It takes different strokes to move the world, and Mike Bayly has found a little peace with the game through getting involved in what has come to be known as “grass-roots” football. What, though, does this mean in the twenty-first century and how can this be reconciled with a game that is now in its post-industrial stage? Mike went to a match played on a pitch overlooking the spiritual home of Sunday League football in England, Hackney Marshes, to taste the very bottom rung of senior football to try and find out a little more.

One of football’s most endearing qualities is its ability to constantly polarise opinion. The vastly changing landscape of the national game has left consensus more fractured than ever, as supporters are increasingly forced to re-evaluate their relationship with, and understanding of, a pastime that borders on obsession. Nowhere is this schism more prevalent than in football’s curious terminology – a lexical minefield of cliché, idiom and neology, where managers imbued with bouncebackability step up to the plate and throw hats into rings. There are also those terms that so are so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless. ‘Community’ for example, is a lingering paradox, plastered over stadium names and in programme notes whilst paying scant deference to its true roots or meaning.

It is in these confusing and dichotomous times that the phrase ‘grass roots’ – a mainstay of football parlance – has become rather ambiguous. As the top echelons of football move towards a globalised fan model, or operate with increasing ostentation, the term is foisted upon those left trailing in its wake. Ostensibly, non-league football has always been the bastion of grass roots. But with clubs at the 3rd and 4th level of the non-league pyramid reportedly paying hundreds of pounds a week in wages, the concept is largely superficial. Real grass roots football is almost certainly nothing of the kind. To understand what we really mean by this reference is to retrace our steps to where the game begins.

Hackney Marshes has long been considered the celestial home of grass roots football. According to the London Borough of Hackney website, there are over 80 pitches, servicing hundreds of amateur football, rugby and sports clubs every weekend. The park is serviced by a number of over ground railway stations and bus routes, but on a pleasant day, a walk through this much maligned area of London can be a rewarding experience. Contrary to popular myth, Hackney is not the crime ridden area the popular media would have people believe. Channel 4’s  ‘The Best and Worst Places To Live in Britain’ demonised the area a few years ago citing the borough’s poor crime and pollution level, particularly one area of notoriety called ‘murder mile’.

Whilst Hackney has its fair share of social problem, it lies behinds Islington and Hammersmith & Fulham in the per capita crime leagues, and has seen increasing gentrification over the years. Parts of the borough have a very bohemian feel, home to diverse ranges of people and cultures who form an eclectic and vibrant community. There are a number of conservation areas which house splendid Georgian and Victorian properties, notably the traditional Victorian public houses which – for better or worse – have been reinvented as ‘Gastropubs’. As journalist Riazat Butt notes on Hackney’s changing face: “The newsagents run out of the Guardian by 11am and there’s a scrum for organic coffee and artisan bread. It is gentrification at its worst but fripperies such as cheese stalls and vintage clothes boutiques add to the texture of the area.”

Hackney Marshes is also home to Sporting Hackney FC, who play in the Middlesex County League (MCL) at Step 7 of the National League System. Despite their relatively lowly status, they are the most senior ranked team in the borough, having formed in 1986 as Hackney Young People’s Unemployment Project. Originally starting in the sixth division of the London Commercial League, the club have risen admirably in a short space of time. Following promotion from the MCL Central and Eastern Division in 2009/10, the club now have one foot on the first recognised rung of the non-league ladder. Historically, Hackney has been poorly represented in the football pyramid. Neighbouring boroughs of Islington, Haringey and Newham house Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham respectively, whilst nearby Waltham Forest is home to Leyton Orient. However, Leyton Orient (then Clapton Orient) were originally from the borough playing at Lea Bridge Road as were Clapton FC of the Essex Senior League, before they  departed Hackney Downs to play in Forest Gate, Newham. Hackney based Eastley Athletic recorded some success in the 1950s winning the London Intermediate Cup, whilst the now defunct Hackney Downs Athletic and Crown & Manor both played Spartan League football in the 1980s, albeit outside of the borough.

Sporting’s campaign this season has been patchy. Prior to Saturday’s game against Kodak (Harrow) the club lay in 13th place, one above their opponents, who originally formed as the works team of Kodak’s Wealdstone factory. Sporting play on the Hackney Marshes show pitch, and see it as a homecoming after several nomadic years. Moreover, the new venue gives the club a platform to nurture young talented footballers in Hackney by “providing a connection between youth and adult football via partnership with the local City Academy school”. Behind the show pitch is the renovated Hackney Marshes Centre, which provides a cafe along with sporting and educational facilities. The pitches stretch as far as the eye can see, the stillness of the summer’s afternoon occasionally broken by a referee’s whistle, a distant cheer or studs clattering on the concrete walkways. It is an awe inspiring experience.

For all intents and purposes, this is literally park football. There aren’t even dividing railings to give the semblance of a ground, although the area is clearly marked off by tape which occasionally threatened to garrotte the players and committee members retrieving balls from wayward shots. Matches are played at the earlier time of 2pm due to lack of floodlights, as they are in many Step 7 leagues around the country. However, such trivialities didn’t deter a handful of spectators turning up, including one couple who follow the club home and away to every game. Any groundhoppers present – and the carrier bag quotient suggested at least one – would also have been pleased with the free programme issued. Of particular interest was a section on previous players, which featured no less than Anthony Cartwright, author of the award winning ‘Heatland’.

After a fairly uneventful first half and some distinctly laid back refeering, club secretary Matthew Brown appeared on the sidelines. Brown has performed a number of roles during his time with the club and offered a pragmatic take on their future: “in order to progress to the next level would take serious funding. Right now our main emphasis is on developing the club to possibly include women’s and youth teams, as well as progress up a competitive league”. One of the biggest obstacles facing Step 7 clubs in the National League System is the considerable jump needed to move up to Step 6 (which in Sporting’s case would possibly be the Spartan League, or a mooted East London/Essex league were it ever to come to fruition) Step 6 criteria increasingly requires floodlights in addition to covered spectator areas, which in reality would mean renting a better facility, ground sharing with an existing club, or building a stadium from scratch. All of these would have serious financial implications on a club with limited income streams and embryonic supporter base.

The second half was a livelier affair, swelled by the emergence of the reserve side who were in fine voice. Ten minutes from time, Sporting score with a fine finish just inside the bottom corner, leading to the gathered crowd “doing the Poznan”. Shortly before full time, a second goal sealed the win. Given the unpredictable nature of modern football, it is hard to know where Sporting Hackney will be by the end of the decade. To become a side that captures the imagination of the local community, one suspects they will need to be playing in a higher league ideally in the borough. For now, they are a more polished representation of the game most of us play week in, week out across the country. The club upholds the original Corinthian spirit of paying to play, which may seem admirable until you consider that only a tiny fraction of the country’s population will ever be paid to participate in the game they love. For the rest of us, it’s an unquestioned ritual of paying to hire facilities or contributing to club running costs, sometimes in dubious underfunded settings.

Days like this have genuine catharsis. Sometimes we can’t truly understand who we are unless we look at where we have come from. The game’s founding fathers instituted football in the spirit of “muscular Christianity”, an ideal that sport could instil positive values and act as a diversion for men in danger of falling to poverty, drunkenness and gang violence. Quite what they would make of the modern game is unclear. One the one hand they may be appalled by the commercialisation and avarice engulfing the game. On the other, they might be heartened by the good work so many clubs do, often in the face of adversity. Today was a chance to enjoy the game for what it is supposed to represent, in a setting that speaks more about grass roots football and its enduring passions than any flowery rhetoric ever could. To borrow from the poet Rupert Brooke, there’s a corner of a playing field that is forever football.

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