WORDS: PETER BROOKSBANK
Growing up as a Boston United supporter meant watching players of limited ability, but possessed of undimmed fury, locking horns in the mud and slime under heavy skies, chilled by winds sweeping off the Fens and The Wash, from a random blue seat in a stand full of yellow ones…but I loved it
Image: David Bauckham / Centre Circle Publishing
He was an Arsenal season ticket holder. We were in a pub somewhere in London, and he was looking at me much as a child might gaze at an exotic reptile in a zoo, both fascinated and appalled.
“So, you’re a… Boston fan?” he asked. I had already clarified I meant the Boston near Skegness, not the one in the United States, so we were at least talking about the right sport.
“So what league do they play in then? The one below the Premier League? The, er… what’s it called? Is it the sub-Premier League?”
“No, that’s the Championship,” I replied.
“So Boston play in the Championship then?”
If only, I thought. The sub-Premier League? He wasn’t actually joking: that’s what he thought it was called. As I explained which division Boston played in, counting my way through the divisions all the way down to the Northern Premier League (at the time) he looked ever more incredulous, as if he couldn’t quite believe the English football pyramid existed outside the Europa League places. Eventually, incredulity gave way to comic disbelief. I may as well have been describing the surface of Pluto.
I am absolutely sure I got unlucky and most Arsenal fans are aware that the Championship does exist, but the conversation distilled the very worst parts of being a fan of a small-town club into an excruciating half hour. I have my father to thank. A lifelong Goole Town fan exiled in Lincolnshire, sometime in the early nineties he decided that I was ready to experience the numbing depression and rage-inducing life of a football supporter for the first time. Towards the end of the eighties, I had embarked on an ill-advised long-distance fling with Nottingham Forest – soon to turn into a dysfunctional nightmare – but my father, also a regular at Elland Road in his youth, was having none of that.
So he took me to York Street, home of the then-entirely hopeless Boston United, managed by Peter Morris. I can’t honestly remember who Boston played, or what the score was, but I remember it can’t have gone well because, at the final whistle, a very angry man screamed, “You’re a fucking wanker, Morris!”
I hadn’t heard industrial language barked that aggressively since Ken Barlow decked Mike Baldwin in the Rovers Return. It was thrilling. I was hooked.
I spent my teenage years enveloped in non-league football. I grew up watching cranky games with wacky players and even wackier scores from a random blue seat bolted to a stand full of yellow seats. That was my spot, the spot from which I saw a procession of clubs with strange names – Knowsley United, Emley, Frickley, Farsley Celtic, Bamber Bridge – come and go.
Players of limited ability but possessed of undimmed fury locked horns in the mud and slime under heavy skies, chilled by winds sweeping off the Fens and The Wash, Boston’s Stump looming over the town. In those days only the league winner was promoted back to the Conference, so too many of the games were of no consequence to anyone. Only fragments remain now as vague memories or the odd newspaper cut-out.
Supporting Boston United as a teenager was a bit like being a trainspotter, or a Spectrum owner. You were a pitiful irrelevance, unable to join in with the pointless charade of pre-adolescent willy-waving that was a pre-cursor to today’s witless Twitter banter. At school, lads fought over whether Alan Shearer was better than Andy Cole, or swapped football stickers. Oddly enough, they didn’t make stickers of Paul Bastock or Martin Hardy or Chris Cook or any of the other players I idolised, so no-one was after any swapsies. Good job I had a Commodore 64.
Supporting Boston meant becoming a clandestine little creep adept at furtive, face-saving transactions. Popping into WH Smiths to buy the latest Teamtalk magazine was an operation requiring military precision to avoid humiliating detection. One wrong move and I might as well have been asking loudly for the latest Fiesta Readers’ Wives Special. I remember buying the Non-League Club Directory, smuggling it home and hiding it under my bed in case either of my sisters found it. My life would have been a living hell.
Still, I lapped up the sheer futility of Boston’s years adrift in the Northern Premier League as the crowd around me ebbed away, disillusioned and hopeless. This, to me, was what football was really about: sticking with a club when they were so boring and pointless that no one else wanted to. That and the burgers.
It sounds bleak and I suppose it was, particularly on the days when it got so cold you couldn’t feel your feet at half-time, but I decided I didn’t want to be an armchair fan. I wanted to experience football in person: the luminous green pitch under the floodlights, players screaming insults at the ref, the cars they used to drive around the pitch at half-time (just in case you fancied a Ford Granada with your Yorkie), the flying mud that had a habit of landing in your Pot Noodle and the smell of deep heat – the latter mixing with the lingering stench of stale shit from a ruptured drain beneath my seat to produce a noxious, woozy cocktail.
But non-league, often a hermetically sealed provincial bubble, skews your perception of football. In the nascent Premiership, football was changing forever as money flowed into the game in unprecedented quantities. My club, meanwhile, remained a quaint anachronism on the fringes, characterised by its cheerful innocence, a steadfast refusal to tarmac the car park and a Dickensian approach to filing (we were once denied promotion when the general manager forgot to send the right forms off, which in hindsight makes us seem even more adorable).
Boston were crap, no-one knew who they were and that broken drain really did stink, but they were my team.
They were also, as it turned out, a team living on the edge. York Street is an old-fashioned stadium in an old-fashioned location, a short walk from the town centre, sitting on land worth too much money for the club to not draw attention from the wrong kind of people, normally perma-tanned businessmen of dubious provenance.
The reality, unknown to the naïve teenager in that blue seat, is that non-league football can be as corrupt and as the most shadowy corridors of the elite game. The motivation is the same: money. It’s always about money. Perhaps not bribes or bungs – because everyone’s skint – but in the bricks and mortar of the grounds and, more importantly, the land they sit on. Many clubs worth absolutely nothing in their own right cling to assets worth astronomical sums and unsurprisingly, people are desperate to get their hands on them. Non-league football is a perfect environment in which to operate, for there’s a certain kind of vacuum that allows these people to operate, outside of the spotlight and away from the scrutiny of the national press.
It was Boston’s endearing archaism that left them vulnerable to the kind of spivs and chancers who lurk beyond the glare surrounding the 92; sharks circling, waiting for the tang of blood. By the early mid-2000s, the faintly crap club I had supported as a boy became something entirely different: a fraudulent success owned by arrogant businessmen with a cavalier attitude towards financial responsibility. Controversy followed controversy and Boston were soon a hapless pawn in a game orchestrated by property developers hell-bent on bulldozing half of Boston in a spectacularly ambitious yet irresponsibly complicated scheme. The plan to uproot two football clubs (United and the town’s second club, Boston Town) and dump them on cheaper land where no-one wanted them failed, obviously, and it all unravelled from there. The developers fled, Boston were relegated twice in two weeks, and the club looked set to end its days as a heap of paperwork in a courtroom. It was only thanks to a last minute intervention by two other property developers that the club survived at all.
This is the problem. Non-league football is often idealised as the real-ale Narnia of football – the home of groundhoppers, trusts, badge-collectors and doddery codgers who’ve been going since 1947. It’s the place where players are postmen, call-centre workers and solicitors. The annual FA Cup adventure affords at least one club their fifteen minutes and the unique opportunity to be patronised and condescended by those who normally write about transfer deadline day and Wayne Rooney’s latest hair treatment.
Yet, there is a darker side beyond romanticised notions of community clubs, supporter trusts and the family-friendly appeal of Non-League Day. There are, of course, the usual racists, bigots and homophobes because life is full of idiots, but elsewhere evidence of more systemic failure litters the pyramid. You need only look through the divisions to see phoenix clubs often playing far from the shattered ruins of stadiums left to rot after some failed land plot, probably hatched in some anonymous office by people who care little for the game or the people they hurt.
The roll call of clubs who have fallen victim to non-league’s malicious forces is long and disheartening. Darlington, Kings Lynn, Kettering Town, Chester City, Rushden and Diamonds, Halifax Town, Nuneaton… the list goes on and on, each name the tip of a pile of broken promises, unpaid bills and the bitter fall-out that inevitably splits the tight-knit support in half.
It can sometimes feel like a wanton free-for-all, with precious little protection afforded to clubs by the FA or the authorities charged with administering the complex jigsaw of leagues that make up the pyramid. With a lax attitude towards regulation and “fit and proper” tests, and in the absence of Financial Fair Play or salary caps, clubs are instead left to fend for themselves. It is little wonder so many have fallen victim to asset strippers and quacks flaunting glossy five year plans that lead to predictable financial ruin.
All of which sounds remarkably gloomy, especially as Non-League Day is supposed to be a celebration of what makes non-league football so unique. It is, rightly, a chance to toast the pyramid and its incredible diversity, a dazzling mish-mash of famous old names and minted-upstarts. It has a heart and soul that can often be missing from the game in the elite 92. It is, in many ways, uniquely British. But there is always scope for further action to safeguard what makes non-league football so special – for the promotion of greater protections for stadiums, more money trickling down from the obscene wealth of elite level football, more support for trusts, community schemes and those who volunteer their time free of charge for a game they love but all too often does not love them back.
If you’re not a regular at your local club, enjoy the day, like I did in all those forgotten games in the nineties. Revel in the mud and the dodgy smell from the toilets, the cold chips and the cheap burger. Enjoy your tea in an actual ceramic mug or the beer you can drink while in sight of the pitch. Enjoy being able to hear the referee arguing back, or every exasperated shriek of an enraged manager echoing across the ground. But don’t make it a one off.
Go back next time you don’t have a game to go to. And then go back again. And again after that. Non-league football, for its problems, is brilliant. Just be wary of anyone showing up in a Bentley, promising to get you promoted to the sub-Premier League. Especially if they have a fake tan.