Mate, you can change anything apart from your football club – Part 2

25 03 2020

So your humble narrator had devised an adventure to keep him happy, did your humble narrator manage to cope without his old club?

Did your humble narrator end up regretting his life choices on a never-ending bus journey in the slanting rain?

Did your humble narrator question the whole point of standing next to an enclosed piece of land watching strangers run about so he could place a tick on a list that nobody cares about in the vain hope that somebody might feign interest in what he was up to?

Did your humble narrator meet lots of interesting people? Read on to find out answers to these questions and much much more.

The matches that your humble narrator attended as part of his adventure were;

Level 1 – Premier League – Huddersfield Town 1 Brighton & Hove Albion 2
Level 2 – Championship – Stoke City 1 Millwall 1
Level 3 – League 1 – Shrewsbury Town 2 Southend United 1
Level 4 – League 2 – Oldham Athletic 5 Bury 2
Level 5 – National League – Barnet 1 Braintree 2
Lavel 6 – National League North – Hereford 1 FC United 3
Level 7 – NPL Premier Division – Nantwich Town 2 Mickleover Sports 3
Level 8 – Northern Premier League Division 1 West – Droylsden 1 Trafford 2
Level 9 – NW Counties Premier Division – Whitchurch Alport 1 City of Liverpool FC 1
Level 10 – North West Counties Division 1 – Cammell Laird 1907 8 Stone Dynamoes 1
Level 11 – West Cheshire Division 1 – Ashville FC 2 Newton 3
Level 12 – West Cheshire Division 2 – Capenhirst Villa 1 Maghull Reserves 3
Level 13 – West Cheshire Division 3 – Chester Nomads Reserves 1 Aintree Villa 2
Level 14 – Altrincham & District AFL – AFC Stockport Warriors 2 Altrincham Hale “A” 4

It was easy to decide which destinations to visit because the rules of my rule-governed adventure, and the need to consider public transport use, meant those particular destinations were self-selecting.

If you look at my list of matches then cast your mind back to the last vestiges of yesterday’s post you will notice that my preliminary research had gone awry in the stark grey reality of my technicolour adventure, I visited football ground at 14 levels rather than 12.

This development started when I discovered a problem whilst researching the possible destinations in Level 12. To my horror a few casual clicks revealed that the English football pyramid actually had at least 13 levels. What was a convinced aesthete to do with an odd number of levels on a technicolour endeavour such as this?

The erstwhile invaluable websites stopped offering enlightenment. Cheshire’s football appeared to stop at Level 13, the Liverpool and Manchester league systems appeared to exist at the same levels as the Cheshire leagues and the footballing situation in the areas near Cheshire was either too confusing, too inaccessible or Shropshire.

The symmetry of my endeavour was only restored by a chance find; the good old Altrincham & District Amateur Football League. Three cheers for the public pitches of the Altrincham area!

When I started to formulate this pair of blogposts I pictured a problem, which evidence would prove that I’ve actually had the sort of footballing adventure I’m claiming? At first I thought a photo of the match programmes would do but they aren’t really available below level 9 and by the time I reached Huddersfield’s ground they had sold out.

A photograph of tickets would be pointless, as they don’t always issue tickets outside the Football League. The Barnet ticket is there because I had to buy one and the Hereford ticket is there because they gave you one as you went through the turnstile.

Therefore I decided that my proof would be a photo of a kick off from each match.

Premier League – Huddersfield Town

Championship – Stoke City

League 1 – Shrewsbury Town

League 2 – Oldham Athletic

National League – Barnet

National League North – Hereford

Northern Premier League Premier Division – Nantwich Town

Northern Premier League Division 1 West – Droylsden

North West Counties Premier Division – Whitchurch Alport

North West Counties Division 1 – Cammell Laird 1907

West Cheshire Division 1 – Ashville FC

West Cheshire Division 2 – Capenhirst Villa

West Cheshire Division 3 – Chester Nomads Reserves

Altrincham & District Amateur Football League – AFC Stockport Warriors

A problem came to my mind whilst as I was on the adventure, how could I explain what I was up to? I not only needed an easy phrase that encapsulated my adventure I also needed to grasp the zeitgeist. The only thing the 21st Century loves more than the application of a twee label is the application of a self-aggrandizing label.

Some people would label my research-based adventure as “groundhopping” but there’s more to it than that. On the surface there are similarities; “groundhopping” involves travelling around in order to visit football grounds because someone feels like it and I was travelling around to visit football ground because I felt like it.

However there was and is a world of difference between the two. I knew that I wasn’t merely “groundhopping”, I was doing research, I was on a quest, I was on an adventure into the slightly known (in some cases).

Groundhoppers tick off boxes on a list whereas I lovingly progressed through my curated list of hand-picked destinations by enjoying lovingly hand-crafted experiences that chimed with my bespoke aspirations. Therefore I decided that I wasn’t “Groundhopping”, I was enjoying the bespoke elegance of “Curated Aspirational Experiences” imstead.

For most of my adventure I could see the attraction of “Curated Aspirational Experiences” as they allowed the stress-free appreciation of association football. For something supposed to be a pastime watching football is often stressful.

I remember the times when the football club I used to watch was in pursuit of the continuation of relative success. Within weeks the pursuit always felt more like the continuation of the previous week’s stress rather than the continuation of relative success.

The relief felt after goals or the joy felt on post-match journey became fleeting glimpses obscured by yet more worried questions; “Yeah but what if we don’t win next week? We’ll be behind, then we’ll get further behind and I won’t be able to go to Europe”. It was football as a treadmill.

So after years of football stress the “Curated Aspirational Experiences” were great. My hand-crafted list drove me toward new destinations and I was curating my own happiness via a carefree sense of excitement. I had absolutely no stake in the outcome of any match so I was just there to enjoy, take the odd photo and sometimes leave early for the train home.

All of my “Curated Aspirational Experiences” were enjoyable in their own way, even the December Saturday when I missed the first 15 minutes of the Huddersfield match. As a shrewd individual I took the anxious 3 hour wait in Newton-le-Willows as a sign that it would be one of those days. I’d normally relish an unexpected stay in the greater Wigan conurbation but on that day I could have done without the combined effects of a Northern Rail strike and shocking platform manners.

I can still see the sheepish visage of the man that clearly knew he was pushing past someone to deprive them of a place on a packed train. I find that one become rather philosophical when one misses more three trains because other people fail to show decorum. I consoled myself with the thought it was better to miss a train than forget your manners. As a freelance sociologist it was nice to encounter the subtle effects of a mature market-driven society

Fate rescued my day whilst I was trying to take an after-match photo of Harold Wilson’s statue that featured my scarf around his wrist. I was attempting to find the perfect angle when someone came from behind me and started talking. It turned out that he was Harold Wilson’s cousin.

I mean what are the chances of that happening? It was only because I had decided to get a later train, in order to salvage something of my fraught day, that I ended up bumping into the cousin of Harold Wilson whilst I was looking at a statue of the Labour Prime Minster.

It was nice to experience new vistas on my adventure. I can finally say that I’ve been to Barnsley, Droylsden and Kidderminster. I can finally say that I’ve seen Nuneaton’s George Eliot statue, Oakwell’s shiny red wall and the picturesque pubs of Whitchurch. While these may not sound like proud boasts at least I can say I’ve had a taste of those places, that I’ve walked their pavements. You don’t need to see the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower to gain pleasure from travelling.

Owing to the Welsh domestic pyramid’s selective appeal I relished the trips to the bigger grounds and it was nice to become lost in crowds again. My “Curated Aspirational Experiences” also reminded me of the reassurance you feel when you see other people walking whilst wearing football colours, especially when you’re slightly lost or the match has been in doubt due to the weather.

Whilst “Curated Aspirational Experiences” were generally interesting and certainly lessened stress they also had a slightly negative side in that I felt that they set me apart from everyone.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something antiseptic about my visits. In football’s world of belonging and partisan passion I felt like a passenger, an observer, a dilettante, a libertine. I feared that I appeared to be the little more than a parasitical visitor, one of those judgemental sorts that turns up with a cynical eye expecting to be royally entertained.

Not everybody need roots and a sense of belonging to enjoy football but I do. I may have given up my team and I may have occupied my time in an interesting way but I still missed the sense of belonging that only comes from watching football with a group of people you know.

During the latter stages of my adventure I wondered if it had an academic side, had my “Curated Aspirational Experiences” developed from a simple way of passing time into a quest for truth? I wondered if there was a universal truth that linked the various levels of football.

I am happy to say that my research has enabled to find the link that links all levels of football (cue drumroll)..…..

Any football match can be a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

I await the announcement of next year’s Nobel Prize for Freelance Sociology with bated breath.

As you can see it didn’t take much thought to realise that any quest for a universal truth would be fruitless. Having said that I still gained three insights from my “Curated Aspirational Experiences”, even though I already knew first two of them.

The first insight was similar the findings of my Nobel Prize bid; any match between two evenly matched team has the potential to provide entertainment.

The second insight was that the only commonalities between levels of football are a referee, an inflated football, two goals with nets, two sets of different coloured shirts and painted white lines on the ground.

They say the glorious premier league is the most exciting league in the world but the glorious premier league match I witnessed wasn’t more entertaining simply because it took place in the glorious premier league, although it still had appeal if you wanted to witness the stifling of the aesthetic potential of contemporary sporting contest by the exacting style of game management they employ these days.

The matches at Shrewsbury, Oldham and Hereford were far more entertaining than my premier league  showcase and there were lots of goals at Cammel Lairds, and I could have bought a Nigerian replica shirt for a fiver.

The third, and most important, insight I gained from the “Curated Aspirational Experiences” was that if you want to enjoy football try watch it with people that you like. The odd “Curated Aspirational Experience” is fine but lifestyle curation requires long breaks for contemplation and appreciation.

Before I end this post I must offer a word of warning to anyone that may decide to do something like this;

BE CAREFUL lest the process of travelling become too intoxicating.

Towards the end of the season the idea of travelling on a rudderless journey through football became slightly too seductive. I was travelling between Chester and Nantwich on public transport when the continual exploration of football’s arcane byways became the best way to pass the time.

I reasoned that I could start with all the grounds of Chester, before moving on to the Wirral, then Cheshire.

I pictured sunny days in country pubs, I saw a table with my pint and my book upon it. I saw myself rising at twenty to three to saunter over to the sun-dappled football ground for a pleasant couple of hours. I saw a bus ride back to Chester station and a walk interrupted by another couple of pubs.

I saw myself reconnecting with some spirit or other whilst surrounded the bucolic loveliness of a village football ground. I could hear the leaves sway in the breeze, I could see the rusting pitchside fences and the clutch of locals standing under the shade of some ancient trees.

I scoured the websites hoping to formulate plans for trips to Cheshire idylls but all I found were clubs that didn’t play in the villages they were representing and home matches that were played on vague shared grounds in the middle of nowhere. There went my pastoral pleasure.

But then the seed had been planted., It’s like Lao Tsu once opined; “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

My thoughts then became words which then became action and the compulsion to visit all the remaining grounds of Chester and in some Wirral clubs before summer came. I just had to keep watching football.

This is the trouble with public transport, it lets you drift off on flights of fancy, especially when you’re travelling through the picturesque places of Cheshire like Tarporley or Tarvin.

Let us finish by returning to consider the position at the beginning of the post. Is it possible to disregard Mate, mate, maaaaaate you can change anything apart from your football team mate“?

Well of course it is because I haven’t gone back to watch my old club’s home matches. However, like everything on planet Earth, it’s not that simple. I need the presence of people I can chat with to really enjoy football.

Thankfully I have another club to follow now, more about that at a later date.


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