WORDS: MAX BELL
When you’re surviving on a student loan and you haven’t missed a Scunthorpe United game for 16 months, it must be love. But when your penchant for fancy dress sees you shortlisted for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy’s ‘Colourful Character’ award, you should probably start seeking help!
Image: Andrew Steele (via Flickr)
Love. What a potent word, even more so when you are talking about football. And it certainly captures my relationship with Scunthorpe United – no doubt about it.
Scunthorpe United, you say? Alright, none of us are perfect!
But love is that ever undying constant in a sea of troubles and uncertainty – that source of strength when it feels as if all around is collapsing on itself. Believe me, I know. With all symbiotic relationships, your club and you tick at the same moment, breath the same air. Victories and defeats don’t change any true labour of love – they merely shine a light on a different layer of it. Two sides of the same coin.
When friends are out on the lash, or even praying to their deity: I’m doing neither. Desperately studying the fixture list and scrapping up cash or credit to find my way to the next Scunthorpe clash. A teetotal atheist, even at university. For, while it is a cliché: the Iron are all I need for giving life that extra flavour of danger and sensation. The New Testament doesn’t even come close.
So when people ask me “Why Scunthorpe?” I don’t even blink. It’s like asking why the sky is blue, why the sky is green – and why you get angry teachers ringing up to query why you’re twagging their lessons for Coventry away. Because that’s the way it always has been: and it wouldn’t be the same without it. If the Iron were an animal, we’d be a gerbil. Not the most glamorous or popular – but as loyal as a lion, and a great pet that never stops running!
Yet there has always been a joke or three at Scunthorpe’s expense – although, apart from Spike Mulligan’s, I’ve yet to hear a half-decent one. Frankly, this only pushes a tight-knit community and club still closer together. Loyalty breeds loyalty, and infuses itself like blood and thunder within the football club’s and the town’s identity. A proud working-class Northern town is unlikely to be beating Barcelona any time soon: but frankly, I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
A proud history, despite its supposed mediocrity – from being the birthplace of one of the greatest steel plants the world has ever seen and responsible for Sydney Harbour; the first club to move grounds in the modern era; the only parliamentary seat that Labour took off the Tories at Thatcher’s peak; being connected to by what was once the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, to building the first ever cantilever football stand. Don’t let ignorant outsiders do Scunthorpe a disservice.
In this neoliberal capitalist bonanza that we call Modern Britain, inferiority is pursued and cherished above all else and fall-guys must be found to divert anger away from where it ought to be. When your one-horse town has its horse carted out by force, and herded off to Fray Bentos, you become that fall guy. Yet the football is the absolute expression of our pride in ourselves and each other.
Chester, Cambridge, Bath, Harrogate and a million more places might be much more attractive to a Channel Four property consultant, but do remind me where their football teams are? Oh… And that’s the ultimate crux as you ask again, “Why always Scunthorpe?” Because it is us, and we are it. Meshed together like bacon and egg, rock and roll, fish and chips – the absolute relationship of love is one of sustenance and necessity as well. Without each other, we fade to dust.
And like any good marriage it ultimately ends in tears. Tears of joy, love and sadness – one and the same. Scunthorpe have yet fought so far above their weight in recent years, it was not only a pleasure to feel and breath: it became choking as we all feared the end was nigh.
Two successive managers, Brian Laws and Nigel Adkins, have gone on to manage in the Premier League: with the latter a rarefied hero in these parts, having jumped from physio to manager. He took to it like a goldfish long returning to its bowl after years amiss.
Little ol’ Scunthorpe. We were the butt of the jokes once more when sides relegated from the Premier League feared and learned their fate – but scoring goals for fun at home and with a penchant for upsets: we were the ones laughing all the way to the bank.
Playing week in, week out in the Championship was something the majority of Iron fans never thought we’d see, but spending two seasons a division above Leeds United, winning promotion at Wembley, and sending Nottingham Forest, Swansea, Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Sheffield Wednesday and United (plus so many more) packing was more than a dream, it was orgasmic.
We became, and are still, like the Railway Children being led through the Secret Garden by Aslan. Feels, walks and talks like a hallucination: yet still we breathe, and await the great fiction best-seller about it all. Doesn’t matter if it’s Manchester United at home, or Rochdale away. Give me the latter any day of the week!
Scunthorpe United has played home to three England captains: Ray Clemence, Kevin Keegan… and Sir Ian Botham – it’s A Question of Sport dreamland territory. Having gone to the Republic of Ireland for Scunthorpe’s pre-season tour, my first encounter in Bray quoted this fact to me. He even gave me a bag of chips: and almost too good to be true if the wind weren’t rushing in your face. Heroic.
And, having not missed a competitive away game, league or cup, for Scunthorpe United for over 16 months, I’m better placed than most to judge just how the wind rushes through our hair. A comparatively young away following is not rare, but ours seems to be something else. There are cliques, of course, but I’ve seen congas cause run-ins with the police, strangers confront thugs for their common fan, coaches park on Portsmouth beach and even 100 lunatics travelling down to Yeovil on a Tuesday for a rearranged fixture engulfed in fog. The relationships tighten and gel like true men of Iron. The reaction to our League Cup win this season was jaw-dropping. I’d have been shocked if I hadn’t been at the forefront of it!
You know a club is special when you produce the hot favourite for game of the season in the League Cup on the season’s opening day. Away from home to Derby, with a depleted squad, 3-0 down at half-time, 4-1 down on the hour and 5-3 down after 90+3 minutes. You really do wonder how on earth we went on to win the game with the greatest comeback I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. Even on penalties.
We might not have ultras, but when we rock we truly rock. And when we roll, we roll downhill like a stale sausage roll – bloody quickly. Reducing sound men to shivering wrecks meanwhile. Hallelujah.
Henry Kissinger once opined that “student politics are so vicious precisely because there is so little at stake.” He could have easily been talking about League One. I’ve kissed a balding man’s head, gone face-to-face with G4S, fought on university freshers’ week, walked across the M62, missed my Dad’s 40th, fled England with no ID, raced through city centres in costumes, danced on the Tube, spat in the face of fear and invested my overdraft, heart and soul in tears, fears and memories. What are the ups without the downs? What are the downs without the ups? Indistinguishable, that’s bloody what.
Nigel Adkins literally hopping the stand’s gate and chatting to fans on first-name terms away to Brighton; Alan Knill thanking fans in person during pre-season – moments like this tell only half the tale. Given our tumultuous, to say the least, last 18 months, standing by the manager is a sign of strength. Of course we grumble, especially about business acumen and decision-making – what honest set of fans doesn’t? But the idea that you have to be big, or have won accolade after accolade to be judged acceptable is nonsensical.
In 2009, we triumphed from a League One play-off set of MK Dons, Leeds United, Millwall and ourselves. You could hear the Championship supporters, as well as the neutrals, dancing all at once! Even arch-rivals Hull City were cheering. I know, right?
To take the gospel of (completely un-connected footballing stranger) AFC Wimbledon manager Terry Brown: “They’re a proper football club, with a proper footballing history”. Alright, that history might involve a re-election effort and more than 15 consecutive years in the basement tier, treating mediocrity like a battered and bruised ex-wife. But that’s exactly the same!
Mind you, even that went out the window with a looping header from the Football League’s greatest imported club hero: Alex-Calvo Garcia. Coming to the town with not a word of English,nine years later he left in tears. In the 21st century! Forever in our hearts, Alex.
And if arguably our greatest historical purple patch can’t prompt pride, even in the Championship – then what can or could? Nothing… The drug that keeps on giving. So what if Glanford Park is hardly Mecca and the pies are a bit dodgy? So what if we’ve been stabbed dry by Thatcherism? Hardly our fault, but we keep on fighting. We even produce a half-decent football team and the kindest, most loyal and decent set of fans I’ve encountered.
“Scunthorpe’s a shithole, we’ll eat you alive!” might have been our maxim at Derby but, having grown up in its streets, its schools, its fields and our terraces, I’m long past the point of no return when it comes to love.
Scunthorpe United have got me hook, line and sinker. And they always will do.