"Turning over a new Leafe"My journey into non league began in November 2015. I had been off work having treatment for a serious illness from that August, and as the months rolled on and I started to feel my old self again, I began to look forward to getting back out and watching some live football. I am a West Bromwich Albion supporter (thanks dad) who lives on the South London/Surrey boarders, and although I attend quite a few games both home and away, I had been feeling for some time that something was missing…something that I hadn’t quite been able to express yet in words.
I love the Albion, it has been a big part of my family’s lives and identity for years, but I had been feeling more and more apathetic towards the Premier League match day “experience”. When I sat down one evening in late October last year and watched the two part BBC documentary on Non-League FC Salford titled “The Class of 92”, I realised that I had to have a talk with my beloved Albion. “It’s not you, it’s me”, I would tell her. “I love you, I’m just not IN love with you”.
I had watched nearly every televised football game that has been shown while I had been ill. Football helped keep me going and it was great to have something familiar and comforting to focus on, but I was fascinated with this new insight into 'non league' that the documentary was providing me with. The warmth, humility and generous side of the game at that level appealed to me, but equally the serious, intense and competitive nature of it enthralled me.
My brother Aidan, a fellow Baggie, had been suggesting to me for some time that we should get down to our local club, non league Whyteleafe FC in order to watch a game. Our father took us as children when we used to live just down the road from the club on Whyteleafe Hill, and Aidan for example had been lucky enough to attend the club's 1999 FA Cup first round home tie against Chester City who were a league side at the time. But it had been over 25 years for myself personally since I had attended. I had assumed for a long time previously that I would feel a cheat, a fraud, a traitor if I was to watch another club with the intention of willing them to win. I was about to find out if this would be the case…
On November 28th 2015, a cold, damp and quite miserable Saturday afternoon last year we decided to take the plunge and finally head back to Church Road, home of the “Leafe” to watch them face Ramsgate FC.
I enjoyed the relaxed and friendly pre-match atmosphere in the large and modern clubhouse, and despite having not been here for over two decades didn’t feel drastically out of place. We ordered pints at the bar and were asked if we wanted “plastics”. This was all very new to us! Thanks to Thatcher's legacy if you are attending league football it is, of course, an offence to consume alcohol within sight of the pitch. Here we were being asked if we would like plastic pints specifically to allow us to take our drinks outside, into the ground and on to the terrace…I have to admit, I was already enjoying this match day immensely.
As kick off approached we left the very warm and cosy clubhouse and braved the bitter chill as we shivered our way across the car park area to the turnstiles where we would pay a very modest 9 pounds each for entry. Paying on the gate like this instead of having to go through the usual Premier League process of buying advance tickets felt like a real novelty, a throwback to the fairly recent days when Albion were a club that was struggling on and off the pitch and could only dream of the Premier League “promised land”. With our pints in hand we went through the red main turnstile (which interestingly used to belong to Stoke City’s old Victoria Ground) and towards the short perimeter fence that surrounds the fantastic all weather 3G pitch. I know that not everyone is a fan of 3G playing surfaces, but given Church Road's location in a valley it’s installation a few years back was born more out of necessity then luxury.
I think many people have a image of non league football that is completely removed from the reality of it all, and I will admit that I certainly did. I held an impression of a slow paced, and unstructured game devoid of skill and application. Quite simply I had not anticipated the level of professionalism we were to witness, from both officials and players alike. We watched a throughly entertaining and fiercely competitive game played at great pace. The game was certainly much more frantic then at a higher league level, but in many ways all the better for it. How refreshing also to watch a game totally devoid of the theatrics and gamesmanship that so often sours the game at top level. As for how the scoring went? Leafe were 0-2 down within 24 mins, but fought back after the break to make it 2-1 on 51 mins. Game on…
As well as watching the action on the pitch I was soaking up the afternoon's atmosphere as a whole. Church Road is set in an area of wooded land and allotments, and with the brilliantly bright spotlights throwing light upon the surrounding high trees and illuminating the rain as it drizzled down, the cold air took on a theatrical and almost haunting quality. By this point Aidan and I were clutching Bovril, as much in an attempt to keep the cold at bay then because we craved a delicious hot meaty drink, although Bovril is of course the quintessential iconic football beverage! I felt spoilt being able to stand as we were in the imposing Gold Aviation Stand, behind the home goal one minute, and then moving around the ground at will depending on which part of the action on the pitch we wanted to get closer to.
Being able to hear the players' communication as audibly as we could was wonderful, the words of encouragement and occasionally frustration rang out in the dark with the sound of the ball smacking off of various boots seemingly punctuating the conversation. Being stood so close to the pitch that you are almost involved in the game is about as good as watching football gets in my opinion. The 151 predominantly home supporters in attendance were helping to create a very lively atmosphere, and when a late 90th minute injury time equaliser put the score at 2-2 the vocal and passionate home support created a real buzz as they celebrated.
We made our way out of the ground and I felt thoroughly elated. Plans were swiftly made to attend another game at Church Road, and then another, and another and so it went… An Albion game one week, and then a Leafe game the next. In short, we attended everything that we could including a cup game, and then a couple of away games before the end of the season, including one at Three Bridges where we hurried from the ground at the final 0-0 whistle to the closest pub where we were fortunate to watch the Albion beat Crystal Palace 3-2 in the late 5.30 televised kick off. That was a fantastic day, the best of both worlds as far as I was concerned.
Leafe’s season eventually petered out (funnily enough this seemed to happen around the time that we started attending games!) and although the play-offs soon became an unachieveable target, relegation never looked a threat. I write this article on the eve of the first home game of the 2016/17 season which will be at home to newly promoted Godalming Town FC. I have had a fantastic weekend watching and celebrating the Albion beat Crystal Palace 0-1 away just 2 days ago, our first opening day away win since 1973. I’m hoping desperately that Leafe can get off to as good a start.
In all honesty, I'm not even sure as I sit here now that I can put into words exactly what it is that I have felt has been missing from my enjoyment of watching Albion, and by default, top flight football in recent times. I would suggest that I have become disillusioned with being viewed as a customer rather then a supporter, of being treated like a consumer purchasing a product. This isn’t Albion's fault, it is just the nature of the beast. I feel detached at times it would be fair to say from the unreasonable demands and expectations of fellow supporters, and I'm frustrated with the restrictions that League football imposes due to its strict supporter legislation. Perhaps the romance has just gone a little, although the love is as strong as ever.
Despite being very new to non league and to Whyteleafe FC I feel at home with both. The Leafe are after all my local club, and supporting and following a club some distance away as I have all my life isn’t just a challenge logistically, it also means a certain convenience and intimacy is lacking at times. It isn’t a football club without its flaws, it isn’t perfect, but it is a superb example of a community-based football club full of commited and dedicated people, on and off the pitch. I don’t feel a cheat, a fraud, or a traitor. I simply feel like I’m supporting my local team. Isn’t is about time more people turned off televised football and did the same?
“No more heroes anymore”.
Aug 15th 2016
Top photo courtesy of Stuart Tree