeed just off the Wednesbury Road).
I remember the line to get into the stand, the smell of lunchtime lager the air, I remember having to really puuuush through the metal turnstile (it took a fair bit of effort), I remember the molten hot chicken tikka pie at half-time, I remember reading the matchday programme- much more assiduously than most other people around me- and thinking imagine writing about football, and I wonder if this writer gets paid to do this?
I remember leaping out of my seat, arms in the air when we scored, I remember the sinking stomach feeling of conceding a silly goal, of losing, of throwing away leads to teams who we were better than. I remember the sounds- the yelling, the songs, the groans when a shot hit the post and the pantomime-like ‘he’s behind you!’ scream of letting a player know that there was a ‘man on’.
I remember some choice insults yelled from the seats around me, invariably aimed at the referee, none of which are fit to print here.
So what I remember- with all of these sense-impressions- is being a part of something greater than myself and my lone concerns, although it did concern me, of course. There were kids younger than me in the stands and there were flat-capped old men who would have been boys like me back when The Saddlers beat Arsenal 2-0 in the third round of the 1933 FA Cup, which was one of the greatest upsets in the history of that contest. There were working aged men with beer bellies and missing teeth and tattoos from a time before tattoos were everywhere.
But then I grew closer to adulthood and left home for University down south in North London. I didn’t get back for many games at all. Whole seasons went by without me seeing a single game live. Looking at fixtures and league tables on the internet doesn’t scratch the same itch and games on the Walsall FC level are rarely, if ever televised. You’re either there in the stands or you’re not. I lost a weekly source of mild stress and disappointment, but I lost something else too. I lost a connection to something, something that I didn’t like more often than not, something that I never asked for, something that I’m not sure I would have ever freely chosen. But it was something.
So, the 2022-23 season was nearly over. And I felt I had to see a game, despite everything. Even by their own standards Walsall FC were on a spectacularly poor run of form- 12 draws and 9 loses, with their last win being in early January 2023. It was late April. The manager had been sacked and supposedly there had been tensions and clashes going on in the behind the scenes for a while. If we carried on like this then we would soon be out of the Football League entirely, a hideous fate that can quite literally destroy teams9.
It was all largely how I remembered it- the parking of the car miles away, the walk, the throng of fans- though they were less in number than they had been in the games of my youth. And far more fans appeared to be wearing casual street clothes than were fully kitted out in hats and scarves and replica shirts.
Also there was more grumbling in the stand than I can remember in the past (and I can recall a fair amount of it) and there was an air of cynical defeatism that seemed to manifest itself on the pitch. If you get hurt and disappointed enough times you build up a shell of irony and seen-it-all-before world-weariness. An armour for a broken heart. You give your hopes a ceiling.
And so it went. Losers find a way to lose, and winners find a way to win, and The Saddlers in the minds of the fans and sadly (I suspect) in the minds of the players saw themselves as losers that afternoon. This is both the beauty and the tragedy of lower league football, the fans and the players are not that far apart, in every sense. From above me and to my right I heard one of our fans shout an invective to one of our players and I saw that player visibly shrink as a result. At this level, with these size stadiums- 11,000 people capacity and less than half full on the day- the boos and the jeers and the smart remarks can be heard by the players. Which added to the frisson when I was a kid and gave the whole thing an exhilarating air of danger and consequence, but now it just strikes me as sad, frankly.
These players are not superstars with mansions and multi-million pounds per year contracts and endorsement deals. If they drop a league or two from their current position they will probably have to supplement their wages through manual labour just like the jeerers in the stands do all week long.
As I said, all of this manifested on the pitch. You could sense the players’ recoiling- the fear of making a mistake and being booed, the fear of losing the ball or over-hitting a pass or mistiming a tackle. And this reflected in the way they played- with a timidity and hesitancy to take chances or be creative because why would you do any of these things when the consequence of making mistakes- which is inevitable if you are truly playing with flair and exuberance-will be met with boos and insults from your own supporters?
Mistakes breed mistakes, fear breeds fear. Everything in life is a question of momentum in either one direction or the other. And this is the thing that I realised at the match last week, something that may be obvious to many, but which struck me as something of a revelation. The players on the pitch- on any pitch- are a conduit for the fans. If the fans are high energy, the players are high energy, if the fans are dejected and defeated the players will perform in a dejected and defeated manner and will lose unless the opposing fans have an even worse energy.
Walsall FC conceded an early goal but then one of their opponents had a man sent off which had the result of our fans’ pathetic grumbling rising to righteous anger (which is a more energetic emotion than apathy as it at least contains some fire within it) and so our players performed with a little more belief. But in the end their opponents Salford City somehow scored a wildly deflected winner in the 7th minute of injury time and so Walsall lost 3-2 to a 10 man Salford. Salford City, incidentally, are owned by David Beckham and other former Manchester United players of a generation who I would definitely have idolised had my dad not taught me that you always support your local team.
Winners win, losers lose, and the fans are the keystone to this. So how do you possibly turn things around? Hope. Hope against hope. You cheer and encourage the players in spite of it all, applaud the moment of good play and initiative more than you boo their errors and call for their heads. This all goes against the in-grained pessimism that a hard life both at the football and away from it seems to want to instil in a person. But what other choice is there? To moan? To grumble and complain and then act like you’re surprised when things turn out just as bad as you expected them to?
That’s no way to live. It can hurt, it can seem utterly futile, but to find the courage for optimism despite the odds and the statistics is the only move that I can see when you are at the bottom of the heap. What alternative is there?
And you never know, if enough fans have hope, and vocalise that hope, maybe the players will too, and if the players are hopeful maybe the performances and the results will reflect this.
Because after all, there’s always next season.
And that’s the third and final lesson.
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I know I have a sizeable proportion of US readers in my audience, but I simply can’t defer on this- football is the game where players kick a ball with their feet 99% of the time. What Americans call football- shoulderpads, quarterbacks, touchdowns- should revert to its older, tough-guy, American-in-all-the-best-ways name of gridiron (which actually has more in common with the game of rugby). What an evocative name that is for that physical yet deeply tactical game.
Again, for the benefit of my American, and non-football savvy audience I’m going to have to take a moment here to explain the league structure of football for this essay to really hit home. Underdog stories don’t work if you don’t understand why the underdog is where they are.
So. Professional football consists of a series of leagues in a pyramid- The Premiership, The Championship, League One, League Two. The Premiership is the home of your Manchester Uniteds, your Liverpools, your Chelseas. Now, if you finish at the bottom of The Premiership you get relegated into the Championship and similarly if you finish at the top of the Championship you get promoted to The Premiership. And so on. There are significant financial implications for being promoted or relegated from any of the leagues. My team, Walsall F.C. are currently 17th in League Two (three levels below The Premiership) which means they are effectively the 85th best team in English (and Welsh football). They have never been in the top league in their 135 year history.
Wyatt Earp’s father came from a long line of Walsall saddle makers, or so a bloke in a pub once told me.
A third, smaller, demographic of people from these towns become half-insider, half-outsider artists, writers and thinkers who use the ambivalent mixture of alienation from and fondness for their working class town peers as subjects for their art and thoughts. I am obviously one of these people. And I’m sure I would be making more money had I gone down the electrician/plumber/builder route.
The collapse of industry seems to be uniformly followed by the increase of people claiming disability allowances from the state. In many cases this will be because the now-gone industries destroyed many a worker’s back, or lungs or hands before it left. But it is also because putting workers on a meagre state-funded disability stipend like this means that you don’t have to acknowledge any of the complex socio-economic issues and is an effective way to juke the unemployment stats.
This sentence would have resonated more pre-Covid19, but even the pandemic policies couldn’t kill football. If anything the sports shaped hole the pandemic left validates what I’m talking about here.
It’s something that those ex-spectator, ‘I’m not really into sports’ types would mock but you can’t help but refer to your team as ‘we’. It is a part of the deal. Yes, the fans are not on the pitch directly but anyone who has been to a game knows that it is Us vs Them and We are willing our representatives, our talismen on even if we are not kicking the ball ourselves. As long as the We that we say- doesn’t revert to Them when We are losing- then I think this figure of speech is both healthy and good.
The FA Cup is a knockout tournament featuring all teams from all leagues. This means tiny teams can end up playing giant teams. One of the more notable runs Walsall had in the cup in my lifetime ended when I went to Old Trafford and saw Manchester United beat The Saddlers 5-1 on my 11th birthday. I was of course then spitefully happy when Barnsley knocked Man U out in the next round.
Check out the TV series Welcome to Wrexham to get an idea of how bad this can be. Before two Hollywood actors bought the club Wrexham were on the verge of financial ruin for well over a decade.