Even the cliches about Sunday league football are cliched: a worn-out parade of full English bellies wobbling across mud in horizontal hail; the bizarre goalkeepers, fights and hangovers. It’s a world that deserves a fresh take, and attempting that here is debut writer Ewan Flynn with We Are Sunday League. Part memoir, part autobiography, part club history, the book charts Flynn’s early years and the rise of his Sunday league side Wizards through the Edmonton and District Sunday League a decade ago.
As with many books like this, there’s a nagging sense that the author has essentially written nostalgia porn for mates; stories that will provoke wistful chuckles from those who were there, but glazed eyes and stifled yawns from those who weren’t. Indeed, the book begins with little promise as an assortment of mostly routine anecdotes that would be familiar to anyone who has played organised sport.
But if it starts tentatively, We Are Sunday League soon hits its stride. Flynn is at his strongest when he leaves behind the match recaps and concentrates instead on individuals. There’s the elusive old friend who goes on to captain Gibraltar, and Wizards goalkeeper Ed Thompson, who earns himself a professional contract – along with all the triumphs and traumas they can bring – at Dagenham & Redbridge. There’s also the ex-policeman who decided to become a Sunday league referee in his 40s, and in whose captivating testimony you see what it is that motivates someone to get out of bed in winter to get sworn at by a bunch of angry strangers.
The Edmonton League chairman makes a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance to issue dire predictions about the direction of the amateur game. It’s an uncertain future that seems even sadder when he briefly discusses the rich history of the league and its founders, something you wish Flynn had perhaps explored at more length.
However, his strongest chapter is reserved for the thwarted ambitions of ex-Spurs apprentice and Wizards talisman Danny Grimsdale, who you may remember as the Tottenham supporter Tim Sherwood invited into the dugout in 2014. After joining his favourite club’s under-17 team, Grimsdale’s career goes the way of many; a well-trodden road of blocked pathways, missed opportunities and spells at lower-league clubs that don’t quite work out.
Although grateful the Wizards were able to take advantage of talent unceremoniously spat out by the system, Flynn recognises it came at personal cost to Grimsdale himself. “There is a sadness in the fact we got to live our dream because Danny didn’t get to live his,” he writes. It’s one of the best lines in the book, and also quietly devastating; a poignant reminder that for all the laddish banter and casual violence, Sunday league football is the final resting place of thousands of unhappy endings.
You suspect Flynn wanted to explore the Sunday game with the rise of his Wizards, but it’s when he breaks away to tell these stories that he is most successful at steering We Are Sunday League towards the beer-drenched, mud-splattered soul of the amateur game.