“Ours” & The Opportunity for Football to Reclaim Its Community Place Again
It’s impossible to say exactly what non-league football will look like by the time things get back to normal, again. Many, many hopes are pinned on next season starting on time and passing without incident. There is extremely cautious cause for optimism that this can happen, but optimism isn’t enough to guarantee that it will. With this in mind, the timing of the broadcasting of “Ours”, Mike Calvin’s outstanding documentary about football and its communities on Tuesday night, probably couldn’t have been better.
Calvin’s writing is always engaging, and there is no doubting the sincerity of his love for the game. He tops and tails his story of football and their communities at Bury, where a tragedy not previously seen in almost three decades played out before our very eyes and nobody who might have been able to materially impact events did anything, where the empty stadium is starting to rot while the fans have factionalised over whether to support the phoenix club or to hold out hope that the old club’s cadaver can somehow be revived.
His tour takes in the state of play at the start of the 21st century. As well as Bury, he stops off at Plough Lane, for a brief precis of the AFC Wimbledon story, to Lewes, the first club in the world to undertake to pay its men’s and women’s teams the same amount, to Hashtag United, where a non-league club that is almost flying under the radar even in more traditional non-league circles has built up a huge following online, to Rushden & Diamonds, where the ambitions of a wealthy fan took a non-league club into the Football League and then back out and eventually to extinction, to Ebbsfleet United, where a bastardisation of fan ownership led to initial success but a rapid decline when interest collapsed as the realities of running a non-league football club kicked in, to Leyton Orient, where the club has partnered with YouTube stars, and to Portsmouth, where the supporters saved their club from liquidation after a succession of terrible to non-existent owners and the Premier League’s first insolvency event.
As a supporter himself (albeit one whose love of the game had, by his own admission, diminished in recent years), Calvin intuitively understands that football takes a symbolic place in your the heart which is considerably greater than merely watching people playing a sport. It’s a greater emotional bond. It forms social connections which might not exist otherwise, and it can serve as the focal group of a community, a place to come together. Perhaps those people who talk about football as being a “religion” were onto something, after all. After all, it does share many of the same rituals. There is much talk about the sounds and smells, and at Hashtag United about the very close bond between the players and their army of online supporters. The experience of football is much, much greater than the mere 90 minutes of a match every weekend.
Mea culpa, my live football watching over the last five years or so has not been what it used to be. There are two very obvious reasons for that. My kids are five and half and three and a half now. Prior to the lockdowns, we went to about five or six matches per season. They’ve both expressed an interest in going when we’re able to – we did at least squeeze one match into that brief period when fans were allowed to attend – but herding two cats to the football is not a job that should be undertaken by somebody who hasn’t had a full night’s sleep the night before, and all too frequently I have looked at the weather, or my bank balance, or whatever, and thought better of it. But they’ll be a lot older by the start of next season (and I’m going to presume that it starts fairly close to ‘normal’ and that we can attend fairly freely, none of which is a given right now), and I feel as though I should up my intake again.
It was on a blistering hot day in August 2007. We were going out in the evening. We lived in Brighton, but my girlfriend worked in London so I took a day off for a tramp around the city in which I was born, eschewing the West End for Lower Edmonton, Edmonton Green, Bush Hill Park and Enfield Town. I got the train as far as Bush Hill Park. Bush Hill Park is 1930s suburbia, but right slap bang in the middle of it is an estate of maisonettes built in the mid-1970s and opened in 1977. I should know. We moved into one when it was brand new, shortly after my fifth birthday. The estate was built on the terraced houses that my parents grew up in.
Through the estate and past the social club where my sister and I used to play Phoenix on a cocktail table arcade machine, and up to the top of Percival Road. From there, though, I had a choice. Enfield FC had been moved out of their ground in 1999. Two years later, the supporters voted overwhelmingly to form a new club, Enfield Town, to be owned by its supporters. The Southbury Road ground isn’t there any more, of course, but Enfield Town moved into a new ground a short walk from it in 2011. My dad – who went to so many games with me when I was a young boy and without whose influence I wouldn’t be writing these words now – and I went to the first match at the new stadium. If I turned right and walked for ten minutes, I’d be at the site.
Alternatively, I could just turn left and walk straight up to Enfield Town railway station, to head back into Liverpool Street. It didn’t take long to make that decision. In my mind’s eye, if I turned right and walked down, and then left, the floodlights would become visible behind some trees, the royal blue paint on the gates. If I didn’t walk down there, my only honest memory of it could remain that. Why spoil it? I new what had happened – did I really want to see it for myself?
By 2007, it had been 25 years since I’d last lived in Enfield. I wasn’t a home and away fan. I wasn’t a local, any more. I wasn’t somebody for whom it provided their social life, or their connection with the outside world. I didn’t have children playing for the youth teams, or friends or family who were involved with the club. I wasn’t part of that community. But I felt something, in that moment of choosing whether to turn left or right on that day almost 14 years ago. And if I, with all my distance from that club and that part of London, can feel it, how must it feel for those for whom it means so much?
There has been much talk over the last few months about the elite end of the game, and the extent to which the biggest clubs are preparing to carve up the whole of European club football for their own entirely selfish ends. There is a conversation to be had about calling their bluff and letting them go. We might get somewhere closer to having a sport again. Their corrosive influence already vastly outweighs how important they are to all other clubs, and we can rest assured that no matter what UEFA does in order to try and appease them, it won’t be enough. Barcelona have already demonstrated that there is no amount of money that is “enough”. Having never suffered any consequences from their actions over the last twenty or thirty years, these bloated, financially incontinent corporations are a toxic presence within the game and they will never be satisfied with what they have. They will always want more, and they will not care what damage they cause in this quest.
But this is not about them. This is about everybody else. The biggest risk to every other club most likely comes with continuing to try to pacify the biggest clubs, and we should never forget that, as long as there is a patch of grass and people who will play football on it, others will turn out to watch. If “Ours” proves anything, it’s that football clubs can simultaneously stand for something far smaller and far greater, and that the deep, abiding love that people hold for the clubs that they support can be put to incredible use. At Lewes, almost 150 years of of footballing ‘common sense’ is being challenged by a club that is refusing to accept the way things have always been. Portsmouth supporters proved that supporters don’t have to be passive consumers, even at a relatively ‘big’ club. AFC Wimbledon built a Football League from the ground up in just nine years. Mountains can be moved, if the will is there to do so.
Perhaps, we might rationalise, when the football does come back, the lower divisions will have learned something about the importance of community, about frugality, about the importance of putting something aside for a rainy day, and about the fact that this is all supposed to be a game. We were all caught off-guard by Covid-19, and it is critical that we learn something constructive from all of this. There is, however, an opportunity for us all to do better, whether through volunteering, going to more matches, or even having that pre-match pint in the club bar rather than in a pub. Perhaps people will reconnect with their own localities, and build a sense of pride in their communities, including their local football clubs. There are other ways of doing things. “Ours” wasn’t afraid to confront the pitfalls and risks of these other ways of doing things, but it also demonstrated how things can be different. And when the top end of the game feels more remote than ever, that counts for a lot.