On Mud, Limbs, & Authenticity

by | Nov 3, 2019

There’s a reasonable chance that you’ll already have seen the footage by now. A soaking wet afternoon in Cornwall, deep into stoppage-time, and Falmouth Town were still a goal down at home to Longlevens when a long clearance and a goalkeeper with a fairly severe case of the yips, and a long-range lob combined to send an already raucous crowd into a state of bedlam, forcing the FA Vase Second Round match into extra-time. Falmouth had only scored their first goal as the clock ticked over ninety minues. Small wonder the reaction to the second goal was feverish. In the second period of extra-time, Falmouth won their second penalty kick of the game and snatched victory by three goals to two. This, most of us would agree, is exactly the sort of thing that leads us to get so invested in the game in the first place.

As a portmanteau piece, it’s intoxicating. The backdrop of the ground, a ramshackle combination of grass banks and ancient looking terraces. The pitch, a rain-sodden mess with more in common with the average public park pitch than the carefully-manicured billiard tables of the professional leagues. The beyond urgent hollering of the crowd, and the desperation of the attack in the last seconds of the game, with tactical instructions having long been forgotten in favour of the tried and tested system of lumping the ball forward and hoping that exhausted defenders won’t be able to cope with it. The goalkeeper racing out to the edge of the penalty area, a man on a mission who hasn’t yet realised its hopelessness. The lob over a crowd of defenders and attackers, taking simultaneously forever and no time at all to rustle the goal netting. The players racing to celebrate, and the urgency of the referee’s whistle when a couple of supporters jump onto the pitch and race towards the huddle. The flags and scarves. The hysteria.

Anybody with the slightest ounce of football in their blood will instinctively know how this feels, and will also be fully aware of how rare it is. Coming from two goals down to win, with two goals in stoppage-time just to force the match into extra-time, might be just about the perfect outcome for a supporter. We go through a lot, as football supporters. There are bad times, and sometimes there are very, very bad times. But a lot of what we endure as supporters is mere torpor, sitting or standing around waiting for somebody to do something. And we put up with all of this because these moments, these absolute scenes (as I believe young people say, nowadays), are worth it.

The genre of “Scenes Featuring Limbs” is probably past its peak, which was almost certainly reached at Bloomfield Road in January 1988, when the players of Blackpool and Manchester City took the entire game of football to a whole different plane of consciousness. The reaction of the crowd, a tumbling mess of human energy which explodes when the ball finally squirts into the goal, would be worth the entrance fee on its own, but the fact that ultimately they’re only aping what the players have been acting out on the pitch is the true cherry on the cake. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Not everybody on those terraces will have wanted to get involved in these breakouts of freeform terrace surfing, and that more people weren’t injured in these moments is a minor miracle.

But the current fashion for such footage – feel free to type “limbs” into Google and see what the auto-complete suggests – hints at something else, as well, a dissatisfaction with the sanitised nature of the modern game. A considerable number of us stand somewhere on this spectrum, which ranges from “you can’t even be English any more, they’ll lock you up” to a feeling that something has been lost from the cultural heritage of football, and that there must be a safer ways channelling the excitment that football can offer safely. It’s possible to be the latter without being the former. The former almost certainly seldom thinks about the latter.

People who talk about the old days as though they were intrinsically “better” can be insufferable, but they’re a long way removed from those of us who believe that football’s eathiness – occasionally literal – is part of its appeal. The growth of artificial playing surfaces in non-league football has changed something about the nature of the game at that level. The mud, it turns out, is important to me. And what is striking about the Falmouth clip is that it pushes so many emotional buttons. You can feel it. You can smell the Deep Heat, the stench of fried onions and cigarette smoke. If you’ve been in a similar situation before, whether as a player or a supporter, it’s likely that you were transported into that moment just by seeing it.

Blackpool vs Manchester City was a conflation of factors coming together at the same time. We’ll never see its like again. But that’s an impossibly high bar to expect these days. Falmouth Town (and Longlevens – we shouldn’t forget their contribution to it all, none of this would have been possible without them) took a moment in the rain and made it a moment in the sun. And we should probably all be grateful for that.