Non-League Day co-founder Mike Bayly has just moved back to Sheffield from London. In an ever-changing world and having made a life-changing decision, he finds a little solace in the start of a new football season, and with Sheffield United under-21s.
In February this year, the ‘London Is Changing’ project, led by Rebecca Ross of Central St Martins Art School, set out to capture the stories of people moving to, within, or away from London, and display them on billboards throughout the city. The results were illuminating. Although London’s history, diversity and tolerance were rightly praised, the overwhelming narrative was one of financial and social ostracism. “Initially, I was excited about moving to London, but it feels like this will be temporary,” observed one contributor, with another adding, “London is great if you’re young or rich. I’m neither.”
The project articulated my increasingly despondent views on life in our capital city. I moved to London from South Yorkshire in 2005 seeking better employment prospects. Like many economic migrants, my decision to relocate was part necessity, part curiosity. Initially, I embraced the opportunity to live in one of the most exciting cities on Earth. But the older I got, the more opaque these attractions became. Life became a damp-shirted commute on the underground, weaving through a mass of disparate communities, in order to service a barely affordable rent. There is an endless supply of transients looking to escape this expensive diaspora. For them, London is more a giant departure lounge than a home. Time enervated me their cause. The decision to head back north into a semblance of normality engineered itself.
Sheffield has changed in the ten years I’ve been away. The cranes that perpetually dominated the skyline have given way to new flats, hotels and offices, creating more quarters than is mathematically possible. Abandoned warehouses have been restored to their former glory. Coffee houses have sprung up with impunity in an area weaned on tea. Even the monolithic Park Hill estate, a bleak concrete sentinel looming over the city since the 1960s, has been redeveloped into luxury apartments. It is a towering symbol of Sheffield’s regeneration. Ostensibly, at least, the scars of industrial decline have finally begun to heal.
Sheffield is not the only thing that changed during this time. I left the steel city with a thick plumage of tinted hair and returned ferociously bald. My fashion sensibilities are caught in a sartorial no-man’s land, between skinny jeans and button-up cardigans: too old for the tight fitting denim at Top Man, too young for the pallid retirement home polyesters of M&S. As a young thirty-something, Thundercats’ t-shirts were kitsch. Aged forty, they suggest someone who shops at church jumble sales or is of questionable mental health. Every man has an equinox in their life after which certain behaviour is no longer acceptable. It’s why middle-aged men wince whenever they see Tony Pulis standing, cross-armed, on the touchline in a tracksuit and baseball cap.
My football tastes have evolved too. London rekindled my love of the non-league game, for which I will always be thankful. All I knew of local football when I left Sheffield were the two professional clubs: Wednesday and United. Now, on my return, a whole new world reveals itself: Shaw Lane Aquaforce, Handsworth Parramore, Staveley Miners Welfare; not to mention the world’s oldest club, Sheffield FC. One place high on my bucket list was Penistone Church of the Northern Counties East Football League. It evoked quaint gabled stands and fresh lemonade served from a bosky pavilion. So, last Friday evening, I headed to this imagined utopia for Sheffield United U21s’ visit. It seemed a fitting place to begin my northern odyssey.
The rail route to Penistone from Sheffield is popular with people who aren’t bothered about getting anywhere in a hurry. The train trundles through the forgotten hinterlands of South Yorkshire, taking in rows of blackened Victorian houses and derelict factories with old-fashioned typography bruised into the brickwork. The small enclaves of Elsecar and Wombwell drift effortlessly past, partly camouflaged by the thick arboreal scrub that hugs the railway line. When Barnsley looms into view, it’s a veritable metropolis.
I remember being marooned there, at the transport interchange on a winter’s evening, with only drizzle and a Blue Nile CD for company. Dark thoughts toyed in the recesses of my mind, like unlit rooms in the Brutalist office blocks across the way. The hour I spent waiting for a bus that day left an indelible psychological scar. Penistone is a town of around ten thousand people, situated on the Trans Pennine Trail, around fifteen miles north of Sheffield. It’s a pretty place, home to a range of fine stone buildings that pre-date the nineteenth century. The most famous is the Grade I listed Penistone Church, the origins of which can be traced back to the Saxon era. It is this famous landmark from where the local football club takes its name. Penistone Church FC, situated on Church View Road, formed in 1906, following a merger between Penistone Choirboys and Penistone Juniors.
For most of their existence, they played in local Sheffield leagues, but in 2014 gained promotion to the Northern Counties East Football League, a large footprint stretching out to Hull in the east and Bridlington to the north. This season, the club begins its first ever FA Cup campaign, with a home tie against Pontefract Collieries. The ground is certainly worthy of this level, and wouldn’t look out of place higher up the pyramid. It wasn’t quite the pastoral nirvana I imagined but still held a pleasant-feeling setting up in the hills, complete with a smart seated stand and well-maintained clubhouse. There’s a genuine community focus, with over a hundred-and-eighty affiliated youngsters. One of their former protégés is a local lad and current Everton centre back: John Stones, who was in the crowd for their previous home fixture.
For a club playing six levels below the Football League, Sheffield United U21s represent relatively stellar opposition. Some of the two hundred in attendance were probably experiencing this kind of football for the first time. And while it’s liberating to stand an arm’s reach from the action in a location of your choice, it comes with a caution. A ball in the face is only a wayward thirty-yard strike away, as one woman stood near the Penistone goal found out shortly after kick-off. Luckily, she possessed a body swerve that rivalled anything on the pitch. A less agile person may have been laid out on their back, covered in soup.
The difference in tactical approach was apparent from the off. The United players were young, lithe and skilful. By contrast, some of the Penistone veterans were in the twilight of their career, and resorted to what football parlance might describe as ‘agricultural’ approach play. If the object of the game was to ‘toughen up the youngsters’, the home team didn’t disappoint. However, the speed and superior football prowess of the away side was always going to tell. When United took the lead mid-way through the first half with a well-placed looping header, their domination suggested a sizeable half-time lead. It didn’t materialise, but the gulf in class between the two sides was palpable.
Perhaps the biggest differences between Penistone and the professional ranks were their decision making and movement off the ball. Every United player – bar one burly centre-back, whose inclusion could only be to satisfy EU quotas on no-nonsense defenders – had the ability to find a man with a pass and move into space. The Penistone players, although well marshalled, were largely reduced to long upfield punts. Some of the more hasty efforts found their way into the gardens of Monopoly-style houses behind the dugouts. It reminded me of a game I watched in the Home Counties, where an increasingly frustrated manager witnessed a procession of defensive clearances disappear into a neighbouring river, before shouting, “the next one who kicks it into the water fucking well goes in after it.”
The second half saw an obligatory raft of changes, but no further goals. A narrow 1-0 against technically gifted opposition was a huge positive for Penistone. Off the pitch the club did themselves equally proud, generating decent revenue and making first-timers such as myself very welcome. No doubt the relaxed atmosphere was a corollary of the occasion. Pre-season games rarely have the same intensity or divided loyalties of competitive fixtures. I’ve seen plenty of occasions similar to this where the match becomes a background noise, like a TV in a pub, only to be glanced at when something interesting happens. It’s as much about standing in the sun with a pint, chatting to your friends, as engrossing yourself in the action. It’s also worth noting this was local football in its purest form. Many of the Penistone players were drawn from the surrounding area and, with the odd exception, the same could be said of the United squad. It might be argued that the U21 level is the final point at which many lower-level professional clubs retain a genuine local identity on the pitch. The next step is the cosmopolitan world of the Football League, where players are drawn from across the country, if not the globe.
Arriving back at Penistone station in the twilight, a screen informed me the hourly train was delayed due to ‘technical difficulties’ – a catchall of modern society that can excuse everything from a cash point not working to a broadcaster missing an England goal during the World Cup. I joined a crepuscular group on the platform and within minutes we bonded over our mutual predicament. This soon turned into a full blown conversation on the joys of groundhopping. The hour flew by. When our train finally arrived, I sat down and gazed at my partial reflection in the window. I barely recognised myself from the person who left all those years ago. Time changes us, in so many ways, but football remains the one constant in my life.
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