When one indulges themselves with such a singular adolescent pastime as watching your local non-league team home and away, it’s easy to start believing that you’re the only person in the whole world that does this. Non-league crowds are, by and large, old. The average teenage boy turning up at a grubby semi-professional football ground will be disappointed by the number of people of his own age there (and in particular, considering that the optimism of the average teenage boy is surprisingly limitless, that there will be none there of the opposite sex), but this won’t prevent them from going back, all the while wondering whether everyone else in their school class is doing something sexier, more exotic and more debonair. They’re not, on the whole, but there’s not much in it.
So, then, to “Bromley Boys”, Dave Roberts’ story of supporting Bromley FC throughout the 1969/70 season – a season which turns out to the the worst in their entire history. This is the story of Anywheresville, Home Counties, and Roberts has brilliantly captured the torpor and hopelessness of bad non-league football as seen through the mask of a fourteen year old boy. What is noticeable to me, as someone that was doing this in the mid to late 1980s, is how familiar it all feels. Non-league football had, in many of its defining characteristics, much more in common with the game of twenty years previously than it had with the world of twenty years later. The club shop sells enamel badges, pens and nothing else. The grounds are inhabited by a collection of oddballs that, one suspects, might not feel at home in wider society. Most importantly of all, the clubs are run by committees that seem almost defiantly stuck in the past and view any attempt to modernise as a threat to their very existence.
It becomes apparent from very early on in the season that Bromley are going to have a wretched season in the Isthmian League. The team is picked by committee, but the chairman, Charlie King, hands over control of the team to a manager, Alan Basham, who is concerned solely with the players being as fit as possible to the detriment of everything else. The shortcomings of such a policy become readily apparent as the team slide to the foot of the table, with the only comfort coming from the knowledge that there is another team in the league that is even worse than theirs, Corinthian Casuals. When Corinthians over-take them in the league, the rot becomes terminal.
Roberts, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a razor sharp memory for the minutae of the Isthmian League at the time. Hendon and Enfield, the giants of the league, are remembered as juggernauts who carried all before them, whilst Bromley and Corinthians, possibly the last of the genuine amateur clubs of the era, constantly see their teams depleted by players deciding, often at extraordinarily short notice, to go elsewhere. The fourteen year old Roberts is blissfully ignorant of the world of “shamateurism”, by which nominally amateur clubs paid their players under the counter, until very late in the season, but his hopes of seeing Isthmian League hold forth the Sword of Damocles was optimistic, to say the least. The Football Association quietly abolished the distinction between amateur and professional players in 1974 instead.
Roberts covers the spirit of the age in many respects. He is bewildered by the vast array of meaningless cups that Bromley find themselves entered into in the desperate search for some some sort of silverware at the end of the season. More impressively still, he resists the temptation to paint Bromley in 1969 as being Haight Ashbury displaced to Kent, instead choosing to depict is as a land that the “swinging sixties” forgot, with Bromley’s matches punctuated by marching band music and renditions of “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”, skinheads providing a constant danger to one’s physical well-being and “Where Did You Go To My Lovely?” being preferred to “Blonde On Blonde”. Such refreshing honesty makes “Bromley Boys” an all the more readable book.
Times, of course, have changed since 1970. For the fourteen year old Dave Roberts, finishing bottom of the Isthmian League was a matter of pride only. Nowadays, it’s easy for the great names of the past to sink, unnoticed into the wealth of leagues that reside below it. Those leagues existed in 1970, and one minor criticism of “Bromley Boys” would be the tagline on the front cover – “The True Story Of Supporting The Worst Football Team In Britain” – which is an inaccurate description of Bromley’s plight. Otherwise this book is an excellent encapsulation of the pursuit of monotony that some of us choose from a very young age. Roberts goes some way towards explaining how we form these bizarre attachments in the first place.