Keeping it real: lower-league football’s growing authenticity problem

Lower league fans

The idea of football becoming more “authentic” the lower down the leagues you go simultaneously patronises those fans and hinders modernisation

22 June ~ Just over a decade ago, I was a postgraduate student living in Norwich, and most of the friends I had who were remotely interested in football were Arsenal or Tottenham fans. As such, I was something of a curio, a supporter of a lower-league club, Darlington, who were then in the Football League’s bottom division. I would vanish for whole Saturdays to Lincoln or Boston, or for weekends to Macclesfield or Bury, and no one I knew seemed able to conceive of what exactly it was I went away to do.

To bridge a conversational gap, people scoured their reserves of knowledge about football below the top two tiers and alighted invariably on one figure: Swansea City’s amiable trick-pony Lee Trundle, who was often featured on Soccer AM demonstrating his ball skills, which were considered of public interest because they seemed incongruous with the standard at which their executor found himself employed. As a result, my distaste for Trundle became strangely obsessive. He had been elevated as an emblem of the supposed quirkiness of non-elite football, and something about this sat uncomfortably.

Why so? Perhaps it is an uptight British trait to prefer being ignored to being patronised, but one irksome reality of supporting a team like Darlington is less that no one has heard of you than that your existence is imagined as being made up of a handful of wacky attributes which come to signify earthy authenticity. If you follow a Darlington-sized club, megalomaniac chairmen such as George Reynolds, who built the club a barely usable 25,000-seat stadium, bankruptcies, and waddling, end-of-career boozehound signings are mere wefts in the complex fabric of the club’s history. From the outside, though, they’re titbits of a zany singularity which is, paradoxically, used to make generalisations about how the lower leagues escape the homogenisation and commercialisation of the top levels.

That this is the case becomes clear when one considers how standardised ways of thinking about supposedly lesser football are. Take, for example, what happens when a non-League outfit draws a Premier League team in the FA Cup. Sutton United were portrayed as a raggedy mob of butchers and bakers when Arsenal visited Gander Green Lane a few months ago, and the Sun were so desperate for this idea to be true that they leaned on the team’s reserve goalkeeper Wayne Shaw to munch his way through a pie on the subs bench. Twitter went supernova: “Look at the amateur eating a pie!” it screamed.

But if you were a Sutton fan, or a fan of a comparably sized club, you would be aware that many of the club’s players earn a sporting wage in excess of typical public-sector pay, and that even the part-timers often use their other jobs simply to top up what they get from playing. You would also know that, far into the Mariana Trench of non-League, football continues to be homogenous: it still costs double figures for a ticket at some level eight clubs, there are usually Byzantine ground regulations wherever you go, and the players follow the same pedantic warm-up routines and post the same banal self-help charlatanry on Twitter whether they play for Chelsea or Chertsey.

It might pay to consider what this investment in a particular idea of salty genuineness means in broader terms. One thing it seems to do is create the image of a thriving footballing ecology below the Premier League’s smoke and glitter. Wayne Shaw eating a pie tells us that top-level fiscal avarice has not destroyed the spontaneity of “real” football, in a fashion reminiscent of how post-2008 bank advertisements began to trade almost exclusively in images of cheery domesticity and warm-hearted artisanal dependability. The brutal commodification of the game at all levels is disguised by a cliched story about those oddities which cannot, allegedly, be commodified.

This is doubly harmful as some fans of “real” football kick against the destructive effects of big money with an irate conservatism directed at the more politically encouraging aspects of the 21st-century game. The Against Modern Football movement grew out of resentment towards inflating ticket prices, the heavy-handed treatment of matchgoers and the suffocation of atmosphere, but the #AMF hashtag has occasionally found itself linked to less savoury attitudes. In such cases, it has been claimed that anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia initiatives are strategies used to keep working-class fans out of stadiums. Not only does this suggest that only the white, male and heterosexual can be “real” fans (or “really” working-class), it suggests that certain white, male and heterosexual fans are intrinsically disposed to using the match as an arena in which to vent their prejudices.

Sometimes, such initiatives are presented as greater threats to the social routines associated with lower-league fandom than commercialisation. The development of left-wing supporters’ groups at some non-League clubs has been objected to on the grounds that this is illegitimate, “hipster” supporting which, as the reliably objectionable Rod Liddle claimed in a Times piece on Dulwich Hamlet in 2015, erased the “working-class roots” of the club. Here, “realness” or authenticity has been made synonymous with reactionary politics, an equation which might remind us of the right-wing populism of UKIP or even Donald Trump.

The at times annoying worthiness of footballing realness, then, cuts simultaneously in two rather troubling directions. On one hand, it transforms the long-suffering “diehards” of the lower- and non-leagues, the people “who the game is really all about”, into comic fodder expected to act out their authenticity whenever the cameras appear. On the other, it serves as a point around which the most recent version of right-wing politics can organise, by making an association between the commercial sanitisation of football and “politically correct” attempts at modernisation. Perhaps all this is some distance from Lee Trundle, but a surreptitiously crucial issue for the future of the lower levels is that they stop being treated like some loveable olden-days theme park of underachieving mavericks, creaking grandstands and wafting tobacco smoke. Joe Kennedy

This article first appeared in WSC 364, June 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here

Illustration by Matt Littler