It seems almost difficult to believe now, but there was a time when, if you saw the football on the television, that was it. You’d see the goals once, maybe twice, and then they’d disappear into the vaults of the BBC and ITV, only to resurface once or twice at random intervals on the likes of “On The Ball” and “Football Focus”. In the 1980s, video recorders started appearing in people’s homes and, in some very small way, the face of football was changed forever. By the late 1980s, boxes started appearing in club shops the length and breadth of the country, selling videos of just about every match that your team played. Camera technology had become cheap enough for clubs to record their own matches and sell them back to their supporters.
At many clubs, every single match – every dreary 0-0 draw against Scunthorpe United in the Football League Trophy – was put on sale and, presumably, people bought them. There must be people with vast, vast libraries of the most mundane seasons imaginable, the vast majority of which have never been watched. When it comes to videos and obsessiveness, the average football supporter could even teach that most famous of film obsessives Kim Jong Il a thing or two. Grainy footage, usually from one camera, was the order of the day. If you were lucky, you’d get no commentary, although some clubs hired club commentators who shouted and squawked over the “action” in displays which demonstrated fairly neatly why they weren’t professional broadcasters.
For supporters of St Albans City, the late 1980s were seasons of mist and mellow unfruitfulness. City had been relegated from the top division of the Isthmian League in 1974, and it took them until 1986 to get promoted back there. Once back where the club clearly felt it belonged, they seemed to go out of their way to not unduly trouble anyone. They seldom bothered either the top or bottom of the league table, and made polite excuses from the FA Cup and FA Trophy at the earliest possible opportunity. It was football by osmosis and, in the middle of this strangely entertaining torpor, I managed to go to almost every match, home and away, for three seasons.
In this respect, I was a sucker for the 1991/92 St Albans City Club Video. Competitively priced at £10, it was a four hour long monster, during which not very much happened at all. Each match was preceded with a cut away of the club’s names, the date of the match, the competition and – somewhat infuriatingly for someone attempting to somehow build some tension into the occasion – the result (clearly printed with Letraset, cut out from a sheet of paper and placed carefully on what looked like either a bathroom rug or a piece of deep shagpile carpet, while a Pooterish voice intoned gravely, “Saturday the 2nd of November 1991. Diadora League Premier Division One. St Albans City 1 Windsor & Eton 2”.
In many respects, you only notice how poor a lot of non-league football is when you see it through the dipassionate lens of a camera, and St Albans City were frequently poor that season. Each match is peppered with shots smacking squarely against the corner flags, misplaced passes being greeted with anguished growls or near hysterical laughter from the watching crowd. The way that the matches were edited could, if you hadn’t been there, lead you to believe that some major injustices were being perpetuated. The highlights of every match featured every St Albans shot, no matter how tame or wayward, while the only the opposition goals were shown, leading to the impression that every 4-1 defeat at Wokingham Town was a miscarriage of justice of Guildford Fourian proportions, and that all St Albans goalkeepers were incapable of saving a single shot fired at them. One of those two statements is nearer to the truth than the other, and you can probably guess which one it is.
Watching the video back with a seventeen year old buffer zone, parts of it are unintentionally poignant. One of City’s first league matches of the season was at Southbury Road against Enfield, a stadium lost to property developers in 1999 (and also a stadium at which I saw almost all of my live football for the first three of four years that I watched the game). Just a few weeks later, and City were drawn away to Chelmsford City at another now-demolished stadium, New Writtle Street. Some of the teams that they faced that season, such as the aforementioned Wokingham Town, Aylesbury United and Enfield, have fallen from grace or disappeared altogether, but nowhere near as many as one might expect. Several have gone on to nominally better things – Dagenham are called Dagenham & Redbridge now and sit near the top of League Two, whilst Grays Athletic and Woking are in the Conference. On the whole, though, the extent to which City were playing the same teams seventeen years ago as they are today is surprising, and not a little depressing.
Some of the idiosyncracies of the club’s support come through from the recording. If you listen carefully, you can hear long time local journalist and supporter David Tavener calling the referee “a clown” (a practice which, I believe, continues several times per match to this day), but the star of the show is Michael White. The best way that I can describe Michael White would be to say that he was a man in his late fifties that whose major source of income were a number of paper rounds. During the 1991/92 season, however, he took to bringing a trumpet with him to St Albans matches and playing it. Badly. I thought that I may have dreamt this, but there it is, large as life. Saturday the 21st of December, 1991. Diadora League Premier Division. Windsor & Eton 2 St Albans City 3. As the wind brushes across the microphone of the video camera, and with the trees silhouetted black against a leaden grey sky, a hopelessly out of tune rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In” drifts into earshot, then seems to get caught on the breeze and drifts away in the cold Berkshire air. It’s a scene of poignancy and fragile beauty of which Ingmar Bergman would have been proud.
City finished thirteenth in the Diadora League Premier Division that season. Few realised it at the time, but it was their highest final league position for twenty years. Prior to that, since getting promoted in 1986, they had finished 14th, 15th, 17th, 15th and 16th. The following season, everything went a bit beserk. The 1992/93 season was the season of “the tree”, during which they finished in second place in the table and might have done better had the Conference decided that they didn’t want a team a with bloody great oak tree in the terrace behind one of the goals in their table. To commemorate this, the club released two three hour long videos, for each half of the season. In the decade after that, there would be occasional brushes with the top two or three places in the table, but never any serious expectations of promotion. Then, suddenly, and quite out of the blue, they finished second in the Conference South behind Weymouth in 2006, and were promoted through the play-offs after a 2-0 win against Histon. It felt as if they didn’t much want to be a Conference side, up amongst the big boys, and fell off the bottom of the Conference table the following season.
After a brush with relegation last season, St Albans City are currently in fifteenth place. After three seasons of comparatively high excitement, it feels as if normality has returned to Clarence Park, even if I’m not there to witness it. The club chose to not put together a highlights package of last season’s eighteenth place in the Conference South (thankfully, by all accounts), though you can still get a DVD featuring the full Conference South play-off final match against Histon from 2006. If they could get someone to play an tuneless version of “When The Saints Go Marching In” and put it on there as a DVD extra, they’d have at least one more buyer for it.