Down Maine Road: At the Root of Manchester Football
Bloody ‘ell, my brain’s pounding inside my skull like I took an anvil to it last night. And my stomach, still churning and squirming with all the ale and bits of fried things I shoved down my gullet at the pub. Gawh, I know United won, but I don’t even remember who scored the winner–was it Chicharito or Rooney? I just need to stay in bed–between celebrating yesterday with all those pints and smoking too much, I’ll be right awful out there today. Nah, I’ve gotta get up and grab my gear–Gary did his knee last time out and he can’t play. With Chris shut up at his job, I’m all we’ve got. Alright, where’d I toss my gear?
Wait, better not think about “tossing” things right now. Okay, boots, shin guards over there–woof, these things are nearly gone, think I need to buy a new pair next pay day. Where’s my shirt? Well, not too dirty, and maybe the smell of it will keep the other players off me a bit more. We’re playing against Neill’s team today, and that bastard always tries to go in on my bum ankle every time I get the ball. He does again today, all bets are off with the way I feel. Now, where’d I put my keys when I came in last night? That’s right, over by the nightstand other side of the bed. Holy hell–who’s THAT in my bed? I’ll figure it out later–gotta go or I’ll be late.
In an exaggerated way, this might be the internal monologue of a weekend warrior from the Manchester Amateur Sunday Football League, a league claiming it is the oldest such league in all the country. Buried deep within the beating heart of a footballing city, leagues such as the MASFL and the FA-sanctioned Manchester Football League recall a worldwide sport’s humble origins. At this forever fundamental state–where a side like Royton Town host Stockport Gregorians at its Compton Cricket Ground in the MFL Premier as Premiership rivals United and City play out an FA Cup semi-final in the Wembley spotlight–it reminds us that football at its core is a game we play for fun.
While Greater Manchester has witnessed the world playing from both United’s and City’s European adventures , the teams of the MFL and the MASFL retain a certain local flavor as well as preserve a history of the area itself. AVRO, the defending champions of the MFL Premier, retain their name from the football club originally founded in 1936 by former Manchester-based military aircraft company A.V. Roe & Company. The club incorporates the old AVRO logo in its crest despite the company and its winged name disappearing from a merger some time ago. Current league leaders Manchester Gregorians trace their roots to the local St. Gregory’s School and maintain ties to former students and players through their Old Gregorians network.
Let’s not mistake these neighborhood lads and their neighborhood games as just a bit of much-desired recreation or a quest to further local bragging rights. Having been sanctioned by The Football Association, champions from the MFL Premier have the option to be promoted into the North West Counties League and try their hands in more competitive and professional non-league football. While AVRO chose not to do so this past season, previous champions have indeed succeeded and moved up the Football League pyramid. Former MFL club Salford City did so and now compete in the Evo-Stik Division One North, enjoying a healthy rivalry with FC United of Manchester before FCUM were promoted up at the end of the 2007-2008 season.
Perhaps the Manchester club with the most amateur of beginnings now competing in the North West Counties Premier is Maine Road. With orgins in the pub league of MASFL, the Road joined the MFL in the 1970s for a chance at stiffer competition. After dominating the MFL Premier throughout the early 1980s, Maine Road moved up through the North West Counties and have remained there since–suffering a relegation to Division Two in 2002 but regaining its Division One status two seasons later.
What prevents most MFL Premier champions from making the leap into the more competitive Evo-Stik leagues is typically the ground grading requirements. Having to only meet Ground Grading Level H in the Manchester league, the drive to move up to Evo-Stik includes considerably more investment in home facilities, including audio equipment, safety regulations, more seated areas about the pitch, and the possible imposition of a lighting system. Clubs such as AVRO choose against these mandatory increases in operational expenditure either for lack of funding or lack of interest, so instead they remain in the MFL to have a go at the league again.
So while the millionaires of City and United square off at Wembley for a much-anticipated FA Cup semi-final, raise a glass to the Manchester lads who will also be playing out on the cricket grounds, the high school fields, and down the street from Old Trafford or the City of Manchester Stadium. Their level of football might not be beautiful nor ooze with class, but it is pleasing nonetheless for it bears resemblance to how the game started in the first place.
Just don’t raise too many glasses to them though–you might have a match yourself on Sunday.