Daniel Charlton makes the argument for non-league football without airbrushing out the blemishes.
‘You support Gloucester City? What league are they in?’
And so it begins. I prepare myself for the inevitable. ‘Is it a Sunday league club?’, ‘Do they just play in local parks?’, ‘Are you their only supporter?’ After responding to each question with a resounding ‘No!’, the conversation usually ends with the someone responding ‘Oh, I thought Gloucester was a rugby city.’ I have lost count of the number of conversations like this I have been involved in. Surprisingly perhaps, the people asking these questions would often consider themselves to be football fans and would themselves support a team.
In my time supporting Gloucester City, I have discovered that there is a clear lack of understanding about what non-league football is actually like. For most people, the only time they would ever think about football at this level is with the BBC’s annual FA Cup ‘fairy-tale’ which gives a plucky non-league club ‘15 minutes of fame’ before returning to obscurity. Non-league football is neither a fairy-tale nor just an informal kick about which isn’t worth anyone’s time. In this piece, echoing the words of Oliver Cromwell, I want to give a ‘warts and all’ account of my experiences of supporting Gloucester City and, through doing so, show that non-league football should be taken seriously.
Before delving into my narrative, it is important just to give a bit of background to the club. Gloucester City is in the Vanarama National League North (yes, North!) which is the 6th tier of English Football. For reasons which will soon become apparent, since 2010 we have been playing at Cheltenham Town’s stadium, Whaddon Road. None of the players of staff work full time for the club and have to balance football around their jobs. Most home games have an attendance between 300-400 and, as of writing, the club still has an outside chance of reaching the playoffs as the season draws towards its close. (For more background information about the club, listen to this episode of the podcast.)
Albert Einstein is said to have defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results’. It is also possible that he was describing my early days of supporting City. My journey began on the 29th August 2011 when a friend invited me along to watch Gloucester City play Hyde. It was not a particularly memorable game, with City losing 2-0. For most people the journey would end there. However, I decided to go again a few weeks later, to see a ‘thrilling’ 0-0 draw against Corby Town. After three matches, I had yet to see City score and the first goal I saw them score was on the back of a 3-1 defeat. Staying away for a few matches for fear of bringing bad luck to the team, I finally saw my first Gloucester win against Eastwood Town, 4 months after my first match and 6 games in.
To this day, I still don’t really understand why I kept going as I always returned home disappointed. Part of me naively thought that if I could watch 5 matches without a win I could survive anything Gloucester City had to throw at me – things can only get better, right? What I failed to understand was that I was embarking on a journey of disappointment. Any optimism which is present at 3 o’clock on a Saturday is, more often than not, shattered by 5. Whilst we occasionally play some great football (and I would still much rather watch Gloucester than a Premier League match) it is not for the fickle or faint hearted.
If supporting Gloucester City is tough on the pitch, it is worse off it. It was Friday 20th July 2007. I had just had my year 6 ‘graduation ceremony’ and won the school cricketer of the year award (despite not being picked for a single game – it’s the effort that counts…). The heavens opened. In just 14 hours, 2 months’ worth of rain fell in Gloucestershire. The River Severn burst its banks, and in its way stood Meadow Park, home of Gloucester City FC.
The damage was worse than expected and, although it was initially thought to take a few months to repair, 10 years later we are still in exile. Every year brings hope that the club will return home ‘the season after next’. But as the years have gone by we are still playing at the home of our local rivals, Cheltenham Town. In September 2016, the Council finally accepted our plans for a new stadium. Once again, though, our optimism proved to be premature. By early 2017 it was announced that from next season, Gloucester would be playing out of the county in Evesham for at least a year. Putting that into perspective, currently fans have a 24-mile round trip to get to Cheltenham. Supporters travelling to Evesham, however, will have a 50-mile round trip. All this for a home match.
I have no idea what the next 12 months for Gloucester City will look like. I am certain that attendances will continue to fall which will hit our already small wage budget. No one knows when we will be able return home and already a generation of young fans have been lost as they have not had the opportunity to see football played in their City.The tragedy of it all is that the Club does have real potential – on the pitch we are doing well and in theory, being a City, Gloucester should have a team with a decent following. Yet the longer we are away from home, the frustration grows and the attendances and income continue to fall. Simply staying in the division the team is punching above its weight.
Supporting Gloucester City, then, is clearly no fairy-tale (if it is, there is no happy ending in sight…). This begs the question, why bother with non-league football? If you like large crowds, non-league football can often be disappointing. Whilst clubs such as FC United of Manchester bring a large away following, getting gates of up to 1,400 supporters, games against the likes Bradford Park Avenue on Tuesday evenings struggle to attract 300. For all the frustrations of having low attendances, this means that games are very rarely segregated, giving rise to number of quirky traditions which would fascinate any anthropologist. Before the match, both sets of fans stroll out of the bar and mingle together around the half way line, in anticipation for kick off. As 3pm approaches and the players walk out, amidst the chanting of ‘Yellows’, all eyes are on the centre circle. When the coin toss has taken place, both sets of supporters part ways and stand behind the goal their team is attacking. They are prepared for 90 minutes of singing and getting to know the opposition keeper (telling him exactly what you think of his team…)
At half time, the ritual continues with supporters swapping ends, like the teams. Instead of being high up in a stand, fans can stand level with the pitch, quite literally within touching distance of the match itself. Away at Oxford City, supporters can even grab the net of the goal and shake it around in an attempt to convince the ref that a wayward shot has found its way into the net! This close proximity allows fans to feel that they are actually part of the game (as opposed to being in row Z of the top tier of the Emirates…) As a result of this proximity, players can hear individual shouts of support or derision and are often visibly influenced by this – Colwyn Bay’s Frank Sinclair verbally ‘thanked’ Gloucester fans for reminding him that he was a ‘Chelsea reject’. On a few occasions, fans may even get rewarded for their support by being in the goal celebrations, all without having to climb over advertising hoardings or be blocked by stewards.
On the pitch, the quality is better than most people think. Whilst not every player at this level is a Jamie Vardy in the making – and I have seen some truly awful players – the standard of football is certainly a lot higher than most people expect. In the last few years, players ‘on their way up’ such as Dwight Gayle and Andre Gray have played (and scored) against City as well as some players ‘on their way down’ such as Marlon Harewood. Scouts from the Football League take the division seriously with clubs as auspicious as Birmingham City and Aston Villa having reportedly scouted some of City’s young talent recently. This is a far cry from the visions of Sunday League football which many have about this division. Even for the players who remain at this level, the quality is better than most expect.
If you were to ask me what my most prized possession is, you would find it in my wardrobe in the form of a Gloucester City shirt. I have a few special shirts each having a special memory or significance attached but the one which trumps all of them is a 2012-13 home kit with a white number 6 on the back. It was worn by Gloucester City legend and club captain, Tom Webb. No article about Gloucester City would be complete without a section eulogising ‘Webby’. The 32-year-old PE teacher has played over 650 matches for City, by far the highest capped player, and consistently dominates the midfield despite being the oldest player in the team. His only flaw is that he is so well loved that, when playing Football Manager, I can never bring myself to drop him. He is the ultimate one-club man: born and bred in the City and a fantastic advert for the non-league game.
Once you accept that the quality is good, you can learn to appreciate the imperfections and eccentricities of the game. The Boxing Day game in 2014 exemplified this perfectly. City were in the relegation zone and playing fellow strugglers Brackley Town on a wet and windy afternoon. It was the 90th minute and the score was 1-1 and it was rapidly looking like it would be another frustrating afternoon for the Tigers. Then Jamie Lucas (on loan from Bristol Rovers) received the ball in the area. He skipped past the defender, slotted the ball past the keeper and turned away in celebration. Ecstasy in the stands! There was only one problem though… it hadn’t gone in. The heavy rain had turned the goalmouth into a mud bath and the ball was stuck right in the middle of it, about half a metre from goal. My heart sank, ‘Typical – the rain has robbed us again…’ However, in what seemed like an eternity, local boy Joe Parker was first to react and buried the ball into the back of the net, sending the fans into ecstasy once more. (Footage of the goal can be found here at 6:50.)
This epitomises exactly what I love about supporting Gloucester City. I could have chosen the volleys from outside the area or great free flowing moves to demonstrate this. Instead I chose this scrappy goal. It will never win the Puskás Award but its imperfection adds to its beauty. The goal was farcical but it was celebrated by fans and players alike as if it were a 30-yard volley in a cup final. When you come to understand that non-league football is never going to be the best quality and the idea of scoring the ‘perfect goal’ is the preserve of Barcelona, you can appreciate it for what it is.
Whilst there is the occasional gem to be found at this level, the beauty is mostly found elsewhere. It is seen in the passion and dedication of the fans who will travel over 20 miles for a home match, week after week and year after year. It is seen in the hugging of a goal scorer in celebration and then chatting to him casually on the bus the week after. It is seen in teams continuing to survive on minimal budgets and against all the odds managing to avoid relegation for another season. To appreciate non-league football, you have to discard the ‘fairytale’ narrative, as you will only end up disappointed. But this leaves you open to the possibility that the quality of football and the experience of watching a match is better than you expected. So is the beautiful game to be found in the Vanarama National League North? Absolutely!
Daniel Charlton is a History finalist at Brasenose College, Oxford. He has been an avid listener of the Team of John O’Sheas podcast since it started, but his favourite pastime is still watching his local club, Gloucester City FC.