Never mind the Champions League, here’s the Hellenic: the television claims that it’s showing live football – but 125 people in west Berkshire know better as Roger Titford witnesses
It is a dark, wet Tuesday. The leaves are coming down and the league tables are shaping up. It’s a big night at all levels. Manchester United and Arsenal are on ITV in the Champions League. My boys, Reading, are away in the Championship (on local radio) while the LDV parks itself into view. But my eye is caught again by the crude, A4, home-crafted poster on the town noticeboards; no hype or promises, just pure facts – Hungerford v Didcot, Hellenic League, KO 7.45pm.
I have looked at these fixture posters for years now without being tempted. I’m a League guy. My ground-hopping stopped at 92. I don’t do non-League. I’m surprised there is not a name for people like me, the Leegies maybe, and for my opposites, the Nonnies or Nellies perhaps, out there in the real grass roots. What is it actually like at this level when there’s so much else going on, especially at the apex of the pyramid, simultaneously live on terrestrial TV?
The blackboard outside the Railway Tavern, one of the town’s TV football pubs, merely says “Tonight” above a blank space. Inside a man asks the barmaid which Champions League game is on. Her reply is, basically, whoever wants it most. Ever the agent provocateur, I suggest what about watching Hungerford Town tonight. The barmaid looks worried as if this is going to turn into a three-party fight for the remote control. The bloke just laughs scornfully.
Hungerford is a small market town in west Berkshire so quintessentially English you can see it featured as the background in the ING Direct TV ads. It’s four miles from where I live so, after a day’s work, I can have a meal at home before setting off for a park-outside-the-ground, cash-at-the-turnstiles evening match for the first time in decades. Mind you, it’s cash at the gate at Old Trafford, too, for the visit of Lille.
Inevitably I see non-League clubs through the prism of League football, as satellites of the League clubs nearby. Despite being in Berkshire, Hungerford has historically seemed part of Swindon’s territory; Evening Advertiser, Arkell’s beer, people speaking well of Don Rogers. The opposition, Didcot Town, hail from what was north Berkshire. If you imagine the ancient county of Berkshire as a beast lying in tranquil repose, then the 1974 Local Government Re-organisation Act ripped off its head and shoved Slough up its arse. Thus Didcot is now in Oxon and Slough not in Bucks. Didcot is like Strasbourg; but only in that its allegiance changes from generation to generation. Now it orbits Reading, who play some reserve matches there; for a while, Oxford United held sway.
At Bulpit Lane at 7pm the lights were on, the drizzle fine and the ground already buzzing. Both sides were warming up seriously, no turning up just after work here. It’s £4 to get in, 50p for a reasonable enough 12-page programme and a pound for a punnet of chips. What makes League chips more expensive?
I assume that the two men looking for the tea bar are from Didcot but one is lapsed Millwall (they’re at home tonight too) – “I hate the Champions League, it’s over-priced, over-hyped rubbish” – and the other is an Aylesbury fan from Slough. Neutrals! “It’s an attractive fixture,” one says and in a way you see his point. Hungerford have had to rebuild completely since one of those en masse walk-out strops that characterise non-League and the new lads are unbeaten in nine. Didcot, with seven wins in eight and last season’s FA Vase in the trophy cabinet, are favourites for the Hellenic, so this is a real test for the apparently nickname-less hosts.
For a Leegie like me the line-ups are a potential source of contact with the known football world, the human equivalent of rummaging through a shelf of old LPs. For Didcot tonight Paul Powell rings an Oxford bell and Stuart Beavon is easily identifiable to anyone who saw his father, also Stuart, play hundreds of times for Reading. By contrast, the only name I recognise on the Hungerford sheet comes from the other end of the football universe. Robbie Sadler I recall scoring about a million goals in our village primary school playground and now, all of a sudden it feels, is in adult football.
A lad of 11 is on the pitch taking penalties against an invisible keeper. He also claims to be the ballboy and the mascot. He wonders why I don’t support my village team, a slightly narrower world view than I was expecting. But he also expresses allegiance to Newcastle (who, he assures me, are “quality”) and Swindon, for whom it is currently “not worth paying £9 to watch a load of old junk” – a somewhat more astute observation. The whole Sadler family say hello as I walk past.
The one thing I do know about non-League football is the importance of the bar. Hungerford’s astonishingly seems to be shut half an hour before kick-off – so much for keeping track of the Champions League. I wander further and glimpse another bar, warm and fully operational, behind barred windows. It’s good; decent photos, decent beer, they’ve even carefully stencilled their own graffiti in the toilets. The larger bar is empty tonight awaiting grander events. The British Legion and allotments apart, there’s not much else for entertainment at the top end of Hungerford, but here they promise Tony Cottee, male stripper and gala fireworks (as separate events).
Didcot kick off down the slope with a rush and within ten seconds Sadler is clearing off the Hungerford line. Jamie Domm, the Hungerford keeper, is the soundtrack of the evening. Industrial strength fog-horn voice beating out persistent warnings: “Left shoulder, right shoulder, 18, get out, stand up, left shoulder…” This noise is interspersed with almighty metallic crashes as the ball is driven into the pitch surrounds or hoofed on to the roofs of the stands. The game looks very fast, the players all in good shape and condition. Even the ref is fast, but he does look only 17. Hectic, well contested stuff, in an arena that feels much too small for the energy and force expended.
The bar is deserted save for three kids, including the ballboy, arguing about Newcastle and Man Utd. The TV is switched from Arsenal to Man Utd on a whim. Out in the rain, Ryan Lucas catches the eye with his neat touches and woollen gloves. He is the “Beast of Bulpit Lane” and an international to boot, for Barbados. Beavon of Didcot looks slick and quick, much quicker than his dad was. Didcot are in control, Domm beats away a shot but has no chance with Andy Parrott’s follow-up: 1‑0 to the favourites after 25 minutes. But the game does not die. Hungerford are still up for it. Two players race for a ball in the corner, slide and skid shaven-headedly towards me at speed. Behind the barrier rail I flinch and the young ref laughs at me. You can hear the thunder of boots on the hard ground below the slick top. The ball flies out the ground again and does not reappear for several minutes. Players’ ironic banter fills the air. No one is listening to the radio or talking about matches elsewhere. Domm makes another great stop and the Beast clears a certain goal with a terrific saving header to keep the score 1-0 to Didcot at the break.
The bar fills up and, after admiration for Thierry Henry’s goal in Prague and guffaws at the Lille dive in Manchester, the pool table champion requests a change to Sky Sports News where the telly stays for the rest of the evening. There’s interest in the Southampton and Reading scores and a morbid fascination about how bad Swindon’s result against Stevenage in the LDV might be. One of my five-a-side mates comes in, soaking, says he’s the ballboy (past it, surely?) and that it just took ages to find it in the skate park behind the goal. He usually plays five-a-side in an Arsenal top but he’s obviously not bothered with the Gunners tonight. Unannounced, our live game restarts.
Straightaway Ian Concannon goes up the slope to lob Domm and put Didcot two-up. The slope looks as if it could be classified as “notorious” – three parts end to end to one part side to side – but it does not seem to exert a big influence. The pitch itself is bumpy in places but the players are utterly unfazed by the bobbles. For all Hungerford’s efforts and the slope, they are not making a dent in Didcot. The Beast has departed with a hamstring.
The energy level finally seems to be going down as Hungerford resort to hoofing their way forward. They hit the bar, then win a 75th-minute corner. The ball rolls towards me. I have never touched the ball when it has gone out of play at any game I have paid to watch, something that at first irritated me but then of which I became oddly proud. People who know where I live are looking at me from ten yards away. No one else is nearby. There goes my 40-year record.
Dean Flockton, the Hungerford captain, unceremoniously bundles in the low in-swinging corner. Didcot have another gear and use it. Beavon’s immediate riposte is ruled out for offside, but the Railwaymen keep the ball away from the bottom goal until the final whistle for a 2-1 away win.
Most of the crowd of 125 drift home through the rain. Some check into the bar and a few laugh at Man Utd’s 0-0 scoreline. There is no reaction to Reading’s draw or Swindon’s win; there is more response to the announcement of the death of Johnny Haynes.
Didcot’s players come in for a swift lager, dumping their red kit-bags right under the signs saying “Do Not Leave Kitbags Here. Emergency Exit”. Some of their fans are in the bar, too, kitted out like people who have just been to a big final and want to get the wear out of their scarves and logo-ed blousons. There is a sheen, a belief about them. Around 40 have travelled the depth of old Berkshire to be here and they are riding the hog of success through the velvet sward for all it is worth. They are their own people, neither Oxford nor Reading from what I could tell. Indeed the only other clubs whose merchandise I saw all night were AFC Wimbledon and Manchester City, fewer than I would expect to see on a trip to Somerfield in the town.
Everyone here tonight is obviously aware of that other football world ticking away on background TV, but they appear, almost aggressively at times, not bothered about it. One of the officials I spoke to also follows Chelsea, where he thinks some of the fans are morons. “All they think about is Chelsea, Chelsea, not the opposition, not the game itself.” In the confines of the Hellenic League, Didcot Town are something of a Chelsea – plenty of investment, no legacy of debt, nice new ground, unprecedented honours – but no one all night had a resentful word to say about them.
There was nothing apologetic about the evening and rightly so. It was a really vibrant and positive event to put on for just 125 people, when you think that at least ten times that number in the town would be sat at home watching Manchester United and Lille in a stale goalless draw. Football at any level is always a struggle. Hungerford and Didcot seem to be coping fine. There were more empty seats in Old Trafford than Bulpit Lane tonight and you could have fitted the entire populations of Hungerford and Didcot into the spare capacity in Prague. A case of sympathy misplaced? More of this and they could be singing “Champions League – you’re feeling the draught”.
From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month